Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – 2012 Divisional Round
One Legendary Coach Bill Parcells-ism: “I go by what I see.”
Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”
This is What I Saw from the past week’s NFL action.
(A list of TFQ’s PROPS from this column will be posted monthly.)
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Away from the game(s)
I SAW an amazing playoff weekend, one of the better ones in memory. But before we get into that action, let’s look at two highly controversial matters – one that is hopefully going to be put to bed, and one that is just getting legs….
I SAW a federal judge dismiss the defamation lawsuit filed by Saints LB Jonathan Vilma against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Keep in mind that the ruling in no way says anything conclusive about the details of the bounty scandal apart from showing that the actions of Goodell and the league were not defamatory against Vilma. In other words, the “truth” of the scandal remains just as cloudy as it did prior, and Vilma’s name has not been fully cleared of involvement.
One way or another, this scandal isn’t done reverberating. But at least the bureaucratic quagmire is behind us…right?
I SAW a scandal develop around Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o that is about as weird and confusing as a make-believe dead girlfriend. (Forgive my lack of creativity. There is no real comparison.)
I remember reading about Te’o’s girlfriend, who had reportedly died of leukemia last year, in Sports Illustrated. Sure, it was moving. Now it has been announced that this girl didn’t exist. The speculation abounds, especially at this early stage. (The news was broken on Wednesday.) I’ll leave the current information to this transcript of an interview Te’o conducted with SI’s Pete Thamel. There’s a very fishy vibe to it all; that’s about all I can say as far as the facts are concerned.
Whatever Te’o’s involvement has been, it’s embarrassing for him. He’s stated as much publicly. And new evidence has surfaced from an anonymous informant that the linebacker was unaware of the hoax until December 2012. However, that doesn’t explain what appears to be embellishment of the story by Te’o. But who cares? Leave him alone.
To those who feel upset and/or manipulated by the story being a hoax: How much should it really matter to you? Maybe you shouldn’t have placed so much importance upon the personal lives and loss of others in the first place. After all, the whole sports world shouldn’t be a playground for the likes of tear-meister Rick Reilly, or, as I like to call him, the head writer for Bart’s People. The fact that Reilly has won so many Sportswriter Of The Year awards for milking the most personal, cry-worthy, privacy-mangling stories is a good indication of how horny the public has become for celebrity’s private lives – even in sports. And to think that Te’o hasn’t even been drafted to the pros yet.
(20th Century Fox)
One last note on Te’o: Any speculation about his draft status and/or reputation at this point is pointless. In the end, if the average sports fan’s memory can forget about a guy torturing and killing dogs, he or she will forget about this too. Te’o’s going in this draft, he’ll be selected in a high round, and any team in the NFL that is interested in drafting him will have their chance to interview him and grill him about what really went down.
I SAW what was arguably the most exciting Divisional Round in NFL playoff history.
276 points were scored – the most in a four-game weekend in NFL history. There were two nail-biters, and two dominant wins that were nonetheless exciting. What’s more, the two close scores extended the final seasons of two surefire Hall Of Famers. Analysis of those games can be found below, but first let’s take a look at the overall playoff and early off-season vibe.
And keep in mind: We are on the doorstep of a possibly mind-numbing week of Harbaugh Bowl coverage.
I SAW a bullshit scheduling move last Sunday. SI.com’s Don Banks brought up a good point – one I’d like to add to:
“I know the thirst for larger TV ratings dictates most everything in the NFL, but wouldn’t it have made more sense to play Sunday’s Seattle at Atlanta game in the late-afternoon slot, thereby not forcing the Seahawks to play a game at 10 a.m. by their body clocks? Seattle had the late Sunday game last week in the first round, winning at Washington.
The Houston at New England matchup didn’t have any such time zone consequences, since the Texans are in the Central time zone and wouldn’t have had much of a struggle starting a game at noon their time. In the first half, the Seahawks fell behind 20-0 and played as if they weren’t quite awake yet.”
Moreover, Seattle’s home fans have to watch their team kickoff at 10 in the morning their time. I know there’s revenue sharing in the NFL, so the best game in the most valuable TV spot helps everyone, but honestly. Would Houston and/or New England fans/viewers not watch the game in as large numbers because it was at 1 o’clock? Please. I read last week in Sports Illustrated that of the 32 most-watched television shows last fall in the US, 31 of those were NFL games. Logic should dictate that some of those were at one o’clock on Sundays – and that a top playoff game will get boffo ratings no matter where it is scheduled. The league should be more accommodating to home fans and those local economies instead of trying to bean count.
I SAW the events of the past round make up for an exciting pair of conference championships. Let’s consider how the remaining teams might fare….
(P.S. – I’m 7-1 so far in these playoffs, with Denver-Baltimore my only boo-boo.)
(1) Atlanta vs. (2) San Francisco – Sunday, 3:00 EST
The Falcons finally did it – they won a playoff game in their fourth try under head coach Mike Smith. As a result, QB Matt Ryan (who was also 0-3 in the postseason until Sunday) leads his team to their first NFC Championship game since they lost to the Eagles during the 2004 season, and the first home game in the conference final in the franchise’s history.
There might never have been more pressure on a team to win a Divisional Round game than there was on Atlanta heading into last weekend, and late in the second half it seemed as though the Falcons might do everything they could to give away the game against the Seahawks. But Ryan found Mr. Swan Song, TE Tony Gonzalez, to set up a game winning field goal. (See: Atlanta wins vs. Seattle, 30-28.)
Okay – message received, Atlanta. You’re good enough this season to break your playoff hex, and thus capable of winning the whole thing. In fact, there might be no better test of the Falcons’ mettle than to have Sunday’s game come as close to slipping through their fingers as it did, and still have them steal away the win. Now the question is whether or not the Falcons will come out and play a hangover game against the Niners. San Fran turned mistakes into points with ease against Green Bay on Saturday, and they’ll do it next weekend too, if they’re given the chance.
Atlanta was 7-1 at home this season, and is 33-5 in the regular season there under Smith and Ryan. But when they’ve lost there – including three more playoff losses – they’ve looked complacent. Actually, the Falcons looked a lot like that during the second half on Sunday, when they took their foot off of the gas pedal and essentially played not to lose. Admittedly, it’s quite easy to picture that happening again.
Remember last week when I said that the Packers would have a hard time against the Niners because they hadn’t seen an opponent run the read-fake option this season? Well, the Falcons have faced off against that scheme several times this season. And they sucked at defending it. In two games against Cam Newton and the Panthers, Atlanta gave up 394 yards rushing. Washington put up 129 yards on the ground, but QB Robert Griffin III left that game with a concussion, and looked pretty good until then. And then there was last game, against Seattle, when QB Russell Wilson’s dual-threat capability exposed a Falcons defense that lacks lateral coverage skills.
Now that D comes up against QB Colin Kaepernick and the Niners, who are not intimidated in the least by having to play in the Georgia Dome since they’ve already gone into New Orleans, Green Bay, and New England and handed each team their hat.
What’s more, Kaepernick’s confidence couldn’t be higher after tearing Green Bay a new one last weekend. (See: San Francisco wins @ Green Bay, 45-31.) RB Frank Gore ran for 119 yards himself. If Carolina could almost win twice against the Falcons with Cam Newton leading the way, it stands to reason that the best offensive line in football will be able to have their way in Atlanta.
Isn’t that the most convincing – and endearing – part about the Niners? I’m referring to the fact that they have the best offensive and defensive lines in the NFL. It’s been a while since one team could both of those distinctions, and the ones that do tend to take trophies home with them at the end of the season.
Add all this up, and Ryan probably has to have a career day for Atlanta to advance to Super Sunday. And he has to do so against San Francisco’s defense – the heart of a team that still quietly carries a chip on their shoulder after narrowly missing the Super Bowl last year? Good luck. Just like last week against the Packers, the Niners are just too big and physical at the points of attack for the Falcons to handle.
I can actually see these two teams meeting in many postseasons to come, now that Smith, Ryan & Co. have that tough first postseason win under their belts. But this year it’s Harbaugh, Gore & Co.’s turn.
(2) New England vs. (4) Baltimore – Sunday, 6:30 EST
We’ve seen this before, in so many ways.
This coming Sunday marks the Patriots’ seventh appearance in the AFC Championship during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. That’s seven times in twelve years. (It’s open to debate, but for me, with that stat and three Super Bowl wins in five chances, that’s as close to a dynasty as we’ll see in a long time.)
If they were playing against history, the Ravens have a tall order – one that extends beyond Brady-Belichick. Only the Giants (5-0) have a better franchise record in conference championship appearances, albeit with less appearances than the Patriots (7-1; 5-1 under Brady and Belichick). (ESPN Stats & Information) New England is also 4-0 all-time at home in AFC Championship (3 of those under the current regime).
However, these two teams know each other well, having gone head-to-head five times in the last five seasons, and only one of those games was decided by more than six points – a 33-14 beat down that Baltimore handed down to New England in Foxborough in the playoffs two years ago. So it’s safe to say that the Ravens have some first-hand experience at beating the Pats on their own turf. On top of that there’s last year’s AFC Championship at the same venue that Baltimore lost only because of a shanked chip-shot field goal by Billy Cundiff. Brady can’t be too horny over the notion of facing LB Ray Lewis and a defense playing hard to keep their leader’s final farewell going. The quarterback’s 74.1 career passer rating against the Ravens is his worst against any opponent.
One of Brady’s favourite targets, TE Rob Gronkowski, re-broke his arm last weekend and will miss the rest of the postseason. I don’t put too much stock in that factor. According to ESPN Stats & Information, on Sunday Brady threw for a season-high 244 yards and tied a season-high with three TDs out of formations with two or more tight ends – after Gronk left the game. The New England offense never missed a beat when Gronkowski was out during the regular season either.
Should Brady succeed, it will be a result of him doing what he always does, which means I misspoke above, because he does not have a favourite receiver other than the open one. He’s been seeing more and more open receivers this season thanks to the breakneck pace with which he’s been conducting the offense. The Patriots ran 1,191 offensive plays from scrimmage in the regular season – second-most in NFL history. (The number one spot belongs to the 1995 Patriots under QB Drew Bledsoe, which ran 1,199.) Keep that in mind while I tally up the number of snaps the 37-year old Lewis and the Ravens D has played the last two games: 87 plays against Indianapolis in the Wild Card round + 87 plays against Denver last week = 174 plays in a six-day span. Can Baltimore keep this up? One guy’s playing with nothing left to save for tomorrow… at least one guy. (Part of me wonders if the other shoe will drop in the form of S Ed Reed before next season starts.)
However, the Ravens have been quite the productive squad on offense in recent weeks. Everyone is talking about Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh’s bold decision to start QB Colin Kaepernick (see: San Francisco wins @ Green Bay, 45-31), but Jim’s brother John seems to have pulled off a rather ballsy move of his own by firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron late in the regular season in favor of then-QB coach Jim Caldwell. With Caldwell at the helm, BAL has set team records for yardage in a playoff game in back-to-back weeks – in no small part by doing what Cameron didn’t do enough – using RB Ray Rice. But for me the success of the Ravens’ offense this weekend comes down to the wide receiver position. Torrey Smith looked deadly on Saturday, albeit against a confounding Champ Bailey in coverage. (See: Baltimore wins @ Denver, 38-35 – 2OT) In the Week 3 win against the Pats, Smith played just days after the death of his younger brother and caught 6 balls for 127 yards and two touchdowns. QB Joe If you think it’s taken a while for Baltimore wideouts to step up in the playoffs, you’re right. Smith’s three career postseason receiving TDs are already the most in franchise history. QB Joe Flacco will need Smith, and other WRs Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones to find the right passing windows if the Ravens are going to have a chance. I think they have a great chance – Baltimore really feels like a team of destiny right now. But the clock can strike midnight at any time….
The main decision-maker for me is the Pats’ running game. Would you believe that no AFC team ran the ball more this season than New England? In fact, only the Seahawks ran more rushing plays in the entire league. Not Houston, not Washington, not San Fran. The Patriots finished ranked seventh in the NFL this season in rushing yards – tied for the highest ranking in the Belichick era – and demonstrated Sunday against Houston that it can be productive against a big, penetrating front seven. Still, the Texans’ defense wasn’t good against the run this season (26th in the NFL), and neither was Baltimore’s. It ranked 20th in the league, the first time it has ranked outside of the top 10 since 2002. Mind you, Lewis was out for the majority of the season, and now he’s back and clearly helping the defense play beyond itself during these playoffs. Keep in mind that they benefitted from Broncos RB Knowshown Moreno leaving Saturday’s game with an injury. They won’t have that advantage this Sunday. The Ravens also won’t be playing the same middling defense that they faced when they beat the Patriots in Week 3. New England is a real force on defense right now, gathering momentum every week. I want the Ravens to keep playing, but New England isn’t going to allow it.
I SAW the final head coaching vacancies get filled. There was a flurry of action among the general manager and coordinator positions in the NFL this week – all of which I’ll leave for later, when TFQ submits a Report Card for each NFL team before the 2013 draft. For now, let’s go over the most recent head coaching hires:
Chip Kelly, Eagles – What a head shaker. Not only did Kelly seem on the verge of becoming the head coach of the Browns less than 14 days ago, but according to high school recruiting target Dontre Wilson, Kelly visited his home on a scouting visit less than 24 hours prior to accepting the Philly job. Was it all about money for Kelly? According to the coach himself, no. NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala spoke to Kelly, and he claims that the initial media frenzy surrounding the various courtships for his services threw off the reputedly private Kelly. He walked away from the pros as a result, but Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie asked him to keep thinking about it. Once the deluge of publicity subsided, Kelly claims he had a clearer mind to make his decision, and realized that he wanted to take the Philly job – but not without making sure he was able to tell his Oregon players personally, hence the secrecy until the last minute. Let’s hope Kelly’s being honest, because coaching a pro football team isn’t for the uncommitted.
Marc Trestman, Bears – At first, my reaction was something like, ???????????????????? As Peter King pointed out in SI.com’s MMQB, the bears conducted more coaching interviews than they had wins this season – 13-10. Now this? After all, Trestman has a most unconventional career thus far: He jumped between three teams as an assistant coach before taking five years away from football. I can’t find documentation of it anywhere in the interweb, but I swear he was an insurance salesman or something before he was then hired by the Niners as offensive coordinator in 1995 in what I remember as a strange decision. However, Trestman called plays for a deadly offense led by QB Steve Young and WR Jerry Rice – think Bears QB Jay Cutler and WR Brandon Marshall – and then was in the booth when Raiders QB Rich Gannon won the MVP in 2002. More to the point, he even helped Cutler prepare for the 2006 draft, and the current Bears QB seems excited to have Trestman on board. In fact, this hiring is another indication of how QB-driven the NFL has become. It’s not like Chicago hired Trestman only because of his acumen for coaching quarterbacks, but his main job will clearly be to maximize Cutler’s talents…aaaand maybe someone else’s once Cutler’s contract is up after next year.
Mike McCoy, Chargers – It’s never easy to shower Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator with praise. (I used to affectionately call former Colts coordinator Tom Moore a third nipple – though Moore is a talented sidelines man.) But remember last year, when McCoy turned Denver’s offense from a dink-and-dunk scheme with QB Kyle Orton into the old-school option with Tim Tebow? That’s no small task, and a versatile, pure football mind is all the rage in coaching these days (thanks again, Belichick). Other than that, McCoy spent the better part of his NFL career in Carolina trying to corral the undisciplined beast that was QB Jake Delhomme. That didn’t work so well, and now McCoy has to keep the skittish Philip Rivers in check. Just sayin’.
Bruce Arians, Cardinals – Arians is a consummate professional who will give any employer 100 percent, 24/7/365. But I still can’t help but wonder if his illness last week delayed his getting into the unprecedented jostling for jobs with the few viable winners (read: Bears, Eagles, Chargers), and had to settle. ’Zona doesn’t have a bad roster overall, though, with a good defense and solid special teams. But the quarterback position is quicksand, and we’ll see if Arians can avoid getting sucked in. Come hell or high water, he’ll find a way to get WR Larry Fitzgerald the ball.
Gus Bradley, Jaguars – Meh. Wake me when the Jags relocate. Seriously, though, Bradley is a decent hire. But it’s one of those snooze jobs that has me more intrigued about how it affects Seattle for having lost their defensive coordinator. (The Seahawks’ D embodies the mindset and scheme of their head coach, Pete Carroll, so my guess is that the team will find a way to sustain their success.)
The odd man out is former Bears head coach Lovie Smith, an African American. The media has been quick to point out that no visible minorities were hired this offseason, lowering the total current head coaches fitting that description at four. The league has been quick to acknowledge this as an issue, and might consider refining the limits of the Rooney Rule, which mandates affirmative action in job searches for head coaches. NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal offers a good summary of the situation.
I’ll say this much: Sports are often a mirror of society.
I SAW two fashion statements rock the sports world (okay, maybe not):
First – and most recent – Patriots RB Stevan Ridley thinks he’s Rainbow Brite. Thumbs up.
Next – I don’t know what to do with my thumbs on this one….
Check out what Niners QB Colin Kaepernick was rocking during Saturday night’s postgame press conference:
It might be difficult to tell in this photo, but that is a hooded blazer. Not a hoodie underneath a blazer, but a blazer with a hood attached since the drawstring even threads through the lapel from the back.
Strangely enough, an energetic debate about the fashion validity of this streets-meets-Wall Street look went down between myself and six other guys watching this. I consider this garment in the same way with which I consider Kaepernick’s deadly outside rushes: If I tried it, it would look like shit. But he makes it work.
Enough runway talk. On to last weekend’s games.
(4) Baltimore wins @ (1) Denver, 38-35 – 2OT
I SAW Ravens LB Ray Lewis describe Saturday’s game to the Associated Press: “I’ve never been a part of a game so crazy in my life.”
If he’s right, then the best linebacker football has ever seen really has been saving the best for last. I’m tired of people talking all about how much of a step Lewis has lost, and other negatives. I don’t remember anyone harping on Michael Jordan’s decreasing vertical while he was winning a second set of three straight NBA championships. Why? Because MJ got the job done, albeit in a different way than he used to. Lewis led the Ravens with 17 tackles in the coldest game in Broncos playoff history – a game that lasted almost 77 minutes. In fact, this game was the fourth-longest playoff game in league history, and the longest since Jets-Browns in 1987:
Longest OT Games, NFL History
||Amount of Time into OT
|Dolphins 27,Chiefs 24
|Texans 20,Oilers 17
|Browns 23, Jets 20
|Ravens 38, Broncos 35
|Raiders 37, Colts 31
|Panthers 29,Rams 23
I SAW that overall, Baltimore’s defense has been looking great these playoffs. Lewis’ impending retirement seems to have breathed new life into a squad that had limped through the regular season, playing inconsistently. Two weeks ago, they held rookie star QB Andrew Luck in check, next week they have to take on Tom Brady, and last weekend they made Peyton Manning look human….
I SAW the Broncos endure one of their worst upset losses in franchise history, and perhaps the biggest surprise other than the outcome was the play of QB Peyton Manning. One of the front-runners for this season’s MVP awards played a bad game by Peyton standards: 28-of-43 for 290 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 88.3 rating, and 1 lost fumble. He accounted for all of his team’s turnovers in a game during which mistakes were magnified.
The worst moment for Manning and Denver came on their second possession of overtime, when the quarterback threw across his body, into the middle of the field. That’s the type of throw a high school pivot should know not to make, and it was picked off by Broncos CB Corey Graham. The play set up the game-winning field goal by Justin Tucker.
For the whole regular season, Manning deftly answered all the doubters about his arm strength after multiple neck surgeries – only to re-raise other questions with another playoff loss, questions that should dog the QB more than they have throughout the second half of his illustrious career. The media perception of Manning throughout his pro career is a good example of how winning just one Super Bowl can effectively cover up other playoff failures. Remember when Manning was labeled as a great regular season quarterback – one of the best ever – who couldn’t win bog playoff games? Not many people do, because when he finally won the big one against the Bears six years ago, everyone let him off the hook. Well, consider yourself back on that hook, Peyton.
Peyton Manning has now lost his first start of the playoffs an amazing eight times. Eight! That’s twice as many as the next-worst QBs since 1970:
Most Losses By QB In First Start Of Playoffs, Super Bowl Era
(ESPN Stats & Information)
It’s weird to see Griese up there – and Montana! Joe Clutch’s playoff career must have been more up and down than I remember…but I guess that further makes my point. Imagine how much bad play FOUR Super Bowls can erase. Hell, just look at what two such wins have done for Peyton’s brother Eli, an above-average QB at best if you look at the rest of his career.
Among those eight early exits, four of them came after a bye week. In other words, Manning’s regular season success tends to get offset by eggs being laid in January. Also, Manning has nine career playoff wins, but six of them happened in 2006 and 2009, the only times he has made it to the Super Bowl.
So, Peyton Manning is a shoe-in for the Hall Of Fame. He’s been hugely productive in the regular season, with a metronome-like consistency. But as far as the playoffs are concerned, he’s just one hour away from being the next Dan Marino – an amazing QB that fell short each time in the playoffs, having never won the big one. Maybe what Saturday’s poor showing by Manning did was bring some proper perspective to his career – so far.
Speaking of so far, one last thought about Manning’s past postseason struggles: I tallied the numbers, and he is now 0-4 in playoff games in which the temperature is less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff. Look at his line in those four games combined:
Peyton Manning In 4 Playoff Games With Temperature Below 40 Degrees
For those of you scoring at home, that’s shit.
I really makes me wonder if Manning made the right decision to sign with Denver during last offseason, seeing as how he can be almost guaranteed to play in cold games at home whenever he has a home playoff game from now on. I’m not saying that this factor should have been a make-or-break factor in the decision-making process, but we’re talking about a southern boy who played in a dome for the first thirteen years of his pro career. I mean, Jeez….
Another thing: Quit it with this Manning vs. Brady argument. Just stop.
I SAW that, in order to be fair to Broncos QB Peyton Manning – who played a bad game on Saturday – the quarterback was not the reason Denver lost this game. That dubious distinction should go to two of Denver’s defensive backs:
CB Champ Bailey – The Bronco is set to appear on NFL Network’s NFL Gameday this Sunday. I hope one of the other studio personalities brings some marmalade to spread on Bailey, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a longstanding Pro-Bowl corner get toasted as badly as he was during the first half on Saturday by Ravens WR Torrey Smith. The Baltimore wideout blew by Bailey on three deep routes – two of which were touchdowns of 91 yards combined, and QB Joe Flacco overthrew a brutally open Smith on the other. In the replays, Bailey was bailing out with his hips turned, seemingly before the snap. Even if he had safety help deep, there would have been no way that help could have been there on time, given how easily and quickly Bailey got beaten on each of those plays. When this kind of collapse happens, it can throw the whole defensive backfield into disarray….
S Rahim Moore – When you’re the deep safety in Cover 2, you have one job: Do NOT let the deepest receiver on your side of the field get past you, no matter what. Moore ignored this rule and tried to make a play on a desperate deep ball thrown by Ravens QB Joe Flacco during the last minute of regulation. Even worse, Moore misjudged the throw at the last second, allowing WR Jacoby Jones to make a TD catch that tied the game and forced overtime in a game Denver eventually lost. Not only did Moore commit a cardinal sin in general, but trying to make a hero-interception when you should just be knocking passes down to protect a lead makes his gaffe all the more embarrassing.
I SAW a very under-recognized factor in Saturday’s game: the injury of Broncos RB Knowshown Moreno, who left the game in the third quarter after hurting his knee. Not only was Denver hugely reliant upon Moreno after an injury to RB Willis McGahee earlier in the season, but Moreno was dominant against Baltimore in Week 15, and without him on the field the play-action fakes that QB Peyton Manning loves to run weren’t nearly as effective in the second half.
I SAW that, at the end of the day, the Broncos might have simply been worse than we all thought they were. Denver came into Saturday riding an 11-game win streak, during which all victories cam by seven points or more. One reason for this was that the team’s schedule was challenging in September, and then quite forgiving for the rest of the regular season. Maybe wins came too easily for the Broncos, and when the going got tough against the Ravens, they weren’t able to shift gears.
Denver certainly didn’t show much of a sense of urgency at times during the Divisional Round. Lots of people have been critical of head coach John Fox’s decision to take a knee with time left at the end of the first half instead of trying to score. I tend not to be one to criticize those decisions too much, since they depend on a hypothetical outcome, so I’ll leave that one alone. My biggest issue with Fox’s decision-making Saturday was when, with the ball near midfield on 3rd-and-7 with over a minute left in the fourth quarter and Baltimore having no timeouts left, he elected to run the ball up the gut with his third-string RB, Ronnie Hillman. Fail; punt. That gave Ravens QB Joe Flacco the chance he needed to tie the game – which he did, with the aforementioned bomb to WR Jacoby Jones. That’s far too tentative an approach for a team with a seven-point lead, and it sends a bad message to the Denver defense: We don’t trust you enough to hold Baltimore back. Turns out it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, one the guys in burnt orange will be driving themselves nuts about all offseason.
I SAW Ravens QB Joe Flacco continue to redeem himself after a lackluster regular season. Hell, he might even have avoided winning TFQ’s Bad Negotiator Award this year, given to the player who struggles the most in the last year of his contract.
Consider how justifiably critical people tend to be of Flacco. Now consider that if Flacco wins this weekend in New England he will have eight career playoff victories to Manning’s nine – and in almost a third of the time (Manning has played 14 seasons to Flacco’s five).
Flacco is doing something that I keep emphasizing as important in the playoffs: Peaking at the right time. In his pro career, he has only had ten games with a yards per attempt average higher than Saturday’s 9.74 – and one of those came in this year’s Wild Card round against the Colts (12.26). Also, his average target depth of 13.4 yards downfield in Denver last weekend was his highest this season. (ESPN Stats & Information) According to STATS LLC, Denver came into the weekend having given up only 237.3 total yards and 13.5 points during a six-game win streak at home. No one told Flacco – he led his team to 479 yards and 38 points (7 of which came on a pick-6 by Corey Graham).
I think it’s safe to say that Flacco will remain a Raven next season, and likely with an expensive new contract. He might not deserve it due to his regular season performances, but the real money’s in the playoffs anyway, right? Right, Peyton?
I SAW that some credit should go to the Ravens offensive line as well. The Broncos tied for the NFL lead in sacks, with 52. On Saturday Baltimore held them to just one – and it’s not like QB Flacco was getting rid of the ball fast, either.
I SAW KR/PR Trindon Holliday serve as the one silver lining in Denver’s disappointing loss. The first two times the Broncos touched the ball in each half, Holliday produced a return TD (a punt return in the first half, and the second half kickoff).
According to Cold Hard Football Facts, Denver became the first team in NFL playoff history with a kick and punt return for a touchdown in the same game – and Holliday had them both.
According to Elias Sports Bureau Holliday’s 248 total kickoff and punt return yards are a record for the most such yards in postseason history, besting Desmond Howard’s 244 in Super Bowl XXXI that earned him the game’s MVP.
(2) San Francisco wins vs. (3) Green Bay, 45-31
I SAW the Niners advance to the NFC Championship game for the second year in a row. That 40-burger isn’t made of your average grade beef, either. They ran all over the Packers like they were Manti Te’o’s reputation. In doing so, San Francisco gained 579 total yards on offense – the most in franchise playoff history. They also set a team postseason record, with 323. By the way, the Niners have played a few high-scoring games in January before:
Most Yards Gained In A Game, Niners Playoff History
|Jan. 12, 2013
|Jan. 20, 1985*
|Jan. 28, 1990*
|Jan. 29, 1995*
|Jan. 22, 1989*
(ESPN Stats & Information)
Note the asterisk. It signifies a Super Bowl game – all of which were won by San Francisco.
Is it a sign? …
I SAW that if you’re a Niners fan who believe in signs, you couldn’t have been happy when Sports Illustrated lowered the dreaded cover Jinx on Niners QB Colin Kaepernick this week.
Unless that jinx has unbelievable cover speed, I wouldn’t worry about it after Saturday’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamgame that Kaepernick had against the Packers.
(© The Really Useful Group Limited)
How does he run in that thing? Pretty damn good, that’s how.
And with PROPS.
Kaepernick had 181 yards rushing, which is a QB record in any NFL game. He also threw for 261 yards, and scored four total touchdowns. Not bad for a kid playing in just his eighth pro start – and his first playoff game.
Who doubts head coach Jim Harbaugh now? He decided to change quarterbacks, sticking with Kaepernick after starter Alex Smith recovered from a concussion. I’m not saying Smith wouldn’t have been able to beat the Packers. After all, he did just that in Week 1. Smith also possesses deceptive speed as a runner. But Kaepernick’s speed is only deceptive because one might confuse him for a wideout running a deep pattern once he tucks the ball away.
A lot of Kaepernick’s damage on the ground came courtesy of the read-fake option fake out of the pistol formation – a scheme that he’s been executing for years, dating back to his days at University of Nevada. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Kaepernick gained 99 yards with the option. But what doesn’t bode well for opposing defense for years to come is that he’s able to gouge defenses by scrambling too. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy pointed out as much in his postgame press conference, saying:
“The execution for the 49ers on the read option was excellent, but our issues were bigger than that… We did not a very good job of keeping [Kaepernick] in the pocket. He was able to get out of the pocket for a number of big conversions.”
The numbers bear this out:
Colin Kaepernick Rushing By Situation, Saturday*
(ESPN STATS & Information)
*– Doesn’t include two kneel downs, a draw play and an aborted snap
There is one very easy way to explain Kaepernick’s success with the pistol: He has more experience with the formation than anyone else in the NFL right now. He rushed for 102 yards out of the pistol on Saturday – the most by any rusher out of that formation in the last five NFL seasons. (I bet it’s been even longer too…that stat is from ESPN.com, and my guess is that they haven’t had the time/manpower to check that stat back farther. What, you think someone was running the pistol a lot in 2008 or earlier?)
Kaepernick was like an untouchable tattooed gazelle on Saturday. According to Cold Hard Football Facts, he gained 178 yards before contact! To put that in perspective, the Packers came into the game having given up no more than 132 yards before contact to any team in a game – during the past four seasons. (ESPN Stats & Information)
The best part of Kaepernick’s night? Two things:
He was also very dangerous in the passing game, with his 94-mph fastball arm on full display. But there’s a Troy Aikman-type of gentle touch to his velocity, which receiver love.
He did all of these amazing things after throwing a pick-6 to Packers S Sam Shields on the Niners’ first possession. That’s called unflappable.
According to STATS LLC, Colin Kaepernick joined Jay Cutler (2011) and Otto Graham (1954 & 1955) as the only players in NFL history with two rushing TDs and two passing TDs in a playoff game.
I SAW the Packers defense give up the most total yards and rushing yards in team history, letting the Niners amass 579 and 323, respectively. Translation: San Fran owned the clock like it was a dowry wife, 38:01 – 21:59. In the first half, the Niners ran 48 plays on offense. Green Bay? It got a chance to run just 20 – only 10 pass attempts for reigning league MVP, QB Aaron Rodgers.
Okay. I know the man has a great reputation, but how much more futility do the Packers need to see from their defense before they show coordinator Dom Capers the door? Just sayin’.
I SAW a tough season for the Packers come to a close. In the end, they were victims of playoff seeding, having to play what is arguably the NFC’s best all-around team in the Divisional Round. Many will point back to the infamous Scabgate verdict against the Seahawks for the blame, but the blame is on Green Bay for getting off to a 2-3 start to the season, and looking sluggish all the while. Saturday night was basically a return to form, with QB Aaron Rodgers and the offense looking as out of sync as they had in September and early October.
I SAW one concern for the Niners as they head into Atlanta to face QB Matt Ryan, who’s performance is often proportionate to the pass pressure he faces: LB Aldon Smith is still cold as ice. Smith had 19.5 sacks after Week 13, but hasn’t had one since. And last week, DL Justin Smith played all game, so San Fran can’t take solace in the fact that the latter wasn’t on the field to occupy blockers for the former.
I SAW Niners WR Michael Crabtree continue to thrive. Since the start of December (6 games) he’s caught 44 passes for 657 yards and six touchdowns. I’ve been supportive of head coach Jim Harbaugh’s decision to play QB Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith. I’ll tell you one thing: Crabtree’s been healthy all season, and Smith was never able to connect with him downfield like Kaepernick has.
(1) Atlanta wins vs. (5) Seattle, 30-28
I SAW the Falcons finally get over the playoff hump under head coach Mike Smith and QB Matt Ryan.
Only New England has had more regular season wins than Atlanta’s 56. However, one seldom hears about that, because of their 0-3 playoff record during that span until last weekend.
But boy, was the voyage to this win ever hairy – as hairy as Dan Hedaya.
That…is cardigan skin.
Imagine is the Falcons had lost this game…. they almost didn’t have to imagine. Atlanta had a 20-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter – a lead that, according to Elias Sports Bureau, no team in NFL playoff history had ever blown in 83 such instances – but allowed Seattle to score 21 unanswered points in the final frame to take a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds left in the game.
Also from Elias: This game was the second playoff game in NFL history with two lead changes in the final 31 seconds of regulation. (The other? The Music City Miracle between the Titans and Bills during the 1999 season.) That’s because Ryan took the ball at his team’s 28-yard line, completed a 22-yard pass to WR Harry Douglas, called a time out and then connected with TE Tony Gonzalez up the middle for 19 yards to set up Matt Bryant’s winning field goal.
You just had a feeling that if the Falcons won, it wouldn’t come easy….
I SAW the Seahawks’ impressive six-game win streak come to an end. During that span, they looked like one of the best teams in the league, throttling two teams by 50+ points, and coming back from a 14-point deficit against Washington in the Wild Card round.
Last weekend, Seattle almost one-upped that comeback, only to become the first tem in the Super Bowl era to score 21 points in the fourth quarter to take the lead – and then lose that game. (ESPN Sports & Information)
You can bet that this team will be getting a few more postseason appearances with which to redeem itself.
I SAW one thing we can say about Falcons QB Matt Ryan and his offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in their victory over the Seahawks: They weren’t afraid to take their shots downfield. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan’s eight completions on throws more than 10 yards downfield on Sunday (8-of-16) were just two fewer than the total from his last three playoff losses combined.
I SAW several more surprising changes from the norm during Sunday’s wild ride:
Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch came into the Divisional Round having averaged 6.9 yards per carry and 116.8 yards per game over the last five weeks. But the Falcons usually-soft rush defense turned Beast Mode into Dr. Jekyll, holding him to a 2.8 average on just 46 yards.
On the other hand, Atlanta finished the regular season ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing yards, with 87.3 per game. But against Seattle’s capable run defense they put up a season-high 167 – 98 of those from RB Michael Turner, who all season has looked more Burnt Out than The Burner.
The most refreshing surprise – at least from the Falcons’ perspective – came from their quarterback, Matt Ryan, who stepped up his game against one of the league’s premier pass defenses. In his first three playoff games (all losses) Ryan averaged 194.7 yards per game, with three touchdowns, four interceptions and a 71.2 rating. On Sunday he equaled that three-TD total, put up 250 passing yards and a 93.8 rating. Just as important, while Ryan was sacked 3.3 times per game in his three postseason outings prior to last weekend, he wasn’t sacked at all against Seattle. Keeping him upright will once again be a top priority this weekend against San Francisco.
I SAW one factor that can’t be overlooked in the Seahawks’ sackless loss – the absence of DE Chris Clemons, who tore his ACL during the Wild Card round. Clemons led the team with 11.5 sacks in the regular season. DE Bruce Irvin was second on Seattle, with 8.0. After those two, the next-best Seahawks have just three sacks apiece. It’s easy to understand, then, how the Falcons kept their QB Matt Ryan from getting sacked on Sunday: Without one of their mere two competent pass rushers, Seattle’s pass rush is too easy to neutralize. Adding to their personnel in this department is bound to be priority number one in the offseason.
I SAW PROPS and sweet, sweet vindication for Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez. Sixteen regular seasons logged in his career, and in the last postseason of his career he finally has a playoff win to show for it.
This was no mail-it-in contribution for the most prolific tight end in NFL history, either. Not only did he make the clutch grab that set up the game-winning field goal (see above), but he also made a sick tip-toe TD catch in the first quarter in a game during which each point scored turned out to be crucial. Like Ravens LB Ray Lewis (see: Baltimore wins @ Denver, 38-35 – 2OT), I hope Gonzalez’s final season lasts longer, but at the very least he’s gone out with some positives in January.
I SAW Falcons K Matt Bryant win the game with a clutch 49-yard field goal during the final minute of the game. Bryant has now made his last 10 attempts from 49 yards or farther. His head coach, Mike Smith, put it well, via the Associated Press:
“Our quarterback is a special player. They call him Matty Ice, but I feel like we’ve got two Matty Ices. There’s Matty Ice Ryan and Matty Ice Bryant.”
I SAW one of the most dumb-assed decisions I have ever seen. After the Falcons took a two-point lead on a field goal with 31 seconds left in the game (see above), they appeared to attempt an onside kick that the Seahawks recovered at their own 46-yard line.
Honestly! In the words of numerous Cohen brothers’ characters, what the fuck?
The decision nearly cost Atlanta dearly, since Seattle got the ball already within range for a Hail Mary attempt to win the game. What was special teams coach Keith Armstrong thinking? The risk of Seattle getting great field position brutally outweighed the benefit of recovering the onside and ending the game with a kneel down. (The ’Hawks were out of timeouts.) The only explanation that even comes close to making sense is that the play was supposed to be a squib kick by K Matt Bosher, and he flubbed it. Still, the Falcons’ kick coverage has been solid all season. There’s no need to get fancy when you’re that close to winning arguably the most pressure-heavy game in franchise history. Fail.
I SAW Seahawks QB Russell Wilson put up another tour de force performance in his stellar rookie season: 24-of-36 (66.7%), 385 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns, 1 interception, a 109.1 passer rating, 60 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown. Over his final ten games, Wilson threw 19 TDs and just 3 INTs.
What a season for Wilson, going from a criticized prospect that was drafted too high to a third-round steal. The former Wisconsin Badger was taken 75th overall in last year’s draft, and he’s looked better than almost all of the 74 guys taken before him.
It’s not just Wilson’s statistics and physical attributes that impress. His leadership, maturity and focus are also otherworldly. For example, this is what Wilson told the Associated Press after the loss:
“We had high, high hopes for the rest of the season. When the game was over, I was very disappointed. But walking back into the tunnel, I got so excited about next year. The resilience we showed was unbelievable.”
(2) New England wins vs. (3) Houston, 41-28
I SAW the Patriots reach the AFC Championship by easy beating the Texans for the second time this season. The first time New England trounced Houston it started the Texans on a tailspin that they never truly recovered from.
In fact, the start of Sunday’s game can be seen as a microcosm for the Texan’s season. S/KR Danieal Manning received the opening kickoff, and after a few tiny jukes found himself streaking down the field, seemingly ready to take the game by storm – much like Houston did to the league with their 11-1 start to the regular season. However, despite a lead of almost ten yards on his closest pursuer, Manning somehow didn’t score, forcing QB Matt Schaub to come out and suck the team to a FG instead of a valuable 7 points against the league’s top scoring offense. In other words, both Manning and the Texans ran out of gas. They lost four of their last 6 games. Schaub lost his edge in the passing game as the season wore on, and so did the once-vaunted defense, that allowed nearly 10 more points per game during that slump:
Texans’ 2012 Start vs. Their Finish
||First 12 Games
||Since (Incl. Playoffs)
(ESPN Stats & Information)
I’ve mentioned a few times throughout the season that Houston head coach Gary Kubiak had a challenge in front of him to keep his team firing on all cylinders after all but running away with the AFC South by the end of October. (The Colts came close to stealing the division, but that certainly didn’t look possible until December.) Maybe the Texans got out to too big of a lead over the rest of the field. Either way, they pissed that lead away, and have a second straight 1-win playoff disappointment to show for it.
I SAW PROPS for the Patriots as they continue their milestone-ridden dynasty, and as usual it starts with the legacies of their quarterback and head coach….
QB Tom Brady passed his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, by earning his 17th playoff game – most in NFL history. Brady now also has 41 TD passes in the postseason, trailing only Brett Favre, with 44, and Montana, with 45. He might set that record too, before these playoffs end.
Coach Bill Belichick is now heading into his seventh conference final, which puts him on a list with the most successful head coaches in the Super Bowl era:
Most Appearance In Conference Championships By A Head Coach
Landry coached Dallas for 28 seasons, Shula coached Baltimore and Miami for 32 years, and Noll helmed the Steelers for 22. Belichick has been in New England for 13 seasons. Belichick also has more Super Bowl rings as a head coach (3) than everyone on this list except for Noll (4).
Don’t get me wrong – I never use the term “dynasty” lightly. But come on.
I SAW Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski re-break his arm. He will have to undergo a second surgery on the arm in a matter of mere months. I mention this because of how prolific Gronk can be – not because I expect his absence to matter much next weekend (see: Away from the game(s)). After all, QB Tom Brady still passed for 344 yards, 3 TDs and a 115.0 passer rating despite never connecting with the Gronkulous one on Sunday.
I SAW that Pats QB Tom Brady lost RB Danny Woodhead early in the game to injury, as well as TE Rob Gronkowski. But the hallmark of New England’s schemes is that the sum is greater than its exchangeable parts. (Not expendable, as most people like to say – smart athletic pieces are needed to execute the game plan – but exchangeable with other roster members.)
One of the most consistent parts of that greater whole came through again on Sunday. WR Wes Welker barnstormed the undermanned Texans defensive backfield for six catches for 120 yards in the first half. (Welker finished with a total of 8 grabs for 131 yards, but the damage was already done by halftime.) It’s probable that New England will not re-sign Welker this offseason, putting their strategy of roster replaceability to its toughest test since Brady was lost for the year in 2009 and Matt Cassel stepped in to guide the Pats to 10 wins.
I SAW Texans RB Arian Foster get held to 90 yards rushing. It was the first time in four playoff games that he had failed to gain 100 yards, maintaining his team’s undefeated status (8-0) this season when he topped the century mark.
I SAW what seems to be the only way to slow down Texans DE J.J. Watt: Make him play the Patriots. In two games against New England this season, Watt has just six tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 tackle for loss, 4 QB hits, and no pass deflections. Maybe there’s something to the Pats’ strategy of practicing with defensive linemen brandishing racquetball racquets to simulate Watt’s impressive ability to bat down balls. There’s also something to be said for QB Tom Brady’s ability to make quick reads and deliver the ball before Houston’s defensive superstar can impose himself on the game.
I SAW Patriots LB Rob Ninkovich have an up-and-down game. He blew his coverage on a long completion on a screen pass in the third quarter, but later in the drive, Ninkovich came up with a key jumping interception of Texans QB Matt Schaub to buy the momentum back. Ninkovich is a slightly-less-rich-man’s Mike Vrabel.
I SAW Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels show his ability to think on his feet when TE Rob Gronkowski and RB Danny Woodhead left the game with injuries. McDaniels understands something long unappreciated in pro sports: creating and exploiting mismatches. He lined up RB Shane Vereen out wide, giving him single coverage beyond the hash marks on a linebacker. That’s not good for said linebacker. According to ESPN Sports & Information, had 58 receiving yards and a TD in such situation on Sunday – the most receiving yards for a running back split wide and just the third TD as such over the last three seasons.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, Shane Vereen became just the third player in NFL history to have two receiving touchdowns and a rushing touchdown. The other two are both Niners – Roger Craig in 1984 and Ricky Watters – both of whom did so in the Super Bowl.
I SAW one last nugget to burn off before we go into the conference championships:
According to STATS LLC, the Patriots are hoping to become the first team to win a conference championship after losing the Super Bowl in the previous season since the 1972 Dolphins. That Miami team was the 17-0 team that won it all….
STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP EDITION – HERE AT TFQ.
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