What I Saw, Wild Card Week, 2012 Season

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – 2012 Wild Card 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 myself unable to remember a quartet of first-round games that were all so hard to predict prior to kickoff.  It was so exciting to think about heading into Saturday afternoon….

…Aaaand then the games weren’t very close at all.

Case in point: In their first halves combined, the Bengals and Vikings combined for -1 net passing yard.

For various reasons each game was a dud by the time what would normally be “clutch time” came around in the fourth quarter.  At times, the most intriguing development happened before the game – as was the case in Houston, where Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians spent the game his team played against the Texans in a hospital bed, and in Green Bay, where Vikings QB Christian Ponder watched his team play offense from the sideline in a loss to the Packers.  (See below.)

But none of us have any memories anymore anyway, right?  So it’s on to a great looking slate of Division Round games this coming weekend, as teams well-rested during bye weeks host the only teams left in the NFL that are riding a victory from last week.

I’ll get to some predictions in a second, but let’s first touch on a relevant issue, given how last weekend’s games played out….

I SAW the need to ask: Does anyone want to see the NFL playoffs expand by two teams after watching the Bengals revert back to the Bungles in the first round the last two years?

I know that two years is just a snapshot, but consider that in the last two playoffs the sixth seeds lost their games by a combined score of 119-61.  (I looked it up, and had about as much fun doing so as I did last year when I watched the Lions lose 45-28 to the Saints.)  That’s worse than on old-fashioned doublin’.  Sure, the media is fond of propping up the performances of several Wild Card teams that have won it all in recent years, but that’s no reason to start letting in teams like San Diego – which would have been eligible for the playoffs under the proposed new format.  I think that example speaks volumes.

Has anyone ever voiced concern that the NFL postseason has too few teams in it?

Repeat after me, commissioner Goodell: I will not do what the NCAA has done to March Madness; I will NOT fix what isn’t broken.

I SAW Wild Card weekend set up a round defined by rematches of regular season games – with the lone exception of Seahawks-Falcons.

In predicting last week’s games I went 4-0.  Just sayin’.  Let’s take a look:

(1) Denver vs. (4) Baltimore – Saturday, 4:30 EST

And so the retirement of Ravens LB Ray Lewis is postponed another week.  Will the man who built M&T Bank Stadium see his illustrious career end in Denver?  Denver walloped Baltimore in Week 15, to the tune of 34-17 – and it was even worse than that, since the Ravens were in a 31-3 hole when the fourth quarter started.  So, they are chomping at the bit for another chance to beat Denver, as Baltimore WR Anquan Boldin showed after the game when he told the Associated Press, “I wanted [to play] Denver because they beat us.  We’ll make it different.”

Really ’Quan?  Let’s think about this for a second.

Different?  Maybe.  Broncos QB Peyton Manning threw for his lowest yardage output of the season against the Ravens – 204 – but that was in part because of the big lead they got, and due to the fact that Denver was RB Knowshon Moreno was running around, through and over Baltimore defenders.

Now Sugar Ray’s in the house.  Lewis didn’t play in Week 15, and LB Terrell Suggs wasn’t his usual self, having played just two weeks after tearing a biceps muscle.  Will that make a difference?  Maybe Lewis’ teammates will keep ballin’ to prolong his career, but they could just as likely have a hangover game after Lewis’ sendoff at home on Sunday.  (I’ll say more on that below, but as much as I loved the vibe as the game in Baltimore ended, I thought it was so emotional that one has to wonder how much it felt like the end for Lewis.)

I don’t think anyone can be at ease facing off against Lewis, Suggs and S Ed Reed, but Manning’s stats against them overall don’t exactly indicate any crumbling under pressure:

Peyton Manning vs. Baltimore Since 2002, Including Playoffs

W-L 9-0
Comp % 65.2
Pass Yards/Game 247.3
TD-INT 15-6
Passer Rating 97.4

One thing, though: In 2 playoff games against the Ravens during that span Manning is 2-0 with 208 passing yards per game, two touchdowns and three interceptions.

That should change on Saturday.  Lewis’ retirement tour is the lone X-factor that could give the Ravens the upset, but I don’t see it because their corners won’t be able to hang with big wideouts Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas – two guys Lewis and Reed can’t affect directly.

(2) New England vs. (3) Houston – Sunday, 4:30 EST

Similar to the Ravens, the Texans now must travel back to the scene of a criminal-like December beat-down.  It was worse for Houston.  They got handled 42-14 in Foxboro on Monday Night Football, and it can be argued that they haven’t been the same team since.  They certainly haven’t dominated an opponent since going into the New England game with an 11-1 record.

What’s more, the Texans just went just 4-4 this season against teams that made these playoffs.  In other words, they have to step up at a time when they haven’t proven that they’re ready to tussle with the big boys yet – and answer against a team that they lost to by 28 points five weeks ago.

But as ESPN’s Chris Berman likes to say, “That’s why they play the games.”  I’ve checked it out numerous times, and the Patriots haven’t come through on their reputation as a postseason juggernaut since losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl after starting 18-0 in 2007:

Patriots In The Playoffs Under Bill Belichick Before & After 2007 Super Bowl Loss

2001-2007 2008-Present
14-3 2-3*

*Both wins came last season. 

So take Pats QB Tom Brady seriously all week while he’s been telling the press that he and his teammates are taking this game very seriously.  Remember two years ago when the Patriots whipped the Jets 45-3 in Week 13 – and then lost to them 28-21 in the playoffs?  Head coach Bill Belichick and his team remembers.

Brady can earn his NFL-record 17th playoff win for a QB – passing his boyhood idol, Joe Montana – with a win on Sunday.  I think he’ll do it, but it won’t come as easily as New England’s Week 14 win over Houston did.

(1) Atlanta vs. (5) Seattle – Sunday, 1:00 EST

This game is the lone non-rematch of the Divisional Round, and it’s a weird one.  Even just picturing those two jerseys on the Georgia Dome turf is weird.

The Falcons don’t care about any of that shit.  Right now they feel like Chris from Family Guy….


(FOX 20th Century)

It’s tough living with the monkey of 0-3 on one’s back.  That’s Atlanta’s playoff record since head coach Mike Smith and QB Matt Ryan joined the team, and with each of their franchise-record 13 wins the monkey got more and more unruly.  Many of us have said that this exceptional regular season doesn’t amount to much until the Falcons can get rid of that primate asshole.  Now the time has come.

Hot-lanta rebounded well from their upset loss to the Panthers in Week 14, winning their next two games by a combined score of 65-18…before laying down for the Bucs to close the season.  This team’s state of mind is unreadable at this point.  How they react out coming of the gates on Sunday will be a big deal – especially DE John Abraham, who suffered a bad ankle sprain three weeks ago.

The Seahawks, on the other hand, are almost perfectly built to beat the Falcons.  Seattle’s ground game should be able to tear up Atlanta’s 21st-ranked run defense, and when a well-rounded team like the ’Hawks gets an advantage they tend to make good on it.  Moreover, the Falcons play with a very take-what-they’re-given demeanor, whereas the Seahawks play with a give-you-nothing mentality.

I’m high on a lot of things, but I’m not high on the Falcons.  (Really, I swear.)  Seattle is the sexiest team in the NFL right now.  But the absence of DE Chris Clemons to lead the pass rush, combined with the fact that Hot-lanta has the best size-speed WR tandem in football with which to combat the leaders of the Legion Of Boom, CBs Chris Clemons and Brandon Browner.

(3) Green Bay vs. (2) San Francisco – Sat, 8:30 EST

This is the best matchup this weekend – and the hardest one to pick.  So I’ll just jump right in.

The Niners won the first matchup between these teams in Week 1, but both teams are different now.  For starters, the Packers have not faced an offense that runs the read-option fake this season.  (They played Seattle in Scabgate in Week 3, but the Seahawks hadn’t really installed the scheme into their game plan until later.)  Don’t think that San Francisco hasn’t noticed on film that Green Bay was atrocious at holding the edge this year: The Packers gave up a brutal 7.0 yards per rush outside the tackles this season – second-worst in the league.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  Another way to look at it is that they possess the second-worst defense in the NFL capable of containing the read-option fake once it attacks the edges.  San Fran QB Colin Kaepernick and RB Frank Gore could have a field day unless LBs Clay Matthews and Erik Walden can actually play a two-dimensional game for once and hold their ground against the run.

On the other side of the coin, the Niners really need DL Justin Smith to play a significant role after tearing his triceps three weeks ago.  If the other Smith – defensive end Aldon – disappears like he can at times it’s going to be a long day for the Niners D against Rodgers.  If Justin is at anything close to full strength to help occupy blockers, expect Aldon to get in the QB’s hair.  Keep in mind, though that no quarterback plays better outside of his comfort zone than Rodgers.  In fact, given the way he plays, maybe being under pass pressure is his comfort zone these days.  Either way, Rodgers is arguably the best QB at playing with a pass rush running freely at him.  Because of that, there’s a big part of me that wants to go with Green Bay.  But I can’t stop thinking about how much San Francisco outmuscled them in the season opener.  Add Kaepernick and a resurgent WR in Michael Crabtree, and it’s the Niners going to their second straight NFC final.  (The only way I see them losing is due to a few poorly timed turnovers, a la last year’s postseason loss to the Giants.  But I don’t see it.)

I SAW Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians leave the hospital Wednesday night.  (See above.)

I’ve mentioned in previous weeks that Arians likely never envisioned auditioning in front of other general managers for a head coaching job in quite the way that he ended up doing so – by stepping in for the once cancer-stricken Chuck Pagano and exceeding anyone’s wildest expectations – but he nonetheless had to have caught the eye of many teams looking for a new head coach.

Arians’ agent said that the coach’s illness did not displace any interviews for the prospective head coach (via NFL.com), but I have a hard time believing that Arians’ time in hospital didn’t bog down the hiring process for teams that wanted to interview him for a head coaching job.

Let’s take a quick look at what’s happened in the last week or so, in terms of the hiring and firing of head coaches.

Head Coaches Hired

Doug Marrone, Bills – Many have questioned this choice, the fifth head coach in Buffalo in the last twelve years.  Marrone’s name might not have a high currency, but neither do the Bills.  What I like is that Marrone has experience with turning programs around.  He was a player for Syracuse in the mid-1980s when that program rose from the ashes of the Big East, he helped George O’Leary turn Georgia Tech around in the late 1990s as an offensive line coach.  He was the offensive line coach for the Jets from 2002-2005 while that unit started its climb one of the best lines in the NFL, he was Sean Payton’s offensive coordinator with the Saints from 2006-08 when that team rebounded amazingly from bad history and Hurricane Katrina.  Then, he came back to Northern New York and turned Syracuse around again.  According to SI.com’s Don Banks, Bill Parcells has been highly supportive of Marrone as well.  That’s all I need to hear.  Buffalo was never going to snag a top name, but maybe they got just the guy they needed.  Time will tell.

Andy Reid, Chiefs – I think I said enough positive things about Reid last week, in the wake of his firing in Philadelphia.  (See: What I Saw, Wk 17, Away from the game(s) 

Obviously, one of the first challenges facing Reid is to decide what to do about the quarterback position, and let’s hold too much judgment until then.

One word on the departure of Chiefs GM Scott Pioli, who mutually parted ways with the franchise: I get why owner Clark Hunt decided to move on.  (Among the reasons, I think, might have been that all the men that had to witness the suicide of Javon Belcher – Pioli, now-former head coach Romeo Crennel and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs – might appreciate a fresh start a bit more than usual.)  But to the Pioli naysayers, I ask you why new head coach Andy Reid had his virtual choice of any of the available coaching jobs, but chose Kansas City almost as fast as he could?  Because Pioli made some mistakes during his four years running the Chiefs, but he built a very underrated roster – a roster that could take teams by surprise next season once a seasoned coach like Reid gets an offseason to put his fingerprints all over it.  A franchise that used to consistently sport a top-notch head coach (Hank Stram, Marty Schottenheimer, Dick Vermeil) has now seen a rough patch in that department, with the overly cagey Herm Edwards, hothead Todd Haley and the basic patch job that was Crennel.  Sure, Pioli is solely responsible for the last two names, but apart from that and overpaying for QB Matt Cassel he did a really good job as general manager.

Head Coaches Fired

Mike Mularkey, Jaguars – Mularkey was canned on Thursday by new Jaguars GM David Caldwell, after just one season on the job.  The move makes sense because Mularkey “led” the team to their worst record in franchise history.  But it’s just like Jacksonville to avoid the ideal situation.  Now, the organization jumps into a frenzied interview climate well behind the rest of the contenders for available coaches, while other teams have had almost two weeks to get their interviews in.  As usual, the Jags are late to the party.  When was the last time they did something right?

I SAW a few more points about the hiring/firing situation in the NFL:

I don’t get Chip Kelly.  The Oregon head coach seemed to be on the verge of signing a deal with the Browns, but backed out at the eleventh hour – just as he did with the Bucs last year.  There have been reports from numerous sources that Nike CEO Phil Knight – an Oregon alum and huge Ducks booster – offered Kelly more cash.  Is it really that much about the money?  Hopefully next time he hears the siren call of the pros, Kelly will wait until he’s fully committed to leave the college ranks before he wastes another NFL franchise’s precious time.

Don’t underestimate the impact in San Diego of Ron Wolf, who was taken on as a consultant.  There is no front office guy alive who has a better resume.

I just don’t understand the firing of Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.  At all.  Maybe it would have made sense if owner Jerry Jones has the balls to clean house, but to keep the always-flat Jason Garrett on as head coach and fire the man who was in charge of the only unit on the team that lived up to expectations is just another sign that The Emperor has lost his grip on the “force” that leads a personnel head toward good decisions.

UPDATE (1/11/2012): That being said, Jones hired Monte Kiffin to replace Ryan on Friday.  Kiffin was the granddaddy of the Tampa 2 in…Tampa.  Could be a great idea in Bid D for once.

And now, at the time of this post, there are still five teams with a head coaching vacancy: The Browns, Eagles, Jags, Bears and Cardinals.  That feels like a lot.  Again, I’m thinking Arians’ illness had a hand in this, but stay tuned….

UPDATE (1/11/2012): Rob Chudzinski was hired as the Browns head coach Friday afternoon.  He was the offensive coordinator in Carolina for the last two seasons.  To be honest, I’m more curious to see what impact this has on the play of Panther QB Cam Newton than I am about the Browns’ future.  Sorry, Cleveland. 

I SAW myself get a warm and fuzzy feeling watching Ravens LB Ray Lewis and S Ed Reed walk off the field together near the end of the game, while the crowd showered Lewis with praise in what is guaranteed to be his last game in Baltimore (the Ravens are the lowest-seeded seed left alive in the AFC).  Lewis’ run is not over yet, but it’s worth savoring every moment we have left watching him in pads.

The beginning of the game was also extremely rewarding, as Lewis did his introduction dance while exiting the tunnel.

PROPS – To a man that can lather himself up in sod and still make it look tough.

PROPS too for the Ravens for putting Lewis on the field for the team’s last offensive snap to down the ball.  Lewis did the same trademark dance on the field as the clock expired.

I SAW – no, have seen – a lot of unique and weird tattoos in my lifetime, but this one has to be up near the top of the list.  I bet Rex Ryan picks up his own fetish – one for laser tattoo removal.

Honestly, is this not the best example that Ryan lets his fleeting emotions get the best of him?

I SAW PROPS to the Beltway.  The Redskins, Ravens, Nationals and Orioles all made the playoffs.  ’Nuff said.

I SAW PROPS to Dr. James Andrews.  As if he wasn’t already the most famous orthopedic surgeon ever, he was mentioned more in the last weekend than R. Kelley is at a teen golden shower.  Seriously, the guy’s like the Robert Shapiro of surgeons.

More will come below about his role in the situation(s) surrounding Redskins QB Robert Griffin III’s knee injury (see: Seattle wins @ Washington, 24-10), but my favourite Dr. Andrews moment of the weekend came before the ’Skins game.  During the Vikings-Packers broadcast Saturday night, announcer Al Michaels was talking about Andrews and the work he’d done on Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson’s knee, and he said, “I’m ready to go have surgery from Dr. James Andrews…I don’t even need any!”

(3) Houston wins vs. (6) Cincinnati, 19-13

I SAW déja-vu all over again, as the Texans eliminated the Bengals from the playoffs for a second straight year.  The outcome was much less close than the score indicates.

The story of the game was the piss-poor first half put up by the Cincinnati offense.  Have a barf bag ready for this:

The Bengals became the first team since 2007 to have negative passing yards in the first half, -7.  (The Chiefs had -8 in ’07)

They were 0-4 in third down in the first two quarters, gaining just 53 yards from scrimmage on 18 plays (2.9 yards per play), and allowed the Texans to rack up 250 yards of their own.

Cincy made it across midfield just once in the first 30 minutes – on their last possession of the half.

QB Andy Dalton: 4-10, 3 yards in the first half.

WR A.J. Green: 0 receptions on 0 targets in the first half.

Houston dominated time of possession during that span, 22:53-7:03.

It’s now been 23 years since the Bengals have won a playoff game (1990) – the league’s longest active streak.  After Saturday’s craptacular performance, it’s hard to envision that streak being broken anytime soon.

I SAW Bengals QB Andy Dalton shit the bed in another one-and-done playoff performance.  There are the aforementioned stats to show this, but the issue might not be summarized by an isolated incident.

It’s not fair to place any long-lasting monikers on a second-year quarterback, but if Dalton’s not careful he could get to be known as the guy who handles playoff pressure the way Jeff Daniel’s character in Dumb and Dumber handles Turbo Lax.

Just look at his shit-stained stat lines from his two playoff losses:

Jan. 2011: 27-42 (64.3%), 257 yds, 0 TD, 3 INT, 51.4 Rating

Jan. 2012: 14-30 (46.7%), 127 yds, 1 TD, 0 INT, 44.7 Rating

Both of those passer ratings are among the three worst of Dalton’s pro career.  Granted, both games were played against the Texans, so the argument could be made that Houston has Dalton’s number – except for the fact that given the way they played this season, the Texans’ defensive backs couldn’t get a number in the Blue Oyster bar from Police Academy while wearing assless chaps.

Blue Oyster Bar

(Warner Bros.)

“There, there, coach Phillips.  We’ll make it feel all better.”

It’s not fair to overlook the excellent job Dalton has done in his first two regular seasons in leading Cincy to its first consecutive postseason appearances in 30 years.  But just ask another red-haired QB in Atlanta if good regular season play does away with criticism for laying playoff eggs.

I SAW the Texans get back to what they do best: Handing off to RB Arian Foster.  It was clear that was the main agenda for Houston, since in the first half alone Foster had 21 touches – 16 rushes for 86 yards, and 5 receptions.

In all, Foster had a career-high 32 carries for 144 yards and a touchdown.

Houston is now 8-0 this season when Foster runs for more than 100 yards.  The coaching staff would do well to try and respect that statistic while game planning for Sunday’s rematch against the Patriots.  It only helps to give their quarterback an easier time….

I SAW PROPS to Houston RB Arian Foster for becoming the first player in NFL history with 100 yards rushing in his first three playoff games.  It’s strange to think that no other back has done this, and that came now, in this passing-oriented era.

Foster did it with a league-record 425 rushing yards in his first three career playoff games:

Most Rushing Yards In A Player’s First 3 Career Playoff Games, NFL History

Arian Foster 425
Fred Taylor 383
Terrell Davis 376
Eddie George 354
Timmy Smith 342
Freeman McNeil 335

(Elias Sports Bureau)

I SAW Texans QB Matt Schaub win his first playoff start as a pro, but it wasn’t too pretty.

In keeping with his current slump – he had 21 TDs and 9 INTs during Houston’s 11-1 start, but just 1 TD and 3 INTs in the last four regular season contests – Schaub went without a touchdown pass on Saturday…unless you count the pick-6 he threw to CB Leon Hall in the second quarter to give the Bengals their only lead of the game, at 7-6.  Hall made a great break on a short out pattern, but Schaub put up a floater, and should never have thrown that ball regardless.

Luckily the nine-year QB was able to hide behind his running game for much of Sunday.  (See above.)  But he’s going to have to improve his game if the Texans are going to beat the Patriots on Sunday.  (When was the last time New England lost to a struggling quarterback?)

One thing few have mentioned: Even though he played a bad game and his team didn’t need him that much, the win alone might loosen Schaub up.  Think of it like how a basketball player can start scoring more after simply hitting a few free throws.  A win’s a win, and at least that load is off of Schaub’s back.

Trivia Bomb:

According to the NBC broadcast, Schaub is the only quarterback this season not to have run for a first down (min. 3 starts).  Whoa.  Come, on Gary Kubiak.  I know you have a stable of good running backs to use in short yardage situations, but not one successful QB sneak to move the chains?  That’s very odd.  I bet Houston could catch a D off guard with one….

I SAW Texans DE J.J. Watt continue his reign of terror over offenses.  Saturday was just another regularly dominant day for the sophomore: 5 tackles, 1 sack, 2 tackles for loss, 2 QB hits, and 2 pass deflections.  It’s getting more and more ridiculous each week, but it’s scary to think that it makes sense.  I’m not sure that there’s been a more lethal combination of size, length, quickness and instincts on the defensive line in the modern era.  The only player I can even think of that compares is Gino Marchetti, who played for the Colts in the 1950s and 60s.  That’s a Hall Of Famer whom NFL Network ranked at #39 on the list of the 100 greatest players of all time.  Not bad.

I SAW PROPS to Texans DE J.J. Watt for batting down an Andy Dalton pass in the third quarter, and following it with a Dikembe Motumbo (former Houston Rocket) wag of the index finger.

Motumbo finger gif

(© NBA)

I SAW one big reason I like Houston DE J.J. Watt: He plays clean and smart.  Watch him sack a QB.  He wraps him up and falls to the turf, not trying to drill the passer and risk a penalty, fine or dirty injury.  The league should use footage of his technique when teaching players how to cleanly hit a QB.

I SAW myself finding it strange that Bengals head coach Marin Lewis doesn’t come under more fire.  He seems like a great guy, and was an exceptional defensive coach in Baltimore before coming to Cincinnati 10 years ago.  And he deserves credit for turning a moribund franchise around to a certain extent, since his team has made the postseason four times during that decade.  But Lewis is 0-4 in those trips to the big time.  Maybe if owner Mike Brown runs out of patience in the next year or two, then defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will get the head coaching chance he’s deserved for years now.

I SAW PROPS to Earl Campbell for appearing in front of the Texans home crowd of 71,138.  Why PROPS?  Hey – it’s Earl effing Campbell.

(3) Green Bay wins vs. (6) Minnesota, 24-10

I SAW the third game in six weeks between the Packers and Vikings go to shit the minute is was decided that Minnesota QB Christian Ponder’s throwing arm was too damaged to play.

For those of you who have wondered if Ponder should have tried to play, consider that SI.com’s Ben Reiter reported that Ponder needed help putting his sweater on in the locker room after the game.   But not until we were all left pondering what a good game might have looked like.

Who would have expected that a teammate could steal RB Adrian Peterson’s thunder without even playing?  Problem was, Ponder stole Peterson’s thunder the way an opponent would – by making the Vikings too one-dimensional.  The game didn’t start that way, but it took about nine plays for Green Bay to get the hint that they didn’t have to worry about the starting quarterback on Saturday night….

I SAW Vikings QB Joe Webb back under center with the job he thought he’d earned two years ago, before Minnesota drafted Christian Ponder.

Trivia Bomb:

According to the NBC broadcast, Webb became the first QB since at least 1950 to start a playoff game after not throwing a pass in the regular season.  And, thus obviously, the first QB to start in the playoffs without starting in the regular season too – but that’s only been since Frank Reich in 1992, who famously the led the Bills back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit of 35-3 against the Oilers at halftime to win the biggest playoff comeback ever.  (I nearly broke my friend’s television when that happened…sorry, Will John – and David and Kathy John.)

It started it great for Minnesota.  Their first eight offensive plays were – gasp! – rushing attempts: 6 by RB Adrian Peterson for 31 yards, and 2 by Webb for 22 yards.  It looked like serendipity could reign at Lambeau Field for the Vikes.

Then, on the ninth play Webb had to throw for the first time.  Not good.  He bounced a pass several yards in front of an open Michael Jenkins, and the Vikings had to settle for a field goal.

So the potential of a Minnesota upset was washed away by the saliva streaming from the mouths of Green Bay defenders as they licked their chops, realizing they could pin their ears back and attack Webb relentlessly.  The result: When Webb wasn’t underthrowing his receivers he was mostly just slinging desperate, flailing throws while in the grasp of defenders, reminding the Packers home crowd of the sloppy mistakes Brett Favre used to make.  Except Webb wasn’t balancing those out with big plays.  He was sucking.

Maybe it’s wrong to be so tough on Webb.  After all, it’s a very tall order to step into your first playoff game, on the road in the Green Bay cold, being told you’d start the day of the game.  But Webb’s performance was arguably the worst performance by a quarterback in NFL playoff history.  By halftime the Vikings had minus-6 net passing yards, thanks to Webb going 3-for-11 for 22 yards.  (Don’t take the team’s final tally of 324 yards on offense as an indication of a decent game – 157 of those came in the fourth quarter, when the game was practically unwinnable.)  What’s worse, it made Peterson’s job that much harder….

I SAW Vikings RB Adrian Peterson get held to 99 rushing yards against the Packers.  Obviously it’s a testament to AP’s ridiculous season to consider 99 yards being “held.”  But everyone – including Peterson – knew that he would have to put up another superlative performance if Minnesota was going to continue in the postseason, and this time Green Bay’s defense came through.

Peterson himself put it best (via Ben Reiter at SI.com):

“[The Packers D] played more patient — stayed backside, tried to take away the cut back…Played slow, instead of being very aggressive and overpursuing plays. They were kind of able to bottle up the run game.”

Why it took Green Bay this long to figure that out is anyone’s guess.  Part of it might have had to do with the return from injury of do-it-all S Charles Woodson, who is unusually adept at being the eighth man in the box for a player of his size, and played his first game of the season against Minny.  Either way, the Packers run defense strung AP out like Bubbles from The Wire.


(© HBO)

“Get these ends up off of me – shiiiiiiiiit.”

Trivia Bomb:

History repeated itself with Peterson’s lackluster performance.  Again, 99 yards should only be viewed as a failure under these unique circumstances.  But according to Elias Sports Bureau, only six players have rushed for at least 247 yards against another team in the regular season and then gone on to face that team in the playoffs.  Of those, none rushed for 100 yards in the playoff game and only Emmitt scored a touchdown:

Most Rush Yards Vs. An Opponent In Regular Season & Faced Same Team In Playoffs

Adrian Peterson 2012 Packers 409 99
Shaun Alexander 2004 Rams 326 40
Bill Paschal 1943 Redskins 280 56
Emmitt Smith 1995 Eagles 266 99
Jim Brown 1958 Giants 261 8
Marshall Faulk 2000 Saints 247 24

I SAW Packers S Charles Woodson describe the style of Vikings RB Adrian Peterson in a better way than I have, yet still sounds to me like a Spider Panther (via NFL Network): “…His arms and legs just keep making stride…it’s as if he doesn’t see anybody…for a guy to run and see the field without seeing [read: caring about] the first tackler, that’s special.”

Well put.

I SAW Packers QB Aaron Rodgers continue his dominance of the Vikings.  In the last five games against Minnesota before Saturday, he completed 74.7 of his passes, threw 16 touchdowns to one interception – for a 132.5 passer rating.  Wow.

Last weekend’s game was a step down: 23-for-33 (69.7%), 274, 1 TD, 0 INT 104.9 rating.  The main thing that really took his rating down was the lone TD pass, but Rodgers set up every score with deft passing, and tied a playoff record by connecting with ten different receivers – a display of the Packers’ unparalleled depth at wideout and tight end.

Just as importantly, Rodgers guided his team to his first playoff victory at Lambeau.  Sure, they need to beat the Niners and have the Seahawks upset the Falcons to play another home game this January, but winning there after a stretch during which the Pack had gone 2-4 in the postseason at home over the last decade could still boost Green Bay’s confidence.

Also, Rodgers is ultra-hot going into this weekend’s game against San Francisco.  He’s thrown eleven touchdowns and no interceptions over the last five games.

Trivia Bomb:

Aaron Rodgers is the second quarterback since 1973 to lead the NFL in passer rating (108.0) without a 500-yard rusher or a 1,000-yard receiver.  The other?  Ken Anderson (95.7) for the Bengals in 1974.  (NBC broadcast)

I SAW two more Trivia Bombs for the Green Bay offense:

QB Aaron Rodgers has completed 78.4 percent of his passes to WR Randall Cobb, which is the second-highest rate in the league for a QB-WR tandem with more than 50 attempts.  The best?  Broncos Peyton Manning and Brandon Stokley.  Ugh- part of me just knew Manning-Stokley would be up there…what are they, 80 years old combined?

RB John Kuhn is the only player in the NFL to score a touchdown in the last four postseasons.

(4)Baltimore wins vs. (5) Indianapolis, 24-9

I SAW, much like the Vikings-Packers game, one of the most important developments happen in the hours leading up to this game.  Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians – the man who stepped up in the absence of Chuck Pagano and lead Indy to a 9-3 record as interim coach – was hospitalized the morning of the game with what turned out later to be an ear infection.  This essentially cleared the way for Ravens head coach John Harbaugh to become the only head coach during the Super Bowl era to win a game in his first five trips to the playoffs.

I SAW the Colts run into a freight train in the Ravens, who were as pumped up as Hans and Franz from Saturday Night Live since the game was LB Ray Lewis’ last in his home stadium before his retirement.



“We’re here, to win, for, you, Ray!  Ya.”

It was Sugar’s first game back since tearing his right triceps against Dallas in Week 6, and the first time all season that he, LB Terrell Suggs and S Ed Reed played together.  The Return helped to wake up a slumping Ravens team that came into the playoffs having lost four of their last five games.  Lewis says he’s done, but like TE Tony Gonzalez in Atlanta, he can still ball.  The best linebacker to ever play the game had a team-leading 13 tackles on Saturday.  His only mistake was a dropped retirement gift of a tipped pass early in fourth quarter.

Calling someone the heart of a franchise is an overused term in sports, but with Ray Lewis and the Ravens it isn’t.  More will come on Sugar’s career as a whole in a separate post in the offseason, but for now, because it’s the playoffs, let’s take a look at how many postseason tackles the machine has to his name:

Most Tackles In Ravens Playoff History

Ray Lewis 112
Terrell Suggs 38
Dannell Ellerbe 32
Ed Reed 30
Bart Scott 29

(Elias Sports Bureau)

I SAW that Indy needed its A-game to stay with Baltimore in this game, and doing it without its play-caller Bruce Arians – one of the best in the league, to boot – wasn’t going to accomplish that.  During NFL Gameday on NFL Network, Kurt Warner pointed out that Arians called plays that resulted in 91 passes of 20 or more yards downfield this season.  That aggressive approach is consistent with the way Arians used Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger when he coordinated the offense there.  Colts QB Andrew Luck broke the record for pass attempts in a playoff game for a rookie, with 54, but the offense wasn’t able to stretch the field.  In the end, Luck averaged a paltry 5.3 yards per throw.

Trivia Bomb:

Luck was the first Colts quarterback other than Peyton Manning to start in the playoffs since his old college coach Jim Harbaugh (current head coach of the Niners) did in 1996.

I SAW an end to a good season by Colts QB Andrew Luck.  I’d say it was an exceptional at an overall glance, with the league-leading seven game-wining drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, and a rookie record of 4,374 passing yards.  But he also ranked 31st in the NFL in completion percentage, and his passer rating of 76.5 was just 26th.  Those last two stats used to be decent for a rookie starter, but that’s not the case nowadays.  It will make a huge difference if the front office in Indianapolis can find ways to be able to ask Luck to have to shoulder less of the load.

I SAW Ravens QB Joe Flacco answer his critics in a game he needed to win.  It’s the last year of his contract, and Flacco had been demanding respect all offseason, only to imitate a seesaw as far as his regular season performance was concerned.  Flacco didn’t have to take over the game because his whole team was controlling various phases of the game, but he went 12-of-23 for for 282 yards, 2 touchdowns and a 125.6 rating when his number was called.  At first glance, a 52.2% completion rate isn’t efficient, but 23.5 yards per completion sure is.  With the win, Flacco became the first QB in league history to win a playoff game in each of his first five years.

One thing that has helped Flacco is a return the original plan in September: More no-huddle offense.  Jim Caldwell took over for the fired Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator with three games left in the regular season, and brought back the hurry-up style of offense that Cameron had gotten away from.  SI.com’s Peter King reported that Flacco was excited about increasing the tempo of the offense, that he feels more comfortable as the aggressor.

Funny…that’s what Flacco was saying during the preseason too.  This serves as a good example of why Cameron had to get handed a pink slip.  He went away from the style of play his quarterback vociferously approved of, and didn’t even get RB Ray Rice the ball enough while doing so.

At any rate, there is a correlation between no-huddle offenses and more “modern” (read: short, crisscrossing) patterns.  Hurry-up offenses are all about setting a tempo, and these days getting the quarterback into a rhythm via short, precise completions sets that tempo.  Also, fatigue is a factor – not just tiring out a defense by limiting chances to substitute, but wideouts can’t run back and forth deep down the field too many times in a row and still be productive.   Caldwell knows this.  He’s supervised Peyton Manning work those rhythms like Gregory Hines, and he’s done a decent job of getting Flacco into a mindset that prioritizes working the short and intermediate areas:

Joe Flacco Passes More Than 10 Yards Downfield, 2012 Regular Season

First 13 Games Last 3 Games
% Of Total Attempts 32.9 25.0
Completion % 40.1* 47.6*
Yards/Attempt 10.1 13.2

(ESPN Stats & Information)

*- League average: 47.4%.  Flacco ranked 19th in the NFL in completion percentage this season.

I SAW Ravens RB Ray Rice go all regular season without a lost fumble only to cough up the rock twice on Sunday.  But that was okay, because backup Bernard Pierce stepped up with 103 rushing yards in the game, giving offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell another weapon for this Saturday.

I SAW PROPS to Colts WR Reggie Wayne who moved into second all-time in career playoff grabs with 91.  (He had 8 catches for 108 yards on Saturday.)  He’s still 60 behind Jerry Rice.  Jesus.

I SAW Ravens WR Anquan Boldin prove he’s still relevant with a franchise-record 145 yards receiving.  The highlight of Boldin’s day came on an 18-yard TD catch that he had to pull in while Colts CB Darius Butler’s forearm and hand pulled on the ball.  Boldin has always had such strong hands….


(Warner Bros.)

(5) Seattle wins @ (4) Washington, 24-14

I SAW an energetic atmosphere at FedEx Field, where the Redskins were playing their first playoff game there since the end of the 1999 season, with the only two rookie quarterbacks to ever have passer ratings of 100 or higher – ’Skin Robert Griffin III and ’Hawks Russell Wilson – going at it.

It started off with a bomb.  Washington gained 129 yards in the first quarter, with Griffin going 6-of-9 for 68 yards and two TDs.

During that span the second bomb dropped.  At the 11:37 mark of the first quarter, RG3 made a throw on the run, and came up limping afterwards.  From that point onward, the rookie star gained just 47 yards (1.9 per play) and was physically competent enough to lead offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to call just two read-option fakes after Griffin apparently aggravated a sprain of the LCL in his knee that he had suffered in Week 13 against the Ravens.  In fact, the Redskins offense itself became so hobbled that it never ran a single play inside of Seattle territory after that explosive first fifteen minutes.  (According to ESPN Stats & Information, the ’Skins became the only team in the last decade to accomplish that feat.)  RB Alfred Morris was efficient, averaging 5.0 yards on 16 carries, but that’s just a good indication that the option offense functions as a whole unit – if it doesn’t succeed, individual performances tend to fall by the wayside.

Then came the megaton bomb.  Midway through the fourth quarter, RG3 lunged to try and retrieve a bad shotgun snap.  Watching they play live and in replay, I didn’t think that RG3 twisted his knee that badly, but then I saw the Getty Image taken by Al Gallo that’s at the top of Don Banks’ Snap Judgments on SI.com and changed my mind.  Ouch.

What ensued was a series of blame deflections worthy of the Catholic Church when a boy gets molested.  How could the coaching and medical staff let Griffin continue to play once he was limping on a gimpy leg – the same leg in which he tore an ACL in 2009?  Griffin told head coach Mike Shanahan that he was able to go on.  Shanahan said that team orthopedist and superstar Dr. James Andrews (see: Away from the game(s)) gave him a non-verbal indication that RG3 was okay to continue after the initial aggravation of the knee.  Dr. Andrews changed his account of the situation over time.

In a sense, the situation became the 2012 NFL version of Rashomon.  It’s complicated.  Here’s how I see it: It’s hard to blame Robert Griffin.  A player wants to be great, and occasionally plays out situations in his or her imagination during which they win a big game hurt.  Remember when you roasted Bears QB Jay Cutler for not going on after injuring his knee two years ago, NFL fans?  You can’t have it both ways.

How many historical moments have been made by an athlete overcoming pain to win a game?  With that in mind, Shanahan is in a tougher situation than many have appreciated.  How different would history be if Red Holzman had decided to bench Willis Reed to protect his future health before his famous game seven performance in the NBA finals?  Sports history would be hard-pressed to remember Kerri Strug if her coach, Bela Karolyi, had decided that her ankle was too hurt to perform her renowned vault?  Coaches make history by letting hurt players take their chances too.  What galls me is that the coaching staff-medical staff leaves the determination of a player’s capability to play up to waves, winks and head nods.  I’m sorry, but even within the crucible of a pro football playoff game, that’s amateur hour.  Either Shanahan should have approached Andrews to get verification, or Andrews should have told Shanahan – even after RG3 went back into the game – that the QB shouldn’t be in there.

In the end, Griffin had surgery on his LCL and ACL on Wednesday, and Andrews has stated that a full recovery in time for next season is reasonable.  Before people start subjecting him to Adrian Peterson standards, be patient on the boy.  But in this day and age this injury shouldn’t hamper RG3 over the long term.

But there’s one other legitimate issue in this situation….

I SAW myself wonder: When Ravens LB Ray Lewis took chunks of turf to rub all over his chest during his pregame dance (see: Away from the game(s)), did he take the grass from FedEx Field?

Honestly – the game looked like players were running on cedar chips, some of which were spray-painted green.  (Where’s the Muscle Hamster, Doug Martin when you need him?)  Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll ahs apparently filed a complaint about the turf to the league after losing premier pass rushing defensive end Chris Clemons to an ACL tear during the game when his foot slid in an unusual manner that demonstrated a lack of traction.

There are questionably bad playing surfaces, and then there is FedEx Field on Sunday.  Memo to Redskins owner Daniel Snyder: You’re a rich asshole.  Make sure your players have a good field to play on.

I SAW, with all due respect to two defense that played good games, both the Redskins and Seahawks offenses played very sluggish games after halftime.  Nevertheless, Seattle staged a good comeback….

I SAW the Seahawks become the third team in NFL history to win a playoff game after trailing by at least 14 points in the first quarter.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

To say that Seattle awoke from its slumber after the first 15 minutes is an understatement:

Seahawks in Wild Card Game On Sunday

First Quarter Rest Of Game
Total Yards 9 371
Yards/Play 1.3 6.1
First Downs 1 21
Points 0 24

(ESPN Stats & Information)

The ’Hawks are riding a six-game winning streak and are still a force to be reckoned with, led by their QB and RB….

I SAW that for all the hype about the trio of rookie QBs in the playoffs, Seattle’s Russell Wilson is the last kid standing.

The Seahawks went just 3-5 on the road this season, and hadn’t won a playoff game away from home since 1983, but the always-cool Wilson had an understated but effective game to win the day.  We as fans tend to say that the bottom line is winning, so let’s give some credit to the third-rounder that got laughs when he was picked that high.  Turns out that the haters were high for hating.

I SAW that the Seahawks went 54 red zone possessions in regular season without a turnover.  Then, RB Marshawn Lynch’s goal-line fumble in the third quarter with Seattle trailing by a point (14-13) threatened his team’s chances to win the game.

But Lynch went back into Beast Mode and shrugged off the gaffe, rushing 20 times for 132 yards and a touchdown, with 53 of those coming in the fourth quarter.  The capper was a manimal-esque 27-yard TD run with two Redskins defenders hanging onto him.

Lynch will be the key in one of the four exciting games this weekend.  In the name of Joe Swanson, “LET’S DO THIS!!!!”

Joe Swanson

(20th Century Fox)




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