What I Saw, Wild Card Round – 2013 Season

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WC Round, 2013 Season 

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.

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Wowza!  A wild regular season gave way to a wild Wild Card Round last weekend.  So yummy.    Hey, football gods – order us up a double 40-Burger, the second-biggest comeback in playoff history, two winning field goals at the end of regulation, and an upset win from a team that shouldn’t have even been playing.  Sauce on the side.

You want unusual?  There was that too.  According to the FOX broadcast Saturday night, playoff teams in NFL history with a negative turnover differential came into this postseason with a combined record of 15-195, but went 3-1 over the weekend.

I’ll keep up with my predictions in TFQ’s Playoff Picture.  I went an even 2-2 in the first round, but now the matchups are different than what I had predicted thanks to the re-seeding process, so I’ll just restart my forecast based on this and save the extra confusion of predicting beyond that again until the field is narrowed down to four teams.

We’ll also take a look at the Coaching Carousel, with little to no thoughts on potential hires because the rumor mill clouds up reality too much in this area.

You’ll also notice I cite my sources for stats less often than usual while making my playoff prognostications.  That’s because I took some extra time to crunch some numbers myself, to give you a fresh perspective from the mainstream.

In the immortal words of Joe from Family Guy, Let’s do this!

Away from the game(s)

I SAW Melissa Stark promoting her show with Sterling Sharpe last week.

Maybe this is a weird personal note (and biased because she’s so darn good lookin’- achoo!) but I read feel-good stories a few years ago about how Stark had made a return after taking time away from the biz to start a family.  Now she’s worked her way “up” to Game Day First, a NFL Network pregame show that starts at 7am EST Sunday mornings.  Obviously Stark has some other paid duties for the league’s flagship network, but I can’t help but thinking a relatively newfound mother wouldn’t raise her hand to leave home in the middle of the night on the weekends.  Just sayin’.

I SAW The MMQB’s Peter King point out that the Chiefs started eight defensive backs on the first snap against the Colts on Saturday.  If that’s not a sign of how much the league has changed into a passing orgy, I don’t know what is.

I SAW PROPS to Bears WR Alshon Jeffrey – from teammate and fellow wideout Brandon Marshall, no less.  Marshall still said he’d choose himself if he were starting a team and had first pick of receivers, but in this me-first era it’s still refreshing to hear someone competitive take time to put someone else above them, teammate or not.

I SAW PROPS to the Florida State Seminoles for winning the last BCS Championship in Division 1 college football by giving comeback-seasoned Auburn a dose of its own medicine.  A few thoughts:

–       Good riddance, BCS system!  The bowl system is still a brutally corrupt system that makes rich assholes on the bowl committees rich while overcharging participating schools for every penny they can get, but at least now we will have a playoff system (albeit a tiny one) instead of a formula more nebulous than RPI in college basketball.

–       My instinct cringed when Heisman-winning QB Jameis Winston was interviewed after leading FSU to the win.  He seems to have a Vince Young sort of personality, in a bad way – so much confidence and leadership, so much talk about himself.  (This is not with his being investigated for sexual assault last year in mind.)

–       I doubt he’d ever do it, but Alabama head coach Nick Saban has a bright future in sports broadcasting if he so chooses.  (Saban was a guest analyst at halftime.)  But let’s keep him away from Lee Corso on the job, lest Corso short out his microphone with his own drool.

–       That was a very, very sexy fake punt the Seminoles converted on in the second quarter – a direct snap to an upback, who ran right with blockers before handing off to the gunner on a reverse.  The fourth down conversion was also the turning point in the game, giving FSU and the then-slumping Winston some much-needed momentum.

–       Great game by Auburn RB Tre Mason (34 carries for 195 yards, 1 catch for 42).  TRIVIA BOMB:

Mason is the son of Vincent Mason, aka Maseo, aka Plug Three of the seminal hip-hop group De La Soul.  If that makes you feel old, you’re not alone.

I SAW rumors already swirling about what the Texans – and new head coach Bill O’Brien – will do with the first overall pick in the 2014 draft.

Some – Houston DE J.J. Watt included – have opined about the possibility of having South Carolina DE Jadaveon Clowney as a bookend to the 2012 Defensive Player of The Year, but as enticing as that notion is, the same thing that sells such a move argues against it: Watt’s dominant presence on the D-line.  Spending the top pick in the draft on Clowney with Watt already in hand would be an overplay.  Houston has too many roster needs for that strategy.  At this point in the game, either take QB Teddy Bridgewater or trade the pick to someone who will.

Coaching Carousel

The Titans fired head coach Mike Munchak after over 30 years with the franchise as a player and coach.  Munchak had been a Titan/Oiler since the day he was drafted in 1982.  Now, his name is reportedly high on the list for the vacancy at his alma mater, Penn State.  That would be a quizzical hire for a college in a rebuilding process.  Wouldn’t they want a guy who has at least one iota of recruiting experience to lead the program back to prosperity?

Last week, I said that I loved Lovie Smith in Tampa, and that Lavonte David could play the defensive role occupied by LB Derrick Brooks when Smith was defensive coordinator there.  Turns out Lovie thinks the same thing.  Just saying.

At first I thought several franchises had been gun shy by not replacing bad head coaches – Cowboys, Jets, Dolphins, I’m looking at you – but one week into the offseason for most teams I’m taking that back.  Is this the weakest crop of coaching candidates in recent years, or what?

On a general manager note, Miami’s Jeff Ireland was let go on Wednesday.  My initial reaction despite the disparaging reports around the league was: What else does a guy have to do, drafting a franchise QB in Ryan Tannehill and getting a handful of important players in free agency last offseason.  But then I started hearing even more negative views of Ireland, including NFL Network’s analyst and former pro scout Daniel Jeremiah reporting that one NFL GM said Ireland has been worse at the job than Matt Millen was in Detroit.  Yikes.  So I took a look at previous drafts.  Six players Ireland drafted in the first and second rounds are no longer with the team.  All the free agency moves in the world can’t right that mistake-ridden trend.

Playoff Picture

Beware, Denver and Seattle: Over the last 8 seasons, 6 seeds are 5-2 against 1 seeds….

(6)San Diego @ (1)Denver

When these two teams meet on Sunday it will be one month to the day that San Diego won in Denver on Thursday night….It will also be one year to the day that the Broncos were upset by the Ravens in the playoffs.

Who would have expected the Chargers to win a playoff game with Philip Rivers throwing just 16 times, as he did last weekend in Cincinnati?  It’s a reflex to assume he’ll have to put up more passes on Sunday to keep up with Denver’s Clockwork Orange offense, but keep in mind that Rivers only had 20 attempts in last month’s upset win.

Getting into a scoring contest with Broncos QB Peyton Manning has seldom been the way to beat him.  In fact, in Manning’s eight one-and-done playoff performances he’s only surpassed 290 passing yards twice (mind you, both of those losses came against the Chargers, but this is a different San Diego defense under coordinator John Pagano), so limiting the quarterback’s production will be important.  Offensively this is done by running the ball, which the Chargers have done quite well during their current 5-game win streak.  Over that span San Diego has averaged 170.2 rushing yards per game, compared to 109.2 over the twelve games before that.  More specifically, in the two games against Denver this season – the 27-20 in and a close 28-20 loss that could have gone either way – the Bolts outgained Denver on the ground by a combined 248-102 yards and dominated the time of possession.  RB Ryan Mathews is finally running like the first round draft choice he was in 2010.  Mathews over the last four games of the regular season: 108 carries for 473 yards and six total TDs rushing and receiving.  He had a quieter game against the Bengals on Sunday, partially because he re-aggravated a sprained injury that held him out of Wednesday practice this week in a protective boot. But Mathews’ lesser production didn’t limit the overall rushing attack –  the Chargers still ran for 196 yards as a team.

As good as they played in Cincy, San Diego’s defense will have to be even better, too.  One of Manning’s favourite targets, WR Wes Welker will be playing after missing the last several games of the season with a concussion.  Welker had just three catches for 21 yards in Denver’s win against San Diego this season, but don’t underestimate how much his underneath routes free up wideouts Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas and TE/WR Julius Thomas.

Keep an eye on S Eric Weddle.  Manning loves to play mind games with opposing safeties (witness the disappearance act by All-Pro Eric Berry in the Chiefs’ first loss to Denver), and Weddle is usually allowed an unusually high amount of freelancing based on what he sees pre-snap.  If there’s a cat and mouse game to be played between Manning and any Charger it will be with Weddle, whose positioning may dictate Manning’s choices between run and pass plays.  If Weddle – SD’s leading tackler this season – can fool Manning a few times as opposed to vice-versa it might be a long day for the record-breaking QB.

I really want to go with the Chargers here.  But I just don’t see this edition of the Broncos offense not winning at least one playoff game.  And as good as they looked, San Diego hadn’t won a playoff game in an open-air stadium on the road since the 1994 season.  I’m also worried about Mathews’ ankle…but then again he initially hurt it just before Christmas and it didn’t seem to slow him down much.

By the way, I’ll say it again: Eight.  Eight one-and-done playoff seasons by Manning out of a dozen trips there.  It took me over an hour and a few beers to check this, but that’s the most one-and-dones by any NFL QB in history.  Explain to me again how he is the best quarterback of all time?  No best anything of all time loses his first playoff game of the season eight times.

Prediction: Broncos, 28-27

(4)Indianapolis @ (2)New England

I don’t want to sound over-simplistic, but if you’re an NFL team and you have a guy who can cover WR T.Y. Hilton you can beat the Colts.  If you don’t, good luck to you.

Good luck indeed, because Colts QB Andrew Luck is a very different player when Hilton can get free against opposing defenses.

The 5’9” Hilton has been huge during the Colts’ 4-game win streak: 37 catches on 57 targets for 509 yards and 2 TDs.  More specifically, getting T.Y. into the EZ has proved successful for Indianapolis.  I looked it up, and he’s got 7 touchdowns in his team’s 12 wins, compared to none in their 5 losses.  He is very reminiscent of Philly’s DeSean Jackson – very small, but so quick he can make the best cornerbacks look stupid.  Hilton was targeted 18 times against the Chiefs on Saturday so you can bet that QB Andrew Luck is going to look for him.

As far as Luck is concerned, he’s the biggest X-factor in this game, the one who can take over the game against odds.  His moxie in clutch moments during his short career has been enhanced by improved play away from home.  In his rookie season he led the NFL with 14 interceptions on the road, and he took 25 sacks.  This season Luck has thrown just 3 picks in opponents’ stadiums and been brought down just 11 times there.  On a statistical level Hilton hasn’t figured into road games much more than he has at home, but he’s grooving right now and could be a crowd quieter in Foxborough – and a godsend for Luck when the Pats send extra rushers and put the little guy in single coverage.

Speaking of the Patriots, they’re pretty good in the playoffs.  They may not have a single defender to stop Hilton – their top CB, Aquib Talib, likely isn’t the answer because if what Hilton did to Seattle’s Richard Sherman earlier in the season is any indication, a big physical corner can’t keep up after jamming the shorter wideout – but head coach Bill Belichick has been able to stifle Colt superstars Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison before, so he might be able to divine some approach to limit Hilton.

Offensively, it will be a mismatch game for the Patriots.  Few teams in major North American sports take advantage of mismatches as much as they should, but New England is seldom one of those squads.  Assuming sack master Robert Mathis doesn’t ruin his day, QB Tom Brady will take his pick of options based on matchups and spatial alignments.  He could opt for rookie wideouts Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson if, for instance, Colts CB Vontae Davis is still ailing with a bad hamstring.  Or he could opt for the shorter game, the “now” routes (I love that term for today’s short patterns – so easy to complete they work “now”) and work down the field with that and a running game until something big breaks open somewhere.  I think the latter will happen, especially with respect to WRs Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola.  Colts LB Jerrell Freeman is among the rangiest ’backers in the league, but if Brady catches him in isolation or zones against Edelman or Amendola while the receivers have YAC angles he won’t be able to keep up.  That’s how the Pats roll once the big-time games start – they work whatever game they get given, and the Indy defense just doesn’t have enough game-breaking players on defense to get in the way of that.  That’s why it matters little that the Colts signed WR Deion Branch earlier this week (Darrius Heyward-Bey was injured last Saturday) to try and get insight into what Brady and the Pats offense will do.  New England’s style is such that they should be able to tell the defense what they’re going to do based on how the positions line up and still succeed.

But this Colts team is dangerous.  Last weekend’s historic comeback against the Chiefs (see: Indianapolis wins vs. Kansas City, 45-44) proved Luck can’t ever be counted out, and head coach Chuck Pagano has a keen ability to get his players to believe in themselves.

All this being said, I think Indy will be burnt out after Saturday’s wild-out, and the Pats offense will spread the Colts D and put together a few marches down the field to make the difference.  LeGarrette Blount was big in Week 17 (and I drew attention to it) but he could have 20 carries, or two.  It will be Brady or bust.

Prediction: Patriots, 42-35

(1)Seattle vs. (6)New Orleans

The Saints won their first road playoff game in franchise history against the Eagles.  Now they have to win in the hardest place to win in the NFL – a place in which they got schooled 34-7 during Week 13.  According to NFL Network, only twice in NFL history has a team come back to beat a team on the road in the playoffs after they lost to that team in the regular season by at least 27 points.  I’m thinking that New Orleans’ first road win will be the only two of those aforementioned milestones to be achieved next Saturday.

The last time the Seahawks and Saints met it wasn’t pretty, and Seattle’s dominance on defense was the main reason.  New Orleans QB Drew Brees was held to his lowest yardage output since 2006 (147) and his team set franchise lows for scoring and offensive yards in a game under head coach Sean Payton, with 7 and 188 respectively.  The ’Hawks only sacked Brees once, but as I remember it they were in his face all night while at the same time holding ’Nawlins to just 44 yards rushing.  That won’t cut it this time around either.  Payton engineered a game plan last Saturday that had the Saints gain 185 rushing yards against the Eagles, and he has to know he’ll need similar balance to protect Brees and keep the clock-eating Seattle offense off the field.  A semblance of a running game can be carried out with a variety of textbook-Payton screen passes to RB Darren Sproles as well.  Either way, New Orleans is best served trying to get Seattle to respect play action fakes.  The Seahawks defensive backs can be fooled with those, as well as double moves downfield – All-Pro CB Richard Sherman included – because they’re so uber-aggressive.  Good luck with that, though, New Orleans.  They pretty much tried to execute that game plan in the last meeting and Seattle devoured it like a meat shake, which is a delicacy sure to sweep the “green” Rainy City like Starbucks.

Meat Shake

Shout out to Ugly Duckling!  I digress.

I don’t think the Saints can pull off the win, because I don’t see the offense being able to overcome Seattle’s D.  Part of it is because of the liability that is TE Jimmy Graham in the matchup.  Graham is All-World as a tight end, but like Denver’s Julius Thomas, he’s truly a receiver more than he is a tight end.  Translation: He can’t block for shit.  The last game in Seattle was a clear example of how Payton has to scheme his formations to avoid depending on Graham to make key blocks, and against a deep defense like the Seahawks’ just one liability in blocking can signal death.

Seattle, meanwhile, hasn’t just lost one home game over the last two seasons; they’ve won five home playoff games in a row.  They also sport the number one-ranked pass defense in the NFL to throw at Brees.  Like his counterpart Patrick Peterson in Arizona, Sherman can be streaky at times, but he’s streaking hot right now thanks to four interceptions in his last three games.  Minus a bad showing against the elite Cardinals defense in Week 16, QB Russell Wilson is playing well also.  In four of the other 7 games out of his last eight, the second-year quarterback has completed over 70 percent of his passes, and put up a passer rating over 100.  What’s more, he may have played his best game of the season thus far against the Saints: 23-of-30 (73.3%), 310 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT, 139.6 passer rating.  He toyed with the New Orleans linebackers and defensive backs, looking them off and completing seven passes of 15 yards or more.

One concern for Seattle is the rushing game.  Playing keep-away from Brees will be important, and while the Seahawks rushed for 150 yards or more in seven of the eleven games before their regular season bye week, they haven’t reached that mark in the five games since.  Not coincidentally, since a 145-yard outburst against the porous Falcons D in Week 10 RB Marshawn Lynch hasn’t rushed for more than 72 yards in a game, and has averaged more than four yards per carry just once.  If New Orleans is to win this game, those struggles will have to continue.

Prediction: Seahawks, 28-24

(5)San Francisco @ (2)Carolina

Are there two more similar teams in the NFL right now?

The Niners have won seven in a row, Carolina has taken 11 of their last 12.  Both teams boast an elite defensive front seven this season, with the main weaknesses being at the cornerback positions.  Both teams have a potent running attack (San Fran ranked 3rd in the NFL in rushing this season, Carolina a deceiving 11th) that is bolstered by a dual threat quarterback.  Those quarterbacks have overcome struggles at varying times over the last two seasons, but are now at or near the peak of their games and are stepping up for their teams in the big moments.  Former pro players coach both teams, while being two years apart in age, and both of them bring a hard-nosed attitude to their leadership approach.

On November 10th the Panthers beat the Niners 10-9 at home in a landmark victory for the franchise but the result will be different come next Sunday because this is not the same San Francisco team that played in that game prior to the Niners’ current win streak.  The main reason for the improvement is simple on the surface, with several underlying results: The return of WR Michael Crabtree one game into that streak.

The Panthers held the Niners to a season-low 151 total yards of offense, and forced QB Colin Kaepernick into arguably his worst showing as a starter in the pros: A season-low 91 yards passing, 16 yards rushing, an interception and a career-high 6 sacks.  It was a credibility-gaining performance for Carolina’s D, given that San Francisco had been scoring at a 34.8-point clip during a 5-game win streak coming into that game.  The Panthers defense is no laughing matter anymore – it ranks second in the NFL in scoring and overall defense and led the regular season in sacks, with 60.  Greg Hardy has been a beast as of late; it will take a great day from LT Joe Staley to keep him at bay.  But maybe Staley will have help from his teammates, namely thanks to the presence of Crabtree.

I’m not sure there is a better franchise that plays as a whole unit than the Niners, with the possible exception of archrival Seattle, and as such the positive impact of Crabtree’s return to form has proliferated throughout the whole team.

Specific to Crabtree, his averages over 5 regular season game since his return are so-so: 3.8 receptions, 56.8 yards and one touchdown in total.  But it’s a gradual process when one comes back from a torn Achilles suffered less than a year ago – a process that seemed to have come to an end of sorts Sunday against the Packers, when he caught eight balls for 125 yards.  What’s more, Crabtree is big in the playoffs in general.  In his last four playoff games (dating back to the start of last year’s Super Bowl run) he has 28 receptions for 410 yards and three touchdowns.

The ancillary effect of the wideout’s return has been noticeable.  Starting with Kaepernick, his stats tell part of the story.  Let’s take a look at his stats since Crabtree came back:

Kaepernick Before & After The Return Of Crabtree – This Season

Att Comp Comp% Yds/Gm TD INT Rat. Rush Yds Avg.
Before 156 275 56.7 185.2 14 7 86.5 65 355 5.5
After 103 171 60.2 277.4 8 2 96.8 27 169 6.3

Don’t think that those statistical improvements are merely incremental.  They have effect in and beyond the numbers.  In essence, Kaepernick is more efficient all around with his best receiver on the field.  I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but the difference between having one and two bona fide receivers isn’t nearly as impactful as the difference between having two and three.  When Crabtree is added to WR Anquan Boldin and TE Vernon Davis it stretches opposing defenses to their limit in terms of both personnel and spacing.  What that also does is create more running and/or scrambling lanes for Kaepernick.  The third-year pivot is so much more dangerous when he is decisive about where he wants to go with the ball, be it to a specific receiver or running the ball.  I’m not saying at all that Kaepernick isn’t good at going through his progressions; when you can beat a defense in as many different ways as he can it muddles the decision process unless you’re overly decisive.  With more room to work in all respects – and in more suitable formations, now that San Fran runs less bunch formations with Crabtree, which can really clog up space and running lanes – Kaepernick is making more crisp decisions and it shows.

Keeping in mind that offense and defense in sports work in tandem with one another, the jolt Crabtree has given the offense has paid dividends for the Niners D.  It’s not just that they’ve stymied offenses more often – San Fran has allowed an opponent to score more than 20 points just once with Crabtree, and four times without him – but rest and psychology are a big thing for a defense, and a more productive balanced offense can help in both areas.

In short, this Niners team has a lot of talent and elite position players but sometimes a scant few of those can be the “key” that makes everything tumble together correctly.  For whatever reason, Crabtree is that key this season.

Kaepernick isn’t the only hot QB in this game.  Panther Cam Newton has been a better leader than was expected of him before the season, and he’s set career highs in TD passes (24) and passer rating (88.8).  While those numbers aren’t eye-popping, he’s been big in clutch moments, with four game-winning drives this season and a 90.3 passer rating in the fourth quarter.  Newton has also been huge on third downs, especially while scrambling when opposing defenses take his other options away.  His third down rushing stats: 49 carries for 295 yards, both highs for him out of every down.  It’s no coincidence, then, that Carolina ranked third in the league with a 44% conversion rate on the penultimate down.

However, while the Niners have a virtual embarrassment of riches at the offensive skill positions, Newton’s options are noticeably more limited.  WR Steve Smith is really the only consistent guy in terms of beating coverage – and he’s coming off of a knee injury.  To wit: The Panthers rank 26th in total offense – it took yet more beer to figure this one out, but that would be the lowest-ranked offense overall to ever make the Super Bowl.  Not gonna happen.

Although Carolina is the bye team, San Fran is going to be the fresher team in this game. Crabtree and Aldon Smith don’t have much mileage on them this season thanks to injury and personal reasons, respectively, and the coaches have rested defensive tackles Justin Smith and Ray McDonald down the stretch.  Both sides of the ball are on a high too – offensively, with Kaepernick playing maybe his best game of the year against Green Bay last Sunday – and defensively, having played so well against the Packers without CB Carlos Rogers.

Much like I said about the Chiefs last week, I see the Panthers as a team not quite ready to succeed in January until they get some playoff experience – something the Niners have a ton of over the last two postseasons.  While they won’t shit the bed like Kansas City did, Carolina is just outmanned against a team that’s been here before.

Prediction: Niners, 31-17

What I Saw, Wild Card Games

This will be brief, focusing more on the teams that bowed out since they obviously weren’t in the analysis above.

(4)Indianapolis wins vs. (5)Kansas City, 45-44

I SAW a game for the ages.

Indy’s 28-point comeback win is the second-biggest in playoff history, behind QB Frank Reich and the miracle in Buffalo (The only miracle in Buffalo.  Ever.  And broken water mains in Cheektowaga don’t count.)

The Colts and Chiefs combined for the most yards gained ever in a playoff game, with 1,049.

Going into halftime with a 21-point deficit wasn’t enough for Indy.  They let Kansas City score a TD in the third quarter before mounting their comeback.

I SAW a match made in hell.

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has lost now 4 straight playoff games while Kansas City has lost eight straight to set a new league record for a postseason losing streak.  That slump extends all the way back to the 1993 season when Joe Montana quarterbacked the team to the AFC Championship.  For those scoring at home, that sucks – on both counts.

I SAW myself say last week the Chiefs weren’t quite ready to succeed in the postseason after their impressive turnaround.  The numbers bear that out:

Teams That Made Playoffs Year After Losing 14 Games – NFL History

Year Team First Playoff Game
2013 Chiefs Lost 45-44
2012 Colts Lost 24-9
2008 Dolphins Lost 27-9
1982 Patriots Lost 28-13

(ESPN Stats & Information)

So there’s no shame in how the 2013 season played out, Chiefs fans – especially since your team sustained so many injuries in Saturday’s collapse….

I SAW Chiefs players drop faster than Game Of Thrones characters.  I kept waiting for one of the KC trainers to blow a hamstring helping somebody off the field on Saturday.  Star RB Jamaal Charles went down first, with a concussion on the third play from scrimmage.  To follow:

WR Donnie Avery (also concussion)

LB Justin Houston (knee)

CB Brandon Flowers (also concussion)

CB Dunta Robinson (who had been getting burned all day, but whose absence forced S Husain Abdullah into more active duty, like on the 64-yard TD catch when T.Y. Hilton left him in the dust in single coverage.)

What was impressive on Kansas City’s part was that they didn’t miss a beat after losing Charles, their most valuable player, thanks to some deft play-calling by head coach Andy Reid and great execution by QB Alex Smith.  The KC quarterback set a franchise playoff record with 4 touchdown passes in a game – 1:16 into the second half en route to helping his team become the first team since the 2004 Colts to score on first five drives of a playoff game.

Then the wheels came off, the bed was shat – call it what you will.  Collapse.

I SAW the Colts win their first playoff game without Peyton Manning since the 1995 season, when Jim Harbaugh was at quarterback for Indy.  That last win came in an upset against – you guessed it – the Kansas City Chiefs, still mired in a postseason schneid that extents beyond that shame (see above).

I SAW the Colts defensive backs come into the game as the more banged-up unit, but after some key injuries themselves (see above) it was the Chiefs DBs that were the ones stuck in sand throughout the second half – especially on WR T.Y. Hilton, who blew past the top of the coverage over and over to the tune of 13 catches, 224 yards and 2 touchdowns.  According to STATS LLC that’s the third-most receiving yards in a playoff game in NFL history, and a franchise playoff record.  (By the way, that surpasses some guys named Raymond Berry, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.)

I SAW Colts QB Andrew Luck continue to impress in his second year as a pro.

No lead is safe with Luck under center.  Including the playoffs, Luck’s seven career wins after trailing by double-digits are the most in the NFL since the start of last season.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

Let’s pause for some PROPS for Luck….

One thing that hadn’t occurred to me about Luck until Monday: He has to know that his chances of setting franchise records as a quarterback aren’t stellar, what with some Manning guy having won a Super Bowl there.  But he really doesn’t seem to care; he’s just like Marvin Gaye’s lady.  He sure loves to ball.

220px-You_Sure_Love_to_Ball

I SAW some vintage Andy Reid clock measurement gaffe, when Kansas City used their final timeout before running a play after the 2-minute warning.  That’s just awful – even in high school, let alone a team led by a well-respected head coach.

I SAW PROPS to Colts K Adam Vinatieri for becoming the first player in NFL history to score 200 points in the playoffs.  After Saturday’s 40-burger he now has 205.

(6)New Orleans wins @ (4)Philadelphia, 26-24

I SAW the Saints excel on defense, despite having lost a key player, S Kenny Vaccaro, to injury in an earlier game.

The Eagles led the NFL this season with 62 offensive plays of 25 yards or more.  On Saturday New Orleans held them to just one such play, tying a season low for Philly.

Mind you, the Saints offense deserves some of the credit as well, for keeping the Eagles off the field with an unexpected ground game.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, New Orleans gained 14 first downs by running and 11 by passing – the first time they’d gained more first downs on the ground than by air since Week 6 of the 2010 season.  This led to a win in the time of possession department, 34:53-25:07.  Granted, Philly doesn’t usually tend to need time to score – they ranked last in the NFL in that department.  But in the postseason you need to make more possessions count, and with the Saints defense taking away the big play the Eagles couldn’t rely on numerous quick hit scores like they usually do.

I SAW the Eagles ground game get bottled up as well.  Philly gained 80 rushing yards against New Orleans – just half of their league-leading average of 160.4 per game in the regular season.

Most importantly, Eagles RB LeSean McCoy was held to a rushing long of 11 yards and a receiving long of 7 yards.  This brings to mind an overall impression of the Eagles’ season….

I SAW the first NFL season for Eagles head coach Chip Kelly prove to be a success.

There are a lot of issues to address going forward, especially on defense, but given all of the doubt and speculation – including from Kelly himself, as he confessed in a press conference two days after Saturday’s playoff loss – winning the division and losing a playoff game by just two points is a great showing.

I think it’s wrong to call what Kelly does on offense a scheme, in the same way the Patriots slither past such classifications because they game plan for weekly situations.  But in that vein, what he does works, and I think it will continue to work.  If he can bolster the receiving corps with faster more dynamic athletes to further realize his plans, this team could be something to behold on the level of the Rams’ Greatest Show On Turf from back in the day….It helps that, in my opinion, RB LeSean McCoy is the closest thing to Marshall Faulk we’ve seen since number 28 dashed through defenses in St. Louis.

I SAW Saints TE Jimmy Graham almost fumble a ball in the second quarter, but the call was reversed as part of an automatic official review of turnovers.  Nonetheless, it was some careless ball handling by Graham.

(6)San Diego wins @ (3)Cincinnati, 27-20

I SAW an inauspicious streak live on, one that would often cost a head coach his job.

You thought the Chiefs have it bad, going since the 1993 season when Joe Montana was their quarterback without a playoff victory?  The Bengals haven’t won one since Montana was a Niner – in the 1990 season.

In 1990: The Berlin wall was destroyed.  The first web server was invented.  The first episode of the original Beverly Hills 90210 aired.  Robert Griffin III was born.  Pearl Jam was founded.

According to STATS LLC Cincinnati’s streak of playoff futility is the sixth-longest streak in NFL history but it feels worse than that.  Maybe that’s because every other team in the NFL has won a playoff game since then, and Cincy’s losing a playoff opener in each of the last three consecutive seasons matches a league record.

Marvin Lewis is now 0-5 in the playoffs as a head coach of the Bengals.  Only Jim Mora Sr. (0-6) has more playoff losses without a win in league history than Lewis’ five.  In other words, when talk of the postseason comes up, Lewis should be signing Mora’s famous tune by now.

Jim-Mora-playoffs??

(http://www.oldrow.net)

Lewis deserves a ton of respect.  He led the historical Ravens defense of 2000 as a coordinator and has fared admirably as coach of the Bengals.  But when you haven’t won a playoff game as a franchise since Dylan McKay first squinted for the camera, it might be time for change. 

I SAW Bengals QB Andy Dalton lose the game.

A football game is never so simple that one person is solely responsible for a win or a loss, but on Sunday Dalton came about as close as one could.  One could make the argument that his four turnovers – including two very ill-advised throws on wide patterns that were intercepted at key moments – were about the only things the Bengals did wrong against the Chargers, with the exception of RB Giovanni Bernard’s fumble (see below).

This just in: Dalton sucks shit in the playoffs.  It took almost ten quarters of postseason football for him to throw the first TD of his postseason career.  That just doesn’t cut it, nor does a career playoff mark of one touchdown against seven turnovers.  In this day and age I’d usually say that this sort of futility can lose a guy his job, but based on head coach Marvin Lewis’ job security despite the aforementioned playoff goose egg, Cincy owner Mike Brown is more likely to stand pat – for now.

I SAW Dalton’s woeful performance affect his number one receiver as well.  In fact, the Dalton-A.J. Green connection hasn’t been fruitful in the playoffs in general:

Andy Dalton Targeting A.J. Green – Career

Regular Season Playoffs
Completions per Game 5.4 4.3
Completion % 57.1 40.6
Yards per Attempt 8.3 5.0
TD-INT 27-21 0-4

(ESPN Stats & Information)

In the second half against the Chargers, Dalton completed more passes to the San Diego defense (2) than he did to Green (1).

It’s not all Dalton’s fault, though.  Not only did Green drop a deep bomb late in the game, but he also needs to be more consistent with his route running before he can be considered an elite receiver.

I SAW that despite the focus on them, the turnovers by Bengals QB Andy Dalton weren’t the turning point in the game.  RB Giovanni Bernard’s fumble inside the 5-yard line was.  It was an aberration, to say the least.  Bernard has fumbled just once all season – and never inside the opponents’ 20-yard line – while San Diego had forced just one turnover in the red zone all season.

TRIVIA BOMB:

Bernard’s lost fumble was the first fumble lost inside the 5-yard line by a Bengals player all season and just the second over the last 10 seasons, including playoffs.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

I SAW Chargers LB Donald Butler play like a rangy beast on Sunday: 12 tackles, two for a loss, and a forced fumble.  He’ll need to do more of the same in Denver next weekend.  On the other hand….

I SAW Chargers LB Manti T’eo be a disappointment thus far in his rookie season.  He looks like he has lead feet, too slow to react and seemingly lacking instincts.  Those were thought to be his main strengths coming in to his pro career.  Not good.

(5)San Francisco wins @ (4)Green Bay, 23-20

I SAW the Packers offense run into an immovable force in the Niners defense.

The main problem was old hat for Green Bay: Their O-line was just awful.  Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers is arguably the best quarterback in the game at throwing on the move, but sometimes enough is enough.  On Sunday the Niners didn’t even need to blitz for effect.  It started with pressures or sacks on all four of his first quarter dropbacks and went downhill from there.  According to ESPN Stats & Information San Francisco sent five or more pass rushers on just three of Rodgers’ dropbacks, and all four of their sacks came in a standard 4-man rush.  WR Randall Cobb once again proved his worth as the most reliable target for Rodgers when things break down, but this time it wasn’t enough:

Aaron Rodgers Passing Under Duress or Outside The Pocket – Last 2 Weeks

Cobb All Others
Completions-Attempts 4-4 5-16
Yards per Attempts 26.5 4.6
TD-INT 2-0 1-1
First Downs 4 4

I SAW the Niners run 17 of their first 22 plays on offense in Packers territory, but only have 6 points to show for it.  I like the mindsets, but they’ll need to finish against the Panthers next weekend, because they’re unlikely to get that many plays inside the 20-yard line.

I SAW Niners QB Colin Kaepernick have his best all-around game of the season, thanks in part to a deficient Green Bay defense.

The Packers outside linebackers, depleted by injury, lost outside contain on several timely scrambles by Kaepernick.  When the Niners QB is decisive enough with his running/scrambling opportunities he’s very hard to stop.  What’s more, with a healthy contingent of big play receivers, opposing defenses can’t crowd the line of scrimmage like they had been earlier in the season, so running lanes are wider on pass plays.

But for Green Bay, it’s time to stop hiding behind injuries.  Head coach Mike McCarthy said this week that defensive coordinator Dom Capers has been “great.”  I disagree.  Albeit with a more robust roster, look what his colleague Mike Zimmer has done in Cincinnati this season with more important players lost to injured reserve.

This defense needs to be blown up – coaches and roster alike.  Too often the unit has been outcoached, and personnel wise it needs help at all three levels of the defense, especially up the middle.  Until then the Packers defense is tantamount to a waste of the riches of talent at the skills position on offense.

I SAW cause to wonder: Wither the Lambeau Field home advantage?  Green Bay used to hold an edge in the playoffs, when the tundra freezes in Wisconsin.  Until the end of the 2001 season, the Pack went 13-0 at home in franchise playoff history.  Since then, they are just 3-5 at home in the postseason, having lost their last three in a row dating back to the infamous OT loss to the Giants in Brett Favre’s last game as a Packer.

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, DIVISIONAL ROUND EDITION – HERE AT TFQ.  IN THE MEANTIME, FOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK AND @TFQuarter

 

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