What I Saw, Divisional Round – 2013 Season

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – Div. 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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You’ve gotta love the NFL.  After another season of eyebrows rising through the roof during surprise after surprise, we get what most would consider the best possible matchups to play for Super Bowl berths.

The Niners might be the fifth seed in the NFC but make no mistake: The remaining teams are the four best possible teams we could have in the Conference Championships.

And there’s a lot of recent experience in the upcoming round amongst the remaining teams.  Ironically the least experienced team of the quartet is the one that has been the most balanced and consistent all season.  Seattle hasn’t been to a Conference Championship since the Mike Holmgren era, during their run to the Super Bowl in the 2005 season behind RB Shaun Alexander’s then-record 28 touchdowns.  Since then, though, the other three teams have made it a bit of a habit to play in the game:

Peyton Manning, Patriots & Niners in Conf. Championships – Since 2005 Season

Team/Player Trips To Conf. Final W-L (prior to Sunday)
Peyton Manning/Denver 3 1-1
New England 5 2-2
San Francisco 3 1-1

It’s as dreamy as the matchups could get: Three teams and/or leaders who have been here before and won’t shy from the spotlight, with the fourth team being seen by many as the favourite to win it all.  Us NFL fans sure do have it good.

A sidebar to give PROPS to Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh, who has taken his team to the NFC finale in each of his first three years as an NFL head coach – something no other NFL coach has ever done.  Keep in mind that San Fran was 6-10 in 2010, the season before Harbaugh arrived.  That’s kinda amazing.

So here we go, with the same format as last week: Away from the game(s), Coaching Carousel – which saw a lot of action since last week’s column – Playoff Picture and then the usual good ol’ What I Saw from last weekend’s games.

But first: How am I doing with my playoff predictions?  I ask this not to toot my own horn or anything (I personally don’t believe much in predictions; these are people I’ve never met, acting in ways only they can control, if they’re lucky), but rather some of you might still evaluate a sportswriter’s talent based on prognostication.  (I hope not.)

After a 4-0 Divisional Round weekend I’m 6-2 overall when picking on a weekly basis.  In What I Saw, Week 17 I tried to predict each playoff game, with mixed results.  I had Denver hosting Cincy in the AFC final, with Seattle playing Green Bay.  I had the Bengals beating the Pats in the Divisional Round, with the Packers upsetting both the Niners and Panthers.  Getting two Wild Card games wrong ended up changing the future matchups based on seeding, though.  For the record, I took Seattle over Denver on Super Sunday.  That’s all I have to say about that.  Box of Chocolates.  Something.

As the great Bill Parcells once said, “This is why you life all them weights!  This is why you do all that shit!”  You do it for a chance at the Super Bowl.  It should be fun.

 

Away from the game(s)

I SAW the $760 million settlement in the concussion lawsuit denied preliminary approval, as reported by Doug Farrar for SI.com.

I’m glad to hear it.  Not because I don’t think that the veteran players as plaintiffs in the case don’t deserve fair compensation – quite the opposite.  When the settlement was announced, I had reservations about the total amount and its ability to fulfill the needs of retired NFL players as it pertains to head injuries, but grasping the scope of the numbers involved was difficult.  Now, Judge Anita Brody has explained that she has similar concerns after looking at some of the numbers.

I say some of the numbers because, as the link above explains, Brody was not shown enough of the calculations made between the players’ side and the league’s to prove the adequacy of the size of the settlement in terms of sustaining proper care for those eligible throughout the 65-year lifespan of the agreement.

I got an icky feeling when the settlement happened.  The league had not been willing to make a counteroffer while denying the players’ initial claim of $2 million…and then the league was fast in securing an agreement – within a week or two prior to the release of the book and related PBS documentary League Of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, which exposes the NFL for its dishonest and irresponsible treatment of concussion issues in the past.  (I hope to read the book and watch the documentary in the offseason, and plan to post about it in a future edition of Deep Posts for TFQ.)

This is what Judge Brody should do, if she observes with proper research that the fund is even close to potentially being insufficient to meet retiree’s needs: Deny it altogether.  There’s no denying that the medical effects of concussions are still being learned, and that the league has become increasingly violent over the years.  To say that the amount of funding needed to treat affected former players could exceed projections isn’t a stretch at all, and a league that makes more money than the gross domestic product of many countries should do the right thing and pay as much money as possible to care for those who have made team owners rich.  This can actually be a matter of life or death.  Do what is right, NFL.  Period.

Oh – and enough about a goddamn 18-game regular season.

I SAW an embarrassingly insecure Facebook post by Redskins QB Robert Griffin III.  SI.com shares the post here

I feel bad for RG3, who, whether he is unsure of himself or not, will be seen as such by posting this self-defense of his commitment to the team.  Perhaps as a successful student-athlete who was viewed as a leader-in-training growing up Griffin has become too used to his overtures being received positively, and assumed any explanation would be well received – even by a fan and media base that was recently critical of Colin Kaepernick’s merely liking posts critical of him.  The situation in Washington may already be at the unfortunate point where RG3 will have to become cynical and somewhat withdrawn if he is to succeed in the NFL.

I SAW NFL Network’s Willie McGinest interview his former teammate, QB Tom Brady, in the locker room after the Patriots’ win on Saturday.  It was nice to see McGinest’s presence make Brady feel comfortable enough to set aside the stoicism he usually uses with the media.  At the end of the interview, Brady told McGinest, “I love you”, to which the former defensive star replied, “I love you too.”  Sure, Brady and McGinest shared three Super Bowl wins together, but these are two guys playing on the opposite side of the ball, not having played together for eight years.  Maybe that sort of closeness is common with most teams, but I doubt it.  Call me sentimental, but I found the moment heartwarming. 

Coaching Carousel

Mike Zimmer, Minnesota

Thank fucking god.  Finally.  It’s about time.  That’s all I really want to say about this hiring.  I’ve been vocal over the last two years about the failure of an NFL team to hire the accomplished defensive coordinator.  He’s been so good in Cincy over the last six seasons, and I think he’ll do wonders for the Vikings defense.  As far as the offense goes, NFL.com reported Wednesday that Zimmer is hoping to pluck Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner for the same job in Minnesota.  I’m not convinced that QB Christian Ponder is a great fit for Turner’s downfield scheme, but then again I’m not convinced that Ponder is going to cut it as a starting quarterback in the pros.

Ken Wisenhunt, Tennessee

The man who coached the Cardinals to the Super Bowl with QB Kurt Warner was plucked away from the Lions at the eleventh hour to become the Titans’ head coach.

If you thought Wisenhunt was headed for the same job in Detroit, you weren’t alone.  According to NFL Network’s Ian Rappaport, Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr. was on the verge of sending his personal jet to San Diego on Monday to pick up Wisenhunt and bring him to the Motor City to become the team’s new skipper but the franchise heard rumors that their prospective hire was being lured by another team, so thought better of it.  Good thing, too, since Senior saved some airline fuel while Wiz opted for the Titans instead.

I made this quip about why Wisenhunt would turn away from the Lions job:

It was widely assumed that Detroit offered one of the more desirable coaching opportunities this offseason, but sometimes concerns about a roster’s lack of discipline don’t die with the firing of a head coach.  The Lions also have a lot more holes on their roster than many believe, particularly on defense.

Tennessee, on the other hand, spent a lot of cash last offseason to bolster both lines and sign LB Bernard Pollard and TE Delanie Walker.  They have a fairly well rounded team, even if Wisenhunt and the front office decide to move away from QB Jake Locker and RB Chris Johnson.  I thought Locker looked very good in between injuries and could make big strides under a QB-friendly coach like Wiz.

I also wonder if division mattered to Wisenhunt.  The AFC South is much weaker at the moment than the NFC North – and much less demanding upon offenses.  In other words, upon further reflection there are a reasonable amount of positives for Wisenhunt to take this job.

Jim Caldwell, Detroit

Once again, Caldwell finds himself in a slightly awkward situation while coming into a head coaching job.  In 2008 he replaced Tony Dungy after Dungy left the Colts somewhat abruptly.  Caldwell was widely seen as an afterthought in-house hire when he was promoted from the position of quarterbacks coach – not the most brag-worthy job when your QB is Peyton Manning, who tends to coach himself in many regards.  Now, Caldwell gets brought in to lead the Lions just one day after their very public first choice for the job had been Ken Wisenhunt.  I just mentioned a few flaws of the Lions above while analyzing Wisenhunt’s decision to take the Titans job, but they don’t stop there – especially with Caldwell at the helm.  I’ve noted numerous times this season that Caldwell seemed to have caught Cam Cameron-itis as the offensive coordinator in Baltimore this season, meaning that he was neglecting the running game to the team’s detriment despite talented running backs and a struggling quarterback in Joe Flacco.  Well, the Lions had been suffering from the same problem until Reggie Bush and Joique Bell brought much-needed balance to Detroit’s offense.  It would be an unfortunate step backwards if Cam Cameron-itis infected the Lions as well.  One last thing that concerns me: It’s been reported in numerous places that one thing that impressed Detroit’s brass was that Caldwell reviewed all of QB Matthew Stafford’s plays from last season with the quarterback during his interview.  Does this mean that Stafford was involved in the hiring process, that he merely happened to be at the team’s facility and Caldwell seized the opportunity, or that Caldwell requested Stafford be there prior to the interview?  I sure hope Stafford wasn’t too involved in the process.

Jay Gruden, Washington

This hiring feels wrong – unless, of course Bengals QB Andy Dalton is even worse than it appears, and Gruden propped him up while serving as Cincy’s offensive coordinator.  That’s not the only thing about this hiring that rubs me the wrong way, and it goes beyond how annoying Jay’s brother Jon has been as an analyst for ESPN.  I tweeted this during Gruden’s inaugural press conference as the new head coach of the Redskins, after he was asked what he thought about his new QB, Robert Griffin III, on tape:

I also mentioned above that Jim Caldwell reviewed all of Matthew Stafford’s throws from the 2013 season with the Lions QB during his interview in Detroit.

So, GM Bruce Allen, you’re an employer, you interview a guy whose answer to your question about what he saw of your team on tape was something like, “I haven’t watched any tape of last season, actually” and your eventual response is to ask the guy to be your head coach?  That seems questionable.

Then ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that after hiring Gruden the Redskins never told Niners coordinators Vic Fangio and Greg Roman that their interviews for the position were cancelled.

What’s going on in D.C.?  A lot, it would seem.  Gruden has his hands full – with an embattled QB who seems insecure (see Away from the game(s)), a woefully undermanned defense and what increasingly appears to be a sketchy general manager.

Sweet Fuck-All, Cleveland

According to NFL Network’s Ian Rappaport the Browns have interviewed six prospective head coaching candidates.  Four of those have either been hired elsewhere or declined the job.  If you exclude the Texans, who fired Gary Kubiak during the season, the Browns had the biggest head start on the scramble to replace the position, having canned Rob Chudzinski on the final Sunday of the regular season.  Since then five other franchises have found their new head coach and Cleveland is sill looking.  Rumor has it that coaching candidates called by the Browns front office have been calling Chudzinski for feedback on the franchise…I can’t imagine that helping the Browns.  Several sources are speculating that GM Joe Banner is waiting to speak with Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, but the ongoing embarrassment in Cleveland was exemplified by owner Jimmy Haslam’s attempt to calm the restless natives with a ham-handed open letter to the fan base.  As Chief Wiggum once suggested in The Simpsons, dig up, stupid.

Playoff Picture

(2)New England @ (1)Denver

Can it really be that Manning-Brady XV will be defined by each team’s running game?

If Denver QB Peyton Manning wins on Sunday against nemesis Tom Brady he’ll finally improve to a .500 career record in the playoffs.  Brady, though more decorated in the Playoffs than Manning, surely still feels the bitter taste of lackluster performances while losing to the Ravens in last year’s AFC finale and being bested by Peyton’s brother Eli in the Super Bowl two seasons ago.

I still think both first-ballot Hall Of Famers to be will figure greatly into this game, but both the Broncos and Patriots have been establishing legit rushing attacks throughout the last leg of the season.

The most recent outburst(s) have come from New England RB LeGarrette Blount, whose game has been tighter than a Philly as of late.

PhilliesBluntRbow

In the Pats’ last two games, Blount has rushed for 355 and 6 TDs, and has been worked into more consistent duty, having averaged 15.8 carries per game over the last six games.

As a result, the run game is back in style for New England.  Sixty-three percent of the Patriots’ offensive plays have been runs over the last two games.  According the NFL Network, you have to go back nine years to find any game during which New England has run the ball that often.  Last week was the first time since Brady’s first year as a starter in 2001 that the Pats won a game in which they scored more than 30 points and Brady didn’t have to throw a single touchdown pass.

In fact, Brady has thrown for less than 200 passing yards in each of his last three straight games, all wins.  Can you say play action pass, anyone?

Meanwhile, the Broncos have been controlling the clock themselves.  Many people – myself included – pointed out that the Chargers had controlled time of possession for at least 38 minutes in each of their regular season matchups, and how that was a key to beating Manning in their rubber match last Sunday.  Obviously the Patriots have taken note of this, but they probably also noticed that on Sunday the Broncos held the ball for 35:27 en route to victory.  Converting 9 out of 13 third down attempts helps in this regard, but running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball combining for 144 yards does too.

In other words, the Patriots aren’t the only pass-oriented team reviving their run game.  According to ESPN Stats & Information the Broncos called run plays on 48.6 percent of their offensive snaps (34 out of 70), their second-highest rush percentage of the season.  The highest was in Week 12, when New England staged its historic comeback to beat the Clockwork Orange offense & Co.  Moreno had a career-high 224 yards in that game – on a surprising 37 carries.  He hasn’t surpassed the 100-yard mark since then, but from the loss to New England onward, Denver has averaged 132.1 rushing yards per game, compared to 105.1 in the games before that.  Denver will need to use the running game to keep their banged-up defense off of the field – a unit that sustained a significant injury in the win against the Chargers when CB Chris Harris tore his ACL.

Harris was on the field for more snaps on defense than any other Bronco this season and he will be missed.  Quentin Tarantino might do a better job on the outside than backup Quentin Jammer, but how often will the Patriots look to throw to the wide receivers?  Generally one would expect a team to stick with their current formula – running in between the tackles and working the slot receivers, in this case – but under head coach Bill Belichick the Patriots are perhaps the best situational football team ever, so they might look to exploit that mismatch via offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ deft play-calling.

McDaniels is feeling the flow in terms of scheming and play calling better than he ever has, including the historic 2007 season during which New England went undefeated during the regular season.  One of the hallmarks of Belichick is his willingness to let his assistant coaches thrive under adverse roster situations, and McDaniels is coming through big-time in his second stint as offensive coordinator.  I feel like the Broncos defense is ripe for a whupping if they’re not ready to stay disciplined next weekend, and that McDaniels and Brady will find a way to get down the field against it.

Denver handled one team riding a lot of momentum last Sunday in the Chargers.  Can they do it again to the Patriots?  It’s hard to see it.  To me, the Denver defense got out to an early lead and caught the Chargers offense on an off night.   I’m already tired of hearing about the “clutch” pass Manning made to TE Julius Thomas to prolong a drive late in Sunday’s game – a play on which Thomas was left open due to blown coverage.  Put differently, shouldn’t the most prolific offense in NFL history lead by more than 14 points at halftime after holding the opponent to one net passing yard in the first half?  I thought there were a lot of warts on Denver’s win and that performance wouldn’t beat New England.

I was going to stick with my original prediction in Week 17 and put the Broncos into the Super Bowl, but since I’m picking week to week I’m going with the Patriots.  After all, that’s why pencils have erasers, right?  At least that’s probably what Mike Tice might think.  (But I bet he doesn’t even know how to use the pencil that he wears for respect or something.  Jackass.)  Part of me keeps thinking, nah, Manning with just one Super Bowl isn’t right.  No one as good as he is can fall short so often…right, Jim Kelly?  Fran Tarkenton?  Marino?  Right?

At the end of the day I don’t think anyone has ever seen the field, its spacing and angles, in a more similar way to Manning than Belichick, so unless Moreno can take over and stick it out against the best team at halftime adjustments in years ’ol Peyton will be heading into what I think will be the last season of his career after another disappointing fall short of the big game.

Prediction: Patriots, 34-31

 

(5)San Francisco @ (1)Seattle

71-16.  That’s the combined score by which the Seahawks have beaten the Niners in their last two meetings in Seattle.  Reversing that trend will be a tall order for San Francisco.

First order of business for the Niners will be to limit the role of Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch, who is coming off of a postseason franchise-high of 140 rushing yards in the win against the Saints.  In two games this year against the Niners, Lynch wasn’t necessarily in Beast Mode, rushing for a total of 170 yards with a ho-hum average of 3.5 yards per carry.  However, Lynch touched the ball 51 times for 4 touchdowns in those games.  Seattle’s identity revolves around him so crucially that it seems as though he can lift his team by touching the ball x amount of times.

I think that the Niners formidable front seven can keep Lynch relatively at bay, without having to commit a safety to the line of scrimmage to help.  This will put more pressure on QB Russell Wilson to produce, and if last week’s performance was any indication, that might be an issue for Seattle.  Lynch’s big performance on Sunday is the explanation for Wilson’s career-low 103 yards, but what concerns me is that even with Beast Mode in full effect the quarterback still went 0-5 on play-action attempts (ESPN Stats & Information).  Keep in mind, too, that San Fran bullied Panthers QB Cam Newton last weekend, picking him off twice and sacking him five times.  Seattle likes to move the pocket around for the diminutive Russell, and the execution will have to be exceptional next Sunday.  With LB Aldon Smith back in mid-season form and well rested the Niners defense is hotter right now than it was in last year’s playoffs because Smith and fellow ’backer Ahmad Brooks are very tough to stop at the same time, and trying to do so frees up the rest of the front seven.

That being said, San Fran might not even have the best defense in this game.  Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner has continued his Patrick Willis-like assault on NFL offenses, S Earl Thomas is the best in the league at his position, and what Seattle’s front seven lacks in household names compared to their NFC West rivals they make up for with roster depth.

The calling card of the Seahawks D is vintage Pete Carroll ball hawking.  Seattle led the NFL this season with 39 takeaways and a +20 turnover differential.  They’re just as dominant in the Rainy City, where they have an NFL-best +26 turnover differential at home since the start of 2012, including the postseason.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  If Seattle’s D isn’t the best in the league, it’s probably the most balanced, with the front seven complimented by The Legion Of Boom, the defensive backs.  That group led every DB unit in the league this season with 22 takeaways, more than half of the team’s total.  Niners RB Frank Gore was held to just 16 yards rushing on nine carries (1.8 per carry), so it might be up to the DBs against dynamic QB Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick is 3-0 on the road in the playoffs.  (Former Niners greats Joe Montana and Steve Young in their postseason careers on the road: 1-3 and 0-3, respectively.)  I think Kaep and Chicago’s Jay Cutler have the strongest arms in the league, but can Kaepernick put the ball in precise spots where only his receivers can catch it against the Seahawk’s defenders?  His five interceptions against Seattle in three career starts might indicate that he can’t.  Enter Anquan Boldin.  Everyone – myself included – has been talking about the return of WR Michael Crabtree and how it’s rejuvenated the Niners offense, but Boldin is the sort of wideout that carries an offense in tough times – and big moments.  Boldin’s totals over his last 6 playoff games:

W-L Receptions Yds/Reception Yards TD
6-0 33 16.5 546 4

The numbers don’t tell the whole story.  A strong argument can be made that the Ravens don’t make it to, or win the Super Bowl last year without Boldin’s seemingly impossible catches in clutch situations.  If Kaepernick and Boldin can feel a collective mojo in terms of timing, the quarterback might not have to be as accurate as when throwing to his other teammates.  I think the best way to beat Seattle is to match their physicality, and Boldin can certainly do so against those big defensive backs.  The ’Hawks can’t double team both Boldin and Crabtree, and if they focus on Crabtree as previous teams have done so far, they do so at their own risk.

There aren’t many head coaches as adept as Jim Harbaugh at leading a team through such adversity, but consider that the Niners will have travelled a lot in these playoffs by next Sunday’s NFC finale: From San Francisco to Green Bay, back to San Francisco then over to North Carolina, back to the Bay and then north to Seattle, the hardest stadium to play at in the league.  That’s a lot of mileage in just three weeks.

One thing about Harbaugh that might not bode well for San Francisco: His conduct this week, ever since Sunday’s win against the Panthers.  As my faithful readers know, I’m fond of letting my gut instincts have a say on many matters.  From kissing two beat reporters after their most recent win to singing Johnny Cash and talking about his wife convincing him to go with flat-front khakis this week instead of pleated, Harbaugh has been noticeably more outspoken, more jovial than usual.  I think this uncharacteristic behavior is an attempt to take the media focus off of his players.  If it works, and the Niners go out and play focused, winning football in Seattle next weekend, great.  But my gut tells me that the tactic betrays Harbaugh’s concern about the challenge facing his team in the NFC final – concern that playing in the Rainy City could become a bugaboo for San Fran, not just in the next game but in the seasons to come.

In this matchup, the past might not even be prologue.  If there is a rivalry that best deserves a clean slate with every game, no matter how impressionable past matchups have been, it’s Niners-Seahawks.

But, man, 71-16.

Prediction: Seahawks, 26-20

Now, let’s check out What I Saw in the Divisional Round.

(1)Denver wins vs. (6)San Diego, 24-17

I SAW the Broncos defense finally put up a good game after an extended period of either looking bad or keeping shitty teams (Houston, Oakland) at bay.  Or maybe it was that the Chargers offense had run out of magic after a 5-game win streak during which everything clicked.  My money’s on the latter, as I said above in my Playoff Picture, but either way San Diego had an anemic showing against Denver.  With nine minutes to go in the first half on Sunday the Bolts had -11 pass yards.  QB Philip Rivers rebounded in the second half but the running game never got on track, finishing with just 65 yards on the ground as a team.  In all, San Diego converted just 30 percent on third down and Rivers was sacked four times, compared with nine total during the 5-game streak.

I SAW the Chargers running attack have an unproductive game, largely because of RB Ryan Mathews’ bad ankle.  Mathews spent most of the week of practice in a protective boot.  That was nothing new; he initially sprained the ankle in December and had been held out of numerous practices while putting together the best stretch of his career to date.  But he ended up sitting out the whole second half on Sunday, and overall San Diego had just one rushing first down in the game.  (They had 11 in the regular season win over Denver.)

I SAW Broncos QB Peyton Manning put up a stat worthy of an armageddon-sized

TRIVIA BOMB:

Manning’s interception against the Chargers was his first in the red zone this season.  That means, as the CBS broadcast pointed out, that he threw 37 red zone touchdowns against no interceptions in the regular season!  Wowza.

I SAW the Chargers defense learn to hate Omaha.

No, not the biggest city in Nebraska, or the Counting Crows song or the eponymous beach the Allied forces landed on for D-Day in World War II – or this:

Collected Omaha 3 large

Huh?  Moving on.  I’m referring to the word Broncos QB Peyton Manning kept yelling, prior to what seemed like every snap on offense for Denver.  NFL Network counted at least 44 times Manning yelled out that code word and played them in amusing succession in an edited video clip, inadvertently proposing a most dangerous drinking game: Have a shot every time you hear “Omaha”…and make sure you PVR any games afterward to watch on Monday after you wake up from blacking out.

San Diego experienced its own D-Day (D for destruction, that is) on Omaha.

No one is more famous for gesticulating, signaling and yelling before the snap than Manning.  Some, like myself, believe that a good portion of what he shouts bears little to no relation to the play being ran.  Rather, it is to force opposing defenses to show their alignment/coverage so that Manning can either predict the proper reads, or audible – or mess with defenders’ heads, as he did successfully on Sunday against San Diego.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, Denver drew five neutral zone infraction penalties against the Chargers, the most drawn by a team in a game since the start of the 2001 season.  (That’s as far back as ESPN’s database goes; I’m willing to bet that record extends back a lot further.)  In fact, the Broncos only drew seven such flags all regular season – and ranked fourth-best in the league at doing so.

Because most of Manning’s barking at the line of scrimmage could be for show, it’s somewhat fodder to try and decipher what he’s doing.  (Indeed, I’ve heard several defenders over the years say that they try not to pay attention to him and just stick to their assignments.)  But, glutton for punishment as I am, I have a theory.

There was an excellent article in Sports Illustrated earlier this season that revealed the origins of the method behind Manning’s use of the silent snap count, which was conceived  by the future Hall Of Fame quarterback and his then-offensive line guru, Howard Mudd.  There is still a certain amount of secrecy to the technique of it (Manning was upset when Mudd re-emerged from retirement for another franchise, fearing the coach would reveal their secrets), but what is known is that there is a nuanced timing between the pre-snap movement of the center’s head and when the ball will be snapped.

I think that on Sunday against San Diego “Omaha” may have been signaling the end of any audibles and the like, telling players to get ready to watch for the center’s head – the cue for the silent snap count.  There were at least two times I noticed Manning still call out words after saying Omaha, but the timing of things might allow for him to audible again quickly if he sees something from the defense, before again saying Omaha (which he did each time I noticed).  The fact that the term helped draw the Chargers offside might only indicate that the Broncos added an extra beat to the timing of the silent snap count when Manning used it.

Whatever the term really means within Denver’s offense I’m guessing with all of the press coverage about it after the Divisional Round game that “Omaha” won’t be the word the Broncos use for that purpose next weekend against New England.

I SAW PROPS for Chargers WR Keenan Allen, in a too little, too late sort of way.

The rookie standout was held without a reception in the first half on Sunday, but came alive in a big way in the fourth quarter.  Allen had five catches in the final frame, all of which came on throws at least 15 yards downfield.  His 123 yards in the quarter are the most in any quarter of a postseason game since 2001.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  Mind you, starting CB Chris Harris had left the game by then.  (See Playoff Picture)

I SAW Broncos WR Wes Welker wear an oversized helmet in Sunday’s game after having missed the last leg of the regular season due to a concussion.  It was a reminder of the layered helmets worn years ago by Buffalo’s Mark Kelso and San Fran’s Steve Wallace.

Kelso helmet

Either we will see more players resort to these oversized helmets in the future, or I’m really confused as to why this tactic isn’t being used more in this concussion-focused era – or, for that matter, why no other player since the 1990s has worn one. 

I SAW that if you’re looking to find the easiest on-field job in the NFL, you might want to look into being the punter on Peyton Manning’s team while he’s still around.

TRIVIA BOMB:

For the first time in its playoff history, Denver didn’t punt last Sunday.  It’s only the eighth time that a team went a whole postseason game without punting, and three of those games have come with Manning under center.  (STATS LLC)

(5)San Francisco wins @ (2)Carolina, 23-10

I SAW the Niners win a very physical game.

One had the feeling that the same 10 points that beat the Niners in Week 10 wouldn’t cut it this time around for the Panthers, and it didn’t.

Panthers QB Cam Newton has had a great season – one that, like his adversary Colin Kaepernick, defines the impact gauged by conventional statistics – but he seemed somewhat out of sorts in his first trip to the postseason.  Newton practically said it himself (via NFL.com): “Playoff football is a different speed than regular season. I learned that firsthand today. You have to seize the moment when the moment allows.”

Newton wasn’t kidding.  This game was a slobber-knocker.

Bodies started dropping early.  Panthers DE Charles Johnson re-aggravated his knee on the first play from scrimmage but kept gaming, Niners WR Michael Crabtree left the game briefly two plays later and wasn’t the same afterward, then backup fullback Will Tukuafu injured his knee for San Fran – all on the first possession of the game.

Tukuafu was a big loss.  Starter Bruce Miller was already lost to injury, and Tukuafu, a D-line convert, leave the Niners paper-thin in a position that usually figures heavily in their game plan.

The 401 yards of combined total offense by both teams regular season meeting was the lowest such number in any NFL game this season, but Sunday’s rematch felt even more like a defensive slugfest.

I SAW Riverboat Ron gamble his team up shit creek.

I’m referring to Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, who has been nicknamed Riverboat Ron this season for his bold decision making, particularly on fourth down.  Rivera felt he was too conservative in his approach last season and was determined not to make the same mistake again this time around.  His gambles had been coming up in Carolina’s favour – until Sunday.  The Panthers ran eight plays inside of San Francisco’s 10-yard line.  The first time ended up with them failing to score a touchdown on fourth-and-goal.

Both of those trips near the goal line occurred within the first 27 minutes of the game, and I think Riverboat Ron gambled his team out of the game.  In a matchup where points would be hard to come by, Rivera elected to challenge arguably the best defensive front seven in the game.  I guarantee that the Niners took the fourth down play as an insult, and were clearly galvanized by stopping the Panthers.  That decision set the tone for the game, one that got a way from Carolina in the second half.

I SAW the Panthers commit their first fourth quarter turnover since Week 5 on Sunday.  I’d say that stat speaks volumes about the change in maturity for Carolina since last season.

I SAW the Niners run an amusingly unconventional fake punt with less than a minute to go in the game, on Carolina’s 34-yard line, while nursing a 13-point lead.

That’s some serious mind-fuckery on the part of San Fran head coach Jim Harbaugh.  I’m actually surprised more people haven’t mentioned this play, since it is arguably unsportsmanlike.

These teams showed a lot of animosity toward each other on Sunday.  Add the needless fake punt to the equation and the seeds of a rivalry might be planted….

(2)New England wins vs. (4)Indianapolis, 43-22

I SAW Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount carry the day – literally – for the Patriots.  After beating the Colts into submission with three short TD rushes, the 6’0”, 250-pound tailback rumbled for a 73-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that made it a two possession game and essentially sealed head coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady’s amazing eighth trip to the AFC Championship over a 13-year span.

Blount’s short scoring bursts notwithstanding, the Colts defensive backs and linebackers were continuously caught crashing the line of scrimmage too blindly, giving Blount an easy time when he broke through the first level of defense.  (For more on Blount, see Playoff Picture.)

I SAW Colts QB Andrew Luck put forth another dismal playoff performance, throwing four interceptions against the New England defense.

Luck’s postseason totals in his first three contests:

Comp Att Comp% Yards TD INT Rating
77 140 55.0 1062 6 8 70.0

As Cincy’s Andy Dalton might tell Luck, subpar performances in the playoffs don’t win games.

I’m not as down on Luck after that performance as some other people seemed to be.  I think he’s a very good quarterback who is trying to do too much for an offense that can’t run the ball consistently and lacks any healthy receivers to compliment T.Y. Hilton.  Quarterbacks who tend to feel like they need to do everything to make their offense work will throw downfield instead of taking a sack or throwing the ball away or checking down to a hot read because they feel the pressure to come up with plays.  This isn’t a character flaw on Luck’s part; it’s a virtual inevitability for most quarterbacks who don’t have enough good teammates on their side of the ball.  As I’ve said before, you can bet that Indy will add some weapons to compliment Luck – regardless of the expected return of WR Reggie Wayne from knee surgery.

I SAW Patriots LB Jamie Collins prove that his team is still among the league’s best at finding diamonds in the rough.  Collins was taken in the second round of last year’s draft, but after toiling on a winless Southern Miss team as a senior he wasn‘t necessarily expected to contribute a lot in his rookie season.  But when injuries forced Collins into his first complete game on Sunday the rook was all over the field, with 6 tackles, a sack, two knockdowns, a pass defensed and an interception.  I swear the Patriots are like a fucking Pez dispenser, with depth observers don’t even know about until it’s called upon once star names hit injured reserve.

I SAW PROPS to Patriots K Stephen Gostkowski.

I know!  This is two weeks in a row that I’ve given PROPS to a kicker, a first for What I Saw.  (Last week Colt Adam Viniateri set the career mark for career scoring in the playoffs.)  But this one is pretty unique.  New England punter Ryan Allen was knocked out of the game in the first half, forcing Gostkowski to step in as the backup.  The result: a 41.8-yard average and two punts of 50+ yards.  That’s pretty impressive.

(1)Seattle wins vs. (6)New Orleans, 23-15

I SAW Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch dominate a playoff game at home against the Saints, just like he did in 2011 when celebrating fans caused a “minor earthquake” after his now-famous TD.  Actually, it appears that Lynch’s second touchdown run on Sunday – a 31-yarder in the fourth quarter – tipped seismometers again.

When the earth’s crust settled down, Beast Mode finished with a franchise-record 140 yards rushing, with a 5.0 average per carry.  His pair of TDs were the only ones scored by Seattle against New Orleans while the number 1 seed in the NFC hit the Saints in the mouth all afternoon.

Lynch surpassed 130 rushing yards for the third time in his playoff career on Sunday.  Under the current postseason format (since 1990) only two backs have more such games:

Most Playoff Games With 130 Rush Yards – Since 1990

Player Team(s) Games
Terrell Davis Denver 5
Thurman Thomas Buffalo 4
Marshawn Lynch Seattle 3
Arian Foster Houston 3
Natrone Means San Diego/Jacksonville 3

Not the craziest stat/list, but I wanted to give a shout-out to Natrone “Refried” Means, as Chris Berman used to call him back in the day.

I SAW that if he keeps it up, Saints RB Khiry Robinson has a future in the NFL.  I recall Sean Payton saying weeks ago that he (Payton) was the only thing stopping Robinson from being a great pro back because he hadn’t been putting the undrafted tailback from West Texas A&M on the field enough.  Since the injury to Pierre Garcon Robinson has shown the blazing quickness scouts liked him for, but he’s also played with an unexpected physicality.  In fact, his straight-arming of DE/LB Bruce Irvin midway through the first quarter was one of the few moments in the whole game that New Orleans matched Seattle’s brutish style of play.

I SAW Saints TE Jimmy Graham have zero receptions by the two-minute warning in the second half, finishing the game with just one catch on six targets for eight yards.

It would appear that when QB Drew Brees looks his way the Seahawks have Graham’s number:

Drew Brees Targeting Jimmy Graham By Opponent – 2013 Season & Playoffs

vs. Seattle vs. All Others
Completion % 26.7 64.7
Completions per Game 2.0 5.4
Yards per Game 25.0 76.1
% Broken Up 40 19

(ESPN Stats & Information)

What sticks out to me the most among those numbers is the 40 percent of passes broken up.  It might be premature, but I’m starting to question Graham’s mental toughness.  He got in a scuffle with Seahawks defenders during warm-ups – a confrontation that, according to the Times-Picayune, was started by Graham when he ripped LB Bruce Irvin’s cap off of his head.  I don’t mind guys getting chirpy before the game.  This is football, after all.  But I wince when the guy that starts something proceeds to go out and lay an egg.  It makes me wonder if he can take what he dishes out.

Speaking of Graham dishing out….

I SAW that Saints TE Jimmy Graham is a very talented receiver at the tight end position, perhaps the best in the league.  If he stays healthy and keeps playing in a system that maximizes his talent downfield, he could one day rival the records put up by Tony Gonzalez.  But Graham will never even be in the consideration for one of the top tight ends of all time if he continues to be an atrocious, non-committed blocker.

Those who might defend Graham could point to the foot injury he’s been dealing with for most of the season.  But I started to notice his ineptitude in run blocking last season, when the edge he was helping protect would consistently collapse.  The last few Saints games have been the most telling, when Graham spent almost any running play on the sideline.  The fact that the timing of Graham’s absence in a noticeable percentage of New Orleans’ offensive snaps coincides with an increased focus on the part of head coach Sean Payton on the running game doesn’t seem like much of a coincidence.

Bottom line: Graham often looks about as disinterested with run blocking as Randy Moss used to look on plays that weren’t going to him.  He’s either got to start to want to get his hands dirty, or Payton needs to find a way to just turn him into a slot receiver so that he doesn’t have to tip his hand with personnel packages (think, no Graham = run play) like he did in these playoffs.  Graham has to potential to be great, so there’s nothing inappropriate about demanding greatness.

I SAW Saints QB Drew Brees have yet another rough game against the Seahawks.  The most prolific passer in the NFL over the last several seasons finished with just 34 passing yards at halftime on Sunday.

TRIVIA BOMB:

I looked it up, and had to go back to Dec 31, 2006 to find the last game when Brees had less then 50 yards at the half – and that was in a Week 17 game against Carolina in which New Orleans had nothing to play for, and Brees sat out the second half with 46 yards.

The pouring rain in Seattle on Sunday is no excuse, either.  Or at least his counterpart, Russell Wilson fared much better than Brees in the same conditions:

Passing Beyond The Line Of Scrimmage – First Half Saturday

Brees Wilson
Comp-Att 2-8* 6-8
Yards per Att 2.1 8.6
Pass Breakups 3 0

(ESPN Stats & Information)

*- 1-of-7 to WR/TE

It’s safe to say that one measly completion to wideouts and/or tight ends in the first half is not typical Brees.  In fact, it took until less than one minute left in the second quarter for him to get that one completion – to WR Marques Colston, who was the lone standout target for Brees in the game, with 11 catches for 144 yards and a TD.

It kinda sucks to see Brees leave these playoffs so ingloriously.  He turned 36 on Wednesday (the 15th), and he admitted to the Associated Press after the game that his time is running out, saying, “You just don’t know how many more opportunities you’re going to have.  That’s what makes it so tough standing up here and talking about it.”

I SAW Saints WR Marques Colston get wide open on the sideline for a reception with about 18 seconds left in the game, with New Orleans trailing by eight points.  Instead of getting out of bounds to give the Saints a better chance at a last-ditch effort to tie the game, the wideout tried to lateral the ball across the field but threw a forward pass, thus ending the game.

Head coach Sean Payton told the media after the game that what Colston had done was part of a designed play call, that the forward pass wasn’t his fault.  Assuming Payton is being honest about the situation, (The MMQB’s Peter King said that “it was clear in the locker room after the game that no one had any idea why Colston threw that pass.”) it’s hard to come down on Colston.  No Saint expected him to be that open on the sideline.  In a perfect world he’d have broken off the designed play and gone out of bounds to give his team extra life, but you tell that to a player who is coached to execute or be disciplined.  I actually blame Payton for the play.  Perhaps he thought he could catch the (extremely well coached) Niners off-guard, but there was too much time left on the clock to opt for the “well, fuck it” circus call.

I SAW Saints K Shayne Graham miss two field goals, both wide left.  The last time he made a field goal of 48 yards or longer was one year ago to the day, when he was a Texan and they lost to the Patriots in the Divisional Round.

Head coach Sean Payton cut the regular kicker, Garrett Hartley, in mid-December.

Just saying.

I SAW Saints punter Thomas Morstead play the role of George C. Scott in Hans Moleman’s works-on-so-many-levels masterpiece, Football In The Groin.

George c scott-tumblr

(via Tumblr)

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

 

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