Tuesday, January 17, 2006
NFL Divisional Weekend Roundup
Five Quick Hits
* Against Seattle, John Hall missed a 36-yard field goal and his kickoffs came up awfully short. Hall hasn't been the same since he returned from injury in Week 9.
* Now that both the Patriots and USC have lost, we should be able to go several years without hearing the term "three-peat."
* Great Hall of Fame finalists again this year. A maximum of six can be enshrined, and there should be six this year. I like Reggie White, Warren Moon, Thurman Thomas, Art Monk, and both Seniors Candidates (John Madden and Rayfield Wright).
* Tiki Barber and Peyton Manning should have plenty to talk about at the Pro Bowl. Manning — like Barber last week — was unwise to say what he did, but he was right. When did the Colts turn into the Texans?
* The RCA Dome was too loud when the Colts' offense was on the field. They got a false start on their own two-point conversion.
There was a lot of talk last week about the great coaching matchups in the divisional round of the playoffs. That was appropriate, because coaching was a decisive factor in all four games, but we also saw several teams thoroughly out-coached.
No team looked more lost this weekend than the Colts. I've probably seen a team more badly out-coached, at some time or another, but I can't think of one. Early in the game, the Indianapolis defense focused on stopping the run, and rightly so, but they left the middle of the field open for short- and medium-range passes, getting killed and not making any adjustment until halftime.
The offense, meanwhile, was somehow surprised that the Steelers were blitzing. Not only is Pittsburgh a blitzing team, but its coaching staff would have to be devoid of brains not to try to copy the blueprint for success against Indianapolis, as laid out by the Patriots and Chargers, which is to take advantage of the 3-4 defensive alignment to bring pressure from unexpected places. That's the tip of the iceberg, but I'll get to more in the game summary.
What is going on with Joe Gibbs? There's no coach in the league I have more respect for, but while Gregg Williams and Greg Blache are looking more brilliant every day, Gibbs' offense has been abysmal. That is not a team that can pass twice as often as it runs and still be successful.
Chicago's Ron Turner had the same problem. Against a good, aggressive defense, he put the ball in Rex Grossman's hands 41 times. Grossman was the least experienced QB in the playoffs, and he gave a valiant effort, but finished with 192 yards and a 54.1 passer rating, worst of all eight QBs this weekend in both categories. Grossman had the most attempts, but the fewest yards. More blame should go to Chicago's coaching staff, for putting the game in Grossman's hands, than to the quarterback who couldn't put up 30 points against the Panthers.
I'm not going to criticize Bill Belichick's coaching. The man's a living legend, and he didn't commit those turnovers. But the NFL has got to do something about Belichick's gamesmanship, calling for measurements on third or fourth down with a yard and a half to go. It helps the Patriots to have that extra time, so Belichick isn't going to stop until the league makes him. There needs to be a stricter standard about when coaches can ask for measurements. Also, a question to ponder this offseason: in the Belichick/media relationship, who hates who more? Have you seen the man's press conferences?
In case it seems unfair to give Belichick a free pass, I do wonder about Troy Brown's fumble. The Pats initially had all 11 men on the line, and Brown retreated to cover the punt rather than lining up as a deep safety. It must have affected his concentration and timing. If it was fair to criticize Bill Cowher for trying an onside kick against Indianapolis in Week 12 — and I don't think it was, actually — then it's equally fair to question Belichick for using the unusual formation against Denver.
Washington @ Seattle
As thoroughly as Washington's defense manhandled Tampa Bay, I think Seattle's coaching staff saw something it liked in the way the Buccaneers played Williams' defense. The Seahawks started the game with a lot of three-receiver sets, and Washington usually covered one of them with a linebacker. The story of the game was the way Matt Hasselbeck and Darrell Jackson were able to step up after Shaun Alexander's concussion, attacking Washington's injury-plagued defensive backfield and putting up 20 points against this excellent defense, despite two special teams turnovers and a lost fumble by Alexander.
One reason for Seattle's success passing the ball was that Hasselbeck didn't get sacked all game. Washington's defensive line seemed more focused on trying to block Hasselbeck's passes than in hitting him. During the game, Daryl Johnston wondered aloud several times why Washington wasn't blitzing more. The answer is because they were getting killed on blitzes. The first one generated no pressure, and Jackson beat Shawn Springs down the sideline for a big gain. I counted seven times that Williams sent more than four pass rushers, and five of them resulted in first downs, including a touchdown. No sacks. That's why, Moose.
Hasselbeck did seem out of rhythm for a while in the second quarter, when he was leaving the pocket and looking for running lanes instead of open receivers, but that didn't last long. In fairness, Williams and Blache probably spent most of the week focused on stopping Alexander, so they were caught slightly off guard when presented with an offense geared toward the NFC's best (healthy) quarterback. The Seahawks deserve credit, though, for continuing to run after Alexander's injury. In all four games, the team with more rushing attempts won.
When all was said and done, however, Seattle's offense may have been less important to this game than Washington's. Who finishes a game with three turnovers and only scores 10 points? Seattle's defense is good, but the Steel Curtain it ain't. The Seahawks used standard defensive personnel, but on most plays they brought a DB up to the line (usually strong safety Michael Boulware). That discouraged Gibbs from running the ball, and the offense fell apart without Clinton Portis as its backbone.
Mark Brunell looked tentative in the first half, and according to my notes I issued my first call for Patrick Ramsey 1:06 into the second quarter. At halftime, Brunell was 7-of-15 for 38 yards, averaging 2.5 yards per attempt. It sounds brutal, but if Gibbs wants to be successful next season, he needs to plan his offense around a quarterback other than Brunell. He's been hurt three seasons in a row now, and his ability to create plays is pretty limited at this stage of his career. Brunell definitely had his moments this year, but he's better-suited at this point to a Brad Johnson-type backup role.
Part of Washington's problem was the offensive line, and in particular the right guard position. Ray Brown, who retired after the game, was getting killed. That's in my second-quarter notes, and when Cory Raymer replaced him at the beginning of the second half, I assumed it was a coaching move. As it turned out, Raymer was even worse — he looked like he was moving in slow motion — and Brown, who had been struggling with cramps, came back into the game.
Johnston highlighted a play on which Portis went right, and Brown wandered toward the sideline instead of going upfield and blocking for him. He didn't so much as touch anyone on the play. Tony Siragusa, who actually provided some nice commentary from the field, complained, "Don't you dare point out a guy who's been in the league 20 years." Johnston apologized, but he was right. Brown was awful, especially on that play, and his poor performance was part of why Washington didn't advance to the NFC Championship Game. It was a common theme this weekend, from Brown to Peyton Manning's linemen. Analysts have a responsibility to the fans to analyze what is happening and why. It's dishonest and disrespectful to the thousands of viewers to cover for a guy just because he's a veteran. I like Brown quite a bit, but a bad play is a bad play.
The announcers may have been too light on Brown, but they were too hard on Raymer at least once. Near the end of the third quarter, Bryce Fisher sacked Brunell and forced a fumble. The announcers tried to blame the play on Raymer. Seattle only rushed three men, and Fisher was double-teamed by Jon Jansen and Robert Royal. Blame them for letting him through, not Raymer for missing the triple-team. On a strange play earlier in the quarter, Washington tried to block Grant Wistrom with wide receiver Antonio Brown, who is listed at 172 pounds, making him one of the lightest players in the league. Wistrom, who outweighs him by about 100 pounds, burst into the backfield and tackled Ladell Betts for a three-yard loss. Not hard to see that one coming.
I liked the way Jimmy Johnson summed things up: "Washington was giving a great effort, but they weren't crisp." Seattle lost the turnover battle and its best player, but still won by two scores.
New England @ Denver
I'm always a little burned out after the early game — you're probably a little burned out just from reading my summary — so I have fewer notes on the late game, and this is a good time to bring up officiating. This weekend's was terrible. The Washington/Seattle game, handled by Ron Winter's crew, was pretty good, although the tuck rule did make an appearance early in the third quarter. The other three were not okay.
This game's referee was Jeff Triplette, who's bad enough at his job that he was demoted for several years. Triplette is the guy who blinded Orlando Brown by throwing his flag into Brown's eye. On Saturday, Triplette's crew blew an obvious call less than four minutes into the game. Stephen Alexander flinched and was called for a false start, but on the other side of the line, Richard Seymour was three yards offsides before the ball was snapped. Only the penalty on Alexander was called, and Seymour's infraction was much more obvious.
After that, of course, was the second-worst call of the weekend, the phantom pass interference call on Asante Samuel. The side judge, with the best view of the play, kept his flag in his pocket, and the call was made instead by the back judge. There was a lot of contact between Ashley Lelie and Samuel, but it looked like it was incidental or initiated by Lelie, who easily could have been flagged on the play. You can't make a questionable call like that in the end zone. The officials also ruled Samuel's second-quarter interception as incomplete, but that was corrected on a replay review.
Later in the game, officials missed George Foster's false start on a Jason Elam field goal. There was also some controversy about Champ Bailey's goal-line fumble, but I'll let the refs off the hook for that one. There was no definitive evidence either way. And while announcers tried to excuse Bailey by saying he was tired, I'm not buying it. Bailey has spent two seasons in Denver, and he had a straight shot down the sideline. Ben Watson, who outweighs Bailey by 60 pounds, is not used to the altitude, and he had to run further than Bailey, but Watson wasn't tired. Was Bailey worn out? Maybe. Was he showboating? Definitely.
Denver looked like the better team in the first half, but couldn't put points on the board until the interference call on Samuel. The Broncos went into the locker room up seven points at halftime, but you couldn't help feeling like they were letting New England stick around too long. The Eagles did the same thing in last year's Super Bowl. Jake Plummer was doing okay, but he'd made two big mistakes, on a fourth-down pass over Lelie's head, and the interception by Samuel. He did make a nice play with just over four minutes left in the game, sliding in bounds instead of throwing the ball away, which kept the clock running.
I don't have a lot of criticism for Denver's coaching staff — I mean, they beat New England in the playoffs — but early in the fourth quarter, I yelled at my television, "Why do you keep throwing?!" Mike Anderson had only 19 carries, and Tatum Bell just six. All's well that ends well, but the Broncos' offense will have to be sharper than that against Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh @ Indianapolis
I'm 5-3 in my picks this postseason (30-11 overall), and nailed both of Saturday's games, but I picked the Colts by two touchdowns, so this may seem like an odd place to start quoting last week's predictions. "[The Steelers] play a 3-4 defense, which gives Indianapolis fits ... Cowher and his defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, should spend all week studying tape of the San Diego Chargers, and use Joey Porter the same way Marty Schottenheimer and Wade Phillips used Shawne Merriman. Manning generally beats blitzes, but when teams beat him, it's usually with a strong pass rush that gets him uncomfortable in the pocket."
I doubt Cowher or LeBeau reads my column, but that's exactly the blueprint they used to attack Manning. Halfway through the first quarter, it was clear that the Colts' QB was uncomfortable. He was moving his feet too much and looked unsure of himself and his receivers. SI's Don Banks noticed, "[Manning] looked rattled more than I can ever remember seeing when he wasn't playing the Patriots."
The biggest problem was on the offensive line. I foolishly selected Tarik Glenn for my all-pro team, based on his strong play in the beginning and middle of the season. If he let up a little after the Colts had clinched homefield advantage, who could blame him? Glenn was miserable on Sunday. He had one of the worst games I've seen from an offensive lineman all season. His teammates weren't much better, and I don't understand why they sometimes flipped responsibilities, so that — for instance — a guard was taking the outside man while the tackle stayed inside. Terrible strategy against Pittsburgh's speed rush.
Unwise playcalling made the problem even worse. 1:07 into the second quarter, I wrote, "Stop throwing the ball." Some time in the third quarter, in all caps: "NOT RUNNING ENOUGH." Edgerrin James had just 13 carries against Pittsburgh. You attack a blitzing defense with running plays and screens, but Indianapolis did neither. If Manning was the one calling all those passes, he dug his own grave. If not, his coaches did Manning and the rest of the team an enormous disservice. Even if Manning was the primary playcaller, though, how do the coaches not tell him to give James some more action? That's just bad coaching.
The Steelers beat Indianapolis on the other side of the ball, too. They took special advantage of Dwight Freeney, who goes for a sack on every play. Including runs. Freeney made some nice plays, especially early in the game, but he was a decided liability in the second half, when the Steelers were running on almost every play, and he was still going after Ben Roethlisberger. With the d-line getting manhandled, it seemed like all the tackles were made by DBs — cornerback Nick Harper led the team — and Pittsburgh's running backs got a lot of extra yards by falling forward.
It might have helped to bring an eighth man toward the line — in obvious running situations, at the very least — but that never happened. With 9:15 remaining in the third quarter, the Steelers had Jerome Bettis in on third-and-one. Bettis is not a good receiver or an exceptional pass-blocker, but the Colts somehow failed to realize the likelihood of a handoff to Bettis, and he picked up three yards. That's one example out of many.
The officiating in this game was so miserable I could do a whole article on it, but I'll try to keep this concise. Early in the second quarter, officials missed a pass interference call on Marlin Jackson. I think Antwaan Randle El may have lost the call because he's a whiner. Randle El throws a hissyfit every time there's an incompletion thrown in his direction, so now officials don't trust him when it really happens.
On the play in which Roethlisberger was hurt, he fumbled the ball. I have no idea, as many replays as CBS showed of the play, how the announcers failed to notice that the ball came loose before Roethlisberger was down.
On the game's most controversial call, Peter Morelli overturned a ruling on the field that Troy Polamalu had intercepted a pass. Even if you missed the game for some reason, you've probably seen the replays. Terrible, unjustifiable call. Inexcusable abuse of the "indisputable visual evidence" clause of the league's replay rules. Morelli took a correct call and made it wrong. The league has admitted his mistake, but it should lead us to question Morelli's partiality, or at least his competency. Tuck Rule, Part II.
On the play before Polamalu's "incompletion," the Steelers called off their pass rush and dropped into coverage. Manning hit Reggie Wayne for 24 yards (one day prevent defense will finally die). It was one of the few mistakes Pittsburgh made all day. Russ Grimm and, to a lesser extent, Ken Whisenhunt are the Steeler assistants getting head coach buzz, but it sure seems like defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau — who went 12-33 as head coach of the Bengals — deserves another shot. Slowing down Manning may be easy in theory, but only a handful of coaches — with exceptional personnel, no less — can do it.
The game got very exciting at the end of the third quarter, when Manning waved the punt team off the field and then hit Brandon Stokley for a first down, setting up a 50-yard TD pass two plays later. Tony Dungy says that he intended to go for it all along, and I'm not sure I believe that, but even if it's true, that was a classic moment.
Indianapolis closed to within three before a sack at their own two-yard line seemed to seal the game. However, Jerome Byner — er, Bettis — fumbled, and Harper returned the ball to Indy's 42. I got up off the couch, and said at least three times, "I don't know if I've seen anything quite like this." It had the feel of destiny.
Manning immediately hit two passes to put the Colts in field goal range, then missed one to Wayne in the end zone, and that destiny feeling started to crack. Then, on third-and-two, with 0:25 and two timeouts, another incomplete pass. If they'd run the ball on that play, I think the Colts would have won. Instead, they had fourth down, and Scott Norwood — uh, I mean Mike Vanderjagt — came on to try a 46-yard field goal. It was a long kick, hardly a gimme, but he hadn't missed at home all season. The kick was so wide right it made Dick Cheney look like Ralph Nader.
Bill Cowher was 0-3 on the road at the start of this postseason. Now he's won two in a row. No sixth seed — out of 27 — had ever advanced to its conference championship game. Now the Steelers have done that. No team that started 12-0 had ever failed to reach the conference championship. Now the Colts have ended that streak. The Steelers beat a team that was the league's best during the regular season, one that had embarrassed them in front of a national audience, 26-7 in a "Monday Night Football" game that wasn't even as close as the score. Now they've dismantled Indianapolis in the playoffs. For sheer drama, this was a game for the ages.
Carolina @ Chicago
Let's get the officiating out of the way early in this one. If Polamalu's interception was incomplete, there's no way Justin Gage's *wink* "down by contact" was a catch. Early in the second quarter, the refs missed a late hit by Charles Tillman, and with 2:33 left in the game, umpire Roy Ellison failed to notice the playclock hit zero at least a full second before the ball was snapped. This game was done by Walt Coleman's crew. Coleman is the referee who oversaw the "snow job" in the 2001 season, the one that will always be known as "the tuck rule game".
Chicago's defense picked a bad day to have its worst game of the season, allowing more yards than in any previous contest, and more points than any but their meaningless Week 17 game against Minnesota. Last week, I said, "If Delhomme has a great game, the Panthers will win. That's a chance Chicago is willing to take." Well, Delhomme had a great game, and the Panthers won, but the Bears didn't put up much of a fight.
Tillman is one of the league's best cornerbacks, but he is not fast enough to cover Steve Smith, and he was beaten several times before the Bears finally started covering Smith with Nathan Vasher or Jerry Azumah instead. Smith finished the game with 12 catches for 218 yards and two touchdowns, plus three carries for 26 yards. When he scored his second TD, near the end of the third quarter, I was shocked that the Bears weren't double-covering him.
It's not like it's a secret that Delhomme likes to throw to Smith, and he was tearing Chicago's defense apart. If you're Lovie Smith, you have to adjust and force Carolina to do something else. Shut down Steve Smith, and the Panthers don't have enough weapons to win. Or maybe they do, but at least make them prove it. Single coverage on Smith definitely wasn't working, so it's just common sense to try something else.
Chicago's offense and defense didn't do each other any favors on Sunday. The Bears scored three TDs for only the fourth time all season and still lost because the defense couldn't stop Smith. The offense ran 42 pass plays and couldn't keep the defense off the field. Chicago somehow picked up six first downs via penalty and still managed to punt seven times.
Grossman looked awful in the first half, starting 3-of-15 for 2 yards. Yet in the first three quarters, Chicago ran on only eight of its 21 first downs. The worst time to pass, though, was on fourth-and-one at the end of the game. Grossman had completed an abysmal 42.5% of his passes, and with the game on the line, he threw another incomplete pass to end the Bears' chances. A handoff or QB sneak would have made much more sense, and — hindsight is 20/20 — replays make obvious that Grossman could have picked up the first down on a quarterback draw. The middle of the field was wide open, and he probably would have gained four or five yards. First down, spike the ball, keep the game going. Instead, Delhomme knelt once and the game was over.
The Crystal Ball
Pittsburgh @ Denver
Pittsburgh played better this weekend than Denver did, but I'm taking the home team. The Broncos are 9-0 at home, and they match up against the Steelers much better than the Colts did. Mike Shanahan and John Fox are the two best coaches remaining in the postseason, and Shanahan isn't going to be out-coached the way Dungy and his staff were.
The Broncos need to protect Jake Plummer, and they'll do that by running the ball, rolling Plummer out, and — simply put — playing good football on the line. Denver plays in the same division as San Diego, so Shanahan has had plenty of looks at a 3-4 defense with a talented pass-rushing linebacker (Merriman). The danger against the Steelers is that you let them control the clock, and the Broncos will have to commit to the run in a way they failed to against New England. Either that, or get five turnovers again.
On defense, Denver can't allow the Steelers to strike early, but their priority has to be shutting down the run. The team's speedy linebackers should be able to contain Willie Parker as long as they don't get too hyped up and overpursue. When Bettis is in, always assume it's a run. Eight in the box, but your corners have to keep their assignments, because Cowher isn't afraid to let Bettis throw.
For the Steelers to win, they need to force Plummer into a bad game. They'll do that the same way they did against Indianapolis, by bringing pressure from unexpected places. Against Indy, they frequently sent two linemen, plus Porter and Polamalu. Other times, three linemen. Sometimes Polamalu dropped back. Clark Haggans came in from the left side of the line. Pittsburgh needs to confuse Plummer into making mistakes. To do that, they need to take away his comfort zone: the running game. Make Plummer feel like he has to win it himself.
On offense, the Steelers are fine using early passes to set up the run later on. What they can't do is get into a shootout, allowing Denver to control the pace of the game. They should run when they can, and pass when they have to. Early interceptions could turn the game, and that's harder for Pittsburgh to overcome than Denver, so protecting the ball is essential.
Pittsburgh may well be the better team, but Denver's been terrific at home and Shanahan has the postseason pedigree, so I say Broncos by a touchdown.
Carolina @ Seattle
The Panthers have been on fire the last three weeks, and I'm scared to pick against them. In 2003, I picked against Carolina three weeks in a row. They beat the Rams in double-overtime, then went to Philadelphia and knocked off the top-seeded Eagles. I like this year's Carolina team better than that one, and I liked that year's Eagles more than this year's Seahawks. I think Fox has a substantial coaching edge on Mike Holmgren, and I believe the Panthers are calmer and more confident.
They'll have to win without DeShaun Foster, though. Nick Goings will be the primary ball-carrier, and you might reasonably expect to see He Hate Me (Rod Smart) in the backfield a few times. Foster has game-breaking talent, but Goings is a solid runner who can keep the chains moving and the defense honest. The latter is the more important point, because Carolina needs another big game from Smith if they're going to move on. He doesn't need 218 again, but he probably has to break 100. Jake Delhomme has to take care of the ball, which is sometimes a problem for him.
On defense, the priority has to be shutting down Alexander, who will probably be at or near 100%. And while stopping the run must be the first priority, it can't be at the expense of leaving things open for Hasselbeck, who is the most dangerous quarterback still in the postseason.
Julius Peppers is banged up, but he'll need to have a big game, because it's unlikely that Mike Rucker is going to have a great deal of success against Walter Jones. There will be a major burden, too, on Ken Lucas, Chris Gamble, and Ricky Manning, Jr. They'll need to be active in run defense, but they'll also have a lot of responsibility shutting down Seattle's receivers, since Carolina's linebackers will have to respect the run.
If Seattle is going to win, it will be with a big game from Alexander. 120 yards and two touchdowns, something like that. Hasselbeck can throw an interception and it won't be the end of the world, but the Seahawks need to take better care of the football than they did against Washington.
On defense, the key is slowing Smith. I'd double-cover him until the Panthers prove they can win without him. Delhomme is prone to mistakes, and he tends to key in on one receiver, so if you clamp down on Smith, he could get frustrated and start forcing things. The Seahawks also need to respect Goings, and pressure on Delhomme wouldn't hurt.
Crowd noise could also be a factor. Prior to Saturday's game, Johnston was in the booth shouting his comments to be heard above the cheers. Siragusa called Seattle's the loudest stadium in the NFL. Weather might also be a factor, as the forecast calls for rain.
Seattle is probably the better team, and it's 9-0 at home this season, but all the intangibles point to Carolina, and I got into trouble by using this reasoning to take Chicago last week. My head says Seattle, but my gut says Carolina. I think the Panthers have a better chance of winning the Super Bowl — Seattle can't beat either AFC contender — but I'm taking the Seahawks this weekend. My gut is usually wrong. Seattle by six.