NFL Divisional Roundup

Five Quick Hits

* Note to Greg Gumbel: actually, Colts/Ravens is not "as fierce and as heated a rivalry as there is in football." What a ridiculous thing to say.

* Okay. Who had Dominic Rhodes as the leading rusher in that game? Not Jamal Lewis or Joseph Addai? Didn't see that coming.

* I think the K-ball is too slippery. Forget Tony Romo, how many returners dropped the thing this weekend? Terrence Wilkins muffed a punt, Eric Parker had a crucial, game-turning muff, and Devin Hester fumbled three times.

* The Pro Football Hall of Fame has announced this year's finalists: Fred Dean, Richard Dent, Russ Grimm, Ray Guy, Gene Hickerson, Michael Irvin, Bob Kuechenberg, Bruce Matthews, Art Monk, Andre Reed, Charlie Sanders, Paul Tagliabue, Derrick Thomas, Thurman Thomas, Andre Tippett, Roger Wehrli, Gary Zimmerman.

* Six of those guys can get in. My choices: Hickerson, Matthews, Monk, Tagliabue, Thurman Thomas, and Wehrli.


Divisional Roundups

Indianapolis @ Baltimore

Does anyone in the postseason realize that the Colts struggle to stop the run? Kansas City apparently didn't, because Larry Johnson only got 13 carries. Baltimore apparently didn't, because Jamal Lewis also got 13 carries. And evidently, even the Colts didn't, because they've only allowed 127 rushing yards, total, in their last two games.

It was reasonable to expect that the Ravens might have watched last week's game between the Colts and Chiefs, and committed to the run in a way Kansas City failed to. Evidently not, though, because the Ravens passed 50% more than they ran, and gave Lewis exactly the same number of carries that Johnson had the week before. Baltimore's self-destruction on offense was truly amazing. The team converted only two of its 11 third downs. One reason was the distance. The Ravens didn't put themselves in short-distance situations, so their average distance to go on third down was 7.5. And on five of those third downs, Steve McNair completed a pass, but for less yardage than the team needed.

In the first quarter alone, Baltimore did this three times. The Ravens had third down with seven yards to go and completed a pass for five. They had five yards to go and got three. Six yards to go and McNair threw for two. Like Kansas City the week before, Baltimore didn't convert a third down until late in the third quarter.

This postseason, the only thing more shocking than Peyton Manning's ineffectiveness has been the exceptional play of the Indianapolis defense. Who would have thought that Manning could average 219 yards per game, with one touchdown and five interceptions, and the Colts would go 2-0? Rather than riding the game's best quarterback, Indianapolis succeeded with defense and special teams while Manning struggled.

Two years ago, Dwight Freeney had the game of his life against Jonathan Ogden, and many analysts expected Freeney to play a major role on Saturday. Instead, he was invisible, with a statistical zero for the day: no tackles, no assists. The rest of the defense, however, was out in force. Bob Sanders, whose return seems to have rejuvenated the unit, led the team with eight tackles. Rob Morris, the inside linebacker playing outside for run support, had seven. Nick Harper had an interception and a crucial forced fumble.

The other major factor in the Colts' win was the fine play of their special teams. Look, no one believes Mike Vanderjagt would have missed three of the five field goals converted by Adam Vinatieri, but the Colts have to feel a lot more confident with Vinatieri — the premier clutch kicker of his generation, and maybe ever — than they did with the unreliable Vanderjagt. Vinatieri tied a postseason record by connecting on five field goals against Baltimore, and he broke the career record, previously held by Gary Anderson, for most postseason field goals. In a game decided by kickers — the first postseason contest without a touchdown in nearly 30 years — Vinatieri gave Indianapolis a confidence that might not have been there in the past.

Philadelphia @ New Orleans

Early in the game, Philadelphia forced New Orleans to settle for two short field goals instead of touchdowns, and otherwise, this might have been a runaway. The Saints outgained the Eagles by nearly 100 yards and had almost twice as many first downs, with a 10-minute edge in time of possession. But there's a big difference between 14-0 and 6-0, especially against a team like the Eagles, who don't need much of an excuse to abandon the run.

In fact, if they had been more committed to the run, the Eagles might have won. Jeff Garcia had a decent game, with 240 yards, a touchdown, and no turnovers. But Brian Westbrook had a great game, running for 116 yards and two TDs on just 13 carries. Even without his monster 62-yard gain, Westbrook averaged 4.5 yards per carry, and for Philadelphia to hand him the ball only 13 times may have cost his team the game. Consistently, good things happen for the Eagles when they give Westbrook the ball. On Saturday, they clearly didn't do that enough.

The Saints did a much better job of getting the ball to their playmakers. Deuce McAllister (25 touches) had 143 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns. Reggie Bush (18 touches) got involved early and contributed 95 net yards. Marques Colston led all receivers with five catches. Drew Brees threw for 243 yards with a postseason-best 96.2 passer rating.

Despite good play by Brees, the contrast between each team's commitment to the run was what you noticed in this game. While the Eagles were successful handing the ball to Westbrook, he didn't get many chances, with Philadelphia calling twice as many pass plays as runs. The Saints, however, ran as often as they threw, gaining over 200 yards on the ground. You won't see many teams lose when they run for 200 yards, especially in the playoffs.

Seattle @ Chicago

The Bears gave Seattle every opportunity to stay in this game. And — give Seattle credit — the Seahawks stuck around and almost won. Seattle was overmatched, but fought hard and took advantage of Chicago's mistakes, sending the game to overtime and putting a scare in the NFC's top seed.

What the Bears did well was to limit Matt Hasselbeck's efficiency, holding him under 200 yards and a passer rating of 70. They also stayed committed to the run, handing off 34 times, and got a decent game out of Rex Grossman. All those strengths also showed a degree of weakness, however. The same defense that shut down Hasselbeck couldn't stop Shaun Alexander. The Bears ran because they were afraid to put the ball in Grossman's hands, despite a Seattle secondary missing its top two cornerbacks. Grossman threw only one interception, but it came in the fourth quarter, on 3rd-and-goal, when the Bears should have been able to kick an easy field goal. He also fumbled to set up a Seattle touchdown.

Chicago also had uncharacteristic problems on special teams. Devin Hester averaged 1.7 yards per punt return, averaged 17.7 yards per kickoff return, and fumbled three times. The one time Hester broke a return, going 66 yards for a touchdown, the play was called back because of a penalty. Special teams helped set up Chicago's win, however, when Seattle punter Ryan Plackemeier shanked an 18-yard punt that led to Robbie Gould's game-winning 49-yard field goal in overtime.

The Bears advanced to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since the Mike Ditka Era, but Chicago can't feel good about the way its team played on Sunday.

New England @ San Diego

There can be no doubt, after this weekend's games, that San Diego had the best team in the NFL this season. The Patriots looked out of their league for most of the game, and the Chargers should have won by two touchdowns. But while New England overcame its problems in the contest, San Diego gave the game away. Tom Brady threw three interceptions and averaged less than 5.5 yards per pass. The Pats had just 51 rushing yards. LaDainian Tomlinson gained 187 yards from scrimmage, scored two touchdowns, and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Those are the numbers you expected to see if San Diego won in a runaway.

Two of the most obvious Charger mistakes were made by head coach Marty Schottenheimer. Ten minutes into the first quarter, Schottenheimer elected to go for it on 4th-and-11 rather than punt or attempt a 48-yard field goal into the wind. I'd have tried the field goal. Nate Kaeding is one of the NFL's best kickers, and his chances of making the kick had to be better than Philip Rivers' chance of picking up 11 yards on fourth down. Even punting wouldn't have been totally loony. Mike Scifres had only two touchbacks all season. No punter is better at keeping the ball out of the end zone and pinning opponents deep in their own territory. Instead of kicking, the Chargers went for it. Rivers was sacked, and New England drove for a field goal.

Later in the game, Schottenheimer made another key mistake, challenging an obviously correct ruling on the field. He lost the challenge and cost San Diego a timeout. In a game when the Chargers basically ran out of time, that timeout might have been enough to get the team to overtime. I've always been in Schottenheimer's corner, and it's hard to justify canning a coach who just went 14-2, but I'm torn as to whether or not the Chargers should hold on to him. They'll also need to consider the future of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who may be offered a head coaching position in the near future. If the Chargers want Cameron to be Schottenheimer's successor, they may need Marty to leave sooner rather than later.

The Crystal Ball

New England @ Indianapolis

The Colts. I'm picking the Colts. It's probably the stupidest prediction I've made since the last time I picked the Colts to beat New England in the playoffs, but Indianapolis has the better team, and if it can avoid the mistakes that plagued San Diego, the Colts should advance to their first Super Bowl since the John Unitas days.

That "if" is huge, though. The Tony Dungy/Peyton Manning Colts have a clear history of not avoiding mistakes in big postseason games, especially when the opponent is New England. No team gets the opposition to beat itself as often as the Patriots, and that combination should leave any prognosticator uncomfortable. Even home field isn't a huge edge for Indianapolis. The Colts are 9-0 at home, but the Pats are 8-1 on the road.

When Indianapolis beat the Patriots in Foxboro in Week 9, Manning was on fire and Brady threw four interceptions. Manning has struggled this postseason, and many analysts believe the Colts will need a big day on the ground to get past New England. They'll need more than 56 yards and a 2.5 average this time around. Indianapolis can't count on Brady having two bad games in a row, either.

What the Colts do need to count on is continued strong play from the defense, and a resurgence from Manning. To beat New England, they need him at the top of his game. Manning needs to make big plays early and often, and the defense needs to rattle Brady. It's a tall order, but if the game is close in the late going, Indianapolis has Vinatieri.

My head says New England, and my gut says New England, but I believe that the world is more or less a good place, so I'm taking the Colts by a field goal.

New Orleans @ Chicago

The Bears, facing teams that scored an average of 19 points per game, have allowed more than 20 points in five straight games. On Sunday, they'll face the Saints, who averaged 26. They couldn't stop Shaun Alexander. They couldn't stop Steven Jackson. They couldn't stop Marc Bulger or Tim Rattay or Jon Kitna. So it's not real likely that the Bears will shut down Brees, McAllister, and Bush.

Let's give the Saints 31 points. Can the Bears beat that? I don't see it. Philadelphia generated offense with Westbrook and a few long completions. Chicago doesn't have anyone as dynamic as Westbrook on offense, and the thought of Grossman taking a lot of shots deep probably does nasty things to the digestive systems of Bear fans.

For Chicago to win, they're going to need more points than usual, but there are lots of ways to get them. They might be able to do it with an average offensive game if they can get a couple of scores from defense and special teams. They could get a really terrific game from Grossman. They might even be able to do it with big games from Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson, carving up a New Orleans defense that can be run on.

With the defense vulnerable, though, I don't think Chicago has the firepower to stay with the Saints. New Orleans by 10.

Comments and Conversation

October 14, 2009


Thank GOD I’m not the only one who thinks Gumble says some stupid stuff

Leave a Comment

Featured Site