Tuesday, January 8, 2013

NFL 2012 Wild Card Weekend

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* Washington has made the playoffs three times in the last decade. All three teams were knocked out by the Seahawks.

* I understood football better than Leslie Frazier and Joe Webb when I was in kindergarten. What possesses someone to spike the ball and stop the clock with :01 remaining in a 24-10 game? There is no such thing as a 14-point play. Even in the most optimistic of universes, it is impossible to win at that point. Grow up.

* Adrian Peterson had a historic season in 2012, but I did think it was funny that right after Cris Collinsworth compared him to Jim Brown, Peterson got taken down by an arm tackle from a defensive back.

* Norv Turner will probably have numerous opportunities to be an offensive coordinator in 2013. I'm also interested, though, to see where defensive coach Romeo Crennel will end up.

* You know, this year's Cotton Bowl was supposed to be pretty competitive. At least the Heisman voters can feel vindicated.

***

Cris Collinsworth hates Tom Brady. Either that, or he forgot about him for 3½ hours. I don't know how else to explain repeated references to the MVP race without even mentioning Brady. Personally, I went with Peyton Manning, but you could choose Brady, Adrian Peterson, Aaron Rodgers, or J.J. Watt, and those are all reasonable selections. How you say Brady isn't even a candidate, though, is beyond me. Collinsworth also claimed, "From a pure numbers standpoint, nobody's numbers are better than Aaron Rodgers." That is very questionable.

If the only number you're looking at is passer rating, then yes, nobody's numbers are number is better than Rodgers' (108.0). But that's the only major statistic in which Rodgers led the league. Brady passed for 532 more yards than Rodgers, 643 when you include sack yardage — which you have to do, because Rodgers takes more unnecessary sacks than any other quarterback in the NFL. Rodgers rushed for 227 yards more than Brady, but that's still a deficit of over 400. Even with 61 extra pass attempts, Brady is ahead on yardage.

Rodgers passed or ran for 41 touchdowns, Brady 38. Rodgers committed 12 turnovers, Brady 8. If that's an advantage for either player, it's Brady. I could do this same thing for Peyton Manning. I think both of them, and Drew Brees, had better stats than Rodgers in 2012. I'm not trying to disrespect Rodgers, who had a great season and is a legit MVP candidate. I'm trying to point out that Cris Collinsworth is not a trustworthy analyst.

Wild Card Roundups

Texans 19, Bengals 13

You wouldn't know from the score, much closer than it should have been, that Houston dominated this game. When your running back has almost as much yardage (174) as the other team (198), you should win by three touchdowns. But the Texans kept settling for field goals, kicking three from within 30 yards. They were one play away from losing a game they controlled from beginning to end. That won't work next week against the Patriots.

What Houston did exceptionally well in this game was play defense. The Bengals gained under 200 yards of offense and went 0/9 on third down. Cincinnati's offense scored fewer points (6) than its defense (7). J.J. Watt's game stats were very good: 5 solo tackles, 2 for a loss, 1 sack, 2 pass deflections. But the numbers don't fully illustrate what a great game he played. It's hard for any defensive player to have as much impact or value as a quarterback, but watching this game, you could make a strong case for Watt as NFL MVP.

Offensively, the Texans rode Arian Foster. He carried 32 times for 140 yards (4.4 avg) and a touchdown, with 8 receptions for another 34 yards. Foster's cutting and agility are remarkable. He's got vision and patience, and he's a good receiver. As long as he stays healthy — and that's a serious concern when someone carries 32 times — he's one of the top RBs in the league.

Going forward, Houston needs to get more out of its passing game and improve dramatically in the red zone. The Bengals' season is over, but as the year went on, their defense played better and better, with the offense getting worse and worse. Andy Dalton in particular did not play well the last month. Even facing a good defense, you need to score more than 1½ points a quarter.

Here's something weird: Houston was the only winning team this week not to score exactly 24 points.

Packers 24, Vikings 10

Like Tony Dungy, I thought the Vikings would be better with Joe Webb. Oops. Christian Ponder did not have an especially good season as Minnesota's QB. His 6.1 yards per attempt was lowest in the NFL, far behind 31st-ranked Mark Sanchez (6.4). Even worse, Ponder averaged just 9.8 yards per completion, which makes 2nd-worst Philip Rivers (10.7) look like Dan Marino. That said, the Vikings won their last four in a row with Ponder, and he did have a good game against Green Bay in Week 17 (3 TDs, 120.2 rating).

Webb, who has a Tim Tebow-type skill set, has generated a spark in the past, and he presents a very different challenge to defenses. Given Ponder's relative inefficiency, the dangers posed by a talented running QB, and the last-minute switch to Green Bay's defensive plans, it seemed like Minnesota might benefit from losing its starting QB. That's not how it turned out.

Webb finished the first half 3-of-12 for 22 yards, which is abysmal, but he also got sacked twice for 16 yards. That means he finished the first half with 14 attempts for 6 yards. The final stats were a little better (11-of-30, 54.9 rating, 68 rush yds), but Adrian Peterson performed below his recent standards (99 yds, 4.5 avg) and the Viking offense gained half its yardage on a pair of meaningless fourth-quarter drives when the outcome was no longer in question.

It's tough to tell whether the Packers' defense is healthy and revitalized, or just looked good against a quarterback who couldn't throw.

Ravens 24, Colts 9

You could write a whole article just about the coaches in this game. The Colts' head coach, Chuck Pagano, spent last year as the Ravens' defensive coordinator, and overcame leukemia to coach in this game after missing most of the season undergoing treatment. His replacement, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, missed this game because he was taken to the hospital. His condition, possibly flu-related, reportedly is stable. Arians, the Colts' usual play-caller, was replaced by quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen. Christensen was the team's offensive coordinator last year under former head coach Jim Caldwell, who is now the primary play-caller for the Ravens. Have you got all that? There will be a quiz later.

Ray Rice, who lost 2 fumbles in the last three seasons combined, lost 2 more against the Colts on Sunday. In 77 career regular-season games, Rice has 7 fumbles. In 7 career playoff games, Rice has another 5 fumbles. He fumbles once every 11 games in the regular season, and once every 1.4 games in the postseason. However, Rice and Bernard Pierce combined for 173 rushing yards (6.2 avg), and Joe Flacco dramatically outperformed Andrew Luck. Both passed for about 285 yards, but Flacco did so on just 23 passes, with 2 TDs and only 1 sack. Luck threw 54 passes (135% more), got sacked 3 times, and threw an interception. Flacco's greatest playmaker was Anquan Boldin (5 rec, 145 yds, TD). I can't help wondering if Baltimore's limited offense is going to keep Boldin out of the Hall of Fame. His numbers would be a lot bigger somewhere like Detroit or Atlanta.

The Colts gained 25 first downs and 419 yards of offense, but scored just three field goals. Luck committed two turnovers to end long drives, both over 40 yards. Paul Kruger had a big game for the Ravens: 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble that led to one of those turnovers, and a batted pass.

Seahawks 24, Redskins 14

At a time when passing records are falling left and right, and on a weekend with three celebrated rookie QBs starting, no one touched Sammy Baugh's 75-year-old rookie record for postseason passing yardage. In the 1937 NFL Championship Game, the rookie Baugh passed 33 times for 354 yards, 3 TDs, and a 122.5 rating in Washington's 28-21 victory.

This weekend, however, Seattle's Russell Wilson became the first rookie quarterback to win a road playoff game since the legendary ... wait for it ... Mark Sanchez. Washington also became the first home team to lose in the wild card round since the 2010 season; home teams went 4-0 last year and 3-1 this time around. The mark might have stayed perfect if not for a knee injury that effectively nullified sparkplug QB Robert Griffin III, the presumptive Offensive Rookie of the Year.

The game began with a best-case scenario for Washington. The home team drove 80 yards for a touchdown, then forced a three-and-out, then scored another touchdown to take a 14-0 lead over the shellshocked visitors. Seattle's defense was the best in the NFL over the last month, and it couldn't stop Alfred Morris and RG3. Just before the second touchdown, though, Griffin aggravated his injured right knee. He briefly went into the locker room, but returned to the field and continued to play, with minimal success.

On those first two drives, Griffin was 6-of-9 for 68 yards and 2 TDs, plus 2 first downs rushing. The rest of the game, he went 4-of-10 for 16 yards with 9 rushing yards, an interception, and a lost fumble. Washington's offense, which scored 2 TDs in 2 drives with a healthy RG3, failed to score on its next eight possessions. Griffin gained more first downs on that first TD drive than the rest of the game combined. Hindsight is 20/20, but you have to think Washington would have been better off replacing RG3 with Kirk Cousins immediately after that second touchdown, or at least after the following drive when it became clear that Griffin wasn't himself.

None of this is intended to take anything away from Seattle, which pulled its defense together and got some production out of its offense. The score really shouldn't have been so close, as the Seahawks dominated the final three quarters. But they went 1/6 in the red zone, with three short field goals, a lost fumble, and a turnover on downs in the fourth quarter. This easily could have been a 20-point win.

Divisional Forecasts

Six of these eight teams played in last year's divisional round. The two who didn't (Seattle and Atlanta) face each other. That's also the only divisional game which is not a regular-season rematch.

Ravens at Broncos

The Broncos went 7-1 at home this year. The Ravens were 4-4 on the road. These teams met in Baltimore in Week 15, and the Broncos won 34-17. Peyton Manning hasn't lost to the Ravens since 2002, a nine-game winning streak. Also, the Ravens have a short week (6 days) and a long road trip.

The Ravens are healthier than they were in Week 15, and Jim Caldwell's had some time to settle in as their play-caller. That's not worth 17 points, never mind the home-field swing and the short week. Broncos by 10.

Packers at 49ers

The NFC games seem (to me) much tougher to predict than next week's AFC matchups. These teams met in Green Bay in Week 1, and the Niners won, 30-22. Of course, that was four months ago, but this time the teams will match up in San Francisco, and the Packers were just 4-4 in road games. On the other hand, 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick has only started 7 games in the NFL. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers has started 7 playoff games, and performed extremely well (5-2, 16 TD, 4 INT, 105.4 rating).

To beat San Francisco, though, the Packers probably need to play (and coach) a lot smarter than they did in the first round. Mike McCarthy was so conservative in the red zone that even staid Al Michaels called him out for it: "I think I would have gone for the touchdown there." The Packers several times mismanaged their timeouts, and it wasn't a big deal in the runaway over Minnesota, but Saturday's match in San Francisco will probably be close.

Arguably the biggest factor for success in January is healthy players, and Justin Smith's availability remains in question. If he plays, and he's near 100%, I think the Niners win. I suspect Smith won't be in top form, so the call here is Green Bay by a field goal.

Seahawks at Falcons

Everyone's wondering if Atlanta can finally win in the playoffs. Since hiring Mike Smith and drafting Matt Ryan, the Falcons have finished with a winning record every year. This is their fourth season making the playoffs, and their second time with a first-round bye and a home game. So far, they're 0-3, losing to the NFC Champion Cardinals in '08, the NFC Champion Packers in 2010, and the NFC Champion Giants last year.

Everyone knows Seattle is very good. Over the last month or two, no NFC team has been hotter. So no one will really be surprised if the Seahawks win on Sunday, or even if they advance to the Super Bowl. But if Seattle does win — and I suspect most fans believe they're the better team right now — it will be an indictment of Smith and Ryan and the Falcons' ability to win in the playoffs. Makes perfect sense, right?

But I'm actually going with Atlanta. I think the Seahawks are better than the Falcons, but Seattle has its second cross-country road in a week, and the defense might be without leading pass rusher Chris Clemons, who injured his left knee in the victory over Washington. Atlanta's been winning close games all year, and I'll give them one more: Falcons by three.

Texans at Patriots

When they met in Week 14, New England won 42-14. The Patriots are actually healthier now than they were for that game, with All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski back from a broken forearm. The Bill Belichick/Tom Brady Patriots have gotten a playoff bye six times, and they're 5-1 in those games (they lost to the Jets in 2010). Houston has a good defense, a powerful running game, and an intermittently explosive pass attack. I just don't think it's enough. The Texans lost by 28 last time; let's cut that in half. The Patriots win by 14.

***

Colts/Ravens Coaching Quiz

Match the coach to the description!

1. Bruce Arians
2. Jim Caldwell
3. Clyde Christensen
4. Chuck Pagano

A. Colts head coach, former Ravens defensive coordinator, hospitalized for leukemia treatment
B. Ravens assistant, former Colts head coach
C. Colts assistant and interim head coach, hospitalized for flu-like symptoms
D. Colts assistant who worked under B

***

Finally, a Sports Central tradition, our annual All-Loser Team: an all-star team made up entirely of players whose teams missed the postseason. If this team could actually be assembled, it would beat any and every team in the playoffs.

2012 NFL All-Loser Team

QB Drew Brees, NO
RB Doug Martin, TB
WR Calvin Johnson, DET
WR Brandon Marshall, CHI
WR Vincent Jackson, TB
TE Jason Witten, DAL
C Mike Pouncey, MIA
G Andy Levitre, BUF
G Jahri Evans, NO
OT Joe Thomas, CLE
OT Donald Penn, TB

DT Henry Melton, CHI
DT Ndamukong Suh, DET
DE Calais Campbell, ARI
DE Cameron Wake, MIA
OLB Lance Briggs, CHI
OLB Lavonte David, TB
ILB Daryl Washington, ARI
CB Charles Tillman, CHI
CB Antonio Cromartie, NYJ
FS Jairus Byrd, BUF
SS Stevie Brown, NYG

K Phil Dawson, CLE
P Dustin Colquitt, KC
KR Leodis McKelvin, BUF

Offensive Loser of the Year: Calvin Johnson, DET
Defensive Loser of the Year: Charles Tillman, CHI
Most Valuable Loser: Charles Tillman, CHI

***

Quiz answers: 1. C, 2. B, 3. D, 4. A

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2009