Tuesday, January 15, 2013

NFL 2012 Divisional Weekend

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* This year's finalists for the Hall of Fame are really disappointing, though there are still more than seven I believe deserve induction. My personal choices to get in: Larry Allen, Cris Carter, Curley Culp, Kevin Greene, Jonathan Ogden, Will Shields, and Michael Strahan.

* We won't have a Broncos/Patriots AFC Championship Game, but a reminder of my favorite stat from their playoff matchup last year: when Tom Brady threw his 6th passing touchdown, Tim Tebow had 3 pass completions.

* This year's official All-Pro team is pretty sensible, but who didn't vote for Calvin Johnson? It's also a shame that no strong safeties made the team.

* Mike Mularkey can't catch a break. He resigned from the Bills after only two seasons as head coach, and got fired from the Jaguars, who were terrible before he got there, after only one. He never really got a chance to turn either team around, but most people around the league will perceive him as a two-time failure, and I bet he'll never get another opportunity as HC in the NFL.

* Two future Hall of Famers who plan to retire after the season were overcome with emotion following their teams' victories this week. Congratulations to Tony Gonzalez and Ray Lewis. Whenever the story ends, they've accomplished a lot.

***

In the early 2000s, you couldn't go five minutes without hearing a football analyst talking about "parity" in the NFL. Up was down, down was up, and dynasties were a thing of the past. This year, three of the four semi-finalists left in the playoffs were also in this position last season. Six of the final eight repeated from last year's divisional round. Five of the AFC's six playoff teams, including all the division winners, were the same as in 2011.

Either the Ravens or the Patriots have appeared in 10 of the last 13 AFC Championship Games, accounting for nine of the last 18 spots. Since 2003, the Patriots and Steelers have made as many AFC Championship Games as the rest of the conference combined, and the Colts and Ravens combine for six of the remaining 10 spots. The NFC is only slightly more balanced. Just in the last 10 seasons, the Eagles, 49ers, Bears, Falcons, Giants, Packers, Panthers, and Saints have all made multiple NFC Championship Games.

I suspect Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will retire around the same time, and the Patriot dynasty will finally crumble. In the mean time, the rich stay rich and the poor stay in Jacksonville.

Divisional Roundups

Ravens 38, Broncos 35

Can we all please admit that not all close games are good games? This one was a mistake-filled mess, won by the team that made fewer mistakes at the end.

Big plays were the theme throughout. The Ravens had a game-tying, last-minute, 70-yard touchdown pass. The Broncos had the longest punt return TD in postseason history and the longest kickoff return TD in postseason history. Torrey Smith scored on 59- and 32-yard TD bombs. Baltimore returned an interception for a touchdown. And so on.

On paper that sounds great. Watching it happen, you wonder how professional teams — playoff teams, no less — can make these mistakes. I'm sure that at some point, I have seen a worse defensive play than Rahim Moore made on the game-tying TD. I just can't think of one right now. The announcers said he took the wrong angle, and that's true, but the bigger problem is that while Jacoby Jones flew by him, Moore turned around, slowly backpedaled, mis-timed his jump, and missed both ball and receiver by a mile. All you have to do is keep him out of the end zone. Play this like a punt return. Stay close to Jones, and when he catches the ball, tackle him.

The Ravens made mistakes almost as bad. On Trindon Holliday's PR TD, the whole Baltimore team was on the other side of the field. Barring a trick play, you don't see that in college, much less an NFL playoff. Even the officiating was bad, as I imagine fans of both sides would agree. An exasperated Phil Simms eventually gave up guessing how Bill Vinovich would rule on replay reviews.

The Ravens posted 38 points without any long scoring drives — their longest was five plays. Actually, the final drive was six plays, but just 16 yards, mostly dithering around to see if they could get a little closer before the field goal. Baltimore had more than two first downs on a drive only once in a 77-minute game. The team's longest possession lasted just 4:38 and ended in a punt. The Ravens didn't work the Denver defense, they just burned Champ Bailey and Rahim Moore over and over. If you're looking for a star, it was defensive back Corey Graham, who intercepted two passes, one returned for a TD and the other in overtime to set up the game-winning field goal.

Perhaps the most stunning thing to come out of this game was the revelation that Bronco coach John Fox does not trust Peyton Manning. That would be the same Peyton Manning who was recently named first-team All-Pro for the sixth time, most ever by a QB, and who is likely to win NFL MVP. With 2:00 left in the game and Baltimore out of timeouts, Denver had 3rd-and-7 near midfield. If you pick up a first down, you run out the clock and the game is over. Otherwise, you punt and the Ravens get the ball with about 1:15 to play.

Again, if you get the first down, there is a 100% chance that you win. A run is very unlikely to gain 7 yards, so you run only if you believe all of the following:

1. Your defense can keep the Ravens from scoring a touchdown for 1:15
2. But probably not for 2:00
3. The difference between 1 and 2 is lower than the chance that Manning will complete a pass (69% this season)

By choosing to run, Fox indicated that there was at least a 70% chance the extra time would be the difference in the game. That's nuts. Look, Baltimore's offense has done nothing most of the day, but it's hit some big plays. Time isn't the issue. Either you'll stop them or you won't. If they're going to score at all, they'll score quickly. What you need to do is try to prevent that. Let Manning try a pass, and if he doesn't see anyone open, he falls down, takes a sack, and the clock keeps running anyway. The yardage doesn't matter, because you're already at midfield and worrying about a touchback. Running the ball there is a sucker's play. But Fox and his offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, played it like suckers.

After Baltimore's TD, Denver got the ball back at its own 20 with :31 and two timeouts. Fox had Manning kneel and run out the clock. It's more likely you'll commit a turnover in :31 than that you might get into field goal range? Awful, awful coaching. I know Manning made a bad decision and a bad throw on his final interception, but that happens to everyone, even Colin Kaepernick...

49ers 45, Packers 31

In the middle of the season, 49er coach Jim Harbaugh benched a quarterback (Alex Smith) who led the team to the previous NFC Championship, signed a new contract in March, and had them in first place in the NFC West, with a 104.1 passer rating. His replacement, Kaepernick, rushed for more yards against the Packers than Smith has thrown for in his eight-year career (14,280).

FOX reported before halftime that Kaepernick had already broken the postseason single-game record for rushing yards by a QB, but in reality, he was still in 4th place, almost 40 yards shy of the actual record (Michael Vick, 119 against the Rams in the '04 postseason). He did eventually break that record, by a lot, and his 181 yards on the ground were the most Green Bay yielded to anyone but Adrian Peterson. Kaepernick rushed for more yards against the Packers than Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster, and Chris Johnson combined.

The Niners outgained Green Bay by 227 and won time of possession by 16 minutes, more than a quarter. Announcer Troy Aikman told viewers, "These guys [the Packers] have nothing to be ashamed of." Sure, Troy, nothing except a borderline-blowout loss on national television and a going-through-the-motions second half. The last two or three quarters were the Colin Kaepernick Show, and not competitive; Aikman's colleague Michael Strahan even said, "The second half it wasn't really a game." The Packers reportedly were hit by the flu this week, and maybe that explains why they looked so much worse against Kaepernick and the 49ers than against Joe Webb and the Vikings last week. We always talk about the healthiest team winning in January.

I'm skeptical, though, that illness explains the Packers' inability to contain Kaeperenick. He exploited the holes in their defense, and they never figured out how to adjust. Green Bay got outcoached and outplayed.

Falcons 30, Seahawks 28

Down 20-0 at halftime, Seattle stormed back and nearly — probably should have — won. Both teams gained over 400 yards, and the difference was three Falcon field goals, contrasted with none by Seattle. It's easy, in hindsight, to second-guess Pete Carroll. But going for it on 4th-and-1 from the 11 was a good call, even if not using Marshawn Lynch was probably a mistake. And letting the clock run out at the end of the first half falls more on rookie QB Russell Wilson than on his coaches.

In fact, Carroll deserves serious credit for keeping his team fired up and focused at halftime. There are plenty of coaches who can't convince their players to keep giving 100% if they're down three touchdowns going into the locker room. Not only did the Seahawks avoid giving up, they scored TDs on their first three drives of the second half.

Forget double overtime, this was the best game of the weekend. Comebacks are exciting, and the Seahawks put on a show in the second half, taking a last-minute 28-27 lead before a pair of Matt Ryan completions, a foolish timeout by Carroll, and a long field goal by Matt Bryant saved the day for Atlanta. One potential goat for the Falcons: Jacquizz Rodgers, who returned the final kickoff out of the end zone, getting to the 28-yard line. That extra 8 yards cost :06, not nearly worth it. You have to down that. Ryan and Bryant (and the undying idiocy of icing the kicker) saved Rodgers' hide.

This game included my favorite announcing exchange of the weekend. It began with Wilson scrambling for a first down and Brian Billick telling viewers, "This is the ultimate in coverage sack." His partner Thom Brennaman then concluded, "17-yard pickup by Wilson." The ultimate in coverage sack wasn't even a sack! I really hope the Philadelphia Eagles hire Billick as their new coach, so we won't have to hear him announce any longer. I did enjoy his (rather cruel) shot at the QBs he had in Baltimore; speaking about the children who won the NFL's Punt, Pass, and Kick competition, Billick said, "About half of them were better than the three guys I had playing for me." Ouch.

Patriots 41, Texans 28

The Texans had a top-10 defense and the probable Defensive Player of the Year. Last week, they held the Bengals to 6 offensive points, under 200 yards of offense, and 0/9 on third downs. The Patriots had topped all of those numbers by halftime. Apart from a pair of long kickoff returns, New England controlled this game throughout, rolling up 457 yards and outscoring Houston 38-10 over the middle 45 minutes or so of the game.

The Texans scored a late TD to make the score respectable, but they were down 38-13 in the fourth quarter, and it could have been even worse. The Patriots lost both Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead to injury on their first offensive series. Wes Welker (131 yds), Aaron Hernandez (85), and Shane Vereen (124 total yds, 2 TD) stepped up, and the Pats still dropped 41 on Houston. The Texans gave up more than 40 points three times this season, against the Packers (Week 6), Patriots (Week 14), and the Patriots again. This is a scary offense.

Championship Weekend Forecast

San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons have the best record in the NFL, 14-3, including wins over Denver, Washington, and Seattle, plus a 34-0 beatdown of the defending champion Giants. They went 7-1 at home this year, and the 49ers have a three-time-zone, West-to-East road trip. So why am I picking San Francisco?

Partly because the Falcons record is inflated by good fortune; there are several lucky wins in there, including this week's squeaker against the Seahawks. The Niners, in contrast, have looked dominant for much of the season, and in particular this week against Green Bay. Furthermore, as numerous analysts have pointed out, Atlanta has struggled against mobile quarterbacks.

In two games against Atlanta, Cam Newton passed for 502 yards, with 4 TDs and no turnovers, plus 202 rushing yards and 2 TDs. His passer rating against Atlanta was 113.8, more than 27 points over his season average. Russell Wilson rushed for 60 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons, and other times he passed up open running lanes looking downfield, throwing for 385 yards and a 109.1 rating.

Colin Kaepernick just embarrassed the Packers, passing for 263 yards and rushing for 2,097. I don't think the Falcons can stop him, especially if they're without John Abraham, who re-injured his ankle on Sunday. The Falcons ran effectively against Seattle, but San Francisco's stout run defense will make that difficult. If the Falcons do win, it will be through the air. Matt Ryan is great at avoiding sacks, and Atlanta's receiving corps is problematic for any defense. The 49ers held up against the Packers' pass game, and I believe they'll do the same in Atlanta next Sunday. Niners by a touchdown.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

This is a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game, so here's an update of what I wrote a year ago. Since 2008, when John Harbaugh became Baltimore's head coach, best regular-season record at home:

1. Patriots, 34-6
t2. Ravens, 33-7
t2. Falcons, 33-7

Conversely, the Ravens are just 21-19 on the road. This season fits that pattern: the Patriots went 6-2 at home, and the Ravens were 4-4 on the road. If you have a .500 team traveling to New England in January to face the best home team in the NFL, who do you bet on? I'm taking the Pats.

The Patriots are uniquely suited to attack Baltimore's vulnerabilities. The Ravens have played two long games in a row, and this will be their second straight week on the road. Tom Brady runs the fastest, most exhausting offense in the NFL. Even if New England gives up big plays the same way Denver did, Brady can match points with anyone.

These teams met in Baltimore in Week 3, with the Ravens winning 31-30. Baltimore's defense is playing its best football of the season, but the offense is still inconsistent. For the Ravens to win, they need some big plays, but they also need to control time of possession and keep Brady off the field. Gronkowski is done for the season, which limits New England's versatility, especially the running game. If the Ravens can keep New England in 3rd-and-long and force a couple of turnovers, they could return to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2000 season. I just think too many elements here favor the home team. The Patriots win by 10.

This is the same Super Bowl matchup I predicted at this time last season.

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