Tuesday, January 7, 2014
NFL 2013 Wild Card Weekend
Five Quick Hits
* It seems like every team playing this weekend struggled with timeout management. It boggles the mind that teams can make the playoffs believing a five-yard delay of game penalty is more significant than a second-half timeout. Unless you're at the goal line, or it's 3rd-and-1 or something, just take the penalty.
* At one point, Joe Buck talked about Green Bay "having" to spend a timeout. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth spoke about the Saints being "forced" to use timeouts. It's time for us to stop using that language. Those teams chose to spend their timeouts in sub-optimal situations. Let's use language that reflects that.
* I'm releasing all my timeout rage right here, so I won't have to mention it later on. The Chiefs may have actually cost themselves the game by mismanaging timeouts, and others easily could have. Almost every team made obvious mistakes. But this is it — we're moving on with a clean slate.
* I am astounded by the self-destructive impatience of most NFL teams. Six head coaches were fired this season, five of them after three years or less. That's no way to build a team. I do like the early hires, Bill O'Brien in Houston and Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay. Those are good fits, I think.
* It seemed like his crew did a good job, but it is just inexplicable that the King of Incompetence, Jeff Triplette, was allowed to referee the Bengals/Chargers game.
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I used to live in Philadelphia. I didn't grow up there, and I've never been an Eagles fan, but I like the city, and I've occasionally defended its fans. Yeah, they booed Santa, but that was 30 years ago. Phillies fans were notorious for years, but most of that is ancient history. Philadelphia fans cheered the injury that ended Michael Irvin's career, and they booed Donovan McNabb on draft day, but even those were over a decade ago. More recently, they gave standing ovations to both McNabb and Andy Reid when they returned in opposing uniforms, and that was a classy gesture. Despite their reputation, I don't believe that Philly fans are the worst in the NFL.
But I was really disappointed with the conduct of some Eagles fans this Saturday, when they repeatedly booed Saints players being treated for injuries. The Eagles run a high-paced offense, and their fans now see any defensive injury as an attempt to slow things down. Booing injured players is tasteless — more than that, it's indecent. It's not the way we as human beings should conduct ourselves. None of those injuries looked fake, and none of the players returned immediately. Parys Haralson went down eight seconds before the two-minute warning. He's obviously not trying to stop the game; it's about to stop itself. But the fans booed.
It wasn't everyone. It wasn't even half. It sounded like a pretty small portion of the crowd, but it was clearly audible, and it was classless. I know Philadelphia can do better than that.
Wild Card Roundups
Indianapolis Colts 45, Kansas City Chiefs 44
A weird game with an exciting fourth quarter, the first NFL game of the new year set a postseason record for combined offensive yardage (1,049), and it was the second-largest comeback in NFL history, with the Colts recovering from a 38-10 third quarter deficit.
All-pro running back Jamaal Charles, the Chief's most vital offensive weapon, left with a concussion early in the first quarter, but the story of the first half was Kansas City's big plays: a 63-yard completion to Dwayne Bowe, a 79-yarder for Donnie Avery, a fumble recovery by Justin Houston, Brandon Flowers intercepting Andrew Luck. Even without big plays, the Chiefs' offense was unstoppable, putting together a 14-play, 82-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter, and a 15-play, 77-yard TD drive in the second.
The Chiefs went into halftime up 31-10, only the fifth time all season they scored 31 points in a game. Here's something weird, though: it was KC's third-highest-scoring first half of the last month. The Chiefs scored 38 first-half points against Washington in Week 14, and 35 against the Raiders in Week 15.
After ending the first half with an interception, Andrew Luck threw another on the first play of the second half. Knile Davis, the backup to Jamaal Charles, scored his second TD to make it 38-10. And then the Chiefs started dropping like flies. Avery, who had the 79-yard catch, left with a concussion. So did Flowers, who had the first interception. Already missing the team MVP in Charles, they also lost Davis in the fourth quarter, forcing third-string Cyrus Gray into action. Houston, who had the fumble recovery, left with a late injury.
As the Chiefs lost players, the Colts took advantage. Consecutive touchdown drives pulled them to within two scores, 38-24. A third Luck INT set up a Kansas City field goal, but Indianapolis responded with another TD drive, closing the gap to 41-31 at the end of the third quarter. By this time, whether through adjustments by the Colts or simple attrition through injury, the Chiefs could not stop the Indy offense. Three consecutive drives, the Colts went 80 yards or more and scored a touchdown.
There are so many angles for this game: the record-breaking yardage and unexpected high score, the gigantic comeback/collapse, the injuries ... those are all interesting stories, but if I were a Chiefs fan, I think what would frustrate me most is the field goals. Ryan Succop kicked three field goals, and if the Chiefs had gone for the throat and found the end zone on any of those drives, they probably would have won. In the first quarter, KC had 4th-and-goal at the 1-yard line, and kicked a 19-yard FG instead of going for the end zone. In the fourth quarter, up 41-38, the Chiefs had 3rd-and-11 at the Colts' 30-yard line. Alex Smith completed a 5-yard pass, and Succop kicked a field goal that turned out to be meaningless. Charles, Davis, and Avery were all out at this point, which limits your options on offense, but I think you've just got to try for the first down there.
New Orleans Saints 26, Philadelphia Eagles 24
After the unexpected shootout in Indianapolis, the game we all thought would light up the scoreboard, featuring two top-10 offenses, started slowly, with a 0-0 first quarter and a 7-6 halftime. The final score was more in line with our expectations, but the way we got there was puzzling.
The Eagles kept it close although:
1. They went 3/12 on third down.
2. The Saints outrushed them by over 100 yards and outgained them by almost 200.
3. DeSean Jackson had almost no impact, with no catches in the first half.
The Saints won even though:
1. Drew Brees threw 1 TD with 2 interceptions, and Nick Foles tossed 2 TDs with no picks.
2. Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston combined for just 60 yards and no scores.
3. New Orleans went 1/4 in the red zone.
Ultimately, those balanced each other out, and we got a close game with a reasonably exciting fourth quarter. I guess the big comeback in Indianapolis downgrades a last-second game-winning field goal to "reasonably exciting."
Boomer Esiason opined on Sunday that the Saints did not target Jimmy Graham enough. Certainly it was a surprise not to see him more involved, but I wonder if he's healthy. Graham subs out a lot because he doesn't run-block, but he barely played on Saturday, and he didn't seem like himself. The Saints used Josh Hill a lot, with Graham on the sidelines. This could be something to keep an eye on in Seattle next weekend.
San Diego Chargers 27, Cincinnati Bengals 10
The Chargers punted on four of their first five possessions, including three consecutive three-and-outs in the second quarter. But they took care of the ball, played opportunistic defense, and got a season-long run 58-yard TD run from Ronnie Brown to seal the game. The real story was what Jim Nantz called "a second-half meltdown by the Cincinnati offense." After a decent first half put them up 10-7, the Bengals' seven second-half possessions produced: 3 turnovers, 2 failed fourth-down conversions, a punt, and running out of time. Disaster.
Andy Dalton played a terrible game. He passed for 334 yards and a TD, but also committed three critical turnovers. The loss dropped Dalton's postseason record to 0-3, with 1 TD and 6 INTs. I really wish we would resist definitive pronouncements about Dalton's "ability to win in the playoffs" after only three games. Ability to win in the playoffs is very much like ability to win in the regular season, and Dalton is good at that, making the postseason every year of his career. It's a foolish notion that someone who has never missed the playoffs isn't a winner. As a college player at TCU, Dalton led the Horned Frogs to two conference championships, and went 2-1 in bowl games. He was named Offensive MVP of the 2011 Rose Bowl, so let's not pretend he can't play under pressure.
Dalton's first two NFL postseason games came on the road against a good Houston Texans defense, and the Bengals were underdogs in both games. Sunday's loss to the Chargers, ending Cincinnati's perfect season at home, deserves more blame, and Dalton was the most obvious problem. But let's avoid throwing dirt on this guy's career for a little while. He's only 26, he had a good regular season, and he's gotten better each year.
Here's a list of Super Bowl-Era Hall of Fame QBs who won zero playoff games in their first three seasons as starters: Joe Namath, Bob Griese, Dan Fouts, John Elway, Steve Young, Warren Moon, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees after they're enshrined. Those players eventually combined to win eight Super Bowls, probably more by the time Manning and Brees are done. Just because Dalton had a bad game yesterday doesn't mean he won't win when he's 27, or 30, or on into the future. I don't think Dalton's a Hall of Famer, but we should all be smart enough to realize that this game wasn't some indictment of his will to win; he just had a bad game at the wrong time.
San Francisco 49ers 23, Green Bay Packers 20
The weather was very cold, low single-digits, but not nearly as bad as forecast. This was Green Bay's third loss to San Francisco in the last year, and dropped the Packers to 0-4 vs SF in the Jim Harbaugh era. The Packers went three-and-out on their first three possessions and finished the first quarter without a pass completion. They actually punted on all of their possessions in the first and third quarters.
Green Bay's offense was effective only in spurts and didn't connect on many big plays. You can't help but wonder if Aaron Rodgers was still shaking off the rust after his long recovery from a shoulder injury. The stats show Rodgers taking 4 sacks, but I feel like I remember half a dozen coverage sacks, with Rodgers holding the ball until the pass rush arrived. He has got to throw it away more often.
Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick continued to dominate the Packers, leading all rushers with 98 yards. The Packers took away Vernon Davis, who led the Niners in TDs, and they took away Anquan Boldin, who burned them for 208 yards in Week 1, so Kaepernick turned to Michael Crabtree, targeting him as many times as Davis and Boldin combined and connecting for 8 catches and 125 yards.
Both teams struggled in the red zone (combined 3/8) and repeatedly settled for short field goals, five under 40 yards. Kaepernick made some dynamic runs, and the Niners did a fine job in pass coverage, but neither team looked like a serious Super Bowl contender on Sunday. Certainly San Francisco seemed the stronger of the two, and the close score is a little misleading.
Each of these games features a team from last year's divisional round, and three of the four are regular-season rematches. The Seahawks crushed the Saints, the Panthers edged San Francisco, and the Chargers and Broncos split, both winning on the road.
New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks won't win by 27 again, but they're not going to lose. Seattle dropped a home game in Week 16, its first home loss in two years, but there's still substantial homefield advantage, and despite their victory in Philadelphia, the Saints have struggled on the road — never more than in their Week 13 blowout loss to the Seahawks, 34-7 on Monday Night Football.
The Saints are always dangerous, and I suppose there's a possibility that Seattle could be rusty from the bye or overconfident because of the previous matchup. I just don't see it. Seahawks by 10.
Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots
A new twist on an old rivalry, with Tom Brady and the Patriots hosting a Colts team led by second-year QB Andrew Luck. A win would make New England the first team to reach three consecutive Conference Championship Games since the 2001-04 Eagles.
This sort of thinking has gotten me in trouble before, but I start by considering that this game is in New England. The Patriots went 8-0 at home this year, and we're talking about Massachusetts outdoors in January, for a team (Indianapolis) that normally plays in a dome. Even if we want to discount the weather — the Saints won in Philadelphia, the Chargers won in Cincinnati, and the 49ers won in frigid Green Bay — there's that undefeated home record. Since Tom Brady returned in 2009, the Pats are 37-3 at home, though they're just 3-3 in the playoffs. But those losses came to outdoor teams (Ravens twice, Jets), and I have to believe the home-field advantage matters.
The Patriots win a high-scoring game by double-digits.
San Francisco 49ers @ Carolina Panthers
These teams met in San Francisco in Week 10, with the Panthers winning 10-9. After beating the Packers on Sunday, the 49ers repeatedly mentioned revenge.
This matchup features two dynamic QBs, Cam Newton and Kaepernick, who can win with both their arms and their legs. Both teams have excellent defense, and both entered the playoffs on a roll, with the two longest winning streaks in the NFC. The most important difference may be playoff experience. The Niners will be playing their seventh postseason game of the past three seasons, while Carolina appears in its first since 2008. Most of that '08 playoff roster is gone, while even San Francisco's new additions, like Anquan Boldin, bring playoff experience.
I just have this feeling that Carolina's not ready to win in such a big situation. Maybe that's silly after their great regular season, including impressive victories on national television, but I think San Francisco's experience pays off, and the 49ers advance, breaking Panther hearts with a 4-point victory. The Niners are the only road team favored next weekend.
San Diego Chargers @ Denver Broncos
These teams have played in the same division since 1960, and they've met over 100 times, but never before in the postseason. The recent history doesn't really favor either team. In Week 10, the Broncos won 28-20, and five weeks later, the Chargers won 27-20. Peyton Manning traditionally struggles against San Diego, but that's a legacy from his Indy days.
The Bronco offense broke records this year, but the defense is missing Von Miller, who played in both previous matchups with the Chargers. All the pressure is on Denver, and on Manning in particular. It almost feels like this is his chance, his one chance to be recognized as the greatest quarterback of all time. If the Broncos can't win a Super Bowl this year, after such a great regular season and with so many weapons, that choker label — fairly or unfairly — will probably always be attached. I wonder if this postseason might not play out a little like 1997, when most fans rooted for John Elway to finally win a Super Bowl.
Manning is such a rhythm passer, and I worry that even the bye week could work against him. His best postseason years have come when the Colts had to play a wild-card matchup. His teams are 1-4 in the divisional round when they get a bye. My head says the Broncos are too good, and my heart says Manning deserves it, but my gut says the Chargers win a last-minute upset.
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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.
2013 NFL All-Loser Team
QB Tony Romo, DAL
RB Matt Forte, CHI
WR Calvin Johnson, DET
WR Josh Gordon, CLE
WR Antonio Brown, PIT
TE Jason Witten, DAL
C Nick Mangold, NYJ
G Andy Levitre, TEN
G Marshal Yanda, BAL
OT Tyron Smith, DAL
OT Joe Thomas, CLE
DT Ndamukong Suh, DET
DT Haloti Ngata, BAL
DE J.J. Watt, HOU
DE Robert Quinn, STL
OLB Lavonte David, TB
OLB DeAndre Levy, DET
ILB Karlos Dansby, ARI
CB Alterraun Verner, TEN
CB Joe Haden, CLE
FS Barry Church, DAL
SS T.J. Ward, CLE
K Justin Tucker, BAL
P Brett Kern, TEN
KR Cordarrelle Patterson, MIN
Offensive Loser of the Year: Calvin Johnson, DET
Defensive Loser of the Year: J.J. Watt, HOU
Most Valuable Loser: Calvin Johnson, DET
Our actual 2013 NFL All-Pro Team was published last week, along with so-so playoff predictions.