Monday, January 13, 2014
NFL Divisional Weekend Wrap-Up
Five Quick Hits
* The Patriots/Colts matchup was Dan Dierdorf's final game after a 40-year career as a player and broadcaster. CBS put together a nice tribute for Dierdorf, and he was visibly touched. Happy trails, Dan.
* It's easy to read too much into stats like this, but every team to win a playoff game this year has rushed for at least 100 yards.
* This was only the third time all season that the Saints scored 15 points or fewer. Two of those three games came against the Seahawks.
* Last week, I criticized Philadelphia fans for booing injured Saints. This week, classless Denver fans booed injured Chargers. Knock it off.
* Laces out, Luke McCown!
* * *
There's been a lot of talk recently about Roger Goodell's terrible idea of expanding the playoffs to 14 teams. I oppose the proposal for several reasons:
1. We don't need any more teams in the playoffs. I have never liked the NBA/NHL model, where half the league makes the postseason. What's the point of the last four months if so many teams get in? There were people freaking out when the 2010 Seahawks made the playoffs at 7-9. Expand the field, and there are going to be more 7-9 teams. I'd rather leave out the 2013 Cardinals than include all the AFC teams that choked their way out of the playoffs in Week 17.
Going back to the 2002 realignment, seventh seeds would have a combined record of 218-166. That's a .568 winning percentage, an average record of almost exactly 9-7. Only one of those 24 teams, the 2008 Patriots with Matt Cassel at QB, had more than 10 wins. This isn't college, where two-loss teams with tough schedules or undefeated champions of weaker conferences deserve a chance to prove themselves in the tournament. An NFL team that lost seven games hasn't earned a shot at the Super Bowl.
2. We need fewer playoff flukes, not more. Underdogs and upsets are fun, but they're fun because they're unusual, and in recent years we've seen a number of 4-6 seeds advance to the Super Bowl. Cinderellas are great in the NCAA basketball tournament, but the Super Bowl is the most fun when it's the two best teams. All season, we've been looking forward to matchups like Broncos/Patriots and Seahawks/49ers. Most of us would be a lot less stoked for something like Pats/Steelers or Niners/Cardinals.
3. The schedule becomes a problem. If the league adds two more wild card games, it has to find a time to play them. We're talking about all day Saturday and Sunday, or else four straight days: Friday night, two games on Saturday, two on Sunday, plus another on Monday night. That's a lot to ask of fans. This is the second weekend in a row I've stayed home on Saturday night. If the league adds another two games, I'll watch them, but following the playoffs almost becomes a chore.
If the league really does add Friday and Monday games, a possibility that's been raised, you're looking at a three-day rest advantage for one of those teams. That's an issue as well.
4. Giving the top seed in each conference a bye is not necessarily an advantage. Goodell's idea is all about money, 100% about money, but part of the justification is providing greater advantage for the top seed in each conference, since it would become the only one with a bye. But it's not obvious that the bye is valuable.
Since realignment, teams with a first-round bye win exactly 2.5 more games in the regular season than the opponents they face in the divisional round. All things being equal, we'd expect the bye team to win 55-60% of the time. Add in home-field advantage, and they should probably win two-thirds of their divisional games, not even accounting for the advantage they get from a bye. They have actually won 28 of the 44 games (.636). That's under our projection, so it's not apparent that the bye provides any benefit in the divisional round.
In fact, those divisional upsets have become more common. Two of the first three seasons with the current playoff structure in place, the bye teams went undefeated. In the nine years since, at least one has always lost, with a collective record of just 21-15 (.583). Maybe that's a coincidence, but it seems more like a trend. Subjectively, I've seen great teams look rusty after a week or two off, teams like the 2005 Colts who started 13-0, or the 15-1 Packers in 2011, or last year's Broncos. A free pass into the divisional round is nice, but I believe it actually makes it harder for teams to advance beyond that point. Being the only team with a bye isn't necessarily a positive. Being the only team that never has to play a road game is advantage enough.
Expanding the playoffs is a bad idea, and it's not fan-friendly. It would dilute the quality of playoff football, reduce the importance of the regular season, and take too much free time at the beginning of the new year. It's a clear case of trying to fix something that isn't broken.
Seattle Seahawks 23, New Orleans Saints 15
Late in the first half, this looked like a potential blowout. The Seahawks were up 13-0, with 1st-and-goal at the 3-yard line. They settled for a field goal, but still entered halftime with a 16-0 lead, and due to get the ball in the third quarter.
The final statistics tell a different story. New Orleans finished with huge advantages in offensive yardage (409-277) and first downs (25-13). The Seahawks punted on their first five possessions of the second half, including three three-and-outs. The Seahawks won with fourth-down stops and special teams. Seattle went 3-for-3 on field goals, New Orleans 0-for-2. The Seahawks' kickoff team forced four touchbacks, compared to one for the Saints. A bobbled snap by Thomas Morstead led to a poor punt that set up Seattle's first score. The only special teams play that really went the Saints' way was an onside kick late in the fourth quarter, but by that time the damage had been done.
Less than three minutes into the game, New Orleans DB Rafael Bush nailed Percy Harvin in the helmet, drawing a 15-yard penalty. The announcers, and Jimmy Johnson in the studio, were mighty impressed, and repeatedly commented on Bush's aggressive play, how he was sending a message to the Seahawks. The penalty turned a 4th-and-11, beyond midfield but out of field goal range, into a first down. That was a three-point penalty. In the 1982 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, Patrick Ewing was called for goaltending on North Carolina's first five shots. People commented on how intimidating Ewing was, how he took control of the lane. He gave UNC 10 points, and Georgetown lost by 1. That's how I view Bush's penalty.
I suppose I also need to discuss Jimmy Graham. Maybe Graham was sending a message, too, when he started two different fights during pregame warm-ups. I've never met Jimmy Graham, but he comes across as a remarkably self-centered player. He doesn't block, he does elaborate celebrations of his own plays, and he routinely provokes opponents. He acts like a punk, and on Saturday, Seattle treated him like a punk, holding him to a single, last-minute reception for 8 yards. You can't bark like Graham if you're not going to bite.
I wrote last week that it seemed like maybe Graham was injured. He was on the sidelines a lot, and not a difference-maker even when he was on the field. That was true again this weekend. I'll be interested to find out if there's a reason.
New England Patriots 43, Indianapolis Colts 22
The Colts allowed more than 40 points for the second game in a row. New England converted 11 of 18 third downs, rushed for 234 yards, and scored 6 rushing TDs. Some blame falls on the coaching staff. You can't fault anyone for game-planning around Tom Brady, but the Colts were clearly caught off-guard by New England's run game. And although the crew at CBS didn't want to admit it, you also have to blame Andrew Luck.
Luck himself is great about taking responsibility for his mistakes, and that's probably part of why his teammates continue to believe in him as he develops and learns the game. Against New England, Luck went 20-of-41 with a 53.0 passer rating, and threw 4 INTs. That gives him 8 postseason INTs in just three games, tied for the worst first-three-games total of the Super Bowl era. After Luck threw a pass badly behind Stanley Havili, it was intercepted on a deflection, and Greg Gumbel declared, "That just wasn't his fault," but a couple yards closer to the sideline, that's a completed pass and a nice play. On his final interception, with under 1:00 left, Dierdorf told viewers that Luck should be excused because it's a desperate situation and you've got to take some chances, plus maybe the receiver ran the wrong route. But it didn't look like a good throw, and Luck didn't play a good game.
I wish television analysts would admit this more often: good players have bad games. Good QBs make bad throws, good linemen miss blocks, Calvin Johnson drops passes, good defenders miss tackles, good punters shank kicks, and so on. Andrew Luck is a promising player who is still improving, and he played a bad game on Saturday.
It actually could have been worse, I think. Luck did connect on five long passes, 25 yards or more downfield. It briefly looked like the Patriots would get burned often enough to let Indianapolis back into the game. The smarter defensive strategy, I think, would have been to take away the deep ball and force Luck to dink-and-dunk. If he couldn't get the big chunks of yardage, had to put long drives together, I think he might have thrown five or six interceptions. Joe Gibbs and Gregg Williams used a similar strategy against Chris Simms in a 2006 wild card victory, and I'd like to see teams try it against Luck next season.
San Francisco 49ers 23, Carolina Panthers 10
I can guess this without knowing anything about you: you thought Carl Cheffers' officiating crew did a lousy job in this game. A pair of missed calls in the first half set up a 49ers touchdown, and a ridiculous roughing call in the fourth quarter turned a Niners sack into a Panthers first down.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is the front-runner for Coach of the Year, based largely on his transformation from a timid, conservative game manager, into Riverboat Ron, the gambler who goes for it on fourth down. Early in the game, Rivera lived up to his nickname, and it paid off. A 4th-and-goal attempt got stuffed, but pinned the 49ers deep in their own territory and set up a touchdown that gave Carolina the lead. Later in the same quarter, though, Rivera opted for a short field goal instead of another shot at the end zone from the 1-yard line. That was a missed opportunity, and maybe as much as an 11-point swing. The short-yardage play-calling was shockingly uninspired, everything up the middle. With a dynamic outside runner (DeAngelo Williams) and one of the best dual-threat QBs in history, the Panthers opted to keep everything between the tackles. I think Rivera mistakenly regarded that unsuccessful fourth-down try as a failure, and in a high-stakes game, he went back to his comfort zone: so conservative it makes your eyes hurt.
Carolina was competitive in the first half, and did some good things in the second, but by the end of the third quarter it was clear which way the wind was blowing. The Panthers had only three substantial possessions in the second half, comprising 13 minutes but producing two punts and an interception. San Francisco gained 25 rushing yards in the first half, and 101 in the second half. Whether it was the pressure of the playoffs or the chippy behavior of the 49ers, Carolina seemed to get flustered.
Denver Broncos 24, San Diego Chargers 17
This was the second game of the weekend with a successful onside kick, and the second in which the recovering team lost anyway.
Through three quarters, Denver led 17-0, and San Diego's offense was nowhere to be found. The running game was ineffective with Ryan Mathews injured, Philip Rivers kept getting sacked, and the Chargers couldn't pick up first downs, only five in those first three quarters. They came alive in the last period, with eight first downs and 17 points, but it was too little, too late.
The Broncos won time of possession by nearly 11 minutes, stifling San Diego's drives, controlling the tempo with Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, and getting critical third-down conversions from Peyton Manning. Denver had three 10-play drives and two 9-play drives, and was in control virtually the whole game, overcoming a pair of moderately-flukey turnovers in the first half for a victory that was easier than the final score implies.
Championship Game Forecasts
None of the final four teams are surprises, and all four played in the second round of last year's playoffs. In fact, both conference championship games showcase great rivalries and preseason Super Bowl favorites. Parity my foot.
New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos
Tom Brady. Peyton Manning.
Peyton Manning. Tom Brady.
For the fourth time, they meet in the postseason. In each of their first three meetings, the home team won. The Patriots went just 4-4 on the road this year, so that leans in Denver's favor, as well. This is a regular-season rematch, with New England winning 34-31 at home in late November.
The Broncos won't fall for the same trick as the Colts. New England's receiving corps is not threatening, and Denver won't give up 200 yards and 6 TDs on the ground. But that means giving Brady room to operate, and he is always dangerous. Of course, Bill Belichick and the Patriots know Peyton Manning. They know how explosive he is, and they've demonstrated a respect that borders on fear, but they've also defended him successfully in the past, and they won this year's meeting with a massive second-half comeback.
Both offenses are very tough to defend, because they run effectively and feature all-star quarterbacks. The game will probably come down to turnovers, but I see a special teams advantage for Denver and a coaching advantage for New England. John Fox choked in last year's playoff loss to Baltimore, whereas Belichick is a great tactician. But I think the Broncos have too many offensive weapons, and the Patriots too few, and I don't like New England on the road. It's another high-scoring game, and Denver wins by a touchdown.
San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks
This matchup is intriguing partly because of how similar the opponents are. Both teams play in the NFC West and the Pacific Time Zone. Both have head coaches hired from Pac-12 universities. Both have young, mobile QBs who threaten defenses with their legs as well as their arms. Both have strong running games and great defenses, and both play very physically, especially in the secondary. Both won playoff games last year.
Not surprisingly, both teams will enter this matchup with the same goals. They'll want to dictate with the ground game, get a couple of big plays from the quarterback, win on special teams, and make the most of red zone opportunities. This is a contest that could easily turn on the little things.
The teams split their season series. In Week 2, the Niners traveled to Seattle and lost 29-3. In Week 14, the Seahawks went to Candlestick and lost 19-17. Those numbers would lead you to expect a Seattle victory. The Seahawks have been nearly invincible at home, 16-1 over the last two years, and that includes two easy wins over the 49ers, by a combined 71-16. The stadium has set decibel records and measured as seismic activity. San Francisco has a great run defense, but Marshawn Lynch is the one RB in the league who is Niner-proof.
But the 49ers are the hottest team in the NFL. They've won seven straight, five of them by double-digits and the other two against the Seahawks and the one team to win in Seattle, the Arizona Cardinals. The Niners won more comfortably than Seattle this weekend, they've been here before, and they've got players healthy who they didn't have for the matchup in Seattle.
It's terrifying to predict against either of these teams, but they don't allow ties in the playoffs, so I'll say the home crowd prevails and Seattle wins a low-scoring nail-biter.
2014 Hall of Fame Finalists
The Pro Football Hall of Fame has announced this year's Finalists for induction. Despite missing some deserving names (Terrell Davis, Zach Thomas), it's a strong group, with more worthy candidates than the seven-person maximum. My preferences, in order:
1. Derrick Brooks — Made 11 Pro Bowls and nine all-pro squads (five first-team). He was named to the All-Decade Team of the 2000s, and wouldn't have been a crazy choice for the '90s. Brooks holds the career record for INT return yards by a linebacker, and is tied for most INT TDs.
2. Walter Jones — The best offensive tackle of the 2000s, a nine-time Pro Bowler, and — regardless of fan voting — maybe the strongest candidate for induction on this year's ballot. He and Brooks are both locks, and anyone who would vote against either is unqualified to vote.
3. Michael Strahan — I'm still astonished that he wasn't elected last year.
4. Marvin Harrison — Third all-time in receptions, fifth in receiving TDs, seventh in receiving yards, and probably the best ever at the toe-tap on the sideline or in the corner of the end zone. The only player in history with four consecutive 1,400-yard seasons, and the all-time leader in single-season receptions, 143.
5. Claude Humphrey — One of the two Senior Candidates, so he's not taking a spot from any of the other nominees. This is his second year as a Seniors nominee, and for good reason. Humphrey was a six-time Pro Bowler who starred on the defense that allowed the fewest points per game in history, the 1977 Atlanta Falcons.
6. Kevin Greene — Officially ranks third all-time in sacks (160), behind Bruce Smith and Reggie White, but first among linebackers. He had 10 seasons with double-digit sacks, twice as many as fellow finalist Charles Haley (5).
7. Will Shields — A 12-time Pro Bowler, and a key to the Chiefs' explosive offense in the early 2000s. Another player I'm surprised hasn't been inducted yet. I wish I had a spot on my ballot for Shields, but you're only allowed to vote for five "modern" candidates.
8. Morten Andersen — Andersen is the NFL's all-time leading scorer, and his record is not likely to fall any time soon. Adam Vinatieri would probably have to play five or six more seasons to catch him. Andersen was the most accurate kicker of his generation, and he set the career record (since broken) for most 50-yard field goals. He played for 26 seasons, into his late 40s, because teams could still count on him. Probably the greatest kicker in history.
9. Tim Brown — Had nine consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons and ranks among the all-time top 10 in every major receiving category. Brown made nine Pro Bowls and was a brilliant punt returner (3,320 yds, 10.2 avg, 3 TDs). He holds the rookie record for all-purpose yards (2,317) and is the oldest NFL player (35) to return a punt for a TD. He deserves to get in, and I believe he will in 2015.
10. Tony Dungy — A ground-breaking coach with a Super Bowl ring, a great coaching tree, and seven consecutive seasons at 12-4 or better. His teams often struggled in the postseason.
11. Aeneas Williams — An All-Pro cornerback with the Cardinals, and a Pro Bowl safety with the Rams. From 1994-97, Williams intercepted 27 passes, 5 of them returned for TDs.
12. John Lynch — Hard-hitting strong safety with both the Buccaneers and Broncos. Lynch was well-liked and high-profile, but I'm disappointed that he's a Finalist and fellow strong safety Rodney Harrison is not. They both deserve HOF consideration, but Harrison was the greater player.
13. Ray Guy — I believe we need more special teamers in Canton, but I'm not convinced that Guy is the right choice. The available statistics don't show him as an outstanding punter, with averages that were good but not great, and way too many touchbacks. The '70s Raiders already have an awful lot of HOFers.
14. Charles Haley — The only five-time Super Bowl winner in NFL history, but he wasn't a consistent impact player and he was a headache in the locker room. Haley was a pass-rush specialist, but he had fewer sacks (100.5) than contemporaries like Jim Jeffcoat (102.5), Trace Armstrong (106.0), Greg Townsend (109.5), Sean Jones (113.0), and Clyde Simmons (121.5). Haley was a very good player, but being on the same teams as Joe Montana and Emmitt Smith doesn't make him a Hall of Famer.
15. Andre Reed — Four Super Bowl appearances, seven Pro Bowls, fourteen 500-yard seasons. If Reed is elected to Canton, the 1990s Buffalo Bills will have twice as many Hall of Famers as the '90s Cowboys who stomped them in back-to-back Super Bowls. Reed never led the NFL in any major receiving category, and he ranks outside the career top 10 in all major receiving categories. He only had four 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
16. Jerome Bettis — Bettis is the PFHOF's Jack Morris. He's a nice guy and he was a good teammate. If all you consider is career rushing yards and Chris Berman highlights, Bettis is one of the five or 10 best RBs in history. But he had poor rushing averages, couldn't catch, didn't run-block, and wasn't a great goal-line back. People think of Bettis as a bruising short-yardage runner, but in a 13-year career, he led his own team in TDs only four times. He never led the league in rushing yards, average, or TDs, and really only had three seasons as one of the top 10 RBs in the league. In his last four seasons, Bettis rushed for 700 yards a year, with a 3.5 average. That kind of production is easily replaceable, but without those four years, he'd have just 10,876 rushing yards, and wouldn't be a Hall of Fame candidate.
17. Eddie DeBartolo — A successful owner during San Francisco's glory years, but his greatest contribution to football was signing the checks.
As usual, a link to last week's article: wild card analysis and divisional predictions.