NFL 2014-15 Divisional Weekend

Five Quick Hits

* Bob Costas isn't a fan of football so much as he's a fan of hearing Terrell Suggs refuse to call opponents by name.

* NBC sent all 10 of its on-camera personalities to Foxborough. I understand why Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, and Michele Tafoya were there, but I'm not sure what was gained by flying Costas, Ward, Dan Patrick, Tony Dungy, and Rodney Harrison to Massachusetts, and I'm certain there was no reason to make Mike Florio and Peter King stand in the cold. The viewer gains nothing from taking all those guys out of the studio.

* What was going on during Tafoya's postgame interview with Julian Edelman? Some really awkward stutters and pauses in there.

* NFL teams with coaching vacancies have been refreshingly patient this year. Rex Ryan will apparently be the next head coach of the Buffalo Bills, and that's the first opening filled, with five remaining. It makes sense not to rush such an important decision, especially since many of the most appealing candidates have been unavailable while their teams compete in the playoffs.

* Speaking of which, Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak announced Sunday that he will remain with Baltimore for the 2015 season, despite several teams interested in him as a head coach.

Divisional Roundups

New England Patriots 35, Baltimore Ravens 31

This was a weird, streaky game, featuring four separate streaks of back-to-back touchdowns by the same team. New England's second half was especially remarkable: three 70-yard touchdown drives, and three three-and-outs. There's been some minor controversy about Tom Brady's 14-yard pass to Michael Hoomanawanui, on which running back Shane Vereen reported as a tackle — an ineligible receiver — and lined up in the slot. The Ravens were confused and gave up the completion. A few relevant points:

1. The ploy with Vereen was cheap trickery, but it's within the rules. The Patriots exploited a loophole — a loophole that the league should probably address — but they didn't cheat.

2. John Harbaugh says he was mostly upset that Baltimore wasn't given a chance to substitute after learning which player was ineligible.

3. This was a non-scoring play on 2nd-and-6. It was a nice play for New England, but it wasn't a game-deciding moment.

Both offensive coordinators, New England's Josh McDaniels and Baltimore's Gary Kubiak, were praised for their work in this game, but by the same token, you have to be disappointed with some of the defensive play. The Patriots brought absolutely zero pass rush pressure, and they repeatedly gave up long runs to Justin Forsett (129 yards, 5.4 average). They held Baltimore to 1/9 on third down, but the Ravens went 3/3 on fourth downs. Baltimore actually did a great job shutting down New England's run game (13 att, 14 yds), but their own pass rush was disappointing (2 sacks), they couldn't stop Rob Gronkowski, and they got burned by multiple trick plays. Both teams gave up at least 28 first downs, 400 yards, and 30 points.

The Patriots didn't blitz much, but the lack of pressure was a real problem: you can't give up more than 30 points and celebrate the defensive game plan. New England's secondary is good enough to take some risks and bring a few more blitzes.

Seattle Seahawks 31, Carolina Panthers 17

One of the few postseason games this year without a major officiating controversy, but it's a shame that both of Kam Chancellor's leaps on attempted field goal blocks were negated by penalty. In last year's divisional round, the Seahawks beat the Saints despite huge deficits in offensive yardage (409-277) and first downs (25-13). This year's game wasn't as pronounced a gap, but it happened again. Seattle won easily, but the Panthers gained more yards (362-348) and more first downs (21-16). Carolina had a better first down percentage, better red zone percentage, and won time of possession by more than 8:00.

The obvious difference was a pair of Cam Newton interceptions. The first gave Seattle a short field (28 yards) and led to a touchdown, while the other was returned 90 yards for a touchdown. Throughout the game, the Panthers played from behind with regard to field position. They began drives at their own 11, 11, 12, 13, 17, 20, 20, 20, 21, and 21-yard lines. That's an average of the 17, very poor starting position, but the real key is that they never got a short field. In order to score, they had to drive the whole length of the field. Seattle, in contrast, began beyond the 20-yard line on seven of its nine drives, averaging the 35.

Part of the problem for Carolina was punt returner Brenton Bersin. Following a very poor performance against the Cardinals in the wild card round, Bersin fair caught all four Seattle punts this weekend. FOX's John Lynch remarked, "He is not comfortable back there as a punt returner." It was obvious to me, it was obvious to Lynch, and I imagine it was obvious to many other people, but not head coach Ron Rivera or special teams coordinator Richard Rodgers. Bersin didn't cost them the game, but coaches just have to be more alert and proactive with so much on the line.

Green Bay Packers 26, Dallas Cowboys 21

I guess there's no pro-Dallas conspiracy by NFL officiating crews. This week's controversy is more straightforward than last week's. It's the Calvin Johnson rule. Joe Buck actually summed it up well: "Common sense tells you that was a catch," but the letter of the law makes it incomplete. It's a stupid, counterintuitive rule, but it's on the books, and we've all seen it before. I have a pretty strict interpretation of what constitutes "indisputable visual evidence", so I would have let the play stand, but any objective fan can see why the catch was reversed.

Although the second half was exciting, I think FOX made a real mistake by branding this game "Ice Bowl II". The original Ice Bowl is maybe the most famous game in football history: an NFL Championship Game, featuring a legendary dynasty against an up-and-coming dynasty, decided in the final minute by an all-or-nothing QB sneak, and played in weather so cold (-17° F, -48° wind chill) it froze the heating grid beneath Lambeau Field. Sunday's was a good game, and it was chilly. But both the weather and the drama failed to live up to "Ice Bowl" billing. Aren't you supposed to under-promise and over-deliver? FOX did the opposite.

Having said that, I'm going to compare this to a different famous game: December 22, 2003. That was a Monday night game, between the Packers and the Oakland Raiders, won by Green Bay, 41-7. Brett Favre's father had just died, but he passed for 399 yards and 4 touchdowns with no interceptions. One of my memories from that game is how hard Favre's receivers worked for him. The quarterback played well, of course, but his receivers elevated their performances to help the QB.

I saw the same thing on Sunday afternoon. How many tackles did Davante Adams and Andrew Quarless break? How many great catches did we see from Randall Cobb and Adams? Aaron Rodgers did not look sharp in the first half. Whether it was his injured calf, rust from a bye and a week of limited practice, or just a tough Dallas defense that took away Jordy Nelson, Rodgers played below his usual standards. But his linemen gave him ages to throw, while his receivers made circus catches in key situations, and broke sure tackles for big gains, especially in the second half. Rodgers went 9/9 in the fourth quarter. The Elias Sports Bureau reported that as the most attempts without an incompletion in the fourth quarter of any playoff game of the last quarter-century.

Indianapolis Colts 24, Denver Broncos 13

With all the referee controversies this postseason, I'm surprised there doesn't seem to be much fuss about Josh Cribbs' apparent fumble. In the middle of the third quarter, the Broncos were down 21-10 when they punted. Omar Bolden and Colt Anderson smashed into Cribbs, who fumbled, with a recovery by Denver's Andre Caldwell. The officials called it 1st-and-10 for the Broncos at the Indianapolis 30-yard line: a huge momentum swing to put Denver back in the game. The call went to a replay review, and CBS analyst Mike Carey (a former NFL referee) said the call should be confirmed. Instead, Bill Leavy announced that the call was reversed: Colts ball. Carey didn't merely suggest that the call should stand, implying a lack of evidence to overturn; he said the call should be confirmed, meaning conclusive evidence that the call was correct. That's a pretty big disconnect, on a hugely significant play. Andrew Luck was intercepted a few plays later, but compared to the fumble, Denver had lost 46 yards of field position and nearly two minutes.

Let's talk about Peyton Manning: he didn't look right, obviously. It was widely reported that he got healthy during the bye and he felt great, but maybe he was still nagged by injuries. Maybe the bye week made him rusty. Maybe the cold bothered him. Maybe it was just a bad day against a good defense. Maybe he's getting old.

Manning had another great season: 4,727 yards, 39 TD, 101.5 passer rating. He ranked 4th in the NFL in passing yards, 2nd in passing TDs, tied for 3rd in TD/INT differential, 4th in passer rating, 2nd in net yards per attempt, 5th in first down percentage, 1st in sack percentage. Other than Aaron Rodgers, he was probably the best QB in the NFL during the regular season.

But he didn't play well in December, and this is the second year in a row he's looked like something less than himself at the end of the season. It's long been believed that veteran players wear down toward the end of the season, that they can get you to the playoffs but won't win once the tournament starts. Peyton Manning is the oldest QB in the NFL, he's overcome a career-threatening neck injury, he just returned from illness and leg injuries, and he doesn't play indoors any more.

It would be a shame if Manning retires now. He can still play at a high level. He's fun to watch, he's respected around the league, and he's good for the game. You never want to see a legend retire on a sour note, and Manning is close to some significant milestones. If he plays in 2015, Manning will almost certainly surpass 70,000 passing yards for his career, and break Brett Favre's record (71,838), and he'll surpass +300 in TD/INT differential, the only QB in history to do so. He would complete his 6000th pass, and he might break Favre's career completions record. I would never want a player to stick around just so he can hit the milestones, but Manning has a lot to play for besides the numbers. The Broncos are still a very good team, and there's every reason to believe they'll compete for a championship again in 2015. This isn't the right time, or the right way, for him to leave his playing career.

Conference Championship Forecasts

Both conference championship games are regular-season rematches. The Patriots romped over the Colts in Week 11, winning 42-20 in Indianapolis, while the Seahawks handled Green Bay in the Thursday night opener, a 36-16 victory in Seattle.

Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks

I have a really tough time envisioning a Packers win. The game is in Seattle, where the Seahawks never lose, and Green Bay went 4-4 on the road this season. The Seahawks dominated their Week 1 matchup. The Packers struggle against mobile quarterbacks.

I'll be curious to see if the Seahawks blitz Aaron Rodgers. The Cowboys didn't; they dropped seven and eight defenders into coverage, and did fall into a couple of sacks when Rodgers couldn't find anyone downfield. I suspect that Seattle will look to create more pressure, test Rodgers' mobility, and trust the Legion of Boom to cover Green Bay's receivers. The other interesting question is how the Packers will treat Richard Sherman. In Week 1, they stayed away from him entirely, but Seattle slid safeties to the other side of the field and took away throwing lanes. This time, Rodgers has to attack Sherman at least a little bit, just to keep the defense honest.

Percy Harvin baffled the Packers in Week 1, and he's gone now. But the home field advantage, the dominance of Seattle's defense the last two months, and Rodgers' calf injury combine to leave me pretty pessimistic about Green Bay's chances. They could win with MVP-level play from Rodgers and some big plays on defense and special teams, but it's an uphill battle in this matchup. Seahawks by 10.

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots

This will be their fourth meeting of the Andrew Luck era. In 2012, the Patriots won 59-24. In the 2013 postseason, the Pats won 43-22. And in Week 11, Jonas Gray rushed for 199 yards and New England won 42-20. That's a combined 3-0, 144 points to 66 in the Patriots' favor.

So yes, I'm picking New England. I have to believe Indianapolis will be ready to defend the run this time, but that creates openings for Tom Brady, and could make the Colts susceptible to trick plays like we saw against Baltimore. If they're going to compete, what the Colts really need is a stellar offensive performance: big plays, which they flashed against New England last year, and no turnovers.

The Patriots are 8-1 at home, 24-4 over the last three seasons. The Colts are 6-3 on the road this year, 15-12 with Luck at QB. The game is in New England in mid-January, and the Patriots have out-coached and outplayed the Colts in all their previous meetings. I don't expect another 20-point beatdown, but I'll take the Patriots by 10.

2015 Hall of Fame Finalists

The Pro Football Hall of Fame has announced this year's Finalists for induction. It's not as strong a group as usual, but there are still more worthy candidates than the eight-person maximum. My preferences, in order:

1. 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.

2. Junior Seau — A legendary conditioning freak, Seau was the oldest linebacker in NFL history, playing 20 seasons and retiring just before his 41st birthday. He made 12 Pro Bowls, a linebacker record until Ray Lewis, and six AP all-pro teams.

3. 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).

4. Will Shields — A 12-time Pro Bowler, and a key to the Chiefs' explosive offense in the early 2000s. This is his fourth year on the ballot, and I'm surprised he hasn't been inducted already.

5. 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 his receiving alone merits a place in Canton, but he was also a brilliant punt returner (3,320 yds, 10.2 avg, 3 TDs). Brown holds the rookie record for all-purpose yards (2,317) and is the oldest NFL player (35) to return a punt for a TD.

6. Terrell Davis — Only player in history to rush for 2,000 yards and score 20 TDs in the same season, and probably the greatest postseason RB in NFL history. The idea that Davis was just a product of Denver's system doesn't hold up. Davis had three 1,500-yard rushing seasons; neither Olandis Gary nor Mike Anderson ever rushed for 1,500 yards.

7. Don Coryell — Ground-breaking offensive mastermind, the only coach in history whose team has led the NFL in passing offense four consecutive seasons. Although best-known for his success with the San Diego Chargers, Coryell also led the Cardinals to two division titles, and was the last coach in Cardinals history with a winning record (42-29-1). However, Coryell is a Hall of Fame candidate less for his 111 wins and success with two different teams than for his strategic influence on the modern passing game.

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 four or five 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.

9. Tony Dungy — A ground-breaking coach with a Super Bowl ring, an impressive coaching tree, and seven consecutive seasons at 12-4 or better. His teams often struggled in the postseason.

10. Orlando Pace — The first overall pick in the 1997 draft, he lived up to the hype and qualified for seven Pro Bowls. He started at left tackle for one of the great offenses of all time, the Greatest Show on Turf. I always felt he was a little overrated, but he was a good player for a decade, and an anchor on a historic offense.

11. Kurt Warner — Won two NFL MVP Awards and a Super Bowl MVP, but also got benched by three different teams from 2003-06. He passed for 4,000 yards three times, threw 200 TD passes, and has one of the best passer ratings in history (93.7). But he was surrounded by great teammates, and he only played four full seasons: 1999, 2001, 2008, and 2009 were the only years Warner started 12 or more games.

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. 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.

14. Jerome Bettis — Bettis is 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. Bettis is a particularly weak candidate compared to fellow finalist Terrell Davis.

15. Jimmy Johnson — Coached Dallas for five seasons and Miami for four. His teams won two Super Bowls, but the Dolphins never won a division title under Johnson, and the Cowboys' dynasty fell apart quickly — partly because of the feud between Johnson and owner Jerry Jones, and partially because Johnson managed the Cowboys like he did the Miami Hurricanes, and stars like left tackle Erik Williams were allowed to do whatever they wanted. Johnson made no notable strategic contributions to the game, much of the credit for his offense should go to coordinator Norv Turner, and Barry Switzer's Super Bowl victory lent credence to the idea that Johnson's success was a product of the Herschel Walker trade. No Hall of Fame coach has sustained success so little as Johnson, who produced two great years and almost nothing else.

Johnson did deliver the funniest line I've ever heard on a football pregame show. In 2011, Curt Menefee asked Johnson whether, with a gun to his head, he would rather sign Terrell Owens or Tiki Barber. Jimmy answered, "Give me the bullet."

Senior and Contributor Candidates

This year, the 15 "modern" finalists are joined by one Seniors nominee (Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff) and two Contributors (personnel specialists Bill Polian and Ron Wolf). None of the three are competing directly against the players, so I'm listing them separately. All three are outstanding choices, deserving of enshrinement.

Tingelhoff started 240 consecutive games and made seven straight all-pro teams, including five years first-team. Unusually quick for his position, he also started in four Super Bowls. Tingelhoff should have been inducted years ago, and was a superb choice as this year's Senior candidate.

Polian is best known as general manager of the Buffalo Bills from 1984-92, building the foundations of a team that made four straight Super Bowls. In Buffalo, Polian hired Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, and drafted Hall of Famers Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, and Thurman Thomas. Polian was the first GM of the Carolina Panthers, who went from expansion team to the NFC Championship Game in their second season. Polian then became GM of the Indianapolis Colts, for whom he worked from 1998-2011, overseeing a dozen playoff runs and a victory in Super Bowl XLI. The Sporting News named Polian the NFL’s Executive of the Year a record six times.

Wolf was a personnel man for the Raiders in the '60s, '70s, and '80s — the team's dynasty era. During Wolf's tenure, the Raiders had as many Super Bowls as losing seasons. He is best known, however, as the architect of the 1990s Green Bay Packers. As GM in Green Bay, Wolf hired Mike Holmgren, traded for Brett Favre, signed Reggie White, and drafted Darren Sharper.

I think selecting two contributors per year as finalists is a bad idea, but this year's choices are excellent. I'll be disappointed if any of the three fall short.

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