Tuesday, January 6, 2009

NFL Wild Card Roundup

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* I appreciate the sentiment to "let 'em play" in the postseason, but John Parry's officiating crew simply neglected their duties this weekend in Arizona. I love to see a game without many penalties, but there are some that you have to call, and this crew didn't.

* Non-BCS conferences are now 3-1 in BCS Bowls. Teams like Utah can compete with anyone in the country, and they should get that chance. The undefeated Utes may be the best team in college football this year.

* I think Tony Dungy should take more than one week to decide whether or not he's retiring. The team has his successor in place, and doesn't need a quick decision.

* Rumors make Eric Mangini the front-runner for head coach in Cleveland. If the Browns have to choose between Scott Pioli as GM and Mangini as HC, they should go with Pioli.

* From the Strange Coincidence Department: Miami's last two playoff losses have both been to Baltimore, and Minnesota's last two playoff losses have both been to the Eagles.

***

Wild Card Roundups

Falcons @ Cardinals

We got two awfully good games on Saturday, beginning in Arizona, which hosted the visiting Falcons. That setting just may have swung this game. The Cardinals were a better home team (6-2) than the Falcons were a road team (4-4), and that was an important part of why Arizona won. Announcers Tom Hammond and Cris Collinsworth repeatedly referenced the crowd's impact, and Kurt Warner did the same in post-game interviews.

This was the Turnaround Bowl, featuring the perennial loser Cardinals and the seemingly hopeless Falcons, who were coming off a 4-12 season and widely predicted to be the NFL's worst team this year. Ultimately, the story of this contest was the Cardinal defense, which held Atlanta to 250 yards and just 3.7 per play, shutting down the ground game and forcing three turnovers. The defense scored a crucial touchdown and a safety.

Matt Millen, working with NBC for the weekend (and doing a fine job), guessed that the Cardinals "had something" on Atlanta's line and knew what was coming. I wondered if Ryan's cadence was too regular. Either way, Arizona consistently anticipated the snap of the ball, and turned in perhaps their finest performance of the season.

There's something else I wanted to mention. Many of you know that former Cardinals safety Pat Tillman left his football career to join the military and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Collinsworth asked on Saturday, "If Pat Tillman doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame, who does?" I don't have anything negative to say about Tillman as a person, but he wasn't a good enough player to belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The by-laws are very clear that players are judged on their performance on the field, not off it. If we start inducting everyone who does admirable things off the field or dies before his time, the Hall won't serve the mission it was established to fulfill. Let's praise Tillman for his bravery and dedication, but no one should get voted in on sentiment. For those who are interested in this topic, though, I suggest looking up Al Blozis. He was a better player than Tillman, and a World War II officer who was killed trying to rescue one of his soldiers.

Colts @ Chargers

Another turnaround game, featuring a pair of teams who each started 3-4 before going undefeated in December. The shock in this game was two oft-criticized defenses outplaying a pair of explosive offenses. For much of the contest, it was a battle of field position, and San Diego punter Mike Scifres may have been the most valuable player on the field. Scifres punted six times, and all six ended inside the Colts' 20-yard line. Five of his punts were at least 50 yards, and the other was fair-caught inside the 10. I have never seen a finer game from a punter, and I suspect I never will.

In this unexpected defensive battle, that field position was critical, but the Chargers were the better team in all phases this weekend. The Colts, tagged in the past as playoff chokers, didn't help their reputation with this game. To be fair, there was no glaring deficiency or obvious scapegoat. Peyton Manning didn't have the best game of his life, but he didn't have a meltdown, either. The running game went nowhere, but that's been true all season. The pass protection was mostly okay, and the defense actually did better than expected. Indy's special teams got outplayed, but it wasn't their fault Scifres punted like the ball was made of flubber. If I had to pick something the Colts did obviously wrong, how can you call heads on the overtime coin toss? Tails never fails.

This win is further vindication for Norv Turner, who has endured calls for his firing since the day he was hired. Turner is now 3-1 in the playoffs during his stint with the Chargers. It's time to stop blaming him for the messes created by Daniel Snyder and Al Davis, and acknowledge that he may be one of the better head coaches in the NFL. Turner's midseason firing of defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, and the promotion of Ron Rivera to fill that post, probably saved San Diego's season.

Ravens @ Dolphins

Did you notice the common ground among winners this weekend? Defensive touchdowns. There were no defensive scores in the Colts/Bolts game, but the defenses of Arizona, Baltimore, and Philadelphia combined for 3 TDs and a safety. The Ravens forced 5 turnovers on Sunday, including 4 interceptions of Chad Pennington. It was the first game all season in which Pennington had multiple INTs, and only the second time in his career that Pennington had thrown more than 3 interceptions in a game.

Miami's defense played well, too, but not at the same level as their opponents. I was very impressed with Joe Flacco knowing when and how to throw the ball away. He did a great job of avoiding negative plays. On a day when neither offense was effective, that distinction — between Baltimore's ability to protect the ball, and the Jets' repeated turnovers — was the difference in the game.

The Dolphins simply looked outclassed against Baltimore, and they couldn't overcome all those turnovers. I don't know why Miami's offense went four-wide so often, but the Ravens were able to generate significant pressure on Pennington with only a four-man rush. Ed Reed now has 5 interceptions, returned for 145 yards, in his postseason career. The all-time records are 9 interceptions and 196 yards. After only three playoff games, Reed is already closing in.

Eagles @ Vikings

Less spectacularly than in San Diego, special teams played an important role in this game. Most teams get one or two big special teams plays per game, and Minnesota was no exception, with a couple of punts that pinned Philadelphia around its own five-yard line. But the Eagles had half a dozen really good plays on special teams, including two long punt returns, a 51-yard field goal, and several great boots from punter Sav Rocca.

The game was probably a little closer than the score indicates, but Philadelphia's defense took over at halftime. Minnesota opened the second half with five straight punts, followed by a lost fumble. The Vikings never connected on a deep pass, and Adrian Peterson had eight carries for 17 yards in the second half. In fact, other than a 40-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, Peterson never really got going. Aside from that play, he had 19 attempts for just 43 yards (2.3 average).

Philadelphia's defense didn't pile up sacks and turnovers the way some analysts expected, but it was the dominant unit in this game. The Eagles bottled up Peterson, and Tarvaris Jackson never made them pay in the passing game.

Divisional Forecast

Ravens @ Titans

The Ravens may be better, and the Titans may be rusty, but I can't pick against Tennessee. The Titans have risen to the occasion whenever they had to, and they're very good at protecting the ball. Baltimore's offense struggled against Miami, and without some points from the defense, I don't know if they can win this one. Titans by 4.

Cardinals @ Panthers

Easiest pick of the weekend. Arizona was 3-5 on the road, and Carolina was 8-0 at home. The Cardinals showed a respectable running game and improved defense on Saturday, but I'm not a believer yet. The Panthers' biggest worry is their own defense, which struggled towards the end of the season, but I'm going with Carolina by 10.

Eagles @ Giants

I hate picking Eagles games. On a good day, they can beat anyone, and on a bad day, they can tie Cincinnati. This feels a little like a coin flip, gambling on which Philadelphia team will show up. My bet is that Eli Manning will limit his mistakes, and the Giants win by 6 in a defensive battle.

Chargers @ Steelers

The Steelers are the better team, but I'm feeling the upset. San Diego's ever-improving defense will pressure Ben Roethlisberger, who may or may not be totally healthy, and the Chargers' explosive offense will make enough big plays to win. Chargers by 1.

***

Finally, a Sports Central tradition, our annual All-Loser Team: an all-star team made up entirely of players whose teams missed the postseason.

2008 NFL All-Loser Team

QB Drew Brees, NO
RB Steve Slaton, HOU
FB Mike Sellers, WAS
WR Andre Johnson, HOU
WR Calvin Johnson, DET
TE Tony Gonzalez, KC
C Nick Mangold, NYJ
G Alan Faneca, NYJ
G Brian Waters, KC
OT Ryan Clady, DEN
OT Jammal Brown, NO

DT Kris Jenkins, NYJ
DT Shaun Rogers, CLE
DE Mario Williams, HOU
DE Richard Seymour, NE
OLB DeMarcus Ware, DAL
OLB Lance Briggs, CHI
ILB Barrett Ruud, TB
ILB London Fletcher, WAS
CB Charles Woodson, GB
CB Nnamdi Asomugha, OAK
FS Nick Collins, GB
SS Abram Elam, NYJ

K Phil Dawson, CLE
P Brad Maynard, CHI
KR Clifton Smith, TB

Honorable Mentions: Matt Forte (RB, CHI); Clinton Portis (RB, WAS); Greg Jennings (WR, GB); Wes Welker (WR, NE); Logan Mankins (G, NE); Darrelle Revis (CB, NYJ); Brian Moorman (P, BUF); Johnnie Lee Higgins (KR, OAK)

Offensive Loser of the Year: Andre Johnson, WR, HOU
Defensive Loser of the Year: DeMarcus Ware, OLB, DAL
Most Valuable Loser: DeMarcus Ware, OLB, DAL

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