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10 Things, NFL Divisional Round

The Colts smothered the Broncos offense Sunday, advancing to the AFC title game and possibly putting an end to Peyton Manning’s career. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

TEN
Too often we talk about what the losers did wrong than what the winners did well. Excuse me while I do the same.

Despite watching the whole game, I can’t help but think the Indianapolis defense benefited from a neutered Denver offense. It was like sharks circling a crippled seal. In the 1st half Peyton Manning had receivers open deep. He kept missing. You could tell his arm strength just wasn’t there, so in order to get the ball downfield he had to just cut it loose without concentrating too much on accuracy. After missing a handful of open receivers downfield, the Colts got wise to the situation and suffocated the Bronco receivers off the line of scrimmage. With no arm strength, Manning couldn’t squeeze the ball in tight places. The once mesmerizing Denver offense had devolved into an overpriced version of Kansas City’s check down circus. Even while trailing by two scores in the 4th quarter, Manning was unable to throw downfield. It was sad to see such a great quarterback limited by age or injury, or perhaps both.

TEN A
Though Manning was limited and the Bronco offense a shell of itself as a result, the Colts deserve a lot of credit for their defensive performance. First of all, they recognized the limits of Manning’s game and took away the security of open receivers within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Second, they did an excellent job of tackling receivers in the open field. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have torched defenses all season on wide receiver screens and pick plays over the middle. The Colts allowed none of that, blowing off blocks and bringing down receivers on first contact.

TEN B
While Manning and the offense deserve blame for another disappointing postseason exit, the Denver defense didn’t exactly do much to bail out the offense. After finishing the regular season with 41 sacks, the Broncos failed to generate any consistent pressure on Andrew Luck, finishing with zero sacks. While the Broncos did have two interceptions, neither were game-changers. In fact, given the down-and-distance and Luck’s reaction, I think the Colts treated both as 3rd down punts. Both came on 3rd and long and only gave Denver possession in their own territory. No harm, no foul.

NINE
Dez Bryant made a ridiculously amazing catch that, according to NFL rules, was not a catch. Dumb rule. Right call. It’s not the first time it’s happened. If the rule isn’t changed it won’t be the last. The Detroit Lions legitimately lost a game as a result of an identical call a few years ago. Only in that case, Calvin Johnson’s feet hit the ground a combination of four times while possessing the football. His butt, knee and elbow also hit the ground while maintaining possession. The ball didn’t come lose until Johnson tried to stand up. Bryant’s overturned reception wasn’t nearly as egregious as Johnson’s was back in 2010. See for yourself if you don’t believe me;

 

Anyway, Dallas didn’t lose the game on that call. The Cowboy offense stalled in the 2nd half. DeMarco Murray had a costly fumble that likely cost Dallas a touchdown. Tony Romo, for the 2nd straight week, was careless at times, taking unnecessary sacks that surrendered crucial field position. For example, on 2nd and 8 late in the 4th quarter, Romo took a sack that lost 3 yards. Romo was literally standing six feet from the sideline. He could have easily tossed the ball away. Instead, he took the sack resulting in a 3rd and 11. On 3rd down, Dallas gained 10 yards. Instead of a 1st down, the Cowboys faced a 4th and 1 that will forever live in playoff lure. It’s often the little things that send you home a loser in the postseason.

Worst of all, the Cowboy defense fell apart after a solid 1st half, especially when it came to tackling receivers in the open field. Obviously, there’s no shame in falling victim to the NFL’s best player. It happens. I thought Dallas’ defense did enough for the Cowboys to win the game. If I told Cowboy fans Dallas would hold the Packers to 26 points, every one of them would take that in a heart beat. It was the offense that didn’t come through for the Cowboys.

I’m not blaming one individual, either. Tony Romo was good but made few big plays. DeMarco Murray had the big fumble. Dez Bryant only had three receptions. The offense was good, not great. Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, was great.

On one good leg, Rodgers dissected Dallas’ defense to the tune of 316 yards, 3 TD and a completion percentage just below 70%. Though limited, he still made plays with his feet, including what ended up being the game-winning score. Also, he did much of that without his top receiver. Credit Dallas for eliminating Jordy Nelson from Green Bay’s attack. Orlando Scandrick was excellent Sunday. Unfortunately, Rodgers found success elsewhere as both Randall Cobb and Davante Adams each finished with over 100 yards. Given Rodgers’ injury, I thought the Cowboys could win with a good game from their defense. Turns out, even when limited by injury, it still takes a perfect defensive game to take out Aaron Rodgers.

NINE A
The Dallas fans crying about the injustice of that crucial call is classic. How quickly they forget they were the ones telling Lions fans to shut up and move on. Many even argued the Cowboys win if the 4th and 1 call goes their way after dismissing the very same excuse from Detroit fans last week. Two things. 1. The call that didn’t go Dallas’ way in Green Bay was actually the right call. Detroit was the victim of a BLOWN call, two in fact. There’s a huge difference there that Dallas fans don’t understand. 2. Even if the call goes Dallas’ way, there’s a 75% chance the Cowboys still lose. There were still 4 minutes remaining in the 4th quarter. On the two Green Bay possessions prior to the overturned reception, Rodgers and the Packers offense ran 15 plays for 170 yards. They scored two touchdowns. One drive took only 2 minutes and 31 seconds. The other four minutes and 19 seconds. So you’re right, Cowboy fans, there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY Aaron Rodgers can score on your defense with somewhere between 2-3 minutes left on the clock. NO WAY AT ALL!

NINE B
Though I picked Dallas to win, I knew the Cowboys were losing the moment I turned on my TV and saw this:

Tony Romo Cold 1.11.15

If your starting QB wears a scuba suit under his helmet in an effort to stay warm, you’ve already lost. Nothing screams, “I’m such a pansy” more than that. The game time temperature was well above 20. Any human being living in the northeast has played outside for hours without a hat in those temperatures. Also, you know who didn’t wear a scuba suit when temperatures were -3 with a wind-chill of -24 in the 2008 NFC title game? Eli Manning. That’s who.

NINE C
For the record, Tony Romo is headed down the Chris Paul career path. Good player. Great stats. ZERO conference championship games. Zero. Eli Manning’s been to two. Donovan McNabb’s went to five. So to all the people that want to tell me how great and underrated Tony Romo is, shhhhhhhhh.

NINE D
There’s also this effort by Tony Romo…

NINE E
There were mixed reactions to Dallas going for the 1st on that critical 4th and 1 play that let to another controversial call. Some thought Dallas should have tried the 52 yard field goal. I thought going for the 1st down was the right call. Bailey has been a mess in the postseason. Normally one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers, Bailey missed from 41 against Detroit and essentially missed twice from 40 in Green Bay. The 1st miss was nullified due to a penalty. The 2nd miss was partially blocked. Attempting a 50+ field goal outside in sub freezing temperatures with a slumping kicker would have been foolish. While I didn’t like the play call on 4th and 1, I thought going for it was the right move. And for the record, even after it looked like Bryant made the catch I criticized the play call. You have the NFL’s top offensive line and the top running back. You’ve been eating up yards on the ground all afternoon. Why not go to your bread and butter there?

NINE F
Seriously, I’m more shocked how badly Dan Bailey performed in the playoffs than I am with the two controversial calls.

EIGHT
Dallas’ loss Sunday perfectly exemplified why I hope Jerry Jones brings Jason Garrett back. Unlike most, I think Garrett is a lousy coach. For the 2nd week in a row the Cowboys opponent doubled Dez Bryant. Bryant’s playoff stats; 6 catches, 86 yards, no touchdowns. Obviously, defenses double team great players to limit their impact on the game. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. The key word there is sometimes. For the most part, Dallas’ offense ignored Bryant throughout two entire playoff games. In two games, one of the NFL’s leading receivers was targeted just seven times. Total.

For comparison, Rob Gronkowski was targeted 13 times in his first playoff game this year. Demaryius Thomas had the ball thrown his way 12 times. Antonio Brown 14. Even Kelvin Benjamin was targeted 10 times against the NFL’s top secondary. The point is, you get the ball to your best players. Garrett didn’t. Instead of testing Green Bay’s double team (and Detroit’s, too), Garrett opted to avoid Bryant for most of the afternoon. Hello Jason, THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT THE DEFENSE WANTS YOU TO DO.

Bryant’s catch that wasn’t a catch demonstrated his ability to make big plays. That guy deserved at least 10-12 opportunities to make a play. Not four. If you asked the Packer defense on Saturday what their ideal outcome would be for Dez Bryant on Sunday, I bet 100% of them would take only 4 targets, no questions asked. Maybe Tony Romo deserves some of the blame here, too. Perhaps the calls were being made to get Bryant the ball and Romo opted to go elsewhere. Regardless, not getting the ball to your most explosive offensive weapon more than once a quarter in a do-or-die game is inexcusable. It’s a mistake that ultimately falls at the feet of the head coach.

SEVEN
I’m a big Cam Newton fan, but that guy needs some help, and I don’t mean more weapons on the field. I mean help in terms of better understanding his strengths and weaknesses and when’s the right time to take risks. This sounds worse than I mean it, but it feels like Newton needs to take his job more seriously.

Newton made it a point to talk about how he’d go after Richard Sherman. That’s good. I like the confidence. However, Newton let his confidence overrun discretion. His 1st quarter interception was just careless. It was a last ditch effort to make a play on 3rd down. Though the Carolina defense bailed him out, Newton should understand by now that taking an unnecessary risk against the NFL’s premiere cornerback is just that; unnecessary. Deferring at times isn’t weakness. Sherman’s interception woke a crowd that was somewhat bored after four less-than thrilling drives. On Carolina’s next drive Newton fumbled on a lazy handoff. Seattle turned it into seven points.

Though he’s an exceptional talent, Newton has yet to understand the level of perfection and execution required to succeed in the NFL. There are no plays off, especially in the postseason. Newton throws off his back foot more than any other quarterback I watched this year. His mechanics get sloppy too often, even at times when he has a clean pocket. As Kam Chancellor obviously saw on film, Newton stares down his receivers. These are all addressable weaknesses, but they shouldn’t be so glaring in year four. And I don’t think it’s all Cam’s fault, either. In his four seasons there, Carolina has done almost nothing to develop an offensive system around him. How then can we trust them to develop Newton into an elite passing threat? One way or another, something needs to happen before Newton’s career careens off course similar to Colin Kaepernick’s 2014 disaster.

SIX
I was actually surprised how competitive Carolina was Saturday. It wasn’t until the 4th quarter that Seattle’s physicality finally impacted the Panther defense. Carolina was in the game longer than I ever expected. With the aforementioned mistakes aside, I thought Newton played a fine game, too. Seattle is just better.

Too often teams make the mistake of pressing against a lesser opponent. The Seahawks handle the heavyweight role perfectly. Never panicking, Seattle lets the game to come to them on their terms. When opportunities arise, they pounce, turning a fumble inside the 30 into seven quick points. After being stifled on their first few drives, Russell Wilson beat an underwhelming Panther secondary over the top with a crippling touchdown before the half. The Seahawks don’t need big plays or their opponent to play a certain way in order to win big games. They stay who they are and let everyone else do the adjusting.

FIVE
I’ve always rooted for Tom Brady because I love the passion. When you grow up watching Donovan McNabb smiling and laughing in the midst of defeat you tend to be drawn to the opposite type of player.

I thought we were in for another disappointing playoff performance by Brady. He looked jumpy and flustered at times in the 1st half. His interception late in the 1st half was not only a devastating blow after New England rallied to knot the score at 14, but it was also the worst throw of the weekend. Then the 2nd half came and Brady was brilliant, leading the Patriots to consecutive touchdown drives of over 70 yards to erase another 14 point deficit. But it was Brady’s cold-blooded, 10 play, game-winning touchdown drive in the 4th quarter that was vintage Brady; 8/9, 72 yards and a TD.

FOUR
Did anyone else notice this game nearly ended the same way Baltimore’s last playoff victory in New England did? Two years ago, with the Patriots trailing by 8 early in the 4th quarter, Stevan Ridley took a blow to the head, knocking him out cold. Ridley (understandably) dropped the football and Baltimore recovered and scored on the ensuing possession to go up 28-13. On Saturday, with Baltimore up 31-28 in the 4th quarter, Shane Vereen caught a short pass from Brady and like Ridley, took a direct shot to the head. Vereen’s body went limb and the ball came out. Baltimore recovered and appeared poised to at least stretch their lead to six if not clinch the game with a touchdown. Only this time, Vereen’s knee hit before the ball popped lose. Crisis averted.

 

THREE
Bill Belichick proved yet again why he is the best coach in football by exploiting a rule no defense could have ever anticipated. I love John Harbaugh but complaining about the scheme after a loss is a bad look. It was within the rules. It was fair. To call it “deceptive” is laughable. Deception is what football is about. Offenses use deception all the time to get matchups they want or a tight end open in the end zone on 4th and goal. Belichick got the best of the Ravens Sunday. Best to accept it and move on rather than make excuses and accusations to the media. 

THREE A
And then Belickick totally mismanaged the clock in the final minute. Andy Reid was sitting at home wondering what the heck Belichick was doing. That’s how horrible it was.

THREE B
I pretty much nailed my Jonas Gray intuition from last week. Or not.

TWO
I didn’t understand why the Ravens stopped going to Steve Smith Saturday afternoon. On Baltimore’s first two drives Smith had three catches for over 40 yards and a touchdown. If you’ve followed Steve Smith’s career, you weren’t surprised. Smith is the ultimate big game receiver. He comes through when you need big plays. He doesn’t back down from big moments, he embraces them. Inexplicably, Smith never caught another ball the rest of the day. In fact, Joe Flacco only targeted him twice after the hot start. Both targets resulted in positive plays for Baltimore. First, Darrelle Revis was called for a 20 yard pass interference penalty that led to a huge touchdown just before the half. The second target to Smith came late in the 3rd quarter of a tie game on a crucial 3rd and 2 for Baltimore. Revis was called for holding. I get Revis is an amazing player, but the Ravens were essentially five-for-five when targeting Smith, regardless of whether Revis was in coverage or not. For Baltimore to ignore its most proven big game performer didn’t make sense to me.

ONE
MVP: Aaron Rodgers.
Runner Up: Tom Brady.
Not on the ballot: Peyton Manning.

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