10 Things, NFL Wildcard Weekend

Andy Dalton fell flat in the postseason for the 4th season in a row. This is not a surprise to anyone, except maybe the Bengals. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

As we’ve discussed here throughout the season, Andy Dalton has been horrific at times, especially in prime time games. With AJ Green’s injury struggles in 2014, Dalton played like a backup QB more often than not. It’s time Cincinnati treated him as such. Dalton was incapable Sunday afternoon. How many times did he miss open receivers deep downfield? I counted four. As erratic as his passes were, his decision-making was worse. If you recall, Dalton panicked late in the game against San Diego in last year’s playoffs. He lost his head, escaped the pocket and tried to move the offense with his feet. Dalton isn’t Cam Newton or Russell Wilson. He’s not even Jay Cutler. The moment Dalton collapses into that mode of desperation, the game is over.

On a crucial 3rd and 13 late in the game against the Colts, with the Bengals clinging to life, Dalton darted out of the pocket. He slid three yards beyond the line of scrimmage. If you only get three yards on a 3rd and 13 before you need to slide, your judgement is horrible. Did I mention he slid? In the playoffs? With the game on the line?

With AJ Green, Dalton is a competent quarterback, but only because he has an All-Pro security blanket. The Colts are a poor defensive team and still Dalton’s numbers were mind-numbingly awful; 18/35, 155 Yards. That’s your franchise quarterback? I guess you can “credit” Dalton for getting to the postseason in each of his first four seasons, but at some point getting there doesn’t matter as much as performing once you’re there. That moment came 13 months ago. In four games, Dalton sports a completion percentage well below 60 and a 1:6 touchdown to interception ratio. Time to move along, Cincinnati.

In fairness to Andy Dalton, it wasn’t all his fault. Marvin Lewis and the Bengals abandoned the ground game waaayy too early Sunday. I foolishly picked the Bengals because Jeremy Hill had been stellar. The Colts have a soft defense. Pounding the ball on the ground would punish the defense, move the ball, and keep Andrew Luck off the field all at the same time. The Bengals stuck to that game plan for most of the 1st half and remained in striking distance, trailing 13-10 at the half. Then, in the 3rd quarter, the Bengals ran the football on just 4 of their 12 plays from scrimmage, amassing a total of 13 yards and zero 1st downs. Only on their final possession of that quarter did the Bengals trail by more than 10 points. Though, even a 13 point deficit isn’t enough to justify abandoning the run when Dalton is your quarterback.

Jeremy Hill’s stat line tells you all you need to know about why Cincinnati lost; 13 touches. Since getting Hill more involved in the offense in Week 7, the Bengals were 7-1 when he had 14+ touches. Their record when Hill’s touches fell below 14? 0-3. Jeremy Hill was Cincinnati’s ticket to Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton’s first playoff victory and they tossed it aside.

I’m kicking myself for not trusting the Ravens. I almost always pick the Ravens in big games. I even said as much in my picks last week. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get over how poorly Baltimore finished the season, struggling to go 2-1 against the Jaguars, Texans and Browns. I should have known the poise and confidence of that team would outweigh Pittsburgh’s home field advantage. I should have known the stoic John Harbaugh would outcoach the emotional and erratic combination of Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley. And let’s not forget about Joe Flacco. He’s the rich man’s Eli Manning. Steady and reliable, Flacco is never reckless. He stays in his lane and performs at an elite level. Saturday night was Flacco’s 9th playoff start since 2010. In those ten games he’s thrown 20 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions. That’s incredible. Flacco is the most reliable playoff quarterback in the league today, and that’s including guys like Brady, Manning and Rodgers.

Though the Steelers were dominated Saturday night, the loss of Le’Veon Bell cannot be understated. Imagine the Eagles of 2001 without Duce Staley or the mid 2000’s Chargers without LaDainian Tomlinson. Bell IS the Steelers offense. Antonio Brown and Ben Roetlisberger are great players who had stellar seasons, and both were excellent against Baltimore even in defeat. But Bell is the lynchpin. He bails out the offense on 3rd downs by taking swing passes for 15 yards. He sucks in safeties to open up Brown, Wheaton and Bryant deep down the field. I’m too lazy to check the official numbers, but that was the only game I recall this season where the Steelers failed to get the ball downfield with consistent success.

The Dallas Cowboys were doing so many Dallas Cowboys things on Sunday I couldn’t help but smile. Stupid penalties. Horrible defense. Choking stars. Dumb coaching. It was all there. Dez Bryant was on the verge of punching someone out. You could feel it coming. Sadly, the Detroit Lions have a longer and more extensive resume of choking in big (and small) moments. The Lions could no longer move the chains. Matthew Stafford’s hot start was a thing of the past. Even the Lions vaunted defense got soft. Of course, the Lions also had the misfortune of not paying off the officials like Jerry Jones apparently did before Sunday’s game.

Seriously, if you’re a Cowboys fan defending the officials picking up the flag on a penalty AFTER IT HAD ALREADY BEEN ANNOUNCED than you’re either dumb, ignorant, or both. Nevermind. If you’re a Cowboys fan, you’re definitely both. Anyway, let’s breakdown the catastrophe. First, it was pass interference. The linebacker (Anthony Hitchens) made contact with the receiver prior to the football arriving without turning to find the football. Need proof? Here you go. For the blind, that’s Hitchens’ left hand on Brandon Pettigrew’s right shoulder.

Hitchens PI

Second, prior to the pass interference, Hitchens was holding the tight end before the pass was in the air. Need proof? I got that, too.

Hitchens Hold

Third, running onto the field to argue with an official is a penalty, especially if you’re not the coach. Running onto the field to argue with an official without your helmet on is certainly a penalty unless, apparently, you’re a Dallas Cowboy. Dez Bryant deserved a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. I still haven’t heard an explanation for why he wasn’t flagged. I’m guessing that’s because the explanation starts with, “Well, Jerry Jones paid us a lot of money…”

Finally, if you’re in the “Hitchens’ face mask was being held, so Pettigrew should have been flagged, too” crowd, then A. you’re a whining baby and B. the calls would have offset then and the down replayed. Instead, Dallas got away with three penalties and forced a 4th down. And if you think that’s all Dallas got away with, watch the tape. Detroit’s defensive line was getting held as if they were life rafts and the Cowboys offensive line were drowning victims. Take a look for yourself:

Cowboys Holding 2Cowboys Holding 3

Now, let’s give Dallas a very tiny sliver of credit for taking advantage of the NFL’s Christmas gift to them. Let’s also blame the Lions for failing to convert 3rd and short in the 2nd half, because that’s ultimately what cost them the game. After Detroit’s 1st drive of the 2nd half (when Stafford’s pass was tipped and intercepted on the first play), the Lions failed to convert a 3rd and short on their next three drives. The first failed attempt came on a 3rd and 3 inside the red zone. The next was a 3rd and 2 that led to a three-and-out. The last in the string was the unforgettable 3rd and 1 pass interference call that “vanished like a fart in the wind.” Three crucial 3rd downs of less than 3 yards. Three failed conversions. That’s what cost Detroit the game. For those blaming Jim Caldwell for punting on 4th and 1 in the 4th after the controversial picked up flag, look at what I just showed you. The Lions couldn’t convert 3rd and short. Would I have still gone for it? Yes, but the blame being put on Caldwell for punting is unfair. His team was struggling to convert on 3rd and short. It was a defendable call. Besides, the backlash is mostly a result of the horrific punt.

Lost in all the controversy Sunday was how mediocre Tony Romo played. He did rally in the 4th quarter to improve his statistics, but it wasn’t his stats that were the problem. Romo looked lost in the pocket, often running into pressure and costing Dallas crucial field position. On Dan Bailey’s miss early in the 3rd quarter, Romo took a sack costing the Cowboys 13 yards. Bailey shouldn’t have missed the 41 yarder, but there’s absolutely no way he misses from inside 30, which is where the kick would have been had Romo played smart. Romo did the same thing again in the 4th quarter pushing what would have been a 41 yard field goal to a 51 yarder. Though Bailey bailed him out that time. Additionally, Romo was somewhat erratic, bouncing balls to receivers’ feet and missing easy reads. His completion percentage, while not awful was his lowest of the season. Five years ago we’d probably have said Romo played well, but given how great he was this season, Sunday’s performance was lacking.

I still can’t believe Dan Bailey missed a 41 yard field goal.

All season we heard about Dallas’ amazing offensive line. On Sunday they absolutely nailed their roles as rag dolls being tossed around by polar bears. Good job, fellas. You were totally worth all the hype. That was such a dominant effort by Detroit’s defensive line. Ndamukong Suh was especially spectacular. Every NFL team should line up to sign him. Actually, I hope the Texans get him just so Suh and JJ Watt can laugh when opponents start seven offensive lineman and two tight ends to protect the QB and running back.

The Carolina Panthers were lucky to draw the depleted Cardinals in the Wildcard round. Outside of Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers performed rather poorly. (I’m giving the defense an incomplete grade. While they held the Cardinals offense to a historically low output, they did play the Cardinals. I can’t credit them too much for dominating a JV squad.) If I’m the Panthers, Cam Newton’s play has me concerned. Either he’s continually getting worse or he’s in so much pain he can’t step into his throws. Every pass from Newton was either flat-footed or off his back foot. It was obvious because his passes sailed on him all afternoon. I know some people are giving the Panthers a chance next week, but if Cam Newton plays like he did Saturday, or anywhere near that level, Carolina will be blown out.

I think the backlash against the Cardinals is unfair, and that’s coming from a guy who’s called them frauds since Week 1. Sure, the Arizona offense was historically bad Saturday, totaling 77 yards… in the game, but they were without their top running back and their top two quarterbacks. A 3rd string QB essentially mutes the team’s receivers. It happens. I was amazed they had a chance to win at all. The 2014 Cardinals should not be judged by the final four weeks of their season.

T.Y. Hilton led the Colts in receiving yards Sunday but he quietly had a bad game due to an unfortunate case of the dropsies. By my count, Hilton dropped two touchdowns, a deep ball of at least 40 yards and another drop that would have converted a 3rd down. Thankfully for the Colts, you can get away with those things when you play Andy Dalton.

Did anyone else watch football this weekend and think, “Man, the Wildcard teams this year are significantly worse than last year.” Because I did. In the NFC alone, I thought all four of last year’s participants (49ers/Packers, Saints/Eagles) were better than this year’s. Sure, Dallas is probably as good as most of the teams in the 2014 group, but if Wildcard weekend is the only basis for judging, they’re not even close.

I don’t get what Jeffrey Lurie and the Eagles are doing. How often has the “Coach is also in charge of player personnel” combo worked? Just because Pete Carroll did it recently doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Bill Belichick has floundered badly as a GM since winning three titles a decade ago. Also, you know who has a GM? Gregg Popovich.

The Eagles need to stop and think about the guy they granted unlimited power. Kelly is a fine coach, but what has he accomplished? He never won the big game in college. His NFL team owns a 3-8 record against winning teams in his two seasons. What’s worse, the Eagles blew a crucial December game against a 3-win team two years in a row under Kelly’s watch. He has no playoff victories. He also jettisoned the team’s most explosive offensive player after the 2013 season. I mean Jim Harbaugh took the 49ers to three straight NFC title games and a Super Bowl. His franchise refused to give him full personnel power. So why don’t we slow our roll on giving Chip Kelly everything he wants? Right now Kelly is the spoiled only child and Lurie is the clueless Dad appeasing all his son’s wishes with hopes his son won’t leave or hate him.

The poor Buffalo Bills are suffering from an epidemic that is spreading throughout sports; entitlement. Doug Marrone is not a great coach. For him to opt out and seek a “better” opportunity is funny to me. What top rate organization would give Marrone a job? He’s bailed on Syracuse and now Buffalo. The Bills were good because of their defense, a defense he had no hand in. Chip Kelly is another example, asking for more while proving little. Coaches these days are as diva-ish as the players.

In the NBA, unproven coaches ask for the world and often get it. Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher were awarded head coaching jobs without serving any time as assistants. Both were granted contracts that put them in the top five of the NBA’s highest paid at the position. Jason Kidd made a power play out of Brooklyn because he wanted more money and out from under his former GM. A team obliged Kidd even though he failed to win a playoff series despite leading a team with the league’s highest payroll. I know Kerr and Kidd have proven to be excellent coaches, but this is now the world we live in. Demand that people give you what you think you deserve before actually proving you’re worth anything at all. The world is backwards.

MVP: NFL Game Officials in Dallas.
Runner Up: Baltimore Raven Defense.
Not on the ballot: NFL Game Officials in Dallas.

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