NFL Divisional Round Recap

A thrilling, yet ugly game in Denver ended in familiar fashion for Peyton Manning. As expected, a star dominated the game in San Fran, but it wasn’t the star I expected. In Atlanta, the Seahawks rallied and then collapsed, and in the night cap the Texans forgot who they were (again). (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

(4) Ravens 38 at (1) Broncos 35
I still can’t decide if the Ravens were lucky to win in Denver Saturday afternoon or if the Broncos were lucky to not get blown out. Either way, I think it’s safe to say the better team won. Though, despite the popular, “that was the greatest game ever,” sentiment, the game was actually a sloppy, mind-boggling mess.

Let’s start with Baltimore’s offense. The Ravens and Joe Flacco were making future Hall-of-Famer Champ Bailey look like the 2012 version of Nnamdi Asomugha. Torrey Smith left Bailey in his tracks on two separate touchdown passes in the 1st half. (One of 59 yards, the other 32.) When Baltimore came out of the half locked in a 21-21 tie, they completely abandoned the deep ball. I understand defenses make adjustments (well, except for Dom Capers and the Packers), but you have to at least test the defense and their adjustments before abandoning something that worked so well. It wasn’t until the Ravens trailed by a touchdown with seconds left in the game that they finally threw deep again. You’ll never believe this, but it worked.

Aside from the questionable play calling, Baltimore outplayed Denver in every facet of the game except kick coverage. How you lose a playoff game when gifted two special teams returns for touchdowns is beyond me. Peyton Manning, unfortunately, deserves a big piece of the blame. He was erratic for most of the day and his fluttering passes demonstrated his arm just isn’t what it used to be. When he wasn’t panicking in the pocket, Manning was missing open receivers and forcing the football. The overtime interception was something you’d expect from a rookie quarterback but to see it from one of the all-time greats was shocking. You don’t throw across your body while scrambling. You just don’t… especially if you’re as athletically challenged as Manning. Still, if you look at Manning’s stat line – 28/43, 65%, 290, 3 TD, 2 INT – he had a decent day. It was certainly good enough to win. (Also, it’s only fair to mention the first interception early in the 1st quarter was totally bogus. It was obviously pass interference. Such is life.)

So we find ourselves with just over a minute to go and the Ravens down by a touchdown with 77 yards to go and zero timeouts. Baltimore got here with big plays, solid defense, and inexplicable play-calling in the 2nd half. The Broncos arrived here via two huge returns for touchdowns, a few dominating touchdown drives, missed offensive opportunities, and awful defensive play in the secondary… and still were 69 seconds from victory. Then the 70 yard game-tying bomb to Jacoby Jones happened.

How many Broncos fans missed Brian Dawkins in those final seconds of regulation? Despite the amazing athleticism of NFL defensive backs, I am constantly amazed at how poorly they read and react to the football while it’s in the air. Rahim Moore had an easy line on Joe Flacco’s pass that hung in the air just a little too long. All Moore had to do was get to the spot, time his jump, and knock it down. Instead, Moore attempted to back pedal his way there. In addition to failing to get to Jones, Moore mistimed his jump by a solid two seconds. He was nearly on the ground again by the time the ball arrived over his head. If I hadn’t watched a season’s worth of Nnamdi Asomugha, it would have easily been the worst defensive play I’ve seen in a decade.

The game was ugly, extremely entertaining, and one that will live on in NFL Playoff lure for sometime. Joe Flacco continued his playoff excellence, Ray Lewis’ career continued, and Peyton Manning’s was further tarnished by another early postseason exit.

(3) Packers 31 at (2) 49ers 45
Hold on one second ……………………………………………………………………… ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. Sorry, I was giving Jim Harbaugh a standing ovation. What a gutsy and brilliant move by Harbaugh to replace his starting quarterback (rated as the 3rd best passer in the NFL at the time) with an unproven second year wildcard out of Nevada. I thought the move would backfire on Harbaugh, especially after the Rams and Seahawks made Colin Kaepernick seem very mediocre over the last few weeks of the season. Clearly, I was wrong. This is why I’m sitting at my Ikea desk in the hallway of my tiny home and Harbaugh is in a monstrous office behind a mahogany desk making millions of dollars. Kaepernick was Superman Saturday night. He couldn’t be stopped and therefore neither could the 49ers.

I confidently rolled with the Packers in this game because A. I didn’t trust Kaepernick and B. I trusted Aaron Rodgers to play a great game and carry his team. Well, I was definitely wrong about A and I was partially wrong about B. Despite the loss, Rodgers played a really good, but not great, game. He finished with over 250 yards to go with two touchdowns and one harmless interception that equated to a punt. (It was 3rd down, Rodgers took a shot 50 yards downfield inside the 49ers 20 and it was picked off.) Green Bay’s loss had almost nothing to do with Rodgers and the offense and everything to do with Green Bay’s defense and special teams.

Obviously, the muffed punt inside Green Bay’s own 10 was the big killer. The Packers had just taken a 14-7 lead and forced Kaepernick and the 49ers to punt. Instead of Rodgers taking the field with momentum and a chance to stretch the lead and apply pressure to the young Kaepernick, the Packers gift-wrapped the 49ers a tie score. From there, San Francisco controlled most of the game and the Packers never had the lead again.

The main reason Green Bay never found the lead again was due to their awful defense. I’ve never heard of a defense surrendering 579 yards in a playoff game before. 323 rushing yards at 7.5 yards per carry? Are you serious? It takes a mammoth effort by the defense to allow such production on the ground. Blame the Packers for not tackling, blame the Packers for underestimating Kaepernick, blame Dom Capers for making absolutely no adjustments, blame whomever or whatever you want. There’s no excuse(s) to justify such an outing.

I’ve been touting the Packers as NFC champs for most of the season and especially the last month or so despite my younger brother advising me otherwise. He argued I was too enamored with Aaron Rodgers. I believed the Packers were a good team that became great by battling through adversity and injuries. Turns out my brother was right; the Packers were a good team with fatal flaws. Nothing more.

(5) Seahawks 28 at (1) Falcons 30
In my picks post last Friday, I used the following sentence to describe my 2012 thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons: I’ve called them frauds, phonies, sissies, pansies, and any other adjective that’s similar to “overrated” and “soft.” Turns out, I was exactly right. I’ve never seen a football team pull so many ugly wins out of their rear ends before. And please don’t tell me it’s because they’re a great team that knows how to win. Atlanta’s last second wins over Carolina, Oakland, and now Seattle were 10% Atlanta and 90% the opponents’ stupidity. Let’s also not forget that Atlanta’s final drive to get within field goal range wasn’t anything new for Seattle. The Chicago Bears did the exact same thing in Week 13.

With Seattle holding a 17-14 lead, the Bears started the ensuing drive on their own 14 with 24 seconds left and no timeouts. On Chicago’s first play, Jay Cutler completed a 65 yard pass to Brandon Marshall. The Bears kicked the tying field goal two plays later before eventually losing in overtime. Please, can someone explain to me how you allow this to happen not once, but twice within the same season? It’s totally inexplicable. Seattle, owners of the NFL’s top ranked defense, needed to keep the Falcons out of field goal range for 31 seconds. That’s it. Instead, they allowed Matt Ryan to waltz down inside the 35 in just two plays. Gus Bradley’s Head Coaching stock plummeted faster than the Lakers playoff chances.

Luckily for Bradley, he wasn’t the worst coach on the Seattle sidelines Sunday. That title was decisively won by Pete Carroll. Why kick a 2nd quarter field goal to give your team momentum in a road playoff game when you’re losing 13-0? I don’t know, Pete, maybe because your team has proven an ability to rally late and those three points could have been useful later on MAYBE!!! (Nic Cage voice for emphasis.) Ask Mike Smith how he feels about passing on field goals on the road in the postseason. He’d probably tell you about the time he passed on a field goal and a 3-0 lead to go for it on 4th and 1 against the Giants a year ago. Know how that turned out? A 24-2 shellacking. Don’t pass on points in the postseason. And just in case you thought Carroll was only half a moron, he likely convinced you when his clock management at the end of the 1st half far surpassed anything I’ve ever seen from Andy Reid. For the second time in one quarter, Carroll and the Seahawks managed to enter Atlanta’s red zone and escape with zero points.

As you well know, Seattle rallied behind the brilliance of Russell Wilson and with an assist from the Atlanta offense. I thought the Falcons decision to abandon the run game in the 4th quarter with a double digit lead was brilliant. Why not let Matt Ryan – a career underachiever in big games – throw deep into double coverage on 2nd down after your offense picked up a 1st down on three straight running plays? It makes perfect sense!

Ok, I’m done here. Though I picked this game correctly, I was way off about the Atlanta Falcons. They’re still the same fraudulent sissies I thought they were for three quarters of the season. Also, I love Russell Wilson. He’s my first choice in a draft of any quarterback drafted in the past two years. I’m just glad the Eagles took Vinny Curry in Round 2 instead of Wilson.

(3) Texans 28 at (2) Patriots 41
Here’s my amateur theory about game-planning for the NFL Playoffs: Do what you do best. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but allow me to explain further.

Too many times teams try to exploit an opponent’s weakness(es) instead of relying on their own strength(s). Once you get lost in changing scheme, you not only weaken your team but you lose your identity as well. The Texans were a perfect example of this Sunday.

If you didn’t know, the Patriot defense is ranked in the top 10 in rush defense and in the bottom four in pass defense. The Texans best offensive player is Arian Foster (a running back). The Texan passing game, while above average, relies heavily on a successful ground game. When the Texans aren’t running the football well, the passing game struggles and the offense stalls. On Sunday afternoon, Houston faced off against the Patriots with a game plan to throw the football and use Arian Foster and the ground game more as a secondary weapon. Obviously, things didn’t work out so well for Houston.

Granted, the Houston rushing attack didn’t burst out of the gates (6 rushes for 10 yards on Houston’s first five drives), but Houston never trailed by more than a touchdown at any point during those five drives. The first 25 minutes of the game played perfectly into Houston’s hands. But instead of pounding the Patriots on the ground, the Texans kept chucking the football as if they already trailed by double digits.

If you didn’t think the Texan running game and Arian Foster would eventually break through, you’d be wrong. AFTER the Patriots took a 17-3 lead with just under four minutes remaining in the 1st half, the Texans FINALLY let Foster carry the offense. The result? A five play, 47 yard touchdown drive to bring the score to 17-10. Foster’s stats on that drive? 5 carries, 47 yards. Hmmmm, interesting. After the Texans kicked a field goal to close the half and bring the score to 17-13, I thought Houston had figured it out and could possibly even steal the game in the 2nd half. Not quite.

The Patriots stormed out of the half and scored to push the lead up to 11. The Texans panicked and forgot their bread and butter. On their first drive of the 3rd quarter, Foster picked up 6 yards on 1st down. After two worthless throws, the Texans punted. On their second drive of the quarter, Houston watched Matt Schaub fumble the football for a nine yard loss and then throw an interception five plays later. The Patriots scored off the turnover to take a commanding 31-13 lead. Houston now had to play New England’s game. Game over.

Houston had its chances in the 1st half to punish the Patriot defense and soften them up for later in the game. Instead they chose to rely on Schaub and the passing game; a tactic that cost them the top seed in the AFC, a 1st round bye, three of their final four regular season games, and ultimately, their season. Well done, Gary Kubiak.

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