The Ravens crumbled against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, the Jets did more than back up their trash talk by spanking the Patriots, and the NFC title is the Packers’ to lose. Just don’t tell the Bears.
(5) Ravens 24 at (2) Steelers 31
I’ve already been wrong about a lot of things throughout the 2011 NFL playoffs, but I hit a new level of wrong when Joe Flacco shriveled up and died in Pittsburgh. My words from last Thursday;
I expect a higher scoring game than most, and as a result, Flacco, not the Raven defense, will need to win the game in order for Baltimore to advance. I believe he’s up to the task.
In case you missed the game, Flacco’s performance was Jake Delhome-esque. Flacco played tentatively. Something you can never do against a good defense. He also carelessly turned the ball over, was inaccurate, took stupid sacks, and worst of all, played with a lost expression on his face that would lead one to believe he just saw his Grandmother naked. How bad was Flacco’s day? Well, if I could sum up his performance on a single play, I’d choose the play where Flacco could have avoided a sack by throwing the ball away but decided to run out of bounds for a six yard loss instead. Clearly, his head wasn’t right. The Steelers had him rattled. Despite Flacco’s troubles, the Ravens (ok, the Raven defense) dominated most of the first half and had a 14 point lead at halftime.
Some thoughts on the first half: I thought Mike Tomlin’s challenge on the opening kickoff was stupid. Why squander a challenge over 14 yards of field position so early in the game when you have the NFL’s premiere defense? It was obvious the officials missed the call, but Tomlin should’ve trusted his defense to prevent a first down and keep points off the board. As a result of the early challenge, Tomlin and the Steelers were out of challenges before the second quarter. I was also surprised an experienced team like the Steelers couldn’t bounce back after the fumble returned for a touchdown. For the entire 2nd quarter, Pittsburgh looked dazed and confused…until Ray Rice gave them life.
Rice’s fumble in the open field early in the 3rd quarter was unbelievably careless, especially for a back known for protecting the football. The fumble was the beginning of the end for Baltimore as the Ravens essentially gave the game away in the 3rd quarter with devastating turnovers on three of their four possessions. All three led to Pittsburgh points.
While the Steelers won by making Baltimore pay for its mistakes, it’s hard to argue the Ravens didn’t give the game away. Baltimore’s turnovers were stupid mistakes; an open field fumble, a terribly overthrown ball, and a botched snap. The Steelers didn’t make stupid mistakes. The Roethlisberger fumble was simply a great play by Terrell Suggs and the fumble by Rashard Mendenhall happens when you play an aggressive defense like Baltimore’s. My point is this: Pittsburgh made Baltimore earn its breaks where as Baltimore simply gave them to Pittsburgh. Obviously, this is no fault of the Steelers.
As for the officiating, it was pretty horrendous. The holding call that nullified a punt return for a Baltimore touchdown was garbage. The Pittsburgh player clearly flopped. Give him credit for drawing the flag, but the officials need to do better, especially on a call that influenced the outcome of the game. Speaking of bad calls, the officials gave Pittsburgh a helping hand near the goal line by correctly flagging a defensive hold yet ignoring an offensive hold on the same play. Somehow, the officials ignored the infraction that occurred at the football and flagged the infraction ten yards away from the play. I should also point out that John Harbaugh manipulated the officials into a free time out by throwing his challenge flag and then pretending he thought the officials didn’t grant a first down. Of course, Harbaugh will never admit this, but he knew what he was doing.
People can argue that Anquan Boldin’s drop in the endzone and TJ Hou-stolemyhands’ drop on 4th down influenced the outcome of the game. I’d be the first to admit that Boldin’s drop was one of three or four offensive mistakes that cost Baltimore its 2010 season. Still, the Steelers played (mostly) sound football while the Ravens repeatedly shot themselves in the foot. Those errors allowed Pittsburgh to hang around and ultimately win the game. Pittsburgh won by taking what was given to them. You can’t blame them for that.
(6) Packers 48 at (1) Falcons 21
My favorite memory from the Divisional round of the NFL Playoffs was the Gillette “Young Guns” commercial featuring Ray Rice and Matt Ryan. If I asked you to name three players that killed their team this past weekend, you would name, in some order, Ray Rice, Joe Flacco, and Matt Ryan. As I mentioned above, Rice’s fumble devastated the Ravens in Pittsburgh. However, if Rice’s fumble negatively impacted the Ravens, Ryan’s mistakes torpedoed Atlanta’s chances of advancing.
Ryan’s first of two interceptions came in the end zone and cost the Falcons an opportunity to go up three points. Aaron Rodgers promptly drove 80 yards and put the Packers up seven. Ryan then responded by throwing what ultimately became the decisive pick-six. What’s worse, the interception returned for a touchdown by Tramon Williams came as time expired in the first half. What’s even worse, the intercepted throw was forced by Ryan in an attempt to make up for a horrible sack on the prior play that took the Falcons out of field goal range.
I picked the Packers and hated on the Falcons because I didn’t think the Falcons could handle the pressure of the conference’s top seed. I was right. Losing on the road in the Wildcard round of the playoffs (as Atlanta did in 2008) doesn’t prepare a team to handle the pressure of home field advantage and the number one seed. The Falcons, and Ryan especially, proved as much Saturday night.
It also didn’t help Atlanta’s cause that Aaron Rodgers was out of his mind. By the end of the 3rd quarter, Rodgers had already dropped 42 points and nearly 400 yards of offense on Atlanta’s defense. In three postseason appearances, Rodgers’ lowest quarterback rating is…wait for it…take a deep breath…and ready…121.4. No, that’s not a misprint. We’re a Superbowl ring and an MVP award away from Brett Favre publicly declaring his tutelage is responsible for the great career of Rodgers.
Now, before we all get carried away, let’s remember this is just three games. As Tom Brady and Peyton Manning proved this postseason, playing quarterback in the playoffs is a tough way to earn a living. Still, Rodgers’ performance in Atlanta against one of the league’s top defenses was breathtaking. He carved up Atlanta’s secondary at will. Rodgers is becoming, if not already, the NFL’s most accurate flame thrower. Best of all, he can move in the pocket to avoid pressure better than anyone else in the game. Michael Vick is impossible to bring down, but once Vick is moving, he’s hardly a threat to throw the ball. Rodgers, on the other hand, always has his eyes downfield, and if need be, he can outrun a defense’s front seven, too.
Rodgers is the quintessential quarterback. He’s Mr. Cool. Never flustered or panicked. No moment is too big. Indoors, outdoors; it doesn’t matter. His arm, a cannon and his accuracy, precise. It’s only a matter of time before Brady, Manning, and Brees are looking up at Rodgers. That is, if we’re not already there.
(4) Seahawks 24 at (2) Bears 35
The Bears won in convincing fashion until they got lazy and allowed the Seattle offense to march up and down the field in the 4th quarter. I would try to make a case that Chicago’s sluggish finish could impact next week’s game, but that’d be a lie. A Packers-Bears contest is a big deal in September, so you can imagine the energy when this NFC North rubber match determines the NFC Champion.
And because I mostly ignored this game, allow me to move on and praise Andy Reid for reluctantly dismissing defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. As unfortunate as it was, it had to happen. The Eagles defense just wasn’t good enough. I’ll delve more into this issue later, but it was nice to see Reid make a move to improve a defense that has declined since 2008. If it helps Reid sleep, he should feel good about his decision after the Divisional round of the playoffs. In all four games, the team with the better defense prevailed. Offenses rule the regular season. Defenses decide championships.
(6) Jets 28 at (1) Patriots 21
I love the excitement and energy the New York Jets bring to the NFL, more specifically, the postseason. Their trash-talking, arrogance, and cockiness are perfect for the playoffs. No team can whip up a storm quite like the Jets. However, as much as I appreciate what the Jets do before kickoff, I hate it when they win. I’d rather enjoy the circus they create and then watch them fail on Sundays.
I loathe the “underdog/no one believed in us” team. It’s so cliché. If it takes millions of people doubting you to get you to perform, then you should consider a career change. Win because you want to, and when you win, please don’t remind us that no one believed in you. It dampens the victory and makes everyone hate you. Ok, it makes me hate you.
Anyway, unfortunately for me, the Jets’ play on Sunday completely, unquestionably, unequivocally outperformed their talk. New York dominated the Patriots in every facet of the game. It was as impressive a playoff victory as Aaron Rodgers’ dismantling of the Atlanta Falcon defense.
New York succeeded where New England failed. The Jets converted on 3rd downs, ran the ball effectively, stretched the field, pressured the quarterback, forced turnovers, limited New England to field goals, effectively turned the NFL’s MVP into another mediocre postseason quarterback, and other than a missed field goal, played mistake-free football. Like I said, it was the most impressive postseason win since the Giants won Superbowl XLII.
I don’t like the Jets, but Sunday’s victory had nothing to do with the Patriots losing. It was all about the Jets winning. (Notice the difference, Steeler fans?) New England was clearly outcoached and overwhelmed by the Jets’ energy and strategy. Tom Brady looked skittish after an early interception and never recovered. It was obvious the Jets had gotten to Brady both physical and mentality when he was ducking and diving in the pocket even though the pressure was still seconds away. The Jets popped the pocket bubble Brady had been living in since November. As a result, Brady’s head was on a constant swivel fearing the next hit instead of finding an open receiver. Not that it would have mattered, though, because Patriot receivers were blanketed all day.
Due to the pressure on Brady, running the ball was the only way New England would win, but a double digit deficit at halftime made a ground attack unlikely. (By the way, while Bill Belichick’s fake punt wasn’t a reasonably sound decision, it would have been effective had Patrick Chung not fumbled the snap. Coaches can only put players in a position to win. Rex Ryan’s players performed, Belichick’s did not.)
In defense of the Patriot offense, they got little help from their defense. After the Patriots closed the gap to three points late in the 3rd quarter, the New England defense surrendered a touchdown drive on the Jets next possession. Like we saw in the Packers-Eagles wildcard game, just when the Patriots had the crowd alive and momentum on their side, the defense gave it right back. I could continue on about how the Patriots wasted time in the 4th quarter, how the Jets dominated the field position battle, and how Mike Pettine’s defense put a strangle hold on the NFL’s top offense. Instead, I’ll close with an alarming comparison.
Tom Brady’s last four postseason appearances compared with Donovan McNabb’s last four…
Brady: 103/168 61.3 % 928 yards 7 TDs 7 INTs 72.7 QB Rating
McNabb: 92/158 58.2 % 1,122 yards 6 TDs 5 INTs 79.6 QB Rating
I’m not sure if this vindicates McNabb or indicts Brady. In either case, this much is true; playing quarterback in the NFL playoffs is a daunting task… unless of course, you’re Aaron Rodgers.