AFTER FURTHER REVIEW...: The Final Four

Welcome to 'After Further Review...', where we think all these upsets are making the NFL playoffs feel like March Madness, where we can't wait for Steelers/Ravens III ("This time, it's for Tampa"), and where we'd like to remind you we wrote on this in Friday's post: "we were tempted to take each of the four road dogs this weekend (yes, even Arizona)."

I also said the divisional round was the best week, with the most shocking upsets, even of #1 seeds. So what happens? Both #1 seeds take it in on the chin, and a #2 as well. The Arizona upset of Carolina felt like a #10 seed beating a #2 to make the Sweet 16. Of all the top seeds, only Pittsburgh won at home, and will host one championship game, while Arizona, the red-headed stepchild of the NFC playoffs, will host the other -- the only 9-7 team ever to host a championship game.

Cinderellas were lurking everywhere: both #6 seeds are in championship games for the same time ever, and #6's are now 4-0 against #1 seeds in the last four games, after losing all of the previous 10. Most of us got Tennessee right in the upset poll last week, and several folks took Philly (a select few even picked Carolina). Unfortunately, when it came to my bracket picks, I didn't have the cojones to take the Cinderellas I liked. See, I wanted to take Arizona, honest I did. And I wasn't all that hot on New York, either. I only ended up only picking one road team (luckily, it was Baltimore), so I got two of the Final Four right. Why didn't I have a great 3-1 or 4-0 weekend, with at least two upset picks? Because I was too much of a [SITE DECORUM] to go with my gut. Let that be a lesson to you youngsters out there: Don't be a [SITE DECORUM]

Philly beat New York 23-11 -- the only game ever to end with that score. Just like the only 11-10 game ever earlier this year. Why all these weird scores involving the number 11? The power of the safety, baby. The power of the safety. And you know what that means...

SAFETYWATCH '08: That's right -- you know it, you love it, you can't live without it*...

Giants DE Justin Tuck forced Eagles QB Donovan McNabb into an intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety in the 2nd quarter Sunday. I really think we're headed for a Super Bowl-deciding safety this year. It's my dream, and it's my nightmare. And with either Baltimore or Pittsburgh in the game, it's damn likely as well.

* Not true.

 

SUCKER PUNCHED: Last week, I wrote about how the divisional round of the playoffs provides the opportunity for a hot team coming off a big win (and often a string of them) to knock off a conference power coming off a bye (and often rusty). I mentioned how a great season can be derailed by one flat effort, one bad matchup, one otherworldly performance. Bill Simmons often writes about “The Gut Punch Game”, where a team loses a game it seemingly had in the bag. Well, this should be called “The Sucker Punch Game”, because you almost never see it coming, and because that’s the best way for any underdog to win a fight -- by knocking the bigger guy on his ass before he knows what’s going on. Kind of like Michael Westbrook v. Stephen Davis (scroll down to #9). 

No game this weekend better exemplified this phenomenon than Cards/Panthers. Carolina came out looking very strong, scoring a TD on their opening drive after only five plays -- gashing Arizona on the ground, left and right. It looked like a replay of the Cardinals other games vs. playoff opponents down the stretch, when they quickly fell behind 21-0 to Philly, Minnesota, and New England. Unfortunately, it looked like the Panthers had seen those game tapes, because they immediately went into sleepwalk mode, as if Arizona would just lay down for them. They didn’t.

The Cardinals did what they’ve struggled to do all year on the road -- take an early punch, and counter back with their own attack rather than roll up into a ball. They scored to tie the game, then recovered a fumble, and turned that into another score. The rest is a blur, but it involves a whole lot of Jake Delhomme throwing picks and Larry Fitzgerald running wild through the Panther secondary (more on them in a moment). Before it was over, the Cardinals had run off 33 straight points, and the score looked just about how most people expected -- except in reverse -- 33-13. 

I don’t think there’s much doubt the Panthers suffered the sucker punch of the weekend -- a supposedly soft passing team from a dome, with a coach in his first playoffs goes on the road to take down the running-and-defense team with the coach who’s been to a Super Bowl.

 

TURNING POINT #1: Donovan McNabb had just thrown a pick. His team was down 11-10, and his offensive numbers did not look good. The Eagles' only TD came on a one-yard drive, Giants rush was getting to him, and the crowd was into it. He faced a 3rd and 20 when he dropped back to pass, had to avoid both Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka in the backfield, but twisted away from both (injuring Kiwanuka in the process). Finding a little space, he found WR Jason Avant for a 21-yard gain, and a huge first down. The Eagles got another big 3rd down conversion from WR Kevin Curtis (after he dropped what would’ve been a long gain), and eventually kicked a FG to take a 13-11 lead. That was a lead they would never lose, as they ended up coasting to a surprisingly easy win. So easy, McNabb felt comfortable making a phone call during the game -- from the Giants bench, picking up a 15-yard penalty. McNabb told FOX’s Chris Meyers he shouldn’t have done that, but something tells me the Giants and their fans might remember that one for awhile.

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“INJURED, PENALIZED, AND TURNOVER-PRONE IS NO WAY TO GO THROUGH LIFE, SON”: The Titans became the #1 seed in the AFC by playing stout defense and running the ball successfully. Both those areas showed up relatively well for them on Saturday (13 points allowed, 117 yards on 26 carries). They also reached their 13-3 record during the regular season by staying relatively healthy, and avoiding damaging penalties and critical mistakes. Those areas pretty much went in the toilet this weekend, pulling their entire season down with them.

One of the big questions coming into the game was the health of two Titans linemen -- DT Albert Haynesworth and C Kevin Mawae. As it turned out, that was just the start of their injury problems. Haynesworth played most of the game (though had to be helped off the field at one point), but Mawae sat out, which may have affected the Titans O-line on Ravens blitzes (QB Kerry Collins had a 81 QB rating and no INT’s on four-man rushes, and only a 51.5 rating and one INT when they brought extra rushers). In addition, they lost their top offensive playmaker, RB Chris Johnson, for the game after a quick start (100 yards from scrimmage in less than a half), and had to play for a time without DE Jevon Kearse, who left briefly with yet another injury. 

The Titans lost -- and only scored 10 points in doing so -- despite out-gaining the Ravens 391-211. That’s not easy to do, but it helps when you challenge the NFL record for most penalties in a playoff game. They had 12 penalties for 89 yards -- second only to the Denver Broncos back in January of ‘92. You knew it was going to be bad when Dan Dierdorf’s quote of coach Jeff Fisher at kickoff ("There will beplenty of invitations to fight, we have to turn them down") was followed by the Titans getting an unnecessary roughness penalty after the whistle on the fourth snap of the game. That was like the team saying, “Uh, yeah, coach, whatever. We’re way too amped for this game to worry about fundamentals.” Which brings us to...

After finishing the season as the second-best team in football in terms of turnover margin -- their +14 trailed only Miami’s +17 -- they coughed up a -3 performance at the worst possible time. I guess it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise -- Baltimore was just a week removed from forcing the league-leading ball-controllers into a -4 performance -- but nobody could’ve imagined that all three of their turnovers would occur in the red zone. 

 

 

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: In Friday's post, I talked about Fitzgerald was the best WR in the league at going up for a ball in traffic, and how the Cards would need a big day from him to compete. Against the Panthers, Fitzgerald showed the same dominant skills, coming up with another circus catch in traffic on a jump ball, and continually getting wide open. For the game, he had 166 yards receiving -- of Warner’s 220 passing (83%) -- including a 29-yard TD. Everyone knew Fitzgerald was Arizona’s main threat through the air, especially with Boldin out. When he began to tear their secondary apart, Daryl Johnston and every Panthers fan in Bank of America Stadium (a name so unmemorable I had to look it up) was begging them to double-team, or even triple-team -- if not pull an outright “sweep the leg” tactic.

But Panther defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac appeared to have less idea how to stop Fitzgerald than he has vowels in his last name. On Friday, I also warned that " sometimes someone just goes Anthony Carter all over your ass". On Saturday, Fitzgerald was that someone, and the Panthers were that ass.

 

GOAT OF THE WEEK: Fitzgerald wasn’t enough to beat Carolina single-handedly. But the Cards got a whole lot of help from another player. And although Eli Manning played like crap, can there really be any doubt who had the most damaging performance for their own team? Delhomme was just supposed to be a game manager. About what his 15 TD/12 INT for the season would make you expect.  -- a caretaker for a running-and-defense team, as he was for the Panthers Super Bowl team in 2003. But against Arizona, on his 34th birthday no less, he threw five (5) picks, and had a very costly fumble (more on that in a moment). And it wasn’t like the running game was stuffed and he had to force things (5.0 YPC) -- he just forced things all on his own. Delhomme’s performance was so bad, we may hear about Carolina looking for another QB this off-season.

 

TURNING POINT #2: Speaking of that Delhomme fumble... The Cards had just tied the game, and the Panthers took over on their own 20. The first play was a pass -- or at least, that’s how they drew it up. Arizona DL Antonio Smith, who last week sacked Falcons QB Matt Ryan for a safety, again broke free into the backfield. Smith stripped Delhomme of the ball, and recovered it himself for a huge turnover. The Cards scored two plays later and suddenly it was 14-7 Arizona. That huge momentum swing -- two TD’s and a fumble in less than a minute of game time -- seemed to stun the Panthers, and they never seemed to fully recover (especially after Delhomme threw another pick in the red zone less than two minutes later). 

 

BY THE NUMBERS: A few quick hits from the Steelers 35-24 win over San Diego:

-- The Steelers out-rushed the Chargers 165-15. Those 15 yards are the sixth-least in NFL playoff history.

-- That ridiculously low total is due in part to the fact San Diego ran all of one offensive play in the 3rd quarter -- and that was an interception.

-- On Pittsburgh's first four drives, they ran 21 plays for 72 yards and 0 points. On their next eight drives, they ran 49 plays for 270 yards and 28 points.

-- Even after Pittsburgh's win, teams coming off a bye are just 5-7 in the last three years.

 

TURNING POINT #3: The Ravens were off to a slow start in Tennessee. They had just allowed a frighteningly easy-looking TD drive to the Titans, and the vaunted Baltimore D appeared a step slow. The Raven were also looking shaky on offense -- five total yards on two drives. The crowd was into it, and the game was in danger of getting away from Baltimore -- down 7-0 on the road in a hostile environment, playing the #1 seed, and facing a 3rd and 18 in their own territory -- when rookie QB Joe Flacco came up big.

After an encroachment penalty on Titans DE Kyle Vanden Bosch made it 3rd and 13 at the Titans 47, Flacco dropped back, and heaved the ball deep on a low line drive (an impressive throw which was reminiscent of a young Favre or Elway) to a streaking WR Derrick Mason, who hauled it in for a huge TD. The Ravens had tied the game just three minutes after Tennessee had taken the lead, and stemmed the tide of emotion. The game then assumed the tenor we all expected -- a tough, low-scoring defensive battle -- with neither team scoring for more than 32 minutes of game time. The Ravens D bent, but didn’t break, and you have to wonder if they could’ve maintained that stance had their offense not given them some early reason to believe.

 

COACHING MOVE OF WEEK: Rookie coach Jim Harbaugh has looked like anything but this season. He’s fallen in the shadow of Mike Smith and Tony Sparano because conventional wisdom says he was blessed with more talent, but in the playoffs he’s stepped to the front of the stage. While the other rookie coaches were one-and-done, Harbaugh is 2-0, and I thought one if his moves on Saturday was the best of the weekend.

The score was 7-7 early in the 3rd quarter when a catch by Titans TE Bo Scaife which set up a 46-yard FG attempt for Bironas. But Harbaugh (or more likely his people in the booth upstairs) spotted something everyone else -- refs, announcers, me -- missed: Scaife bobbled the ball on his way out of bounds. Whoever saw it, the credit should go to Harbaugh -- setting up a good replay system with able assistants is a big part of being a head coach in the NFL (just ask Mike Nolan -- actually, on second thought, don’t).

Harbaugh quickly challenged before the snap, and the play was overturned. The incomplete pass left the ball just five yards further back, but made for a much tougher, 51-yard attempt for Bironas. He pulled his kick just wide to the left, and the game remained tied. In the end, the difference in the kick may have been the challenge, and those three points may have been the difference in the game.

 

PUTTING THE “O” IN JOE: Flacco not only became the first rookie QB ever to win back-to-back playoff games, but he’s done it without throwing any interceptions or being sacked a single time. He may not put up fancy, new-fangled passing statistics, but a lot can be said about just taking what the defense gives you, not making any mistakes, and letting your running game and defense do the heavy lifting. If you don’t believe me, just ask the Panthers.

 

TURNING POINT #4: As the Chargers/Steelers game started, things had to be tense in Pittsburgh. All the home teams had lost, and their Steelers were about to take on a red-hot San Diego, who had not only won five straight must-win games, and beaten Indy last week, but also gave Pittsburgh all they could handle earlier this year. Then the game starts, and the Chargers rip off big plays to TE Antonio Gates and RB Darren Sproles, followed by Philip Rivers deep ball to DUI Boy himself, Vincent Jackson, who makes a highlight reel TD with his arm hooked by the defender. Suddenly, it was 7-0 Chargers, and you could probably cut the tension in Pittsburgh with a knife. (Also: vehicular criminals were having a very good game.)

But then a funny thing happened -- the Steelers took advantage of the area of the game where they were supposed to be at a disadvantage: the punting game. Or, more precisely, The Mike Scifres Game. Only on this day, the Steelers had Kryptonite for the punting superman -- in the form of PR Santonio Holmes, who took his first punt bank 67 yards for a TD to tie the game. Along the way, he avoided Scifres and leapt over WR Legedu Naanee, who made a pretty weak dive at his knees instead of just shoving him out (when Jim Nantz basically calls you out for being a pussy, that's what you are). The big play released the pressure and got the Heinz Field crowd back into it. Although the Chargers added the next points on a FG, the Steelers then ripped off 21 points and marched on to a relatively easy win.

 

JUST ENGAGE: When a team’s leading receiver has just 651 yards, and is going against one of the best defenses in the NFL, you don’t expect him to have a breakout game. But that’s just what Tennessee’s WR Justin Gage did vs. the Ravens, catching 10 balls for 135 yards, including huge conversions on 3rd and 9 and 3rd and 11 on one 4th quarter drive alone (before TE Alge Crumpler fumbled in the red zone). But he couldn’t get in the end zone, and that was the story of the day for Tennessee. But lost amongst their disappointment in the abrupt end to their season, Titans fans have to hope that's a taste of what they' might see from Gage down the road.

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