Welcome to 'After Further Review...', where we can't believe the Arizona Cardinals are in the Super Bowl, where we're seriously re-thinking our choice for coach of the year, and where we're not sure if we mentioned this or not, but the Arizona Cardinals are in the Super Bowl.
CARD TRICKS: In the NFL Films annual Super Bowl highlight show after the 1984 season, there’s a clip of Niners C Randy Cross on the sideline late in their 38-16 win over Miami in Super Bowl XIX, grinning at the camera with pride: “People came to see an offense, and the wrong one showed up.” He was of course referring to all the hype leading up to the game about Dan Marino and his record breaking offense, and how it was Montana and Bill Walsh who delivered the high-flying offense that day. I was reminded of this Sunday watching the Arizona’s 32-25 win over Philly, as Cards O-coordinator Todd Haley was taking it to the Eagles defense. After all the talk of what Philly D-coordinator Jim Johnson could do to the Cards (myself included), it seemed everybody came to see a coordinator and the wrong one showed up.
Haley seemed to be one step ahead of Johnson the entire 1st half, as Arizona ran as effectively as they have all year, and had the Warner-to-Fitz express working as well. RB Edgerrin James was tearing off yardage in big chunks -- something he didn’t do even during his recent resurgence -- and the O-line was keeping the Eagles rush off him for the most part. But the highlight was the 62-yard double pass TD from RB JJ Arrington to Warner to Fitzgerald early in the 2nd quarter, which gave Arizona a 14-3 lead, and set the tone for the game. It was quite reminiscent of the to flea flicker from Warner to Fitz in the 1st quarter of the wild card round against Atlanta, which gave the Cards a 7-0 lead and set the tone for that game.
There’s no question Haley had some guidance from head coach Ken Whisenhunt, a former offensive coordinator known for his effective use of trick plays -- like the WR pass from Antwaan Randle El to Hines Ward he called in Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl victory three years ago. But coordinators get hired and fired based largely on their ability to call the right play at the right time, and Haley was all over it on Sunday. Besides the big plays, he also did a great job on the Arizona drive in the 4th quarter which resulted in the game-winning TD.
Philly had scored 19 straight points to grab a 25-24 lead. Arizona was on the ropes, struggling on offense, and badly in need of a momentum-changing drive. Facing a 4th and 1 at the Philly 49, Whisenhunt and Haley went with a run to RB Tim Hightower around the end (despite the fact Hightower had been stuffed on the previous play, a 3rd and 2). The play gained six yards, thanks largely to a block by FB Terrell Smith at the edge on CB Quintin Mikell. Then on 3rd and goal from the Philly 8-yard line, Haley again dialed up the right call, a screen pass to Hightower again for the game-deciding score to send the Cardinals to their very first Super Bowl. The Cardinals and Super Bowl -- it doesn’t sound right, but it is.
WHOOPS: In my Friday post before the playoffs, I ranked all the teams playing wild card weekend in terms of their chances to make the Super Bowl. I ranked Arizona last. Don't laugh, in the poll which accompanied that post, you all voted Arizona last as well -- they got one vote out of 100 cast (that guy should take a bow right about now). Before the second round, I re-seeded the teams and again picked the Cards last. Again, in the poll, you did as well -- they got two votes out of 210 cast. So I thought I'd give us a chance to explain ourselves. What happened? Were the Cards lucky to play the right teams at the right time and avoid cold weather? We were we stupid? Or was it just that unpredictable? Has parity made the NFL playoffs such a crapshoot that any team can get hot and run the table? Am I asking too many questions?
EASY AS 1-2-3: Pittsburgh’s third win over Baltimore this season was their easiest yet. Their defense stifled the Ravens offense, and they got enough big plays out of the passing game to win it fairly convincingly -- much more so than the two-point game with less than five minutes left would lead you to believe. The game remained close for that long due to some smoke and mirror work by Baltimore -- they bent but didn’t break on D, and maximized their scoring opportunity by converting their only decent drive of the first three quarters for a TD -- and some mistakes by Pittsburgh.
The Steelers moved the ball well throughout the 1st half, but couldn’t capitalize -- for a while there, I thought the game might mimic the Titans/Ravens game a week ago when Tennessee let Baltimore hang around too long. First, a huge replay reversal coast them a TD (more on that in a moment) and they had to settle for a FG. Then, the Steelers left another three points on the field when their poor clock management allowed time to run out in the 1st half while they had the ball inside the Ravens 20.
In the 2nd half, the Steelers offense sputtered, but their D continued to put the clamps down on Baltimore’s O. The Ravens only rushed for just 73 yards and a 2.9 YPC, and the game fell on the shoulders of rookie QB Joe Flacco. After avoiding costly mistakes during the first two weeks of the playoffs, Flacco finally looked like a rookie on Sunday. Now, Flacco hadn’t exactly lit it up in the first two playoff games of his career, but he hadn’t thrown a pick or taken a sack. Against the Steelers, he had three of each, and his line (13/30, 141 yards, 0 TD/3 INT) was the probably his worst of the year -- though his 11/28, 115, 0/2 the last time vs. Pittsburgh is certainly close. In fact, his ratings dropped as he went on (81.7, 22.2, 18.2).
While the Steelers had an even tougher time running the ball against the stout Raven front (52 yards, 1.9 YPC), and QB Ben Roethlisberger completed less than 50% of his passes, the ones he did complete went for big yardage. WR Hines Ward had a 45-yard catch to set up their first FG, Santonio Holmes had a 65-yard catch-and-run TD to put them up 13-0, and both TE Heath Miller (30 yards) and RB Cory Davis (20 yards) chipped in healthy gains.
Pittsburgh will play in its seventh Super Bowl (second only to Dallas’ eight), and attempt to win their league-record sixth . It’s the first appearance for head coach Mike Tomlin, who has a chance to win a title in only his second year in the job. To accomplish that, he’ll have to go through the guy the Steelers passed over to give him the job -- Whisenhunt. That should make for interesting conversation/hype during the next two weeks, no?
HERO OF THE WEEK: The Ravens/Steelers game wasn’t decided until S Troy Polamalu picked off a Flacco pass and took it back 40 yards for the game-icing TD. Polamalu may have been questionable to play Sunday, but nothing about his play could be questioned. He was active defending passes (deep and short), up at the line to stuff the run (including a key QB sneak on 4th and 1), and there when the Steelers needed him most -- making the big INT and weaving through traffic to take it to the house.
GOAT OF THE WEEK: Polamalu’s pick-6 was set up by a horrendous special teams penalty by Ravens backup S Daren Stone. Ravens fans everywhere thought their team would take over the possession at midfield, trailing 16-14, and needing only about 20 yards for a potential game-winning FG by K Matt Stover, but CBS cut to commercial break before Stone’s penalty was announced. It negated a great punt return by Jim Leonhard, and moved the ball all the way back to the Baltimore 14-yard line. The Ravens moved the ball a bit, and had they started at midfield, it might’ve been enough. Instead, they had to ask Flacco to keep throwing, and we know how that turned out.
RETURN TO NORMALCY: Through most of the playoffs, scoring first has been a bad thing -- teams scoring first had just a 2-6 record -- but on Sunday both Arizona and Pittsburgh scored first and won.
JOHN HARBAUGH, MASTER OF THE TIMELY CHALLENGE: I mentioned in the open that I’m questioning my choice of Mike Smith as coach of the year. If the award were given out after the postseason, I’d probably go with another first-year coach -- the Ravens John Harbaugh. Not because his team came within a game of the Super Bowl. Not because the other two successful rookie coaches lost their first playoff games. Not even because he beat one of them himself. But because of his seeming ability to keep his team close in games where they appear over-matched early on, and even more so, his competence in the replay challenge system.
After a huge, game-changing overturn last week, he had another vs. Pittsburgh. Just like last week, it occurred on a play which didn’t appear called incorrectly. Again, neither announcer mentioned the possibility of a Baltimore challenge. In fact, this time around, they were predicting a Pittsburgh challenge (Tomlin did throw the flag, but Harbaugh beat him to it). The play -- originally called a catch by Holmes down to the Ravens 1-yard line -- appeared to either be right or a TD. But Harbaugh and his staff quickly spotted that Holmes lost the ball as he hit the ground. Despite the fact he got several feet down (as well as a hand), under the rule change a couple of years back, is was an incompletion.
The call was reversed, and the Steelers had to settle for a FG, which saved Baltimore four points. They trailed 6-0 rather than 10-0, which allowed them to hang around a little longer than they otherwise would have. The Ravens may not have won, but Harbaugh and his well-trained staff gave them the best possible chance to win.
BURNING QUESTION: Any NIner fans out there at this point who don't wish they'd drafted DeSean Jackson when they had the chance? (If so, I'd love to hear why.)
MR. JANUARY: The Eagles may not have advanced to the Super Bowl, but they have have discovered a new passing threat in TE Brent Celek. Celek, who took over for LJ Smith a lot late in the year, had a stellar postseason, highlighted by his performance Sunday at Arizona. For the game, he set an Eagles playoff record with 10 catches, compiling 83 yards and two TD's. His postseason numbers (19 catches, 151 yards, and three TD's in three games), put his regular season totals (27 catches, 318 yards, 1 TD) to shame.
INJURY REPORT: Moving forward, the only major injury news from this week seems to be Hines Ward, who hurt his knee early on vs. the Ravens, and missed the final three quarters. Should Ward be out against the Cards, it should put a crimp in both their short passing game, and also their running game (his downfield blocking is legendary), though Holmes was pretty good in his absence on Sunday. Nate Washington would likely be Ward’s replacement as the starter, but Ward claimed after the game his injury is just a sprain, and that he'll play.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: Just like the Steelers and Cards, I’ll be taking this week off to get properly hyped up for the Super Bowl. I’ll be back with a Friday preview column before before the big game.