Welcome to 'After Further Review...', where we watched every minute of every playoff game this weekend and have the couch sores to prove it, where we don't understand why nobody's talking about the fact the Colts got screwed by the refs Saturday night, and where we think the battle of minds between Andy Reid and Brad Childress in the last minute of the first half in Minnesota was a great clinic for coaches -- on what not to do.
We'll get to the rest of the odds, ends and trends around the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs in a second, but first the moment you've all been waiting for...
SAFETYWATCH '08 '09: Yes folks, you can't keep a good fad down. And safeties are a good fad, maybe the best of fads. Not only did Arizona get one safety when DE Antonio Smith got credit for a sack in the end zone when QB Matt Ryan was ruled "in the grasp", despite getting the ball off -- and completing it -- but they should've had another. DE Bertrand Berry was clearly held by Cards T Sam Baker in the end zone, but the refs missed the call.
There were several other near misses as well -- Donovan McNabb in Minnesota and Philip Rivers against Indy. Mark my words, the safety will strike again. And we'll be there when it does. Stay tuned...
THE PLAYER OF THE WEEK: If you had asked me before this weekend if it was even possible that a punter could be the most important player in a playoff weekend, I would’ve said, "no way", or "get away from me". But it’s not often a punter plays the deciding role in a game -- at least, in a non-Niners game -- and Chargers P Mike Scifres went above and beyond the call of duty Saturday night, putting on a display even Andy Lee would be proud of. Hell, I’ve never seen Lee -- or any punter, for that matter -- have a game like Scifres did against the Colts. And I saw Ray Guy play.
Scifres had six punts -- all pinned Indy’s 20-yard line (the first time in playoff history a punter has had that many), five were at or inside their 10-yard line, three inside the 5. Three of the five inside the 10 were directly converted into Colt punts followed by Charger points -- resulting in all 17 points they scored in regulation. What’s more, Scifres averaged 52.7 yards a punt, third best in playoff history. That’s amazing distance coupled with extremely precise placement. That’s unbeatable.
You could make the argument, he was their best offensive player due to the points he caused, though RB Darren Sproles would have something to say about that (see below). But there’s almost no doubt in my mind that he was their best defensive player. The Colts, like most teams, were conservative in the shadow of their goal line, and the Colts don’t do conservative very well. They weren’t a good running team during the season, and that didn’t change Saturday. But they passed well when they had the ball in good field position. Thanks to Mike Scifres, that wasn’t very often.
THE "DARREN SPROLES X-FACTOR AWARD" GOES TO...: If you didn't seen this going to Chargers RB/KR/PR/Colt Killer Darren Sproles, then you're not paying attention. Sproles went off Saturday night, subbing for starter LaDainian Tomlinson (again), who was injured (again), and killing the Colts (again). The 5'6", 181-pounder had 328 total yards, third-most in NFL playoff history (Ed Podolak KC - 350, Keith Lincoln, SD - 329), and scored two TD's -- including the game-winner in OT. He had 105 yards rushing, 45 receiving, 106 on kick returns, and 72 more on punts.
This isn't the first time Sproles has has helped the Charger beat Indy -- it's the third time in two years. Last year in the regular season, Sproles didn't get a single touch on offense in the Chargers 23-21 win, but still managed to be his team's best scoring weapon. He took back the opening kickoff 89 yards for a TD, and ran back a punt 45 yards for another score less than 10 minutes later as San Diego jumped out to a 23-0 1st half lead. In the playoffs last year at Indy, Sproles only got two touches on offense in the Chargers 28-24 win, but took one of them 56 yards for the go-ahead TD on the last play of the 3rd quarter to help escort the Colts form the post-season.
The only game in the last two years where he didn't do major damage against Indy was earlier this season, when he only got four touches on offense. Sproles is a free agent after the season, but if he stays with San Diego, the Chargers might want to consider using him more against the Colts -- even if Tomlinson is healthy. In fact, the Colts might want to think about signing him just to keep him from ending their seasons every year.
THE MULLIGAN: As a whole, we as a community pretty much screwed the pooch on our poll last week. An overwhelming percentage picked Indy -- myself included (though the numbers are skewed due to some late arrivals picking after Indy lost). In our defense, Vegas saw it the same way. In my defense, I stated my fears right out front about how the Chargers always gave the Colts a hard time. Either way, a whole lot changed over the weekend, so I thought I'd give us all a second chance to make a first impression. Knowing what you know now, who is the best bet of the weekend's winners to make it to the Super Bowl?
Here's my re-re-seeding: 1. Philly, 2. Baltimore, 3. San Diego, 4. Arizona
TOOTING MY OWN HORN: In my Friday column, I characterized the Dolphins/Ravens matchup as a battle of the turnover machine that is Ed Reed against the best team at holding onto the ball. In my prediction, I wrote:
“I think Ed Reed takes part in a turnover, the Ravens D stops the Miami run game, and Baltimore wins a close one.”
What I really meant to say was, “Ed Reed will take part in two picks for the third straight game and take one to the house on a crazy return, the Ravens D stops the Miami run game, and Baltimore wins a blowout.”
Reed had two of Baltimore’s four picks (three within seven passes) off QB Chad Pennington, who only had seven INT’s all year. The Ravens, who led the league in forcing turnovers during the year, forced five from a team which had just 13 (a league record) during the regular season. They also held the Dolphins run game to just 52 yards and a 2.5 average on their way to a 27-9 win.
In my preview of the Eagles/Vikes preview, I said:
"I think Jim Johnson blitzes Tarvaris Jackson into oblivion, and while the Eagles can’t stop Adrian Peterson, they are able to contain him. Westbrook doesn’t get much going on the ground, but McNabb does enough to win."
I'm happy to stick with that. "Play Action" Jackson went 15/35 for 164 yards while being hounded all day, and threw a killer pick-6 to Asante Samuel (giving him four in the postseason, an NFL record) as he was being hit by the rush (and was then smoked by DE Chris Clemons on a block at the goal line). Peterson had two TD's, including a great 40-yarder, but was held to 43 yards on his other 19 carries (a 2.3 average). Westbrook had only 38 yards on 20 carries (a 1.9 average), but caught a back-breaking 71 yard TD on a screen pass from McNabb, who went 23/34 for 300 yards.
THE FALCONS ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE: I really liked the Falcons, and I struggled with the decision to pick against them. I wasn’t surprised when they lost, but I couldn’t help but be a little bummed. I also had this incredible feeling of deja vu. It took me a while, but I finally figured out what it was: This is exactly what I wrote would happen in my first 'Any Given Friday' column way back before Week 12 when I realized how much better the Falcons home stats were:
“If Atlanta makes the playoffs, they’ll likely draw a road game, and a loss”
But the context of that point was that the Falcons are a great young team, and will only learn from this experience. The future looks very bright in Atlanta. Speaking of which...
HELLO, GOODBYE: Matt Ryan came into the league this year with a bang. His first pass went for a 62 yard TD to Michael Jenkins, and he went on to win Rookie of the Year, and led his team to 11 wins. His debut in the playoffs didn't go as smoothly. His first pass was picked off, and he went on to throw another (after only having 11 all year), as his team lost their first round playoff game to Arizona, 30-24.
OBVIOUS ANNOUNCING OF THE WEEK, DAY 1: Jerome Bettis on NBC between the two Saturday games: “I said the Cardinals would need to stop Michael Turner to win, and they did. I’m a psychic!” Yeah, Jerome, and you need to breathe to live. I’m a psychic, too!
OBVIOUS ANNOUNCING OF THE WEEK, DAY 2: FOX’s Pam Oliver characterizing Philly’s mind-set after squeaking into the playoffs last week: “Coming back from the dead has given the Eagles new life.” You don’t say? That’s great, Pam. ‘Cuz what’s the point of coming back from the dead, if you don’t get given new life?
ZEBRAS VS. COLTS: As I wrote in the open, the fact that every close call went to San Diego doesn't seem to be getting much press, and that seems odd to me -- especially in light of HochuliGate. I'm not saying there was anything nefarious going on there, but it was a little odd that the Chargers got two very close calls on measurements down the stretch -- not to mention a couple of ticky-tack calls, while the blatant hold by Chargers FB Jacob Hester on a Sproles' first TD was missed -- and Colts RB Joseph Addai was clearly robbed of a crucial 1st down on a spot in the 3rd quarter when the Colts were trying to re-take the lead.
As Addai went out of bounds after catching a pass, he stretched out, clearly getting past the marker at the San Diego 33-yard line. But there was no referee there to get an accurate spot. It took the side judge forever to get in position and he gave Addai a horrible spot -- back at the 33. Dungy didn't challenge because he'd already lost one and there was almost an entire half left to play. It was the second time that happened -- Chris Chambers pretty clearly was out of bounds on a big Charger 1st down which led to a TD in the 1st half -- and led to a 3rd and 1 which the Colts couldn't convert. Dungy decided to go for it on 4th and 1 rather than attempt a 51-yard FG, Manning threw incomplete, and the Colts missed a chance a score.
THAT’S WHY THEY PLAY THE GAMES: During the regular season, the Colts were the masters of the close game, and the Chargers were the team which couldn’t close out a tight win. Late in the game, NBC showed the following stat:
IN GAMES DECIDED BY EIGHT POINTS OR LESS -- COLTS: 8-1, CHARGERS: 2-7
BEST ANTICIPATORY BROADCASTING: NBC’s late game crew came back from commercial with 3:15 left in the 4th quarter of the Colts/Chargers game with a split-screen shot of Indy DE’s Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. With the Colts leading 17-14, and San Diego facing a 3rd and 10, Al Michaels discussed how important it would be for the Charger O-line to block Mathis and Freeney, who had three sacks between them (one and two, respectively). At the snap, Mathis beat the tackle, got free around the end, and sacked Rivers again to force a punt.
IS THAT YOUR FINAL ANSWER?: There was more great preparation/anticipation on NBC and Michaels’ part just a few minutes later. At the end of regulation, Al Michaels mentioned that they’d asked Tony Dungy about the overtime rule and if he thought both teams should have a chance to touch the ball. Dungy said he liked the overtime rules as they are. A chuckling Michaels added: “We’ll find out in a couple of minutes if he still likes it the way it is.”
Again, Michaels proved prophetic, as mere moments later Dungy’s Colts lost the toss, kicked off the ball, and never got it back, losing the game on defense while Peyton Manning could only watch helplessly from the sidelines.
STAT O’ THE WEEK: The Colts had their nine game regular season winning streak snapped in their first playoff game. That might seem unlikely, rare even. Not so much. Take a look at the wild card teams which entered the postseason on the longest winning streaks:
Team (Streak) -- Result
2008 Colts (9) -- Lost
1987 Saints (9) -- Lost
2000 Ravens (7) -- Won
1995 Lions (7) -- Lost
1994 Patriots (7) -- Lost
BEST END ZONE CELEBRATION: I don’t normally take requests, but for The Blogfather, I can make an exception. Besides, Antrel Rolle’s celebration in the end zone after his scoop and score on a fumbled exchange from Ryan to Turner to give the Cards the lead early in the 2nd half was just too good. Before his teamates could mob him, Rolle busted out Atlanta’s trademark dance move from the 1998 season -- "The Dirty Bird".
SORE LOSER: Nobody’s happy to lose in the playoffs, especially in OT. But Indy LB Clint Session took the Colts loss a little harder than the rest. Session didn’t play well against the Chargers, repeatedly missing opportunities to tackle Sproles. But it was in OT -- and after -- where he really stepped inot the spotlight, and not in a good way.
On the game’s final drive, as the Chargers got near FG territory, Session stopped Sproles for no gain at the Colts 35, but clearly grabbed and twisted his facemask (when it appeared he could’ve easily let go and still had the tackle). Session was animated and seemed angry, but the call was clearly good. The 15-yard penalty put the ball at the Indy 20, where Session shot into the backfield on the next play to knock Sproles for a 2-yard loss. But on the very next play, Session was mauled by TE Brandon Manumaleuna, who knocked him past a streaking Sproles on his way to the winning score.
Moments later, as NBC’s cameras caught players leaving the field, one came upon Session, who angrily yelled something at the cameraman and made a move toward him. Thankfully, Session thought better of it, and just jogged off.