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NFL Instant Replay: The Cards are Wild
Posted by Dr. Tom on Jan 13, 2005, 16:15
NFL INSTANT REPLAY: Wild-Card Round
It was a weekend to buck the trends and show that wild cards can sometimes be quite that. Few 8-8 teams had made the playoffs prior to this season – the NFL simply does not reward mediocrity very often. None of those teams had won a playoff game. Both did this past weekend. Minnesota was 2-20 in its last 22 games outdoors. So much for that trend. Home teams have a clear advantage in early playoff rounds. Not so much with the wild-card games. And after a league record for 100-yard rushing performances was set this season (proof that smart NFL coaches read this column) with 179, there were bound to be some in the wild-card games. However, not one fellow breached the 100-yard threshold.
Both Saturday games were close and filled with tension right up until the end. Both Sunday games were not even as close as their not-really-that-close scores would lead one to believe. This coming weekend, the byes are over, and there are some excellent matchups on the calendar.
Under Review: The Wild-Card Games
St. Louis 27, at Seattle 20.
In past columns, I’ve taken Mike Martz to task for his tendency to go crazy with the pass, when there is plenty of data to support St. Louis’ success when they run the ball well. Saturday, it was Martz who played a balanced offense, while his counterpart Mike Holmgren went bananas with the pass. St. Louis ran the ball 27 times and passed 32, while the Seahawks put the ball in the air 43 times and kept it on the ground only 20 times. This is despite having the league’s second-leading rusher – by a one-yard margin, as we all know – in the backfield; in fact, Shaun Alexander carried the ball only 15 times. If he was being punished for the back-stabbing comments, it was damn foolish to take it out on the entire team. Alexander rarely appeared in short-yardage situations, despite his robust 4.8 YPC average during the season. Ay-yi-yi.
The Seahawks did move the ball, gaining 413 yards of offense, but the only number that really matters is points scored. Well, in the case of the Seahawks, there’s one other one that matters: dropped passes. Despite having talented receivers, Seattle has led the league in dropped passes the last two seasons. With 27 seconds left in regulation, trailing 27-20, Matt Hasselbeck delivered an accurate strike to open WR Bobby Engram. CLANG! Engram’s hands and chest may as well have been iron, as quickly as the ball struck them and bounced away to the ground. Hasselbeck reacted as if he’d been shot afterwards. Perhaps he’s the Seattle offensive player who should be complaining about getting stabbed in the back.
New Jersey Jets 20, at San Diego 17 (OT)
Ignore the Jets’ coaching staff imploding on the sidelines: this game was well-coached and well-played from the Jersey side of the ball. Offensive coordinator Paul Hackett had been criticized for not throwing deep more, so the Jets started the game with three straight deep passes. This is despite a QB who does not have a strong arm, nor an arm that is 100%. They also got a TD on a 47-yard pass, perfectly thrown. Opening up with the long pass forced the Chargers’ safeties to back off into coverage and not cheat up against the run; the Jets responded with 126 rushing yards against a defense that allowed only 82 per game during the regular season. When they got the ball in OT, the Jets called excellent plays to set up an easy FG for the game-winner.
The game was not so well-coached on the San Diego sideline, however. In overtime, they got the ball to the Jets’ 22. The field was wet, muddy, and beaten up, and the team’s rookie kicker had already missed one FG attempt under these conditions. That means you should try and get closer, right? Add this to the equation: the jets put eight men in the box on first down, did so again on second down, and had nine men in the box on third down. Each time, the Chargers just ran the ball into this stacked front, going nowhere. An audible to a passing play – or even calling one from the start, for heaven’s sake – would have made all the difference in the world. Instead, the team settled for a 40-yard FG attempt; it sailed wide right, and the Jets took the ball down the field and won with a kick that was 12 yards closer. This is why Marty Schottenheimer is 5-12 in his career in the postseason.
at Indianapolis 49, Denver 24.
The score’s really not close, and this game wasn’t close at all, at any point. The Colts simply administered a first-class shit-kicking in this game, and the Broncos bent over and took it. Reggie Wayne had more yards at the half than the entire Broncos offense did. Peyton Manning had one of his best games ever – which is saying something, after this season – against a Denver defense that never got the memo that blitzing Manning is a Very Bad Thing. Time and again, the Broncos would blitz one of their defensive backs, and each time, Manning would complete a pass to where that chap would have been. Denver needed to play mistake-free (they didn’t) and they needed to take risks (they didn’t) to win this game. The margin of victory should tell you all you need to know.
It’s worth noting, though, that this game was six points closer than the same meeting last postseason. The Broncos’ motto for next season: This year, we’ll only lost by three scores!
Minnesota 31, at Green Bay 17.
Green Bay’s home playoff dominance is apparently over. Hosting an 8-8 team (and recall that such teams had never won a postseason game coming into the weekend) that had lost 20 of its last 22 outdoor games, the Packers laid a giant egg in front of their fans. Brett Favre played like he needs to retire. Yes, I said it. Perhaps you’re used to the talking heads at ESPN hanging off of Favre’s johnson, but I won’t. He stunk up the joint against the Eagles last year, and he did it against Minnesota this year. For a man who’s supposed to be so good in the cold weather, Favre played like a rookie from the Gobi Desert. Throwing four interceptions in a home playoff game is inexcusable. If this is the best Favre can do for his team in the postseason, then he should let someone who might be able to do more have that opportunity.
Minnesota made fewer mistakes, and played a solid all-around game. Their tackling, quite shoddy toward the end of the regular season, was much better Sunday. They had only 11 interceptions on defense during the season, but recorded four when it mattered on Sunday. Daunte Culpepper threw for four TDs, and Randy Moss owned Al Harris all day long, getting two TD catches against the good cover corner.
Note that while the Vikings were 8-8 and the Packers were 10-6 during the season, exactly zero of Green Bay’s wins came against teams which finished the year with winning records. When they got to the playoffs, they couldn’t even beat a .500 team.
To The Moon, Alice!
The NFL has fined Vikings WR Randy Moss $10,000 for his conduct after scoring a touchdown Sunday. After the TD, Moss pantomimed that he was mooning the crowd, then rubbed his butt against the goalpost a few times. Fox talking head Joe Buck acted like he’d just seen Moss murder someone on the football field, and the ESPN talking heads had the predictable overreactions cued and ready for Sunday night. All of this overshadows the fact that Moss had a hell of a game playing on a sprained ankle, even baiting Al Harris into thinking he couldn’t run well.
Here’s my take: big deal. So Randy Moss pretended to moon the crowd. So what? Did he actually drop trou and show his ass to the world? Had the Vikings lost, wouldn’t the Green Bay fans have held up the tradition of mooning the visiting team when they get on their bus? Moss got fined $10,000 for essentially doing nothing, yet Jake Plummer only gets fined $5000 for flipping the bird to the crowd. Good system there, NFL . . .
Need Joe Buck be reminded that his is the network that brought us Temptation Island, the point of which seemed to be putting scantily-clad women on TV to get men to cheat on their significant others? I have no problems with scantly-clad women, of course – in fact, I think every show should work out a way to get them on TV – but for Buck to act like Moss’ gesture was in any way worse than what his own network has aired is preposterous. And need I mention the endless Viagra, Levitra, and other limp-dick medicine commercials that always air on ESPN, Fox, and other channels during football? “Erectile dysfunction” shouldn’t be in any five-year-old’s vocabulary, but I’ll bet it is, thanks to the NFL and its TV networks. Remember the Pistons-Pacers brawl? ESPN couldn’t stop showing it. But they refused to show Moss pretending to pull his pants down, and tried to act like they had some kind of moral high ground. Rubbish. Bloody hypocrites is all they are.
All this is said despite the fact that I’m not a fan of Randy Moss. I think he’s a scarily talented player, but I also think he’s self-centered, immature, and childish. Walking off the field while there’s still time on the clock is a cardinal sin. Despite that, I’m certainly not going to throw Moss under the bus for a harmless gesture, and I think it’s ridiculous that anyone who profits from his image and success would try to do that.
Saturday, 15 January
Jets at Steelers (4:30 PM, CBS): After their surprising win in San Diego last weekend, the Jets get to travel to the Iron City to take on the best team in the NFL. The Jets were not able to get Curtis Martin on track in the regular-season meeting between these two clubs, a 17-6 victory for the Steelers. Chad Pennington looked good against the Chargers last week, as good as he’s looked since before his midseason arm surgery. If the Jets can move the ball in the air, they can attack the Pittsburgh secondary, which is the one weak spot in their defense. That will keep SS Troy Polamalu at home, which should free up some room for Martin and LaMont Jordan. The Jets are 5-0 when Jordan gets 10 or more carries, so look for them to get him involved as much as they can.
The Steelers boasted the league’s #2 rushing attack during the regular season, and the bye week means everyone is healthy. Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley combined for 108 yards in the teams’ first meeting. It’s not clear yet which back will start, but it also doesn’t matter. Bill Cowher will need to recognize and go to the hot hand whenever he can. Staley is healthy after missing 6 of the last 8 regular-season games, but I would look for Bettis to get more carries, since he can wear down the Jets’ line better -- a line that may still be without DE John Abraham, who’s a game-time decision. In the air, the Steelers’ WRs match up very well with the Jets’ QBs. Plaxico Burress is a size mismatch, and both Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El are quicker than the fellows who will be asked to cover them. It’s important for the Steelers not to fall behind, since rookie wunderkind Ben Roethlisberger isn’t used to playing without the lead. Prediction: Steelers 24, Jets 16.
Rams at Falcons (8:00 PM, Fox): The Rams come in having won three in a row, with all three wins against teams that made the playoffs. RB Steven Jackson should be good to go for this game, and his size advantage over MARSHALL~! will be important against the smallish Atlanta defense. Their second-half clock management last week was awful, and will need to improve. For all the hits Mike Martz takes (including in this column), he’s averaged 11 wins over the past four seasons, including the playoffs. He’s as likely to lead off the game with a dozen straight passes as he is a dozen straight runs, so Atlanta must be prepared for anything on defense.
Speaking of preparing for anything, how does a team prepare for a weapon like Michael Vick? Atlanta beat the Rams in Week 2, 34-17, and Vick rushed for 109 yards in that game. The Rams will have to try and contain him, since LB and S spies are not fast enough to run him down – in fact, no one on the Rams’ defense may be fast enough to run Vick down once he gets going. Vick remains an erratic passer, so if the Rams can force him to throw, they’re in good shape. Atlanta will call a lot of rollouts to maximize Vick’s options, and they have two solid RBs in Warrick Dunn and TJ Duckett. In the end, though, I think the hotter team will prevail, and the Rams are just on a roll right now. Prediction: Rams 26, Falcons 23.
Sunday, 16 January
Vikings at Eagles (1:00 PM, Fox): The Vikings are coming off a solid and important win in Green Bay. They were 2-20 in their previous 22 outdoor games, but won a big one at frigid Lambeau Field. They’ll be facing similar weather conditions again this weekend. The Eagles are obviously without WR Terrell Owens, and their offense hasn’t played a complete, meaningful game of football in six weeks. Hanging over their heads is the spectre of having lost the last three NFC Championship games. Their depleted receiving corps gets a boost from the absence of Minnesota SS Corey Chavous, out with a broken arm. The Vikings defense showed it was opportunistic against the Packers, though I don’t expect Donovan McNabb to throw up the silly passes Brett Favre did. I just don’t trust the Eagles’ offense enough without Owens to go with them in this one. This is the same offense that hasn’t gotten it done the last three years, and while the Vikings are not a strong defensive team, they can certainly outscore the Eagles. Prediction: Vikings 24, Eagles 20.
Colts at Patriots (4:15 PM, CBS): This is the matchup everyone has been waiting for. Their regular-season meeting was decided by three points; the Colts amassed 446 yards and lost because of turnovers and a missed FG. The weather is not expected to be a factor in this game: it’ll be cold, but that’s about it. That’s a plus for the Colts, who would struggle in a windy and/or snowy game.
Belichick vs. Manning. James vs. Bruschi. Harrison vs. Law . . . wait, scratch that last one. And therein lies the problem for the Patriots: they just don’t have the personnel to match up with the Colts’ talented WR trio. Ty Law could cover Marvin Harrison one-on-one, allowing the defense to give Peyton Manning all kinds of different looks to confuse him. Randall Gay is no Ty Law. The Pats will need safety help constantly against the Colts’ receivers, which will allow Edgerrin James to run against six-man fronts more often than New England would like. Expect Belichick to have something up his sleeve for Manning, but with injuries ravaging his defense, it could well just be smoke and mirrors. Prediction: Colts 30, Patriots 23.
Next week, we’ll look back at the divisional round and preview the conference championships. Until then, hoist a brew for me as you sport a stylish throwback and cheer on your favorite team.
Dr. Tom Fowler
drtomfowler at yahoo dto cmo