Two Days of Football
Posted Jan. 04 at 09:27 PM
The playoffs are different. We hear it every year but it takes a weekend like this past one to remind us. Suddenly old truisms like "You need to be able to run the ball and stop the run" rear their heads. Homefield advantage is maybe a little bit more valuable than expected, the tiniest of plays become huge, and the Wildcat doesn't work. Let's get right to it....
Cardinals 30, Falcons 24. Arizona was given way too little respect in this one. It's not so much that they were underrated, but Atlanta's great season obscured the fact that they, too, had some problems, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. In almost every respect, Atlanta's defense was ordinary -- they tended to give up lots of yardage but tighten things up around the end zone. That worked out fine against most teams, but Arizona's offense had enough playmakers that it was able to put the ball in the end zone (albeit from long range). There were some tiny plays that later seemed huge: a bad spot after a Michael Jenkins reception that resulted in Atlanta ending a great drive with a field goal rather than a touchdown. A drop of a perfectly thrown deep ball by Roddy White. And of course, a blown coverage on a 3rd and 16 play robbing us of the chance to see Matt Ryan perhaps march the Falcons down for a game-winning touchdown in the face of a six-point deficit. And Edgerrin James, auditioning for a new team, looking better than he's looked all season. All in all a fun game that could have gone either way; edge to experienced QB (who made one fewer mistake) and the home team. What a pretty TD grab by Larry Fitzgerald, too. And even if I wasn't the one writing off the Cardinals last week, I'll be one of the many writing them off this week. Little or no chance.
Chargers 23, Colts 17 (OT). This one just doesn't make much sense, unless you look at things like the importance of being able to run the football and stop the run in the playoffs. I think we all dismissed that because Peyton Manning has been passing the ball so well and the Chargers were so hopeless against the pass, but ultimately, it did matter. The Colts couldn't sustain drives or get tough yards when they needed to, they couldn't shut down the Chargers and thus lost the field position battle badly even when they kept San Diego from scoring, and oh yeah they were also victimized by (of all things) the best game by a punter that anyone has ever seen -- five times San Diego's Mike Scifres pinned the Colts inside their own 10-yard-line. Incredible. Is it wrong to say the Chargers benefited from LaDainian Tomlinson being sidelined? What can you say: Darren Sproles is a scarier player right now. Tomlinson scored a touchdown on a well-blocked play, while Sproles looked like he could break one every time he touched the ball. Granted, he lost a potentially critical fumble into the end zone; but for that play, maybe the Chargers win more easily. They pretty much dominated the second half. But Sproles and Scifres were the difference. Two additional notes on the Chargers: Gates looked OK playing his a sprained ankle; he should have scored a touchdown but for a curious play where he was behind the defense but looked back to fight a tackler several yards behind him rather than just, you know, scoring. And then, Philip Rivers: how many times did he roll out, find nothing, and spike the ball into the turf in the rough vicinity of the receiver. I mean, I guess it's "safe," but maybe try to scramble for a yard or two, dude. Additional notes on the Colts are that, they really need to get the ball to Anthony Gonzalez more. Guy makes the plays Marvin Harrison used to.
Ravens 27, Dolphins 9. Bad weekend for 2008 award-winners. Peyton Manning won the MVP, Atlanta's Mike Smith won the Coach of the Year, and Chad Pennington won the Comeback Player of the Year. All kicked off 2009 with a loss; Pennington looked bad doing it. Maybe a slightly easier offseason for whatever is left of the Jets' front office these days. Pennington's interceptions generally occurred when he tried to make plays downfield, which highlights why this was such a poor matchup for Miami. Baltimore's defense totally takes away the running game and the short passes, leaving only the kind of plays Miami can't make. The big question now is, can Baltimore's defense get them all the way to the Super Bowl? I think we know they can beat Tennessee -- not that they will, but they can. They probably win the earlier meeting this year but for a ticky-tack penalty late. And yeah, my early-season decision to dump LeRon McClain in my dynasty league looks like a poor one. Er, but at least I've still got Ray Rice....
Eagles 26, Vikings 14. Saturday's games were mildly surprising; Sunday's were not. Ravens D against Chad Pennington looked favorable, and so did the Eagles D against Tarvaris Jackson. Ended up being a pretty good game, but I think we're all lucky the Eagles advanced -- they could win at the Meadowlands next week, whereas the alternative would have been sending Kurt Warner there to turn into a sack- and fumble-machine. Adrian Peterson came through with a couple of TDs, the Vikings will spend another offseason looking for a quarterback, and the Eagles shocking comeback from being written off continues. Knock off the Super Bowl Champs in their own building? They did it last month, so you never know. Pretty good defense the Eagles have right now, too.
At a glance, it's a lot tougher to pick against the home teams next week than it was this week. Those teams got byes for a reason. Ranking the four upset possibilities, I'll go Ravens, Eagles (Defense wins championships, after all), Chargers (how healthy is Ben Roethlisberger?), and Cardinals, and call it about 50 percent, 40 percent, 25 percent, and 20 percent, respectively. Er, not that I'm a betting man.
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