Observations From The Divisional Round

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 16, 2012 – 11:03 am

A few observations from this past weekend’s Divisional Playoff games…

Packers lose
Not much is more gratifying than when the Vikings win, but having the Packers lose comes about as close as anything. The defending Super Bowl champs went 15-1 in the regular season, but they were 0-1 in the postseason. Credit goes to the NY Giants for upending the Packers at Lambeau Field, and the equation for doing so was pressuring Rodgers to knock the Green Bay offense off-balance combined with near-flawless play from Eli Manning in the biggest moment of the season. The Giants move on to the NFC Championship Game, which will be played in San Francisco against a 49ers team that was 6-10 last year. A lot can change in a year.

The last word on this goes to the family of Packers Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin. The Philbin family is enduring the tragedy of the death of Michael Philbin, the 21-year old son of Joe Philbin. That loss is more brutal than any loss one can experience in a sports arena, and everyone’s heart surely goes out to the Philbin family. This is a terrible tragedy that gives you pause and perspective on the priorities in our lives. Football doesn’t mean nearly as much in light of the Philbins’ loss.

Outstanding secondary play by the NY Giants and San Francisco 49ers
Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers were the two best QBs in the regular season (they ranked #1 and #2 in passer rating), but the defenses they each faced this weekend were effective in slowing them down enough to earn a victory. Rodgers was held 46 yards below his regular season average for passing yards per game and he was held a full yard below is regular season average yards per attempt. Brees ultimately racked up 462 passing yards thanks to a late-game surge, but San Francisco held him a full yard below his regular season average for yards per attempt as well.

While the art of tackling has been lost from a general standpoint in the NFL, I think one reason New York and San Francisco were able to keep Rodgers and Brees in check was excellent tackling, particularly by members of the secondary. So often we see both Brees and Rodgers hit their receivers in stride, allowing for massive amounts of yards after the catch production. In fact, the Saints were #2 and the Packers were #3 in the NFL in yards after the catch this season. This past weekend, though, I noticed on many occasions that Packers and Saints receivers were not able to shake loose from defenders after the catch. The one exception I can think of immediately is Saints TE Jimmy Graham’s 66-yard TD late in the game, but outside of that the point remains that New York and San Francisco did a good job of tackling in their Division Round contests.

There was also great tackling by both defenses in the Baltimore vs. Houston game on Sunday.

Production from Tight Ends
It may now get lost in all the talk about the Giants upsetting the Packers, but we should not lose sight of the impact TEs had in the passing game this weekend. Offensive coordinators in the Divisional Playoff games utilized their athletic, pass-catching TEs about as well as possible. In the 4 Divisional Playoff games, TEs accounted for 29% of all receiving yards and 40% of all receiving TDs. The top performers were New England’s Rob Gronkowski (10 receptions, 145 yards, 3 TDs), San Francisco’s Vernon Davis (7-180-2), New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham (5-103-2) and New England’s Aaron Hernandez (4-55-1); Hernandez was also the Patriots leading rusher with 61 yards on 5 carries.

This is good news for Kyle Rudolph, who is coming off a solid rookie season and is in line to see even more action next season with a full offseason of working with quarterback Christian Ponder and Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave under his belt.

If available, let’s take a look
There were a lot of standout players in the Divisional Round games, but I like to find some of the “under the radar” types who perform well but don’t receive much attention from the public, and who may also become available in the offseason. Again, there was not a shortage of players who stood out in last weekend’s games, but here is a short list of guys that might look good in purple some day: Baltimore G Ben Grubbs, NY Giants WR Mario Manningham, New Orleans G Carl Nicks, San Francisco CB Carlos Rogers, NY Giants CB Aaron Ross and Baltimore CB Lardarius Webb (RFA).

Eli Manning coming of age
Eli Manning has been a Top 10-12 type of QB for much of his career, but there’s no question that he’s taken huge steps forward this season, and the biggest step yet was Sunday night when he throttled the Green Bay defense for 37 points while completing 21 of 33 passes for 330 yards and 3 TDs along the way. Manning is a great example of what happens when a team uses a high pick on a QB, gives him time to develop, remains loyal to him through tough times, finds weapons to put around him and waits for the development to take shape. That’s what happened with Manning in New York, and I think that’s the model the Vikings are trying to follow with Ponder.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not yet comparing Ponder to Manning. But to say that Ponder has no chance to be an Eli Manning-type of QB after watching him play just 11 games is as premature a statement as saying Ponder will surely be an All-Pro passer some day. Manning played in 9 games his rookie season and he had more INTs (9) than TDs (6). In his 2nd season, Manning played and started all 16 games, but he completed just 52% of his passes and had a passer rating of 75.9. In fact, Manning didn’t have a passer rating of over 77.0 until his 5th season. But wisely, the Giants did not give up on him, despite pressure from the fan base to do so. Manning responded by helping lead the club to a Super Bowl over the New England Patriots after the 2007 season and now he has the Giants in another NFC title game.

I see a lot of similarities in Manning and Ponder, particularly in their mental approach to the game but also in other areas, such as arm strength, demeanor, stature in the pocket and leadership.

Ultimately, the point is we just don’t know yet on Ponder because there’s not a large enough body of work to judge. But I believe seeing Manning play the way he’s playing right now gives Vikings fans plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Ponder.

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