The Divisional round of the playoffs is typically my favorite weekend of NFL football every year. There are two games on both Saturday and Sunday, so basically you’re whole day each day is about football. Plus the 8 teams playing are all legitimately good teams because 4 of them had 1st-round byes and the other 4 have already won a playoff game.
This year’s Divisional round games lived up to the hype. We had a double-overtime upset to start things off on Saturday and then we saw San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick put together a performance for the ages in defeating our rivals (Green Bay) for a nightcap. On Sunday, the action got going right at noon CT with Seattle nearly completing an improbable comeback but then falling short on a last-second FG by Falcons K Matt Bryant. The last game of the weekend was another masterpiece by New England QB Tom Brady as he out-dueled a talented Houston Texans team that just wouldn’t go away.
When all was said and done, this past weekend’s game combined for 276 points, making it the highest scoring postseason weekend in NFL history. I believe it’s great timing for the NFL, too, because my sense is more eyes are on the NFL on Divisional round weekend than any other weekend of the season, barring the Super Bowl and maybe the NFL draft.
Let’s get to a few notes I took while watching each of this weekend’s games…
Baltimore Ravens 38, Denver Broncos 35 (2OT)
– It’s not often when you see a special teams TD and a defensive TD in the same game. But we had both in the 1st quarter of this nail biter, with each team getting in on the action. Denver’s Trindon Holliday took a punt back 90 yards to open the scoring, and then Baltimore CB Corey Graham returned a tipped Peyton Manning pass 39 yards to put the Ravens up 14-7 early in the game. Then to open the 2nd half, Holliday struck again for Denver by racing 104 yards for a kickoff return TD to give the Broncos a 28-21 lead.
— Manning may not throw a great spiral, but he can still fit the ball into tight spaces, and he can do it with consistency. His first 2 TD passes – one to Brandon Stokely and another Knowshon Moreno – were great throws that were put right on the money, with little room for error on both occasions.
— How about the Joe Flacco-to-Torrey Smith connection? Wow, impressive. They kept Baltimore in the game during the 1st half with a pair of long TD connections. I remember the knock on Smith coming out of college was his hands – he would drop routine passes on a consistent basis (a problem for a, you know, wide receiver). And he had the problem even as a rookie. But he’s obviously fixed those issues. It’s also notable that Smith had his success on Saturday against a future Hall of Fame CB in Champ Bailey.
— It’s fair to question John Fox’s decision to try a 52-yard FG with just over a minute to go in the 2nd quarter. Just 3 plays earlier he elected to go for it on 4th down rather than try a long FG, and the decision to try the 52-yarder was after gaining just 3 yards following the 4th-down conversion. The missed FG gave Baltimore possession with great field position, and they would up tying the game before halftime. It’s also fair to question Fox’s decision to kneel on the ball with 31 seconds left in the 4th quarter, the game tied, 2 timeouts at his disposal and Manning on his side. I can see both sides of the coin on this one, but with Manning running the show and 2 timeouts in your pocket, it seems like a reasonable risk to take at that stage in the game.
— Baltimore’s defense may be getting older, but they can still defend the run. At the end of the 3rd quarter, Baltimore had the momentum and I think a large reason why is the way their defense played against the run. Credit also goes to the pass rush for pressuring Manning and forcing a fumble that set up the game-tying TD near the end of the 3rd quarter.
— The classic “throw across your body” INT near the end of the first overtime was obviously a turning point in the game. And it came from one of the greatest QBs to play the game – Manning. Vikings fans are familiar with this mistake because Brett Favre made it during the NFC title game after the 2009 season and Christian Ponder made the same mistake in Week 13 against the Green Bay Packers. Every QB – from young, inexperienced QBs to decorated, veteran QBs – makes this mistake frequently. Most times, the mistake doesn’t result in a turnover, and most times when it does result in a turnover it’s not in as big a spot as Manning was in on Saturday. But this time for Manning, it was in a big spot and it cost the Broncos the game because Baltimore kicked the game-winning FG just a few moments later.
San Francisco 49ers 45, Green Bay Packers 31
– You have to give Colin Kaepernick a lot of credit for rebounding the way he did after throwing a pick-6 on the first drive. The game could’ve gone the wrong way very quickly for San Francisco after that interception, but it clearly went the right way. Kaepernick was brilliant, rushing for 181 yards and 2 TDs on 16 carries and going 17 of 31 for 263 yards with 2 more TDs and 1 INT.
— On a similar note, 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh deserves credit, too, because he made the tough call of benching Alex Smith, who had been playing well, for the 2nd-year youngster. It was a much-maligned decision, but it paid dividends down the stretch and it was the reason San Francisco won the game. I have respect for Smith and the way he plays the game and the way San Francisco plays with him under center, but I don’t see the 49ers winning that game without Kaepernick taking the snaps.
— Green Bay’s run defense has been suspect all season, and it killed them in this game. The 49ers had 323 rushing yards on 43 attempts, an average of 7.5 yards per carry.
— The muffed punt by Jeremy Ross was a huge turning point in the game. Ross was effective as a returning against the Vikings in Week 17, so you can understand why Green Bay chose to go with him as their returner as opposed to Randall Cobb, who handled those duties for most of the season. Unfortunately for Ross and for Green Bay, his mistake in the 2nd quarter that gave the 49ers the ball inside the 10 with Green Bay already ahead by a TD turned the game in favor of San Francisco.
— What can you say about San Francisco’s defense? They are good-to-great on every level of the defense, from Aldon Smith and Justin Smith up front, to NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis in the middle to a very talented secondary that includes a top-notch safety tandem in Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner along with Carlos Rogers and Co. at CB. That’s a championship-caliber defense, for sure, and it’ll be fun to watch them battle Atlanta in the NFC title game, the second consecutive NFC title game for this 49ers team.
— I am more and more impressed with Packers WR James Jones the more I see him. I think it’s a widely unknown fact that he led the NFL in receiving TDs this season – not Calvin Johnson, not AJ Green, not one of those Atlanta WRs. It was James Jones, with 14.
— It almost took you aback at the end of the game when the FOX cameras were showing Donald Driver and Greg Jennings sitting helpless on the sidelines. Those two have been staples on good Green Bay teams for many years, and it appears now that they’ve played their final game in those colors. Driver may even retire now, and Jennings appears set to hit free agency in search of another team.
Atlanta Falcons 30, Atlanta Falcons 28
– When you lead by 20 points at the start of the 4th quarter, you should not have to drive 41 yards in 23 seconds to attempt a game-winning 49-yard FG. But that’s exactly what happened to Atlanta. Credit their offense and special teams group for getting the job done in the final moments, but you can be sure they’ll take a good, long look at the final 15 minutes to see what went wrong.
— One thing that I thought went wrong was Atlanta’s playcalling. I’m typically not one to question playcalling after a game because there is so much that goes into this part of the game that outsiders have no idea about, but there were times in the final quarter when it was as if Atlanta had forgotten they had a double-digit lead and time was on their side.
— With that being said, Atlanta running the ball so well in the 1st half was an underrated aspect of this game. The highlight was when Jacquizz Rodgers steamrolled through Seattle S Earl Thomas along the way to a 45-yard run at the end of the 1st quarter.
— Atlanta had a great mix of playcalling all 1st half, and perhaps the best illustration was the 50-yard TD pass from Ryan to White just moments after the Falcons defense forced a turnover on downs following Seattle’s ill-fated decision to go for it on 4th and 1. Going for the jugular was a great call by Atlanta, especially because they were in control of the game and had shown an ability to convert on 3rd down the entire 1st half.
— Seattle going for it on 4th and 1 from inside the 15 in the middle of the 2nd quarter was a mistake. Some will point to the decision being Pete Carroll showing confidence in his team, but it’s a 13-0 game in the 1st half and points are clearly at a premium. Why turn down 3 of them, especially when Atlanta has settled for a pair of FGs themselves? It’s always easy to second-guess playcalling decisions after the fact, but even before that snap it was apparent to me that Seattle was making a mistake by turning down a high-percentage FG to go for it on 4th and 1.
— Atlanta’s receivers were so good on the boundary against Seattle. Several tip-toe catches along the sidelines and endlines were impressive. When receivers are able to make those kinds of plays, they are a great weapon for their offense and they can make an already very good QB in Matt Ryan that much better.
— Seattle CB Richard Sherman made two key plays on opening drive, knocking down a pass from Matt Ryan to Roddy White on the first snap of the game and then doing so again later in the drive to break up what would’ve been a TD reception by White. Later in the 1st half, Sherman defended yet another deep pass from Ryan to White. It was an impressive first 1.5 quarters for Sherman. Later in the 2nd quarter, though, White got over the top of him and scored a long TD.
— While the Vikings clearly made a great decision in selecting Blair Walsh in last April’s draft and watching him have a historic rookie season, I think Vikings fans will always have a place in their hearts for Ryan Longwell. So it was cool to see him on the Seahawks roster for a playoff game this past weekend.
New England Patriots 41, Houston Texans 28
– If before the game you would’ve told me that Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski would be lost for the remainder of the contest in the early stages of the 1st quarter and Houston would score 28 points in the game, I might have guessed Houston could pull the upset. But it would’ve been a bad, bad guess, and it’s all because of how good Tom Brady is. The 3-time Super Bowl winner put together another classic performances, guiding New England to 41 points while going 25 of 40 for 344 yards with 3 TDs and 0 INTs. My favorite moment of the game came when Brady delivered a pass with pinpoint accuracy to RB Shane Vereen in the front left corner of the end zone for a 33-yard score, giving the Patriots a38-13 lead early in the 4th quarter. There was literally no celebration from Brady as he trotted back to the sidelines. Just a straight-forward, assassin-like approach from Captain Cool as he salted away yet another postseason victory. Brady is now the NFL record-holder for career postseason wins.
— New England got tremendous production from their RBs. Vereen had 124 total yards and 3 TDs while Stevan Ridley had 95 yards and 1 TD.
— A lot of questions have been raised about Matt Schaub’s ability to lead Houston to the ultimate goal – a Super Bowl title. I’m not sure those questions are fair. Is Schaub an elite player? No, not with consistency. But he’s most certainly a “B” level player with consistency, and if you had an entire team of “B” level players you’d win a lot of Super Bowls. So I won’t place the blame for Houston’s lack of Super Bowl titles in recent years entirely on Schaub. Yes, it’s reasonable to want your QB to put the team on his shoulders and win a game by himself for you. But the fact that Schaub hasn’t done that yet doesn’t mean he’s not the right guy in Houston. It just means the players around him also have to play better.
— I’m sure New England is not pleased with the fact that they were unable to put the game away for good after the 33-yard Brady-to-Vereen hookup early in the 4th quarter. Houston responded quickly with a pair of TDs and a 2-point conversion to pull within 10 points at around the 5-minute mark. Obviously the Patriots eventually pulled away and advanced, but that New England made enough mistakes to allow Houston to remain in the game late will be part of Bill Belichick’s coaching/motivating strategy this week. Not something the Baltimore Ravens will be thanking the Houston Texans for on Sunday in the AFC title game.
Tags: NFL Playoffs
Posted in All, Mike Wobschall | 76 Comments »
The Vikings are out of the playoffs. But the playoffs will indeed continue. While our favorite team is no longer participating, the drama is too good to turn away from. Let’s take a quick look at each matchup, pose one question for each matchup and offer one prediction in each matchup.
Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos – Saturday 3:30 p.m. CT on CBS
After going 9-2 through their first 11 games, the Baltimore Ravens hit a late-season skid and lost 4 of their last 5, including a 34-17 decision at home to this very Denver Broncos team. But Baltimore got back on the winning track last week by dominating the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card round, winning 24-9 during an emotional return by leader Ray Lewis.
The Broncos were the opposite of Baltimore this season – they were slow starters who finished on fire. Denver lost 2 of its first 3 games, but now they haven’t lost since Week 5. That’s not a typo. The Broncos haven’t lost since Week 5.
The question: Can Baltimore’s aging defense slow down Peyton Manning and Co.?
The prediction: Denver 31, Baltimore 23
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers – Saturday 7:00 p.m. CT on FOX
In another playoff rematch of a regular season game, Green Bay travels to San Francisco to try and avenge an Opening Day loss to the 49ers at Lambeau Field. The 49ers ran the ball almost at will against Green Bay back in Week 1, and QB Alex Smith was efficient in passing for 2 TDs and now turning it over. Now, however, Smith is no longer the starter because 2nd-year player Colin Kaepernick has been chosen to replace him.
While San Francisco played better on that day, there aren’t many teams playing better than Green Bay right now. They’ve lost just twice since Week 5, and their last win was over the Vikings on Wild Card weekend at Lambeau Field.
The question: How will Kaepernick fare in his first career playoff start?
The prediction: Green Bay 24, San Francisco 20
Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons – Sunday 12:00 p.m. CT on FOX
There’s a lot of pressure on Atlanta to finally win a playoff game. Although they’re playing at home after having a week off to rest, it’s still going to be a tall task this year because they’re set to play one of the hottest teams in NFL right now in the Seattle Seahawks. This Seahawks team is fearless – trailing 14-0 last week at FedEx Field, the Seahawks battered and bruised Washington and eventually overcame the deficit to win 24-14. RB Marshawn Lynch was a beast, rushing for 132 yards with 1 TD on 20 carries.
The question: Can Seattle’s talented and tough secondary slow down Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White?
The prediction: Atlanta 27, Seattle 17
Houston Texans at New England Patriots – Sunday 3:30 p.m. CT on CBS
All season it looked as if Houston would earn the AFC’s top seed and have the upper hand in the AFC side of the tournament. But a thrashing at the hands of the Patriots began to change all of that. When all was said and done, it was New England who came away with a 1st-round bye, not Houston, and that has set the stage for a rematch between the two clubs in the Divisional round of the playoffs. Behind 4 TD passes from Tom Brady, the Patriots dismantled Houston by a score of 42-14 just over a month ago. Houston has a good defense and they are coached well by coordinator Wade Phillips, so don’t expect such a lopsided outcome this time around.
The question: Can Houston put pressure on Tom Brady?
The prediction: New England 20, Houston 19
Tags: NFL Playoffs
Posted in All, Mike Wobschall | 633 Comments »