Sunday, January 09, 2011

Wildcard Weekend (part 2)

New Orleans Saints 36 @ Seattle Seahawks 41 Ho-ly-sh... you get the idea. I said it. I didn't think they'd do it but the Seahawks just came out, let it all go and it paid off big time. They dug into their bag of tricks and came out with some unusual stuff. Fake screens, hook-and-spin routes etc, with a healthy dose of shocking defense by the Saints. But the real point that should be made, the real winner here, was the determination and sheer effort by the Seahawks players. We often talk about these kind of things on blogs, in books and on TV. You see hokey films about pulling together and going all out for one another, but nobody ever seems to put the words into practice. You see people try, then give up. Well the Seahawks didn't. They gave us a shining example of mental strength pushing the body to new levels and how teamwork & hustle can truly make a big difference in football. Marshawn Lynch's TD run was a great demonstration of that as QB Matt Hasselbeck was among those Seahawks racing down the field to help their team mate get the score. We can't forget completely about the losers though. We have to take our collective hats off I think (gentlemen, if you please) to the New Orleans Saints offense. Without his starting running backs Drew Brees was forced to throw 39/60 (sixty!!) for 404 yards and 2 TD's with no interceptions. It was a huge effort and let's not overlook the fact that traditionally speaking, when you score 36 points, you have a tendency to win a lot of games. So I wouldn't begrudge the Saints offense for shooting some killer looks at the defense who were about as stout, rugged and effective as a drill bit made from chocolate. The tackling, the coverage, the whole works. It was just all around poor defense. I dunno, maybe defensive coordinator Greg Williams was distracted this week with potential job offers on the table, but man, that defense just wasn't the same as it was last year. They looked like the 2008 group that stunk it up on a regular basis. So now the Seahawks progress to the divisional round. Up next? If Green Bay wins the other NFC Wildcard game on Sunday, then the Seahawks head to Chicago. If the Eagles win, the Seahawks have a date with Atlanta. In the meantime the Seahawks and their fans have time to boogey: New York Jets 17 @ Indianapolis Colts 16 Some how, some way, the Jets did it. Mark Sanchez was awful. 18/31 for 189 yards and an INT. He was throwing loose passes all over the field and was lucky not to get picked off more than just the once. But fate has a funny way of twisting at this time of year. The Colts ran the ball. And kept running it. I know that I've often suggested that the Colts might benefit from running a little more, but this isn't quite what I had in mind. Actually, scrap that. This is nothing like what I had in mind. 27 runs? By the colts? And Manning threw just 18/26? What? The most mind boggling for me was the Colts approach on third down. When I think of predominantly pass first teams like the Colts running the ball, I'm thinking first and second down. Maybe the occasional sneaky run on third down. But to go for a near all out attack on third down using the run? No, surely not. It doesn't matter if I had one yard to go, two, three, four, or eight, whatever, I would be trusting that down and our offenses continued possession of the ball to Peyton Manning. I certainly wouldn't be overly keen to be handing the ball off to Dominic Rhodes. Joseph Addai I can live with, but I'd much rather see Addai in pass protection or running a route on 3rd down, with my golden boy surveying the field and doing his thing. Not so the Jets, who apparently got sick and tired of Sanchez throwing the ball to invisible receivers and thus decided to break out their rushing attack for a change. You remember right, that same rushing attack that allowed them to somewhat protect Sanchez last season and helped them to get to the AFC Championship game? Yeah that one. LaDanian Tomlinson. That's all I'm saying. Ok, I'll say a little more. 16 carries, 82 yards, 2 TD's. The guy looks fresh and ready to roll in these playoffs. Just when everyone has smacked Tomlinson down once more, along come the Jets to remind everyone that essentially the offensive line dictates a big part of how many yards a running back gets. Thus guys like Tomlinson have little to fear. He still has the burst to hit a hole and fall forwards for yards, possibly for another 2 or 3 years providing there is no major upheaval in the Jets O-line. Now finally I'd like to end on a complaint, or two, because God knows I love me a moan. The first issue in question is the "roughing the kicker" called against the Colts. I appreciate that under the letter of the law, that was a penalty. I'm not disputing that. But what I will dispute is that in the offseason that rule needs to be changed. If that degree of contact is what constitutes "roughing" in the modern world, then for the last 10 years or so, anytime I've ever got off a bus during the rush hour I've committed numerous fouls for "roughing". In my opinion, the Colts rusher was making an active attempt to pull up at the end and avoid any serious, hard hitting collision with the kicker. Or to put it another way, he could have just drilled the guys standing leg and left him in a crippled heap, but he didn't. Contact like this, while only a very small part of the game, helps to enforce the wider image that the NFL is turning "soft". If the league is going to continue to be as successful as it has been, it needs to hold onto the fans it has and that means reversing this trend of perceived or actual "softness" in the game. The second thing I want to bitch about is the Colts calling a timeout with 29 seconds left as the Jets were driving for the winning field goal. My question is simply; why? On the sidelines, Manning looked pissed off and I can sympathise with that. It set up a pass by Sanchez to Edwards on the next play, which set the Jets up for a 32-yard field goal to win the game. It just blows the mind sometimes. Do the Colts not have a plan for this? Why do team keep making these critical errors in time management, week after damn week? Given the huge salaries involved, as an owner I would be chewing glass right about now, wondering what in the hell I was forking out the big bucks for given that I could probably hire a high school coach to come in and manage the clock better than that, at far less expense. But enough complaining, at least for now. As the number six seed, the Jets will now go on to play Tom Brady and the Patriots. Maybe Rex was right? Maybe he does have a Super Bowl winning team at hand. I'll wait and see how Sanchez gets on first if that's ok everyone. And onto the preview of Sunday's games. Baltimore Ravens @ Kansas City Chiefs (1:00pm ET, CBS) (6:00pm GMT, Sky Sports 2) The Ravens at the Chiefs, as running game clashes with running game. What intrigues me, because I'm a sad git who gets intrigued by otherwise uninteresting things, is the style clash that will take place between the three main runners on Sunday. First we have Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs. Charles is all about the speed. In the open field he can light teams up just as easily as Chris Johnson of the Titans. Typically with Charles you'll see the Chiefs run a "stretch" style play, where the offensive line all moves in one direction at the snap, looking to get the jump on their respective D-linemen and seal them inside using what we call a "reach" block. The idea is to cutoff the defense, pin them inside and then let Charles go flying around the outside and up the field with his speed. Thomas Jones of the Chiefs is very different. Coming from the Jets last year and, if we're honest, getting a little long in the tooth right now, Jones is more of you inside style rusher. Typically you'll see the Chiefs start off moving in one direction, similar to the stretch play above, but with a tight end and/or a fullback coming back against the flow to help kick out defenders on the backside and create a void up the middle for Jones, where he can use his power, toughness and, let's face it, big brass balls to drive right through the heart of the defense and off to pay dirt. My favourite though is Ray Rice of the Ravens. Why? Because (shut up, I know) normally with running backs, their success is tied very closely to their offensive line. Or to put it another way, unless you happen by chance to be a ghost it's physically impossible to run through a wall of 300 pound offensive and defensive linemen standing shoulder to shoulder. This is the major problem that Chris Johnson has had in Tennessee this year. Every time they call a run the Titans O-line seems to get wadded up in a bunch, which is a win for the defense. With no gaps between the linemen, it makes it very easy for the linebackers to read the play. All they have to do is flow towards the gaps at the two ends of the bunch and boom, dead play. Coincidentally the Ravens D happens to be quite good at doing just that. But the thing with Ray Rice is, he seems to possess an extraordinary vision on such plays for finding the tiny little cracks in the defense. His lateral quickness combined with that vision allows Rice to to squirm through creases that other running backs can't, if they even see them in first place. Credit to Rice for that. But the question still lingers, who might win such a battle? Well if I'm honest, the Ravens appear have the advantage. We know both teams can run the ball and that both teams struggle a little when throwing, but the Ravens D gives them the clear edge. That's not to say that the Chiefs have a weak defense, but they're simply not the Ravens. They can both bring pressure on the quarterback and both teams have playmakers in the back end, but critically in what could prove to be a ground and pound game, the Ravens run defense has the edge. The Ravens finished the regular season as the number 5 defense against the run. The Chiefs came in at number 14. So if it turns out to be a grind 'em down style field position battle, you probably have to give Baltimore the advantage. There is hope however for the Chiefs. An early score could tempt the Ravens into throwing a little more and as we've seen this season they're pass protection still leaves something to be desired. That gives Tamba Hali the open shot he needs to get in and cause some havoc. Hali topped the AFC for sacks in the regular season with 14.5 (only DeMarcus Ware finished ahead of him in the NFC, with 15.5). Add to that the hidden effect of numerous QB hits and pressures which go largely unnoticed on the stat sheets (someone at one of the big networks needs to fix this), and you have a recipe for forcing Joe Flacco into some bad throws. The Chiefs have the people in the secondary to make Flacco pay, and so the Chiefs could be set up to pull off the next huge upset in the 2010 season Wildcard weekend. We'll see. The winner has a date lined up with the Steelers... Green Bay Packers @ Philadelphia Eagles (4:30pm ET, FOX) (9:30pm GMT, Sky Sports 2) The Packers and the Eagles clash in what bizarrely many people are touting as the true NFC Championship game. I think the Falcons and Bears might have something to say about that (and the Seahawks I guess). Still though, it is a hell of a clash to be having in the wildcard weekend. Michael Vick, the NFL's golden ticket for redemption (and advertising revenues) up against Aaron Rodgers, the successor to Brett Favre. So how good are these teams? The Eagles destroyed the Redskins in a style that you would expect of a great team. They also produced the miracle at the New Meadowlands, coming back from almost certain defeat at the hands of what was a very strong Giants team (10-6 with one of the better defenses out there) to storm to victory. The Packers caliber is much more subtle. Consider that the Patriots are widely touted as the best team in the NFL right now, and that the Packers managed to run their game against the Patriots very close, all without the aid of starting QB Aaron Rodgers. 'The Pack' are also one of those rare teams that has great strength on both sides of the ball. They have a great offense that is more than capable of getting into a shootout with any team in the league. But on defense they are also pretty sound. The development of corners Tramon Williams and Sam Shields has had a huge impact for them. When you then consider that their front seven is up there among the best, easily at home alongside the Ravens and the Steelers, and you have a seriously solid all around team. Not quite the same story in Philadelphia. The Eagles have Mike Vick. They have DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and James Harrison (don't knock the guy). But on defense it begins to get a little flimsy. While Trent Cole, Juqua Parker and Darryl Tapp form the backbone of a formidable pass rush, the Eagles have still been found wanting on the back end this season, and their rush defense has at times been very poor. All things considered I think the Packers have the edge going into this game, but as we've seen this season, not least in this wildcard weekend, anything is possible on any given Sunday. Could the X factor that is Michael Vick tip the balance? Will Aaron Rodgers simply stroll onto the field and tear apart the Eagles secondary? Maybe DeSean Jackson will have a few big run backs in the kicking game? Guess we'll all just have to grab a beer (Amaretto for me please), sit back, relax and tune in to what is proving to be one of the most intriguing seasons in recent memory. I'll be back tomorrow for a full recap.

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