Friday, January 20, 2012

Much delayed Divisional Round thoughts

Divisional Round?

I think the title for the previous week "Wildcard" would have been more appropriate. It was a wild weekend of action and a couple of results that drew the eye.

We'll start in Green Bay where the Giants waltzed into town as the underdogs and then waltzed out again as winners. Simply put, that was a huge result for New York. Perhaps more of importance for the Giants was the way they won the game. Not only did the offense do a nice number on Green Bay, but the defense came up big too.

The Packers didn't help themselves though, what with all the drops and the three fumbles. You can't take away from the Giants thought just how impressive they were. Michael Boley and Osi Umenyiora in particular did a great job.

It's a stark contrast when you look at the Packers defense. What has happened to that unit? Everyone seems very keen to talk about the poor tackling - which is a legitimate issue - and also the general struggles of the Packers secondary in coverage compared to last year, but I'm frankly stunned at how little attention is being given to their front line.

The loss of Cullen Jenkins in free agency (to the Eagles) kind of went unnoticed by many, the assumption being that B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett would pick up the slack. But that simply hasn't happened. Clay Matthews has been a non-factor. In fact the entire Packers front seven has been a non-factor.

Ok, so they make the occasional play here and there, but against the best teams that's simply not enough, as evidenced by Eli Manning putting up over 300 yards, with nearly 170 yards and 2 touchdowns hauled in by Hakeem Nicks alone.

Which also speaks volumes of the Giants offense. Nicks and Victor Cruz are shaping themselves up to be exceptional weapons this season. They run good routes and they catch pretty well, but their main advantage has been once they have the ball in their hands. Most of their hefty yardage has been clocked up after the catch, ala Wes Welker/Jerry Rice.

I should point out that I'm not putting them in that league - not yet - but a few more seasons like this and people will certainly remember the names Cruz and Nicks.

It wasn't a perfect showing by the Giants, in particular Eli Manning still has some issues to sort out with his accuracy and some of his decision making, but in general it was a pretty handy showing and will give Giants fans plenty of confidence going into this weeks game with the 49ers.

Which brings me to Candlestick Park and the 49ers entertaining (and beating... mwhahahahaha!) the Saints, in what was surely one of the most exciting finishes to a playoff game in recent memory.

And in a way I'm a bit sad about that.

As a 49ers fan I shouldn't be. I should be (and really am) elated. The problem I have is that it has further driven the hype behind the genius of Jim Harbaugh. While Harbaugh doubtless has a big impact on his team, I've been saying for a while now that it's Vic Fangio who should really be getting most of the praise.

He's taken a defensive unit that was already pretty handy and, with the addition of veteran corner Carlos Rogers, rookie corner Chris Culliver, and rookie pass rusher Aldon Smith, turned them into something even more special. He's getting the best out of guys like Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, who are largely unheralded for their efforts due to the massive success of the pass rush (the 49ers had 11 passes defended, which equals the amount of QB hits they had for the game).

It's a group that right now can lay a genuine claim to rivalling any of the best defenses in NFL history. Simply put, they're dominating teams this season. They made the Saints offensive line - probably one of the best units in the NFL and unheralded in their own right - look ordinary. The pressure was consistent and at times stifling.

Still, the Saints put up an impressive fight. I think people are forgetting that even under such pressure Brees still hit 462 yards and 4 touchdowns. That's a phenomenal showing. In the end though his two interceptions and the three team fumbles by the Saints proved very costly.

Then there was Alex Smith.

For all his late game heroics he still barely nudged over a 50% completion percentage, hitting just 24/42. It didn't matter though. When the time came and the game was on the line, Smith brought the goods. Of special note for me was the way he went after tight end Vernon Davis when the crunch time came around.

This is something of a hobby horse of mine, as long time readers will be aware. I pound and pound and pound away at the issue of playing to your strengths, minimising your weaknesses and putting the ball in the hands of your play makers, of the guys that really can make a difference.

For the 49ers, that's Frank Gore and Vernon Davis. Davis ended the game with 7 catches for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns. Gore's numbers were slightly less impressive, but at least Smith went looking for him plenty enough. Expect Smith to continue that in the NFC Conference game as he's doubtless lost a lot of faith in Michael Crabtree, who he targeted 10 times (the same as Davis) but who only caught 4 of the ten passes.

The message is clear; when the going gets tough, find your money guys. Brees did exactly the same, going to Darren Sproles 19 times and Marques Colston 12 times. Maybe he might have lent on the excellent tight end Jimmy Graham a little more (8 targets), but Graham still did him proud anyway.

It was a crazy game with a crazy finish. I'm just glad that a) I saw it and b) that the 49ers won it! This was also the only pick of the four games that I got right. I've always sucked at trying to call playoff games.

Onto the AFC and we have to talk Broncos at Patriots first.

See I'm not exactly a huge fan of the mainstream press reporting on the NFL and that's even more so the case now. In fact, I'm calling bullshit on the media.

The reason I say that is because after the Packers game commentators on TV and all the talk shows were falling over themselves to bail out Aaron Rodgers by rightly pointing out that his receivers dropped a lot of otherwise catchable passes. And that's fine.

But how come Tebow isn't getting the same treatment?

Matt Willis was targeted four times and caught just one pass. Eddie Royal was targeted eight times, eight, and caught a whopping 2 passes. In the regular season Eddie Royal caught just 19 of the 49 passes slung his way (very few of the Bronos receivers did much better, but not quite as bad).

So where are the hoardes of TV talking heads bailing Tebow out and saying "oh it's terrible, he keeps hitting guys in the hands and they keep dropping it. You have to catch those passes etc"?

It's just the classic bull crap that I guess I should really expect no less of from places like ProFootballTalk. When it's a big name star like Rodgers it's all the fault of the receivers for not catching otherwise perfectly catchable balls, but when it's a guy like Tebow then all of a sudden it's his fault that the ball keeps hitting receivers on the fingers instead of slotting perfectly into their hands.

It just fucking frustrates me, the press pandering to the big names but not cutting a break for a young guy just because there is a false perception (as I've shown here many times with film evidence) that he doesn't have a "classic" throwing motion (because apparently having a similar motion to Joe Montana and Dan Marino isn't "classic" enough).

But enough of that and on to the Patriots, who rightly deserve praise for the way they played. Their offensive line in particular was in fantastic form. They allowed zero sacks, one tackle for loss and just two QB hits. It was an absolute domination of the line of scrimmage. Their defensive front did the same on the other side of the ball; 5 sacks, 8 QB hits, 10 tackles for loss. It was a master class in the trenches.

And then there was Brady.

363 yards and 6 touchdowns, which ties the record for the most touchdowns thrown in a post season game. He was almost faultless. He even put on a virtual clinic in the idea I was talking about earlier of playing to your strengths and getting the ball to your key play makers. He searched out tight end Rob Gronkowski 12 times and they connected 10 times, as Gronkowski racked up 145 yards and a post season record 3 touchdowns. You basically couldn't ask for a better poster child for this idea.

Though I have to say it still amazes me how much room people are prepared to give Welker and Gronkowski. It's been shown - on film - both here and elsewhere that press coverage is the best way to handle Welker and Gronkowski. In fact Brady often struggles in the face of such coverage, basically as a result of how he goes about reading (re; staring down) his receivers at the snap.

Yet people still insist on giving guys like Welker and Gronkowski a massive cushion with their secondary, then somehow expecting the pass rush to just magic its way past the Patriots tough O-line. Unless the Ravens figure it out or the winner of the NFC Championship game does, then I think New England could well be a safe bet to win it all this season, they're just that good.

And nobody outside of the wider Boston area wants to see that.

We end with the Texans at the Ravens and one of the very few legitimate cases in football where the actions of one man can cost his team a heavy price. I'm looking at you Jacoby Jones. Why, for the love of God, did he have to try and make a play on that ball? As the colour commentator for the game remarked, nothing good could possibly have come from that.

The result was a turnover that denied his team a possession and gave the Ravens a perfect scoring opportunity. There literally is no excuse for that mistake. None.

The game was still up for grabs though. Unfortunately T.J. Yates found out first hand what's like to be a rookie quarterback facing an experienced safety in the shape of Ed Reed. Yates threw three picks and hit Reed in the hands twice more. It's frankly a semi-miracle that the Texans managed to keep this one as close as they did.

There was some good running by Arian Foster which helped, as did a 100 yard game from Andre Johnson, but Kevin Walters 2 catches from 8 targets leaves a lot to be desired. The Texans defense also had a huge game with rookies J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed both putting up 2.5 sacks, along with the teams 6 tackles for loss and 7 passes defended.

By contrast the Ravens defense looked pedestrian outside of the 3 picks and 11 total pass break ups. They really struggled to generate any pressure on Yates and couldn't contain Arian Foster, which doesn't bode well for their ensuing match up with the Patriots in the AFC Conference game.

They did enough though, and I guess that's all that matters.

So that's the Divisional Round done and on to the Championship games. I bet I'm not the only one who is intrigued by the prospect of the Giants and the Patriots potentially meeting again in the Super Bowl, especially as many of the conditions from that previous season are being repeated now. It's bordering on Deja Vu.

Of course I'd rather see the 49ers make it, and indeed if both the 49ers and Ravens get through then we get a repeat of the Harbaugh Bowl, which should be equally as interesting. I'll be rooting for my beloved red and gold, but I can't help but think we're living on borrowed time and that payback is due soon.

I might as well get my picks out of the way now. I'm taking the Patriots over the Ravens because I can't see the Ravens slowing down the Patriots, and they're sure as hell not gonna out score them! Then I'm going to take the 49ers over the Giants, because the Giants O-line is vulnerable and because it's a fan boy pick so there!

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