Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wildcard Round Up

I do not believe it. Just.... it's a miracle ;)

We'll get to that later, but to start with the Texans beat the Bengals and I have to say that was an impressive performance all around for the Texans. The defense was solid, made some great plays at times, and generally disrupted the Bengals play through virtue of being efficient and organised. Poor Andy Dalton was always going to struggle, but I felt like he at least gave it a good crack, and I think the Bengals will be pleased with the year he's had and will come back next season with optimism in their eyes.

For the Texans, the combination of Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels and Arian Foster got the job done. Johnson and Daniels made some great catches, while Fosters hard running was impressive against a Bengals defense that has normally been quite good against the run. Whether this combination of weapons is on the same level as people like the Packers, Patriots and Saints is another matter, but they at least look they have a punchers chance in any match up. Very good.

I guess we'll stick with the AFC side of the play offs and address the Broncos win over the Steelers.

From the very first kick of the game you knew this was going to be a little bit special. Matt Praters kickoff struck the crossbar - causing an automatic touchback to the 20 yard line - then bounced back into the field of play, rolled a few yards and came to rest on the 20, saving the refs a job. It only got weirder.

Despite being probably one of the biggest Tebow supporters/sympathisers, I had the Steelers in this one. I just couldn't see the Broncos making it through this one unscathed. How wrong I was. To be fair to the Steelers they had plenty of injury worries. Roethlisberger was limping like Long John Silver, Maurkice Pouncey was out, Ryan Clark was out, Brett Keisel had to leave the game and Casey Hampton was gone to. Those last two injuries showed up huge in the amount of time that Tebow had in the pocket on occasion.

But you play the hand you're dealt and the Broncos played it beautifully. Traditionally the Steelers are a zone blitz team, rushing guys from odd angles while dropping other out in zone coverages. This time they sensed a weakness in Tebow's passing and came out with a lot of man coverage, getting burned repeatedly in the process as their corners failed to match up well, particularly Ike Taylor trying to cover DeMariyus Thomas.

Tebow only completed 10 of his 21 passes, but 316 yards and 2 touchdowns made that completion percentage irrelevant. The Broncos receivers actually made some catches for a change, although there were still a few that clipped fingers and slipped through hands.

Thomas in particular took center stage, catching just four passes but for 204 yards and a touchdown. It was his final catch - an 80 yard romp in over time - that sealed the game. Tebow time indeed.

I also just want to quickly pick on the situation with James Harrison. A lot of people have been calling Harrison "dirty" for his low shot on Eric Decker - who left the game with a knee injury and didn't return - but this was always going to be the inevitable result of the rule changes regarding helmet to helmet hits, especially considering the fines levied on Harrison.

This is what people we're trying to warn the league about. If you want to stop high hits that's fine, but the end result is always going to be that guys start going for the legs and eventually someone gets a knee blown out. And whereas concussions are nasty and the immediate effects can be felt for weeks (in some cases), with the long term effect of repeated hit still being investigated, knee hits are always going to result in lengthy injury spells. More to the point, serious knee injuries effect a players career in ways that a concussion just doesn't. It's why a lot of players have admitted that they would rather take a shot to the head than a shot to the knee.

So no, I don't blame Harrison. This is what the league wanted. They repeatedly fined him for lowering his head, the implication being that they wanted him to go low, so low is exactly where he went. And boom, we have a guy getting seriously injured. You reap what you sow, as they say.

I also want to mention the Broncos defense, as once again their part in all of this has been lost under the mountain of Tebowmania articles. They had fives sacks between them, a pick, a near pick in the endzone by Champ Bailey, and a forced fumble. When the Steelers got the ball back with a little over a minute remaining in the game, it was the Broncos defense that came up big to shut them down and stop them getting the field goal.

I guess the Broncos D are used to it by now, but it still must irk a little that they don't get the credit they deserve. While magazine covers and blog home pages are splattered with pictures of Tebow, the Broncos defense has once again been pushed to the back. They need to get the credit that they deserve for playing their part in this win.

That means now that the Texans will travel to Baltimore to take on the Ravens, while the Broncos visit New England who have since hired former Broncos Head Coach Josh McDaniels, the guy that drafted Tebow and Thomas in the first round of the same draft. How smug that guy must feel right now.

Onto the NFC and we start with the Saints win over the Lions.

Just... wow.

I could leave it there and that would be an accurate summation of the Saints performance. They nailed it. Up until the fourth quarter there was still hope for the Lions, but then it all went down the drain, flushed away by a startling offensive performance from the Saints that demonstrated balance and explosiveness. I don't think I've ever been as impressed with the Saints as I am now.

Drew Brees was 33/43, a better than 75% completion percentage despite throwing the ball 43 times. That's incredible. The ground game was just as good, running hard for solid gains and three scores. All around they were just too good for the Lions.

And that's been the Lions problem this year. Offensively they can swing and hit with the best of them. But their defense has just been a soft touch. Matthew Stafford had another game going over 350 yards (exactly 380), but the defense was porous, giving up 34 first downs and 626 total net yards. That doesn't cut it in the regular season, let alone the play offs.

I'm pleased about this not just because I got the pick right, but because of how many people picked the Lions, and the general chatter around the league and the web that the Lions are a top caliber team on the same level as the Saints. They're not. Offensively they can go, providing Calvin Johnson can get open. But they still struggle on the defense and unless they have a great free agency/draft, I think they're going to struggle next year.

It's a shame. I felt like Detroit was a team that was going places and could have made a big push this year if they could have just tightened up the linebacker spots and the secondary a little. There are some red hot linebackers and secondary guys in this years draft, so if the Lions are ever going to pounce then now is the time. I think Lavonte David of Nebraska is in it this year, and if that's the case then I can't see them passing up a playmaker like that.

Finally then we have the Giants win over the Falcons.

In the end what was expected to be a tight battle turned into a massacre. The Falcons scored two points because of a safety and that was it. The Giants didn't exactly run up the score but they smothered the Falcons in impressive fashion.

Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw put on another good show. Neither of them passed 100 yards, but Jacobs came close off just 14 carries. Eli Manning didn't turn the ball over for a change and his receivers looked pretty sharp, running some great routes from a technique perspective.

The Falcons only have themselves to blame for their loss. Matt Ryan barely completed 50% of his passes and they missed some key fourth downs with just inches to go as Ryan struggled to make gains behind an offensive line that was simply blown off the football at every turn by the Giants D-line. It wasn't pretty and it means Tony Gonzalez ends another year without a play off win. Poor guy.

Due to that result the Giants now have to travel to Green Bay and the Saints are off to San Francisco for the weekend. I think that's two interesting match ups right there, especially the Saints/49ers, as we get to see a 21st Century team (explosive offense, shaky defense) against what is essentially a 20th Century team (low scoring offense, very stout defense).

Let the Divisional Round battles begin!

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