The Conference Championship weekend might not have matched the drama of the Wild Card games, but I thought the Niners-Seahawks game was the best of the playoffs. Well, the best apart from the officiating, which sadly enough made the case for more replay, not less. The upshot, however, is that we have the top two teams in the league: Denver with the league's best offense by any statistical measure, against Seattle, the league's best defense by the same count. It's the first matchup of the two top seeds since 2009's Saints-Colts game, which also featured a certain Peyton Manning at QB. That was the game that proved definitively how defense wins championships. Or was that onside kicks? Consider that when you look at the NFL's progress toward eliminating both kickoffs and extra points from the game.
The Broncos' win over the Pats was partly down to a great game from Manning, who tore the Pats' D apart, especially after Wes 'The Enforcer' Welker laid Aqib Talib out of the game. It's the second straight year that Talib has gone out early in the conference championship and watched the Pats' D fall apart. It was already a problem for the Pats to play the game in nickle, with two linebackers, and Manning was able to read their defenses easily and choose between run or pass at the right times. When it became clear Alfonzo Dennard couldn't handle Demaryius Thomas one on one, it only got worse.
But the real key to Denver's win was Terrence Knighton. The former Jag was a force inside, overpowering linemen to bust up the Pats' run game early. With Tom Brady's receivers unable to take advantage of Denver's secondary, and Brady missing throws on the few times they did, the Pats were doomed. The refs had an awful start, with the Pats' getting hammered on an OPI call against Hoomanawanui, and a non-call on Welker, which indicated something like inconsistency, but the zebras settled down and weren't a factor the rest of the way.
Unlike in Seattle. The flag on Donte Whitner was wrong, but we've seen all year how such hits are penalised by how bad the result looks, rather than whether or not the hit was actually against the rules. The truth is it's often impossible to isolate the point of contact with the naked eye. The call on Navorro Bowman's 'fumble recovery' was absurd, and the idea that it was missed completely an indictment of some sort. The question I ask is this: had Jermaine Kearse dropped the ball as he came down with it, or after, but before he'd moved, would it have been ruled a fumble? The answer of course is no. Which makes Bowman's play an interception. I honestly can't say whether you can challenge the ruling on the field that it was a fumble at all, but that happens all the time in other circumstances. The NFL has woven itself into a nightmare of illogic and contradiction on the whole issue of fumbled/incomplete passes, and the root of the problem is that the rule makers keep trying to redefine things based on the latest incident, rather than the overview of reality.
But the worse single call of the playoffs was Gene Steratore's failure to call an obvious, by-the-book, this-is-exactly-how-the-rules-define it roughing the kicker penalty on Chris Maragos. Calling it running into the kicker was the kind of compromise a ref makes when he's trying to control the tempo of the game (if I make it the 15 yarder, I hand the ball back to the Niners, so let's just make it five yards) rather than enforce the laws. He gets the Howard Webb Award.
That the Niners ended the season challenging Richard Sherman was not a smart thing to do. Sherman, who played for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, and who tipped the ball to Malcolm Smith, who played for Pete Carroll at USC. This overpowering irony in the face of Sherman's Dick The Bruiser routine with Erin Andrews playing Mean Gene Okerlund to stunned perfection. By now you've probably seen Sherman offering a handshake to Crabtree immediately after the play, and Crabtree slapping him. Granted Crabtree might have thought Sherman was rubbing it in, but what it shows to me is that Sherman is a player with rare awareness, who can showboat, but knows what he's doing and whose instincts are balanced as a result. He's made himself the story of the Super Bowl, and if a TV network can put Deion Sanders on air doing a vanilla version of a fantasy draft, there will be a spot on TV for Sherman as soon as his playing career ends. Sherman hadn't got much attention because he'd played pretty much a shutdown game, but note Kam Chancellor. Besides his interception, which was a crazy throw by Colin Kaepernick, he made two huge plays. One on the incompletion to Vernon Davis (where again, I thought he'd clearly controlled the ball and fumbled—and then recovered his own fumble) and more importantly the drop by Crabtree where Chancellor's footsteps echoed louder than the 12th man inside Crabtree's helmet. There was some fantastic old school football on display in Seattle, and that's why, despite the officiating, it was my game of the playoffs.
Honk if you wanted to be head coach of the Browns! Mike Pettine, whom the team had targeted from the start after 23 others turned them down, is the new coach, and he might turn out to be a good one, though a lot will depend on who he hires to run his offense. The Browns got caught in the NFL's new coach anomaly, which gives an advantage to teams that didn't make the playoffs, but stops them from hiring the coaches who worked with teams that did make the playoffs because everyone wants to see their new coaches working the 16 hour days in January, and the new coaches want to hire their assistants before anyone else can get to them. I'd be in favour of a ban on coaching hires until after the Super Bowl (you could easily make the coaching contract year extend through the SB and forbid tampering until afterwards) but that isn't going to happen. And if Pettine is lucky he might pick up an assistant or two from some of the teams active last weekend. But his problem is that the hot coordinators are unlikely to want to or be allowed to make lateral moves, so you're talking positional coaches, for example Jim Tomsula, who was mentioned as a possible head coach candidate, and might be in line to be a coord somewhere soon. Pettine's a 3-4 coach, who had a good season in Buffalo—look to see if Jairus Byrd follows him to Cleveland. I just hope he lasts longer than Rob Chudzinski.
It seemed at times that Ken Whisenhunt, Jim Caldwell, and Mike Zimmer were somehow interchangeable pieces in a surrealistic jigsaw puzzle, and could you really remember which one had gone to which team? Or not gone, in the case of Whisenhunt, who passed on taking a meeting with the Lions while their jet was still on the tarmac, and Geno Smith was talking on his cell phone. Or was that two different planes?
Whisenhunt's preference for the Titans over the Lions is strange, unless he's evaluating the divisions, but when you think back to his quarterbacks in Arizona choosing Jake Locker over Matt Stafford may make sense. I've never been that sold on him as an offensive mastermind, and Matt Leinart seems to agree with me, and I foresee a series of seasons similar to Mike Munchak's, albeit possibly in different ways.
I thought Detroit would be the best fit for Zimmer, who could turn that defense into something special with just a little discipline. But Caldwell may turn out to be surprisingly good, in the sense that he's a calm presence, and if you accept that he had a lot to do with Joe Flacco's turnaround in the Ravens' Super Bowl year and less to do with their flatlining this year. Anquan Boldin might have made a good player/coach. It was interesting that Caldwell brought Teryl Austin with him from Baltimore as defensive coordinator; he's the kind of young dynamic guy players might respond to. He also brought Bill Sheridan as linebackers coach, but kept former Monarchs' coach Jim Washburn as D line coach.
Zimmer has issues to deal with in Minnesota, where his key defensive players are old and expensive, and his back seven shaky. He also needs to sort out the troika of failure at QB for the Vikes, which makes it almost perverse that he should hire Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator immediately after Norv presided over a similar situation in Cleveland. How similar? For Ponder read Weeden, for Cassell (ex-Pat backup) read Hoyer, for Freeman (big armed former starter with slow decision making) read Campbell. If Ziggy Wylf, who like Browns' owner Jimmy Haslam, faces legal problems, decides to start interfering in choice of QBs, it will be Norv's own fault, but you'd think Freeman would be a good project for Norv.
There were some interesting changes with assistant coaches too. The Giants fired Michael Pope, who'd been with them since 2000, before Tom Coughlin was hired (and was also with them from '83 through '91). Pope was immediately hired by the Cowboys, to replace third-generation legacy Wes Phillips, who left Dallas for Washington and Jay Gruden's staff.
In New England there seems to be a changing of the guard too. Pepper Johnson, who played for Belichick on the Giants, Browns and Jets, and joined the Pats as a coach in 2001, resigned. Belichick had passed over Johnson when Matt Patricia was finally named defensive coordinator, and Johnson's time to advance is probably now. That's why, although the rumours have him going to Houston to re-join Romeo Crennel, perhaps with an eye toward replacing him eventually, I'd also consider Cleveland as a destination.
Patriots' O line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who coached under five other guys in New England before Bill Belichick arrived, has retired. He did an amazing job in the Belichick years—this team won Super Bowls with guys like Joe Andruzzi, Brandon Gorin Russ Hochstein, and Greg Robinson-Randall starting, and always seemed to have some undrafted waiver-wire guy ready to step in. Watching Andruzzi years ago, I concluded Scarnecchia placed huge importance on the hands, the ability to place them and direct the opponent, to influence his direction, and he must've taught technique well. What made it work, and what made few of these guys successful elsewhere, was that his teaching was integrated into what the Pats' offense tried to do. It would be hard to imagine him coaching anywhere else. The Pats have replaced him with Dave DeGuglielmo, who worked under Pat Flaherty with the Giants and then had stints in Miami and with the Jets. He'd been hired, six days earlier, by the University of Maryland, but that's the way the carousel turns.
THE FMTE ALL-PRO TEAM
QB: Peyton Manning
RB: LaSean McCoy
FB: Jed Collins
WR: Josh Gordon, Calvin Johnson, Antonio Brown
TE: Jimmy Graham
T: Joe Thomas, Joe Staley
G: Logan Mankins, Louis Vasquez
C: Ryan Kalil
DE: Robert Quinn, JJ Watt
DT: Justin Smith, Jurrell Casey
OLB: Lavonte David, Robert Mathis
ILB: Luke Kuechley, Navorro Bowman
CB: Richard Sherman, Joe Haden, Alterraun Verner/Patrick Peterson
SS: Eric Berry FS: Earl Thomas
PK: Matt Prater (Prater's results are inflated by his kicking at altitude, but his score on my cockuppa scale was 1.69, which is huge, and he gets nothing extra for 64 yards, just another kick over 50). Justin Tucker and Stephen Gostkowski, whom I originally thought I'd chosen, scored 1.32 each, but Dallas' Dan Bailey registered 1.53)
P: Andy Lee
KR: Cordarelle Patterson
PR: Tavon Austin
Coach of Year: Bill Belichick
Assistant Coach of Year: Todd Bowles/Sean McDermott
GM of Year: John Schneider