The Road to the Super Bowl now leads not through Foxborough or Atlanta, but through the Harbaughs. The brothers who as kids probably both screamed for their father to call a delay penalty when their mother was slow handing out Christmas presents, both take their shows on the road Sunday, and although Jim's Niners are favourites and John's Rayvens are underdogs, the odds on a Harbowl would probably be pretty enticing.
Last weekend was an advertisement for sleep disorder; four games that kept you watching until the end. Nat Coombs said it was the best weekend he'd had since his parents let him play Madden 2000 at Butlins. For me the defining moments might be summed up in spinning: Rahim Moore spinning around as he tried to locate and make a play on yet another Joe Flacco bomb, and Clay Matthews spinning as the Niners read option left him stranded yet again. The NFL is about strategy, it's about tactics, but above all, it's about execution.
One strategy that didn't work was the Packers trying to deal with the option by crashing down from the outside, hoping Matthews' athleticism would take away the read. In fact, it made it easier for Colin Kaepernick, as he produced the greatest rushing day for a quarterback in NFL history. He also passed the ball precisely; his TD to Michael Crabtree past tight coverage by Sammy Shields was big time execution, in both senses of the word. And isn't it funny how Crabtree looks a lot more like the guy we saw at Texas Tech since the Niners have gone to this college-inspired pistol attack?
One strategy that did work was the way the Patriots neutralised the Texans' big defensive players by going hurry-up after big gains; Tom Brady simply looked at what the D was giving him and took it. They lost both Danny Woodhead and Gronk in their first seven plays; it didn't matter as Shane Vereen stepped up. Brady's pass to Vereen down the left sideline was a thing of beauty, not that Bill Belichick paid any attention. If Jim Schwartz were coaching the Pats, he would've been at midfield fist-pumping and high-fiving. Of course, if Schwartz were coaching the Pats, they'd have been watching the game on TV!
Barrett Ruud had helped stabilise the Houston defenses’ pass coverage after they lost Brian Cushing, and his coverage of Vereen was pretty good, but not good enough against a perfect pass. Injuries played a big part in this weekend's games. A lot has been made of the fact that Peyton Manning is now 2-8 in games played outdoors in January—much less in 10 degree conditions in Denver. Manning made some fine throws, but it seemed as if he was having to put his whole body into them—I know how the cold affects compacted vertebrae in my neck, and I wonder if he was less able to throw the ball long. And his final interception prompted me to tweet 'who does he think he is, Brett Favre?'. No matter how much mustard you have on the ball, that's a dangerous pass, and Peyton's mustard was definitely lacking. It also looked clear that Marshawn Lynch was less than 100 per cent, and Seattle's running of Michael Robinson twice on third and fourth and one cost them points that might have changed the complexion of the game. Not that they needed to give the ball to Lynch on fourth, but they needed to use him, and let Russell Wilson run it.
John Fox's last minute tactics came under heavy criticism, with some justification. He argued that, after the bomb that tied the game, his team needed to recoup—which presumably he also thought at the end of the first half. Both times the Broncos needed to go 45-50 yards in less than 40 seconds to try a field goal; they held all three timeouts at the half and two in the fourth quarter, and even a creaky Peyton Manning is worth a shot. I understood better his not risking a pass on that crucial third and seven when they handed to Ronnie Hillman; an incompletion stops the clock (though Manning could've taken a sack without hurting them) and as it turned out, Colquitt's punt was a beauty. The Rayvens looked unlikely to win, holding no time outs, but on the other hand, you were putting the game in the hands of a defense that had already given up four touchdowns.
And though they say special teams win playoff games, when was the last time the league's best special teams units surrendered two return touchdowns, and STILL WON? Trindon Holliday hadn't played in a loss all season, between Houston and Denver, until this weekend. Meanwhile, the Packers suffered because Randall Cobb's punt return replacement fumbled, and the Patriots saved themselves twice when it looked like Danieal Manning was going to return kicks for touchdowns. On the opening kickoff, Devin McCourty's saving tackle, James Casey's drop, and Matt Schaub's overthrown of a wide open Andre Johnson saw the Texans settle for a 3-0 lead.
What the Rayvens ran we saw a few times this weekend; two deep crossing routes and one fly pattern. Denver's Rahim Moore took most of the criticism, but you have to wonder why Tony Carter didn't follow Jacoby Jones deeper, since his zone was empty. Denver's secondary seemed unaware of the tactical point: Baltimore had to score a TD and had no time outs. You keep the play in front of you, and you deny the sidelines, in that order. Their secondary coach, Ron Milus, was fired, which may have been on the cards anyway, since new guy Cory Undlin worked for Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville. Del Rio shouldn't escape the criticism for his players not knowing situational play.
Mike Smith's tactic of not going for a two point conversion when leading 26-7 could have backfired. Smith isn't the only one challenged on going for two—Phil Simms got completely flabbergasted trying to figure out whether or not Houston needed a deuce against the Patriots. But when Atlanta needed a field goal to win against Seattle, holding a time out, the situation gave them the chance to work strength against strength, and Matt Ryan found Harry Douglas underneath on the sidelines and Tony Gonzalez in the middle of the field to give Matt Bryant a chance. Then Pete Carroll gave Bryant a practice kick—Carroll was incensed because he claimed the officials told him Atlanta wouldn't get a kick if he tried to 'ice' the kicker, but the whole Mike Shanahan thing of waiting till the clock winds down almost ensures the kicker will get his shot. Icing is a stupid thing, and I'd love to see the NFL institute a rule eliminating time-outs called from the sidelines once the center has his hands on the ball.
Speaking of the refereeing, I thought it was fitting that the crew in Denver allowed Justin Tucker to take a practice kick during the time out between OT quarters, just before his attempted game winning kick. They could have easily stopped him, and should have, and this is another thing I expect the league will address in the off-season. It was horrible exhibition from Bill Vinovich and his crew, who called 18 penalties, and spent ages discussing many of them while everyone else stood around in the cold. But somehow they managed to apply the bang-bang rule to a number of passes—the one that says it's not interference if you hit the receiver before the ball gets there, but not too long before—and miss every hold by Michael Oher or Bryant McKinnie while calling just one the whole game, on Chris Kuper when Ma'ake Kemoeatu stumbling trying to spin out of a legal block. We've seen this reaction call before, as with Gronk in the Arizona game, but the official is supposed to see the foul, not the reaction.
In the New England-Houston game, we got to see once again how tough Garth DeFelice, the guy who tossed JJ Watt, is, which is not what anyone bought tickets or tuned in to see. DeFelice appears to think he's a baseball umpire, so when Brandon Lloyd tossed the ball to him in a line-drive he wasn't expecting, and he muffed the catch, he felt shown up and threw a flag. Mike Pereira tweeted that the penalty was for excessive disdain, which in this case seemed justifiable, but also is something I can't find in the rule book. This crew also demonstrated the classic NFL theory of relativity approach to time, at the end of the first half, when Houston called a time out after the half ended. Jim Nantz explained patiently that the whistle had blown with two seconds left, as the Texans called time, then played the tape for us...and whistle came there none, until after the clock had hit zero. Not surprisingly, Nantz simply said nothing else about it as the half's final play then ran! Silence can indeed speak volumes.
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP: San Francisco (12-4-1) at Atlanta (14-3): Mike Nolan Bowl! Once again the Falcons will host a West Coast team travelling east—anyone who doubted the delay in body-clock time need only have watched as the Seahawks came alive just about 1pm Pacific time last Saturday! Nolan, who's done a good job as the Falcons' defensive coordinator, will have to come up with a way to defend the Niners' read-option, and while John Abraham, who sat out the second half against Seattle, is expected to play, I don't think they can count on his being at full speed or playing a full game. I would not be surprised to see Kroy Bierman used to spy Colin Kaepernick, but the real battle will come up front, when the Niners start to pound the ball, and then attack Atlanta, who often play a three deep zone, with the kind of routes that force safties to make tough choices.
I doubt the Falcons will run the ball as well as they did last week; Bruce Irvin's limitations against the run were exposed, and it took them out of their best pass-rush game too. Jacquizz Rodgers actually did a nice job in pass-pro, which may help as the healthier Justin Smith gets the more dangerous the Niners' pass-rush becomes. But the match-up, like last week's is the Falcons' receivers against the Niner secondary. SF will play two deep almost all the time, counting on Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner's speedy reactions to make up for the lack of an extra guy in the box, and they will also count on Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman to cover Tony Gonzalez, which as we saw last week is no easy task. If you don't believe in Harbaugh scenarios, then the Gonzo finally winning a playoff game and getting to the big one would be the major story line, where he might meet the equally veteran Ray Lewis, but if the Falcons do it may well be on his back, or hands. I think the Niners are a stronger team, and with Michael Crabtree coming alive, the receiver gap is not that huge. The question of Kaepernick's play under pressure has, I think, been answered. The Falcons are home dogs for this one, which is probably a slight disrespect, because the home field and time zone advantage is a big one. But I look at the way Cam Newton carved up Atlanta twice, and think Jim Harbaugh has probably looked at it too. I think he may well be just one step ahead of Mike Nolan on this one. Pick: Niners
THE FREE AGENCY MARKET:
For Baltimore last week, Joe Flacco and Paul Kruger had big games on the big stage, and likely made themselves some money, since both are going to be free agents this year. I took a list at those coming up to unrestricted free agency, and tried to pick the top 10, with one caveat, I looked only at players under 28 (except for Randy Starks) who might offer more long-term value. Flacco is easily the best QB who will be on the market, and he's never missed a game since coming into the league. NOTE: Alex Smith's 2-year deal with the Niners was designed to let him go as a cap casualty in April: he's owed $7 mill for next season, but only $1 million if he's cut. Smith might appeal more than Flacco to a team looking for a 'game manager'.
Ryan Clady OT Denver, Jake Long OT Miami: Clady had the better season, but Long might fit some teams' style of play better
Paul Kruger: His versatility should make him attractive to teams playing both 3-4 and 4-3
Dashon Goldson, S, SF: There will be a number of good safeties out there, but Goldson's the best of the bunch.
Connor Barwin, OLB Houston: there aren't many pass rushers out there
Henry Melton DT Chicago: coming off a fine season, but he benefits from playing in a line that allows him to face single blocking
Randy Starks DE Miami: could be looked at as a 4-3 tackle or 3-4 end. I wonder if some 3-4 teams might think San Diego's Vaughn Martin could be coached up.
Dwayne Bowe, WR Kansas City is the best wideout available, coming off a down year with a down team. Danario Alexander of San Diego is only a year younger, and has a bad injury history, but he's coming off an up year.
Aqib Talib CB New England: probably the best corner available. Character concerns, but it will be interesting to see if the Pats try to lock him up. The same applies to Baltimore's Cory Williams. Hard to believe Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie is still only 26.
Jairus Byrd, FS Buffalo, William Moore SS Atlanta: Could see Dallas making a pitch for either. The Lions' Louis Delmas is a talent, but is a huge injury risk, as is the Giants' Kenny Phillips.
Sebastian Vollmer RT New England: Teams may ask themselves how many of the Pats' tackles have succeeded elsewhere, but Vollmer could play LT for a lot of teams. The Giants' William Beatty, Minnesota's Phil Loadhold, Tyler Polumbus would only fit a zone-blocking team and only at RT.
Shonn Greene, Jets is a runner who might blossom in other circumstances. The same applies in a lesser way to Oakland's Mike Goodson. Reggie Bush, RB Miami and Rashard Mendenhall RB Pitts could be attractive, but Bush only to a team that can use him properly (and he may prefer the South Beach lifestyle to, say, Philadelphia) while Mendenhall is another guy whose injury history could put teams off offering long-term deals.
Washington TE Fred Davis might've been a hot item, but he's also coming off a serious injury; Oakland's Brandon Myers had a decent season, Dustin Keller is a one-dimensional pass-catcher, Martellus Bennett and Anthony Fasano are useful, and Houston's James Casey is probably more valuable to them than anyone else. The same is true of Delanie Walker, but someone other than the Niners might make an offer. If you want a dark horse, try Atlanta's backup TE Chase Coffman, who's built himself up considerable. The fact that so many serviceable tight ends are on the market simply shows how distinctly replacement we tight ends almost always are.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Baltimore (12-6) at New England (13-4): Dean Pees Bowl! Another case of a defensive coordinator facing his old team, and Pees' insights into Bill Belichick's game-planning might help the Rayvens a little. This game kicks off at 8:30 pm in Massachusetts, while the game in Georgia, in a climate-controlled dome, kicks off at 4:30 in the afternoon. From a football standpoint this makes no sense at all. But the prime time audience likes the Tom Brady-Ray Lewis story line. Last week Ray was wearing enough greasepaint to play Groucho Marx; it was hard to tell where the eye black ended and the beard began. At least until play started. Although Ray's a step slow in coverage now, his instincts against the run are still good, and it is noticeable how much better Danell Ellerbee plays alongside him. With Paul Kruger (see above) at a high level, Terrell Suggs looking back to normal form, and Ellerbee's quickness inside, the Ravens are once again formidable, even though Haloti Ngata is less then 100 per cent. The other key for the Rayven D is Coprey Graham, because the slot corner will have to bang Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez a lot. I wouldn't expect Baltimore to get caught on many ILB mismatches outside, either. And Bernard Pollard, who has personally injured more Patriots' stars than the rest of the league combined, is probably waiting for his shot too.
Baltimore is a tough matchup for the Pats because of their physicality—think back to the game the Rayvens would have won when the Pats went unbeaten, except Rex Ryan took a sidelines time out (that wouldn't've been allowed under my rules) to negate a fourth-down stop. Think of the playoff win in Foxboro when Ray Rice scored on the first play, or the game last year, which again they should have won but for a Billy Cundiff missed chipshot. When the teams met in Baltimore early this season, it was the best Flacco-Torrey Smith deep game of the season for the Rayvens; they got a couple of good calls late, but the Pats, who had played well enough to win, could not protect their lead.
The Rayvens actually have more playmakers on offense than the Pats—and the Pats' D will have to keep the deep ball under control, which they didn't do the first time they met, and haven't done a number of other times this season. But with Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard at corners and Devin McCourty at safety, they're better equipped to keep the pass game under control. Chandler Jones looks unlikely to play and give us another battle of the brothers confrontation with Arthur, and that hurts because he's the Pats' most explosive pass rusher. Flacco handles rush pretty well; he's willing to stand in and throw and he's more mobile than people realise. New England's front seven play very well against the run, so Jim Caldwell needs to be a bit more creative than two Rice runs and a bomb. Last week the Pats were giving away the swing pass to Arian Foster; you don't want to do that with Rice. This is a classic chess game, but the Rayvens claim to disdain the tactical—they accused the Pats of trying to sneak wins—and demand you meet them head to head. This may be the best-equipped Pats team to do that, and though it won't be as easy as the points spread says, they may just do it. Pick: Pats
LAST WEEK: 2-2 PLAYOFFS 6-2