Friday Morning Tight End - Divisional Weekend

The big story this week is Robert Griffin and his injury, although the way it's being framed seems a reflection more of the way our 24/7 sports media needs a controversy (and in this case one fed by the NFL's sensitivity to player safety issues). The question of whether or not Griffin should have been playing is moot - for better or worse he was cleared to play, and although in the first quarter he was clearly limited, Washington dominated the play and built a 14-0 lead. In the wake of the Saints and bounties and last year's Giants-49ers playoff game, I went back and looked to see if Seattle had targeted RG's knee, and apart from Brandon Browner on Griffin's first carry of the game, I don't think they did. The Bruce Irvin penalty after the second TD was something different, owing more to Alan Branch's gratuitous push of RG into Irvin.

But it was also pretty obvious on that first run that Griffin wasn't operating at 100 per cent, and the alarm bells should have started ringing as the Seattle D adjusted (the read option isn't very effective if the outside option is hobbling) just as much as each time they took Griffin into the toolshed on the sidelines. Given that Griffin was arguing he was good to go, I can understand waiting until halftime, seeing what could be done then, and watching very carefully in the third quarter. The argument about preserving RG's future value of the team is not one that would be pre-eminent in Mike Shanahan's mind, any more than it was in Griffin's, but Shanahan needed a better balance between what he (or his eyes in the booth) could see and the hype which said RG gave them a better chance of winning. It's not like Kirk Cousins hadn't played well when called upon, and he should have been in the game before it became a must-pass situation. I don't know what Shanahan was saying to Griffin when he seemed to be doing the Coach K cobra-spitting routine he usually saves for officials, but I kind of doubt it was coercion to play. You don't expect to protect players the way we ought to at lower levels, but you also expect him to be able to evaluate what's best for player and team with some accuracy.

I didn't hear anyone screaming when Gronk or TO played in Super Bowls with broken ankles. Does anyone think Ray Lewis' bicep is actually fully healed? How many quarterbacks have risked serious harm playing with broken ribs and never mentioned it, lest they be targeted? In fact, I recall a lot of the same members of the media herd who are castigating Shanahan coming down just as strong on Jay Cutler for failing to play on in circumstances very similar to Griffin's (apart from the fact RG was already wearing the brace). This is football, after all, and the same double standards that calls for protecting players whilst issuing videos with all the big hits from a season, applies to this non-controversy.


Baltimore (11-6) at Denver (13-3): The Rayvens Last Stand! In a world that was absolutely fair, Houston and New England would be playing in this spot. As it is, Baltimore has to go on the road across country, on a short week, to face a rested team at mile-high altitude. Even for players younger than Ray Lewis, this is a daunting test, but if, at some point during the game, Jim Caldwell finds himself pumping his fists after Peyton makes a great play, you might write that one off to force of habit, not jetlag. The Rayvens are in with what you might call a puncher's chance: a long ball to Torrey Smith or Anquan Boldin (but the Broncos' corners are not going to be as easy to beat one-on-one unless Tracy Porter gets the assignment), a big run from Ray Rice, a pick-six from Ed Reed or return from Jacoby Jones. In fact, Rice out of the backfield or Dennis Pitta downfield are probably their best points of attack, because the Broncos backers in coverage and safeties in general aren't the strongest point of their D. But Joe Flacco will come under pressure, even though the Rayven's line, with Mount McKinney back on the left side and Blind Side Oher on the right, played better against the Colts. Flacco has looked distinctly limited on the road this year, and in Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, the Broncos can rush. And come the fourth quarter, with Peyton throwing to what might be the second-best starting pair of wideouts in the league, Denver will be tough to stop. Pick: Broncos

Green Bay (12-5) at San Francisco (11-4-1): Rematch of the game the Niners won convincingly at Lambeau in week one, but these are different teams right now. It's going to be the crucible for Colin Kaepernick, because now he will see a challenging defense, back to something like full strength, that will try to confuse him, take him off his reads, and make him scramble, which they probably fear less than designed runs. The Pack's D beat Minnesota, which was encouraging, but it also pointed out a bigger worry. Offensively, the Packers still have nothing much more than the pretence of running the ball, to keep play-action viable, but although Rodgers has all his receivers back, they still converted only four of 15 third or fourth downs, and Jermichael Finley seems to be trying to make himself into the NFC version of Jermaine Gresham. The big question for the Niners is the health of Justin Smith (c'mon, lets hear about how Jim Harbaugh's playing with his and the team's future by letting him play). Smith does a lot of work inside blocking for Aldon Smith to open up pass-rush lanes for him, which Ricky Jean-Francois can't do. That makes their D much easier to figure out. But the combination of the Niner linebackers and Jermichael Finley's persistent yips makes the Packer offense less effective over the middle, which is the real strength of the Niner secondary.

It might come down to exactly how ready Colin Kaepernick is for this game, and here it would be easy to mis-underestimate, as Shrub used to say, the advantage of the bye week for the Niners. Not only the rest, but the time to prepare, and my guess is they were looking at the more complicated Packers' even before the win over the Vikes. The loss of Mario Manningham is more important than it might seem, unless Randy Moss is somehow able to rise to the occasion, which he hasn't been able to do more than temporarily all year. Charles Woodson's return may make it easier to defend the multiple tight end looks the Niners run and they need to lock Michael Crabtree down, but SF is not a team like Cinn or Houston, with one big-threat wideout and nothing else to worry about. I love the back and forth of this game, and it may be even come down to home field edge, or to kickers (where these two teams have been the most troubled in the NFL).

In the end, it comes down to how well you think the Packers can play on defense: St Louis and Seattle made the Niners' offense and Kaepernick look pretty ordinary, can they turn Kaep into Joe Webb, on the road? Pick: Niners


It was amusing to read on Monday the Hubbell Space Telescope of Hindsight saying how he liked Andrew Luck better than RG in April's draft because all that running opened up the possibility of injuries. This would carry a little more weight had he written word one about the problem at the time. Of course we'd just come off Cam Newton's great rookie season, and he was a runner in college too, but more importantly, everyone was projecting RG into a pro system where he wouldn't be asked to run—no one saw the Shanahans adopting elements of Baylor's read-option in the NFL. What I wrote at the time was I saw RG's mobility reminding Mike Shanahan of John Elway's, and I saw him throwing from the moving pocket just as Elway did. Of course lots of us mentioned that Luck ran a bit too at Stanford, and last week Greg Cosell made an excellent comparison of Luck's play this season to Ben Rothliesberger's - that same ability to take hits and keep plays alive while doing so. That's just as much a recipe for injury as keeping the ball. The question of whether you can make a quarterback the focus of your run game remains an open question in the NFL, but I didn't see many swamis predicting RG's injuries last April.

If the NFL is really as concerned with player safety as they sometimes claim, and if they can bother to send agents to every game to check trademark violations on players socks (and fine them five-figure sums for same) you'd think they'd be a little more demanding of the owners and their fields - not just Historic Fedex Rockpit, but Oakland's dirt infield and Candlestick's surface among others. I hate artificial turf, but it's in now because it's cheaper to maintain than grass, but the players deserve to play on stuff cow's would eat happily.

Sodapop Geekiness (Parody Alert Activated for those literal minded twitterati who stumbled last week): I was sprinting through an airport or a station somewhere on my bust schedule and stopped to order a cherry coke from a conveniently placed machine. It was presented in an attractive silver can, with a slight condensation of cool water on the outside, at exactly the right temperature to highlight the fruity undertones of the thirst-quenching libation (like those poetic words my thesaurus spewed out at me?). All delivered with a charming smile from the mechanical canista, which delivered exactly the right amount of change to me with a brightly lit smile. If I ruled the world, I'd write the Coca Cola company and demand all their machines be trained to provide the same level of friendly service and expert culinary care.

The media frenzy around Brent Musberger's 'whoa!' exclamation when ESPN interviewed Katharine Webb, Miss Alabama and girlfriend of Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron seems even more misplaced than that over Mike Shanahan. First off, although it may be a bit icky for a guy in his 70s to ogle (on the other hand, he may have been trying to give homage to Keith Jackson's famous 'whoa nelly') it wasn't Musberger who put her on camera. And as a beauty contestant, Webb is certainly not going to find the admiration of older men off-putting; in fact to her credit she said as much publicly (and probably doesn't mind the media attention at all). Second, a number of people went back and found Mussberger's famous comment about the Florida State fans ESPN chose to put on camera in 2005, which included Jenn Steger, who later achieved fame as the recipient of Brett Favre's tweets of Lil Brett. Again, Musberger was working with the pictures he was given. Any of you who think I'm building a little self-defense here for myself in my fast-approaching old age would be very suspicious indeed! But remember, and this to me is the key point, Steger wound up a sidelines reporter for the Jets. Before we go crazy on Musberger, let’s ask why all the sidelines reporters on every network are attractive, and why none of them look like a female version of Brent Musberger, or Tom Hammond, or Joe Buck? Why are none of them in the booths, when so many sons of famous announcers are? The formula puts women into the roles of cheerleaders, fan candy, and sidelines reporters, and it's that, not Brent Musberger's attempts to amuse the audience his bosses obviously believes is adolescent male in spirit if not in body, that ought to be criticised.

Having broadcast Notre Dame's home games this season, I wasn't surprised they fell to their foes (parody alert!) Alabama in the BCS championship game. Only in America! The Irish had squeaked out a number of wins based on good defense (and in the case of Pitt, avoided a loss when a kicker missed a makeable FG in OT) and ball control, but there was always a good chance their D would lose its edge. I've always thought the warm weather bowls favour the teams in warm weather sites, and for years they were, in effect, home games for the SEC, SWC, Pac-10 and ACC teams that hosted them (this was in the old pre-BCS days). I wouldn't be surprised to see Brian Kelly leave South Bend, after all, he's left his other jobs at the peak, but I don't know if his stuff will work in the NFL, and he has a real chance to build something in college. Nick Saban's already built something at Alabama, and he's another guy whose style still seems ill-adapted to the pros.

Irritating/exasperating non-football travel note of the week (Parody alert!): Have you ever noticed how the loos on south west trains are never working when you need them, and just when they are working the seatbelt sign comes on, and the stewardess rolls the trolley right next to your seat and you can't resist a double pumpkichino with a jelly doughnut even though the train's a hour late because the wrong kind of snow hasn't fallen (continues on in this vein for another three paragraphs....

Accusations that the Bears are doing what Al Davis used to do whenever he instituted a coaching 'search', which was bring in lots of coaches and try to mine them for information about what their teams did, as well as glom free ideas from them, reminded me of the time I applied for a columnist job with a magazine, submitted a few story outlines. I didn't get the job, but lo and behold, those stories appeared in the magazine, with someone else's byline, using the headlines and even some of the phrases I'd suggested. It's a tough world out there sometimes. But I actually tend to feel Phil Emery is doing a bit of due diligence here, as well as letting the fans and press know he isn't targeted in on any one guy or style of play. To be honest, I thought Lovie with a more dynamic offensive coordinator was a good combo, and for about half a season, when Mike Martz seemed to get that you had to protect Jay Cutler, it worked. What's more important to me would be figuring out who thought the bodies they'd assembled for the O line were sufficient, and Emery took the blame for that publicly, while offering his explanation of why their moves were solid, and I'd also like to see who was responsible for the lack of depth on D. Speaking of which, Rob Ryan was fired by Jerry Jones, who cited a couple of losses before injuries tore apart the Dallas D as the reasons for the firing. Personally, I think Jerry was all too aware of the cameras being on Ryan more than they were on either him or Jason Garrett, and that was probably reason enough, but I also can see where Ryan's coordinating has often been boom or bust, a question of guessing right, and too often he's guessed wrong. This is something that happened with his father, and with Rex (and I wouldn't be surprised for Rob to become DC with the Jest) and happens to almost all guys who thrive on pressure defenses. BTW I may write about the Nepotism Football League next week. In fairness to Jerry, he actually did his job as GM pretty well: when both starting inside backers went down, he had Ernie Sims and Dan Connor on the bench, which wasn't a bad second-string, but he should have noticed that in both games he cited as examples of why he was firing Rob, the Cowboys' offense put the team into deep holes, and there wasn't much the D could do, short of generating 14 points themselves.

Would it not make sense for the NFL to ban all coaching hires until after the Super Bowl?

Rob Chudzinski's hire as head coach of the Browns makes a certain amount of sense, in that he has had two stints as an assistant with the Browns, and his style of offense is on the surface well-suited for the team. However, this past season we saw Chud alter his attack, to run things through Cam Newton, which might have made sense in a theoretical way, but proved a failure on the field. A lot of the success the Panthers had late in the season was down to their getting the running backs more involved. Also, Chud's first announcement was that he wanted to hire Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator. Uh oh. Chud was an assistant to Turner in San Diego, and Turner's son Scott was on the Panthers' coaching staff with Chud (cue another reference to the Nepotism Football League). In the end it came down to Chud or Ken Whisenhunt, after the Browns flirted with Chip Kelly and bandied about the names of Saban (who coached with the team under Bill Belichick) and Jon Gruden. Whisenhunt, who did a good job in Arizona until he had to evaluate quarterbacks, would have been interesting because of his background in Pittsburgh and because given the choice between Brandon Weedon and Colt McCoy, he'd likely start Spurgeon Wynn.

As I write this, the Niners haven't announced who will be doing the kicking, David Akers or Billy Cundiff, but the Seahawks will be using Ryan Longwell as their kicker. Longwell was scheduled to run in the 'Disney Marathon' this weekend, which means his legs ought to be fairly strong. Only in America could a guy who hasn't kicked all year skip the Disney Marathon to kick in an NFL playoff game in a dome in Atlanta! What a country!


Houston (13-4) at New England (12-4): A rematch of the 42-14 pounding the Pats gave the Texans on our SNF game in week 14, but the Pats got a little fumble luck, a nice call or two, and a bad Schaub mistake to give them a quick 21-0 lead - and as we saw in the week six Green Bay game, the Texans are not built to come from behind. With all the talk of injuries last week, I still wonder if Matt Schaub is 100 per cent; he seems to have very little on his deep ball, and is mostly settling for short throws: though that clinching first down to Garrett Graham was a fastball for a strike. The Pats upset the Texans' with interior penetration, beating their stretch play to the stretch, as it were, and the lead forced them to be one-dimensional. This makes an early score essential for the Texans. Because remember what New England did up 21-0, running play-action off a Houston-style stretch run that resulted in a long TD to Donte Stallworth (remember him).

The central dilemma for Houston will be what looks New England chooses to play. As both teams know, formations can determine coverage, and Houston are actually more comfortable in nickel or dime (which are actually usually the same, as they often use a safety as the second linebacker) because it allows them to move JJ Watt and Antonio Smith inside, and use their two outside backers as ends. Houston did well with Johnathan Joseph handling Andre Johnson, and Kareem Jackson has had a good season too. But even if you isolate your corners on the Pats' outside wideouts, you might be wasting them. Last week safety Glover Quin completely dominated the Bengals' Jermaine Gresham, and Daniel Manning is a safety who can cover like a corner. But if New England come out in a heavy look, and Houston stay in 3-4 with Shaun Cody, they likely match Welker, Gronk, and Hernandez with a linebacker and safeties. If they go to a sub-package, the Pats will run, or try to claim the middle of the field. It's the best chess match of the weekend, and should be one the Pats win. Pick: Pats

Seattle (12-5) at Atlanta (13-3): Bird Derby! The Falcons are this year's playoff Rodney Dangerfields, not getting much respect despite their record, and they've been in this position before, which will make this a test of sorts for Mike Smith and that 0-3 mark. They started the season 8-0, with some impressive wins; after their first loss, to the Saints, they struggled to beat some average teams by close margins. Seattle, on the other hand, finished fast, with five straight wins including a demolition of the Niners and a sixth win over the Skins last week. Arian Foster announced last week he doesn't believe in momentum, which is good because the Texans don't have any, but if you did believe in it, you'd pick the Seahawks in a shot. Also because, statistically according to all the stat sites out there, the Seahawks are a top team and the Falcons, despite their record, are not.

This game may offer the best matchup of the weekend: the Seattle secondary, which may be the best gang of four in the NFL, against the Atlanta receivers, who are the best three amigos. Seattle played a lot of press-man against Washington, but Roddy White and Julio Jones are a different proposition to Santana Moss and Hankerson or Morgan. Kim Chancellor versus Tony Gonzalez is a battle, and the reality is the Seahawks won't key Chancellor for the run as much as they did last week, when they played much of the game in 4-4, with press corners and Earl Thomas over the top. That's because the Falcons' run game has become much like the Packers - something they do primarily to keep the defense honest - but if Matt Ryan has to pass more than, say, 35 times, they will find it hard to win. You could say this is Ryan's big chance to elevate himself into that 'elite' quarterback status with a win (where, in reality, it should be with a good performance) except that the same herd that insists on proclaiming a QB 'elite' will then drop him from that status as soon as he loses. The Falcons will have Dunta Robinson and John Abraham back, which helps; Asante Samuel is going to have a rough time setting an edge against the Seahawks' run game, and you have to assume the Falcons will make that a priority. Against the Skins, Zach Miller was Seattle's best weapon, and that may put a bit of a spotlight on the Falcons' Stephen Nicholas, who is one of the more underrated defenders around. Seattle will miss Chris Clemons because Bruce Irvin really isn't a three-down end, and because it means they can't run Clemons and Irvin at the same time to pressure Ryan. It's funny this week how the AFC games seem like almost automatic choices, while you can twist and turn the NFC games this way and that. Which likely means I'll be wrong about everything! Pick: Seahawks