Sometimes it seems playoff football is what it's all about. Last weekend was one of the most enjoyable I remember. The NFC gave us two great football games: matchups that both came down to field goals on the final play, while the AFC offered us two games of two halves. The first was the only game whose score was one-sided, with the Bengals looking dominant but failing to convert dominance into a lead big enough to survive turnovers and a second-half switch to a game plan that looked like it came direct from Jay Gruden's career in Arena League. When Andy Dalton throws 51 passes, and Benjarvus carries only eight times, it's a signal you aren't going to win. Meanwhile the Colts and Chiefs gave us a game for the ages; the Chiefs showing a four touchdown lead in the third quarter wasn't enough to withstand the ferocious comeback of the Colts and Andrew Luck.
The Saints beat the Eagles by dominating them up front on both sides of the ball—you can bet in the off-season teams will be studying the Eagles' second game against Dallas and this one to see how to keep Chip Kelly's stuff under control. The Eagles lost three in a row to the AFC West in weeks 2-4: a shootout with the Chargers, and games where the Broncos held them to 20 and the Chiefs to 16. They lost two games (Dallas and Giants) which included Nick Foles’ concussion, in which they scored only 10 points total. From the point Foles returned and their offense started to click, they were held to 'only' 24 points four times, and they won the first three (Washington, Arizona, and Dallas) before finally losing to the Saints. The Eagles O-line is built for movement; Dallas and New Orleans challenged them with power. The Saints also ran the ball well, with Mark Ingram, behind a power-run game, stretch blocking with one pulling lineman. You may also wager the Eagles look to get more powerful in their front seven before next year.
San Francisco and Green Bay played out the scenario I'd imagined, until the end. The weather laid off its predicted ice apocalypse, and was merely pretty damn cold, and the end of televised civilisation as we know it did not occur when a TV station bought up the remaining tickets to ensure a selL out. Remember, the Packers were asking season ticket holders to pay up front for the tickets when a playoff berth seemed highly unlikely—they would not refund the money but keep it themselves until season ticket renewal in May. The weather didn't help, and remember too that with the recent enlargement, Lambeau now seats 80,000: it's the third-biggest stadium in the NFL and Green Bay is a city of 105,000.
The Niners should've had a big lead early, but settled for field goals or stalled, and the Packers came back to tie the game. Then, putting aside their Andy Reid-like clock management issues, they staged a brilliant last drive, using up the game's final five minutes and getting the winning field goal. No late heroics for Aaron Rodgers, which is the best way to beat the Packers.
It's hard not to feel sorry for Reid and the Chiefs: but watching them lose Charles, Flowers, and Smith along with their big lead was a time to put things together, think about the clock and milk it as much as possible. The Chiefs scored 44 points, which ought to be enough to win, but they fell victim to an explosive offense that picked up a huge break when Donald Brown fumbled but kept his streak of never losing a fumble alive with some incredible fumble luck (no puns). Looking back on the Chiefs' season, it's hard to avoid noticing their 9-0 start came against teams without top-flight quarterbacks, and their 2-6 finish included two losses each to Peyton, Rivers, and Luck. Luck has an extraordinary ability to play within his offensive system, but also improvise in sandlot style breakdown. His numbers indicate that he's 'just' above-average, rather than in the top-echelon or 'elite' but his performance in the clutch after two seasons is almost enough to make one reconsider how we judge that ephemeral competitive quality in the highly quantified world of football.
There are a couple of interesting comparisons to be made: between Luck and his rookie cohorts Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin, but also between Luck and the two NFC QBs who meet Sunday: Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton. Wilson may be the closest, because Luck is not a runner first, though he can run and keep plays alive but Luck works far more in a pass-first intermediate offense. Against the Chiefs, to my surprise, I noticed Luck eyeballing his receivers more than I remembered: it seemed he was using his pre-snap read to determine where he would go. This included some designed runs. This is something Kaepernick was doing also, and that Cam has done. You just wonder why the perception of Luck is so different from the other five.
LIVE ON SKY SPORTS 3: New Orleans (12-5) at Seattle (13-3): This of course is a rematch of the 34-7 mashing the Seahawks laid on the Saints in December. That win clinched a playoff spot for Seattle, but they then lost two of their last four games, to San Francisco on the road and Arizona at home, proving they were vulnerable. The bad news for the Saints is that the extra week's rest means Seattle's as healthy as they will ever be: even Percy Harvin has been practising, though he's played in only one game all season. The good news for the Saints is that the only Seahawk missing this week is linebacker KJ Wright, who did such a great job on Jimmy Graham when the teams met. His replacement, Malcolm Smith, can play, but Wright's absence also limits the changes in matchups they can work with Bruce Irvin on the other side.
The Seahawks do a great job of developing players like Smith within the system, and also slotting in others. Last week they activated Walter Thurmond after his four-game suspension for PED use; they've been missing Brandon Browner, who faces his own suspension, but Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane (a special, special teams player) picked up the slack, along with Perrish Cox. Cox is the latest in the guys on the shuttle between the Niners and Seahawks: he was cut by San Francisco late in November, signed by Seattle, cut and resigned, then cut again and resigned by the Niners, for whom he played all but one snap against the Packers last week!
Seattle's pass defense is being rated by the advanced stats guys as one of the best of all-time—by one metric second only to the 2002 Bucs. They succeed by over-playing receivers in man: if the 'let 'em play' Sam & Dave referring we saw last week in Green Bay ('Come On, I'm Holdin) applies in Seattle, it will make it tough for the Saints—though their advantage is Graham and Colston winning those man-to-man fights, as well as their ability to use backs downfield. But Seattle's secondary knows that their front four is going to bring pressure quickly, and receivers usually won't have all day to get open. It's a deadly combination, helped by Wagner and Wright's abilities in coverage. This is a whole different ballgame than going on the road in Philly. Pick: Seahawks
LIVE ON SKY SPORTS 3 Indianapolis (11-6) at New England (12-4): Adam Vinatieri Bowl! Darius Butler Bowl! Deion Branch Bowl? Yes, the Colts signed ex-Pat Deion this week, probably hoping Tom Brady would throw a ball in his direction out of force of habit. Think I'm kidding? Look to see if the Colts have Branch out at cornerback, a la Troy Brown, in the fourth quarter.
The only one of the four games this weekend that isn't a rematch of the regular season, this one's intriguing because everybody knows the Patriots' defense, anchored by Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga, and Joe Vellano, and likely to start Dane Fletcher at Brandon Spikes' linebacker spot, isn't overpowering. Their receivers have difficulty stretching the field, and their starting tackles facing Robert Mathis will be two guards: Marcus Cannon and Logan Mankins. The bye week probably helps them more than any other team, especially as Mankins was nursing an ankle injury, and you can look for them to game-plan their attack to run against a team that gave up 44 points to the Chiefs without Jamaal Charles. The Chiefs also had a run on injured corners, hence the three safeties on the field when T.Y. Hilton (Peter King said this week that T.Y. stands for 'Little Ty', though he didn't explain how it does!) caught his brilliant 64 yard game winner. The Pats' secondary may be fully healthy if safety Devin McCourty passes the concussion protocol: he's crucial because even with Aqib Talib back, they don't have a corner who matches up with Hilton's speed, and when Hilton plays the slot Kyle Arrington's definitely at a disadvantage. Safety Steve Gregory can be a liability in coverage as well, and you can look for the Pats' to bracket Hilton and make Luck beat them with someone else.
Danny Amendola is healthy, assuming he isn't injured at practice today or film study tomorrow, Aaron Dobson is out, so the Pats have no one who can do to Indy what Hilton does to them. Darius Butler did a great job on Wes Welker when the Colts beat the Broncos, and he's strong as a slot corner. The key defensively will be Mathis' pass-rush; Brady tends to duck out of heavy pressure early these days—and Jerrell Freeman, whose speed may help them contain Shane Vereen as a receiver. It's a fascinating matchup, especially if Luck goes into 2001 Brady mode at the end. Pick: Pats
THE CAROUSEL: Jay Gruden's reward for the Bengals' demise was getting hired as the new interim head coach of the Washington Redskins. Actually, all coaches are interim, but you know what I mean. Speculation is that SadDan Snyder thought he was hiring Jon Gruden, or that Snyder is planning on dominating Arena League football for the next decade, but the way Gruden's offensive ideas mesh with Robert Griffin at QB is the first big question to be answered. Meanwhile the Titans fired Mike Munchak after offering him an extension at double his salary, as long as he would fire 12 of his assistants. Munchak refused, as they probably knew he would. One of the leading candidates to replace him is Bengals' defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who's also in the mix in Minnesota—Zim is a volatile guy who's overdue for a chance, but both these teams need to sort out their quarterbacking situations, meaning he ought to have a good offensive mind on board. Josh McDaniels withdrew from the Browns' search after being told he wasn't the leading candidate, which might be Adam Gase or Greg Roman; I wouldn't be surprised if either of these offensive coordinators is in the mix in Detroit or Minnesota also.
One of the most attractive of the college candidates out there, James Franklin of Vanderbilt, will replace Bill O'Brien at Penn State; O'Brien hired Mike Vrabel away from Ohio State, and I'd look for him to pursue some more ex-Pat coaches (Romeo Crennel is supposed to be his defensive coordinator) and current Pat players (Julian Edleman). He's also not likely to want a running QB, which might make Johnny Manziel a long shot for that first draft pick. I still think Stanford's David Shaw is an attractive bet for a team looking to go the college head coach route. In Miami, Joe Philbin seems safe, since they've fired his offensive coord and friend Mike Sherman, and GM Jeff Ireland; just who will be in charge when the new GM is hired is an open question. And just proving that some people never learn from history, Louisville re-hired Bobby Petrino, who walked out on them for the Falcons, snuck away from Atlanta in mid-season for Arkansas, scandalled his way out of Arkansas, and was coaching at Western Kentucky. Who found out he was gone by watching Sports Center.
LIVE ON SKY SPORTS 2 San Francisco (13-4) at Carolina (12-4): Kaep and Cam are very similar in a lot of ways, and both have had periods where the team has tried to scale down their running the ball, though last week that was what the Niners needed to beat Green Bay. The teams are similar too: solid front sevens and offensive lines, good run games, and receiving corps that are limited, although with Michael Crabtree back the Niners have more options, and with Steve Smith playing hurt, the Panthers may have fewer. I think Carolina are still the same team they were last year, the difference is Ron Rivera winning games with coaching decisions he didn't make last year, health on the O line (about time Ryan Kalil is getting recognised: look back at my all-star teams) and the drafting of Star Lotuleilei and Kawaan Short at defensive tackle.
Star deserves more Rookie of the Year attention, but the two of them have allowed the Panthers to keep their middle fresh, and they've kept blockers off Luke Kuechley, and forced enough attention to help Greg Hardy to a dominant season as a pass-rusher. Hardy vs Joe Staley is a matchup to watch. The key for the Niners is getting some rush from Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, and containing Cam when they do. Not only are these teams similar, they're both on rolls, playing their best ball in the late stages of the season. Carolina won 10-9 in San Francisco, but that was a somewhat different Niners' team, and I think right now the Niners are probably the sharper mirror image. They do have a short week, with the travel from Green Bay and to Carolina, and the whole west coast to east body clock issue, but pick: Niners
LIVE ON SKY SPORTS 2 San Diego (10-7) at Denver (13-3): If you're looking for an upset pick, this may be the one, because despite a leaky defense, the Chargers match up pretty well against the Broncos because, as they showed against the Bengals, they can run the ball and stop the run. The two keys to beating Peyton Manning are keeping him off the field, which running the ball helps you do, and keeping him in recognisable passing situations, which stopping their run game, especially if you're in a sub package. The Charger front three and Donald Butler did this against Cincinnati, and Melvin Ingram had a great game in tight end coverage. Philip Rivers completed only 12 passes last week, and he completed only 12 when the Chargers beat the Broncos 27-20 in Denver. Ryan Matthews is looking good, despite playing on a dodgy ankle, and Danny Woodhead has given them a Darren Sproles-type threat that helps keep defenses off-balance. When you throw in the idea that Mike McCoy, last year's offensive coordinator in Denver, understands the Broncos' offense as well as anyone, it makes for formidable juju for a 10-7 going into the conference's biggest home field advantage.
In fact, the three games Denver lost this season came against the three teams still alive in the AFC, though the Chargers were the only team to beat them in Denver. They've got Wes Welker back from his concussion problems, and that's where the bye week really helps. Derek Wolfe appears to be out for the Broncos; with Von Miller already gone that means their pass rush will suffer. The Chargers may be without Nick Hardwick and Jeromy Clary off their O line, meaning pass rush becomes an interesting battle.
In some circles, this has come down to weather forecasts: I've heard people talking about temperatures in the 50s and polar ice storms, and every scenario works against Denver, because warm weather helps the team from sub-tropical San Diego, and cold weather hurts Denver because Peyton has never won a playoff game while encased in ice, like Captain America, or at least Captain Papa John. Pick: Broncos
LAST WEEK: 2-2