After a disappointing wildcard weekend, the divisional weekend slate of games produced wall-to-wall drama. Here’s what I saw in the four matches:
Ravens-Broncos: Wow. Aside from Eagles playoff games (ah, those were the days), I can’t remember a playoff game that had me glued to the TV like this one. Deep passes, turnovers, special teams TDs and inconsistent officiating all came together to produce a spectacular double overtime win for Baltimore. Truly, I didn’t think the Ravens would play consistent enough to make the AFC championship, but they’ll be back there for the second year in a row. Aside from all the spectacular plays, a few more subtle things caught my eye in this game:
- Baltimore’s offensive line has really improved since adding McKinnie at LT and moving Oher back to RT. Flacco stood in the pocket without fear in this game and had the time to make plays down the field. I thought this was the key to the win.
- Joe Flacco, so maligned (and really, I’m still waiting for him to screw up somewhere along the way in these playoffs) made the throw of the game in OT. Backed up against his goal line, his completion to Pitta flipped field position. If he doesn’t make that throw, the Broncos likely start their first possession of OT near mid field.
- The Broncos pass protection, generally weak all game, went further south when Moreno was lost for the game. Moreno’s strength in picking up the blitz was missed and it was two turnovers by Manning when he was under blitz pressure that helped Baltimore win the game.
- Broncos coach John Fox has a history of coaching not to lose and at the end of the 2nd and 4th quarters, elected to take a knee with a bit more that 0:30 left on the clock holding multiple timeouts. Why you would consciously elect to decline a possession and opportunity to score is beyond me. The one at the end of the 4th was very puzzling. If you treat that possession like it’s effectively OT, there’s no way you just take a knee. Terrible coaching.
Packers-49ers: After last weekend’s snooze-fest games, this was another great one to watch. The 49ers get a lot of press for their aggressive defence (as they should), but they really are one of the most inventive and creative teams on offence in the NFL. In no way does their offensive game plan resemble anything shown to opponents in previous weeks. I’ve watched a lot of San Francisco games, and I’m amazed at how many different formations and schemes they use (I also watch a lot of Eagles and Steelers games, and by week four in their seasons, you’ve seen about 80% of their offensive tactics for the year and can identify them the rest of the season). The 49ers not only ran the ball down the throats of the Packers, they did it out of formations that I hadn’t seen all year. The Packers were totally lost on defence in the second half as the game slipped away from them. A lot is written about the offensive side of the football, but there’s one thing that is timeless – mixing up your play calling (looks, formations, run/pass) is the surest way to be successful. The 49ers, Redskins, Seahawks are not only teams with dynamic multiple-option QBs, their play calling keeps the defence off balance.
Seahawks-Falcons: What at 20-0 was looking like a runaway win for Atlanta, turned into an epic finish for the first playoff win for the Falcons with Matt Ryan as their QB. Seattle deserves credit for the comeback that gave them a 1 point lead with 0:30 left, but fundamental game management mistakes cost them the win. In the first half, two failures to make one yard on third and fourth down resulted in a turnover to Atlanta. Many have criticized the decision to go for it on 4th down rather than taking the field goal. I liked the choice, but am puzzled at the play calling. Two straight runs with their best running back on the bench and a very vanilla 4th down hand off to a fullback was uninspired at best; foolish and bordering on incompetent coaching at worst. If they make one of those two plays and even only settle for a field goal, the end game that saw Atlanta kick a winning field goal wouldn’t have been available – the Falcons would have had to score a TD. Add to that taking a sack with less than 0:10 left in the first half that saw the clock run off before a final play could be run, and Seattle cost itself at least 6 points. If I was a Seattle fan, I’d be fuming at those mistakes, but somewhat comforted by the performance of my rookie QB. Looks like they have a solid foundation for years to come.
Texans-Patriots: The Patriots lost two key players on their first offensive drive and didn’t lose a step productivity wise. The Pats offence is probably the most clinical in the NFL. They’ll take what the defence gives them, and in this game, they used hurry-up play calls for 2 TDs and a number of big plays, ran a balanced run/pass attack, and just wore down the Texans. The Texans managed to get the deficit to just four points at half-time, but never challenged in the second half. Worrisome to their fans, Schaub looks to have regressed over the past month or two of the season. Houston didn’t attempt many passes longer than 15 yards and their schemes that are based around play action couldn’t generate any big plays. As the game crept out of reach in the second half, I enjoyed watching the Patriots defence, especially LB Rob Ninkovich. He made special teams plays, chased the QB, stopped the run, broke up passes – I thought he was the player of the game.