NFL Playoffs: A Look Back... And A Look Ahead
Thoughts from Chiefs-Colts
It’s a shame we’ve become numb to the event known as the Great Comeback. Does any team really panic at 14-down anymore? Please. How about 24? Maybe a shiver.
Yes, Andrew Luck had a serious problem at 10-38 in the third, but was anyone honestly in shock when the Colts came roaring back against an injured Chief team that was operating without its top ground gainer, Jamaal Charles, its top clock chewer? Not me. Comebacks are now everyday items in football. The points come way too cheap.
Twenty years ago the Buffalo Bills returned from the netherworld in an AFC playoff – 32 points behind – to knock out Houston. It felt almost biblical. The great heroes returning from the abyss, triggering a calamitous Oilers’ collapse. In 2014 Luck goes from 10-38 down to 45-44 ahead and it’s ho-hum…oops, wait, um, way to go…yes, nice work, kid.
We knew KC wasn’t a strong cover team when its pass rush wasn’t working. And on Saturday, after a very short while, it had died. On nearly every Indy pass play it was a repeat process –Tamba Hali and James Houston charging from their stand-up defensive end positions and getting stiffed; Dontari Poe and Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard, KC’s inside people, banging around a bit then taking it easy.
The result was a stable pocket in which Luck could operate and have his looks around the field. He was sacked only once. When danger did approach, he simply headed for the open pastures in front of him.
Yes, the Chief defensive line was bled-out by the second half. There were no fresh legs to be found. KC kept its linebackers in coverage all day, so we never saw what heavy pressure, a five or six-man rush, could do. Too risky, I guess. The loss of Brandon Flowers, their top cornerback, likely had some influence on that. And so Luck reached back and elegantly diced the Chiefs to pieces. It was a heroic showing but, as I said, these are biblical times no longer.
What’s Next? Indianapolis at New England (-7)
The Colt defense was a laugh versus KC. 513 total yards surrendered to Alex Smith and a string of backup RBs. Now it faces a well-rested Brady, who sees points all over the field as he studies this outfit. Sole worry is DE Robert Mathis, who’ll be blowing in from Brady’s right side. 335-pound Marcus Cannon, whose style is to blob you to death, gets the assignment of keeping Brady Mathis-free.
I can see the Pats launching their ground game early, a display of force, one of those 10-play TD drives where Brady never throws a pass. Then Luck comes back and answers in four snaps, and the whole thing spirals into one of those 900-yards-of-offense affairs. Patriots 44, Colts 34
Thoughts from Saints-Eagles
Evenly matched. Saints stayed in the game because they kept RB LeSean McCoy under control then got some strong running from their own people (185 yards). Eagles nabbed lead with 4:54 to go, followed by an immediate blowup in their kick return coverage. Darren Sproles is off to the races, followed by a 15-yard horse collar flag, and suddenly the Saints are in business at the Philly 48. A cruel, torturous death awaited the Eagles from there.
In the postgame interview, Drew Brees, a man formerly without a road playoff win, wasn’t as weepy and emotional as NBC prayed he would be. The spunky Michele Tafoya, ready with the Kleenex box and her anxious little mic. But Drew stayed strong, thank God. I guess they forget he’s already been to the mountain top.
What’s Next? New Orleans at Seattle (-8)
I used to work in an office with a guy named Mike. Nice fella, but every other morning Mike would stop by my cubicle and, for some oddball reason, proceed to inform me of the worst news he had heard that day. Like…
“Hey, did you hear about all those kitties that got blown up over in Downers Grove?”
“Isn’t it awful about that retirement home? I think wintertime fires are the worst.”
“Such a shame, what happened to those teenagers last night. But they always say, alcohol and two-ton forklifts don’t mix, right?”
Mike got to be annoying. And I’m sure the Saints get annoyed when they hear about all the terrible things that will happen to them when they hit the road for the postseason. Yes, a major psychological hurdle was cleared when they beat the Eagles. But now comes a trip to the dangerous northwest, where a ferocious Seattle team is waiting to, oh I don’t know, feed them to rats or hurl them into a wood chipper.
Unfortunately for the Saints, I think wicked things are going to happen to them in Seattle. I see them getting run out of the building early. A Seahawk defensive frenzy, mangling the New Orleans ground game early and trapping their backs behind the line…Brees dodging for his life…an early New Orleans turnover…then a fast Seattle lead as the crowd roars like a deck of an aircraft carrier. The Seahawks make a serious statement. Seahawks 42, Saints 17
Thoughts from Chargers-Bengals
Poor Andy Dalton. He’ll take the wood again for this one. The Chargers threw all sorts of fancy fronts and pressures at him and ruined his day.
Sometimes he scrambled out of trouble, and sometimes he hit on his dumpoffs and outs throws, but anything downfield was a no-no. The Charger rush was good, and his protection was shaky, and the final message is that Dalton is still not ready for this kind of action. It wasn’t like he was facing the ’74 Steelers out there, with Joe Greene shaking one fist and clenching a signed bounty in the other. The playoffs are just too big for him.
Lots of minor heroes on the San Diego side, mostly defensive ones. Linebacker Don Butler, who smashed free the Gio Bernard fumble as the Bengals were about to punch it in…Kendall Reyes, the left DE, hogging up the middle with his hefty motor…Melvin Ingram, locking down any action the Bengals tried to their left. Offensively it was Phil Rivers, cool and deliberate, shooting his 12 completions to seven different people and contributing zero turnovers. In all, a tidy day for the Chargers.
What’s Next? San Diego at Denver (-9.5)
Chargers decorated their late-season surge by smothering Denver back in mid-December. How? The keep-away game. Rivers mixing in some terrifically-placed passes with a ground game that seemed fixated on the right side of the Bronco line…tackle King Dunlap, guard Chad Rinehart and center Nick Hardwick, the old man, mashing into the goulash of people Denver had stationed over there.
The result was 177 yards of rushing and nearly 40 minutes of Charger possession time. It trapped Peyton Manning safely away in a place where he couldn’t hurt anybody – the sideline. I can still see the camera shots, Manning with those anxious eyes, peering from his cage like a dog that no one will adopt.
This one’s a booby-trap game. Odds makers have set a high line, despite the Chargers winning six of their last seven. So do you ride the hot team against Manning and his short-circuit playoff reputation? Or do you play it safe and trust Denver’s offensive might, a piggish attack that averaged nearly 457 yards and 38 points/game this year?
The Chargers are the NFL’s kings of possession time. They love to shrink the game, the smallball formula…pound it with Ryan Matthews and dump it to Danny Woodhead then take the big shots downfield. They’ll get their people after Manning and try to show him the ground. It’s been working since early December. I suppose you trust it ‘til it don’t work anymore. Chargers 28, Broncos 27.
Thoughts from 49ers-Packers
The Packer drives had the majesty of a guy walking through a gravel parking lot, searching for change…a nickel here…a few dimes and pennies…hey, a quarter! Against San Francisco’s angry defense and the vicious cold the Packers found 20 points. Enough to make extend the game deep into the fourth but not enough to win it.
Of all the Packer injuries this season, Aaron Rodgers missed his tight end, Jermichael Finley, the most last Sunday. Finley’s been out since mid-October. Rodgers really could have used him yesterday, working the middle and giving those Niner linebackers something to worry about. Instead, it was Rodgers handing it to Mean Eddie Lacy, or locating Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson on their in-out routes. If that didn’t work, it was time to punt.
Both 49er touchdown drives had a single, striking element – a devastating run by Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick isn’t a scrambler, a run-around guy; he’s a sprinter. His first sprint went for 42 yards, the other 24. Both unhinged the Packers. It’s their recurring nightmare. They had no answer for it in the playoffs a year ago, when Kaepernick bolted for 181. They had none last Sunday in Lambeau, either.
What’s Next? San Francisco at Carolina (+1.5)
I study this matchup and I’m suddenly transported back to a savage battlefield from ancient times.
December, 1990. Giants at 49ers. Primeval warfare, eye-gouging football that Nero would have enjoyed. SF guard Guy McIntyre calling it “one of the great dogfights of the 20th century.” Violent defense, nothing for free, and a 7-3 scoreboard for the 49ers.
“A field position game all the way,” said Mike Holmgren, San Fran’s offensive coordinator.
I think those are the words we’ll hear at the end of SF-Carolina. These clubs don’t like each other. Both swing the hammer defensively; both feature hulking offensive lines that drive the football. A kind of game that peels down to mistakes…late ones…the missed coverage, the forgotten block, the big turnover.
The 49ers get the slight nod here. Why? Two reasons. First, coaching – Jim Harbaugh over Ron Rivera. Second – seasoning, the leverage of Niner big-game experience. 49ers 13, Panthers 9.
Tom Danyluk joins FootballNation after nine years as a columnist with Pro Football Weekly. He is an award-winning freelance writer and author of “The Super ‘70s,” which you can purchase on Amazon.com. Questions or comments? Please contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.
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