Monday, January 12, 2015

NFL 2015 Divisional Round Snap Judgments

I've read and watched plenty of reviews of the Baltimore/New England game from Saturday evening for plenty of obvious reasons.  What I specifically was looking for was detail over John Harbaugh's unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the 3rd quarter, and what the Patriots had done that set him off.  I think I'm a bit more clear on what had transpired, but it's still something that I don't recall ever seeing in a football game before.

Patriots running back Shane Vereen went to a ref prior to the play in question to inform him he would be an ineligible receiver, thus making him an offensive lineman on the upcoming play.  Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui would be the eligible receiver downfield.  The Patriots ran the play as quickly as possible in order to prevent the Ravens to properly adjust to the new lineup, and New England was able to score a game-tying touchdown at that point before going on to win the game.

It was clever and crafty, for sure.  Certainly gutsy on Belichick's part to call the play.  It's also within the rules of the game.  Most likely it was a play the Patriots had drawn up in their practices during the previous week to exploit the Ravens' obvious weakness in their secondary.

John Harbaugh was obviously not happy about the set up on the field, and his post-game conference he openly admitted to saying he took the penalty in order to give his defense time to adjust to the phony offensive line set up.  Sneaky as the play was, the Ravens were still winning the game at that point, and had plenty of opportunity to close the door on the Patriots.  One trick play didn't determine the outcome of the game, and the Ravens had even regained the lead following the Patriots' touchdown.  Had their defense managed to get off the field on the Patriots' final drive, they'd be moving on to play Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game.  Instead, they are planning on what to do for the NFL draft in April.

1. All in all, the Ravens had a successful, bounce back season compared to 2013.  There was little place to go but up for the Ravens in 2014, and they have plenty to happy about.  Joe Flacco had a career year, and the offense as a whole thrived under Gary Kubiak.  Fortunately for Baltimore, Kubiak won't be looking for another head coaching job, despite the Bears' heavy interest in him.  What they need to prioritize for next season is rebuilding their secondary, though having 5 cornerbacks returning from season-ending injuries will contribute to that strategy.

2. The Seahawks are almost unfathomably good.  Seattle became the first defending Super Bowl champion to win a playoff game since the 2004 Patriots Saturday night, thumping the Panthers in the process.  Carolina actually kept the game pretty close for the first half, but reality caught up in the second half as Seattle's defense poured it on.  Kam Chancellor committed one of the great athletic feats in recent memory in the game by blocking a field goal, and then later picked off Cam Newton, returning the interception for a touchdown.  Chancellor isn't nearly the household name that other Seahawks defensive players are, particularly Richard Sherman.  He's every bit as good, though.

3. Dez Bryant didn't catch that ball, but it sucks that the game was ultimately decided on reversing a key play like that.  By the letter of the law, Dez Bryant's catch was nullified the moment the ball hit the ground and dislodged it from his arm.  The Cowboys/Packers game was another playoff classic, and the Cowboys were poised to score a possibly game-winning touchdown after converting a critical 4th down play.  As much as I personally hate the Cowboys, I can't deny how great Tony Romo had played yesterday and how he was every bit as good as Aaron Rodgers was.  While I disagree with Dez Bryant claiming he caught the ball, I do think he understands the rule in place.  I also understand why he's as upset about it as he is, since no player would want a playoff game decided on reversing a critical play.

4. Speaking of Aaron Rodgers, he can only fake looking game-ready for so long.  Rodgers claimed after the game that his calf muscle can last long enough for the NFC Champiionship Game and potentially Super Bowl 49, but he was hobbling around the field for most of the game yesterday.  If the Packers do win in Seattle next weekend, he'll have a week to rest his calf muscle again to prepare for the Super Bowl.   Packers fans everywhere have to hope that he doesn't injure his leg so severely in the championship game that he either can't play effectively or can't play at all in the Super Bowl (assuming the Packers win).

5. It's much, much too soon to start the "Was yesterday Peyton's last NFL game?" discussion.  Manning did have arguably one of his worst playoff performances ever, and his demeanor following the game would suggest he's at least contemplating retirement.  He has to be aware he's very close to the end of his career, and the loss on Sunday had to impact him emotionally.  Still, Father Time will catch up to everyone on a long enough timeline.  If I were a betting man, I'd bet that Manning has one year left in his career, though his best chance at another championship is almost certainly behind him.

6. Is there any reason not to expect a Patriots/Seahawks Super Bowl at this point?  Super Bowl 48 was the first match up between two #1 seeds since Super Bowl 44 (Saints/Colts).  I see no reason why we wouldn't have a second straight contest between #1 seeds at this point.  Both the Patriots and Seahawks had defeated their opponents in their respective championship games earlier this season, though the Seahawks had faced the Packers back in the Thursday night season opener.  Even if either the Colts or the Packers winning on Sunday would be a surprise, I'd be far less surprised to see the Packers winning than the Colts.  Regardless, I think everyone is anticipating by late Sunday night that the Seahawks and Patriots will emerge victorious in their conference championship games.

Monday, January 5, 2015

NFL 2015 Wild Card Weekend Snap Judgments

The big news over Wild Card weekend was the infamous reversal of a pass interference penalty on Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens with about 8:30 to play in the game.  Rarely have I ever felt the need to comment on officials screwing over a team because this will be one of the few exceptions.  The NFL has never adequately addressed poor officiating in its games, starting with the obvious fact that none of these officials are full-time employees.  They have little to lose when they screw the pooch, except maybe an extra bonus paycheck for being able to officiate a playoff game, up to and including the Super Bowl.

If any official or referee has ever been disciplined for fumbling a penalty during a game, the league has managed to keep it behind closed doors.  The same goes for anyone who has been terminated from his position in officiating a game.  These guys face no real consequences for any call they screw up during a game.  The solution to the issue would be fairly obvious: employ full-time officials who are league employees, thus forcing them to be disciplined and/or terminated for any repeated failures in calling a game.

The flaw with that option is the league officials are unionized, so the odds of the league going the route of hiring full-time employees is slim at best.

1. The Cardinals may have used up their best chance at a championship run for a while.  Carson Palmer's injury was devastating, and Bruce Arians may have been right when he said the team could still win a championship with Drew Stanton as their quarterback.  Unfortunately, Stanton also got hurt, leaving Ryan Lindley as their starter the rest of the way.  The Cardinals wound up losing 4 of their final 6 games of the regular season, and put on a historically bad offensive performance in Carolina on Saturday.  While they'll get Palmer back next season, they almost certainly won't have their star receiver Larry Fitzgerald back, considering he carries over a $20 million cap hit in 2015.  A competent quarterback can make a group of no-name receivers better, but with the likes of the Seahawks and Rams in their division as well, Arizona may be in line for a step backwards next season.

2. Time to cash in any chips you may have on the Panthers.  Carolina played with house money the moment they won the putrid NFC South.  They kept on taking from the house in limiting the Cardinals to 78 yards of total offense.  Any betting fans out there probably don't need to be told this, but it's time to cash in whatever money is tied to the Panthers now that their next opponent is the Seahawks.  The funny thing is that prior to the season, I had expected the Panthers to take a fairly big step backwards from their 2013 season, finishing around 8-8.  They essentially did (7-8-1, but close enough), and still won back to back divisional titles.  Barring the Falcons bringing in an all-star cast of new coaches and having a huge turnaround, I don't see anyone really challenging the Panthers in 2015 in their division.  We may have yet another division winner finishing with 8 or 9 wins next season.

3. Joe Flacco once again reaffirmed who he is as a quarterback.  We can finally put to rest the debate over what kind of player Joe Flacco is.  He is a guy who is average to slightly above average during the regular season, but he takes his game up another level or two for the postseason.  He won't win any awards like league MVP or Offensive Player of the Year, but who really cares?  If the Ravens make another deep playoff run this year, Flacco is a guy who can put the team on his back.

4. Deep down in a private moment, Tom Brady has to be thinking the Patriots got a tough draw in the Divisional Round.  The Ravens have time and again been one of the few teams in the league who have consistently given the Patriots fits over the last few years.  Last year's blowout Patriots win in Baltimore is one of the only exceptions to this trend, with many more close contests and a few bonafide classic games (the 2012 AFC Championship Game immediately comes to mind, even though it was a heartbreaking loss for the Ravens).  Given the rivalry's history, Brady has to realize to some degree that the Ravens present one of the toughest possible challenges to the Patriots chasing a championship this season.  He won't admit it to the public or perhaps even to his own teammates, but he's seen enough of Terrell Suggs over the years to know what kinds of hits will be coming Saturday night.

5. The Bengals are the Buffalo Bills of Wild Card Weekend.  That's now 4 straight playoff appearances with 4 straight losses in the first round for the Bengals.  Andy Dalton wasn't quite the train wreck this year that he was in years past, but the Bengals still could only manage to score 10 points in the game.  They've averaged 10.75 points in their 4 playoff losses, losing 3 of those 4 games by double digits.  The big question at this point is whether Marvin Lewis is the right head coach for the team.  He's had a total of 6 chances in the playoffs, but he's lost every single Wild Card game he's reached as Bengals head coach.  If that isn't enough evidence to suggest the Bengals need to make a change, then I don't know what will.

6. The Lions, like the Cardinals, might have used up their best chance at a playoff run this year.  Ndamakong Suh is an impending free agent, and his post game conference certainly gave the impression that he's played his last game in Detroit.  The Lions still have Nick Fairley, though he has yet to play a full season in his career (he did play in 15 games in 2013 though).  Their defense will take a hit next season, especially if defensive coordinator Teryl Austin gets a head coaching job.  They could be another team that takes a step backward in 2015, along with the Cardinals.

7. I'm still not fully buying into the Cowboys.  Tony Romo has shown all the signs of getting the proverbial monkey off his back, throwing 14 touchdown passes since the first week of December with only 1 interception along the way.  He was clutch yesterday against the Lions, throwing a gutsy pass down the middle for the go-ahead and eventual winning score of the game.  Despite all these positives, I still can't picture the Cowboys getting past the Packers in Green Bay next weekend.  As well as the Cowboys have played on the road (especially Romo), Aaron Rodgers has just been better.  Sunday's weather is projected to be a high of 20 and a low in the single digits, which would favor the Packers.  I will gladly eat my words come next Monday if the Cowboys do pull out another win, but I don't see it happening.