Where to begin after what was the best divisional round weekend in recent memory:
- The two top quarterbacks taken in the 2008 NFL draft provided some of the most compelling drama we’ll see on our television screens all year (yes that includes The Walking Dead, Homeland, and Breaking Bad). The third overall pick that year Matt Ryan saved a Falcons season that was on the verge of slipping away. The eighteenth overall pick that year Joe Flacco, was able to fill up the tank in Ray Lewis’ last ride with enough gas to reach Foxboro next Sunday night.
- With six more seconds than Matt Ryan had to try and save his team’s season (31 sec) and the same amount of timeouts (2), John Fox decided to make Peyton Manning take a knee instead of letting the guy who has successfully completed the most game winning drives in the history of the league while having less than two minutes on the clock take a couple shots downfield. Matt Prater waited on the sidelines for a chance to kick the Broncos into the AFC Championship that never came. Manning would tie Brett Favre’s record for the most postseason losses in NFL history (11) after Justin Tucker converted a 47 yard field goal in only the second double overtime game of the 2000s. Ironically Manning made the same mistake as Favre did on his last throw of the Vikings 2009 playoff run.
- Russell Wilson showed once again that ice water, not blood is running through his veins.
- No one is allowed to second guess any decisions Jim Harbaugh makes from here on out. His decision to start Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith has made the 49ers the most dangerous team left in the tournament.
- Don Capers’ questionable play calling that gave way to Kaepernick’s huge day.
- Tony Gonzalez finally got the playoff win that had eluded him for 16 years. In doing so he once again proved why it would be a damn shame if he decided to hang up the cleats after this season.
- One of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, made the worst decision of his fifteen year career, at the most critical juncture of this season.
- In the same game Trindon Holliday became the first player in NFL history to return a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown.
- Tom Brady passed Joe Montana on the all-time playoff wins list.
- 363 days after a Lee Evans drop doomed the Ravens and sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl, Baltimore-New England II is going to be a dandy.
- This picture:
It was as if last weekends’ wild card games (save Redskins-Seahawks) were the practice kicks by Matt Bryant and Justin Tucker, while the divisional round games were the kicks that actually mattered. Jubilation, heartbreak and moments that threatened to blow up the world of social media all took place in a 13 hour period that undoubtedly lead to multiple domestic screaming matches regarding the importance of football in our lives.
So without further ado let’s start in Atlanta where Russell Wilson broke Sammy Baugh’s 76 year old record for the most passing yards by a rookie in a playoff game; while leading a furious second half comeback in front of a stunned crowd at the Georgia Dome, only to have the dream of playing in the Super Bowl ripped away by Matt Ryan and Matt Bryant. Before I discuss the amazingness that was Russell Wilson’s second half, there were two tremendous mistakes made by Pete Carroll in the first half that if played correctly would have sent Seattle to the NFC Championship game next Sunday.
Mistake Number One
Down 13-0 after a Marshawn Lynch fumble resulted in a Matt Bryant 37 yard field goal, @dangerrusswilson led his offense down to Atlanta’s 11 yard line. Only one more yard was needed to put the Seahawks in a first and goal situation. On third and one, Robert Turbin was stuffed by Stephen Nicholas. Carroll was then faced with a decision, either take the three points, or roll the dice and try to gain the three feet needed to move the chains. Carroll decided to bypass the field goal and run a fullback handoff to Michael Robinson. William Moore stoned him at the line and gave the ball back to Matt Ryan. Four plays later Roddy White would score on a 47 yard touchdown pass which at the time seemed like an early dagger.
Two things on Carroll decision to go for it:
1.) Why is the third leading rusher in the regular season on the bench during a critical third and one? Why does the third leading rusher in the regular season not touch the football in two plays when A YARD is needed to gain the first down? Yes Carroll was desperately trying to call a timeout on the third down attempt to perhaps change the personnel, but why was #beastmode not on the field in the first place?
2.) If Carroll’s decision to go for it seemed arrogant, it wasn’t, in fact it was actually pretty smart. Let me explain: Carroll realized that his team had started out flat, was down two scores on the road in a tough environment, and needed a jump start. While a field goal would’ve be a nice consolation prize. A touchdown would change the complexion of the game. Was Carroll crazy for going for it? No because of this stat:
In 27 goal to go situations this season, the Seahawks have scored 17 touchdowns for a 63% success rate. Yes the turnover did crush any momentum the drive had created, but it wasn’t an unnecessary risk. Not giving Marshawn Lynch the ball in the situation was the mistake.
The other error made by Carroll, with an assist from Wilson, would be far more damaging.
Mistake Number Two
As the clock ticked down to 35 seconds left in the first half, Seattle had the ball at Atlanta’s 19 yard line. On 2nd and 10 Wilson found his favorite target on the day Zach Miller for nine yards. Carroll then took Seattle’s second time out, which was the right decision because the next playcall was vital if the Seahawks were going to put seven on the board.
After the timeout Wilson completed a four yard pass to Golden Tate at Atlanta’s six yard line. Instead of quickly lining up and spiking the football on first down, Carroll took Seattle’s third and final timeout with 25 seconds left on the clock. Three plays later Jonathan Babineaux busted through the middle of Seattle’s line and wrapped up Wilson for a sack on 3rd and 11. The clock ticked, and ticked and ticked. Wilson hurried everyone back to Atlanta’s 11 yard line to attempt one last chance at the end zone before halftime, but needed another second to spare as the clock expired and Seattle lost a chance to put three points on the board.
Let’s go back to the four yard catch by Golden Tate on 3rd and 1. The play took a total of five seconds off of the game clock. If Wilson had gotten everyone back to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball, instead of using the last timeout, the clock would have stopped somewhere in between 19-16 seconds. On the next play Russell Okung was flagged for a false start pushing the ‘Hawks back to Atlanta’s 11. The next play was an incomplete pass intended for Tate that took four seconds off of the clock. Using the adjusted game clock because of the spike, Carroll would have had 12-15 seconds to work with, which is still more than enough time to run a play considering he still has one timeout in his back pocket. If the same play were to happen on third down (Wilson taking the sack), Carroll would be able to call his final timeout with a handful of seconds remaining and give Ryan Longwell a 99.9% chance of putting three points on the board.
You can make the argument that in hindsight it didn’t matter because Russell Wilson went bonkers in the second half.
Wilson amassed 445 total yards the game, one more than Colin Kaepernick totaled against the Packers, and led drives of 80, 62, and 61 yards in the second half to give Seattle a one point lead with 31 seconds left, which would be more than enough for Ryan considering he had two timeouts to work with.
Ryan’s first pass was completed to a wide open Harry Douglas for 22 yards. Timeout. On the next play Tony Gonzalez made another big catch and rumbled down to the Seattle 31. Less than 20 of game time seconds after the drive started, Matt Bryant, in his 11th NFL season, kicked the Atlanta Falcons to the NFC Championship for the first time since the 2004-05 season. Russell Wilson’s epic comeback attempt fell just short, but his resiliency over these past two weekends won over every football fan who watches on Sundays. How can you not root for this kid? He says all of the right things, he makes the right decisions in pressure cooker situations. We as fans need to just sit back and enjoy the future of the league as it is blossoming right in front of our eyes.
Amazingly though, this was the second best game of the weekend.
Throw Of The Elite
While his completion percentage might not have been elite (18-34/331/3-0), Saturday night Joe Flacco evolved into the quarterback that everyone in the Baltimore area hoped he would be when this season started. His 70 yard bomb to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds left on the clock not only gave Ray Lewis at least one more game in his storied career, it made Rahim Moore a household name in Denver forever.
In a situation like that (up a touchdown with under a minute to go) there is one rule for defensive backs to follow: DON’T LET THE RECEIVER GET BEHIND YOU. Moore misjudged the distance of ball, much like a center fielder that loses the ball in the lights and looks around for help, only for the ball to drop over his head. Jones ran a yard past Moore and caught Flacco’s rainbow throw for the game tying touchdown.
Moore was crushed by Woody Page in the Denver Post on Sunday, but cornerback Tony Carter also deserves some of the blame. Jones burnt Carter on the play, much like Torrey Smith repeatedly burned Champ Bailey all day. Moore was left as the last line of defense. It was a catastrophic defensive breakdown.
Still the game was not lost; with 31 seconds on the clock, ball at the Denver 20, and two timeouts John Fox decided to call a kneel down instead of letting the quarterback with the most game winning drives in the history of the league take a couple of shots down the field. Matt Prater would have had at least a chance of kicking the Broncos to the AFC title game. Prayer has booted two 59 yard field goals in his career at Mile High, so Manning would have only had to travel around 40 yards to give Prater a realistic chance of making the kick. Manning’s body language after taking the knee told the story, he knew that he could have made those throws and almost hesitantly took the knee.
Fast forward to the end of the first overtime, Broncos football on their own 38. It’s a 2nd down and 6, Manning is flushed out of the pocket to his right by a charging Paul Kruger. As Peyton scrambles he catches a glimpse of Brandon Stokley over the middle, plants and makes a rookie mistake. He threw a wobbly ball across his body that Corey Graham intercepted. It was as bad of a play as you’ll ever see from Manning. It seemed like he and the Broncos were destined for so much more this season, but instead his last pass of the 2012-13 season will forever smell like remnants of Favre’s final throw of the 2009 season.
A Changing Of The Guard?
It’s not often that Aaron Rodgers is outplayed by the opposing quarterback, for the second straight year however that’s exactly what happened to Rahhhdgers. Last year Eli Manning stole the spotlight and proved that he belonged in the class of elite quarterbacks. This year Colin Kaepernick overcame an early pick six to put on (hyperbole alert!) one of the best games by a “mobile” quarterback in the history of the NFL.
From a statistical perspective there hasn’t been a game like this from a quarterback who can beat you with his legs and his arm. The previous high for rushing yards in a game by a quarterback came way back in December of 2002. Michael Vick rushed for 173 yards in Minnesota, but turned the ball over three times and needed an overtime period to beat the 3-7 Vikings. (That was the game in which Vick took off in overtime and two Vikings defenders collided trying to tackle number seven. He would score on the play and the highlight would only further grow the legend of Vick at the time.) On that day Vick would account for 346 yards, three touchdowns, and three turnovers. On Saturday Kaepernick amassed 444 yards, four touchdowns, and one turnover.
After Sam Shields turned that one turnover into a pick six with 12:48 left in the first quarter, the second year quarterback from Nevada showed why Jim Harbaugh is smarter than all of us who watch football on Sundays.
In an excellent piece written earlier in the week, Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg pointed out that whenever Kaepernick committed a turnover this season, he immediately responded with either a touchdown, or a long drive that resulted in a field goal. On the drive immediately after the pick six, Jafar as his teammates call him (yes the Jafar from Aladdin) was staring at a 3rd and 10 from his own 33 yard line, as the pocket broke down Kaepernick rolled out to the left. The still underrated Frank Gore turned up field, ran through Charles Woodson who was the only Green Bay defender in the area, and caught a perfectly thrown ball. Gore turned it up field into a 45 yard gain. Three plays later Kaepernick cut around the left end and exploded into the end zone to tie the game at 7. That’s how you erase a mistake.
After DuJuan Harris scored at the end of the first quarter to give the Packers a 14-7 lead, Kaepernick would take advantage of two Green Bay mistakes:
1.) Jeremy Ross muffed an Andy Lee punt on the Green Bay nine. Michael Crabtree would catch a 5 yard bullet that he would turn into a 14 yard touchdown to tie the game at 14.
2.) On the very next drive Rodgers would launch a bomb for Jordy Nelson, but it would land in the waiting hands of safety Tarell Brown. Instead of the interception just taking the place of a punt like most long passes that result in interceptions usually do, Brown turned up field, got some great blocks and returned the interception to just past midfield. Eight plays later Crabtree would catch his second touchdown of the quarter.
In two consecutive drives Kaepernick created a 14 point swing in the points off of turnover battle. At the beginning of the second quarter the stat was +7 GB, with five and a half minutes left in the first half that stat was +7 SF. That would be an amazing feat from any quarterback in the league, the fact that a guy who was placed in the starting role just two months ago was able to do this is outstanding. Remarkably this wasn’t the highlight of the game for young Colin.
His signature moment came halfway through the 3rd quarter when he turned a beautiful zone read ball fake into a 56 yard touchdown. It’s a play that is sweeping the league in a way that makes Tony Sparano’s wildcat look like a prehistoric formation. Kaepernick takes the snap in the pistol formation that he ran in Nevada, fakes the handoff to Frank Gore in a way that forces members of Don Capers’ defense to make a decision as to who to follow. The last line of defense (even though he didn’t know it at the time) was linebacker Erik Walden. Walden’s eyes deceived him as he bit on the ball fake and took off towards Frank Gore. As Walden went to hit Gore he realized that the ball was still in the arms of Kaepernick. Walden turned around, but it was too late. The red and gold number seven was gone to the house.
After a nine minute drive in the fourth quarter that resulted in an Anthony Dixon touchdown, the door to the NFC Championship game closed on Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers for the second straight year. The door may have also hit some of the Packers on their way out of Candlestick Park.
The emergence of Randall Cobb and James Jones this season have made Greg Jennings an expendable piece this offseason, as it wouldn’t make a lot of sense for Ted Thompson to bring back a 30 year old slot receiver that was hampered by multiple injuries this season. The second year Cobb morphed into a Percy Harvin esque weapon that will leave defensive coordinators scratching their heads for years to come. Cobb was useful on Saturday night in the backfield as he rushed for 23 yards on two carries in the third quarter. TE Jermichael Finley is also likely gone after this game and I’m especially curious to see how he develops outside of Wisconsin. He could be an extremely valuable piece for a team that might be one or two players away on offense from being a contender. Remember it wasn’t too long ago that Finley was being used as a tight end/wide receiver hybrid. There is also a very good chance Donald Driver has played his last NFL game and the future of Charles Woodson is also murky.
The main headline that I took away from this game was that for the second straight year Aaron Rodgers was outplayed by a polarizing figure. Last year it was a traditional signal caller in Eli, who lived in the shadow of not only his brother, but the monster that is the New York media market. This year it was a guy that we barely know anything about, playing one of the best games by a quarterback in the history of the playoffs. The mystique of Colin Kaepernick and the decision by Jim Harbaugh to bench the best quarterback in terms of completion percentage at the time (Alex Smith, 70.3%) made him a controversial figure for all of the wrong reasons. On January 12th, 2013 Kaepernick became a polarizing figure for all of the right ones.
What We Learned On Wild Card Weekend
1.) We learned that the competition committee might want to think about the idea of nixing the all-star referee crews in the playoffs. Bill Vinovich’s crew really struggled (I’m being nice) in Saturday’s Broncos-Ravens game. Yes what is and what isn’t pass interference is the hardest decision to make as an official and will always be a hotly debated topic, there was no consistency throughout the game and I questioned at one point if I understood what pass interference is. There was an NBA feel to these officials in that flags appeared to be flying depending on what the outcome of the play was, not because an infraction occurred. Just imagine what the talking heads would be saying this week if those were replacement officials.
2.) We learned that Michael Crabtree loves having Colin Kaepernick throw the ball to him. Since Kaepernick took over in week 11, Crabtree has begun to erase the bust label that has followed him since the 49ers took the star wideout from Texas Tech with the tenth pick in the 2010 draft. In the eight games since Harbaugh benched Smith, Crabtree has amassed 50 catches, for 714 yards, and seven touchdowns. If you apply those stats to a full 16 game season Crabtree’s numbers would look like this: 100 catches, 1,428 yards, and 14 touchdowns. That yardage total would place him fourth, ahead of Demaryius Thomas, on the receiving yardage list. Brad Evans is chomping at the bit to write about him in the Yahoo! wide receiver primer come August.
3.) We learned that Tom Brady can use anyone as a receiver. Shane Vereen my goodness what a catch in the fourth quarter to ice the game for the Pats. CBS getting Belichek’s reaction to the touchdown was a highlight of the weekend. It was the same reaction you’ll see out of him when Brady completes a four yard pass on first and ten.
4.) We learned that Atlanta’s rushing attack isn’t dead. Michael Turner (14 car/98 yds) and Jacquizz Rodgers (10 car/64 yds) gave the Falcons a much needed balance on the ground and attacked a Seahawks defense that had struggled to stop the run after week nine.
4b.) Earl Thomas you got JACKED UP!
5.) We learned that the Ravens somehow survived a fourth quarter deficit and an overtime period with Jim Caldwell forgetting to turn the page of his playbook. Baltimore ran ten total first down plays in the fourth quarter, overtime, and second overtime. Eight of those plays were Ray Rice runs up the middle that accounted for a total of 20 yards. The other two plays were incomplete Joe Flacco passes. When Dan Dierdorf is correct in calling your offense predictable you might want to mix it up.
6.) Speaking of Dierdorf was there a point in Saturday’s game when he wasn’t talking? Chris Burke from Sports Illustrated described it best when he described Greg Gumbel’s partner a human run on sentence.
7.) We learned that for the second straight week in a row that Fox has the superior broadcasting teams. Joe Buck is the most polarizing play-by-play man in the business, but his work with Troy Aikman was superb as always. I also loved the decision to award Tom Brenneman and Brian Billick the Atlanta-Seattle game. Kenny-Moose-and Goose are regarded as Fox’s second unit, but I thought it was a great decision to bypass them and give the game to the rising duo. I gotta say though, it would have been awesome to hear Gus Johnson call the fourth quarter.
8.) We learned that Texans’ GM Rick Smith needs to get some new toys for Matt Schuab to play with. Imagine if the Falcons didn’t move up in the 2010 draft to take Julio Jones. Dirk Koetter’s offense would be missing the other big play threat that’s needed to succeed in this high flying version of the NFL. Owen Daniels had a nice season and Andre Johnson put up career numbers, but if Houston is going to take the next step Schaub needs another big play target. Dwayne Bowe perhaps?
9.) We learned that I agree with Shannon Sharpe’s take on the Monte Kiffin hiring in Dallas. Why isn’t Jason Garrett allowed to hire his own defensive coordinator? Jerry Jones needs to take a step back and look in the mirror.
10.) We learned that Don Capers refusal to make any mid game adjustments led to Colin Kaepernick’s big game. Capers declined to put his secondary in any zone coverages, which could have minimized Kaepernick’s rushing totals. His persistence to blitz the linebackers and leave the back seven in man coverage are a big reason why the Pack can make tee times this week.
It’s Time To Go No Huddle!
- I wonder who had to buy all of the tennis rackets that were used on various broadcasts to show what the Patriots did in practice to prepare for the Texans.
- I’d say it worked.
- Shane Vereen welcome to the 2012-13 NFL season.
- Say goodbye to the 2012-13 NFL season, Rob Gronkowski.
- Marshawn Lynch had five fumbles this season, the highest total of his career.
- He had three crucial fumbles in the playoffs, two that resulted in turnovers.
- Does he eat sour Skittles after fumbling?
- I’m curious to see what the perception of Aaron Rodgers is next season.
- He made some throws that only he is capable of, but as a whole this game feels like a C+.
- During the Broncos/Ravens game I determined that I’m not sure what a catch in the NFL is.
- Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco were a combined 1:03 of game time away from being killed by their respective fanbases this week.
- Instead they’re both just one win away from New Orleans.
- If the Falcons had lost would Tony Gonzalez have retired?
- With those hands and that footwork it seems impossible for him to call it quits.
- In three hours on Sunday the dislike for Richard Sherman vaulted into Ndamukong Suh territory.
- Would anyone pay $50-80 bucks a season to listen to the live game mics instead of the announcers?
- I would, hell listening to Sherman and Roddy White today would have been worth the price.
- Why is NFL Matchup, the best pre-game show on any network, scheduled for such ridiculous times?
- Please DVR and watch it before the AFC/NFC Championship games next Sunday.
- You will not be disappointed.
- The two best nicknames I heard this weekend:
- Jafar (Colin Kaepernick)
- The Jacquizzard of OZ.
- Calling Matt Ryan by his nicknames is the pastime of the NFL Network.
- How can Tim Ryan not put Calvin Johnson on his all-pro ballot?
- This is why all voters should have to release their ballots in every sport.
- Will the Eagles ever find a coach?
- This is shaping up to be another Ray Rhodes type situation.
- Seriously how did twitter survive the end of the Ravens-Broncos game and the beginning of the Packers-49ers game?
- Is anyone else out there rooting for the Harbaugh bowl?
- Seems like it would be a juicier buildup than what it would have been last year.
- I wonder if Ray Lewis tipped Joe Flacco for filling up his tank to continue his last ride.
I’m thinking of starting a podcast series where I interview athletes, coaches, people in the sports media, or basically anyone that will give me an interview. I need some help coming up with a name.
If you have any ideas email me: Scottdargis18@gmail.com
Also follow me on Twitter @scottdargis