A Super Bowl berth could be decided by the Patriots' ability to contain Le'Veon Bell -- and by Pittsburgh's ability to avoid their usual defensive breakdowns against New England.
11 Jan 2009
Compiled by Doug Farrar and Vince Verhei
Each weekend, the FO staff sends around e-mails to each other, both during and after the games. It lets us share ideas for columns and comments, and get an idea of how teams that we can't watch are playing. Be aware that the material in this roundtable might seem a bit disjointed and un-edited. It also might still show up later in the week in other columns, or in comments in PFP 2009.
This week, we'll be splitting Audibles in two, one for each conference. This edition discusses only the two NFC Divisional games. Discussion of the AFC Divisional games can be found here.
Doug Farrar: Larry Fitzgerald this year and Randy Moss last year are the two receivers in my recent memory who can be double-covered and make me feel sorry for the defensive backs.
Vince Verhei: The amazing thing about that Fitz catch is that it should have been a touchdown, but the ball was underthrown. So he just outjumped everyone and grabbed it. I'm starting to think we need to add this guy's name to Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Peyton Manning, etc., when we talk about not just the best player at his position, but in football.
Bill Barnwell: Weird end zone sign: "John Fox is a Fox."
Vince Verhei: Arizona kicks a field goal to go up 20-7. The good news for Carolina is that they're playing the Cardinals. Most teams would take a two-score lead (assuming it goes into the second half) and start to exploit the soft Carolina run defense. But the Cardinals don't even bother with "running" out the clock. They have had success on the ground here in the first half, but if they fall into their usual habits, they'll give Carolina time to come back.
Aaron Schatz: I feel like I'm watching a replay of that Carolina-Chicago playoff game in 2005 where we all learned that you shouldn't play Cover-2 against a team with Steve Smith on it. Earth to Carolina: STOP PLAYING ZONE ON LARRY FITZGERALD. Gee, he seems to be finding holes in the zone, what a shock. I know he's going to make some sick catches against the best man coverage you throw at him, but damn, at least that way you are making him work for it, and he can't make those catches every single time, right?
Meanwhile, I know our research has shown there is no such thing as drive momentum, but my god, Jake Delhomme has just melted down out there. And being down 20 is going to make it hard to use tons of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in the second half.
I really found it hard to believe that Arizona's total collapse after midseason was simply a very good team that stopped caring when they were guaranteed to win their easy division, but after watching this week and last week I'm starting to wonder about that kind of stuff.
Vince Verhei: Well, think about this team in particular: For like five years in a row, they've been the team everyone picked to go back to the playoffs, and then never did. So when they finally made it in this year, it was a HUGE deal for them. I think it's natural for a team in that scenario to have a massive letdown. I mean, mission accomplished, right? And then they clinched so early they were able to coast for a while, then used the Seattle game in Week 17 as a good practice, and were ready to go for the playoffs like it was Week 1 of a brand new season. Mind you, I don't think this explains ALL late collapses by teams that clinch playoff berths early. I just think this is a unique team in a unique set of circumstances.
Arizona's first drive of the second half, up 27-7: Five passes, two runs.
With eight minutes to go in the third quarter...
Aaron Schatz: Best line belongs to the New York Times' Fifth Down Blog:
"I hope there wasn't a big surprise birthday party planned at the Delhommes' after the game."
Yes, it really is Jake Delhomme's 34th birthday today.
Bill Connelly: Well ... at this rate, he should have a lot more time on his hands on his 35th birthday ... he can make that a good one.
Doug Farrar: Fifth pick goes to Rod Hood. Double-coverage again. One Cardinal ahead of Muhsin Muhammad, one behind. This is unreal.
Bill Moore: Maybe Ken Whisenhunt's comment after the New England game that they wanted to work on the running game wasn't typical coach's BS.
I'm tired of the talking heads saying, "we shouldn't change the playoff system just because teams like New England don't make the playoffs at 11-5, and teams like Arizona and San Diego make it." I haven't heard any legitimate source calling for a change. I don't know anyone in New England, for instance, calling for a change. The only people talking about the system changing is the idiots who keep saying, "we shouldn't change the system!" NO ONE IS CALLING FOR THE NFL PLAYOFFS TO CHANGE THEIR SELECTION PROCESS!
Bill Barnwell: I'm surprised at how bad Delhomme played, obviously, but not necessarily that he was inaccurate. He's looked bad all year. I've charted a bunch of Panthers games and mentioned in both Quick Reads and in Audibles that Delhomme has had some serious issues with his accuracy -- not even leading guys on routes or something like that, just hitting open receivers who aren't even in motion, usually overthrowing in the process. I assumed that had something to do with an unreported injury, since a mechanical thing would seem easy to fix.
It's hard to pin any part of this on anyone but Delhomme, but for what's supposed to be a very good offensive line, man, did Carolina look bad tonight. It's the freaking Cardinals pass rush. You can handle it.
I think I need to get on the NFL Game Rewind and see what was happening in Weeks 13 to 16 that isn't anymore (or vice versa).
Sean McCormick: In the preseason, I picked Carolina to be the team most likely to underperform their DVOA projection this year, based on the fact that I didn't think Jake Delhomme was very good and I didn't trust their personnel whenever they had to run traditional passing plays instead of play-action. The Panthers spent all season making that prediction look terrible, but then their structural problems caught up with them all at once. Give Arizona credit for playing hard on defense, but they weren't doing anything particularly exotic out there. They blanketed Steve Smith, flowed to the ball whenever DeAngelo Williams tried to go outside, and they schemed some A-gap blitzes to get pressure quickly in Delhomme's face. Mostly they played to the score of the game.
Mike Tanier: I can't believe I picked the Panthers this week. I can't believe I put any faith in Delhomme. First interception: It's quarters coverage. I don't have a good replay to watch 40 times, but I am almost certain it's quarters, and that it isn't a hard read. The guy just doesn't bother to read defenses sometimes.
Second interception, there's a safety deep in the middle, so it is either Cover-1 or Cover-3. Either way, you have to account for at least one, if not two linebackers in the middle of the field. If you are throwing into the middle, you have to drop, plant, and throw: no looking at the receiver and waiting. Bad timing, bad pick. Once he gets into Jake the Mistake zone, that's all she wrote, his brain just seizes up like an old engine.
Like Aaron said, the zone coverage on Fitzgerald was ridiculous. He ran the same crossing route four or five times and Warner just waited until he crossed into the far-side linebacker's zone. I remember the Monday night game Aaron and I went to last year, Eagles-Cowboys, where that seemed to be the Eagles' strategy against T.O.: Just let him work the zones. It's a crazy strategy when you don't have Anquan Boldin to worry about, when you could run a zone-man combo and just shadow Fitz everywhere and make Breaston and Stephen Spach beat you.
I figured the Panthers would run the ball early, get a few stops on defense, then walk away with the game. It might have turned out that way, if Shaky Jakey hadn't fumbled in the red zone. Then, you have classic Panthers when the opponent has the lead: They are trying to throw the ball, but Brad Hoover and Jeff King are still on the field, and they aren't trying anything clever like DeAngelo Williams in the slot (if they did try this, it was after the beers kicked in for me. Sorry). The Cardinals played well, certainly deserved to win, but what an egg the Panthers laid.
Ned Macey: I'm not sure that eliminating Week 13-16 for the Cardinals will really help. I'm afraid we've got a third straight year of absolutely unexplainable performance. If the Cardinals were winning 50-40, you could sort of explain that, but that is two damn good defensive performances in a row. During the regular season, they had games with better than -10% DVOA defense only four times. Now they've had two in the playoffs.
I've been down on Delhomme for years, mostly because he has been somehow considered a game-managing type quarterback. Darryl Johnston was parroting that line again yesterday. Delhomme has always turned the ball over a lot. He is a league-average quarterback who does well when the rest of his team does well.
Also, I'm secretly happy that Carolina laid an egg because the Panthers under Fox were a team that had consistently played better in the playoffs, and all Colts fans have to believe that is a small-sample fluke. Now that the Panthers have blown a home-field game, we just need the Pats to take a couple first-round exits.
Sean McCormick: Is it safe to say that the NFL offices are pulling hard for the Steelers and Giants today? Not only would that matchup be by far the most attractive draw for the Super Bowl, but it would save them the embarrassment of a Championship weekend where three of the four teams were 9-7 or worse and the top regular season team remaining was a sixth seed.
Russell Levine: I think that's safe to say, but for the former reason, not the latter. If the Giants and Cowboys got in at 8-8 and 9-7, the NFL would rather have either in the Super Bowl than, say, 14-2 Carolina.
Bill Barnwell: Looked like Correll Buckhalter overpursued on that opening kickoff return by Ahmad Bradshaw. Also a facemask on the play on Bradshaw, uncalled since offensive players apparently can't commit facemask penalties.
Ben Riley: Well, after the inevitable Asante Samuel interception, we now get to see how many attempts it takes for the Eagles to pound the ball in from the one-yard line. Answer: three, after two failed Westbrook attempts, a defensive holding penalty, and then a perhaps ill advised ball lunge by McNabb.
Bill Barnwell: Why are the Giants running Steve Smith on go patterns? I mean, you have Sinorice Moss right there. The only thing he's good at is being fast!
Ben Riley: This is obviously premature, but have road teams ever gone 4-0 during the divisional round of the playoffs? How about 3-1? Easterbrook always writes that home teams have a 75 percent winning percentage during this round -- seems like this is shaping up to be a very unusual weekend.
Bill Barnwell: The Giants defensive line is having an awesome half. The Eagles offensive line is getting absolutely no push, and the guys at the second level are getting clear paths to the ball. I'm going to say that has absolutely nothing to do with the Eagles having communication issues with their radio.
As much as Corey Webster has risen this year, it's surprising to see how far Sam Madison has fallen. He was the team's top corner until the end of the regular season, was replaced by Webster when he got hurt, and then never got his job back. He's their dime corner now, with Terrell Thomas moving ahead of him. Thomas is going to end up on our Top 25 Prospects list next year, as he's a dynamite special teams guy and a good blitzer off the edge (swear I wrote that before he just forced a Donovan McNabb pick), but he's not much of a cover corner yet.
Aaron Schatz: The Eagles are really having trouble covering tight ends today. Mostly Kevin Boss, but also Darcy Johnson earlier.
Bill Barnwell: This is a lot like the first Giants-Eagles game. The Giants are moving the ball on the Eagles with ease, and every yard the Eagles get seems to be a small miracle.
Aaron Schatz: The officials' decision to take away Brandon Jacobs' five-yard run because the clock had hit 2:00 is absurd. First of all, in the slow-motion replay I think the snap is before the clock hits 2:00 anyway. Second, if the snap was after 2:00, it was milliseconds. The officials let the play happen and didn't blow the whistle -- then they change it? What the hell? Talk about your ridiculous technicalities.
Ben Riley: I'm with you, Aaron -- I wasn't aware you could have "do-overs" in the NFL. Moreover, if the Giants had failed to gain any yardage, presumably Tom Coughlin could have asked for a do-over himself. Weird decision from the normally reliable Mike Carey.
Doug Farrar: "The normally reliable Mike Carey"? You, sir, are a comedian.
Bill Barnwell: Aikman: "Akers is 8-of-17 on field goals in Giants Stadium, and I'm willing to bet a few of those misses were in this direction." No s**t, dude. As far as I know, you can only go two ways.
(The Giants kick a field goal with 1:38 to go in the second quarter; the Eagles respond with a field goal of their own on the last play of the half.)
What the Eagles did here on this drive is exactly what the Giants did to the Cowboys last year in the Divisional Round -- the Cowboys scored with a minute left, and the Giants just ran some underneath plays and scored with a few seconds left.
Ned Macey: I suspect somebody was watching the non-called delay of game yesterday, but even so, really weird (although irrelevant after the offsides) call.
Mark Zajack: Any chance that eventually a receiver makes a play in this game? I like the creativity of Kevin Curtis trying to catch the ball with his face ... but perhaps he should just stick to tackling 350-pound guys by their shoelaces.
... and immediately Domenik Hixon answers my call. Huge catch on third down.
Aaron Schatz: Remember all our talk at the end of the season about how the rules allow writers to vote for a unit instead of a specific player for MVP? The Philadelphia defensive line is the MVP of this game.
Doug Farrar: The Giants are getting traction late with blasts up the middle with Derrick Ward, but it seems that any play taking a while to develop on the ground doesn't stand much of a chance. Caveat emptor to any team looking to make the free agent Ward a member of your team: Best bring an offensive line this good, as well.
And with 6:28 left in the game, Philly's front seven (eight?) wins the fourth-and-short battle for the second straight drive. I think it bears mentioning again that this team had the best defensive run DVOA in the second half of the season.
Will Carroll: I remember having this discussion, but i think Eli Manning *needs* tall receivers, not because he likes throwing up the jump balls, but because there's something intrinsic in his mechanics that causes him to throw the ball high. I'd be curious to know how many of his interceptions or even his incompletions are because he went too high.
Doug Farrar: Kenny Britt of Rutgers? 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Tri-State Player of the Year. Projects as a mid-second- to mid-third-round guy.
Aaron Schatz: Boy, Eli just had a lousy game today, didn't really seem to be able to adjust the force of his throws to control for the wind. Now that he has thrown the ball right to Quentin Mikell, I hereby request that we hold back on DVOA triumphalism until we know for sure that the Arizona Cardinals are not representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLIII.
Ned Macey: I agree that the Eagles were great on the short-yardage stops, but for the game, the Giants ran the ball pretty well. Plus, Manning had decent pass protection. I actually think the Philadelphia secondary played better, but that could just be the wind and Manning's crappiness. Even the big play they gave up was pretty decent coverage by Joselio Hanson (I think that's who it was).
Bill Barnwell: Exactly, Ned. I would say the Eagles offensive line deserved the MVP for a fantastic second half -- the Giants had little pressure on Manning. Just a fantastic game.
Thinking about this before the game, I decided that I could choose to be happy or angry about the outcome of this game regardless of what happened. I chose happy, so I'm going to say that the Eagles played a very good game, got some key stops and some lucky bounces, and that they made smarter decisions than the Giants did. Carrying John Carney and Lawrence Tynes infuriated me. Infuriated.
Aaron Schatz: Well, Carney was just abysmal on kickoffs this year. If they felt they had to carry him to kick the field goals, I don't think having a guy who could actually kick off was a bad idea. I just think it should have been, you know, someone who actually was really great at kickoffs, someone more like Rhys Lloyd, not Lawrence Freakin' Tynes.
Bill Barnwell: Having the guy who could actually kick off kick the field goals would have maybe allowed the Giants to carry someone like Dave Tollefson, who would have been a fresh body in the second half when the Giants couldn't get any pressure on McNabb.
Aaron Schatz: We've now got three teams seeded fourth or lower moving on to the championship games. Depending on what happens in the Steelers-Chargers game, it might be four. Each of the last few years, as some unexpected team won the Super Bowl, we've talked about the fact that a couple of random games do not mean a trend. Well, at this point, is this a trend? Can we say that home-field advantage and the bye week in the playoffs are no longer as important as they were prior to 2005 or so? If so, can we think of a reason why this may be the case?
The other question would be: Are teams now more tightly packed when it comes to their chance to win in the playoffs? Some of these wins make sense based on our DVOA ratings -- Pittsburgh was third in 2005 despite being a Wild Card team, obviously Philly and Baltimore were 1-2 this year. Others are wins by teams that clearly were inferior in the regular season -- the Giants last year, the Cardinals this year, the Colts (on defense, certainly) in 2006.
Bill Barnwell: I can't say that it's a trend. How many of those games rested on a random play here or there (I'm thinking specifically of that Jerome Bettis fumble and the return that Ben Roethlisberger stopped)?
Ned Macey: On the other hand, the Colts needed one of the worst officiating calls in recent memory to even get close in the fourth quarter (against the Steelers in 2005). To be honest, I tend to write that particular game off to the extremely unfortunate suicide by Tony Dungy's son. It was entirely understandable for the Colts to be underprepared and out of sorts, and that's exactly how they played.
Vince Verhei: For today, I find it ironic that Philadelphia won because New York suffered from the same ills that plagued the Eagles all year: short-yardage woes, sloppy turnovers, poor clock management (down to one timeout with more than 12 minutes to go in the game). On top of that, they missed two field goals, which Philadelphia opponents never do.
On those late short-yardage plays, the Giants had third- or fourth-and-3 or less four times in the closing minutes. They ran four plays, all runs. It says a lot about the day Eli Manning had that they never trusted him to pick up those first downs. When I look back at this era, I think I'm going to swap Eli's 2007 and 2008 postseasons in my mind. It will jibe better with his regular seasons that way.
As for the NFC Championship game, think about where these two teams were just three weeks ago. Arizona lost 47-7 to New England, had lost four out of five, were 8-7 and sneaking into the playoffs because of their putrid division. Everyone figured they would lose to Atlanta or Dallas in Round 1. The Eagles lost 10-3 to Washington, were 8-6-1, and needed losses by Chicago and Philadelphia just to have a chance to beat Dallas to get in. Now, one of them is going to the Super Bowl.
I think the best prediction I've seen this year is one Bill Simmons made around Week 8 or so: This is just a weird year, and something crazy is going to happen. Weird like the above paragraph, weird like the MVP and Coach of the Year being knocked out of the first round, weird like road teams going, at worst, .500 in the playoffs.
Finally, I would like to note that my fantasy playoff team is screwed. The divisional round isn't even over, and I'm already down to Anquan Boldin and Heath Miller.
Ned Macey: Teams that won the first regular season match-up are now 1-4 if you count the Giants as having won the first one. Even excluding them, the teams are 1-3.
Will Carroll: Can we at least say that the regular season is getting about meaningless given the results here?
Bill Barnwell: Pretty much. Anything can happen in a small sample. America's really the only country who believes that their sports need to have a playoff system. This is what happens.
Aaron Schatz: I don't think it makes the regular season meaningless. That's why I pointed out that some of these "weird results" aren't really that strange when you see how teams played during the regular season using DVOA instead of just wins and losses.
Pittsburgh's DVOA rating was barely less than Indianapolis and Denver in 2005, and higher than Seattle's. The Eagles and Ravens are only upsets when we consider home-field advantage, because they were 1-2 in DVOA this year. Plus, obviously the regular season still means something because it determines who gets into the tournament.
The CFL has playoffs. The Japanese baseball league has playoffs. The Russian Super League in hockey has playoffs. So no, we aren't the only country that believes in playoffs.
As for things like soccer and rugby, it isn't that they don't have playoffs. It is that the playoffs aren't actually connected to the regular season. What is the FA cup if not a playoff tournament? The best team has one bad day, and it can lose to some team from the second division.
Bill Barnwell: Replace America with "American sports." The FA Cup and the NFL playoffs are two very, very, very different things contextually.
Aaron Schatz: Don't tell any Canadians that hockey counts as an "American sport," OK?
Ned Macey: Random stat: I'm not sure this means anything, and the "except" below is a big one, but Super Bowl champion coaches since 1998 except Bill Belichick are now 2-13 in the playoffs since their win.
Russell Levine: I only saw the second half and the final few minutes of the first, but a few observations.
Obviously very unimpressed with Eli today. He was sailing the ball all over the place. Visions of the bad Eli from years past. He was pathetic on the critical fourth-and-inches sneak in the fourth quarter. How can you not get six inches there? Just burrow up the center's ass cheek and it's practically guaranteed.
I have lots of issues with Tom Coughlin as well. Why is Eli sneaking it when you have Brandon Jacobs? Why are you running the tricky direct snap to Brandon Jacobs running wide on another critical fourth-quarter third down? Why do you challenge a third-down spot that you have no hope of winning, costing you a critical timeout? Why are the Giants ALWAYS in jeopardy of burning the play clock? Is that enough questions for one Audibles submission?
What a weird, weird, weird year. The Arizona friggin' Cardinals are hosting the NFC championship against that same lost Eagles team that tied Cincinnati. Might be time to head for that underground compound after all.
Mike Tanier: A big day for an Eagles fan, of course. Which makes typing a bit of a challenge.
The Eagles run defense has had some excellent weeks, but they just controlled the game today. The Giants were very stubborn about sticking to the run, and I think they reached diminishing returns. The Eagles were in the same boat early in the game ... I think in the two-minute drill, Reid decided to go back to old Andy and start throwing the ball again. It helps that Donovan also became old Donovan and starting running to make plays.
The Eagles should beat the Cardinals next week, hands down. The matchup should be no closer than the Thanksgiving game was. I write this knowing how "in the bag" NFC Championship games went for this team from 2001-03, but that's the way next week's game looks to me. And it feels odd to be back here, in the NFC Championship game again, after the TO blowup and the Garcia year and the fiasco seasons. This Eagles team feels connected to those teams: flawed, to be sure, but tough and capable of beating anyone.
134 comments, Last at 20 Jan 2009, 3:26am by Alex51