19 Jan 2004
by Russell Levine
There were two obvious questions heading into the AFC Championship: Would the New England offense be able to slow down the Indianapolis offense, and would the weather and the Patriots' crowd have an effect?
It didn't take long for the answers to become obvious: Yes, yes and yes.
By now, you all know the story of Indy's offense. Indianapolis scored 79 points in two playoff games, without punting once. Peyton Manning was playing near-perfect football from a statistical standpoint, amassing eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in wins over Denver and Kansas City.
Sunday, New England's Tom Brady was the quarterback that was surgical in his precision. With the exception of one bad pass into the end zone, Brady was in complete control of the game, delivering time and time again on third and even fourth down.
Brady engineered a 13-play, 65-yard touchdown drive on the opening possession of the game, putting Manning and the Colts behind the eight ball before they even saw the ball. When the Colts lined up for their first snap, they committed a false start, something they had not done the entire game despite the crowd noise in Kansas City the week before. When the drive ended with an interception in the end zone, Indianapolis had committed another playoff first. Already the crowd noise and New England's defense had had an effect.
On the first snap of the Colts' second possession, things went from bad to worse. Already trailing 10-0, Manning's pass for Marvin Harrison was intercepted by a diving Ty Law. The pass was a duck that was badly overthrown. It looked as if Manning, who has the luxury of playing half his games in a dome, was having trouble with the wet, snowy conditions.
More troublesome, however, was the New England defensive scheme. Manning has exploited defenses' tendency to declare their intentions by getting his team to the line of scrimmage early, then making an audible call after waiting for the defenders to tip their hand. New England disguises its defenses better than any team in the league, and their ability to do so completely neutralized the advantage of Manning's line calls. Whereas against Kansas City, Manning was able to calmly deliver the ball to the spot vacated by a blitzing linebacker for example, against the Patriots he was left running for his life when expected hot reads were not open.
The Patriot defensive front harassed Manning all game, getting to him for four sacks and playing a big part in his four interceptions.
The obvious hero in the secondary was Law, who finished with three interceptions, but it was a collective effort of the unit that led to Manning's less-than-pedestrian 23-of-47 day. New England refused to let Harrison and Reggie Wayne get off the line cleanly, forcing both outside receivers to fight through jams and re-routes, which disrupted their timing with Manning.
When receivers did get open, they paid the price by suffering punishing hits. The normally sure-handed Harrison fumbled away a chance for the Colts to get back in the game late in the first half when he was drilled after catching a quick slant.
Carolina used the same formula to perfection against Philadelphia in the NFC game, and that style was a key to Tampa Bay's record-setting pass defense of 2002.
With so many of today's offenses running some variation of the West Coast, with its bevy of short timing patterns, it's a wonder that any team allows a receiver to get a free release. True, it's a strategy that puts added pressure on the corners, but if you're going to play zone defense most of the time, it's critical to have corners that can bump receivers off their routes and disrupt timing. The extra second it takes a receiver to get to his appointed spot in his route can mean the difference between a completion and a sack.
The best way to neutralize this strategy is to employ big, physical receivers, which is why New England's David Givens (6-feet, 200 lbs.) and Carolina's Muhsin Muhammad (6-foot-2, 217) could be key in the Super Bowl.
New England's final margin of victory -- 24-14 -- was not indicative of how much they dominated the game. You just got the sense that whatever the Patriots needed, they'd be able to get. On offense, Brady gave his typically under-appreciated stellar performance and Antowain Smith chipped in with 100 yards to help the Pats control the clock.
That the Colts even had a chance late in the game was surprising, but the New England defense was not phased and quickly robbed the game of any possibility of a dramatic finish. Trailing 21-14, the Colts got the ball back at their own 20 with 2:01 and two timeouts remaining. But Manning threw four straight incompletions and the Patriots kicked a clinching field goal after taking over on downs.
* * *
I woke up Monday morning thankful that I'm not an Eagles fan. I have several good friends who are, and I didn't even have the heart to taunt them like I did after last year's NFC Championship.
If last year's loss to Tampa Bay was devastating, I'm not sure there's a proper adjective to describe this one. Pay no attention to the fact that Carolina scored just 14 points, the Eagles were manhandled in this game. Their leader, quarterback Donovan McNabb, was knocked from the game on a questionable hit. Their receivers were pushed around all day and dropped too many passes to count.
Where do the Eagles go from here? It's no secret that they need to upgrade the receiver position. The performance of their outside guys -- James Thrash and Todd Pinkston -- in the championship game was a joke. They combined to catch one pass for nine yards, and poor routes and dropped passes contributed to at least two interceptions by McNabb. The slot receiver, Freddie Mitchell, has shown some growth this season, but is not exactly a player other teams will game-plan around.
Even if they aren't going to go out and get a game-breaker (Terrell Owens, for example), the Eagles at least need to get someone who can run precise routes, catch balls in traffic, and move the chains. Perhaps Andy Reid should swallow hard and place a call to Keyshawn Johnson's agent.
No doubt, the Eagles were decimated by injuries, particularly on defense, which contributed to their inability to stop the run. With a return to health, their defense should be much more stout next season. They could be looking at a new pair of starting corners, but if they can get back to being a dominant pass-rushing team, that will help their young secondary.
There's another area the Eagles need to look at that's not being talked about much -- and that's the offensive line. The unit has two Pro Bowlers tackles in John Runyan and Tra Thomas, yet they surrendered 13 sacks in two playoff games. In my opinion, and it pains me to say it because he's a Michigan guy, Runyan is one of the most overrated players in the NFL. He earns mega-dollars, yet consistently struggles with premier pass-rushers. Against Carolina, he was slow to pick up the blitz as well.
Some of the 13 sacks were the result of the Eagles' receivers not being able to get open, but with a mobile QB, there's no excuse for that kind of performance.
As for Carolina, they're a team that continues to defy description. Other than a dominant defensive front four, they don't appear to do any one thing particularly well, yet here they are in the Super Bowl after dominating the league's No. 1 defense (Dallas), then winning a pair of playoff games on the road.
That they were able to beat the Eagles handily while only throwing 14 passes (nine of them were completed, for 101 yards) says more about the fact that they were never really threatened in the second half than it does about their lack of a passing attack.
Quarterback Jake Delhomme has shown this season, and especially in the postseason, a penchant for making some big plays, and he did it against Philadelphia. His only touchdown pass came on what appeared to be a deliberate underthrow to Muhammad in the end zone.
* * *
In the Carolina Panthers, the Patriots will face a team that is similar in many ways. Maybe not so much to the 2003 Patriots, but more so to New England's surprising Super Bowl team of 2001. The comparisons are numerous. Consider:
While New England will deservedly be a substantial favorite in the Super Bowl, the Panthers cannot be taken lightly. Like New England, the Panthers' sum total is far superior to their parts. The stat sheet from Carolina's 14-3 win over Philadelphia isn't likely to scare anyone, but it doesn't do justice to the Panthers' dominant effort.
Carolina is also peaking at the right time. As Aaron's DVOA stats show (Ed.: in an article coming Tuesday), the Panthers have played their three best games of the season in the playoffs. While the matchups and the intangibles all point to a New England win, it's not difficult to imagine that the Panthers can figure out a way to keep the game close. But it's too early for predictions -- stay tuned for that next week.
* * *
I was disappointed to read earlier this year that the city of Philadelphia had disbanded Eagles Court -- which used to reside in the bowls of the Vet -- because of improved fan behavior at Lincoln Financial Field. But you know the saying. You can take an Eagles fan out of the Vet, but you can't take the Vet out of an Eagles fan.
And so it was that as DeShaun Foster celebrated the Panthers' second touchdown on Sunday with his teammates, some foreign objects flew from the stands toward the players. One of my favorite moments on last year's Tampa Super Bowl DVD was Ronde Barber's NFC title-clinching interception return for a touchdown. Just as Barber crosses the goal line, a close examination shows several objects hitting the turf in the end zone.
But by the fourth quarter, things had turned to the point that when instant replay overturned what appeared to be a life-giving fumble recovery by the Eagles, the crowd didn't even boo. Even an Eagles fan can only take so much disappointment. At that point, I think it was just submission.
* * *
Odds and Ends:
You can read an archive of Russell's columns from earlier in the season, before he joined us at Football Outsiders, here.