Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

Most Recent FO Features

JonesJon15.jpg

» SDA: Early Playoff Elimination Round

TCU-West Virginia and Auburn-Ole Miss might as well be early playoff elimination rounds, with the losers likely knocked out of playoff contention.

02 Jan 2009

2009 AFC Wild Card Preview

by Bill Barnwell

For the second year in a row, the AFC Wild Card matchups are repeats of games we saw earlier in the season. Unlike last year, though, both playoff games will actually take place in the same locales as the games earlier in the season. There are also dramatic differences in either the available personnel or the schematic makeup of three of the four teams now as opposed to their earlier matchup. Only the Miami Dolphins will bring a relatively unchanged team to the season's 18th week. By breaking down the film of those games, comparing it to other games each team has played against similar teams, and combining that study with our advanced metrics at Football Outsiders, we can paint the clearest picture available of what's most likely to happen this weekend.

For those who may be visiting this site for the first time to read this preview, some explanations for our statistics. DVOA (Defense adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) Red zone DVOA is also listed. These numbers are all regular season only.

WEI DVOA is WEIGHTED DVOA, which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a third-power polynomial trendline. That's fancy talk for "the curve shifts direction once or twice." Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.

This year, we're going back to the old school for our in-game discussions. You can use these preview threads to discuss things before and then during each game. Just remember to switch over from AFC to NFC when the AFC game is over.

Indianapolis at San Diego



Colts on Offense
IND OFF SD DEF
DVOA 21.3% (4) 10.7% (22)
WEI DVOA 25.9% (2) 10.5% (21)
PASS 41.3% (2) 15.3% (19)
RUSH -7.2% (25) 4.1% (21)
RED ZONE 19.2% (7) -17.5% (7)


Chargers on Offense
SD OFF IND DEF
DVOA 21.3% (3) 3.7% (14)
WEI DVOA 23.4% (3) 1.4% (11)
PASS 41.7% (2) 6.2% (14)
RUSH -0.1% (18) 1.3% (19)
RED ZONE 27.5% (4) -7.6% (12)


Special Teams
IND SD
DVOA -2.2% (26) 1.7% (12)
IND kickoff 1.3 (16) 6.7 (7)
SD kickoff -9.0 (29) -3.3 (22)
IND punts 8.6 (7) -1.1 (18)
SD punts -10.2 (32) 10.1 (6)
FG/XP -3.5 (24) -2.4 (23)

If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

The currency that's brought the Colts and Chargers to San Diego this Saturday night is serendipity. The playoff hopes of the 8-8 Chargers swelled and contracted this year thanks to Ed Hochuli and the Bolts' inept cousins in the AFC West, but the real moment of truth -- the Chargers' point of no return -- came in Week 15, when they needed to recover an expected onside kick to have a chance at beating the Chiefs. Their chances of succeeding were no better than one in six. Those chances were likely made slightly worse when the kick went to wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, arguably Kansas City's best player.

Instead, the ball bounced off of Bowe's chest and into the hands of Pro Bowl special teamer Kassim Osgood, who nearly left the team after demanding a trade this offseason. Instead of dealing him away, the Chargers had their best gunner situated in the one spot he needed to be in to save their season. The Chargers promptly drove down the field and scored, taking a 22-21 lead that held up after Chiefs kicker Connor Barth -- 9-for-9 on the season previously -- missed his second field goal of the game. It is not unreasonable to say that the Chargers are here and that Mike Shanahan is currently unemployed because the supremely talented and confident Bowe took his eye off the ball for a fraction of a second at precisely the wrong time.

The Colts' story also begins with an onside kick. Down 27-17 with 4:04 left in the fourth quarter against the winless Texans, the then-1-2 Colts seemingly needed an onside kick to have a shot at coming back and winning. They failed, giving the ball away to a team that had already run for 146 yards against a flailing Indianapolis defensive line. With starting quarterback Matt Schaub out with an illness, backup Sage Rosenfels was instead running the offense. On third-and-8, Rosenfels scrambled and decided to run for a first down. Instead, cornerback Marlin Jackson forced the ball out, and linebacker Gary Brackett both recovered the fumble and returned it 66 yards for an astounding touchdown.

After the Colts kicked deep, the Texans had a second chance at running the clock out. Again, they not only failed, but turned the ball over in the process; this time, defensive end Robert Mathis sacked Rosenfels, stripping him of the ball and recovering it in the process. Mathis' discovery gave the Colts the ball on the Texans 20, and after scoring two plays later and intercepting Rosenfels on the Texans' final drive, a miraculous victory was complete.

If the Colts had lost that game and nothing else had changed, they still would have made the playoffs. But if the Colts had started 1-3, can we assume that nothing else would have changed?

Each of these teams were given gifts better than anything you or I got for the holiday season. Legends and legacies may be forged out of the carelessness and missteps of Bowe and Rosenfels. Players will be granted or stripped of mystiques they haven't earned. Even players and coaches can add to the lore. "I thought we had that passion at the end," Tony Dungy said of their win over the Texans. Philip Rivers commented after the Chiefs game that, "The way we’ve bounced back these past two weeks in our division and won says a lot about our guys."

What says a lot more about the Colts and the Chargers is what they've done in the 16 games they've played this year, including the Colts' 23-20 victory over the Chargers in Week 12. Instead of narratives of questionable inception that will be thrown away and forgotten after this weekend's outcome, we'll be looking at a season's worth of performance to break down what's most likely to happen this Sunday.

WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL

You may be familiar with the Colts offense, which has been fantastic long enough to actually become ironically fantastic. So don't be surprised when you're walking around the most recently gentrified areas of your nearest big cities and see the youths sporting Anthony Gonzalez jerseys -- it's not because they're Lil' Ronnie fans.

There are some changes in how the Colts employ their personnel this year, though. The Colts are relying more on Gonzalez in the slot, particularly on third down, where his 63.9% DVOA tops all receivers with 25 targets or more. He runs the same sort of route tree that Steve Smith of the Giants does, just with better speed and hands. Against the Colts' base three-WR set, the Chargers went to a 3-3-5 look and used 2008 first-round pick Antoine Cason as the nickel back, lined up against Gonzalez in the slot. He was not up to the task, as Gonzalez caught three of the six passes thrown to him with Cason in coverage, for a total of 55 yards and three first downs.

Gonzalez's presence has shifted Dallas Clark back into playing as a tight end in both name and locale, as opposed to the slot receiver he primarily was in 2007. In this role, Clark may be called on to block Chargers outside linebackers Jyles Tucker and Shaun Phillips in one-on-one situations, the latter of which is a rough matchup for the Colts.

Phillips is the primary pass rusher on a defense that's fallen from 12th to 20th in Adjusted Sack Rate from a year ago, primarily due to the season-long absence of Shawne Merriman. The absence of a pass rush led to the departure of much-maligned defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell in midseason, with former Bears DC Ron Rivera taking his place. Rivera was told to improve the pass rush, but that hasn't happened. With Cottrell, the Chargers ranked 17th with an ASR of 6.3 percent; since Rivera took over, they are 24th with an ASR of 4.9 percent. Four of the team's 11 sacks in that timeframe came against Ben Roethlisberger; they sacked Manning once (and had only one quarterback hit) in their first matchup, and even that was recorded by our game charter as a coverage sack.

The glimmer of hope for Chargers fans thinking that the D have a better time getting to Manning on Sunday is the situation on the Colts' offensive line, which has been ravaged by injuries all season. When the two teams played in October, Colts center Jeff Saturday strained his calf during the game against the Chargers, leaving rookie Jamey Richard to play arguably the most important position on the Colts' offensive line, thanks to Peyton Manning's ability/propensity to change his protection scheme on the fly. The good news is that Saturday should play the entire game this time around, but both Richard and center/guard Mike Pollak will probably miss out thanks to ankle injuries. Pollak, who starts at right guard, will likely be replaced by Dan Federkeil.

On the other hand, the Chargers will have defensive end Luis Castillo, who missed the first Chargers-Colts game. Castillo's a stout defender at the point of attack, and is more difficult to drive off the ball than backup Jacques Cesaire. That advantage is magnified because of the Colts' persistent usage of the no-huddle offense; without the ability to substitute liberally on defense, a team's base defensive package sees more snaps than it would otherwise. Although it would be preferable to be able to sub in Cesaire and defensive tackle Ryon Bingham on the line, having 55 snaps of Castillo is much better than 55 snaps of Cesaire. The Chargers worked a lot to try and confuse Manning and the offensive line in their first matchup, including persistent shifting of their front three after they touched down to try and muddle responsibilities and hide where the blitz was coming from. The Chargers blitzed five or more on 20 of 49 dropbacks against the Colts.

The Chargers will present a relatively simple front to Manning. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie will line up on the left side, with Quentin Jammer on the right. As yet another sign that he's lost a step, the Chargers played press coverage on Marvin Harrison for most of the game regardless of who was on him, with Reggie Wayne getting a seven-to-nine yard cushion on most plays. As mentioned earlier, Gonzalez presented significant issues for Cason in the slot, with the Chargers eventually giving him help with bracket coverage as the game went along. The Colts will use plenty of pick plays, and Gonzalez's touchdown in the first Chargers encounter came with much help from an uncalled Wayne pick. Indianapolis also likes to match Joseph Addai out of the slot against slower linebackers, so when the Chargers bring in Matt Wilhelm as a cover linebacker in passing situations, expect the Colts to motion Addai out to the slot and use him in similarly-styled pick plays.

Because of the number of different offensive line combinations the Colts have used this year, it's difficult to project how their running game will perform in the playoffs. One place we'd expect the Chargers to have the advantage is inside the red zone; there, the Colts' ground game is 26th in the league, while the Chargers' run defense is 12th. The Chargers also have the second-best goal-to-go defense in the league, which becomes even more interesting when you consider that they move to a Cover-2 look that close to the end zone. For Rivera, who coached a Cover-2 defense in Chicago, the team's success in that area could foretell a shift to the Cover-2 across the rest of the field in the future.

WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL

What was once an elite running game fell into mediocrity in 2008, as the Chargers' rush offense DVOA fell out of the top 11 for the first time since LaDainian Tomlinson's rookie year of 2001. Much of the national blame has been cast on Tomlinson, who's struggled during the first half of the year with turf toe. As with many running backs, too much of the credit for Tomlinson's success and too much of the blame for his decline have been placed upon the back and not his line.

It's not injuries in the case of the Chargers' line, but instead performance degradation across the line. Left tackle Marcus McNeill hasn't lived up to the level of performance he exhibited as a rookie (establishing a trend that Joe Thomas followed this year, one Ryan Clady would do well to avoid). Center Nick Hardwick might still be struggling with a toe injury that he had surgery on after the 2007 offseason, because he has little explosion off the line and labors to get any push. Right guard Mike Goff is a lame duck who knows it, and six days away from turning 33, he's almost certainly lost a step. His inability to get to the second level and pull when necessary haven't helped issues, but the real problem is right tackle Jeromey Clary, a guard masquerading at tackle who had a nightmare of a game against Robert Mathis in Week 12. Clary allowed Mathis two sacks and was embarassed by Mathis' array of spin moves and inside stunts on multiple run plays. Getting Clary help against Mathis is essential, which could mean a lot of two tight end sets with Brandon Manumaleuna in the game. The Chargers also split Antonio Gates wide on a handful of plays against the Colts; they could choose to do that more often to try and stretch their linebackers out and create space in the running game.

Tomlinson also lost fullback Lorenzo Neal this offseason, who played a major role in creating space for Tomlinson at the line of scrimmage. While Neal is off excelling in Baltimore (his pancake against Bradie James for Le'Ron McClain's touchdown against Dallas was one of the best blocks of the year), the Chargers have struggled to replace him. Fullback Mike Tolbert might be faster to the line than Neal, but he doesn't square up his man anywhere near as reliably as Neal, resulting in slipped blocks and fewer lanes for Tomlinson to run through. Backup Jacob Hester is more of the jack-of-all-trades fullback as opposed to a blocking back, making him a poor fit for the role.

Instead, the Chargers will attempt to isolate different Colts in favorable matchups and take advantage of them. The first target of any team facing the Colts is cornerback Tim Jennings, filling in for the crocked Marlin Jackson at corner. At 5'8" and 185 pounds, Jennings is one of the faster Colts on the roster, but he struggles mightily with taller receivers. That makes 6'4" Vincent Jackson an absolute mismatch and even 5'11" Chris Chambers, who has one of the best verticals in the NFL, is at a significant advantage on the deep ball. Jennings will get help over the top, but that will open up opportunities for Antonio Gates underneath.

Gates may also have more chances to make plays on Sunday because of the Colts' situation at linebacker. With middle linebacker Gary Brackett out, outside linebacker Freddy Keiaho will move to the inside, where he'll also have to play in nickel and dime situations. Keiaho is having a rough year in coverage already, averaging 7.5 yards per pass according to our game charters, up from 4.4 yards per pass a year ago. His move also moves Tyjuan Hagler into Keiaho's spot on the strong side, with (the other) Buster Davis backing them up. Brackett's been arguably the team's best defender this year, so missing him in this game is a disappointing blow for the defense.

The other target in the passing game will be free safety Antoine Bethea, who moves into the slot when the opposition goes three-wide. The Chargers immediately recognized Bethea as a target and sent Malcom Floyd deep twice in the first quarter on a corner route and a go route in man coverage against Bethea, before the Colts started giving Bethea help. Floyd will be questionable for the game after a collapsed lung a couple of weeks ago; the Chargers could very well line up Sproles in the slot if Floyd can't go.

Strong safety Bob Sanders missed the Week 12 encounter with his knee injury, but he'll be in the lineup on Sunday. Interestingly, the Colts' defensive DVOA with Sanders in the lineup (4.0%) was only slightly better than it was when he was sitting out (6.5%). A lot of that, though, has to do with the -65.1% DVOA the Colts' defense put up in their dominant win over Joe Flacco and the Ravens in Week 7; take that game out, and the difference goes from 2.5% to 11.5%. Sanders could very well be pesticide for Darren Sproles, the change-of-pace back who's stayed healthy for the season despite seeing an increased role in the offense following Michael Turner's departure. Not enough screens were run against the Colts this year to have a definitive sample of how they do against them with and without Sanders, but screens are exactly the sort of plays Sanders is programmed to break up. There, his undersized nature actually represents a positive, as its easier for him to sift through trash and get to the ballcarrier, while his elite speed and football instincts help recognize screens while they're developing. With Sanders in the lineup, the chances of the Chargers busting a huge play on a screen to Sproles are almost certainly diminished, if not extinguished entirely.

SPECIAL TEAMS

After having the worst special teams in the league in 2007, the Colts were merely very bad this season. Although they were above-average on both kicks and punts, their return units were awful. Recently acquired Najeh Davenport has enjoyed some success on kick returns, so expect to see him back there this week. Your feelings on Adam Vinatieri, clutch kicker are yours and yours alone; if you still believe that there's something special about Vinatieri, no amount of data will convince you otherwise, and if you don't, well, we don't need to tell you anymore that a good portion of his clutchiness is opportunity.

Sproles has done a good job as the primary return man, ranking seventh in the league on kick returns and 18th on punt reurns. If the Chargers are desperate for a return touchdown, they'll put Antonio Cromartie with him. Nate Kaeding has profiled as a below-average kicker this year on both field goals and kickoffs.

OUTLOOK

This is the most evenly-matched game on paper in the first round, with the Colts' marginal advantage in DVOA mitigated by the Chargers' home-field advantage. That was borne out in Week 12, with the Colts winning 23-20 on an Adam Vinatieri field goal as time expired.

DVOA isn't a perfect stat, though, and one thing it doesn't control for throughout the season is injury. Indy's spent most of their year without Sanders and a good portion of it without Saturday, two of the seven best players on their top-heavy roster. The Colts are simply a significantly better team with them in the lineup.

The argument in the past is that the Chargers were uniquely designed to match up well against the Colts, but that's not the case anymore. The advantage the Chargers had at the line of scrimmage has vanished; in the passing game, Sanders matches up well against Sproles and Tomlinson in the screen game, and the Colts' Tampa-2 is famous for keeping the play in front of them while limiting deep completions. The Colts had only nine completions of 30 yards or more against them this year, the second-best figure in football. Unless the Chargers' offensive line of 2006 steps onto the field Saturday, the Colts seem like the more likely victor.

Baltimore at Miami


Ravens on Offense
BAL OFF MIA DEF
DVOA 5.6% (18) 3.0% (13)
WEI DVOA 5.7% (15) 7.0% (17)
PASS 5.3% (19) 4.8% (12)
RUSH 5.9% (9) 0.6% (17)
RED ZONE 3.6% (16) -22.4% (5)
Dolphins on Offense
MIA OFF BAL DEF
DVOA 17.1% (7) -24.5% (2)
WEI DVOA 17.3% (9) -22.3% (3)
PASS 29.0% (5) -23.3% (2)
RUSH 4.8% (12) -26.0% (1)
RED ZONE 44.1% (1) -50.3% (1)
Special Teams
BAL MIA
DVOA 0.2% (17) -4.9% (29)
BAL kickoff -7.0 (25) -4.1 (21)
MIA kickoff -7.4 (27) -9.1 (30)
BAL punts 20.7 (1) -2.1 (22)
MIA punts -2.8 (23) -13.9 (30)
FG/XP -2.2 (22) 0.2 (18)

If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

Two unlikely playoff teams square off in Miami for the second time this year on Sunday. In Week 7, neither the 2-3 Ravens nor the 2-3 Dolphins were seen as playoff contenders. After the Ravens' victory over the Dolphins, the two teams combined to go 17-3 the rest of the way, earning playoff spots on the season's final day. Each team employs a gimmick offense, with the Dolphins running the now-ubiquitous Wildcat and the Ravens using an unbalanced line, bringing in an extra tackle for added muscle on 31 percent of snaps this season (according to our friends at NFL Matchup).

The place where these teams differ dramatically is how they've been affected by injury. Despite Miami's manipulation of the injury report this year (they listed nary a single player until Week 6), tracking their injuries by number of games missed by projected starters reveals that they're the healthiest team in football, losing only Greg Camarillo and Justin Smiley for any length of time. Meanwhile, the Ravens were the most-injured team in football. They had 50 different players appear on the injury report at one point or another in 2008. Six projected starters missed eight games or more. By Week 8, three of the four starters in the secondary were out of action, and the only player left (Ed Reed) was questionable. It's a testament to the work of the brilliant Ravens front office and rookie head coach John Harbaugh that the Ravens still managed to make the playoffs.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL

When the Ravens played the Dolphins in Week 7, they weren't yet using the unbalanced line anywhere near the amount they have used it in recent weeks. That probably owed something to the fact that Adam Terry -- who often serves as the extra offensive tackle in the unbalanced line -- was hurt and didn't return until Week 9.

The chess match that took place throughout the day when the Ravens were on offense was how Baltimore would account for Dolphins weakside linebacker Joey Porter, who was in the midst of a remarkable comeback season after being returned to the same side of the field he played in Pittsburgh. That would nominally put Porter against second-year left tackle Jared Gaither, a mammoth even by the position's standards. Gaither's talented and has had a solid season, but he's a bad matchup one-on-one against Porter. As a result, the pre-snap motion of nearly every play was to account for Porter's whereabouts. Often, the Ravens would start tight end Todd Heap on the opposite side of the field from Porter, forcing him to commit to a hashmark before the snap, only to motion Heap to Porter's side of the ball. That gave them the option to use Heap in a double-team, have him chip Porter, or even block him one-on-one, something Heap did with varying levels of success. Another option the team used was to motion out fullback Lorenzo Neal and have him engage Porter at the line. Neal was responsible for a blown block on one of Porter's two sacks on the day, with the other coming off of a twist designed to use Porter as a decoy.

NFL Matchup showed a play with Porter last week that was very similar to the Giants zone blitz I diagrammed in Walkthrough last week, where the fearsome pass rusher (in this case, Porter) drops back into coverage on one side and the team overloads on the other side of the field. Porter's first sack was a play where the opposite happened.

Figure 1: Porter Sack vs. Ravens

Here's your standard twist mixed in with a blitzing defensive back that rookie quarterback Joe Flacco fails to recognize and adjust his protection for. As a result, blocking back Ray Rice is on the wrong side of the formation, leaving three men to block four players. Porter (55) goes all the way up to the line to center Jason Brown, while defensive lineman Philip Merling (97) twists behind Porter to occupy Gaither. Middle linebacker Channing Crowder (52) shoots the B-Gap between Gaither and left guard Ben Grubbs (66), occupying the latter, leaving cornerback Will Allen free to come off of Demetrius Williams (87) on a blitz. Had Flacco seen Allen coming off his man and preparing to blitz, a simple sight adjustment would've allowed for a big gain. Instead, Gaither tries to block Allen and Merling and gets neither. Both go free, Flacco has to ditch the pocket, and runs right into Porter -- who started all this -- disengaging himself from Brown. Bad scene, everybody's fault.

To see how they prepared to play a defense similarly weighted towards one elite pass rusher, I watched the Ravens' Week 16 game against the Cowboys, who play DeMarcus Ware on the weak side. The Ravens varied their protections from play-to-play depending upon what their personnel setup was. When Terry was on the bench, the Ravens did a lot of the same stuff they did to Porter, with Heap starting out on one side and motioning over, or Neal motioning out as an H-Back to block Ware at the line. On one particularly noticeable run play, they had Neal line up as the fullback in the I-Formation and run away from the play to block Ware outside left tackle, despite the fact that the play was being run behind right guard. The threat of Ware's backside pursuit was that strong, and Porter's no different.

With Terry in there, the Ravens often lined up the converted tackle against Ware one-on-one. This started off disasterously, as Ware blew by Terry early in the game for a sack, forcing a fumble in the process. After that, though, Terry did a pretty decent job when Ware wasn't dropping back into coverage. Terry ran a couple of ineffectual patterns to try and pretend he was a tight end, but Ware was unconcerned.

Expect the Ravens to run a similar style of offense, with a lot of the unbalanced line and Terry matched up directly across from Porter. If the Dolphins choose to move Porter away from Terry and to the strong side, it puts their best player in a position where he's ineffectual, perhaps an even larger advantage to the Ravens.

It's possible that one of these teams could win the battle of Joey Porter and still lose the war, but it's not likely. So much of the Dolphins' defense is based upon Porter and his ability to get a pass rush and/or attract blockers in the process. While Dolphins corners Will Allen and Andre Goodman have had a superficially better year, a lot of that is the improved pass rush as compared to a year ago. If Flacco can identify where the blitz is coming from and get time in the pocket, the Miami secondary is of little concern.

The Ravens will almost assuredly use a combination of Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain to run the ball, as Ray Rice is still questionable. McClain is among the league's best third-down backs, with a success rate of 62 percent that puts him sixth amongst rushers with 20 or more carries on third and fourth down. The Ravens will employ him as either the upback or the tailback in the I-Formation, handing him the ball as the fullback on misdirection and dive plays, while using him as a standard halfback with Neal in front of him. McClain's also a significantly better pass protector than Rice or McGahee, so expect him to see more of the field than anyone else. The Dolphins have a solid, disciplined front seven led by Dallas refugees Jason Ferguson and Akin Ayodele; former college middle linebacker Matt Roth now plays outside as an Anthony Spencer clone after being drafted as a defensive end. The Dolphins will liberally incorporate impact players from the bench like linebacker Charlie Anderson, the aforementioned Merling, and former Titans defensive lineman Randy Starks.

WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL

To start, if you're unfamiliar with Miami's Wildcat scheme, check out Doug Farrar's initial review of the Wildcat and this week's column, which looks at three Wildcat plays the Dolphins ran against the Ravens.

There's one thing Doug didn't mention in his excellent analysis -- namely, that Ed Reed wasn't on the field. In this game, Reed was the only member of the Ravens' starting secondary in the lineup. Dawan Landry and Samari Rolle were both inactive, while Chris McAlister had been benched after the Colts game and was the nickelback. Reed himself was questionable with a "thigh" injury, but started and played for most of the game. When he was on the field, he spent much of his time shadowing Ronnie Brown. On several plays, Brown started in the slot and motioned towards center as the ball was about to be snapped, giving him the opportunity to either receive a handoff from Chad Pennington with a head of steam or run a play fake. Reed followed Brown from one side of the field to the other, indicating his responsibility was with the Dolphins' star back. Miami took advantage of this, running Ricky Williams through the hole vacated by Reed's departure out of the slot for a first down.

There were several points where Reed came off the field. On one particular series, the Dolphins saw that Reed had gone off and moved into the Wildcat immediately for consecutive plays. When Reed came back on, their work in the Wildcat ended. Doug was correct to say that the Wildcat would struggle to launch against such a fundamentally sound defense, but that's only reinforced by the presence of Reed.

The Ravens play a 3-4 defense with a Cover-1 shell, meaning that free safety Jim Leonhard sits in centerfield and makes sure no one gets past him. A career special teamer who's replacing the injured Landry, Leonhard is the weakest link in the Ravens defense. While his instincts are good, he's only 5'8" and doesn't offer enough in the way of deep support to make the Ravens' cornerbacks feel very comfortable. The Dolphins weren't able to get Ted Ginn downfield for a big gain in Week 7, but it would be surprising if Chad Pennington didn't take a couple of shots deep at Leonhard if Ginn can get past his man. Expect the Dolphins to try and motion Ginn behind fellow wideout Davone Bess to prevent the Ravens from bumping him at the line. The Dolphins will also run a lot of trips formations, where they'll line up Ginn, Bess, and tight end Anthony Fasano on one side of the field, forcing the Ravens to adjust their defense accordingly. The Dolphins went after cornerback Frank Walker as often as possible, but Walker's been demoted to nickelback since Samari Rolle came back, and the Dolphins really only have two wide receivers at this point. If Miami can get Ginn isolated in the slot against Walker, the Ravens might as well beat up the ref and take a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty before the snap.

The Dolphins' running game has suffered since left guard Justin Smiley broke his right leg against the Rams in Week 13. Since Miami introduced the Wildcat in Week 3, their rushing DVOA with Smiley in the lineup was 8.1%; without him, it's down to 1.9%. Backup Andy Alleman will mostly draw Trevor Pryce, which is a matchup the Ravens will hope to exploit by twisting Pryce around and sending Bart Scott where Pryce once was. The Dolphins have vicious run blockers at either tackle spot in Jake Long and Vernon Carey, but even they'll have their hands full against Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson, respectively. For those of you interested in watching potentially epochal line battles, watch center Samson Satele against nose tackle Haloti Ngata, arguably the Ravens' best player.

SPECIAL TEAMS

While not as supremely awful as the Vikings' embarassing special teams play, both the Dolphins and Ravens have little to be proud of in the kicking game. Of the five categories (scoring plays, kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, and punt returns), these teams are above-average in exactly one spot -- the Ravens have accrued a league-best 20.7 points of value on punts. Ravens punter Sam Koch set franchise records in both gross and net yards per punt. Koch could change field position with a big punt, but otherwise, anything important on special teams will probably be a mistake by one team rather than a nice play by the other.

OUTLOOK

Baltimore is a significantly better team than Miami by DVOA. They're healthier than they were in Week 7, while Miami is worse off. Their offense has a logical plan for moving the ball downfield without Flacco turning the ball over too frequently (occasionally, it succeeds). Miami's primary offensive weaponry has already failed against its stout defense, whose mix of speed and gap discipline are being produced by Glaxo as Wildcat antidote.

The Dolphins' chances at victory rest upon Chad Pennington dramatically outplaying Flacco, with the turnover battle swinging Miami's way. Their best chance to make that happen involves confusing Flacco before the snap and hoping that they can get there before Flacco gets the ball out. If the Dolphins can force Flacco to put the ball on the grass or in their hands, a few short fields and a return for a touchdown could propel the Dolphins to an unlikely victory. Otherwise, the Ravens should be able to manhandle the Dolphins.

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 02 Jan 2009

114 comments, Last at 04 Jan 2009, 11:27pm by Megamanic

Comments

1
by black president (not verified) :: Fri, 01/02/2009 - 5:14pm

good job, barnwell. you obviously put a lot of work into this.

10
by Bobman :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 1:36am

Ditto. Nicely done, BB.

2
by 3.141592653 not... :: Fri, 01/02/2009 - 5:46pm

There is no way the Ravens can lose this game. This will be a slaughter å la the Ravens and Giants Super Bowl. Ed Reed will outscore the Dolphins offense. Sorry to all the Phin fans, but you have to admit the Ravens will be the AFC representative in the Super Bowl. At least the Phins can say we won more games than we lost, and we lost to the Super Bowl winner. I salute the Dolphins for knocking New England out of the play-offs.

3
by Purds :: Fri, 01/02/2009 - 6:24pm

Excellent recap of not only the teams' stats, but also the trends and injuries. Thanks.

4
by Andreas Shepard :: Fri, 01/02/2009 - 6:50pm

I've been reading FO religiously since 2003, and this is probably the best preview I've ever seen on this site. Well done Bill.

5
by TF (not verified) :: Fri, 01/02/2009 - 9:14pm

I don't know if I'd call the Wildcat Miami's "primary weapon" -- more like "a potent weapon" (less than 1/10th of their plays for slightly more than a 1/10th of their yards for little more than 20% of their TDs -- mostly due to a field day against NE). Anthony Fasano is nearly as productive as the Wildcat. Nor do I think 4 plays consisting of the base Power, Steeler, and Sweep shows they've already defeated what it's become (although clearly Baltimore is the defense best equipped to stop it in all its forms).

Nor do I see a "significantly better team by DVOA" -- seems to me Miami matches up quite well when B'more has the ball and is outgunned a fair bit when they have the ball.

Also, I'm surprised by the complete focus on Porter when Baltimore has the ball. At the time, McClain wasn't a factor, and Ferguson and Soliai were out. Now, McGahee is dissatisfied and not so healthy. I would say the key for Miami winning is shutting down the run (isn't it always?) rather than chasing around Flacco (blitzes from the secondary have been the only way Miami has gotten to the QB of late, but I fear the big pass to Mason or Clayton).

Otherwise, interesting read, good insights.

6
by TF (not verified) :: Fri, 01/02/2009 - 9:39pm

I should have added that Miami needs to be more effective/balanced in the running game. Yes, the prospects of coming up with a successful run game against B'more are slim, but they're better than counting on Penny throwing all day. Pennington DID outplay Flacco in the first game. It was the lack of a running game that killed them. If Pennington took the sack instead of throwing the bad pick (I can't think of a worse decision by Chad after the first 2 games) and Miami converts two or three more third downs, the game may have ended differently even if the Ravens were fiercer and faster the whole game.

7
by jonnyblazin :: Fri, 01/02/2009 - 10:06pm

I'm not sure why you think Penny outplayed Flacco. Just looking at the stats:

Flacco: 17/23, 232 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs
Pennington*: 20/31, 235 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

* In the last minute of the game Pennington padded his stats against a prevent defense, going 4/4 for 60 yards.

8
by TF (not verified) :: Fri, 01/02/2009 - 10:25pm

Yup, exactly. Seems pretty straight forward. Even going with your subtraction:

Pennington: 20/31, 235 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 1 SCK, 12 1st Downs
Flacco, 17/23, 232 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 2 SCK, 10 1st Downs

One was assisted by a 139 yard rushing game; one was limited by a 79 yard rushing game. One was going against the crappy, one-and-out secondary of no-names; one was going against the obvious AFC Super Bowl superstar Ed Reed and the best defense in history.

Or are you saying that the defenses are of equal skill?

82
by TomKelso :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 10:39am

Hyperbole DOES have its limits --

I think anyone who knows me -- especially at this site -- knows that I can be an at times close to unreasonable Ravens fan. But "the best defense in history"? They at best are one of the three best in the LEAGUE this year (the other two enjoying a week off, thanks to beating the Ravens when they played).

And, as the article laid o quite clearly -- Reed was the only starter in the secondary in the lineup that day -- and he was hurting. McAlister was in one of his funks, Rolle and Landry were in street clothes. I've seen a lot of Frank Walker and Corey Ivy this year -- with Leonhard playing somewhere closer to Pennsylvania than the line of scrimmage. THAT'S what the Dolphins faced that day -- and as much as it hurts, that was a defense they could attack.

The defenses WERE closer to equal that day than I'd like - but that's not the case now.

9
by hector :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 12:08am

Tomlinson really wouldn't be a colossal loss for the Chargers here, but Gates would be. A shame San Diego probably won't have No. 85 close to 100 percent for this one. Still, it's the best matchup of the weekend on paper, and even as Sproles isn't build for 20 touches, I bet he makes 1-2 big plays against the Colts in the screen game. I favor the Chargers ever so slightly at the end of the day.

11
by billycurley :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 11:42am

Just a quick correction about Matt Roth ... he was a defensive end in college. Pretty sure he was all Big Ten and may have been an honorable mention All-American.

Anal retentiveness over. Back to talking about stuff that matters.

13
by Bill Barnwell :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 1:20pm

Roth was a defensive end by the time he left college, but he started as a middle linebacker and bulked up.

12
by joey (not verified) :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 11:45am

Great write ups. I follow the colts pretty closely and I would say most of the colts information is right on and it is nice to hear what to expect from the chargers. I do think the Rosenfels bit is nothing like the Bowe situation because the Colts would have had the exact same playoff seed even with that loss. You might be right that things might have changed but that might be a stretch as well considering they could have even lost another game and still been fine as long as it wasn't to NE or Balt. Plus the colts seemed to play better once their backs were against the wall. I also agree with hector above, I am actually hoping that LT plays at less than 100%. I think that Sproles is a more difficult matchup for the colts than a dinged up LT. Although I wouldn't mind if Gates doesnt play because I think the matchup between him and the patchwork colts linebacking crew will be one of the keys to the game. I hope you go 2-2 on the predictions today.

14
by jonnyblazin :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 1:33pm

I'm not sure about the Ravens being a 3-4 team that uses a cover 1 shell. Don't they change their base package from week to week? Also, I've seen plenty of plays where Reed is playing the deep middle of the field, I don't think Leonard is always the one back there in cover 1.

It seems like the Dolphins would be making a mistake preparing for the Ravens defensive scheme in week 7, because the Ravens will likely change it up.

15
by Bill Barnwell :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 2:15pm

Well, I mean, every team switches it up. The Ravens use the 3-4 with the Cover 1 shell as their primary defensive front.

16
by tally :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 3:48pm

Looks like Tomlinson will be << 100% if he does give it a go: http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=3807590

Torn tendon in groin. I feel nauseous just thinking about it.

17
by joe football (not verified) :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 5:29pm

I trust everyone had an enjoyable New Year, but now it's time to get back to the important business of IRC football chat. The server is bendenweyr.dyndns.org, channel #fo

Brief tutorial for the IRC-shy:

- Download mIRC from mIRC.com
- type /server bendenweyr.dyndns.org into the status window
- type /join #fo

18
by Chester Trout (not verified) :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 7:01pm

Barnwell: Jawbreaker fan. Likely bought "Dear You" for college girlfriend.

19
by Bill Barnwell :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 7:03pm

I was ten when Dear You came out. College girlfriend was a big Saves the Day fan, though, and they cribbed everything they know from Dear You.

20
by Chester Trout (not verified) :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 7:43pm

So maybe you *did* buy it for her, just 10 years after the fact!

Early emo-rock aside, great job with this preview.

21
by Sid :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 9:46pm

Scifres has been the best player in the game so far. Three perfect punts.

26
by Dave :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 10:12pm

4.

If they win, Scifres has a case for MVP.

I was joking a few seconds before the punt that the stop on 3rd and 16 left him a mere 75 yards of field to punt so he'd probably down it at the 1. Wasn't too far off.

33
by Lord K :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 11:57pm

wow, make that 5.

22
by Lord K :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 9:51pm

Madden says that winning an NFL game is really hard, but statistically speaking don't almost 50% of teams win NFL games? Doesn't seem that hard to me.

28
by B :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 10:25pm

50% of the time, it works every time.
Ask the Lions how easy it is.

31
by Lord K :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 11:21pm

Seems to be easy enough for lions opponents.

23
by Dave :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 9:56pm

It's not every day you see two DTs 30 yards downfield cleaning up the mess after two DBs miss a tackle. No matter, though, as LT waltzes in on the next play.

24
by Sid :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 10:06pm

The running play with Clark was an end-around, not a reverse, John.

25
by Sid :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 10:11pm

Scifres continues to be the best player in the game. As good a punt as you'll ever see there. Almost to the goal line and backspin to make sure it stayed out.

27
by indytoad (not verified) :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 10:13pm

Man, Scrifes' (sp?) punts are NUTS. He pins the Colts down no matter where he's punting from.

29
by Dave :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 11:10pm

Just as Madden is talking about the time of the snaps, and just as I lament the lack of connections on every deep ball the Colts throw, open receiver or not, Peyton snaps the ball when the Chargers aren't paying attention and lobs one to a wide open Wayne for a touchdown. Wow. Rivera must be furious.

32
by Lord K :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 11:39pm

Rivera must be furious

That's his own fault, he should have called a time out.

30
by bob (not verified) :: Sat, 01/03/2009 - 11:16pm

This is the ultimate test of how far passing can carry a team. The Colts can't run the ball. Their defense is awful. Their special teams are unspeakable. All they have is passing. Enough to beat the chargers? We shall see. 17-14 now.

34
by indytoad (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:00am

I dunno, their passing hasn't been very good this game either.

Really, the DEs have been one of the biggest reasons the Colts are in the lead.

37
by Purds :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:22am

Even the DE's sack cant stop the SD punter from launching a game-tying, 50+ yard punt to the Colts 2. Wow.

Can't wait to hear all the folks who will talk about how the Indy special teams lost this game. I guess, but it seems like SD's special teams have been exceptional.

38
by B :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:31am

If SD wins, it'll be on the strength of their defense and special teams, not so much on Indy's ST losing the game as SD winning it.

35
by Dave :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:03am

2 minutes to play and a 3 point lead, punting from the very back of the end zone. If you can call every 15 yards of field position roughly one point, do you take the intentional safety and punt from the 20 when a FG can beat you, or punt from the back of the end zone with no margin for error and a dangerous returner, giving them the ball one first down from the tying field goal?

36
by Purds :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:21am

The real Robopunter revealed himself tonight. This Scifres guy has been unreal. MVP of the game, no matter who ends up winning.

41
by PatsFan :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:39am

Great PeytonManningFace shot there, NBC. (And the NFL MVP jinx continues...)

I'm not going to pretend to not be happy about the outcome of this one. :)

39
by navin :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:37am

And a couple borderline calls hand the game to the Chargers...

40
by Dave :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:39am

Too many yards for Sproles not to get whatever award they give out, but Scifres won that game for them.

Tim Jennings was invisible (in a good way) all game but then reared his ugly head on the final drive and killed them. Three defensive penalties for first downs on that drive, 3 accepted (4 flagged) to kill the offensive drive that could've iced the game in the 4th. Maybe having Ron Winter's crew didn't work to the Colts' advantage after all.

And now we all get to hear more chatter about how the Chargers have Manning's number. Ugh.

42
by David Mazzotta :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:44am

The penalties looked legit to me. The Colts D just plain cracked.

44
by navin :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:47am

I thought the holding was very borderline with Chambers initiating contact then spinning and the defensive holding on the run play as well.

43
by navin :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:45am

I really can't take Matt Millen seriously. "If they (San Diego) don't make any mistakes, they win going away."

Yeah Matt, if the 49ers don't make any mistakes this year (1st in turnovers, 2nd in sacks allowed), they're the #1 seed in the NFC.

45
by morganja :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:48am

The NFL was humiliated today. What a black eye for the league. There is no way Mike Pereira should have a job tomorrow morning. He is a complete incompetent bureaucrat. Another playoff game blown by terrible officiating.

And everyone in the world was commenting before the game how there were going to be too many flags thrown by this crew. Yet there they were, reffing a playoff game.

And totally blowing it with terrible calls and poor spots.

But they are just going to brush it under the rug again.

I had no favorite in this game. I just wanted to see good football. But instead the NFL slapped me in the face, wasting my evening with this total crap product.

It should have been a great game.

46
by morganja :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:50am

The penalties looked legit to you? What the hell were you watching and just how drunk are you?

48
by Dave :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:55am

I'd call the penalties legitimate, except maybe the D holding call by Dawson and the DPI early by the Chargers, but I was surprised most of them were called. Most crews let all that stuff go. It did seem like they were tighter on the Colts holding as opposed to the Chargers' O Line (who was getting beat even when holding people), but the Colts got some breaks with the turnovers and really should've made the most of those opportunities. Every chance they had to put the game away ended in a 3 and out.

The boys at 18 to 88 summarized it very well, though. The Colts had too many weaknesses to be considered a serious title threat, so it's no great surprise that they lost. In fact, it's almost merciful to finish it now rather than drag it out with more stressful games.

50
by DoubleB (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:06am

DPI and defensive holding have been called too much in the NFL for decades now. That being said the two holding calls on the final drive were at least borderline. I wouldn't have called them, but by RULE they were probably penalties. The facemask was pretty damn blatant.

While I agree with your general sentiment about the NFL overcalling certain penalties in key games, I don't think any of the calls were flat out wrong.

47
by Herm? (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:51am

I don't care about either team, either way, but I can't argue with the facemask call...and I think we're all aware of who the poster child is the harsh enforcement of defensive holding, illegal contact, and pass interference.

49
by morganja :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 12:58am

There was no facemask. Watch it in slo-mo in HD. He has his hand on the guys helmet, exactly the same as happens on about 75% of tackles near the line of scrimmage, but he never grasps the facemask, let alone twist it. Terrible, terrible call, especially in that situation. These refs were simply wetting themselves at the chance to throw a flag in this situation. Their egos are too much for the job.

67
by Matt Saracen (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:59am

"Watch it in slo-mo in HD" you say. Can refs do this in a split second?? NO of course not. Your attitude smacks of a typical smart-alec NFL fan. Instead of appreciating a close game with many fluctuations, all you can do is whine about a couple of calls on the last drive.

How about the calls they made that were correct? Refs NEVER get credit for them. Every year there are a LOT of challenges made by coaches fail - that must mean the REFS got the call right - and saw it without the benefit of replay, better than the coaches and all their staff who probably get to see it once or twice before they throw the flag. Take the Sproles fumble into the end zone tonight, recovered by Brock. Refs call it right, challenge fails. Definitely right call, but no one cares enough to hand them any credit. Every man and his dog thought Simpson fumbled the kick return, and perhaps he did, but the call was a hell of a lot closer that everyone at my bar thought, and there wasn't enough convincing evidence to overturn it. A much better call than I thought, or most people thought.

Anyway, my point is that I've got a lot of respect for refs, it's a tough calling and since I've stopped whining about refs I've begun enjoying the games I'm watching a lot more. The trouble is Joe Average fan wants to look smart, so he points out ALL the mistakes he sees and in the current NFL they come from refs, QBs or DBs, sometimes WRs or RBs who fumble/drop. Any coincidence that fans can't name 10 good QBs?? They can't think of any because all they hear is people bagging them for their mistakes. McNabb?? He's terrible. Peyton Manning?? Overrated... Brady?? Yeah he's OK maybe, but still not that great... This is the type of crap I overhear ALL the time from people.

So let's try and be positive, leave your negativity at home and be a real 'fan'. You can sound smart by saying so much other stuff instead of bagging refs.

Sermon over...

51
by Sid :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:09am

Mike Scifres was the reason the Chargers had a shot. By far the best player in that game.

I hate the OT coin flip, and I always have. Go back to the cutting the overtime pizza thread from years ago.

52
by Anonymous12345 (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:11am

So these previews pick the Colts and Falcons to win. Oh well.

53
by td (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:12am

Not a Colt fan, but I agree that the way that overtime drive was handled by the officials was pretty disgusting. Why in the world would you assign a crew like that to a playoff game? The refs should never be the story. It was as bad as wrestling.

54
by lurking (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:12am

his hand isn't on the HELMET, it's on that metal framework attached to the helmet--there's a name for that framework, right? somebody refresh my memory.....

55
by morganja :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:14am

At least make it a game of skill. Have the kickers both kick off from the 20 yard line and give the choice to the team who kicks it the furthest.

Have tow cheerleaders wrestle, something, anything besides a coin toss.

Better yet. Just let Ron Winter and Mike Periera decide who wins the game as they obviously want to do anyhow.

63
by billycurley :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:45am

nobody made a cheerleaders wrestle joke ... how? I'm above that, of course ...

56
by morganja :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:21am

Lurking, I think you are trying to be clever. Give it up.

It is not a penalty to TOUCH the facemask.

You evidently don't know that but anyone could figure that out by watching FOOTBALL.

Go back and count the times in this game that a person was tackled with a hand on the facemask but didn't grasp and twist the facemask.

I'm guessing offhand that you will find it to be about 30 times this game alone.

It was a horrible call made by a terrible crew which everyone knows should never have been allowed within a thousand miles of a playoff game.

73
by Lord K :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 2:57am

bollocks, it was a perfectly legit facemask call, defender grabbed it and the other guy's head turned. Sober up and watch the replay.

57
by Herm? (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:22am

Because I am one to give the benefit of the doubt, I'm sitting here watching that facemask play over and over in slo mo.
Session has his closed fingers wrapped in Sproles's facemask (#61 Hardwick was holding Session then has his hands on Session's facemask), and pulls Sproles up and toward himself, then twists, causing the helmet to move up - all against laws of gravity - only a closed hand could have done that. The only thing keeping the helmet on is the chin strap. Session then shoves Sproles toward the ground, opening his hand and letting go of the facemask as Sproles falls toward the ground.
Session gets up after the play, sees the flag, and raises his arms in protest,knowing exactly what the call is.

The Jennings penalty was more incidental and arguable.

59
by navin :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:39am

No argument on the facemask. If he hadn't pulled it would have been okay, but there was definitely a pull. The holding calls seemed very one sided though.

Major props to Scifres. Chargers scored all 17 of their points in regulation of extremely short fields because of him.

58
by Ron Winter (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:30am

Told you I could f- up a perfectly good playoff game.

Why call illegal hands to the face or holding on the SD o-line when I can pull 2 defensive holding penalties out of my ass in OT to give the Chargers the game.

Chargers fans...please send you checks and money order for the Ron Winter Jr. Collegiate Fund to:

1234 Helen Keller Drive
Albany, NY

108
by Richard :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 5:08pm

The Chargers have had plenty of calls that were clearly wrong go against them this year. You're not going to get Charger fans to apologize for getting a couple borderline calls especially after DPI they had called against them on the first drive of the game

60
by navin :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:41am

My guess is VOA comes out in favor of the Colts. Gates fumbled but recovered it at the end. Two other turnovers in favor of the Colts. And VOA ignores all those penalties. At least Marvin Harrison didn't lose this one for the Colts.

61
by Herm? (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:42am

Ha, you're out of luck Ron Winter. Chargers fans are already sending their checks to the "Bill Polian Over-Enforced Defensive Secondary Penalties Superfund".
On the other hand, I think Colts fans are already sending their checks to the "Bill Polian, What did you do?! Get the league to change the way rules are enforced again! Superfund."

62
by joey (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:42am

As i mentioned in the comment above, if LT plays colts win, with Sproles in their its a chargers win. LT coming up hobbling was the best thing that happened to the bolts this year, and I guess Bowe dropping the onside kick in week 15 as well.

64
by morganja :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:48am

I don't see the twist. I see hands to the helmet. I see him pulling back towards himself to make the tackle which makes the helmet move about an inch, maybe two. But that is not a penalty. Certainly not so clear a penalty that it should have been called in this situation.

And certainly not anywhere nearly as clear as the hold that is happening at the exact same time on the same play. He apparently has Eagle Eyes to see what he thought was a facemask, but couldn't see the WWE takedown.

There is absolutely no hold on the 3rd and 8. I can't even figure out what he might have thought was a hold. There was no illegal contact because it was within 5 yards. That call was just a mystery and really is the much more serious one. That's the one that cost the Colts the game.

65
by jim (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:54am

Actually, what cost the Colts the game was the fact that they couldn't get one first down at the end of regulation when they needed it.

72
by Steve (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 2:55am

It doesn't have to be a "twist". The fingers are inside the facemask and the head moves back and forth with the hand clearly attached. Refs will call that 10 times out of 10.

Go back and watch the NFL.com highlights of the hold on 3rd and 8. The colts DB has one hand full of jersey and the other hand on the torso, and as the reciever tries to seperate (which is after 5 yards) his progress was impeeded by the db. It wasn't the most obvious hold in the world but there was enough where a call could be made.

74
by DoubleB (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 3:02am

They lost the game because they couldn't convert a 2nd and 4 and then a 3rd and 2 that would have iced it.

They lost the game because they allowed Sproles to convert a 3rd and 11 in OT that would have at least given the Colts the ball.

They lost the game because they generated 38 yards of offense on their last 4 drives after their last TD.

They lost the game because Scifres had the game of his life.

They lost the game because they had no answer for Sproles on defense or special teams.

At what point do you assign blame to the Colts themselves for not winning this game or credit to the Chargers for pulling it out?

112
by Scott C :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 8:10pm

As a Charger fan, I watched all season as they went 2-7 in close games, and 6-1 in the rest.

All the things you mention are correct -- it wasn't the one or two plays at the end of a close game that are to blame, its always the 5 or 10 other plays that could have done it earlier in the game.
The Hochuli call in week 2 would have been inconsequential had the Charger defense not let Marshall get 18 receptions. They could have won against Carolina, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Indy ... with just one more small play or just one fewer penalty or third down mistake. Or in some cases with one better choice in clock management.

The main difference between the Colts and Chargers 4 game winning difference this year, was a handful of small plays. DVOA and the points scored/against ratios show this as well.

As for Scifres, this isn't his only good game. He got the chance to kick from farther back more, so the average is up.... But he has always been one of the top 2 Punters for the last 4 years. The #1 unit by DVOA or net yards seems to always be some other one-season-great punter. Average over 4 years and there is no competition. Best in the league (leading in most of: net yards, % of kicks returned, % in 20, % in 10, and touchback ratio).

66
by randplaty (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:56am

The facemask penalty was appropriate. He turned Sproles head to the right and pulled him down. He might not have needed to do it because he had him wrapped up, but its pretty obvious that he did it.

The holding call on the line was appropriate also. He spun the center around.

The holding on the deep play was slightly ticky tacky and probably would not normally be called, but I we cannot blame the officials for calling it.

68
by Herm? (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 2:01am

The timing of the OT penalty calls is odd. Near the beginning of the game, The Colts ran a screen play to Wayne. In the line of 3 ref's sights, Gonzalez just about tackles the guy covering Wayne while the ball is in the air, and Wayne converts a first down. At the time, I figured if they don't call that, they won't call anything that doesn't cause an injury. It seemed they were just letting them play. Things changed later though.

75
by Dave :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 3:03am

This is correct. I have no beef with any of the calls on the final drive, given the rulebook and that crew's reputation for enforcing it more tightly than any other. What I don't like was just that - early on, things were let go, but later in the game, when things were tight and the game on the line, they took over two drives with penalty calls 90% of crews would've let go. I also think you could probably find 10-15 plays where the Chargers O line held just as much as the two calls they made on the Colts tackles in that one drive in the 4th where a score would've iced the game (the one with 2 holds, a trip, and the un-shown low block on the INT return). It just seems like the criteria changed as the game went on, which isn't how any game should be decided.

The Colts failed to execute in several situations that would've won them the game and also got some fumble luck and didn't capitalize, and with that rushing and special teams performance clearly had weaknesses and didn't deserve to win, but it'd be a lot easier for everyone to swallow if they didn't have all those flags getting in the way.

Scifres was incredible, but someone else had a great point: how is it that he can boom a 60+ yard punt that is well covered while Hunter Smith blasts one 60 yards and there's not a single player in view in the wide HDTV screen when Sproles catches those punts? And on kickoffs, Sproles can get from 7 yards deep to the 25 while Simpson takes one at the 5 and is down at the 18. Shocking margin between the two teams' special teams units. Both teams had great moments on O at times and D at other times, but one team had a decided edge in ST and that is what gave them the edge, penalties or no penalties.

109
by Richard :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 5:14pm

It's called hang time.

69
by be firm, keep herm (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 2:39am

Sure, the calls at the end were iffy, but can Colts fans really complain that much about a game where the opposing defense dropped 3-4 interceptions and where 7 out of your 17 points came as a result of the defense being asleep during substitutions. Also, the ST play of the Colts was a complete joke- Sproles just destroyed them on punt returns and they were unable to even get a semblance of action on their own returns.

70
by Peter Abou (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 2:47am

The Chargers were the better team tonight. It was a great game. I love when these two teams play each other.

71
by Purds :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 2:54am

Man, you guys on both sides are really enjoying going back and forth about Bill Polian and the refs. Give the Polian crap up already. And, the refs didn't lose this game for Indy. Sure, calls could have helped them, but they can always have helped a losing team.

There is no question in my mind that the SD punter (and Sproles' punt returns) won that game. Just go look at the drive charts, where they started and what happened. In regulation, SD scored three times, and each time they started the drive in Colt territory. When they started on their own side of the field, they didn't score. Simple as that.

The Colts starting positions?
Indy 10
Indy 19
Indy 3
Indy 33
Indy 7
Indy 20
Half
Indy 26
Indy 9
Indy 20
Indy 21
Indy 1
Indy 19

So, 12 drives, only one starts beyond the 30, and 7 start inside the 20, 4 inside the 10. Wow!

76
by be firm, keep herm (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 3:08am

And of course you have to give credit to the Colts for deciding, as they do every year, that having a competent special teams unit is not something they need to bother themselves with. Sproles was pretty good on the returns and the punter was money tonight, but really when you watch the game over it's hard not to be disgusted by the missed tackles and blocks of the Colts ST unit tonight. Maybe watching Sproles get a ~20 yard return on a play where it looked at first like he might have to call for a fair catch will provide some incentive for Indy to pay more attention to special teams in the future.

77
by DoubleB (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 3:08am

Scifres punted 6 times. All 6 were inside the 20. That drive chart is truly amazing.

78
by Key19 :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 3:09am

I can't believe that people are really criticizing any of those calls. They were ALL legit. The DB was ALL OVER Chambers the entire play. The facemask may not have been vicious or anything, but it was a facemask. Sorry that Mr. Session isn't smart enough to not put himself in the position to cost his team the game on an unnecessary grasp. If you know that the refs are quick to call penalties, then go out of your way to not be even close to committing a penalty.

I was cheering for the Colts. The game was not decided by the refs. It was decided by field position, Darren Sproles, and LEGITIMATE penalties.

Also, if not for the Cromartie gaffe, this game is not close. Millen may be a retard, but he was right when he said that.

79
by Dave :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 3:23am

I agree. When that pass went incomplete I didn't stand up to celebrate, I stood up to swear loudly and throw something because it was an obvious hold or interference on Jennings. I was surprised it took so long for the flag to come out.

I was also surprised by how long the refs took to make the calls on the two fumble issues (Simpson and Sproles). Ultimately, this was good as they got them right, though the Simpson one could've gone either way. But in both cases I thought the initial call was the opposite and they took 20-30 seconds to announce the actual call. Good for them for conferencing to be sure.

80
by morganja :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 6:14am

It's because of idiots like you that the NFL is never going to fix the officiating. The calls were terrible. If you can't see that than you are either a Chargers fan, in which case it is understandable, or you are simply an idiot.

Any defense of these calls logically necessitate that there be 4 or 5 flags thrown on every single play of the game. They don't throw 4 or 5 flags every play of the game because it would make the game totally unwatchable and completely not a contest of skill.

Throwing them in that situation, after millions of people completely wasted their time watching a game they hoped would be settled on the field, is indefensible.

The calls ruined the game. Flat out simple.

That is why every single message board concerning the game is filled with irate fans pissed off at the terrible officiating.

Yet there are those, who no matter how incredibly bad a game is officiated, will automatically reflexively defend the officiating.

I'm going to let you all into a little secret. If you never admit there is a problem, you are never going to get it fixed.

Some of you are apparently satisfied with a crappy product that is regularly decided by poor officiating.

The rest of us would like to see it fixed. Instead of defending this indefensible incompetence, why not put some pressure on the league to get this fixed?

The people who have been doing the job for the past twenty years are not getting it done. As consumers we have the right to demand a better product.

Yet there are those here who apparently absolutely refuse to believe that there has ever been a bad call, or non-call, in a game. It baffles the mind.

89
by Steve (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 2:03pm

Wow... just wow...

You think that any of us really (really!) believes that there are never any bad calls or non-calls? Charger fans know all about bad calls, just like the fans of every other team in the league does. I'm not just talking about the Hoculi mess either. There are several prominent questionable calls from this year alone which are burned into our collective memories. And several of them were in favor of the Colts during the first meeting and likely contributed to their victory there.

Yes, we need better officials. Yes there is inconsistency. Yes we need to overall the replay system. But football is still a game played, coached and reffed by human beings. In the end you do your best to take care of business and trust that things will even out.

The two calls you're whining about last night were not phantom calls. The hold WAS a hold. The facemask WAS a facemask. Maybe sometimes they don't get called. But they were called.

114
by Megamanic (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 11:27pm

"Any defense of these calls logically necessitate that there be 4 or 5 flags thrown on every single play of the game. They don't throw 4 or 5 flags every play of the game because it would make the game totally unwatchable and completely not a contest of skill."

Well, if they did start calling them consistently it sure would cause the players to start playing by the rules after the first drive of the first game. I for one would welcome that. It would be nice to have a level playing field & know the best team will win on the day without having morons like Houcholi blowing a fumble dead before the Chargers get the opportunity to recover it... (yes, I know he's one of the better ones but he does blow way to fast on a lot of plays not just THAT play)

The fact is, officiating's inconsistent & maybe this week karma evened out just a little. You can never be sure with these things but the Chargers lost a lot of close games this year; some definitely by questionable calls. If we'd had better luck with the officiating & won more of those close games it would have been us getting stuffed by the Ravens & you guys getting lit up by the real MVP Chad Pennington :)

I can understand your frustration but (opens can of gasoline) if the "MVP" can't torch an average secondary... If your defense can't stop a rushing offense made up of a cast-off debutante & an undersized return man...

81
by dvdburns@yahoo.com :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 8:32am

morganja,

You are my hero. Wow.

David

83
by Bill Barnwell :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 11:51am

Hey kids: Let's keep our discussions on the content of the games and not towards personal attacks on other people for their beliefs about the quality of the refereeing. In other words, don't tell people to STFU. Thanks!

84
by Herm? (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:23pm

Irrational Manning vs. Officiating thread?
Refgate?

87
by CoachDave :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:44pm

Tool.

85
by CoachDave :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:38pm

Of course...God forbid someone tells another whiny and bitter Pats fan to stop trotting out the tried, trite and ridiculous meme that "Polian changed the rules"...what was I thinking posting that towards a Pats fan.

My apologies...I forgot for a moment what site I was on.

86
by Sid :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:38pm

Randy Starks is inactive.

No surprises on the Baltimore inactives.

88
by Kulko :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 1:59pm

3-2-IND 9 (2:30) (Shotgun) 18-P.Manning sacked at IND 1 for -8 yards (51-T.Dobbins).

I wonder what would have happened if he had the smarts to move one step backwards. Instead of punting from the 1 the get tp kickoff from the thirty. OTOH if SD still scores, they loose in regulation.

111
by Conor :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 5:45pm

On the sack Manning took at the 1...

I am not a huge Colts fan (I am a Giants fan) so I readily admit that I don't watch every Colts game closely, but I found the formation the Colts used on this play a little curious. If I remember correctly, they motioned a back out of the backfield, leaving an empty backfield behind Manning. Now, granted, it was probably pretty obvious the Colts were going to throw on 3rd and 2 so I don't think you would have fooled the D all that much by keeping a back in to make them play run, but maybe it could have helped a little. But more to the point, it left no one in for blitz pick up. I understand that Manning is one of the best QB in the history of the game, and I understand if there is anyone you would trust to get rid of the ball in that situation and stay away from a sack it would be him, but I still figured the Colts would want to keep a back in to help pick up any possible blitz. Also, and I didn;t chart the game or follow every single play they ran, but that was the only play I remember them running from an empty backfield, which makes the choice all the more curious. Even if that isn't the case, I would think you would want to keep a back in.

90
by winerunr (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 2:04pm

I exercise caution whenever I see everyone favoring one side more heavily than the other. Miami to win today and " shock the world " by defeating the Ravens. Tough to beat a team twice in their "house" in a season, especially now that we are into the playoffs. Miami home dog and plays the disrespect card to the max.

91
by CathyW :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 2:11pm

James isn't here yet so I'll say it...Phil Simms is a cretin. That is all.

95
by James-London :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 3:21pm

I'm here now, but thank you!

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

92
by randplaty (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 2:52pm

So far all of the home dogs have won. Vegas is 0 for 2 in its predictions.

104
by TomKelso :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 4:38pm

Vegas doesn't predict it finds a number that will give it the most action -- preferably equal from both sides. I'd say they're very happy right now

93
by Anonymouse (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 3:09pm

If all of the home teams win, how big of a blow to DVOA would that be?

(20)ARI d. (12)ATL
(8) SD d. (7)IND
(10)MIA d. (2)BAL
(14)MIN d. (1)PHI

Not trying to count the chickens before they hatch, but if the home teams win out it certainly won't look good for Aaron, heh.

94
by B :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 3:13pm

Neither of the Saturday games were a big upset as far as DVOA is concerned. The road teams had higher DVOA, but the gap is less than the 17% usually associated with home field advantage.
Now if the Eagles and Ravens lose, that would be a big blow to DVOA's predictive powers.

96
by James-London :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 3:23pm

This is the 1st time I've seen the Ravens this year. Their D is really good. Of course, when your playing a team with only 3 active WRs, things are simplified somewhat.

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

97
by jonnyblazin :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 3:48pm

So I guess the Dolphins strategy is to hold the Ravens WRs on every play and dare the officials to call them on it?

98
by James-London :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 3:57pm

Nope. It's to hand the ball to them at every opportunity and dare them to score. In fairness, this D is really, really good. Good luck in Tennessee.

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

99
by CathyW :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 4:10pm

James, I'm really sorry that Baltimore is manhandling your Dolphins. Jumpin' Jehosaphat! 4 picks!

100
by CathyW :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 4:20pm

Nice catch for Miami TD but then extra point blocked by Baltimore!

101
by James-London :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 4:27pm

Don't forget the fumble! Thanks, but at some stage, Miami were going to get exposed. Still, a stop here, a quick TD (with a 2-pointer), and we still have a game!

And we have our 3 and out. The Miami D has played well today.

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

102
by bubqr :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 4:30pm

You're welcome to join us for a chat on FO IRC channel

If you want to join :
- download mIRC (mirc.com)
- type /server bendenweyr.dyndns.org into the status window
- In the pop up window asking you which room you want to join, type #fo , or just type /join #fo in status window

Sorry for the "spam", but trust me, it's worth it.

103
by Rocco :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 4:35pm

I'd say that reverse backfired somewhat.

105
by CathyW :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 4:48pm

And there's the nail for Miami's coffin.

106
by narticus :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 4:50pm

Can the Ravens win in Nashville? Nevermore.

Sorry, couldn't resist.

107
by James-London :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 4:55pm

Well, it was fun while it lasted. Now we'll see if the 'Fins can do it again next year against a division winners schedule and 'the South'. It's disappointing, but it beats the crap out of 1-15.

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

110
by morganja :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 5:22pm

What a huge difference between these two AFC games. Ed Hochuli's crew is the best in the NFL. The game was well managed and it was decided by the players on the field. There were a lot of ticky tacky calls that they could have made, but didn't. That's what playoff football is suppose to be.

Why can't they have 16 crews just like them?

Obviously because Mike Pereria runs his office like a government bureaucracy, refusing to hold bad crews accountable and firing them.

113
by Benjamin Light (not verified) :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 11:02pm

geez, somebody call the waaaahmbulance for morganja. There were a lot of bad calls this weekend, like the "safety" in Arizona, the Cardinals being offsides every other play, or the way Winters' crew seemed to huddle up/watch the jumbotron when there was a fumble they had to rule on, but the calls that killed the colts on the last drive were all legit. too bad so sad.

...Sparano must have been listening to the BS report about going deep to beat Baltimore. The ravens were just giving the dolphins the flats 8 yards at a time, and Pennington obliged by ignoring what worked to go deep every time they had a drive going. 5 turnovers and they still could have pulled it out at the end. Somewhere Ziggy is on top of a shipping crate screaming "bad advice!"