Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
18 Jan 2006
by Alex Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal
Vivek: I didn't like the tuck rule, but I accepted it. This weekend, however, I found myself declaring zebra season after the string of botched calls, both in the â€œcompletely botchedâ€? and â€œtoo close to callâ€? categories. Joey Porter was right in claiming a conspiracy theory after Troy Polamalu's interception was overturned by referee Pete Morelli. Everyone in the world saw that as a pick, but somehow Morelli decided that Polamalu never had possession. The NFL made the rare move of admitting a mistake on Monday.
How in the world can there not be a penalty when the entire Indianapolis defense is in the neutral zone? According to Morelli's crew, this was a no-brainer.
Al: I was expecting to see the real Pete Morelli run out of the locker room wearing handcuffs and revealing that the referee we had been seeing on the field making awful calls all day was Pete's Evil Twin Earl. That no-call on the false start/encroachment may have been the worst call I've ever seen in a professional sports game. And I watched all those New York Knicks playoff games in the mid-90's when the referees blew the whistle any time a defender was within two feet of a shooter late in games.
I can understand how they would miss the false start on Pittsburgh guard Alan Faneca since it was a very slight flinch. But if you didn't see the false start, then you have to call defensive encroachment or a neutral zone infraction when half of the Indianapolis defense has run two yards beyond the line of scrimmage, some directly into the Pittsburgh offensive line, before the ball was snapped.
Vivek: Maybe the refs were going after the â€œif a tree falls in the woodsâ€¦.â€? theory with their â€œif no contact was madeâ€¦â€? explanation. The overturn of Polamalu's interception benefited the Colts (a resulting touchdown), and the non-call also had an impact by keeping the Pittsburgh drive alive for an additional five minutes.
Just like the Steelers did when they ate up the clock after that call, Ben Roethlisberger and the coaching staff did a great job of game planning and management on Sunday. The Steelers came out of the gates exactly how Aaron Schatz and Michael David Smith predicted, going to the air on 12 of the first 20 plays of the game and using a lot of play action. After the aerial show, Pittsburgh went back to its ground game, totaling 42 rushing attempts on the day.
After doing all he could to lose last year in the playoffs (five interceptions in two games), Roethlisberger is showing a much greater level of maturity this time around.
Al: Great game by Roethlisberger. After finishing the season with some so-so passing performances after returning from injury, Big Ben has been lights out in the playoffs. His thumb problems seem to be under control, as Roethlisberger threw strikes all first half against an Indianapolis defense that was on its heels expecting Pittsburgh to start off the game pounding the ball. Much different than the quarterback on the other side of the field, who couldn't hit the side of a barn in the first half as the Pittsburgh linebackers and safeties gave Indianapolis' offensive line fits.
Vivek: We cannot move away from this game without talking about Peyton Manning. More and more players have been getting killed in the media for calling out teammates, and Manning is not getting any preferential treatment here either. His now infamous, â€œ. . . we did have some protection problems,â€? sound bite was accurate, but should have been followed up with an admission that he did little for the first three quarters of the game. Yes, I'll give plenty of credit to the Steelers, but Manning was not able to effectively change plays at the line, as evidenced by his five sacks and countless pressures. Sunday was the least prepared that I have ever seen Manning. The first 14 plays resulted in just 15 yards. His final numbers (22-of-38 for 290 yards) look good, but I was shocked at Manning's inability to gain a mere two yards during their second-chance drive at the end. A simple checkdown would have gotten the job done. The game should not have come down to a 46-yard field goal attempt by Vanderjagt. It should have been a much more makeable try.
Al: Awful play calling at the end. You have to try and get the first down on either second or third down. The Steelers were handing a first down to the Colts, leaving Dallas Clark wide open underneath on second down and Edgerrin James open short on third down. At that point, Pittsburgh would have gladly taken a Vanderjagt field goal and gone into overtime. What they seemed to be the most worried about was what Manning was trying to do, throw the ball into the end zone to win the game.
Of course, all of this discussion would be moot if Nick Harper had just cut to the sidelines instead of right at Roethlisberger on his fumble return.
Vivek: The Panthers, just like the Steelers, had to sweat out a much closer game because of reversals. The referees overturned two scores, both of which ultimately benefited the Bears. The referees did return the favor at the end of the game when no delay of game penalty was called before Rex Grossman threw an interception, the essential nail in the coffin for the Bears. On that drive, Grossman looked confident, like he knew he was going to lead the offense into the end zone. After that, it was a different Grossman --his mannerisms, face and body language expressed dejection. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere but on that field. Ok, that's enough of my psychology lesson for today.
Going back to the penalties, another of the weekend's lowlights was the pass interference penalty on Asante Samuel. As the first half wound down with the Patriots leading 3-0, Jake Plummer misfired on a pass try to Ashley Lelie. A few seconds after the play ended, back judge Gregory Steed flagged Samuel for pass interference, something that the sideline judge did not do. One yard later, a Mike Anderson touchdown and a 7-3 lead.
Al: Yeah, it was a bad call, but at least it was a bad interpretation of a rule and not a completely made up rule like Evil Earl Morelli's in Indianapolis. Even at full speed, it was clear that Lelie initiated the contact with Samuel, but the back judge's thinking does make some sense. According to an interview Roosevelt Colvin did on NFL Radio Monday, the back judge supposedly told Colvin that he asked the sideline official whether Samuel had looked back at the ball. With that official stating that Samuel hadn't been looking for the ball, and the resulting contact on the play, I can understand why the official would throw the flag. Why he thought he had a better view of the play from the back of the end zone than the official who was standing on the sideline next to the contact, I don't understand.
Vivek: New England cannot blame Steed for this loss, as ineffective offense and special teams units should be the real the targets of finger pointing here. The Patriots played uncharacteristic Belichick football, turning the ball over five times. Do you know how uncharacteristic this was for the Pats in the playoffs? Under Belichick, New England had a plus-21 turnover differential.
Take a look at this:
Coincidence? I think not.
Denver was working with a short field most of the game. After Faulk's fumble, the Broncos needed one pass interference call and a one-yard run to score. It took Denver a total of seven plays to score those three touchdowns after turnovers.
The turnovers wasted a terrific effort that the defense turned out against the run, limiting Denver's high-powered rushing attack to only 96 yards on 32 carries, but the Patriots did not blitz as much as they had in the past few weeks. It took a while for the Broncos to start gaining yards as they ran to the left side of the defense. This gave Jake Plummer enough time quietly to pick at the New England defense. His numbers were not spectacular by any means, but he effectively executed on offense.
Oh, and surprise surprise, there was another debatable call in a game this weekend. After Champ Bailey returned an interception 100-yards, Ben Watson forced a fumble which according to my eyes went through the end zone. The officials ruled that the ball went out of bounds just shy of the goal line. (When was the last time that a tight end chased down a cornerback anyway?) It might have been too close to call, but my personal replay booth (TiVo) ruled that this should have been a touchback.
Al: I agree that it was most likely a touchback, but there weren't any usable angles on the replays. It was apparent that the ball was jarred lose before Bailey went into the end zone, but no angle could give indisputable evidence that the ball went out of bounds past the goal line. Bill Belichick has previously suggested that cameras be in place at each goal line on every play to help with replay challenges, and I can't imagine that play will do anything but strengthen his resolve to push for such a rule change in the off-season.
Vivek: We haven't touched the final playoff game from last weekend, so I'll throw in my $.02. I'll give the Redskins a lot of credit for pulling out five wins to end the season, but Joe Gibbs still has plenty of work to do with the offense. The passing attack disappeared at the end of the season and only reappeared because the Redskins were playing catchup against Seattle. Sunday was the first time since Week 10 that Mark Brunell topped the 200-yard passing mark, and Santana Moss recorded 100 receiving yards only once in the final ten weeks of the season.
In two playoff games, the unit managed just 20 points and two touchdowns, one of which was set up by a turnover created by a defense that has been the strength of the team the past two seasons. The Seahawks fumbled the ball away three times last weekend, but unlike the Broncos, the Redskins could only convert those turnovers to one John Hall field goal.
So this begs the question, â€œWho will be at the helm of the offense next season?â€? Brunell? Jason Campbell? Washington cannot go to Campbell in 2006. This is not a Carson Palmer/Jon Kitna situation, where Palmer was getting groomed in practice. Campbell has been nothing more than a clipboard holder to this point in his career. This is a team that has a chance to contend, and inserting Campbell as the starter would set the team back a year.
Al: I disagree, Viv. I wouldn't be surprised if Campbell is the opening day starter in Washington next season. Brunell was hampered by injuries during most of the second half of the season. His knee was the latest injury, but his groin troubles from earlier in the year played a big part in Washington's having to win its last five games just to get into the post season. He's a perfect backup quarterback for someone young like Campbell. When he's healthy, Brunell is still an effective quarterback, but the only way to keep him healthy for any extended period of time at this point in his career is to keep him on the sidelines. Not many teams would be willing to have $5 million in salary cap space holding a clipboard, but the Redskins have shown that they are more than willing to use up space on their cap for players who won't contribute to their team that season.
The Redskins wouldn't have dealt their first round pick in this year's draft for Campbell if they didn't think he would be ready to be an NFL quarterback soon. According to reports, he looked good in training camp this past pre-season. In his end of the season press conference, Joe Gibbs said of Campbell, â€œWe've seen a lot out of him. Now he needs to play. And we'll get into that.â€?
Vivek: So now we're onto the Conference Championships, but it seems like more players are limping in than ever. DeShaun Foster (ankle), Julius Peppers (shoulder), Renaldo Wynn (arm), Shaun Alexander (concussion), Carson Palmer (knee) and Nick Harper (ok, not a football-related injury) are among some of the big names who have suffered injuries this postseason.
Al: I was listening to John Riggins on Sirius NFL Radio on Monday (can you tell what I got for Christmas? Oh my!). He was ripping Alexander for not re-entering the game after his concussion early in the game. His reasoning was that if you're lucid enough to be cheering on the sidelines, you're in good enough shape to play in the game. Sure, back in Riggins' day Joe Gibbs may have just sent him back out there after â€œhaving his bell rung,â€? but thankfully those days are starting to be put behind us. There are still examples, like Rob Petitti staying in a game until Drew Bledsoe called a time out to have him taken out after Petitti was kneed in the head and barely able to stand up. But it's nice to see that at least some teams are willing to put the long term health of their players ahead of winning a single game, even in the playoffs.
Vivek: I couldn't agree with you more, Al. I don't care what technological advances have been made with helmets, a severe head injury is nothing to risk.
One more thing that has been bugging me for a while. Will running backs please consider not doing a Dan Marino impression on every option play? I know Clinton Portis has a career 116.7 passer rating in the regular season, but he missed on two attempts in the playoffs -- first to Santana Moss in Tampa Bay and then to Chris Cooley last week in Seattle. Portis had some room to run in both cases.
Up next week: a look back at the Football Outsiders 2005 Season Predictions.
Al: This has to go to the â€œidiot kickerâ€? himself, Mike Vanderjagt. The most accurate kicker in the history of the NFL shanked a potential game-tying field goal so badly that Kris Brown thought he was trying to throw the game. At least Scott Norwood's infamous â€œwide rightâ€? was near the uprights. Vanderjagt's attempt didn't even hit the net. Vanderjagt may be right that Indianapolis won't win a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy, but they sure won't do it with Vanderjagt, who will likely be plying his trade elsewhere next season.
Vivek: In a matter of minutes, the award front-runner went from Peyton Manning to Jerome Bettis to Vanderjagt. I don't think many folks are debating the final choice for this week.
Al: I actually put some effort into this draft. I figured out each player's average fantasy performance from the season in our scoring system, excluding the meaningless Week 17 games. Then I attempted to forecast how many games each team would play, to determine their total expected fantasy playoff points in the post season. I then created a VBD spreadsheet to properly adjust my cheat sheet for position scarcity. The result? Easily the worst ever performance in a post-season fantasy contest. All of my players are gone, leaving me with a whopping 48 points. My team has been outscored by Steve Smith. Of course, the person who stated during the fourth round, â€œI really have the feeling that I have no idea what I'm doing at this point,â€? is running away with things as the only team with over 100 points. 13 readers have put together 100 point teams, lead by Wooba-Gooba with 129.
Vivek: My â€œspread the wealthâ€? strategy is not going to help me repeat this year, unless DeShaun Foster makes a miracle comeback and the Broncos decide to go to the air with Jake Plummer.
|QB||Manning, NYG||-3||0||-3||Plummer, Den||0||11||11||Manning, IND||0||20||20|
|RB||Alexander, SEA||0||-2||-2||James, IND||0||11||11||Johnson, CIN||12||0||12|
|RB||Anderson, DEN||0||19||19||Foster, CAR||15||5||20||Dillon, NE||5||5||10|
|WR||Smith, DEN||0||15||15||Galloway, TB||6||0||6||Moss, WAS||2||16||18|
|WR||Ward, PIT||7||6||13||Branch, NE||3||15||18||Engram, SEA||0||1||1|
|WR||Jurevicius, SEA||0||3||3||Houshmandzadeh, CIN||8||0||8||Smith, JAC||3||0||3|
|TE||Stevens, SEA||0||1||1||Clark, IND||0||14||14||Miller, PIT||1||12||13|
|K||Brown, SEA||0||8||8||Vinatieri, NE||4||8||12||Elam, DEN||0||12||12|
|DEF||New England||16||1||17||Chicago||0||-1||-1||New York Giants||1||0||1|
|QB||Hasselbeck, SEA||0||22||22||Palmer, CIN||3||0||3||Brady, NE||22||17||39|
|RB||Barber, NYG||6||0||6||Jones, CHI||0||11||11||Williams, TB||3||0||3|
|RB||Bell, DEN||0||1||1||Portis, WAS||11||5||16||Bettis, PIT||11||8||19|
|WR||Wayne, IND||0||11||11||Harrison, IND||0||5||5||Smith, CAR||21||35||56|
|WR||Jackson, SEA||0||20||20||Johnson, CIN||5||0||5||Muhammad, CHI||0||5||5|
|WR||Toomer, NYG||3||0||3||Burress, NYG||0||0||0||Lelie, DEN||0||5||5|
|TE||Watson, NE||15||0||15||Shockey, NYG||5||0||5||Cooley, WAS||1||8||9|
|K||Vanderjagt, IND||0||4||4||Feely, NYG||0||0||0||Gould, CHI||0||3||3|
Al: (2-2 last week, 3-5 overall)
I have no idea what to expect from these games. I'm just taking the home teams.
The Seahawks should play nickel defense every down on Sunday. Have five defensive backs in at all times, with two corners assigned to Steve Smith. None of this one cornerback with a safety to help out over the top stuff. As we've seen over Carolina's past two games, that just doesn't work. Have two men on him at all times, with safety help available if he somehow gets past those two. Don't worry about Brad Hoover and Nick Goings; Lofa Tatupu should be able to handle them on his own if they somehow get past Seattle's defensive line.
Denver is the best team remaining in the playoffs, and they get to play this game at home. Their offensive line won't be confused by such foreign concepts like â€œpass rushing linebackers,â€? so Jake Plummer shouldn't feel the same pressure that Peyton Manning was under last week. The Steelers have been susceptible to runs to the outside this season, so expect Tatum Bell to have a nice game sharing time with Mike Anderson.
Vivek: (2-2 last week, 4-4 overall)
The NFL's final four finished first, fourth, sixth, and eighth in our final regular season power rankings, but that team that finished eighth is playing the best right now.
Three straight road wins. It can be done. The loss of DeShaun Foster (coupled with the absence of Stephen Davis) might seem huge at first glance, but the Panthers were not winning because of the ground game. You only need to look back to last year to see that Goings was a more than capable fill-in for Davis, Foster, Brad Hoover, Joey Harris and Rod â€œHe Hate Meâ€? Smart, recording five 100-yard rushing games and 216 receiving yards in his eight starts. Pass defense is where the Seahawks are most vulnerable.
Seattle will not intimidate Carolina, which has gone 8-2 on the road this year and is 4-0 in road playoff games under John Fox.
The Broncos are now the favorite (3:2) to win the Super Bowl, and this week won't do anything to knock them off that path. Denver was just five points (31-27 loss to the Chiefs and 24-23 loss to the Giants) from riding a 16-game winning streak. If the Broncos jump out to an early lead and force the Steelers to the air, Denver fans should pack for Detroit.
109 comments, Last at 25 Jan 2006, 6:31pm by Dan Riley