Andrew and Sterling take an awards-style look at the crowded playoff picture. Plus, a special Thanksgiving Loser League announcement!
15 Jan 2009
by Mike Tanier
Happy 200th birthday Edgar Allen Poe, you drunken, miserable, pubescent-cousin-marrying freak.
Poe was born on January 19, 1809. He died when he was 40, just a few months younger than Matt Stover is now. Before drinking himself into something muddy and shallow, he invented an important genre: the spooky, perfect-length-for-literary-anthology short story. Poe's tales, like Ravens games, were filled with macabre atmosphere and brutal punishments: men buried alive, swinging pendulums of death, Ed Reed interception returns. Poe's gift for punchy plotting (he was the 19th century's Jerry Bruckheimer) and his ability to wrap things up in under 30 pages made him an American literary treasure, and his works inspired films, Iron Maiden songs, and a Baltimore-based football team. Oddly enough, while The Raven is Poe's most famous poem, he was paid a meager nine dollars for it. He must have submitted it to my last editor.
Baltimore claims to be Poe's hometown, but other cities want a piece of hot 19th century poet-on-cousin action. Poe spent several years in Philadelphia, and that city's Free Library holds an impressive collection of Poe manuscripts and artifacts. On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Free Library hosted a wrestling-style battle between historians from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston to decide which city can lay claim to the poet's legacy. Poe was born in Boston (unless Bill Belichick edited Poe's Wikipedia page as part of some conspiracy), but only spent a few months there. Bostonians only got involved in the Poe controversy because they are still mad about their last literary trade with Philadelphia: Philly got Ben Franklin while Boston got Curt Schilling -- two philosophers of equal brilliance, at least according to Schilling's blog.
The Poe Battle was quite an event, I'm told (I was washing my hair that night). Baltimore was a seven-point favorite. DVOA picked Philly. A Philadelphia-based historian argued (jokingly) that Poe's remains should be moved from Baltimore to Philly; with my luck, I'd have the seat next to them on the Acela. If erecting buildings taller than the William Penn statue caused a 26-year championship curse, imagine the penalty for grave robbing. Poe would come up with something good. The Fall of the House of Banner, perhaps.
We linger over a literary giant because there are no other Giants to talk about in the playoffs. Philly and Baltimore really have bigger things to worry about. The Ravens and Eagles are among the league's Final Four. The only thing that makes their presence appear less unlikely is the fact that the Cardinals are also among the survivors. All three teams boast risen-from-the-grave stories worthy of a master of the macabre: the Ravens' return from 5-11 oblivion, the Eagles' comeback from the McNabb benching, and the Cardinals' recovery from their late-season losing streak, to say nothing of their 60-year absence from anything championship-related. The Steelers don't fit the bill, and that's bad news: Poe stories are all about revenge, and the Ravens are looking for vengeance after a season sweep.
If Poe were alive today, he probably wouldn't be a football fan. He'd be angry that his proceeds from The Raven could only buy one beer and a pretzel in the stadium where the Ravens play. But Poe, a man of poetry and mystery, horror and suspense, would find something to love about Championship Sunday, which offers a little bit of all of them.
The Eagles lived in the NFC championship game at the start of the decade. You could count on them to host the conference title game, or at least attend it, and usually lose it. Like uncool townies trying to enter a chic nightclub, the Eagles hovered on the fringe of the Super Bowl picture from 2001-03, hoping to catch the bouncer off-guard. They were stymied each year by some twist of fate or their own ineptitude. Finally, Terrell Owens arrived in 2004 to flash a fifty and get the Eagles past the velvet rope. Once in the club, the Eagles didn't fit in, so they nursed drinks and stood by the wall while the Patriots danced with the hot girls.
Back then, Eagles fans knew where they would be on championship weekend. In 2001, we threw grand parties, giddy with happy-to-be-here enthusiasm. In 2002, our celebrations were just as lavish as we prepared for the Buccaneers with this-is-our-year confidence. By 2003, we chomped on half-frozen chicken wings as scrawny as Todd Pinkston's pectorals, enjoying the Panthers game as much as Astor enjoyed that last sherry on the Titanic. In 2004, with Owens hurt and Lincoln Financial Field frozen over, many of us huddled under our beds with handheld radios, bracing for another heartbreak. We emerged only when Chad Lewis scored the touchdown that broke the Falcons' back.
Times have changed. The Phillies' World Series victory has sucked some venom from the region's chronic self-esteem disorder. Three hot-and-cold Eagles seasons have lowered expectations and taken the sting out of that long run of near-misses. This Eagles team looks a lot like those old teams -- six Eagles have been around since the 2001 championship loss to Kurt Warner's Rams -- but it feels different. The defense may be better now than it was from 2001-04. The receiving corps is better than it was in the Pinkston-and-prayers days, better than it has ever been in an NFC Championship game. Finally, the Eagles look like a team that has learned its lessons. Those early-decade teams waited until mid-January to reveal their fatal flaw: receivers who couldn't beat jams, linebackers who could handle man coverage. The 2008 Eagles got all the stupidity out of their system in November. They are peaking, not fading.
All that stands in their way now are the Cardinals, a team they beat 48-20 on Thanksgiving, a playoff interloper who coasted into January on the back of an awful division, then shocked two favored foes. This looks like the end of the line for a team that hasn't played in a title game since the Truman administration. But if you think Eagles fans are confident about their team's Super Bowl chances, then you have never met an Eagles fan.
The all-time Cardinals-Eagles series record is a perfect tie: Each team has 53 wins and 53 losses, with five games ending in one of those things Donovan McNabb doesn't understand. The Cardinals aren't even close to most opponents in all-time series results -- their record against the Giants, for example, is 40-77-2 -- so it's telling that the Eagles are the one established NFL team the Cardinals have battled to a draw. In fact, the Cardinals have been notorious Eagle Killers since 1947, when the Cardinals won the NFL title in the famous sneaker game I wrote about last week.
The Eagles went 12-4 in 1980, but their first loss of the season was a 24-14 defeat at the hands of the Cardinals in Week 4. Ottis Anderson rushed for 151 yards that day, overpowering one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Buddy Ryan's mid-'80s Eagles teams always rode an emotional tilt-a-whirl, and they found it hard to get pumped up for the lamest of their four division foes. In 1986, the Cardinals beat the Eagles 13-10 in their first meeting, then played them to a 10-10 tie in the second. In 1987, the Eagles' post-strike hot streak was derailed by two losses, one of them to the Cardinals.
The Ray Rhodes Eagles were almost as inconsistent as Ryan's team, and Rhodes endured a few pratfalls at the hands of the then-Phoenix Cardinals. In 1996, a 36-30 loss to the Cardinals capped a three game losing streak for the Eagles. The Eagles allowed 20 fourth quarter points and 367 passing yards by Boomer Esiason in that game. In 1998, the Cardinals punched Rhodes' ticket out of Philly by sweeping the Eagles.
Andy Reid earned the admiration of Eagles fans (it has long since eroded for many of them) by making sure his team won the games they were supposed to win: no more huge victories over the Cowboys, followed by two-game skids against bad opponents. The Cardinals are a team you are supposed to beat in most years, and Reid's Eagles swept them in 2000, avenging a second straight season sweep in 1999. Even Reid couldn't keep the Cardinals down: The Cardinals beat the Eagles 21-20 in 2001, winning in the final seconds on a Hail Mary pass from Jake Plummer to MarTay Jenkins. The Cardinals then left the NFC East, taking a twice-per-season anxiety attack with them. The two teams now meet infrequently, but the Cardinals got their licks in back in 2005, when the Eagles were fielding their Mike McMahon-Ryan Moats lineup.
Cardinals victories over the Eagles have come in all sizes: blowouts, shootouts, defensive battles, last-second thrillers. Usually, though, the Eagles could be counted upon for several unforced errors. The typical storyline: The Eagles aren't focused when they take the field, and their quarterback either makes a few mistakes that leave points on the board (McNabb, Ron Jaworski) or forgets the game plan entirely, if in fact there was one (Randall Cunningham). The Eagles offense makes so many mistakes that the defense cannot keep up, but the game stays close because the Cardinals just aren't that good. Finally, some unlikely hero like MarTay Jenkins emerges for the Cardinals, and the Eagles let a game slip away. Not all Cardinals victories look like that -- some involved McMahon or Bobby Hoying helming the Eagles –--but the Eagles lost enough games like that to cause deep-seeded foreboding in the hearts of their fans.
The Eagles already endured a few of those Cardinals-style losses (plus a tie) this year. They are very capable of playing a game like that again, though they are hoping that the Panthers beat them to it last week. Not to take anything away from the Cardinals, who have performed well in the playoffs, but the Panthers spent last Saturday night beating themselves with dumb interceptions and non-coverage on Larry Fitzgerald. If the Eagles need extra motivation to avoid one of their patented pratfall games, they should load up last week's film of Jake Delhomme and the Panthers defense after watching themselves face-plant against the Bengals and Ravens. They can call it the Self-Inflicted Wound Film Festival. Plaxico Buress can be guest emcee.
We're left in the same place we were two weeks ago: analyzing Eagles success versus Eagles mistakes, with the other team loitering between the hashmarks. The Cardinals, with Fitzgerald on fire and Anquan Boldin healthy, will score their 20 points. Their rediscovered running game will force the Eagles to play defense with a shred of honesty. The Cardinals defense will generate a few sacks or turnovers, but it will be susceptible to the big lapse and the long gain. The Eagles, meanwhile, should pressure Warner throughout the game, force mistakes, and unapologetically throw the ball in good weather against a second-tier secondary. They should move the ball easily and score frequently. The Eagles should win.
Should, should, should. Eagles praise always comes with qualifiers. It's the defense mechanism of fans who learned to flinch before they learned to cheer. Cardinals fans can relate. But good sportswriters don't say "should," and I won't cop out. The Eagles are going to the Super Bowl this year. My wife is stocking up on the Pepto Bismol.
The worst way to get attention is to meet expectations. High standards are their own punishment: Reach them and you've merely done your job; come up short and the wolf howls outside your window. Spectacular failures can do more for your reputation than qualified successes, which is why movie producers invest millions in bad movies (a well-publicized flop can raise a filmmaker's profile) and juvenile delinquents devote so much creativity to antisocial behavior.
The Steelers are victims of their own success, the forgotten team in this season of redemptive storylines. The Steelers didn't change coaches, lose 11 games, bench their quarterback, tie the Bengals, or spend six decades searching for a winning formula. They just had another Steelers season: double-digit wins, lots of tight defensive battles, a playoff berth. They were the only home favorites to hold serve last weekend, and their win was far more convincing than the Eagles or Ravens victories, but their lack of novelty makes them this week's stealth participants. It's a funny way to treat the current favorites to win the Super Bowl. (The Steelers are getting 11-10 odds, the Eagles 11-5, with the Ravens at 7-2 and the Cardinals at 11-2. Those are Vegas odds, the kind that can be folded into your wallet; DVOA is wearing green face paint as usual.)
The Steelers swept the Ravens in the regular season, beating them twice by a total of seven points. Both games were just so Ravens-Steelers. The first meeting featured eight sacks, six fumbles, one defensive touchdown, and just 480 yards of total offense. The Steelers won on a 46-yard Jeff Reed field goal that barely hooked inside the left upright. The second meeting featured four turnovers, 90 yards of passing offense for the Ravens, and one rulebook-bending touchdown, Santonio Holmes' end zone-straddling catch that gave the Steelers a 13-9 win.
The Ravens are no strangers to the referee-assisted victory (they are still fixing the 52-second clock in Tennessee), and few cried foul after that Week 15 loss which gave the Steelers the division title, not to mention home-field advantage this week. But the two tight victories proved how narrow the gap is between these two teams. They also showed that A) Joe Flacco can lead a fourth quarter touchdown rally against the Steelers defense (Week 4), and B) the Ravens can endure an 11-of-28, two-interception performance from Flacco and still hold a lead into the fourth quarter against the Steelers (Week 15). In short, the regular season proved that, despite the sweep, these two teams are roughly equal.
The DVOA ratings agree. I've never seen two teams with 0.1% difference in DVOA face off against each other this late in the season before. DVOA isn't precise to the tenth of a percent, so the Ravens' current ranking as the NFL's top team is honorary. Our Premium breakdowns only highlight the similarities between these two teams. In almost every category, the Ravens and Steelers rank somewhere between 12th and 20th on offense, between first and fourth on defense. Nearly all the little trends we use to get an edge, like one team's second down passing offense against the opponents' second down defense, cancel out like tidy algebra.
There are a few revelations buried in the statistical rubble. The Steelers are the worst third-and-short offensive team in the league, going 28-of-51 on third and less than two in the regular season. They have a bad habit of passing (27) more often than they run (24) on third-and-short. They had short-yardage problems against the Chargers last week: In the second quarter, Ben Roethlisberger completed a one-yard pass on third-and-2, and a fourth quarter drive ended with two stuffs at the goal line. The Ravens rank 10th in the league in short yardage defense, good enough to stop a few Steelers drives. The Eagles beat the Giants last week because the Giants couldn't convert short third downs on a day when every first down mattered. The Ravens will get an edge in this category: Their Third-and-short offense is great (third in the NFL), so they will be able to move the chains, even against the Steelers' defense ranked fourth in that category.
Such advantages are tiny and granular, small enough to rank down there among the more tangible "intangibles," like home-field advantage and playoff experience. Flacco's remarkable implacability notwithstanding, he's playing in his 19th NFL game, completing a whirlwind of a year that took him from obscurity to the center of the sports universe. He has completed just 44 percent of his postseason attempts, and he'll attempt to make history on Sunday in one of the most hostile stadiums in the sports world. You can't put a DVOA number on the pressures he's facing, nor can you shrug them off as immeasurable, and therefore nonexistent. Flacco's not the only rookie the Ravens are counting on: John Harbaugh learned a lot about championship games during his time in Philadelphia, but he has never had to call anything more important than a kick coverage scheme in a game of this importance.
It's the nature of intangibles that they can go either way. We covered this ground last week: Flacco and Harbaugh may be facing great pressure, but they may be loose and relaxed, "playing with house money," because they have exceeded expectations. Flacco's road record is excellent this season (64.5 percent complete, 10 touchdowns, five interceptions). That may be statistical noise, but it's also evidence that he won't wilt in Heinz field. Still, the Steelers deserve about one point each for home-field advantage and playoff experience, allowing for the fact that guys like Ray Lewis know a thing or two about playoff football themselves. Give the Ravens a point back for their short-yardage edge, and the Steelers deserve to be slight favorites.
The Steelers' tiny advantages don't account for the six-point spread, so my head is following my heart toward a Ravens selection. They'll cover, at the very least. Research also shows that these teams have covered the over in their last four meetings in Pittsburgh and in four of their last five games. That makes sense, because the defenses push the over-under down into the range of Kate Moss' measurements. This week's number is hovering around 34; if Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu score a touchdown each, you're about 40 percent of the way there.
If the Eagles win, they'll either take part in a Pennsylvania Super Bowl or an I-95 Super Bowl. The I-95 Super Bowl would pit them against a rookie quarterback who grew up ten minutes from their stadium. It would cause a collision of my two careers, with Audubon High School (which pays most of my bills) becoming a lightning rod for Super Bowl hype. It's already happening: An NFL Network film crew was outside my classroom Thursday, shooting footage for a Flacco documentary. Tune in on Sunday to see some of my friends and students.
You know what I picked. You can guess what I am rooting for.
Sports Illustrated writer and frequent Walkthrough contributor Drew Lawrence writes:
Last Saturday's Panthers-Cardinals game featured one of the best plays I've seen all year. The Cardinals were on offense and had three wide receivers bunched right. Like everyone in the building, I'm thinking screen, and I seem justified when, at the snap, the two inside receivers release to the middle as if to block. Fitzgerald follows them for a beat, then turns upfield and snags a Warner strike for a big gain.
I was watching that game with a buddy, and I think that might've been the first time I high-fived another man to celebrate a brilliantly designed play (instead of brilliantly called one). Still, you could argue that this one was both. It caught a reeling Panthers defense off-guard with its creativity and its timing.
|Figure 1: Cardinals' Fake Screen|
Through the miracle of the NFL Network replay, I found the play Lawrence is talking about. It took place midway through the second quarter. The Cardinals faced first-and-10 on the 39-yard line. Figure 1 shows the Cardinals formation after Larry Fitzgerald motions from offensive left to right (the motion "wiggle" was omitted because the picture is busy enough). The Panthers start in a Cover-2 shell, but Richard Marshall (31) follows Fitzgerald (11) in motion, and one deep safety steps up to cover Stephen Spach (83), indicating man coverage.
This appears to be a tunnel screen to Steve Breaston (15), who jab-steps toward his defender before retreating and turning to wait a pass. Spach and Fitzgerald look like they are blocking for the screen, with Fitzgerald aiming for Breaston's defender and Spach angling toward Marshall. The Cardinals are following standard tunnel screen principles: Block the defending cornerback, create a "tunnel" of blocks inside, then give Breaston a chance to create in the open field. There's even a play-action fake to Tim Hightower to freeze the linebackers.
But this is no screen. Warner's pump-fake pulls two defenders out of position, but Marshall bites hardest. He's so intent on stopping Breaston that he lets Fitzgerald race past him. Marshall realizes his mistake too late: Fitzgerald is wide-open (so is Spach, for that matter), and Warner has an easy throw.
Head-fakes and pump-fakes are an important part of a quarterback's job. It's sometimes called "eye discipline" -- the ability to disguise where you are throwing the ball by looking in a different direction. Warner's body language and pump fake pulled two defenders away from their assignments. I saw a similar play on Sunday, when Donovan McNabb fooled the Giants into covering the wrong man.
|Figure 2: McNabb Looks Off Giants|
Figure 2 shows the Eagles facing second-and-10 in the third quarter against the Giants. At this point in the game, the Eagles hold a one-point lead and have started to pick the Giants apart with short passes. The Giants counterattack by blitzing. In this overload blitz, Justin Tuck drops into coverage on the offensive right while Chase Blackburn and Antonio Pierce cross on the offensive left. As Giants blitzes go, this one isn't well-executed. The defensive linemen don't attack blockers as they should: They try to win matchups instead of driving the blockers out of the gaps. Blackburn and Pierce don't have much room to operate, and the Eagles pick them up by keeping a tight end and fullback in to block.
Brian Westbrook slips into the right flat. Westbrook would be a typical "hot read" on this type of blitz, and the Giants made it clear before the game that stopping him was their top priority. McNabb turns his whole body toward Westbrook, who turns and asks for the ball after taking just a few steps.
McNabb may well have planned to toss the ball to Westbrook. But he read the defensive reaction: Both Tuck and safety Michael Johnson (20) overplay the flat pass. The Giants are clearly in a Cover-3 defense: Corey Webster (23) waves Johnson into the flat and chases DeSean Jackson deep, leaving no doubt about the coverage. With five men blitzing and three defenders deep, there are only three defenders left to cover underneath zones. Two of those defenders were overplaying Westbrook, so McNabb held on to the football.
Kevin Curtis (80) also reads the zone coverage, so he runs a short slant, then stops and turns as soon as he passes Johnson. McNabb doesn't turn his body toward Curtis and reset until the last second. When Curtis catches the ball, Johnson's momentum is still carrying him toward Westbrook. Curtis gains a few extra yards in the wide-open field before the deep safety arrives. It's easy yardage made possible by a well-sold eye fake, plus some good blitz pickup.
Both Warner and McNabb are excellent as using their eyes to stretch defenses and lure safeties out of position. It's a skill you learn with experience, so Roethlisberger isn't as good at it (pocket discipline isn't his strong suit) and Flacco doesn't have it in his arsenal. Eye fakes and look-offs helped the Eagles and Cardinals upset heavy favorites last week. Look for them this week, particularly in the early game.
I am older than most NFL players. This fact doesn't bother me. I find the exploits of players my age, like Jeff Garcia, more amusing than inspiring. I watch old quarterbacks get leveled, and teaching and writing suddenly seem like better ways to make a living than throwing a football, fame and fortune notwithstanding.
But now, the coaches are getting younger than me. Eric Mangini was born about eight weeks after me. Mike Tomlin is a little younger than Mangini. I was in preschool when Lane Kiffin was born. And now, along comes Josh McDaniels, who could have sat in my freshman algebra classes. Okay, McDaniels isn't that young. He'll be 33 in April. In 1992, he was 16. I started teaching in 1992. Damn it, really he could have sat in my freshman algebra class.
McDaniels got his first NFL job in 2001, about the time I got my first writing gig. So McDaniels and I began focusing exclusively on the NFL at the same time. In the next eight years, he rose like a soda bubble, going from quality control assistant to quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator to Broncos coach. Meanwhile, I went from unknown Internet columnist to slightly higher-profile Internet columnist. Suddenly, I feel like I could have made better use of my time.
McDaniels appears to be a football prodigy who earned every rung of his high-velocity ladder climb. Still, 33 seems awful young for an NFL head coach. A young gun can handle the strategy and motivation, but detail management, administration, and long-range planning are jobs for a guy with a snowy roof. Age brings an extra measure of wisdom, and the ideal age for an NFL coach is probably, I don't know, five years older than me, no matter what age I am.
In my other profession, I meet 28-year-old vice principals and 35-year-old superintendents from time to time. The veteran teachers smirk through their speeches, pay lip service to their initiatives, then do whatever they want. Okay, not all the veterans do that, but I do. A 30-something superintendent? How long did he teach: eight periods? NFL offices probably have the same vibe, with veteran scouts, execs, and coordinators wondering how much football the new kid absorbed in four seasons of big-time coaching. The old-timers may well have a point: McDaniels probably didn't learn all there is to know about coaching while playing Candyland with some of the best offensive players in the NFL. Tomlin is doing very well, but wunderkinds Mangini and Kiffin failed in their first NFL gigs, and youth may have been part of the problem in both cases.
Much of this is sour grapes, of course. I can no longer picture myself running for a touchdown, not when I need a breather during a 40-yard dash. But I can picture myself wearing the headset, calling flea flickers, scheduling two-a-days, cursing my way through press conferences. Now, I'm starting to feel like I'm too old to do that. I could see a desperate Al Davis flying me to Oakland next month, giving me a full interview, disqualifying me because I'm too old, then hiring some kid like Bill Barnwell.
McDaniels may do well; I wish him success. Some of my son's kindergarten friends are starting to get good at Madden. Hopefully, they won't catch anyone's eye. I'm not ready to see them wearing headsets.
31 comments, Last at 17 Jan 2009, 8:42pm by Pat (filler)