Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
09 Jan 2009
Cardinals fans don't travel for playoff games.
There are three reasons for this: 1) There are no Cardinals fans. 2) The Cardinals never reach the playoffs. 3) There's no good reason to leave Arizona in January.
There are actually a few Cardinals fans in the world besides Will Leitch. There are some retirees in Glendale, the immediate members of the Hightower family, and some Cowboys fans in New Mexico who made a deathbed conversion on December 28th. There just are not enough Cardinals fans to cause a ripple in our nation's air traffic schedule. A US Airlines representative, quoted in the Arizona Republic, called the demand for seats on Phoenix-to-Charlotte flights "noticeable but light," just like the Cardinals running game. Phoenix travel agent Eldon Diamond, quoted in the same article, was less diplomatic. "I see zero demand. I think it's hard enough to get Cardinals fans to go to a game here."
Apart from the scarcity of Cardinals fans and the Haley's Comet-like novelty of their playoff berth, the fact remains that the trip from Arizona to North Carolina is no drive up I-95 to see Eagles-Giants. The flight is long, and the weather is unaccommodating. The 10-day forecast for Glendale calls for unrelenting sunshine and highs in the low 70s. Charlotte endured two days of rain and fog early in the week, with more rain and a high in the soggy 50's on tap for Saturday. Only a fanatic would endure a long flight, jet lag, and prohibitive travel costs (it's cheaper to fly to New York from Arizona than to Charlotte) to root for a 10-point underdog attempting a once-per-generation upset. All the Cardinals fanatics in the world could fit in one red eye flight, airport shuttle, and floor of a Ramada Inn, respectively.
(An aside: the North Carolina weather report was a public service for those of us who can never get an accurate forecast from that region because the girl on the Weather Channel is always pregnant. I don't know if it's the same girl, remarkably fecund or possessing an elephantine gestation cycle, or if my preferred viewing time is the default shift for meteorologists-with-child. But I always seem to get my weather reports from a young woman late in her third trimester, her distended belly dangling in front of Kill Devil Hills, obscuring the coastal communities. A few years ago, a hurricane slammed into Cape Hatteras, but it was only detectable by ultrasound.)
Long story short, Bank of America Stadium will be filled with Panthers fans, and only Panthers fans. The Panthers have other advantages: Steve Smith, their excellent running game, Jon Beason, their defensive line. The Cardinals have their passing attack and "momentum." Their passing attack could keep the game close. Momentum? It's probably not worth the plane ticket from Phoenix to Charlotte.
The Giants are rested. The Titans are flat.
The Eagles are hot. The Cardinals are over their heads. The Chargers have something to prove. The Ravens are playing with house money. The Steelers are hungry. The Panthers are overconfident.
All of these statements may be true. Or false. Most likely, they are placeholders, meaningless platitudes meant to simplify arguments or cover patches of ignorance. Playoff analysis takes on a numbing predictability after a while. The same vague lines of reasoning appear every year. Being vague, unsupportable notions, they never die. Facts are just retrofitted to mesh with reality. "Team A shouldn't have rested their starters in Week 17; they lost momentum, and hungry Wild Card Team B surprised them. What? Team A won 31-0? Well, that proves that rest is important, and that Team B was in over its head and happy just to reach the second round!"
Even the best analysts refer to "momentum" at times. Charley Casserly led with it in his CBSSports.com column this week: "San Diego has momentum and Pittsburgh is rested and at home. Who has the advantage? That is a tough one because momentum in the playoffs is huge." When an expert like Casserly speaks of momentum, he is talking about tangibles: the team is healthy, playing well, minding its fundamentals, and winning as a result. Too often, momentum is used as a self-fulfilling argument. Every one of this week's underdogs has momentum; after all, they're coming off a win against a playoff team! That's the gambler's momentum, a hot streak that has more to do with circumstances or luck than reality.
Given the choice between illusory momentum and a week off, most weary football players would choose the latter. The Panthers had to battle through Week 17 to preserve their playoff seeding. Every week brought another injury. Defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu went down against the Broncos. Fellow tackle Damione Lewis injured his shoulder in the battle royale against the Giants. Both defenders returned to practice after the bye week, as did offensive tackle Jeff Otah. Whatever momentum the Cardinals may have generated against the Falcons will be more than offset by the fact that they are playing a Panthers team with a healthy defensive line. The Cardinals surprised the Falcons with a credible ground game, but there won't be any cheap yardage available in the middle of the Panthers defense.
"Overconfidence" is another staple of playoff analysis. Like momentum, there's an element of truth at work; the quarterback who's vacationing in Mexico probably isn't taking his opponent as seriously as he should. The Panthers, whose record last season was worse than the Cardinals, aren't likely to get overconfident or let the bye week lull them into a Saturday slumber. They played poorly after their Week 9 bye this year, barely escaping Oakland with a 17-6 win. John Fox made his team practice three times last week, balancing the need for rest with the need to stay sharp. "Our work last week was extremely good going against our defense," Jake Delhomme said. "It was competitive drills and guys are into it. The playoffs, this is a different baby in itself than a bye week in the season."
The Panthers aren't the only team who needed the bye to get healthy. Albert Haynesworth returned to practice Tuesday after missing the final weeks of the season. "The grizzly is hungry and ready to eat," Haynesworth said of himself. Kyle Vanden Bosch, who has been limited most of the season with an abdominal injury, also practiced early in the week. When evaluating the Titans' chances against the Ravens, you can focus on their two December losses, including their momentum-killing, overconfidence-inspired Week 17 belly flop against the Colts. Or, you can focus on the fact that the best defensive lineman in the NFL will be back on the field, side-by-side with a gifted sack specialist, against a team with a rookie quarterback. The Ravens will have their share of success on defense (Titans center Kevin Mawae is unlikely to play), but the Titans are in position to pitch a near shutout.
No injured player in the NFL received more scrutiny than the Giants' Brandon Jacobs over the last month. Jacobs was limited in practice on Wednesday, but he was on the field, so he'll play on Sunday. Jacobs' importance is obvious; the Giants beat the Eagles with Jacobs healthy in Week 10 but lost to them without Jacobs in Week 14. While Jacobs engaged in drills on Wednesday, Brian Westbrook took the day off because of knee swelling. Again, the contrast between rest (a real physical phenomenon) and momentum (mostly hokum) is made clear: Jacobs got to baby his knee for three weeks while Westbrook slammed into the Cowboys and Vikings lines. As for overconfidence, the Giants know a thing or two about how pesky those Wild Card teams can be when it comes time to take down a prohibitive favorite. Like the Panthers and Titans, they are taking their practices and their opponent seriously.
No bye week team has a cleaner bill of health than the Steelers, who currently list no injuries. That's amazing, since Ben Roethlisberger suffered a concussion in Week 17 and the team reported Antietam-level casualties after most regular season games. The Chargers may have the "best momentum" in the playoffs thanks to their five-game winning streak, but they earned that title by beating a team on a nine-game winning streak. One gambler's "hot" is another's "due."
The healthier team isn't always the better team. But the healthier team that had a better record, the team that already beat this week's foe once in the regular season, is probably the better team. The specter of last year's Giants-Cowboys game will linger for years to come, but there's no sideshow act like the Cowboys among this year's top four.
Am I going with four favorites this week? It's the safest bet, year in and year out, but you'll have to wait until the end of Walkthrough to find out.
Before I finalize the picks, let's look at some diagrams, then look back at some playoff games of the past. It's better than talking about who's hot and who's overconfident. Trust me.
If you like blitzing, you'll love this week's playoff games. The Steelers, Ravens, Eagles, Cardinals, Chargers and Giants all love to bring the heat. The Panthers and Titans prefer to generate as much pass rush as possible with their front four, and they are darn good at it: the Panthers finished fifth in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate, the Titans 10th.
Here's an inside look at some of the blitz packages you are likely to see on Saturday and Sunday. If this doesn't satisfy your need for play diagrams, don't forget to go to the New York Times for a second round of animated analysis provided by yours truly. Unfortunately, the Times plays only feature the offense. This is where the hitting happens.
|Figure 1: Ravens 2-4-5 Overload|
Figure 1 shows the Ravens blitz which caused the interception Ed Reed returned for a touchdown. It's 3rd-and-long, so the Ravens only use two down linemen: Haloti Ngata (92) and Trevor Pryce (90). Their pre-snap alignment suggests an overload blitz, with Terrell Suggs (55) and Bart Scott (57) threatening the offensive right side, but the Dolphins cannot take any chances with Ray Lewis aligned on the left. Both Ronnie Brown and Anthony Fasano stay in to block on this play. Unfortunately, even seven-man protection isn't adequate.
Ngata is a containment defender on this play. He crosses the left guard's face and loops around the left tackle; his goal is to occupy blockers, not to generate a rush. Pryce and Suggs attack the inside shoulders of the right guard and tackle. They are also trying to eat up offensive linemen. The real pressure comes from three defenders attacking the offensive right: Scott, linebacker Jameel McClain (53), and safety Jim Leonhard (36). Their blitz is well coordinated, with McClain taking a direct angle toward Chad Pennington while Scott and Leonhard work wide. Even with Fasano and Brown sliding right, the Dolphins don't have enough bodies to handle this overload blitz.
What's interesting is that it's hard to determine which Ravens player has man coverage responsibility on Fasano. Lewis is assigned to Brown, and he lingers in the middle of the field on clean-up duty once he sees Brown stay in to block. The corners man up on the wide receivers (not shown), while Corey Ivy covers split H-back Patrick Cobbs. Leonhard or Scott could have been assigned to Fasano, but neither hesitates on his blitz, so it doesn't seem that either is worried about the tight end running a pass route. There are several possibilities: 1) Scott or Leonhard picked something up pre-snap, then charged in; 2) Reed has Fasano, though it sure looks like he's playing center field; or 3) Rex Ryan knew the Dolphins tendencies so well that he didn't feel the need to cover Fasano in the backfield on 3rd-and-long. In any case, the coverage matched the situation perfectly, leaving Pennington with too few blockers and too few receivers.
|Figure 2: Eagles Four Jacks|
Figure 2 shows a blitz the Eagles used to force a fumble in the third quarter against the Vikings. There are two interesting things about the Eagles personnel package. First, Brian Dawkins is essentially playing as the Sam (strong side) linebacker. Second, the Eagles have four defensive ends on the field: Trent Cole (58), Darren Howard (90), Juqua Parker (75) and Chris Clemons (91). Howard officially lists as a tackle this year, but he was an end early in his career, so this package is similar to the Four Aces line the Giants used last year. It gives the Eagles exceptional athleticism on the defensive line, making Jimmy Johnson's blitzes even more effective.
In a well-designed blitz, each player has a clear role. Here, Cole and Clemons take the tackles wide to create room and take away Tarvaris Jackson's ability to roll right or left. Parker is a clean-up defender, on the prowl for a scramble, screen, or draw. Linebacker Akeem Jordan (56) is a sacrificial lamb; he slams directly into the left guard to keep him busy. This blitz is designed to give Dawkins a free shot at the quarterback.
Dawkins does come free, but there's an added bonus. Howard's assignment is to attack Matt Birk's inside shoulder so the Vikings cannot slide protection to that side. Howard beats Birk off the snap, and thanks to Jordan, there's no guard on the left side to help the center. Howard and Dawkins arrive at about the same time to strip Jackson, who pounces on the football for a significant loss.
Clemons has been a major factor for the Eagles in the final weeks of the season. When they use this four-end package against the Giants, they'll be giving the champs a taste of their own medicine.
|Figure 3: Chargers Shift Blitz Part I|
The Chargers shifted their linemen and linebackers all over the formation in both meetings with the Colts. Their goal was to keep Peyton Manning from getting basic information, like the defensive front, before the snap. The Chargers don't move around as much against other teams, but they will do their share of pre-snap shifting this week to confuse Ben Roethlisberger, whose noggin may still be a little scrambled.
Figure 3 doesn't do justice to the amount of chicanery the Chargers threw at the Colts in one third down play in the first quarter on Saturday. You can get the gist of it: Luis Castillo (93) starts out on the offensive left and then moves right; Shaun Philips (95) drops from the line to a linebacker position; Jyles Tucker (94) starts in the middle but slides to the offensive left, while Stephen Cooper (54) starts in a blitz position but drops into coverage. There are other slight adjustments that aren't shown. The motion is more than window dressing. When the Colts first line up, the Chargers appear to be attacking the offensive left side. By the time everyone on defense sets (more or less), the Chargers are attacking the right side.
The Colts linemen are masters of blitz pickup, and they are able to adapt to the Chargers' ever-changing formation. The Chargers blitz so well, however, that the Colts just cannot block them. (Figure 4) The right guard, right tackle, and running back work wide to block Castillo and Marques Harris (92). They do such a good job that the blitz is neutralized on that side of the field. The left guard and center Jeff Saturday double team nose defender Ryon Bingham (97). Saturday peels off to block Philips, but it's just too much to ask for: Philips has a full head of steam, and Saturday cannot get over in time. Manning feels the heat and rushes a pass that falls incomplete.
|Figure 4: Chargers Shift Blitz Part II|
The Chargers adapted well to the loss of Shawne Merriman. Philips, Tucker, and other defenders are providing plenty of pressure, covering for some weaknesses elsewhere on defense. The Steelers are known for their "Eleven Angry Men" blitzes, with no defenders in a three point stance and everyone moving before the snap. The Chargers have proven that they can use similar tactics.
The Giants and Eagles have played a few playoff games against each other. Ditto the Chargers and Steelers. Even the Titans and Ravens have met twice in the postseason. Three of this week's matchups feature familiar foes, enemies with history.
Let's look back at some classic playoff matchups from the past, with gameday quotes from some storied postseason games. The Cardinals and Panthers never met in the playoffs, so they each get their own classic matchup.
Giants 27, Eagles 21, 1981 season: When the Eagles hosted the Giants in the Wild Card round on December 27th, they were the defending NFC champions. The Giants hadn't reached the playoffs since 1963. Tables turned that day. The Giants took a 20-0 first quarter lead with the help of two fumbled kickoffs by Wally Henry, both of which led to Giants touchdowns. With the help of a defense that allowed the Eagles just 226 net yards, the Giants held off a late rally. This game was the Eagles' last playoff appearance under Dick Vermeil. The Giants were one coaching change away from becoming an NFC power.
"There have been so many atrocities in the past. Something bad would always happen to New York Giant football. Now, this means respectability." - Defensive end Gary Jeter.
"It shook us, and we lost our poise a little bit. It's hard to give a team 13 points, especially with that kind of defensive team, and then go ahead and win." - Dick Vermeil on the two early fumbles.
"It's hard to comprehend winning a playoff game. I never dreamed of something like this." - Rookie linebacker Lawrence Taylor.
"There is no tomorrow. We just lost. This is the bottom line." - Eagles cornerback Herm Edwards. (Could you tell?)
"How sweet it is." - Giants coach Ray Perkins.
Panthers 29, Rams 23, 2003 season: Playoff games don't get much better than this double-overtime thriller from five years ago. The Panthers led by 11 points with 2:39 to play, but they allowed a Marshall Faulk touchdown and a two-point conversion. Jeff Wilkins then recovered his own onside kick, booting a 33-yard field goal to tie the game. Panthers kicker John Kasay appeared to win the game with a 22-yard field goal on the first overtime possession, but the Panthers were flagged for delay of game, and Kasay missed his second attempt. Wilkins later missed a 51-yard field goal that would have won the game for the Rams; Wilkins finished the day five-of-six. Near the end of the first overtime period, Ricky Manning Jr. intercepted a Marc Bulger pass. Three plays later, Jake Delhomme found Steve Smith for a 69-yard touchdown. It was the fifth-longest game in NFL history, and it moved the Panthers one step closer to their first Super Bowl appearance.
"It's what we went through all year. We've had so many tight games, we just keep fighting." – Panthers receiver Ricky Proehl.
"I wish I could feel good, but it doesn't matter if I went 10-for-11. That one kick will eat at me because we aren't playing next week." – Wilkins.
"I've never seen a game quite like that. There were as many peaks and lows as you can have in a football game." – John Fox.
"It was a fun game. But you have to accept this to appreciate losing. You want to be the guy to make the big play and not the guy to mess up. I don't get angry about losing. You accept it and deal with it. Anger doesn't solve anything. And one thing you have to remember: It's a sport." – Marshall Faulk.
Ravens 24, Titans 10, 2000 season: The Ravens were an unlikely playoff team in 2000. It was just their fifth year in Baltimore, and their punchless offense endured a five-week stretch without scoring a touchdown in midseason. But their defense and special teams were outstanding, making them a match for the 13-3 Titans team that hosted them. Eddie George scored the game's first touchdown for the Titans, but the Ravens clamped down defensively. Keith Washington blocked an Al Del Greco field goal and ran 90 yards to break a 10-10 tie, and Ray Lewis clinched the game by ripping a bobbled pass from George's hands and racing 50 yards for a touchdown. The Ravens defense allowed just ten points in their final two games en route to a Super Bowl championship.
"You're talking about two premiere players, two heavyweight fighters slugging it out and taking the body blows and coming up for more. That was worth the price of admission right there." - Brian Billick on George and Lewis, who spent most of the game trash-talking after tackles and blocks.
"We're great friends on the field, and off the field. When we're on the field, we're just gladiators going at each other." - Lewis on his relationship with George.
"Ray Lewis stepped up at the end and did a number on us." – Titans tight end Frank Wycheck.
"Losing is tough to swallow, no matter how. To have the type of day I had, missing three in a game and have it come out like this is not like you would ever expect it to happen. I wish I could change it." - Del Greco.
"I'm an Al Del Greco fan. I have no reason not to stand behind Al." - Jeff Fisher.
Chargers 31, Steelers 28, 1982 season: Both the Steelers and Chargers were nearing the end of an era in 1982. The Steelers hadn't reached the playoffs since 1979, and Chuck Noll actually scrapped the Steel Curtain defense that year in exchange for a more modern 3-4 alignment. Most of the superstars of the past were on their last legs, but the Steelers earned a playoff berth with a three-game winning streak to end the season. San Diego's Air Coryell offense was still feared throughout the league, but the Chargers defense was terrible, forcing Dan Fouts to win shootout after shootout.
The Steelers scored on the first play of the game, when Chargers return man James Brooks fumbled a kickoff in the end zone. Brooks muffed a second kickoff, but Fouts rallied his team and led a field goal drive. The lead changed hands several times, but the Steelers opened up a 28-17 lead in the fourth quarter on the strength of two Terry Bradshaw touchdown passes. The Steelers had the ball on their 21-yard line with 11 minutes left in the game when Bradshaw, trying to convert a 3rd-and-8, threw a bomb across his body to Lynn Swann instead of running for an easy first down. Safety Jeff Allen intercepted the wobbly pass, and the Chargers mounted a comeback. Fouts led two scoring drives, each capped by Kellen Winslow touchdowns, to give the Chargers a 31-28 win. It was the Steelers' first playoff loss in Pittsburgh since 1972, and it dispelled the myths that the Steelers were invincible at home and the Chargers were incapable of winning in cold weather.
"Everyone in the Steelers organization is very disappointed because we had great expectations this season." - Chuck Noll.
"Everybody's always on our case for something. We're one of the winningest teams in the NFL. We've set all kinds of records. How can people say we don't have any character?" - Winslow.
"What's so bad about being down 7-0 with 12 seconds to go in the game? It's better than being down 7-0 at the end." - Fouts.
"In that third quarter, we just smoked on everything we did. I wished we could've stayed in that third quarter longer." - Bradshaw.
"In the heat of competition, you do a lot of stupid things. If it works, you can sit around and laugh about it, but it was a physical and mental mistake." - Bradshaw on his fourth quarter interception.
"I don't think it's anything that should bother Terry for a long period of time," - tight end Ben Cunningham.
"This game may have done more for us than any other playoff game we've ever won. Why? Because everybody was saying we couldn't beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh. All we heard about was the cold weather. Well, we can win in cold weather as well as hot weather," - Wes Chandler. The Chargers wouldn't reach the postseason again for another decade.
Cardinals 28, Eagles 21, 1947 season: The Cardinals don't have many playoff games to choose from. Instead of rehashing their 1998 win over the Cowboys, let's go waaay back to their last championship: a victory over the Eagles in the legendary "sneaker" game. Newspaper accounts from that era didn't have many player quotes, but they did have colorful 1940's sportswriter jargon, which is far better. Here's the tale as told by the men who were there:
"It was too bad old Charley Bidwell couldn't live to see it, but the Chicago Cardinals, the team he assembled with the aid of a fat and quick-opening wallet finally owned full title today to the National League Football Championship. Bidwell died on April 19, shortly after his greatest achievement which was spiriting Charley Trippi, the Georgia All-America halfback away from the rival All-America Conference, and it was significant that Trippi was a big star in yesterday's 28 to 21 playoff victory." -- Ed Sainsbury, United Press Sports
"The Cardinals, hoisting their first National pennant since 1925, exploded for one touchdown in each period and remained ahead of the determined Eagles throughout the game. The paid attendance of 30,759 sat through sub-freezing temperatures in Comiskey Park," Charles Chamberlain, Titusville Herald.
"The frozen gridiron afforded such tough footing that the Cardinals wore tennis shoes throughout the game. The Eagles started shod in regular gear, but were penalized five yards twice for illegal use of equipment after they were charged with filing their cleats. They then pulled on tennis shoes, keeping the coaching staff and helpers on the sidelines busier than bargain basement salesmen," Chamberlain.
"Trippi streaked 44 yards on a quick opening play in the first period. (Elmer) Angsman exploded 70 yards into pay-dirt on a similar play in the second quarter. Trippi rambled 75 yards with a punt for a third period touchdown. And Angsman zoomed 70 yards again for another touchdown in the fourth quarter." The Associated Press wire story. Wire stories rarely contain the verb "zoomed" anymore.
"When Trippi ran back that third-quarter punt – flipping tacklers off his shoulders as he ran down the sideline, falling down, getting up, cutting into midfield and weaving all the way for a touchdown – it seemed that Bidwill, wherever he might be, chuckled and smiled a satisfied smile. He knew this was the year," Charles Einstein, Syracuse Herald Journal
"It was a personal triumph, too, for Coach Charley Conzelman, the piano virtuoso who pounds the ivories with equal aplomb and with similar acclaim in concert hall or tap room. Conzelman, who gave up a lifetime job as a football coach at Washington University in St. Louis to take over the fortunes of the chronically irregular Cardinals, finally got them to the Western championship by beating Chicago's long-established favorite team, the bold, bad Bears of the midway." Sainsbury. That paragraph seems beamed in from Neptune, but Conzelman is a Pro Football Hall of Famer who played, coached, and wrote about the sport. He was also a baseball executive. And apparently a pretty good pianist.
"Each Cardinal player receiver $2,132 as his winning share, while each Eagle drew $754." Sainsbury.
Still here? You scrolled down, didn't you? No matter. Let's keep this simple.
The 10-point spread is appealing, but the PANTHERS will manhandle the Cardinals defensively. The muddy track in Carolina probably favors their run heavy offense. DVOA loves the Eagles, as usual, but I don't think their offense is playing well enough to score touchdowns against the GIANTS. If the Eagles need field goals, as they did last week against the Vikings, they'll be asking David Akers to kick as well in the windy Meadowlands as in a dome. Tall order. The Chargers won a field position game against a Colts team with lousy special teams last week. The STEELERS excel at field position football, and their sack-happy defense is great at pinning opponents deep.
That leaves room for one upset. The Ravens are also DVOA darlings, and their 13-10 loss to the Titans in Week 5 was a lifetime ago for Joe Flacco and some of the other youngsters on their offense. The total score of this game won't go over 30, and the Titans defense will get its licks in, but I've been riding the RAVENS all year and I don't feel like stopping.
In fact, you might say I have momentum.
24 comments, Last at 09 Jan 2009, 7:07pm by ChrisFromNJ