Audibles: Conference Championships

Audibles: Conference Championships
Audibles: Conference Championships
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

compiled by Doug Farrar and Vince Verhei

Each weekend, the FO staff sends around e-mails to each other, both during and after the games. It lets us share ideas for columns and comments, and get an idea of how teams that we can't watch are playing. Be aware that the material in this roundtable might seem a bit disjointed and un-edited. It also might still show up later in the week in other columns, or in comments in PFP 2009.

Philadelphia Eagles 25 at Arizona Cardinals 32

Bill Barnwell: The Cardinals are doing misdirection and two-tight end sets, and getting guys out to the second level on the linebackers. And the Eagles are playing one-hand touch.

Vince Verhei: Yeah, five carries for 36 yards on the Cards' opening drive is very bad news for the Eagles defense.

The Eagles' first play was quarterback draw all the way. Troy Aikman guessed it was a botched screen, but there was no receiver near the linemen. The fullback was running a decoy route in the flat, and the halfback was staying in to block.

Aaron Schatz: Wow, it is just crazy blitz world out there today. Both teams, blitzing all the time. Except on third-and-long when the Cardinals are rushing three and giving Donovan McNabb hours and hours of time to find a receiver.

Vince Verhei: I like what the Cardinals defense is doing early: blitzing a lot to set up third-and-long, then rushing three and dropping eight into coverage on third downs. Eagles are now 1-for-4 on third downs and just missed a field goal early in the second quarter. If I'm Philadelphia's offense, I'm anticipating a big blitz on my next play.

Aaron Schatz: I liked the Philadelphia play-action where the cameraman was confused and followed Brian Westbrook, thinking he still had the ball. Apparently, Darnell Dockett also thought Westbrook had the ball and decided to piledrive him to the turf. Turns out if you do that to a guy without the ball, it is a penalty. Who knew?

Oh, and then FINALLY Donovan McNabb hits a guy in stride. McNabb's throws have generally been off today. He has missed a couple of guys who got their hands on the ball but weren't able to bring it in because it wasn't thrown in quite the right place (Greg Lewis deep, the throw behind DeSean Jackson). Throws like that definitely support the idea that a receiver is not 100 percent responsible for his own yards after catch.

The Eagles have to stop with the field-goal attempts. Touchdowns, guys.

Mark Zajack: You're right Aaron. Apparently, the Cards defensive game plan does include a "pile-drive" Westbrook element.

A third down sack is nullified because Antonio Smith gets penalized for body-slamming Westbrook. Vince, care to add any wrestling analysis here? Can we look forward to a fourth quarter figure-four leg-lock?

Vince Verhei: Only because you asked: In the first half, the Cardinals were a powerhouse like Goldberg or Batista, doing whatever they wanted with little resistance, while the Eagles were like Tommy Dreamer, continuously beaten down and never catching a break. In the second half, Eagles fans have to hope their team turns into Rey Mysterio and makes a big comeback, and that the Cardinals turn into the Batista of the past two years -- completely dominant most of the way, but finding a way to lose at the end.

Aaron Schatz: The scary part is that the Eagles DID catch breaks. The interception that was fumbled back to them? A kickoff out of bounds, and then whatever the hell you would call that other kickoff that may or may not have touched Victor Abiamiri? The Eagles are not having bad luck. They're having bad play.

Did I say something in the preview about Larry Fitzgerald possibly winning the game on his own? Yikes.

Oh, good, now Quintin Demps has lost his mind.

Doug Farrar: Ladies and gentlemen, the temperature in Hades is a balmy 35 degrees and dropping...

Aaron Schatz: The Eagles are having trouble tackling, they can't seem to quite get to Warner, and on offense things just aren't clicking. This kind of performance from Arizona wouldn't have been a shock if the season had ended in, say, Week 8. I guess the Cardinals really did not give a crap about the second half of the season, because that's really the only way their regular-season performance makes any sense at all when placed alongside this postseason performance.

Bill Barnwell: I'm amazed at how bad of a game the Eagles' offensive line is having. They're really struggling with the Cardinals' twists and stunts, which is a communication issue more than a skill issue. Maybe that has something to do with losing Shawn Andrews and having a left guard who's been benched and then put back in the lineup through injury.

No earthly idea what the Eagles thought the Cardinals were going to do on offense. The misdirection stuff is working, the third and fourth wide receiver stuff is working, and more importantly, the get-the-ball-to-Larry Fitzgerald stuff is working. Todd Haley is obviously doing a fantastic job schematically, although I think the Eagles will be better in the second half after making some adjustments.

On the other hand, this game is a couple of McNabb misthrows away from being 24-17, which would at least be somewhat closer.

Russell Levine: This is starting to be reminiscent of the 2006 Colts in terms of a team that looks nothing like its recent vintage in the postseason.

That Demps late hit goes right near the top of the list of "dumbest plays of all time." I mean, what, possibly, could he have been thinking on that play? That's probably a flag even if the play is an interception, let alone a five-yard swing pass.

Consider, too, that Arizona could easily have had two more possessions that began right near the Philly red zone -- one lost on the fumble following the interception, the other on that odd call on the kickoff play. What was the ruling there, anyway? Seeing as the possession started at the 26, not the 40, I'm guessing they ruled the ball hit the Philly player in-bounds, and then out of bounds as well, thereby establishing him out of bounds at that point. Because if they ruled it hit him only while HE was out of bounds, it should have been Philly ball at the 40, right? You could not really tell on the replays I saw whether the bell ever actually made contact with the Philly player.

Russell Levine: Is it over-simplifying things to suggest that McNabb may be playing for the fate of his Philly career in the second half? If he takes them to the Super Bowl, they'll have to pay him. If they get upset and he continues to be awful, it won't be hard at all for them to let him walk.

Aaron Schatz: Bill said it, but I'll say it again: The Eagles' offensive line just looks like total crap out there. Sure, McNabb has had time to throw on a few plays. Those were the ones where the Cardinals rushed three.

Vince Verhei: Arizona blitzes and gets guys unblocked to the quarterback. Philadelphia blitzes and leaves receivers wide-open. It's like the Arizona coaching staff knows exactly what Philadelphia is going to do on every play, on both sides of the ball, and know how to counter it.

Bill Barnwell: The Eagles offense is leaving big plays (throws to Greg Lewis, L.J. Smith, Jason Avant, and Kevin Curtis) on the field. Maybe 150 yards. Doesn't change what the defense has (or hasn't) done. Since when is Edge James hard to take down? And Tra Thomas looks a million years old out there.

Maybe they should bench McNabb. Worked last time.

Aaron Schatz: Congratulations to Kevin Curtis, catching that deep pass up the middle with Aaron Francisco and Rod Hood on him. Third-and-19. If the Eagles don't make that pass, this game is pretty much over. Instead, they have life.

Bill Barnwell: Well, Brent Celek just made the back of the book.

Doug Farrar: Brent Celek just made the front of the book!

Bill Barnwell: I swear I just went to go type that.

What the hell is up with David Akers? Kickoff out of bounds and a missed extra point?

Russell Levine: I would just like to say that I did not like the Arizona series after the McNabb fumble. If ever there was a time to stay aggressive, it was there.

Aaron Schatz: Honestly, what's the deal with all the kickoffs out of bounds? Is someone screwing with the air conditioning in there or something?

I'm sorry, Russell, did you say something about the 2006 AFC Championship game? My god, this has been a halftime turnaround worthy of that one. The offense is playing much better, but more importantly, I think that Jim Johnson clearly saw something in the Polaroids at halftime, because the Eagles pass rush is getting much more pressure on Warner now.

Russell Levine: I did, but I was referencing Indy suddenly learning how to stop the run with the Cardinals suddenly learning how to, umm, play. Whatever, if the shoe fits.....

Vince: Eagles score to make it 19-24.

Booyaka, Booyaka, 619,
Booyaka, Booyaka, Rey Mysterio...

Bill Barnwell: Does this mean the Cardinals are turning heel?

Aaron Schatz: Given the history of the Eagles and Cardinals, do we now have two fan bases simultaneously worrying that everything is going to go wrong and their team is destined to blow this game?

Vince Verhei: OK, now the Cardinals' offense is being stupid. You know the Eagles are going to blitz, and you know they can't cover Fitzgerald 1-on-1. So why not leave seven or eight blockers in and give Warner a chance to find Fitz. Instead, six blockers on third down, and the extra blocker is a tight end on the outside. Eagles get pressure up the middle, Warner has to throw the ball away, and it's another Arizona punt.

(DeSean Jackson scores to put Philadelphia ahead, 25-24.)

Bill Barnwell: Holee f**k.

Aaron Schatz: I just got a phone call from Mike Tanier in the bathroom of a sports bar in Philly. He asked me to add the following comment to Audibles: "Gadzooks." I'm sure we'll have more from Mr. Tanier in a bit.

Vince Verhei: I just added an item to my "things to do before I die" list: Watch an Eagles playoff game with Mike Tanier.

Doug Farrar: What a great competition between DeSean Jackson and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Jackson takes the lead, Rodgers-Cromartie makes up the gap, and McNabb puts the perfect throw up for Jackson to spike the comeback.

Russell Levine: Where is Fitz? There is Fitz.

Doug Farrar: But, no! It's Tim Hightower, bringing pride to the Richmond Spiders!

Russell Levine: Fourth-and-ballgame ... Didn't like the playcall, but maybe Arizona studied the Giants film.

Vince Verhei: On the Cardinals' fourth-and-inches play, I would have bet my car on play-action and a quick slant or out to Fitzgerald. Seriously, a Tim Hightower sweep?!?! With your season on the line?! Major cajones right there.

Doug Farrar: What's that phrase they use on the Gatorade commercial that everyone thinks is a commercial for something else? Lowercase god? I think we need to add Larry Fitzgerald to that list.

Russell Levine: First-and-goal and Arizona decides to play the clock instead of Philly. You HAVE to throw one fade ball to Fitz in this series. You can't settle for a two-point lead and plenty of time left.

Bill Barnwell: Well, on the last drive, the Eagles finally beat the Eagles. Congratulations to the Cardinals, who executed brilliantly on their final drive. That's what this game ended up coming down to.

Doug Farrar: I'll be the first to say it: They are not who we thought they were. No matter what happens in the last two minutes of this game, any questions about the legitimacy of the Arizona Cardinals, in this season and beyond, just got capped right in the ass. That is, as long as Kurt Warner doesn't retire and leave the franchise in the hands of Matt Leinart...

Aaron Schatz: They will win this game, but I would like to disagree. If the Cardinals are the team that has won three straight in the postseason, they are also the team that lost by 21, 28, and 40 points in their last five regular-season games. After the game, and for the next two weeks, we'll hear a lot of "nobody believed in us," but some reporter needs to ask them: Why should anyone have believed in you? Have you seen the film of your game in New England? Aren't you the same guys who let Tarvaris Jackson throw for four touchdowns IN YOUR BUILDING? Were different people wearing your uniforms? That was you, right?

I can't think of anybody who thought three weeks ago that the Arizona Cardinals would be going to the Super Bowl. Seriously? Was there anyone?

Bill Barnwell: Can this kill the idea that momentum is some sort of trend that matters, at least?

Vince Verhei: You could ask the same thing about the Eagles, who played poorly against Arizona and still lost by only seven. How could they look so bad in the loss to Washington and the tie against Cincinnati? In a year like this, where there are no real great teams, the Cardinals are just as "very good" as anyone else.

Aaron Schatz: I should say that I'm not arguing against their legitimacy, they won the three games they had to win. However, they aren't just as "very good" as anyone else -- or at least, they weren't during the regular season. Very good teams don't lose by three touchdowns over and over again. Minnesota wasn't a great team this year, and neither was New England, and those teams CRUSHED Arizona. Minnesota did it on the road, for crying out loud.

I don't know. Is something going on in the NFL now where we no longer can extrapolate from regular-season performance? Nothing the Cardinals have done over the last three weeks can change the fact that they sucked in November and December.

Ned Macey: This result is not really surprising, given what we knew in the regular season. The Cardinals defense was mediocre to bad, but they have a dynamic offense. I know I'm a broken record, but Edgerrin James is a lot better than Tim Hightower, and they ran the ball well in the first half. I guess the game should have been a draw between the powerful Cardinals offense and Eagles defense, but instead the Cardinals offense was great. On nine meaningful drives, the Cardinals scored five times, and they never turned it over.

I will say, and maybe this is being a sore loser, but my two favorite teams are the Colts and the Eagles. Is the official policy to swallow the whistle or call it like every other play at the end of the game? I've always supported calling it normally (so wasn't too upset at the officiating after the Colts game), but if the cornerback hits your leg and knocks you to your knees, that's pass interference. And if it is not with the game on the line, I want my defensive holding call back in overtime against the Chargers.

Mixed bag for McNabb today. But you have to take the occasional erratic play with the great play. He misses throws other quarterbacks can make, but he makes throws most quarterbacks cannot make. It is a lot like Chad Pennington, where the faults are obvious, but the net is a very good quarterback. This loss was more like the 2001 NFC Championship game, where the defense just was not good enough.

I guess I'd just say that yes, in three games anything can happen, but the Cardinals are a lot less predictable than other teams if only because of the home field. The Giants went on the road three times to play three really good teams. The Cardinals played the pretty good Falcons at home, the good Panthers on the road, and the very good Eagles at home.

But to back Aaron's opinion, the Eagles KILLED this team in the regular season. So we should have expected the Cardinals to win? That doesn't make sense.

Bill Barnwell: Red Sox-Rockies is on the MLB Network right now -- both teams are an example of the Arizona narrative twisted around.

The Red Sox rested their guys in September and got chastised for it.

The Rockies were the young, excitable team with the sudden home field advantage coming off two dominant wins in the previous round.

Neither of these narratives ended up being remotely correct. The Cardinals won because they executed when they needed to. The Eagles didn't.

Aaron Schatz: By the way, we're back to all the "no team has ever" statements we had to make a year ago. The Giants were the first-ever Super Bowl champion with a regular-season Pythagorean projection below .600. They only outscored opponents by 22 points. The Cardinals only outscored opponents by ONE point. ONE!

Nothing told you the Cardinals would do this. No scouting, no stats, no psychology, nothing. Already, we're getting critical comments and e-mails, but at least we were much more accurate than conventional wisdom on Philly and Baltimore. We just happened to be as wrong as everyone else about Arizona. Or, more likely, nobody was wrong. They have just played completely differently than they did in November and December. Didn't Peter King call them the worst team to ever make the playoffs? Vegas had them at 40-1 to win the Super Bowl just three weeks ago. Some books still had 50-1.

At this point, maybe we do need to ask ourselves if something has changed in the NFL that leads to more parity -- not regular-season parity, but playoff parity, the idea that any team can go on a run in the playoffs and win it all, no matter how well they played in the regular season. If the Cardinals win the Super Bowl, the three worst regular-season teams to ever win the Super Bowl will have won it in three consecutive years. Has something has truly changed, and WHY? Is there an actual reason why this is happening now and didn't happen in, say, the early '90s?

Russell Levine: Could it be as simple as suggesting that parity has made regular season success (or mediocrity) less meaningful?

Also, on the non-DPI call: I think an argument can be made that the contact began when the receiver and defensive back got their feet tangled, then the defender fell across the back on the receiver's legs, causing him to trip. You could justify a no-call on that basis.

That said, if the game isn't on the line, you probably get a flag 95 percent of the time on that play.

Aaron Schatz: I guess I'm a skipping record on this, but I have more to say.

I've been arguing that there's nothing wrong with the NFL's playoff system. Yes, you will occasionally get years where the divisions will be extremely unbalanced, but in general things work. Except -- what if we truly have entered a world where regular-season performance does nothing to predict playoff performance? What if all you need is entry to the tournament and you have the same chance to win it all as some team that went 13-3 like Tennessee? At that point, does it seem fair to allow a 9-7 team into the tournament while an 11-5 team (New England) is stuck outside the gates? Or, perhaps more pointedly: Is it fair to split each conference into divisions so that one 9-7 team makes it (Arizona) while three other 9-7 teams have to go home (Chicago, Dallas, Tampa Bay). Chicago and Tampa Bay outscored opponents by more points than Arizona did, certainly. If you look at the sum total of regular-season performance, the only reason to believe Arizona was better than Chicago or Tampa Bay was geography.

One more Arizona tidbit. Arizona had the third-lowest point differential of any team to make it EVEN AS FAR AS THE CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP in a 16-game season. The 1978 Oilers and 1996 Jaguars actually allowed more points than they scored.

Bill Barnwell: Yeah, but a big part of that "only outscored opponents by one point" is the Pats game. There's nothing to be ashamed of in predicting that the Eagles would win that game. It's sixty minutes. Anything can happen.

Vince Verhei: There are 267 games in an NFL season, counting the playoffs. I don't think we should get hung up on the fact that three of them (these Arizona wins) are surprising.

Aaron Schatz: Well, it is three in a row involving one team, which is different from picking three random games from throughout the year.

Bill Barnwell: I'm not going to lie; I started rooting for the Cardinals when I saw Adrian Wilson crying after they won.

Ben Riley: Larry "Lowercase god" Fitzgerald obviously had a huge game, but what I found interesting was Philadelphia's blatant "sweep the leg" approach to Kurt Warner. Early on, they were hitting him well after the play was over in the hopes of rattling him. The strategy didn't work, and now the two-time NFL MVP is going back to the Big Show. And presumably bringing his Big Wife along with him. Should be fun. (Also fun: watching the Arizona front office squirm throughout the offseason as they ponder whether to resign the soon-to-be free agent Warner!)

Does anyone know why Anquan Boldin was freaking out in the third quarter? Very strange scene; "Q" has always been a locker room leader for the Cards, but with Fitzgerald's increasingly inhuman performances -- and matching inhuman contract -- I wonder if Boldin's feeling frustrated with his role on the team.

Mike Tanier: Late to the game here. Aaron got a few texts from me that sum up my feelings. Haven't read all the Audibles. Disappointed in both games, much of the fun of the Super Bowl has been sapped for me. It will be a job now, not a labor of love. Writing in clipped sentences, like Rorschach, very psyched for Watchmen movie, hope it comes out on schedule.

Awful game Quintin Demps. Bad game David Akers, Tra Thomas, Jim Johnson. Great game by the Cardinals line. Greg Lewis and L.J. Smith have played their last games in an Eagles uniform, I hope. Too early to speculate on Reid and McNabb. I now hope they are back, but if Reid is fired by five o'clock as part of an elaborate grab at Gruden or someone, I will watch with interest.

Didn't expect the Eagles or Ravens to get this far. I wrote the Eagles off before Thanksgiving, so it fitting that the Cardinals gave them life, then took it away. This was a frustrating season, but the last two months were fun and exciting.

Going to soak head and nurse hangover now, then watch Mall Cop movie with son. Oh, and shovel snow? The Cardinals are in Super Bowl, lucky I am not shoveling toads.

Baltimore Ravens 14 at Pittsburgh Steelers 23

Doug Farrar: If you see a lot of uncalled holds today, don't be surprised -- Bill Carollo has been far below the league average on holds for years. Could be bad news for James Harrison...

Bill Barnwell: The Ravens have something on the Steelers wideouts -- or maybe just Santonio Holmes. They're shading their first drive coverage on the outside perfectly relative to the types of routes the Steelers are running.

Doug Farrar: I'm sorry -- it is simply unnatural for a guy Haloti Ngata's size to move as fast as he did on the Ben Roethlisberger sack. Got from far left, moved to the middle, and shot up the gap to Big Ben. I'm always amazed when guys like Ngata and Shaun Rogers are able to move that much mass that quickly to the quarterback.

Brilliant challenge by John Harbaugh on the pass to Santonio Holmes down to the goal-line. He understood the rule, and the right call was actually made upon review. That challenge probably saved the Ravens four points.

Bill Moore: If Pittsburgh had challenged the touchdown, and the refs ruled it was not a catch, are they just SOL? And is it a Pittsburgh timeout?

Aaron Schatz: Hines Ward is out. Ben Roethlisberger is grimacing. Byron Leftwich is warming up. If this ends with a parade in Phoenix instead of Audubon, New Jersey, I'm going to shoot somebody.

Doug Farrar: Good call by Joe Flacco to call timeout after the back was motioned out of the backfield on that third-and-1 from the Pittsburgh 34, and he saw that he was all naked out there, as it were, with Casey Hampton ready to mess him up. But to go unbalanced line with Willis McGahee and Flacco as your rushers when you have Le'Ron McClain in the bullpen? Huh?

Aaron Schatz: Ben Roethlisberger's need to hold onto the ball and try to make the miracle play leads to a lot of sacks, but on Santonio Holmes' long touchdown at the start of the second quarter, it did in fact lead to a miracle play. Or something close to it -- especially if Roethlisberger is hurting because of a hit in the first quarter.

Doug Farrar: And at the start of the second quarter, the Ravens finally remember that the Steelers are susceptible to draws and delays.

Aaron Schatz: The Steelers are just destroying Flacco out there. He played much better than this in the first two games -- and so did the Baltimore offensive line.

Vince Verhei: The roughing the punter call against Baltimore, in which the only contact came when the punter's heel came down on Edgar Jones when both were already on the ground, is the new worst call I have ever seen.

Aaron Schatz: And the Vlade Divac Award for most egregious flopping goes to... Mitch Berger! Way to get Edgar Jones a roughing the kicker penalty when the only way he touched you is that your legs landed on him.

Bill Connelly: I guess I don't blame punters for taking dives, but I start to get very annoyed with refs who don't pay enough attention to realize when punters are taking dives. And at the very least, don't call a personal foul for roughing unless you know for sure that, you know, there was contact of some sort. I realize you're supposed to protect the punter's plant leg, but jeez...

Russell Levine: And there is justice in the world as Pittsburgh mismanages the clock at the end of the half.

Aaron Schatz: I am just amazed at some of these smaller holes in the zones that Ben Roethlisberger is finding in the third quarter. Especially on the pass to the fullback, Davis.

Ned Macey: When do you ditch your pregame storyline? Parker makes a nice run to get to 36 yards on 16 carries, and Phil Simms is still talking about how he has fresh legs and is running well. (Parker has also fumbled, for all those scoring at home).

Aaron Schatz: Jeff Reed told his teammates he would bleach his hair blonde if they made the playoffs. Um, which hair, Jeff?

Doug Farrar: Or, as Emmitt Smiff reportedly called him on SportsCenter this morning, "Jeff Fisher."

Nice drive by the Ravens to make it close after Mitch Berger's near-Landeta.

Vince Verhei: Note to the Steelers: When the other team rushes three, your quarterback is supposed to have time to throw, not run for his life before he finishes his dropback.

Doug Farrar: On the Terrell Suggs sack of Big Ben with 7:28 left in the game, Max Starks was a full second late out of his stance. This was one play after a false start on Willie Colon, and I always wonder how much that affects linemen in close situations.

Oh ... Daren Stone, you may have just cost your team a shot at the Super Bowl.

And the Steelers clinch it, with the interception in the appropriate hands. Nobody has been more fun to watch than Troy Polamalu this year.

Seriously -- it is legal to cut a guy right on the field? I have no jurisdiction over Scramble, but I would like to nominate Daren Stone for the All-Time Keep Choppin' Wood award. That was the single dumbest penalty I've ever seen.

Aaron Schatz: Rock music playing in the stadium as everyone is gathered around Willis McGahee seems really, really odd. I know that they can't just have nothing but silence, but it is strange, like "everyone ignore this ... continue to party." Obviously, everyone hopes McGahee will be OK.

As for the wrap-up on this game: Man, these are just two great defenses. Excellent talent. Excellent schemes. Depth. Guys who play disciplined combined with a couple of guys who play by instinct, and it all works together. The Ravens have nothing to be ashamed of, they had a great season. They did better than anyone expected -- and that includes us, since our projections had them winning the division but with only a small chance of winning more than 10 games. Joe Flacco has a great future in the league, Ed Reed moved closer to the Hall of Fame, Haloti Ngata may be right behind him and Ray Lewis of course is already there. Rex Ryan is (probably) going to get his shot at the head coaching job with the Jets, making it a trifecta of talented defensive coordinators who are finally moving to the next level.

And now, on behalf of DVOA, the Pythagorean projection, the sanctity of the regular season, and my sanity, let me be the first to ring out Pittsburgh's call to arms: ONE FOR THE OTHER HAND!

Doug Farrar: Yeah, if the Cards win the Super Bowl, we may have to send Aaron on a mini-vacation somewhere.

It's the defensive coordinator that isn't moving on that has impressed me the most. Through all the turnover and all the years, from Blitzburgh to now, when Dick LeBeau runs your defense, you are going to knock the bejeezus out of people. 50 years in professional football. Who else can claim that besides Halas and Rooney and Shula and the standard-bearers? Who else in NFL history may be doing his best work in year 50? It's usually trite to say, "We may never see his like again," but in LeBeau's case, I think it applies.

Vince Verhei: Yeah, there's really just less to say about the Pittsburgh win. Both defenses are awesome, and the team that made the fewest giant mistakes ended up winning.

Whisenhunt's first year in Arizona was also Tomlin's first year in Pittsburgh. Refresh my memory: Did Whisenhunt interview for the Steelers job? Did the team turn him down? Or did he take the Cardinals job first?

Doug Farrar: If I remember correctly, Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm both interviewed, but Tomlin then blew the front office away and got the gig.

Bill Barnwell: Rumors were that Grimm got offered the job and before he could say yes, ownership changed their mind and gave Tomlin the job.

Ben Riley: I think you do remember correctly, Doug, and Wisenhunt was furious at being passed over. Looks like one of those moves that may have worked out the best for all parties involved.

Someone (Aaron?) remarked about the music playing at Heinz Field while Willis McGahee was being lifted onto a stretcher. First of all, the music should have been killed out of respect for the gravity of the situation. Period. But second of all, if you absolutely must keep the audio going, for the love of mercy don't play Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Down on the Corner..." song while someone is down on the field, perhaps struggling for his life. Tactless with a capital "T."

Was it just me, or was the officiating in this game very suspect? From the phantom roughing-the-diving-kicker call to the helmet-to-helmet spearing that led to McGahee's injury, I think this was one of the worst games from an NFL official I've seen this year. Also, for SSPSS this week (Stupid S*** Phil Simms Says), the prize has to be his declaration that helmet-to-helmet contact is legal if it occurs downfield. No, Phil, it isn't. Fail.

Doug Farrar: If they had called helmet-to-helmet on the McGahee hit, I would have said that it was ticky-tack. Looked to me like a shoulder lead. The roughing the kicker penalty was ludicrous, but this didn't strike me as a particularly badly-called game.

Bill Barnwell: Late now, but why did McGahee get 20 carries and McClain one?

Benjy Rose: About the hit on McGahee... it seemed to me like just a clean, hard, lead-with-the-shoulder hit, the kind you often see on receivers over the middle. Unfortunately, McGahee had a chance to brace for impact, and doing so he lowered his head right into the tackler's.

And to defend Simms for the briefest of moments, his comments about Parker running well came after a couple of nice 5-yard runs through the slightest of holes. The Ravens bottled up the line of scrimmage so well, that any gain over two yards was noteworthy. He also mentioned Parker's health -- he couldn't be making some of the cuts he was making if he weren't healthy.

Polamalu is a beast.


Here are the one-game DVOA ratings for the first round of the playoffs. the conference championships. Remember that these include opponent adjustments.

ARI 47% 60% 15% 2%
PHI -25% 18% 37% -6%
PIT 70% 4% -55% 11%
BAL -12% -28% -21% -5%

Here is the same table, often requested in years past, with VOAf instead of DVOA. This still has adjustments for fumble luck and special teams weather, but does not include opponent adjustments.

ARI 18% 39% 24% 2%
PHI -22% 24% 39% -6%
PIT 41% -24% -54% 11%
BAL -36% -54% -24% -5%


267 comments, Last at 25 Jan 2009, 4:11pm

#1 by hector // Jan 19, 2009 - 10:42am

I always laugh when fantasy football players look back and note player vs. team history. Forget two years ago. Forget last year. Forget three months ago. Forget two months ago.

It clearly doesn't matter. Learn from the Giants, last January, or the Cardinals, now. Anything within the last month, okay, there's some relevance there, but ignore everything else. Period, the end.

Points: 0

#2 by Chris Owen (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 10:46am

Quick thought on the Daren Stone penalty: He took a vicious shot on the opening kickoff that left him lying motionless on his back with his arms stiffly extended out in front of him. When he got to his feet, he went to the wrong sideline and had to be pretty much dragged to his own sideline. I figured he had a concussion and the game was over for him.

But he went back out there, and of course this is pure speculation, but it seems reasonable to say his head wasn't right the rest of the game. His penalty showed that besides the fact you do some really serious long term damage to yourself while playing with a concussion, you can do some dumb things that hurt your team as well.

Points: 0

#3 by Doug Farrar // Jan 19, 2009 - 10:51am

Yeah, that's entirely possible. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

Points: 0

#30 by S.K. (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:56am

I was in the other room for the Stone penalty - I only heard the announcers talking about the aftermath. Could someone give me a quick recap of what exactly he did? (Captcha words for this post are perhaps appropriate: "crush late")

Points: 0

#33 by DGL // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:03pm

Grabbed the gunner about five yards out of bounds, spun him around, and flung him to the ground.

Points: 0

#4 by Karl Cuba // Jan 19, 2009 - 10:59am

The player who I think has had the most unexpectedly good post season: Mike Gandy, LT Cardinals. He's gone up against John Abraham, Trent Cole and Julius Peppers and acquitted himself very well, I really didn't see it coming.

Maybe Russ Grimm deserves the credit, I don't know but the line has been good for them, Gandy in particular.

Points: 0

#17 by JD (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:29am

Not that Gandy hasn't had a good postseason overall, but there were a few consecutive plays near the beginning of the third quarter where Trent Cole just destroyed him around the corner and got to Warner. On one of them, I don't think Gandy even touched Cole.

Points: 0

#25 by Spielman // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:45am

Yet the Cardinal fans I was watching with blamed Warner for holding onto the ball too long.

It never ceases to amaze me how some fans manage to blame the QB for *everything*.

Points: 0

#5 by Joe T. (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:00am

Demps should have been ejected for the hit on Warner. It was not a question of momentum or being able to pull out of a pass rush. I don't see how the hit was any different than if Demps had thrown a closed-fist punch.

A very bad bit of officiating in both games. Congrats to the Cardinals though.

Points: 0

#12 by Joe // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:20am

Agree, and as an Eagles fan I was disappointed that Demps wasn't benched after the play. Not sure if Demps was told to lay a cheap one on Warner but not taking action was implicit approval from the coaching staff.

Points: 0

#41 by Joseph // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:19pm

Count me in the camp that Demps should have been ejected. Definitely deserves the biggest fine that you can get from that type of late hit, if not bigger. My thought is $50,000. I don't know what happens to the fines, but Commish, why couldn't it go to the charity of (in this case, Warner's) choice?

As an aside about big hits, I don't think the one that KO's McGahee deserves any fine. Unfortunate, yes--illegal, no.

Points: 0

#127 by Mountain Time … // Jan 19, 2009 - 4:46pm

Ryan Clark laid the hit on McGahee... CBS showed one replay in particular where it looks clear as day that he was leading with his helmet. Most angles looked inconclusive, but one from the side was 100% clear, although the network only showed it once. Does it even matter whether or not McGahee lowered his own head in preparation to be hit?

I don't think so. Unless I'm wrong, I say Clark gets heavily fined.

Points: 0

#6 by Danish Denver-Fan // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:04am

McNabb and Pennington, Ned? I didn't see that one comming...

Points: 0

#7 by JasonK // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:11am

You know, I never put much faith into the "the Cardinals just weren't trying hard at the end of the season" argument. I still doubt that the fact that they had all-but clinched a pitiful division affected the players much. But I am beginning to think that it affected the coaches. The Arizona coaching staff has been absolutely brilliant this postseason, thoroughly outcoaching all of their opponents. With no high-stakes games down the stretch of the regular season, they had the luxury of saving a month's worth of their most clever plays, gameplanning ideas, defensive packages, etc., for the playoffs.

Points: 0

#123 by Whatev (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 4:36pm

This actually seems much more plausible than the same assertion with respect to the players. After all, why give your opponents more tape than you have to?

Points: 0

#8 by Justin Zeth // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:14am

Donovan McNabb is the answer to the question, "how good is it possible for a quarterback to be if he has terrible accuracy?" McNabb does everything else you'd want a quarterback to do about as well as it can be done--read the defense, look off defenders, throw hard, work the pocket, feel out/evade the rush, scramble, never throw interceptions--but he just happens to be inaccurate. The net result is still a very good quarterback, and his flaw is something that just comes and goes, not really something a defense can gameplan to exploit. Maddening for fans, but there still aren't eight better quarterbacks in the league.

Points: 0

#255 by armchair journ… // Jan 21, 2009 - 6:45pm

concur... everything you said is why the pennington comparison was so strange.

armchair journeyman quarterback

Points: 0

#9 by Led (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:16am

When a guy catches the ball cleanly in stride, takes steps while being tackled and intentionally dives forward to put the ball in the endzone (or almost), why on earth should that not be a catch? If that's really the correct application of the rule, it's a dumbass rule. It's one thing when a receiver leaves his feet to make a catch and the defender makes contact in an attempt to break up the pass. It's another thing when a guy catches the ball with his feet on the ground and the defender makes contact to tackle him. And the ref who made the roughing the kicker call is going to be embarrassed when he sees the replay.

Other than those calls and the blood chilling, albeit legal, hit on McGahee -- I thought it possible the impact killed him -- and the idiotic late hit by Stone, that was some amazing game to watch. The talent and intensity of those defenses is a gift to football fans everywhere. I give Ben R. a lot of credit. To face the pressure he faced and make that many good plays with no turnovers against that defense is amazing.

Points: 0

#27 by azibuck (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:49am

Only in the NFL do you need to secure the ball AND (do something else) to "catch" the ball. That rule really needs to be looked at, in several ways. I only kinda understand making a distinction between being touched by a defender or not and needing to "complete" a catch. In this case, the contact with the defender was over and Holmes still had control of the ball, so I think the "complete the catch" angle should be off at that point.

Or, the lunge, to me, was a separate action. Holmes caught the ball, was contacted by a defender, had two feet down, was disengaged from the defender (completely), and he still hasn't "caught" the ball? Then, in a later action of his own volition, pushes off with a leg and lunges, extending the arm he had the ball (secured) in. But he hasn't made the catch yet? Whatever, Mike Pereira.

Points: 0

#32 by DGL // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:01pm

"Only in the NFL do you need to secure the ball AND (do something else) to "catch" the ball."

No; in baseball, you need to secure the ball and keep it secure if you run into a wall or another player or fall. So if an outfielder lunges to catch a fly ball, takes two steps after the ball goes into his glove, falls to the ground, rolls over, and drops the ball in the process, it's not a catch. For it to be a catch, the release of the ball has to be "voluntary and intentional".

Had Holmes been an outfielder, the batter would have been safe.

Points: 0

#186 by Rob (not verified) // Jan 20, 2009 - 9:35am

You are 100% correct. When everyone in the whole world looks at that and sees it as a catch: possession, both feet down, lunging for the TD with the other hand on the ground, what else do you need? Call it the "make up call" because some Ravens (Ray Lewis) were still crying about Holmes TD catch a few weeks ago, even though that call was correct after review.

About the only thing more ridiculous was the tuck rule fumble in 2001.

Points: 0

#51 by MCS // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:39pm

We had a huge debate about this play in my household. I was in the camp that it was a catch. To me, there are two very telling facts that indicated the receiver had clear possession:

1. When the receiver uses his left hand to leverage his body towards the end zone.

2. When the receiver moves his right arm from the ball carrying cradle and extends it forward towards the goalline as he is falling. This is a clear indicator that he has complete control of the ball and is attempting to score.

I just don't understand the rule.

aka Cheezer

Points: 0

#90 by Yinka Double Dare // Jan 19, 2009 - 2:40pm

That is precisely the conclusion we came to with the people I was watching with. We thought it was a touchdown - if a voluntary dive forward while holding yourself up off the ground and reaching forward with the ball in your possession isn't a "football move" then the NFL may as well just come out and say a "football move" is "whatever allows the referee to justify any call he makes on the play". In other words, 100% subjective and divorced from reality.

I didn't even care who won the game, I just thought that the call was ridiculous. If it really is the rule that two feet down, taking a step or two towards the end zone with control of the ball, diving for the end zone, keeping your knee from hitting the ground by using your left hand to keep you up, and reaching forward with the ball to break the plane of the goal line with the ball in your control, and the ball is then finally jarred loose and out of your control when you hit the ground as a result of reaching forward with the ball to get the touchdown, well, the rule is bad. This wasn't a case of a guy diving for the ball, seemingly having it but it jarring loose when he hit the ground, or a defender's hit jarring it loose. I really have a hard time believing that wasn't a catch.

Points: 0

#112 by Love is like a… (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 3:51pm

I always love people's ability to make incredibly close and unclear circumstances sound blazing clear through subtle modification. The play I saw he caught the ball started falling hit the ground and it came out.

There were no two steps, very little dive...

I think it really could have been called either way. My first instinct was that it was a touchdown, but then again the NFL rules on catches are pretty arcane.

Points: 0

#187 by azibuck (not verified) // Jan 20, 2009 - 9:50am

In reply to by Love is like a… (not verified)

Who modified anything? How many steps were there? Your last statement is the whole point. The rules on catches are arcane.

Points: 0

#175 by dbt // Jan 20, 2009 - 2:37am

The rules are very clear. If you are being hit by a defender while the ball is not yet secured, you must maintain possession all the way to the ground. he didn't. I saw a NE fumble overturned against he bears a couple years ago on the same rule; TE dragged a defender three steps before the ball came out.

You may disagree with the rule but the application was exactly correct. Once the defender hit him in the act of making the catch, he was required by rule to maintain possession all the way to the ground, and did not.

Points: 0

#185 by azibuck (not verified) // Jan 20, 2009 - 9:32am

Well, yeah, that's what we're saying. It's the rule. It's a bizarre and silly rule when used in for this play. Maybe I'm reading these other comments wrong, but I don't think we're saying the rule was misapplied.

Points: 0

#216 by Led (not verified) // Jan 20, 2009 - 4:04pm

dbt: I have indeed heard the rule explained as you describe, but I'd like to read it. Do you have a cite for the language of the rule? Thanks.

Points: 0

#264 by Steelerbrew (not verified) // Jan 23, 2009 - 10:15am

Not only did he make a football move clearly after at least one step, he also "crossed" the goal line with the footbal, which should have ended the play right there as a TD. How many times have you seen a player touch the pilon at the corner with the football and drop it before he hits the ground and it's still called a TD (assume because he broke the plane by hitting the pilon)?

They need to clarify/fix this rule (especially where reviewing is involved)....

Points: 0

#10 by joepinion (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:17am

Whisinhunt interviewed for the Pittsburgh job and got tired of waiting around (perhaps got the feeling Tomlin would get the job) so he took the Arizona job. Grimm was reported by the Tribune Review to have gotten the job but the next day it turned out it was Tomlin.

Points: 0

#11 by Herm? (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:19am

All around, I'm happy about the results yesterday - The team's that deserved to win the games won them. At times Warner just looks masterful attacking the blitzes and releasing the ball to the right receiver. And I think I got a concussion just watching the second game.

Aaron's mini-rant in the Cards-Eagles sectuion is a bit puzzling, maybe it's frustration born from FO's statistics not being a 100% accurate predictor of the outcomes. I'm more than happy with this site and the books, but that rant is missing some objectivity, or SOMETHING. Where does it come from?
The first thing I thought of was his next step is to lobby for a BCS system in the NFL. Am I way off here? I did just finish another shoveling session, so maybe I'm overtired and read it wrong. I am going to pass out at my desk soon...I'll re-read it later.

Anyways, I'm looking forward to the offense to the Steelers and their fans, but the Cards are the better story this year. If the Cards can beat that defense, it will be a great story much like last year.

Points: 0

#14 by Doug Farrar // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:25am

I think it had more to do with the residue of last year's troll-fest, and the anticipation of two weeks of "Yo, yew diddn"t see the Kard s coming u were only one dum stats mean nuthing go put on Egles jersey u pAts homer!?!"

Points: 0

#64 by dmb // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:12pm

The scenario you're envisioning would be much more plausible if Cardinals fans actually existed.

... okay, that was a cheap shot, but I honestly don't recall having ever before seen a poster here identify himself (or herself) as a Cardinals fan. Giants fans, on the other hand, were highly visible here well before the Super Bowl win.

Points: 0

#67 by NY expat // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:34pm

Anyone else see the fan holding the "We are Who We Thought We Were" sign and wonder for a moment if that was an Outsider or at least a visitor of this site? It gave me a good impression of the sense of humor of Cards fans.

Points: 0

#63 by Herm? (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:12pm

Ha, no Azibuck, I've just been a lot less active this year than in the past.

I understand that a rant existed - if there's no passion there, why bother to run a business? I was just confused because in my view, the team that just won all those games has proven it deserves to go to the Superbowl by settling up the best way possible - on the field.

I guess I'm on the other side of that argument because I love the unpredictabile nature of this game. I like to refer to DVOA and DYAR and look at the "Any Given Sunday" element. But as I thought about it, I suppose I can understand that if the metrics here were THE most successful tools to NFL prediction, he'd be able to, on Ty Law's terms, feed his family. Which technically means feed the entire Eastern Seaboard.

Points: 0

#42 by sss (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:21pm

I think Aaron is completely justified in being frustrated -- I myself find the whole thing maddening. I enjoy a good upset as much as the next fellow, but the past few years the entire tournament seems to be entirely random. And if that's the case, well, suddenly everything becomes a lot less meaningful. If everything is diminished to what seems to be a roll of the dice, why get emotionally vested? Why even bother debating and attempting to predict the outcome? And if that's your -job-, if developing a predictive model is something you take pride in and to watch as all your analysis goes out the window (even though it very well may be -correct- analysis)... I think a little tirade is understandable.

I think it's especially frustrating because, in the regular season, things DON'T appear to be entirely random. But once you get in the postseason, all of a sudden it's just a complete mess. And I know a large reason for that is because all the teams in the postseason are much closer in terms of ability, but it seems inexplicable that a team like Arizona (or the Giants, or the Colts...) could dramatically improve at the drop of a hat.

It's probably good for generating interest casual fans, but as someone who invests a lot of time in the NFL, well, I hate that when it's playoff time I'm as clueless as everyone else.

Points: 0

#69 by cd6 // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:40pm

"And if that's the case, well, suddenly everything becomes a lot less meaningful. If everything is diminished to what seems to be a roll of the dice, why get emotionally vested? Why even bother debating and attempting to predict the outcome?"

Because its football?

If everything is predicted, why play the games?

Points: 0

#83 by dmb // Jan 19, 2009 - 2:06pm

I don't think anyone really wants games to be completely predictable; it's more that they've now become a little too unpredictable. And I have to agree with that sentiment: usually I enjoy rooting for a likeable underdog, but it seems like it's getting to the point where "big" upsets are somewhat commonplace -- which is unfortunate not only because of what it suggests about our ability to figure out why teams win and lose, but also because it takes the novelty and fun out of such upsets.

Points: 0

#95 by Sergio // Jan 19, 2009 - 2:53pm

The ridiculous thing to me, is that Aaron is getting worked up over something that, really, isn't entirely rational. DVOA/DYAR/Dwhatever is supposed to be a great indicator of *past* performance, a good measure of how teams/units/players performed on the field compared to the rest of the league, but it's in no way a predictor.

That sounds harsh. To put it in another form, it's as much a predictor as conventional stats, scout reports, professional (not so fast, Phil Simms) analysis, etc. There's absolutely no tool in the world - be it a stat, analysis, anything - that can accurately predict what's going to happen, simply because of the nature of a football game. No one can predict if a player's going to be shot tomorrow, or if a coach's son is going to commit suicide; whether a player suddenly "gets it", or a QB just broke through his mechanics issues. A football game is, like much of the activities that entail human interaction, unpredictable. We can make assumptions, projections, and take on expectations based on past performance; but at some point, we all have to recognize that sometimes, crap happens that you simply couldn't have rationally expected, and it's OK. It's life.

That, to me, is a far better reason to get emotionally vested. Why would I get emotionally involved in something if I *know* what's going to happen? If I knew every time my team would win or lose, hell, why watch? Just pass me the stat sheet afterwards - and as a mere pastime, since I would no longer care about it.

-- Go Phins!

Points: 0

#176 by dbt // Jan 20, 2009 - 2:43am

Actually, DVOA is designed specifically to cull out statistics that have the most predictive power, i.e. those that do correlate well from game to game to season to season. That's what makes it so powerful.

Points: 0

#228 by mateomysterio (not verified) // Jan 20, 2009 - 7:57pm

I agree with the essence of your first paragraph and the comments of the other posters on the degree and effect of unpredictability in football.

Stats will show us trends alone. A player may only shoot 38% from three over his career, yet go 2-2 in any given game. That is why the baseball number-crunchers attempt to construct a team that can maximize any player trends throughout the regular season - because it gives a large enough sample size. The playoffs have too small of a pool for true reliance on probabilities. You may be likely to score 6.7 runs a game average based on your stats but baseball GAMES don't have decimals on the scoreboard. Any game will range above or below your current or projected mean.

I'm willing to bet that when you adjust the Cardinals numbers over their complete run, their pertinent numbers will rise to the respectable levels you would expect of a Super Bowl team, or at least closer to them.

I understand Aaron's frustration, however. When you run a buisness based on providing analysis with some projection, I can only imagine you have a lot invested in establishing that the 'numbers work'. I believe that their work is correct, but every game is played but once and any probabilities just mean that there is a chance, however great or small, of a given result. The Cardinals do not invalidate the work or even contradict it but they do make it harder to explain to nay-sayers.

Besides, the numbers have been pimping the Eagles all season. I would be invested too.

Keep up the good work

Points: 0

#263 by yakul (not verified) // Jan 22, 2009 - 10:53pm

This may have been covered elsewhere in this thread, but Aaron started to raise a very valid point about concern over who gets into the playoffs. The more teams the NFL allows into the playoffs, the more risk there is that the regular season games will be devalued. At the risk of elevating TMQ's rants into rational thought, one of the drums that Easterbrook occasionally beats is a desire to have more teams in the playoffs. I find myself wincing when I read that because one of the things the NFL has traditionally had going for it was the sense that every regular season game really counts. I'd sympathize with a movement that tries to limit the number of mediocre teams that make it to the playoffs so I don't have to deal with the boredom that is, say, the NHL in the regular season.

The FO guys have probably already run numbers to try to test out the power of excluding "didn't need to try" games from games where playoff eligibility was in doubt. There may not have been much of a difference in the past but it's hard to imagine Arizona wouldn't have thrown DVOA askew a bit with their early season division clinch.

On a separate note, as a Vikings fan, this makes two years in a row that I completely underestimated a Super Bowl team because the Vikings blew them out in their own house. Congratulations Cardinals.

Points: 0

#113 by S.K. (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 4:03pm

On the contrary, sss, the individual result of any given game during the regular season is just as random as the playoffs. See Cleveland defeating the Giants, the Colts destroying the Ravens, like 5 of Philly's games, etc... the "one and done" format of the NFL playoffs just makes this randomness more noticable, where one bad game can negate all that came before it.

Points: 0

#201 by Eric (not verified) // Jan 20, 2009 - 12:45pm

Remember, the playoff odds going into the weekend gave the Cardinals a 13% chance to win the SB. Not 0%. We may very well be in the 1-in-8 situation.

Sometimes, an eight sided die comes up a 1. It's not being clueless, it's playing the odds. Given what we'd seen, the odds were against this but didn't rule it out. That 1 can still be rolled.

There's a post somewhere else in this thread about how maybe it was the coaching staff that laid off for those few weeks late in the season in order to not give too much away. I'm really beginning to believe that might be true. As was said, if this had happened after week 8, nobody would have been surprised.

Points: 0

#259 by Jon Silverberg (not verified) // Jan 22, 2009 - 1:17am

"I think it's especially frustrating because, in the regular season, things DON'T appear to be entirely random."

Not! Read this:

Parity produces random results...

Points: 0

#114 by Anon-Jero (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 4:04pm

Sure the Cards may be the better story line, but is anyone on the Steelers roster from Tampa?

Points: 0

#13 by Botswana Meat … (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:22am

Philadelpia was just thoroughly out-coached by Arizona. On all sides of the ball. Particularly infuriating as an Eagles fan was when Arizona ran a perfectly executed screen pass that just blew by about three blitzers. I think I screamed "That's our play!" when I saw that.

The "Bad WIP Caller/Eagles Fan" in me is tempted to jump on the Gruden Train right about now. Completely stupid, I know.

Points: 0

#16 by BucNasty // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:26am

Has any team ever, ever, scored on a crazy hook-and-ladder (or screen-and-ladder, whatever it was) play at the end of the game? They had 9 seconds, that's enough time for either two deep incompletes, a screen, or an intermediate pass to the sidelines followed by either a screen or a deep throw. They almost surely would have failed, but at least make a serious attempt instead of goofing around with all the laterals.

On a side note, I'll root for the Cards simply because they've never done it before while the Steelers have won 5 championships, but I was actually kinda hoping Warner would have a bad game se he'd sign with us next year. Now if he wins he'll probably decide to go out on top.

Points: 0

#19 by JD (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:34am

The "River City Relay" was arguably one of those plays, although it wasn't a short pass like the Eagles tried.

Points: 0

#37 by thok // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:13pm

The Cal Bears obviously did it once. (So did Trinity, but against a team that couldn't tackle.)

The thing is that most teams have neither the personnel nor have practiced the technique for doing that play (Cal at the least, had a bunch of players with rugby experience when they did it.)

The most infuriating one I've seen was at the end of this years Miami-Jets game, where the Jets ran that play with Brett Favre in the game. Because it's really a good idea to put Favre in a position where he's likely to get even more injured.

Points: 0

#126 by Marko // Jan 19, 2009 - 4:45pm

The Cal play known as "The Play" was a kickoff return (on a squib kick), not a play from scrimmage. And I was there - I was in my freshman year at Cal.

Points: 0

#82 by KyleW // Jan 19, 2009 - 2:04pm

Did the Saints (Aaron Brooks era) not succeed at this a few years ago only to miss the extra point?

I'm pretty sure it came up back in the irrational thread days.

Points: 0

#229 by mateomysterio (not verified) // Jan 20, 2009 - 8:01pm

I'm too lazy to follow up with my own research, but I think you are talking about the saints- who did it TO the eagles in 2004. Damn, I'm from New Orleans and I didn't even know they called it that.

or i'm an idiot

Points: 0

#15 by FireOmarTomlin // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:26am

*steelers homerism aside*

How can anyone actually think Clark (tried to) helmet speared McGahee? It was clear watching it live, let alone on the multiple replays, that he did his classic leaping-twist-the-shoulder into-impact hit. He turned his pads into a weapon to try and cause a fumble--- precisely his job as a safety on that type of play. It was unfortunate that as the hit was coming McGahee instinctively tried to brace and duck away from it and in doing so, actually brought his helmet, head, and neck much more into the contact.

Nobody ever wants to see players hurt, but hits like this are what makes football a game for tough men. Sanitize the game much more and you might as well just turn it into Flag Football.
0:50-0:51 clearly shows McGahee unfortunately ducking some into the hit.
1:06 (and 1:40) clearly shows the definitive angle of impact. Clark is starting to adjust his body position and launch himself, McGahee realizes he is gonna get crushed and tries to lower himself and brace up. Unfortunately they end up meeting side of helmet to front of helmet. (If Clark were trying to helmet spear McGahee in the head that was the worst attempt I've ever seen, because when* he launched himself, he aimed about 1 foot under McGahee's head... and then he failed to have body control to keep himself from twisting about 45 degrees in flight.)

Points: 0

#40 by Lou // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:18pm

i don't think he intended to lead with his helmet either, but the fact is it ended up being helmet to helmet, and that should be a penalty. And it probably would've been h2h even if mcgahee doesn't get lower.

Points: 0

#74 by roguerouge // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:51pm

Isn't a truism of football refs that you don't consider intent when you throw flags? To me, it doesn't matter what he was trying to do: it was a helmet to helmet hit. Throw the flag. (Not that this matters, but I hate the Ravens.)

Points: 0

#77 by Pat F. // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:55pm

Absolutely. Clark went high, clearly trying to make a vicious highlight-worthy hit. I don't think he meant to hit McGahee helmet-to-helmet, but that's not the point. When you go high in that manner you risk helmet-to-helmet. It happened and he should have been penalized. As roguerouge said, intent doesn't factor into it.

Personally, I don't care if "football is a brutal game played by manly men," the line needs to be drawn somewhere before hits like this are tolerated. He should be fined as well. Not suspended, but fined.

Points: 0

#88 by DJ Any Reason (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 2:27pm

Is the fact that the h2h occurred as a result of McGahee lowering his helmet factor into the equation? When there's h2h is it always on the D? Is it on whoever is initiating the hit (e.g., it could be called on O if a blocker caused a h2h block)?

I always had thought that the rule stated you couldn't lead with your helmet in order to cause a h2h hit (see, e.g., the tackling method of Brian Dawkins).

Points: 0

#130 by MurphyZero // Jan 19, 2009 - 4:59pm

Yeah, I agree. If there should have been a helmet to helmet penalty on that play, it should have been on McGahee. Clark led with his shoulder, McGahee led with his helmet. The refs called it right (rare in the game) by calling no penalty.

Points: 0

#167 by 3.14159265 (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:48pm

Clark went high, clearly trying to make a vicious highlight-worthy hit. I don't think he meant to hit McGahee helmet-to-helmet,...

Clark should have went low and blew out either McGahee's surgically repaired knee, or his other knee?

It was an unfortunate hit.

I blame Flacco 50% for leading McGahee into the hit.
McGahee 15% for lowering his head while bracing for impact.
Clark 35% for not getting his shoulder around. Clark didn't leave his feet until the impact, and probably as a result of the collision. So, I don't think Clark intentionally tried to spear McGahee, or go helmet to helmet, but he did hit him with his helmet, and the flag should have been thrown. I don't think it was a dirty hit though, and I think if the Ravens' thought it was a dirty play there would have been a fight on the field.

Points: 0

#109 by CoachDave // Jan 19, 2009 - 3:46pm

Absolutely it's a H2H hit that should have been flagged and should draw a fine. Suspension? NFW, it's never going to happen.

It's real simple folks, follow one simple tackling rule that we've all been taught since Pop Warner days..."see what you hit" and you will almost never incur a H2H hit because your neck will rotate away from the collision and your shoulder pads will absorb the blow and a non-static neck will NEVER cause the hitter or the hittee the same amount of rigid force that a static "head down" neck will.

Obviously the "Trent-Green knee to the head" type hits will happen, but if the tackler isn't "seeing what he's hitting" it's going to cause more H2H hits and more injuries, just like Clark's hit.

I implore you to watch the reply again...Clark's arms are down, he's not making any attempt to wrap up and if he wanted to hit with the shoulder he would have not pointed his head down towards the direction of the ball carrier...he clearly was trying to "spear" the ballcarrier and whether the shoulder hit first is immaterial...he is not trying to see what he hits which is exactly what the H2H rule was designed to do in the first place.

And to respond to the "McGahee lowered himself, so Clark did as well" reply, that doesn't matter, the responsibility for the hit is ALWAYS on the defense player who is tracking the play, not on the offensive player who has their head turned around, catches the ball and then reacts.

And as far as Phil Simms' comment about "no H2H down the field" and "he tried to lead with his shoulder" they couldn't be more further from the truth. You "see what you hit" when you lead with your shoulder...lowering the crown of your helmet to make a tackle is EXACTLY what the H2H rule was put in place for...honestly, if the NFL doesn't fine Clark for that hit, then they should just say "F- it" and throw it out.

Points: 0

#133 by MurphyZero // Jan 19, 2009 - 5:11pm

You can follow ALL the rules of good tackling and still have two helmets collide. You also state that you won't have helmet to helmet because your neck will rotate away from the collision...head to head collision...sound like a hit. So it's pretty clear that it's the intent that should matter not the result.
Clark led with the shoulder, intending to jar the ball loose not necessarily to make the tackle in a risk/reward type play. McGahee dropped his helmet, intending to lead with his helmet and ouchies all around. Also, missed because both players got up is that the Steeler and Raven diving for the loose ball both collided helmets. Penalties for them too? Really it would have just been the Raven as the Steeler was trying to shield the ball and it was the back of his helmet. So in your world, it would have been offsetting penalties.

Points: 0

#89 by dmb // Jan 19, 2009 - 2:32pm

I think this might be a good application of Occam's Razor (simplest explanation is the best...): the ref isn't going to call a penalty that he can't see. It looked like Clark hit shoulder-first from multiple angles, and the helmet-to-helmet contact isn't really obvious until you slow the play down and look at it from specific angles. (In fact, the view that shows it was definitely helmet-to-helmet was from at least 15 feet above the play.) Unless a ref had a perfect vantage point and an incredibly discerning eye, it's perfectly understandable that no penalty was called -- it wasn't clear that penalty had occurred. And as far as I know, that's not a call that can be challenged, and even if it is, it happened before the two-minute warning -- so it wasn't up to the officials to review it. So even if this "should've" been called a penalty, I'm surprised by how many people are suggesting the refs really did anything wrong.

As for intent, I think y'all are right that it shouldn't matter much when it comes to on-the-field penalties ... but shouldn't it matter when it comes to fines and suspensions? I think it's very clear that Clark led with his shoulder and didn't intend for any sort of helmet contact, so why should he be reprimanded?

If you think he should be penalized because he was making a "dangerous play," then what should he have done? Go low? Considering McGahee had just left the game with knee issues, then folks might be talking about how it was a dirty play because he was targeting an injured area. Go high, but not as high? That's what Clark was trying to do -- his feet didn't leave the ground until after contact. Slow up? If he slows up and misses the play as a result, he's (deservedly) headed to the bench, and if the drive ends up being consequential, he's considered a goat. The fact is that when you've got two guys going right at each other with that kind of size and speed, any play is a potentially dangerous play. It's just really unfortunate that this one ended up being worse than most.

Points: 0

#121 by CoachDave // Jan 19, 2009 - 4:24pm

Yea, McGahee's reactions are at fault...forget that Clark was tracking the play the entire time...blame it on the defenseless ball carrier who turned around and got speared by a guy who has a track record for doing this and clearly CHOSE to lower his helmet to hit McGahee.

And for those of you scoring at home, just typing "Steelers homerism aside" doesn't actually cleanse the post from blatant Steelers homerism.

Who knew?

Points: 0

#128 by DJ Any Reason (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 4:47pm

FO Alumn Ryan Wilson outlines why the hit was clean and legal:

Points: 0

#129 by DJ Any Reason (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 4:50pm

Or, perhaps, non-FO-alumn Matt Snyder... don't know why I got *THAT* wrong...

Points: 0

#245 by RickD // Jan 21, 2009 - 1:22pm

I'm still trying to understand an officiating team that doesn't flag a helmet-to-helmet hit but calls that absurd "roughing the kicker" penalty when the punter's toe is grazed.

Clark was definitely leading with his head. He tackled with a helmet-to-helmet hit. McGahee had a serious injury that could easily have been much worse. If the NFL is going to allow hits like that, at some point somebody is going to be killed. I say that not as an exaggeration for dramatic impact. Did you see how badly McGahee's head jackknifed?

The argumentative tack of blaming McGahee for ducking his head is something I just cannot respect at all. Clark was the tackler leading with his helmet. That is a conscious decision. Whatever McGahee does at the last second is an instinctive decision.

It really annoyed me that Phil Simms started with the "leading with his shoulder" nonsense, when it was clear that Clark was leading with his head. And then, after the replay made it clear that it was a helmet-to-helmet tackle, Simms uttered some nonsense about how the helmet-to-helmet prohibition didn't apply to tackling ball carriers downfield. WTF???? Simms was not only completely wrong, what he said resembled the rule in no way or fashion. The NFL instituted the helmet-to-helmet rule exactly to apply in situations like this one.

And really, I don't care if it was Clark's intent to hurt McGahee. I would stipulate that he wasn't doing so. But he made a tackle in an illegal fashion and should be fined heavily for making a hit that could have easily paralyzed or killed McGahee.

I should say at this point that one of the very first NFL games I watched on TV was the Raiders-Pats game back in 1978 when Jack Tatum paralyzed Darryl Stingley. I have absolutely no tolerance for hits that can cause spinal cord injuries. And that is what Clark did on this play.

Points: 0

#18 by Spielman // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:31am

If the Cardinals win the Super Bowl, I'm picturing a straitjacket-clad Aaron Schatz rocking back and forth in a padded room repeating over and over in disbelieving tones "But they sucked in November and December!"

Yes, I know that's not fair. But it's funny.

Points: 0

#34 by Tom Nawrocki (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:04pm

I haven't seen any Outsiders compare the Cardinals to the 2006 Bears, who closed their season by squeaking past the 4-12 Bucs and the 3-13 Lions before getting blown out by the Packers in their last game. It became a matter of faith that the Bears were the mediocrity they looked in the last three weeks of the season, rather than the excellent team they had been up till then, to the point that Aaron, IIRC, picked the Saints to beat them in the NFC Championship game. That didn't happen.

Personally I'm just glad I'll have one more chance to watch Larry Fitzgerald play football this season.

Points: 0

#119 by Robo-Hochuli (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 4:20pm

Nobody made that comparison because it isn't a very good comparison. That Bears team began the year with a number of STOMPs and from about week 5 on were one of the NFC front-runners. The Cardinals were always considered the worst of the division leaders this year and looked much worse in their mid-year losses than the Bears did in theirs. Just because they both had weak December performances doesn't mean the rest of their bodies of work were comparable. The Bears had clearly shown they could be a dominant team if only the right Grossman would show up, so their run was explainable. The Cardinals: just frickin' magic.

Points: 0

#205 by bravehoptoad // Jan 20, 2009 - 1:30pm

Not true they were "always" considered one of the worst division leaders. Around the mid-point of the season DVOA had them pegged pretty high and everyone was holding their breath to see if they were for real or not.

As the season progressed we all began thinking, "same old Cards," but there were all kinds of articles early on about "Are they finally fulfilling their promise?" etc.

Points: 0

#20 by FireOmarTomlin // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:34am

Comment I have to throw in as a Steelers homer.

Sweed- incredibly bad drop followed by worse fake injury cost them points. That said* Hines is clearly teaching him the off the ball intangibles. That block on Ivy was brutal, possibly the hardest actual hit of the game. He had NO idea that was coming. Just like Keith Rivers. It didn't end up mattering directly other than making a few more yards on that play, but wow it's good to see that at least when he screws up he gets right back in there and gives it all he's got.

Points: 0

#46 by Temo // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:26pm

Blocking as a WR is not an "intangible". It is, in fact, a very tangible thing.

Points: 0

#58 by FireOmarTomlin // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:03pm

Sure it is. I'm talking about the intangibles of it in the sense of : creating the mentality that you wanting to block so hard you knock a player out. The mentality that your block on this play might gain 1 extra yard that ends up being the difference in the game. The mentality that you're gonna block with such power , energy, and passion that you might even injure yourself doing it.

Points: 0

#56 by Vendark (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:56pm

That wasn't a clean block. Forget the hit on McGahee, it's the block by Sweed on Ivy that the refs should have called helmet to helmet on. Ivy wasn't even looking and Sweed swooped in and speared him in the side of the head.

Points: 0

#73 by rk (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:50pm

There's no rule (that I know of) against blocking helmet to helmet or against blocking someone who isn't looking.

Points: 0

#181 by TGT2 (not verified) // Jan 20, 2009 - 8:17am

It's called unnecessary roughness. I mentioned it in audibles. You can't hit any player violently or unnecessarily with your helmet.

Points: 0

#265 by robwein (not verified) // Jan 23, 2009 - 5:54pm

That's right, it was unnecessary roughness, just like the Ward cheap shot on Keith Rivers. That "intangible" of waiting until the defender has his head turned and is completely helpless before viciously cracking back on him sure is rubbing off on Sweed. Congrats.

Points: 0

#21 by TGisriel (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:37am

Re: why so few runs by LaRon McClain: I haven't heard any official explanation, but McClain sprained his ankle in the Tennessee game. I don't think he was healthy for the Steelers.

As a Ravens fan, I'm disappointed of course. Congrats to the Steelers. The Ravens were so banged up, I was afraid they would not be able to put up a good game.

Points: 0

#195 by D Jones // Jan 20, 2009 - 11:38am

I was wondering where he was. LaR McC > Wi McG

Too bad he wasn't lining up behind those unbalanced lines, might have been a little different game.

Points: 0

#22 by Kurt (a differ… (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:38am

The IRC channel discussion labeled Larry Fitzgerald (with his gloves stuffed into his facemask right at halftime) as "Fitzthulu".

He's downfield eating your DBs...

Just need someone to find the appropriate video frame or photo and "LOLCAT" it.

Points: 0

#23 by andrew // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:42am

I thought the same thing about the music playing while McGahee was down. Dunno if the stadium people follow the action other than to know when there is a break in the game...

As far as Arizona... its normal for us to take results when stuff is clinched with a grain of salt, wonder if there is some coorelation between that and early clinches?

The general sentiment prior to the Minnesota game was the Cardinals spent all week celebrating their division championship. Hopefully two weeks will be enough this time, or they learned their lesson.

Points: 0

#43 by Spoon // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:22pm

What music were they playing during the McGahee injury? All I heard was "Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing."

Points: 0

#148 by Jerry // Jan 19, 2009 - 7:06pm

Yeah, and the volume was low enough that I couldn't make out several passages. (While I don't doubt that they played CCR as well, I have no recollection of it.)

The video board didn't show a replay; it just showed a long shot of the entire field, which is exactly how it was when Roethlisberger was hurt three weeks ago. In fact, if anyone has a recording of the Steelers-Browns game, I'd be curious to know if they played music while Ben was down.

ETA: I see right below this is my answer about three weeks ago. It just goes to show that live, at least, the music is unobtrusive in these situations. If you'd asked me on the way to the car last night what music had played while McGahee was down, I couldn't have told you.

Points: 0

#188 by Spoon // Jan 20, 2009 - 10:13am

Dammit, are there no Shostakovich listeners on Football Outsiders? I was hoping someone would have understood my quip...

Points: 0

#75 by rk (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:53pm

They did the same thing when their own player (Ben Roethlisberger) was in a similar situation in Week 17. Apparently it's Heinz Field SOP.

Points: 0

#85 by dmb // Jan 19, 2009 - 2:12pm

Then again, is there really any song that would be appropriate for the situation? "Send in the Clowns" is about the best I can come up with.

I think the best thing to do in that situation would've been to leave the PA system alone, but I can understand how the folks making these decisions might have felt like they needed to do something.

Points: 0

#138 by andrew // Jan 19, 2009 - 5:45pm

You can't find appropriate music. What're you going to do, play the theme song from M*A*S*H? (Suicide is Painless)? The Theme from E.R.?

Why play any song at all? Why not have some silence?

Points: 0

#158 by Jimmy Oz (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 9:26pm

Its only music to keep the crowd entertained because nothing is happening on field. i can't believe people arc up about this junk.

Points: 0

#159 by Eddo // Jan 19, 2009 - 9:35pm

Because silence tends to cause even more anxiety, I'd say. I can't fault the Heinz Field crew for playing music, in the same way that waiting rooms have TVs and magazines. It provides a distraction for helpless observers.

Points: 0

#24 by johonny (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:44am

Players that make a farce of rules designed to protect their health should be fined or penalized. The rule is to protect players, not to pick up cheap first downs.

Points: 0

#207 by E // Jan 20, 2009 - 2:08pm

I completely agree. What the Pitt punter (Berger) did was completely bush league. There are some who believe that flop was a good strategic play, but consider that the reason the roughing-the-kicker rule exists, and the reason it carries such a severe penalty, is to protect otherwise helpless punters. What Berger's flop does in the long run is to make it a bit less likely for referees to call the roughing-the-kicker penalty, because there is now a seed of doubt as to whether the punter was actually hit or was flopping (that doubt being either conscious or sub-conscious). As a result, punters are less protected than they were before. Berger should be fined and his punting colleagues should let him know that his actions were unacceptable.

Points: 0

#26 by Justin Zeth // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:49am

Head, shoulder, that doesn't make much difference. Clark wasn't aiming for the ball. He was aiming for McGahee's head. That's made very clear by the side angle. Right when Clark makes his final step/lunge he pulls his own head/shoulders up, right into McGahee's helmet. I've watched it 250 times now and tried my best to be charitable to Clark, but he was aiming for the head. And it's far from his first time aiming for the head.

If you want to be really charitable to Clark, you can believe Clark saw McGahee lowering his head at the last second and tried to pull his own head up to avoid a helmet-helmet collision (by getting his own head above McGahee's). That's a much easier way to believe things happened.

Points: 0

#28 by DGL // Jan 19, 2009 - 11:51am

Does anyone know who the referee is for the Super Bowl, and what his track record on calling holding is? I have a feeling that could significantly influence the outcome of the game...

Points: 0

#193 by brett ratliff (not verified) // Jan 20, 2009 - 11:13am

yes, clearly if the refs ever called holding in that game, the ravens defense would have been much more effective. i simply refuse to believe that the steelers offensive linemen were sustaining blocks against the ravens D for 4 and 5 seconds without holding.

i am not a ravens fan and don't especially dislike the steelers, but i am continuously astounded by the manner in which they get the benefit of every close call. (remember that ridiculous penalty against matt hasselbach in the superbowl a couple of years ago?)

Points: 0

#221 by DGL // Jan 20, 2009 - 4:42pm

Hell, the Steelers OL wasn't maintaining blocks for two seconds against the Ravens D. The Ravens D just couldn't keep contain against Roethlisberger, allowing him to move out of the pocket and keep the play going - and the Ravens couldn't keep coverage for that extra four or five seconds.

The question was not meant as a bitch, it was serious. Harrison (and Woodley, and Farrior, and Smith) are difficult to block. The line between effective blocking and offensive holding is a judgment call. FO has shown that different referees call holding at different rates. If the ref working the SB is one who has a higher tendency to call holding, that will make the Steelers' pass rushers more effective. If the ref has a lower tendency to call holding, Steelers' pass rush will be less effective. Pass pressure is a more important part of the Steelers' game than the Cardinals' game, and a different ref tendency will disproportionately affect the Steelers.

Points: 0

#35 by NHRevsFan (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:08pm

I think the unified Cardinals theory (working hypothesis version) can be summed up:

1)This is a team that plays up to the level of its opposition, and let's be honest, if your opposition is the NFC West, what is that going to be? Not sure if DVOA can bear that out.

2)Notwithstanding the above, Wisenhunt and Grimm took the second half of the season as an extended exhibition season to rebuild, rework, and retool for the playoffs. The New England game is actually the number one exhibit for this, where they kept working fundamentals, regardless of the tactical situation.

I dunno. It's a t'eory (a theory from Brooklyn)

Points: 0

#36 by Jimmy // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:13pm

I have no vested interest in either team playing in that game.

Having said that, I thought the failure of an official to throw a flag on the fourth down attempt by Philly was seriously shocking. Even if feet do get a bit tangled, you can't then whack the guy's ankles with your arms because he is running toward the ball. Blatant PI. I also don't care if Curtis still had a chance to catch it, as soon as the AZ defender stuck out his arms to grab Curtis' legs the flag should hae been in the air.

The non-call ended the game and it really shouldn't have done. Which is a shame.

Points: 0

#38 by Spoon // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:16pm

I've said this before on this site, but Arizona's run proves just how fluky playoffs can be. The "best team" seldom wins it all in the end. If I had to guess as to why it's became more evident, I'd blame parity and realignment. Before salary caps, et al., you had dominant teams like the Steelers and Cowboys who regularly challenged each other for the championship. Obviously the owners then took steps to improve competitive balance, so much so that the Dolphins and Falcons can become playoff teams just one year after each had disastrous seasons. Parity means that "on any given Sunday, etc", and allows the Cleveland Browns to beat the New York Giants.

But for a mediocre team to win the Super Bowl, they first have to make the playoffs. I think the realignment in 2002 is a key factor for why we're seeing more surprising playoff results recently. As Aaron said, Arizona was playoff bound over the other 9-7 teams just because of geography. A team doesn't need to be one of the six best teams in their conference to make the playoffs now, they just need to be better than the other three teams in their division. And since once you're in anything can happen, it's no surprise at all that when the admissions standards are relaxed we start to see unexpected results.

As I mentioned in my previous post, my perspective is undoubtedly colored by being a Braves fan. My best friend as a kid was a guy that moved with his family from Atlanta, so a grade-schooler from Indy with no hometown team became a fan of the Atlanta Braves. This was in the late-80's, so I got in on the ground floor. I got to see all 14 straight division titles, though I only got to see one World Series win. For a long time I couldn't figure out, and I would get so mad when I thought the team had choked again. It was until I read Moneyball that I started to understand. When asked why his shit doesn't work in the playoffs, Billy Beane was smart enough to point out that the regular season is a marathon; the playoffs are a sprint. The team that you build to be successful over 162 games is different from the team that you build to be successful over seven games at a time. This is why two great starters can win you a title, as they did for Arizona in 2001, and why a .500 Cardinals team can win the World Series as well.

Of course, being from Indy I am also a Colts fan. Yes, that's right, I cheer for the Colts and the Braves. That's 20 division championships since 1990, and only two titles to show for it. Believing the playoffs to be a fluke isn't just my analysis, it's self-preservation! But my belief is gaining traction, as more surprises happen every postseason. The Colts team that won in 2006 wasn't our best; both the 2005 and 2007 teams were better overall. Even this Colts fan will admit that New England was overwhelmingly the best team of 2007, but they didn't exit the postseason crapshoot victorious.

If Arizona wins the Super Bowl, it doesn't legitimize them. All it means is that they managed to win four games at a time the rulebook specified as more important than all the rest. They are still the very same team that went 9-7 and picked up six of those wins against their own dreadful division. They're still the same team that got smoked by the Jets early on, and by the Eagles, Vikings and Patriots in their final five games of the regular season.

But by being the 9-7 champions of the NFC West, they get a home game against a rookie QB and rookie coach leading a team that's week against the long passing game. They then get a fluky performance from a superior Panthers team, who beat them earlier in the year, where Jake Delhomme turns the ball over six times on his own. Think that would happen in a rematch? Finally we get the game yesterday, where Philly spends the entire first half playing like that team that only put up three points against Washington, and finds that they put themselves in too big of a hole to complete the comeback in the second half.

If those three games happen in the regular season, we'd just chalk it up to the topsy-turvy NFL. But because those games have happened in moments to which we have arbitrarily assigned extraordinary significance, everyone is stunned(!) that a team we thought was mediocre could suddenly be playing so well. What's more surprising to me is that all these people who follow football full time don't realize that these kind of results happen all the time! In a league where we want any one team to be able to beat any other on any given Sunday, and in a league where only one team ever has finished completely undefeated, it should be no surprise that even the best teams in any given year have had those surprise losses occur in the postseason. If the best teams don't always win the title, that means someone else does. Hoisting the Lombardi Trophy shouldn't mean that you were the best team that year, only that you happened to win three or four games when it mattered the very most.

Points: 0

#94 by Israel P. - Je… (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 2:52pm

After winning the Super Bowl three years ago, Cowher said something like "We aren't the best team. But we are the team that played best when it counted."

That seems to be the healthiest way to look at it.

Points: 0

#124 by greybeard (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 4:38pm

Everybody talks about Arizona and their 9-7 record. But had they not clinched the division, would they be 9-7? Maybe they would be 12-4. They did not have to be, and they did not. That does no mean they could not have done it.
They won the games that mattered before and during the playoffs. And lost the ones that did not. And their record was 9-7.

Points: 0

#247 by RickD // Jan 21, 2009 - 1:33pm

The problems with the Cards were deeper than simply mentally taking several weeks off. They were absolutely terrible in December. It's very hard to argue that they could have finished 12-4 if they'd wanted to. Why wouldn't they want to? Wouldn't any team want a chance at a bye week?

Points: 0

#248 by RickD // Jan 21, 2009 - 1:44pm

I think you have to step back and just appreciate that winning a tournament doesn't entail the conclusion that the winning team is "the best team". I don't know any serious observer of college basketball who thinks the '85 Villanova Wildcats was a better team than the '85 Georgetown Hoyas.

I think the most we can hope from sports is that being the "better team" only implies a greater likelihood of winning a game. I think we could say that in many sports, the likelihood can be presumed to converge to 100% quickly (e.g. in the 100 meters if your name is Bolt). Other sports are upset prone.

In baseball, you can often see a team ride a hot pitcher in the playoffs, and in hockey a goalie playing out of his mind can win a series or two by himself.

But ultimately, a tournament is the best way of assigning a label of "best team", even if we know it's not always going to be 100% accurate. Winning a tournament as an inferior team is a hell of an accomplishment. I think you're downplaying the difficulty of "you happened to win three or four games when it mattered the vey most". You make that sound like it's easy.

If you look back at the past 20-30 years, almost every year the Super Bowl has been won by either the team that was clearly dominant over the rest of the league (like the '85 Bears) or by one of a handful of teams that were generally recognized to be among the elite (e.g. the recent Pats and Colts championships). The upsets like Giants over Pats, Pats over Rams, and Jets over Colts are extremely rare.

If you discard the notion that the Super Bowl is meaningless because of occasional upsets, what would be the alternative? Voting a la college football? I prefer the tournament. Popular opinion is much less likely to be accurate than the result on the field when teams are forced to play each other.

Points: 0

#44 by Temo // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:23pm

As a sports fan, I'm not a guy who usually takes pleasure in the misfortune of others-- except when it comes to the Eagles.

So with that said, let me just say that the look on Brian "My helmet is a tool used for tackling" Dawkins' face in the closing seconds of that game yesterday almost made up for what has been a very depressing season overall for me.

Thank you, Arizona Cardinals, for prolonging the misery of Eagles fans. Now, where's Harris with that jam?

Points: 0

#45 by Theo // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:23pm

Punters and Kickers go diving because they share most of their DNA with soccer players.

Points: 0

#79 by Jimmy // Jan 19, 2009 - 2:01pm

Then how do you explain Marques Douglass' perfectly timed and executed swan dive right in front of the referees?

Points: 0

#194 by brett ratliff (not verified) // Jan 20, 2009 - 11:17am

limas sweed had a fake injury to make any soccer player envious.

Points: 0

#47 by Grunthos (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:28pm

Aaron, this is what happens when you try to make statistical projections off small data sets. You simply cannot cover all the relevant causal factors, no matter how much you want to and how much skill you bring to the table.

I do quantitative studies in International Relations. We have problems undreamed of in a project like FO... for example, *all* of our conflict data is subject to massive selection bias, in that wars only happen *after* a multilateral decision process that itself produces almost zero data. You build a good model, and events then rip it to shreds. Your model wasn't per se bad; the problem was too complicated.

In 1988, I was living in Cleveland for a short time. In no way a Browns fan, I was nonetheless caught up in their playoff fever. I watched that conference championship with more passion and commitment than I've ever brought to a game involving one of "my" teams. From the perspective of what we might call "justice," Denver had no business winning that game. It was an absolute travesty that the Browns were denied a Super Bowl appearance after definitively proving themselves the better team over the full hour. And I was very down on the sport afterwards...

... but that was nothing compared to the long-term damage to my respect for American football resulting from the ensuing Super Bowl. Washington was roughly the *fifth* best team in the NFC that year. On a one-off performance from a rookie running back, coupled with some good matchups against Denver's biggest flaws, the Skins blew out a better team. And they hoisted a shiny trophy, while demonstrably superior teams like San Fran and Cleveland weren't even present.

You're in the wrong line of work, I think. Keep it up, by all means... this is a very entertaining site. But you may have to dial back some of your faith in causal analysis if you want to stay sane.

Points: 0

#57 by andrew // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:03pm

Based on the Superbowl you mentioned, you're referring to the 1987 season (and playoffs running into early 1988).

That brings to mind another playoff run that might have some similarity.

To anyone who watched the 1987 season, the 1987 49ers were far far above anyone else in the league. They were 13-2, and blew out just about any other pretender to the title of best team in the league, including the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns. Their only real competition was the New Orleans Saints in their division, who were 12-3.

Their stretch run:

38-24 over the Cleveland Browns (who finished 10-5, and many thought as you did best team in the AFC)
23-12 at the Green Bay Packers
41-0 over the Chicago Bears (finished 11-4, #2 seed in NFC)
35-7 over the Atlanta Falcons
48-0 over the Los Angeles Rams

(that's 185-43 over 5 games, or 121-7 over last 3). I still think it is the most dominant stretch run going into the playoffs I can recall, and that includes the '85 Bears.

So what happens? an 8-7 Minnesota team, which backed into a wild card because someone else (Cowboys I think) lost, lost 3 of their last 4 when they knew another win would likely or definitely clinch them a playoff berth (their only win was a 3 point win over the Lions). They go into the 12-3 Saints building, fired up like never before for... not only their first playoff game, but their first winning season in franchise history... promptly turn the ball over on the first play, followed by a Saints touchdown the next play. Then they go and outscore the Saints 44-3 the rest of the way. Then they go into San Fransisco and Anthony Carter (hey, maybe its a receiver thing) goes and catches 10 passes for 221 yards, their defense roughs up Joe Montana to the point where he is benched for Steve Young and they win going away 36-24. It didn't continue. That team went onto have a far better season next year in 1988 (11-5, including a terrific stretch run) before getting bounced by a then relatively mediocre 10-6 Niners team that got hot and won the superbowl.

But there's got to be something in common there, no?

Points: 0

#81 by Matt W (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 2:04pm

But that was the strike year, right? If I've got it right, Minnesota was 0-3 in the replacement games and SF was 3-0 in them. Meaning that, with their real players, SF was 10-2 and Minnesota was 8-4. That makes it seem a little less weird

Points: 0

#139 by andrew // Jan 19, 2009 - 6:02pm

It makes it a little less so, right. But I believe any analysis would have said the Vikes had no business winning either game. Its just like the suddenly started clicking.

Points: 0

#152 by Grunthos (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 8:04pm

Without going back and looking at the numbers, this comports with my recollection. The NFC playoffs simply disintegrated that year in a series of results that did not in any way reflect the underlying quality of the teams involved. The AFC wasn't nearly as bad; Denver and Cleveland were pretty predictably the class of the conference, and while I think the Browns had the better team that season, it wasn't a slam dunk by any means. But Washington steamrolling Denver in a second quarter explosion/meltdown was not the outcome that 1987's games would portend. Maybe in another 10 years, FO will actually get their game charting pushed back that far, and then we can see for sure, but I think this model would be very, very surprised by that season.

Points: 0

#72 by Herm? (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:48pm

Grunthos, what would you consider a good data set? Or what data would need to be gathered to make better predictions? ("All of it" is not an acceptable answer :) )
Is it not a good data set because there are only 16 games? I wrestle with that, because while there are few games, there are about 40 running plays and 40 passing plays on each side (give or take) over 16 weeks.
I'm more inclined to think that while more data would help, there are too many error factors - matchups, performance/effort margin of error, weather, etc..
we know the model here is not bad but not perfect, and is changed or tweaked now and again...but do you think football is "too complicated" so much that the predictions can't be improved?
I like to think of football as very different from international relations. International relations would seem to have a bureaucratic nature and is subject to political or financial influences..whereas football is absolute - the teams play with the same set of rules, and the team with the higher score always wins.

Points: 0

#150 by Grunthos (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 7:57pm

I didn't mean to mislead... it's not an issue of the subject matter, it's an issue of the statistical limitations. Certainly, FO has done yeoman work taking a superficially limited number of outcomes (the 16 game season) and slicing it down into a much larger number of measurable units. But, with the lack of truly independent variables (22 individuals contributing to each play's outcome, not counting the refs, plus weather, coaching, etc.), and the short span of the regular season no matter how you slice it, there's not much traction for the model no matter what techniques you use. Quantitative political science has the same problem, only magnified, because so little is measured in discrete units there and so much occurs outside of the actual "contest". So I see in Aaron's frustration a feeling I have experienced myself.

For FO, and for Aaron, this is an issue about keeping manageable goals. The work these guys do can certainly strongly advance our understanding of what really matters in a football game and how teams can improve their outcomes. But any time you step back and look at the whole picture, the variance explained will always be depressingly low. It is too complicated to *resolve*, but not too complicated to fruitfully study. (Indeed, anytime anyone says something is too complicated to study, you know they are sticking their heads in the sand... Einstein wasn't deterred just because the universe is absolutely incomprehensibly huge and complex, and neither should FO be deterred just because football can't be captured in a linear regression.)

So getting frustrated about Arizona ends up being a non-starter, because if it wasn't Arizona, it would be some other team, and if it wasn't 2009, it would be some other year coming to your television screen soon. That doesn't change the fact that the FO model is telling us some important things, and will be able to tell us more important things as they improve the data set. Focusing on what can be learned is the best tonic to nature's repeated reminders that we cannot know it all.

Points: 0

#184 by Spielman // Jan 20, 2009 - 9:02am

I think it's an awful lot more satisfying if you're not hung up on predictions. Trouble is, what does everyone want? Predictions. Those who gamble want them to try to make money (or often, to recoup their losses before Bruno the Basher breaks their legs) those who don't gamble want them for Fantasy purposes. For FO's purposes, good predictions keep them functioning. It's not really surprising that the Cardinals are causing Schatz to lose his mind.

Points: 0

#244 by HugeShoulderpad (not verified) // Jan 21, 2009 - 1:07pm

I agree completely. The reason the playoffs might seem random is that one game isn't a sufficient sample to completely determine which is the better team. Even if you were to say that Team A wins "twice as often" as Team B, then Team B still has a .33 chance to win a given game. When teams are much more evenly matched, a single game is basically a coin flip.

Andre Agassi used to say that tournaments weren't designed to determine the best player, they were designed to determine a champion.

Points: 0

#48 by CardsFan (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:30pm

Aaron Schatz seems emotionally invested in his argument that the Cardinals should not have, could not have won. Maybe the stats, the pyschology, the scouting are accurately accounting for where the Cardinals stood in the regular season. One thing that doesn't get measured is this idea that "everything just came together at the right time". You hear this from a lot of the players and coaches in the play-offs, and I'm not sure if it's measureable.

A Superbowl experienced coaching staff in it's second year, a core of quality Dennis Green selected players from several years back, a proven leader in Warner, and talented young players may have all developed complete faith in their coaches, their teammates, and themselves at just the right time.

Aaron, it may not be the numbers, but just the comfort you derive from them.

Points: 0

#140 by andrew // Jan 19, 2009 - 6:09pm

off topic - what is it that makes someone feel compelled to rate a comment at "3"? You feel strongly enough that you'll take the time to rate it... as average?

I think the site would be better served with a simple "thumbs up" / "thumbs down" rating system. (assuming there is some value in a rating system).

Anyway, that aside... I think perhaps it is a bit frustrating and understandable, but not emotional. The accuracy of their forecasting is what drives the site, and now you're going to have some yahoo who called "cards" because "eagles suck" thinking they can analyze football better than what goes on here.

I'm sure there will be a lot of work at trying to figure out the why behind what has happened here. Because the alternative -- that there was no way to predict this -- would run contrary to the very purpose of this site.

Points: 0

#49 by The Anti-Dave (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:33pm

You're "going to shoot somebody" if Arizona wins the Super Bowl, Aaron? Are you that deeply in love with the idea that Arizona's (admittedly awful) slog through the motions after the early division title was an indicator of the team's true ability?

Points: 0

#70 by cd6 // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:45pm

Yes but Pats ran up the score against an arizona team playing a meaningless road game in the snow.

So the patriots should be in the superbowl.

... even though they never would have made it past the Steelers, Ravens, Colts, Titans, or Chargers. ;)

Points: 0

#50 by Spielman // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:35pm

Something I haven't seen mentioned anywhere yet. We love to rip on coaches and teams for mismanaging the clock. How about some love for the Cardinals managing the clock very well at the end of both halves?

First half, great job of running the clock down far enough that they could run the play on third, get decent yardage, and then call timeout to run the field goal with no time remaining, while leaving very little time left if they didn't convert. They looked calm and collected doing it, too. Those three points loomed pretty large late.

Then the endgame, chewing up better than half the 4th quarter on the go-ahead drive, plus doing exactly what needed to be done on the final possession to take the clock down as far as possible.

Quite a fine job.

Points: 0

#160 by Eddo // Jan 19, 2009 - 9:49pm

I agree. Whisenhunt's staff has been superb. Another commenter said something along the lines of the Cardinals gambling all three games, increasing their chances of losing badly but also increasing their chances of winning, and I think that's commendable.

Points: 0

#52 by Joshua (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:40pm

The Super Bowl contestants really make me feel depressed. I like Arizona, and I think they have really played well in the postseason, but they simply have not been a good team this year. The losses to Philly and NE were downright embarrassing, and the 4th Quarter play against the Jets where they got Boldin maimed was almost criminal. There is no bloody way that they were even in among the top-6 teams in terms of performance in the NFC conference. As for the Steelers, well... they came through in the end to get a good seed into the postseason, but it feels like a year of 'better lucky than good'. They botched their games against Philly, NYG, and TN in the regular season, showing that they really could not hang with the big guys, and they won game after game that they shouldn't have just by sticking around and catching good bounces. Pittsburgh feels like the team that would probably go and lose the Super Bowl to a good team, and I think they probably will lose it, but they would have lost to Philly or NYG or Carolina too.

It just feels very invalidating for the whole season. This was a year where the NYG, much as I dislike them as an organization, were clearly the best performers for most of the year, and there can be no further argument made for the notion that the Super Bowl is won by the best team or that it is even a useful or valid thing to be playing for in the regular season. If this year's results when taken together with 2006 and 2007 tell us anything, it's that you don't have to have a good regular season to 'win it all' you just have to get into the tournament. I think they should pick with postseason teams at random. This year's game could just as easily been MIA-Packers. Why not. DVOA was in the middle. The Packers got screwed all season long. Maybe they would have suddenly clicked, and that's about all that this measures now. I'm certainly not going to watch this silly game, and it makes me feel pretty demoralized about the sport generally. Like I said, I like the Cardinals team and I have been very impressed with the coaching staff, but they don't deserve this; they haven't earned it in a true sense... they haven't had a Super Bowl-winning season.

Points: 0

#59 by FireOmarTomlin // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:08pm

The Steelers were manhandled by the Eagles and the Titans, but they gave away the games against the Colts and the Giants on pretty fluky plays/situations that seem to at least partly counteract your claim that they don't belong there against the big boys and they got all the bounces.

Points: 0

#134 by Dave Bernreuther // Jan 19, 2009 - 5:16pm

What flukey play cost them the game against the Giants?

The snap-safety didn't actually make a bit of difference. The two points were meaningless and the Giants just had to take a punt from the 20 instead of from the back of the end zone before driving for a touchdown that would've won it either way.

Points: 0

#71 by cd6 // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:46pm

If the Cards beat the Falcons, Panthers, Eagles, and Steelers in successive weeks, I think it would be impossible to argue they didn't deserve to win the superbowl.

Points: 0

#86 by Matt W (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 2:17pm

there can be no further argument made for the notion that the Super Bowl is won by the best team or that it is even a useful or valid thing to be playing for in the regular season.

I think the only argument is that you play to win the game. Hello? You play to win the game.

Seriously, it would be very boring if championships were decided by anything other than who won the games. I agree that the Giants were probably the best team this year, based on the regular season, and that the Patriots were definitely the best team last year, but in order to be the champion you have to win the championship game. It wouldn't be any fun to have a system that was designed to give the championship to the best team by some means other than having that team using its superiority to beat other teams in the playoffs.

Points: 0

#100 by Scott P. (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 3:21pm

"It wouldn't be any fun to have a system that was designed to give the championship to the best team by some means other than having that team using its superiority to beat other teams in the playoffs."

I'm not sure how fun it was for Patriots fans last year or Giants fans this year, but can live with the imperfection. After all, it's not nearly as important as college football.

Points: 0

#249 by RickD // Jan 21, 2009 - 1:54pm

Last February wasn't fun for Pats' fans, but Super Bowl XXXVI sure as hell was. And you can't get one without the other.

The Giants this year were perhaps the best team in the NFL before Plax shot himself, but the margin was never quite as large as it was for the Pats in 2007-8.

Points: 0

#53 by Lou // Jan 19, 2009 - 12:41pm

no mention of Reid not going for 2, and then the kicker shanking the XP?

also, in the IRC thread there was some speculation the roughing the punter call was a makeup for something early, i can't remember what now.

Points: 0

#137 by Pat (filler) (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 5:35pm

Reid not going for 2 was the right call. Aikman was a moron - it's an obvious strategic mistake to go for two then. There's not even any question about it.

They need a 2 point conversion, a PAT, a TD, and a FG at a minimum. They had a choice between a 2 point conversion (low percentage) and a PAT (high percentage), both of which they needed. Down multiple scores, you need points more than anything - so you take the higher-percentage play.

It's exactly the same situation as if you're down 10, and in field goal range, on 4th down. You don't go for it just because you need a TD. You also need the field goal, and getting a TD is lower-percentage than getting the FG. You should only go for 2 when you have no choice, because it's a low-percentage play, and kicking the PAT yields more points on average.

You always take the points until you have to risk it, because you don't know how the game's going to play out. Down 12, if they go for 2 and miss it, for instance, if the Cardinals kick a FG, then the Eagles need another 2 point conversion on the pair of touchdowns they need, whereas if they kick the PAT, the Cardinals kick a FG, they're down 2 TD+PATs.

Things change when you're down 5 after scoring a TD down 11: in that case you need a 2-point conversion and a FG, or a PAT (or failed 2-point conversion) and a TD. In this case the 2-point conversion strictly improves your odds. But down 12, there's no reason to go for 2 at that point.

Points: 0

#161 by Eddo // Jan 19, 2009 - 9:50pm

I thought Aikman made that comment after the TD that made it 24-19, which is when Akers missed the PAT. If I'm reading your comment correctly, Pat, I get the impression you may have gone for two in that instance as well.

I think I would have, but I can't really criticize Reid for not. It all comes down to what chance you think you team had to converting a two-point try.

Points: 0

#60 by Justin Zeth // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:08pm

There was a really ticky-tack pass interference call that handed the Ravens their first touchdown near the end of the first half; I thought the preposterous roughing the punter penalty was a makeup call for it.

And guys, Mitch 'Big Hit' Berger wasn't faking. That's what's so funny about him.

There should be a prop bet on whether Mitch will just whiff on a punt in the Super Bowl.

Points: 0

#62 by Pedropolis (not verified) // Jan 19, 2009 - 1:11pm

Did anyone else find Leonhard's hit to Roethlisberger's back in the first quarter to be late? He appears to take two steps before landing the blow. I thought it nearly as cheap, though hardly as blatant, as the shot Demps took to Warner. It's hardly surprising though, the Ravens knew Big Ben had suffered a spinal concussion (the same injury that temporarily paralyzed Tommy Maddox).

Points: 0

Save 10%
& Support Doug
Support Football Outsiders' independent media and Doug Farrar. Use promo code WRITERS to save 10% on any FO+ membership and give half the cost of your membership to tip Doug.