Audibles at the Line: Conference Championships
compiled by Rivers McCown
Each Sunday, the FO staff sends around e-mails about the games that each of us are watching. We share information about the games that the rest of the group might not be watching, ask questions, and keep everyone else informed about which games they might want to tune into (if they can).
On Monday, we compile a digest of those e-mails and produce this feature. By its nature, it can be disjointed and dissimilar to the other articles on the site.
While these e-mails are generally written with Audibles in mind, they do not represent a standard review of all the games each week. That means we aren't going to cover every game, or every important play. We watch the games that we, as fans, are interested in watching, so your favorite team's game might not be covered to your fullest desires or even at all. (If you are a Seahawks or Patriots fan, you are probably in luck; if you are a Bills fan, not so much.) We have no intention of adding new authors to cover every game on a given Sunday, nor will we watch a different game from the ones that we're personally interested in watching, just to ensure that Audibles covers every game.
Sunday, January 22nd
Baltimore Ravens 20 at New England Patriots 23
Tim Gerheim: I've just hit "mute" for the first time today: Steven Tyler doing the national anthem totally rubs me the wrong way somehow.
Rivers McCown: I'm tempering my Steven Tyler jokes on the basis that he has a good 40 years of drugs altering his appearance.
Aaron Schatz: Love that the Ravens started the game with the exact same handoff off-tackle left that Ray Rice took 80 yards on the first play from scrimmage two years ago. No yards this time.
Tom Brady seems to be off early. He threw a bad pass which Julian Edelman stretched out for to get a first-down conversion on a third-and-6. Then he threw slightly too high for Wes Welker, and that became a tip-drill interception, or it would have had he not been bailed out by illegal contact on Lardarius Webb. Finally, he overthrew Rob Gronkowski on a wide-open seam route which would have been touchdown.
Tom Gower: It looked like the Ravens were starting out zone blitzing almost every pass play and trying to flood the underneath stuff, then this second drive the Pats started to just throw the quick short stuff. The Ravens seemed to back off
a little, and I'm not sure they zone blitzed the rest of the drive.
If Joe Flacco doesn't start playing a lot better, Brady's poor play isn't going to matter very much. On the first two drives, the game seemed to be moving about as fast for him as it was for T.J. Yates last week.
Tim Gerheim: The third-down pass to Welker in the end zone that forced the field goal was puzzling. It looked like Brady underestimated Ray Lewis's speed and/or cover skills, which is a curious thing for him to do after they've played each other most years for the last decade. Still, that was impressive coverage by Lewis, keeping stride-for-stride with Welker even though he is, at best, deceptively fast.
Mike Tanier: The Ravens offense has achieved self-parody!
Aaron Schatz: You mean sacking Flacco with a three-man rush on third-and-15?
Vince Verhei: The Ravens have three drives, all three-and-outs. In those nine plays, Vince Wilfork has one sack, one tackle for a loss, and one hurry. He also drew a triple-team (!) on the first drive that gave an outside rusher a chance to beat Marshal Yanda one-on-one and chase Flacco from the pocket. They're moving Wilfork around from tackle to end, and he's dominating everywhere. A one-man show so far.
Ben Muth: Flacco has as bad a sense of pocket awareness as you'll see in the NFL. He just sits back there. Doesn't slide left or right at all. It's painful to watch.
Tim Gerheim: I don't understand what Brady is looking at today. Welker wasn't open in the end zone on that play I mentioned earlier -- so much so that he was in the process of giving up on the route when the ball arrived. Edelman wasn't remotely open on that fantastic interception by Webb. So far, this seems like two weeks in a row that the Ravens defense is benefiting with interceptions from quarterbacks who have predetermined where to throw the ball. I can understand that with Yates ... not so much with Brady.
Aaron Schatz: Patriots march all the way down the field with three different runs of double-digit yards by Law Firm. I wonder if it is demoralizing for the Ravens to say "we're going to force the Pats to beat us with the run" and the Pats to say "okay, sure"?
Rivers McCown: I can only imagine that the Ravens are very weak mentally if they'd get demoralized by that and needed to take the three points on their first scoring drive to achieve "positive reinforcement," in Phil Simms' words.
Tom Gower: The Ravens were middle of the pack (14th) on ALY up the middle this year. This isn't the 2000 team with Sam Adams and the other guys up front keeping Lewis clean. It's a lot harder to play middle linebacker when you're getting blocked regularly.
Flacco's hit a couple nice intermediate dig routes this drive, first to Lee Evans and then to Anquan Boldin, and looks like a different guy when he's throwing in rhythm like that. The Ravens have to get points here, because I don't think they can come back if they get down double-digits.
Mike Tanier: Game is now close and sloppy. Make that tied and sloppy. Not what the Patriots want.
Ben Muth: Well, I'm glad my comments here could motivate Flacco to explore the pocket. He did a nice job of moving to his right to buy time and find Dennis Pitta in the end zone on Baltimore's first touchdown.
Aaron Schatz: Oh, I don't think it is particularly sloppy. It's not like we've had a ton of turnovers, or a lot of first downs built with only four-yard gains. The Ravens are trying to stop the pass, inviting the Pats to run, and the Pats have. The Pats are trying to stop the run, inviting the Ravens to pass, and on the last couple drives they finally have too.
I thought the Ravens were going to score again on the final drive of the first half, once Pitta caught the pass on third-and-long. You can't rush three and leave James Ihedigbo in man coverage on anyone. He's just not good. Then again, the Pats did it again on third-and-2 and Ihedigbo's man, Ed Dickson, was nice enough to not catch the ball.
Tom Gower: That was a ... very curious strategic decision by the Patriots, opting to take a knee rather than try for points with almost a minute and two timeouts remaining in the first half. It was also a very curious decision by John Harbaugh not to use either of his two timeouts and force the Patriots to punt the ball.
Aaron Schatz: New England really get kicked in the ass by the fumble luck fairy when the Ravens strip Danny Woodhead and the ball bounced through the hands or legs of three different Patriots. So we're now at 20-16. The Pats need a touchdown on this next drive. When their offense is getting touchdowns, they can overcome their awful defense. When they are just getting field goals, they can't.
Tom Gower: Well, there was that fumble luck when the punt at the end of the first half bounced right out of bounds instead of the Ravens potentially getting the ball in the red zone. Flacco struck again in the red zone ... missed the bootleg pass, then missed the blitz and his hot route on third down and took the sack.
I do believe the Ravens blitzed again on that big play to Gronkowski where he hurt what may have been his left ankle. They've tried blitzing a decent amount, but haven't gotten pressure when they've brought five or more and it's generally resulted in a completion. Mr. Easterbrook can have a field day with this game.
Aaron Schatz: There are a number of comments on Twitter to the effect that "Flacco is outplaying Brady." Um, anyone ever think maybe the Ravens defense, which is good, is outplaying the Patriots defense, which is terrible?
Vince Verhei: You're not wrong, but Brady has missed a few open throws and made some terrible decisions. You noted this yourself earlier in the game. Aside from the overthrow when Torrey Smith was all alone downfield, I can't think of too many open receivers Flacco has missed today.
Aaron Schatz: Yes, but Brady's been better in the second half, and Flacco has missed a couple of open guys. He could have had an open Vonta Leach waltzing into the end zone on that last drive, but threw to someone else instead.
Tom Gower: Flacco's problems have actually not come on the throws he's made, but on the throws he's not made. He missed Smith, which was still a good gain, and threw too far on the bootleg pass. He's done a good job of avoiding the near turnover (the only pass I recall that could've been picked off was one on the first drive) and hasn't made dangerous throws. His problems have come with pocket presence, not finding the right receiver, and eating the ball.
He's played reasonably well for Flacco, and better than he was early in the game, but the performance is less impressive than it seems due to the defense he's facing. Personally, this game is still clearly behind Week 1 against the Steelers as the best I've seen him play; then, it seemed like the Ravens did an excellent job of gameplanning and Flacco was very confident throughout in his reads and throws.
Ben Muth: For not being mobile, Brady is really good at quarterback sneaks. He knows when to take it wide, when to mole-man, and when to go up and over. It seems simple, but he seems to be the only guy who is multiple in the sneak game.
Tom Gower: Just for the record, that email about how Flacco was doing a good job of not making dangerous throws came roughly seven minutes before he threw that interception to Brandon Spikes when driving while down 23-20.
Mike Tanier: Flacco tries to work short middle and gets picked off. Brady tries to throw deep to a wide receiver and gets picked off. We now resume our regular offenses.
Aaron Schatz: Spikes picks off a pass, and on the first pass after that, Brady goes deep and the ball gets picked off on a great play by Bernard Pollard (tip) and Jimmy Smith (catch). Great play, but I am *not* a fan of the decision to try to plunge the dagger with one play.
Mike Tanier: I predict that the Ravens will lose 23-20 after missing a 52-yard field goal.
Aaron Schatz: Honestly, the Pats should have been able to march it down and take three-to-four minutes off the clock while taking a six or ten point lead. I have no idea why they felt the need to go for it all with one play.
Vince Verhei: And the Ravens pass up a 51-yarder to go for it on fourth down. So close Mike!
Tim Gerheim: Yeah I laughed out loud when the third-down play ended at the 34.
Vince Verhei: Wilfork, by the way, stuffed the runner for a loss on third down, then pressured Flacco for the incompletion on fourth down. Hard to see how he's not the MVP of this game.
Aaron Schatz: I have to admit, as a Pats fan, I had no confidence in the Pats actually stopping that fourth-and-6. But Wilfork, one of the few good players on this defense, has been killing Ben Grubbs all day.
Mike Tanier: I would have tried my luck with the 50-yarder. Or maybe just heave it for the end zone and hope for a jump ball or pass interference penalty. Fourth-and-medium is not a good down for Baltimore.
Ben Muth: I'm a big advocate of always going for it, but it's hard to pass up a chance to tie the game with 2:45 left.
Tom Gower: I believe Billy Cundiff is 1-of-6 on the year from 50 yards or longer. With those kinds of odds, when all a field goal gets you is a tie game, it's tough to kick the field goal. Wilfork absolutely showed up on third and fourth down, and those may have been his first two real splash plays since the first quarter.
Ben Muth: I didnt realize Cundiff was that bad deep. That does make a difference, but I'd still kick it. If you can't trust him to make a 51-yard field goal in relatively clear weather, you need a new kicker.
Aaron Schatz: Two-minute warning. Third-down play after this would seal the game. What are the odds the pass is going to Welker? 90 percent? 95?
Tim Gerheim: I don't know why the Pats didn't throw the ball on the last play before the two-minute warning. This series so far screams "playing too conservative against a team with two timeouts."
Mike Tanier: Another chance for the Ravens. It just feels like they will lose 23-20 because they always lose 23-20 to the Steelers.
Tim Gerheim: I can't believe Brady didn't learn what Yates surely did from last week's game: don't throw at Ed Reed in a critical situation.
OH MY GOD WE ARE SO LUCKY.
Man, I feel so bad for Cundiff though. I wonder if they made a mistake bringing him back. Maybe the calf isn't fully healthy yet.
Danny Tuccitto: As a Cundiff owner in fantasy for most of my leagues, the fourth-down go-for-it decision and the miss at the end are entirely unsurprising.
Tim Gerheim: That shot of Wilfork with his arms up, holding his helmet, huge bald head steaming, might be one of my favorite images of all time from a sheer human mountain hilarity standpoint.
Mike Tanier: Well, that settles that. 23-20.
A thin line between a game-winning touchdown pass, a game-tying field goal drive, and six months of "not good enough to get it done."
Aaron Schatz: Can we please, please, please, please not have to hear about how Flacco isn't very good anymore? Yes, part of the reason he looked so good is that the Pats defense is terrible, and yes, he missed some open receivers. But not every quarterback has to be either elite or sucky. Joe Flacco is an above-average quarterback. He's a guy you can win with, especially if your running back is Rice and your defense is one of the best in the league. And that's what he looked like today.
My friend Sean, who I was watching with, turned to me at the end and said "I feel like the Pats just got totally outplayed today." Now, I haven't run the numbers yet, but I'm guessing that's not the case. I'm guessing this game comes out even. That's what happens when you are used to blowing out bad teams and you have to play another very good team. The Pats looked like they were struggling because they weren't playing great, and while Brady missed a couple of big plays (Gronkowksi in the seam), for the most part they didn't look great because the Ravens defense played very well. The Ravens defense didn't look as good as it usually does, either, because the Pats offense is very good.
That's the Pats offense, of course. The Pats defense looked like it was struggling because, except for Wilfork, a pick by Spikes, and a pass defensed by Sterling Moore, it pretty much was.
Ben Muth: That is a tough loss.
Tom Gower: Well, contrary to my early expectations, that proved to be an interesting game throughout. A number of sloppy mistakes from both teams, with both quarterbacks throwing bad fourth-quarter interceptions, and of course Evans' dropped pass and Cundiff's miss.
Aaron Schatz: Well, let's not call that a drop. That's a pretty great play by Moore to slap that baby out.
Tom Gower: It's a pass defensed for game charting purposes, but I think that's absolutely a drop. Evans had two hands on it, almost had it long enough to have possession, and absolutely should have caught it. No, Evans wasn't the only reason the ball wasn't caught, Moore did make a play on it, but that's clearly a drop in my mind. Guys like Evans get paid millions of dollars to make catches just like that one.
Vince Verhei: I disagree. After all, guys like Moore get paid millions of dollars to break up passes like that one.
Ben Muth: If it hits you in the chest and it doesn't end in a catch or a concussion, it's a drop.
Mike Tanier: If I am charting the game, it is not a drop. If I am evaluating the player and deciding whether to pay him or not, and how much, it is a drop. That is the game-winning touchdown in the AFC title game. You clutch it to your body and nothing short of a meteor shower rips it loose.
New York Giants 20 at San Francisco 49ers 17 (OT)
Vince Verhei: Oh great. The E-Trade baby is now doing dumb spots on BOTH networks' pregame shows.
Rivers McCown: This is probably just me being cynical, but I think at this point companies are just trying to create advertising that leads to that exact reaction. It worked, they're in Audibles!
Mike Tanier: The Giants offense is in full swing. First-and-10. Second-and-10. Third-and-10. First down!
Vince Verhei: I'm just copying this from Tanier's Twitter feed: "So, standing on the camera platform is worse than leaping into the stands because..."
Tom Gower: Leaping into the stands is a time-honored tradition that promotes attachment with the people who fork over three digits every week and get a little bit of fun.
Mike Tanier: I mean, you look like the Lord of All Egomaniacs when you do that, but if that were a foul, most of the coaches in the league would be screwed.
That's the first time Vernon Davis posed for a statue since Mannerism went out of style.
Vince Verhei: Buck explains that the Lambeau Leap is "grandfathered in." Does this make sense to anyone?
Danny Tuccitto: As predicted in the game preview, the Giants pass offense is attacking Chris Culliver continuously.
And, on fourth-and-1, there's your No. 1-ranked power defensive line versus your No. 27-ranked power offensive line.
Danny Tuccitto: Fumble recoveries are luck, but it should be noted that Isaac Sopoaga tomahawk-chopped at Osi Umenyiora's arm when the ball bounced right into his hands. To be sure, Williams' recovery on that play wasn't skill, but Sopoaga's hack was.
Seems like every third down, the Giants are spreading it out. I don't think it's a coincidence that they've been so successful given how much trouble the 49ers have had against the spread this season. Also not a coincidence: the Giants touchdown coming from that formation as well.
Vince Verhei: OK, Davis' unnecessary roughness call in the middle of the second quarter? Now that was stupid, and deserved to be penalized.
Tim Gerheim: Have I really seen Alex Smith run two zone reads? I've seen about five minutes of 49ers football this season; has that been part of their mad scientist offense all season?
Mike Tanier: Smith has had a few designed runs this year, but I don't remember how many zone reads. More like draws, and sweeps like the one he ran last week. It is all part of his SmiTebow routine.
Aaron Schatz: You know, Smith's basically done nothing in the first half other than the huge 73-yard touchdown to Davis. Despite that, he's not really facing as much pressure as I expected. He hasn't been sacked yet, but the 49ers have only converted one first down.
Danny Tuccitto: Observation: At least four times in the first half, Carlos Rogers has (surprisingly) looked like he's been totally lost in zone, conferring with his teammates during and after plays where he gives up completions.
Vince Verhei: Giants up 10-7 at halftime (assuming nothing silly happens in the last two seconds). I'm trying to figure out how New York doesn't have 20 or more points. They can't run, at all, but it looks like Eli Manning has time to do whatever he wants in the pocket. I wish I had been paying more attention to Aldon Smith and what New York was doing to shut him down. I did see one play where the tight end's primary job was to help David Diehl with Smith, and only release into the flat when that job was finished. I'd imagine there have been a lot of plays like that today.
Aaron Schatz: I've been surprised by the lack of 49ers pressure for most of the night tonight, but they finally got to Eli with a blitz on the third down with 3:45 left in the third quarter.
Vince Verhei: Yes. I don't know what adjustments the 49ers made at halftime, but suddenly they got pressure rushing four over and over again in the third quarter.
Danny Tuccitto: On the Davis touchdown in the third quarter, he cut his route into a go as opposed to the usual post or out. Obviously we don't have the benefit of the all-22, but I have to believe Harbaugh and Roman have been setting that up for two quarters now.
Tom Gower: I've been watching this game with interest, but haven't had much to say about it. I'm almost surprised the Giants aren't treating Davis like he's Steve Smith and this is the 2005 (2006) NFC championship game. Davis is a matchup threat and the focus of so much of the explosiveness of the 49ers passing attack -- their wideouts have done nothing so far. As has been noted, the Giants are doing a better job of containing the Smiths (Aldon and Justin) than the Saints did last week, and the 49ers seem like they've had to blitz to get pressure. As Vince said, it feels like the Giants should have more than 10 points, but they don't.
Danny Tuccitto: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome Tremaine Brock to "This Is Your 49ers Playoff Life."
The benefit of having Delanie Walker back in the lineup (finally) reveals itself at the end of the third quarter, when he lines up at fullback on first-and-10, and springs Frank Gore for an 11-yard run. The next play is a successful completion to Walker for seven yards. We're headed into the fourth quarter with the 49ers up four.
Mike Tanier: Devin Thomas, playoff hero?
Aaron Schatz: More like Kyle Williams, playoff goat. Thomas can't advance the ball.
Vince Verhei: The Backup punt returner gives New York the ball in good field position, then the backup cornerback gives up a go-ahead touchdown pass.
Aaron Schatz: I know that I can't really talk about luck today, but really, that's some serious luck there.
Of course, the Giants offense has to actually execute to get the touchdown instead of a field goal there, and Manning's touchdown pass was pretty sweet. The thing about this Giants playoff run is that the offense isn't a surprise. Manning has been good this entire year. It's the defense that's playing differently.
Danny Tuccitto: Aaaand, with eight minutes left, there's your Alex Smith running.
Aaron Schatz: OK, the pass that takes Michael Crabtree out of bounds three yards short of the sticks on third-and-5 is not a good play. I think I said something earlier about the 49ers getting one first-down conversion all day but I guess I was wrong, apparently they have ZERO first-down conversions today.
Tim Gerheim: That was also very poor execution on the screen. When Ahmad Bradshaw caught the ball, he had a wall of blockers in front of him. As walls typically do, they prevented him from advancing, leaving his only outlet in the direction of 49ers defenders.
Aaron Schatz: What do the rest of you think of the decision that Bowman doesn't get a fumble there with 2:00 left because of forward progress being stopped?
Tom Gower: I thought Bradshaw's forward progress had been stopped well before the ball started coming out, and it was the right call.
Vince Verhei: Yeah. Not close to a fumble.
I want to get a 49ers jersey without a number, that just reads "punt coverage unit" on the back.
Rivers McCown: Prediction: whichever defense successfully murders the opposing quarterback first wins the game.
Tim Gerheim: Zak DeOssie made the call on the overtime coin toss? Now that's coaching: bring out the Ivy Leaguer to run the probabilities.
Aaron Schatz: Deep pass incomplete to Victor Cruz. That's the second time this game the 49ers have missed a pick because two of them went for it together and banged into each other.
Vince Verhei: The 49ers have called passing plays on five straight first downs, and seven of their last eight. That's partly because they were in hurry-up at the end of regulation, but it stretches back to the start of the fourth quarter. Quite predictable.
Aaron Schatz: With the 49ers pass rush playing better, the Giants are leaving extra guys in to block. The third-down sack at 9:40 of overtime was a green dog where extra guys came because the guys they were covering in man stayed into block.
Tim Gerheim: Now you can officially say it: Kyle Williams, playoff goat.
Mike Tanier: Devin Thomas, playoff hero?
FO assistant editor curse? (Sorry Danny.)
Aaron Schatz: Sorry, Danny. That is not a happy way to lose.
Vince Verhei: It would be easy (and not totally unfair) to dump this in the lap of Williams, but remember that Alex Smith dropped back to pass 29 times today, and produced five first downs.
Well, let me backtrack. The 49ers passing game, not Alex Smith by himself, produced five first downs in 29 dropbacks. Crabtree had one catch for three yards. Williams (yes, he was starting at wideout too) had no catches in four targets. I know Braylon Edwards and Ted Ginn were injured, but on the other hand they are Braylon Edwards and Ted Ginn -- would they have made that big a difference?
This is really a lousy group of wideouts. It's kind of amazing they got this far. Which is another reason to question San Francisco's pass-wacky strategy.
Tom Gower: You know who the 49ers wideouts remind me of? The 2000 Ravens wideouts, who were similarly unimpressive. That Ravens team also had a serious vertical threat tight end (Shannon Sharpe), and a run game behind Jamal Lewis, who I think really emerged late in the year. Good special teams as well.
That helped them beat the Titans (who outgained them by almost 200 yards) and the Giants. The 49ers didn't get any points out of special teams or defense this week, and now they're done.
(They cut Edwards late in the regular season, didn't they?)
Aaron Schatz: Yep, they did.
Vince Verhei: They cut him, but it was after he was hurt, wasn't it?
Tom Gower: I thought he was hurt, then got healthy, then they realized they liked Williams better and cut Braylon.
Robert Weintraub: Important point for Super Bowl media meme -- AFC is officially the home team, so Brady will dress at Peyton's locker (in theory, at least), and not Eli.
Look for that to played to death over the next fortnight. Can't they just play the game on Wednesday?