Audibles at the Line: Conference Championships
compiled by Rivers McCown, Andrew Potter, and Ben Jones
For this year's playoffs, we have a modified format for our Audibles at the Line feature, combining our Twitter feeds with our e-mail discussion. Firstly, the arrival of the playoffs brings with it the return of our usual back-and-forth staff e-mail conversation. Secondly, every game will also have a selection of tweets from us and a few reader tweets we found particularly insightful. To follow these tweets live on Sunday, or to contribute your own thoughts or a question for the FO staff, you can use hashtag #FOAud. We discussed the new format in this post.
After the last game finishes, we will compile a digest of tweets and e-mails to produce this feature. By its nature, it can be disjointed, not entirely grammatically correct, and dissimilar to the other articles on the site.
Audibles is still being written from our point of view, meaning the comments in this feature are often written from a fan perspective as much as an analyst perspective; in order to properly accuse FO writers of bias, please check our FAQ.
New England Patriots 16 at Denver Broncos 26
Aaron Schatz: I swear, man, Jamie Collins is going to be what Belichick thought he was getting in Adalius Thomas.
Tom Gower: Three guys on Chandler Jones on that deep pass. Not a bad idea.
Aaron Schatz: If you read game previews that told you to expect a lot of man coverage, guess what, they were right!
Aaron Schatz: Score so far: Broncos 3, Patriots 0, and punts bouncing in the Patriots' favor 100.
@WhispersMoCo:: If Arrington had looked, that pass was there for him to pick. No-look CB play annoys me.
Scott Kacsmar: Ugh, empty backfield on 3rd-and-1 is the worst. Broncos bailed out by penalty.
@MilkmanDanimal: Peyton yelled "Montana" and then "Omaha"; I think he's just reciting song titles from a Bon Iver album at this point.
Aaron Schatz: Pats want to drop lots of guys into coverage but this DL (esp the DTs) just isn't good enough to win with just front four.
Aaron Schatz: Really feels like the Pats are lucky to have this only at 13-3 at this point. Getting outplayed almost everywhere.
@csoandy: What did Manning learn from Caldwell in Indy? How to do clock management in spite of his coach. Seeing that today.
Aaron Schatz: Uh, Phil, part of the reason there's no pressure on Brady is that the Broncos are rushing three with seven DBs.
@MilkmanDanimal: Skip Bayless shakes in a corner; "He was supposed to choke! Why didn't he choke? What am I supposed to talk about this week?" *sobs*
@Raiderjoe_FO: Mannijg clearly better postseaodn player now over Tom Bardy. Manning was already better before today. Today cements it for thd dolts
Vince Verhei: We're within ten minutes of kickoff for the AFC Championship game. After one of the longest weeks of my life, my state of mind is somewhere between AHH!!! and AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!!
Aaron Schatz: The Patriots came out in an old-school, under-center pro set with split backs. What year is it? I swear, that's the first time I've seen that all year from them. You almost never see that formation in the NFL these days.
I'm not a big fan of making Austin Collie and Matthew Slater the targets on the Patriots' first two third-down pass plays.
Tom Gower: Yeah, interesting calls, especially given that it was a quick slant against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for Collie and a deep pass to Slater. The ESPN piece I did had me convinced the Broncos were vulnerable short middle. So far, it looks like the Broncos are compensating by overloading that area of the field on third downs, which should create space elsewhere (both throws appeared toj be 1v1 matchups).
Aaron Schatz: Courtesy of Michael David Smith, here's a photo of the amazing blocking by Denver on the Knowshon Moreno run that converted third-and-10 and put the Broncos in position for a touchdown. Talk about your Merrill Hoge "canalleys."
Ben Muth: Aaron brought this up on Twitter, but Phil Simms saying Danny Trevathan was the best linebacker in football for a five to six game stretch is one of the nuttier things I've heard an announcer say. I mean which five-to-six games was he talking about? I'm a big Trevathan fan, and I understand when you're on the air for four hours you have to say something to fill the time, but this was absurd.
Tom Gower: I'm just happy an outside linebacker who isn't a pass rusher got some positive coverage. Yeah, I know, Lavonte David got some credit, but remember this is Phil Simms, who earlier in the game praised how well Tom Brady threw an inaccurate deep ball.
Rivers McCown: Andrew Luck couldn't have thrown that deep ball.
Scott Kacsmar: Very curious timeout by John Fox, but I agree with the field goal there. If they were closer to the end zone, then maybe go for it, but that's too far and not enough time left to gamble away three easy points with the Patriots kicking off in the third quarter.
Denver has to be pretty satisfied with both sides of the ball here. Blount's been shut down and Brady's missed a few plays. The Broncos are moving the ball fairly easily, scoring 13 points on four drives despite the bad field position. The sack of Brady on third down and second-and-20 conversion to Demaryius Thomas were the biggest plays in my book. I'd expect New England to abandon the run eventually, but this first defensive series is absolutely critical for what kind of second half we're going to get.
Aaron Schatz: 13-3 Denver at halftime, and it feels like the gap should be greater. The Broncos are really outplaying the Patriots today; the Patriots have done a good job of tightening on defense in the red zone and they've gotten great field position off some really friendly bounces on punts. Brady's not showing accuracy on the longer passes today, he's missed almost all of them. That doesn't really mean Manning looks that much better -- Manning just hasn't thrown many deep passes today, and the ones he has thrown he was accurate on, like the one to Demaryius Thomas for 29 yards that converted third-and-10 in the first quarter, or the one that converted second-and-20.
And yeah, the Patriots running game is completely not there today.
Vince Verhei: Ryan Allen having an All-Star game for New England today. Sure, part of that is due to lucky bounces, but if his first two punts were just average, Denver might have another three or seven points.
Anyone else playing well for the Patriots? Chandler Jones got a pass rush in the end zone to force a field goal. Jamie Collins has made some plays in coverage and rushing the passer. And they're making just enough plays to limit Denver to one touchdown in four drives. But overall, that was an awfully ugly half for the guys in the silver helmets.
I've watched the Welker hit on Talib repeatedly (GIF here) and despite all the online hand-wringing, I don't see how that's a penalty. Talib has no chance to make a play, so it's not pass interference. And it looks like the ball hits Thomas at the same time Welker hits Talib, which would have made it a clean block if Thomas had caught the ball.
Also, this is the most attention I've paid to Manning this year, and he's a case study on how arm strength is overrated, no matter what Phil Simms says. He has thrown some floaters today, but for the most part they've been on target and come down in spots where only his receivers can get them.
Tom Gower: Madden nominees, before the crucial fourth down with 2:30 to play in the third quarter: Terrance Knighton, who's been a big part of why the Patriots have been mostly ineffective in running the ball, not that I have any idea why they tried the LeGarrette Blount gameplan early when it was obvious to me it wouldn't work. Also Louis Vasquez, who's had a good season in general and has played a role in opening up room for Knowshon Moreno.
Aaron Schatz: Pot Roast destroyed Logan Mankins on the fourth-and-2. Huge game for the Roast.
Rivers McCown: Gotta give Denver's defensive line credit. The two biggest plays of their day, in their own territory, they beat the Pats offensive line one-on-one to get game-changing sacks.
Aaron Schatz: Their pass rush has done a great job of keeping things going without Von Miller.
Tom Gower: Yeah, I was really surprised when I ran those numbers this week, that they had been so successful without him. Malik Jackson was making a big splash early, but it's been more Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers, I think, plus Terrance Knighton and his great game today.
I feel like I should say something more about Denver's offensive performance, but this feels like the same sort of Denver performance we've seen all season. Julius Thomas is a matchup issue, what with the big pass play against Jamie Collins. They've run the ball well, as is the wont of Peyton Manning teams against two-high looks. Demaryius Thomas has eaten the coverage alive since Talib went out and has been making contested catches. They "only" have 26 points because, assuming I can count, they've had the ball six times (on their seventh right now, after recovering New England's failed onside kick).
Right, I can't count. Eight total possessions: one punt to open the game, two touchdowns and four field goals, then the end of the game. Puts a lot of pressure on an offense, and New England's pass game wasn't up to its usual level this year. Now all we need is the best team in the NFC (Seattle) to win as well.
Aaron Schatz: Another Pot Roast play on that two-point conversion. Shaun Phillips got over to get the main tackle but Knighton beat Connolly to get the assist. What a game for the roast. Not like you can really criticize Jacksonville for not bringing him back. The guy always had weight problems and wasn't always the most dedicated guy off the field, and Roy Miller and Sen'Derrick Marks were among the few good Jags this year.
Eulogy from a Patriots fan: Hell of a year, hell of a year. I remember before the season having to defend our projection that the Pats would still be among the best teams in the league despite all the receiver turnover. Then they lost Wilfork, and then Mayo, and Tommy Kelly, and Vollmer, and Gronkowski, and Amendola's groin has been bothering him all year (that's gotta hurt), and on and on. The fact that this team finished 12-4 and made it to the AFC Championship game was a remarkable achievement. I believe I'm quoting a Sir Charles Barkley here when I say that as a fan, all you can ask for is for your team to be in the mix for the title every year. They aren't going to win it every year. The fact that the Pats have won double-digit games for 11 straight seasons is a pretty nice little streak.
That said, the team was completely outplayed by Denver today in pretty much every way except punting. Sort of anticlimactic. The Broncos didn't overcome quite as many major injuries as the Patriots, but they overcame a lot of them, so again, heck of a year for them. Manning is hugely important, of course, but John Elway has made a lot of other great moves over the last few years, like signing Vazquez, and getting Phillips to cover for the Elvis Dumervil debacle, and some good draft picks too. (Derek Wolfe is someone I like a lot, although hasn't played the last few weeks.)
San Francisco 49ers 17 at Seattle Seahawks 23
@EmperorJan: Someone needs to tell Kaepernick and Wilson first one to yell Omaha! wins.
Tom Gower: NaVorro Bowman & Bobby Wagner basically having a linebacking-off early on this game.
@dbt: Touchdown replay timeout touchdown injury timeout ... PAT timeout kickoff timeout. NFL fever!
Aaron Schatz: Dear Russell Wilson, stop going backwards all the time. Who do you think you are, Aaron Brooks?
Aaron Schatz: I knew the Seattle OL was bad but they are getting CRUSHED. And that includes Okung. Egads.
@MilkmanDanimal: I suspect Seattle's halftime is going to feature Russell Wilson just smacking his offensive linemen across the face for 15 minutes.
Aaron Schatz: Well, Seattle has figured out how to run block at halftime. Now they just need to figure out how to pass block.
@blotzphoto: Marshawn Lynch may be the most surprising HOF running back ever. He's going to Canton if he does this a couple more years.
Aaron Schatz: Score another one for Bill Belichick's idea that everything should be reviewable.
Aaron Schatz: I don't blame the refs for the mistake on the Kearse fumble. Human eyes, action too fast. I blame limits on challenges.
Aaron Schatz: Earlier, I reminded Russell Wilson not to go backwards. Golden Tate did not apparently see that tweet.
Aaron Schatz: SEA needs to consider just having 6 OL on every play at this point to try to protect Wilson. This is ridiculous.
Tom Gower: San Francisco starting off that drive like they were trying to burn 7 minutes off the clock like ATL in last year's NFCCG
@Mercurius100: Tip to your teammate INT to win the game is the most Seattle way possible to win a NFC Championship.
Aaron Schatz: So, SEA-DEN are first teams to finish 1-2 in DVOA 2 straight years, and first 1-2 in DVOA to meet in SB since TB-OAK 2002.
Aaron Schatz: Apparently, like the crew that did last week's San Francisco game, Gene Steratore's crew this week hasn't read the research about penalties going down in the playoffs. A lot of flags early.
So, does anyone have a theory on what's wrong with the Seattle passing game the last couple weeks?
Tom Gower: I mentioned this on Twitter, but for whatever reason, I don't think Russell Wilson is seeing the field cleanly. He's scrambled for yards rather than throwing to open receivers, including last week. I thought the defenseless receiver call on Whitner, he had Luke Willson open in front of the safeties and didn't get the throw off. He just seems to be operating a bit slow-not a lot, but that's enough to turn open into covered in the NFL.
Aaron Schatz: When Kaepernick had his big 58-yard run, I saw somebody make a joke on Twitter about how the Packers are sitting at home nodding... but they aren't. Kaepernick beat them with the zone read last year. Today, his rushing yards seem to primarily be on scrambles. The Seahawks have tried to spy him sometimes, but when they don't, he's killing them.
Rivers McCown: Put me down for "lack of receiving options" on Seattle's passing problems. Doug Baldwin is nice and all, but he's not ready to carry an offense on his own. I don't think they have a player that they can reliably go to and expect to beat his man.
I'd like to say more about this game but this is kinda what I expected. Well, I didn't expect Kaepernick to do all the rushing. But I expected stifling defense buttressing a few big plays on each side.
Scott Kacsmar: In last year's playoffs Kaepernick had nearly half of his yards on scrambles against Green Bay and the other half on zone-read keepers. He really did whatever he wanted to Green Bay. Should the 49ers advance, I'm sure I'll be looking into how he's carried the ball this season. He's the most impressive running quarterback to me just in terms of pure running ability. So fast and smart not to take big hits. I'm not sure anyone other than Michael Vick (in his prime) makes the 58-yard run Kaepernick had today.
Aaron Schatz: The thing about the lack of receiving options is that these are the same receivers they've had all year, except for Sidney Rice -- and the offense continued to play well for a few weeks after Rice went out. So, what has changed? One possibility is that these receivers aren't good enough to win on their own if the opposing defense isn't selling out to stop the run -- and the 49ers are stopping the run well enough that they don't have to sell out to stop it. Maybe?
Tom Gower: I concur with Aaron, this is mostly the same receiving group Wilson had success with, plus as I said, I'm seeing open receivers. I don't know if teams are just defending the Seahawks differently, and he's not as good at reading this type of coverage, or if he's just not seeing things clearly for some annoying reason I can't explain but maybe could if I spent 30 hours watching the Seahawks offense.
Vince Verhei: Nightmare first half. Wilson hesitant, with dumb scrambles and a sloppy turnover. Receivers turning into the walking dead. Offensive line (and fullback) getting outmuscled. Kaepernick somehow making plays against zone defenses that should be able to contain him. It's a seven-point deficit that feels like 70.
Wilson has looked indecisive and confused in the early and late parts of the year. He was better in October and November (he says without checking numbers). But it hasn't been very pretty of late.
Aaron Schatz: Russell Wilson pass DVOA split into four-game chunks, regular season only.
Weeks 1-4: 7.8%
Weeks 5-8: 4.6%
Weeks 9-13: 60.3%
Weeks 14-17: -4.0%
I realize he gets rid of the ball very quickly but I'm trying to imagine how Peyton Manning is going to stay upright against these two ferocious pass rushes. Almost every play today has been made by Wilson or Kaepernick scrambling.
Scott Kacsmar: I'm sure Manning will study a lot of what the Saints did against them. Might be the most similar offense Seattle or San Francisco has played.
Rivers McCown: Sorry, didn't mean to present that theory so authoritatively. I have eyes. I can see that Wilson is feeling pressure before it arrives. But I do think the lack of a true no. 1 receiver is a reason their offense has room for improvement.
Tom Gower: Denver has more and better receivers than either team, and Peyton's better in terms of movement within the pocket and recognizing pre-snap and after the snap where to go with the football than Kaepernick or Wilson. Yeah, it'll be an issue, but I'm not that worried. Plus, it's not like it'll be a road game, so crowd noise should not be a factor. Weather? Yeah, that could be an issue.
When San Francisco gets big plays from Colin Kaepernick, they score. The touchdown to make it 17-10? A freakin' laser beam from an awkward throwing platform. Scoring off consistent execution? Eh.
Aaron Schatz: Seattle got something even better than fumble luck with 8:45 left: unreviewable rule luck. Jermaine Kearse fumbled at the goal line and NaVorro Bowman recovered it, but apparently because they already called it a fumble, they can't review who recovered it, and they had announced the Seahawks recovered. I guess if they had not called it a fumble, they could review it to decide it was a fumble, and then give the ball to San Francisco properly? Score another one for the idea of making everything reviewable.
Of course, this whole sequence of events was soured by the fact that Bowman suffered a severe injury on the play.
Scott Kacsmar: At least this happened in a high-profile game, so good chance they'll be able to fix that in review for next season. Should be San Francisco's ball and justice is served anyway after Lynch fumbled the handoff. I liked the call to go for it, because the six-point lead just inches you closer to a heartbreaking one-point loss.
Tom Gower: Concur with the decision to go for it, and that it feels like that situation should be an exception to the NFL's generally wise policy not to mess around with recovering fumbles in piles.
I don't know what Colin Kaepernick saw on the subsequent interception. I'm not sure he knows what he did either. I'm just happy we got the atrocious pick in this game instead of The All Hail Quarterback Wins early game.
Scott Kacsmar: Shouldn't be hard to write language into the rule book for "a team can review a fumble recovery as to whether or not a player has clear possession and is down by contact."
Kaepernick has made some really boneheaded plays in the last few minutes, but the same can be said for a lot of these players. Golden Tate nearly gave up a first down. 49ers very fortunate they will have a chance to go on a game-winning touchdown drive here.
Tom Gower: It felt to me like Seattle had the better of the second half-not as much as San Francisco did last week against Carolina, but enough. Michael Bennett's strip-sack and Kaepernick's ghastly interception were part of that, of course, but the offense looked more functional at times. Lynch was fantastic, of course, with all the yards after contact, and Wilson made a great throw on fourth down for the go-ahead score, matching Kaepernick's laser earlier in the second half.
Madden nominees: Bowman, Wagner, Lynch?
Also, how fitting was it that a team that regularly struggled with offensive communication ran a terribly herky-jerky time-waster of a final drive and about the best cornerback in the game made the final defensive stop in one-on-one coverage?
Aaron Schatz: The Seattle defense and Marshawn Lynch took over and won this game in the second half. It's a great defense. They weren't letting Gore have anything in the run game, and while they were allowing some passes, they also made some plays -- the interception to end the game being the most important. Wilson made a couple of really good throws but he really did not seem consistently good, in large part because he spent the whole game running for his freaking life. I looked at the gamebook and Wilson completed 16 of 25 passes and honestly, I can't believe it was that many. Shaun Phillips and Pot Roast must be salivating at the thought of facing this line, and Seattle gets a real break not having to deal with Von Miller.
I'm hoping we can do a Madden Pot Roast.
Tom Gower: Early Super Bowl thought: great matchups on both sides of the ball, with (a) Seattle's pass rush and cover guys against a good and deep collection of targets and one of the best mental quarterbacks of all time and (b) Marshawn Lynch against a Denver defense that's been pretty stout against the run, especially in the postseason (unless New England's drive against that 3-2-6 or whatever prevent jacks up their DVOA).
Cian Fahey: Two weeks of analysis in store, but right now, it's clear that the Seahawks need Russell Wilson to play better to win. He couldn't be further from the transcendent player he was early in the season.
Vince Verhei: My thoughts at 7:14 p.m. Pacific time: ghhq3 h54qh4h4q ht4h464
Scott Kacsmar: Three turnovers by Kaepernick in the fourth quarter, all in a one-score game. That's always too much to overcome, but I thought the last drive was set up pretty well for a late win. We know he loves Crabtree and the throw was just not on target in the end zone (again). Tip and ball game. I look forward to how this rivalry plays out for years to come. So far the home team is 5-0 since 2012.
Early Super Bowl thoughts: Denver probably needs less points to win against Seattle, but points will be tougher to come by. So happy we get to see a legit No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense Super Bowl. Unfortunately the daily check of the weather prediction is a story for the next two weeks. Obviously Denver does need better conditions to run its style of offense compared to Seattle. Also have to check that status of Knowshon Moreno.
But can't wait for this one.
Vince Verhei: OK. I'm calming down a bit now.
So let's talk Wilson. Agreed with Aaron: His numbers look better than it seemed like he played. He apparently had eight first downs passing. I remember two (the big play in the first half and the fourth-down touchdown). Officially he had two fumbles. Felt like he had about five. I made a comment on Twitter that I wrote poorly, because it's Twitter, but this is what I was trying to say: At times it looked like he was making a deliberate attempt to have the worst performance ever by a quarterback to win a championship game and get into the Super Bowl. He's also never, ever keeping the ball on the read option anymore. Don't know if he's hurt more than anyone is letting on. Don't know if they've told him not to run. Maybe the zone read stuff helped him get into a rhythm, and without it he's still a second-year developing quarterback.
And then there's this: In four career playoff games, Wilson has trailed at halftime three times, and led a comeback to take the lead every time.
As for the 49ers, in some ways that was the best their offense has played all year. Zero wasted timeouts, one delay of game, one false start (and that was on a fourth down where they were just trying to get Seattle to jump), all on the road, all against the best defense in the world. Colin Kaepernick is a physical freak beyond compare. I felt, at times, like Jaworski knew what he was talking about with this kid. Obviously, he made some late mistakes. But man oh man is that guy scary.
Rob Weintraub: Oy, now two full weeks of Richard Sherman ...
As someone who has railed against the 45-44-ization of football for a while, I dug the intensity and defensive dominance on display in Seattle. It was old school football--right down to the personal fouls and apparent season ending injuries to Iupati and Bowman (and it would be tough for the Niners to play the Super Bowl without them, but I'm sure they'd like the opportunity). The Iupati injury in particular ended any chance the Niners had of maintaining a ground game, and without that they are completely reliant on Kaepernick runs.
As for Wilson, we all seem to have forgotten he is unusually short for a quarterback, and that's why he struggles when he is unable to dance his way into clean sight lines. That's why the Hawks seem to run only slants and nine routes--he is comfortable with them and can see them develop. Both defenses were crafted to stop the opposing quarterback in this game--small wonder they both struggled. But they also both made huge plays, so give them credit while picking them apart -- both were under considerable duress throughout.
I thought the "12th Man" and loud field aspect was totally overrated. Had Sherman not made a tremendous play, the Niners would have gone down the field into the teeth of these so-called ultrafans and won the NFC title. Yes, the stadium is acoustically contoured to maximize sound, but let's not grant Seattle some sort of holy status. When Seattle had an average team, there was nothing especially intimidating about the stadium. Now that they have the best defense in the league, it's a hard place to win.
Both the Pats and Niners have been to 3 straight conference title games--and both are now 1-2 in them, and both lost the Super Bowl. Not sure what that means, though as a devout hater of both teams, it's all I have to hang on to.
Danny Tuccitto: Richard Sherman. Great play. Odd time to throw his way. Never should have come down to that. Speaking in short sentences.