Audibles at the Line
Unfiltered in-game observations by Football Outsiders staff

Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

compiled by Andrew Potter

Each Sunday, the FO staff sends around emails 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 emails and produce this feature. By its nature, it can be disjointed and dissimilar to the other articles on the site.

While these emails 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 Steelers 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 solely 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.

Indianapolis Colts 13 at Kansas City Chiefs 31

Bryan Knowles:: Snow game! Best kind of game!

Looks like it won't be too windy, so the effect on the passing game should be relatively minimal. Still. Snow game!

Vince Verhei: Why is one end of the field so much snowier than the other? Did they only have a tarp on half the field?

Dave Bernreuther: Snow drifts, of course. Even without a real wind, the snow can collect in very different amounts just a few feet apart.

Derrik Klassen: How many times today do we think Tyreek Hill will walk to the line of scrimmage and just laugh in Pierre Desir's face? Already worked him on a slant on K.C.'s first play.

Scott Kacsmar: Don't care if it's an unpopular opinion but I think every new stadium built for NFL should have a retractable roof to avoid games like this. I don't want to see the most important games of the year affected by weather. It only took four snaps to see Eric Ebron drop a ball (three-and-out) and Tyreek Hill slip on a punt return that was negated by a penalty.

Having said that, Sammy Watkins looks pretty good in his return game and Damien Williams just made the defense look silly on a touchdown run. The over/under dropped from 57.5 to as low as (what I saw) 54 because of the weather concerns. The problem with that is Patrick Mahomes doesn't seem to let anything bother his scoring.

Bryan Knowles: Yeah, if the snow is affecting the Chiefs in any way, they're sure not letting it show. That was an exceptionally easy march to paydirt there.

Vince Verhei: Kansas City's first drive: 90 yards and a touchdown. They snapped the ball five times and picked up five first downs (one on a penalty). If they continue to average 15.0 yards per play, I predict they will win.

Scott Kacsmar: All four of Andrew Luck's passes have been touched, but none have been caught. One drop and then three in a row defensed or batted for another three-and-out. He's getting time to throw as expected, but nothing working yet.

Derrik Klassen: Post-bye week Andy Reid strikes again.

Dave Bernreuther: It sure hasn't taken long to make the point that for as clever and full of effort as Matt Eberflus' defense has been, they also haven't really played against a great quarterback yet and still can't be trusted. The snow and the missed tackles in space didn't help.

Nor did the non-call on the second third-down attempt, where the Chiefs defensive back was tackling the receiver (Zach Pascal? I already forgot) before the ball arrived. In the snow, that looked an awful lot like 2003.

Speaking of old Colts teams, it seemed all week like the Colts were the popular upset pick, based largely on the poor run defense of the Chiefs and the strong game Mack put up last week. It actually reminded me of the reverse situation back in 2006. After the infamous Maurice Jones-Drew game in Jacksonville (where the only reason the Jags didn't rush for 500 yards was that the end zones kept getting in the way), the Larry Johnson-led Chiefs came in to Indianapolis as a solid six seed and terrible matchup, and I was among those with no confidence whatsoever in that run defense. We all know what happened, of course, and I have a hunch that that would also have been the case today, were the Colts to stubbornly stick to a run-heavy game plan. Frank Reich knows better, however, and the Colts are already playing from behind, and now after a good call to go for fourth-and-1, Tyreek Hill goes all human joystick, and it's already a 2-touchdown lead for the Chiefs.

And damn it, Collinsworth. Of all people to call an end-around a reverse...

Vince Verhei: Kansas City's second drive was much worse than their first -- dropped passes, failures on third down, a complete disaster. It's so bad they have to go for it on fourth down and convert so easily that Mitchell Schwartz was just standing in the hole searching for someone to block until Damien Williams shoved him out of the way.

Tyreek Hill then takes the end-around for a 36-yard touchdown.

For what it's worth, I count at least four drops in this game, two by each team, and I don't think the weather had anything to do with any of them. Guys just aren't making plays.

Aaron Schatz: If the Colts are going to spread and throw on a third-and-1/-short-2 against Kansas City, shoot, I just give up on this one. Against that defense, third-and-a-short-2 has to be a running down. We knew that the Chiefs offense was this good but the Chiefs defense certainly wasn't supposed to start with three three-and-outs.

Vince Verhei: First quarter's done and the home team is up 14-0 and driving on its third possession. Colts have yet to complete a pass (which makes their short-yardage play calling even stranger) or pick up a first down. Gotta say, Clemson looks great so far.

Aaron Schatz: The Colts just got their FOURTH three-and-out in a row. Where on earth did this come from? They're swarming on both runs and passes.

Vince Verhei: Kansas City built their 17-0 lead on a pair of fourth-and-1 conversions. The Colts, now down 17-0, punt on fourth-and-1. Against the worst run defense in football. Because field position has mattered so much to Kansas City so far. Sigh.

Dave Bernreuther: Did someone just replace Reich with Pep Hamilton? For some reason Eric Ebron just ran a third-and-6 route short of the sticks. And for some reason, Luck threw the pass. Maybe he thought they'd go for it?

The Colts have four three-and-outs and fewer total yards on offense than they have in penalties. That is not going to get it done.

Bryan Knowles: Well, if the offense isn't working, and the defense isn't working, maybe special teams can bail Indianapolis out. Big special teams blunder here by Kansas City, with the interior of the line parting like the freaking red sea. Not what I'd expect from the second-ranked special teams, or the fourth-ranked punt unit per our numbers. Blocked punt, touchdown. Man, the Colts needed that.

Derrik Klassen: Despite their offensive troubles to this point, I except the Colts' offense to make this a closer game in the second half. Andrew Luck only threw six passes up until the team's final drive of that half, and I have to imagine with some better receiving efforts that Luck will start to move the sticks and get more opportunities. That last drive looked a lot more like the offense we all expected. Granted, K.C.'s offense shows no signs of slowing down, but the Colts' offense will almost certainly put up a better second half than their first.

Bryan Knowles: I'm surprised to find the Chiefs have only had a 17-point halftime lead four times this year, considering how potent that offense is. I suppose it just goes to show you how terrible their defense has been this year; they've needed all the points they could get.

The Chiefs are 4-0 with those 17-point leads; they let the 49ers and Jags back into it somewhat during the third quarter, and accelerated away from the Bengals and Raiders. The Colts got some things going on that last drive, going up-tempo and no-huddle and all that. That's probably what they need to do for the majority of the second half; they can't count on their defense getting too many stops. Even then, though; if the Chiefs march down and score anything on their opening drive, I think you can stick a fork in this one.

The Chiefs haven't given up a 17-point halftime lead since 1977 … if you count the regular season. They have managed to blow one in the wild-card rounds of both 2013 (to the Colts!) and 2017, so that's pretty much where any nervousness has to be. Still. Alex Smith isn't coming out that door. The Colts need a minor miracle.

Tom Gower: 24-7 at the half, and the first 28 minutes didn't feel nearly that close. Indy started out running frequently and, well, notwithstanding Kansas City's defense, Marlon Mack has five carries for 9 yards with a long of 10. That's pretty special. I wonder if the Colts were anticipating weather conditions to be much less conducive for running something close to a normal game plan than they were. I'm pretty sure Luck didn't even try throwing past the sticks on early downs until the two-minute drive that ended in Adam Vinatieri's doink, and his longest completion to that point came on second-and-long after an early-down loss. The Chiefs have a really good offense, and the weather hasn't been enough to disrupt that. I thought some of their early success might be the Indianapolis defense having trouble adapting to the conditions, but it may have just been Andy Reid's script getting players out of position and confused. Overall, while the defense is a lot better this year, I've been wondering if it was like those Chuck Pagano/Ryan Grigson defenses that were mostly much better by DVOA than they were for general perception -- capable of making life difficult enough for bad offenses to be pretty successful but too easily shredded by the really good offenses because they don't have enough playmakers and don't create enough pressure or schematic confusion. And, yeah, the first 30 minutes doesn't make me suppress that thought.

Vince Verhei: Mack is going to go from an all-time great playoff game to an all-time stinker.

Dave Bernreuther: That's one of those throws a middle infielder makes while on the move to turn two from the outfield grass.

Vince Verhei: Yeah, but shortstops don't have to wrap their throws around 600 pounds of angry men. That pass was like a masse on a billiards table.

Dave Bernreuther: Touché.

Denico Autry just took a personal foul for celebrating. To a ref. In a game where his team is trailing by three scores.

Ugh.

Bryan Knowles: The Rick Rude-esque video evidence, in what is the early frontrunner for Keep Choppin' Wood this week:

Derrik Klassen: An otherwise fantastic K.C. special teams unit has been awful today. Hill slipping on an early punt return, then Indianapolis blocking a punt for a touchdown, and just now nearly muffing the ball to the Colts on another punt return. Not like them to be constantly struggling on special teams. They were second in special teams DVOA at the end of the regular season.

Aaron Schatz: Looked like the Colts got a real break when Darius Leonard stripped the ball from Sammy Watkins and gave the Colts offense the ball on the Chiefs 20 ... but two players later, Dee Ford gets around Braden Smith and strip-sacks Andrew Luck and we're right back to the Chiefs on offense.

Carl Yedor: Another big stop by the Chiefs defense, forcing the Colts to punt again. I've been amazed at how little the Colts have been able to get going today. Outside of the one drive that led to the missed field goal at the end of the first half, Indy hasn't been able to do anything offensively.

But after that punt, the defense comes up big, forcing a Sammy Watkins fumble and giving the offense back the ball in the red zone. Indy desperately needs a touchdown to make this comeback doable, so of course the opposite happens. Dee Ford gets home around the edge and forces a fumble of his own, giving the Chiefs a net gain in field position.

Scott Kacsmar: Chiefs have three sacks today. We'll see what the charting shows later, but it sure hasn't felt like they've got a ton of pressure today. It's just been effective and timely, which is all you can really ask for from your defense. I'm pretty stunned the Colts offense is still sitting on zero offensive points and six first downs in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs had the third-largest split between home and road DVOA on defense this year, but this is quite arguably the best the defense has played all season.

Carl Yedor: Interesting decision to punt there. Yes, I know that it was fourth-and-15 and your odds of converting are slim, but you have to try a long conversion at some point, right? With only about 10 minutes left, how many more possessions do you think you have? Probably no more than three if Indy is turning those drives into touchdowns. Granted, a touchdown by Kansas City ends the game (and even a field goal turns it into needing three touchdowns instead of two touchdowns and a field goal), but time is running low.

Bryan Knowles: I'm actually impressed by the job the Colts defense is doing here in the second half ... but with the offense struggling so, it just hasn't mattered.

Vince Verhei: Among the reasons for this shocking score: the Chiefs have almost totally erased T.Y. Hilton. He's at two catches for 21 yards as the Chiefs punt midway through the fourth quarter. He had at least 25 yards in every game this year (and even the game he only had 25 yards, he scored two touchdowns against Buffalo).

Well there's Hilton with the long touchdown down the right sideline. Great throw by Luck to drop it in the bucket. But then Vinatieri honks the extra point. It's 24-13 -- if Vinatieri had made his two short kicks, it would be 24-17 and we would be talking about Andy Reid's history of bad clock management right now.

Bryan Knowles: Well, Hilton un-erases himself there, but Vinatieri misses the extra point(!). 24-13, with 5:31 left. At the pace the Colts were moving the ball down the field (somewhere between "snail" and "molasses"), this sort-of has to be an onside kick.

Aaron Schatz: No onside kick. Squib instead. Kansas City can eat a lot of clock here if they can run the ball.

Dave Bernreuther: Collinsworth pointed out that Hilton is hobbled by an ankle injury he sustained in the first half.

Hard to argue in favor of going for a fourth-and-15, but the Chiefs opened this half with a drive of about seven minutes without scoring ... and now there are seven minutes left to play as the Colts are at midfield down by three scores. Things do not look good.

Especially if Luck is going to keep underthrowing balls, which he has done on his past two passes ... although once again Eric Ebron got hit early on the deep shot and it went uncalled. Would've/should've been a Flacco special there, I guess, but I can't get upset about that given how unfair and undeserved those calls always are.

Vince Verhei: Actually, on replay, it WAS an onside kick -- Rigoberto Sanchez just drilled it hard right at a guy so the Colts could get a rebound. But the Chiefs player basically dodged it (it just grazed him and went downfield). I've always thought somebody should try that -- dare the other team to catch a cannonball to the gut.

Aaron Schatz: I take it back. Replay shows apparently it was a squib kick that was also a try at an onside kick. They were trying to peg Kansas City's Daniel Sorensen with the hope it would bounce off him and could be recovered. Instead it glanced off him and went downfield. Tremon Smith got the return all the way back to the Kansas City 39.

Bryan Knowles: Honestly, I think that WAS an onside attempt -- it looked like Sanchez tried to bank it off one of the hands' team's face. That would have been hilarious had it succeeded.

Dave Bernreuther: And, given the rule changes, that was really a pretty cool design and attempt.

Aaron Schatz: Running into the kicker penalty on Najee Goode seemed a little bogus, especially if he actually managed to deflect the punt. But it means this game is over, congratulations Chiefs.

Dave Bernreuther: Oh my goodness. Not that the Colts deserve to win this game, but that roughing call on Goode is awful, whether or not he got a sliver of ball. He landed completely on the ground and Dustin Colquitt didn't even give the usual punter dive/sales effort. Wow.

Vince Verhei: Only thing left to mention that I don't think we've talked about today is how many passes were tipped by Chiefs pass-rushers at the line. Seems like it was at least a half-dozen. I never know who to blame for those -- the quarterback for throwing low? The blockers for allowing pressure? Or just credit the defender for making a good play?

Weirdness: Mahomes did not throw a touchdown today. It feels like he had a bunch, but all of Kansas City's scores came on the ground.

Bryan Knowles: It is apparently the first postseason since 1993 where we've had multiple teams win without a touchdown pass -- the Chargers won their wild-card game the same way. Very odd.

Scott Kacsmar: The coincidence of the year continues. Mahomes finished with 278 yards on 41 attempts. He played well, but the Colts didn't make it easy after the 14-0 start. However, that does mean that the only five games this season where Mahomes passed for fewer than 280 yards were against the four defenses that used zone coverage the most (Colts, Seahawks, Chargers, and Cardinals). He'll either get the Chargers for a third time next, or the Patriots, who I believe use man coverage the most.

From my preview, I was 100 percent right about the Chiefs having 31 points with Luck driving for a last-second touchdown. It's just that the Colts had 13 on the board instead of 26, and even without Vinatieri's bad day, it would still have been 31-17. Disappointed in how one-sided that was, but it did expose a lot of the flaws the Colts have. After Hilton, their next best weapon is Ebron, who is prone to drops and sloppy play. They don't have other developed receivers yet. The defense lacks a consistent pass-rusher. The Chiefs have a couple and it was a big game for Justin Houston today.

Tom Gower: Maybe I'm just thinking of the topic because of the recent anniversary of the 2002 Titans-Steelers game, but I don't think anybody has ever liked a running into the kicker/punter call.

Like the Colts last week, the Chiefs after their hot start (which in fairness to them included an extra score before half) cooled down. Some. They weren't scoring points, but they were running plays and taking time off the clock. The Colts ended up with a few chances but squandered them. The Braden Smith strip-sack. The batted passes. The short throws. More short throws. I don't think the Kansas City defense, while better, has improved that much, so I go back and wonder about how much Indianapolis' game plan was affected by what they expected from the conditions, because the short throws weren't working and intermediate throws were. Maybe an all-22 re-watch topic.

Dallas Cowboys 22 at Los Angeles Rams 30

Bryan Knowles: Whatever happens on the field, this is the best-dressed of the four divisional games, with the classic blue-and-gold of the Rams against the Cowboys' traditional white. In fact, both Saturday games should be significantly easier on the eyes than their Sunday counterparts.

Vince Verhei: Everyone loves these Rams throwbacks, but it drives me nuts how the blue on the helmets doesn't match the blue on the jersey.

Aaron Schatz: I believe that's connected to some sort of NFL rule stating that teams can only use a single helmet during the season, so the Rams can't use different throwback helmets that have the proper matching blue.

Vince Verhei: But they do have two helmets -- the others have white horns, not yellow. Unless the rule is they can change the decals, but not the helmets themselves.

Bryan Knowles: I believe the rule is they can have one helmet shell, so yes -- different decals are OK, but not different designs.

And if we're complaining about mismatching colors, the Cowboys and their four distinct shades of blue bother me a bit more!

As for the actual action on the football field, the Young Offensive Innovative Mind bypasses a fourth-and-3 inside the 10 to kick a field goal. The Human Clapper goes for it on fourth-and-1 (a play call the announcers hate, mind you), gets the first down, and scores a touchdown on the next play. Hrmmmm...

Vince Verhei: OK, apparently that actually IS the rule. They can't change shells in the middle of the season. It's a safety thing, though I'm not sure right now how one helmet is safer than two.

In actual football news, Rams running backs had 38 rushing yards on their opening drive against Dallas. This a week after the Seahawks spent a whole game handing off against Dallas, and their running backs finished with 59 rushing yards. That drive ends in a field goal, then Dallas goes ahead after Ezekiel Elliott converts a fourth-and-1, then Amari Cooper gets a 29-yard catch-and-run touchdown. The Rams' weakness against No. 1 receivers rears its ugly head.

(Bryan is correct on the Cowboys uniforms.)

Dave Bernreuther: That is the rule. Hence no Pat Patriot, but the Rams can switch colored horns. I believe facemasks can change as well.

It's not quite as pointless and unproven a charade as the TSA, but ostensibly it's about player safety. Gotta make it look like they're protecting their heads.

As for which game is best-dressed ... no complaints about the Colts game, and honestly, tomorrow ought to be solid as well, unless the Saints wear an ugly all-black combo. None of the eight remaining teams has a heinous jersey.

As for the game ... I got a good laugh out of Troy Aikman arguing against the easy call to go for fourth-and-1 past midfield, only to be proven wrong by Elliott and a near-immediate Cooper touchdown on a route and timing throw that looked awfully Norv Turner offense-ish. It followed a free 15 yards on a flag to Marcus Peters in a kerfuffle with Cooper that, while he started it, seemed like it almost certainly should've been two flags, given that Cooper threw a punch.

Vince Verhei: (Nobody tell Dave that the Saints are wearing their all-black uniforms tomorrow.)

Bryan Knowles: And then Aikman talks about how he likes the Rams going for it on fourth down, because apparently the Rams will need all the points they can get to keep up with the Cowboys, or something.

The Rams have the 19th-ranked defense; it's not like they're the Buccaneers (or, heck, the Chiefs) out here or anything. I think Aikman just has a coin he flips whenever he has to make an opinion about a strategic decision.

Scott Kacsmar: I thought Bryan was going for an acronym when talking about McVay as Young Offensive Innovative Mind, but what's a YOIM? For a McVay, I'm thinking My Coach's Very Awesome Youth, which is what a few teams are banking on getting out of guys they hired this week.

Aikman definitely botched his justification on what he liked about that fourth down. The Cowboys are the team that will need to score more points than their usual output in this matchup. That should be obvious. Brandin Cooks just dropped a touchdown on first-and-goal, or at least I imagine they'll reverse that to incomplete. I recall some bad drops in the playoff loss for the Rams last year, which can help explain why the McVay-Goff machine only put up 13 points that night.

Bryan Knowles: I was just poking fun at the coach who everybody wants a piece of settling for a field goal inside the ten.

And he does it again! What's all this, then? Looking back on it, the Rams apparently led the league in field goals attempted inside the 10 (14 of them, ahead of Baltimore's 12), so maybe this shouldn't be surprising ... but still.

Dave Bernreuther: C.J. Anderson is looking like a tremendous mid-season signing for the Rams. They stalled just shy of a score again after two end zone targets to Cooks didn't work, but Anderson has been moving the ball and is seeing a lot of snaps, which is good if Todd Gurley isn't 100 percent.

Gurley played the Dave Meggett role on that drive, actually, appearing only for third downs.

That previous email would've been more appropriate if I had actually made the C.J.-O.J. Anderson connection in writing.

But I didn't, because at the time that the name Dave Meggett popped into my mind, I hadn't even thought of that yet.

Anderson keeps it up, by the way, and scores the touchdown he deserves to give the Rams the lead. He has four 10-yard carries, while Elliott and Gurley have combined for none. Not sure anyone saw that one coming.

Vince Verhei: I was going to scream at the announcers for saying Anderson had played for the Raiders, but he actually did sign with Oakland last month. They waived him. Because reasons.

Scott Kacsmar: Samson Ebukam probably had a pick-six, but Dak Prescott was lucky he dropped it. No worries though, a huge penalty on Byron Jones for illegal hands to the face erased a third-and-14 stop. One play later, Gurley had an easy path to the end zone from 35 yards away and the Rams are up 20-7. It just doesn't seem right that you can get a 5-yard penalty for barely touching a guy at the line and that erases third-and-14. That's a play where you would hope to see officials swallow their whistles this time of year. Cowboys got decent pressure and forced a bad throw on the play, but all for naught because of a little contact to the face for a split second. That's rough.

Tom Gower: Halftime, Rams lead 20-7. Two drives stalled out in the red zone and had to settle for field goals, one that featured a reversed touchdown (nice play by Byron Jones, but still a catch I'd like to see Brandin Cooks make), and a time-limited drive that ended in a missed 64-yard field goal. Safe to say the Los Angeles offense has had a lot of success tonight, both through the air and on the ground. Kudos in particular to that offensive line, which has denied the backfield penetration that made Dallas so successful in limiting the Seattle run game last week. The constant pre-snap motion and play-action also has seemed to have an effect, leading Dallas' young linebackers in particular to play slow at times. That was particularly apparent to me on their first touchdown drive, with Jaylon Smith too slow and Kris Richard chewing out Leighton Vander Esch after the drive on the sidelines. They were still super-fun to watch last week in a game that was a bit of a struggle at times, but motion is difficult to play against.

The other side of the ball, I don't really know what to say. The Cowboys offense is still the Cowboys offense. One play over 20 yards, just Amari Cooper's touchdown, and with the Rams getting yards consistently there's no chance that cuts it without near-perfect efficiency, and they've been nowhere close to that.

Bryan Knowles: If anyone can explain that "in the grasp" call in a way that makes sense, you're a better man than I.

I am surprised the Rams are having such a good day on the ground, C.J. Anderson or no C.J. Anderson. Dallas had the fifth-ranked rush defense DVOA coming into the game, so I was expecting them to have to go aerial to keep things going here. Instead, they're just grinding the Cowboys into a fine paste, with the offensive line winning the battle essentially every time -- 170 rushing yards in the first half. Meanwhile, the Rams defense, one of the worst in the league at stopping the run, has held Zeke Elliott to a relatively paltry 40 yards. Sort of feels like that's the difference at the moment; the Rams can move the ball on the ground and the Cowboys can't.

Vince Verhei: I think -- and I'm dead serious here -- that the refs forgot what team La'el Collins played for. So when they saw his arms around Prescott's waist, they blew the whistle. Now, WHY Collins had his arms around Prescott, that I can't tell you.

And yes, Prescott played very well last week, but has been terrible since the first drive tonight. Throwing behind guys and tossing what should have been a pick-six, but the defender dropped the ball.

Carl Yedor: So that was a dime by Prescott down to the goal line.

I don't blame L.A. for challenging there because it's a huge play and you probably like your odds of getting off the field after second-and-20. Call stands, and Dallas punches it in two plays later with Elliott. Two-pointer is good after a bizarre sequence where Dallas had the play clock increased twice amidst some confusion when they were running players in and out while Garrett dithered about whether or not to go for two. Now a one-possession game, L.A. needs to keep their foot on the gas.

Vince Verhei: This game is playing out exactly the opposite of what I expected. I thought it would be close at halftime and then the Rams would pull away. Instead the Rams jumped out to a big lead and the Cowboys have been whittling it down.

Aaron Schatz: I'm frustrated by the Rams playing that "draw them offside" nonsense game and then taking a delay of game instead of going for it on fourth-and-2 from the Dallas 47. With that offense and the way you've been running the ball all game, you've got to be going for it there. I had Jim Armstrong run an early version of Aggressiveness Index and while McVay was in the top ten, he only went for it on one of 12 qualifying fourth-and-2s this year. It was the first drive tonight where the Rams didn't get a touchdown or at least a field goal attempt. Those red zone stops by the Cowboys are the only thing keeping this close.

Vince Verhei: Cowboys make the obvious decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 instead of a 50-plus-yard field goal. But singleback dive is the last fourth-and-1 play you should ever call against a team with Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.

Carl Yedor: Especially when you run it into a completely full box. Spread it out a little bit and get some bodies out of there. After all, while Suh blew up the play initially, it was Lamarcus Joyner who wrapped up Elliott to keep him from getting the first down. If he has to cover a receiver, he isn't in the box to make that play.

Dave Bernreuther: I universally hate the "draw them offside" ploy, but it did make my mind wonder about just how many offensive plays they have in their repertoire with Johnny Hekker at quarterback, and perhaps that was part of the point. All the formation shifts, including him even going up under center, have to at least plant the seed in the minds of Dave Fipp and Mike Westhoff.

Derrik Klassen: Even Troy Aikman is getting in on throwing strays at the Carolina Panthers for not handling C.J. Anderson properly.

Dave Bernreuther: Fourth-and-goal from inside the 1 and they run the offsides attempt again. Now I hope they lose.

Bryan Knowles: Did the Rams just try to get the Cowboys to jump on fourth-and-goal from the 1?

This is one time where kicking the field goal this close to the end zone would be a good thing -- a two-possession lead with the figgie is probably worth about as much as a touchdown in this circumstance.

Vince Verhei: Rams have a fourth-and-goal at the 1 ... and they try to get the Cowboys to jump again! Why? What does that accomplish? If they jump -- it's still fourth-and-goal! I'm confused.

Now they're going to go for it FOR REAL NOW. And Anderson scores to put the Rams back up 30-15.

Dave Bernreuther: Oh. Well alright then. They went for it anyway, and scored. Anderson again. Easily.

Aaron Schatz: The only thing that getting the Cowboys accomplishes is to make the fourth-and-1 an easier 1, like half a yard, easier to convert a quarterback sneak on. I agree that it was weird. But I'm glad that they decided to go for it anyway after the timeout.

Bryan Knowles: The Cowboys, like the Colts before them, are playing this comeback drive way, way too slowly. They do know they need multiple scores, right?

So, the Cowboys score ... but they neither go for two, nor do they onside kick. They have all three timeouts, so neither choice is strictly wrong, but I think I would have done at least one or the other (probably the two-point conversion, so I'd know if I needed two more possessions or not.)

That bootleg for Jared Goff was way, way too easy. Wow.

Aaron Schatz: First down C.J. Anderson and this baby is over.

Carl Yedor: Some of the Cowboys players almost goofed there right before the two-minute warning. It looked like some of them were trying to signal for time out on the field immediately after the second-down run got stopped, which would have stopped the clock at about 2:03 or 2:02. The timeout was not granted, but if it had been, the Rams would have been able to throw on third down without having to worry about the possibility the clock might stop. It would stop anyway at the two-minute warning, so an incomplete pass would not have been a concern.

Likely not going to matter after that Goff bootleg keeper though. Even if the Cowboys get the stop, they can't get the ball back via a punt until there's barely any time left in the game.

Los Angeles Chargers 28 at New England Patriots 41

Dave Bernreuther: Word on the street in Miami is that the Dolphins are waiting to poach Brian Flores from the Patriots as their coach. Because, you know, all the other Patriots assistants have such a sterling track record, especially those who were hired from middling units with very little experience. So Dolphins fans -- as you watch the Patriot linebackers struggle to cover anyone today, be impressed by how well they were coached and get eager for another decade mired in mediocrity!

Sadly/luckily, depending on who you ask, there is no snow on the ground, although it is still cold. But even without the weather, this looks like a game that's built for a lot of running back activity, both running and in the passing game. So watch, the two aging quarterbacks will go bombs away, and we'll see Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, and the Williamses all catch deep-ball touchdowns in a game that hits the over by halftime.

Like everyone else, I'm interested in seeing how the Chargers deploy their big defensive backs after last week. You've got to think that if they ever put that personnel out there, New England will quickly switch to a different formation and put the pedal to the metal in a quick tempo offense designed to punish that alignment and keep them on the field. Which is part of why it seems so well suited for a lot of running back involvement in the passing game.

And of course, it's still the Chargers. They're on the road on the east coast for an early game again, in the cold, and there are still a few preposterous slots still open on the Chargers bingo card. What fun miserable result awaits today? We'll know in a few hours.

It will be interesting, for sure.

And we're already off to an interesting start; the Patriots, who were years ahead of other teams on deferring in an attempt to get the double-possession, win the toss and choose to ... receive. Seems they'd rather play from ahead than get the possible extra possession. Hmm.

Bryan Knowles: Romo said it might be to test Nick Rose, who was signed a couple days ago to handle kickoffs. I'm not sure how much I buy that, but that opening kickoff was NOT a good one.

What, the Chargers having questionable special teams? We've never seen that before.

Dave Bernreuther: Tom Brady is 5-of-5 so far, all to backs.

Yes, one of those passes was to Julian Edelman, but he lined up in the backfield to start the play.

The Pats are up to the Chargers 35, with White very nearly breaking that last one, and it seems that sometimes even the tricky Pats will just go with the most obvious game plan, because the obvious game plan is obvious for a reason. That said, I have very little doubt that this will open things up for a deep shot later. Maybe the Chargers can intercept it and fumble it back again.

Derrik Klassen: That opening drive was peak Patriots. Setting picks, motioning guys out to spread the defense, making use of backs as pass catchers in the quick game. Topped it all off with a Rob Gronkowski target in the end zone on third-and-6, which drew a penalty and allowed the Patriots to score on the next play. Clinical stuff that we have all come to know the Patriots for.

Aaron Schatz: Well, that was an easy touchdown drive. Let the record state that the Chargers started the game in the seven-defensive back set from last week, but when Adrian Phillips got injured, they had to go to using an inside linebacker again. But if we were waiting for the Patriots to actually attempt downfield passes instead of a bunch of quick, short stuff ... we're still waiting.

Vince Verhei: I don't know if I'd call that Patriots drive easy -- counting the DPI in the end zone, they had to convert four third downs -- but they obviously managed to avoid negative plays and long-yardage scenarios.

Scott Kacsmar: Chargers only had 10 men on the field for the touchdown run. Someone came off late. That's less than ideal. Now the offense starts with a huge drop (45-ish yards) by Mike Williams on a bomb. This is already some fine Chargering.

Bryan Knowles: Mike Williams, you HAVE TO catch that ball. Have to.

But no, third-and-15 after a delay of game. Which is also fine Chargering.

Aaron Schatz: Williams caught an 18-yard pass on that third-and-15. Don't call this game yet. Looks like the Pats will have Stephon Gilmore on Keenan Allen and -- this surprises me -- Jason McCourty instead of J.C. Jackson on Mike Williams.

Dave Bernreuther: So of course they convert the third-and-15 to Williams, who gets hurt. Bit of a hollow victory if that's a bad injury.

Aaron Schatz: Chargers quickly even it up with a 43-yard touchdown to a wide-open Keenan Allen. That looked like ... some kind of blown coverage on a zone, maybe? Instead of going deep with Allen in man coverage, Gilmore cut inside like maybe he thought he had a shorter zone and there was a safety deep. There was no safety deep.

Bryan Knowles: Wow, Keenan Allen just burned Stephon Gilmore really, really badly. I'm fairly sure he was supposed to be either covering Allen or at least the deep part of the field, and instead he started creeping up halfway through the play. Easy pitch-and-catch for the touchdown.

Dave Bernreuther: Stephon Gilmore might have been the best man corner in the league this year.

So they asked him to play zone ... and that went poorly. This is where Tony Romo excels, expertly illustrating how Gilmore read Rivers' eyes (I remember how TMQ used to always mock defensive backs for "making the high school mistake of looking into the backfield" -- which is exactly what you're supposed to do if you're playing a zone) to jump inside exactly as Allen stepped outside, leaving Allen WIDE open for the easy score.

Vince Verhei: Two drives in, Brady and Philip Rivers are a combined 10-of-12 for 124 yards -- and one of those incompletes was the big drop by Williams.

Scott Kacsmar: I thought Rivers might have pump-faked to get Gilmore to bite, but that didn't even happen. Crazy to think his eyes alone got Gilmore to bite inside so badly while the double-move allowed Allen to get wide open.

Aaron Schatz: Adrian Phillips is back for the Chargers, so we're back to the seven-DB set.

Vince Verhei: Second Patriots drive was definitely easier than the first: seven plays, 67 yards and a touchdown, and they never even got to third down.

Might be time for the Chargers to break out a 15-DB set.

Aaron Schatz: Update of earlier comment: Looks like the Patriots quickly switched their man coverage and now we've got J.C. Jackson covering Mike Williams.

Also, here's a really good analysis by Dan Orlovsky that Gilmore's mistake on the Keenan Allen touchdown was apparently based on tape study of a play that the Chargers usually run with Allen running a dig route.

Dave Bernreuther: Interesting. If Allen had done the dig, that would have looked a lot like the old Manning/Moore levels concept.

Scott Kacsmar: Finding a defensive back who can tackle Edelman quickly would be nice. That's his game though. Squirts forward for a few more yards on plays that most wide receivers wouldn't create those extra yards on. Haven't seen much from Gronkowski yet, but Edelman and the running backs have been more than enough so far.

Derrik Klassen: Have to appreciate the Chargers not being scared to go deep or fight on third-and-longs. Mike Williams was the target of the first deep pass and the third-and-15, but it's Keenan Allen who sprung free past what seemed like a busted coverage for a deep touchdown. Philip Rivers has been outstanding for most of this year and they are letting him show it right now. Good on the Chargers to not let New England gain and hold an early lead.

Bryan Knowles: Another wide-open touchdown. These receivers are getting enough separation to make Brady and Rivers' jobs very, very easy today. Looked like a miscommunication leading to an easy Phillip Dorsett touchdown.

Scott Kacsmar: I thought it was weird in Pittsburgh when the Chargers were taking their dear old time with a 23-7 deficit in the third quarter. They're doing the same thing today and have already been hit with multiple delay of game penalties and close to a few more. As it turns out, that's just how the Chargers have rolled this year, ranked 32nd in pace (31st when trailing by 7-plus points too). Rivers frantically trying to get the snap off while the Patriots pressure him just feels like a losing strategy to me.

Bryan Knowles: Alright, if you're the Chargers, what the heck do you do on defense? Your seven-DB zone is being picked apart. They don't have the healthy linebackers to go back to what they did in the regular season. Do you play a bunch of man-to-man, despite it not being what you're used to/good at? Do you blitz more to try to generate some pressure? Something has to change.

Vince Verhei: New England finally tries a deep ball, and Hogan is wide open on third-and-2 but Brady badly underthrows him and it's knocked away ... but there's holding on the Chargers and the drive continues. And then Sony Michel rips off a big run and New England's in the red zone again.

Aaron Schatz: Four drives, four touchdowns. Someone in the press box just said "this is like a Madden game with the level set to 'Embarassment.'" There is no pass pressure whatsoever. ESPN Stats & Info says the Chargers didn't blitz once in the first quarter and I haven't seen one in the second quarter either. Pats offensive line is doing a good job of controlling Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram as well.

Vince Verhei: We're on our way to our third straight divisional blowout, and the story in two of those has been the offensive line of the winners crushing the defensive front of the losers.

Bryan Knowles: Rams-Cowboys wasn't that big of a blowout, but yeah -- at this rate, we're counting on the Magic of Nick Foles to save this weekend.

I'm not sure you can have a must-score drive midway through the second quarter ... but this is kind of a must-score drive for the Chargers, right?

Scott Kacsmar: I'd stick a fork in this one. Usually when you're watching a bad (even terrible) defensive performance, the defense can at least excel in one of these four areas: run defense, coverage, pressure, or tackling. I think Gus Bradley's unit is 0-for-4 today. They've been torn up on the ground with Michel nearing 100 yards on four drives. The receivers have been open underneath all day. They've barely sniffed Brady so far. The tackling has been poor, especially on Edelman. There is just nothing to compliment this unit for. The Patriots have never had a playoff game where they started TD-TD-TD, let alone TD-TD-TD-TD, before this slaughtering.

It was definitely a bad matchup for the defense. You have to play press-man coverage on Brady's receivers. You have to get pressure on him, and blitzing once in a while is necessary. Mix it up on him. The Chargers don't do that though. They're a passive zone defense and they're getting embarrassed so far. I loved the Patriots to cover in this one, but I thought the Chargers would be better than this. The offense hasn't impressed either.

Tom Gower: Six minutes to play in the second quarter, and the Patriots just took a 28-7 lead. I didn't expect this game to be legitimately close or that competitive, but even I didn't expect what we've seen from the Chargers thus far. Their light defensive backs personnel has been destroyed repeatedly either on the ground, by a New England blocking game that's just mashing people the way you'd expect an undersized defense to get mashed, or through the air. Desmond King has had a nice season, but he has been a bit of a pigeon so far, including the Philip Dorsett touchdown and the big holding penalty on Chris Hogan to extend the last drive. Then again, it would be unfair to single out a specific Chargers defender, as their defensive plan just hasn't worked at all. It's extraordinarily tempting to me to point the finger at Gus Bradley, and to laughingly doubt that he has the ability to come up with a second plan, especially for a defense like this one that has three playmakers (Bosa, Ingram, Derwin James) and a bunch of guys. The only chance Los Angeles has to keep up with this game is by scoring almost every possession, and Philip Rivers just doesn't have the ability to make off-script plays so if the Chargers don't win by design, like they did on the long touchdown, the play's over.

Dave Bernreuther: Rivers is complaining about the gosh darn officiating, and he sort of has a point about the hits he's taking, including one after a delay of game, but mostly this is on their own execution.

Four drives, four scores, all easy ... guess the Pats were pretty confident about that coin toss, huh?

Bryan Knowles: Well, maybe the game's not over. The Chargers just have to play some hurry-up, which shouldn't be a problem since they had the *checks* … slowest offense in football! Most seconds per play overall, most in the second half, and ahead of only the Saints when they're down by a score or more. Whelp.

That Chiefs-Pats rematch should be something though, right?

Dave Bernreuther: The Chargers get a stop. Finally. And so of COURSE it's a King fumble on the punt, with Albert McClellan barely recovering the ball in bounds, it appears. Looks like they're making the Patriots throw the challenge flag to get this one, though, so it's possible the Chargers could catch a break rather than a new awful entry on their bingo card.

Rob Weintraub: Only reason for any optimism is that it's tough to beat a very good team twice in a season. That the Pats beat the Chiefs but the title game is in K.C. nonetheless may turn out to be the way we remember this season.

Bryan Knowles: If we get rematches of Chiefs-Patriots, Rams-Saints, then Chiefs-Rams in the Super Bowl, you could argue we're replaying the three best games of the season. These are the things I have to think while we're slogging through this one.

Scott Kacsmar: Yeah, I'm with Bryan there. Part of me has been clamoring for a rematch of SB 52.5 (Chiefs-Rams), but I still think it'd be cool to see something new with Chiefs-Saints. Crazy to think we can't rule out a rematch yet with Eagles-Patriots. So at least we know we can't possibly get a bad matchup in Atlanta with what's left.

Dave Bernreuther: As much as I'm rolling my eyes about an eighth straight Patriots AFC title game appearance, I have no complaints whatsoever about that outcome, even though I do kind of like this Eagles mystique.

The Saints-Rams game is the only one of the three that I'd predict to go the same was as last time.

Third-and-10, Rivers throws to Williams on the sideline, and Jackson with the perfect execution of that "grab the far side of his torso and pull" move that gave him the leverage to get there to break up the pass, and of course there's no call. You rarely get that one even if you're the home team, of course. You're certainly not getting it as the visitor.

That's one of those things that has always impressed me about the best defensive and secondary coaches ... coaching those very, very subtle grabs that are just enough to matter but not enough to be noticeable. I don't even mind that that wasn't called because it was so well done.

Bryan Knowles: I'm a little disappointed that New England didn't score another touchdown there -- no team has ever scored 42 points in the first half of a playoff game. As it is, it's "only" tied for fifth all-time. Last team to score 35 points in the first half? The Patriots, against the Tim Tebow Broncos after the 2011 season.

For the record -- and due to a lack of other things to talk about -- the four teams that had bigger first halves were the Jaguars in their 62-7 win over the Dolphins in 1999 (Dan Marino's last game), the Eagles in a 58-37 win over the Lions in 1995 (in what was the highest-scoring playoff game ever until the Packers-Cardinals showdown in the 2009 season), the Bills in their 51-3 win over the Raiders in 1990, and Washington in a 51-7 win over the Rams in 1983.

Maybe the Chargers can get some points in garbage time and approach the 58-37 score. Maybe.

Vince Verhei: Well there's another case where the Chargers' slow pace hurts them -- runner is ruled down by contact even though the ball came out. Chargers dilly-dally at the line, which gives New England plenty of time to throw the challenge flag. As it turns out, there was a fumble, but no clear recovery for the defense, so New England loses the challenge anyway.

Dave Bernreuther: Belichick throws the flag after a Mike Williams catch and fumble, and my subsequent cursing had nothing -- NOTHING, I tell you -- to do with the fact that I faded Keenan Allen due to Gilmore and had a large financial stake in Williams outplaying him ... replays confirmed Romo's assertion that Williams recovered it, but with the way things have gone for the Chargers, it was still something of a surprise to see him come back and make the correct announcement.

They're just mauling Williams at this point, by the way. Gilmore gets called for defensive holding and suddenly the Chargers are at least in position to make those who bet the over happy.

As I type that, Rivers throws a pass well behind the line of scrimmage to Antonio Gates for a loss. I think I pointed this out once a week or two ago, but it seems like a lot more quarterbacks are happy to make that throw to a completely covered guy this year. If it's a blind decision because of a play fake that's one thing, but I see a lot of it where it's quite clear that the guy is covered. And/or it's to a non-playmaker that you can trust to maybe break a tackle or two. That play loses yards, whereas in past years more guys would throw it to that same receiver's feet. I feel like that's a huge flaw in offensive play design during this quarterback renaissance.

Vince Verhei: Chargers finish that slow, slow drive, with a touchdown. They killed 5:15 in 10 plays -- more than 30 seconds per play. They're prepping to win this game in the ninth quarter. It was funny when they had to call timeout to avoid a delay of game at the 1-yard line and Tony Romo was saying Rivers was upset about the substitutions because it stopped him from running hurry-up -- when Rivers had been playing slow the entire time and continued to play slow after that.

Scott Kacsmar: Rivers narrowly avoiding an interception. The only turnover in this game has been the King fumbled punt. That's another reason I think this postseason has been terrible. We're used to seeing turnovers swing games or happen in big spots of close games. That hasn't been happening at all. Last week, the Seahawks and Bears lost even after having zero turnovers and winning that battle. Yesterday, the Chiefs and Colts each had one while there were none in Cowboys-Rams. Just one today.

Dave Bernreuther: Part of that has been that Rivers, in addition to lollygagging between plays, has been entirely too willing to casually toss the ball away all game. It's too late now for it to matter, but even when it did, he just had no sense of urgency at all.

Bryan Knowles: Is it even worth complaining, yet again, about why Brady was still out there? I get it, no one wants to come out in the playoffs, but geez. One of these years, someone's going to get hurt in a playoff game at the end of one of these blowouts.

Aaron Schatz: A final thought about the Patriots-Chargers game. There are really two mindsets in the NFL when it comes to coaching and game plan. The first mindset is "we're going to find and attack your weakness." That's the Belichick mindset. The second mindset is "we do the thing we do, and we dare you to beat it." This is how the Peyton Manning offense worked. And this seems to be the mindset of the Pete Carroll family of coaches. When the Legion of Boom was in its heyday, the Seahawks ran their Cover-3 system and they knew they had great players and they dared you to beat it. Well, I think Gus Bradley came out today with that mindset. This is what the Chargers do: they play Cover-3, they don't blitz, and they dare you to beat that defensive scheme. And the problem is that Brady eats the Cover-3 for breakfast. And thus, he did. And the best way to stop him over the last two seasons has been the blitz. And the Chargers never even tried.

Dave Bernreuther: How many other coaches are even reliably a part of the former approach, besides Belichick?

It is, and always has been, infuriating. I didn't really even view the Chargers' defensive game plan as particularly stubborn today; they were so hamstrung by injuries that they didn't really have a choice.

Then again, there's also something to be said for having the ability/personnel to be able to play multiple schemes. Sometimes you play Cover-3 because you can't really play anything else.

Bryan Knowles: Tom Brady just said, re: the game against Kansas City, ""I know everyone thinks we suck and, you know, can't win any games. So we'll see. It'll be fun."

The Patriots have not been underdogs since Week 1 of 2016.

Aaron Schatz: The Pats haven't been underdogs with Brady at quarterback since Week 13 of 2014 in Green Bay.

Philadelphia Eagles 14 at New Orleans Saints 20

Aaron Schatz: Did P.J. Williams just essentially give up on the 37-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews? He looked like he stopped running with him.

Rob Weintraub: Williams got caught peeking trying to find the ball.

Scott Kacsmar: Wow, we kind of forgot what dramatic playoff football looks like. The Eagles take the turnover and turn it into a 76-yard touchdown drive. Nick Foles is never afraid to just sling it, and the Saints were 32nd in DVOA against deep passes. You couldn't write a better script to start this game for Philadelphia.

Dave Bernreuther: Sheldon Rankins getting carted off for the Saints changes a LOT about this game. He's a huge part of their run defense.

Bryan Knowles: Sheldon Rankins being carted off is a big loss; he was having the best year of his career. Watch that interior defensive line; the Eagles might have a significant advantage there, now...

... except now Brandon Brooks is now down for the Eagles.

I'm pretty sure I could come up with a worst start to this game for the Saints, but it'd be really, really difficult. Wow. I wasn't expecting a repeat of Week 11, but this is nuts.

Carl Yedor: Worth noting that in the first matchup Philly went 3-for-10 on third downs and 0-for-2 on fourth downs. On their first two drives, the Eagles are already 2-for-2 on third down, leading to more points than they had in the entire first game. Looking at third-down performance can be overly simplistic (and it isn't sustainable to rely on converting third downs at high rate), but it definitely helps explain why drives are successful.

There has been some research done in baseball on "clustering" hits together, with the idea being that teams that string hits together more efficiently can score more runs on a similar number of hits than an unluckier team. I wonder if there would be a way to apply that to third-down conversions or just total first downs since those tend to be building blocks of successful drives. Granted, there are more factors at work here (not all scoring/touchdown drives are the same length, among others), but I think it would be interesting to investigate further. At a high level, the overall conversion rate within a game can explain a lot, but I wonder whether drilling down to the drive level would reveal anything useful.

Derrik Klassen: That interception from Nick Foles should not stop him from being aggressive. Sure, he got greedy on that one and left it too shallow, but Foles won't let one interception stop him from pulling the trigger. The Eagles are going to need to keep putting the pressure on N.O.'s secondary to stave off a potential Drew Brees rally and keep the lead they have.

Bryan Knowles: I hated the Saints coming out in punt formation there, but hey! They went for the fake and got it. In addition, it seems to have shaken up Fletcher Cox, so it might be a win-win for the Saints.

Rob Weintraub: Now Fletcher Cox is down. Good lord. And Rasul Douglas ... and Michael Bennett ... can't stand when a team suffers an injury vortex and either loses as a result, or even worse loses the following week because they are out of bodies.

Dave Bernreuther: It would be better for all of us, and football in general, if the impact defensive linemen in this game would stop getting injured.

Vince Verhei: After the fake punt, Saints get a touchdown on a cool little fake bubble screen on fourth-and-goal. Weirdest play of the drive was a run out of a QB keeper from the Taysom-Cat formation. They've been doing that all year, but this time Drew Brees wasn't even on the field. You've got the NFL's all-time leading passer and you're not even using him as a decoy?

Dave Bernreuther: A Taysom Hill drive into the line on a fake punt keeps a Saints drive alive, and that's all well and good and cute and all, but for the 375th time this season I still wonder: how is that preferable to just letting your offense run a play to gain a yard?

Bryan Knowles: Every now and again, those fake punts are good because they'll catch the opponents napping ... but Philly had their starting defensive linemen (or what was left of them) out there, and were playing the fake all the way, so ... yeah.

Dave Bernreuther: I thought everyone was instructed at some point last year that the proper pronunciation is Kam-Are-a, not Kam-Air-a. It seems like in recent weeks everyone has shifted back to the latter. Was I misinformed?

If I ever actually went to my gym I suppose I could just ask ... he did his combine prep there. My gym attendance is not what you'd call exemplary lately.

Vince Verhei: Eagles lead 14-10 at halftime, but it feels like the Saints have settled down and figured things out. (I am writing this very carefully to avoid using a word that rhymes with "bobentum.") The last three non-kneel possessions for the Eagles lasted exactly four plays each, with an interception and two punts. Saints have a touchdown and a field goal, both on long drives, in their last three possessions. Given the refuse populating the Eagles secondary -- they've got waiver-wire pickups and practice squad guys out there -- part of me thinks the Saints need to throw 20-plus passes in the second half to win. Then I remember that New Orleans' wide receivers outside of Michael Thomas are crummy, and I've got myself just befuddled.

Bryan Knowles: 14-10 at the half, as this has probably been the best (or, at least, the most competitive) of the divisional round so far. The Saints have come back into it nicely after the shock and awe of the first quarter, thanks to two big fourth-down plays (the fake punt and the touchdown). It looks like at least some of the banged-up Eagles are coming back in, though you have to wonder how effective they'll all be going forward. Good game.

One of those Eagles back is Fletcher Cox, and that's big news, because he's playing phenomenally. He doesn't have any stats yet, but he seems to be beating his guys on nearly every snap. The Saints are going to have to give Peat extra help dealing with him going forward, I'd imagine.

Aaron Schatz: Eagles look like they're playing back and letting the Saints complete passes in front of them. You can do that when time is running out in the first half but I think they'll want to challenge the Saints offense a bit more in the second half.

Vince Verhei: (Also, your reminder that the Eagles wouldn't even be in the playoffs if the Bears had thrown the Week 17 game to the Vikings like I told them to.)

Scott Kacsmar: It's a big opening drive to this second half with the Eagles getting the ball first and needing to establish something again offensively. You can't like where this one is trending if you're an Eagles fan. The Saints have begun to get receivers open while the Eagles feel like a steady dose of hero ball, which can always backfire as it did on the interception. I still think Foles has to keep attacking this secondary deep, but they better start sustaining some drives too. At least Cox is back in there as the injuries were getting really lopsided against Philadelphia in that half.

Tom Gower: The key to halftime is that the game didn't get away from the Saints once the Eagles took the early lead. Marshon Lattimore had a great interception, and Sean Payton was intelligently aggressive, converting a pair of fourth downs. This game started off more interesting than the early one, with the interception on the first play from scrimmage, and remains in doubt as we see whether Nick Foles can find the big targets or Drew Brees has enough different options (Michael Thomas was the only Saints player with more than one catch in the first 29 minutes of the game) to pick apart a thin Eagles defense made even thinner by today's injuries.

Bryan Knowles: The Eagles blow a timeout to prevent a delay of game. They get three yards and a punt out of it. Good timeout usage, Philadelphia.

Vince Verhei: Eagles waste a timeout to avoid a delay of game on their first drive and end up punting two plays later anyway. Bad mistake in a close game. Even the announcers pointed out they should have just taken the penalty. I don't remember announcers saying that before.

Scott Kacsmar: Crowd noise has definitely been a factor today. Eagles had to take a timeout before the first snap of a drive in the first half. They start the second half by taking too long and using a timeout on second-and-7. Now I don't agree with that one at all. Just take the delay of game to bring up second-and-12, not an unusual or troublesome situation to overcome. The timeout is likely going to be important later, but Pederson doesn't have it now.

Dave Bernreuther: Taysom Hill's throw to Alvin Kamara on a touchdown that came back on a hold makes me wonder just why in the hell it has taken them so long to just let him surprise people by having him let one rip from the pocket, because that was a beautiful laser of a throw.

What's funny is it came one play after Brees laid one up short that could've been a receiving touchdown ... for Taysom Hill.

Aaron Schatz: They haven't waited so long. Hill threw a 46-yard interception intended for Ted Ginn in Week 16. He had seven other pass attempts in the regular season including a sack and a 44-yard deep pass to Michael Thomas back in Week 8.

Dave Bernreuther: I know he has had pass attempts; to my memory they've all included at least the threat of him tucking and running. This one was a straight-up pocket throw. Maybe I'm misremembering.

Bryan Knowles: This Saints touchdown drive felt just ... inevitable. Like, they could have scored four or five times at various points, and I never figured "oh, OK, the Eagles will stop them now." That was just methodical. An 18-play drive, tied for the fourth-longest playoff drive since 1999, and probably the most impressive of that bunch. Saints take the lead, 17-14.

Vince Verhei: Saints' first drive of the second half was ridiculous. CBS Sports has it at ten passes, nine runs, 112 yards of offense, and 11:29 time of possession. And tons of penalties on top of that. They make it count with Brees' touchdown to Thomas, but I am concerned with Brees' incompletion to Hill on the deep ball (which was nearly ten minutes ago in real time, but the drive just ended). I was about to critique them for their Hill fetish in a critical spot, but the call worked -- Hill was way behind the defense, and that should have been a touchdown, but Brees badly underthrew him. Second time today Brees has underthrown what should have been a touchdown, but at least this one wasn't intercepted.

Carl Yedor: Officially it was the fourth-longest drive by number of plays this season (longest was a 21-play field goal drive by San Francisco in Week 4), but it felt longer than that because of all the penalties. Funnily enough, New Orleans already had a 19-play drive this year against Baltimore that ended in a fumble at the opposing 4. This time, they're able to punch it in and take a 17-14 lead as we're heading into the fourth quarter.

Dave Bernreuther: 112 yards of offense on a single drive makes me ask the obvious trivia question of what's the longest drive in history?

Any that beat this one?

Vince Verhei: Interesting that you stress that drive against San Francisco ended in a field goal. I would expect field goal drives would typically be longer than touchdown drives because you need a minimum of three plays to get to fourth down, and you'll get more touchdowns than field goals after big plays. So let's check:

Average touchdown drive in 2018: 7.3 plays

Average field goal (or missed field goal) drive in 2018: 8.7 plays

So, there you go.

Bryan Knowles: Dave: The post-'81 record, at least, is a 13:27 drive by the Oilers against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day 1997, which ended up in a field goal. There may be longer drives before 1981, but records are a bit spottier.

There was a drive in the 2004 Emerald Bowl where Navy had the ball for 14:42, which is the current record in Division I, with the caveat that they started keeping that record immediately after that game.

Dave Bernreuther: Oops, sorry, I didn't clarify -- I meant distance-wise. They gained 112 yards on that one. The one I linked was 120. I'm curious if any have beaten that.

Scott Kacsmar: I don't have anything to add on long drives in terms of yards or time, but I do know one that blows me away for its number of plays. The 1997 Chargers had a 25-play, 98-yard touchdown drive against Denver. That was with Craig Whelihan at quarterback too.

Tom Gower: I think the Bucs had one that was close to that or maybe beyond that, but Pro Football Reference's drive finder isn't working for me right now and I don't want to go gamebook hunting to check.

Dave Bernreuther: If I remember correctly, Mike Evans had 100 yards receiving on that drive alone.

Bryan Knowles: The PFR Drive Finder doesn't include penalty yards, so it won't find anything longer than 99. It just goes from beginning to end of the drive, disregarding any re-gained yards. That's why it's coming back with an error; it HAS no drives over 99.

I believe the 120-yard drive posted is the actual record.

Dave Bernreuther: Foles is just missing guys lately. The blitz doesn't even seem to bother him, but he's under- or overthrowing people, and with just a shade over half a quarter left, the Saints keeping all of that thing that rhymes with bobentum, and the crowd roaring, things do not look great for the Eagles right now.

Aaron Schatz: Saints are also bringing a good amount of pressure. Losing Jason Peters to injury does not help; the Saints moved Cameron Jordan over to that side to take advantage of the injury.

Bryan Knowles: Foles is not a particularly accurate deep-ball passer; he's near the bottom of the league in air yards and deep-ball completion rate and ALEX and all those other stats you want to look at. He hit some big ones in the first quarter (and during last year's playoff run), but it's just not his primary skill set, and it's kind of haunting the Eagles now.

Derrik Klassen: Michael Thomas has saved the day on every third-and-long, it feels like. Been outstanding at working the seam/hashes vs this Eagles secondary.

Vince Verhei: Oh, goodness me. Saints call the cowardly handoff on third-and-8 in the long edge of "field goal range." Michael Bennett stuffs the runner for a big loss. It's now a 52-yard field goal, and Wil Lutz pulls it right. And here's Nick Foles down six with three minutes to go.

Bryan Knowles: Saints drain five minutes off the clock, but Michael Bennett makes a huge play to push New Orleans back and force a 52-yard field goal. Had it gone through, that's probably game ... but Lutz pushes it wide right. We have a game...

Aaron Schatz: Third-and-8, Philly 31, I thought it was a reasonable play by New Orleans to run and try to set up a closer field goal try. I don't think that was cowardly. It's important to be up two scores, and there's a big difference between a 52-yard field goal and, say, a 45- or 46-yard field goal. It blew up in their faces, great defense by Philadelphia.

Dave Bernreuther: Oh wow, how glad we all are that Michael Bennett came back into this game. That play on third down to push them back made the field goal difficult, and Lutz' miss means that now the Saints hold the always-dangerous six-point lead instead of a two-score advantage. And the Eagles have a short field with which to work the four- (or three-) minute drill.

Bryan Knowles: Oh wow. You don't see the ball go right through Alshon Jeffery's hands very often, but that's what we just saw. Marshon Lattimore was Johnny on the spot for his second interception of the game, and that should be it.

Philly has one timeout left, so it's not quite game over ... but I think it's game over.

Carl Yedor: Lattimore looked dangerously close to getting stripped from behind there, but he was in the right place at the right time and that should pretty much ice things, barring some serious Foles magic.

Rob Weintraub: Said on Twitter before heading out for my daughter's birthday dinner that I doubted Philly would score in the second half. Just caught up, and sure enough they didn't. Though I admit I sure thought Foles would stick one in the paint at the end.

One more win for the Saints and we will have Armageddon here in Atlanta...

Looks like Rankins tore his Achilles' tendon, which means obviously he won't be playing against LA, and worse, likely won't be ready for the start of next season either. He will be missed against the Rams' power run game for sure.

Comments

119 comments, Last at 16 Jan 2019, 12:48pm

2 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

And we're already off to an interesting start; the Patriots, who were years ahead of other teams on deferring in an attempt to get the double-possession, win the toss and choose to ... receive. Seems they'd rather play from ahead than get the possible extra possession.

I'm surprised to see such an irrational comment here. It's possible to get an extra possession in the half in which you get the ball first, whether that's the first half or the second half. Having back-to-back possessions in the middle of the game is not more valuable than possessing the ball at the beginning of the game and at the end of the game. It's just a different way to arrange the same number of possessions.

Deferring first-possession to the second half is a way to gain a slight informational advantage for the offense; that's all.

5 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

Oh man, I gotta get a FO league going on Fumbbl.com Itd be a laugh riot! I commish an NFL based/themed league on the site and its really fun but kinda lonely to analogize football in Blood Bowl terms all the time.

Example: Pete Carroll refuses to utilize his Ag5 Strong Arm Accurate Thrower unless he has to two turn score at the end of the half. Otherwise he is content to stall and stall and stall even if his defensive drive went to crap.

10 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

I always thought the double-possession thing was about time and momentum rather than scoring.

Going back to the 2006 AFCCG game against the Colts, the Pats had built a 21-3 lead mid-2Q and were threatening to blow out the Colts. Then Peyton got the ball with about 6-mins left in the half and drove for a TD using timeouts and 2-min warning. Then they had 15-min halftime, after which the Colts drove the ball for another TD at the beginning of the 3Q.

This meant Brady and the offense hadn't touch the ball for almost an hour of elapsed time. The offense got cold and they'd lost the momentum they had. Belichick learned an important lesson there.

28 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

Your comment presumes that "momentum" is a real thing. And if it is, one could argue that having back-to-back possessions on either side of halftime is less valuable because your offense's momentum from the first scoring drive is interrupted by halftime before you get another drive.

It seems much more likely that a team scoring TDs on two straight drives has a huge advantage in a game regardless of whether the opposing offense gets a drive in between. But that wasn't even the case in the 2006 AFC Championship that you cite - the Colts scored a FG on their drive before halftime, followed by a TD on the first drive of the second half.

40 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

"It seems much more likely that a team scoring TDs on two straight drives has a huge advantage in a game regardless of whether the opposing offense gets a drive in between."

It's not a "regardless" thing at all. Obviously, if a team's touchdowns are matched point-for-point by the opposing team, scoring 2 TDs on 2 straight drives doesn't give you any advantage, although of course it doesn't put you at a *disadvantage*.

Having the last possession of the first half and the first possession of the second half gives you the opportunity to score twice with a guaranteed stop in the middle. It's the only way to put up more than 1 score on another team without giving them the option to respond.

From an overall "game management" perspective, having the last possession of the first half and the first possession of the second half ensures that you (at least) end up with equal possession chances relative to your opponent. It means you've gained back the advantage that you ceded to your opponent when they gained the ball first.

41 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

It wasn't a myth. There were reports from the beat writers a day or two before the game that some stomach bug was running through the team and that several players practicing looked like death warmed over. And it was reported that typical noro effects were going on during the game as well.

Still on NE for choking that game away, though, that drop being one of the best of examples. (Well, other than the phantom DPI on Hobbs that the league issued one of its meaningless apologies for.)

102 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

You're misremembering; they only got the field goal before the half. If you recall some of the mic'ed up moments, Dungy was calmly telling people after the pick-6 that all they needed was a field goal. Which, as someone who was very tired of him being an emergency brake of sorts on his historic offense, was infuriating... until it turned out he was right.

https://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/200701210clt.htm

That was the one game where I really thought his calm laid back demeanor paid off. At 21-3 after that Samuels pick I think a lot of teams might've subconsciously quit.

68 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

"Having back-to-back possessions in the middle of the game is not more valuable than possessing the ball at the beginning of the game and at the end of the game. It's just a different way to arrange the same number of possessions."

That's not *entirely* true. Both halves have a time-limited possession (the final drive), and whichever team didn't have the first drive that half should want to have that possession (to equal it out). But because the risk/reward calculation for the end of the game is different than the end of the half, the opposing coach is more likely to take high risk situations near the end of the game. As in, if you score with 30 seconds left to go up by 1 at the end of the half, the other team isn't going to push too hard to score again in those remaining 30 seconds. Obviously if it's at the end of the game, they will, as losing by 1 and losing by 8 are identical.

There's also a more subtle advantage to deferring as well: the end-of-game timing rules are stricter than the end-of-half timing. The "clock starts only on the snap" rules don't begin until the 2 minute warning at the half, but they begin at 5 minutes remaining in the second half. So it's easier to gain the final possession at the end of the first half than at the end of the game.

6 Divisional Round Refereeing

I think home cooking on the refereeing really showed up this week.

In the Colts @ Chiefs I thought the reason why all the passes were being batted is that the Colts offensive line was being pushed back onto Luck. Basically every play I saw a hand to the facemask or a elbow to the neck or a KC defender walking his lineman back onto Luck by snapping the head of the lineman back. It was unbelievable. Although Ebron still has to make those catches. Would've been a more interesting game had that lineplay been regulated properly.

In the Cowboys @ Rams it looked like Donald was bear hugged on the 4th down toss right to Elliot. I think Donald would've got to Prescott before the toss happened. Boom, next play they call the Cowboys for a hold when the guard finishes his block on the Ram that is already on the ground. Meanwhile the Rams can finish all the blocks they want that way all game. While the Rams had the tells against the Cowboys did they even commit a single hold all game?

As a Pats fan I thought Jackson clearly should've been called on the DPI. And the refs were clearly not calling enough of the roughness against Rivers early (specifically after the Delay of Game - although can a roughness be called for a dead ball infraction?). However, I did think the time Flowers got called for going low he was i) still above the knees and into the thighs rather than into the knees, and ii) blocked into Rivers. Although at field level and in realtime it's quibbling to criticize that.

Didn't watch the Eagles @ Saints.

If the referees are like this next week we'll definitely see Saints-Chiefs Superbowl as reffing this biased for the home team is heavily tilting the field.

13 Re: Divisional Round Refereeing

The Saints had 11 penalties for 84 yards and the Eagles had 4 for 30. There was a phantom hold and a questionable pass interference call against the Saints, and a questionable non-call for PI in the end zone which would have gone against the Eagles.

So doesn't look like there was home cooking in the Superdome last night.

-------------
Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

7 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

I'm kind of surprised I haven't heard anyone (here or anywhere else) mention that the Saints' slow start might have been due to Payton choosing to rest Brees and other key guys in Week 17. Then, with the bye, that makes 2 weeks off in a row; as result, they hadn't really played a meaningful game in 3 weeks, while the Eagles have been playing de facto playoff games for at least the last month. And sure enough, the Saints came out flat, especially on offense. It may not have been rust, but it sure looked like it was.

8 Red Herring

'Bryan Knowles: Tom Brady just said, re: the game against Kansas City, ""I know everyone thinks we suck and, you know, can't win any games. So we'll see. It'll be fun."
The Patriots have not been underdogs since Week 1 of 2016.
Aaron Schatz: The Pats haven't been underdogs with Brady at quarterback since Week 13 of 2014 in Green Bay.'

Using Vegas betting lines to support a 'Brady is being silly' argument is a bit of a red herring. When it comes to the football cognoscenti, he's far from all wrong - Tanier published a 'Is Brady a liability?' column this week and has been oddly (for him) dismissive of NE all year. It was this site, I believe, that named the Pats the 'home-team most likely to lose this weekend', and the picks in your thread (which includes, I believe, many FO writers), were pretty evenly split between the two teams. Yet the postscript is, 'Well, the Pats were a bad matchup for this Chargers team' (granted, some one of your writers made that point before the game). ESPN gives the Pats the lowest odds of the remaining teams to win the SB. Given history, it's hard to see that estimation as being a wise one.
Coming off the biggest blowout of the post-season, a game that was over halfway through the second quarter, the Pats will be favored by how many FO folks next week?
To me, it's a pick 'em game. The bye week was very good for the three old men on the Pats (Brady, Edelman and Gronk, alas) and as no one laid a glove on Brady this week, he should be sharp again. I don't know how it escaped me that Brady was dealing with an MCL sprain but apparently he's fully recovered and, except for that extremely underthrown ball to Hogan that would have been a touchdown, he hit his spots. Even Gronk looked livelier than he has in months.
I'd really like to age out of my NE homerism but at least I'm aware of it. What's worse, to me, is a claim to objectivity that looks for numbers to fit narratives and conceals a partisanship, or at least irritation over what, objectively speaking, should be celebrated.
Rant over.

17 Re: Red Herring

Have to agree with this; The biggest difference between Vegas and the people who write for a living is that Vegas is accountable when their stupid and wrong. There has been a ton of ink spilled this year about how weak the Pats are (some of it justified), including on this site in the previews section - the facts about the associated Vegas history make that substantially less justified rather than more. Brady has a point. Final note on last week - I was amazed to see Edelman have the game he did after looking washed up most of the year. I also think the previews for @KC are really glossing over that KC is missing Hunt and how important a player he has been each time KC has match up with the Pats - by far the weakest part of this Pats team is its "coverage" LB's, I'll be interested to see how KC tries to get at them without Hunt.

39 Re: Red Herring

That's not the correct way to think about Vegas. The line represents the money-weighted opinion of those that bet on sports. This "opinion" is a fantastic form of meta-data on perception and is brilliantly self-correcting because such a large component of it comes from repetitive gamblers who get washed out when they are consistently wrong. Obviously the meta-data gets partly corrupted in events where lots of casual money distorts the signal from the repeat players - a non-self-correcting group distorting the result. This contrasts with those who simply write on the NFL and who rarely suffer consequences as a result of being wrong - it's a subset of the broken opinion-media culture in the US that ignores being repeatedly wrong about events because views are the incentive rather than correct analysis. It's particularly bad at places like ESPN that appear not even to try to hold reporters accountable for being stupid/wrong.

I say all this as someone who has only personally bet more than $20 on anything once - and it wasn't a sporting event, but I have spent some time with both failed and semi-successful "professional" sports gamblers.

47 Re: Red Herring

They don't always, though. I've encountered plenty of stories over the years about how if a particular game goes one way, Vegas could lose big. Here's one example I turned up by Googling: https://www.foxsports.com/nfl/story/las-vegas-sportsbooks-suffer-colossal-losses-nfl-weekend-action-011617

51 Re: Red Herring

The Las Vegas sports books also lost a chunk the first time the Giants beat the Pats in the Super Bowl, when they didn't get the expected money on the Patriots, probably due to the dog being a NYC team. They lowered the spread in the last day or two, but that wasn't soon enough to bring in Pats money in time.For regular season games, there isn't enough action to reliably balance the wagers, but the bookmakers usually have enough of an informational edge to get the dumb money, which is a large majority of the action, to wager on the losing side. There was a period, back in the 80s, when a bunch of Vegas oddsmakers died or became elderly, when the public, especially the nonmoronic public, had a few good years betting on NFL games, because the spreads were pretty dull, until the books had some new talent up and running.

42 Re: Red Herring

Indeed. Regardless of what Vegas had to say, there was no shortage of pundits asking whether Brady was done, whether the Pats' dynasty was over, etc., etc. That's what Brady was responding to.
We don't really have to dig through the archive, do we?

The point about Vegas definitely came across as smarmy.

82 Re: Red Herring

Perhaps, but Brady's original comment came across as petty. I'm surprised he didn't just say, "You know what? All week, my neighbor's 12-year-old has been talking trash, saying how we were going to get killed in this game. Well, I guess we showed him. In your face, you little punk!"

9 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

I thought Payton did a terrible job of preparing his team, and then a phenomenal job of making in-game adjustments. Both Saints td drives were legendary (i liked the fake punt from their own 35, really bold stuff, and then the 110 yard, quarter long drive). Any of the four remaining possible matchups figures to be really compelling, though in the big picture it'd be nice to have an AFC representative not quarterbacked by Brady/Ben/Peyton for a second time in 16 years (which is freakin' ridiculous and keeps getting more ridiculous the longer it goes on)

43 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

"I thought Payton did a terrible job of preparing his team, and then a phenomenal job of making in-game adjustments."

I think a large portion of the in-game improvement from the Saints offense was due to Fletcher Cox getting injured. It's funny because the announcers kept pointing out Cox was back in, but they really didn't need to - every time he came back, he'd be such a dramatic improvement that the offensive lineman who was blocking him would get called for holding (or he'd blow up the play entirely).

It's really hard not to attribute a lot of the change in that game to Brooks being lost and Cox getting injured. The split they always had was 1st quarter versus rest of game, but that's also the split between Brooks/Cox healthy and having them out.

85 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

I was specifically thinking of much tighter coverage from the secondary, and adjusting to 'the refs are letting modest contact from dbs go'; I still think the Eagles had an outstanding game defensively, and the Saints had to play very aggressively just to get to 20 points. Jason Garrett would've lost that game (I still think Pederson outcoached Payton)

95 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

Yeah, they made a big deal about that on the TV coverage (and without a doubt Foles is a QB where you don't pressure *him*, you pressure his WRs). But part of the reason why Foles worked so well with the Eagles is because their WRs have a decent window *even if* there's tight coverage, because lots of them have significant size advantages over coverage. If you take a look at the Bears game last week, you see play after play where the defender is practically draped on the WR, and they're still making plays (or the Bears intercept it, which of course happened twice that game).

So obviously that was the right adjustment from Payton, but the effect of the adjustment looked much stronger than it was - it shouldn't've resulted in that big a disparity in performance.

"I still think the Eagles had an outstanding game defensively, and the Saints had to play very aggressively just to get to 20 points."

Payton/Brees are both really, really good at opportunistic adjustments - as in, a star player goes out, and you immediately attack his replacement because you know his limitations really well. That's a great example of detailed coaching - I'm positive that both Payton and Brees know how their receivers match up against every single corner on a team's roster, even ones that might not be active on game day. You saw that a bunch during the Eagles/Saints game - Cox goes out, and they run right at where he should be. Douglas goes out, and immediately they attack the liability that opens up. (And then of course Cox comes back in, they figure he's probably not full speed, and "holding, number 75, offense" - so maybe not all great adjustments).

Definitely the opportunistic changes were much more important than any schematic shifts, in my opinion, but that's typical for the Saints - and not a criticism, either. Adjusting and attacking openings caused by injury is as much a part of the game as attacking the opposing scheme.

98 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

So, as a Saints fan, I have a couple of thoughts on this:
1--I am glad that the refs called it evenly on the DB's re: DPI/holding/etc .It did seem like the Saints' DB's adjusted on this. However, did the coaches notice this, and have them play tighter coverage, or did the DB's themselves adjust?
2--It helps when your offense lets you catch your breath on the sidelines. After the 1st INT, the Saints' D played lights-out.
3--While momentum is practically non-quantifiable, it definitely exists--and in my opinion, the INT followed shortly thereafter by the fake punt conversion and the 42 yd pass the very next play changed the body language/attitude for both the offense and defense and the crowd. I don't believe that it affected the Eagles as a team--their play seemed to be the same level throughout the game. Even after the INT at the end, the defense stopped the Saints on 1st and 2nd down. However, the Saints as a team took their level of play to the level of "we are the #1 seed, the best team in the NFL, and let's go win this football game!"
4--Regarding the coaching, here is an interesting thought--most teams nowadays script their first 15 plays or so. The Eagles' 15th play gave them 1st and goal, and they punched it in with a run and a QB sneak--not hard play calls to make, b/c a coach would have some goal-to-go plays on those laminated play sheets. So, starting on the 3rd drive, they are now past "scripted play" territory. Pederson is an offense coach, ex-QB, etc.--and they could not/did not adjust to put together a sustained drive the rest of the game! Their last drive was the only one that went more than 4 plays, and the 5th play was the game-ending INT. Obviously the Saints D played much better, and contributed to the Eagles not sustaining drives. Bottom line is that the Saints' coaches and players adjusted, and the Eagles could not "counter-adjust." I find it hard to believe that Pederson outcoached Payton.

Another point I would like to make regarding the game and coaching--a great play-call got Ginn open deep on the first play of the game. If Brees doesn't underthrow that, the game starts and plays out very differently. Payton/Brees/the OC decided to make that the opening playcall, and Brees didn't execute it. If anything can be said regarding coaching, it is that the Saints offensive staff (including Brees and Payton) had a better plan than the Eagles defensive staff. (At the same time, was the Eagles defensive game plan "Let Michael Thomas dominate the game"???) I think we can also say that while the Eagles offensive staff (including Pederson) had a good offensive game plan for the 1st Q or so, after that the Saints defensive staff got their feet underneath of them and outcoached the Eagles.
Sometimes, coaches have good game plans that players don't execute. Sometimes, the other teams' players make better plays that no amount of coaching can compensate for. Sometimes, a player slips/stumbles/etc. that destroys the plan for that play. Sometimes that just affects that one play--sometimes it affects the game score and outcome. IMO--the Eagles coaches had good plans--the Saints' coaches' plans were just a bit better, and their execution was better--although the execution level of both teams was pretty good, except for the first and last INT's of the game.

100 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

"(At the same time, was the Eagles defensive game plan "Let Michael Thomas dominate the game"???)"

As I mentioned above, one of the things Payton does best is manipulate players to end up getting mismatches. There were always going to be mismatches with Philly's secondary so thin, and when Douglas went down for a stretch in the first half, that exposed *obvious* mismatches (since Hawkins was on the field at all).

The Eagles gameplan, of course, was don't give Brees enough time to find them, which was working fine until Cox got injured and the pass rush faltered. The 42-yarder to Thomas was the first play after Cox left, and his replacement fell flat on his face on the play (literally!).

105 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

I asked that somewhat sarcastically, but also b/c of his stats in the first meeting--4 catches on 4 targets for 92 yds, 1 TD, and Kamara had 1 37 yd TD catch on his only target. However, in that game, rookie Tre'Quan Smith went off for 10 catches in 13 targets for 157 and a TD. It just seemed like in the first meeting they tried to take Thomas and Kamara away, and mostly succeeded--esp. considering the state of their secondary in that game.
It just seemed like their plan on Sunday was "cover everybody except Michael Thomas." And I mean, I know that their defensive game plan in the first meeting didn't work at all--but I expected that their relative stability in the secondary for the last couple of months would not have made the game plan from the first game obsolete.

115 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

See, what I'm trying to stress is that it's not a "game plan" issue. It's personnel. They finished that first game versus the Saints with the only healthy cornerbacks being a guy who joined the team 2 weeks ago and 2 practice squad guys. They literally had no idea what they were doing.

And this is Sean Payton we're talking about. You give him a cornerback who can get confused in coverage, and he'll pull out 20 different plays targeting that guy with his best receiver. That's what he's done *forever*. That's not a criticism, or an excuse - Payton (and Brees) are really, really good at exposing bad matchups.

The "stabilization" you're talking about is just that they finally had at least 3 cornerbacks and 2 safeties who had played together a few weeks. Problem was that's literally *all* they had: take a look at the snap counts for the Bears and Redskins games, and Maddox, Douglas, and LeBlanc were the *only cornerbacks who played*. At all. They never played dime in those games. Not once. The entire "base" secondary (Maddox/Douglas/Jenkins/Graham) played 100% of the snaps of the two previous games, because they had no one else worth a damn.

So guess what happens in the second Saints game, of course? The "halfway decent but ungodly thin" Eagles secondary gets hit by *more* injuries, again. Maddox misses 6 snaps and Douglas misses 23 snaps, forcing Josh Hawkins (seeing his *first Eagles action ever!*) to play 21 snaps, and safety Tre Sullivan to play in a horrible approximation of nickel.

And Payton goes and sees a practice squad CB on the field, calls a misdirection play targeting him, and poof, touchdown. Same thing happened at least three other times in the game later, too.

Again, the only thing I'm stressing here is that wasn't some sort of "masterful mid-game schematic adjustment" by Payton. It was identifying a weakness that formed due to injury and aggressively exploiting it, which is what Payton and Brees do all the time (which I also think is why so many players dislike Payton so strongly- because they get exposed badly in games).

118 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

Well, yeah, but there's a difference between schematic shifts and targeting a weakness. Belichick tends to do more schematic shifts, where you'll see the team shift entirely from one set of plays to another from week to week, and that's how they target opponents. With Payton it's much more opportunistic: if he finds a physical mismatch he'll just exploit it over and over, but the team isn't *schematically* shifting.

11 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

It was an unexpected dominant play by NE.

Earlier in the week, during a press conference, BB told the media that he wasn't expecting to see 7 DB because every team in the league would use a different strategy going from LJ8 to TB12. But they still came out with that.

Obviously a jedi trick from BB to force Lynn to do it.

A overlooked thing from this NE team is that they are as healthy as they ever been in their BBB history.

Current IR of relevant players is: Wynn (1st round pick OL, which was supposed to be the swing tackle), Bentley (5th rd rookie who was decent in the beginning of the year), Jeremy Hill (which was playing in the 1st game because of Sony Michel injury... might not have been in the team right now even if healthy); Eric Rowe (which allowed the rising of JC Jackson). Plus the Gordon suspension

So 1 starter who was playing bad and Gordon (who was not even in the september roster).

Still, I don't like the chances in KC, this is the road track of the Pats this year:

- ugly loss with JAX
- ugly loss with the Patricia's Loins
- ugly loss with the Titans
- offensive sputtering against Steelers
- the Miami lateral

Only wins were against the McCown's Jets and the Anderson's Bills. Plus @Bears, where ST dominated and they stopped an Hail Mary short of the goal line.

21 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

I was at the game yesterday and noted a few items:
- LAC D line looked tiny compared to Pats O Line. I know they did play 7 DBs a lot, but I think that was completely out of necessary since they also didn't have any LBs left with any talent.
- Gronk was dominate and moving really well. He was open a lot on the few routes he went out on, but so was Edelman and Brady choose to throw to him instead.
- Pats D played closer to the line all afternoon than I ever saw during the Patricia era, maybe a product of big receivers who weren't running past the DBs, but still the Pats DBs played really well.
- Rivers had zero time to throw, but still made some pretty damn good throws and their receivers can really get up to get them.
- Derwin James is a beast and there needs to be a panel formed to find out why he dropped out of the Top 10.
- It was really cold, LAC were on the shade side and the fastest they ran all game was they all sprinted into the locker room at halftime.

56 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

Derwin James probably dropped out of the top 10 because he plays defense, and safety isn't considered a big piece position. If the Jets don't have Todd Bowles, ex-secondary guy, as a coach perhaps Jamal Adams drops out of the top ten and he's almost as good as James. J.J. Watt also went 10, which is absurd thinking about it now. Teams preferred to draft quarterbacks, which was the only position that really busted in Watt's draft.

Watching only highlights, it seemed Rivers had time to throw, the problem was all the highlights were on third and long. The Patriots shoved everyone up at the line of scrimmage to force third and longs. If they do that against KC they'll get roasted. I trust them to not be foolish next week.

The cold definitely effected the Chargers. Both LA teams need home field to get to a Super Bowl. If KC wins it all, the Chargers will have a better shot at the division next year (Super Bowl hangover) and less of a chance getting stuck in a cold weather game. Staying on the East coast preparing for the weather would have been best, but it's not like the Chargers' ownership likes paying extra money.

16 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

I don't want to completely discount the Patriots offense, against one of the worst playoff defensive performances I've ever seen, so all credit to some excellent blocking. The Colts were also inept enough to make any outcome in Kansas City next Sunday unsurprising.

I'm trying to think of a good reason why the Rams will have a lot more success in the next game in New Orleans, but I can't convince myself. Why am I so rarely impressed by Goff? The Rams defense always underdelivers for me as well.

18 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

Re. the Patriots/Chargers coaching philosophy comment, I've never particularly liked the notion that Belichick is a genius for constantly switching game plans, and any coach that doesn't is an idiot. Mostly this sort of thing only comes out in hindsight. Nobody I heard or read before the game was saying the Patriots were going to eviscerate the Chargers defensive scheme in this manner. As Romo said on commentary, the Chargers d-line were simply being blown off the ball on most plays, in which case any scheme or defensive plan is going to look bad when the QB is Brady.

50 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

The Patriots are very good at identifying what a player does well and using the player at what he does well. It sounds silly, but so often with bad teams you hear only about how their good player can't do this, can't do that...bad coaches focus on the negatives of their players (even their good ones) and try to force good player into schemes. Good coaches focus on players positive assets and use them in ways that bring out those assets.

57 Re: Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round

I would argue Belichick uses his players better than anyone in the NFL pretty much. If you want to argue he's a better GM than anyone, go look at their drafting record the last ten years. It doesn't beat Ozzie Newsome among others. He's great at getting the most out of what he has. He's not the best at getting the best players. The Patriots have a better QB and linebackers than the Rams. McCourty and Gillmore would start on Los Angeles, but everywhere else? Probably taking the Rams guy. Not sure the Patriots have more talent than New Orleans or Kansas City either. Actually I'm pretty sure Gillmore would be the 2nd corner on the Saints.