Audibles at the Line: Divisional Round
compiled by Andrew Potter
Each Sunday, the FO staff sends around e-mails about the games that each of us are watching. We share information about the games that the rest of the group might not be watching, ask questions, and keep everyone else informed about which games they might want to turn into (if they can).
On Monday, we compile a digest of those e-mails and produce this feature. By its nature, it can be disjointed and dissimilar to the other articles on the site.
While these e-mails are generally written with Audibles in mind, they do not represent a standard review of all the games each week. That means we aren't going to cover every game, or every important play. We watch the games that we, as fans, are interested in watching, so your favorite team's game might not be covered to your fullest desires or even at all. (If you are a 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 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.
Baltimore Ravens 31 at New England Patriots 35
Cian Fahey: Simply an exceptional opening drive from the Ravens. Nice play-calling by Gary Kubiak mixing in the tight end screen and hard play action.
Ben Muth: Loved the tight end screen early from Kubiak and Baltimore after how much they kept their tight ends in to block last week. Great opening drive.
Aaron Schatz: Patriots are playing almost exclusively zone coverage here today, and they're getting killed in the first two drives. I think Ravens have had one unsuccessful play through their first dozen or so.
... and they finally go man in the red zone, and Steve Smith beats Revis on a slant. 14-0. Yikes.
Cian Fahey: The Patriots just look limp. Everywhere they are a step slow. The Ravens, as they seemingly always do under John Harbaugh, are executing at their peak in the playoffs.
Tom Gower: One of the things Gary Kubiak does early in the game is use motion and come out throwing to identify how you're defending him, then make adjustments off of that. Going zone early, then switching to man would be a good way to counteract that. Unless, of course, Baltimore rips apart your zone and goes up 14-0 after Steve Smith beats Darrelle Revis in what looked like man with a nasty move.
Aaron Schatz: Pats finally get a touchdown drive when the Ravens decide to leave the middle of the field wide-open on three straight plays. Pats almost blow the touchdown on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line when Ravens tackle Brandon Bolden for a 3-yard loss with INSANE push from Brandon Williams and Haloti Ngata. I mean, just destroyed the Patriots interior line. DESTROYED. But that big wide-open hole in the middle is back on third-and-goal and Brady goes 4 on a scramble for the touchdown.
Cian Fahey: On the big play to Rob Gronkowski before Tom Brady's rushing touchdown, the Patriots lined Gronk up as the inside tight end to the left with Tim Wright on the outside. Wright ran to the sideline and Gronkowski ran down the seam. Against the Ravens' Cover-3, it put the cornerback in an awful position. Essentially put Gronkowski wide-open.
Tom Gower: Key play on New England touchdown drive to make it 14-7 was the third-and-8 conversion where Rob Gronkowski ended up wide-open at the sticks. I'd love to know what happened in coverage there, as it appeared Baltimore may have been trying to do something creative in pressure and it cost them.
Andrew Healy: They had Pernell McPhee dropped into the short zone and Gronk ran past him into that huge void, I think. So I think that was a zone blitz that failed when Brady bought some time by stepping up and McPhee couldn't cover the space.
Cian Fahey: Went back to take a look at it, Pernell McPhee dropped into coverage over Gronkowski. Looked like man based on how the play developed. As he was working across to the tight end, Gronkowski knocked him over so he was on his back as Gronkowski continued in his route. Deep safety didn't have time to beat the football to him.
Aaron Schatz: Looked like the Pats finally were going. Ravens pass rush wasn't getting home... then they sacked Brady twice, including one he absolutely couldn't take on third-and-16 on the outskirts of field-goal range. Plus Bryan Stork got injured on that play... and the Pats tack on a 15-yard taunting penalty on the ensuing punt.
Cian Fahey: Sky Sports (TV broadcaster over here) just broke down Dan Connolly rugby tackling Timmy Jernigan on the Tom Brady touchdown run. Hadn't noticed it at the time, but it was blatant with the official standing right behind it.
Andrew Healy: The Patriots had a nice drive going, moving with all throws out of empty formations. Then the drive stalled shortly after they started going with a back. Brady has to throw that ball away, although I think Belichick should still try the field goal from the 34-yard line even with the temperature. As it is, they end up gaining 9 yards of field position after a delay of game and then an unsportsmanlike conduct on the ensuing punt.
Vince Verhei: Just got caught up on DVR after that Patriots punt. Early general observation: Holy crap, the Ravens are blocking the SNOT out of everyone. Is it too late to vote for Gary Kubiak as top assistant?
Andrew Healy: Yes, they are getting a huge push on most of these Justin Forsett runs. He's averaging 8.6 yards per carry on eight carries so far and most of that is on the offensive line dominating. Vince Wilfork got pushed back 4 yards on the last one.
Ben Muth: Fumble luck is real and is smiling on undersized receivers for New England today.
Andrew Healy: Julian Edelman fumbles and it comes back to him against all probability with four or five Ravens around the ball. They were very fortunate earlier on Danny Amendola's fumble, too. The Ravens' pass rush is getting home more now. Brady made a great play on a third-down conversion to Gronkowski with pressure up the middle.
I'm confused as to why the Patriots are trying to run as much as they are. Seven carries for 15 yards and little hope most of the time. The Ravens are great against the run, average against the pass. The Pats are the reverse on offense. Just throw.
Aaron Schatz: Not just runs for the Pats, but they're trying to run up the middle. Hey, did you guys notice how the Ravens' interior defensive linemen are kicking your ass? Don't run right into them.
Cian Fahey: I suspect running the ball anywhere is going to be tough unless the Ravens start playing Elvis Dumervil some more.
As much as Danny Amendola has struggled in New England, it should not be overlooked that he is a very talented receiver. His touchdown reception in the second quarter is the kind of play that he should be making with greater consistency.
Aaron Schatz: Ravens have been slicing through the Patriots defense easily with the zone running game. So on third-and-1, they go...with a tight end reverse? What is this, Sean Payton with Josh Hill? Loses yards. Punt to come. What is the point of that play call?
Cian Fahey: Gary Kubiak does a lot of good, but he always does just enough to remind me why I dislike him so much.
Andrew Healy: Wow, do I hate the reverse call on third-and-1 before the two-minute warning. The Patriots looked to be not overly loaded against the run to the right. The Ravens had been gashing the Patriots on the ground, dominating the line of scrimmage. No need for that play call. Kubiak did a lot of great play-calling early on, particularly on that beautiful first drive, rolling Joe Flacco to the right, but that is a head-scratcher.
Aaron Schatz: Oh, sorry. I thought that was a tight end, I guess it was a wide receiver coming from a tight position... anyway, still a wacko call.
Vince Verhei: Yes. I rescind my earlier vote for Kubiak. That was so too cute at so the wrong time.
I think the Patriots are running "so much" (is seven running back carries in a half really that much?) mostly to keep Brady alive. He took a thrashing on that second-quarter drive that ended in the punt/taunt.
Tom Gower: That was a terrible interception by Tom Brady in the two-minute drill at the end of the first half. I have no idea what he was doing. There maybe was something to Gronkowski on the deep post, but my guess is Brady just misread the coverage rather than badly underthrew the ball. Either way, huge chance for the Ravens to potentially go into the half leading, instead of trailing with New England getting the chance to go up two scores with the second-half opening kickoff.
Andrew Healy: The Patriots have a weapon in their defensive arsenal that they really need to pull out: the Jamie Collins blitz up the middle. They finally do as I write that. And a brutal pass interference call on Darrelle Revis, but Collins made the throw difficult.
Aaron Schatz: Steve Smith was holding onto Revis' arm the whole time. Was convinced that was going to be OPI. I don't get that call at all.
Scott Kacsmar: I guess that horrible end-around was offset by that horrible Brady throw. I think the last three times Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth have had New England, Brady has thrown a horrible interception right before halftime (Colts and Chargers games this year).
Going to be a fun second half. Patriots clearly look one-dimensional on offense, but the Ravens have given up some big plays to Gronkowski and haven't really adjusted yet to the short passes on the outside. Flacco played great and Forsett looks really good behind a superb line performance. Pretty important drive for New England to start the third quarter and do something productive.
Cian Fahey: I don't think Bryan Stork returned after his injury. It will be interesting to note if the Patriots feel comfortable going no-huddle without their starting center. That could prove to be decisive considering how the Ravens defense has reacted to it.
Ben Muth: I thought Baltimore dominated up front on both sides of the ball in the first half. Feel like the Pats are gonna need a big second half from Brady/Gronk to win this one.
Vince Verhei: Pats are getting fumble luck. They are not getting ref luck. The Smith/Revis PI call could have gone either way, and then Gronkowski gets mauled on the first third down of the second half and no flag.
Scott Kacsmar: Good case of "splits happen" to watch here. Patriots have allowed 12 points after halftime in their last six games combined. Since 1960, that has only been done by the 1976 Steelers and 1989 Redskins to end a season. So we'll have to see if there are excellent adjustments from Belichick with his defense that has come together, or if it's just "splits happen."
And I can't believe we live in a world where Joe Flacco can lay legitimate claim to being the best active postseason quarterback, at least since 2011.
And fourth-and-6, the Ravens go deep, and take advantage of the man coverage. Browner is beat, no choice, has to get the DPI. Torrey Smith catches it anyway... and the Ravens taunt. Stupid, stupid, stupid. First-and-goal on the 16-yard line.
Cian Fahey: Jamie Collins is a really good player and he deserves much of the praise that he gets, but he's still somewhat inconsistent for my liking. Has looked lost on a couple of runs tonight and seemingly blew his assignment for the Forsett touchdown reception in the third quarter.
He's on his way to being a great linebacker, but I don't think he's there yet.
Tom Gower: Pretty sure it was first-and-10 at the 16-yard line, or at least it should've been. No matter either way, though, as Jamie Collins bites inside to help on the crosser, leaving Justin Forsett wide-open in the flat for an easy touchdown. If you had told me at the two-minute warning the score would be 28-14 midway through the third, I would not have been surprised, but I would have expected it to be New England ahead, not Baltimore. This is a significantly better game by Gary Kubiak than he had the last time he visited Foxborough in the postseason, when they didn't do much until they were down 25 in the fourth quarter.
Then they did it with Hoomanuwanui. They announced him as ineligible and then put him out wide? What weirdness is this?
Ben Muth: If you get beat on a inside slant in man-to-man inside the 5-yard line you should be fined for conduct detrimental to the team. As soon as Baltimore showed that blitz, everyone in the stadium knew Brady was going to Gronk. Have to make them execute a fade, can't get beat inside like that.
Aaron Schatz: Next drive, Pats go back to zones. The defensive coverage just keeps changing.
Cian Fahey: Feels like the Patriots are getting the momentum here now.
Aaron Schatz: Cian, please be kidding. :)
Vince Verhei: As long as he's using "momentum" as a descriptive term for past events, I'm fine with it.
Cian Fahey: Belichick broke out a high school playbook to get back into this game. Vereen ineligible in the slot to throw to the left tackle, then the lateral to Edelman in the flat for the receiver-to-receiver touchdown pass. Ridiculous.
Andrew Healy: And I think that's Edelman's first career pass even though he played quarterback in college. Looked like a former quarterback, too. Right on the money.
Ben Muth: Great job by Patriots staff throwing everything they have at Baltimore. They're a little outmanned up front so they're getting creative on the play-calling with the sneaky ineligible receivers and now a double pass. This has been a wildly entertaining game through three quarters.
Aaron Schatz: Pats have also gone back to the no-huddle despite Ryan Wendell replacing Stork at center.
Despite the 28-28 score, Brady still underthrowing the ball. Just missed an open Gronk by throwing too low.
And Belichick's ridiculous conservative play-calling continues. Just punted on fourth-and-10 from the 37-yard line instead of trying a long field goal or what they should have done -- tried a draw on third-and-long to get a shorter field-goal try. Lousy punt by Ryan Allen went out of bounds at the 20, effectively a touchback. Completely wasted an interception by Devin McCourty.
Vince Verhei: At the end of the third quarter, it's tied at 28. Semi-random stat note: the Patriots have the edge in yards per completion, 13.3 to 10.5. That's surprising, because it feels like the Pats are throwing tons of quick hitches, but I guess those Gronkowski seam routes have made a big difference.
Andrew Healy: To echo Ben, this game has been wild. Jamie Collins came up with what looked like a huge play, forcing and recovering a fumble on the Ravens' 3-yard line. But a hold on Revis brings it back and the Ravens are driving as the third quarter ends.
Excellent offensive coaching on both sides. Kubiak with the deep throw on fourth-and-6 on the Ravens' first drive of the second half. And the truly original four-offensive linemen sets from the Patriots that led to repeated throws down the left seam. Great stuff all around.
The Ravens are dominating with the run as the fourth quarter begins. They have won at the line of scrimmage and it feels like the Patriots are the underdogs.
Cian Fahey: If the Ravens defensive backs could even play average football, this game probably wouldn't be close. The tackling in particularly has stood out as woeful.
Vince Verhei: Brady specifically telling Edelman when to "STOP!" and when to "GO!" in motion is my favorite thing he's done all day.
I take it back. Dropping that fade pass in the bucket for the Brandon LaFell touchdown, THAT was my favorite thing he's done all day. Made it look so easy and smooth.
Aaron Schatz: This game is nuts. Both teams have made amazing plays and horrible ones. Both teams have gotten away with penalties and gotten BS penalty calls. Both coaches have made great decisions and terrible ones, though the Patriots have only made terrible ones when it comes to fourth downs. 35-31 Patriots, five minutes to go. I have no clue how this ends.
Vince Verhei: Andrew noted, the Ravens have been running well all night. They need to remember they're only down by four, with more than five minutes left. No need to go one-dimensional now.
Andrew Healy: Agreed on that. Patriots' pass rush continues to be close to non-existent. No sacks and just three knockdowns of Flacco all game.
Scott Kacsmar: Dick LeBeau's "tackle the catch" philosophy would be fine today if Baltimore actually tackled well. Lot of credit to the effort of Amendola and Edelman in this one.
Vince Verhei: Ravens fans sing "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes.
Patriots fans sing "Your Love" by the Outfield.
If I had known that, I'd have been cheering for New England all night.
Aaron Schatz: Why the hell do the Patriots take a timeout when Ravens go for it on fourth-and-3 instead of throwing the red flag? That previous incomplete by Flacco was possibly a sack-fumble. Ravens recovered but would have lost yardage on the play, making it a longer fourth-down attempt. I understand trying to save the timeout, but if you decide to use the timeout, why not just throw the red flag? What do you have to lose?
Cian Fahey: Are they allowed to after the Ravens have taken a timeout?
Vince Verhei: Can they challenge in the last five minutes?
Aaron Schatz: Sure. They can't challenge in the final two minutes. As far as I know, the only question is whether they can challenge after Baltimore has taken a timeout, but I don't see why not.
I can't tell you the amount of anxiety that was in the air at Gillette. The Patriots ended up in the exact same situation as Super Bowl XLII and XLVI. Small lead, two minutes left, other team driving. The difference between this team and those teams was supposed to be the defense. This defense was supposed to hold that lead. And it actually did, as Duron Hurmon picked off Flacco deep to end the game.
Vince Verhei: Well that was wildly entertaining. Ravens' subpar secondary finally ended their season.
Somebody check on this -- I don't think any New England running back (and Lord knows there's enough of them) carried the ball in the second half.
Ben Muth: Really great game. I thought the Ravens had a damn good plan on both sides and executed well, they just didn't have the personnel in the secondary. If they get anything from the back end, I think they win comfortably. But between the bad tackling and playing way too soft because they were scared of getting beat deep, the secondary was just too much to overcome. But everyone knew that was their weakness all year, so I guess it's not surprising.
I was surprised how bad New England looked up front, particularly on defense. Baltimore dominated the Patriots' front seven in a way that has to be concerning. I'm going to write about this game this week, but I expect I'm going to have a lot of nice things to say about the Ravens offensive line.
Great job by New England's staff with adjustments as the game went along. No matter how bad the other team's secondary is, it's tough to win when you lose the battle up front on both offense and defense, but New England found a way. Opened up the playbook with some trick plays, and abandoned the run completely in the second half (something most coaches don't like to do) so they could attack where they had an advantage.
What a game!
Scott Kacsmar: No rushing plays for New England in the second half besides Brady kneeldowns. Fewest rushing yards (14) in playoff history by a winning team. Previous record was 29 by the 1999 Rams against the Titans.
Reflects poorly on Dean Pees for not going to tighter coverage on the outside. Look at the cushion they were even giving Vereen. Have to acknowledge the Patriots don't throw deep well, so make them make those throws. Totally one-dimensional offense and they let it beat them.
Horrific job by Flacco to force that bomb. Every week when I can, I write about how a team shouldn't force the low-percentage deep bomb for the touchdown in that situation. Play the clock and try to score as late as possible, because we know how quickly teams can answer. This was even more egregious since a touchdown only would have put Baltimore up three, and the Patriots still had Brady and Gostkowski with a good 90 seconds to answer. I don't think this evens up anything for Flacco, since the Sterling Moore play in 2011 kind of cancels out the 2012 Rahim Moore play, but this was just a really bad throw. And it was obvious earlier in the quarter when Baltimore's run-heavy, time-consuming drive ended with a field goal that it was in trouble. Field goals get you beat in Foxborough. Have to score touchdowns, which New England did.
Another team is gone after having their main weakness exposed. That's usually how it happens in the playoffs.
Tom Gower: Kudos to Baltimore's offense, particularly Gary Kubiak, the offensive line, and Joe Flacco. I didn't think they had the ball-handlers to seriously threaten New England's defense, and if the Patriots got to 21 or so New England was a lock to win. Instead they started out playing really well, had the great stretch before and after halftime, and really just kept the team in it the entire time. The last pick from Flacco was bad, but on the whole he did a nice job the rest of the time navigating what pressure there was, extending plays, and hitting tight windows. I could easily be missing some plays, but offhand I don't recall him really missing anything when he was in the pocket outside of getting too aggressive on the picks (the last one, it's second-and-5, don't try to force something if it's not there!).
Andrew Healy: After the game, I talked with guard Dan Connolly about the four-offensive lineman sets that the Patriots ran. He said that it was something that they had specifically in the game plan for this week. Note that I don't know that this means they saw something on the Ravens to exploit. I think it's more likely that they thought this would work against anybody, although it's possible that the Ravens' patchwork secondary would be more likely to respond with confusion.
Also, Connolly surprised me when he said the formation had been used before. He said not in the NFL, but in college. I don't know college well enough to know where that would have been.
One last thought on the four-lineman plays: I just watched the broadcast of that drive. They almost entirely missed what was going on, as far as I can tell. First, they don't really give you what the referee was announcing before the plays, which was that No. 34 as ineligible on two plays, No. 47 on the other. On the last two of the three plays, the referee also actually announced something close to "Don't cover that receiver." Second, they missed Hoomanawanui, then Gronkowski, and then Hoomanawanui lining up as the eligible left tackle on those three plays. Maybe they explain things later in the game, but I'm kind of surprised they missed this so completely. There was a reason Hoomanawanui was all alone on two of those plays and Edelman was uncovered on the other. The Patriots were doing something original and I would have expected Collinsworth to see it.
Andrew Potter: It's not exactly the same due to rules differences -- in college, your ineligible players must wear a number between 50 and 79 -- but here's Alabama doing basically the same thing against LSU.
Andrew Healy: Awesome! Makes a ton of sense that it was Saban.
Aaron Schatz: Notice also that the lineman in the slot steps backwards at the snap and waves his arms like he's going to get a screen pass. I believe Hoomanuwanui did this as well on at least one If the three plays.
Going back and reading, it's clear we were just as confused about what was going on at the time as the Ravens were. But what clever strategy. I love stuff like that. It was all I could talk about after the game.
Carolina Panthers 17 at Seattle Seahawks 31
Scott Kacsmar: Another taunting penalty involving a guy throwing a ball at an opponent. When will these guys learn? Just cost Seattle a field-goal attempt, though punting to Brenton Bursin is a decent turnover opportunity.
Vince Verhei: Early on, this game is nothing but a grand display of stupidity by everyone involved. A bunch of idiots trying to play a football game. Carolina has no first downs on their first three drives because -- even though they have worked hard to get third-and-1, third-and-2, and third-and-4, strong running downs -- they have passed ALL THREE TIMES, resulting in an interception and two punts.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks keep throwing those stupid wide receiver screens even though THEY HAVEN'T WORKED ALL YEAR. Then Ricardo Lockette takes away a field-goal try by flipping the ball into a defender's face right in front of the ref, moving Seattle back and forcing a punt. This after Jeremy Lane had a personal foul on a punt return, and Tharold Simon was warned about taunting after a tackle on Kelvin Benjamin.
Speaking of Benjamin, in not-necessarily-stupid but surprising news, he's lining up on the left, and Richard Sherman is not shadowing him. They are content to cover him with Simon. (No idea why Byron Maxwell is not in the game.)
Andrew Potter: If Carolina continues to be this careless with the ball, it won't matter how many stupid taunting penalties the Seahawks get. That's two fumbles, an interception, and a very fortunate non-interception in what, nine plays? Plus Brenton Bersin being Brenton Bersin.
I really liked Carolina's design on the run for a first down following Seattle's touchdown. It looked like a zone read with Jonathan Stewart taking the ball and heading left. In reality, it was the old Washington counter trey, with two linemen pulling left to right and Stewart cutting back and following them. Nice mix of deception, power, and execution.
Great throw by Wilson on that touchdown to Kearse, too. Also a great one-handed catch by Jermaine Kearse. I thought he got away with a push-off, though on replay there was a lot of mutual hand-fighting.
Cian Fahey: Wilson has played one of the best halves of his season to start this game. The Seahawks offense has had a few drops and dumb penalties to curtail their output, but the quarterback has been accurate and smart with his throws throughout.
Ben Muth: Just thinking the same thing. Between Andrew Luck's game last week and Wilson's this week I'm both incredibly excited to watch these guys play football for the next decade and depressed to listen to takez about which one you would rather have.
Cian Fahey: On the Cam Newton fumble in the second quarter that set up that fourth-and-1 play, the officials gave the Panthers 1.5 yards for no good reason. The ball is fumbled as soon as it is hit by the defender.
The Panthers got an exceptionally generous spot for that 4th-and-1 play: pic.twitter.com/ScXDygC0eC
— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) January 11, 2015
Scott Kacsmar: At halftime, FOX's Jimmy Johnson just said Cam Newton's early interception wasn't as good as a punt because stats show teams score more often after an interception than a punt. I'm sure in general he's right, but since he brought up the punt and field position angle, I doubt the numbers when adjusted for field position would show that. He's basically making a momentum argument where the team would be more likely to do something good because something really good and exciting (takeaway) just happened instead of something boring and mundane (a punt).
Vince Verhei: Seahawks lead 14-10 at halftime after dropped interceptions on both of Carolina's scoring drives. And then Kam Chancellor does some truly superhuman things and nearly blocks a field goal twice. I have no idea how he didn't get it on the "miss" that turned into a running into the kicker foul -- and if he did get it, that shouldn't have been a penalty, should it?
Panthers defense, even without Star Lotululei, is playing Seattle's run offense better than probably anyone has all year. They have so much depth on that line, and Luke Kuechly remains Luke Kuechly. Even though Wilson has hit some big plays, it may not have done much to loosen up the run game.
Tom Gower: Graham Gano completely shanked it from the get-go on the play where Chancellor was called for running into the kicker. Came off his foot wide, kept going wide the whole way. Bizarre that Chancellor missed getting the ball twice with two perfectly-timed leaps, but it happened.
Cian Fahey: I've watched it back a few times and I'm not sure. I think it hits his leg as it goes by. Obviously not a firm contact, but enough to alter the direction slightly. Irrelevant now of course.
Aaron Schatz: There's an essay in the book a couple years ago about the "momentum after turnovers" argument. I'll type in an excerpt when I get home.
Scott Kacsmar: All I can think of is teams like to call shot plays after a turnover with good field position. Guess they feel it's easier to take advantage of a "reeling team" off a takeaway versus a general punt. Of course the turnover wasn't the fault of the defenders coming onto the field, who as a counterpoint you could say know they have to play even better to not give up a touchdown on the short field.
Vince Verhei: Seattle ends the third quarter with a nice drive down the field. Last play of the quarter is a third-down sack and it looks like it will result in a field goal, but that was their best drive of the game, especially for running. Looks like they're wearing down their opponent again.
Aaron Schatz: I'm having trouble thinking of bright things to say about this game. It's basically everything we expected, but with a little extra Luke Willson.
Cian Fahey: Significance of this game has been Russell Wilson's display. While he has received more plaudits through this season as a whole, something that is inevitable for a quarterback who comes off a Super Bowl victory, he was a much sharper passer last season. Too often during this year's regular season he was playing hesitant and missing opportunities for big plays down the field.
[ad placeholder 3]
That wasn't the case today. As highlighted by his fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Luke Willson, the young quarterback is back to where he was during the first 12 weeks or so of the 2013 regular season.
If Wilson is playing like this, it's going to be very difficult for anyone to beat Seattle this season.
Scott Kacsmar: You could say Wilson was more impressive tonight than in any of last year's playoff games. What I liked was how he handled third downs and the way Lynch was basically shut down outside of one drive. This was Wilson driving the scoring tonight. I know Carolina's not that impressive of a defense, but some really great throws from Wilson.
Vince Verhei: Oh, I'd completely agree with that. Go back and read some of the Audibles from late in the year and the playoffs last season, we were all asking what was wrong with Wilson. He played better in the Super Bowl, but even then all his big plays came long after the game was decided. I'm convinced he had an injury that they kept hidden -- in the post-Super Bowl Gatorade dump, you can hear him saying he can only lift with one shoulder.
As for Aaron's comment that this is what we expected -- well, the final score, yes. But I'm surprised that Carolina's run D had, I'm sure, their best day today. I'm surprised (very, actually) that Sherman wasn't shadowing Benjamin all day, especially with Maxwell hurt. I'm surprised Jonathan Stewart only got 13 carries (and keep in mind, this was a one-score game for 50 minutes). I'm a little surprised Seattle had so many opportunities for big plays downfield -- I figured the Panthers would play a lot more deep zone and allow more short routes, but all those guys in the box to stuff the run left their cornerbacks overexposed.
Tom Gower: Story of Saturday? Teams' liabilities kept coming back to bite them. Baltimore had defensive back issues. This was known for a long time. New England forced guys like Matt Elam and Rashaan Melvin to play one-on-one in space and beat them. Carolina had offensive line issues, receiver issues, and safety issues, and Seattle took advantage of each of them -- the safeties with all the downfield passes, and, as we all pretty much expected, the receivers were mostly blanketed and Cam Newton, though he navigated the pressure very well for the most part, was under harassment regularly.
Vince Verhei: One other thing about this game, and the announcers mentioned this: Cam Newton was pretty good today. His big mistakes were BIG mistakes, but by and large, on the road, under lots of pressure, he made some big throws.
Cian Fahey: This was the best playoff performance of Russell Wilson's career and probably his best display of this season as a whole also. His three touchdown plays in particular stand out as each were a result of intelligent plays from the pocket, not to mention two precision passes that were delivered early to negate pressure.
Aaron Schatz: Finally, to respond to the Jimmy Johnson comment noted above, this is the paper from the Sloan conference that we ran in abridged form in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012:
Our results of offensive performance, as quantified by three different dependent variables, indicate that a big defensive play does not appear to improve the performance of the offense on the subsequent drive.
In other words, Jimmy Johnson's claim that offenses score more after an interception than they do after receiving a punt is nonsense.
Dallas Cowboys 21 at Green Bay Packers 26
Aaron Schatz: Not too surprised by all the success the Packers are having running the ball early. Their running game is just as effective as the Cowboys' running game; they just don't use it as much.
Cian Fahey: Early thoughts on Aaron Rodgers are that he is healthy enough to play, but clearly not where he typically is in terms of his movement. It's not handicapping the offense too much, but the Packers' offensive line is going to be under a lot more pressure than it usually is. Probably won't be a significant issue in this game because of the quality of the opponent, but hey, the little things can always have a big impact.
Aaron Schatz: Right. I don't think the Cowboys are getting too much pressure here... until a play where the snap came early and the Cowboys strip it as Rodgers attempts to get a handle on it.
Vince Verhei: Dez Bryant doesn't have a target in Dallas' first three drives. That's largely because Tony Romo has only thrown six passes, but those six passes have resulted in five completions for 71 yards and two scores. FOX is also doing a good job showing the coverage on Bryant, with guys double-chipping him, with a safety over the top. They're putting three or four guys on Bryant. It reminds of the 2005 Seahawks that beat the Panthers the NFC Championship Game by putting three or four guys on Steve Smith every play. The difference, obviously, is that Tony Romo is still dangerous throwing to Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams. Jake Delhomme to Keary Colbert and Ricky Proehl? Not so much.
Reason No. 1,535 I hate Joe Buck: he just called the Packers' offense "boring" because they're running a lot. God, he's terrible.
Scott Kacsmar: Joe Buck is also still on his one-man mission to blame the Dallas offense (but not the defense) for blowing the 26-3 lead against Green Bay last year.
Just a lot of bad mistakes in the last minute of this half. Very inaccurate spot by the refs on a Jason Witten catch. Dallas should have ran on third-and-1, and Romo fumbled the snap. Dan Bailey missed another field goal. Then the Dallas defense only had to defend the sideline and Cobb was wide-open for a big catch to set up a Mason Crosby field goal.
Huge difference between 17-7 and 14-10 at halftime, and now Green Bay gets the ball first.
Andrew Healy: Watching with the sound off here, but it sure looks like Rodgers is continuing from the Detroit game his inability to step into the throws by planting on the left leg. Hard to believe he can be as accurate as he has been without the ability to shift his weight onto the left leg, but his accuracy has also been below his norm.
On the Cowboys' last drive of the first half, a big reversal where Dallas has a first down on the Packers' 26-yard line, but then the bad spot is overturned on replay and they get a third-and-1 instead. The Cowboys called timeout, which both made it easier to review the play, and also meant that they would have rather had the clock run in the end. Garrett tried to get the timeout back, but it wasn't allowed. Then a bad play call caused the Cowboys to fail on the third down. No play action and a throw, even though DeMarco Murray had converted all three third-and-1 plays earlier in the half. I'm OK with the throw, but would have preferred play action.
And the timeout that the Cowboys only took because of the bad spot ends up costing them three points, perhaps. The Packers had enough time after Bailey's miss to drive into field goal range with a great throw and catch on a deep ball. Rodgers got it there, which was impressive enough, and then got a great toe-tap from Cobb.
Vince Verhei: The problems with the deep pass on third-and-1 after the replay review are two-fold. One, as noted, it's a much lower success rate than just letting DeMarco Murray run for the first down. Two, even if it had worked, they would have left plenty of time for Green Bay to answer with a score. As it turns out, they got no points AND left time for Green Bay to answer, which was pretty close to a worst-case scenario.
Aaron Schatz: I believe that was an audible. I think Romo yelled "kill," must have seen something that led him to try the deep throw. Not a coaching call.
I thought not just run, but also they could have run three stick routes there and found one of them open.
Andrew Healy: That's right, so I'm fine with the throw if Romo saw something. But any throw: A) should have been short, B) could have been play action.
Aaron Schatz: Huge turn of events as Julius Peppers strips DeMarco Murrray, who had nobody in front of him and would have easily gone for a touchdown. Instead, Packers get the ball at midfield. And they start running it down the Cowboys' throat. Nice 20-yard Eddie Lacy run with a big John Kuhn block.
Vince Verhei: That Green Bay drive stalls after a personal foul turns a red-zone third-and-1 into a third-and-16, and the Packers end up kicking a field goal to make it 14-13.
This is a weird, clunky game. Feels like the crowd is just now waking up, halfway through the third quarter.
And then I miss couple of plays when my local Fox affiliate starts randomly airing commercials during Dallas' next drive, and when they come back it's in standard definition. So that sucks.
[ad placeholder 4]
Scott Kacsmar: What a weekend for fumble luck.
Saturday: Eight fumbles, one lost.
Sunday: Six fumbles, two lost and we still have five-plus quarters to play today.
Nearly a disaster for the Packers with Cobb fumbling on the kick return, but Green Bay recovered. Rodgers finally left the pocket, but nearly threw an interception.
Aaron Schatz: Packers look like they're starting to move guys around a bit to get Randall Cobb away from Scandrick. And it works as he's up against Tyler Patmon and catches one for a 20-something-yard gain. A couple plays later they lined him up in the backfield and Dallas took a timeout.
Cian Fahey: The Cowboys run the ball a lot, but they go through these stretches where they seem to abandon the run even when the situation suggests they should be trying to run the ball. Up one in the fourth quarter is one of these situations. They're a balanced offense by the overall numbers, but not in terms of play-calling on a snap-by-snap basis.
Ben Muth: After Romo took back-to-back sacks I saw someone tweet something like "If Tannehill takes those two sacks like Romo, the Internet would have broken." I mean, this person was implying that Romo is not criticized as much as he should be on the Internet, and that Ryan Tannehill is the victim of an overly harsh media spotlight. This seems so wildly different from the world, as I've experienced it, that I had to bring it up. I'm not the crazy one here, right?
Aaron Schatz: Cowboys aren't bringing any pressure. They really need to consider some blitzing. Packers offensive line has them totally controlled.
Great decision by Jason Garrett to go for it on fourth-and-2 instead of trying a 50-yard field goal. I hate the play call there, once again, just like that third-and-1 earlier where Romo audibled. When you have to move the sticks, I want to move the sticks, not go deep. But holy crap what a leaping catch by Dez Bryant. Wow.
OK, I guess that was not a leaping catch by Dez Bryant. Overturned on replay.
Andrew Healy: Rodgers had time on that drive and he was also so accurate.
Ben, you are not crazy. Only Bizarro Romo would be loved on the Web. Real Romo has often been trashed unfairly.
The Cowboys correctly go for it on fourth-and-2, no matter what Troy Aikman thinks. Love these changes in Jason Garrett. Don't like the play call at all. Bryant almost bailed them out with an incredible catch, but lost the ball extending for the goal line. He really could have just secured the ball there rather than stretch for the touchdown.
Cian Fahey: I genuinely don't care about this game anymore. As soon as they overturned that Dez Bryant catch in the fourth quarter, even though I knew it was likely they would, I just can't feel good about watching this. The review process may as well be completely random because you can argue convincingly for either side of that play.
The NFL needs to fix this rule but we've all been calling for that for a long time so unless someone starts suing them...
Aaron Schatz: Oddly, the New York Times Fourth Down Bot thought the Cowboys should punt on that play. It had win expectancy at 22 percent with a field-goal try, 27 percent going for it, and 32 percent punting. I know Brian Burke has written in the past about how his model tends to like late-game punts when deep in opponent territory, but it seems awfully strange to me.
Andrew Healy: On the 32-yard line? That's pretty weird. That would mean presumably they'd want a punt on the 30-yard line, too. Wonder where the break-even point is. That seems like a call to tweak the model, although maybe I'm missing something.
Cian Fahey: New York Times Fourth Down Bot needs to be reminded who plays quarterback for the other team.
Scott Kacsmar: That's a catch, and hopefully this happening late in a playoff game will get the NFL to fix one of its biggest problems. How can they give Cobb that catch before halftime, but take this one away? There's no consistency and there isn't even logic in saying that a guy taking three steps and diving for the end zone didn't make a football move.
Aaron Schatz: Interestingly, Mike Pereira just tweeted that while he agrees with the reversal, the officials made a mistake by not resetting the clock to 4:32, so the Cowboys also lost 26 seconds towards coming back.
Vince Verhei: My takeaway here is that Dallas is losing because they threw deep incomplete passes on third-and-1 and fourth-and-2, with the best line in the league and the runner with more carries than anyone in years. Whether that's on Romo for calling audibles or Garrett for not having play-action plays ready to go is irrelevant. They called terrible plays at key times and left 6 to 14 points on the board.
And of course, their defense isn't good and can't pressure the quarterback and misses a lot of tackles. That was a big part of it too.
Tom Gower: The Dez play will take up a lot of oxygen, of course. Correct call by the rule, which has bothered me greatly ever since the Lance Moore two-point conversion in the Super Bowl.
The big story of the game should be just how incredibly well Aaron Rodgers played in the second half. He struggled at times in the first half, and was clearly never close to 100 percent at any point in the game. But he still made some absolutely incredible throws, most notably the strikes to Davante Adams and Richard Rodgers for touchdowns, and showed, as he did in the second half of the Week 17 game, even if he can't extend plays like he normally does, he's still a really damn good quarterback.
Andrew Healy: With all the deserved Rodgers love late in the broadcast, I hope Romo's performance doesn't get lost. 10.1 yards per attempt amid a Packers' pass rush that frequently got home (four sacks, eight knockdowns).
Aaron Schatz: Andrew, don't you remember Ben's post from earlier? Tony Romo is a player who simply does not take enough criticism on the Internets!
Tom Gower: Other points?
1. Dallas doesn't blitz much. They haven't blitzed much all year. I would have been surprised if they'd blitzed much today. Just not who they are. But they can't get pressure rushing four and with a hobbled quarterback, you'd think about blitzing a lot more than you usually do.
2. Like I mentioned last week, I thought the Cowboys getting plays in the pass game from someone outside of Dez Bryant would be crucial. Terrance Williams again delivered with a long touchdown catch-and-run. But in terms of minor receiving options who really stood out today, Davante Adams takes the cake. The Cowboys spent a lot of time matching up, and Adams had a talent edge on Sterling Moore. He had a quieter rookie season than I thought he might, but he really made a lot of plays today.
3. On both sides of the ball, like we saw yesterday with New England in particular, and we'll probably see Monday night in the college game, "defensive backs vs. tackling in space" is crucial.
Aaron Schatz: The best coaches change strategies to fit the weaknesses of their opponents. The Cowboys' defensive coaches did not.
Cian Fahey: Cowboys defensive coaches are also limited by having very little talent though.
Aaron Schatz: I asked Brian Burke if he had a link to what he had written in the past about his model suggesting punting late in games on the opponent's side of the field. Turns out it doesn't anymore. He has a newly refurbished model that unfortunately has not been plugged into the NY Times Fourth Down Bot yet. But this model comes out with 29 percent win expectancy for both the field goal and going for it -- again, not considering who is playing quarterback for the other team, which is of course important and would slant expectancy towards going for it -- and only 21 percent win expectancy for punting.
Indianapolis Colts 24 at Denver Broncos 13
Aaron Schatz: I never really thought of coverage as LaRon Landry's specialty. Having your strong safety beaten by the opposing tight end is one thing, though. I'm not sure why your strong safety is covering Demaryius Thomas in the end zone. 7-0, Broncos.
The Colts finally figure out how to get a pass rush: have the Broncos screw up a line call so nobody blocks your outside linebacker.
Vince Verhei: For a while there it looked like the Colts were actually going to use Scott's plan of abandoning the run entirely. Their first, what, 10 or 12 plays were all dropbacks? Turns out they were using the pass to set up the run and started mixing Dan Herron in. Which is probably smart, especially in the red zone, where Herron scored to put the Colts up 14-7.
Aaron Schatz: Broncos mostly back to using Talib on Hilton. And he is not having a good time of it.
Tom Gower: Well, he did give up the touchdown to Dwayne Allen...
The Broncos last year with their issues at safety at least had an excuse for keeping things relatively straightforward in the postseason. This year, not so much, which means it's all about Jack Del Rio.
Aaron Schatz: This whole weekend does so much to show why it makes sense for defensive backs to play tough, physical defense, with plenty of contact and holding. The refs are just going to flat-out miss it, probably more often than they actually call it. Broncos get away with one when T.J. Ward is clearly holding Coby Fleener. Then the Broncos get a break because the refs see Vontae Davis holding Emmanuel Sanders. Honestly, there was no difference between those plays except whether the officials saw it or not. You might as well just count on the human error, and play close.
Cian Fahey: This first half has been very weird. Peyton Manning is missing more receivers than he has in as long as I can remember, but conversely he's also throwing the ball down the field more than he has in as long as I can remember. The Colts have been very lucky to this point because Sanders and Demaryius in particular have been wide-open with regularity.
Vince Verhei: When did the Denver playbook become nothing but 9 routes?
Aaron Schatz: And on the other side of the ball, the Broncos pass rush just disappeared in the second quarter after being very strong on the Colts' first couple of drives.
Scott Kacsmar: Trying to hit these deep passes down the sideline is the same problem Denver had in Indianapolis last year. Not sure why that's like 50 percent of the offense today though.
Vince Verhei: For Pete's sake, Denver, even if you want to just throw deep, their are post routes and corners and slant-and-gos and out-and-ups. They're just throwing deep fades over and over. There was the deep completion to Julius Thomas that set up Denver's first touchdown. That one worked. But it hasn't worked since. And no, we're not the only ones who noticed.
— Vincent Verhei (@FO_VVerhei) January 11, 2015
Scott Kacsmar: The first series of the second half shows the drawback of having a pocket passer who never wants to scramble. Manning could have run for a first down but went for another downfield throw. Good throw, but good play by the corner to push Sanders out of bounds before he could get the second foot down. Quick three-and-out for the Broncos.
Cian Fahey: One of the worst decisions I've seen a quarterback make this year. Manning had 20 yards of space in front of him, his receiver was covered downfield on a difficult throw. You have to run there. Have to.
Aaron Schatz: What's interesting here is that the deep throws are open, but Manning is overthrowing them. But the short throws, the Colts seem to have covered and they're tackling guys without yards after the catch.
The entire game may be summarized by the fact that on a fourth-and-8 the Broncos had to have, Peyton Manning threw a 3-yard pass to C.J. Anderson in hopes he could get enough yards after the catch to get the conversion. Anderson's run earlier where he broke like 20 tackles was beautiful and Beast Mode-esque, but that drive was stunted by incomplete passes as well and the Broncos were stuck with a field goal.
Manning looked awful today. Chase Stuart put up on Twitter something about this being the first game where Manning is below 4.0 yards per pass since his rookie year. The Manning decline that people have been talking about on film the last few weeks, which never quite showed up in the numbers and wasn't really resulting in losses, well, today it showed up in the numbers big-time and resulted in a big, fat, season-ending L.
Cian Fahey: Have to credit the Colts for winning the game, but to me this said a lot more about the Broncos and Manning specifically.
The Colts are receiving a lot of credit for shutting down the offense and the coaching decisions, but how many big plays were open down the field that Manning simply missed? I wouldn't be optimistic about Indianapolis' chances going into Foxborough, but the Patriots aren't a juggernaut either.
At this stage, I still think the AFC is playing for the runner-up spot in the Super Bowl.
Scott Kacsmar: It's like the Broncos watched last year's game and picked out the things they did the worst, and tried to do exactly that in the first half. Very confusing game plan, and Manning missed too many throws. Wasn't a lack of arm strength since they were overthrows, but inaccuracy. Then the short stuff was defended very well, much like we have seen from teams that can play press coverage against Denver. I thought Sanders showed up today, but very disappointing game by Demaryius.
On the other side, Luck didn't have to be a one-man show. He wasn't even spectacular, just very good. The key was there being very little need to even say the names "Miller" and "Ware" today.
Aaron Schatz: Yes. I have no idea what happened to the Broncos pass rush today.
Vince Verhei: That was really sad to watch. Had to have been the worst game of Manning's career. There were some overthrows, there were some short-arms, there were balls thrown behind guys. There were bad decisions. There was a lack of pocket presence. Like, everything a quarterback can do badly, he did it. I would never, ever say that a guy "should" retire, and if I was a player I'd keep playing until they physically took away my helmet and barred me from the building. But if Manning plays like this in Week 1 of 2015, there are going to be calls for Brock Osweiler. And there should be.
And no, it wasn't just Manning. Demaryius Thomas couldn't catch anything. I had as many sacks as the Broncos did today. Etc., etc. It was a team-wide collapse.
Tom Gower: Concur with Vince. The Broncos lost as a team (that Colts drive that took up 8:14? Soul-crushing, and a terrible look for DVOA's No. 2 rush defense), with Peyton bearing at least his share of the blame. Kudos to Indianapolis, but like Cian said, I thought this was more about Denver's limitations than what the non-Luck Colts did well.
Aaron Schatz: The Broncos have a number of players heading to free agency, including both Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton, and Orlando Franklin. There are apparently reports that John Fox might be out and that Jack Del Rio and/or Adam Gase might get head-coaching jobs elsewhere. I don't expect Peyton to announce his retirement in the locker room but it's really set up here for him to call it a career. It's turnover time in Denver.
Scott Kacsmar: We've had 53 games of Manning in Denver, and this one looked much different than really any of them. Sure, they got their ass kicked in the Super Bowl against Seattle. The defense has had some big letdowns. The offense was shut down in St. Louis this year. But I'm not sure we ever seen a game with a performance so... bleak. Where there was just nothing working downfield or short. Not even 300 yards of offense. Only 13 points at home where they always scored at least 20. Most of Anderson's yards were his own effort and not due to the blocking. The pass rush favored Indianapolis, which you would never have expected given the talent involved. The rally never materialized. The eight-minute drive was a soul-crusher indeed, and from an offense that hasn't really been able to go on drives like that without Luck as the focus point. The Colts weren't even great in several areas (penalties, Pat McAfee's punts could have been better, Adam Vinatieri missed a makeable field goal, two questionable picks by Luck), but still won by 11.
That really looked like an "end of an era" game. I think John Fox will be gone after four years of having two 35-point playoff losses, the killer loss against Baltimore, and this "effort" today. The coordinators will probably bolt. They're going to have some big free agents. Is that a situation you want to start over with as a 39-year-old quarterback? Manning carried the Colts to a Super Bowl in 2009 with Jim Caldwell as a rookie coach, but he was 33 and in his prime. It's a long season and there's no guarantee he'll be healthy again down the stretch.
This might be it for Denver as we have known this team the last three years. And it's stunning to think that first year in 2012 was really the best shot this team had at a championship. I know, they didn't get past the second round, but that team was more likely to beat New England and then San Francisco than last year's team was to beat Seattle on any night, or this year's team in Foxborough next week and then maybe again with Seattle. That was the best defense they had, save for one play by a second-year safety that will live in infamy. That's why every opportunity is precious.
Aaron Schatz: Also, you know, when Seattle destroyed Manning, it was the best defense in football, bar none. Tonight it was... Greg Toler? Jonathan Newsome? Seattle whupped up on the Broncos' offense last year. Today it seemed more like the Broncos' offense just imploded on itself.
Andrew Healy: That 41-0 loss to the Jets in 2002-03 would be tough to beat for Manning's worst game in the playoffs (14-of-31, 137 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT). And that was actually against the No. 20 pass defense and No. 27 defense overall. But this is more disappointing by quite a bit. Indy only had the No. 11 pass offense in 2002.
In 2014, the Broncos had the No. 3 passing offense and, as Aaron said, the Colts were good but not great on defense. It's one thing to get blown out by a historically good pass defense as the Broncos did last year, but to average 4.2 yards per play against this Colts defense? Wow.
Scott Kacsmar: I'm a huge believer in a team's weaknesses usually being their downfall in the playoffs.
Baltimore: the secondary did them in despite facing one of the most one-dimensional attacks a team has shown in a playoff game.
Carolina: general inferiority to Seattle too much to overcome.
Dallas: no stars at any level of the defense. Didn't tackle or rush the passer well. Didn't get the ball back at the end.
But Denver? I think they're the only team that lost in large part due to their strengths. Indy's special teams were supposed to be so much better, but Denver won that matchup if you ask me. Manning is always supposed to give you an advantage of figuring out the defense and getting into the best plays. That first half could not have been any more questionable in attacking the Colts where they're weak. He went right for their strengths, and even if the receivers were getting open, he wasn't making the deep throws he has made often this year, contrary to popular belief. And we have hit on the defense pretty hard already with Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and Aqib Talib all having very disappointing games despite their reputations. Same with Demaryius Thomas on that offense. Incredible talent after the catch, but couldn't even hang on to what may have been the only good screens the Broncos had set up all day.
I've studied them all thoroughly and I would probably say this is Manning's second-worst playoff game in between the 2003 AFC Championship Game (NE) and 2002 AFC Wild Card (NYJ). Always have to go with that Ty Law-dominated game (four picks) first, because that's the only time Manning wasted what wasn't a brutal performance by the rest of his team. Jets game, he had like seven drops and was down 17-0 in no time, but that was just a miserable game all around. Jets were a much better team going into that one. Manning didn't throw a pick until it was 34-0 in the fourth quarter.
Andrew Healy: That is the other one and on a bigger stage, but a legitimately awesome Patriots defense, too. No. 2 overall and No. 2 against the pass.
Rob Weintraub: Boy that Andy Dalton sure does stink in the playoffs, huh?
Oh, that was Peyton Manning? And all Denver's skill players were healthy? Interesting...
Let's not forget John Fox's health scare from last season -- all the more reason for him to look in the mirror and call it a very fine career.