The NFL is the ultimate tease, isn’t it? For two weekends in a row now, they’ve given us three straight dud games followed by an absolute entertainment masterpiece. The first three matchups of the last two weekends had an average winning margin of 21. The Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals saved wild-card weekend, while the New York Jets and San Diego Chargers came up big in the clutch (that excludes Nate Kaeding) in the divisional playoffs.
It was especially annoying because it’s really hard to enjoy a game when you’re hoping and praying for it to be enjoyable. It just doesn’t work that way. You can’t manufacture excitement. Fortunately, Rex Ryan and his Cinderella Jets have singlehandedly saved these playoffs.
Here are 10 thoughts from the weekend that was.
1. Chargers’ stubborn game plan did them in
LaDainian Tomlinson was a great player. Now, he’s only a good player. But on Sunday, the San Diego Chargers used Tomlinson like it was 2005, with predictable 2010 results.
The Chargers baffled onlookers by continually handing the ball off to their aging back, rather than working in the spy Darren Sproles. In the end, Tomlinson had 15 touches and only 24 yards; Sproles had only six touches, but 66 yards.
And that’s just unacceptable.
Had San Diego bailed on Tomlinson earlier, it probably never would’ve gotten into a situation that allowed the Jets to stay alive long enough to pull out a fourth-quarter victory.
2. The second biggest win in Jets history?
Maybe a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. I mean, this is a franchise that only a few months ago was in flux. Now, with a rookie quarterback and a rookie head coach and a 24-year-old No. 1 cornerback, the Jets find themselves four strong quarters away from their first Super Bowl appearance since The Guarantee.
And how do you not love this team? Two weeks ago, Rex Ryan handed these guys a playoff practice schedule that included a slot for a Super Bowl parade. That same week, Ryan had the gonads to exclaim that his team — one that was lucky to limp into the playoffs by playing two teams that rested their starters — should be the Super Bowl favourite. This guy is fun and outgoing with the media — the anti-Belichick, anti-Mangini. And now he looks like a freakin’ genius.
Do the Jets have a chance next week in Indy? Some completely discredit their Week 16 victory over the Colts because Peyton Manning and other Indy starters sat for much of the second half, but it’s important to remember that it was only 15-10 in favour of the Colts when that change was made. The Jets were in that game, and they’ve only gotten better since then.
I have no doubt that they’ll put up one hell of a fight next Sunday.
3. Dream Super Bowl: Favre vs. the Jets
At least from a media perspective, that would be pretty unbelievable. Not only do you have the massive media market that is New York City, but you have a rookie quarterback looking to make some serious history, you have Ryan probably running his mouth for two weeks, you have Favre (need I elaborate?) and you have Favre against his former team. ESPN and CBS are just hoping and praying.
Regardless, though, it would be hard to envision any of the potential Super Bowl matchups being sub-par. Favre vs. Manning? Epic. Manning vs. Brees? Epic. The city of New Orleans involved in general? Epic. The Jets involved at all? Epic.
Pretty awesome that the worst of the potential Super Bowl matchups is Indy-New Orleans — two teams that were unbeaten after 14 weeks.
4. The Year of Cursed Kickers
Statistics will tell you that this was the fourth best year in NFL history for field goal accuracy, but what have statistics ever done for us? In important/clutch situations, this has been the worst year I’ve ever seen for placekickers.
Obviously Nate Kaeding’s performance Sunday put the cherry on top of this argument. I mean, the most accurate kicker in NFL history goes 0-for-3 in a close playoff game? That’s just unfathomable.
Already in this postseason, we’ve seen big misses from Shayne Graham and Neil Rackers on wild-card weekend, two baffling misses from Shaun Suisham earlier Sunday, and then the worst day of Kaeding’s career. Kickers are a combined 15-for-26 in these playoffs. Eleven misses in eight games is very unusual.
And here’s an indication of how screwed up placekicking is. The three most accurate kickers in NFL history, only including players with a minimum of 160 attempts:
1) Kaeding: Three shocking misses Sunday and a missed 40-yarder against the Jets in overtime on wild-card weekend, 2005.
2) Mike Vanderjagt: One of the most infamous playoff misses in NFL history, shanking a 46-yarder against the Steelers in ’05.
3) Shayne Graham: Two missed field goals — including a chip shot to make it a one-score game — on wild-card weekend against the Jets.
5. Hard to gauge Saints’ offence
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a worse postseason defensive performance than what the Arizona Cardinals brought to the table the last two weeks.
I thought the Green Bay debacle was an anomaly for the Cards, but it turns out that defence just didn’t have what it takes to win in the playoffs. They were merely saved by a Kurt Warner performance for the ages on wild-card weekend.
At halftime of Arizona’s embarrassing loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Cards had given up touchdowns on 10 of their last 12 series. In a four-quarter span between wild-card weekend and Saturday’s divisional game, they surrendered a total of 70 points.
So sure, I want to be able to say that the Saints are back on track after a rough finish to the regular season, but it’s really hard to gauge where that offence is. There were times on Saturday when I swore I could pick up a first down or two against that defence. Further complicating things is the fact that New Orleans’ next opponent, the Minnesota Vikings, played lights out on Sunday against the hottest team in football.
The jury’s still out on the offence, which also had the advantage of facing a Cardinals squad that was without two starting defensive backs for much of the day. Kurt Warner was also injured for the Cardinals and missed some time. But New Orleans has three particular things going for it right now:
1) Reggie Bush is, and always has been, a big-game player. He’s sort of the Bizarro Tony Romo, dating all the way back to his days at USC. New Orleans had the league’s highest powered offence during the regular season with Bush playing a supporting role, at best. Now, with Bush finally healthy and playing the best football of his career, this team has yet another weapon.
2) The defence is as healthy as it’s been all year. Jabari Greer was lights out against Larry Fitzgerald and Co. as the Saints shut down an offence that scored 45 points last week.
3) The Superdome. We’re underestimating the advantage that comes from playing a home playoff game in a dome. The Vikings completely dominated the Cowboys in their own dome Sunday, but now they have to travel to the notoriously loud Superdome for the NFC Championship game.
Way back in early September, I picked the Saints to go to the Super Bowl. Now, they’re just one home win away. And that win has to come against the story of the year, Brett Favre. The 2010 NFL playoffs have been a bust as far as entertainment value goes. That game alone could change everything.
6. Vikings had stronger litmus test
Meanwhile, Minnesota had a true test against the Dallas Cowboys, who came into their divisional tilt as arguably the hottest team in football. And the Vikings might’ve played their best game of the year.
Amazingly, the performance had less to do with Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson than it did the defence, which made Tony Romo’s life hell. Everyone expected the story of this game to be DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and the Dallas pass rush versus a pair of questionable Minnesota offensive tackles. But in the end, it was the Minnesota pass rush that was the difference. With the focus on Jared Allen, Ray Edwards stepped up with the biggest game of his career, registering three of the Vikings’ six sacks.
With All-Pro left tackle Flozell Adams injured early, Romo was under siege for much of the afternoon. And while Favre felt pressure from the Cowboys defence, he was able to adjust to it much better than Romo, who turned the ball over three times.
So although Dallas didn’t deliver, a lot of credit has to go to Minnesota’s defence. D-coordinator Leslie Frazier deserves a head coaching job, and what his guys brought to the table Sunday against a team that had been rolling over opponents was extremely impressive.
7. Firestorm coming in Dallas?
Naturally, you can expect the typical offseason scrutiny in Dallas, especially with all the expectations that were boosted with a scintillating late-season run and back-to-back dominant victories over Philadelphia.
Head coach Wade Phillips was reportedly close to signing a two-year extension on Sunday morning, but Jerry Jones is an emotional guy. A close loss to Minnesota Sunday probably would’ve been acceptable, considering the monkey that the Cowboys removed from their back last week. But this was a complete blowout.
Jones refused to address Phillips’ status on Sunday night, which on its own is not a positive sign. It means there must be at least some doubt. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Phillips was fired this week.
8. If Indy outplayed Baltimore, it wasn’t by much
Penalties and bad breaks were more or less the difference on Saturday night. You had Ed Reed making two catches on an Indy touchdown drive, a very questionable penalty on Ray Lewis in the end zone and a few similarly controversial calls as the game wore on. Turnovers obviously also greatly benefited the Colts.
But will Indianapolis be so lucky against the Jets, who have proven time and again that they’ll make you pay for your mistakes?
I feel as though the Ravens lost the game on Saturday night, but Indianapolis didn’t really win it. Sure, it was a stellar defensive effort, but the Colts will surely have to play better next weekend if they want to get back to the Super Bowl for the second time in four years.
And two very quick thoughts…
9) Vincent Jackson getting a personal foul penalty for simply kicking a challenge flag? Ridiculous and over-officious. Let them play, especially at highly-emotion times like that.
10) Imagine these Jets with Kris Jenkins and Leon Washington? It’s hard to believe this team is missing two of its most important players from 2008. Jenkins was probably the team’s MVP, while Washington was a special teams ace and one of the key cogs on offence.