Just How It Should Be
They say the NFL is an unpredictable league, but you didn't have to go too far out on a limb in August to see the 49ers and Seahawks, and Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, left alone at the top playing for a Super Bowl. That's OK, though—unpredictability is overrated when you have two games this great
SEATTLE — You scramble to find some championship Sunday that’s setting up exactly like this one: two of the greatest quarterbacks ever meeting for the 15th time (Elway and Marino faced off only three times) on one side of history, a burgeoning Steelers-Ravens-type rivalry with two charismatic kid quarterbacks on the verge of stardom on the other.
Maybe the 1972 season, when the Final Four entered championship weekend with only 10 losses, total, when the Dolphins were on the way to the perfect season and had to survive the Steelers on New Year’s Eve, and Washington and Dallas clashed in the NFC. It was less of a quarterback game then, but still, Billy Kilmer and Earl Morrall started that weekend. In 1990, Raiders-Bills and Giants-Niners were buzz-filled games, and the drama was in the totally unexpected: Buffalo beat the Raiders by 48, and Jeff Hostetler beat Joe Montana. In 1998, Atlanta-Minnesota and Jets-Broncos had just nine total losses coming in, but Chandler-Cunningham and Testaverde-Elway just doesn’t have the ring of this weekend’s matches. On the AFC side, the 2006 title game looked similar to this year’s game—Tom Brady at Peyton Manning, with the teams a combined 20 games over .500—but Drew Brees and Rex Grossman in the NFC … not the same as Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick.
I’ve looked back to the 1970 merger, and this championship weekend just has a unique feel to me. No dogs allowed. The four power teams that should be here are. This is the kind of doubleheader, as if the NFL needed advice on game-staging, that would justify two prime-time games. How do you pick a favorite game? How would you pick between Spielberg and the Coen Brothers? Between Fenway and Wrigley? Bird and Magic? You decide. I can’t.
New England (13-4) at Denver (14-3), 1 p.m. MT (3 p.m. ET). They met seven weeks ago in Foxboro on a 6-degree wind-chill night in one of the strangest Manning-Brady duels of the 14 to date. First half: Broncos 24, Pats 0. Second half: Pats 31, Broncos 7. Overtime: Pats 3, Broncos 0. The early forecast calls for a nice day, around 50, in Denver Sunday, and so the weather shouldn’t impact Manning’s throwing. We’ll see which New England team shows up: the one that’s consistently relied on Brady’s right arm this century, or the one that’s suddenly a power running team. “One thing about New England, and Bill Belichick,” Champ Bailey said by phone from Denver Sunday night, “they do a great job of putting their guys in position to win, no matter how they play. They never show the same things week to week.” For many, this will be a referendum on Manning’s place in the pantheon. For at least three hours Sunday, I hope America will stop judging what it will think of Manning in 2033 to enjoy a great football game.
San Francisco (14-4) at Seattle (14-3), 3:30 p.m. PT (6:30 p.m. ET). Think how far these two teams have come in 22 months, since Pete Carroll sat on a runway in Denver, hoping to somehow plead his case to get Manning to come play in Seattle (Manning didn’t take the meeting), and Niners coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman flew cross-country to work out Manning (he picked Denver). They’ve developed under-the-draft-radar quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson since. They’ve built tremendous defenses, the kind that made Pittsburgh-Baltimore the most must-see TV games in the league in the final years of the Ray Lewis era. The coaches are major rivals, dating back to USC-Stanford. And the venue. It changes teams. Seattle’s 0-2 in San Francisco in the last two years, and 2-0 at home—by a combined score of 71-16. “The stadium will be a factor in the game for sure,” Arizona defensive end Calais Campbell, who knows both teams well, said from Phoenix last night. “You have to play in it to understand. It’s going to be important for San Francisco to play well early, because you don’t want that crowd to get hold of the game.”
Now for a few notes about how they all got here.
The Schneider Factor.
I walked into the Seahawks’ locker room after the 23-15 win over New Orleans and looked around. To the left, quarterback Russell Wilson, unwinding. To the right, wideout Doug Baldwin and running back Marshawn Lynch, heroes, surrounded by reporters. Middle of the room, right, the DB area, were corner Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas holding court, and safety Kam Chancellor walking through. To the left, pass rusher Cliff Avril, and farther down, defensive lineman Michael Bennett and middle linebacker/defensive signal-caller Bobby Wagner, all talking about their roles in an impressive defensive performance.
The keys to Seattle beating the Saints and advancing to the NFC Championship Game. All acquired by Seattle since 2010. All acquired under the watch of GM John Schneider, who ducked into the locker room for a second too, long enough to unobtrusively stick a hand in front of Sherman, shake it, say, “Nice game,” with a wide smile, and disappear into a back room.
Think of those players. Nine players. One, Thomas, drafted with a Seattle first-round pick. Wagner came in the second round and Wilson the third of 2012. Lynch came in trade, for fourth- and fifth-round picks, from Buffalo. Sherman and Chancellor were fifth-rounders. Baldwin was an undrafted free agent. Avril and Bennett came as reasonably priced free agents when the market was depressed last spring. What Schneider has tried to get are players who love football, who have been marked down, who have some special gifts (Wilson’s charisma, and his Tarkenton-like ability to evade and then throw accurately), and who, rarely, as in the case of the costly trade for Percy Harvin, require a very big risk. Harvin has played in only two games because of a hip injury and now a concussion, and his status for the title game is in doubt. “But you see him on that fly sweep we run,” said Sherman, “and you see why we got him. He makes us so different on offense.” Only time will tell if Harvin was worth the picks and the money; it looks like a reach now. But Schneider’s not sorry he did it. Cost of doing business. He won’t play it safe.
“John convinced me on Russell,” said Pete Carroll. “He was on him early, then he came back from seeing him late in his season at Wisconsin, I think against Michigan State, and he was so enthused about him. I watched a lot of tape on him, and John was right on. Then he got here, and he was everything John said he was.”
I thought Saturday was the first day that the Seahawks had the defense playing the way Carroll and Schneider envisioned in the offseason when they bought Avril and Bennett. Everyone can’t play outside when you’ve got rushers like Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin already in-house. So Bennett, who had played as a rush end in Tampa, moved inside mostly with Seattle. “I just trusted the coaches,” he said. “It’s different, for sure, but coaches are smart. They’re paid too. They thought it would be best for me and best for the team, and I’ve probably been inside 85 percent of the time, rushing from there. I like it. And I think it shows I’m one of the most versatile players in the NFL.” Actually, according to Pro Football Focus, Bennett’s time has been split nearly evenly outside and inside this year (340 snaps outside, 333 inside, including Saturday’s game), but the points is, he never played inside with regularity before this year, and he likes it. Bennett forced a fumble on Mark Ingram that was a huge game-changer, and then he and Avril combined on a strip-sack of Brees.
The game against the Saints was a street game, with lots of trash-talking, before and during. I think the Seahawk defensive backs got into Jimmy Graham’s head. Whatever happened, Graham, who had to be restrained from some Seahawks before the game when they kicked a Saints ball away from him in warmups, was a non-factor, almost passive at times. This was the best tight end in football? I don’t think so. Sherman and Thomas made Graham’s life miserable, timing their physical arrival to a millisecond before a pass arrived and driving Graham nuts. There’s an art to that. Some call it interference that isn’t called. The Seahawks call it pass defense. And it worked until desperation time near the end of the game.
I remember covering the Ravens-Steelers championship game in January 2009 and seeing Phil Simms at halftime, shuddering over the hitting he’d witnessed in the first 30 minutes, glad he wasn’t experiencing the blows those defenses were handing out. That’s the kind of game I see San Francisco-Seattle being. It’s one of the few times these days that you say, “Looking forward to the running game.” When I asked Arizona’s Campbell about how the game would go, he said: “Very, very physical. They’re probably the only teams in football on 3rd-and-7 who’d run the ball and tell their defense, ‘Go win it.’ ”
* * *
The Patriot Way is any way.
Watch the 53-yard pass from Tom Brady to Danny Amendola Saturday night in the rout of Indianapolis. Know why it happened? Colts safety LaRon Landry got sucked up by the threat of another run by New England, another reminder that these aren’t the aerial Patriots. These are the ones who can crush your spirit with a 46-carry, 234-yard, six-touchdown game.
So what’s happened to New England? Is this a permanent change, some nod to Tom Brady at 36 not being the thrower he once was?
Not at all. Not even close.
The Patriots are doing what they’ve always done under Bill Belichick: what works.
The top five receivers from last year, from Welker to Woodhead, are gone. The tight ends are gone. In their place, at least Saturday, were these men, who played the most snaps of any players in their position group out of New England’s 75 offensive plays against the Colts:
|Position||Player||No. of plays||Stats||How acquired|
|WR||Julian Edelman||68||6 catches, 84 yards||7th-round Kent State option QB, 2009|
|TE||Michael Hoomanawanui||74||1 catch, 7 yards||Signed after being cut by Rams, 2012|
|RB||LeGarrette Blount||28||24 carries, 166 yards, 4 TDs||Acquired for RB Jeff Demps, 2013|
|FB||James Develin||35||1 carry, 0 yards||Undrafted Brown Univ. DE, 2013|
There were times Saturday night that Develin or Hoomanawanui were split wide. Not to give the impression that they’d run a wideout’s route, but simply to lessen the traffic in the middle of the field so the Colts couldn’t plug the box with eight men. Add to this the fact that the New England line is playing well, with Logan Mankins and Nate Solder leading the way, and you can see why the Patriots are comfortable letting Blount be the leading man.
You’d never think the Patriots would be a running team, with Tom Brady playing quarterback. But even in the face of a strong Denver run defense led by the ex-Jag Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them continue the running streak. Blount hadn’t had an 80-yard rushing game this year before Week 17. He lit up the Bills for 189 yards that day, and kept it going Saturday night with 166 against Indy. With a mashing offensive line averaging 316 pounds, and the lead-blocking of the 251-pound Develin, this is what the Patriots do best now—particularly when the weather turns the way it did Saturday night.
It’s a tribute to Belichick, and to his offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels (and to Brady, quite frankly, because he won’t squawk about turning and handing it off 46 times), that the offensive transition hasn’t grounded the team. When Belichick looks back on his career, whatever happens Sunday in Denver, he’ll know that this season defined what he was as a coach. He did what the skill level of his 53 players called for him to do. He forced no square pegs into round holes. It’s the definition of what a good coach is.
Five Things I Think About the Niners.
1. Michael Crabtree didn’t play the last time San Francisco visited Seattle (and got clobbered), and he’ll make a big difference. He’s the kind of physical receiver who can joust with Richard Sherman and know how to scrap without getting offensive pass interference called. (It’s an art. Ask Michael Irvin.) Colin Kaepernick has had Crabtree for two of his three starts against Seattle, and targeted him 17 times.
2. Jim Harbaugh may be the nuttiest professor in the league, but he sure can coach. Three years, three championship-game appearances (first time that’s happened in an NFL coach’s first three seasons since the 1970 merger), 41 wins already. Bill Belichick won 20 in his first three seasons at Cleveland, 28 his first three years at New England. Harbaugh makes the tough decisions and doesn’t blink. Good coach for today’s players, many of whom like the feisty guys who rebel against authority.
3. They are a good match against the Seahawks’ run game because of how well they plug the gaps. You saw it against Cam Newton Sunday, with Ahmad Brooks stuffing him, and with the two inside ’backers, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, not allowing the Carolina run game to get any traction. “Marshawn Lynch is not the kind of guy to wait for the gaps,” said Calais Campbell. “He’ll just hit in there.” Look for Bowman and Willis to be physical early against Lynch, and for tempers to flare.
4. Kaepernick will have some rough spots throwing it, but nerves won’t lose this game for him. “Totally respect Kaepernick in clutch situations,” said Campbell. “Against us, when he had to, he made some clutch throws, and he put them right where they had to be.” You saw it last year in Atlanta, and Sunday in Carolina. You don’t win three road games in the playoffs in your first 14 months on the job by being wary.
5. Like Crabtree, Anquan Boldin’s the type of physical receiver who will be a tough cover for Seattle. He warmed up with eight for 136 against Carolina, and this is his time of year. You saw how he played in January for Baltimore last year.
Check out photographer Simon Bruty’s fantastic work capturing Vernon Davis’ first-half touchdown.
* * *
Much more coming later at The MMQB from Robert Klemko from Denver on Julius Thomas and the two third-down catches that clinched the game for the Broncos. But anyone’s who watched Manning for the last few frustrating playoff runs wanted to see how he’d respond when the game was on the line, late. Forget whose fault it would have been. Blowing a pair of 17-point leads would have been gasket-exploding, particularly when one was 24-7 with seven minutes left in the game. The specter of Rahim Moore may not have been in the heads of the Broncos as the clock wound down and Philip Rivers dissected the defense. But I bet it was.
Now it came down to 3rd-and-17, Denver 20, 3:06 to play, Manning knowing if he doesn’t convert, the Broncos punt. Rivers was ready to tie it. Thomas broke from the right slot and made for the right sideline, about 18 yards downfield. The Chargers were down two defensive backs, there was a mix-up in coverage communication, and no one went to the sideline with Thomas. Manning threw it on target. Gain of 21.
You could hear Denver exhale over the TV.
“Great play call by [offensive coordinator] Adam Gase,” Manning said. “Really big-time play call. He knew what the look would be, and then a good catch by Julius.”
Point was, Gase liked the matchup of the 6-5, 250-pound former college basketball player on either a linebacker or corner out wide, and when Thomas rubbed off the coverage in traffic from the slot, that was a bonus. It’s probably a throw Manning would have made anyway, because of Thomas’ height and ability to win a high ball in single coverage. The bonus was he was uncovered. Another 3rd-and-6 conversion followed three snaps later, and the Broncos could run out the clock.
This week’s going to be filled with the blunt-force trauma of great expectations, and another showdown with the Patriots. I can imagine Manning Saturday night in the hotel, watching New England, thinking, “Not them again.” He won’t admit that, but he’s had so many of these Belichick and Brady battles. Even an Andrew Luck rematch would have been preferable, I’m sure. But it is what it is. Hey, hasn’t that been said before? By some Manning nemesis?
“I don’t see anything different in Peyton this time of year,” Champ Bailey told me after the game. “He was the same all week as he is every week, and I assume he’ll be the same this week. With Peyton, everything’s important. All the details are important. That’s why he’s so good.”
* * *
Some Saintly thoughts.
And not just because the editor of this column, Tom Mantzouranis, is the biggest Saints booster this side of Steve Gleason:
• For as good a play-caller as Sean Payton is, and as valuable a player as Marques Colston is, and as smart a quarterback as Drew Brees is, the Saints’ prayer of a last drive was stupid, and it had the fingerprints of each man on it. No timeouts left, ball on the Saints’ 41, and 24 seconds to play. First play: a short curl to tight end Jimmy Graham in the middle of the field. Graham had been held without a catch for the first 59-and-a-half minutes Saturday, and this terrible play-call smacked of stat-padding. (Or stat-something.) Graham caught the ball at :22 and went down, and the Saints rushed to the line … :19, :18, :17, :16, spike at :15. Just a foolish waste of time. You can’t throw an out there? Second play: Brees to Colston on an out to the right, gain of 13, Colston looks like he’ll go out of bounds … and he, incredibly, pauses with eight seconds left and throws a forward pass—it wasn’t even close to a lateral—all the way across the field. So, instead of having seven or eight seconds left at the Seahawks’ 36, with a chance for one quick completion to the sideline and then a shot into the end zone, Colston throws an illegal forward pass and the game is over because the ensuing penalty calls for a 10-second runoff. It was clear in the locker room after the game that no one had any idea why Colston threw that pass. Let’s recap: With 24 seconds left and trailing 23-15 with 59 yards to gain against a very good defense, your chances are not good. But you should have four plays if you’re smart. Maybe five. New Orleans got three off, and one was a spike. I’m still shaking my head over the mismanagement, a day and a half later.
• Brees turns 35 Wednesday. The window’s closing. It’s not closed. But if I were GM Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton, I’d be thinking about drafting a quarterback, and not just a seventh-rounder for third-string purposes. Denver and New England don’t know if Brock Osweiler and Ryan Mallett will ever play significant snaps for them, but those teams know that when old quarterbacks are nearing the end, the position’s too important to wait until stars are gone to worry about a succession plan. Brees was still very good this season, a top-five quarterback, and he could give the Saints three or four more very good years. Look at Peyton Manning at 37 and Tom Brady at 36. But LAD—Life After Drew—is coming, and if an Aaron Murray is there late in the second round as he rehabs from knee surgery, Loomis has to think about it.
• Dying to know how, in the last six quarters of the postseason (second half at Philly, all game at Seattle), Jimmy Graham, who was only the overwhelming first-team All-Pro tight end this season, could have this receiving line:
Receiving yards: 8.
The Saints’ best offensive weapon in the passing game accounted for eight token yards in the last six quarters of the postseason. That is unacceptable. That’s like a healthy Adrian Peterson touching the ball nine times in 1.5 playoff games. When I watched Graham Saturday, I saw a clear-out receiver. I didn’t see a fighter. He wasn’t loafing, but often in the second half he’d round off his routes and not fight Richard Sherman or Earl Thomas for position; he looked content to open space for Colston often. I tried to envision Tony Gonzalez in this case—the same kind of athletic space player Graham is. And I think Gonzalez would have been battling to get open more, to present his quarterback with another go-to option.
• Snaps missed by Graham in the two playoff games: 46. I understand different players playing different packages, but when your best weapon is sitting 30 percent of the time, it’s a mistake.
• Watched a lot of rookie left tackle Terron Armstead in the game. That wasn’t just a good decision Payton made in benching Charles Brown with two games left in the regular season and replacing him with the third-rounder from Arkansas-Pine Bluff—it was a great decision. Armstead is quick to seal the edge, strong and not intimidated. He has some chippiness to him. The Saints have a keeper at left tackle, for good value.
• Plugging in Armstead, however, wasn’t the best move Payton made in this return-to-football year. Hiring Rob Ryan was. He installed a more aggressive defensive philosophy and instilled the kind of junkyard-dog attitude the Saints haven’t had since Gregg Williams’ way was working four years ago. The defense got run on by Seattle on Saturday, but Russell Wilson struggled all day—some because of the wind and some because the New Orleans front didn’t let him breathe. Cameron Jordan is a star, and he’s going to be a bigger one next year. The secondary needs healthy corners and the return of safety Kenny Vaccaro, but it’s headed in the right direction with Keenan Lewis an invaluable addition. Oh, and do not think of moving on from David Hawthorne. One of the underrated inside ’backers in football. There is great hope for 2014 because of this defense—and because Brees won’t have to get in a scoring contest every week to win.
1. Seattle (14-3). The Seahawks have scored 100 points in their last five games. The running game looks great and the defense looks balanced and strong. The passing game, not so much. Now, I don’t think anyone should form a judgment based on Saturday’s game, because the wind was a passing-game killer. But at some point Seattle’s going to need big plays out of Russell Wilson if the ’Hawks are going to win a Super Bowl.
2. San Francisco (14-4). This is what America wanted, right? The two best teams, in The House That Noise Built.
3. Denver (14-3). This is what America wanted, right? Manning and Brady, for the 15th time? It’s certainly what CBS wanted.
4. New England (13-4). As Someone Who Knows Bill Well once told me: “You’ll never see one game plan that looks like another with the Patriots.” If you gave Belichick Sodium Pentothal right now, I think he’d say he’s thrilled to see his team have a 46-27 run-pass ratio in a playoff game (including two sacks counting as pass plays) because he knows he has a quarterback who can win any game at any venue. I don’t know how far my AFC Super Bowl pick is going, but in this most bizarre of seasons, I think New England can win any game it plays if the secondary holds up.
5. Carolina (12-5). Fun while it lasted. And 2014 was absolutely no fluke, not with that defense, not with that quarterback. GM David Gettleman now has to figure a way to get Cam Newton another receiving weapon. Just not enough depth outside to survive a diminished Steve Smith.
6. San Diego (10-8). Can’t do much better than three close games with the top seed in your conference. Excellent job by GM Tom Telesco, coach Mike McCoy, Philip Rivers and the players in the first year of a new era.
7. New Orleans (12-6). Life is cruel, but it’s time—again—to pack your bags, Shayne Graham.
8. Green Bay (8-8-1). Lots of teams have secondary problems to solve, and Ted Thompson runs one of them. The problem for Thompson is he also has offensive line and defensive tackle problems too.
9. Philadelphia (10-7). Normally, entering the offseason in the NFC East, the outlook would be pretty even for the four teams, seeing as though they knock each other off so regularly. But I think the Eagles have separated themselves from the pack—Dallas’ 5-1 division record notwithstanding.
10. Indianapolis (12-6). Sorry to drop you down into the netherworld here, Colts fans. But any team that allows 44 and 43 points in back-to-back postseason games must be punished. You’re lucky I didn’t drop the Colts out of here entirely for Luck’s Amish neckbeard.
11. Kansas City (11-6). Smart idea, trying to extend Alex Smith. I’d extend a quarterback who piloted my team to more points this year than Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick did with theirs.
12. Arizona (10-6). Gotta work on that 2-4 division record, Cards.
13. Cincinnati (11-6). Re the loss of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to Washington: You can bet new Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will run it more than 43.8 percent of the snaps in 2014 … and that Gio Bernard and whoever his running mate is next year (BenJarvus Green-Ellis or someone else) will have more than 390 rushing attempts between them. That was the major gripe inside the Cincinnati offices about Gruden—that he didn’t run enough.
14. Pittsburgh (8-8). Any doubt the Steelers paid the right receiver? Antonio Brown: 110 catches, 1,499 yards, eight touchdowns. That’s gotten lost in the postseason folderol but shouldn’t have.
15. Chicago (8-8). Mel Tucker stays as defensive coordinator. Sounds like there were a few Chicago precincts not in favor of Tucker staying. More than a few.
The Awards Section
Offensive Players of the Week
LeGarrette Blount, running back, New England. He set a New England rushing record with his 166 yards on 24 carries, and had rushing touchdowns of 2, 2, 2 and 73 yards as the Patriots ground the Colts down. Six rushing touchdowns for the Patriots. No passing touchdowns. “If you’d have told me we’d have had six touchdowns and no touchdown passes, I’d have told you you’re crazy,” Blount said. What else is crazy: Blount has 355 rushing yards and six scores in New England’s last two games. Not bad for a guy who was supposed to be insurance between two highly drafted Patriot backs, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.
Marshawn Lynch, running back, Seattle. He set a Seattle playoff rushing record (is there an echo in here?) with his 140 yards on 28 carries, and anyone who watched the 23-15 Seahawks win over New Orleans didn’t have to think hard when asked, “Who was the best player on the field today?” Lynch was the physical rushing presence a struggling offensive team just had to have; he’s the kind of back who gets four-and-a-half yards when average ones would be stopped for three. His 31-yard touchdown run with 2:40 to play in the fourth quarter iced it for the Seahawks. “I don’t run to get tackled,” said the man of few words after the game.
Defensive Players of the Week
Ahmad Brooks, linebacker, San Francisco. You know, the not very famous mate of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, the two Pro Bowlers who combined for 22 tackles, a sack and an interception in the 23-10 win over Carolina. But Brooks stoned a sneaking Cam Newton on the goal line, the biggest single play in the game, the play that turned the game around in the first half, and he sacked Newton 2.5 times as well, the most sacks Brooks has had in a playoff game in his burgeoning career.
Jamie Collins, linebacker, New England. The Patriots saw past Collins’ final year at Southern Miss—the team was 0-12 last fall—and they were very glad they did Saturday night. Collins would have been an apprentice this season if not for the IR-ing of Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, and against the Colts he played his first complete game of the season, logging all 65 defensive snaps and recording six tackles, a sack of Andrew Luck, an interception off Andrew Luck, two quarterback knockdowns of Andrew Luck, and one Andrew Luck pass defensed. Easy, huh? Now all Collins has to do is repeat that against Peyton Manning at altitude.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Stephen Gostkowski, kicker/punter, New England. After regular punter Ryan Allen Yepremianed a bad punt snap into a safety in the first half and got mauled by the Colts rush (just watch the video to the right), Gostkowski, who had never punted in his eight-year NFL career, booted punts of 53, 35, 43, 52 and 26 yards for a 41.8-yard average … in conditions that included rain and wind gusts up to 29 mph. It was a rugby-type low-release punting style, and it worked in a big pinch for the Patriots.
Coach of the Week
Dante Scarnecchia, offensive line coach, New England. For 30 of his 65 years on earth, Scarnecchia has been an assistant coach for the New England Patriots. Fans of the team should hoist a glass to him this morning. He’s put together a terrific offensive line with but two franchise-type linemen—left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins—and that line (also: center Ryan Wendell, right guard Dan Connolly, right tackle Marcus Cannon, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui) led the way to a 234-yard, six-touchdown running performance that crushed the Colts. “Our offensive line had an amazing performance,” said LeGarrette Blount, who had four of the six touchdowns. Scarnecchia’s way has been vital with a mix-and-match line.
Goat of the Week
Mark Ingram, running back, New Orleans. Biggest single contributor to any of the four losses all weekend. With the Seattle crowd in full nuttiness on the first series of the game Saturday, Drew Brees had a perfect screen set up for Ingram on third down. Guaranteed conversion, and a crowd-silencer. Ingram dropped it. Early in the second quarter, Ingram tried to make three or four hard yards up the middle and was met by defensive end Michael Bennett. Not a particularly hard collision. But Ingram coughed the ball up, the Seahawks recovered, and Marshawn Lynch—the hard-running, elusive back Ingram was drafted to be—ran for a pinball touchdown a moment later, and it was 13-0. Ingram has had a few moments for New Orleans (he was a plus last week in the Wild Card win at Philly), but overall, the first half mirrored his New Orleans career.
Quotes of the Week
“What’s weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth. That’s priority number one.”
—Peyton Manning, asked after the playoff win over San Diego whether it was “weighing on his mind” that a neck exam will decide his future with the Broncos.
“We will see them again, and it’s not going to be sweet. I can’t wait to play them with a new set of refs and a new game.”
—Carolina safety Mike Mitchell, still angry at the officiating after the Panthers’ 23-10 loss to San Francisco.
“This is my 13th year. You don’t know how many chances you have left. The opportunities are getting fewer and fewer.”
—New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, whose eighth season with the team ended with a loss at Seattle.
“It definitely hurts. Every time I carry that football, I’m carrying the team’s dreams and aspirations. I let them down at a critical moment in the game. That’s unfortunate.”
—Saints running back Mark Ingram, whose soft fumble led to an easy first-half touchdown by the Seahawks and a 13-0 lead for Seattle.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
—Bridget Kelly, deputy chief of staff for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, to an aide on Aug. 12, kicking off what appears to be a politically motivated, classic Jersey story of electoral retribution when Christie did not get the support of the mayor of Fort Lee, a town next to George Washington Bridge. Fort Lee conveniently got historic traffic jams soon after the mayor’s decision to not support Christie, as this story in The Record indicates.
On Wednesday, Christie said he had no idea this was happening on his watch. Thursday, Christie fired Kelly and said at a one-hour, 48-minute news conference: “I’m a sad guy standing here today … I’m telling you I had nothing to do with this.”
Stat of the Week
Denver has played 17 games this year.
Games with more than 400 yards of total offense: 14.
Games with less than 400 yards of total offense: 3.
San Diego, San Diego and San Diego.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
The biggest attendance days in the 12-year history of CenturyLink Field:
|Jan. 11, 2014||Saints||68,388|
|Dec. 2, 2013||Saints||68,387|
One fan. One little fan.
The skill players who started for the New England Patriots Saturday: LeGarrette Blount, James Develin, Matthew Slater, Matthew Mulligan, Michael Hoomanawanui.
Wish I could say it was some grandiose changing of the guard in a 43-point New England explosion. But the first snap was a short-yardage play from the Colts’ 2-yard line.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Travel Note of the Week
Craziest day of weather in my 56 years on earth Wednesday:
5 a.m. Eastern Time, 8 degrees. Flag a cab in Manhattan for the trip to JFK and a flight to Los Angeles.
11:50 a.m. Pacific Time, 74 degrees. Walk out of LAX into the Los Angeles sun. Stopover for a short lunch near the airport on the way to Seattle.
5:35 p.m. Pacific Time, 44 degrees. Steady cold rain pelts me outside the terminal at SeaTac.
I was frigid, I was T-shirted, I was cold and wet. What a country.
Two more notes. Memo to the hiney trombone deep in coach on the JFK-to-Los Angeles Delta flight Wednesday morning: Did you just assume we’re all deaf? … And the cabdriver who took me home Sunday afternoon was the spitting image of Rob Ryan, right down to the stringy hair. Listening to Kansas when I got in.
Tweets of the Week
“I like Crabtree but Jim greatest catcher ever what are you smoking?”
—@JerryRice, yes, THE Jerry Rice, after hearing San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh say wideout Michael Crabtree has the best hands in history.
“Jim Harbaugh gets himself so worked up its not clear he even realizes he’s on playing field or sideline…or if he’s even in Carolina.”
—@NFLOnTheHill, NFL senior advisor Joe Browne, watching Harbaugh go all melty late in the first half of the Niners game at Carolina.
“Had to: pic.twitter.com/5LVo7zJclA”
—@DougBaldwinJr, receiver for the Seahawks, splurging on food not on his training table after the Seahawks’ win on Saturday.
“Highlight of the night: Charles Barkley in the Patriots locker room. He might’ve had a couple or 12 drinks.”
—@StevePoliti of the Newark Star-Ledger, after the New England win over Indy.
“To borrow from Seinfeld: [LeGarrette] Blount’s a mudder. His mudder was a mudder.”
—@wingoz, ESPN’s Trey Wingo, on the bruising Patriots’ back after his 166-yard day beat the Colts Saturday night.
“The Daily Show writers should donate today’s paychecks to charity.”
—@pescami, NPR’s Mike Pesca, on the day New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie discussed a traffic scandal in his state for 108 minutes at a televised press conference. Easy pickin’s that day, in other words.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about the playoff weekend:
a. Jim Zorn raising the 12th Man flag. Excellent choice.
b. The Saints’ defensive front coming to play early. Very strong play by Cameron Jordan and Brodrick Bunkley, and a great stop of Marshawn Lynch by linebacker David Hawthorne too.
c. Khiry Robinson. The guy’s a revelation. The undrafted quick back from West Texas A&M got the ball in the open field and was face-to-face with 2012 first-round rush linebacker Bruce Irvin. Robinson deked Irvin, made him miss and added eight yards to the play.
d. Perfect defensive play by safety Earl Thomas, hitting Jimmy Graham at precisely the right moment, dislodging a potential first-down conversion pass from Graham with seven minutes left in the game.
e. Sounds crazy to praise a field goal as a smart play, but Steven Hauschka’s 48-yarder late in the first quarter was just that. Knowing a high kick would have a better chance to float off-course (being in the wind longer), Hauschka line-drived the ball low, right down the middle.
f. Best defensive play of the first game of the weekend: Seattle middle linebacker Bobby Wagner fighting through Saints guard Ben Grubbs on what appeared to be a perfectly orchestrated screen to Darren Sproles and destroying it.
g. Saints corner Keenan Lewis with a perfectly timed pass deflection, something the Saints are getting used to with this excellent free-agent signing.
h. The Saints need to teach a class in the art of the onside kick.
i. Tremendous stat by Pro Football Focus’ Peter Damilatis: Marshawn Lynch forced 13 missed tackles against the Saints Saturday. Ray Rice forced nine all season.
j. Take a bow, New England personnel czar Nick Caserio and scouts. The Jamie Collins picked finally paid off in the biggest game of the year, with the second-round rookie linebacker the best player on the defensive side for the Pats Saturday night.
k. Adam Schefter’s nugget about Washington naming Jay Gruden head coach—and never telling 49ers coordinators Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, who were preparing to interview with Washington GM Bruce Allen for the job, that the interviews were cancelled.
l. NFL scheduling dudes: Washington at San Francisco next fall. Let’s say the Niners have the game in hand in the fourth quarter. Bet you five bucks Fangio is blitzing until the last snap, and Roman has Colin Kaepernick throwing deep to Michael Crabtree in the final minutes.
m. Luke Kuechly’s instincts. Seemed to get a quarter-step quick start on his first-quarter sack of Colin Kaepernick.
n. Beautiful touchdown throw from Cam Newton to Steve Smith. You can’t make a better throw than that.
o. Last three games for Anquan Boldin: 20 catches, 323 yards. This is his time of year.
p. Malik Jackson and Shaun Phillips, for their three sacks and four pressures of Philip Rivers.
q. The two late third-down conversions by Peyton Manning.
r. The Arizona Cardinals placing an ad in Dan Dierdorf’s adopted hometown newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, congratulating Dierdorf on his 43-year NFL career as he retired Saturday. “Thanks for always holding the line, Dan,” the ad said, with a nice photo of Dierdorf in pass-pro in front of Jim Hart. The Cards, of course, moved to Arizona from St. Louis, where Dierdorf built a Hall of Fame playing career. Dierdorf’s final CBS telecast was Saturday in Foxboro.
s. Indy coach Chuck Pagano admitting he was wrong to punt on 4th-and-1, down 21, in the fourth quarter at New England.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about the playoff weekend:
a. Indy coach Chuck Pagano punting on 4th-and-1, down 21, in the fourth quarter at New England.
b. Saints safety Rafael Bush smashing a defenseless Percy Harvin high on the third play of the game in Seattle—and the third play of Harvin’s return. That’s going to cost Bush a lot of money.
c. You’ve got to make that interception, Kam Chancellor.
d. You’ve got to catch that onside kick, Golden Tate. That’s why it’s called the “hands team.”
f. The junk on Twitter ripping the living tar out of Marques Colston. Real brave. Criticize him for a dumb play, fine. The stuff after that … just not right.
g. The first-quarter unnecessary roughness flag thrown by back judge Steve Freeman in Carolina. No helmet contact there. Mike Mitchell didn’t deserve it.
h. All the yapping in Carolina. Lord, it looked so bush league.
i. Quintin Mikell dropping the pick-6 deep in 49ers territory. That’s the kind of play that haunts a team in the offseason.
j. One thing about officiating crews I really dislike is their inability to cut the chippiness out of big games. The Carolina-Niners game was a perfect example. Waaaay too much taunting and a missed obvious head-butting from an emotional Anquan Boldin. Those things have to be called.
k. And Jim Harbaugh. A meltdown at a crucial time of a road playoff game, costing your team 15 yards? And not knowing the rules that the play you’re tantruming about is going to be reviewed anyway?
l. But see, I blame the officials partly for Harbaugh’s freakathon. If they’d have kept control of the game, there’s a chance that idiocy wouldn’t have happened.
3. I think it’s too early to get too excited about the 2014 opener, but say Seattle wins it all. My vote for Sept. 4 at CenturyLink Field: Denver (with Chris Mortensen confirming that Peyton Manning, assuming he passes his March physical, which is as sure as the Rockies being beautiful, is going to play next season) at Seattle.
4. I think if the NFL does decide to go to a seventh playoff team per conference (the league will look hard this offseason at two things—the cutdown of preseason games from four to three or two per team, and then the playoff makeover), I could see a Monday night game being considered for Wild Card weekend. Wait, you say: That’s unfair, because the winner would have a short week before the divisional round. Well, the Broncos in the 2011 postseason played a Wild Card game on Sunday and a divisional game the next Saturday. Same thing with Baltimore last year, traveling on a short week to play the divisional game at Denver. Didn’t seem to hogtie Baltimore, which went on to win the Super Bowl. I could see two Wild Card games on Saturday, three on Sunday (with a Sunday night game), and then the Monday nighter. It’s all speculation for now, of course. But if the league can find a way to ensure that the Monday winning team wouldn’t play until the following Sunday, I could see a Monday night game gaining steam.
5. I think the Browns are going to find a coach, someday. But a year after Chip Kelly said no, it’s clear that this is the job that’s scaring away the most candidates. And it’s clear the Browns want an offensive coach to develop the quarterback of the future. Thus the Josh McDaniels/Adam Gase/Ben McAdoo fascination.
6. I think GM Mickey Loomis has had a terrific run, overall, for the Saints, ably assisted by underrated director of college scouting Rick Reiprish. But the Mark Ingram pick in 2011 is the pick that keeps on betraying the franchise. New Orleans traded a second-round pick in 2011 and a first-rounder in 2012 to acquire the 28th overall pick from New England in ’11 and take Ingram. And Saturday it was clear for all to see that an undrafted rookie from West Texas A&M, Khiry Robinson, is a better option for the Saints—and more sure-handed. The Saints surrendered the 56th pick in 2011 (New England used it on Shane Vereen) and the 27th pick in 2012 (the Pats traded that pick to Cincinnati, which used it on guard Kevin Zeitler) for Ingram.
7. I think I am so pleased to see Mike Zimmer, finally, being a serious candidate for two coaching jobs, and being interviewed a second time in Minnesota.
8. I think I don’t view Dan Le Batard the way some in the public do—as the freedom-fighting Edward Snowden of sports media for surrendering his baseball Hall of Fame vote to Deadspin. I don’t like what he did. When you become a Hall of Fame voter, you agree to abide by the rules of the game. If you don’t like the rules, whatever they are, don’t vote. But to assign the vote to whomever you choose is wrong. And how exactly does it help the process, which everyone decries as broken? In turning over his vote to Deadspin, which then had a fan vote to determine who would be included on his ballot, Le Batard protested the process of voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Did it change anyone’s mind about how the process should proceed in the future? The fact is, baseball writers have a far more difficult job that the voters for any other Hall of Fame, because they have to factor in how to treat players from the Steroid Era, and I don’t know how you do that. As for the vitriol sent their way over the past few days, I’ve found this over the years about being a Pro Football Hall of Fame voter: Very few people are going to say, “You guys did a great job.” Most often, the Denver fan is going to say, “You’re an idiot for not putting Terrell Davis in the Hall of Fame,” and the Packers fan is going to scream about Jerry Kramer. It grinds on you after a while; it certainly has on me. But it’s a privilege to try to do the best you can under the circumstances and the rules of the vote to try to put the right people in the Hall of Fame, and that’s what I try to remember as I go through the winnowing process each year.
9. I think, and I have been wrong on this before (like, most years, as one of the 46 voters), that this would be my best guess as to the five finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame most likely to be elected Feb. 1: Walter Jones, Derrick Brooks, Marvin Harrison, Charles Haley, Michael Strahan. And I would list these three as the closest contenders to them: Will Shields, Tony Dungy, Aeneas Williams. Now, I didn’t say those first five would be my picks. I don’t know my picks yet, and won’t until we get inside the room.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. For those who think Chris Christie cannot win the presidency now, I chuckle. It’s 34 months until election day, people. Lots of scandals can, and will, happen between now and then.
b. Such a loyal guy, that Robert Gates.
c. … he said, dripping with sarcasm.
d. The best color on any uniform in all of sports: Toronto Maple Leafs blue.
e. Aren’t we done with A-Rod yet? Can we be? Please? Can he just please go away?
f. Americans will look back on life on the planet in the 25 years from 1990 to 2015 years after I am gone and (I hope) wonder: “Why did people pay so much attention to that idiot Dennis Rodman?”
g. A kids’ literacy group I support, Write on Sports, is auctioning off a lunch for four with me on Wednesday of Super Bowl week. You can bid (or laugh at me) on Charity Buzz. And you can read about the good work of Write on Sports.
h. Coffeenerdness: So I ventured into the original Starbucks, the one by Pike Place Market, and had a macchiato on Friday. Absolutely delicious espresso. Perfect. And the barista told me, “We’re one of the few Starbucks that pulls our own shots manually, and some people say they can taste the difference.” Count me as one. I noticed—she twisted the handle on the espresso pod, dumped the used espresso, rinsed it, then manually added the espresso. Takes longer, but the taste is richer … Thanks for your advice last week about how to clean a coffeemaker. Turns out a couple cups of white vinegar and water, cycled through the process with a pause in the middle to let the vinegar mix work, and then two cycles of water running through the machine, did the trick just as you said. (You too, Nancy Gay.) So thanks for the good old virtual community advice.
i. Beernerdness: You know why I made the trip to the Pacific Northwest, right? Okay, yes, my daughter Mary Beth is up here, so that’s always a good reason. But Manny’s Pale Ale, from the little but influential Georgetown Brewing Company here, is my go-to ale up here, and it didn’t disappoint. Hoppy and smooth and slightly less carbonated than the usual pale ale, at least to my taste. Nice place, the 520 Grill in Old Bellevue, to sample the Manny’s too.
j. Tina Fey is ridiculously funny.
The Adieu Haiku
There are no new angles. So …
Can they play today?