In the past three weeks, the Super Bowl dreams ended for 10 teams. Here, we diagnose precisely how every AFC playoff loser—Indianapolis, San Diego, Cincinnati, New England and Kansas City—missed out on an early February trip to New Jersey. (The NFC version can be viewed here.)
The Colts spent $4 million (guaranteed) on defensive plugger Ricky Jean-Francois and $8 million (guaranteed) on edge-setting strong outside linebacker Erik Walden in part to ensure a stout run defense down the stretch. They need to keep spending. Jean-Francois and Walden were part of a seven-man front (and often eight-man front, counting safety Antoine Bethea) that simply could not stop the Patriots’ power-running game in the divisional round. When LeGarrette Blount—who, granted, found patience and balance operating behind New England’s well-executed interior pull blocks—posts a month’s worth of fantasy points against you, something’s wrong.
The Patriots did not gouge the Colts on the ground; all 24 of their first-half runs went for less than eight yards and 12 of them went for less than three yards. However, three of those 12 short runs were touchdowns, and only one of them actually lost yardage. The Colts run defense methodically was worn down before it got tipped over by Blount’s 73-yard TD early in the fourth. This is symptomatic of a defensive line not winning off the snap. Indy’s nose tackles, particularly veteran Aubrayo Franklin, had been inconsistent in this sense all season long.
It didn’t help that the Colts offense opened the game with an interception that Alfonzo Dennard returned it to the 1-yard-line. On that play, the CBS announcers erroneously blamed Andrew Luck instead of wide receiver LaVon Brazill. They said Luck was staring down the receiver. Of course he was—it was 3rd-and-2 and he was throwing off three-step timing. Staring down the receiver in that situation is, if not necessary, certainly harmless, as New England (like any D in 3rd-and-short) was in man-to-man. This meant all the defensive backs were looking at their receivers, not Luck. Under no condition can Brazil let Dennard get in front of him in this situation. Any receiver worth his salt should be able to get position on a 3rd-and-2 quick slant.
The Colts offense wasn’t bad after Brazil’s mistake, but it didn’t matter because the defense couldn’t get off the field. Don’t be surprised if Indy looks to add at least one more prominent run-stopper this offseason.
San Diego Chargers
The high ankle sprain that Ryan Mathews had been battling for most of San Diego’s five-game winning streak finally got the better of the fourth-year running back. Mathews, who had averaged 24 carries and 105 yards a game during the streak, managed just 26 yards on five carries before exiting at halftime. Unlike in the wild-card round at Cincinnati, the Chargers running game did not hold up with veteran Ronnie Brown or shifty Danny Woodhead—who left with his own injury shortly after Mathews—shouldering the load.
The offensive line wasn’t as good in Round 2, and it’s worth asking why Rich Ohrnberger did not start at center after regular starter Nick Hardwick missed most of that week’s practices following a concussion at Cincinnati. The chippy Ohrnberger brought sensational power to San Diego’s interior zone-blocking against the Bengals. The 305-pound Hardwick has to rely more on angles and leverage, which simply wasn’t enough against Broncos energized nose tackle Terrance Knighton.
To be fair, Hardwick had been the line’s steadiest blocker and veteran leader all season long. It’s understandable that Mike McCoy and offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris would dance with the center who brought them. Many argue the real issue was that McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt (now Tennessee’s head coach) waited until the second half to throw the ball. Yes, the Chargers had successfully morphed into a power running team down the stretch. But it’s not like the rushing attack’s rise was counterbalanced by the passing attack’s decline. Philip Rivers and their two-tight end spreads were still potent, so why have the Pro Bowl QB attempt only eight passes in the first half?
These juvenile carps are just cheap presumptions stemming from the game’s final score. McCoy and Whisenhunt did try to throw in the first half. Rivers dropped back on 11 of San Diego’s 23 snaps. He was sacked on three of those 11 drop-backs and under duress on several more, even though the Broncos, playing without Von Miller, were primarily rushing three and dropping eight. Simply put, Rivers’s offensive line—particularly left tackle King Dunlap and right guard Johnnie Troutman, who was filling in for an injured Jerome Clary—got dismantled.
In the second half, after Broncos corner Chris Harris tore his ACL, the Chargers’ passing game came to life, with Keenan Allen making several big plays against zone coverage late in the down. By then it was too late. The Chargers defense had contained Peyton Manning and the league’s most prolific offense, but containing meant preventing big plays, not forcing quick punts. The Chargers didn’t have enough time to overcome a deficit on the road against—let’s not forget—a far superior Broncos team.
Kansas City Chiefs
If you want to second-guess the Chiefs, then ask, Why did they play so much quarters coverage in the second half? In quarters coverage, the back two corners and back two safeties are each responsible for one-fourth of the field. Their job, essentially, is to play man-to-man against anyone who gets approximately 10 yards deep in their “quarter.”
The Colts dipped into their litany of quarters-beater route concepts in the second half. They went with three-and four-receiver personnel, aligned in trips formations and created one-on-one matchups for their wideouts against safeties Kendrick Lewis and Eric Berry. Lewis and Berry both had fine seasons but, like most safeties, they’re not equipped to defend fast receivers one-on-one—especially out of a standstill position in deep space when the receiver is approaching them at full speed with room to take his route in any direction. (See T.Y. Hilton burning Lewis on the game-winning touchdown.)
We can make a reasonable guess as to why the Chiefs played quarters. Protecting a big lead, it was prudent to play a pass-oriented “two-deep” coverage. Being a man-based defense, quarters is a more familiar tactic to the Chiefs than the zone-based Cover 2. But quarters, like straight man-to-man, only works if your defensive backs can win one-on-one. The Chiefs’ defensive backs had not consistently done that since mid-November. Perhaps that’s why coordinator Bob Sutton did not try to protect the big lead with a “two-man” scheme (which would have kept everyone in man-to-man and two safeties roving over the top). Nevertheless, factor in a pass rush that, with Justin Houston ailing, had become weak and predictable, and you get a defense that allowed a league-worst 426.6 yards per game over the second half of the season.
The Chiefs did not melt down in the second half at Indy—they just had their glaring flaws exposed. Even in the first half it was apparent they could not actually stop Andrew Luck and his receivers. The Chiefs were able to make a few big plays against Luck & Co., but they couldn’t actually line up and stop them. (Not without the help of an offensive mistake, anyway.) Big plays are great, but for a defense, they’re not sustainable.
Everyone pilloried Andy Dalton after Cincinnati’s 27-10 wild-card loss. But the third-year quarterback never had a chance. Cincinnati’s offensive line was utterly dominated by San Diego’s variety of blitz and zone exchange concepts. On more snaps than not, Dalton was under significant pressure—often right up the middle. Even when he avoided pressure, the play designs broke down. Dalton doesn’t have the requisite raw talent to overcome that.
A player with limited raw talent also can’t afford to make crucial mental mistakes, which Dalton did on both interceptions. On the first one, he was fooled by cornerback Shareece Wright’s perfectly executed trap coverage. On the second, Dalton never accounted for edge-rusher Melvin Ingram dropping into the underneath flat, even though Ingram realigned to that position before the snap. Ingram moved there because the Chargers were hoping their interior overload pressure concept would coax the QB into a quick throw outside. That’s exactly what happened.
Whatever blame is placed on Dalton must be balanced by plaudits for San Diego’s defense. All season long, coordinator John Pagano was outstanding with the type of selective coverage disguises that sparked Dalton’s interceptions.
Dalton wasn’t the only Bengal who stumbled. Tight end Jermaine Gresham had a holding penalty and a few run-blocking gaffes; A.J. Green, who was taken away by dedicated double-teams for most of the game, failed to haul in a deep, beautifully thrown would-be TD in the second half; Tyler Eifert, battling a hamstring, played only three of 81 snaps, which eliminated Cincy’s multidimensional dual tight end concepts; Giovani Bernard dropped a few dumpoffs and lost a fumble at the goal-line in the first half when the Bengals were about to go up 14-7; and, worth stating again, the offensive line was dominated.
On the other side, the Bengals run defense was not as bad as the numbers indicate. Take away Ronnie Brown’s 58-yard touchdown in garbage time and the Chargers had only 138 yards on 39 carries (3.5 average). However, the Chargers were able to methodically sustain drives with their power zone running game, as defensive tackles Domata Peko and Brandon Thompson failed to take on double-teams with their usual aplomb. None of Cincinnati’s second-and third level defenders made the dynamic plays necessary to overcome the mediocrity in the trenches.
But instead of focusing on any of these things, Football America decided to just blame the red-headed quarterback, essentially declaring that a bad second half negates three years of steady improvement and winning seasons.
New England Patriots
Aqib Talib left in the second quarter, leaving the Patriots with a below-average man-based defense. Alfonzo Dennard was then assigned to Demaryius Thomas, which was an overwhelming mismatch. Peyton Manning exploited it until the Patriots started dedicating double teams on the No. 1 receiver. At that point, Manning went to work on other favorable matchups that were suddenly guaranteed to be one-on-one—namely Julius Thomas against Jamie Collins. Aside from struggling a bit in man coverage, Collins actually had another strong game, at least as a run-defender and select blitzer. Fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower also played well … when he was in the box. Concerned about Denver’s passing game, New England focused its linebackers primarily on coverage, which created several even-softer-than-usual boxes that Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball easily ran against.
On the other side, you could say that a lack of receiving weapons finally caught up to New England’s offense. (Who knew that Denver’s pass defense, which had been inconsistent all season long and was running more “cold” than “hot” coming into the game, would suddenly become impermeable?) But we might not even be talking about the offense if Tom Brady hadn’t uncharacteristically missed on a handful of downfield throws.
Check back to The MMQB on Thursday for part two, featuring the NFC.