Why Your Playoff Team Didn’t Reach XLVIII: NFC

The failure to secure home-field advantage. A weak ground game. Unable to stop the run. A rusty QB. Three second-half turnovers. Diagnosing why the Saints, Panthers, Eagles, Packers and 49ers missed out on a trip to MetLife

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·
TK (TK)
For various reasons, Colin Kaepernick, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Nick Foles and Aaron Rodgers won’t be vying for the Lombardi Trophy. (Getty Images/5)

In the past three weeks, the Super Bowl dreams ended for 10 teams. Here, we diagnose precisely how every NFC playoff loser—New Orleans, Carolina, Philadelphia, Green Bay and San Francisco—missed out on an early February trip to New Jersey.  (The AFC version can be viewed here.)

New Orleans Saints

Perhaps it was their mistakes in December, rather than ones made in January, that felled the Saints. Three losses in the final month of 2013 prevented them from gaining home-field advantage in the postseason. After all of their insistence about being a dangerous offense away from the Superdome, the Saints couldn’t handle the heavy rain and wind at a raucous CenturyLink Field on Jan. 11.

TK (Joshua Weisberg/Icon SMI)
Tight end Jimmy Graham had just one catch for eight yards in a 23-15 divisional round loss to the Seahawks. (Joshua Weisberg/Icon SMI)

But had Mother Nature been more friendly, would the outcome have changed? This 23-15 divisional round loss closely resembled the Saints’ trip to the Pacific Northwest on Dec. 2, when it was a calm, cloudy 41 degrees and the Seahawks kicked their tails, 34-7. The only difference this time was that the Saints, who had run very effectively out of multi-tight end sets at Philadelphia in the wild-card round, maintained their newfound commitment to a base running game. But it didn’t produce against the Seahawks’ rested, athletic front seven, not to mention two of the league’s fiercest run-defending safeties, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.

And, once again, neither did the Saints’ vaunted passing attack, even though coach Sean Payton featured a handful of new formation wrinkles. The Seahawks played their usual three-over, four-under hybrid press-man/zones and had no trouble recognizing the Saints’ route designs. When right guard Jahri Evans wasn’t getting abused by nickel defensive tackle Michael Bennett, Drew Brees was throwing off-target or having his passes broken up by the Legion of Boom’s tremendous physicality and impeccable timing. Jimmy Graham was held catchless for most of the game not because he was doubled (he rarely was) but because he, like the rest of the Saints’ receivers, was thoroughly outplayed. There was no pre-snap motion or stack release concept crafty enough to help the Saints receivers overcome suffocating corners Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell, who both operated with no safety help over the top. This allowed Seattle’s other defenders to condense the interior of the field, the focal point for most of New Orleans’ passing game.

After two trips to Emerald City, it’s crystal clear: the Seahawks’ defense is better than the Saints’ offense. Too bad for the Saints; their perennially so-so defense was actually excellent in this game.

Carolina Panthers

Despite ranking 11th in rushing yards, the Panthers never had a strong base running game in 2013. They relied on a lot of misdirection concepts and Cam Newton’s play-making ability. This caught up to them in the postseason; outside the red-zone, they didn’t even consider pounding the ball against the 49ers’ formidable front seven. Top back DeAngelo Williams had just five carries for 13 yards in a 23-10 divisional round loss. Inside the red-zone, the Panthers couldn’t get movement at the point of attack and came away with three total points on three trips.

TK (eff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT/Sipa USA)
Steve Smith’s ailing knee hurt the Panthers in the second half of a 23-10 loss to the 49ers in the divisional round. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT/Sipa USA)

The Panthers’ passing attack also screeched to a halt in the second half as Steve Smith’s bum knee grew progressively worse. Early on, when Smith was fluid and spry, Newton was tremendous with tight, well-timed, deep-intermediate throws from the pocket. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula helped Newton get comfortable by having him run early on. That, however, added to the young quarterback’s hit totals, which started taking a toll late in the second half, when Carolina’s O-line had trouble with the sheer strength of San Francisco’s front. The Niners used intentionally slower mush-rushes to keep Newton from scrambling outside the pocket. With this, plus Smith being ineffective, the ancillary receivers were unable to get open and Newton couldn’t get a clear picture as a continuous drop-back passer.

These things happen when you face a top defense. The Niners, typically a man-based defense, did a great job of incorporating inside zone concepts to help keep eyes on Newton. That created the added bonus of crowding the seams. Both of Newton’s interceptions came near this region of the field, and each time his intended receiver was blanketed by an underneath defender while another defender made a play over the top.

All of Carolina’s weaknesses on offense rose to the surface, and their usual strengths—including their creative backfield screen game, which they eschewed presumably due to the speed and awareness of the 49ers’ linebackers—were stifled. Carolina’s defense can typically compensate for this, but it was unable to get off the field. San Francisco’s final three drives averaged 5 ½ minutes and 10 plays.

Philadelphia Eagles

Playing man-to-man with minimal safety help, Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis took away DeSean Jackson, the Eagles’ No. 1 wideout, which allowed Lewis’s teammates to focus on running back LeSean McCoy and hunt down Philadelphia’s misdirection and crossing patterns. There was no rhythm to the Eagles’ passing attack, which forced Nick Foles to hold onto the ball longer and made him less and less comfortable in this wild-card matchup.

TK (Laurence Kesterson/UPI/LANDOV)
DeSean Jackson had only three receptions for 53 yards in a 26-24 wild-card loss to New Orleans. (Laurence Kesterson/UPI/LANDOV)

It was shrewd of Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to not blitz very often. When you blitz, you give the quarterback an opportunity to throw a defined hot route. When you play coverage, you force the quarterback to make progression reads. Foles, because he takes such good care of the ball, is generally perceived to be an intelligent progression passer. But like most second-year quarterbacks, the reality is that he relies on his system and needs to have his progressions limited to two, maybe three, depending on the route designs.

The Eagles’ offense still posted a respectable 24 points. Unfortunately their defense, which had allowed more than 22 just once since late September, surrendered 26. Most disappointing, they actually won the battle against Drew Brees and the Saints’ passing attack. They employed outside linebacker Connor Barwin as a press-jam defender and underneath helper in coverage, disrupting New Orleans’ timing and mid-level spacing. Brees had 250 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and, though under minimal pressure most of the night, he was sacked twice.

The problem was the inability of the Eagles’ front seven to make stops against the run. In the second half, and on every play of the game-winning field goal drive, the Saints went with multi-tight end personnel and often pounded the rock. Running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson got stronger as the game progressed. Having not played much in the regular season, they had fresh legs against a defense that registered more snaps (71.9 per game) than any since the ’99 Browns and was just six days removed from a hard-fought Sunday night road game at Dallas in the regular-season finale. The running backs’ 142 combined yards on 26 carries were enough to send the Eagles on vacation.

Green Bay Packers

After watching this game on television, many of the nerdiest football aficionados came away asking, Why in the world did the Packers play “two-man” and allow Colin Kaepernick to once again scramble for big yardage against defenders who often had their backs to the line of scrimmage? But the coaches film revealed that Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers actually had his men in a lot of zone concepts, sometimes even with a spy on Kaepernick. San Francisco’s stretched formations, and at times Green Bay’s poor pass-rush lane discipline, created large voids for the quarterback to bound through like a deer. It was a classic case of an offense out-leveraging and out-playing the defense. To be fair, it was a defense that was ravaged by injuries at outside linebacker (including tar Clay Matthews) and had to replace top cover corner, Sam Shields, with rookie Micah Hyde, who blew a man coverage assignment on Anquan Boldin to set up a Niners’ touchdown; Hyde also dropped an interception that led to a 49ers’ field goal.

TK (Mike Roemer/AP)
Rookie Micah Hyde dropped a sure interception that led to a Niners’ field goal in a 23-20 wild-card loss. (Mike Roemer/AP)

Things weren’t rosy on the other side, either, in Green Bay’s 23-20 wild-card loss. The same problem that plagued the Packers in their 2011 divisional round loss to the Giants showed up again: their inability to block a potent four-man pass rush without overloading their protections. More than that, though, was the poor play at quarterback. Aaron Rodgers—the Canton-bound Rodgers—was terrible. He was jittery in the pocket, choppy as he transitioned from one progression to the next, and often not sharp when finally uncorking the ball. Rodgers might have been playing just his second game since returning from a broken left collarbone, but he still made a few spectacular improvised plays. Ultimately, he gave the offense no flow, which is what you need against the 49ers’ defense.

San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick was exactly who we thought he was. He made extraordinary plays with his legs to help the Niners overcome their suddenly impotent rushing attack in the NFC title game, and, though proficient late in the down a few times through the air, he ultimately failed to deliver in crucial must-throw situations. Two of Kaepernick’s second-half turnovers partly resulted from good defense by the Seahawks. The sack-fumble was caused by defensive tackle Michael Bennett burning right guard Alex Boone off the snap, and by defensive end Cliff Avril getting by right tackle Anthony Davis on his second step. The game-sealing interception was an underthrown ball, but also a tremendous play by Richard Sherman (just ask him). Sandwiched between those turnovers was Kaepernick’s interception to Kam Chancellor, which might have been the most bizarrely blatant mistake of the 2013 season.

Kaepernick pinned the loss on himself, but that’s too harsh. San Francisco and Seattle both came in having leaned on their terrific rushing attacks. Only Seattle’s showed up. While Frank Gore was stymied, Marshawn Lynch became the first player to rush for 100 yards against San Fran’s voracious D since Dec. 22, 2012. (The last player to do it? Beast Mode himself.) In the passing game, the Niners confused Russell Wilson with selective blitz calls, but they had two crucial breakdowns when Wilson improvised. The first occurred when safeties Donte Whitner and Eric Reid let Doug Baldwin get over the top on the 51-yarder. The second was Aldon Smith jumping offside on 4th-and-7, the play that wound up being a beautiful 26-yard seam throw to Jermaine Kearse in the end zone. Add the three late turnovers and that’s five crucial 49ers’ mistakes made on the road against the NFC’s top seed. That’s how you avoid going to the Super Bowl.

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15 comments
Jazzaloha
Jazzaloha

I guess I don't know much, because I thought Rodgers played really well. The bigger problem, to me, seemed to be the play calling, which was either too predictable, as if the Packers really wanted to pass regardless of the defense or situation. My sense was that the Niners decided to take away the pass and force the Packers to beat them by running the ball. When the Packers did run, they seemed to have success, and I felt like they could have--should have--ran more. One moment stands out: the Packers are 1st and goal and they pass three times in a row. The running game, up to that point, had been doing fairly well if I recall correctly, so they should have at least ran once or passed from a running formation. 

Wisconsin Death Trip
Wisconsin Death Trip

Aaron Rodgers—the Canton-bound Rodgers—was terrible. He was jittery in the pocket, choppy as he transitioned from one progression to the next, and often not sharp when finally uncorking the ball.

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Been saying it for years (apparently nobody at SI knows this) that Rodgers holds on to the ball too long, and takes unnecessary sacks. Packers were playing with a C rated O-line, and a D rated D-line. It's a miracle they lost by only 3. I had them losing by 17.....YIKES!

Jamm90
Jamm90

Kaep needs to learn to go  thorugh his progressions. He usually goes to his first option, be it crabtree, boldin or davis depending on the play's design, and then if his receiver isn't open, he is off and running. Seattle was the kind of game were SF could have used Alex Smith at QB.

zurowski1979
zurowski1979

How about the Patriots???? Tom Brady.......ooo thats right it's because the team was injured all season long and were never 100% and still made it to one game away from the big dance.......The Patriots will be reloaded next year look out...

JPG
JPG

Can someone please tell 49er fans that their team did not make it.

Please.

DasDweeb
DasDweeb

Right, the Niners made crucial mistakes (among other factors, including the quality of the Seahawks' D, Lynch always giving them trouble, Russell Wilson being a championship-level QB, and of course, absolutely brutal officiating). Two big problems are highlighted by those mistakes: Kaep's continued refusal to go through his progression and look to, say, Patton or releasing RBs; and how overrated the O-line is in pass protection.


The first problem, one hopes will ease with time as Kaep gets more games with a consistently dangerous WR corps and comes to trust Patton - who looks like a clutch player. The second problem looks a bit thornier, although the Niners figure to get more athletic at C whether they plug in Kilgore or Looney for Goodwin or draft someone. Also, Bykowski could be someone. No one knows how long Iupati will be out. Looks like the team will have to add some guys in the draft, and perhaps rethink the blocking schemes since they look so vulnerable to blitzes (although Kaep has a good rating against them).

harvey.cc
harvey.cc

Saying that there was not much difference in the first and second matchup of the Saint/Seahawks is simply not right. The first time was an absolute drubbing in clear conditions that ended up a 4 score point differential. The playoff game, in the rain and wind  came down to a one score game where the saints had the final possession and a smarter play by Colston stepping out would have put it down to a 40 "hail mary" . The hawks would probably have defended and won anyways but the game was not the same. I give credit to the Seahawks for playing and winning a good game but it was a lot closer than the first... just sayin

JustinPrice
JustinPrice

The saints halfback name is Khiry Robinson not Keenan Robinson btw.

BY
BY

@Jamm90 Thank you thank you thank you! An NFL qb MUST be able to beat you from the pocket. Running from time to time is clearly a nice option but it cannot be your main weapon.

ken.burnside
ken.burnside

@DasDweeb As a Hawks fan, I like the Niners O-line better than I like ours.  Our guards are a pair of turnstiles at times, and there's not a game that goes by where I don't shout DAMMIT BRENO! when our right guard holds at JUST the right time to cancel out a huge gain.

Imagine the QB you get if you put Russell Wilson's brain in Colin Kaepernick's skull...

JoePnw
JoePnw

@harvey.ccWhile I don't disagree, I see the Saints moving the ball at the very end because the Hawks went into prevent mode, they are not playing press. The idea was the Saints couldn't score enough to win with the amount of time left. The mess up by Tate all of a sudden made the game a lot closer.

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