Tuesday, January 10, 2012

3rd and 2:Three Lessons Learned and Two New Questions from Wild Card Weekend

By Joe Parello

The first weekend of the NFL playoffs followed a few patterns.
1. The division winners all advanced at home.
2. The first games were boring as hell, while the late games were wildly entertaining.
3. The home crowds were especially fired up, for different reasons(first playoff game in Houston, Superdome takes it to another level in the post-season, New York fans never get home playoff games, TEBOW).

In the spirit of lists with barely comprehensible answers, I have compiled a couple for each Wild Card game. The weekend got started with a young Bengals team folding on the road amid a flurry of turnovers, and ended with the improbable run of Tim Tebow continuing in the most dramatic and Messianic way possible. In between, we got another Falcons playoff stinker and, for the first time in NFL history, a shootout between two 5,000 yard passers.

So, without further ado, here are the three lessons to take home and two questions to ponder about each game from the past weekend.

Texans defeat Bengals 31-10
What we learned-
1. Rookie quarterbacks will be rookie quarterbacks: Despite a fantastic rookie campaign, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton came back down to Earth in the H-town, throwing three picks and no touchdowns. Houston's T.J. Yates wasn't much better, only throwing for 159 yards, but he did manage to protect the football and let his team's great ground game and defense carry the load.
2. Wade Phillips may not be a great head coach, but the guy can build a defense: Ok, we kinda knew this before the game, but Houston's defensive performance only reinforced my feeling that Phillips was the best off-season acquisition any team made this past year. The 3-4 zone blitzing Texans tricked Dalton into the three aforementioned interceptions, but also sacked him four times and hurried him all day.
3. These two teams are actually pretty evenly matched: It goes back to the Dalton turnovers, but Houston only outgained Cincinnati by 40, and the Bengals actually possessed the ball longer and picked up more first downs. Now, this probably doesn't make the Bengals feel any better, but if not for a miraculous pick-six by Texans rookie defensive end J.J. Watt right before the half that completely shifted momentum, this one would have likely come down to the wire.

What's the deal, yo?-
1. How far can Houston go with Yates at quarterback?: This is an obvious one, but it bears asking. The Texans travel to Baltimore, the league's second best rush defense, and it will be interesting to see what happens if the ground game sputters.
2. What do the Bengals need to take the next step?: Which is a lot to ask in the loaded AFC North with Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Maybe the simple answer is to just let Dalton and his fantastic young receiving corps develop, but the statistically good Bengals defense(7th in NFL)constantly folded against the AFC's best due to an inability to stop an offense with any semblance of balance.

Saintes defeat Lions 45-28
What we learned-
1. The Saints will never stop throwing: On two separate drives in the fourth quarter the Saints held a double digit lead and went for the kill. First, Brees found Robert Meachem for a 56 yard score while leading 31-21 with under 10 minutes remaining. Then, with under five minutes remaining and a 38-28 lead, Brees again found Meachem, this one for 41 yards to the Detroit one-yard line.
2. Despite their tremendous passing game, the Saints can run the ball: While the 466 yards Brees put up will get the headlines, and rightfully so, the Saints were able to run the ball when they needed to Saturday night, primarily by the goal line. New Orleans had three different backs rush for at least 47 yards with Pierre Thomas' 66 leading the way. The Saints ended the game with 167 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. They also averaged over 4.5 yards per carry, and each of their backs have the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
3. The Lions, however, cannot: Detroit finished the game with a pathetic 32 yards on 10 carries. Perhaps this really speaks to the problem teams face when they face New Orleans since the Saints score so quickly and force you to abandon the run to keep up. But really, Detroit couldn't keep the Saints defensive line out of their backfield, even when they tried to run.

What's the deal, yo?
1. Does New Orleans have the NFL's best offense?: Yardage-wise, we know the Saints are up there, but this team is rolling at a level the Packers were earlier in the season. Add in the fact that Brees is no longer turning over the ball, and the argument can certainly be made.
2. Do you have to stop Calvin Johnson to beat the Lions?: It certainly doesn't look like it. Megatron grabbed 12 balls for 211 yards and two touchdowns, but no other receivers seemed to make any hay after a few early catches by rookie Titus Young. Opposing defenses may be content to let Johnson catch a few jump balls, so long as they can lock up Detroit's other receivers and bait Matthew Stafford into a couple picks.

Giants defeat Falcons 24-2
What we learned-
1. Eli Manning is en fuego!: With New York's playoffs really starting two weeks ago against Dallas, the younger Manning has stepped his game up. In these past two games, Manning has thrown for 623 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. Other than an intentional grounding in the end zone that cost his team two points, Manning was nearly flawless on the day.
2. The Giants' receiving corps can contend with the league's best, when healthy.: Hakeem Nicks came into the year as the established star, and Victor Cruz exploded for a 1,500 yard season to make everyone forget about Steve Smith leaving for Philly. But, Sunday, we saw that this dynamic group goes three-deep, when Mario Manningham made his presence felt as Atlanta did everything in their power to take away Cruz. Nicks ruled the day, but Manningham's reminder that he is a force as well puts the Giants up there with the Packers, Saints, Patriots(tight ends included) and Steelers in the league's upper echelon.
3. Tony Gonzalez can't buy a break: While he will likely retire No.2 on the NFL's all-time receptions list, No.1 amongst tight ends, Gonzalez may also go out without a playoff win. After years of playing on mediocre Kansas City teams that couldn't beat the AFC's elite, it appears the league's most decorated tight end has ended up on a mediocre Atlanta team that can't beat the NFC's elite. While this may not be the end, there doesn't seem to be much reason for optimism in what is left of his limited playing window.

What's the deal, yo?
1. Does Matt Ryan lose the "Matty Ice" nickname?: Matt Ryan has been very good so far in his young career, but that nickname came from a bunch of meaningless mid-season clutch moments that nobody outside Atlanta can remember. Now that Ryan is 0-3 in the playoffs, can we officially stop calling him that? Not saying he won't win playoff games in the near future, but let's at least let the guy earn it first.
2. Can the Giants' front four get enough pressure on Aaron Rodgers to give New York a realistic chance at an upset?: I think yes, and Jason Pierre-Paul is quietly becoming one of the league's most explosive pass rushers. With Justin Tuck coming off the other edge, and Chris Canty continuing to push the pocket up the middle, it's going to be interesting.

Broncos defeat Steelers 29-23(OT)
What we learned-
1. There is a very simple formula for winning with Tim Tebow: That is, run the ball well, force turnovers, and make plays in the vertical passing game. Tebow threw for 316 yards, and 234 of those yards came on five separate bombs of at least 30 yards. His other 16 attempts produced only 82 yards.
2. Demaryius Thomas is the perfect target for Tebow: A tall, long striding deep threat that can come up with jump balls is the perfect complement for Tebow's deep ball oriented passing game. Up until this game, Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor had been playing like one of the two or three best corners in the league. Not so much against Thomas, who hauled in four catches for 204 yards(51 YPC!), including the 80 yards game winner in overtime.
3. In the end, the Steelers just didn't have it for a playoff run this year: Much rightful praise will be put on Tebow and Denver this week, but that doesn't change the fact that we(and by "we", I mean "I") may have overestimated the Steelers, considering their injury situation. Perhaps Ben Roethlisberger's ability to play with injuries over the years has spoiled fans, but this team was not going far with their limitations against Denver. Roethlisberger showed he can only play well in stretches, the running back corps was down to two undrafted players, All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncy was out and the defense played the majority of the game without the services of five starters. True, one of those was Ryan Clark, who missed the game because of his blood disorder, but this wasn't going to get much better.

What's the deal, yo?
1. While we're on Pittsburgh's health, was this the last run for an aging Steelers team?: Tough to say, but the defense isn't getting any younger. With Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith, James Farrior, Larry Foote, Ike Taylor, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu all over 30 and struggling to stay healthy the past couple years, it is easy to see why people in the Steel City are concerned. On the plus side, the offense has an elite quarterback and a great young receiving corps, while the defense has done a nice job building a young corps around Lamar Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Ziggy Hood. Still, that is a lot of talent and leadership that could fall off at one time. It seems like the recipe for a down year in 2012.
2. Can Tebow play consistently enough to keep up with top offenses?: As we mentioned, the Broncos manufactured a handful of big plays, and did little for the rest of the game. That was good enough at home against a limping Roethlisberger, but will it be enough to out duel a healthy Tom Brady in Foxboro? It wouldn't seem like it, but the Broncos' receivers are making plays down the field, so I wouldn't count Denver out yet.

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