Monday, January 20, 2014

Championship Sunday Roundup: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Richard Sherman is pretty good, and he isn't afraid to tell you.
 By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

During football season, editors Jeremy Conlin and Joe Parello bring you the good, bad, and ugly from the football weekend that was. Here is your championship Sunday roundup.

The Good

Richard Sherman

Ok, I know many will claim that Richard Sherman was a non-factor until his game saving tip that resulted in an interception by teammate Malcolm Smith with 22 seconds to play.

Even if you believe that's true (it's not), Sherman had the game you want to see from a corner. No real negative plays against him, and a game-altering play in his favor when it mattered most. Crabtree made four catches for 52 yards, but none of those catches came against Sherman. Rather, all of Crabtree's grabs came when he was either being covered by Byron Maxwell, or when the Seahawks went cover 3 and he found himself downfield against the shorter Earl Thomas.

He did draw a defensive holding call against Sherman early in the second quarter, however, to keep a drive going on third and nine, leading to a 49er touchdown. Still, that's the only positive play a receiver created against Sherman all day, as the 49ers threw at him only six times, resulting in the aforementioned pass defense and penalty, along with four incompletions.

That's right, San Francisco threw his way six times, and only got five yards out of it. I don't know about you but I'd take that kind of play from my top corner any day.

Plus, that WWE-style post game interview with Erin Andrews was the stuff of legend. If you're not a Niner fan, how can you hate a guy being passionate and believing he's the best? Ok, we'll get to that later…


Peyton Manning

It was almost like one of the three greatest quarterbacks in the history of football was throwing to All-Pro receivers as a part of the most explosive offense in the history of football against a defense filled with rookies and veteran scrubs.

In the early days, Bill Belichick was often able to confuse Manning with complex coverage schemes, but that doesn't seem to be the case any longer. Manning was consistently able to recognize the coverage and adjust the play at the line of scrimmage to take advantage of it (most notably audibling to a draw on 3rd-and-10 for a 28-yard gain on Denver's first touchdown drive), and he hit his open receivers (and even a few who weren't open).

Yes, the Patriots were playing with a patchwork defense, and Manning likely won't have the same level of success in two weeks against Seattle's all-world secondary, but Sunday, he was near flawless.


Terrance Knighton

If you're either a bitter Peyton Manning hater, or one of those annoying football snobs who likes to take contrarian views just for the sake of disagreeing with the common consensus, then you should be saying that Terrance Knighton was the best player on the field yesterday.

Even if you aren't a bitter Peyton Manning hater or one of those annoying football snobs who likes to take contrarian views just for the sake of disagreeing with the common consensus, you should be saying that Terrance Knighton was the best player on the field when he was on the field. That's the important distinction, because he wasn't better than Peyton Manning was, but when the Patriots had the ball, he was.

He made "just" four tackles, but three of them were run stuffs (a one-yard gain, no gain, and a one-yard loss), and the fourth was one of the biggest plays of the game - Denver led 20-3 late in the third quarter, but the Patriots were driving for a score that would put them squarely back in the game. The drive stalled, bringing up a 4th-and-3 from Denver's 29 yard line, at which point Knighton took over, absolutely undressing Logan Mankins at the snap, forcing Brady to step to his left and completely blocking his throwing angle to an open Danny Amendola over the middle, then wrapping Brady up for a 10-yard loss and a turnover on downs.

Knighton was blowing up the New England running game all day - even if he wasn't credited with many tackles, he was drawing double-teams over and over again and completely out-playing Pro Bowler Logan Mankins. He was Denver's best defensive player, and the No. 1 reason why the Patriots only managed three points in the first 50 minutes of the game.


Demaryius/Julius Thomas

Sure, Peyton Manning was at his Hall of Fame best, throwing for 400 yards with no turnovers, but the Patriots had no answers for these two Thomases. The former, a tall, shifty wide receiver, blazed through the Patriot secondary after an injury to star corner Aqib Talib. There was simply no covering him with Alfonzo Dennard, as he cruised to 5 catches for 100 yards and a touchdown in Denver's first three possessions without Talib on the field.

The Patriots then began cheating their safeties to help on both Demaryius Thomas and receiver Eric Decker (who finished with 5 rec. for 73 yards), so the Broncos simply exploited the match up of Julius Thomas on linebacker Jamie Collins. Two drives later, Manning threw a short incompletion to the the latter Thomas, an athletic tight end and former basketball player. But he stayed with him, noticing Thomas was one-on-one with Collins on the outside, and simply lofted it up to him on a go-route. Thomas hauled it in for a 36-yard gain that led to another Bronco field goal.

It was Manning that manipulated the depleted Patriot defense, but you still have to win the match ups in front of you. These two, along with Decker and Welker, did that with ease.


The Bad

Colin Kaepernick

As good as Sherman and the Seahawks were on defense, they were given a few gifts by Colin Kaepernick. The second-year starter threw a pair of interceptions and lost a fumble as a part of San Francisco's undoing in the second half. There were times when Kaepernick seemed unstoppable. Those were the times he broke contain and left the pocket, seemingly gliding downfield for 20+ yard gains.

There were also times, like on his absurd "jump pass" touchdown, where it seemed he could make any throw. Well, apparently Kaepernick believed that too, because his first interception, with safety Kam Chancellor covering the left flat, he decided to try and squeeze a ball through a window that was roughly the distance between Chancellor's hands.

It was there, but then Kam close his hands and picked the ball off. Dang. The second interception was an effort play, and you can't blame a young guy for getting beat by the best corner in the game, but you have to question the decision making there. The Niners had a pair of timeouts and over 20 seconds left. There was no need to chuck the fade against a guy you haven't beaten all day.

That throw wreaked of desperation and ultimately cost San Francisco another trip to the Super Bowl.


New England's Pass Rush

43 Dropbacks

1 Hurry

0 Sacks

0 Knockdowns

Peyton Manning didn't touch the ground with anything but his feet until he knelt the ball with 34 seconds left in the game. A week after sacking Andrew Luck three times and forcing him out of the pocket and into rushed throws at least another half-dozen times, the Patriots got absolutely no pressure on Manning whatsoever.

As we've seen in the league over the last few years, you can survive with a not-so-spectacular secondary so long as you can pressure the quarterback. Carolina, New Orleans and San Francisco had top-ten defenses this year despite not having any Pro Bowl-caliber talent in their secondary. The new (really, not so new, but in the last 10 years) Pass Interference and Illegal Contact rules limit the effectiveness that a secondary can have in the first place, which means in most cases a pass defense is only as good as it's ability to rush the quarterback. The Patriots got no pass rush, and they got burned.


The Ugly

America's Reaction to Richard Sherman

You always forget how uptight and racist America can be until a young black athlete says something they don't agree with. I'll let you check out those ignorant comments here, and simply say that I loved Sherman's post game tirade. The guy just made the biggest play of his life, and was still very much in the moment, then proceeded to go full Hulk Hogan on the mic, staring you in the face at home and screaming out his message of destruction.

We always complain that athletes and coaches don't say anything interesting (see the first game between the Broncos and Patriots) and we were loving how these teams were open with their disdain for each other. Yet, somehow, this truthful showing of competitive fire came across as "shocking" and "classless."

The game featured huge hits, numerous lead changed, a gruesome knee injury and a season-ending turnover. It was as up-and-down as it gets in the most intense rivalry in the league. Did we really expect a "they're a great team" post game interview from the "U Mad Bro?" guy?

We have to decide what we want. We hate that NBA players are all "buddy, buddy" in the offseason, and we're slightly annoyed that Brady and Manning text, yet we call someone a thug (and worse) when they actually enjoy defeating an opponent they don't like.

I don't understand.


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