Monday, January 6, 2014

Wild Card Weekend Roundup: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Andrew Luck is taking on the persona of his former coach Jim Harbaugh, who was Indy's "Captain Comeback" in 1995.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe) and Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

Every week, editor's Jeremy Conlin and Joe Parello bring you the good, the bad and the ugly from the pro and college football weekend that was. Well, actually, just pro football this week. Joe will have you covered with a bowl wrap up after the BCS Championship Game.

The Good

Andrew Luck

He was far from perfect Saturday in a home win against the Chiefs, but Colts quarterback Andrew Luck proved again why he's the most resilient signal caller in the game today.

Trailing 31-10 at halftime, he got the ball in his hands after a mistake laden first half, and promptly… Threw a pick that led to another KC score, putting the Colts in a 38-10 hole.

That type of immediate mistake out of intermission would have sank a lesser quarterback, or a lesser team, but the Colts didn't panic, and scored back-to-back touchdowns to close the gap to 14.

Midway through the third, Indy's defense forced a three-and-out to give Luck the ball with a chance to make it a one-score game and… He throws another pick, this one a flukey interception on a ball that bounced off his receiver's hands (Though it was thrown behind him).

A KC field goal once again made it a three-score game, but Luck would lead the Colts to touchdowns on all three of their next drives, including two in the fourth quarter, to lock up his 11th career fourth quarter comeback, and first ever in the playoffs.


Alex Smith

Let's not forget about the other quarterback in that game - he was out his best offensive player (Jamaal Charles) for effectively the entire game (Charles was injured on the first series - he finished with three carries for 18 yards), but the Chiefs still scored 44 points on a half-decent defense.

Smith was spectacular - he was 30-for-46 for 378 yards and four touchdowns. He committed one turnover on a strip-sack fumble (forced by Robert Mathis, not exactly his fault) and one semi-mistake on an intentional grounding penalty late in the game that took the Chiefs out of field goal range (people conveniently ignore that if he doesn't throw the ball, he gets sacked and the Chiefs are out of field goal range anyway).


Alex Smith. The "game-manager." That guy who doesn't make big plays.

He made big plays. He tacked on eight carries for 57 yards also (by far Kansas City's most efficient runner in the game). With Charles out, the entire offense had to revolve around Smith, and he had unquestionably the best game of the season, and arguably the best game of his career. You could even argue that he had the best game of any quarterback in Round 1, including the four from winning teams (considering Luck threw three interceptions, Brees threw two, Rivers only threw 16 times all game, and Kaepernick barely completed 50 percent of his passes). But Smith ended up on the losing end because the banged-up defense couldn't protect a lead and they couldn't bleed the clock without their all-pro running back. And that's too bad, because Smith's Herculean effort was wasted.


The Bad

Andy Dalton

Many will point to Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who is now 0-5 in the playoffs, as the man in Cincinnati on the hot-seat, but Sunday's loss to San Diego is, in my mind, all on Andy Dalton.

All was going well with Dalton in the first half, but San Diego turned up the heat after intermission, blitzing Dalton on over half his drop backs. The result? Dalton was 0-3 with an interception and a fumble lost against five or more rushers in a disastrous third quarter, and he began the fourth quarter with another interception… Also against the blitz.

What makes this all the more infuriating, is that both of these picks were Dalton throwing it right to the defender. The second one to linebacker Melvin Ingram was off a simple zone blitz, and the first killed a Cincy drive going deep into Charger territory, leading directly to an SD field goal.

I get that Lewis hasn't been perfect during his 11 years in Cincinnati, but he took a franchise that was the laughingstock of the league and gotten them to the playoffs in nearly half his seasons, including a pair of division championships. I don't think the Bengals can do much better than him, so taking the next step is going to be totally on Dalton. Can he reduce the mistakes?


Giving Up on Andy Dalton

Let's be honest here, we've now seen three really, really bad postseason performances from Andy Dalton. Is this unexpected? Not really. Dalton is a high-variance quarterback (not unlike Joe Flacco or Eli Manning), and high variance quarterbacks are liable to have stretches of three straight postseason games where they simply don't make the throws they need to make.

However, if Cincinnati gives up on Dalton (although I don't think they will), he'd be a quarterback that every team in need should take a look at.

Yes, his career postseason Quarterback Rating is 56.2. But look at Eli Manning's postseason game log - it includes games with Quarterback Ratings of 35.0 (2006 Wild Card Round, home vs. Carolina), 72.0 (2008 NFC Championship, at Green Bay), and 40.7 (2009 Divisional Round, home vs. Philadelphia). Flacco has scores of 59.1, 18.2, 10.0, 48.4, and 61.1.

Dalton is not an elite quarterback, but neither are Manning or Flacco. They're all quarterbacks who are capable of going on a hot streak to win a Super Bowl (like we've seen Manning and Flacco do), but also capable of crapping the bed and ruining their team's chances of winning (like we've seen all three do). 


Kansas City's Defense

The Chiefs were one of the best defenses in football all year, played like it for the first half of their game in Indianapolis, holding the explosive Colts to 10 points.

Then the second half began, and the flood gates opened. Now I've gone on about Andrew Luck's resilience, and his ability to "stop the bleeding" every time he makes a mistake, but Kansas City did he and the Colts far too many favors in the second half.

Injuries to key players, including top corner Brandon Flowers and pass rusher Justin Houston, contributed to the crumbling of a usually stellar unit, but here is how Indy's final seven drives went Saturday: Touchdown, touchdown, fluke interception off a receiver's hands, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, end of game.

Yeah, great defenses don't let that happen.


Kansas City's Injuries

I hear you, Joe, but it's kind of hard to protect a lead when a great quarterback is throwing on every down and your defense is missing it's best cornerback (and, by really any measurement, one of the five best cornerbacks in the league this year) and best pass-rusher (and, by really any measurement, one of the five best pass-rushers in the league this year).

On top of that, it's hard to protect a lead on the offensive side of the ball when your All-Pro running back (and, again, by any measurement, one of the three best running backs in the league this year) is out of the game. The Kansas City offense created a lot of big plays in the first half, but it's hard to play ball-control and bleed the clock when your top running back is Knile Davis (18 carries at a whopping 3.7 yard per rush), and even HE leaves with a knee injury, leaving you with just Cyrus Gray (16 carries in his NFL career prior to Saturday) and Dexter McCluster (not a running back, an absolute train wreck in blitz pickup) as running back options.

Suffice it to say, Kansas City would not have lost had they not suffered those injuries during the game. This is NOT to say, however, that Kansas City "deserved" to win. Injuries are part of the game, and more often than anyone seems to realize or admit, postseason football comes down to which team suffers fewer injuries (or less damaging injuries).

"The Colts won because they were healthier" and "The Colts won because they played better" are a lot closer in reality than it seems like they should be. But that's life in the NFL.


The Ugly


Phillip Rivers was quite efficient in the Chargers' win over Cincinnati (Though he only threw 16 times), but did you catch his outfit after the game?

I mean, what the hell is that? He's got like a hipster/cowboy/frat dude thing going on, but what really pushes it over the edge is the bolo tie. Maybe it was a gift from his grandpa...


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