NFL Playoff Picture: Which Teams Are Playing Better Than Expected?
Wild Card Weekend proved once again that the NFL postseason is a whole new ballgame.
Three of the "weak" division winners advanced to next week’s divisional round.
Two young "liability" quarterbacks advanced to the next playoff level.
And two teams won in ways we didn’t think they could.
Now, in the time-honored manner of the Miss America Pageant—the fourth runner up is…
New Orleans Saints Running Game
I realize I’m cheating a bit here, but did you think that N’Awlins could put up 167 yards on the ground? Or even run the ball 36 times, for that matter?
Particularly in a postseason missing first-round draft pick and Heisman-winning RB Mark Ingram?
"Backups" Pierre Thomas (66 yards), Chris Ivory (47 yards) and Darren Sproles (51 yards) proved entirely adequate when mounting the surprising rushing attack.
The remaining four yards were from WR Devery Henderson, for those of you who are calculating.
Thomas and Sproles also contributed 89 yards on passes.
All of this doesn’t look like much on paper. But when watching the game, all of those successful runs (averaging 4.6 yards per attempt) completely blew up the Atlanta Falcons' defensive game plan.
I am honestly not sure that it is possible to stop the Saints offense if it can run the ball this way before passing for 466 total aerial yards, involving six New Orleans players who are not running backs.
I think that the Saints are going for the record books here. They want their place in NFL folklore alongside the Greatest Show on Turf, the 1998 Minnesota Vikings, any Indy team in the past decade and the 2007 New England Patriots.
And why not?
They are the ones who came and worked at a voluntary, but very real, training camp led (and paid for) by Drew Brees in this lockout summer.
That's summer in New Orleans, I might point out. Let that sink in for a moment. They have earned it.
Do you think we should point out that only two of those above record-breaking offenses actually won the Super Bowl? Naw.
The third runner up is…
Detroit Lions Played a Wonderful First Half of Football
How can a team play better than expected and still lose the game?
I knew that Matthew Stafford and his WRs would put up a lot of points, but I didn’t expect the defense to keep the game close at all. And it was very, very close in the first half.
Funny how if a team can’t win in the second half, everyone talks about how awful it was in the whole game.
The Detroit Lions shut down the New Orleans deep ball and forced the Saints into pushing the aforementioned rushing attempts.
The defensive line forced Drew Brees into a fumble, which it then recovered.
The most prolific passer in the NFL could not get clicking, and the score at halftime was 14-10. In favor of Detroit.
As for that Lions offense, Calvin Johnson is one of those rare talents who cannot be stopped.
Everyone on the field, in the stands and out in TV Land knew he was going to get the ball. And he still reached over two defenders and caught it. More than once.
As for QB Matthew Stafford—who is better? Brady, two Mannings, Brees, Rodgers, Rivers? That makes him seventh at the least. In his third season. I’d say he is tied with Matt Ryan—with a stronger arm.
Stafford is trying to do for Detroit what Brees did for New Orleans, and he is on his way to doing it.
Both of Detroit's lines were winning "the trenches." Detroit was regularly shoving Saints linemen into Brees’ face, while Matthew Stafford could have gotten a shave back there in the pocket, he had so much time. (Shaving is something I would advocate, by the way, Matthew.)
In the first half, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan laid out a lovely game plan. He dialed up trick plays and obscure plays. And he ran the football. Kevin Smith was doing fine and should have gotten the ball more deeply into the second quarter.
However, I must quibble with the QB sneak choices. Seriously? With a guy making pre-lockout, overall-No.-1-draft-pick money? Who lost two seasons due to injury? We need to rethink that strategy.
What impressed me most in the first half was the lack of undisciplined penalties. The coaches must have gotten the point into the Lions' heads because the young team played much more like grown-ups. In the first half.
And in the interests of competitive fairness, I must say that the quick whistle and general screw-up of that Saints fumble cost Detroit an almost certain TD.
That play may have made all the difference.
Because the second-half Lions completely reverted to what I did expect.
The defense seemed to run out of energy and got absolutely filleted by Drew Brees.
There has been a lot of criticism over the dropped would-be interceptions, but the D-line could not even breathe on No. 9.
And if he has time, you might as well hit the showers and just let the Saints run up and down the field and put up points.
Because that is what happened. That is what always happens when Brees can survey the field: embarrass your DBs and deliver strikes.
But that first half can be a shining beacon of better things to come for Motor City fans.
Moving closer to the winner, we come to…
New York Giants: Where Have You Been All Year?
I am a Giants fan, and I did not think they could shut down the Atlanta offense that conclusively on a good-weather day in New York.
When the sun came out and the wind died down, I thought that the scrap-work G-Men were dead.
I did not think a defense that hadn’t had all its moving parts until last week could prevail over Michael Turner and Matt Ryan plus friends.
Of course, putting the clamps on Turner is the only way to get to Ryan. I would say that keeping him to 41 yards qualifies as a clamp.
Second RB Jason Snelling got seven yards, and WR Julio Jones raced around once for 13. That is a total of 61 yards, 48 by official running backs.
No wonder Matt Ryan could only get 199 yards through the air. This is a team that averaged 262 passing yards and 114.6 rushing yards in 2011.
The New York defensive line got healthy-ish at just the right time, and the revolving linebacking corps absolutely rocked. Thankfully for Giants fans, former Cowboy Chris Canty finally rose to the occasion and was a force.
The Giants front office brought MLB Chase Blackburn back for the last five games
In those five games, Mr. Blackburn contributed 20 solo tackles and an INT with a nine-yard return. On Sunday, he had nine more total tackles, second on the team.
Analysts said all week not to expect much from WR sensation Victor Cruz, since he would undoubtedly be double-covered after his recent success. They were right.
Good thing Hakeem Nicks and TE Jake Ballard got open. Then Mario Manningham proved that he was physically recovered from his knee injury and psychologically recovered from his recent slump.
If your offense has three good WRs and a TE who can catch, you are going to be hard to stop all day. As long as you have a credible running game, which has also returned to the Big Apple.
The team rests Bradshaw and his severely sore feet all week and then just lets him play. That seems to be working out quite well, thank you.
And Brandon Jacobs is having his best year since the Super Bowl run. I mean in terms of impact, not stats. He is running less, but is back to having that how-many-times-do-you-want-to-tackle-a-truck affect on opposing defenses.
The New York Football Giants are unquestionably peaking at the right time. Now, let’s see if they can knock off the champs.
Houston Texans: Coach of the Year?
For the Texans, I think it really might be more a case of "playing better than expected—by whom?"
When Arian Foster and Ben Tate picked up right where they left off in 2010 and Matt Schaub was in Pro Bowl form from the first snap, the Texans probably thought:
"Okay, offense—check. Now, let’s see what all those draft picks, free agents and new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can do for our D."
However, I am sure that few, if any, people in the Houston franchise thought that its heretofore pitiful defense would gel in a month and end up ranked second in the entire NFL.
Things were looking great in an AFC South missing Peyton Manning.
Then players started dropping like flies. The offense lost Andre Johnson, starting and backup quarterbacks landed on IR and defensive superstar Mario Williams was suddenly out for the year.
Houston’s mascot for 2010 should be the infamous Rally Monkey.
I give tons of credit to head coach Gary Kubiak, his staff and those injured veterans for maintaining focus and catapulting their rookies up the growth curve—in a season with no offseason. It’s truly remarkable when you think about it.
On offense, Jacoby Jones did a frankly excellent Andre Johnson impression for quite a few games this season and preserved the deep threat in Gary Kubiak’s offense. In 10 games as a starter, Jones had 31 receptions and averaged 16.5 yards on each catch. That’ll keep those DBs honest.
Houston did with rookie QB T.J. Yates exactly what New England did 11 years ago with sixth-round pick and sudden starter, Tom Brady: Let your injured veteran QB and offensive coordinator coach him up.
Take a look on the sidelines, and you’ll see the following people pouring their collective knowledge into young T.J. Yates
1. Center Chris Myers—seven-year pro from Miami (Florida)
2. Starting QB Matt Schaub
3. Second-string QB Matt Leinart
4. New backup QB Jake Delhomme
5. New third-string QB Jeff Garcia
6. Quarterback coach Greg Knapp
Wisely, everyone talks to Knapp, and he talks to Yates. Well, it’s working.
The young quarterback completed a few well-placed passes, didn’t make mistakes and handed the ball off to two running backs, who are worrying the Baltimore Ravens defense as you read this.
On defense, Phillips just kept plugging in the next guy on the depth chart. And he struck gold. Twice.
Rookies Brooks Reed and J.J. Watt are the best thing that has happened to fans of defensive football since Clay Matthews.
And the winner is…
Denver Broncos: Defying the Odds, Logic and the Steelers
Okay, all of this praise is tempered by the fact that Ben Roethlisberger could hardly walk and the Steelers had other multiple injuries to starters.
Even so, for the first half of the first quarter, I thought that this game was going to be the blowout Steelers win that everyone expected.
And then Tim Tebow's favorite WR, Eric Decker, got hit low (by James Harrison, of course, and don't give me the "over-compensating" theory. I don't buy it). He had to leave the game (and probably the postseason) after what would have been the first real pass completion for Tebow.
I’m sure both Broncos and Steelers fans nationwide thought, "That’s it—it’s going to be ugly now."
Then, Tebow went deep again on the very next play to young Demaryius Thomas, and suddenly the Denver D woke up.
Two touchdowns and an interception later, we had a 20-6 ballgame. In favor of Denver!
With the option, total offensive line play is difficult to judge from television shots. However, I think that the shuffled group played surprisingly well. It was not a noticeable weakness and managed some very decent run blocking.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had given up an average 99.8 yards per game on the ground in 2011. Tim Tebow, Willis McGahee and Lance Ball combined for 122 rushing yards and a TD.
To be fair, Steeler defenders NT Casey Hampton and DE Brett Keisel ended up sidelined with injuries. But all of the starting linebackers were available.
I thought that Denver was going to revert to what we did expect when McGahee fumbled and Champ Bailey dropped an INT in the end zone.
I was thinking how ironic it was that the two most veteran guys on the team were going to lose this game for the Broncos.
And then, Bailey tipped away a sure first-down pass.
And then, the Denver D-line piled onto Roethlisberger to end regulation.
And how about second-year WR Demaryius (DT) Thomas? Eric Decker had been Tebow’s favorite target, and suddenly Thomas became the No. 1 WR, produced all of the remaining big plays for the offense (nice stiff-arm by the way) and torched the Steelers DBs with his speed.
However, terrific as all of that is for folks in the Mile High city, let’s ease up on the "John Fox is a genius" talk. He absolutely has done wonders with this defense, particularly given the age of the secondary.
But to think that conservative Fox has put together these game-winning offensive plans is insane. Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and Wade Phillips should be duking it out for Assistant Coach of the Year.
If John Elway hadn't been demanding a more offensively assertive approach, that first overtime play would have been the run that Pittsburgh obviously expected it to be.
Aggressive philosophy prevailed, McCoy made the call and the Denver Broncos put up the fastest win in playoff history.
How’s that for "pulling the trigger," John?