Monday Morning Hangover: AFC and NFC Finalists All Have Their Flaws

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 18, 2016

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning passes against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first half in an NFL football divisional playoff game, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)
Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

Every team that reached the championship round is lucky to be here.

You don't reach the NFL's Final Four without a few lucky bounces, weird calls, magical curveball field goals, injuries that look devastating but turn out to be manageable and perhaps a little help from the toss of a coin.

You also don't reach the conference championship round without exceptional talent, hard work, strategic brilliance, excellent management and outstanding leadership from the front office to the locker room. Every team that reached the Final Four this year survived a massive challenge to get here. Three of those challenges came from coaches and quarterbacks with Super Bowl rings.

The Broncos, Panthers, Cardinals and Patriots are lucky to be here, but none of them are here because of luck.

A weekend of strange reversals, surprising comebacks and hard-fought, closer-than-they-had-to-be victories made it clear that all four remaining contenders, while great, are vulnerable. That vulnerability should be celebrated, not criticized. These four teams overcame shortcomings to get here. They will face opponents with shortcomings of their own. The winner of the Super Bowl will have to overcome its own flaws, maximize its strengths, exploit its opponents' weaknesses and make sure to make the most of any lucky breaks.

You can make a compelling case for any of four different Super Bowl matchups. You can also make an almost equally compelling case against each matchup.

We all know what the four remaining teams can do. Let's start this week of hype by focusing on what they can't do: the vulnerabilities their opponents will spend the week scheming to exploit.

Arizona Cardinals

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 16: Quarterback Carson Palmer #3 of the Arizona Cardinals walks off the field during the first quarter of the NFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Green Bay Packers at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 16, 2016 in Glendale
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Vulnerability: Carson Palmer is suddenly erratic. Palmer threw three touchdowns in Saturday night's overtime 26-20 victory against the Packers. He also threw two interceptions. One of his touchdowns was a tip-drill near-interception. Packers defenders also dropped a few potential interceptions.

Perhaps the finger injury Palmer suffered in December is affecting his throws. Maybe the Packers pass rush and fine play in the secondary took Palmer out of his game. Whatever the case, the Cardinals are not nearly as scary when their vertical passing game is operating at less-than-peak capacity.

Vulnerability: The Cardinals red-zone offense is not up to championship snuff. The Cardinals settled for two field goals and an interception on three of their six red-zone trips Saturday night. For the season, they ranked 12th in the NFL with a 54.72 percent touchdown conversion rate in the red zone, according to NFLGSIS.com (subscription required).

Ranking 12th isn't terrible, but the Cardinals ranked in the top five in most offensive categories. When they reached the red zone, their lack of a short-yardage running game and the fact that their offense is built on stretching the defense vertically forced them to settle for too many field goals. You don't beat the Panthers by settling for a bunch of field goals.

Carolina Panthers

Jan 17, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Jermaine Kearse (15) makes a catch while defended by Carolina Panthers defensive back Robert McClain (27) during the fourth quarter in a NFC Divisional round playoff game at Bank of America
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Vulnerability: An inability to finish off games. Here's my column on the subject.

Vulnerability: The cornerback corps consists of Josh Norman and two flashing targets. The Panthers miss Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere, who both got hurt late in the season.

Russell Wilson spurred the Seahawks' near comeback by targeting nickel corner Robert McClain. Late-season acquisition Cortland Finnegan, whose best years are well behind him, also spent time in the crosshairs.

Luckily for the Panthers, they built such a commanding first-quarter lead they could drop Luke Kuechly as an extra safety so he and Kurt Coleman could race around the secondary putting out fires.

The Cardinals have the fastest, deepest receiving corps remaining in the playoffs. The Panthers will have a hard time matching up against them. Luckily for the Panthers, Carson Palmer is also on this "vulnerability" list.

Denver Broncos

Jan 17, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) is hit by Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Will Allen (20) during the second quarter of the AFC Divisional round playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Vulnerability: Peyton Manning still looks like a cross between late-career Johnny Unitas and Father Time. Sunday's 23-16 win over the Steelers wasn't exactly an offensive tour de force. The Broncos converted three of 15 third downs and scored their lone touchdown with three minutes left in the game.

The Broncos scored their first six points of the game thanks to a long punt return and a shanked Steelers punt. Their next three points came on a 51-yard Brandon McManus field goal that looked like something out of a Mario Golf video game. Manning completed 21 of 37 passes for 222 yards, looking rickety while taking shots and missing receivers for most of the afternoon.

I don't have to spell out for you what that could mean for, sigh, Brady-Manning XVII, which is a thing that is actually happening.

Vulnerability: The running game isn't reminding anyone of the Lombardi Packers. The Broncos rushed for 109 yards on 33 carries, but one 34-yard C.J. Anderson rush inflates the total. Take it away (as well as some Manning "carries," one of which was a kneel) and the Broncos averaged 2.53 yards per carry.

New England Patriots

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Vulnerability: The Patriots lack even a semblance of a running game. The Patriots rushed for 38 yards in Saturday's 27-20 win over the Chiefs. They rushed for 63 and 70 yards, respectively, in their final two regular-season games. And they rushed for 39 yards in their loss to the Broncos in November.

Now, we all know Tom Brady can use short passes to simulate a ball-control running game. And only grouchy uncles still mutter about "establishing the run" by spending the first half plunging off tackle for two yards a pop. No one expects the Patriots to rush 40 times for 150 yards unless they build a 57-3 halftime lead.

But a wisp of a running game can help a team convert touchdowns in the red zone and make it easier for them to ice the clock. The Patriots settled for two late-game field goals against the Chiefs, when touchdowns would have put the game out of reach. They gave the ball back to the Chiefs on a three-and-out late in the game and counted on their defense—and Andy Reid's almost hallucinogenic approach to clock management—to get them out of a potential jam.

If the Patriots fail to put the Broncos away in the fourth quarter...well, that's precisely what happened in November, isn't it?

Vulnerability: Injuries are once again an issue, this time on defense. Linebacker Jamie Collins has a strained oblique. Jerod Mayo replaced him and suffered a shoulder injury almost immediately. Chandler Jones suffered a leg injury late in the fourth quarter.

As usual, injury reports out of Foxborough are scant and probably fictional, though Mike Loyko of NEPatriotsDraft did tweet that Collins plans to play Sunday. The situation at linebacker bears watching. Career special teamer/practice-squader Jonathan Freeny played a lot of snaps in the middle against the Chiefs. The one thing Peyton Manning still does with Peyton Manning efficiency is make decisions at the line of scrimmage. If he sees an unprepared or slowed-by-injury linebacker across from him, he'll attack.

Around the League

ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER 17: A fan displays a sign in support of keeping the St. Louis Rams in St. Louis during the final home game of the season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Edward Jones Dome on December 17, 2015 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo
Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

A roundup of news and notes from the across the NFL.

Rams move to Los Angeles: In an unusual development in human history, a multibillionaire ignores the will of the community and does exactly what he wants to do.

Browns hire Hue Jackson as head coach: Cross the Ohio and losing in the first round of the playoffs can get you a victory parade.

Owner Jimmy Haslam says the Browns "were pleasantly surprised with the interest" in their head coaching job: Now there's a Fortune 500 attitude if ever we heard one.

Giants promote offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo to head coach: They wanted to do something bold and outside-the-box to really shake things up. So they typed the announcement in Helvetica.

Rex Ryan hires Rob Ryan: Bills owner Terry Pegula should have given a Glengarry Glen Ross (NSFW) speech to ol' Rex. Coffee is for closers. And hiring your unemployable brother is for playoff coaches.

49ers hire Chip Kelly: The decisions to retain coaches like Jason Garrett and Jeff Fisher are looking smarter and smarter.

Eagles hire Doug Pederson: Two words: Andy. Reboot.

Buccaneers promote Dirk Koetter: Lovie Smith and Tom Coughlin should put together a team of street free agents and Arena ballers and barnstorm the NFL. Betcha they would win at least six games.

Titans retain Mike Mularkey as head coach: You know how sometimes a chain of restaurants goes bankrupt but a handful of them stay open? You know how there's this restaurant near the interstate exit that should be extinct, but it's still somehow serving rotisserie chicken, existing as a zombie restaurant of some kind with no advertising or corporate backing, just selling food with no hope of growth but (because it's in a prime location and the food is OK) no fear of going out of business? The Titans are like one of those zombie restaurants. Except that the chicken is lousy.

Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

Calvin Johnson considers retirement: Typical postseason aches and pains of the 30-year-old football player? Attention-starved kid threatening to run away while his parents are arguing? Veteran power play in the post-Harbaugh 49ers era (if you fire everyone and replace them with position-coach yes men, I'm leaving)? Ploy for more money, which for Johnson would mean almost all the money there is? Whatever. The Lions just have to let Megatron know he is wanted and appreciated. And if he still wants to retire and free up about $16 million in base salary for the next few years, that would be appreciated in a different way.

Adrian Peterson vows to make ball security his top offseason priority: Gaining more than two yards per carry when his team really needs him will be his No. 2 offseason priority.

Jerry Jones on the NFC East picture (per Jordan Raanan of NJ.com): "I'm looking up, on my back and all I see is ass." Jones should know by now that the proper format for a Penthouse Forum letter is to lead with, "I'm not the type of guy stuff like this EVER happens to..."

Matt Schaub tells Ravens website "I’ve still got good years left in me." This message paid for by Cornerbacks with Interception-Based Performance Bonuses in their Contracts of America (CIBPBCA).

Stock Watch

Circadian Rhythms

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 17:  Jonathan Stewart #28 of the Carolina Panthers runs the ball against  Richard Sherman #25 of the Seattle Seahawks in the 1st quarter during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Bank of America Stadium on January 17, 2016 in Charl
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The circadian rhythm is the everyday life cycle. It's the reason you feel jet lag when you cross the country or get a little nutty when you work the night shift for too long.

Circadian rhythms impact your sleep cycle, brainwave activity, digestion and presumably your ability to stop Jonathan Stewart from running 59 yards against you on the first play from scrimmage.

The Seahawks' circadian rhythms looked completely arrhythmic in the first half of their loss to the Panthers.

The Seahawks weren't just a West Coast team playing on the East Coast at what felt like 10 a.m. to them. They were a West Coast team that bounced from Arizona to Minnesota to North Carolina in the last three weeks, with frequent stops back in Seattle.

Since Christmas, the Seahawks have encountered desert, tundra, their hometown drizzle and Charlotte's sunny, seasonal chill. It's the kind of ecosystem and time-zone hopping that can kill a fungus. 

The Seahawks are professionals, of course, and they clawed their way back into the game after falling behind 31-0. But they looked like they were running in sand and carrying 60 extra pounds on their backs while falling behind.

Doing what the Seahawks did over the last three weeks is not like jetting across the country to sit through a few meetings. They had to face other athletes operating at absolute optimal performance. A tiny bit of listlessness can snowball into a big disadvantage when trying to block Kawann Short or cover Greg Olsen.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

The NFL should show a little more mercy when putting playoff schedules together in the first two rounds. West Coast teams that travel east should at least get late games and be kept off Saturdays if possible.

Beyond that, the Seahawks spent two playoff weeks paying the price for some early-season losses. It's remarkable they fought as hard as they did until the end against the Panthers. Out-of-Whack.

Steven Jackson 

Jackson has been in the NFL for 12 years. He is 18th on the all-time rushing list. Jackson has rushed for more yards than John Riggins, O.J. Simpson, Ricky Watters, Tiki Barber, Eddie George, Earl Campbell, Marshawn Lynch and other backs who garnered far more attention in their careers than Jackson did toiling away for (mostly) the Rams.

Jackson played just the third postseason game of his career Saturday. The other two games came after the 2004 season, when Jackson shared carries with Marshall Faulk and the Greatest Show on Turf had not yet totally folded the big top. He spent a decade grinding for bad Rams teams, joining the Falcons just as their brief early-decade run as contenders ceased.

Jackson wasn't great for the Patriots, rushing six sluggish times for 16 yards. But it's great to see a workhorse enjoy some late-career success, and he gives Rams fans in St. Louis someone to root for at least for one more week. Rising.

Knowledge of What a Catch Is 

Larry Fitzgerald's bobbly reception along the sideline late in the Cardinals win over the Packers was probably not a catch by the letter of the rulebook. The catch prompted another dramatic re-enactment of the global "What's a Catch?" debate, which wearingly devolves into, "The NFL is so messed up they don't even know what a catch is, amiright? Thanks, Goodell." Steady (as in Critical but Stable). 

There is nothing Hangover can do to prevent "What's a Catch" from becoming this generation's "What's the deal with airline food?" But please keep in mind that:

  • The "conclusive evidence" rule for overturning a replay is supposed to take precedence over deep rulebook dives about the nature of a catch, and that is probably never going to change. The NFL would rather stand on an iffy call than change it to an incrementally less iffy call.
  • Veteran Pro Bowlers in home games are more likely to get borderline calls than, say, practice-squad refugees on the road. The only way to change that is to hire robot referees, and...
  • If you look at the big picture, all of the strange calls more or less even out, and it's hard to argue that any of the surviving teams doesn't deserve to be in the championship round, no matter how heavy the hunk of cheese on your head or how short your memory.

Andy Reid's Clock Management 

Jan 16, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid looks on from the sidelines against the New England Patriots during the first half in the AFC Divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-U
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Reid and Alex Smith needed two timeouts on the Chiefs' first drive of the game to prevent delay-of-game penalties. OK, playing in Foxborough is hard.

He used his final timeout of the half before a quarterback draw on 3rd-and-1 with 40 seconds left. Smith then needed to spike the ball. Ummm...why not call two plays during the timeout, since you know you are only gaining a few yards on the draw?

Smith then committed a delay-of-game penalty on third down, and the Chiefs settled for a field goal.

At the end of the game, the Chiefs  got the ball down to the Patriots' 1-yard line with 2:33 to play, trailing 27-13. They huddled, came to the line slowly and burned 33 seconds down to the two-minute warning.

A false start moved the Chiefs back, Smith completed a short pass within the field of play and the Chiefs took 33 more seconds to get their next play off. They finally scored with 1:13 to play.

A little less dilly-dallying and they could have scored before the two-minute warning, applying much more pressure to the Patriots during their final clock-killing drive.

Reid has been mismanaging the clock like this since his Eagles glory days. If coaches received six timeouts per half instead of three, Reid would have won three Super Bowls by now. Reid needs to rethink how he approaches the final three minutes of each half. Poor clock management is holding back both him and his teams. Melting.

Blitzing the Hail Mary

Jan 16, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jeff Janis (83) catches a hail mary pass for a touchdown against Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (21) and free safety Rashad Johnson (26) during the fourth quarter in a NFC Div
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

You probably won't see many teams heavily blitz an end-of-game Hail Mary after Aaron Rodgers found Jeff Janis in the end zone, burning the Cardinals for a game-tying touchdown at the end of regulation.

That's a shame, because the blitz—called by Bruce Arians himself, overruling defensive coordinator James Bettcher—might be a better tactic in some situations than sending seven defensive backs into the end zone to trip over each other.

My gut tells me blitzing a mobile quarterback like Rodgers is a bad idea: He's probably going to break containment, changing the angle of the throw, buying more time for receivers to box out and generally adding a random factor to a low-percentage play.

But blitzing a stationary target, at least with a five defender, makes a lot of sense. A nickel back racing off the edge is much more likely to have a positive impact on a Hail Mary by an immobile quarterback than the seventh defender wandering around the end zone is.

The Packers' success with Hail Mary passes this year should force defensive coordinators to review how they address the play. Do they practice defending it enough? Are Larry Fitzgerald-Calvin Johnson-Rob Gronkowski types recruited as extra defenders?

Arians was at least thinking about the Hail Mary instead of just calling the prevent defense from the Madden screen. Bold decision-making as a policy usually pays off, even when individual bold decisions backfire. Falling but Worth Buying.

Ben Roethlisberger 

You did everything you could, big guy. Unfortunately, Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams weren't quite as indestructible as you are. Now take a few weeks off to get healthy, and think happy thoughts about how good the Steelers can be next year. Resting.

Last Call

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 16: Quarterback Carson Palmer #3 of the Arizona Cardinals and quarterback Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers watch the overtime coin toss in the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 16, 201
Norm Hall/Getty Images

ESPN.com item:

"[The ref] had it on heads," Rodgers said. "He was showing heads, so I called tails, and it didn't flip. It just tossed up in the air and did not turn over at all. ... He picked the coin up and flipped it to tails, and then he flipped it without giving me a chance to make a recall there. It was confusing." Rodgers indicated he would have called "heads" on the second toss if given the chance. It landed on heads again.

The probability of a flipped coin landing on heads is 50 percent. The probability of a flipped coin landing on tails is 50 percent.

If a coin just landed on tails, its probability of landing on tails again is 50 percent. Its probability of landing on heads is 50 percent.

SANTA CLARA, CA - JANUARY 3: Captains of the San Francisco 49ers and the St. Louis Rams meet for the overtime coin flip during the game at Levi Stadium on January 3, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. The 49ers defeated the Rams 19-16. (Photo by Michael Zag
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

If a coin just landed on tails 49 straight times, and it's a fair coin that isn't being tossed by Penn Jillette or someone else with the sleight-of-hand talent to make a coin do whatever he or she wants, its odds of landing on tails on the 50th toss is 50 percent, heads 50 percent.

The coin is not "due." Neither it nor the universe cares that it is on a 49-straight-tails streak.

Failing to properly "flip" the coin can impact the probabilities. A heavy coin landing on a surface with some bounce, like a football field, could simply bounce straight up and down, which is why fair coin tosses usually include a flick of the thumb to create rotation.

Changing your selection from tails to heads would not give you an edge in probability. If the home team was automatically declared "heads" for the rest of NFL history, it would have no effect on anything except really dumb Super Bowl prop bets.

There is no reason in the world to offer someone a chance to recall "heads or tails" after a first coin flip was negated because the coin bounced into a gutter or something. As long as all parties know who is "heads" and who is "tails," a fair flip is a fair flip.

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 04:  Referee Craig Wrolstad #4 officiates the coin toss before the game between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets at Wembley Stadium on October 4, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images for New York Je
Al Pereira/Getty Images

If a story emerges about some Cardinals employee sneaking into a bathroom with a roll of quarters, a nail file and some airplane glue, I plan to spend the offseason studiously ignoring it. If Ted Wells gets involved in said story, I will move to Denmark and renounce football forever.

The Packers had a very good year. It wasn't spectacular, but it was fascinating, and they showed some mettle by getting as far as they did. It didn't end on a flip of an overtime coin, or two flips, or a drop and a flip, but on a Cardinals touchdown after a major defensive lapse.

Maybe the toss was a stroke of bad luck, but the rules of probability, unlike the rules of football, are 100 percent reliable and always fair and square.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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