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2012 NFL Playoffs: Quick-Hit Reactions from Steelers vs. Broncos

In easily the biggest Wildcard Weekend upset since the Seahawks knocked off the Saints all the way back in 2011, the Broncos shocked the NFL world on Sunday with a 29-23 upset of the Steelers in Denver. Here are some quick-hit thoughts from today’s game.

Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow celebrates after throwing an 80-yard touchdown pass to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers during overtime in the AFC Wild Card round at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 8, 2012 in Denver. The Broncos advance beating the Steelers 29-23 in overtime. UPI/Gary C. Caskey

- Let me tell you a tale of two teams on Wildcard Weekend. We’ll call one team “Team Ass-Kicked” and the other team, “Team Tebowhorse.” Team Ass-Kicked tiptoed into their game against a good, but beatable opponent on Sunday and was predictable, unimaginative, and uncreative. Even though it was the playoffs, Team Ass-Kicked didn’t raise the level of their play and predictably, they got their ass kicked. (Hence the name – see what I did there?) Team Tebowhorse, on the other hand, opened things up, kept their opponent off balance, kept attacking and in they end, they pulled off the biggest upset of the weekend. I did enough bashing of the Falcons in my recap of their game against the Giants, but let this Denver victory be a lesson for Mike Smith and his coaching staff. When you try to do predictable things, you get a predictable outcome. When you open things up and actually attack defenses, you’re more likely to keep them off-balance. Good things come to those that go after what they want.

- To expand on my first point, the Steelers didn’t expect the Broncos to throw the football today and why would they? With the playoffs on the line last week, Denver only mustered one measly field goal against an underrated, but slightly above average Kansas City defense. There were even rumors that Tim Tebow would be benched for Brady Quinn if he didn’t play well. But instead of playing into Pittsburgh’s hands and just hoping for the best, John Fox and his staff put together a game plan that actually attacked Pittsburgh’s weakness: its secondary. With the Steelers playing run defense and leaving their corners in one-on-one coverage, the Broncos threw the ball vertically and guess what? It worked. This wasn’t a genius game plan by Denver and it could have easily backfired. But it was the best game plan because it was one that kept pushing the Steelers’ defense. It’s not wise to poke a sleeping bear but if you find yourself face to face with one in an enclosed area, you might as well go on the offensive. Because you’re not going to win by letting him do all the attacking.

- Tebow only completed 10 passes but that’s not the stat that matters. The stat that matters is 15.0. That’s how long his average pass went for today, which is why the Broncos scored 29 points instead of 3 like everyone thought they would. Tebow will never be an elite quarterback in the conventional sense. He’s always going to lack the presence to stand in the pocket and beat teams like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. But even his strongest detractors have to give him credit for taking shots down field and some of his passes were right on the money. Granted, he got a ton of help from his receivers but this wasn’t one of his typical wins where he played like crap for three quarters only to run his way towards a victory. His arm and his legs helped the Broncos win that game.

- Ike Taylor is going to see Demaryius Thomas in his nightmares for the next eight months. This was simply a day for Taylor to forget and one for Thomas to cherish because it was his coming out party. The Broncos drafted him in the first round in 2010 because they needed a deep threat to replace Brandon Marshall. And while it has taken him some time to develop, Thomas is finally starting to perform like that big-play wideout that Denver envisioned he’d be two Aprils ago. It’s crazy that two receivers this weekend broke out with 200 yards. (Thomas and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson.)

- Not to pile on Taylor but he really was at the root of Pittsburgh’s problems defensively. Granted, the Steelers were at a disadvantage because of injuries but Dick LeBeau did his job today. As a defensive coordinator you want to force Tebow to throw and that’s what LeBeau did. It’s just that defenders like Taylor repeatedly got beat, which was about the only thing they couldn’t do. Just a bad, bad day for the Steelers’ top corner.

- It all went for naught but that was another gutsy performance by Ben Roethlisberger. His ankle was clearly bothering him but he hung in there and delivered some big plays on the Steelers’ game-tying touchdown drive. (His receivers also made some spectacular catches.) But it makes you wonder whether or not Pittsburgh was destined to repeat as AFC champions this year. Big Ben’s injury wasn’t likely to get any better if he kept playing on it and the Steelers’ suffered one too many injuries. It just wasn’t the year for the “Terrible Towel.”

- I’m sorry, but John Elway still bugs the crap out of me. Denver fans can twist it however they want but Elway was never fully on the Tebow bandwagon. You know it, he knows, Jesus knows it. Then there he was, jumping around like a 7-year-old girl after Tebow won the game in overtime. I know, I know – what is he going to do, not celebrate his team’s huge victory? But there’s just something very wrong with a guy who gets what he wants after being a prick. You should have played in Indianapolis like a man, John!

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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2012 NFL Playoffs: Quick-Hit Reactions from Falcons vs. Giants

The Giants absolutely destroyed a hapless Falcons team on Sunday, 24-2. Here are quick-hit reactions from this Wildcard drubbing.

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) passes under pressure against the Atlanta Falcons during their NFL NFC wildcard playoff football game in East Rutherford, New Jersey, January 8, 2012. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- While their pass rush was suspect early on, the Giants’ offensive line did a fantastic job opening holes for Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. Then the Falcons’ defense helped out by constantly diving at shoestrings instead of wrapping up. The G-Men hadn’t run the football well all year but they finally got their bruising, punishing style back today.

- It took a while for Eli Manning to get going but once Jacobs and the running game started to open up passing lanes, the Giants’ offense really took off. One thing Manning did was stay patient. John Abraham was getting a ton of pressure on him early on, but Eli stood tough and constantly kept his eyes downfield. When his receivers started to beat the coverage, he made accurate passes and then guys like Hakeem Nicks did the rest. (Again, with a lot of help from piss poor tackling by Atlanta.)

- It’ll be interesting to see how New York fares next weekend heading into Green Bay. They hung with the Packers earlier this year in New York and they certainly have the weapons to pull off an upset. They’ve also looked like a more confident team these past three weeks, so we’re probably in store for a great matchup in the Divisional round. Then again, the Packers aren’t going to piss themselves like the Falcons did today.

- While the media will surely make this game about the Giants (who did dominate, there’s no question), you can’t overlook the fact that Mike Smith, Mike Mularkey and Matt Ryan continue to kill the Falcons in big games. His defense bailed him out by getting a safety on the next possession but Smith blew it by going for it on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter. Instead of taking a field goal after a successful drive (the Falcons’ first in three possessions), Smith went for it, then the Falcons’ o-line didn’t get any push and Ryan was stopped short. Then, in the same situation in the third quarter, Smith elects to go for it again and Ryan is stuffed on another sneak. This isn’t the first time that Smith has blown it on fourth-and-1 this season. He cost the Falcons a potential victory against the Saints earlier this year by going for it on his own 29-yard-line in overtime. The Falcons were stuffed then too, and the Saints received a rather easy victory. Smith clearly has no idea what “risk versus reward” means and he cost his team yet again today. Both of those plays deflated an offense that couldn’t move the ball to save its life and a defense that had kept the team in the game. It was stupid, stupid coaching from a man that has been fantastic in the regular season but now 0-3 in the playoffs.

- Of course, Smith doesn’t call the plays for the Falcons – that’s Mike Mularkey’s job. Why Mularkey would run two quarterback sneaks when his offensive line had gotten zero push all day is beyond me. Mularkey wants to be a head coach again in the NFL and the Falcons should be praying he gets his shot. He’s a horrendous playcaller in big games because he gets too conservative, too predictable and he puts his players in losing situations. He has no imagination when it comes to game planning for good defenses and he can’t make in-game adjustments either. His game plan today was to run Michael Turner 25 times and hope that would be enough. When the Giants’ shut down the Falcons’ running game, Mularkey had no other plan. For this offense to only score two points is pathetic, especially when you consider how vulnerable New York’s secondary was coming into the playoffs. And hey, the Falcons’ offense wasn’t even though ones that scored the two points – that was the defense. I just keeping thinking about the Miami Dolphins, who are reportedly interested in Mularkey as a head coach. What are they thinking after today? “Yep, that’s our guy! Dude clearly knows how to win.”

- Of course, Mularkey isn’t on the field. Matt Ryan has proven to be a pretty good regular season quarterback but he quivers when the spotlight is on him. Just like he did versus Chicago, Tampa Bay, and New Orleans earlier this year, Ryan anticipated the rush instead of reacting to it. When he’s scared, he takes his eyes off his receivers and immediately looks to dump the ball off. At this juncture, it’s entirely fair to play the, “Can Matt Ryan ever win a playoff game?” card.

- Hey Roddy White, that’s not a flaming arrow coming at your face – it’s the ball. Try catching it.

- I actually feel for Atlanta’s defense because until the fourth quarter, they played well enough to win. They didn’t tackle well but their top corner Brent Grimes was deemed inactive before the start of the game and they were without starting strong-side linebacker Stephen Nicholas as well. They also lost their starting strong safety William Moore in the first half, yet despite being overmatched they hung in there while the offense continued to fail them. It’s certainly not the defense’s fault that Atlanta came up short in the postseason yet again.

- When you watch a punchless, scared team like the Falcons, you have a greater appreciation for teams like the Packers, Saints, Steelers, and Patriots, who don’t lack that killer instinct when it comes to the postseason. Unfortunately for the Falcons, they can’t trade up in the draft for a backbone.

2012 NFL Playoffs: Quick-Hit Reactions from Lions vs. Saints

Despite trailing at halftime, the Saints rolled to a 45-28 victory over the Lions on Saturday night to advance to the Divisional round of the 2012 NFL Playoffs. Here are quick-hit reactions from this Wildcard shootout.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (C) dives for a first down against the Detroit Lions during the third quarter of their NFL NFC wildcard playoff football game in New Orleans, Louisiana, January 7, 2012. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- What Drew Brees does is almost surgical. If he has time to survey the field, he always goes vertical. I’m talking 9, 20, 40-yard strikes down the field. If he feels pressure, he has a trio of backs at his disposal that are elusive, powerful, and can create yards after contact when they slip out of the backfield. If he sees that a blitz is coming, he knows exactly where to go with the ball at all times. (Although it makes it easier when the defense leaves your 6’6” tight end wide open at the goal line. I mean, he’s 6’6” – the Lions couldn’t find him?) Granted, Brees has a ton of help. Marques Colston made a huge mistake in the first quarter when he fumbled the ball to kill a potential New Orleans scoring drive, but he’s as good as them come. Pierre Thomas ran tonight like he did back in the ’09 postseason and somewhere Chargers GM A.J. Smith is kicking himself for letting Darren Sproles leave San Diego. Jimmy Graham is a freak of nature and when all of those weapons aren’t available, Brees still has Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem (when he’s not dropping wide-open passes) and Lance Moore (when healthy) in his back pocket. This is a well-oiled machine New Orleans has here, and Brees is the absolute perfect captain to be at the controls.

- Want to know how the Saints score 40-plus points at home every week? Try 7-of-11 on third down and 3-of-4 on fourth down. When an offense constantly picks up third downs, it absolutely deflates a defense and that leads to points. Detroit clearly didn’t believe it could stop Brees tonight and it didn’t.

- That said, it’ll be interesting to see how the Saints fare now that they have to go on the road for one, and possibly two games over these next couple of weeks. There’s no question they’re a different team away from the Superdome, as Sean Payton has a tendency to get less aggressive and the defense doesn’t perform as well. San Francisco owns the best defense in the NFC playoff pool this year, so we’re about to find out how good this New Orleans offense is on the road. What a great matchup next weekend in San Fran.

- Lions fans will note that several calls didn’t go their way tonight, and they have every right to. But it’s hard to win when your defense can’t get off the field on third and fourth down, when your players don’t wrap up, when you turn two first-half turnovers into zero points, and when two of your defensive backs drop sure interceptions. There’s no question that Detroit got the short end of the stick when it came to penalties. No question. There were several missed holding calls on the Saints’ Pro Bowl linemen throughout the night, a bad spot on third-and-11 in the third quarter that gave New Orleans a first down (which led to a score), and of course, a blown whistle that most likely would have led to a Lions’ touchdown on Brees’ fumble in the first half. But the Lions failed to do the basics tonight and it cost them. Bad officiating or not, when you can’t tackle and take advantage of potential turnovers then you’re not going to win most games.

- One thing the Lions did do a great job of in the first half was get pressure on Brees with just their front four. Outside of the two Saints’ turnovers, that’s the main reason they held a lead heading into halftime. But about midway through the third quarter that pass rush dropped off and Detroit’s overmatched secondary was exposed. It’s unfair to play the defensive line for how things unraveled in the second half, because the bottom line is that the Lions’ defensive backfield made zero plays tonight. But the difference between the two quarters is that Brees was under duress in the first, and had time to find open receivers int he second. (And I mean wide open receivers.)

- As long as Matthew Stafford stays healthy Detroit fans won’t have to go another 11 years before they see their Lions play in another postseason game. That dude is for real. That 42-yard rainbow that he dropped perfectly into the hands of Calvin Johnson in the third quarter was beautiful and he had a handful of other passes that were right on the money. It’s not that he has a big arm: he has a big, accurate arm. He’s going to be an elite quarterback one day. (Again, if he can stay healthy.)

- I don’t know how defenses are supposed to cover Calvin Johnson. He’s obviously going to make plays when he’s open but there were several times when two New Orleans defenders were draped all over him and he still came down with the football. And if you make a mistake in coverage like the Saints’ corner did while playing Cover 2 on Johnson’s corner route in the second quarter, it’s almost a guaranteed touchdown (which it was). It’s amazing to think that one of the knocks on him coming out of college was that he sometimes lost focus. The guy has transformed into one of the best players in the game – focus on that.

- I thought Scott Linehan called a very good game until things got out of hand in the fourth quarter. He stayed aggressive throughout, which is something that most opponents won’t do when facing the Saints because they’re petrified to give the ball back to Brees and that offense, and constantly had New Orleans’ defense guessing. But at some point the Lions will need to find more offensive balance. Granted, they did lose starting running back Jahvid Best earlier this season due to a concussion, but 32 rushing yards on 10 carries isn’t going to cut it. Not against the Saints, not against anyone. When a defense doesn’t have to worry about stopping the run, they can drop extra defenders back or blitz effectively off the edge. New Orleans had to worry about one thing tonight: Stopping Calvin Johnson. (Uh, which they didn’t, but at least their offense scored 45 points to make up for it.)

- There’s no doubt that fans will be disappointed after this game. But the Lions made the playoffs this season. That’s fantastic. You won’t find a more loyal fan base than the one up in Detroit, so hats off to you Lions fans – your team finally made the top 12 again. Hopefully it’ll be a regular occurrence moving forward…

2012 NFL Playoffs: Quick-Hit Reactions from Bengals vs. Texans

The Texans defeated the Bengals 31-10 on Saturday to notch their first playoff victory in franchise history. Here are a couple of quick-hit reactions from this Wildcard contest.

Houston Texans running back Arian Foster rushes for a gain against the San Diego Chargers in the first half at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas on November 7, 2010. UPI/Aaron M. Sprecher

- Many times during the postseason we see a defensive line take over a game and that’s exactly what Houston’s front four did on Saturday. Outside of one or two passes, Andy Dalton simply didn’t have enough time to go through his progressions and get the ball down filed because the Texans’ D-line was up his ass every play. The Bengals’ running game didn’t do him any favors but credit Wade Phillips for putting together a great game plan. (A game plan that turned A.J. Green into a ghost.) Dalton had some success moving the ball in the first quarter but once the Bengals got further off of their opening script, their offense crumbled.

- You say defensive tackle J.J. Watt was a former tight end in college? Huh, could have fooled me on that ridiculous catch he made on that game-changing pick-six right before halftime. It‘s hardly surprising that he turned out to be such a good player in his first year. He’s a fellow Central Michigan Chippewa and those guys can just…flat…out…play.

- Speaking of Watt, how annoying was Mike Mayock when he kept boasting about how he thought Watt should have been a top-10 pick back in April? We get it Mike, you were high on the kid coming out of college.

- Speaking of Watt x2: What were Watt’s odds for the prop bet, “What rookie will score first in Saturday’s Bengals-Texans game?” Andy Dalton 5/1. T.J. Yates 6/1. J.J. Watt 100,000,000/1.

- It’s amazing to think that Arian Foster was once on Houston’s practice squad. You watch how elusive, athletic and powerful he is and it makes you wonder how the hell he wasn’t considered one of the Texans’ top 3 running backs during a given year. That said, Foster has even admitted that he wasn’t motivated until finding out that practice players could be called up, so it’s probably not the Texans’ fault that he wasted some time when he first arrived in the NFL. And boy has he arrived.

- I hate to be critical because the kid is doing the best he can in a difficult situation, but T.J. Yates wasn’t very impressive. On one drive in the second quarter, he overlooked open receivers on two separate pass plays in order to throw to guys that were covered, and Chris Crocker nearly had a pick-six late in the third when Yates threw across his body. (Crocker inexplicably dropped the gift.) But again, how critical can you be of a fifth-round rookie quarterback who won his first postseason game of his career? Peyton Manning didn’t accomplish that feat and neither did Eli Manning or Matt Ryan. I only mention the fact that Yates wasn’t impressive because Baltimore’s defense is a) better against the run than Cincinnati and b) will likely score more than 10 points. Thus, Yates might not be able to step into the shadows and allow Foster and Houston’s defense to take over.

- One thing that was impressive about Yates was the double-move he put on Pacman Jones to burn the corner on Andre Johnson’s touchdown catch. Houston‘s o-line gave him great protection and Yates calmly juked Jones out of jockstrap. (On a related note, it’s easy to forget that Pacman is still in the NFL when he’s not being arrested every week.)

- This game was yet another example of what happens when a team doesn’t have enough offensive weapons. The Texans took Green out of the game and Dalton essentially didn’t have anyone else to throw to. You see this type of thing all the time in the playoffs and you understand why teams like the Saints and Packers load up on playmakers during the offseason.

- The coaches upstairs for the Bengals should have done a better job of telling Marvin Lewis not to challenge Owen Daniels’ first-down catch late in the first half. Had they done their jobs, Lewis wouldn’t have blown Cincinnati’s second timeout and more importantly, the team’s final challenge on a call that obviously wasn‘t going to go their way. That said, it’s ultimately up to Lewis to make sure he still has a challenge in his back pocket for the final 30-plus minutes of the game. That’s just bad coaching all around for Cincinnati.

- That’s a bad half of football, Chris Crocker.

- Despite this bitter ending, it was a hell of a season for the Bengals. I know fans wanted their team to advance but looking at the big picture, nobody expected Cincinnati to make the postseason back in August.

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