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NFL Playoffs: Quick-Hits from the Divisional Round

+ Everyone thought the Ravens’ game plan on Saturday would be to take the pressure off Joe Flacco’s shoulders by making Ray Rice the focal point of the offense. Instead, John Harbaugh and Jim Caldwell put the game in their quarterback’s hands and Flacco repaid them out dueling Peyton Manning. Outside of two errant deep passes to Torrey Smith, Flacco was perfect. He relentlessly challenged Denver’s secondary downfield (his 9.7 YPA average was eye popping) and he used the entire field to orchestrate Baltimore’s offense. In the past two weeks we’ve seen one coaching blunder after another. But Harbaugh and Caldwell went against conventional wisdom and thanks to the play of their embattled signal caller, they’ll be heading to Foxboro next weekend. It’s good to see an aggressive game plan rewarded.

+ One other note on Flacco: His best throw didn’t come on a scoring play, nor did it lead to a score. On the second possession of overtime and his team backed up on a 3rd and 13, Flacco threw a frozen rope to tight end Dennis Pitta for a 24-yard gain while standing in his own end zone. Credit Pitta for making a spectacular adjustment on the catch, but Flacco put the ball where only his tight end could come down with the pass. Granted, four plays later the Ravens punted but if Flacco doesn’t convert on that third down maybe Denver uses marches up a short field for the game-winning score.

+ Manning’s crucial interception in overtime may have been a result of the Hall of Famer trying to do too much. You never see Peyton throw across his body while on the move, but he got impatient while attempting to make a play. That said, blame can be spread throughout the entire Denver locker room…

+…Manning’s interception directly led to Baltimore’s game-winning field goal but Denver was undone by its secondary long before Corey Graham accepted Peyton’s gracious gift. There’s simply no excuse for how safety Rahim Moore played Jacoby Jones’ 70-yard touchdown reception at the end of regulation. It wasn’t as if the Ravens caught the Broncos in a coverage breakdown – Moore just screwed up. If he’s two yards deeper, there’s a good chance he intercepts that pass and then nobody’s talking about Manning’s interception because it wouldn’t have existed.

+ … Moore isn’t the only member of Denver’s secondary that deserves a scolding, either. Champ Bailey had yet another solid season but he was torched for both of Torrey Smith’s touchdowns and also allowed 128 receiving yards in what was easily his worst game of the year. Jack Del Rio and John Fox have left Bailey on an island throughout the year and the results have been positive. But while hindsight is always 20/20, one would have thought that following Smith’s 59-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter that Denver’s coaching staff would have given Bailey more help. They didn’t, and they paid the price.

+…Then there’s Fox himself. Some are criticizing him for taking the ball out of Manning’s hands on that 3rd-and-7 play with just over a minute left in the game. But at least his rationale was just: Run the ball and force the Ravens to march 70-plus yards for a touchdown with a minute and no timeouts. Nobody could foresee Baltimore throwing a 70-yard touchdown pass three plays later, so it’s hard to eat Fox’s lunch for that decision. That said, his choice not to give Manning a chance to march the Broncos into field goal range with 37 seconds remaining in regulation and two timeouts was incomprehensible. This was proven less than 24 hours later when Matt Ryan drove the Falcons to a game-winning field goal with two timeouts and 31 seconds on the clock. The two situations weren’t exactly the same, but if Ryan could accomplish the feat in two plays, Fox should be embarrassed for not giving his living legend of a quarterback even an opportunity to pull off the same heroics.

+ Not that it matters now, but without Trindon Holliday’s record-setting day, is the game in Denver even that close? Take away his two touchdowns and the Ravens might not even need an improbable Jacoby Jones touchdown or a Justin Tucker 47-yard field goal to win.

+ Two underlying storylines in Baltimore’s upset victory: The Ravens’ run defense and their offensive line. After surrendering 152 rushing yards last week to the Colts, the Broncos running game was a big failure on Sunday (they rushed for 125 yards but at 3.0 yards per clip). Also, thanks to Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, Denver has one of the best pass rushes in the game. But for all intents and purposes, the duo had a quiet day against Baltimore’s revamped offensive line (which has now played well in back-to-back weeks).

+ Even if the 49ers were to lose to the Falcons in the NFC Championship, nobody will question Jim Harbaugh’s decision to replace Alex Smith after the show Colin Kaepernick put on versus Green Bay. It showed some resiliency on Kaepernick’s part to throw for 263 yards, rush for a NFL-record 183 yards, and record four total touchdowns after throwing that early pick-six to Sam Shields. Instead of allowing his emotions to get the best of him, he settled in and let his instincts take over…

+ …Not to take anything away from Kaepernick but where were the Packers’ adjustments? One would have thought Capers would have changed something at halftime in efforts to slow Kaepernick down and instead, the quarterback was still running free well into the fourth quarter. Granted, coordinators can only put their guys in position to make plays. It’s up to the players to execute the game plan and for the likes of Erik Walden, B.J. Raji and Charles Woodson, they didn’t. I’m just not sure what the game plan was to begin with.

+ Lost in Kaepernick’s big night was how well Vic Fangio’s defense played. When the Niners went with press man on the outsides, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers did a nice job of not allowing the Packers’ receivers to get a free release. And when Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith brought pressure, it completely took Aaron Rodgers out of his game. It wasn’t as if Rodgers played poorly – San Francisco just never allowed him to get into a rhythm.

+ Aside from Kaepernick turning Candlestick Park into his own personal jungle gym, the key to San Francisco’s victory was its dominance up front on both sides of the ball. Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis were unstoppable forces in the running game and immovable options in pass protection. There was plenty of great offensive line play this weekend but the best work may have been done on Saturday night by those two players.

+ Regardless of how fortunate the Falcons are to be advancing to the NFC Championship Game, it’s hard not to feel elated for Tony Gonzalez. Assuming he stays true to his word and retires at the end of the season, that man was 31 seconds away from never tasting postseason victory. Thankfully he doesn’t have to worry about what that would have felt like.

+ It’s easy to get swept up in the emotions of the game but Mike Smith blew it by calling his last timeout with 13 seconds remaining in regulation. Chances are the Seahawks would have still burned a timeout anyway but shame on Smith for not putting Pete Carroll in that position.

+ Matt Bosher either had a vacation to Cabo lined up next weekend because he nearly handed the Seahawks a victory by shanking two punts and then dribbling an impromptu onsides kick at the end of the game. For a second I swore the kid had Seattle on the money line.

+ Nobody should ignore the fact that Matt Ryan helped the Falcons blow a 20-point fourth-quarter lead on Sunday. The interception to Earl Thomas was brutal and his sudden inability to move the ball in the fourth quarter should come into question as well. But it is remarkable what he can do with less than two minutes remaining in a game that his team is trailing. He’s unflappable in those situations and nine times out of 10, he’s going to put the Falcons in position to win. Jacquizz Rodgers’ kick return was key in setting up that game-winning drive, but it took Ryan only two plays to erase everything the Seahawks accomplished in the fourth quarter. If nothing else, Ryan remains one of the most clutch performers in the game.

+ Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter did a great job not over thinking the game plan for Sunday. He wanted to take advantage of undersized rookie Bruce Irvin and that’s what he did, constantly running Rodgers and Michael Turner at the edge of Seattle’s defense. The Falcons haven’t run the ball effectively all season and Turner has looked like a back running with cement blocks for feet. But neither was the case on Sunday.

+ The Falcons actually might be the most predictable team in the NFL, you just have to understand their recipe for success: Dominant for two quarters, take two quarters off, give Matt Ryan the ball with at least 30 seconds left on the clock and make sure Matt Bryant is properly stretched out. Amazement, heartburn, jubilation, repeat.

+ Russell Wilson is special. After a shaky first half he was brilliant in the final quarters, including going 10-for-10 for 185 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Seahawks back from a 20-0 deficit. Granted, he had six days to find receivers that were generally covered by Atlanta defenders, but he also once again did a great job eluding pass rushers and buying himself more time. Both he and the Seahawks have a bright future.

+ Wilson and Kaepernick are quarterbacks first – not mobile players that happen to play the quarterback position. I watched both of those players force the defense to unveil where the blitz was coming from this weekend by making pre-snap adjustments. They’re intelligent players with big arms that just so happen to be blessed with mobility and speed. It’s not as if they’re beating teams because of their athleticism alone, like Michael Vick used to do. They’re beating you well before they take the snap.

+ The outcome in Atlanta was yet another example of why coaches shouldn’t waste time attempting to freeze a kicker. Why give a veteran like Matt Bryant an extra 20 seconds to compose himself when he’s already feeling the burden of an entire season on his shoulders? Carroll’s charade following Bryant’s missed practice attempt was silly and he deserved to watch the next kick sail through the uprights.

+ If anyone is looking for Zach Miller he can be found running free in Atlanta’s secondary. He’ll be there for the rest of the day.

+ Tom Brady loses Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead so he throws for 344 yards and three touchdowns…including two to his backup running back. The guy is incredible.

+ This is how good New England’s offense is: The Pats didn’t score until 1:28 left in the first quarter and still wound up with 41 points.

+ On a weekend when both the Broncos and Falcons blew late leads, the Patriots were still scoring with less than two minutes remaining and up by 10. Bill Belichick never takes his foot off the gas and his players revel in his philosophy.

+ Matt Schaub threw for 343 yards but both of his touchdowns came after the Patriots went up 38-13 and he also threw a brutal interception to kill a drive in the second half. Over the past month the Texans had trouble scoring inside the red zone and Schaub was a big reason for it. Only when it was too late did he respond with scores, and it’s reasonable to wonder whether he’s the right man to lead a talented team to the Super Bowl.

+ I thought Wade Phillips’ defense would respond to giving up 42 points in that Week 14 loss to New England in the regular season. Well, they did – by allowing 41 more points. The linebackers and defensive line couldn’t stop the run, there was virtually no pressure on Brady, who promptly dissected their secondary (again). This was all after Gronkowski and Woodhead left the game in the first half.

+ After that crap-fest of a wild card weekend, the Divisional Round was glorious. Upsets, comebacks, points galore, record-setting moments – how could you have not loved every second of this weekend? Championship Sunday? Can’t wait, Bart Scott.

+ Clearly oddsmakers weren’t phased by the Ravens’ upset of the Broncos because Baltimore has opened as a 9.5-point underdog versus the Patriots for the AFC title game. That’s with Gronkowski likely being sidelined for New England.

+ As for the NFC title game, the Niners opened as 3.5-point favorites versus the Falcons. What’s funny is that if Atlanta continued to dominant Seattle, the Falcons likely would have only been 1-point dogs on Championship Sunday. Perception is everything, isn’t it?

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: Divisional Round Preview

Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers is chased out of the pocket by New York Giants Jason Pierre-Paul in the first quarter in week 13 of the NFL season at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on December 4, 2011. The Packers defeated the Giants 38-35 and remain undefeated for the season at 12-0. UPI /John Angelillo

Saints @ 49ers, Saturday, 4:30PM ET
It’s no secret that the Saints have been a different team on the road this year than at home. As I pointed out in this week’s edition of “Five Questions…,” they’ve outscored opponents 329 to 143 at home this season and only 218 to 196 on the road. Sean Payton has seemingly been more conservative with his play calling as Drew Brees has thrown less touchdowns (29 to 17), more interceptions (6 to 8), has a lower average per pass attempt (8.75 to 7.99), and has been sacked more (8 to 16) on the road than at home. Gregg Williams’ defense doesn’t play with the same confidence that it does inside the Superdome either. It’s not that the Saints are a bad road team (they were 5-3 during the regular season), but they’re not the juggernaut they are at home. On the other side, there’s not much that San Francisco doesn’t do well defensively. They’re outstanding against the run, they get after the quarterback, and they’re solid in pass coverage. They also have a great special teams unit so if the Saints are sloppy on Saturday, they will fall. The question is whether or not the Niners will generate enough offense if the Saints start firing on all cylinders. San Fran doesn’t pass protect very well and if it can’t open up running lanes for Frank Gore, that’s when Alex Smith starts to get turnover-happy. It’ll be interesting to see how this matchup unfolds come Saturday.

Broncos @ Patriots, Saturday, 8:00PM ET
Tim Tebow better strap in tight because he’s not likely to see as much one-on-one coverage as Dick LeBeau showed him last week. Bill Belichick will likely keep a safety over top of Demaryius Thomas at all times and force Tebow to go through all of his reads. If he doesn’t and he starts chucking the ball up thinking he can beat New England deep like he did Pittsburgh, he could be in for a long night. On the other side, it’ll be interesting to see if Denver’s stout defense can rattle Tom Brady. One of the biggest reasons the Patriots lost in their first postseason game the last two years is because Baltimore and New York harassed Brady to know end. But New England’s pass protection has been better this season than it was last year, so if the Broncos can’t generate pressure then Brady could eat them alive. It would behoove Denver to jump out to an early lead like Miami and Buffalo did on New England the past two weeks. But with Tebow running the show, that could prove to be difficult.

Texans @ Ravens, Sunday, 1:00PM ET
This game is all about Houston’s defense. If Wade Phillips’ unit can’t slow down Ray Rice, force turnovers and create good field position for the offense, then the Texans’ season will end in Baltimore this Sunday. The Ravens’ run defense is the best in the league and they were stout in pass coverage as well. The combination of Arian Foster and T.J. Yates isn’t going to get the best of Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis. The best Yates can do is not turn the ball over and take what Baltimore gives him. Otherwise, if he’s forced to make plays then the Texans are in trouble. The Ravens were unbeatable at home this season and there are mismatches that they can take advantage of this weekend. As long as they don’t get caught looking ahead, it’s hard to envision the Ravens falling on Sunday.

Giants @ Packers, Sunday, 4:30PM ET
If the Giants play with the same confidence, swagger and determination this week at Lambeau as they did last Sunday versus the Falcons, then they have a shot. In fact, they already have a shot. The Giants have always been a dangerous underdog and when they think everyone is against them, they raise the level of their play ten-fold. It’s no coincidence that the Giants have played their best football over the past three weeks. They’re healthy and the strength of their defense (i.e. their defensive line) is now fully intact. As I’ve written so many times before, the way to beat an elite quarterback like Aaron Rodgers is to pressure him with your front four. If Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, Rocky Benard and Justin Tuck play with the same relentless attitude this week as they did the past three, the Giants will have a shot to pull off the upset. Because their offense is certainly capable of matching Green Bay score-for-score thanks to that receiving corps and the Packers’ suspect defense. That said, Green Bay will not hand the game over on a silver platter like Atlanta did last Sunday. The Falcons played not to lose. They were timid – scared even. Rodgers plays with reckless abandon and he’s not going to be afraid to take shots downfield against New York’s vulnerable secondary unlike Matt Ryan, who never once tried to throw deep. Atlanta never adjusted its opening game plan either. You can expect Mike McCarthy to change things up if the Giants are getting the better of the Packers early on. This is going to be a great matchup and a wild ride.

Tim Cowlishaw pours big cup of jinx over Cardinals

If their team loses to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, Arizona Cardinal fans can thank Tim Cowlishaw of the Dallas Morning News for it.

Larry FitzgeraldThe torch really has been passed now. The best player in the NFL plays for the Arizona Cardinals, and his name is Larry Fitzgerald. He’s the reason the Steelers will not become the first franchise to win six Super Bowls this time around.

The Cardinals, leaving the Detroit Lions as the only team to participate in all 43 seasons without reaching a Super Bowl, will become the 18th franchise to win their first.

These Cardinals aren’t the best team in the NFL, and they weren’t anything close to it during the regular season. But suddenly their defense stops every team’s running attack. Suddenly, their secondary that got beat up so often makes all the right plays.

Kurt Warner is playing as if he’s 27, not 37, and the biggest reason for that is a game-breaking and game-changing receiver that the Steelers will not be able to cover.

It has been six decades since the Cardinals won a title and four decades since I decided as a kid they were going to produce a superior product than the Cowboys.

Needless to say, I spent a lot of years being wrong on that one.

That’s why it feels so good now to be right.

After Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution jinxed the Falcons by stating that they would beat the Cardinals in the wild card round three weeks ago, I warned Gary Myers of the New York Daily News that he crimped the Giants by claiming there was no way the Eagles would beat the G-Men in the divisional round.

And now this – Cowlishaw, a former Cardinal fan, is doing the same thing to ‘Zona for the Super Bowl. NFL columnists are 0-2 this postseason when they write an article claiming one team will emphatically beat their opponent. Now Sir Jinx-A-Lot the III is about to make NFL columnists 0-3 in the postseason.

Looks like I’m going with the Steel Curtain when I make my Super Bowl prediction next week. Thanks, Cowlishaw.

NFL Divisional Round Preview

Before I get to my Divisional Round Preview, I’d like to send all of the losers from Wild Card Weekend off the only way I know how: By jabbing them one final time.

Atlanta Falcons: Hey Mike Smith and Mike Mularkey, his name is Jerious Norwood. He’s #32 and he’s one of the best playmakers on your offense. Might want to think about using him more the next time an opposing defense figures out how to shut down Michael Turner.

Indianapolis Colts: Seven trips to the postseason in the last seven years and you only manage one Super Bowl appearance with a three-time MVP at quarterback? Dear Barbara…

Miami Dolphins: Chad, I love you man and I love your story this season. But you can’t force passes down field into double coverage and expect good things. You should have kept doing what you did all season and what you did in your first possession of the game – hit the high-percentage passes and let your receivers get the yardage.

Minnesota Vikings: Did anyone else scratch their head when Brad Childress declined a holding penalty on third down early in the first quarter that would have moved the Eagles on the edge of field goal range? Instead, it brought up forth down and David Akers drilled a 43-yarder to give Philly a 3-0 lead. Childress basically said, “I’m not sure if my defense can hold the Eagles on 3rd and 14 – better give up the field goal so we don’t give up a potential touchdown instead.” You never give your opponents points in the playoffs. Never. Not even a field goal. Force them back, force them to make a play and force them to earn the points.

Myself: I went 1-3 with my Wild Card Predictions last week. Seriously? You went with the Colts in the playoffs? A rookie in Matt Ryan? The Vikings over everyone’s sleeper team in the Eagles? You’re a freaking bum. (Ironically I went 3-1 in a family football pool because I came to my senses and picked San Diego and Philly.)

Moving on…

Chris JohnsonBaltimore Ravens (11-5) at Tennessee Titans (13-3)
Saturday, January 10, 4:30PM ET
Opening Odds: Titans –3
Over/Under: 34.5
Game Outlook:
No disrespect to the Giants and Eagles or any other team playing this weekend, but this is easily the best matchup on the divisional playoff schedule. Did you see what Ed Reed and the Ravens did to Chad Pennington and the Dolphins last week? They held them to only 276 total yards, forced five turnovers and surrendered only 52 rushing yards. And although they used a lot of gadget formations throughout the season, it’s not like Miami’s offense was a dud this year. Granted, the Titans have the seventh best rushing attack in the league and rookie Chris Johnson brings an added dimension to the field, but Mike Heimerdinger has his hands full this week trying to come up with a game plan to move the ball against a Baltimore defense allowing just over 15 points a game this season. That said, it’ll be interesting to see how rookie quarterback Joe Flacco does against the seventh best defense in the NFL. Flacco passed with flying colors last week while playing mistake-free and running for the game-clinching score in the fourth quarter. But he’ll have to do a hell of a lot more than complete 9 of 23 passes for 135 yards against a Tennessee defense that could have DT Albert Haynesworth and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch back on their defensive line. If both players are in the lineup Saturday, Flacco is going to feel the heat up the middle and from the edges so he better get rid of the ball in a timely manner. Overall, this is the best defensive matchup of the year and this game will probably come down to who doesn’t turn the ball over.
X-Factor: Chris Johnson, Titans RB
The only time the Dolphins found success last week was when they used the Ravens’ aggressive style against them and slipped backs out in the flats. Pennington was able to hit Patrick Cobbs and company for seven to 10 yard gains and the Titans could employ the same method. Johnson is a homerun threat and more than capable of taking one to the house every play. Tennessee has to get the ball in this kid’s hands and force the Ravens to miss tackles in the open field, which they have the penchant for doing at times.
Prediction: Titans 16, Ravens 13.
I’m not going to bite on this potential upset. The Ravens’ defense is absolutely nasty, but Flacco worries me against a ball-hawking Tennessee secondary and I think the Titans are going to shut down Baltimore’s running game. This game comes down to which team makes fewer mistakes and I’ll take a veteran in Kerry Collins over the rook Flacco. (Word to the wise though, Kerry – stay away from Ed Reed’s side if you can.)


Read the rest after the jump...

Breaking down the potential upsets of the Divisional Round

There are eight teams playing in four playoff games this weekend. Of the eight, two of the teams (the Ravens and Eagles) have legitimate shots of pulling off upsets, one has a decent shot (Chargers) and one might be lucky to still be in the game by the fourth quarter (Cardinals).

Granted, these are playoff games we’re talking about, so every team has a chance to pull off an upset. But does anyone outside of Arizona truly believe that the Cardinals will fly east and beat the Panthers with Carolina coming off a bye week? The Cards were impressive in their win over the Falcons, but they’ve always played better on the road than at home so there’s a big possibility that ‘Zona won’t make it to the next round.

The Chargers could very well go into Pittsburgh and knock off a Steelers team that has offensive line issues and a quarterback that doesn’t mind turning the ball over from time to time. But Pittsburgh’s defense is freaking nasty and I can’t see Darren Sproles rushing for over 100 yards like he did last week. Again though, a few key bounces go the Chargers way and SD could pull off the upset.

But the two games people are mostly taking about are the Ravens-Titans and the Eagles-Giants matchups. Those are easily the best two matchups of the weekend and games that could go either way.

Let’s gauge these two potential upsets:

Ravens at Titans: Baltimore’s defense has stifled opponents all year, but Tennessee’s has played just as well. Look for the Titans to gang up to stop the Ravens’ outstanding rushing game and force rookie quarterback Joe Flacco to beat them via the pass. For as good as Baltimore’s defense is and for as well as Flacco has played this season, he’s still inexperienced, as is head coach John Harbaugh. A lot of folks are getting wrapped up in how good the Ravens defense is, but inexperience is eventually going to catch up with Flacco and Harbaugh. I think it will be this week against a veteran Titans squad with an equally good defense.
Upset rating: 7 out of 10.

Eagles at Giants: Philadelphia has been one of the most inconsistent teams in the NFL this season and they didn’t necessarily rough up the Vikings as many predicted last Sunday. But the G-Men haven’t looked sharp in over a month and if the Eagles can stop Brandon Jacobs and the running game, Eli Manning might succumb to the pressure without having a big time playmaker at receiver. Philly has also already beaten the Giants in New York this year and their defense matches up very well with what the G-Men bring to the table. Brian Westbrook isn’t 100% and it’s tough to win in New York, but I actually think the Eagles have a better shot with Donovan McNabb and company of producing an upset than the Ravens do in Tennessee.
Upset rating: 8 out of 10.

What’s your upset of the weekend?

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