2012 NFL Playoffs: Five Questions for the Divisional Round

Every Tuesday throughout the NFL season I’ll discuss five of the biggest questions surrounding that week’s slate of action. This week the NFL moves into the Divisional Round, where the Saints will hit the road (where they haven’t been as explosive), the Giants will try to slay the dragon known as the Green Bay Packers, and Tim Tebow’s Broncos are still walking on water. (Dah! Get it? Do you get it? Yeah, you get it…)

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees kneels on the ground after being sacked by the Atlanta Falcons in the first half of their NFL football game in Atlanta, Georgia December 27, 2010. REUTERS/Tami Chappell (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

1. Can the Saints overcome their issues on the road?
Thanks to their dominating play in the second half of the season, there are many people who feel as though the Saints are now the team to beat this season. But there’s no question that New Orleans is a different team on the road than at home and while that statement is true of most franchises, it really applies to the Saints when you dig into the numbers. Sean Payton’s crew outscored opponents 329 to 143 at home this year and only 218 to 196 on the road. At home the Saints were literally and figuratively unbeatable and unstoppable, scoring at least 30 points in seven of their eight games inside the Superdome. But on the road they were more conservative, more cautious, and certainly less aggressive. Two of their three losses this year came at 4-12 Tampa Bay and at 2-14 St. Louis, and they could have easily lost to Tennessee on the road had Jake Locker not inexcusably taken a sack on the final play of the game (when the Titans were at the New Orleans’ 5-yard-line, no less). When you factor in San Francisco’s stingy defense and the fact that New Orleans has to travel cross-country this week, it’s going to be interesting to see if the Saints can survive this weekend…

2. …that said, do the Niners have enough offense to take the Saints down?
The 49ers’ defense ranked fourth in yards allowed this season, first in rushing yards allowed, and second in points per game. But they’re not exactly a Rubik’s Cube on offense. They win by successfully getting Frank Gore in space, by not turning the ball over and by not beating themselves with penalties. While he isn’t the second coming of Trent Dilfer (who had a more limited skill set), Alex Smith has developed into a solid game-manager that is capable of beating defenses vertically when they stack the box hoping to slow Gore. Vernon Davis hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire this season but he’s still a mismatch on linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field and Michael Crabtree gives the Niners some semblance of a vertical threat. But while ‘Frisco did finish 11th in points per game this season, this isn’t a team built for shootouts. So if for some reason the Niners’ defense falters, Smith could be pressed into a situation where he has to match wits with Brees. And while Smith has had a good season, that’s a matchup that Jim Harbaugh and Co. don’t want to see play out this weekend.

3. Can the Giants pull off one of the classic upsets?
This is where the New York Giants are most dangerous. When they’re on the road, when the consensus believes that they’ll lose, and when their backs are up against the proverbial wall. While many people are buying into Big Blue’s revival over the past couple of weeks, there’s no question that they get to play the underdog role this Sunday in Green Bay. It’s a role that suits them just fine, as they proved in Super Bowl XLII, as well as in Philadelphia (where they were 9-point underdogs) and in New England (when they were once again 9-point dogs) earlier this season. That said, the Giants won’t be as fortunate this week as they were with their matchup last weekend. They got to face a predictable, conservative, inconsistent Falcons team that played right into their hands and weren’t intelligent enough to have a Plan B when Plan A blew up in their faces. If the Giants stop the Packers early on, Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers will adjust. If the Giants want to get into a shootout (and they’re certainly capable with that offense), the Packers can match. If the Giants want to go ground and pound with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, the Packers will then attempt to outscore them. The bottom line is that the G-Men do have what it takes to bring down the Pack. But the Falcons didn’t do them any favors last weekend by rolling over and playing dead because now you have to wonder if Tom Coughlin’s team is a little overconfident.

4. The Broncos can’t do that again, right? I mean, right? Right?!
Okay, so the Denver Broncos took down the Pittsburgh Steelers. Big whoop. The Steelers were contending with a bunch of injuries on both sides of the ball, most notably at quarterback where Ben Roethlisberger was clearly affected by a high ankle sprain he suffered late in the year. In other words, Pittsburgh was ripe for the taking and with a lot of help from Ike Taylor, Denver was able to pull off the upset. The Broncos won’t be able to march into Foxboro this weekend and take down Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. That would be ludicrous. Preposterous, even. Notgonnahappen. Of course…the Patriots don’t have the strongest pass defense. And they don’t always rush the passer very well. It’s not inconceivable that Tim Tebow and Demaryius Thomas could beat Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty in pass coverage. And certainly James Ihedigbo and Patrick Chung. Sure, Denver’s running game will find it challenging to run against Vince Wilfork, Rob Ninkovich and Jerod Mayo Andre Carter, but the Broncos could certainly overcome that hurdle with their newfound passing game. Of course, Tebow will have to go toe-to-toe with Brady and the Patriots’ offense. That could be a challenge. And it’s not like Denver will be able to sneak up on New England like it did Pittsburgh last weekend so…yeah, the Broncos won’t make it two-for-two with huge upsets. Right?

5. Can Yates step up against Baltimore’s defense?
The Texans won’t be able to win this weekend with the same formula they used last Saturday against the Bengals. Baltimore’s run defense is too good to allow Arian Foster to take over the game like he did versus Cincinnati and thus, T.J. Yates will need to step up. As expected, the rookie fifth-rounder was shaky in his first career postseason start. He took shots deep to covered receivers when he had people open in the flats and he nearly threw a game-changing pick-six in the second half that Cincinnati safety Chris Crocker dropped. Given the circumstances, Yates has done a phenomenal job stepping in for Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart over the past month. But he’s also been fortunate on numerous occasions that defenses haven’t made him pay for his mistakes. The Ravens, who are built for the postseason and who are a nasty bunch at home, won’t be as gracious as Cincinnati and other teams (Atlanta, for example) have been to Yates this season. It would behoove Houston to rely on Foster and its defense this weekend. But that doesn’t mean that Yates will be able to sit back and enjoy the ride this time around. He’ll need to make plays.

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Did the officials cost the Titans a win?

From Ed Hochuli’s blown call in the Chargers-Broncos game to the conclusion of the San Diego-Pittsburgh contest, officials have made some huge blunders this season in the NFL.

Did they blow yet another call Saturday to aid the Ravens in their victory over the Titans?

Titans-RavensAnother game, another officiating error in the NFL. On a key 3rd and 2 with 2:52 remaining in today’s divisional playoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans, the play clock clearly expired well before Joe Flacco received the snap, but no delay of game call came from the officials.

The Ravens converted the first down on a long pass to Todd Heap, and ended up kicking the game winning field goal later in the drive.

It’s not uncommon for officials to miss the play clock hitting zero, but when they do the ball is snapped nearly immediately afterwards. On this play, the ball was snapped 1.35 seconds after the play clock expired (yes, I timed it). That might sound trivial, but it’s really, really not. It’s a long time. Watch the replay, it’s preposterous how long the back judge had to make the call.

This doesn’t excuse the Titans for giving up the first down on the 3rd and 2. Nor is it intended to suggest that the Ravens couldn’t have converted on 3rd and 7 after the penalty. The point is, they should have had to.

The game clock on the TV broadcast is not official, but it did look like the Ravens got away with one. Still, the Titans blew the game with their three turnovers, 12 penalties and inability to find the end zone without Chris Johnson. One play/call doesn’t make or break a game for a team.

Six Pack of Observations: Cardinals at Panthers

Here are six quick-hit thoughts from the Cardinals’ 33-13 victory over the Panthers in Saturday’s divisional playoff game.

1. Everyone was wrong about the Cardinals…
…especially me. I couldn’t have been more wrong about this team, but I make no apologies. The Cardinals were absolutely hammered on the East Coast during the regular season and played awful down the stretch outside of a Week 17 win over a hapless Seattle team with nothing to play for. But they have been beyond impressive the past two weeks and they not only beat the Panthers on Saturday, they crushed them in every facet of the game. I followed the masses and just chalked up a loss for ‘Zona because they were on the road. I thought a Panther win was a lock and I couldn’t have been more wrong or shortsighted. What a dominant performance by the surging Cards, who are now one win away from playing in the Super Bowl. Amazing.

2. Jake Delhomme is the most overrated quarterback in the NFL.
Jake Delhomme is brutal, terrible, horrible – beyond awful. He’s the most overrated quarterback in the league and I don’t just write that because he threw five interceptions against the Cardinals; I write that because he is. I realize Carolina collapsed when Delhomme got hurt last year, but everyone made it sound like he was the missing link to the Panthers not going to the playoffs. But Steve Smith makes him look better than he is and the team’s outstanding running game masked his weakness this season. The Panthers are overdue in grooming a young quarterback and after Delhomme’s performance tonight, it would be a shock if Carolina doesn’t draft a signal caller come April.

3. If you can’t get off the field on third downs, you’re not going to win.
The Cardinals were 10 of 18 on third downs tonight, which meant the Panthers’ defense couldn’t get off the field when it mattered most. Arizona kept drives alive all night and all Carolina’s offense could do was stand by and watch as the clock continued to tick away. The Cardinals created a perfect storm by capturing the lead, converting on third downs and taking the Panthers’ two backs out of the game. Of course, Carolina’s six turnovers certainly helped, too.

4. Where did this Arizona run defense come from?
Last week the Cardinals held Michael Turner to under 50 rushing yards. Tonight, they held the explosive duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to 75 combined yards on the ground. Granted, they did jump out to a big lead early so the Panthers had to get away from their run game, but still – the Cards’ run defense has been fantastic so far this postseason. Clancy Pendergast has drawn up two excellent game plans the past two weeks and his players have executed those game plans to perfection.

5. Larry Fitzgerald is sick.
It was so easy to call, wasn’t it? Anquan Boldin was ruled out before the game and you just knew Carolina would double Larry Fitzgerald and destroy Kurt Warner’s day. Well…not so much. Fitz was incredible, hauling in eight passes for 166 yards and a 29-yard touchdown before half. The Panthers’ secondary, which hadn’t played that bad all season, clearly had no answer for him. It also helped that Warner delivered the ball in a timely manner all night and continues to play like playoff veteran he is. Warner has played fantastic all season.

6. The NFC South was a playoff dud.
Before the regular season wrapped up, many NFL pundits claimed that the NFC South was the best division in football – even better than the tough, physical NFC East. But after watching the Falcons and Panthers perform the past two weeks, the NFC South certainly wasn’t represented well. Atlanta and Carolina combined for nine turnovers in two games and their standout running games were foiled by an Arizona run defense that allowed over 110 yards per game in the regular season. The NFC South was a tough division all season, but what a brutal showing in the postseason.

Six Pack of Observations: Ravens at Titans

Here are six quick-hit observations on the Ravens’ 13-10 victory over the Titans in Saturday’s NFL divisional round playoff game.

1. Chris Johnson’s injury destroyed the Titan offense.
It’s no mystery how the Titans opened the game with a touchdown and then went scoreless until late in the fourth quarter. Johnson totaled 100 yards before an ankle injury in the second quarter sidelined him for the rest of the game. The rookie was clearly the most explosive player on the field in the first half and once he went out, LenDale White was a huge drop off. No disrespect to Justin Gage (10 receptions, 135 yards) who had a solid day, but the Titans’ offense lacked explosiveness and this game was a great example of how good Johnson was this season.

2. Joe Flacco played a perfect game.
If someone checked the stat sheet and saw that Flacco was 11 of 22 for only 161 yards and a touchdown, they would probably note that his performance was far from perfect. But in his first two career playoff games, Flacco has not turned the ball over once. For a rookie, he’s played flawlessly because he hasn’t turned the ball over, has made just enough plays in the passing game and he’s given his defense a chance to do what it does best – shut opponents down. For a rookie, he’s played two perfect games and now he’s one win away from playing in a Super Bowl.

3. Tennessee saved its worst performance for the most important game of the season.
Tennessee totaled 12 more first downs (21 to 9) than Baltimore and out gained the Ravens by 180 yards (391 to 211). But they turned the ball over three times, were penalized 12 times and were just 4 of 14 on third downs. The Titans had one of the best seasons of any team in the NFL, but not even good teams can win like this – especially not against a great defense like Baltimore’s.

4. Derrick Mason can still play.
Mason might have well been the Ravens’ entire offense today. On his lone touchdown of the afternoon, Mason snuck by the Titans’ secondary and Flacco put a perfect pass on the numbers. Then on Mason’s 37-yard reception late in the third quarter, Flacco threw into double coverage but the 34-year old vet made an outstanding adjustment on the ball and came down with the catch between two Titan defenders who couldn’t keep their balance. NFL pundits like to note how Flacco has nobody to throw to, but Mason proved once again that he could still excel at this level.

5. Alge Crumpler was a dud free agent pick up
Some football purists criticized the Falcons for cutting Crumpler – an experienced, veteran leader – in the offseason and then lauded the Titans’ decision to sign him to a two-year, $5.25 million deal. Word this preseason was that Crump was healthier than ever, his knees were stronger than they had been in previous years and he was glad to be out of the mess that was Atlanta. Then the season started and the veteran promptly disappeared. He caught just 24 passes for 257 yards and one touchdown this season, then cost the Titans dearly when he fumbled in the red zone against the Ravens on Saturday. One play doesn’t cost a team a win, but if Crumpler would have hung onto the ball the Titans might put six on the board that drive and come out with a victory.

6. Overall, this was a brutal game.
With all due respect to Sunday’s Eagles-Giants game, this was supposed to be the best matchup of the weekend. But penalties (20 total to be exact), turnovers (three to be exact – all from the Titans), injuries and cheap shots from both teams ruined an otherwise excellent matchup. And the officials were no bargain either – how does a Tennessee offensive lineman get flagged for helping Chris Johnson up after multiple Raven defenders bent him backwards after the whistle blew? Ugly doesn’t begin to describe how this game played out.

Strahan wanted to return to Giants

Michael Strahan told Newsday.com’s Bob Glauber that if the Giants had called three weeks ago requesting for his services, he would have gladly returned to his former team for the playoffs.

Michael Strahan“I was like, ‘Man, if they called me, I’d go back there now,’ ” Strahan told me yesterday at Giants Stadium, where he recorded an interview with Giants running backs Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw for Sunday’s Fox pregame show. “When they played Carolina? Definitely. You ‘jones’ for this thing, especially in the playoffs.”

The Giants never did call Strahan, nor will they; the last time they reached out to him was during the summer, when Osi Umenyiora suffered a season-ending knee injury. But after a 15-year career that someday will put him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Strahan told them he wanted to remain retired.

So Strahan wasn’t ready to help the Giants in preseason when Umenyiora went down, but now that all of the training camp practices and grueling regular season are behind him, he was ready to jump at the chance to join them for the playoffs? Does that rub anyone else the wrong way or is it just me?

I know Strahan means a lot to the Giants organization and was with the franchise through thick and thin, but I don’t blame the team for not picking up the phone and reaching out to him so he could have another shot at a ring without having to play an entire season.

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