Inexperience at quarterback cripples Vikings

Tarvaris JacksonEven though he had quarterbacked his team to a 3-1 finish down the stretch of the regular season, questions remained about whether or not Tarvaris Jackson should start under center when the Minnesota Vikings eventually claimed a spot in the postseason.

Although not definitively, those questions were answered Sunday when the Vikings fell to the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Eagles 26-14 in the final game of Wild Card weekend.

Jackson wasn’t bad, but he was largely ineffective. He completed 15 of 35 passes for just 164 yards and threw a costly interception in which Philly cornerback Asante Samuel returned for a 43-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Despite having some success using his legs over the past month, Jackson also only attempted to run the ball twice while finishing with 17 yards on those two carries.

Jackson got plenty of help from Adrian Peterson, Chester Taylor and the running game, which totaled 148 yards against a solid Philadelphia defense. Peterson also had two touchdowns despite getting dinged up in the first half, and provided a spark early in the second quarter with his 40-yard touchdown run.

But despite only being down 16-14 at halftime, Jackson couldn’t make enough plays in the passing game to produce a single point for Minnesota in the second half. As expected, Philly defensive coordinator Jim Johnson used a variety of blitz packages to confuse the young signal caller and even when the Viking defense produced key scoring opportunities by creating turnovers, Jackson and the offense still couldn’t muster even a field goal.

Not that Jackson looked rattled because he didn’t, but it’s hard for a young quarterback playing in his first playoff game to be extraordinary, which he certainly was not. Brad Childress’s game plan was to run the ball effectively with Peterson and then allow Jackson to take shots in the passing game in hopes Philly’s defense would start to inch closer to the line of scrimmage. Although the running game was good, Eagles’ defensive backs blanketed Viking receivers and limited the big plays by keeping everything in front of them and making sound tackles.

You can’t fault Childress for going with Jackson (I certainly don’t, especially when you consider Gus Frerotte hadn’t played in over a month), because Tarvaris had the hot hand. He was the quarterback that got the Vikings to the playoffs by playing so well down the stretch. But in the end, Jackson’s inexperience doomed Minnesota and some might question why the more seasoned Frerotte wasn’t under center for the Vikes’ most important game of the year.

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Ed Reed once again proves the value of playmaking safeties

Ed ReedWhen Ed Reed intercepted five passes and made 85 total tackles as a rookie for the Baltimore Ravens in 2002, he changed the way NFL teams view safeties in terms of the draft. He was a true playmaker that could not only blanket the field in coverage, but also erase potential mistakes and be a force against the run.

Since then, more safeties like the Colts’ Bob Sanders, the Steelers’ Troy Polamalu and the Redskins’ LaRon Landry have been taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft (or in the cases of Polamalu and Landry, the top 20 of the NFL draft), because teams have come to realize just how much of an impact safeties could have in the right defensive scheme.

In the Ravens’ 27-9 playoff victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, Reed once again demonstrated what a dynamic playmaker at the safety position could do for a defense. He intercepted Chad Pennington twice, one of which he returned 64-yards for a touchdown, and helped blanket Miami receivers for four quarters.

It’s only fair to note that Reed’s first interception was a poorly under thrown pass by Pennington, but the touchdown return essentially turned the momentum of the game in the Ravens’ favor. And Reed’s second interception in the second half (in which he jumped an underneath route in the red zone), put a dagger in the Dolphins’ comeback hopes. He changed the momentum of the game with just two plays and he’s a huge reason why Baltimore now has a date with No. 1-seeded Tennessee next weekend in the Divisional Round.

While establishing solid offensive and defensive lines and having a quality quarterback still remain the focal points for teams, enlisting a playmaker at safety should continue to be a top priority for playoff contending teams. Unfortunately getting their hands on one isn’t as easy as picking up toilet paper at the local grocery store, but it seems that the teams that have top safeties are the ones often making the playoffs on a consistent basis.

The Ravens-Titans game next weekend will feature two of the better safeties in the NFL with Reed matching wits with youngster Michael Griffin. Both teams played outstanding defensively this year and with the way the Ravens handled veteran Chad Pennington on Sunday, it’ll be interesting to see how Kerry Collins fares next weekend. What a great defensive battle that game will be.

Turnovers, costly mistakes doom Dolphins

Chad PenningtonThe Miami Dolphins’ blue print for success in 2008 was rather simple when you think about it: Play good defense, keep opposing teams off-balance and don’t turn the ball over. Those three facets helped the Fins go from 1-15 to 11-5 in just one offseason and propelled them to their first playoff appearance since 2001.

The last time the Dolphins were in the playoffs, they were stifled by a Baltimore Ravens team that held them to only three points in a 20-3 loss in the Wild Card round. Déjà vu struck for the Dolphins again on Sunday, as the Ravens’ defense once again played a huge role in shutting Miami down in their 27-9 Wild Card victory.

The Dolphins did just two of the three things that helped get them to the postseason. They limited the Ravens to just 286 total yards, but five turnovers and one costly mistake by second-year receiver Ted Ginn Jr. doomed them over the course of the game.

Chad Pennington was at the center of Miami’s turnover parade, tossing four interceptions – one of which was returned for a 64-yard touchdown by Baltimore safety Ed Reed. It looked as if Pennington was trying to erase the perception that he lacks arm strength by throwing the ball down field and forcing passes into coverage. His fourth and final interception came in the red zone while the game was still somewhat close at 20-3 late in the third quarter. Patrick Cobbs also fumbled early in the second half, which led to an 8-yard Le’Ron McLain touchdown, while Ginn fumbled the hand off on an end-around and while he eventually recovered the mistake, it eventually killed a potential scoring drive midway through the fourth quarter.

This was a frustrating loss for the Dolphins because they played so out of character. It’s hard enough to beat the Ravens, let alone beat them when you turn the ball over five times. One bad loss doesn’t erase what a great season Pennington or the Dolphins had, but this was a game that highlighted the team’s need for more playmakers on offense. Ginn, Ronnie Brown and Davone Bess can make plays in the open field, but the Dolphins will need to keep adding more pieces to their offense before they can move any further.

Still, what an amazing ride for Miami. Nobody expected this team to be in the playoffs this year and it’ll be interesting to see what they do in the offseason in efforts to keep improving. It’ll also be interesting to see whether or not Bill Parcells stays with the team, or returns to the sidelines like rumor has it.

Postseason slaps Colts once again

This is what the Indianapolis Colts have done in the postseason since the NFL realigned its divisions in 2002:

2002: Lost 41-0 to Jets in Wild Card round
2003: Lost 24-14 to Patriots in AFC Championship Game
2004: Lost 20-3 to Patriots in Divisional round
2005: Lost 21-18 to Steelers in Divisional round
2006: Won 29-17 over Bears in Super Bowl
2007: Lost 28-24 to Chargers in Divisional round
2008: Lost 23-17 to Chargers in Wild Card round

The Colts have made the playoffs every year since 2002 and yet they’ve appeared in just one Super Bowl over the span of those seven years and just two AFC Championship Games.

That’s it.

Peyton ManningWhile most teams (and their fans for that matter) would love to make the playoffs every year, it’s absolutely mind-boggling how this team continuously finds ways to lose in the postseason. You watch their playoff game in San Diego Saturday night and even though they’re up 17-14 with under five minutes remaining, you can’t help but think, “they’re going to blow this.”

Indy has a three-time MVP at quarterback in Peyton Manning, one of the best receiving corps in the nation (counting TE Dallas Clark), and one of the best coaches in the NFL in Tony Dungy. Yet even with all of that talent and experience, the Colts fail year in and year out to make postseason runs. You’d think that a team that made it to the playoffs every year would have more than one Super Bowl appearance, but it just goes to show you how hard it is to win in the NFL.

Getting back to their loss Saturday night to the Chargers, the Colts absolutely shot themselves in the foot with penalties in overtime. Although the defensive holding call on Tim Jennings on that 3rd and 8 was questionable to say the least. Was it a textbook hold? Maybe, but we’ve all seen worse. Then Clint Session’s facemask penalty was the nail in the coffin because that set San Diego up with game-winning-type field position.

I know it was easy to point at Manning’s struggles in the postseason before he won the Super Bowl in 2006, but this game wasn’t on him. He threw for 310 yards, one touchdown and didn’t turn the ball over. What more do you want from him? He had zero running game and you just have to tip your hat to the Chargers’ secondary for locking down the Colts’ receivers late in the game. So nobody should be talking about another classic Manning choke job after this loss, because this wasn’t on him.

Either way, the Colts will be home once again come Super Bowl weekend. Maybe their loss this year shouldn’t be much of a surprise considering they were a Wild Card team, but it’s pretty safe to say that many of us expected more from a team that won nine in a row to close out the season.

Ron Rivera turned around Chargers’ season

San Diego ChargersOctober 28, 2008 is the day the San Diego Chargers’ season turned around. That was the day they replaced former defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell with Ron Rivera, the same Ron Rivera that helped make the Chicago Bears NFC Champions in 2006.

Thanks to Rivera’s guidance, the Chargers’ defense went from a unit that was getting beaten on a weekly basis, to a unit that played to their strengths and masked their weaknesses with sound game plans.

In the Bolts’ impressive 23-17 overtime playoff win Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts, Rivera’s bunch saved their best play for when it mattered most: when the game was hanging in the balance.

After a 72-yard touchdown reception by Reggie Wayne midway through the third quarter to put the Colts ahead 17-14, the Chargers put the clamps down on Peyton Manning and the Indy offense. While Manning did throw for 310 yards and a touchdown, he failed to move his team much in the fourth quarter, including in drives where one more touchdown would have put the game out of reach. The Chargers’ front seven got consistent pressure on Manning, stuffed the Colts’ running game and gave their offense a chance to win. (Which they did.)

And speaking of the San Diego offense, Darren Sproles proved that he is much more than LaDainian Tomlinson’s backup. He rushed for 105 yards on 22 carries and scored two touchdowns, the second of which won the game in OT. While everybody else on the field was going at 100 mph, he seemed to be playing at 150 mph. He truly was the spark that the Chargers needed, and helped take the game of Philip Rivers’ shoulders, which was huge because the NFL leader in passing efficiency wasn’t particularly sharp Saturday night.

What the Chargers did tonight was prove that regular season records mean nothing in the postseason. People can still talk about the Patriots being screwed out of a chance to play for a Super Bowl (which they were), but nobody can say now that the Chargers don’t belong in the postseason. They beat the hottest team in the league, shutdown the league’s Most Valuable Player in the fourth quarter, and displayed a very good young talent in Sproles.

And if Rivera’s defense can continue to play as well as it has over the past month, don’t assume that the Chargers can’t go into Tennessee or Pittsburgh next week and win. They’re playing with house money right now and just picked up some momentum.

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