What a weekend. Just when you think that the NFL can’t get any better, we have our first overtime under the league’s new rules which lasted all of 11 seconds, a team nobody is talking about in the AFC South and another disappointing playoff exit for the Falcons.
With the wildcard weekend in the books, we’re left salivating over the 4 matchups that await us in the divisional round. We can only hope that Saints @ 49ers, Broncos @ Patriots, Texans @ Ravens and Giants @ Packers lives up to the hype from this weekend, but first, let’s quickly review from the weekend that was in our rewind.
1. Tebow takes it to a new level.
We’re running out of superlatives, both positive and negative, to describe the performances posted by Tim Tebow this season. I’ll admit, I expected Sunday afternoon’s contest against the Steelers to be the most boring of the day. Instead, we were treated to one of the most memorable playoff games in recent years as the Broncos stunned the Steelers 29-23 in overtime.
The Steelers came into the game as just the second team in playoff history to be favored on the road by more than a touchdowns, but that didn’t matter to Tebow. Once again, the most polarizing quarterback in the league was streaky. The Broncos failed to complete a pass or gain a first down in the first quarter, but exploded for 20 second quarter points on their way to a surprising 20-6 halftime lead. Although the Steelers’ defense held Denver in check for the majority of the second half, and enough to force the first overtime game in NFL history under the new rules, it didn’t matter. Tebow’s 80-yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime was shocking beyond belief as the Steelers’ fate appeared to be sealed in slow motion.
Overall, it was a typical Tebow performance. He completed less than 50% of his passes and missed a lot of throws that a traditional quarterback should have completed. But he was able to stretch the field more than any other game in his career. Coming into the game, Pittsburgh had allowed just 6 passing plays of 30-yards or more during the season. On Sunday, the Broncos had 5 of their own on their way to victory.
Tebow time is now headed to New England to face Tom Brady. In primetime. In the playoffs. Prepare for anarchy.
2. It’s time to start questioning the Falcons.
Since taking over the dumpster fire that was the Atlanta Falcons four seasons ago, Mike Smith has done a remarkable job. In securing back-to-back winning seasons for the Falcons for the first time in franchise history and 3 straight playoff appearances, Smith has established a new benchmark of success in Atlanta.
However, as the Falcons suffered yet another playoff disappointment in yesterday’s 24-2 loss to the the Giants in New York, it’s time to start questioning whether these Falcons have what it takes to be playoff contenders or whether they are content gathering playoff appearances with first round exits.
Atlanta essentially mortgaged its entire 2011 draft to move up and take Julio Jones to provide for more explosiveness in situations like this. Although Jones did lead the Falcons with 64 yards, he averaged just 9.1 yards per catch as the Altanta’s offense was out of sync all day thanks to a relentless Giants’ defense that appears to have peaked at just the right time.
In the end, the duo of Mike Smith and Matt Ryan now falls to 0-3 in playoff games. Although it’s probably not much solace, the team that defeated Atlanta in the first two games has gone on to play in the Super Bowl. Atlanta now finds itself at a crossroads. Stars like John Abraham and Tony Gonzalez, who still hasn’t won a playoff game in his career, are getting older and emerging players like Matt Ryan and Roddy While appear to lack the moxie to take the reins of this team and lead them to postseason success. It’s likely to be another off-season of unanswerable questions for the Falcons and their fans this offseason. And, unfortunately, they now have less draft picks to use to try and solve those questions.
3. The Saints win with balance, not just Brees.
Drew Brees rightfully gets most of the praise when the Saints win, and more often than not the Saints win in large part because he is playing at a level unequaled right now in the NFL. However, to focus only on the accomplishments of Brees overlooks the many complimentary pieces that have also helped to drive the Saints this season. Most fans are certainly aware that the Saints are the #1 ranked passing offense in the league, but they are likely just as unaware that the Saints also rank 6th in the league in rushing offense. That balance on offense is what makes Brees so lethal, as teams can’t simply afford to sit in their Dime packages and play against the pass all day. Adding to the troubles the Saints give defenses is that they can run equally as effective out of both one back and two back sets, meaning that just because Darren Sproles is in the backfield doesn’t mean it will be a pass play. In fact, Sproles was actually the Saints leading rushing this season, and averaged an almost unfathomable 6.9 yard per carry.
On the season the Saints averaged 132.9 yards per game on the ground, but in their three losses the Saints managed just 69.0 yards on the ground, nearly half of the aforementioned season average. This week the Saints face a true test when it comes to playing balanced football, as the 49ers top the league in allowing only 77.3 yards per game rushing. While it’s true that rushing the ball is not a must in order to win against the 49ers — in fact in their 3 losses the 49ers only allowed 64.0 yards per game — a strong and balanced rushing attack next Saturday against the 49ers would allow the Saints to truly open up the passing game for Brees.
4. Houston finds itself again.
Even with Matt Schaub at quarterback, the Texans claimed their first playoff berth through a strong running game led by Arian Foster and Ben Tate. During our preview of the Texans’ game against the Bengals on Saturday, we pointed out that the Texans gave their backfield tandem just 23 carries in the team’s first game against Cincinnati back in December and that, in order to win, they’d have to increase that number.
Well, consider it done. The Texans got back to what it does best and smashed the Bengals 31-10 in a game that was pretty much over when J.J. Watt returned an interception for a touchdown shortly before the end of the first half. However, the Houston offense was buoyed by Arian Foster who had 24 carries for 153 yards and 2 touchdowns in the smashmouth performance of the weekend by any team.
Meanwhile, on defense, Wade Phillips dialed up numerous blitz schemes under his base 3-4 to confuse Andy Dalton and neutralized Cincinnati’s rushing attack, which had just 76 yards. Houston now travels to Baltimore to take on a rested Ravens team in what is quickly becoming one of the more intriguing games of the weekend. Although the Ravens dominated at home this year with an 8-0 record, the Texans’ rushing attack could tire out a veteran defense enough for T.J. Yates and company to pull the upset.
5. The officials continue to make the news.
Wildcard weekend didn’t go without its own officiating blunders which, unfortunately, impacted the landscape of a few games throughout the weekend. In New Orleans, a Drew Brees fumble recovery by Detroit was whistled dead following confusing among the officials. If the play was allowed to continue, the Lions had a sure touchdown which would have made it 21-10 Detroit at a critical point in the game. Meanwhile, it’s also becoming clear that officials are allowing more physical play to occur against mobile quarterbacks. In Denver, cameras captured at least 2 facemask penalties against Tim Tebow which were not called. It’s easy to criticize officiating in just about any game, but the mistakes are magnified even further in the playoffs and it’s yet just another reminder that penalties, especially against quarterbacks, need to be further clarified by the league this offseason.