Jan 142013
 

Atlanta FalconsWe had one more great game on Sunday, as the Atlanta Falcons beat the Seattle Seahawks 30-28 after surging out to a 20-0 lead, then squandered the lead in the final minute, only to come back with a late field goal and emerge victorious. The later game was not nearly as dramatic, as the New England Patriots overpowered the Houston Texans 41-28 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate.

Atlanta Falcons 30 Seattle Seahawks 28
Pete Carroll’s attempts to freeze the kicker backfired as Matt Bryant’s first attempt was wide right, but then he connected on his second try as the Falcons came back in the game’s final seconds to beat the Seahawks.

The Atlanta Falcons wasted no time taking control of the game, racing out to an early 10-0 lead en route to a 20-0 halftime advantage. The Seahawks missed an opportunity to score at the end of the first half when Russell Wilson was sacked and the Seahawks, with no timeouts remaining, failed to get another play off. The teams then traded touchdowns in the third quarter before Seattle scored three straight touchdowns in twelve and a half minutes to take a 28-27 lead.

But starting on their own 28 yard line, the Falcons needed just two plays to cover 41 yards in 18 seconds, setting up Matt Bryant for the game winning 49 yard field goal. The ensuing kickoff was botched and the Seahawks recovered the ball at their own 46 yard line, but were unable to get in field goal range. A desperation pass by Wilson was intercepted in the end zone by Jacoby Jones to end the game.

Matt Ryan had a mixed day at quarterback, but was successful in getting the playoff monkey off of his back. Ryan was 24/35 for 250 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Michael Turner rushed for 98 yards as the Falcons were able to effectively pound the ball on the Seahawks, and Jacquizz Rodgers added 64 yards.

For the Seahawks, Wilson ended his rookie season with a 24/36 performance for 385 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, as well as 60 rushing yards on seven carries, including a touchdown. The Seahawks were never able to get Marshawn Lynch integrated into the game, and Lynch was limited to just 46 yards on 16 carries. Zach Miller had a big receiving day for the Seahawks, catching eight passes for 142 yards and a score, while Golden Tate added six catches for 103 yards and one touchdown.

Atlanta will host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship on Sunday.

New England Patriots 41 Houston Texans 28
Tom Brady threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns as the Patriots once again overwhelmed the Texans at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots lost Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead to injuries, but didn’t miss a beat as Shane Vereen ran for once score and caught two more playing out of Woodhead’s spot. Stevan Ridley rushed for 82 yards on 15 carries, while Vereen added 41 yards. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez teamed up for fourteen receptions for a combined 216 yards.

With the victory, Tom Brady became the winningest starting quarterback in NFL playoff history, passing Joe Montana with his 17th post-season win. Brady currently has a 17-6 post-season record.

Arian Foster led the Texans’ offense with 90 yards and a score on 22 carries, but Matt Schaub suffered through an inconsistent and inaccurate day as the Patriots’ secondary was once again up to the task of playing tight man to man coverage on the Texans’ receivers and tight ends. Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels caught eight and nine passes respectively for 95 and 81 yards, but were limited in yards after the catch and were unable to produce big plays. The most effective receiver was Foster himself, as he caught seven passes for 63 yards and a score.

Rob Ninkovich once again came up big for the Patriots on defense. The linebacker had four tackles, two passes defended, one quarterback hit, an interception, an onside kick recovery and a tackle for a loss. Aqib Talib and Steve Gregory both had active days with ten tackles each, and Devin McCourty had another solid day at safety and in special teams, where he prevented the game’s opening kickoff from being returned for a touchdown. Danieal Manning had a fantastic day returning kickoffs, averaging 54 yards on four returns, including the 90 yard return to open the game.

The Patriots, who held a 17-13 halftime advantage, scored the first 21 points of the second half to take a 38-13 lead. The Texans were able to add 15 points in the fourth quarter to close the gap, but the context was never seriously in doubt after Vereen scored his third touchdown with 13:07 remaining.

The Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday in the AFC Championship.

Jan 092013
 

Falcons - SeahawksThe Atlanta Falcons enter the divisional round of the NFC playoffs with a 13-3 record and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, yet find themselves a two and a half point underdog to the upstart fifth seed Seattle Seahawks when the two teams square off this Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome. (*** see update below)

So much for earning the top seed.

Seattle’s status as favorite in this game is deserved, but the game promises to be perhaps the most exciting game of the divisional round. It also marks the only divisional round contest that is not a rematch of a regular season contest. Plus it pairs two teams with very different styles of football. Brace yourselves in for a fun ride this Sunday.

Here’s how I see the game breaking down.

When Seattle runs
Marshawn Lynch ran for 1,590 yards this season and 11 touchdowns, and racked up another 132 yards and a score in last week’s wildcard win over Washington. Lynch’s running prowess and ability to break tackles may force the Falcons to load the box rather than play a Cover 2, making Atlanta susceptible to Seattle’s passing attack. It doesn’t help that Atlanta has given up 4.8 yards per rush this season, and ranks 21st against the run at 123.2 yards per game. Russell Wilson is an effective manager of the Read Option and his athleticism may give the Falcons fits, and Robert Turbin also serves as an efficient back. Atanta’s Stephen Nicholas and Akeem Dent are solid linebackers, but will need to wrap up Lynch rather than try to bring him down with arm tackles or big hits. This match-up favors the Seahawks, and I would expect Lynch to again rush for more than 100 yards, while Wilson and Turbin tack on another 40 or 50. One thing to watch is Lynch’s ball protection. He fumbled five times during the season (losing two) and lost a fumble last weekend in the wildcard game.

When Seattle passes
Seattle does not possess a prolific passing offense (27th in the NFL, 189.4 ypg), so they are simply hoping for a “good enough” effort against the Falcons. Wilson has a 64.1 completion percentage this season, outstanding for a rookie quarterback. But the running game will be the key to the passing game’s success, as it will be far easier for Wilson to connect with targets downfield if the Falcons are forced to bring up safeties in run defense. Once again, Atlanta is vulnerable because they suffer in applying pressure to the quarterback, and managed only 29 sacks on the season. Wilson’s mobility further negates what little pass rush the Falcons will bring. Neither Sidney Rice nor Golden Tate is a true number one receiver, but both are reliable targets. Tate is a speedster who is capable of acrobatic catches and making big plays downfield, while Rice is a durable possession receiver. On the other side, Daunta Robinson and Asante Samuel are capable corners, with Samuel being known as a gambler in coverage. Thomas DeCoud and Chris Hope are among the best safety tandems in the league, but the Falcons still ranked only 23rd in pass defense this season. Sean Witherspoon will need to confuse Wilson and try to force him to make mistakes, and John Abraham and Kroy Biermann will need to get pressure on Wilson to take him out of his comfort zone. Look for Wilson to only pass for around 200 yards, but it may be more than enough to keep the chains moving and keep the Atlanta defense off balance.

When Atlanta runs
Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers are dynamic and complementary backs, and coupled with Jason Snelling the Falcons should be capable of establishing a running game against the Seahawks, particularly off of both tackles. What is troubling for the Falcons however, is that despite the talent they possess at running back, they have not exhibited a dynamic running game this season. The Falcons come in ranked 29th, totaling only 1,397 yards this season. The Falcons possess a solid offensive line, with their only obvious weakness being at the right guard spot where Robert Kunz will need to step up his game this week. For the Falcons to have any real chance of winning this game, they must establish the run and take the pressure off of Matt Ryan, who will be facing a fierce secondary this week.

When Atlanta passes
The Atlanta Falcons would have the edge in this area of the game against nearly any team in the NFL, but the Seattle Seahawks offer the stiffest test that Matt Ryan and his talented receivers are likely to face this season. Ryan has had an outstanding season (4,719 yards, 32 TD, 14 INT, 68.6 completion percentage) and is usually a clutch performer. Roddy White and Julio Jones are as dynamic as any receiver pair in the league. White caught 92 passes for 1,351 yards and seven scores, while Jones caught 79 passes for 1,198 yards and ten touchdowns. Throw in Tony Gonzalez (93 receptions, 930 yards, 8 TD), Harry Douglas (38 receptions, 396 yards, 1 TD), and Rodgers (53 receptions, 402 yards, 1 TD) and it’s easy to see how the Atlanta passing attack could strike fear into the hearts of nearly any opposing defense. Anyone but Seattle’s, that is. Richard Sherman (6’3″, 200#) and Brandon Browner (6’3, 220#) offer a physical match-up to the 6’1″, 210# White and 6’3″, 220# Jones that the Falcons are not used to contending with. Both are excellent corners that can play their receivers in man coverage, freeing up the safety tandem of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas to play Cover 2, Cover 1 robber, or to step up in run defense if the Falcons should have early success running the ball. Cornerback Marcus Trufant is still decent, but is a shadow of his former self, likely to be targeted whenever he is on the field Sunday. Rookie Bruce Irvin, who had eight sacks this season but only 17 total tackles, must step in to replace the injured Chris Clemons and apply pressure to Ryan. Brandon Mebane, Alan Branch and Red Bryant form a solid wall against the run, but struggle in applying consistent pressure to the passer. Seattle only recorded 33 sacks this season (20th in NFL), so they will need to be creative in blitzes to try to rattle Matty Ice. Ryan will need to throw for over 250 yards for the Falcons to have a realistic chance to win, and will need to amass more than 300 yards and make some big plays downfield in the absence of a solid running game this weekend. Look for Gonzalez to get a heavy dose of targets, and for Rodgers to be used as a receiver out of the backfield.

Special teams
The special teams match-up offers a very slight edge to the Falcons. Matt Bryant is a clutch and reliable kicker for the Falcons, and Matt Bosher is a steady punted who excels in changing field position. Rodgers is a decent kick returner, while Dominique Franks and Harry Douglas have struggled to do much with punt returns. The Seahawks were forced to sign Ryan Longwell to replace an injured Steven Hauschka, while John Ryan is an above average punter. Leon Washington is a solid kick and punt returner who has a knack for positive yardage and absorbing hits.

Intangibles
Mike Smith is 2-0 in head to head match-ups with Pete Carroll, but is 0-3 in the post-season. Atlanta is second in the league in 3rd down conversions (45.1%), while Seattle is ranked 12th (40.2%). Seattle went 4-1 against playoff teams this season, beating Green Bay (sort of), New England, Minnesota and San Francisco while losing their first meeting with the 49ers. The Falcons are 2-0 against playoff teams this season, having beaten the Broncos and Redskins.

Atlanta is 7-1 at home this season, while the Seahawks are a mere 4-5 on the road, plus have the burden of traveling across the country for a second straight week to play an East Coast team. 8 of Russell Wilson’s 10 interceptions this season came on the road.

Atlanta and Seattle are tied at +13 in turnover differential this season, with both teams taking the ball away 31 times against 18 of their own turnovers.

Seattle wins if…  Marshawn Lynch runs for over 100 yards and protects the ball, if Russell Wilson can make some plays with passes downfield and with his legs while avoiding mistakes, they hold the Falcons under 100 yards rushing while stopping big plays to White and Jones.

Atlanta wins if… they tackle Marshawn Lynch on first contact and confuse the rookie Wilson, if they can force two or more Seattle turnovers, they establish a strong ground game and rush for more than 125 yards, and connect on several big plays to White, Jones, and Gonzalez.

Prediction
This game has the potential to go either way, and I would be genuinely surprised if this game turned into a rout one way or the other. Atlanta’s offense will be reliant on Matt Ryan makings some big plays downfield, something he has shown a knack for doing. But the Seattle secondary is going to make that a tall order. The Falcons have not shown that they consistently run the ball, something that could come back to haunt them this week. On the flip side, Seattle’s rushing attack poses problems for the Falcon’s front seven, while the passing attack is capable enough to make key plays. As long as Russell Wilson doesn’t choose this week to start making rookie mistakes, this match-up also seems to favor the Seahawks.

Look for the travel and the home crowd to give the Falcons the early edge and probably en early lead. But just as we saw last weekend against the Redskins, expect the Seahawks to slowly assert control over the game. Provided Marshawn Lynch can hold on to the ball and Russell Wilson can avoid making key mistakes, the Seahawks will pound the ball in the second half and advance to the NFC Championship.

Seahawks 27 Falcons 20

*** UPDATE: I swear I read a site where the Hawks were listed as the favorite. Of course it could be the medication talking, as I have not been able to find that site again and have continually seen the Falcons listed as a one to two and a half point favorite. So I thought I read this, but it’s equally possible that I can’t tell a “+” sign from a “-” sign. Correction noted. In any event, the basic premise is that by record the Falcons should be favored, but the Seahawks feel like the favorite. If in fact the Falcons are favored by a mere two and a half points with home field advantage, and that home field normally counts for two to three points, the Seahawks would appear to be the team to beat in this game.

Jan 022013
 

Seahawks - RedskinsThe Seattle Seahawks can take solace in the fact that the road to the Lombardi Trophy for the past two Super bowl winners—Green Bay and New York—came less a home game for either team. Thankfully, for the rest of the NFC playoff field, the unfriendly confines of CenturyLink Field will remain out of play this post season barring a Vikings-Seahawks matchup. In 2012, Seattle defeated only one team—the Chicago Bears—with a winning record on the road. Nonetheless, other than their opponent, no team heads into the post season hotter. While Washington has won its last 7 starts, Seattle has put together wins in 7 of 8 games during a stretch that has seen them give up more than 17 points only once and score 58, 50, and 42 points in succession.

For Washington, they can look no further than the Seahawks themselves for a prime example of how a home game wild card weekend can prove to be a tremendous advantage against a team that may either match or exceed them in virtually all aspects of the game. While home cooking has not correlated to championship success in recent seasons, it did help a 7-9 Seattle team upend the defending Super Bowl Champion Saints that traveled to Seattle sporting an 11-5 record in 2010. This game is more evenly matched than that game was. Washington, the only playoff team in either conference with 3 home losses, has reversed their early season home misfortunes by winning their last 4 home games—all virtual must win occurrences.

The Keys for Seattle
Seattle’s defense relies heavily on strict gap assignment football—they will need to stay disciplined to stop the league’s number one rushing attack. Assuming they are able to contain Alfred Morris and a physically limited Robert Griffin III, Washington will attempt to exploit man coverage from the Seattle secondary. CB Brandon Browner is back from suspension and Richard Sherman had his overturned. Additionally, Safety’s Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas have been adept at stopping both the run and pass all season. Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton, the top two running QB’s to face Seattle this season, collectively scored 25 points against Seattle. Limiting the cutback lanes for Alfred Morris and Griffin and winning the one-on-one battles against the Santana Moss, Pierre Garcon, and Leonard Hankerson will be paramount factors if Seattle is to win on the road.

Washington’s three interceptions against Dallas in their division title clinching performance in Week 17 were more story of Tony Romo’s ineptitude than Washington’s prowess. Offensively, Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle rushing attack has allowed Russell Wilson to exploit the opposition all season long with the play action and to compensate for a lack of talent amongst Seahawk receivers. This will have to continue for Seattle to move on to the divisional round. Washington gave up 281.9 yards per game through the air this season which is more indicative of who they are as a defense than the three pick performance and the 18 points they held Dallas to.

The Keys for Washington
Washington held opponents to 96 yards per game rushing throughout the season. In order to win they must limit a Seattle rushing attack that averaged 161 yards per game and limit the ability of Russell Wilson to feed off the play action. While Washington’s secondary is weak, Seattle’s Achilles heel is its lack of talent at WR—limiting Seattle’s running game and taking away the play action should ground the Seattle passing attack and compensate for Washington’s inadequacy in the secondary.

Offensively, Alfred Morris will need to continue on the course of success he has been on. The rookie rushed for 1613 yards and, more importantly, he came up with a 200 yard 3 touchdown performance in Week 17 with Griffin’s ground game being limited due to injury. If Morris’ cutback game can exploit the league’s 10th ranked rushing defense—and the condition of RG III’s knee improves, the Redskins will be better equipped to deal with the Seattle blitz and physical nature of their pass defense.

The Outcome
The two quarterbacks would easily be the Rookie of the Year in virtually any season had they not come out in the same year. The feature backs are separated by 23 yards on the season. The hot streak that both teams are on is equally incredible and all things point to this game being a pick ‘em type affair. In such cases it’s easy to side with the home team. However, there is one area where these teams are not at least close to even: The Seattle defense is better, particularly against the pass, and has fared well against moving quarterbacks. Seattle 28 – Washington 20

Update: Please note this article was first published with an incorrect note that Seattle was 10-5-1. This has since been corrected.

Oct 142012
 

The Seattle Seahawks needed every break to go their way if they were going to pull off the upset against the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon. And everything did. Despite dominating much of the afternoon, the New England Patriots squandered opportunity after opportunity, and the Seahawks offense took advantage of major coverage lapses to pull out the 24-23 victory over New England at CenturyLink Field.

The Patriots followed the expected script for most of the first half. After trading scores with the Seahawks, the Patriots found themselves down 10-7  before taking the ball down the field on a 15 play drive that ended in a Tom Brady to Aaron Hernandez one yard touchdown pass and a 14-10 Patriots lead. On the ensuing possession, Chandler Jones stripped the ball from Russell Wilson and it was recovered by Rob Ninkovich at the Seahawks’ 47 yard line. The Patriots then drove to within the 5 yard line before being forced to settle for a Stephen Gostkowski field goal and a 17-10 lead.

The game should have been decided on the next drive. After the Patriots forced the Seahawks to punt, punter Jon Ryan bobbled the ball and took a 14 yard loss, turning the ball over on downs at the Seahawks’ 24 yard line. The Patriots again drove inside the 10 yard line before a Brady pass to Rob Gronkowski was batted away, bringing third down with six seconds left. But on the next play, Brady threw the ball away without a receiver in the area, netting an intentional grounding call and a ten second runoff, ending the half without any additional points. This would come back to haunt the Patriots later in the game.

The second half began with the Patriots seemingly taking control of the game, as the Patriots forced a quick Seahawks punt and driving eight plays before being forced to settle for another field goal, upping the lead to 20-10. The drive was aided by a gritty 7 yard run by Danny Woodhead and a 35 yard pass play to tight end Daniel Fells. The next Patriots’ drive ended with an underthrown deep ball by Brady that was picked off by Richard Sherman, who had a big game for the Seahawks. After another Seattle punt, the Patriots were again driving deep in Seahawks’ territory when Earl Thomas picked off a misfired pass by Brady. It didn’t result in Seahawks’ points, as just three plays later the Seahawks would give the ball back deep in New England territory after a Zach Miller fumble, but it was another wasted scoring opportunity for the Patriots’ offense. The Patriots did capitalize on the Miller fumble, driving seven plays (with big plays from Brandon Lloyd and Woodhead) before settling with another Gostkowski field goal and a 23-10 lead.

The Seahawks started the next drive at their own 17, and on the first play Wilson hit Golden Tate on a long bomb, and a roughing call on top brought the ball to the Patriots’ 17 yard line. Four plays later Wilson hit Braylon Edwards for the score and the lead was cut to 23-17. The Patriots’ next drive short-circuited early with the aid of another intentional grounding call on Brady, forcing a New England punt. Three plays later New England had the ball back with the opportunity to close the game out, but two short runs and an incomplete pass later the Patriots’ were forced to punt. Lean Washington then raced 25 yards with the punt return, setting up Seattle at their own 43 yard line to start the next drive. After Wilson ran a keeper play for nine yards, the Patriots were forced to call their final time out when they had twelve defenders on the field. Lynch then ran for the first down, and on the next play Wilson hit Sidney Rice for a 46 yard touchdown pass that decided the game and gave the Seahawks a 24-23 come from behind win.

The Patriots can look all over the field for reasons they lost. Brady made several uncharacteristic mistakes, and Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung and Tavon Wilson got beat routinely and badly in the secondary to allow Russell Wilson the opportunity to lead his team to the dramatic win. The Patriots were successful in shutting down Marshawn Lynch (41 yards on 15 carries) and forced the game into Russell Wilson’s hands, but the Patriots’ pass defense suffered breakdown after breakdown in blown coverages, getting beat to the ball, or committing penalties as Wilson passed for 293 yards and three touchdowns. Brady threw a career-high 58 times as the Patriots’ abandoned the ground game, with Brady throwing for 395 yards and two scores, but for two interceptions as well.  Wes Welker had 10 catches for 138 yards, his fourth straight game over 100.

How bad was the loss for the Patriots? The Pats ran 86 offensive plays to Seattle’s 57; a difference of 29 plays. And they still lost. That one number crystalizes the wasted opportunities that the Patriots left on the field on Sunday. Here’s how the game broke out.

When the Patriots ran:

The Patriots didn’t rely on the run nearly as much today, as they seemed to like the match-ups against the linebackers and safeties with Welker, Hernandez, and Gronkowski. Bolden ran for 28 yards on 6 carries before leaving with an injury, and Stevan Ridley ran for 34 yards on 16 carries. Danny Woodhead added 25 yards on 4 carries. The Patriots were able to run at key times, but on the whole could never really get the run game started. Ridley held on to the ball today, but was never really able to get into the flow of the game. Advantage: Seahawks

When the Patriots passed:

Despite the mistakes, Brady threw for 395 yards, connecting with eight different receivers. Welker had 10 catches, Lloyd, Hernandez, and Gronk each had six and Woodhead added five. The Patriots were able to throw at will and took advantages of mismatches against the linebackers, as well as working Gronkowski against Kam Chancellor and Welker paired up against Marcus Trufant. But for the Brady mistakes the Patriots  could easily have surpassed 35 points today. Advantage: Patriots

When the Seahawks ran:

Marshawn Lynch was an afterthought today, running for just 41 yards on 15 carries. Robert Turbin was more effective with 5 carries for 27 yards, and Russell Wilson was opportunistic in gaining 17 yards on 5 carries. Like the Patriots, the Seahawks were able to get some good situational runs, but the overall running game was ineffective. Advantage: Patriots

When the Seahawks passed:

Brady may have thrown for more yards, but Wilson was able to connect on five passes of 20 or more yards, including the 46 yard touchdown to Edwards and a 24 yard touchdown strike to Doug Baldwin. The Patriots’ secondary was horrendous today, and even Alfonzo Dennard, last week’s pleasant surprise who eventually replaced Kyle Arrington after his struggles, looked miserable as Wilson picked them apart like he was Joe Montana in piling up 293 yards and three touchdown passes. Tavon Wilson regressed in his second start at safety for the Pats. Nate Ebner is a liability at this point and shouldn’t even be on the field. Advantage: Seahawks

Special Teams:

They say the last act is the one that is often remembered. Both squads has highs and lows today. Ryan botched the punt attempt that should have given New England a commanding halftime lead, but he also averaged 60 yards on 4 punts. Wes Welker had a good day returning punts (68 yards on 4 returns), and both kickers were perfect on the day. But it was New England’s return breakdown on the final punt that allowed Leon Washington the scamper 25 yards and get the Seahawks in great field position that will be remembered on special teams in this game. Advantage: Seahawks

Key Moment: Take your choice. Brady’s picks, the intentional grounding at the end of the first half, any of Wilson’s downfield throws that netted points, or Washington’s key punt return. Too many to call.

Game Ball: Russell Wilson, for stepping up in the clutch. The Patriots’ game plan was to force Wilson to win the game for the Seahawks, and that’s exactly what he did. It was a great performance by the rookie quarterback, aided by an historically awful performance from the New England secondary.

Oct 092012
 

It will be a battle of the irresistible force versus the immovable object when the New England Patriots square off against the Seattle Seahawks this Sunday in Seattle.  The Patriots boast the top offense in the league in both yards per game and points, while the Seahawks offer up the league’s best defense in yards per game and second in points allowed per game.

The game will also feature the Patriots future Hall of Fame Head Coach Bill Belichick against the Patriots’ once upon a time coach of three seasons in the years that bridged the departure of Bill Parcells and the return of Belichick. Pete Carroll’s “rah rah” approach to coaching was a relative failure in New England, but Carroll seems to have honed his approach in the intervening years at USC and is inspiring a confident group of players in the 2012 Seahawks.

The Patriots rely on an opportunistic defense that surrenders yards but also forces turnovers, and the Patriots are tied for the league lead with a +10 turnover differential. The Seahawks use an active and energetic defense that also prides itself in forcing turnovers, but their offense is more charitable in giving the ball up, and the Seahawks are 17th in the league with a -1 turnover differential through the first five games.

On offense the Patriots are the class of the NFL, and this year are executing on the ground (3rd in NFL) as well as through the air (9th). The running back tandem of Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, and Danny Woodhead (and occasionally Shane Vereen) have gashed opposing defenses for big yards over the past two weeks, and I would expect the Patriots to adopt a slower paced game this Sunday in order to try to take the air out of an aggressive Seattle defense, as well as to take the air out of the 12th Man, the rowdy Seattle crowd that offers the Seahawks a discernable home field advantage eight times a year. Expect the Patriots to look to run off the right side, taking advantage of Seattle’s weaker defensive players. Chris Clemons, Brandon Mebane, KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner patrol the middle and defensive right side for the Seahawks, and are the bulk of the unit’s production in sacks and forced fumbles. As always, the Patriots will complement the runs with short passes to Gronkowski, Welker, and Hernandez (who is looking ready to play this week), and they have the capability to stretch the field with Brandon Lloyd.

The Patriots will seek to keep the Seattle defensive unit off balance, but will likely do it through play selection, rather than with the hurry-up offense that we have seen over the past two games. Seattle only runs three basic defensive sets; this negates the advantage that the Patriots get from defensive mis-matches, but gives Brady the opportunity to pick apart those packages over the course of four quarters. The two starting corners for the Seahawks are dangerous (Browner and Sherman) but the safeties can be exploited by the Patriots’ offense and their play-action mechanics. Marcus Trufant will be given the tall order of defending against Welker. Kam Chancellor has the frame (6’3″, 232) to try and cover Gronkowski, but Gronk appears to have a decided advantage in both size and athleticism. As long as the Patriots hold on to the ball, they should be able to affect long scoring drives and wear the Seattle defense down. The Patriots are fourth in the league in converting third down opportunities, while the Seahawks rank 19th in giving up third down conversions. I expect the Patriots to look to create third and short opportunities all day to exploit with their cast of running backs.

On the other side, the offense centers around Marshawn Lynch, who has rushed for 508 yards (4.5 ypc) and two touchdowns, and the Seahawks are 7th in the league in rushing. That leaves rookie quarterback Russell Wilson the role of being an effective game manager, a role he has so far excelled in despite his 5 TD/6 INT ratio and overall lackluster 75.2 quarterback rating. The Seahawks will try to pound Lynch early and often on the Patriots, who rank eighth against the run. The Patriots know how to take away the strength of the opponent, and I would expect Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones to work hard to contain the edge in order to force Lynch back into the arms of Wilfork, Love, Mayo, and Spikes. Where the Seahawks would normally like to utilize the run to set up opportunities to go downfield to Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, and Zach Miller, they may need to do just the opposite against the Patriots to free up running room for Lynch. And it is Bill Belichick’s goal to put the game into the hands of Russell Wilson, knowing that he will be able to bring pressure to bear on the rookie quarterback and be able to confuse his reads and force key turnovers.

Three Keys for the Patriots:

1. Control the ball

Even though Russell Wilson does not strike fear into the Patriots’ faithful, it’s still best to keep the opposing quarterback (and more importantly Marshawn Lynch) off of the field whenever possible. The Patriots will seek to duplicate the success they have had in directed 10+ play drives that consume five or six minutes off of the clock; the key is to duplicate this success in one of the more hostile road environments in the NFL. Balance is the new keyword in the Patriots’ offense, and I expect the Patriots to utilize situational runs, mostly to the right, to create short yardage situations as well as to keep the Seahawks honest.

2. Protect Brady

Hey, at least it dropped to #2 this week… But it remains true. The Seahawks can get after the passer. Chris Clemons is a beast, and Mebane and Wright are no slouches. Nate Solder and Logan Mankins will need to be on their game, and might even need running back or tight end help to keep Brady standing in the pocket. The Patriots are generally effective at protecting their franchise player, but suffered a lapse in the second half against the Broncos, with Sebastian Vollmer getting beat soundly on a couple of occasions. The Seahawks made target practice out of Aaron Rodgers a couple of weeks ago, but the Packers made good adjustments in the second half. Look for the Patriots to come up with some creative protection options out of the gate.

3. Make Russell Wilson win the game

The Patriots’ defense will be primarily focused on slowing down or shutting down Marshawn Lynch. Forcing Wilson to pass is inviting him to make mistakes against a defense that will be disguising its coverages in an attempt to create confusion. Devin McCourty is still struggling with technique, but his coverage skills are sufficient, and Kyle Arrington is a physical corner who can make big plays. The introduction of Alfonzo Dennard into the mix last week against the Broncos could be a sign of things to come, as Dennard was very effective in limited play. he could soon become a regular part of the rotation. More importantly, the Patriots have improved dramatically in bringing pressure to bear on the quarterback. While the Saints have generally been stubborn about giving up sacks (10 so far), it’s more about affecting the throw, forcing bad decisions, and providing opportunities for deflections and other big plays. Wilson is an effective scrambler, but doesn’t make his living running the ball downfield.

Three Keys for the Seahawks:

1. Run the ball

This is always Seattle’s key to offensive success, but it will be even more important against a team that has excelled in stopping the run. Lynch must be successful (more than 100 yards) for the Seahawks to have a realistic chance to win the game. Creating holes against a solid front seven is a tough challenge awaiting the Seahawks.

2. Stop Gronk, Hernandez, and Welker

Hernandez may or may not be ready to play on Sunday, but Gronk will be, despite the fact that is playing through heavy pain. Gronk looked healthy enough against the Broncos, but it was Welker who stole the show with 13 receptions. Pass rush really isn’t the answer to this particular riddle, as Brady doesn’t need much time in order to connect on short routes. Instead, the pressure is on the Seahawks’ secondary to step up and press the Patriots’ receiver, trying to alter them from their routes and otherwise give them little room to work in. The Seahawks are 5th against the pass at 192 yards per game, so it is entirely conceivable that they could make the Patriots work for every catch that they get. The trouble is, 192 passing yards is more than enough for Brady if the Patriots are also rushing effectively. Match-ups are key, and you can expect the Patriots to create mismatches all days against a talented but inexperienced group of linebackers. The Seahawks’ defense will have its hands full on Sunday.

3. Create big plays

The Seahawks are at home, where they historically thrive; they are clearly a better home team than road team. If statistics are not to decide this game, it will be because their opportunistic defense forces the Patriots to turn the ball over three or more times, while their offense cannot return the favor. If this happens, the Seahawks will get to control the tempo of the game, force the Patriots to deviate from their game plan, and make a Seahawks upset much more likely. On offense, occasional shots down the field to Rice or Tate may net big yards and/or penalties, as McCourty is having difficulty getting beat deep. One or two of those plays could have a dramatic impact on the outcome.

Prediction:

Because this game is in Seattle, I will expect that the Patriots’ offense may be thrown off its rhythm from time to time, and will even expect one big turnover the will lead to Seattle points. But it is simply hard for me to imagine the Seahawks being able to be able to run for big yards against the Patriots, and they don’t seem to have the weapons to compete through the air, where the Seahawks rank 31st in the league. Conversely, the Seahawks defense may be able to slow the Patriots’ attack, but not stop it. The Patriots have too many weapons to contend with, know how to effectively attack an opponent’s weakness, and have players they can exploit on the defensive side.

The game will likely unfold slowly, with both teams seeking to gain the advantage on field position, but I don’t think it will be long before the Patriots are able to establish some momentum and take the lead by halftime. I envision the third quarter being more of what we saw against the Broncos last week, with the Patriots sustaining long drives for scores, forcing the Seahawks to spend the fourth quarter trying to come back through the air. But Russell Wilson isn’t Peyton Manning, and the Patriots’ offense is far deadlier than anything the Seahawks have seen to date this season. Patriots 27 Seahawks 17.

Sep 252012
 

…maybe the replacements got it right, after all.

If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.

Go watch the video, and tell me you can see whether the defender caught the ball first, or if the ball was caught by both players at the same time. Even the announcers called it “simultaneous”.

But it was reviewed, you say?

Irrelevant.

A ruling of simultaneous possession is a judgement call — i.e., one that cannot be overturned on review. Replays can only be used to determine if a pass was complete or incomplete. So, the only way the referee could have overturned the score is if the video clearly showed the ball hit the ground. Since it didn’t, they had no choice but to award the touchdown — and the game — to Seattle.

EDIT: In light of the NFL’s statement, I stand corrected on this. Simultaneous possession is reviewable in the end zone. This changes my thinking somewhat, but my larger point still stands (read on).

In other words, the replacement referees made a split-second call (and anyone who says they saw an obvious interception at full speed is lying), a call the rules expressly prohibited them from changing upon review.

Blame the referees for making horrible calls all night, if you must. Seattle wouldn’t have been in the position to score if not for a very questionable pass interference flag a few players earlier. On the other hand, Green Bay’s only touchdown drive was saved by another, just as (if not more) questionable, penalty.

I’m not suggesting the replacement referees have been good. However, I don’t for a second buy the argument that it’s inevitable a “real” crew would have called the play correctly. I’d say the odds are 50/50 at best. If you remember, there’s a reason we have replay in the first place; the game is so fast that even those who have officiated games every week for years still get it wrong sometimes.

EDIT: This is where I stand by my thesis. If you honestly think every “real” referee would have overturned the call upon review, you haven’t been watching the same league I have. In light of the NFL’s clarification (above), I’d increase the odds to 60/40 or even 70/30 that the locked-out officials would have made the correct call, either initially or upon review, but no more than that.

The game last night was a godsend for the locked-out officials, in that one play has provided a focal point for all of the boiling anger and resentment by players, coaches, and fans alike. The NFL is all but certain to settle within weeks, if not days. That’s good news for everybody.

The better news for the officials and the league (and the bad news for fans) is the “real” guys weren’t on the field last night. That gives cover for what is an unacceptable state of affairs — namely, that in the age of dozens of camera angles and high-tech replay booths, the rules still prevent officials from correcting many of their “mistakes”. This is the most obvious place where a rules change is needed (aside from the forever-damned “Tuck Rule”).

I put “mistakes” in scare quotes because I have argued for years the mere existence of replay creates an unrealistic expectation of perfection. Referees, umpires, and back judges are human, after all — and while the past couple weeks have proven they are the best at what they do, they still can’t see what fans at home can see with their 90″ HDTVs and super-slo-mo. Frankly, I would be happier if replay was done away with completely, but I realize it’s here to stay. So, here are my humble suggestions:

1) Require reviews to be made at full speed, or at most, slightly slowed. If a call isn’t obviously wrong at 50% normal speed, then live with it.

2) Do away with limitations on what can and cannot be reviewed. I’m not sure where those limits come from, but if the referee can overturn himself, or a member of his crew, on a question of whether a player stepped out of bounds, it seems reasonable he can also overturn judgement calls like whether a cornerback made contact with a receiver too early.

3) Get rid of (or at least refine) the challenge system. If you want to get it right, get it right. Whether or not the opposing head coach wants to wager a timeout should have no bearing on the matter.

4) Finally, adopt the system in place in Canada, and have all replays reviewed centrally. This will ensure consistency (and remove any subconscious reluctance on the part of referees to overturn their crew members’ decisions).

In the end, I have to say no: the replacements didn’t get it right. That much is obvious. But the list of who got it “wrong” is much longer than the poor guys in the end zone last night:

  • An offense that scored 35 points a game last year could only manage a single touchdown, with the assistance of a phantom interference call.
  • The top takeaway defense in the league couldn’t manage a single turnover against a rookie quarterback.
  • The officials aren’t even in a position to make the call if M. D. Jennings takes Tom Jackson’s perennial advice in Hail Mary situations: “KNOCK IT DOWN!”
  • While it didn’t affect the outcome of the game, Mike McCarthy’s professionalism took a major hit when he and his team left the field before the game was officially over. Not a classy move, Mike.

I join my fellow Rats in imploring the league to get this mess over with as quickly as possible.

Sadly, I doubt the griping over the officials will end, one way or the other.

Sep 252012
 

“I am sick to my stomach” were the words used by Jon Gruden at the end of the Packers vs. Seahawks game last night. I could not agree with him more. The integrity of the game has been lost by the situation with the replacement referees. They are not getting it done. They cannot manage the game, make correct calls, or control coaches. Roger Goddell must rectify the situation with officials immediately. I cannot stand to see games decided in this manner. If I were a Packers fan or this happened to my beloved Browns, I would have lost my mind last night. I hope this is the tipping point and the real officials are back soon. To all the NFL fans, good luck with your teams this year, as we have no idea what we are going to get each game. 

Sep 252012
 

I grew up watching a variety of sporting events. One of the things I always appreciated was listening to the post game radio interview after a basketball game, and hearing a basketball coach refuse to blame the loss on an official’s call, or a missed free throw, shot or lay-up that had occurred at the end of the game. The coach on these occasions would point out that the failure to make plays at key moments throughout the game was the cause of the loss as opposed to an official’s call, a missed free throw, or a missed shot at the end of the game. Thus, potentially one of the most frustrating and disappointing things to come out of last night’s game is the opinion that this game was stolen from the Packers. I disagree with this popular sentiment.

The Seattle Seahawks are a gritty, tough, team, and they are a lot of fun to watch. The Seahawks are a play or two away from being 3-0. Who was not impressed by the inspired play of the Seahawk defense, and their plucky quarterback, rookie Russell Wilson? In addition, Marshawn Lynch and Golden Tate were nearly equally as impressive. Consequently, the Seahawks collectively won this game, and let’s give credit where it is due.

In contrast, can the same thing be said about the play of the Green Bay Packers? Giving up eight sacks in one half of play is inexcusable. Yes, Mike McCarthy and his staff made some much needed adjustments at halftime. Further, the much maligned Packer defense has suddenly become a bright spot for the team. The Packers played winning defense, and Aaron Rodgers rendered the type of second half performance that we are used to seeing from him.

However, where was the Packer offensive line in the first half? The tackles were consistently abused and exposed throughout the first half, and the offensive line as a unit delivered a miserable performance. The unit improved its play in the second half, but was the damage already done? In the aftermath of the game, though, rather than some of the Packer linemen acknowledging that they could have played better, these players opted to blame the replacement officials and the NFL for the loss.

I will acknowledge that I am highly critical of Roger Goodell’s handling of this matter. It is my opinion that there has been a lack of leadership on his part in addressing and ultimately resolving this matter. The game and its reputation are being damaged given that it is apparent to all that the lack of quality officiating is damaging the brand of football that we have grown accustomed to watching.
This point is reinforced by what happened last night. Rather than acknowledging the fact that the best team last night won the game, we are blaming the officiating for the Packer loss. Based upon what I witnessed, the Seahawks were the better team and they won the game by virtue of being the better team last night. When it comes down to it, the Packers have no one to blame but themselves for the loss. If the Packers had made more plays throughout the game, the Packers would have won that game going away.

Yes, the failure of the officials union and the NFL to reach an agreement is ruining the game we love. This issue needs to be resolved today. As opposed to discussing what was a great football game last night, played by two pretty good to potentially really good teams, we are blaming the officials for a loss. This is not fair to the Seattle Seahawks, the Green Bay Packers and football fans as a whole.

Sep 252012
 

If the Baltimore win over New England was influenced by sub-par officiating, then the Seattle win over Green Bay was downright decided by it.

A replacement referee ruled that Golden Tate maintained simultaneous control of a last second 24-yard Hail Mary by Russell Wilson with Packers defender MD Jennings and ruled the play a touchdown, lifting the Seahawks to a thrilling 14-12 victory over the Green Bay Packers Monday night.

The only trouble with the call? There was never simultaneous control. Rather, it was clear on replay that Jennings first had possession of the ball and that Tate then fought to gain joint possession of the ball. A second official properly ruled the play an interception but was overruled on the field.

According to the NFL Rulebook,

If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.

Unless you are a Seahawks fan, this video can only show that Jennings secured control of the ball and even turned away from Tate before Tate was able to anchor an arm on the ball to establish mutual possession (not control).

Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy refused to discuss the officiating, limiting his comments to, “I was told M.D. Jennings had the ball. I’ve never seen anything like that in all my years in football.” Quarterback Aaron Rodgers took the subject on right away. “”It was awful. Just look at the replay. And then the fact that it was reviewed, it was awful,” Rodgers said. “That’s all I’m going to say about it.”

There was some dispute after the game as to whether or not the ruling was subject to review, though one would suspect that because all scoring plays are reviewed, the call could and should have been made to rule the play an interception. That was not done however, and it took the teams a full ten minutes to return to the field to complete the required extra point in order to end the game.

The play ruined what was otherwise an extraordinary football game that, while it suffered from some abysmal calls, was a fair and hard fought battle dominated by the Seahawks defense until the Packers struck late to take the lead. The Seahawks were able to pin the Packers deep in their own territory and force a punt, setting up the Seahawks in Packers territory to start the final drive. The Hail Mary occurred on fourth down, and Golden Tate got away with an incredibly obvious offensive pass interference in the end zone that also should have negated the play. While offensive pass interference is rarely called in such situations, this play was obvious to a blind chipmunk living in Maine watching the game on the radio. Unfortunately for the Packers, the chipmunk was not officiating the game.

The game’s bizarre ending had the ESPN analysts going off again, a scant one week after Steve Young’s justified tirade against the league. Tonight both Young and Trent Dilfer spoke eloquently about the harm that the league is doing to the game, and the insult that the league is paying to the fans, players, and former players. As Young noted, the league is destroying the esteemed place that the NFL holds in professional sports, all for the sake of beating the union and controlling the officials. In the interest of saving money and asserting dictatorial control, the league seems willing to demean its own product and render the games meaningless.

Sixteen hours of talks took place over the weekend with the involvement of both Commissioner Goodell and a federal mediator, but the talks broke down. Word is that the NFL is now trying to re-ignite talks, likely in the wake of a disastrous weekend for the replacement officials. But the NFL sent a memo to its clubs updating teams on the progress of the talks, which unfortunately read like a press release justifying the stance of the league, according to Pro Football Talk. Coupled with the revelation that the league has resisted the desire of players to have concussion experts on the sidelines, it is clear that Goodell’s proclamations about the importance and value of player safety are hollow, and the NFL is willing to sacrifice both the integrity of the game and the safety of the players on the field to maximize its own profits.

While I hope that the situation can be resolved with a positive outcome in the near future, all games played with replacement officials are a continued disgrace to the league. These officials are not going to get better, and the evidence suggests that the situation is getting worse by the game. Roger Goodell’s legacy is quickly being reduced to a monumental joke and one must begin to wonder that if this situation does not get resolved soon, if it is time not only for players, coaches and fans to call for a resolution to the lockout, but also call for the resignation of Roger Goodell.

And I imagine that nearly the entire state of Wisconsin is ready to sign the petition. I’m pretty sure they already have one circulating in Louisiana.

Aug 122012
 

So, the second-worst uniforms in the National Football League got a renovation for 2012. Let’s see how they fared, shall we?

Ick.

Look, I don’t hate the neon green — in fact, it’s a good choice for a team whose color palette has been little more imaginative than the Civil War. (Blues. Grays. And more Grays, with a dash of faded grass-stain green.) But the patches on the sleeves are nothing but a way of drawing the eye to the Nike “swoosh” (who says NFL uniforms don’t have ad space?) while outlining silver numbers in bright green only muddles the edges. But at least the numbers themselves have a seriously cool sheet-metal pattern, right?

Again, I say: ick.

Lots of folks have blamed the Broncos for the “new wave” of NFL jerseys — and they are to blame for the prevalence of the under-arm-halfway-down-the-leg stripe. However, in reality, the uniform situation in the League has grown steadily worse since 1996, when the Patriots introduced the “Elvis” version of Pat the Patriot. Considering how many teams have gleefully followed down the Yellow Brick Road to the USFL, it seems obvious the Powers That Be need some assistance.

So, in the interests of helping teams figure out when to say when, here are three rules of thumb:

1) Is your helmet the same color as your main jersey? If so, then you probably need to change it. (Teams whose unis have been this way since before 1960 are exempt — e.g., Bears, Steelers.)

2) Is your jersey the same color as your pants? Again, knock it off. (No exceptions here. It’s a bad look, full stop.)

3) Finally, you are allowed one (and ONLY one) “enhancement” to your jersey. Feel the need for shoulder stripes? Okay, Patriots, you can have them. Want your under-arm patches? Fine, Broncos, you can keep them. Need an accent color across the shoulders? Not a huge fan of that, Titans, but okay.

However, you can’t have two or more of them: this means you, Cardinals! And you, Bills!

A couple other things:

a) Just say “no” to piping. (Again, this means you, Cards.)

b) Don’t even get me started on sans serif fonts.