The Day After: Comparing the remaining playoff teams
Sunday’s finish to wild-card weekend was, well ... pretty wild.
The Cardinals and Packers put on the highest-scoring playoff show in NFL history while the so-called Team of the Decade, the New England Patriots, uncharacteristically quit when they fell behind. Nobody could have predicted those finishes. The Pats have now lost three of their last five playoff games while the Cardiac Cardinals have won three of their last four.
Now, it’s my job to make sense of the pending Divisional Playoffs. But the best way to look at this weekend’s final eight teams is with a little comparison breakdown.
He threw five interceptions in a game this season, but is anyone hotter right now than Kurt Warner? He had more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four) against the Packers and it looks like he deserves a bust in the Hall of Fame.
Peyton Manning just won his fourth MVP award and Drew Brees, thanks a little to sitting out the final game, set a NFL record by completing 70.6 of his attempts this season. And some guy named Brett Favre, a 40-year-old marvel, passed for 33 touchdowns — one less than Brees and the same amount as Manning.
You can’t win without your quarterback playing great, and here are my rankings.
1. Philip Rivers, Chargers: This guy has won 11 straight games and pulled out big wins in New York and Dallas. But what I love about him is how impervious he is to pressure. Nobody steps up into the pocket with defenders all around him better than Rivers. He never sees the rush; he’s always looking downfield.
2. Peyton Manning, Colts: The best thing about him is that he doesn’t panic anymore. He’s seen it all and knows how to beat any defense. He may have a couple new receivers, but he completed 68.8 of his passes and can deal with any scoreboard pressure.
3. Drew Brees, Saints: I’m going to remember the September through November player who won 13 straight and the only guy without a Pro Bowl receiver.
4. Brett Favre, Vikings: This gunslinger threw only seven interceptions in 531 attempts. The best thing he did was elevate the abilities of Sidney Rice and rookie Percy Harvin. He talked more football with those two young players — the kids listened and respected him — and that’s why the Vikings are playing at home.
5. Kurt Warner, Cardinals: The Packers were supposed to have the league’s No. 2 overall defense, but we forgot that Ben Roethlisberger shredded them for 503 yards this season. Warner managed only 379, but he directed an offensive show that totaled 531 yards. He deserves a higher grade as a passer, but he’s still too shaky in the pocket for me.
6. Tony Romo, Cowboys: Yes, he played smart in both games against the Eagles, who we discovered was very weak at linebacker and only had one good defensive lineman. He still has a penchant of forcing a ball while throwing off his back foot. But he will be fired up playing against his idol, Mr. Favre.
7. Joe Flacco, Ravens: This is based on his excellent season, but he was literally no factor against the Patriots because of hip and quad injuries that aren’t going away. He passed 10 times on Sunday with one interception and 34 yards.
8. Mark Sanchez, Jets: The rookie is still being governed by those silly red, yellow and green cards. A playoff game will never be in his hands unless they fall behind by more than 10 points. Wait ‘til next year!
This is the curse of both the Ravens and the Jets. Both of these teams can run, run, run and play very good defense. But like Jimmy Johnson always says, the points come out of the passing game. Teams have to score and sometimes score a lot in the playoffs, and Baltimore and the Jets simply can’t do it.
Another big question mark with the Saints is whether or not they can re-discover their ground game, one that made them so well-balanced earlier in the season. Reportedly, Pierre Thomas and those broken ribs got well over the past three weeks and that’s critical to New Orleans beating the Cardinals.
You think Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt will alter his play-calling once the Cardinals get into field-goal range in New Orleans? OK, Neil Rackers has been bothered by a groin injury, but what a choke job on that 34-yarder, his first attempt at a game-winning kick since the 2007 season. He missed only one kick all season, too.
But Rackers isn’t alone among worrisome kickers. Yes, new Dallas kicker Shaun Suisham nailed a 48-yarder against the Eagles, but we’ve all seen him miss chip-shot attempts this season. And after John Carney got the shakes in New Orleans this season, Sean Payton decided to switch to Garrett Hartley, who has already missed an extra-point and a 37-yard field goal. They haven’t even allowed him to attempt a 40-yarder yet.
The Jets had a scare last weekend when punter Steve Weatherford missed the Bengals’ game because of an irregular heartbeat. They believe medication will help him be ready for the Chargers, but what if they have to sign a punter off the street? Jay Feely did his best with a 28.1 punt average in a dual role versus the Bengals. And Baltimore’s Billy Cundiff has limited range; does anybody think they should have stuck with Matt Stover?
There is this old adage in the NFL playoff history that you win championships with great defense and a running game. The Ravens forced four turnovers against Tom Brady’s outfit and they are very capable of slowing down Peyton Manning. Remember, Baltimore only lost by two points in a home regular-season meeting with Indy.
But the team playing the best defense right now appears to be the Dallas Cowboys. Wade Phillips has been dialing up the right coverages and blitzes over the last four games. The only quarterback he didn’t scare was Philip Rivers.
The Jets are a close second. During the season they lost Kris Jenkins, a dominating nose tackle, and the rest of the guys picked up the slack. You have to figure that Darrelle Revis will have to take out Vincent Jackson in San Diego, but the Chargers have too many weapons for Rex Ryan. His unit never really stopped Cedric Benson and Rivers is tons better right now than Carson Palmer.
The Play Callers
In Indianapolis Tom Moore, who was around teaching Terry Bradshaw with the Super Steelers in the late 1970s, is in a league of his own. Yes, Manning is excellent, but Moore has taught him very well and given his QB every exit strategy imaginable. There isn’t a defense that Moore hasn’t seen.
But Norv Turner in San Diego and Sean Payton in New Orleans are close behind. With Manning getting all the credit in Indy, these two are probably 1-2 in the league when it comes to dialing up the perfect plays for the right situation. They both are worthy Coach of the Year candidates. And with two weeks to prepare, you have to believe both of these guys will dial up something different that will be productive come game day.
The other fascinating coaches are Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt and Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Based on their playoff work, both are calling great games. The Packers’ heads were spinning, there were so many open receivers in the first half. On one touchdown pass, Warner could have thrown to three different wide open receivers, including Larry Fitzgerald.
Against Philly, Garrett stuck with the perfect scheme to beat the blitz; running out of a shotgun formation and spreading the defense. He will have to be a little more creative to defeat the Minnesota front four, but at least he’s dialed up his game at the right time.
There is no question that Brad Childress has been hurting and not helping his offense in Minnesota. How else do you explain Adrian Peterson going seven straight games without 100 yards? He could be a devastating factor in Sunday’s showdown against Wade Phillips, who is red-hot, and his pass rushers coming in droves. Favre had better have his head on a swivel.