Friends, Broncos, countrymen:
The big winners of the opening weekend of the 2011 NFL playoffs were a team with a losing record—if the Seattle Seahawks are a joke of a playoff team, those of us who root for the New Orleans Saints aren't laughing—and a quarterback who repeatedly threw the ball 10 yards over his receivers' heads. (The game's down here, Mark Sanchez!) The big losers: last year's Super Bowl teams, the Eagles' left-footed kicker, the Eagles' left-handed quarterback, and anyone of any handedness or footedness who has anything to do with the Kansas City Chiefs.
First, I hope you'll indulge a bit of grousing about the Saints. (Boo hoo dat.) Losing to a 7-9 team in the first round of the playoffs is like losing a Senate race to someone you beat in the party primary—you can argue that your opponent shouldn't have even been allowed to advance to the next round, but there's ultimately no denying that you suffered an embarrassing defeat. How did the Saints get Murkowski-ed? Sometimes you win because you have the best player on the field, and sometimes you lose because you have the guy who's easiest to exploit. On Saturday, the Seahawks outscored the Saints 41-36 because quarterback Matt Hasselbeck smartly picked on New Orleans safety Roman Harper.
I feel bad for Harper, who is better at defending the run than the pass, and was likely forced into playing more coverage than usual due to Malcolm Jenkins' knee injury. Harper got outrun, and he got outwitted. In the second quarter, Seattle tight end John Carlson played dead before popping up and beating the Saints safety for an easy touchdown; after the game, Harper termed this the " Oh, crap screen." In the fourth quarter, Harper was the last Saint to chew turf as Marshawn Lynch marauded for a 67-yard touchdown—an "Oh, crap run" if there ever was one. (The only way to appreciate the simultaneous grandeur and ineptitude of Lynch's pinballing and the Saints' missed tackles is to re-watch the play with an overlaid soundtrack of Super Mario Bros. sound effects.)
While the Saints got inside the Seattle 10-yard line seven times, the Seahawks at least forced New Orleans to settle for three field goals. Drew Brees threw the ball 60 times on Saturday, in part because New Orleans was down to its fifth-string running back by the fourth quarter. (Any more backfield injuries, and the NFL would've had to grant Deuce McAllister a quickie unretirement.) Peyton Manning, by contrast, put the ball in the air a mere 26 times (tied for his season low) in the Colts' 17-16 loss to the Jets.
Despite those disparate numbers, the Seahawks and Jets succeeded by coaxing the Saints and Colts into parallel offensive strategies. Like all great quarterbacks, Brees and Manning don't typically settle for what the defense gives them. Rather, they cajole the defense into giving them what they want to take—if that doesn't work, they just go ahead and take it anway.
On Saturday, though, neither player was a taker. With Seattle playing its safeties deep, Brees repeatedly dumped the ball off for short gains, a performance more reminiscent of Trent "Captain Checkdown" Edwards than last year's Super Bowl MVP. In Indianapolis, the brainy Manning might've outsmarted himself by repeatedly checking in to running plays and studiously avoiding Jets cornerback/ landform Darrelle Revis. Reggie Wayne had just one pass thrown his way, leading the Colts' standout receiver to say, "I shouldn't have even suited up. I should have watched the game like everybody else. I was irrelevant." Wayne has a point—any game plan that involves ignoring your best player for four quarters is a game plan that's worth revising. (Wayne should also form a support group with Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs receiver led the NFL with 15 touchdown catches; on Sunday, Matt Cassell didn't throw the ball to Bowe a single time.)
Of course, it's easy to criticize a quarterback when his team doesn't win. The Saints scored 36 points, and the Colts had the lead with under a minute to go. Despite being handicapped by injured supporting casts, neither Manning nor Brees threw an interception. The Jets' Sanchez, for all his game-winning, last-second poise, played a comparably poor game and will now be heralded as a guy who "knows how to win." Stupefying fact of the weekend: Sanchez has won more playoff games than any other Jets quarterback. Poise!
Lest we forget that not all winners are geniuses, let me bring up the most-baffling sequence of the weekend. While stopping your team from scoring is generally the opponents' job, Packers coach Mike McCarthy decided to flip the script in Sunday's game against the Eagles. With just under two minutes to go in the first half, the Packers were up 14-0 as the Eagles got set to try a field goal. Rather than call timeout—Green Bay had two—McCarthy let around 40 seconds run off the clock before the Eagles kicked. The Packers dawdled some more after they got the ball back, calling its first timeout with just 37 seconds to go. I'm not sure if this clock mismanagement was caused by risk aversion or incompetence or narcolepsy, or if we can somehow blame it on Brett Favre. Whatever its cause, we shouldn't let McCarthyism slide simply because the Packers ended up winning 21-16 or because Green Bay still would've scored a touchdown if James Jones hadn't dropped a perfectly thrown bomb by Aaron Rodgers. Shame on you, Mr. McCarthy. Shame on you.
On the TV front, I continue to marvel at NBC's Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. The NBC crew, aided by a best-in-the-field production and stats crew, always says and shows the right thing at the right time. On a successful running play, Collinsworth explains how the guard opened up a gaping hole; on an incomplete pass, he illustrates why the quarterback made a poor decision or the receiver ran a bad route. By comparison to NBC's All Pros, the CBS and Fox broadcast teams—Jim Nantz and Phil Simms for the former, Joe Buck for the latter—are akin to UFL squads. (Fox does get plaudits for its smart deployment of rules guru Mike Pereira.) This is an actual quote from Aikman during Sunday's game: "Looking at the way the Packers have attacked the Eagles defensively, there's no doubt that the Eagles are going to have to do something here offensively." And … mute.
Stefan, it was a good weekend for your kicking brethren—another clutch boot from the Colts' Adam Vinatieri, followed by a game-ender as time expired by the Jets' Nick Folk—until Philly's David Akers sealed this year's Nate Kaeding Award by yanking a couple of kicks wide right. Despite my efforts to make Mike McCarthy the goat of Sunday's game, Eagles fans will probably lay the blame at the kicker's foot. Despite various leg injuries that left him limping around in the fourth quarter, Michael Vick played pretty well for Philadelphia. I don't really blame him for the game-sealing interception on Philadelphia's last drive; with the game clock dwindling, he had to take a shot at the end zone. (In the same situation, Mike McCarthy would've order Aaron Rodgers to take a knee.) I wonder if this season will be Vick's career high point. It's hard to imagine him staying healthy for a bunch more years, and once he's past his prime, I doubt that he'll be able to lead the Redskins to a Super Bowl title after Daniel Snyder inevitably overpays to bring him to D.C. (I'm guessing Redskins rather than Raiders because I'm not sure that Al Davis will be alive at that point.)
Eyes down the field,
Correction, Jan. 12, 2011: A headline for this article originally misstated that the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore beat Kansas City 30-7.