Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Down to four

Does anyone sense a pattern here?
  • The Chicago Bears, having locked in a playoff bye and having "nothing to play for," rested their starters in the final game of the regular season. This weekend, the Bears looked out of sync and at times overwhelmed, especially quarterback Rex Grossman, who looked like he'd played only six quarters all year. The Bears lost to the Panthers.
  • The Seattle Seahawks, having locked in a playoff bye and having "nothing to play for," rested their starters in the final game of the regular season. This weekend, the Seahawks looked out of sync and at times overwhelmed, but fortunately they were playing a banged-up Washington team that had won six straight and just didn't have anything left in the tank. The Seahawks hammered out a tough win over the Redskins.
  • The Indianapolis Colts, having locked in a playoff bye and having "nothing to play for," rested their starters in the final two games of the regular season. This weekend, the Colts looked out of sync and overwhelmed, both on offense and defense. The Colts fell behind early and lost to the Steelers.
  • The Denver Broncos, having locked in a playoff bye and having "nothing to play for," nevertheless left their starters in for the bulk of the last regular season game -- and posted a convincing win over the Chargers, a motivated division rival. This weekend, the Broncos were sharp and in control as they rolled past the Patriots.
If the 2005 divisional playoffs have a lasting impact, I hope it's this: Teams that have already wrapped up a bye will learn that three weeks is too long to let their starters sit. Players need to play in game conditions. They can't just switch it on and off. I wrote after the last game of the regular season that the Colts were in serious trouble after blowing off their final tune-up games. I was right. What about New England and Cincinnati? Both those teams also took the final game off, but doing so made more sense: They had to play on Wildcard Weekend. They used Week 17 of the regular season as their bye.

All that said, the biggest story line of the weekend was one we'd been hearing all year: A quarterback who had been knocked out of the playoffs by the same team the past two years suddenly found himself on the doorstep of the Super Bowl after his nemesis lost. The hero of the story isn't Peyton Manning, however, it's Jake Plummer.

Going straight-up, I was 3-1 this week (despite my own advice, I went with the Colts). Picking against the spread, I came out 2-2. Again. As always, a green bullet denotes a correct pick; a red bullet, an incorrect pick:

SEATTLE over Washington
How do you finish a game minus-2 in turnovers and still come out on top? You be so blessed as to draw the Washington Redskins as your opponent. Seattle, playing its first full game since the week before Christmas, tried repeatedly to hand this game to the Redskins, but Washington politely declined to accept. I had Seattle straight up but thought that 9.5 points was a ridiculous spread. Still do. Thanks for nothing, John Hall.

DENVER over New England
This reputation of Mike Shanahan as a play-calling wizard -- where does that come from? In the second quarter, game scoreless, Denver had third-and-inches at the Patriots' 3 yard line. As the Broncos came up to the line, I muttered through gritted teeth: "Patriots have to be expecting a quarterback sneak." I wasn't alone: Even Phil Simms digressed from whatever he was nattering about to predict not only a QB sneak, but a sneak on a quick count. Sure enough, Jake Plummer takes the ball on a quick count and runs head-first into a brick wall. Then, on fourth down, I'm saying: "Just go for the first down. Don't throw into the end zone." Up goes the lazy rainbow fade to Ashley Lelie, incomplete, and New England takes over on downs. When you're on the Patriots' doorstep, you gotta cause some trouble, man! Don't just pee on the mat and slink away. On the next series, once again in New England territory, Plummer threw one of his ill-advised dandies, which Asante Samuel intercepted at the 11. Thing is, the ref ruled Samuel out of bounds, even though he clearly got both feet down inside the paint. Rather than try to hustle to the line and snap the ball before the Patriots could toss the challenge flag, Denver called a timeout. (!!!!!) This was dumb for so many reasons. Here's two: First, it gave New England time to consider a challenge; and second, even if the Pats went ahead and challenged before the next Denver play, the challenge would have created a timeout anyway. On the defense, the Broncos came out blitzing and enjoyed early success. That success tapered off as the Patriots adjusted -- but damned if the Broncos didn't just keep bringing the house on every play. Even as Tom Brady was picking up pass yards in huge chunks, the blue helmets just kept on coming. Whatever turns you on, dude.

In the end, though, it didn't matter, because the defense stiffened when it counted, holding the Pats to two field goals through the first three quarters, forcing turnovers at critical moments and, perhaps most important, not buying into the Tom Brady mystique. The Broncos went ahead and leveled Brady at every opportunity, and though the hits didn't appear to shake him, they showed the Broncos that he was as touchable as any other QB. That kept Brady out of their heads. It's a lesson the Rams, Panthers and Eagles, among others, didn't learn.

Denver won this game, definitely, but something was clearly wrong with the Patriots. Brady, for example, missed several open receivers and threw an easy pick to Champ Bailey. Between his don't-get-no-respect-shtick before the Jacksonville game and his bizarre baiting of the crowd in Denver, you have to wonder where Brady's head was at. Willie McGinest and Larry Izzo nearly came to blows on the sidelines. Troy Brown let a punt bounce off him. Adam Vinatieri pushed a critical field goal wide. It's like the Patriots kept expecting to win -- a reasonable expectation, considering the bling-bling-bling -- and then were surprised when time ran out. Odd.

PITTSBURGH over Indianapolis
You almost don't want to say it because of what Tony Dungy has been through, but this loss lies squarely at the feet of the Colts' coaching staff. Considering that Pittsburgh's run-first approach went exactly nowhere the first time these teams met this year, was there anyone who didn't expect the Steelers to come out throwing on Sunday? But sure enough, there was the Indianapolis defense, crowding the line on play after play, stacked against the run, as Ben Roethlisberger burned them again and again. That's not lack of execution. That's an utter lack of preparation, and that's on the coaches. The Colts offense, meanwhile, was out of sync for the entire first half. I mean, it's almost as if the starters hadn't played in game conditions in a month! That's on the coaches, too. In the second half, the Colts finally got the ship headed in the right direction, but by then it had taken on too much water, and even the refs couldn't bail them out.

When Dungy was the head coach of the Buccaneers, the big knock on him was that as nice a guy as he is, as good of a teacher and a role model as he is, he can't get his teams up for the playoffs. We saw it happen all four years he made the playoffs in Tampa. (The year after he left, remember, Jon Gruden won the Super Bowl with the team Dungy had assembled.) We've now seen it happen all four years in Indianapolis. Everything was lined up for the Colts to win the Super Bowl this year -- the Patriots had already lost, for Pete's sake -- and they showed up Sunday unready and unfocused. What happened to the Dungy family was a tragedy, one that totally puts football in its very small place. But even if it had never happened, Sunday's outcome would have been the same.

CAROLINA over Chicago
Earlier this year, Vikings cornerback Fred Smoot talked trash on Panthers wideout Steve Smith for the entire week leading up to their game. Smith then punked Smoot in such a historic fashion that the natives in the mountains still sing songs about it. Leading up to this game, the Bears weren't shy in pointing out that Smith hadn't "done anything" (that is, scored a touchdown) against Chicago in Week 11, despite 14 catches for 169 yards. Oops. Smith's line Sunday: 12 catches, 218 yards, two touchdowns. No other Panther had more than three catches. Smith was Carolina's only weapon, and everyone knew it, yet he still ran circles around the Bears. You've got to get up pretty early in the morning to stop that Steve Smith, and ... uh, Chicago? Your alarm's going off.

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