I apologize for only serving up quick picks for yesterday’s set of playoff games, but both my mother and my girlfriend outvoted me and decided I shouldn’t be debating the merits of Tim Tebow against the Steeler defense while driving 70mph on the way to Reading. Infidels. Anyway, I’ll sum things up the way I did for Saturday’s games, this time safely from my own couch.
Giants 24 Falcons 2
For anyone that didn’t have the chance to catch the games or last night’s highlights….yes, that says 2 points for the Atlanta Falcons. I know the Giants defense can be very formidable when they unleash their pass rush, but 2 points? Really Matt Ryan? While I didn’t think the Falcons would win this game, or even keep it that close, I expected Atlanta to at least show a pulse offensively considering they do have an offense with legitimate playmakers in Roddy White, Julio Jones (who I love), Michael Turner, and the ageless Tony Gonzalez. Instead the only points put up by the Falcons came on a safety from their defense (side note: somehow the number 2 on the scoreboard seems more embarrassing than a 0 and a shutout. It just looks so awkward; two points?). After all, this is a Giants defense, and particularly secondary, that has been torched by good quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, and even Rex Grossman. Maybe it’s time to admit that Matt Ryan just isn’t that good; sure, he showed incredible poise as a rookie, but somehow he hasn’t progressed much as a quarterback despite Atlanta giving him more and more playmakers every offseason. I hate to pick on a local guy, but the best line I read yesterday came from Philadelphia Daily News writer Les Bowen, suggesting that “Matty Ice” is a suitable nickname for Ryan because he freezes when the pressure rises. He certainly had happy feet in the pocket yesterday, refusing to stand tall and deliver the football after taking a couple early hits. In many ways, Ryan is a reflection of the whole Falcons team: good enough to beat bad teams, but not good enough to really compete with the league’s superior teams, especially if you remove them from the comfy confines of their dome. They actually remind me of the Eagles as well: mediocre overrated quarterback, good offensive weapons, mediocre defense, and a head coach good enough to win enough games to earn a playoff seed, but who is clearly overmatched in tight games against good teams. Atlanta’s 10-6 record was just as much of a mirage as the Eagles’ 8-8; only the Eagles had to trot out Vince Young more times.
Because I know the Falcons are not as good as their record, I figured the Giants would handle them pretty easily. I did think the Giants would put up more points on an Atlanta secondary that was missing injured cornerback Brent Grimes, but a slow start saved the Falcons further embarrassment. The Giants are the wildcard, not just in the NFC, but the whole playoffs; a team that, when playing well, can play with and beat any of the other teams left in the dance. Some might add Denver to that list but realistically, despite yesterday’s result, they aren’t talented enough to beat good football teams on the road (more to come on that). I just don’t trust the Giants’ ( or Eli Manning’s) maddening inconsistency; next week they could pull off an upset of the Packers….or get their doors blown off. Neither would totally surprise me.
Key play: Atlanta’s failed attempt on 4th and 1 at the Giants’ 21 late in the third quarter, trailing 10-2. For Eagles fans that clamor every offseason for a big back for short yardage situations, it doesn’t mean much if your head coach still can’t call the right play. Much like Andy Reid, if I called Mike Smith’s decision-making shaky, it would be a compliment. Despite having 250 lb. bruiser Michael Turner at his disposal, and despite Matt Ryan already being stuffed previously on a 4th down QB sneak, Smith somehow thought the result would be different if he simply sent Ryan headfirst into the pile again. He also did the Giants the favor of leaving the backfield empty, so just in case there was any doubt what the play call would be, it was easily dismissed before Ryan leaned under center. I don’t have an issue with the decision to go for it; I think the Falcons needed a TD there to try to generate any kind of momentum. But just because Matt Ryan is big doesn’t mean he’s suited for the QB sneak. Ryan is immobile, and though he may not have far to go on a sneak, guys like Ryan tend to try to just lean forward into the line and pray they fall across the first down marker. More mobile QBs try to find a seam and charge into it, legs churning. The only thing churning on Ryan yesterday was his stomach. Giants hit Hakeem Nicks on the 72 yard score on the next possession – game over.
MVP: The Giants defensive line. Much like 2007, New York will go as far as they take them. They hit Ryan early, and made him skittish for the rest of the afternoon. They also came up large on the two 4th down and 1 stops. The Giants need the line to terrorize Rodgers and Brees if they want to have any chance of making a run to the Super Bowl; if not, Eli will have a large task trying to keep up with their more explosive offenses.
LVP: I could go with Mike Smith for his short yardage play calling, but I have to go with Ryan. While his offensive line was certainly dominated, it’s time for the former number 1 pick to win a playoff game. With the weapons that Atlanta has assembled for him, Ryan has no excuse for putting up a goose egg against a secondary that is very beatable. Expect the heat to rise on both Smith and Ryan next season in Atlanta.
Broncos 29 Steelers 23 OT
While I predicted the Steelers to blow out the Broncos in yesterday’s column, it wasn’t because I thought they were going to play particularly well. It’s vital to be healthy come playoff time, and the Steelers were anything but. They lost RB Rashard Mendenhall last week with a torn ACL, and were also missing center Maurkice Pouncey and safety Ryan Clark. The loss of Pouncey likely limited how much the Steelers used the shotgun, which was important because QB Ben Roethlisberger (I did it!) was hobbling around on a bad ankle, and I think the shotgun would’ve done him wonders yesterday. Clark is a big piece in a Steelers secondary that was torched by Tim Tebow (did I just type that??). So while I thought the Steelers would struggle, I assumed they would make just enough plays on offense, and that Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau would confuse and pressure Tebow, forcing at least one turnover. I didn’t think Tebow could make the Steelers pay for the loss of Clark – I was wrong. But the “shocking upset” is more related to the Steelers name brand – this team was ripe for defeat. However, kudos to Tebow; he needed to make plays with his arm and he did it.
As for Tebow, what is there to say that hasn’t been beaten to death?? The Steelers brought their safeties up to the line of scrimmage and dared Tebow to beat them. He only completed 10 passes, but 4 of them went for more than 40 yards, including the 80 yard game-winner to Demaryius Thomas. The Steelers had given up TWO completions over 40 yards the ENTIRE SEASON. Tebow let the ball go and trusted his receivers to make plays on the football in man coverage. Thomas responded with 4 catches for 204 yards and the game winning touchdown. Even in overtime, the Steelers didn’t waver from their strategy, and 11 seconds later, they were headed home.
Lost in Tebowmania is the fact that Denver head coach John Fox is a pretty good coach. He took a Carolina team with Jake Delhomme as its starting quarterback to a Super Bowl, and continually fielded competitive teams until the wheels completely fell off Delhomme in the 2009 playoff blowout to Arizona. No NFL head coach can win without a quarterback, and despite the five brutal interceptions Delhomme threw being evidence that Fox didn’t have one, the Carolina front office rewarded Jake with a big contract extension ( I constantly wonder how these people have jobs. Really, no one thought that was a bad idea??). Fox paid the price after the Panthers turned dreadful (shocker), and landed in Denver. Fox deserves a ton of credit for adapting his team to its strengths, building an offense around Tebow’s abilities, and winning close football games with defense and a running game (paying attention Andy??)
Key play: With the Steelers driving late in the fourth quarter for what would’ve been the game winning field goal, Denver defensive end Elvis Dumervil pressured Ben Roethlisberger up the middle, diving and knocking the football loose before the Steelers recovered it. The fumble/sack not only pushed the Steelers out of field goal range, but it forced the Steelers to burn their last timeout, and got the game to overtime.
MVP: Sorry Tim, Demaryius Thomas is getting my game ball. I was hoping to see the new playoff overtime rules play out, but Thomas took a quick slant 80 yards to the house before I even finished explaining them to my uncle. Thomas flashed the kind of big play ability that got him drafted ahead of Dez Bryant in the first round in the same draft as….Tim Tebow. Not a bad draft after all by Josh McDaniels. Thomas’ combination of speed and size is a nightmare for opposing corners, and he looked like a future stud in his coming out party. His huge day also came against one of the better cover corners in the league in Steelers CB Ike Taylor.
LVP: Has to be Taylor. I love his physical in-your-face coverage, and Taylor had a great regular season. But Steelers DC Dick Lebeau put Taylor on an island against Thomas, and Taylor got smoked for big play after big play. He made a crucial mistake on the final touchdown by playing outside Thomas when he had no help in the middle of the field. In that situation, Taylor has to play inside Thomas and let the sideline be his help defender.
A couple quick notes: other than the 49ers, who are home underdogs against New Orleans, every home team next week is favored by more than a touchdown. Could be a few blowouts next weekend, as I’ve heard Vegas usually does ok with these things. Lastly, I’ll say this about Tim Tebow: I’m as tired of the incessant coverage of the charismatic Denver QB as anyone. I was hoping for Pittsburgh to win yesterday just so I didn’t have to endure a week of Tebow vs. Brady/Belichick/McDaniels, as if there won’t be three more games next weekend, all of which will probably be closer than the Denver/New England matchup. But Tebow himself has grown on me; I normally don’t root for the squeaky clean athlete types, but Tebow is so genuine that his energy is contagious, and as a competitive person myself, I have come to admire his fire and drive to win. I went to 12 years of Catholic school, but don’t really have much time for religion. But if there is a God up there, could he pick a better prophet to send than someone like Tim Tebow in today’s sports-obsessed media-dominated society? Tebow completed 10 passes yesterday for 316 yards and a 31.6 average per completion. Those of us that went through religious education know that John 3:16 might be the most famous verse in the Bible. 12 years of Catholic school, and it takes a quarterback that can barely throw a football to make me, and likely others, think that maybe, just maybe, there might be something else going on out there.
Record against the spread 2-2
Record straight up 3-1