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Monday, January 16, 2012

No Do Overs

No system developed by man is perfect. There are often valid arguments for ways to better any process. The same applies to sports.

The National Football League is not perfect, either, but I think it is pretty good. One thing that is indisputable, its rules for qualifying are crystal clear and its rules for advancing are cold and objective. There is no media subjectivity, like in college football. If college football were like the NFL, the University of Alabama would have never gotten a "do over" after losing to LSU in the regular season, failing to win its division in the process. In the NFL, when you reach the playoffs, you understand that you have one game to advance or go home. And you, in fact, only have one game. There are no "do overs" in the NFL.


In the NFC, the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers were favored over the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants, respectively. The Saints and Packers, particularly the Saints, had leads and had multiple opportunities to win their playoff matches. They lost. The list of  "coulda, woulda, shouldas" is as long as the day. But it doesn't matter. There will be no repeats. The winners will advance.

"Coulda, woulda, shoulda...the Saints ain't good enough to beat the 49ers."

The Only Statistic That Matters Is Turnovers

The 49ers finished 6-10 last year, firing coach Mike Singletary during the season. The five time world champion franchise once (excluding the nine game, strike shortened season of 1982) had 17 consecutive seasons of winning at least 10 regular season games and, during those 17 seasons, made 16 playoff appearances, won 14 division titles, won 5 conference championships and 5 Super Bowl championships. The same franchise, before Saturday, had not appeared in a playoff game in nine years.

In spite of finishing 13-3 in the regular season and hosting the game, the 49ers were underdogs against the Saints, who also finished 13-3. The 49ers had a lackluster, though non-mistake prone, passing game, but a solid running game and a ferocious defense. The Saints, on the other hand, broke multiple offensive records in 2011 and scored the fourth most points in the regular season of any team in NFL history.

Five turnovers later, the Saints found themselves struggling to rally from an early 17-0 deficit. They would take the lead, 24-23, in the 4th quarter, give the lead back then take it away, again, leading 32-29 in the final two minutes. 49ers quarterback Alex Smith found Vernon Davis twice, once for a big gain into Saints territory and once for the go ahead score, to seal the Saints doom in the final seconds.

The game isn't over until the clock shows zeroes. 1
The Saints will have the entire offseason to ask themselves what went wrong. They can ask themselves how they rallied from a three score deficit to take the lead, twice, in the fourth quarter but allowed the fourth worst passing offense in the NFL to carve up their defense for 80 yards in less than two minutes. The 49ers will have seven days to prepare to host the NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants - a rematch of the franchises from the epic 1990 NFC Championship Game, won by the Giants as time expired to advance to Super Bowl XXV and a second world championship in five years.

Everyone Is 0-0 in the Playoffs

The New York Giants were 9-7 in the regular season. The Packers were 15-1. However, the NFL playoff structure is crystal clear: after the regular season, everyone is 0-0, and one loss eliminates you from the dance. Everyone knows it. Everyone accepts it.

The Packers got their share of home cooking from the officials. The Packers benefited from a very questionable upholding of one challenged play in the first quarter, which appeared to all but the head referee viewing the replay to be a (Packers WR) Greg Jennings fumble recovered by the Giants. In the fourth quarter, the Packers were awarded a first down after a very questionable roughing the passer call against Osi Umenyiora on 3rd and 10 from the Green Bay 24. The Packers would finish the drive with a touchdown, cutting the Giants lead down to 10 points.

In the end, however, the Giants made the plays that counted. The Giants were able to take a shot at the end zone at the end of the first half, a Hail Mary pass from Eli Manning to Hakeem Nicks. The Giants converted first downs, eight on third down, to control the ball and minimize the number of opportunities for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to get the ball in his hands. The Giants took the ball away from the Packers four times, giving it away once.

Two underdogs faced opponents who were expected, for months, to meet in the NFC Championship Game. Both underdogs outcoached, outmanned, and outphysicaled their favored foes, crushing them in the turnover battle. The result? The two underdogs will get one opportunity, next Sunday, to  advance to the Super Bowl.

The half isn't over, either. 2

In the AFC, the games ended as expected: with the favored home teams on top. The New England Patriots finished 13-3 and secured home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. The Patriots run the ball in a very pedestrian manner. Their defense, particularly in the secondary, in injury riddled and completely ineffective at stopping opponents from advancing the ball, though they are good at ball-hawking. What the Patriots are very good at is whatever quarterback Tom Brady wants to do when throwing the football.

Brady's Bunch

Brady, second in the NFL in passing yardage, became the second man in NFL history to eclipse Dan Marino's 27 year old record of 5,084 passing yards. Brady had disciplined, smart, but unexceptional talent around him. Wide receiver Wes Welker, tight end Rob Gronkowski, and guard Logan Mankins make up the short list of overachievers on the Patriots offense. Chad Ochocinco, acquired in a trade with the Cincinnati Bengals this past offseason, was a bitter disappointment, with career lows in receptions, yards, and touchdowns in 2011. The Patriots wagon will go as far as Brady's star can take them.

Brady and the Patriots completely dismantled the Denver Broncos on Saturday. Brady tied an NFL postseason record with six touchdown passes (Steve Young, Daryle Lamonica). Five came in the first half. The Patriots were very elastic against the Broncos running attack, but it made no difference as Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow was rendered completely ineffective. "Tebow Mania" was quickly silenced at Foxboro by a future Hall of Fame quarterback, a pragmatic defensive game plan championed by Head Coach Bill Belichick, and the 12th man of the Patriots home crowd.

Tebow's 15 minutes are up...this year. 3
No More Texans

Were it not for the months of non-stop Tebow coverage, the Houston Texas would have easily been the biggest feel good story in the NFL. After eight years of playoff futility and just one winning season, the 10-6 Texans won the AFC South and their first, ever, playoff game. But the history of the franchise is not the only reason that the Texans were the Cinderellas of the AFC.

Houston lost multiple key players to injury, including starting quarterback Matt Schuab, backup quarterback Matt Leinart, and defensive end Mario Williams. Wide receiver Andre Johnson missed nine games due to injury. Their rally cry was, "Next man up". At quarterback, rookie T.J. Yates was the next man, at times rising to the occasion and at times looking like a rookie. Sunday's playoff game with the Ravens incorporated both facades.

Next man up...that refers to football, guys! 4
The Ravens finished 12-4 in the regular season and secured the second seed in the AFC with a formula as old as their franchise, officially established in 1996: smothering defense, a strong running game, and a conservative, but effective passing game. This formula is what sent the Texans packing on Sunday, 20-13.

What was most remarkable was that the Ravens win was visually unremarkable. Big defensive play after big defensive play...punishing run after run by Ray Rice...and the patience by Joe Flacco to wait for the opportune moment to stretch the lock-down Texans defense and its ferocious pass rush.

Baltimore scored all of the points they needed in the first quarter. No points were scored in the second half until the final five minutes. T.J. Yates did throw three interceptions, but two of them were in the final 10 minutes, when the Texans were desperate, running out of time, and willing to take more chances. Baltimore, truly, beat the Texans the old fashioned way.

Ravens Ray Rice: Nothing good comes easily. 5

Next Sunday, the Giants and 49ers will continue their seasons of overachievement, renewing a once great rivalry that often decided the outcome of the NFC. The Patriots and Ravens will continue their seasons of great expectations, in a game with several future Hall of Famers (certainly, Tom Brady and Ray Lewis and, probably Bill Belichick, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs).

Vegas places the Patriots as 8 point favorites and the 49ers as 3 point favorites. What this past weekend of playoff games has taught us is that the odds are no more than numbers at kickoff. What this season, and every season, has taught us is that every game, and ultimately every championship, is determined by preparation and execution.

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