A Perfect Weekend (Except the Bengals)
Seven teams playing scintillating playoff football (some even dabbled with defense), and then Cincinnati. You know, the same old Bengals. Isn’t that what the weekend felt like? Great, great football on a 139-point Saturday, and drama galore in the last game of the weekend Sunday evening, the modern-day Ice Bowl in Green Bay (where the Packers, suddenly, have a home-field playoff disadvantage). But what an Akili Smith-sized egg the Bengals laid, and the resurgent Chargers were only too happy to take the win they overwhelmingly deserved.
Which of these things doesn’t belong:
a. 45-44, with a team winning after trailing 38-10.
b. 26-24, on a field goal at the gun by a kicker who was unemployed three weeks ago.
c. 27-10. Drama-free.
d. 23-20, in minus-14 wind chill, on a field goal at the gun by a 15-year NFL kicker who’d never won a playoff game.
Not to break any hearts in the Queen City, and not to set an NFL record for overreaction, but a snapshot of the 2011 and 2012 drafts show how sick Bengaldom must be today.
|Overall Pick||Player, Pos., School||Status|
|35. Cincinnati||Andy Dalton, QB, TCU||0-3 in the playoffs. Not exactly a fan favorite today.|
|36. San Francisco||Colin Kaepernick, QB, Nevada||3-1 in the playoffs. Pretty darn good.|
|53. Cincinnati||Devon Still, DL, Penn State||289 mostly futile snaps in two years.|
|75. Seattle||Russell Wilson, QB, Wisconsin||The second coming of Drew Brees, perhaps.|
The Bengals have to be despondent this morning. They should be. They’re not sure if their 4,000-yard quarterback is the future of the franchise.
So much to talk about after one of the great playoff weekends in memory, and let’s not be all Debbie Downer about it.
* * *
The divisional round schedule:
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET: New Orleans (No. 6, 12-5) at Seattle (No. 1, 13-3). They met five weeks ago tonight, at CenturyLink Field, and the Seahawks embarrassed the Saints 34-7. Seattle’s shown signs of mortality since.
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET: Indianapolis (No. 4, 12-5) at New England (No. 2, 12-4). The only game that isn’t a rematch of a regular-season game this year. They did meet last year, and the Pats put up 59 on the Colts. But T.Y. Hilton wasn’t T.Y. Hilton then. Come to think of it, Julian Edelman wasn’t Julian Edelman either.
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET: San Francisco (No. 5, 13-4) at Carolina (No. 2, 12-4). The Panthers won with stifling defense Nov. 10 at Candlestick, 10-9. Colin Kaepernick was smothered that day (107 total yards, six sacks). Left tackle Joe Staley will have his hands full with rising-star pass rusher Greg Hardy.
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET: San Diego (No. 6, 10-7) at Denver (No. 1, 13-3). Split during the regular season, including San Diego’s win at Denver 25 days ago. If you’re a Broncos fan, this should concern you: In eight 2013 quarters, the composite score was Broncos 48, Chargers 47.
First thoughts after a thrilling weekend of football (and don’t take my word for it; 30.8 million people watched Saturday’s twinbill, up 15 percent over last year):
• Every game’s a revenge game now for the Niners. They’ve played four of the seven other teams in the playoffs and lost to all four—Seattle, Indy, Carolina and New Orleans. But they’re playing better now, winners of seven straight, and Colin Kaepernick has two trustworthy things he didn’t have in midseason: his own legs (he’s running with more confidence now) and Michael Crabtree.
• The Chargers can’t win a scoring contest against Peyton Manning, but they’re uniquely equipped to challenge Denver. Defensive coordinator John Pagano has the chess pieces to frustrate Manning, and no opposing coach knows the refurbished Manning like Mike McCoy—his 2012 offensive coordinator—does.
• Cam Jordan’s quick pressure could be the key for New Orleans in Seattle. Russell Wilson had tons of time the last time they played, and the emotion of the night will be hard to duplicate, even in a playoff game. Jordan was in Nick Foles’ grill consistently Saturday night. Protection of Drew Brees will be vital. It killed the Saints a month ago.
• Andrew Luck is so rare, so precocious and so able to put the past behind. The distant past, the recent past. He did it in the middle of a 38-10 debacle Saturday that became a 45-44 win over Kansas City. And he did it a year ago, after a four-turnover game at New England. Last year, I remember his quarterbacks coach, Clyde Christensen, telling me, "He’s a great forgetter. He came in that Monday [after losing 59-24 to New England], and I said to him, ‘Look, I know you beat yourself up all night, but you’re a rookie, on the road, playing Belichick, big game, and you drive us 80 for touchdowns in your first two drives. That’s big-time. We’ll work on the other stuff.’ And he knows."
It’s highly doubtful next weekend can match the one we just had, even with the stinker in Cincinnati. But for different reasons, I love every one of these games.
Emerging star of the weekend.
"T.Y., go win the game." Chuck Pagano had not said that to Hilton before, and Hilton loved what he heard.
T.Y. Hilton was so tired 90 minutes after the Colts’ 45-44 win Saturday that he said he hoped he could find someone to drive him home from Lucas Oil Stadium—even though he’d brought his car to the game. "I left everything out there," he said. "I’m too tired to drive. I just want to go to sleep."
There are many amazing things to consider coming out of one of the craziest playoff games in history. Here are two: The Colts scored five touchdowns in 24 second-half minutes often using four-receiver sets of Hilton, Griff Whalen, LaVon Brazill and Da’Rick Rogers. And Hilton’s 13-catch, 224-yard performance was the biggest receiving day in Colts’ playoff history—bigger than any that Raymond Berry, Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne ever had.
We’ve learned one thing about the future of the Colts while the 35-year-old Wayne recuperates from midseason ACL surgery: When the day comes that Wayne can’t play anymore—at least at a high level—Hilton could morph into Andrew Luck’s No. 1 receiver long-term. Check out what Hilton’s done over the past four weeks, all Colts wins, as Luck continues to get used to life without Wayne.
"I’ve always been the No. 1 receiver on my team," he said. Well, until being drafted by the Colts. Hilton, at 5-9 and 183, doesn’t have the size NFL teams today want in a franchise receiver, and he’ll have to prove that a smaller guy can take the beating over time that top guys do. But the recent production—Hilton’s averaging a nine-catch, 127-yard game over the last month—shows the chemistry between him and Andrew Luck is getting better as time goes on.
Take Saturday night. Indianapolis trailed 44-38 with just under six minutes to play. Just before the Colts took over at their 20 to try to complete the comeback from 28 points down, coach Chuck Pagano had seen enough of the battered Chiefs’ secondary to say to Hilton: "T.Y., go win the game." He’d not said that to Hilton before, and Hilton loved what he heard. On the fourth play of the drive, from the Colts 36, Luck sent three receivers—Rogers, Hilton and tight end Coby Fleener—in a close bunch to the left, with Hilton in the middle, and before he got too far out of earshot, Hilton heard this from Luck: "Run. Just run." Rogers would take the corner on a short out, and Fleener a clear-out route across the middle. Hilton, Luck hoped, would beat his man off the line, and with the Chiefs curiously playing Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry close to the lane, Luck hoped the deep middle would be open for Hilton.
"I got to the line and saw 39 [safety Husain Abdullah] across from me, and I thought, ‘We’ve got to take advantage of this,’ ” said Hilton. The speed matchup, he meant. "[Brandon] Flowers was out for them and so was [Dunta] Robinson, so I knew they were running out of corners." After Hilton got by Abdullah, he bisected safeties Kendrick Lewis and Quintin Demps. Watching the play a few times, it’s clear the trust Luck has with Hilton. When he wound up to throw the ball, which traveled 45 yards in the air, Luck didn’t see Hilton open; he hadn’t cleared either of the two safeties running with him. But by the time the ball landed in Hilton’s hands, he had three yards on his pursuers. The throw was perfect. The touchdown was easy.
A little Hilton history: His given name is Eugene T.Y. Hilton, but no one calls him Eugene. His dad’s name is Tyrone, and the T.Y. is for "Little Ty." Raised in Miami, T.Y. became a dad in high school and had several schools competing for him to come play wide receiver. The night before he decided where to go, he put two caps—West Virginia's and the hometown Florida International’s—in front of his infant son. He said he son put his hand on the FIU cap six straight times. And that’s why Hilton stayed home and became the best player the fledgling program has ever produced.
Now the Colts play the Patriots in Foxboro in the divisional round Saturday night. Luck and Hilton have been there once, for an embarrassing 59-24 loss last season. The Pats had better find someone to cover Hilton (Aqib Talib, physically, perhaps) because Luck’s going to him a lot. For now, Hilton’s his go-to guy. "I’m ready for the role," Hilton said. Apparently so.
* * *
And it’s another game of Manning versus the One-And-Done Guy.
When Peyton Manning was deciding on his next team in March of 2012, he had a meeting at the Broncos training facility that included the offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, and the defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio. "Tell me something," said Manning, who wanted badly to come to a stable environment without the threat of coaching change. "Are you guys one-and-done? If we have a good year and you get an offer, are you guys out of here?"
Del Rio was new to Denver and assured Manning that it’d take a tremendous job for him to leave after his Jacksonville experience.
"I was honest with him," McCoy said from Cincinnati Sunday afternoon. "He looked right at us and asked the question, and I understood where he was coming from. But I told him I couldn’t promise him anything. If an opportunity came up, I was going to explore it."
Manning really liked McCoy. As did the Chargers. After the Broncos’ divisional-round playoff loss to Baltimore last January, it took 48 hours for the Chargers to decide McCoy would be the best partner for new GM Tom Telesco, and McCoy got the head-coaching job.
"What Peyton did for my career—and what everyone in Denver did, John Fox and John Elway and Pat Bowlen and the players, I owe them everything. I’m here today because of those people," McCoy said.
"Here" is the NFL’s Final Eight, hugging just-had-to-be-there Chargers fan Phil Mickelson and his family (and Telesco too) after beating Cincinnati 27-10. McCoy and the Chargers return to the site of their biggest win this year, the 27-20 Thursday-nighter in Denver a month ago, to challenge Manning for the third time this year.
I’m not saying McCoy has the institutional knowledge of a Bill Belichick (who has 17 games against Manning as a head coach). But since Manning returned from his neck problems, he’s had two offensive coordinators and confidants: McCoy and Adam Gase, this year’s coordinator. So McCoy clearly know the routes Manning likes and the plays he wants to run. But this will be a classic spy versus spy scenario. Manning knows McCoy knows, and so Manning’s going to take McCoy’s knowledge and try to counter how he thinks McCoy will play him. And so forth.
"Hey, he’s going to do what he wants," McCoy said. "They’re the best offense in history. We could call out every play before the snap, and he’s still going to make play after play. He dissects people. We just have to try to be efficient as we can."
"Score touchdowns," McCoy said, "not field goals."
McCoy’s a great example of a guy who’s been waiting for the day he got a chance to be a head coach, full of ideas he’s packed away over the years. He always knew he’d want to take a head-coaching job with an established quarterback and might turn down opportunities with no quarterback in-house. He knew he’d empower a smart staff to be idea people. McCoy and his staff—credit offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and quarterbacks coach Frank Reich too—have made Philip Rivers more efficient by giving him more alternatives. Danny Woodhead and Keenan Allen give Rivers two options in space he didn’t have a year ago, and Ryan Mathews finally is playing like a first-round running back. There’s a strong backup tight end, Ladarius Green, behind Antonio Gates now. And the defense in Cincinnati was superb. "John Pagano does a phenomenal job of studying tendencies and coming up with ways to disguise them. The interception by Melvin Ingram [off Andy Dalton] was a perfect example," said McCoy.
I think San Diego-Denver’s the game of the weekend.
The Niners adjust, wisely.
I know exactly why Jim Harbaugh set a personal record for post-game giddiness Sunday in Green Bay. When he finished his post-game press conference, he hugged one veteran beat man, Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area and said, "I love you, Matt!" And he kissed another one, Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, on the top of the head and said, "I love you too, Matt!"
So many reasons to be happy. He’s got a kicker he can rely on, Phil Dawson—who booted Sunday’s 33-yard game-winner at Green Bay—after losing faith in David Akers last year. He’s got a pass rusher, Aldon Smith, who’s playing his best at the most important time of the year. He’s got fresh defensive linemen in Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, because the Niners purposely rested them a lot more this year. He’s got a versatile defensive line, too, as Glenn Dorsey showed Sunday. Dorsey had to play nosetackle for nine snaps in the San Francisco nickel package Sunday, and he’s not used to being a run-stuffer, but he filled in adequately against the Pack.
Harbaugh’s got an offense with the ability, now, to play two different ways with Michael Crabtree back from Achilles surgery, and Frank Gore able to grind out the tough yards even when the defense knows he’s coming. But mostly, Harbaugh was giddy because his quarterback, on Sunday, was the electric Colin Kaepernick of 2012. He knew when to run so smartly, taking off on four scrambles and three designed runs for 98 rushing yards, including the most important of the day—an 11-yard scramble that set up the winning field goal.
But put that run in context. Fifty-five minutes into the game, the wind chill at Lambeau Field was minus-17. Kaepernick, sleeveless ("It’s mind over matter," he said), took over at his 20 in a tie game. Now, as important as scoring here was scoring without letting Aaron Rodgers have the ball back. Play after play, Niners players stayed inbounds. The clock ran down, and with 1:13 to play and 3rd-and-8 from the Green Bay 38, the game was on the line: Convert or punt to pin Green Bay back—but also leave the Packers with a minute to drive for the winning field goal. Kaepernick wanted to hit Crabtree, but he was covered. So Kaepernick sprinted left, evaded a linebacker, and ducked out at the 27. First down. Gore for five. Gore for two. Gore for three. Gore for two. Dawson’s 33-yard field goal won it. He kicked the ball through Green Bay corner Davon House’s arms, but House was offside, and Dawson would have had a re-kick had it been blocked.
This is the offense San Francisco will need if it's to win at Carolina, with Kaepernick posing a dual threat and Gore pushing the pile. Funny thing: Carolina’s convinced it has the same thing, a quarterback who can beat you running or passing, and a couple of physical backs.
* * *
* * *
Diary of a mad fan …
I asked Packers fan Kyle Cousineau, 33, to keep an account of his day at Lambeau Field Sunday. He lives a mile from the north end zone and has been to a ton of games over the years. None quite this cold though, with the temperatures in the single digits and wind-chills in the minus-teens at the wild-card game between the 49ers and Packers. He corresponded with our Emily Kaplan as the day went on.
Noon (CT): It’s about three and a half hours before kickoff, and it’s a very frigid three degrees—the kind of day where if you spit on the sidewalk it would freeze. I went outside a little while ago to gauge the weather, and decided on my attire: long underwear; jeans; a pair of sweat pants; a pair of thick, thermal coveralls; a thermal long sleeve t-shirt; a hooded sweatshirt; my big winter ski jacket; a scarf; a face mask; sunglasses to protect my eyes and lastly a pair of mittens with hand-warmers inside.
2:45 p.m.: Greetings from Lot 1 of Lambeau Field. The weather is about what I thought it would be. It’s still ridiculously cold. The scene at the tailgate party is a little more subdued than normal. It’s probably a perfect storm, if you will. First, there’s the ticket policy change this year, with the Packers not refunding money for unused playoff tickets, which has been a big ordeal out here. Couple that with the weather, which has at least something to do with it. (Did I mention it was frigidly cold?) But, of course we’re having fun. Eating chili from a portable camp stove, drinking a few Miller Lites. We’ll head inside to the stadium in about a half hour.
End of the first quarter: Before the game, everyone was fired up. I mean, it’s a home playoff game after all. Then after the Packers went three-and-out and had three straight punts to open the half, the crowd became a little bit on edge and dejected. The cold is on everybody’s mind. There have already been a few public service announcements: If you see somebody having trouble in the weather, don’t be afraid to tell an usher or text this number. Luckily, everyone seems to be doing OK. And I can feel all of my extremities. When we walked in we thought we were warm. Right now we’re comfortable. And by the end of the game, we’ll probably be freezing.
Halftime: It is getting colder and colder as time ticks away on the game clock. Considerably colder than when we were at the tailgate party, and when we got to our seats. It’s kind of a surreal scene. I’ve been to dozens of Packers games here over the years, and I’ve never seen a crowd not sit down for the whole game. Everyone is standing up. They only sit down when there’s a break in the action or a timeout.
End of the third quarter: As the drama on the field intensifies, the temperature drops. Significantly. The guy in front of me is wearing a thermometer around his neck, and right now it reads minus-15 degrees. A few minutes ago I took off my hat to adjust my facemask and my buddy was like, 'Uh, your head is steaming right now.' You’re going to sweat when you’re as bundled up as we are, and cheering and jumping around as much as we are. Truthfully, you know it’s cold but you don’t really think about it. You’re more focused on the game. And man, it’s become a really good game.
End of the fourth quarter: In the back of my mind, I had tempered expectations. The Niners lined up for the winning field goal with three seconds left, a 33-yarder, so obviously makeable. But maybe he’ll miss, maybe something magic will happen. So as Phil Dawson lined up for the field goal, I was hooting and hollering, going ballistic. I could see my breath in front of me, obviously, and that made me just cheer louder. Maybe, maybe … And of course he made it. That was it. I didn’t move for about 15 minutes. I just stood there, in our section, in silence. I watched all the players walk off the field, the fans file slowly out of the stadium. Everyone hung their heads; it was like a funeral procession. Afterward in the parking lot, win or lose, there’s usually some kind of noise. Somebody plays music, or we cheer because the Vikings or Bears lost. But today there was none of that. There’s just the cold.
8:45 p.m.: I’ve had some time to decompress, and I’ve warmed up, but that doesn’t make the pain go away. As far as cold goes, this was the second-worst game I’ve ever been to. The first was the NFC Championship game in ’08, Favre’s last game. That was a devastating loss. After that game, my brother and I just stood there. We didn’t say anything. Then we kind of just gave each other this look, then walked all the way home in silence. We didn’t talk the whole way. Today’s loss was a notch below that. The Packers are a way of life out here. They’re all we have. When they lose, it becomes winter. Three months of bitter cold and nothingness. Tomorrow they’re predicting minus-50 to minus-60 degree wind chill. Schools in the Green Bay area are already cancelled. Grocery stores are closed. So that’s what we have to look forward to ... until the draft in May.
Frozen in Time: Check out SI photographer Simon Bruty’s best shots from Niners-Packers.
1. Seattle (13-3). Didn’t think I’d see Percy Harvin (who has played 20 snaps all season and caught one ball) play football again this season. But if he practices well this week, looks like he’ll see the field Saturday in the divisional game versus New Orleans.
2. San Francisco (13-4). Colin Kaepernick has run for 279 yards in two playoff games against the Packers. I sense a trend.
3. Denver (13-3). The NFL didn’t have enough drama this year. To reach the Super Bowl, Peyton Manning will have to beat his old offensive coordinator (Mike McCoy) and either Tom Brady or his successor in Indy, Andrew Luck.
4. Carolina (12-4). Two big, physical helpers to Cam Newton and the Carolina passing game this year—Greg Olsen and Mike Tolbert—combined to catch 100 balls for 1,000 yards. Exactly.
5. New England (12-4). On the playoff bye weekend, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels got interviewed by the Browns. Not sure he’ll get the gig (my friend and longtime Browns beatman Tony Grossi thinks Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase has a very good shot), but the interview with McDaniels Saturday in New England went quite well.
6. New Orleans (12-5). Tremendous second half by Drew Brees. Now I’m thinking the long shot in Seattle isn’t such a long shot after all, especially with the Seahawks looking pretty mortal on offense since wiping out the Saints in December.
7. Indianapolis (12-5). Andrew Luck laughs at big deficits.
8. Philadelphia (10-7). I expected Nick Foles to make more plays early Saturday night, but that was a pretty big stage, and he did lead Philly to 17 points in the final 20 minutes. Bright future for him, and the Eagles.
9. Kansas City (11-6). I realize a pair of key members of the secondary were gone down the stretch, but the lack of a rush on Andrew Luck and any defensive cohesion in the second half was galling.
10. Green Bay (8-8-1). The Packers need reinforcements; Bryan Bulaga, Casey Hayward and Clay Matthews to get healthy; to figure out who kidnapped B.J. Raji ... and basically Ted Thompson to have his best offseason. Is that too much to ask?
11. San Diego (10-7). As Philip Rivers told FOX, "We were left for dead five weeks ago, at 5-7." And now they’re dangerous enough to be scary to Denver.
12. Arizona (10-6). I bet Carson Palmer, watching Sunday, truly felt sorry for Andy Dalton. He’s been there. He’s not the kind of guy to laugh at his successor falling so flat.
13. Cincinnati (11-6). It’s one thing for fans to not trust Andy Dalton, and those from Lima to Lexington surely won’t in 2014. But Dalton’s biggest problem going forward is that his own locker room isn’t going to trust him, regardless of what the players and coaches say publicly.
14. Pittsburgh (8-8). The Steelers would have given the Chargers a much better game than Cincinnati did.
15. Chicago (8-8). Well, Phil Emery got the quarterback signed, and kept the Bears out of the QB business this offseason. Didn’t love the contract, but at least it’s one spot Chicago doesn’t have to worry about.
The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Colin Kaepernick, quarterback, San Francisco. What must have been going through the head of Kaepernick Sunday, pulling into the parking lot at Lambeau Field, the same place this Packers-idolizer once posed in front of in a Brett Favre jersey? Whatever emotion he had about it, Kaepernick kept it bottled before, during and after the 23-20 playoff victory over the Packers Sunday evening in brutal cold. Kaepernick’s legs (seven carries, 98 yards, including the crucial 11-yard run around left end that put the Niners in field-goal range to win) were better than his arm (16 of 30, one touchdown, one pick, 227 yards, a couple of big misses), but you throw a brick in 10-below wind chill and see how easy it is.
Terron Armstead, left tackle, New Orleans. The third start for the third-round rookie from Arkansas-Pine Bluff was his biggest by far, and Armstead repaid the faith Sean Payton had in him (or maybe desperation, not faith) by keeping the heat off Drew Brees from the right side of the Philly defense. The Eagles had two sacks (for one measly yard) and two more significant pressures in the Saints’ Saturday night upset. Armstead, quick and combative, jousted effectively with Eagle pass rusher Trent Cole and won much more than he lost. Cole had five tackles and one sack, but watching the game, Armstead pushed Cole around pretty consistently.
Andrew Luck, quarterback, Indianapolis. He dug himself a very big hole in the biggest game of his pro career, and the day looked grim when Luck’s second pick helped the Chiefs build a 38-10 lead early in the third quarter, while his third should have put the game out of reach for Kansas City late in the third. But somehow, Luck had enough presence to throw three second-half touchdowns, and even more presence to pick up a bouncing fumble near the goal line and stretch it over for a bizarre but vital score in the 45-44 Indy win. Let the unauthorized Luck biographies (plural) be contracted out.
Defensive Players of the Week
Donald Butler, linebacker, San Diego. Made the single biggest play of the game late in the second quarter, when Gio Bernard grabbed a pass from Andy Dalton and turned upfield inside the 10-yard line to try to score a touchdown to break open a 7-7 game. Butler stripped Bernard (the play was upheld on review) and prevented Cincinnati from taking the lead. And in the second half Butler was everywhere, finishing with a game-high 12 tackles, two for losses, the best San Diego defensive player on the field in a crushing victory over the Bengals.
Aldon Smith, outside linebacker, San Francisco. Smith must have made 10 disruptive plays Sunday—either causing a penalty, chasing Aaron Rodgers out of the pocket, pressuring him severely or sacking (1.5) him in the 23-20 Niners victory. Already can’t wait to see the Aldon Smith versus Cam Newton duel Sunday in Charlotte.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Phil Dawson, kicker, San Francisco. Keyed the first playoff victory of his life—and Dawson turns 39 later this month—with the winning 33-yard field goal at the final gun at Green Bay. With the wind chill around minus-14, Dawson calmly ended the game that no one watching at home wanted to end. "Worth the wait," he tweeted afterward. Dawson scored the first six points of the game, too, when Niners drives stalled deep in Packers tundra.
Darrell Stuckey, safety, San Diego. What tremendous pursuit on the San Diego punt team by the fourth-year safety from Kansas. On the first Chargers punt of the day, he sprinted down to drop Bengals returner Brandon Tate for a one-yard loss, and later in the half smothered Tate for a five-yard loss. Strong and slithery, Stuckey was the best special-teamer in the field on wild-card weekend.
Coach of the Week
Sean Payton, head coach, New Orleans. Made all the right calls all week, including poking fun at the Saints’ 3-5 road record this year. Payton was lively Saturday night in Philadelphia, airing out his special teams and showing confidence in both the running game (94 yards in the first half, 91 in the second) and recently interception-prone Drew Brees, which paid off in the second half. Payton will figure out some way to mind-game his team into thinking the 34-7 loss in Seattle a month ago was a total fluke.
Goats of the Week
A pair of Andies:
Andy Dalton, quarterback, Cincinnati. Needing a playoff win to get off the schneid after two bad postseason performances in 2011 and ’12, Dalton took a 10-7 lead into the second half, with the ball. His first four series in the half ended thusly: taking a sack to force fourth down, fumbling on a boneheaded forward dive without being touched, throwing a pressured interception right into Chargers corner Shareece Wright’s hands, and throwing another interception to Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram. The Chargers responded thusly: touchdown, field goal, field goal and a punt wedging Cincinnati deep in its territory. Ballgame.
Andy Reid, head coach, Kansas City. After the year he’s had, after the incredible Kansas City turnaround from moribund franchise to important contender, this almost seems unfair. But it’s reality. Reid has to take a hit for the Chiefs' clock management and use of timeouts in the fourth quarter at Indianapolis. There are many things the Chiefs will look back on and say, "That killed us." This one is the biggest: KC took its first and second timeouts on successive plays on a mid-fourth-quarter drive, and the third timeout, inexplicably, immediately after the two-minute warning. A colossal, ridiculous waste of timeouts. That is just dumb football.
The Colts took over at their 43 to run out the clock with 1:55 left and a 45-44 lead. Kansas City had no timeouts left. Andrew Luck kneeled down three times to end it. Now, I’m not saying the Chiefs could have stopped a middle-school team by the time the Colts went to run the clock out. But let’s say the Chiefs didn't waste their timeouts stupidly. The Colts likely would have run on the first two plays and made the Chiefs use them. Faced with a third down and, say, five, yards to go with 1:42 to play, my guess is Luck would have tried a pass to convert. An incompletion would have forced the Colts to punt, and the Chiefs would have gotten the ball back with a timeout left, 1:30 to play and perhaps 50 yards to travel to get into range for a winning field goal. Again, that scenario is unlikely because of how easily the Colts had driven through the Chiefs. But it sure as heck is more possible than letting the Colts take the ball over with 1:55 remaining and having no timeouts.
Quotes of the Week
"They had their hearts ripped out. They should hurt. That’ll make us better."
—Kansas City coach Andy Reid, a day after after he and his players blew a 38-10 third-quarter lead and lost to Indianapolis 45-44 in one of the strangest games in NFL history Saturday.
"We owe ’em."
—San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, on the rematch with Carolina this week. The Panthers beat the Niners in the regular season at Candlestick Park.
"Clutch. Tough. Great."
—San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, on the play of quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the win at Green Bay.
"In the end we were not able to agree on the direction of the franchise. We’re looking for great things. If you look at where we are as a team, it was probably time to make a change."
—Tennessee GM Ruston Webster, announcing the firing of coach Mike Munchak after three seasons Saturday.
"I can’t fire someone when I don’t believe they should be fired. Firing someone is awful."
—Fired Tennessee coach Mike Munchak, to Jim Wyatt of the the Tennesseean. Part of the reasoning behind Munchak's firing reportedly was his reluctance to fire members of his staff.
Stats of the Week
Andy Dalton’s 34 playoff drives over three games have ended thusly:
|Missed field goals||1|
The Bengals have lost the three playoff games by a combined 77-33.
One touchdown pass in 34 drives.
I don’t want to be too knee-jerk, but the Bengals are going to have to consider bringing competition to training camp for Andy Dalton. I don’t mean he should be benched, and I don’t mean Cincinnati should necessarily draft a quarterback in the first round, but the Bengals have too much defensive talent to watch the quarterback put up 33 points in 34 playoff drives.
Denver kicker Matt Prater attempted 101 PATs and field goals this year. He made 100.
He missed a 52-yard field goal in Week 11. Putting it another way, Prater was 94 of 94 on of 50 yards or less this season.
Factoids of the Week That May Only Interest Me
Dan Fouts gets an unwanted reminder of the coldest game in NFL history 32 years ago every year around this time: frostbite.
When it gets cold, Fouts feels pain in both feet and both hands from the middle of the hand to the fingertips—and has since Jan. 10, 1982, the day of the AFC Championship Game in Cincinnati between the Chargers and Bengals that was played in wind-chill that reached minus-59 degrees. The San Diego Union-Tribune wrote about this the other day, and Chris Mortensen reported on it Saturday morning. I spoke to Fouts Friday. "Nothing you can do about it," he said on the phone. "It's history. You just had to play in the game, and you had no idea this would come of it. The biggest problem, really, was there were no gloves for quarterbacks in those days. Kenny Anderson and I didn't have the luxury that day that the guys today have."
In 2012, predicting games each regular-season week for SI.com, I was 169-86-1.
In 2013, predicting games each regular-season week for SI.com, Don Banks was 169-86-1.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
Forward, friendly, 40ish guy next to me on the train from Grand Central Terminal to Stamford Friday: "Who was that on the phone?"
Me: "Dan Fouts."
Forward guy: "THE Dan Fouts?"
Me: "I think so—the former football player."
Forward guy: "How’d you get him on the phone?"
Me: "Texted him. He called back. Good guy."
Forward guy: "I bet that’s cool, talking to Dan Fouts."
Me: "Yeah, it’s good."
Silence for the next 35 minutes. He texted, I wrote, I got off in Stamford, he got off, and that was it.
Tweets of the Week
"Nature Boy Ric Flair flew into this s--- hole to show us some love."
—@AnthonyDavis76, the San Francisco right tackle, on Saturday night, on the professional wrestler flying into Wisconsin (it is unclear if Davis meant the entire state, the region, the city, whatever) to give the Niners a pep talk before the wild-card game Sunday.
Such a nice sentiment.
"Many of those that have asked, I have and will always favor the crew concept as opposed to all-stars. League and officials don't agree."
—@MikePereira, the FOX officiating analyst and former NFL vice president of officiating. Officials are hand-picked in the postseason based on grades in the regular season.
For the first year, this wild-card weekend had all-star crews, meaning crews were assembled based on regular-season grades. I wrote about that in my officiating series in December. The crux of it: Position by position, officials are ranked in three tiers based on their regular-season accuracy rating. Only officials in Tier 1 are eligible to work the Super Bowl; there is no minimum or maximum number of officials who can be in Tier 1, and usually there are between four and six officials in that tier for each of the seven field positions. But if there are, say, four officials who qualify for Tier 1, it is not necessarily the official with the best accuracy percentage who works the game. Other factors—positioning, mechanics, rules expertise and decisiveness—weigh into the NFL’s decision about who gets the Super Bowl call. There isn’t a set cut-off percentage separating the tiers, because every position could have different degrees of proficiency. If five referees are at 98.0 percent or better, and the sixth was at 97.25 percent, the logical line of demarcation would be between the fifth and sixth referee that season.
Tier 1 officials are eligible to work all postseason games. Tier 2 officials can work wild-card and divisional playoff games. Tier 3 officials are not playoff-eligible, and would be subject to a thorough offseason review and possible replacement by the league.
"Quarterback math: Jim Plunkett + Rich Gannon - George Blanda = Alex Smith."
—@MikeTanier, of Sports On Earth, as Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith was laying waste to the Colts Saturday.
"I just saw Andrew Luck pulling a horse and buggy with his beard."
—@HeavyOnions, during the Colts’ victory Saturday, referring to the Indy quarterback's thick facial hair.
"Don't even know what to say. That was devastating. It's going to take awhile to get over that. Thanks #ChiefsKingdom for believing in us."
—@GeoffSchwartz, Kansas City right guard, one hour after the incredible 45-44 loss to Indianapolis.
"I'll predict right now if Bortles comes out and goes in 1st the HC and GM will b fired within 3 years"
—@greggabe, former Chicago director of college scouting Greg Gabriel, on Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles, who will enter the NFL draft, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Evidently, Gabriel is quite down on Bortles.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about wild-card weekend:
a. Alex Smith’s mobility. A 15-yard scramble out of trouble in the backfield and then through traffic to keep the first drive of the game alive ... it’s a totally underrated part of his game.
b. Andy Reid and Doug Pederson, calling a wishbone/option run to Knile Davis on the first play of Davis’ playoff life.
c. John Dorsey, Chiefs GM, using the 95th pick in the draft on Knile Davis, a hugely important element despite the loss.
d. T.Y. Hilton. Everything about him.
e. The hustle of Antoine Bethea (I love this guy) in stopping Dwayne Bowe from getting to the end zone on the long first-half throw from Luck ... a play that paid off very large in a one-point victory.
f. Andrew Luck’s second half.
g. Our Greg A. Bedard’s story on the Bears-Packers Week 17, talking about how vital the block fullback John Kuhn threw was. Bedard makes a great case that the block of Kuhn’s life won the division for Green Bay.
h. The class and dripping disappointment of Mike Munchak, who played 12 Hall-of-Fame seasons as a guard for the Oilers from 1982 to ’93 and was coach for the Oilers/Titans since 1994, in his statement upon leaving the Titans Saturday: "This is a day I hoped would never come, but there is a reason for everything. Words cannot express the sadness for leaving this organization that I have been a part of for over 30 years."
i. The Cris Carter feature with Jordy Nelson on ESPN, with the secret to catching sideline balls and getting both feet inbounds. "Your body just has to go limp," Carter said. Really interesting inside football.
j. Drew Brees finding Kenny Stills on the third-quarter snap when Cary Williams had to sit because of injury. Very smart by a vet quarterback, and he got a first down out of it.
k. Chris Mortensen’s information that Mike Munchak turned down an extension with Tennessee that would have paid him "almost double" his current $3 milion annual salary. Good information. And absolutely mind-boggling. Munchak was head coach for three playoff-less seasons, was 7-9 in a mediocre (at best) division, and spent massively to build a running game this year that was just average. Wow. That was a stunner to me. And to pay him that money while insisting he change half the coaches on his staff? Hey, right hand: Have any idea what the left hand is doing?
l. Donald Butler’s instinctive play at inside linebacker for San Diego. Much more effective Sunday than running mate Manti Te’o.
m. Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer sending seven rushers on the first big third-down snap for the Chargers. Philip Rivers got smothered. Punt.
n. John Pagano. Everything the Chargers defensive coordinator did seemed to work against Cincinnati.
o. Love smart players. Did you see Eric Weddle in the fourth quarter tackling the Bengals receiver near the sideline, not letting him get out of bounds so Cincinnati could stop the clock?
p. Kudos, GM Tom Telesco of the Chargers ... for many things. The biggest I can think of this morning is signing Danny Woodhead for two years and $3.5 million. Woodhead is worth three times that.
q. Colin Kaepernick knowing when to run and when to wait, wait, wait and throw it. Only quibble I have is passing on a wide-open Vernon Davis to make his 42-yard first-half scramble.
r. Just give me Jordy Nelson, Anquan Boldin and a competent quarterback, and I’ll give you any two receivers in football, and I’ll take my chances against you.
s. John Kuhn on that lead fullback dive. Now that’s a dangerous play. And an effective one.
t. Davon House with a huge pass-deflection on a bomb for Vernon Davis ... two plays before he was caught interfering.
u. CBS, for giving Dan Dierdorf a monster game for his finale: Indianapolis at New England, Saturday night, Foxboro.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about wild-card weekend:
a. Jamaal Charles going down in the first five minutes of the game. Love watching him play. Amazing this game produced 89 points without him.
b. Greg Toler being in the game at all. Awful in coverage, or non-coverage. Too hurt from his groin injury coming in.
c. Bad non-call on clear pass interference by Kansas City’s Marcus Cooper in the second quarter—on a very big play.
d. Colts: 14 turnovers in the regular season; four Saturday.
e. Those who would say Alex Smith made a critical mistake by taking an intentional grounding call on the Chiefs’ last possession, helping knock them out of field-goal range for a kick that could have won the game. Kansas City had the ball at the Colts’ 39, 2nd-and-7 with 2:30 to play. Smith set up a screen to his left, ideally to throw to Dexter McCluster. Before the play could even remotely develop, Smith was swarmed by the unblocked Erik Walden and Cory Redding and at the last millisecond threw the ball away to his right, far from any of his receivers. What were his options here? Throw it away, which he did. Or get sacked with the ball at the 47 and have it be 3rd-and-15. I watched the play three times on NFL Game Rewind, and there was nothing else Smith could do, except eat it. If he did, it would have been 3rd-and-15 instead of 3rd-and-17. Big deal.
f. As an inside linebacker Sunday, Manti Te’o too often made a good bystander.
g. CBS’ Tracy Wolfson, late in the first half at Cincinnati, after a graphic showed a temperature of 41, with Wolfson wearing a knit hat and gloves: "It feels like San Diego weather." As she spoke, it was 73 and mostly sunny in San Diego.
h. Awful clock management near the end of the first half by the Packers. With one timeout left, they let the clock bleed down from 22 to eight seconds before snapping it and throwing an incompletion, causing them to go for a field goal one play before they had to. What a waste.
i. Call pass-interference somewhat close in the postseason to the way you do it in the regular season, zebras.
j. The clock management this weekend was amateurish. (See Goat of the Week, above.) The Niners spent two timeouts in the first half of the first quarter and two in the first half of the third quarter. That is just nonsensical.
k. James Jones has had better games.
l. If Micah Hyde makes that pick with four minutes to go, there’s a very good chance the course of 2013 NFC playoff history would be a lot different.
m. Same old Bengals.
3. I think I don’t care one bit who Aaron Rodgers—or any player, coach, fan or writer—has sex with. Nor should anyone. If a player chooses to discuss, it’s his business. If not, leave it alone, world.
4. I think I saw enough evidence in three hours of one game at Indy Saturday, with four possibly concussed players and another with two possible major knee injuries, to know the NFL can never have an 18-game regular season. You’re not serious about player safety and player health if you want 18 games ... unless you say each player’s max games per regular season is 16. That, of course, would necessitate Brock Osweiler starting two games for Denver, for example, because Peyton Manning would have to sit twice. That’s the only way I’d support an 18-game schedule.
5. I think if this doesn’t illustrate the way the game is going today, nothing does: The Chiefs started eight defensive backs on the first snap at Indianapolis Saturday.
6. I think as redemptive as this season was for Riley Cooper, his third-quarter drop on a wide-open crossing route on third down was the biggest negative play of the game for Philadelphia. The Eagles trailed 13-7 when it happened—Cooper could have raced for at least 20 yards on the play—and the Saints, on the change of possession, drove for a touchdown to make it 20-7. Though the Eagles came back, that was one possession, in retrospect, where Philadelphia gave away points.
7. I think, as I said on NBC’s Football Night in America pregame show Saturday, there is no momentum in league circles to re-seed the playoffs the way the league should, which is to base the seeds on the regular-season record. But too many owners think winning a division title should not only be a pass into the playoffs, but should also carry with it the right to host a playoff game. There is, however, momentum to add a seventh playoff team to each conference. My guess is the added playoff team happens by 2015 or ’16. I hate it. But no one asked me. Had it happened this year, here are the two extra games we’d have seen over the weeks, or perhaps tonight: Arizona at Carolina and Pittsburgh at New England.
8. I think I’ll have a mini-MMQB on Tuesday this week, because of the voluminous news week. Coming: a Saints item, interviews with Bill O’Brien and Lovie Smith, and your email.
9. I think the tough decision Dolphins owner Stephen Ross faces is this: What if he keeps Joe Philbin and Jeff Ireland, as he appears to be leaning toward doing, then finds out something ugly from the Ted Wells report? It’ll be pretty awkward to fire your coach or GM on Feb. 10.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. I never met Jerry Coleman, the legendary ex-Yankee and San Diego Padres broadcaster. I wish I had. Coleman died Sunday and leaves a tremendous void in the San Diego sports scene.
b. My old buddy Mark Purdy might be the only person alive who attended the Freezer Bowl in Cincinnati 32 years ago (he wrote for the Cincinnati Enquirer then) and the Niners-Packers game Sunday (he writes for the San Jose Mercury News now). We spoke Sunday. We were on the same staff in Cincinnati; I was in Indianapolis that day, preparing to cover the Xavier-Butler basketball game at Hinkle Fieldhouse, where Xavier coach Bob Staak would be so cold in the 45-degree fridge of a building that he wore his overcoat on the bench that day. Anyway, Mark said it was significantly colder in Cincinnati for the 1982 game. "You walked outside and took your first breath and everything inside your nostrils froze," he said. "This is really cold, but not like that."
c. One of the cool things about working at NBC over the last eight years has been the chance to work in and around the Saturday Night Live set at Rockefeller Center. The first few years our set was the old Jeopardy studio, which was fun to me because that was my favorite game show as a kid (the Art Fleming version). Once, in my dressing room prepping for a Saturday Notre Dame halftime segment, I stepped on a Taylor Swift red dress and got a big footprint on it. I don’t believe I was supposed to do that. I was aghast. Guess that’s why they have quickie dry cleaners. This year, that studio was under construction, and so we moved over to the SNL studio for a year, a crack carpentry crew transitioning the set many weekends from Justin Timberlake to Dan Patrick in a matter of hours. Wild-card Saturday was Football Night in America's last day on the SNL set, and—I don’t get this way too often—I had to take a few photos to commemorate the occasion. I often wrote a few chunks of this column on an applebox under a Miley Cyrus photo.
d. My sincere thanks to Dave Goren of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, and all the NSSA voters, who voted me sportswriter of the year for 2013. I’m humbled and so appreciative. Thank you.
e. Baseball writers have a tough job with this Hall of Fame voting, tougher than we have it in football. Do not envy them one bit, trying to decide if Bonds and Clemens belong.
f. Coffeenerdness: No Tom Curran/coconut coffee tales for you this week, unfortunately, but I am looking for help in this regard for coffeephiles: I need a recommendation on how to clean a veteran Krups coffeemaker that hasn’t been cleaned in over a year. Baking powder and hot water, run through a normal cycle?
g. Beernerdness: Lucky enough to try Alaskan Brewing Company’s ESB—Extra Special Bitter—on New Year’s Eve, and it was terrific. I like a hoppy, bitter beer, and this was a perfect one. Will be on the lookout for it on future Seattle trips.
h. Found out how to make Rodney Harrison and Mike Florio laugh uproariously Saturday.
The Adieu Haiku
Harbaugh kissed writers.
Gadzooks. I doubt Tom Coughlin