Dustin Bradford/Getty Images; Norm Hall/Getty Images; Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
By Gary Gramling
January 23, 2016

1. I think I think a couple of things about the AFC title game…

a. I’m picking the Patriots to win this game, yet they’re still going to play it (I guess CBS does have four hours of programming to fill).

I do think this is much closer to a coin flip matchup than most folks are anticipating. I’m sure much of that has to do with the Brady-Manning mismatch (that’s Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the quarterbacks for the Patriots and Broncos, respectively, in case you were unclear).

Brady is still Brady. Manning is no longer Manning. Therefore, how can the Broncos compete? Consider this though: Over the course of his career, Tom Brady has faced 26 different NFL teams on the road more than once. His record in Denver (2-6) is worst among those 26 cities. And this hasn’t been a series of shootouts with Peyton Manning; the two have faced off only once in Mile High. Here’s the list of Broncos quarterbacks who have squared off with Brady in Denver, and the result of each game.

Date Result Broncos QB
Oct. 28, 2001 L, 31-20 Brian Griese
Nov. 3, 2003 W, 30-26 Danny Kanell
Oct. 16, 2005 L, 28-20 Jake Plummer
Jan. 14, 2006 (Div. Playoffs) L, 27-13 Jake Plummer
Oct. 11, 2009 L, 20-17 (OT) Kyle Orton
Dec. 18, 2011 W, 41-23 Tim Tebow
Jan. 19, 2014 (AFC Title Game) L, 26-16 Peyton Manning
Nov. 29, 2015 L, 30-24 Brock Osweiler

That’s right, Jake Plummer beat the Brady Patriots twice in Denver. And he won his only game in Foxboro. Also, he says “Hello” when he leaves, “Goodbye” when he arrives.

b. Among the most fascinating things about this postseason, and the best things about Sunday’s conference title games, is how many truly great football minds will be going head-to-head. For me, the matchup of the weekend is Wade Phillips vs. Josh McDaniels.

I’ll preface this with the disclaimer that I’ve always had an irrational like of Wade Phillips. It’s in part because he got a bad rap in Buffalo (winning more than 60% of his games in the post-Jim Kelly era and lasting only three years?!), in part because he reminds me of a chubbier version of my dad, and in part because he just seems like a good football mind. And backing me up on that is the fact that people who know a lot more about football than I do voted Phillips the Assistant Coach of the Year.

Phillips undoubtedly has a unit loaded with talent, but he has maximized that talent. They have a diverse collection of pass rushers that they use in a variety of ways. He has a couple of corners who are polar opposites in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, and he consistently deploys them properly. And did you see the post-snap switching going on in the secondary against the Steelers last week? Seamless; those kinds of man-beater concepts (thanks, Andy Benoit!) usually destroy defenses. This unit is as well-coached as any in football.

The Patriots looked like the Patriots again last week. With Julian Edelman back in the line up, they spread out the Chiefs and for most of the game moved the ball at will. But with a hobbled Justin Houston and an ordinary secondary, K.C. didn’t stand much of a chance. Phillips and his unit have everything in place to counter the Patriots at their best. If they win on Sunday, it’s likely going to be because Phillips won the battle of the minds.

c. In regards to Chris Harris’s “Hit him in the knees” comments about tackling Rob Gronkowski… In what way is that controversial, or even surprising? I’m sure “going low” has been happening to Gronk every time he’s caught a football in his life. If you’re not going low to tackle Rob Gronkowski, the only other way to bring him down involves a syringe full of fentanyl. (And even then… I mean, have you seen how much alcohol this guy puts back?)

d. I’m not going to put the Danny Kanell stuff on the Broncos just because he used to play quarterback for them. But c’mon, guy. This is so dumb.

e. When Peyton Manning made his NFL debut, the yellow “1st & 10 line” was not yet used on broadcasts. (Had to use that now in case this is the end for him.)

* * *

2. I think I think a few things about the NFC title game...

a. This season, four opposing quarterbacks came into Bank of America Stadium and threw for 300-plus yards. Jameis Winston did so in a Week 17 blowout. The other three—Luke McCown (Week 3), Aaron Rodgers (Week 9) and Russell Wilson (last week’s Divisional Round game)—did so in losing efforts, but each game was a case of the Panthers jumping out to a significant lead then having to hang on for dear life.

Some numbers for Carolina, postseason included:

  First Half
(NFL rank)
Second Half/OT
(NFL rank)
Points Allowed Per Game 7.1 (2nd) 12.4 (18th)
TD Allowed per Game 0.71 (2nd) 1.53 (25th)
Opp. Passer Rating 64.1 (1st) 83.1 (10th)
Net Pass Yds Allowed
Per Game
95.8 (4th) 144.1 (28th)

Granted, when you are consistently protecting a lead in the second half, you’re going to give up some passing numbers late in games. But the point is this: Teams have been able to throw on the Panthers when they have to. And unlike any other opponent they’ve faced this year, the Cardinals will come out firing. A passage from Robert Mays’ piece on the budding trend of the deep, aggressive passing game:

“[T]he Arizona Cardinals lined up with three receivers tightly bunched to the left side of the formation. At the snap, Carson Palmer jumped back into a five-step drop as his trio of wideouts—Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown—shot in separate directions. As they did, and much of the defense’s attention floated to that half of the field, rookie running back David Johnson leaked unnoticed into the right flat.

Getting Johnson, an exceptional receiver, isolated in that area of the field was the play’s central purpose, and instantly the design was a success. On the opening snap of the game, most quarterbacks would be content to take the simple completion, gobble up that first easy throw as a way to light the fuse. But the Cardinals are rarely interested in a slow burn. Rather than dump the ball to Johnson, Palmer uncorked a throw for Brown streaking down the field.

‘We’re looking for the chunks,’ Harold Goodwin, Arizona’s offensive coordinator says of the play. ‘You can nickel and dime them all the way down the field, but we’re trying to shorten the field or even score on one throw.’”

Carson Palmer’s right index finger is a potential problem. So is the turf at BoA Stadium if it neutralizes the Cardinals’ speed. But if the Cards can come out and throw the first punch on Sunday evening, it will be interesting to see how the Panthers respond to a different kind of game flow.

And if the Panthers jump out to a big lead at halftime? Well, don’t go flipping the channel to Matlock just yet (yeah, I don’t know what counterprogramming they show these days).

b. I like the idea of Patrick Peterson shadowing Ted Ginn, for the peace of mind of eliminating one variable in the Panthers’ offense. I’m not sure how you can have Peterson shadow Greg Olsen, who lines up all over the place. Peterson on Ginn allows the safeties to focus on Olsen and Carolina’s multi-faceted run game. And if Philly Brown is going to beat you on the other side of the field, so be it. (But whatever, James Bettcher knows what he’s doing.)

c. I also like the idea of creating a second Patrick Peterson through advanced cloning techniques. But we just don’t have the technology.

d. I really wish Tyrann Mathieu was playing in this game. There are so many versatile pieces in the Panthers’ offense. It would have been neat to see the Cardinals counter with a Swiss-army knife of their own. On the other sideline, a bummer that Jared Allen won’t be suiting up.

e. Glad to see Fozzy Whittaker listed as probable for Sunday. I always enjoyed watching him at Texas and never thought he’d make it in the NFL. Now he’s a real weapon as a kick returner and change-of-pace back, and could even see an expanded role if Jonathan Stewart is limited. I’d venture to say Whittaker is the NFL’s best player named after a Muppet (especially since BunsenHoneydew McGovern’s career ended after that… well, unpleasantness).

* * *

3. Surely we’ll see the day when professional football games are contested by super-intelligent robots. Front office execs will literally mine for the most precious metals from which their rosters will literally be built, while coaches will be tasked with programming, cleaning and maintaining their “players.”

But until that day, can we stop with the righteous indignation every time Cam Newton does something? The guy scores a touchdown and we as a nation instantly transform into the town from Footloose.*

The latest offense was when Newton, in celebration of their Divisional Round playoff victory over the Seahawks, burned down the Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Oh no, wait, he playfully crumpled up a piece of fabric that represents the opposing team’s fan base and threw it. If you show up to Charlotte with your 12s flag and Cam gets his hands on it, that’s the way it goes. I know it’s upsetting to see your team lose, especially when they’re as good as the Seahawks are. But this letter… that’s one of those therapeutic “write it but don’t send it” things. (And I have no issue with the classic Richard Sherman Crabtree rant, but if that letter was your reaction to Newton, the mental gymnastics it must take to justify Sherman’s post-game actions...)

I guess I’ll give a couple points to the anti-Newton brigade: He stole a laptop when he was at the University of Florida. That wasn’t cool, though I think we can move past his actions as a teenager now that it’s been a decade or so. Dabbin’ is a particularly lame looking celebration, but hey, dance like no one’s watching, right? I could do without the smelly branding of the Gatorade towel draped on the head at all times.

Are many of his more charming moments “calculated”? Sure. Just like Tom Brady, J.J. Watt, Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson... every other face-of-the-franchise player in the NFL. (Did you think those Aaron Rodgers State Farm ads are hidden-camera feeds?)

It probably stinks when he’s steam-rolling your favorite team, and you can let some bitterness seep out afterward. But really, someone playing this game while exuding that much joy is something to be celebrated.

(* – Did you know that the Footloose town is “Bomont”? If so, give yourself a point, and be sure to tally up your total at the end of this column.)

* * *

4. I think there’s no pressing need to “fix” overtime; if two teams are tied after 60 minutes, they’re so evenly matched that having a coin toss help determine the outcome isn’t especially problematic.

However, it seems like kind of a no-brainer to say that the team that has the second possession also gets the chance to match a touchdown, just like they would a field goal. Right? Glad that’s settled.

* * *

Illegal? Yup. Dirty? Not bloody likely.
Elsa/Getty Images

5a. I think just about everyone was wrong about the Danny Amendola hit on Jamell Fleming last Saturday.

Fleming was wrong to characterize it as a “calculated” hit from Amendola. I find that highly unlikely. Amendola had the right to block anyone on the Chiefs looking to down the ball. Fleming had crouched, leaving almost no hitting zone.

Amendola was wrong because you can’t throw your shoulder full-force into an unsuspecting player’s head in the NFL circa 2015. I’m glad the officials got him with the catch-all unnecessary roughness flag, and I’m glad the league fined him. I’d hope they’ll suspend him if he throws a hit to the head like that again.

The league is wrong not to have a defenseless player rule in place for anyone tracking the ball, like a receiver, or a defensive back, or a player inside the 5-yard line looking to down a punt.

If you want to argue “head on a swivel,” fine. But for anyone who isn’t a ballcarrier, shots to the head should be off limits at all times.

5b. I think this is as good a time as any to demonstrate the difference between “illegal” and “dirty,” a distinction so misconstrued after the Steelers-Bengals travesty.

When Vontaze Burfict twists an ankle after a tackle, or dives at a quarterback’s knees after a throw, or delivers a head shot to a receiver away from the play, or delivers a head shot after a pass has clearly sailed incomplete, those hits are not football plays; they are delivered solely with the intention of injuring an opponent.

“It’s sending a message!” you might argue. If that’s you, I’d like you to open up Microsoft Word, type up that statement (keep it Arial font... maybe 24-point?), print it out, put that paper in the microwave for 23 seconds, take it out and discard it in the dumpster behind Arby’s, because that is hot garbage, friend. You can deliver a message with hard tackling within a play (on a ballcarrier, for instance). The only message Burfict consistently delivered over his career is “Can you believe the NFL still hasn’t suspended me for this crap?”

Amendola’s hit, and similarly the crown-of-the-helmet hit Ryan Shazier delivered on Gio Bernard two weeks ago (which should have drawn a flag and fine) are illegal, dangerous plays, but they are not dirty plays. Amendola was trying to prevent a punt from being downed near his own goal line. Shazier was trying to bring down a slippery ballcarrier.

5c. One other little absurdity concerning the NFL rules: Amendola’s penalty for unnecessary roughness, a personal foul, cost the Patriots two yards. That ain’t right. I’m going to outright steal an idea from Andy Benoit, because it’s that good. On half-the-distance penalties on the offense, take the “remaining” yardage and push back the yard line to gain. For instance, Amendola committed a 15-yard penalty at his own 4. Take them back two yards, then add the other 13 yards to the yard-line to gain, making it first-and-23 from the 2-yard line. Then you’re actually penalizing the team.

Most defensive penalties result in an automatic first down. For any that don’t (offsides, for instance) assess the full five yards from any point between the 5- and 10-yard lines. Inside the 5, put the ball on the 1-yard-line and replay the down.

* * *

6. Congratulations to Kathryn Smith on her promotion to special teams quality control coach in Buffalo.

I’m not really interested in going point-counterpoint with anyone who says “Women can’t coach in the NFL”; no reasonable person believes that, and wasting time arguing against such a blatantly obvious wrong is the kind of empty, meaningless exercise people engage in on Twitter. (Hey, follow me on Twitter!) But the “he/she couldn’t be a coach because he/she never played” crowd is a close relative of that wrongness. And if that were the case, wouldn’t, say, Lawrence Taylor, not Bill Belichick, be the greatest coach of this generation?

* * *

7a. After the Patriots finished off the Chiefs, my three-year-old daughter Kelly’s postseason picks record stood at 4-1. Then she missed the next three games, bringing great shame upon our family.

On Monday morning I turned off Sofia the First and popped in some All-22 tape of the four remaining four teams, but she just went to the kitchen with a coloring book. #smh

Anyway, Kelly has made her picks for the conference title games. We had a whole bunch of snow here in the Northeast, so rather than force my daughter into more child labor by having her provide another madcap illustration, we went outside in the blizzard for a few hours and had a professional sketch artist come in and provide the visuals. Enjoy... 

7b. I’ve gone 7-1 on playoff picks so far, but I don’t feel like I have any kind of good read on the conference title games. I think Brady-Manning XVII is anything but an offensive masterpiece, with the Brady/Gronk/Edelman triumvirate, plus the superior kicking of Stephen Gostkowski, making one or two more plays than the Broncos can (Patriots 19, Broncos 16). There are two variables throwing me for a loop in the NFC: Carson Palmer’s right index finger and the condition of the turf in Charlotte. Since my only miss of the postseason was picking Seahawks over Panthers, I feel like I’ll make everybody happy (it’s all I ever wanted) by underestimating Carolina again. Let’s say two big connections from Carson Palmer to his smurfs (John Brown, maybe J.J. Nelson) tips the scales in Arizona’s favor (Cardinals 31, Panthers 28).

* * *

8. A quick programming note: We here at The MMQB are embarking on our Super Bowl 50 road trip, starting with stops in Southern Maine and central New Jersey. We’ll be covering a rather ridiculous mix of Super Bowl subjects past and present over a dozen or so stops on the way to Levi’s Stadium. Please don’t intentionally ram our vehicle.

I’ll be driving the first leg of the trip (wrapping up in Chicago), joined by Jenny Vrentas, Robert Mays, Kalyn Kahler and John DePetro. I hope you guys like synthpop, because my road trip mix CD has only seven tracks and four of them are Gary Numan’s “Cars.”

* * *

9. I think, while you’re counting down the hours to kickoff, you should spend some time with The MMQB Read of the Week: What Happens in a Head-Coaching Interview.

I’d sum it up thusly: Of all the football stories that ran, anywhere, in the past week, this was the leader in “interesting thing-to-word” ratio. I’m not particularly bright, but I have read a lot of stories about the NFL over the years, and I found this to be jam-packed with fascinating things I never knew.

* * *

10. I think, at 3:02 p.m. ET, you should turn your volume all the way up and press play…

 

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