It's time for the preliminary fighters to step aside and make way for the main eventers. Favre, Romo, Brady, Manning. The Big Four. The top Pro Bowl vote getters. Time to get their playoff act together, after a wild-card weekend of exciting but erratic play.
There wasn't that much of a wonderful nature among weekend runners, either. Aside from the dash and flash supplied by the Jaguars' little Maurice Jones-Drew, I can't think of a single running back who did anything particularly memorable. Not one of the eight teams in action matched it's season's average for rushing yardage, in any game. There wasn't a back who gained anything close to 100 yards (The Titans' LenDale White was high man with 69).
But that's OK. Interesting matchups, not general excellence, are what's called for in the wild-card round, and there was certainly plenty of that. Now it's time to bring in the big boys, and if you're like me, your favorite weekend of the postseason is coming up, the Divisional Playoffs. Four games, with all the good teams represented. It's like the Elite Eight of the NCAA basketball tournament.
To sum up last weekend and the one coming up:
WHAT I SAW: John Marshall, Seattle's defensive coach, is one of those old-timers who's been around forever. He's always been sound, and always overlooked. Mike Holmgren and the offense get the ink when this team is discussed, but Marshall's an interesting guy with some fun ideas. Such as the blitzkrieg.
The Eagles' Jim Johnson, the Steelers' Dick LeBeau ... those are the coaches known as the serious blitzers, but Marshall threw the whole package at the Redskins last Saturday. He blitzed them on the pass, on the run, as they came out of the locker room, on their way to the team bus afterward. He didn't let them breathe.
The result was a running attack that got squashed, and a lot of catches by Antwaan Randle El and Santana Moss, but all shorties, except for Moss' 30-yard TD, and even that was a mid-range crossing pattern in which he ran away from people. And what finally happened was that old pro Todd Collins, who had looked so fine in the games leading up to the postseason, finally came apart and started throwing picks. The pressure of working behind a line that simply got overrun became too great for him.
Everyone likes Matt Hasselbeck better than I do. I mean, I've got nothing against him. He seems like a nice sort of bloke, and he's had lots of good moments on the field. I just have a feeling, as I've written before, that he doesn't raise the level of his game commensurate with the stakes involved. As far as the Hawks' running attack, forget it. It's gone south, with the dicky-birds.
WHAT LIES AHEAD: Holmgren facing Favre, the guy he nursed from infancy, the child into whose tiny hands he placed the first miniature football, mentor against mentee, guru against googoo... get ready for this angle, folks, because you'll be reading it all week, with anecdotes generously provided. In truth, the question is, will Marshall try to turn loose his rushers, and some of them are real big leaguers -- LE Patrick Kerney, who destroyed the Redskins, OLB Julian Peterson, who lines up in a down position in the nickel, the vastly underrated OLB Leroy Hill, DT Rocky Bernard, who can collapse the pocket when he's on a roll?
Or will he pull back and try to get Favre into one of his interception modes via a lot of coverage people downfield?
I can't get the picture out of my head about how Favre worked that multiple-wideout run 'n shoot thing against the Lions, and how natural it seemed to him, which is amazing since he was born to be a gunner, and how effective it was. If the Packers come up with it Saturday, and Marshall tries to blitz it, Favre will eat it alive. If Green Bay blunts the rush, then Favre could get something going downfield. If all of a sudden he goes into his walkabout and starts throwing picks, then Seattle has a chance -- in fact, I think that's the only chance they have.
In playoff football, though, the unexpected always can be expected. In this case, I read a heavy running game by Green Bay. Don't ask me why. I can just close my eyes and see Ryan Grant putting 150 yards on the board.
Green Bay 31, Seattle 24
WHAT I SAW: First of all, the Jags faced a Steeler team that came out throwing (seven pass plays out of the first eight called). See that, always expect the unexpected. So Pittsburgh went the length of the field for an early score, and the Jaguars took the news calmly and settled down and Pittsburgh didn't come back to life until quarter No. 3 when David Garrard's pick gave them a short field and three points.
The Jags had the game in hand and were riding high, and then all hell broke loose. Garrard and the offense shut down. The Steelers were running too many plays. Jacksonville's defense, which doesn't rotate many players along the line, started tiring. It put together a terrific goal-line stand. The officials managed to rob them of that bit of heroism.
Sociologists and other deep thinkers might come to the conclusion that there are some members of the NFL who seem to lead a charmed life. Hines Ward is one of them. He's a magnificent competitor, a future Hall of Famer, to be sure. He also gets away with murder. On fourth and goal he grabbed Brian Williams' facemask and actually got an interference call in his favor. Wow! Talk about a stacked deck. Then on Najeh Davenport's supposed touchdown, the head linesman overruled the umpire, who had ruled that he had been stopped. His knee certainly looked down.
So Jack Del Rio and Garrard and the rest of the gang, having fallen behind by a point (and it was only Mike Tomlin's obsession with two-pointers that didn't have the Steelers up by three), must have looked into the tea leaves and seen that somehow they had angered the goddess, Fate, and they'd better do something quickly to make her happy. The quarterback draw on fourth and two did it.
Now I hold the Steeler defensive brain trust responsible for this. The Jags had a third-and-two on their second drive of the third quarter. They went multiple wideout, Garrard dialed up the QB draw and ran for 12 yards. When they went with the same look at the end, the Steelers immediately should have hit the button that said Security.
WHAT LIES AHEAD: I never could figure out how long it takes to recover from the kind of physical battle in which the Jags were involved. I mean, they were on the field for 74 snaps. Well, they're not that old. The Patriots, on the other hand, are battling Father Time, and their defense has looked tired down the stretch. Five defensive starters are 30 or older. There are things you don't forget ... the way the Ravens pounded them, the guys who couldn't tackle the Giants' Brandon Jacobs when he ran over them for a TD.
So they'll give up points, not a lot of them because I don't think that either Garrard or a running game will be able to score as much as they'll need, but enough to make it interesting, for a while. But can Tom Brady and his cast of thousands be stopped? I don't think so.
Last year Brady, throwing timed, underneath passes, led the Patriots on three long TD drives against the Jags, and this was a game Jacksonville needed for a playoff shot. It was played in Jacksonville, and New England won 24-21, with Brady hitting 11 receivers, most of whom he said goodbye to shortly thereafter, some of whom never were heard from again. Rookie tight end Dave Thomas was Brady's leading target that day. "I've got a new go-to receiver," he said afterward. Go-to, as in, he'll go, too, which he did.
Now he's got the multiple letter winners to throw to --plus the game's in Foxborough.
New England 34, Jacksonville 24
WHAT I SAW: Sorry, but I didn't like what I saw in their Tennessee game. I don't know what it is with LaDainian Tomlinson, but he just doesn't look like the same guy. Oh, he's gotten his yards this year, but against the Titans he didn't do anything that popped your eyes open, the ways he used to. He was just an efficient back. I didn't see him making people whiff; I didn't see him run over anyone. Maybe I missed it.
I thought the best player on the field for San Diego was Chris Chambers, another guy who was stolen from the Dolphins. The wideouts now assume command of the offense, with Antonio Gates iffy with the bad toe.
Tennessee smacked it to their defense for a while, but that didn't last. Otherwise, the Chargers managed to chase Vince Young around for a while. Shawne Merriman, recovering from a knee injury, wasn't much of a factor, but Shaun Phillips, the other bookend rusher, compensated for it by turning up the burners. Nothing new there. I think he's been better than Merriman all season, anyway.
As for Philip Rivers, I'd call him a third echelon QB. The Big Four are first echelon. Guys such as Hasselbeck and Ben Roethlisberger, capable of having big games but also able to screw things up, too, are second echelon. Drop down one and you've got Rivers, not bad certainly, but not capable of pulling off the upset of the year, as he'd have to do Sunday.
WHAT LIES AHEAD: As the car dealer said, when he sold me the set of tires, "I see a blowout here." Adam Vinatieri's missed chippie field goal cost the Colts a victory in San Diego earlier this season, and that was with a lineup that had receiving threats such as Craphonso Thorpe, Aaron Moorhead and Bryan Fletcher. And the defense was missing weakside LB Freddy Keiaho, a fast, instinctive player whom I guarantee you will be a Pro Bowler next year if he can stay healthy.
Peyton Manning threw six picks against the Chargers back in November, and the Colts shouldn't even have been in it, but Rivers kept them afloat. His day was almost as disastrous, in fact the whole offense was going through a funky period then. It's improved, but I think Rivers and the boys will be surprised at how fast the Indy defense plays. Speed is what got it the lofty ranking of No. 1 in fewest points allowed.
They're expecting Marvin Harrison to be back, but I wouldn't make too much of that. Even before he went down with a sprained knee in late September, he was only a 10-yard threat. If, by some miracle, he's gotten his deep game back, and he can light it up with our all-pro wideout, Reggie Wayne, and tight end Dallas Clark, then it'll be even more of a blowout.
Indianapolis 38, San Diego 17
WHAT I SAW: Not meaning to take anything away from New York's gratifying win over the Bucs, but they faced a Tampa Bay team without many weapons. Joey Galloway hurt his shoulder in the first half and wasn't at full speed thereafter. Without him, the Bucs didn't have many ways to worry a good defensive team. Their wideouts were just guys. Their runners, Pittman and Graham, were willing workers, and that's about it.
Jeff Garcia? Well, he's always been one of my favorite players. He looks like the kid in the neighborhood whose mother sends him outside, to sit in front of the building with a blanket across his knees because the sun is good for him. He always seems to be throwing the ball one step ahead of the posse, and taking a ferocious bang, once it's delivered. Poor guy, he went down fighting Sunday.
There were two ways for the Giants to lose, but they didn't fall prey to either of them. One was for Sam Madison to give up some big plays to Galloway. Madison was inactive with an abdominal strain. The second one was for Eli Manning to turn the ball over. He didn't. He played one of those, "please don't screw it up," games, and was very efficient at it. I'm being unfair. He was better than that. He was very sound on his reads, and his receivers didn't let him down by dropping anything.
WHAT LIES AHEAD: I think the Giants will be better off keeping Corey Webster at right corner instead of Madison. The Cowboys have feasted off Madison, who's old and smart and plays the angles, but Webster is young and bold. Against the Bucs, he had what the British call a "blinder" of a game. I think the Giants ought to roll the dice and give him a shot.
I think I've written about 40 times in the past that New York must get a rush on Romo, but there's a formidable obstacle in their path. It's called Flozell Adams. I hate watching him. Techniquewise, he looks like a garbage man loading a sack onto the truck. But I finally picked him on my all-pro team this year because he has shut down a lot of fancy rushers. Once he gets his hands on them, it's all over. Osi Umenyiora has been a victim this season, not once, but twice, and without some kind of firepower from that right side, Romo will do plenty of damage.
How bad is his thumb? Can't say. Ask Jessica. How bad is T.O.'s ankle? Ditto...I mean don't ask Jessica about this one... but I have no word. Will these ailments cripple the Cowboys' attack to the point that the Giants will finally win their first of the three-game set this year and advance to, gosh, the NFC Championship? Don't think so, sport, but it could happen.
Dallas 34, New York 30
(Do you agree or disagree with Dr. Z's picks? Chime in at FanNation.)