Without fanfare, here's my take on the playoffs, heading into the Championship weekend:
What I Saw Last Week: Indy-K.C. was like a tennis match between the two biggest servers in the game. Enough service breaks and you win it. The Colts got the first break when they held the Chiefs to a field goal instead of a TD on their opening delivery. They broke again at the end of the first half when they held K.C. to a missed field goal. And they got their final service break when Priest Holmes added a fumble to his 63-yard run in the third quarter. Dante Hall's kick return for a TD held the score to one touchdown apart, but the margin should have been more. Could anybody stop anybody? Don't make me laugh. Not in this ... what was the phrase Dan Dierdorf used on TV? Clash of the titans ... classic struggle ... or some such nonsense.
I don't want to sound like some old fossil who pounds his shoe on the table and hollers, "I wanna see defense!" and you've certainly read enough about Peyton Manning's performance by now, but I will add that his game against the Chiefs was one of the three or four best QB performances I've ever seen. Not so much for his passing, which was superb, but for the way he ran the offense, controlling all that crowd noise (I noticed in the shots of the stands that they had handed out sticks and things to bang together and make more noise ... why didn't they just give 'em dynamite and be done with it?). And for the way he got to his hot reads, always the correct one, when they blitzed him. And for the fact that there were no offensive penalties. Whew!
After all the weekend hullabaloo, Patriots-Titans seemed like the most low-key of the four games, the most forgettable. When Steve McNair's painkiller wore off sometime in the third or fourth quarter, he started hobbling. On the key play of the game for Tennessee, he couldn't get out of the pocket, so he picked up a grounding penalty when he threw the ball away, and that effectively killed the Titans' last gasp.
I'll give you only one play that was basically meaningless in the flow of the action, but it was so perfect and so typical of this Patriots team that I called Linda in to watch it on tape later on.
Chris Brown ran left, off tackle. Patriots LB Mike Vrabel, who sometimes lines up as a DE, got under the pads of Titans tackle Brad Hopkins, raised him, came to balance, and stoned Brown with textbook form. It was a perfect play for a down lineman, even better for a linebacker, who is seldom called on to handle a 300-pound blocker by himself. That's the way the Patriots are taught, the way they play defense. Last year they slipped; they got overrun at times, they missed tackles, blew coverages. Not this season, which is why they are where they are right now.
What Lies Ahead: Indy's offense has been perfect for two weeks. In two of the last four games its defense has been as bad as I've ever seen a Tony Dungy defense play, particularly against the run. It's not that the Colts' D is messing up or blowing assignments, although the coaches probably would disagree. I think it's a physical thing. These are little guys getting muscled. The question is, will the Patriots' offensive coach, Charlie Weis, change tactics and come out running? It's not his style. He's auditioning for a head coaching job, and, as I've written about a million times already, you don't convince people you're a genius by pounding the ball.
Weis likes all those tricky little things in the passing game, then an occasional shot downfield when Tom Brady's got the defenders drawn in. Even when the Pats were sitting on a 31-10 lead with 6:12 left in the third quarter against Indy last time the met in late November, it was flingeroo -- which almost cost them the game. But just when you least expect it, the Patriots will hand the ball to Antowain Smith three, four, five times in a row and let him work himself into a rage.
Indy mounted no pass rush against Trent Green last weekend. Unless the Colts blitz with LB Marcus Washington they've got one, and only one rusher, RE Dwight Freeney. Last week he was a non-factor -- no tackles, no assists against Willie Roaf, who simply rode him outside on his wide speed rush. Freeney never varied his tactics. The Patriots' LT, Matt Light, isn't as nimble-footed as Roaf is. Freeney got a sack off him in the November game. But Freeney, a small D-lineman at 268, might be wearing down, as the whole defense is, which is why he would have been hesitant to go inside against K.C. And if he's controlled again, then the only way the Colts will bring pressure on Brady will be to blitz, which would open up a defense that has enough holes already.
Everybody's angle will be Manning against the Bill Belichick-Romeo Crennel defense. Well, he's a rhythm thrower and once I heard veteran defensive coach Rod Rust talk about how you handle rhythm throwers. He had had remarkable success against Dan Marino and Dan Fouts, the prime exponents of the rhythm method of during the '80s, and his theory was that if you're playing a 3-4 defense, your inside backers have to come up with at least two picks if you want to win. In other words, he wants them coming up from blind areas, popping into the lanes, disguising their coverages and disrupting the QB's rhythm -- which would take away from the ILBs' run defense, of course ... it's all a game of ebb and flow ... so the down linemen have to be stout. And as I write that I think back to that play Vrabel made.
I see the Patriots playing this kind of form defense and getting their share of service breaks against Manning. And if Brady doesn't turn the ball over, I see New England's offense gaining 400 yards, even if there's weather in Foxboro. PATRIOTS 27, COLTS 24.
What I Saw Last Week: I started off rooting for St. Louis against the Panthers because I'd picked the Rams in the magazine, but then I changed when the heroism of Carolina's performance struck home. Everything was going against these guys and yet they managed, somehow, to pull it off. Stephen Davis, their featured back, went down as he was on his way to a career day and they didn't miss a beat. DeShaun Foster ran as if his very life depended on it. Power, moves ... did anyone suspect that the guy was this good?
The Panthers were a serious running team for much of the afternoon, but then the ground game shut down cold in overtime. I don't know whether it was by design or the fact that the offensive linemen just wore out, or Foster did, but it was now up to Jake Delhomme. And I thought he was sunk because the crowd was screwing up the signals and the Rams' D-linemen were getting the jump on every snap -- he was sacked three times in OT. It was time for some kind of miracle and the Panthers got it. Just as St. Louis was driving for the winning score, a rookie cornerback named Ricky Manning, who'd been somewhat of a pigeon this season, made the play of his life, snatching the ball away from Torry Holt ... I mean, he just stuck one hand between Holt's two and grabbed the ball ... and on the next play Steve Smith coasted by Jason Sehorn, who did one of his typical stumbling routines, and the Panthers were in the championship. A team of destiny, but so are Indy and New England, and, of course, Philadelphia.
I'll get in and out of Eagles-Packers in a hurry because I didn't understand that one. Donovan McNabb's ball was nosing and diving on him in the first half. Even on his completions, his receivers had to dig six-yard hooks out of the turf. I thought the Pack would go up around 28-7 before Philly got untracked. Maybe the Pack would have if they had kept running the ball. It didn't take a genius to figure out that when you have the best running game in football (some real monsters up there -- 330-pound extra tight end Kevin Barry, 270-pound blocking back Nick Luchey, plus Ahman Green, who had been a perfect 8 for 8 on third-and-one during the regular season, backed up by 245-pound Najeh Davenport, who always seems to be moving forward) and Philly has a banged-up defense that has big problems with the run; you pound it until they stop you.
But the Packers didn't. They started getting cute in short-yardage situations. They chickened out at the end, when a half-yard gain would have gotten them into the title match. Brett Favre did one of his loony tunes at the end (it slays me that now they're blaming Javon Walker for not making the adjustment on that balloon Favre threw) and it was see ya later, Pack. Oh yes, after ferocious pressure had forced McNabb into a fourth-and-26, the Pack defense suddenly pulled back its rush and opened up the middle for anything the Eagles wanted and gave up 28 yards. I mean, is anybody coaching this team?
What Lies Ahead: The Iggles, by virtue of that fourth-and-26 completion are now the team of destiny ... seems like I've mentioned that before ... that simply can't lose, no matter what. Well, they can lose to the Panthers, who have a line that's better than Philly's on both sides of the ball. Offensively, I like the Eagles' middle three but I don't like their tackles at all. LT Tra Thomas' game has really gone south. I favor the match-up of Mike Rucker over him. On the other side, it's even worse for the Eagles -- Jon Runyan, who will give up at least one major sack per contest, guaranteed, against Julius Peppers, who had a terrific game against St. Louis (I awarded him one of my mythical game balls). A heavy Carolina rush from both wings is what should happen, but you know something? Although Rucker had a good outing last time they played, Peppers was a non-factor ... except for a late-hit penalty.
That's the way it is with the Eagles. "Should have" never seems to equal "did". The Panthers figure to run all over the Philly defense, but I have a feeling it won't happen. The rush should get to McNabb and give him a very tough afternoon, but don't bet on it. Logic says go with Carolina, but I'm brainwashed with that Eagle mystique thing. I'll tell you now that I have no confidence at all in this selection, but here it is anyway: EAGLES 20, PANTHERS 16