Home sweet home
I'll throw this statistic out for general consumption (except by known gamblers), and then I'll throw it out: In the last five years, the bye teams -- in other words, the first and second seeds -- have defeated the first-week survivors in 17 of 20 games in the divisional playoffs. In two of those seasons, 1998 and 2002, they won all four games. Over a 10-year span the record is 32-8, with one additional shutout. I didn't go back longer because I was falling asleep.
One observation about big games in general. Before the Seattle-Green Bay contest last week, ESPN's Sal Palantonio offered the following comment: "I had a long talk with Mike Holmgren at the hotel room last night, and he said..." (and at this point I got interested because I thought I was actually going to hear something sensible about how the Seahawks planned to attack the Packers)..."we have to approach the game with a re-dedicated sense of emotion." Oh, comma, that again.
I'll tell you something. When people have to talk about emotion, it's a problem. How about all that Ray Lewis stuff we had to watch and, worse yet, listen to? "This is my house!" "We must protect this house!" I thought the guy had gotten his real estate license or something. And then Tennessee came out and ran the ball right up the Ravens'...uh, right down their throats. See that, I'm getting all worked up. Let's move on to the action.
Sat., Jan. 10
What I Saw Last Week: The Panthers put it all together and played one of their best games of the season. Ran enough, threw the ball well, came at the Cowboys with a higher sense of urgency and intensity. They found their pigeon, left corner Terence Newman, and worked him over. Newman responded by tackling air. This game told me more about Dallas than it did about Carolina. The Cowboys were worn out. The season had lasted too long for them. This was a team that just didn't have much left.
What Lies Ahead: Any team that can mount a serious attack on the Rams' offensive line can give them trouble. Even though I'm not as enamored with Carolina's D-line as some people are (I thought it was better last year) I think it's still good enough to raise some hell with Marc Bulger's blockers. And this might sound a little strange, but I think Bulger was a better QB last year. Where are all the picks coming from? He's thrown 22, compared to last year's six. Granted, he threw less than half as many passes in 2002, but this season he's down in every passing category. Instead of taking his game to the next level, he's dropped it down a couple of notches.
All that said, I think St. Louis still has enough firepower to get by the Panthers, probably because I've been brainwashed about that home-turf, Eddie Dome thing. I think Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, if he's back at full speed, will be too much for the Carolina corners, who are just average. I think Marshall Faulk will go back out on the flank and in the slot and catch passes downfield, as he used to. I don't think the Panthers attack will bruise the Rams' Dee, which is very competent, as much as the Rams will bruise Carolina's.
But if John Fox somehow devises a rush scheme that gets to Bulger, then the NFL's highest turnover team could turn the ball over some more, and anything could happen. RAMS 20, PANTHERS 17.
Unsung Ram: DT Brian Young. Good at the point, he also hustles and penetrates. One of the league's underrated interior defensive linemen.
Unsung Panther: C Jeff Mitchell. He's the glue that holds that offensive line together, and Stephen Davis isn't getting all those yards on his own.
Sat., Jan. 10
What I Saw Last Week: A morality play. The Titans, with their big, mushing offensive line, kept punching holes in that high-powered Ravens defense, led by Screamin' Ray. Eddie George ran better than he had in, what? Two years? Three years? Somehow he found a resurrection. And then he dislocated his shoulder and came back and ran some more. And Steve McNair, limping on a new ankle injury, still kept the offense together, and Gary Anderson kicked his two longest field goals of the season, and the run defense put the clamps on Jamal Lewis, which was nothing new because they'd been shutting down runners all year. In other words, the Titans did what they had to do, no matter who was hurt or how tough the situation was. They're pros. They know how to win.
What Lies Ahead: I think this is where it ends for the Titans. They can stop the run, but so what? The Patriots' run game is merely an annoyance, not an integral part of their offense. It's all short passes and clever little slip screens and tricky throwbacks and stuff. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is desperate to be a head coach, and you don't get noticed by running the ball. An owner has to be convinced you're a genius. Miserable weather, which is always a possibility in Foxboro in January, favors this kind of attack because the defenders slip and then a five-yard pass breaks for 25. And Tom Brady knows how to run the attack better than anybody. He's the Rich Gannon of 2003, minus a few shaky moments -- usually at the beginning of a game -- that he's always managed to overcome.
I don't like McNair in this weather. I don't like McNair in this weather, especially on an off-track, given the condition of his legs. I think the Titans will come out banging, hoping George can soften the Patriots up, and I won't even begin to predict what kind of defense New England will put up to control this kind of attack. Maybe a 4-4, which I've actually seen Bill Belichick use. Nasty game, nasty weather, low scoring. PATRIOTS 13, TITANS 10.
Unsung Patriot: LB-DE Mike Vrabel. This is the kind of guy who will never make the Pro Bowl, but he's exactly the sort of player Belichick looks for. Starts as a base LB and is very sturdy against the run. Rushes from the edge in nickel situations, which is another strength because he was a DE at Ohio State. Very smart and skilled at dropping into the short zones in pass coverage. Maybe, when I come out with my all-pro picks for SI.com, I'll devise a new defensive position called "Utility" and stick him in there.
Unsung Titan: LCB Andre Dyson. Underrated lock-on cover guy. Had a terrific day against the Ravens. Knocked down two passes, held two completions to two and six yards. Then Baltimore stopped throwing to his side and concentrated on Samari Rolle. Dyson will be squatting on the short routes Saturday night. The Titans will need two more DBs to do the same thing.
Sun., Jan. 11
What I Saw Last Week: OK, now we know what the Colts look like when they come into a game mad. There wasn't any team in the NFL that could have beaten them last week, when they simply destroyed the Broncos on both sides of the ball. OK, we know their offense can catch fire, but why was their defense so much more active than the one Denver shoved all over the field two weeks earlier? I think it's because defense is the area in which high emotion can really kick in, especially against the run. A marginal player, attacking with real fury, generally can beat a superstar who isn't totally focused.
What Lies Ahead: Can the Colts get it up again? Ah, folks, answer that one and you'll make a financial killing. Their defense is small and quick. The line is one of the tiniest in the league, with only tackle Larry Triplett weighing more than 290. Half a dozen enemy runners have gone over 100 yards on this defense, and the Jaguars' Fred Taylor did it twice. If the emotional burners are turned way up on Sunday, or if defensive coordinator Ron Meeks brings a safety up close and commits him and the LBs to run support, taking his chances against Trent Green's arm, then the Colts have a chance. If not, Priest Holmes, operating behind the best O-line in the business, will have a field day -- 150 yards minimum.
Well, I think Holmes will get a lot of yards and so will the Chiefs' offense. But if Peyton Manning and his guys aren't intimidated by the Arrowhead fans and aren't slowed by the natural grass or possible weather conditions, I think Indy's offense is capable of putting up even bigger numbers themselves, particularly against a defense that has been going backward for the last month or so. I look at that Chiefs' D-line and the only guy I see showing any activity is tackle John Browning. The ends, which include ex-Packer Vonnie Holliday, have been invisible. Nose tackle Ryan Sims, the former No. 1 draft, has been getting murdered. The rest of the defensive personnel is just OK, or less than that. Colts in a high-scoring upset, 38-31.
Unsung Chief: TE Jason Dunn. Tony Gonzalez is a decent blocking TE, but this 6-foot-6, 276-pound monster really folds defenders inside and gives Holmes the soft corner. He's more of a factor in the run game than Pro Bowl FB Tony Richardson.
Unsung Colt: WLB David Thornton. Well, on my all-pro check list, I had this undersized second-year pro rated ahead of the Bucs' Derrick Brooks this season, ahead of the Redskins' LaVar Arrington, ahead of a lot of the big names. He simply flies to the ball. He saved his best game of the season for the Wild Card playoff against Denver.
Sun., Jan. 11
What I Saw Last Week: In the second half of the Packers-Seahawks game nobody stopped anybody until overtime. I mean, the Pack scored touchdowns on two of their first three possessions, and then missed a field goal on their fourth, and the 'Hawks had the ball four times and put together three long TD drives. Well yeah, Brett Favre and all that, but how about some defense, fellas? Al Harris jumped a hot read in OT and now Green Bay is in Philly, but honestly, could you blame Matt Hasselbeck for announcing, when he won the OT coin toss,"We'll take the ball and we're gonna score?" That's all he'd been doing the whole second half.
What Lies Ahead: If you can't play defense, you're not gonna stop Philly on the road. Green Bay loss to the Eagles at Lambeau in the November Monday nighter had a big Yes-But. Yes, we lost, but Favre's thumb was a problem and the ball kept slipping off the tape. For me, though, the game turned a spotlight on the Eagles. They'd been shoved around all night, they'd been on their heels, but somehow they pulled the contest out. What it showed me was that this team, and its coach, Andy Reid, knows how to win, somehow, some way. Not exactly an original thought, but the message just became so clear in that game. Strictly on a personnel level, I like the Philly secondary, which should be as healthy as it's been all season, against Favre's receivers. Assuming, of course, that the Packers don't spend the afternoon controlling the game on the ground, which could happen.
I think Green Bay's running will be a problem for the Eagles, but I still like Philly in this one, 24-20.
Unsung Eagle: RB Duce Staley. Sounds funny to call a former featured back unsung, doesn't it? But ever since he held out in training camp, they've been punishing him. He has started only four of the 16 regular-season games, but now the guy who replaced him, Brian Westbrook, is out with a torn triceps and it's time to get serious about Staley, their heavy-duty back, who has looked effective every time I've seen him.
Unsung Packer: FB Nick Luchey. William Henderson is listed as the starter, but this 270-pound ex-Bengal is the guy who gets the job done. He's not the receiver that Henderson is, but he really smacks in there and clears a path for Ahman Green.