Ben Roethlisberger a Giant.
Osi Umenyiora (not Shawne Merriman) a Charger.
Eli Manning a Charger.
It takes a big story to throw the 49ers off the front page of Monday Morning Quarterback today -- and you Niner fans will get your love soon enough, courtesy of the man who made the block of the year in NFL -- but the fates of Manning and Umenyiora, after their huge combined role in the Giants' 37-20 trouncing of the top-seeded Packers last evening, were on my mind as I sat down to write. I've told the story of the 2004 draft and the Manning/Chargers/Giants love triangle before, but the Umenyiora part of it has never gotten its due.
Smith, the Chargers' rookie GM at the time, asked then-Giants GM Accorsi for unknown second-year pass-rusher Umenyiora in the week before the draft. No, Accorsi said; I don't trade young pass-rushers. San Diego had the first pick in the draft, and Manning said he didn't want to play for San Diego, but the Chargers picked him anyway -- and everyone in football knew they wanted North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers instead; the Manning pick was going to force the Giants to deal a ransom for him because Accorsi loved Manning and Smith knew it. So with the Giants on the clock, Smith called again.
"He brought up Umenyiora again,'' Accorsi told me last night, "and I said no. We were not giving him up. There was no way.''
So now the trade teetered. If Smith had insisted on Umenyiora and killed the deal, Accorsi had an ace up his sleeve: He could trade down three spots and pick up a second-round pick from Cleveland ... and still draft the Giants' No. 2 quarterback on the board, Ben Roethlisberger from Miami of Ohio. The Giants liked Manning much more, but Accorsi wouldn't budge on Umenyiora. Accorsi offered the Giants' first- and third-round picks in '04, and an '05 first-rounder. "We still want Osi,'' Smith told him.
Tick, tick, tick ...
Two minutes left.
Accorsi's last, best offer.
"No Osi,'' he said. "That's still a deal-breaker. But we'll throw in a six next year.''
Pause on the line from San Diego.
Tick, tick, tick ...
"Make it a four,'' Smith said.
"I'll give you a five,'' Accorsi said.
On Sunday, here came the Packers, down 20-10 to start the second half, starting and stopping down the field, trying desperately to find some rhythm. Five minutes into the half, Aaron Rodgers had the Pack at the Giants' 30, and it was first down, and he took the snap and looked over a packed secondary that had frustrated him throughout the first half. From Rodgers' left, Umenyiora took an inside move against left tackle Chad Clifton, beating him as Clifton flailed away.
Now 30 and coming off knee and ankle injuries and a contract hissing match with current GM Jerry Reese earlier this season, Umenyiora sped in and batted the ball out of Rodgers' hand just as he went to pass. (Telling stat from FOX just then: The forced fumble was the 32nd of Umenyiora's nine-year career. That's a lot.) Giants recovered. Packers never got closer than seven the rest of the way. Umenyiora had two of the Giants' four sacks, and the line made sure Rodgers was never comfortable all day.
Accorsi liked defensive linemen, and he stocked this team with Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka before he left the team after the 2006 season. In came Reese, and he's taken it up a notch: Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard in free agency, along with Dave Tollefson (a seventh-round pick from Green Bay who was cut, signed to Oakland's practice squad, and then signed by the Giants from the Raiders), and Linval Joseph and Jason Pierre-Paul in the draft. Can't have enough defensive linemen. That, plus their cool quarterback and his receiving weapons, is why the Giants are one win away from their second Super Bowl in four years.
"People have always depicted what we did in that '04 draft as an obsession with Eli Manning,'' said Accorsi. "It wasn't. If we'd have had to, we'd have taken Roethlisberger, and we'd have been fine with that. We just weren't giving up Umenyiora.''
Almost eight years later, Accorsi's stubbornness is a big reason the Giants are headed to San Francisco for Sunday's NFC Championship Game ... and just as big a reason the Packers feel so deflated this morning.
Five most noteworthy events of the playoff weekend, with Ravens-Patriots and Giants-49ers on deck:
1. How lousy Green Bay was -- or how bad the Giants made the Packers look. Aaron Rodgers cut off a question before it was finished last night, about whether the long layoff -- he hadn't played in 20 days -- had anything with the stunning 37-20 loss to the Giants. "No,'' he said firmly. Sure looked it. The amazing thing about this game is that, without a couple of shaky calls by ref Bill Leavy, this could have been 44-13, or some similarly stunning score.
FOX counted eight Green Bay drops; I counted six. Victor Cruz found big gaps in Packer coverage. Hakeem Nicks scored on a Hail Mary that Packer safety Jarrett Bush, who had the best seat in the house to see, let him have. The Packers looked a lot more like a 7-9 team Sunday than 15-1. Credit the Giants quarterback for being better than the presumptive MVP, the Giants receivers being better, and the Giants defense being loads better.
2. The Packers and Saints will be bitter about this weekend for a long, long time. Combined, the Packers and Saints were a plus-21 in turnover margin this year. This weekend, they were a combined minus-7. The Packers and Saints were 29-4 entering the divisional round because they were two efficient offensive machines all season. Efficient offensive machines don't turn the ball over nine times in eight quarters.
3. If you thought the Ravens would be the most physical team left in the playoffs, you didn't watch the Niners beat the tar out of the Saints. Last week, former 49er Bill Romanowski went on TV in the Bay Area and advocated that the Niners knock out one of the Saints. Maybe Niners safety Donte Whitner heard. He kayoed Pierre Thomas with a crushing helmet-to-helmet hit -- legal because Thomas is a back, not a quarterback, and wasn't defenseless -- setting the stage for big Niner blasts on the Saints all game. Even the winning touchdown left a Saint dazed and confused: When tight end Vernon Davis caught the winning touchdown pass with seconds left, the collision with Saints safety Roman Harper left Harper woozy.
4. The Patriots are better-suited to win the Super Bowl right now, at 14-3, than they were exactly four years ago, at 17-0. After New England's 45-10 beat down of the Tebows in Foxboro, Vince Wilfork agreed with me that the Patriots were in better shape at this stage of the playoffs than they were after their undefeated season. "Four years ago, we peaked too early,'' he said.
Four years ago, New England scored 34 or more 11 times in the regular season, then won by 11 and nine in the playoffs before losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl. They had Randy Moss in his prime then, and he was great. I'd rather have Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
5. Houston with Matt Schaub could very well have won in Baltimore. T.J. Yates threw three interceptions and was overmatched on the big playoff stage. Maybe Schaub would have had some jitters, but not like Yates. The Ravens scored three points in the last 46 minutes, and amassed 227 yards all day. That's not going to cut it Sunday in Foxboro.
Non-playoff team bonus noteworthy event: Jeff Fisher didn't choose against Miami as much as he chose St. Louis. Simply put, Fisher wanted to avoid another situation like he had in Tennessee, where owner Bud Adams, if he chose, could tell him what to do on personnel. Adams told him in 2006 to take Vince Young in the first round. Fisher didn't want to do that, but it was Adams' call. Now, understand this: I'm told reliably Fisher did not ask the Rams or Dolphins for final say on draft day, or total control over the roster. All he wanted was the ability to -- in the event he was categorically opposed to a decision being made by the general manager -- have a mechanism in place for a third party, like an owner, to decide which way the team would go. St. Louis was fine with that. Miami wanted to leave ultimate personnel authority with the GM, Jeff Ireland.
Seems like a little thing for Miami to surrender with owner Stephen Ross wanting Fisher badly, but consider this: The last six Super Bowl winners leave the final draft and personnel say up to the general manager. Maybe Miami should have given in, but that would have violated Ireland's contract and changed the structure Ross wanted in place. ... and flown in the face of the way most (but not all) winning teams operate.
If you sat open-mouthed when Alex Smith made that touchdown run, read this.
Phenomenal finish. One of the best ends of a game of all time, with an embattled quarterback and formerly banished-from-the-sidelines tight end making the throw and catch of their lives, and the Saints fighting back, and so many big plays happening so fast you couldn't keep track of them. But the play I'll never forget is that weird Alex Smith bootleg called by offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Why call that play then, with so many things that could go wrong? Why do it on 3rd-and-8 with 2:18 left in the game (in the season, quite possibly), at the New Orleans 28-yard line ... what causes a team to take such a risk as the Niners did?
"The Saints had been blitzing us all day,'' left tackle Joe Staley told me Sunday, still a little hoarse from Saturday's craziness. "So there was probably a 50-50 chance they blitz here, and if they blitz off the side we're going to run, to the left, then it's a crappy play.''
A crappy play that could push David Akers to a missable field goal. Fifty yards, maybe, if Smith is tackled for a loss.
"Who knows why,'' said Staley, "but they brought a blitz from the right. So the play we called was perfect for the blitz they put on. Alex was basically running away from it. The receiver [in motion from the left], Kyle Williams, did a good job sealing off the defensive end, and my job was to pull around the end for the alley defender [the lone safety on the second level of the play] so I could block him. We had this play up for the Giants game a few weeks ago, and Alex ran it to, I think, the two-yard line. Then we didn't have it [in any gameplan] for the rest of the year, until this week.
"Pretty amazing we called that play, and the Saints gave us exactly what we needed.''
Staley, from the snap, sprinted out to his left, out of the traffic jam at the line of scrimmage. Smith was three steps behind him, and it's to Staley's credit that he was fast enough to stay ahead of Smith as he ran down the left sideline. If Smith could stay tight-roped along the sideline, the only man between him and the goal line was safety Isa Abdul-Quddus. Could Staley take him out, or would Abdul-Quddus be deft enough to avoid him and push Smith out of bounds?
"We practice cut blocks,'' Staley said. "There's a technique for it. You dive for the upfield [leg] and just make sure you get a piece of him.''
Staley dove at the 12-, rolling toward Abdul-Quddus' legs. At the 10-, Staley's torso hit both of them, and the safety went down like the headpin nailed by a bowling ball.
"I assumed I was in front of Alex, but it's not like you can look around to find out exactly where he is,'' Staley said. "But when I was on the ground, I heard the roar of the crowd and I figured something good happened. It's pretty funny this play happens now, right when all the Tim Tebow stuff is happening. When we'd watch Tebow in college, we'd say, 'Alex was Tebow before Tebow.' You know, Alex was coached by Urban Meyer, and then Tebow was, and they did a lot of the same things.''
It's the block of Staley's life, and he knows it. A textbook cut block in the open field, the kind coaches will show their linemen and tight ends and backs and wideouts and say, "This is how to block downfield.'' For linemen, a thing of beauty.
"Pretty special,'' Staley said. "You just play to do your job the best you can on every play, because you don't know when the big play is coming. You don't know which play's the big play. All the work we do as a team, and to know your season can come down to that one play. Pretty amazing.''
Then it wasn't over. Smith got the ball one last time, inside the two-minute warning, and had to take the Niners 85 yards to save their season. It wasn't supposed to be that way, but it was, and that just makes the story better. Alex Smith wasn't supposed to be able to be clutch. He wasn't supposed to even be the quarterback of the Niners now. The fact that he was still around, and the Niners were counting on him to save the year ... his teammates loved it.
"We just appreciate him as a man,'' Staley said. "Never one time has he thrown anyone under the bus, even though he's got a new coordinator or different offense every year. And it's so fitting Alex went toe to toe with Drew Brees, in a playoff game, and no one gave him a chance, and the game comes down to Alex against Brees in his first playoff game, and he makes that run, and then he makes that touchdown throw to Vernon Davis, right on the money. It's just fantastic. It happened the way it should have.''
After the game, Staley found Smith. He hugged him. "You deserve this,'' Staley told Smith. They both knew he did.
The Patriot way.
Found myself looking out at the Patriots' dismantling of Denver thinking:
1. No one uses two tight ends like the Patriots. Gronkowski blocks and catches, and the uber-athletic Hernandez has the moves of a wide receiver. Two tight ends, 261 total yards, four touchdowns. In one game.
2. No one moves a struggling first-round corner to deep safety in the middle of the season, but that's what the Patriots did. That's where Devin McCourty played most of Saturday night.
3. No one plays with a fired Oakland practice-squad safety, Sterling Moore, at cornerback in the playoffs, or backup wideout Julian Edelman, at nickel back, in the playoffs. The Patriots do. Every time I looked up Saturday night, Moore was on an island with Demaryius Thomas or Eddie Royal. A safety in Oakland, not good enough to stay on their practice squad last September, on the street in October. Now Moore's playing 36 snaps at corner (according to the charting of ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss) in a divisional playoff game.
Bill Belichick's a mad scientist. He knew his defense had to change when it was getting strafed so badly in midseason, and he changed it, drastically. Who knows if it works another eight quarters. But 10 seasons after he used a bunch of middle-class free agents to help New England win its first Super Bowl, Belichick is scotch-taping another run together with Tom Brady playing at his peak, and a bunch of complementary pieces on the chess board. Should be fun to watch.
Now for some full disclosure.
Weird harmonic convergence of sorts in the last couple of weeks. Let me explain.
My agent for television negotiations is a lawyer from California named Marvin Demoff, who has represented many high-profile players and coaches over the years. His son, Kevin Demoff, is the executive vice president of football operations and chief operations officer of the St. Louis Rams. I've known Kevin, through Marvin, since he was in college.
Marvin Demoff is also the agent for Jeff Fisher, who is in the process of agreeing to terms on a contract to coach the Rams. Last week, Fisher was torn between the Rams and the Dolphins when making a final decision about where he wanted to coach in 2011 and beyond, and he chose the Rams, and I'm sure many people in the football business, and fans smart enough to see what was going on, thought: Of course Fisher went to St. Louis. Marvin Demoff is taking care of his son.
If you feel I'm incapable of being straight down the middle in covering the Fisher story, I understand. I wouldn't try to convince you otherwise. Just know that I'm trying to be balanced about it; you'll be the judge whether I am or not.
The larger story, though, seems to me to be the inference I've heard in some circles that the fix was in with Fisher and the two Demoffs. I spoke to Fisher last night about it. I'm not asking you to believe that this would be reported the same way if it were the Washington Post investigating whether this was an inside job. But I thought the best way to look into whether the Demoffs had compromised the process was to ask Fisher a couple of boilerplate questions. Here they are, with his responses:
Q: Did you ever feel Marvin Demoff was trying to move you toward St. Louis, in any way?
Fisher: "Under no circumstances at any time. I have 100 percent conviction on that. This was my decision, and Marvin assisted me. I was the one who decided. No one pushed me anywhere.''
Q: How did you decide?
Fisher: "From day one, when I began this process after the season, I felt Miami and St. Louis were my best options. I did my research. I looked at every team that had an opening. I looked at the personnel on each team, I looked at the owners, I looked at the cap situations, and I narrowed it to two. Not Marvin. Me. Marvin didn't push me. I am convinced he was completely objective.''
Fisher went on to say at the start of the process he was interested in a team that had a good owner and good quarterback, and he felt St. Louis had the best combination of both.
My interpretation, which I stated higher in this column, is that the fact that the Dolphins wanted to keep their GM-with-the-roster-power structure in place was a factor in Fisher choosing the Rams. Not the major factor, but a factor at the end that played into Fisher picking St. Louis.
Finally, the future of You-Know-Who.
The Tim Tebow story was fun while it lasted. But now what? I don't subscribe to the school of thought that Tebow can't succeed as a full-time NFL quarterback. We don't know that for sure. I'm like John Elway in this regard: I'd like to see Tebow have one full offseason, and team minicamps and training camp, working with the first unit for the first full offseason of his three in the NFL.
Denver should backstop Tebow with a second- or third-round prospect and either Brady Quinn or an option type of quarterback like Tebow, in the event of an in-game injury; that way the Broncos won't have to revolutionize their offense in the middle of a game. Finally, this: Denver cannot enter the 2012 season with the same predictable play-calling, with that inside handoff or Tebow sprinting into an option. It limits the offense way too much.
The reality of Tebow's 2011 season is he had some great moments and eight wins. But he also plateaued. He simply has to be more accurate to have a chance to be a long-term NFL quarterback. Check out the first five quarterback starts of the season, with Kyle Orton playing, and the last five starts, all by Tebow.
This is a critical offseason for Tebow. There's no question he'll put in the work. The only question is this: Is he physically capable of training his arm and his head to be a significantly more accurate passer? If so, he'll have a long career. But accuracy doesn't often increase significantly in NFL quarterbacks. It can get better, but most often the improvements come in small doses. We shall see.
Green Bay couldn't hang on for the entire season, and I'm at a loss to separate New England, the Giants and San Francisco. Call it what it is: the honest-to-goodness Copout Fine Fifteen:
1. (tie) San Francisco (14-3). Four lead changes in the last 4:02. Vernon Davis (The Catch III) taking his place alongside Dwight Clark (The Catch I) and Terrell Owens (The Catch II) in Niner lore. That game Saturday afternoon is why we like sports.
1. (tie) New York Giants (11-7). Memories of 2007 are so valid they're scary. Eli Manning hitting every receiver even slightly open, and a pass rush that won't quit. Big, big trouble for anyone right now.
1. (tie) New England (14-3). The defense comes alive, finally, which is why they're in a three-way tie atop this prestigious list. That plus Tom Brady, who is pretty good. Brady set the franchise record for TD passes in a playoff game (four) in 28 minutes Saturday night. In 30 minutes, he had five. I don't know how you cover his tight ends. One is a problem. Two is mission impossible.
4. Baltimore (13-4). Very good test for the Patriots Sunday in Foxboro. My only concern is whether Flacco has much of a chance to win a scoring contest with Brady.
5. Green Bay (15-2). A couple of weeks ago, Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel described to me an interview session with defensive coordinator Dom Capers after one late-season shredding of Capers' disappointing defense, and McGinn described Capers as "ashen.'' I can only imagine what he was Sunday evening after the Giants put up 37 on Green Bay.
6. New Orleans (14-4). Second straight season that ended with a defensive meltdown at an NFC West champion -- a 41-36 loss at Seattle last year with Drew Brees throwing it 60 times, a 36-32 debacle Saturday in San Francisco with Brees throwing it 63 times. Balance, people. And protect the ball a bit.
7. Houston (11-7). Winning the division with a third-string quarterback, winning a playoff game with a third-string quarterback, playing a representative playoff game at Baltimore with a third-string quarterback ... pretty good season for a team that nearly fired its coaching staff 12 months ago.
8. Pittsburgh (12-5). Hard to imagine the Steelers taking that awful wild-card loss well. They have to get younger, obviously, but they also have to rebuild the offensive line.
9. Detroit (10-7). Looking at my rankings last week, I had the Lions lower than Denver and Atlanta. What was I thinking? Or smoking?
10. Atlanta (10-7). Coordinator wish list on defense? All Spags, all the time.
11. Denver (9-9). Tebow's losses (Detroit, New England, New England) can feel like the end of the world, because Tebow's inaccuracies make it difficult to sustain an offensive attack. But missing guard Chris Kuper hurt a lot because he's the kind of pile-driver who would have given Tebow a little more time Saturday night rather than see him running for his life so regularly.
12. Philadelphia (8-8). Next up for Eagles: the fate of Juan Castillo. Steve Spagnuolo, and a fan base, awaits word.
13. Arizona (8-8). Kevin Kolb, 57.7 percent accuracy. That has to improve, a lot.
14. San Diego (8-8). Doesn't it seem like about half of the weeks this season, Sean Payton's play-calling was designed to poke a sharp stick into the eye of GM A.J. Smith? Drew Brees threw 19 passes to Sproles Saturday, completing 15 for 119 yards.
15. (tie) Tennessee (9-7). Get Cortland Finnegan signed.
15. (tie) Miami (6-10). Don't mourn over not getting Jeff Fisher signed. Lots of good Plan B's out there.
Offensive Players of the Week
San Francisco QB Alex Smith. For six seasons, Smith's gotten nothing but grief -- much of it justified. But Smith will never have to buy another Anchor Steam for the rest of his life (wait -- do guys who went to Utah drink beer?) in the Bay Area because of the 80- and 85-yard drives he led in the last four minutes of the 36-32 divisional playoff stunner over the Saints.
New England QB Tom Brady. The best passing day in Patriots postseason history (368 yards) and six touchdown passes, tying the NFL playoff record set by Steve Young in the 49ers-Chargers Super Bowl 17 years ago. And a 48-yard, inside-the-20 punt. "I have no idea what the records are,'' Brady said dismissively after the game. And I think he means it. It's one of the reasons Bill Belichick likes him so much.
New York Giants WR Hakeem Nicks. His second straight strong playoff game -- seven catches for 165 yards, with two touchdowns -- is reason enough to honor him. But the dagger he plunged into the Packers just before halftime was the play of the game. "Those Hail Marys work about twice a year,'' said Tom Coughlin. Nicks, with the help of a Packer defense that was far too passive near the goal line, caught the 37-yard fly ball from Manning cleanly, and the Giants went into halftime up by 10, not three. Huge factor.
Defensive Players of the Week
Baltimore CB Lardarius Webb. Two interceptions for one of the game's underrated corners on a day when the Baltimore defense won the game against Houston. Two additional passes deflected too. Ed Reed had a big interception too, but here's the difference: The two Webb picks led to a touchdown and field goal, and on a day when the Ravens scored 20 points, his two plays were huge.
Houston DE J.J. Watt and OLB Brooks Reed. The Texans' season ended Sunday, but they have every reason to be excited about 2012. Biggest reason, other than Matt Schaub returning to health: a young defense led by two young stalwarts, Watt and Reed. They combined for five sacks of Flacco, and very nearly played well enough to oust the Ravens.
New York Giants DE Osi Umenyiora. After Umenyiora batted the ball out of Rodgers' right hand, FOX showed clearly how incredibly open Greg Jennings was down the left sideline. Umenyiora saved a touchdown, clearly. For the day, he had two sacks for 12 yards, and the forced fumble.
Special Teams Players of the Week
San Francisco P Andy Lee. The first-team All-Pro punter, who finally unseated the formerly peerless Shane Lechler on the prestigious team this season, had a great first playoff game: eight punts, 49.5-yard average, and only 29 return yards allowed to Sproles. After Lee's punts, the Saints took over at their 19-, 34-, 20-, 15-, 14-, 34- and 18-yard lines (not including the one Sproles fumble on a Lee punt). Drew Brees did a lot of damage, to be sure, but Lee made him work for it.
New York Giants S Derrick Martin. It's one thing to tell your front players on the kick-return team to stay alert for an onside kick. It's another thing for every guy on the line to wait until the ball is kicked. Martin and his mates did wait for Mason Crosby to kick it deep in the first half -- and when Crosby pooched an onside kick, it went right into the arms of the waiting Martin, who is a former Packer, by the way. Smart, smart play by Martin.
Coach of the Week
San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman. It took some guts to call a simple quarterback rollout, a naked bootleg, on 3rd-and-8 from the Saints' 28 with 2:18 to play, down a point. If Alex Smith is tackled behind the line, all of a sudden a 45-yard field goal attempt becomes a 48-yarder, let's say, and a miss means the Saints might be able to run out the clock with San Francisco having just one timeout left. A missed field goal and one first down by New Orleans, and the Saints win. But Roman saw something in the New Orleans defense, obviously, and figured a bootleg left would work. As I described above, it did ... for a 28-yard touchdown. It's not the score that won the game, but it's the kind of call that will stick with Roman for the rest of his coaching career.
Goats of the Week
Houston PR/WR Jacoby Jones. What's the one thing the Texans, playing with a third-string quarterback and playing at a team that was perfect at home this year, couldn't give Baltimore? A gift. And after the Texans held the Ravens to a three-and-out on Baltimore's first possession of the game, Houston was due to get the ball back, up 3-0 with momentum. Jones, though, tried to grab a bouncing punt while under heavy pressure from special-teams gunner Cary Williams. The ball bounced off Jones and Baltimore recovered at the Houston 2. The massive gaffe led to the Ravens' first touchdown, and Houston never led after that. I understand Jones recovered a Foster fumble later in the game, but that doesn't make up for the seven points he gave up earlier.
Green Bay S Jarrett Bush. For standing by and watching the ball fall into Nicks' hands on the Hail Mary at the end of the first half.
"History was running through my mind. Us against no, us against can't.''
-- San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis, after his clutch touchdown catch in the final seconds lifted the 49ers a 36-32 victory over New Orleans.
"How the hell is that not a fumble?''
-- Giants play-by-play man Bob Papa, on the Giants Radio Network, after ref Bill Leavy did not overturn a first-quarter non-fumble call against the Packers.
"I'm sure if we win, I'll have nothing to do with why we won.''
-- Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, four days before Sunday's playoff game against Houston, sounding like he was lamenting not getting enough credit, because he doesn't put up glamorous numbers.
You can make numbers say what you want them to say, and Flacco had a good passer rating for this game (97.1) after a 14-of-27 day with two touchdowns and no interceptions. But if you watched the game, you know Flacco missed his share of open receivers and didn't have a very good day.
"I have a great deal of confidence in me.''
-- Rex Ryan, coach of the Jets, as storm clouds and loud anonymous Mark Sanchez-rippers circled in the water around the embattled franchise.
"Al Michaels is my favorite. By far. C'mon, everybody misses John Madden. It sucks that he's retired, but at least we've still got Michaels. He is the last of the true icons still calling games. Just hearing his voice, it's nostalgic, man. It brings you back to when you were a little kid. His voice is ill. I don't know how long Al Michaels plans on doing the Sunday night games for NBC, but if he retired tomorrow, it would really [expletive] suck.''
-- Eminem, to Peter Schrager of GQ.
The Carolina Panthers scored 210 more points in 2011 (406) than they did in 2010 (196).
Cam Newton accounted for 210 points in 2011. He threw for 21 touchdowns and ran for 14. Those 35 touchdowns, multiplied times six points, equal 210.
Busy week for NFL referee Gene Steratore, who traveled a long way to go 21 miles between Tuesday and Saturday evenings.
On Tuesday, he reffed the Louisville-Providence Big East men's basketball game in downtown Providence. He woke up Wednesday and flew from Providence to Lincoln, Neb., a distance of 1,489 miles, to do the Penn State-Nebraska men's game that night. Then he flew back east, and Saturday night he was in Foxboro to do the Denver-New England AFC divisional playoff game.
Providence is a popular place to stay before and after Patriots games because of its proximity to Foxboro. Steratore had to take a 2,978-mile detour to spend two working nights in eastern New England.
Busy Beaver, that Steratore. He got up early Sunday and flew to Columbus to do the Big Ten battle between Ohio State and Indiana.
The Oakland Raiders might be the most impetuous drafting organization in NFL history, and the 2012 draft is a good example.
They traded the first-round pick in October as part of the Carson Palmer deal with Cincinnati.
They traded the second-round pick last April as part of a deal to obtain New England's third- and fourth-round picks in 2011. Oakland used those picks to take tackle Joseph Barksdale and running back Taiwan Jones, neither of whom started a game for the Raiders in 2011.
They gave up the third-round pick in August to choose Terrelle Pryor in the Supplemental Draft. Pryor has not seen the field yet.
They traded the fourth-round pick to Washington in 2010 for quarterback Jason Campbell. Campbell got hurt in October and is a free agent, likely to play elsewhere in 2012.
They traded the seventh-round pick to Seattle as part of a deal to obtain linebacker Aaron Curry in October. He played well for the Raiders after the trade.
Not including compensatory draft picks, that means the Raiders' first regular draft choice in 2012 will be on day three, midway through the fifth round, on approximately the 148th overall selection. (The exact choice depends on how many compensatory picks the league will dole out this spring.) The Raiders' first choice, a compensatory pick for the loss of Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency, would be at the end of the third round at the earliest -- the 97th pick overall.
The Raiders have also surrendered their second-round pick in 2013 as part of the Carson Palmer trade; that pick could rise to a first-rounder if the Raiders make the AFC title game next year. And they've also lost a mid-round pick in 2013 as part of the Aaron Curry trade.
So let's tally this up.
In 2012, Oakland has two of its seven draft picks left.
In 2013, Oakland has five of its seven draft picks left.
With holes in an aging roster, they've traded seven of their 14 draft choices in the next two drafts ... including a one, two twos and a three.
Good thing new owner Mark Davis gave GM Reggie McKenzie a long-term contract.
Location, Location, Location Dept.:
There is a Renaissance Hotel built into the Gillette Stadium complex. A media friend of mine stayed there while on assignment for the Broncos-Patriots game over the weekend. On Friday night, his stadium-view room cost $299 plus tax. On Saturday, game day, the room went for $709.
Add tax to that a room tax of $40.41 and an "occupancy tax'' of $42.54. (I've always loved that one -- the occupancy tax. Hoteliers are taxing you because you're occupying the room. Well, what did you expect us to do with the room? Use it to shoot free throws?)
Total bill for staying in a regular Marriott Hotel room for one evening: $791.95.
So my friend went back to the hotel 90 minutes after the game, after working for the day, looking for a cold beer before bed. Bar closed.
All in all, a heck of a two-day stay in Foxboro. I can only hope his accounting department at work understands when he files an expense report for two nights at a Renaissance Hotel, and the bill for the room tops $1,100.
"Here's the crazy thing,'' my buddy told me. "The place was sold out.''
"A repeat of the unexpected news that broke in 1957: NY Giants heading to San Francisco.''
-- @JohnLowe86, longtime baseball scribe John Lowe from Detroit.
"Ravens, Niners & Giants: the 3 teams that run & defend the best, all still alive. PATS will their hands full with any of them."
"That said ... I'll take my chances with Brady, Belichick & #75 any day! #GOPATS''
-- @DonnieWahlberg, actor and lover of all teams Boston, with a double-Tweet.
1. I think this is what I liked about the divisional playoffs:
a. Tremendous block from Frank Gore on Saints defensive end Will Smith near the goal line.
b. The throw from Brees to Marques Colston at the right pylon, dropped in the arms of Colston perfectly.
c. Justin Smith never taking a play off.
d. Brees, who deserves criticism for throwing twice into coverage and costing his team, deserves more praise for his two long drives to put the Saints up twice in the last four minutes.
e. New England left tackle Matt Light, who kept pressure off Brady all night.
f. Steratore's a really good ref. Thought he had the best day of any ref this weekend.
g. Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich, for being big keys in bottling Tebow.
h. Johnathan Joseph on Torrey Smith. That's why they paid him the big bucks in Houston.
i. Rick Smith, the Houston GM, for choosing J.J. Watt in the first round, Brooks Reed in the second.
j. Anquan Boldin's ability to catch the ball in traffic. I mean, who's better?
k. Arian Foster -- brilliant day. He's the best all-around back in the game, and if that one-handed pluck out of the air didn't prove it, you were watching a different game. As a pure runner, Adrian Peterson, surgery and all, is my pick. But for every aspect of the game, Foster is the guy.
l. After picking off Manning deep in his territory in the second quarter, Packer safety Morgan Burnett made a play with two minutes left in the half of a 10-10 game that if you weren't watching very carefully, you would have missed Burnett saving four points. Manning had tight end Jake Ballard slightly open in the end zone for what appeared to be a five-yard touchdown pass. Manning threw, and Burnett got a fingertip on the ball (nothing more; maybe even a fingernail) and the ball was knocked off its path just a little bit, and it hit Ballard in the hand. Not a drop, but a misdirection of the ball at the last second.
m. Eli Manning, for owning January again.
n. What a blitz pickup by Ahmad Bradshaw on the Giants' first drive of the game.
o. Wow. Jermichael Finley pancaked Jason Pierre-Paul on the first Packer snap of the game.
2. I think this is what I didn't like about the divisional playoffs:
a. The phrase "divisional playoffs.'' Stupid title for the weekend.
b. Courtney Roby, your role is special teams. That's pretty much it. When you muff a kickoff, then kick it into the arms of the Niners, and hand them three points, that's a good way to have your role eliminated.
c. Malcolm Jenkins in the open field against Vernon Davis, and then Roman Harper in the end zone
d. Gregg Williams' defense. Horrible execution in almost certainly his last game in New Orleans. (I reported Wednesday it was likely the Saints defensive coordinator, whose contract is expiring in New Orleans, will join Jeff Fisher in St. Louis.)
e. Michael Crabdrop.
f. Jermichael Findrop.
g. James Starks, Tom Crabtree, drops on consecutive throws.
h. And James Starks: You've got to pick up the rushing linebacker better than that, son.
i. T.J. Yates. Look, he's a kid, and he was in an impossible spot. But he made two truly dumb throws (and was intercepted on a third), right into the hands of Ravens.
j. The Packers. That's it. Just the Packers. Other than the overtime loss to the Giants four years ago for the NFC crown, this was as disappointing a playoff loss as the team has had since Ron Wolf reinvented them 20 years ago.
k. Idiotic that the Packers have to burn a replay challenge to prove what everyone in America saw: Randall Cobb's knee was certainly down before the ball came out.
l. Bill Leavy. I must be the only guy in America who didn't think his non-reversal on the Greg Jennings fumble or non-fumble was horrible. But his blow-to-Rodgers'-head call, extending a desperation fourth-quarter drive, was a fictitious call if I ever saw one. I wouldn't expect to see Leavy doing any games until next September.
3. I think I reserved the right to say I told you so when I picked Justin Smith as my 2011 NFL defensive player of the year, and so I'll say it: I told you so.
4. I think the strangest call of the weekend came before the game started in Foxboro. Why on earth, Denver, would you defer when winning the coin toss? You'd choose to hand the ball to Tom Brady on the first series of the game? I don't care how little faith you have in your own quarterback to take it 80 yards. Isn't the pressure on your defense colossal, on the road, against Brady, to make a stop right away? Didn't like that call at all.
5. I think that was a very meaty story by the Kansas City Star's Kent Babb about what he described to be the paranoia and insecurity he reports to be rampant in the offices of the Kansas City Chiefs under owner Clark Hunt and GM Scott Pioli. It's worth a read. Much of the story is about charges of former employees -- some in litigation with the team -- about being treated unfairly by the new regime; those charges will be refereed in court in due time, and we'll see whether the Chiefs have been unfair to employees. What jumped out at me in the story is former coach Todd Haley's suspicions -- as reported by Babb -- that rooms at the Chiefs offices were bugged. Babb also reported that Haley told him he believed his personal cellphone had been tampered with.
Whoa now. Those are very serious charges. Does Haley have proof that a federal crime has been committed and his phone was tampered with, or an office he works in has been bugged so team management could spy on him and other employees? If he has proof or something more than simple paranoia, out with it -- and expose the team for something incredibly scurrilous. If not, that's a damaging rap to lay on someone, or an organization. Haley needs to set the record straight.
6. I think the Dirk Koetter hire in Atlanta is a nod to the fact that the Falcons wanted to throw the ball downfield more, and to improving their screen game (maybe in 2012 with Jacquizz Rogers). Koetter's not Mike Martz, but I do think he'll be more open to featuring Julio Jones and getting Matt Ryan to take three or four shots a game deep.
7. I think this shouldn't be a sign that Mike Mularkey wasn't a good hire in Jacksonville, because Mularkey is smart and a good quarterback teacher. But as the Falcons offensive coordinator he'd hit a wall with Matt Ryan, and the Falcons needed to make a change, and I believe if he wouldn't have gotten the head-coaching job with the Jags, the Falcons would have strongly considered making a change at the coordinator spot.
8. I think the Bucs could take 10 days to two weeks from now to hire a coach. Why, you ask? Why not? Where's the competition for jobs right now? If you can interview 13 guys and steal some knowledge about how your team is perceived and how certain coaches would coach your team that can help you when you finally hire the one you like the best, why not do it? It's like I said last week: There's nothing wrong with picking the brains of smart coaches to improve the quality of the product you put on the field. Al Davis did it all the time.
9. I think it's fine that the NFL is considering hiring 10 full-time officials. It cannot hurt -- except if some of those the league would like to bring on full-time choose their day jobs. But I still don't see how it helps to be totally immersed in the job and in tape study. I like how Gene Steratore works as a basketball ref, even in season (see my Factoid of the Week), and probably stays sharp working games even if it's another game entirely. I'll be interested in hearing the league's plans for this, though I don't think I'll ever believe full-time officials will help guys make calls in such a fast game any better.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I guess that supposedly good Miss America omen didn't quite work out. Miss America was named Saturday night, and Laura Kaeppeler, from Wisconsin, was supposed to be the good-luck charm of the Packers. No dice.
b. Happy Martin Luther King Day.
c. Favorite MLK quote: "A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.''
d. Red Sox alive? Making any moves to combat the Yankees' 13-man starting rotation? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?
e. Glad to have helped a few of you discover The Art of Fielding. Had four people this past week tell me they're either reading it or have read it, and all agreed with me: Can't put it down, and as good as the baseball stuff is, the life stuff is better.
f. I saw a movie! Moneyball, and I liked it a lot. I'd ridiculed the casting of Philip Seymour Hoffman as A's manager Art Howe, and though he didn't look much like him other than atop the head, Hoffman had the personality and the dourness of a manager down pat. I didn't know how it'd play to a wide audience, but it's a compelling story about ideas.
g. Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Meryl Streep of male actors. He can do it all.
h. Missed the Golden Globes. What'd I miss?
i. Coffeenerdness: So I was in Boston over the weekend, and I walked into one of my three former Starbucks there, and the gal behind the counter, who I recognized, pointed to me and said: "Triple grande hazelnut latte.'' Wow. Impressive. You've got me. Maybe that's not entirely a good thing.
j. Beernerdness: So I was in Boston over the weekend, and I went to the House of Blues Friday night to see the Peter Gammons band play Rolling Stones covers. A good time was had by all -- particularly getting reacquainted with Harpoon IPA. The Harpoon line can't be beat.
k. Have a fun Championship Week. Home teams are 7-1 so far, but I don't see an easy road for either San Francisco or New England next weekend.