Reacting and overreacting to everything that happened during Conference Semifinals Weekend...
Things That Made Me Giddy
Aaron Rodgers Has Just Enough: As I wrote this morning, the Packers aren't equipped to blow teams out—even teams with bad defenses. What should have been a comfortable win nearly got away from them on Sunday. The third-and-long connection with Davante Adams on Green Bay's final drive, as they desperately tried to avoid giving Russell Wilson the ball one last time, was a classic Rodgers throw when they needed it most.
Chiefs Offense Vs. Texans Defense Is an Immense Mismatch: Remember, Kansas City only punted on their first two possessions because of third-down drops by wide-open receivers. After that, Houston forced one more punt then yielded seven consecutive touchdown drives. This Houston secondary, one of the NFL’s worst, with no pass-rush to bail it out, had zero chance of stopping Patrick Mahomes on Sunday.
The Titans Stole Baltimore’s Soul: We all pointed and laughed when Tennessee built an offense around a power running back. But what they ended up building is a team with a unique rushing element, and they supplemented it when they found a quarterback able to take advantage of play-action opportunities. Defensively they’re as well-coached as anyone—Saturday night they not only limited Lamar Jackson’s effectiveness with his legs, but forced him to make a ton of throws he’s not comfortable making (it helps that they feature one of the best secondaries in football). Apparently, it’s a formula that translates very well in January.
Daniel Sorensen Saves Christmas: And, quite possibly, saves K.C. special teams coordinator Dave Toub’s butt. The Chiefs were beat on the second-quarter fake punt; Sorensen needed to diagnose it and make a difficult open-field tackle to prevent a four-yard gain, and he did both. After the touchdown it set up, he forced the fumble that set up another Chiefs touchdown.
Houston’s Fake Punt Call Was Fine: They had the look, Daniel Sorensen just made a great play. Here’s the thing with people who obsess over “momentum”: The Chiefs didn’t score points because of “momentum”—“momentum” isn’t really a thing. The Chiefs scored points because the Texans were and are 100% incapable of stopping them—the two stops to open the game were complete flukes. Houston needed to be aggressive to win this game (regardless of the terrible decision to settle for three on a fourth-and-inches on the previous drive). A fake punt, when you have the look, is properly aggressive.
Davante Adams as Superman: The Seahawks didn’t have anyone who could guard him, and he delivered two touchdowns and a key third-and-long conversion when the Packers were desperately trying to escape.
Derrick Henry at the Third Level: I can’t imagine anyone I envy less than a defensive back when Henry comes through with a head of steam. He is the rare running back who is a big play waiting to happen. He had 30 carries for 195 yards on Saturday night, giving him 64 carries for 377 yards (5.9 average) through two playoff games (which, by the way, would be a pace for 3,016 rushing yards over 16 games).
Yes, That 49ers Pass Rush: It was a nightmare scenario for the Vikings when Arik Armstead, the least terrifying of San Francisco’s front four, de-pantsed Brian O’Neill repeatedly in the first half. But the Vikings expected to lose the pass-protection battle. However, when their protection did hold up, Kirk Cousins rarely had anywhere to go with the ball. That Niners secondary was excellent; the lone play they gave up was an unusual jump ball (Stefon Diggs’ catch-point improvisations are something to behold) that went for the Vikings’ lone touchdown.
Tennessee Takes a Shot After the Fourth-and-1 Stop: An absolutely perfect call. After forcing the turnover on downs early in the second quarter, the Titans go with the play-action shot play, with Kalif Raymond running by Marlon Humphrey and a hapless Ravens secondary for the easy touchdown. Arthur Smith, I could kiss you.
Great Call by Bill O’Brien Gets Six: On third-and-short on the opening drive, the Chiefs secondary bit hard on the bubble screen, leaving Kenny Stills open for a walk-in touchdown. That’s some good self-scouting by O’Brien’s staff—that bubble screen is exactly what an opponent would expect them to run there. (Unfortunately, that was the extent of O’Brien’s highlight reel on Sunday.)
The Richard Sherman Revival Rolls On: He was exceptional on Saturday—this time shutting down Adam Thielen—as he has been all season. It’s been incredible considering the Seahawks, the team that knew him better than anyone, thought he was done two seasons ago.
The 49ers’ Opening Drive: The play-calling was so good that, even though Jimmy Garoppolo looked jittery and put the ball in the wrong spot on a couple throws, they still went down the field with ease.
Titans Get Unprecedented Fourth-and-1 Stops: Which, literally, no one did against the Ravens during the regular season. (Also, the Ravens have yet to convert a fourth down in 2020, 0-for-4 on Saturday night.)
Eric Kendricks Is In Your Head: His second-quarter interception, leading directly to points in a game where points were at a premium, might have looked easy, but it was a combination of supreme instincts and supreme athleticism by a guy who is firmly in the “league’s best linebacker” conversation. Garoppolo is used to the linebacker biting a little on play-action, but Kendricks didn’t budge one bit. That was Kuechly-in-his-prime-type stuff.
Jimmy Garoppolo Navigating the Pocket: It looks like a more nimble Tom Brady back there, the way he’s feeling pressure, moving subtly, quickly re-setting then delivering the ball.
Duke Johnson’s Blitz Pick-Up: He didn’t just stonewall a blitzing Daniel Sorensen on the first play of Houston’s final drive of the first half, he sent him backwards. That’s what allowed the 38-yard connection to DeAndre Hopkins (a drive that would have ended in three points if the kicker was better).
A Meeting of the Griffins at the Quarterback: To get the Seahawks off the field on a crucial fourth-quarter third-and-long. A nice design with Shaquem twisting inside on the blitz, getting a free run at Aaron Rodgers.
The Happy-ish Final Chapter of Barkevious Mingo’s Career: The Browns drafted him sixth overall in 2013, thinking he was the next DeMarcus Ware. He was never that, and later settled in as something of a versatile (if not terribly effective) edge for the Colts and Seahawks. The Texans brought him in to play special teams-only, be a Larry Izzo-type for Bill O’Brien, and Bingo delivered the first-quarter blocked punt that opened up a 14-0 lead for Houston.
Jeffery Simmons’s Mouth Writes a Check His Butt Can Cash: Cameras caught the Titans rookie talking a whole lot to Lamar Jackson between the first and second quarters. It seemed like a bad idea to poke the best football player in the world, but, well, here we are.
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This Is a Penalty: This must be a penalty. There’s no other conclusion to be drawn. The NFL cannot be taken seriously on head safety unless they take action to legislate these completely unnecessary head shots out of the game. You do that by punishing players who deliver these hits. They chose not to do so with Jadeveon Clowney last week (and, incredibly, doubled-down by not fining Clowney). And they did it again this week on this Jeffery Simmons hit. (Also, I hate that the only replay I could find is in slo-mo, because like the Clowney hit, this looked just as egregious in real-time):
Bill O’Brien Must Go for it on Fourth-and-Inches: Of course, you can’t anticipate that you’re about to fail on a fake punt in your own territory and then fumble a kickoff to give up 14 quick points. But when you’re fourth-and-inches deep in Chiefs territory, never settle for three. Surely, you’re familiar with Patrick Mahomes and his ability to score a lot of points quickly, as well as your defense’s ability to give up a lot of points quickly. You have an offense in which you’ve made an enormous investment, facing a Chiefs defense missing its best front-seven player. Get points, get points, get points.
Packers Struggling to Close Things Out in Lambeau: Sheesh. Sunday was shades of narrow second-half-of-the-season home wins over Carolina, Washington and Chicago when they just let inferior teams hang around. It's a lack of sustainable offense combined with a pass defense that just struggles to finish sometimes.
Lamar Jackson Throwing Outside the Numbers: Those out-breaking routes are his biggest weakness (and, arguably, his only weakness). The Titans forced him to try a lot of those throws.
Seahawks’ Mind-Bogglingly Bad Clock Management: They were down 18 at the end of the first half (and about to get the second-half kickoff). The ball was at the Packers’ 43 with 10 seconds left and a timeout in their pocket (because they chose to sacrifice 10 seconds and clock the ball rather than burning it). And they went for a Hail Mary, ending the half. They had, what, a 1% chance of completing a Hail Mary? Go for a 10-yard gain and get into field-goal position with a chance to make it a two-possession game. And if that play doesn’t work, then you can throw your incomplete Hail Mary.
Marcus Sherels Trying to Fielding Punts: Was like Mohamed Sanu trying to catch passes. Whether it was the wind, or the sun, or just “one of those days,” he was playing with fire all game until a devastating third-quarter muff gave the 49ers a first-and-goal after what looked like a big third-and-short stop by the Vikings defense.
Tre Flowers Trying to Cover Davante Adams: Whoa, boy. Adams’s first touchdown was a communication issue. The second one—and the rest of his production—was the result of an all-out mismatch.
Mark Andrews Can’t Extend: He didn’t look right all night, but the inability to bring in a high-but-not-that-high throw from Lamar Jackson in the first quarter, deflecting it into the arms of Kevin Byard, was killer.
Was That the Worst Opening Quarter of Football You’ll Ever See?: A Travis Kelce third-down drop was followed by the Chiefs allowing a blocked punt returned for a TD. That was followed by a Demarcus Robinson third-down drop, after which the Chiefs got a stop, only to have Tyreek Hill (why send him out to return punts now?) go out and muff a punt on his own 7-yard line to set up another TD.
Ravens’ Communication Breakdown: It’s always the same. They’re having a nervous breakdown. Drive them insane! (Probably, because how do your headsets go out in your own building during a playoff game?!)
Demarcus Robinson’s Hands Team Membership Revoked: The Chiefs wideout's three drops in the first half were as bad as it gets, one costing a third-down conversion, one costing a chunk play to start a drive, and one costing a touchdown.
How Do Officials Keep Getting It Wrong With the Early Whistles?: In Lambeau, a premature whistle and therefore incorrect first-quarter ruling (and continued lack of replay common sense) on the Jacob Hollister fumble ended up being a 50-yard field position swing. But, more than that, how are officials still struggling with the instinct to panic and blow their whistle every time they lose track of the ball, then run in and yell to their partners, Guys! Guys! . . . I have no idea what just happened!
Hayden Hurst Channels His Inner Coby Fleener: I don’t know what it feels like to be an NFL quarterback, but I’d assume there are few things more infuriating than a tight end not getting his head around when he’s 15 yards up the seam.
DeAndre Hopkins’s Attempted Murder of Deshaun Watson: Even Josh Allen was solemnly shaking his head. Watson couldn’t have thrown another forward pass, and he had nowhere to run.
Kyle Shanahan’s Hat Choice: I spent the season trying to get used to it, but the final verdict is the red hat with the miniaturized black 49ers logo is a bad hat. The 49ers’ logo is so good, it should be worn large and proudly. Instead, Shanahan looks like he’s wearing something out of Julian Edelman’s crappy store.
NBC’s Musical Selection: It’s usually impeccable—tip of the hat for the tribute to the late Neil Peart during the first half (“Limelight,” CBS went with “Tom Sawyer,” both are fine choices but “YYZ” would have been the most correct selection). Anyway, while I realize nu metal band Trapt is local, “Headstrong” is an objectively bad song and a total outlier among NBC’s typically stellar selections. It was a tough way to go out on NBC’s final broadcast of the season.
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Moments We’ll Tell Our Grandkids About
Tebow? More Like Derrick Henry as David Lee Roth: Might as well jump (Jump!) . . .
Jonnu Smith Is an Absolute Magician:
This Catch and Throw, Neither of Which Had Any Right Being Made:
Garoppolo Tries to Block Anthony Barr: Across the infinite multi-verses, only in ours did this scenario end up with Barr on his backside.
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What We’ll Be Talking About This Week
Championship Sunday Rematches: The Chiefs looked great after a couple of early special-teams boners (as the kids say). And they’ll be getting a Titans defense that was excellent in Baltimore, but was also on the field for 92 plays (not to mention, will Derrick Henry ever slow down?). Matt LaFleur ought to do a Mike McCarthy-at-Jerry Jones-style sleepover at buddy Sean McVay’s place and figure out how the Rams managed to carve up the 49ers defense in their second meeting (it was a lot of tempo and bootlegs to slow the pass rush). But both home teams are heavy favorites—and rightfully so.
Lamar Jackson’s Very Bad Day: There was the bad break on the early tipped interception and two fourth-and-inches failures. But he misread coverages, missed open receivers, and threw a whole lot of ducks on Saturday night. Anyone with a basic understanding of football knows he was the best player in the league this season (well, except for the architect of the 2011 Indianapolis Colts), but Jackson was bad on Saturday. (Some days are like that. Even in Australia.) It was also a reminder that he has some flaws in his game (throwing to the perimeter) that he'll have to clean up.
Is Romeo Crennel the Guy for Houston’s Defense?: It was a season of transition for the Texans defense; they scooped up three disappointing former first-rounders for the secondary, two of them mid-season. The absence of Jadeveon Clowney then J.J. Watt exposed a back end of the defense that still isn’t ready for primetime. Does a full offseason working together fix that? Or do you look at the disappointing acquisitions of Aaron Colvin, then Bradley Roby, then Gareon Conley, then Vernon Hargreaves, and decide there’s something rotten with the system?
Robert Saleh Reminds Cleveland Why He Should Be Their Next Head Coach: And he could end up bringing one of Kyle Shanahan’s offensive assistants with him to run the other side of the ball. It seems like a no-brainer for the Browns, which is probably why they’ll end up tabbing, like, Rich Kotite. (Update: It's Kevin Stefanski. Whatever, that's fine.)
Is This the End of the Super Bowl Seahawks?: The “con” argument is Wilson-Wagner-Carroll. The “pro” argument is that (1) As it seems to do every year, the offense fizzled into mediocrity down the stretch. But more importantly, (2) It’s a truly bad defense. Teams rarely force 30-plus takeaways back-to-back years, even the ones built to force turnovers. The Seahawks defense—with its lack of both a pass rush and ballhawks—is not a defense that is built to get takeaways; they should be expected to get about half as many in 2020. And if their opposing kicker luck also runs out (which it should), this is a middle-of-the-pack team next season barring a game-changing acquisition.
What Can the Vikings Do About This Offensive Line?: All season, their offense was non-operational against teams that could create pressure without blitzing—that includes NFC contenders 49ers and Packers, who figure to have similarly stellar pass rushes next year. In other words, Minnesota’s championship window is open, but they won’t get there with a front five playing like this. They also have growing issues at the other reactionary position (cornerback, with the decline of Xavier Rhodes), and probably won’t be able to fix both in one offseason considering their tight cap situation.
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