Written by Ryan Crutchfield, Contributor for Gatorsfirst.com
The National Football League. It’s hard not to be a fan. (Don’t forget to take 3 drinks for every word of the spelled out acronym that announcers say to fill space or sound dramatic.) In one of the best playoff years for storylines in a long time, the NFL divisional round is in the books. The two top-seeded teams from the NFC are meeting next week in the Louisiana Superdome while the top-seeded AFC squad will take on “The Little Team That Could” at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
The NFL teams still in contention have great characters. I’m starting to see why some people actually enjoy the fake character storylines in “pro” wrestling. But these NFL guys aren’t faking. This is real stuff. No producers, no writers, no editing and as we’ll see: no apologies.
Let’s take a look at this week’s action through the storylines...
Year of the Quarterback
Many have made mention of how there is a new era in the NFL where quarterback play has become the standard of a playoff (and eventual) championship team. The rule change to no defensive contact to receivers beyond 5 yards from scrimmage made the NFL pass-happy. Following a 2004 playoff game in which the high-powered Colts were held to 3 points by the aggressive Patriots defense, an addendum was made to help receivers get open. The Colts responded the following season with a 13-game winning streak. Passing records have been breaking left and right ever since. It used to be that the saying went: “Defense wins championships.” Now it’s: “Quarterbacks win championships.” It’s true for 3 of the 4 teams left in the post-season (Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre), but Mark Sanchez? A rookie QB who amassed a whopping 100 yards passing in the win against the Chargers Sunday? At least one team is still rocking the throwback look. The black sheep of the NFL contenders.
The Jets snuck into the playoffs after some high seeded AFC locks started resting their big guns. They rode a 7-1 locomotive streak to the 5 seed and have upset higher seeds on the road in consecutive weeks. You might think back to another New York team taking the same path through the NFC playoffs in 2006. Formula: Go with a run-first physical mind-set on offense, get consistent pass rush on defense and get hot at the right time.
The Jets are winning behind the best cover corner in the NFL, a blitz happy defense and the #1 rushing attack. Their coach, Rex Ryan, is a second generation defensive innovator with a loud mouth and overconfident no-apologies attitude. He announced early in the season that CB Darrelle Revis was the best at his position at age 24. He guaranteed a Super Bowl championship at the beginning of the playoffs without ever having won a post-season game as head coach. A perfect fit for New York.
The result Sunday in San Diego: 17-14 Jets in a physical slugfest.
Said Chargers RB LaDanian Tomlinson: “It was the best defense I’ve played this year. No question.”
I was able to catch up with winning QB Sanchez after the game:
Krutch (G1 novice blogger): Hey Mark, how has your team overcome the underdog role in two straight road games?
Mark Sanchez (Jets 23-year-old rookie QB): “The guys believing in me and knowing we can make this thing happen. Rex goin with a rookie quarterback. I mean so many things had to happen...”
OK, so I’m not part of the New York media, but I’m firmly planted on the Jets bandwagon.
The Saints Come Marching (and marching and marching...) Some thoughts on the New Orleans “Greatest Show Below Sea Level”:
Saints QB Drew Brees improvising throws on broken routes. I couldn’t believe how mentally sharp he is. Always throwing to the outside shoulder away from the defender. He is the most accurate passer in the league right now, making any receiver they bring on board look like a stud.
Saints coach Sean Payton calling the flea-flicker. It was executed to perfection by all 11 players. Brees even had his other deep option on the right side MORE wide open. Guess every player likes a challenge.
Reggie Bush channeling USC Reggie Bush. Kim Kardashian should keep up the pre-game conjugal visits. After a Kim ‘experience’, even Krutch would feel confident enough to take a handoff, throw a spin move, turn it upfield with an unbelievably quick first step to avoid two diving Cardinals and out-run everyone else for 46 yards to put my team up 21-7. Is Kim available for a halftime quickie? She’s in the stadium you say? Send her on down, Daddy needs his fix! In the 3rd, Reggie Reggie starts a punt return on his own 14, meets a Cardinals defender and jukes him out of his shoes. Then without losing ANY speed, he changes direction and blows past the other 10 guys (including the gutless punter) for 86 yards and paydirt. Just call him the dagger. Call Kim the knife sharpener.
Saints TE Jeremy Shockey playing on one leg through wincing pain. Even on the Saints opening drive, the Shock was limping on his way back to the huddle. The second a ball was snapped, he played his guts out at the fastest speed he could. He pulled in the 2nd TD of the game on a great adjustment and proceeded to gimp off the field. That kind of thing fires up a team and those kind of intangibles are the DNA of a championship team.
Off on the Wrong Foot
Kickers absolutely sucked this weekend. Good, consistent kickers sucked.
After making just 18 of 28 field goal attempts on the year, the Cowboys cut ties with veteran kicker Nick Folk just two weeks before the start of the playoffs. He had a miss in his last six games before being cut, including a 24-yarder his last game at New Orleans.They replaced him with Shaun Suisham who was cut from his team for the same inconsistency. Suisham's time in Washington came to a close a few weeks ago after a missed 23-yard attempt against the Saints. He made 18-of-21 kicks on the season, however his three misses cost the Redskins' two wins. Sounds like the right guy to hire!
The Cowboys had some effective drives against the Vikes early on, but couldn’t finish with touchdowns. Shaun Suisham was a band-aid at kicker and misfired on 2 of his 3 attempts. The first one could’ve brought the Cowboys within 11 points in the first half and would’ve been a momentum builder for a scrappy team trying to stay in it. Both kicks were long attempts, but an NFL kicker should convert when it counts. I wouldn’t plan on planting roots in the DFW metroplex, Shaun.
Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers
Granted he was battling a groin injury, but Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers shanked badly from 41 yards in the fantasy football wet dream game last week in Lambeau, which forced overtime. He owes Karlos Dansby and a largely unknown face-mask happy cornerback a prime rib for saving his ass last week after the red-hot Packers offense won the toss after regulation (AND Rodgers missing a wide open Greg Jennings on the first play that would’ve gone for 6). Then on Sunday he missed a late field goal in the blowout in New Orleans. All this after being a near perfect 16/17 on the year.
Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding
Nate Kaeding was having a career year after converting 32 out of 35 attempts (12 from beyond 40 yards). Playing on his own home turf, he missed 3 field goals in a very tight contest. Final score: 17-14 Jets. Know how many points 3 field goals adds to that score? Goodnight San Diego. Good season. Good 11 game winning streak storming into the playoffs. The Jets took down the So-Cal Goliath three time-zones away from home. The timeless (yes, James Brown, I said TIMELESS) Chris Berman had to dust off the old adage: “That’s why they play the games.”
Kickers are a strange bunch...
Two rookie head coaches will face off in Indianapolis next Sunday.
The Colts shut down the Ravens on Saturday winning 20-3. Granted Dungy left the cupboard fully stocked before retiring*, but Tony never started off a season with 14 straight wins (he did start 13-0 in 2005). Jim Caldwell may just be running the defense for a self-powered machine on offense with Peyton Manning basically calling plays at the line, but Jimmy is certainly pulling his weight. His swarming defense held the Ravens potent running attack to 3 whole points.Asterisk storyline: *for the assumed reason of less stress….to which he lives or travels to New York to work on NBC Sunday nights and serves as ‘mentor’ to the likes of troubled star Michael Vick as well as promising good kid QB Josh Freeman.
The Colts next opponent? Also led by a rookie head coach, only he is working with a rookie QB to boot. Both guys have had exceptional debuts, but coaching decisions can be huge in the playoffs. A big challenge for a first time shot-caller.
The Brett Favre
Brett Favre (n.) – 40 year old quarterback who came out of retirement for a 2nd consecutive year to play on one of Green Bay’s biggest rivals (his former team of 16 seasons).
Football players beyond 34 years old are very sparse as NFL starters. And quarterback is a position where you leave yourself prone to get hit a LOT. And not to mention Brett added to his streak with his 289th consecutive NFL start, a record that may never be broken. He laid the foundation for folk heroes like Tim Tebow and continues to set the bar of legend impossibly high.
On Sunday, all Favre did was throw 4 TDs.
Sportscenter anchor Scott Van Pelt: “Do you know how hard it is for Brett Favre to do something that Brett Favre hasn’t done before? It’s hard! Throwing 4 touchdown passes in a playoff game is hard!”
Best sports headline of the year so far courtesy of Fox Sports: “Old Man and the D”
And what a ham in post-game interviews:
Favre: “Probably the most fatigued and tired I got today was celebratin’.”
Favre: “This is what I came back for.”
Favre: “It’s been a lot of fun. We’re winning. We have a chance to go to the Super Bowl, we’re playing in the championship game. [long pause, fighting back tears] …. Pretty awesome.”
Brett Favre may be the single most polarizing figure in all of sports. You either love him for his greatness or hate him for being on the front page of the sports websites for 8 straight weeks. ESPN gave us up to the minute coordinates on where his plane was over Illinois on a flight from Mississippi to Minneapolis.
BREAKING NEWS: Brett Favre found a penny on the ground.
Remind you of a certain recent Gator quarterback again? Think back to Sportscenter over the 2009 spring where he was mulling a return from retirement. You couldn’t go an hour without a Favre update. ESPN even made a commercial making fun of themselves for it.
I never want him to retire.
Running Up the Score
Near the end of the game, an army of one, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking, stormed Vikings coach Brad Childress who happened to be tangent to a sideline of 50 or so fired-up Minnesota Viking players. He was in protest of a supposed ‘Running Up of the Score.’ From 4th and 3 with the game out of reach for the Cowboys, Favre had just thrown an 11-yard TD pass.
Keith Brooking referred to the play as “totally classless and disrespectful.”
I believe the situation to be a gray area with sound arguments for both sides – ‘you want to show mercy to an overmatched team’ versus ‘keeping your team sharp for the forthcoming challenge of a stronger foe’.
Said James Bond villain (also Vikings coach) Brad Childress: "That wasn't rubbing it in. It's just taking care of business."
I tried not to take sides in the matter, but my first thought was that this is a game played by grown-ass men. Keith Brooking: stop being a baby.
Said TE Shiancoe who scored on the play: “OK, we apologize. I’m sorry. Better?” Said 37 year old Vikings DT Pat Williams: “We don’t care what Keith Brooking says,” Williams said. “He was about to get his ass whupped on our sideline over there. It don’t matter. Nobody said anything when they blew out the Eagles [the past two weeks]. It’s the playoffs. It ain’t no regular-season game. If you lose, you go home. We take no pity on them. Do they expect us to? I don’t care about no Brooking. He can say whatever he wants to say.” Well put sirs.
And lastly, condolences go out to the family and friends of Bears defensive end Gaines Adams. Adams died early Sunday from cardiac arrest at the age of 26. This hits me a little harder because I'm a die-hard Buccaneers fan and am also 26. An autopsy showed he had an enlarged heart which doctors cite as the primary cause. This coincides with college basketball player Jeron Lewis who died earlier this week with the same heart condition.
It’s time for sports to be proactive on this, immediately. These are big human beings. If some are prone to having an enlarged heart, scan your players and take precautions. A simple ultrasound can give general size, characteristics of the structure and detect an irregular heartbeat. What a tragedy. Rest in peace Gaines.
At the End of the Day
Jets over Colts: 20-17
Saints over Vikings: 38-31
Have fun watching the Conference Championship games next weekend. When talking to some PYT* at the watching parties, heed the advice of the infamous Jim Mora Sr.
*A Michael Jackson reference. Too obscure?
Gotta love the NFL!
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