Monday, January 16, 2006

NFL PLAYOFFS AND THOUGHTS!

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS AT DENVER BRONCOS:
When the final gun sounded it was 27-13 Broncs'... and the tilt may not have been that close! The Pat's attempted to be the first NFL franchise to roll to, and win, 3 consecutive SuperBowls.
The Patriot Defense was flawed, ball security proved to be a pivotal issue, as I wrote previously RB Corey Dillon was NOT effective and appeared to be running in cement Snow-Shoes (13/57), and Tom "Terrific" Brady (341/1/2) was unable to win the game single-handedly... though he certainly gave it his best shot.
The bottom line is, 5 Turnovers is gonna' cost a team a game.

In the 3rd Q', with a 10-3 deficit sliced to 4 points following an Adam Vinatieri Field Goal, New England was moving the ball downfield with precision. But, alas, it was just not to be. While on the Denver 5, Brady threw a pass to WR Troy Brown. Stud cover-corner Champ Bailey stepped in front of the receiver, said "I'll take that thank-you," and raced upfield. While slowing down around his OWN 5... either because he was out of gas or because he thought the 6' was assured, Bailey became careless and got De-cleated, creamed, and crushed by big Pat' TE Ben Watson. The ball flew from Champ's hands, Champ's head nearly flew from Champ's body... and suddenly, tension filled the air. If the ball crossed over the stripe or pylon into the End-Zone... and THEN went out of bounds- the ball would be given back to the Patriots as a Touchback. Getting the rock on your 20 yard-line is far more preferable to seeing your opponent go up by another 6 points. But alas, again it was not to be. Although several armchair analysts have said the TV view was "inconclusive"... it looked pretty conclusive to me. The ball went out of bounds somewhere inside the 5, close to the 3 Yardline. The officials awarded Denver the ball on the 1, and RB Mike Anderson hammered his way into the End-Zone for his second score. And really, that was the straw that broke the Pat' dynasty. It was a great play made by CB Champ Bailey on a poorly advised pass by QB Tom Brady, and TE Ben Watson showed tremendous heart and hustle by taking the proper angle to get a shot in on Bailey. Not to hurt him, Watson attempted to do what he nearly did... force the turnover and prevent a crushing score.
As an aside but not an excuse, it did appear that the thin air of Mile High affected the Patriots. Brady's accuracy was well off, New England's Wideouts and Running Backs appeared to be wiped, and the respective lines lacked their usual punch and drive. Without doubt, Denver's Home Field advantage is about more than mere crowd noise.

Bronco QB Jake Plummer was effective, throwing for a hair under 200 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT. The "Snake" was able to keep the thin Pat' D back on its heels and allow the run game to succeed. With venerable WR Rod Smith running impeccable routes (6/96/1), young WR Ashley Lelie making it impossible to doub' up on Smith (5/50), and TE Jeb Putzier (3/37) helping to keep the chains moving with a trio of fearless receptions, the pass rendered the run game efficient but not deadly.New England was out of its collective element, and the Denver O-Line and Bronco-back' Marine Mike Anderson were able impose their will upon them; "MM" saluted the Mile High crowd twice, taking 19 carries 69 yards for 2 TDs.
As he has been all season long, Plummer was neither spectacular nor horrendous; Plummer just... was.

Next week, Denver has the ahh, "honor" of facing the surging Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. This should be quite a game. Preview to follow mid-week


PITTSBURGH STEELERS AT INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
If there was a "lock" pick this week and indeed this season, Indy' was it. I went to Brooklyn for dinner with my cousins on Friday evening we made the rounds of some of the bars in Brooklyn, and later Manhattan. Everywhere we went, people were talking about how Peyton and his people were due... how it almost wasn't fair to the Steelers to have to play the Colts... how the boys were gonna' do it for Dungy.
Let me be the first to tell you if you didn't get to watch the game; while the final 3 minutes were exciting... here's yet another example of the 21-18 final score being closer than the game itself. Was the game exciting? You bet. Was the game a nail-biter? At times, sure. Was the game a "classic?" Probably, due to the fact that Pittsburgh gave Indy' every opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. But when all was said and done, Indy' actually snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and they have no one to blame but themselves... and quite arguably, their coach.
The Colts entered the Post-Season on a down-swing. With week 15 and 16 losses to the San Diego Chargers and Seattle Seahawks respectively, the Colts concluded the regular season by out-pointing the feeble Cardinals by the margin of a Field Goal (16-13). Further, with the tragic suicide of coach Tony Dungy's son James weighing heavily upon the team... perhaps Indy's focus was lacking. Whatever the case, even the Officials gave the Colts every opportunity to win... yet, they couldn't capitalize. The "Zebras" made several curious, at best, calls... none worse or more glaring than Troy Polamalu's "non-Interception," however. Briefly, with 5 minutes and change remaining in the 4th and the score 21-10 Pitt', the 2nd year "Hairy-Human-Heat-Seeking-Missile" made a diving INT right around mid-field. Replays clearly showed the Safety making the catch and demonstrating possession of the ball. He then rolled over, took a couple of steps, and inadvertently jarred the ball loose with his knee as he tried to advance the play forward. Polamalu recovered his own fumble, but referee Pete Morelli claimed the Safety "never made the pick"... and the ball was given back to Indy' on the Steeler 48 Yard-line. The decision was outrageous and has already prompted conspiracy theories. Whatever the case, these referees are supposed to be the best the NFL has to offer. If Morelli represents the "best"... then the league has serious issues as that wasn't the only "curious" call of the day. However, I do NOT believe the officials conspired to give the game to the Colts.
Manning struggled for much of the game. His line seems attractive at 22/38 for 290 with a single TD, but Peyton frequently missed his receivers, his rhythm and timing were off, he took 5 Sacks, and most significantly... he looked a little bit like his brother when Eli and his Giants fell to the Carolina Panthers earlier in the Post-C', in the Wildcard round.
Peyton Manning, for the first time in recent memory, couldn't figure out a defense, Further, the Colt QB may STILL be "wearing" a "Troy Polamalu Overcoat." The Steeler Safety came at Manning from every angle; delayed blitzes, corner blitzes, lining up as a 'backer, dropping back into coverage... I could go on. The talented Steeler Safety frustrated Manning from the opening Quarter, and like a dog with his favorite bone, Polamalu didn't let go until he was forced to.
Colt RB Edgerrin James faced Pittsburgh twice this season, the Divisional Playoff game being the 2nd time. When the two teams last met in Week 12, Edge' rumbled for 124 yards... that was the ONLY game in which the Steelers allowed a back to eclipse the century mark. This weekend, the Steelers closed the lights on the Colt rushing game; James ran for 56 yards and a touch' on 13 totes. Due to the fact that the Colts were losing so badly, they were forced to deviate from their usual game plan and pass far more than they would've liked. Oddly enough, WR Marvelous Marvin was not so marvelous. The Canton-bound pass catcher caught 3 balls for 52 yards and towards the end of the game, when his team was driving, it was the cameras that caught Harrison... they caught him sulking. With the team driving... one could consider that Harrison was mulling his own Football mortality. Marvin, for so long the penultimate Colt receiver, was clearly outplayed by the younger Indy pass catcher, Reggie Wayne. Wayne will, no doubt, be Peyton's #1 next season. During this game Reggie snared 7 for 97, and with TE Dallas Clark (4/84/1) finding the soft spots in the coverage... Manning had no need to try and find his former mate. It happens to all great "catch and throw" combos. At some point, one of the 2 ages. I've been saying it all year in much the same way I've been saying it about Packer QB Brett Favre; this IS Harrison's last season as a "great" Colt pass catcher.

But back to the game. Last week, Steeler QB Ben Roethlisberger surprised fans with a rock solid Wild-Card game, throwing for 208 yards and a trio of TDs on 14 completions. This week, Big Ben proved that he's an "elite" talent as he reeled off another 197 yards, with 2 TDs and 1 pick. The burly Pitt' line sheltered him as he took but 2 Sacks, and Roethlisberger really benefited from the strong running of both Jerome Bettis (17/46/1) and "Fast Willie" Parker (78 total yards).

But there was a final act left to be played in the Colt "Tragi-Comedy." With 1:20 left in regulation (I am abridging here), the score 21-18 Pittsburgh, and the ball on the Colt 5' ... Steeler coach Bill Cowher felt that his team needed to score in order to prevent the Colts from marching upfield and winning by virtue of a typical Manning 2-minute (or less) TD drive. 99.9% of the time, RB Jerome Bettis is fumble-proof; placing the mail in Bettis' hands is tantamount to putting it into an armored car, This time, though, Colt LB Gary Brackett put his helmet right on the rock, and the ball flew from Bettis' arms. CB Nick Harper scooped the loose ball up and was off to the races. And then, well, in a game chock-full of oddities came the oddest of odd; QB Ben Roethlisberger had been backing up as he handed the ball off to Bettis. Given his position, the Steeler QB was able to race back and save the game with an arm-tackle on Harper at the Colt 42. Manning attempted to drive his team upfield... and you've gotta' figure that at the very least, the Colts would tie the game up and send into OT. Uh-uh, what'd I say about odd? On 3rd and 2, the Colt QB threw the ball to WR Reggie Wayne... for what would've been a TD, had he actually caught the ball. Instead of going for 10 more yards and putting K Mike Vanderjagt into better field position, Manning went for all the marbles. The scary-accurate Kicker... a Kicker who hadn't missed a boot at Home ALL season, missed the 46 yarder. It was certainly no chip-shot, and coach Tony Dungy's decision to execute such a play is inexplicable. Perhaps, as he did earlier on a crucial 4th down play where he waved off the kicking unit that Dungy sent on, QB Peyton Manning made the decision.

If so... if Manning made the decision to throw a low percentage TD pass to Reggie Wayne instead of putting the team into position for Over-Time, what does that say about the control Dungy has over his team? Who's coaching the team? Dungy or Manning?

Either way... it was game over, Steelers win. And you know what? This season HAS to be considered a waste for a team that, at one point, was being compared to the legendary Dolphin and Bear teams of yore. Much like the Yankees... where the regular season is merely a tune-up for the Second-Season, the Colts were a HUGE disappointment. And, it will be interesting to see who comes back. I'll bet you this, Kicker Mike Vanderjagt's career in a Colt Uni' is over... through no fault of his own. I'll also tell you this; right or wrong, Manning should NOT have thrown his Offensive Line under the bus when he stated that "he didn't want to point any fingers or place any blame, but we had protection issues."
He was right on that score... he was running for his life, and both LB Joey Porter and S Troy Polamalu will be stalking his dreams for the next 3-6 weeks. But, a team is a team. Except, perhaps, if it's Manning's team.

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