Friday, January 18, 2008

NFL Divisional Playoffs - the Velvet Bear

Well, it’s a good job we had Superbowl XLI-andahalf back in November, because Superbowl XLII won’t be between the Patriots and the Colts.

In the surprise of the weekend, the Chargers overcame Indianapolis in Indianapolis by 28-24 and now go through to the AFC Championship game. It was quite some achievement by San Diego. They started the game with a half-fit Antionio Gates, who dislocated his toe last weekend. They lost star running back LJ Tomlinson with a knee injury less than halfway through the game. Then, to cap it all, quarterback Philip Rivers also picked up a knee injury.

The key to the Chargers’ success was just how well their back-ups performed. Michael Turner and Damien Sproules replaced Tomlinson and took it in turn to batter holes in the Colts’ defense. In fact, Rivers was injured throwing a short pass to Sproules, who then ran 53 yards for a touchdown. Even more remarkable was the play of backup QB Billy Volek, who had been so unreliable all year that he had only been on the field for ten plays in the entire season. What is more, he even threw an interception on his first series of plays, yet still came back to drive the team to victory, with a long, accurate, pass to Cris Chambers and then a one yard run of his own for the touchdown, thus completing the second most remarkable comeback of the weekend (we’ll get to the most remarkable one later).

The Colts themselves did little wrong. Peyton had two good passes bounce off the hands of receivers and into the waiting arms of Chargers players, but he also completed a sublime pass to tight end Dallas Clark for the game’s opening score, Clark spinning on his heel to shake off the last defender before running the ball home.

In retrospect, the Colts’ biggest mistake was probably to activate Marvin Harrison for this game. Harrison is a legend, one of the all time great wide receivers, another one who is a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame in due course. But you will notice that I haven’t mentioned him at all this season. That’s because he has been injured for half of it. And boy, did he play like a man who hasn’t been in a game for months. He only caught two passes all day and at least twice dropped catches which should’ve led to touchdowns. He clearly wasn’t ready for the game, no matter what Tony Dungy and his coaching staff felt.

The other surprise – although less of one – came in the NFC, where the Giants beat the Cowboys 21-17 in Texas Stadium. This really was a contest to find who had the least flaky quarterback. Eli Manning’s run of good, actually-I-really-can-play-like-a-franchise-quarterback form continues. Unfortunately for Dallas, so did Tony Romo’s run of I-don’t-want-to-do-this-I-have-a-sore-thumb-and-anyway-it’s-my-turn-to-have-sex-with-Jessica-Simpson form.

Basically, Romo had a stinker of a game. He completed on only 50% of his passes and never looked like the player he was, well, before he began dating Miss Simpson. At one point, he totally lost his cool with his offensive line in general and center Andre Gourode in particular – in the middle of a play. It is easy – and somewhat lazy – to draw parallels like that, but it is very coincidental that his play began going downhill the moment their relationship came to light and games like this will only further the cause of those who want to make such comparisons.

The game ended when the Cowboys, with only one timeout left and only 1.47 minutes on the clock, bizarrely went for two running plays and gained very few yards indeed. Romo then finally went for a pass, only to chuck the ball straight down the throat of the Giants’ replacement cornerback RW McQuarters. Game over. The Cowboys will forever wonder just how good this season could’ve been.

Most people had the Cowboys down as the only side who could beat the Patriots come February 3rd. If that is the case it should be a stroll for New England from now on. On Saturday night they took apart the Jacksonville Jaguars with such clinical precision, it was almost breathtaking. Jacksonville did everything, I mean everything, right. They played Randy Moss out of the game. They shut down the secondary (the deep part of the field, basically). They forced Tom Brady to throw short passes. They squeezed Laurence Moroney as he tried to run through the line of scrimmage. What did they get in return? Brady setting an NFL record for one game, by completing over 92% of his passes. Only twice did the ball go to ground, and one of those was when Wes Welker dropped a catch so simple, even Monty Panesar could’ve taken it.

I still can’t love the Patriots, but they are an awesome side to watch. I can’t see the Chargers having a prayer against them on Saturday, not unless they can get Gates, Rivers and particularly Tomlinson fit. Even then, the Patriots will have had one more day off between matches.

As an aside, 31 coaches across the NFL will be choking on their morning coffee when the league announces the Draft order for this year. The Draft is when the 32 NFL sides recruit the best college players of each year and I’ll be writing about it in much more detail nearer the time. The order in which teams pick is the reverse order in which they finish this season, with the worst team – the Dolphins, in other words – having the first pick and the Superbowl winners the 32nd.

This year, the Patriots lost their first round pick (there are seven rounds) as part of their punishment for spying on the Jets. Except that one of the ways teams trade players – there being no transfer market like in other sports – is by swapping or handing over draft picks. And, as a result of a trade made two years ago, the Patriots will have the seventh pick in the first round of the 2008 Draft. That’s right, they get the 7th best new player to enter the league. Quite where they will put him is anyone’s guess.

The final playoff game featured one of the best examples of a master demonstrating his art to his pupil that you will ever see. It also featured one of the gutsiest comeback performances that you will ever see.

Seattle Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck spent three years as Brett Favre’s understudy in Green Bay before moving to the west coast. Since then, he’s been in a losing Superbowl, been hailed as one of the best quarterbacks of his generation and almost been killed by a falling television camera. On Saturday evening, in Wisconsin, in a blizzard, Favre showed just how much he still has to learn. From the Packers’ first eight possessions, they scored touchdowns on 6. All of those six featured Favre leading them down the field from deep inside their own half. Strangely, though, it was what happened on the first two possessions that was interesting.

The Seahawks kicked off, so the Packers began with the ball. Favre passed to running back Ryan Grant, who promptly dropped the ball into the hands of a waiting Seahawk. One play later and Seattle were 7-0 up.

Green Bay again got the ball from the kick off. Favre entrusted the ball to Grant again, who this time had it stripped from his grasp. Seattle recovered the fumble, moved back up the field and went 14-0 up.

Cue Favre, as the ‘Hawks were kept to just two field goals in the rest of the match. Cue a 42-20 win for Green Bay. But also cue Ryan Grant, who came back from his disastrous opening to run for over 200 yards and score a hat-trick of tries. It was a formidable display, which overshadowed his Seahawk rival Shaun Alexander (another future Hall of Famer) – Alexander managed only 20 yards all game. Top marks to Grant for putting the early troubles behind him, but also to the Packers’ coaching staff for trusting him despite all that had gone before.

This weekend sees the Chargers visit the Patriots on Saturday and the Giants go to Green Bay on Sunday. And then the Superbowl hype can begin.

Not much other news this week, but:

- Word on the street is that both Seahawks’ coach Mike Holmgren and the Colts’ Tony Dungy are considering their futures now that their season is over. Dungy’s son has just enrolled in a high school in Texas, which is being taken as a sign that the first black coach ever to win a Superbowl may be about to step down. Holmgren goes through this ‘stay or go’ ritual every season, it seems, but rumour has it that this time, he is seriously thinking about moving on;

- The Packers have a safety named Atari Begby. Apparently his grandmother named him that. I’m wondering if he has brothers called Sinclair, Commodore and Oric;

- The Falcons have hired a new general manager (think ‘director of football’) without even meeting him. Thomas Dimitroff’s interview with owner Arthur Blank was conducted over a satellite link and apparently got him the role over the interviewees Blank did deign to meet.


guitougoal said...

I hate to see the Green Bay fackers
going through just because Andrewn hate them. I hate to see Andrewn down and this Favre or Fabre doesn't inspire me either, even with his french name.

offside in the endzone said...

Saw the highlights of the Packers game in the snow from the comfort of my tropical retreat and shivered.

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