First, the music:
Well this was an epic game. I've heard it mentioned several times as an "Instant Classic" and I can't say that I disagree. We had 4 lead changes in the final 5 minutes I believe and the 49ers added "The Catch: Pt. III" to their storied history.
Let's start with the 49ers. Their defense had to show up big and they did. It wasn't a great statistical performance, but they took advantage every time the Saints put the ball on the ground. They covered just well enough to keep the Saints contained and got after Drew Brees just enough to keep him uneasy.
Offensively, the 49ers stepped up when they had to. If you had told me before the game that Alex Smith would attempt 42 passes while Frank Gore carried only 13 times, I would have laughed and asked you "when did the 49ers get Cam Cameron?" I would have assumed that the Saints blew out the 49ers...but they didn't. Alex Smith and Vernon Davis had a coming out party on the national stage which propelled the 49ers to victory.
And I think this only further solidifies John Harbaugh as the Coach of the Year. Much of this team's talent was already in place the last several seasons, but he has absolutely brought it out this year.
The 49ers are probably the most truly balanced team remaining in this postseason as long as Alex Smith keeps up this level of play. That o-line can be downright nasty (when Anthony Davis isn't letting blitzers come free on the edge) and they have the best defensive front 7 in the sport right now.
Now they get a home game against the Giants. This is going to be a good one. The Giants are rolling and the first meeting between these teams was a great game. I expect nothing less coming up this week.
As for the Saints...turnovers. Turnovers absolutely killed the Saints. You can't be -4 in the turnover battle and expect to win, though they kept it tighter than most teams would in that situation.
Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles make this offense absolutely unstoppable when it gets rolling. It makes me think they won't really pay too much to keep Colston and Meachem if those guys are offered huge deals on the open market. The receivers are mostly interchangeable, but Sproles and Graham are matchup nightmares that make everyone else's job easier on the offense.
Defensively...not a great day. They are a defense predicated on bending but not breaking, sending blitzers, and forcing turnovers. Towards the end of the game, they badly broke several times and definitely lost the turnover battle on the day.
The Saints have a lot of issues to contend with this upcoming offseason, not the least of which is Drew Brees. He'll almost certainly be franchised while they work out a new deal, but that will likely prevent them from being as competitive in bringing back the WRs mentioned earlier and Carl Nicks. Also, it sounds like DC Gregg Williams is almost certainly out, so that situation will need to be addressed.
Finally...the Tebow talk will end for this season. That took far too long and got far too out of control.
The guy simply is not an NFL QB and if the Broncos are wise, they'll line up a quality backup QB "just in case." (Aka, someone who isn't Brady Quinn.) This is simply not an offensive system you can justifiably commit to in the modern NFL. When teams got 2nd cracks at Tebow this season, they played him far tougher, most notably are the KC game and this playoff game. The Pats defense was fully prepared to stop Tebow and did so beautifully. The option plays were completely snuffed out and in the relatively few instances where Tebow snuck out of the pocket, the Patriots stayed disciplined in the secondary and didn't allow the big plays that doomed Pittsburgh last week.
At the end of the day, Tim Tebow is a fullback playing QB. His release remains a major issue, not just for having the ball knocked out, but for allowing defenders to knock down his passes. The Pats deflected 6 of his passes yesterday. When the defenders see that Tebow is beginning his windup, they may not always be able to get to him, but it does give them that split second to throw their hands up and bat it down.
Additionally, his accuracy simply is not there. Blame what you will on dropped passes and whatnot, the Tebow apologists always will, but the guy does not make it easy on his receivers.
Even more additionally, the apologists will talk about how Tebow will now have a full blown offseason to try and improve. "Improve what?" I ask. His release is locked in by the literally tens of thousands of passes he has thrown in games and practices since high school. You aren't going to change that. There is not one instance I can think of where a QBs release was drastically altered and the QB went on to have success, and if there is one, it is most certainly an exception to the rule. He can't read defenses and his pocket presence is completely non-existent. Not an NFL QB and not things that, even in a million offseasons, can be improved enough to make him a competent NFL QB.
And while he will have an offseason to "improve," so will opposing defenses. I trust the defensive minds of this league to study the tape and find the same weaknesses the Chiefs and Pats did in their 2nd go arounds with the Tebow offense.
Beyond Tebow, the Broncos do not have a playoff contending defense. Von Miller is a nice piece, but outside of him, the team seems to have very little. While multiple teams made this post season with awful defenses, only the Patriots now remain. Having at least an average defense is still key to championship caliber success in the NFL. Aside from getting a "backup" (successor) to Tebow, they need to go all out in finding more/better defensive upgrades.
That felt good...now onto the Patriots. They've finally broken out of their playoff slump and look as dangerous as ever.
Brady was machine like in his destruction the Broncos defense. There is no good answer for how to shut down Gronk...you can only hope to minimize the damage. And leave it to the Pats to come up with an answer to their rushing woes by handing it to Aaron Hernandez. That's actually a brilliant move on their part. They trap the defense in their nickel or dime with two TEs on the field, and then hand off to Hernandez who is just so much bigger and stronger than the extra DBs the opposing defense is stuck with.
Defensively, they had a fantastic anti-Tebow game plan. They completely snuffed out the option and forced negative play after negative play. Absolutely brilliant.
Now, how will that defense fair against a less completely idiotic offensive scheme? (If you can call something involving Cam Cameron less idiotic...) We'll see...the Patriots best friend this week might very well be Cam Cameron. (More on him later...)
The Texans just couldn't overcome the mistakes in this one. Arian Foster was brilliant, as was Andre Johnson. And the defense was great. Take away the Jacoby Jones fumble giving the Ravens a free red zone possession and the Texans probably win this one.
If they had a healthy Matt Schaub, I truly think they would be the best, most well-rounded team in the playoffs. They are capable of running the ball, passing the ball and playing great defense. They also probably have the best o-line in football to boot. (No sacks and only 2 hits on a rookie QB yesterday? Brilliant.) But you're only going so far with a 3rd string rookie QB...which is unfortunate.
I think the Texans will absolutely be back next year barring more injuries. The core players of this team will be in tact and hopefully healthy, making them a serious threat in my mind. JJ Watt and Brooks Reed also looked fantastic, likely making Mario Williams expendable.
As for the Ravens...you won, THIS time. Defensively, Tom Brady is no TJ Yates. And the Ravens pass rush absolutely has to show up. If Brady has the time TJ Yates got (0 sacks, 2 QB hits) then this is going to be a long, long LONG day for the Ravens defensively.
And on offense, there is the Cam Cameron factor. One series towards the end of the game epitomized what I hate about him. He chose to throw twice, both incomplete passes, allowing the Texans to save both time AND their timeouts. If both of those were simply runs up the middle, the Texans would either have lost at least a minute off the game clock or had to use their timeouts. He got bailed out because TJ Yates couldn't help but unleash the dragon, but had the Texans just methodically drove down the field against that soft prevent the Ravens defense was running, things could have been very, very different.
The Ravens also cannot afford Joe Flacco 50% completion days or Ray Rice getting less than 3.0 ypc. If that happens again next week, no matter how well your defense plays, the Ravens are going to find themselves behind New England and struggling to catch up.
The Ravens are the team I feel least confident/comfortable with remaining in the playoffs. I just feel like a New England beat-down of them is in the works for next week...
Crowned as Superbowl champs in the regular season, mentioned as a G.O.A.T team, Rodgers mentioned as having a G.O.A.T season...pfft. The Giants did not give a ****. This core group once faced down an undefeated Patriots team after going on a road run in the playoffs and didn't back down. They weren't scared of the Packers.
If you take away TDs on drives where the Packers were bailed out by horrible, horrible calls by the officials (more on that later,) the Packers scored all of 6 points on their own. I truly think that the football gods looked at that fumble and decided to make up for it by allowing the Giants to score that hail mary TD at the end of the first half.
The Packers looked cold and sluggish on both sides of the ball. The Giants had their way with that defense. They couldn't cover, they couldn't get pressure and they badly lost the turnover battle. Even the supposedly good players in the secondary like Woodson and Williams were getting toasted left and right. The Giants simply moved the ball with ease.
On offense, the drops killed the Packers. But Rodgers had his off moments too, simply missing on passes that he otherwise made all season long. He also led the team in rushing, which is always a bad sign for an offense. Ryan Grant and James Starks both had one fairly long run each, but if you take those away, they had sub-par days overall.
And unlike the Packers, the Giants defense was disruptive all day long. They forced fumbles and got into the backfield plenty. The only reason this day wasn't worse for the Packers was because of Rodgers ability to scramble away from the pressure. Even then, the Giants cornered him for 4 sacks and 5 QB hits...and horrible call penalty that extended a drive late.
The Giants look awfully dangerous moving forward. Perry Fewell finally wised up (it only took him like 14 weeks...) and got more aggressive. I was watching and saw the Giants rushing at least 4 guys the vast majority of the time. They manned up defensively and choked the Packers out.
On offense, Eli is playing like the top 5 QB I've been saying since the preseason that he is. (Alright, I had him 6th/7th before Peyton sat out the year and Rivers decided to suck.) But still, I was one of the few non-Giants fans who seemed to feel that he was even that good. And he's so clutch...I don't know how many 3rd and longs he converted yesterday, but it seemed like every time they faced that situation, Eli threw a strike to keep the drive alive. I LOVE QBs who can do that.
Throw in those WRs and their ability to run the ball just well enough to maintain some balance, and this is easily the most dangerous team left in the playoffs.
Like I said earlier, I'm eagerly awaiting the Giants/49ers battle. Should be a great, great game.
5.) Horrible Officiating
The Giants/Packers game had two of the worst officiating blunders I've ever seen. It was right on par, if not worse than, the Seahawks/Steelers Superbowl a few years back.
And what do those have in common? Why, Bill Leavy as the referee of course!
Anyone with a pair of working eyes knows that was a fumble. Everyone except Bill Leavy apparently. Even Mike Periera came onto Fox and said that he thought it should be a fumble. And that Roughing the QB...come the **** on. It was a full blown chest/shoulder tackle. If there was any helmet contact at all, it was very slight and a result of Rodgers helmet bumping the defenders AFTER the initial impact of the hit.
What a joke...how this guy has a job, much less is officiating playoff games which are supposed to be rewards for the officials who have good years, is beyond me.
And this brings me to another point: Why in the bloody hell are officials not full time employees of the NFL? PFT points out some arguments in favor of this here:
To sum up a few of the points as well as add some of my own, the league basically hasn't done it already because it would cost more money.
Right now, all of the NFL officials are part-timers. They have regular day jobs and officiate NFL games on the side.
I say **** that. The NFL, in TV money alone, is worth BILLIONS WITH A ******* "B" of dollars... Use some of that to help reduce errors!
With officiating being only a side job for these guys, they can't focus on it year round. If they are made full time employees, they can spend the offseasons reviewing tape and really getting into the nitty gritty of the rulebook.
Even if it results in just a few more correct rulings each week, it is well worth it.
I think less of a deal will be made of this since the Giants still won yesterday, but if that non-fumble fumble and roughing call helped the Packers to victory, I think there would be a serious **** storm in the media today.
6.) Defense STILL Wins Championships
Well, only one of the 4 teams who entered the playoffs with what I'd call "abysmal" defenses remains. The Pats, Packers, Saints and Lions couldn't stop a Pop Warner offense most weeks and all but the Pats have met their end. (The Giants statistically had a low ranking defense, but over the past 4 weeks they've allowed 14, 14, 0 and 6 points not counting the safety or drives extended by horrific officiating blunders, so they're peaking at the right time and have always had more raw talent than those other defenses.)
And even the Patriots had a great defensive showing this past weekend, scheming perfectly to stop Tebow.
So what does this tell us? Well, you still need an adequate defense to win championships. Come playoff time, you're typically facing a string of elite teams all in a row. There are no more garbage teams like the Colts or Bucs or Vikings on the schedule to beat on between playing tougher teams.
And you can't beat truly good teams solely on offense. The 49ers/Saints is a great example of this. The 49ers defense slowed down the Saints offense just enough for the 49ers offense to get a lead.
I think most people (idiot casual fans and the media) have this idea in their head that in order for the statement "defenses win championships" to be true, the team needs to have an 85 Bears or 2000 Ravens defense. Not true.
It simply must be above average on the day of the playoff game to count, and this weekend, each defense was.
Along that same vein is running the ball. You don't need to have a 2000 yard rusher who gets the ball 35 times a game to count towards this, you just need to strive for a little balance and get a few key rushes in big spots. The Giants did this. The 49ers did this. Hell, even the Ravens did a little bit (Rice still got a good amount of carries, they just weren't going for much.)
At the end of the day, you need 3 things to win a championship in the NFL:
A.) A good QB
B.) Balance on offense and the ability to rush when you have to
C.) A defense that doesn't melt vs. every team it faces
It doesn't seem like much to ask for, but it's harder than it looks to put those 3 elements together at once.
7.) This is the league of the Tight End.
Good god were there some epic TE performances this weekend. Vernon Davis - 7 for 180, 2 TD, Jimmy Graham - 5 for 103, 2 TD, Rob Gronkowski - 10 for 145 and 3 TD.
And even though they weren't nearly as epic, even the Ravens and Giants get contributions for their TEs.
There has never been a better time for the TE position in the NFL. Most of these guys play like receivers in giant bodies. But everyone mentioned here is also a willing blocker, which only adds to the devastation they can cause to an opposing defense. Instead of needing to come off the field to be replaced with a better blocker, the guy can stay in as the team switches gears to running the ball.
And the mismatch nightmares...so many. Do you put a LB on someone like Gronk or Graham? Probably too slow. A safety? Probably too small and not physical enough. A nickel cornerback? Forget about it.
If you want to be a competitive team in today's NFL, you better damn well have a quality TE.
And **** you Mike Martz for making us get rid of Greg Olsen.
8.) Reader Question
This one comes from Hockey619:
Originally Posted by hockey619
4 teams left, only one is a team that is really leaning on its passing. and they really havent been tested yet, they only had a scrimmage against a very overmatched opponent from the worst division in football. the rest all at least try (giants) to lean on the run (as long as cam cam keeps his **** together).
so what did we all learn this weekend folks? running and defense still get it done when it matters. suck it bill polian.
Also: i said a while back that needing an elite qb may be a thing of the past because playing QB is becoming so much easier, a solid qb who can keep his cool is all youll really need. case in point: alex smith. 3 of the 4 qbs have never really been considered elite, with eli being on that edge and brady being a beast. so what else did we learn? Great TEAMS are what get wins in the playoffs, not great QBs.
Well, I already touched on the first part in the #6 above. Running the ball and playing defense, even if you aren't doing it at a great level, are still required to win in the modern NFL.
As to the 2nd part, I disagree. I actually think it's MORE important than ever to have an elite QB. It's easier to play now that ever before, but having an elite QB is the most surefire way to have consistent success.
If you have that Tom Brady, or Drew Brees, or Aaron Rodgers, or even an Eli Manning or healthy Ben Roethlisberger, you're a team who is going to make the playoffs. A LOT would have to go wrong for you to miss out with a guy of that caliber under center.
Having a guy like that is like having a free ticket to the playoffs every year. After that is when the other things start to become important. Once you are in the post season, you have to stay balanced on offense and your defense has to show up.
The Colts made the playoffs for a decade with Peyton Manning...and came away with one Superbowl win. Why? Because they were too reliant on Peyton to carry the team. Good opposing defenses shut down the finesse offense and they Colts couldn't run the ball consistently enough to force the defense into easing up on the coverage. And defensively, they couldn't stop the run. It's hard for Peyton to win you a game sitting on the bench while the other team runs up and down the field against your defense.
As with all things in the NFL, balance is key. All of the rules aimed to boost the passing game have made having a good QB more invaluable than ever. You can get by without a truly great player at the position, as the 49ers and Ravens have demonstrated by getting this far this year, but it's so much better to have a truly great QB to lean on in a pinch.
But your run game and defense must be there to help out. And in the case of each of the remaining teams, the run game and defense showed up this most recent week to help out.