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The Good, Bad and the Ugly: Divisional Round
NORTH CAROLINA — The playoffs continue to be filled with upsets. The Ravens made us “forget the Titans”, while the “Cards” were stacked against the Panthers.
Let’s take a look at another wild and crazy weekend in the NFL, in the good, the bad and the ugly from this past week.
Cardinals: Arizona shocked the football world once again, this time by destroying the heavily favored and “overrated” Panthers 33-13. No Anquan Boldin — no problem — especially when you have a receiver like Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, along with Kurt Warner, the Arizona running game and the “playing with a chip on their shoulder” Cardinals defense, tamed Carolina early and kept them in a cage for the entire game, en route to their first appearance in a conference championship game in franchise history.
Ravens: Baltimore continued to keep things simple in beating the Titans 13-10. The Ravens used a “bend but don’t break” defense that allowed yards to the Tennessee from the 20-yard line to 20 yard line, but came up big inside the red zone with turnovers that proved to be the difference in the game. What makes the victory so amazingly special for the Ravens was the fact Joe Flacco completed only 50 percent of his passes and the offense only averaged 1.1 yards per carry on the ground. The Ravens look to use the same formula for success this weekend as they travel to Pittsburgh to face their division rivals for the third time this season.
Eagles: Philadelphia continues to play the kind of football that made them a pre-season Super Bowl favorite, with their 23-11 thrashing of the Giants at the Meadowlands. Donovan McNabb made enough plays on offense, and the defense completely shut down the Giants’ predictable offense, in moving on to their fifth conference championship game in eight years. Eli Manning probably thought Philly had 15 defensive players on the field on every drive the way they were flying around the field, flying to the ball and attacking New York’s offense in the game. Manning struggled and looked confused, throwing two interceptions and a lot of lame duck passes down the field. It was evident the Giants missed the 6-foot-5 Plaxico Burress, especially on third down when Manning was struggling to find a receiver that could get separation from the Eagles’ secondary, but it was also evident what the Giants wanted to do offensively, not to mention the horrible play calling by offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride in key situations — more on that later. The Eagles knew they didn’t have to contain or deal with the big and physical Burress, so they focused in on stopping the run and blitzing Manning as much as they could to confuse and frustrate him. It worked all day. The way the Eagles are controlling the ball on offense and dominating on defense, it could be at least two more games before Eagle fans get their wish and get rid of Andy Reid and McNabb.
Steelers: Pittsburgh was the only home team that took full advantage of the bye week and home field advantage this past weekend in the playoffs. After watching the Titans, Panthers and Giants lose at home to road teams, the Steelers used their home crowd and physical play on offense to beat up the Chargers, winning 35-24 in their divisional match up. Sure the defense did what they normally do, which is stop the run and pressure the quarterback, but it was their offense that was efficient and dominant against San Diego. After the Chargers scored in the first two minutes of the first quarter, the offense utilized a healthy Willie Parker to control the line of scrimmage and the time of possession. After a questionable call, by Steelers’ Head Coach Mike Tomlin, to attempt a fake punt, instead of punting the ball and the Chargers move the ball enough to kick a field goal and take a 10-7 lead. Pittsburgh would have physical dominance by their offensive line that would continue into the third quarter. With just over two minutes to go in the first half, the Steelers moved the ball down the field and finished with a Willie Parker touchdown run and a 14-10 half time lead. In the third quarter, the Steelers’ offensive line continued to push around the Chargers’ defense controlling the ball for all but 43 seconds of the third quarter, which ultimately sealed the fate of the Chargers and ended their season.
Ben Roethlisberger, who was questionable coming into the game because of a concussion in the final game of the season against the Browns, was solid and efficient, throwing for only 181 yards. He managed to throw for a touchdown and not turn the ball over. Willie Parker looked fresh and fast, rushing for 146 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns, but more importantly, the offensive line played well, opening holes for Parker and allowing only one sack in the game against the Chargers. A healthy and confident Steelers’ offensive, combined with the number one defense in the league (who played average in the game against the Chargers) will feel they need to play better and could mean bad news for the visiting Ravens.
Tennessee’s offense: The Titans picked the wrong time to have their worst game of the season. Numerous penalties, three turnovers and few big plays, were the reasons why the team, with the best record in football, lost at home to the Baltimore Ravens 13-10. The Titans controlled the ball, the time of possession and shut down the Ravens’ offense, but too many mistakes in the red zone proved to be too much to overcome for them to move on to the conference championship game. Now word comes out the team wants to keep Kerry Collins around for two more years as the starter, putting Vince Young on the bench and in limbo. Tennessee is dreaming if they think Collins can duplicate the type of play this year in the upcoming seasons, because he is old and immobile. You better believe defenses in the NFL will be better prepared to defend him when they know he will be the quarterback under center and not Vince Young. I am surprised Jeff Fisher and the Titan management would give up on a talent like Young and hand the keys to the team to a guy who proved he ultimately couldn’t handle success, pressure or win a Super Bowl.
San Diego’s defense:Well, as much as I want to blame Norv Turner for the Chargers losing to the Steelers, I can’t in good conscious do so. The Chargers defense were just out played physically and pushed around all day by Pittsburgh’s offense in their 35-24 loss. Philip Rivers threw for 300 yards and they moved the ball pretty good against the Steelers defense but they couldn’t stay on the field long enough to score points in particular in the third quarter to win the game. Anytime you run one play on offense for a total of 43 seconds in one quarter and that play turns out to be an interception, you can’t expect to win the game. It’s also tough to win a game when your best player (LaDainian Tomlinson) doesn’t play in the game due to injury. The Chargers are talented on offense but need help on defense especially on the defensive line. If Shawne Merriman can come back healthy and they can get another pass rusher, the Chargers should be a complete team and should be a Super Bowl contender next season unless Norv Turner coaches like the head coach that led them to a 4-8 start to this season rather than the coach that led them to winning five straight games to win their division and make the playoffs. By the way, this nonsense about trading Tomlinson is crazy and it would be even more insane if the Chargers were to trade their best player.
Panthers: I said it all year, and I am happy to say, I was right — Carolina was overrated! They have a washed up quarterback, an average defense and a coach who needs to step down and move on. I know they have two spectacular running backs and one of the best receivers in the league, but they lack imagination on offense and tenacity on defense. Since Mike Minter retired, the team from North Carolina has no real leaders on the team. The team looked unprepared for what the Cardinals wanted to do on offense and defense, and that’s a reflection of John Fox and his coaching. Can anyone tell me where Julius Peppers is, because he certainly was missing in the game on Saturday? The only surprise to me in their game against Arizona was that they were favored to win the game in the first place.
Giants: “Start spreading the news,” New York will not repeat as Super Bowl Champs, in fact they played more like “chumps”. Eli Manning threw for only 165 yards and threw two big interceptions en route to their’ 23-11 loss against the red hot Eagles. Defensively the Giants couldn’t contain McNabb as he kept numerous plays and drives alive and really frustrated Justin Tuck and the Giants’ front seven. The offense should be the main concern for the Giants, not only because they struggled to score touchdowns in this game, but also down the stretch of the regular season. Also the play calling was questionable in the game against the Eagles and could be an issue down the stretch of the season as well. One such situation in this game was a quarterback sneak by Eli on fourth down, which was bizarre considering Manning is horrible in that situation, and considering you have a 265-pound running back, who is physical enough to get the yardage needed and who was running the ball with some success up to that point in the game. I can’t imagine anyone hiring Kevin Gilbride as a head coach in this league but of course I couldn’t imagine anyone hiring Norv Turner either. New York fans and the mainstream media blamed Plaxico Burress for the early ending to their season, but Burress didn’t ask to be suspended, the Giants chose to do so, based on arrogantly thinking they can get to and win a Super Bowl without him. Now the rumor is they want him back on the team because of their failure in the playoffs. Well, the Giants better get ready to eat some 6-foot-5 inch crow, before they can even dream of having their best player back on the team and in uniform on the field next season.
Playoff breakdown (Conference Championships):
NFC: Philadelphia at Arizona
Key match up: The Eagles’ defense vs. The Cardinals’ defense. Both these teams have played exceptionally well on the defensive side of the ball, especially the Eagles, since they’ve needed to play well just to get into the playoffs. The Eagles’ exotic blitz packages have frustrated the Vikings and Giants so far and forced big turnovers, which led to their appearance in the conference championship game, while the Cardinals’ defense came up big in stopping two successful running teams in the Falcons and Panthers. The key to victory will be the defense that can stop the run, stop the offense on third down, and win the turnover battle.
AFC: Baltimore at Pittsburgh
Key match up: Joe Flacco vs. Ben Roethlisberger. These are two teams who like to do the same things to win football games. Both teams like to stop the run, run the football and play conservative on offense. The quarterback that limits his mistakes and is able to make big plays–in particular on third down–will win the game. Look for the Steelers to try and do something the Dolphins and Titans couldn’t, which is make Joe Flacco a part of the game, because so far, aside from a few plays in two games, he’s been allowed to just hand the ball off and throw a few times in key situations, and to his credit, he hasn’t made any mistakes; the Steelers’ defense will look to change that. The Ravens’ defense will look to punish “Big Ben”, shut down Willie Parker, and play the field position game, to put their offense on a short field to make it easy for them to score. This game will go down as the “whirlpool game,” because both teams will need to get in one after all the hard hitting that will take place in the game.
My top 15 teams after week 18:
1. Pittsburgh 2. Philadelphia 3. Arizona 4. Baltimore
5. Tennessee 6. N.Y.Giants 7. San Diego 8. Carolina
11. Miami 12. Minnesota
13. New England
Don’t forget to check out my show on blogtalkradio.com called “The Batchelor Pad,” which airs Monday through Friday 6pm-8pm EST. We discuss the world of sports from a social, economic and racial standpoint. Just go to the site and type “batchelor” in the search section.
And if you live in the Raleigh/Durham or surrounding areas, check out the “Falcons basketball coaches show” with head coach Lonnie Blow and myself every Wednesday at 7pm and Saturday at 12:30 pm on Time Warner Digital cable channel 102.
Until next week…….Stay positive, be safe and enjoy the games!