First of all, let me tell you something that you already know. The ‘experts’ like myself have been exposed. If we weren’t exposed before this past weekend, we certainly have been now. There weren’t a whole lot of people who thought these four games would turn out the way they did. But, as the old saying goes, that’s what makes a horse race.
Giants Cut Down To Size: The number one seeds are both making tee times for today. We’ll get to the Titans in just a bit. First, though, the Giants go down at home to Philadelphia 23-11. The Eagles are taking a page out of New York’s book. Last year the Giants beat the Bucs on the road, and then went to Dallas to advance to the NFC Championship Game. Andy Reid’s Eagles took care of the Vikings in Minnesota and after beating the Giants on the road, are in a great position to make their second Super Bowl with Reid on the sidelines.
All of the credit has got to go to a very good Eagle defense. They run the same system that the Giants do (in fact, New York hired Steve Spagnuolo away from Philly because they wanted Jim Johnson’s system). It wasn’t that the Giants didn’t have their chances. They had plenty of chances. It was that the Eagles came up big time after time after time.
New York made just three of thirteen third down conversions. The Giants were just one-for-three on fourth down. Eli Manning threw two picks, and the Giants also lost a fumble.
The Eagle defense also managed to keep New York out of the end zone all afternoon long. The Giants had their opportunities inside the red zone but the Eagle defense wouldn’t break.
Philly’s offense didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Donovan McNabb had his first off game since he was benched right before Thanksgiving. Brian Westbrook gained just 36 yards on the ground (on eighteen carries). No Philly receiver had more than four catches on the day.
It’s not that the Eagles don’t have a good offense. They do. The offense just wasn’t able to crack New York’s own vaunted defense. If not for Philly’s defense, it would be the Giants moving on.
Instead, the Eagles live to play another day. Somewhere – maybe it’s in Dallas or Atlanta (his off-season home) – Terrell Owens is throing a hissy fit. And his old rivals, Reid and McNabb, are just a game away from the NFL’s version of Nirvana.
Steel Curtain Falls on Chargers: This was actually the one game I got right all weekend. Not only did I get it right, but I actually said I wouldn’t have been surprised by a blowout. If you think this is me just patting myself on the back, well you’re right. After losing the first three games of the weekend I’m happy to recover some of my lost dignity.
The Steelers dominated this game from the last two minutes of the second quarter on. The Steelers had the game won in the third quarter, when they allowed the Chargers just one offensive play. Okay, maybe they didn’t allow it, but they went on a nearly eight minute long drive and forced a couple of turnovers which kept San Diego’s off the field.
There was no need to be concerned with Ben Roethlisberger and the concussion he suffered a couple of weeks ago against Cleveland. He was efficient and played like the tough leader that he has always been. Of course, he had help from Willie Parker, who shredded San Diego’s defense to the tune of 146 yards and a couple of scores.
The Steeler defense was, if you listened to some of the experts during the week, supposed to have some trouble with San Diego’s Darren Sproles. Sure, Sproles looked like a world beater against the Colts and their undersized defense, but yesterday he looked like the guy who was LaDanian Tomlinson’s understudy. The Steelers swarmed him and held him to fifteen yards on eleven carries. Not quite the way Norv turner drew it up when they came up with the gameplan.
So, the Steelers dominate and move on while the Chargers have some more questions to answer.
A Titanic Plunge: Number one seeds aren’t supposed to be pushed like this. Not by a team with a rookie head coach, and certainly not by a team with a rookie quarterback. But give the Ravens credit. Saturday truly was their coming out party. There weren’t many who were shocked by the win in Miami a week ago. But, going into Tennessee and beating the Titans, well that would qualify as a stunner.
How did this happen? Well, a number of things combined to put Tennessee on the outside looking in. The Titans made a lot of mistakes. They turned the ball over three times. When you don’t protect the ball you have no one to blame but yourself.
The Titans also committed 12 penalties, and lost the time of possession battle by nearly ten minutes. And, let’s not forget injuries. Chris Johnson sitting on the sideline had a lot to do with making Jeff Fisher’s offense go from strong to pedestrian.
But, the Ravens deserve their credit as well. When you play defense the way they do you always have a chance. Ray Lewis may not be the player he was a few years ago, but he doesn’t have to be. Not with the players he has around him. And not with the mind that Rex Ryan has for creating havoc.
Then there’s Joe Flacco. There were a lot of people who knew Flacco had potential when the Ravens drafted him in the first round last April. What no one could have seen was the way he matured in his rookie season. Matt Ryan (Matty Ice) has gotten all the pub, but Flacco (Joe Cool) is the one still playing. No rookie QB has ever won two playoff games before. Flacco may not have eye popping stats, but he has a cannon for an arm, an understanding of Cam Cameron’s offense, command of the huddle, and most importantly, ice in his veins. To play under control the way he did in Tennessee was absolutely amazing.
And then there’s John Harbaugh. He was the surprise choice of the organization when they decided to part ways with Brian Billick. But, like Mike Smith in Atlanta, he turned out to be the right choice. The resume might not have knocked anyone’s socks off, but Harbaugh comes from a football family, is organized, and obviously has the stones to make the tough decisions (like going with Flacco as his starting QB in the first place).
Cards Deal Panthers A Bad Hand: This was the biggest upset of the weekend. The experts thought that Arizona would have problems without the injured Anquan Boldin. The experts thought Arizona would have problems playing on the East Coast (we all saw what the Jets, patriots and Eagles did to them when they made their cross country trips). The experts thought Carolina’s defense and running game would be more than enough in the cold weather. Uh, the experts (including me) were dead wrong.
Jake Delhomme has a reputation for being a guy who can manage an offense. He certainly didn’t manage it on Saturday night. Not by throwing five interceptions. He looked about as bad as a quarterback could look.
The Panthers also got away from what made them successful this season. The Panthers were not a team known for passing. They were known for running the ball. Where the run game went on Saturday is anyone’s guess. Sure, Arizona being up by such a large margin at halftime forced the Panthers to air it out. But, the Panthers never really attempted to establish the run in the first half. When you have D’Angelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield, you have two guys that can control possession of the football. The two were never allowed to get in a rhythm, and as a result, Carolina held the ball for just a little over twenty minutes. Arizona usually doesn’t hold the ball for nearly forty minutes, and when you give a guy like Kurt Warner that much time to play with, he will shred you.
Speaking of shredding, is there anyone on the Carolina roster that would like to cover Larry Fitzgerald? Without Bolding in the lineup, there should have been someone shadowing Fitzgerald’s every move. Don’t let him beat you. Let guys like Steve Breaston (a product of Todd Haley’s offense if there ever was one) beat you. Yet, Fitzgerald was allowed to roam free and roll up 166 yards in receiving, averaging nearly 21 yards per catch.
So now we’re down to the final four. Ravens-Steelers III for the AFC Championship. The improbable NFC title game matchup featuring the Eagles and Cardinals. Yep, just like we all had it when we made our predictions in August, right?
So, how will those games turn out next weekend? Those predictions will come later in the week. But, if the NFL proved anything this weekend, it’s that things don’t always go according to plan.