Wild Card Weekend: Sunday Evening Playoff Notes

The Game That Defense Forgot

NFL.com is already calling the Cards-Packers game an "instant classic."  Please.

It was fun to watch.  It was a lot of fun to watch, but nobody played defense until the final seconds.  I'm guessing the over/under for next week's Cardinals/Saints game might be the highest in Vegas history. 

An eye-popper by Kurt Warner29 of 33 for 375 yards and 5 touchdowns.  That's an 88% completion percentage.  I assure you the Packers will spend a lot of time at next year's training camp working on defending the bunch formation.  Arizona ran it left, ran it right and broke receivers free every single time.  Fox aired a shot of Dom Capers late in the 1st quarter and he already had his head in his hands.

And with that, the best NFC scoring defense outside of Dallas goes down in flames.  Green Bay gave up 503 passing yards to Ben Roethisberger on December 20th and 379 to Warner today.  The Cardinals only called 15 running plays.  The Steelers just 17.  (Jason Garrett, you may recall, was abused for calling 14.)  When the secondary is that porous, you're crazy not to attack it.   Warner didn't just attack it, he destroyed it.

One of These Teams is Not Like the Others

The NFL is a passing league these days, unless you are the Baltimore Ravens.  Look at the run/pass mixes for the playoff fields the past few years and you see that most contenders throw the ball between 55 and 66% of the time.  A "run-heavy" team like last year's Giants had an almost perfect 50/50 mix. 

The outlier was Baltimore, which ran 58% of the time.  The argument was that OC Cam Cameron was protecting rookie quarterback Joe Flacco with conservative game plans.  The formula worked, as the Ravens advanced to the AFC Championship game.

This year, Cameron took the training wheels off Flacco's bike and set out to make him the next Philip Rivers. (Cameron was Rivers' first OC in San Diego.)   The offense struggled mid-season, going through a five game stretch where it hit 20 points just once.  After a four interception loss at Green Bay on December 7, which dropped the Ravens to 6-6, Cameron put Flacco back on strict supervision.

Since then, the Ravens have been even more run heavy than they were in '08.  Flacco threw just 96 times in Baltimore's last four regular-season games, Cameron called 60% runs, 40% passes.  The Ravens went 3-1 and edged into the playoffs. 

Today, Baltimore attempted just 16 passes.  Flacco was nursing a bad hamstring and got an early lead, which let Cameron go even heavier with the run.  The play mix was 76% run, 24% pass.  Flacco's stats -- 4 of 10 for 34 yards.  This is the type of line Craig Morton would put up in 1970, or Bob Griese in the Dolphins glory days, when Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris and Jim Kiick played in his backfield. 

Somewhere, Earl Campbell and Bum Phillips are smiling.  The Ravens are again in the divisional round, showing that old school offense can still school the opposition.

The Ghost of Troy Aikman

Here's something eerie.  Three years ago, I wrote this:

The Beginning of the End?

The network broadcasts made a big deal about Tom Brady’s NFL best 12-1 playoff start. I ran Troy Aikman’s career through my mind and figured out he started out 11-1 in the big games. 3-0 in ‘92 and ‘93. 1-1 in ‘94 and 3-0 in ‘95. His guys crushed the Vikings in a ‘96 wildcard game to hit 11-1. He lost Michael Irvin in the first quarter against Carolina the following week and lost the divisional playoff game.

Cowboys fans assumed he would get many more chances, because he was only 30. Sadly, Troy would play in just two more playoff games and lost them both.

Brady is 29 and will be 30 before his next season starts. He’s a smart guy. He knows that when things fall apart, they can go quickly. I’m not predicting a similar career path for him, but this is why he and his teammates were so down Sunday night. You’re never guaranteed another shot.

-- Party Poopers, Blue & Silver Report, January 23, 2007

Three flips of the calendar later and the parallels between Aikman's and Brady's careers seem uncanny.  Both had earned three rings by the age of 30.  Then, their teams and their careers began to fray.  Aikman watched his offense get old, and then his back gave out.

Brady missed almost all of '08 with a knee injury.  He bounced back with a strong regular season, but he's not the same, fearsome, big-game hunter he used to be.

He was awful today.  Brady was responsible for three first quarter turnovers, each of which set up Baltimore inside the Pats' 25.  The Ravens turned those gifts into 17 points, and left the 1st with a 24-0 lead. 

In his last three playoff starts, going back to the '08 AFC Championship Game against San Diego, Brady has five touchdown passes and eight turnovers.  He's lost the last two contests. 

I wish no bad fortune on a player, especially one of the game's all-timers, but I wonder if Tom Brady is now well down that cursed career back-nine Troy Aikman had to walk?

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