What divisional weekend lacked in drama, it made up in poignancy
Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis played a perfect game Sunday
Brett Favre's brilliant play only surpassed by Vikings defensive front
Bad news on the labor front, Lane Kiffin's a bum and 10 Things I Think
SAN DIEGO -- Poignant weekend in a lot of ways, with the Canton-great careers of Kurt Warner and Ed Reed maybe coming to an end with bad losses, with the ageless Brett Favre Blanda-ing his way to the NFC Championship game, and with the most accurate kicker in NFL history taking the apple not once but twice in a crushing three-point loss to this year's Cinderella. And tragically poignant in a life unfulfilled, with the stunning death of a good man, Chicago defensive end Gaines Adams.
The moment I liked most from the weekend happened Sunday night, in the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium, where Marty Schottenheimer had coached the Chargers for five seasons, and where he shockingly was fired after going 14-2 and losing an opening playoff game.
Marty's boy, Brian, the offensive coordinator of the Jets, had just done his part Sunday orchestrating an offense with a rookie quarterback and a rookie running back into an upset of the Chargers that left the locals just as deflated as they were in 2006. And as a light rain fell on this crumbling place, Brian took out his cell phone, dialed his dad's number, heard him say, "Hello,'' and son said to father: "Dad, this one's for you.''
There wasn't a lot of drama over the weekend in the four playoff games, but there's a lot of good stuff out there, in and around the NFL. Settle back, tell your boss you need a few minutes, and I hope I make this column worth your while.
A cornerback can't play much better than Darrelle Revis did Sunday.
"We've got a ton of respect for Revis,'' Philip Rivers told me Friday at the Chargers' training facility, "but we're not going to avoid him. We'll take some shots at him.''
Oh really? Rivers went back to pass 45 times (40 passes, two sacks, three runs after being chased from the pocket), and I charted Revis' coverage pattern on every one of Rivers' pass-drops. By my count, Rivers threw four passes into the zone where Revis had primary coverage, or to the man Revis was playing man-to-man. One was complete, to LaDainian Tomlinson, for a loss of four yards. One, to Legadu Naanee, was batted down by a diving Revis on a cross route. One, to Vincent Jackson, a deep pass up the left seam, was overthrown, with Revis and Jackson running stride for stride. And the fourth, to Jackson, was up for grabs between the two, with Revis coming down with a juggled ball for an interception in a spectacular play.
Four times Rivers went at Revis in 45 pass calls. One completion, for minus-four. One interception. You cannot play the position better than Revis played it Sunday. I don't care if you're Deion Sanders or Night Train Lane. Revis put on a clinic, a masterful display of clinging coverage and bump-and-run when the situation called for it.
"We were playing a lot of man coverage on his side regardless who the receiver was,'' Rex Ryan said, "and on the other side we were running some loaded zones and mixes and things like that. He had the tough guy most of the time.''
I told Revis the numbers in the tunnel after the game, just before he boarded the team buses for the airport. "I guess they gave me a lot of respect. It's my job, to cover guys, and I hope I do it pretty well.''
More than pretty well.
The Saints got better because their secondary got healthy.
There's the story of the black baseball bats being handed out at the Friday night team meeting with "Bring The Wood'' burned into them, and the re-signing of local hero Deuce McAllister. Nice stories. But the Saints clobbered Arizona in the first game of the weekend because Jabari Greer, their most athletic cornerback, is finally healthy after late-season hernia surgery, and bookend cornerback Tracy Porter feels fit after spraining his knee, and nickel back Randall Gay is healthy enough for the Saints to have a potent threesome at corner against a top quarterback like Kurt Warner, giving New Orleans a fighting chance to play shutdown coverage.
On the second series of the game, Gay brought the wood against Arizona receiver Jerheme Urban. After Tim Hightower of the Cards took the first snap of the game the distance for a crowd-silencing touchdown, it looked like a track meet was on when Urban subsequently rumbled downfield. But Gay chopped the ball out of his hands, Darren Sharper recovered, and the rout was on. New Orleans 45, Arizona 14.
"We do that drill first thing in practice every day,'' defensive coordinator Gregg Williams told me Saturday night. "We practice takeaways. It's our ball-disruption drill. We have six stations, and guys go from one to another, practicing taking it away. The chop by Randall Gay is one of our stations.''
There was a bit of bring-the-wood mentality by the Saints' defense. Williams all week told them Warner must go down, and he must go down hard. "We had to put Kurt down early so he would play with a little fear,'' Williams said. The other thing the Saints D did was make sure Warner couldn't step up in the pocket and get a second platform and be comfortable enough to throw. So defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis was vital in collapsing the pocket enough so that Warner couldn't step up -- he had to escape out the side, and you know Warner's glacially slow, so escaping right or left is only going to get him hit more. Warner never had the kind of time to look for Larry Fitzgerald that he did last week against Green Bay, and it was no surprise Fitzgerald's longest catch of the day was for 16 yards.
So now the secondary faces its second straight geezer, 40-year-old Favre, for the NFC title. You can bet Williams will change a few things up against Favre, but two things will be the same. The Saints will try to batter him with a couple of early shots, and they'll try to knock Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice off their routes in the five-yard bump zone.
Favre is just ridiculous. But so is the Minnesota defensive front.
There can't be 10 throws in Favre's football life as good as the one he made to start the scoring in the rout of the Cowboys. He sets up, flings it deep down the right sideline for Sidney Rice in tight coverage, and Rice barely has to move his hands to catch it and score on a 47-yard touchdown. The ball finds Rice's hands. Not a Randy Johnson fastball per se, but a line drive that was as perfectly located as a ball can be.
We're now through 17 games. Favre is having the kind of impact no one except maybe he (and I bet he'd tell you he never thought the year would be going this good) thought he'd have. In 17 games, he's at a remarkable plus-30 touchdown-to-interception differential -- 37 touchdowns, seven interceptions. The Vikings need him to play like this only twice more and they're Super Bowl champions. That'll be a tall order, obviously, but the one thing we know is that physically the task has not been too much for him.
I've got to give defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier a tremendous tip of the hat after the defense's six-sack, 19-pressure performance against Tony Romo. Ray Edwards, especially, was a tour de force player. "I challenged Ray Edwards Saturday night,'' Frazier said. "So many times this season, we've seen defenses adjust what they do to change their protection to adjust to Jared Allen on the other side. I felt like Ray needed to step it up, and I told him, 'You have to be a difference-maker.' ''
That was a career-changer, potentially, for Edwards and Frazier. For Edwards because it showed he can be a premier pass-rusher on the biggest stage. And for Frazier, who should be the Bills' first, second and third candidate for head coach right now.
How can you not admire Gary Brackett?
He's the undersized core-of-the-defense linebacker who, in a typical performance Saturday night, where he's supposed to be in the shadow of the great Ravens defenders, had five tackles, a sack and a Ray Lewis-like influence on the outcome of the game. Brackett, Raheem Brock and Clint Session are the guys who make the interior of that Colts defense much better than the scouting reports say, especially when they play indoors on the rug. "They're built for the carpet,'' Jets offensive line coach Bill Callahan told me Sunday night. "They do a great job of filling the holes quickly because of their defensive speed.''
"We define ourselves,'' Brackett said after the Colts' 20-3 trouncing of the Ravens. "We've been, in my opinion, the best team in football all year, and we don't concern ourselves with what people in the outside world think of us. The one thing people don't realize about us is we're a physical team. Yes, we play with a lot of speed, but you can't get to 14-0 without having a physical presence on your defense.''
The matchup of brawn on the Jets line -- and with 228-pound rookie back Shonn Greene -- against the speed and quickness of the Colts' front will tell the tale in the AFC Championship Game.
It's true, to a degree, about Tony Dungy and Seattle.
Good notes by Charley Casserly on the CBS pregame show, and Jay Glazer on FOX, about the flirtations of Tony Dungy with the Seahawks, telling the Seahawks he'd sleep on it when they asked about him becoming team president, and about Dungy saying he would have hired Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to be his coach in Seattle. The job was never offered, but I can tell you this: I believe the only job Dungy would consider in the NFL, at least now, is one with him running the franchise and good friend (and family friend) Frazier as the coach. Dungy said several times during the season that he absolutely is not coming back -- but the chance to work Frazier has to give him something to think about. Or, perhaps, something he'd already thought about.
Now, my gut feeling is it won't happen next year either, but who knows? Dungy is getting to like TV, and he's getting to like the freedom the TV life gives him to do his charity work and to be around his children more.
Two things I know:
1. I'm told late last week that Seattle president Tod Leiweke was in the horns of a dilemma: If Dungy was seriously interested in the job, Seattle was going to have to decide who to hire -- Dungy and a head coach, or Pete Carroll and a front office. Those with knowledge of the situation say it would have been a tough call. And because Dungy did not tell Leiweke for sure he wasn't interested until last weekend, Leiweke went ahead with the interview of Frazier when it looked to all the world as if it were a sham. (That's exactly the word I used to describe it on NBC, though now it appears that the interview was legit.)
2. Dungy and Frazier are very close. So close that Frazier considers Dungy his mentor, and calls him weekly for advice on playcalls and personnel matters. "To be able to walk down the hall as head coach and talk to Tony for advice would be a dream,'' Frazier told me Sunday night ... after he and Dungy had dinner together in Minneapolis. "Tony has told me this: If he did ever do it [become a club president], it would be because of me. When he told me that, it brought tears to my eyes.''
So stay tuned. If Frazier doesn't get the Buffalo job after Minnesota's strong run, and if he waits until next year to be a head coach, we'll all have to be on Dungy watch again.
Donte' Stallworth is on the verge of being reinstated by the NFL.
I'm hearing that after the Super Bowl, commissioner Roger Goodell will reinstate disgraced wide receiver Donte' Stallworth so that he'll be able to sign with any NFL team in 2010. Stallworth will be 29 this offseason and is still under contract with the Browns. Should Cleveland cut him, there's no guarantee he'll get a job in the league, though he seems to have turned the corner after his DUI manslaughter conviction in March led to the widely decried month's jail sentence plus probation -- plus a huge settlement (thought to be between $3 million and $5 million) with the family of the victim he ran over, Mario Reyes, on a Miami causeway early in the morning of March 14 last year.
Goodell recently met with Stallworth for two hours, and he came away impressed that Stallworth would devote time for the foreseeable future to anti-drunk-driving causes. Living in south Florida, Stallworth is coaching kids part-time and working out seriously to try to get in the kind of shape that would convince a team to give the well-traveled and chastened receiver one more shot.
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