RGIII injury closes the curtain on ugly Wild-Card Weekend
Before we examine the final Ray Day in Baltimore and the Shanahan-RGIII race to blame in Washington (and elsewhere) and what in the world got into Chip Kelly, this observation about Wild-Card Weekend: That was some lousy football. It got me to thinking about the expanded playoff format (from 12 to either 14 or 16 teams) in the back of the league's mind, which is where I hope it stays.
So what would a 16-team playoff system have looked like this year?
In the NFC:
New York (8) at Atlanta (1): Rematch of 34-0 Atlanta rout three weeks earlier. Oh boy!
Chicago (7) at San Francisco (2): Bears didn't deserve it after going 3-5 to finish.
Minnesota (6) at Green Bay (3): Vikes deserved a shot the way they played down the stretch.
Seattle (5) at Washington (4): Most compelling game of the weekend. Good theater.
And in the AFC:
San Diego (8) at Denver (1): No one in America wanted the 7-9 Chargers playing in January.
Pittsburgh (7) at New England (2): Steelers 8-8. Good TV ratings, bad for the game.
Cincinnati (6) at Houston (3): We want more playoff teams after seeing Cincy the last two years?
Indianapolis (5) at Baltimore (4): Good, marquee Luck-Lewis duel.
TV question: How would you play eight playoff games in one weekend? Or would you? One league source told me a couple of weeks ago there's a chance an eight-game first round would be spread over two weekends, if it ever happens. Or maybe three per day on Saturday and Sunday, with two of the games pushed to Monday night, a la the first weekend of the season on ESPN.
It's all extremely speculative, of course. It's also an extremely bad idea.
Now for the news of the weekend:
Some of the second-guessing about Robert Griffin III was actually first-guessing.
It's been a dream season for young quarterbacks, enough of one almost to make you forget about the real dangers of playing this sport. I remember last spring watching tape on Griffin and Andrew Luck and, just from the tape, thinking the rocket-armed and mobile Griffin was better -- but I thought I'd rather have Luck as a quarterback to build around. Simple reason: the injury factor. I worried about the 218-pound Griffin, as exposed as he made himself, getting hurt. And I thought Luck would have a better chance to play a 16-game season than Griffin over time. I recall asking Bill Polian, who studied both men thinking he might draft one in Indy before being fired, who he'd take. "I'd probably pick Luck,'' Polian said. "When you boil it all down, you worry a little about running quarterbacks getting hurt. But it's close. Very close.''
So now we come to Washington's first playoff game with Griffin at the controls, Sunday at home against Seattle. He was already playing with a sprain of the lateral collateral ligament, and, after getting banged around a couple of times early in the game, it became apparent he wasn't healthy. In fact, on a jog out of bounds shy of a first down, it was clear he was severely limited and unable to run at anything close to a sprint. Coach Mike Shanahan asked Griffin then, and again at halftime, about his knee, and both times Griffin insisted he was okay. "I guarantee I'm not injured,'' Griffin told Shanahan at the half. But in the fourth quarter, bending to get an errant snap, Griffin crumbled to the ground, and his wounded knee hyperextended awkwardly. He was done. He'll have an MRI today, and his future is cloudy.
"It's a tough decision,'' said Shanahan, "and you've got to go with your gut. I'm not saying my gut was right. I'll probably second-guess myself."
A quarterback, Griffin said, has to lead his team and sometimes play while hurt. That's what a leader does.
• Griffin was so obviously not himself, and so tentative moving around, and the Redskins and their medical staff should have seen this. Griffin clearly has a they'll-have-to-drag-me-off-the-field mentality and needs to be protected from himself. Shanahan should know this. I believe he should have pulled Griffin out of the game before the half, for good.
• Washington's Griffin-led drives after its first two scores went 8, 3, 23, 4, 17 and minus-12 yards. In 41 minutes after his team went up 14-0, Griffin generated four first downs. In the game Washington had to play without Griffin, fellow rookie Kirk Cousins led a 38-21 rout at Cleveland Dec. 16. By the middle of the second quarter, it was obvious to anyone watching that a healthy Cousins would have been a better option than a limping Griffin.
I do not -- do not -- blame Shanahan entirely here. Even if there's a frosty relationship between noted team orthopedist James Andrews and Shanahan, Andrews is on the staff, at least in part, because he's the foremost expert on knees in the country. He should have the power to speak up when he sees something obviously wrong with the franchise quarterback. And Griffin is not blameless here either. He's an adult. If he swears over and over he's fine, the coach has to listen to that and take that into account. "I wasn't lying,'' said Griffin. "I was able to go out and play, period."
So I'm not putting the black hat on one man. It's unfair. But let this be a lesson to this team, and every other one in the league: It's best to put safeguards in place before something like this threatens the short-term future of the starting quarterback in the heat of a playoff game.
Ray Lewis has his Ripken moment.
Think of the Baltimore Ravens. Think of the name of the team. The Ravens are much more a part of the sporting lexicon than the Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, Memphis Grizzlies and Carolina Hurricanes. And you know all those. But when Ray Lewis was drafted by Baltimore, the team wasn't the Ravens. It wasn't anything yet.
After his final game in downtown Baltimore, Lewis stood in front of his team, coaches, longtime GM Ozzie Newsome and other club officials and said, "On draft day , Ozzie called me and said, 'Hey, we're gonna draft you.' Ozzie, you remember this?''
"Yes, I do,'' Newsome said.
"And I said, 'That's great, Ozzie. But what's our team name gonna be?' ''
"Ravens,'' from the Edgar Allen Poe (he was from Baltimore) poem "The Raven,'' was the choice of a fan contest. And from that year, 1996, to Sunday, Lewis was the center of the Baltimore defense, starting the first game against Billy Joe Hobert (Lewis had an interception) and the Oakland Raiders in old Memorial Stadium. And though he's a Floridian and likely will live there now that his son will start his football career and college life this fall at the University Miami, Lewis will always keep a home in Baltimore. The locals have loved his style of play, and didn't abandon him when he was a focus of a double-murder probe in 2000 (he was convicted of obstruction of justice and served 12 months' probation); the Ravens won the Super Bowl the next year, Lewis was the MVP of the game, and his legend has grown from there. At 37, after 17 seasons, he played his last game in the city Sunday. After the 24-9 win over Indianapolis, the Ravens now can play only on the road for the rest of the playoffs, beginning Saturday at top-seeded Denver.
Lewis has been emotional before during games, but friends say they've never seen him with tears streaming down his face. He cried while hugging family members before the game, and he was nearly as emotional afterward, doing a Ripken-like lap of the stadium to greet the fans who stayed afterward.
"We wanted to make the day memorable for him,'' said wideout Anquan Boldin afterward. "It was an emotional day, not just for Ray, but for everyone in the stadium, and we all wanted to send him off right.''
Boldin helped, winning a grabfest with Colts cornerback Darius Butler in the end zone to secure an 18-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco. "I was going to come down with that ball if I had to pull his [Butler's] arm out of the socket to catch it,'' said Boldin. "That ball was never coming out.''
That's the kind of determination that's rubbed off on Lewis' teammates. Now they'll see if they can give him one final going-away gift -- at least -- against the top-seeded Broncos Saturday.
Chip Kelly stays
There's no call to be angry at the Oregon coach for still being the Oregon coach today, as Adam Schefter and the Oregonian reported he would be. Here's what we know now: A year ago, Kelly tentatively accepted the Tampa Bay coaching job, but turned it down on second thought when he couldn't be assured that offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich would succeed him at Oregon. So this season, he was told Helfrich would take over when he left, which was important to Kelly, and he told his agent, David Dunn, he wanted to pursue NFL jobs again. He spoke with Cleveland, Buffalo and Philadelphia in the 40 hours after the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona. On Saturday morning, I was told by someone with knowledge of Cleveland's plans, "They think they've got him."
They thought wrong. And you know what? That's good. The last thing you want to do when hiring a coach is get a guy who has one foot in but you never really know if he's married to the job. Nick Saban in Miami, for instance. Or, worse, Bobby Petrino in Atlanta.
Until told otherwise, I'll believe this was about Kelly's trepidation about the difficulty of building a consistent winner in Cleveland (which is on the verge of hiring its seventh coach in 13 years), or rebuilding one in Philadelphia. We'll see. But good for Kelly in not taking the $6 million a year (or more) in Cleveland or Buffalo if his heart wasn't in it. That's an honest decision to make now.
And as for those who believe Kelly has blown his last shot to coach in the NFL, that's ridiculous. Sure, he's going to have to convince an owner and GM, someday, he finally wants the gig and is all-in. But he's 49, he's the most intelligent offensive innovator in the college game, and smart people like Tony Dungy (who has a son in the Oregon program) swear by him. "The level of detail in their program is incredible,'' Dungy said over the weekend, "and his teams will out-pace, out-hustle and out-think you." When Kelly's ready, the NFL will be. And if he never is, God bless him.
Doug Marrone takes over the Bills.
I barely know Marrone, but I like the move. Bill Parcells trusts him; Sean Payton valued him. Marrone's a detail freak who knows he doesn't know everything, who's open to football analytics but certain to not be a slave to them. He designed blocking schemes for Curtis Martin as a Jets offensive line coach. He was Payton's offensive coordinator for the first three Saint seasons, helping keep Drew Brees clean. Syracuse won 10 games in the four years before Marrone arrived in 2009; he was 25-25 in his four years as Syracuse coach.
Marrone got to be the hot guy in the coaching derby last week -- four days, four interviews, with a fifth (Philadelphia) canceled when the Bills tabbed him Sunday morning -- because of his offensive imagination and his toughness. I know one team, not Buffalo, that had eyes for Marrone was interested as much for his ability to walk in and handle and discipline underachieving pro players as how smart he was. I remember Payton once saying, early in his New Orleans tenure, that he liked Marrone because of his honesty, no matter who might get offended.
I heard Saturday that the Bills really like Lovie Smith, and I believe if Ralph Wilson were running this search, or least tuned into it hourly, he'd have pushed for an established pro coach. But I don't think new CEO Russ Brandon was as interested in a name. As for the "risk'' involved, tell me: Who's not risky? In this business, you have to hire the man you believe in, not the one who's going to win the press conference.
Darrell Bevell will interview with the Bears. Can he bring Russell Wilson along?
This is what I loved about what Russell Wilson did in his first playoff game Sunday: His best play was a busted play. Seattle trailed 14-13 with 8:50 left in the game. Time was Seattle's enemy. It was 3rd-and-10 at the Seattle 46, and Washington sent a blitz, an extra linebacker and extra defensive back, and Wilson had three receivers out in the route as he faced heavy pressure. He stepped up in the pocket, and tight end Zach Miller, the hot guy if Wilson got blitzed, leaked out of the mass of bodies. Wilson tossed it to Miller, who, uncovered, ran down the left flank for 22 yards. Marshawn Lynch finished the drive with a 27-yard touchdown run -- with Wilson throwing a block 23 yards downfield to help -- and Wilson made it a seven-point difference with his first two-point conversion pass as an NFL quarterback. That was it. After falling behind 14-0, Seattle, and Wilson, dominated the final three quarters against the hobbled Robert Griffin III to win 24-14.
"When we got down 14-0, and this might sound strange, it didn't matter,'' said Bevell, who's been a good and malleable play-caller for a versatile quarterback like Wilson. "Pete [Carroll] has been telling the guys all year it's a 60-minute game, and I know how that sounds -- but the guys have bought into it. So if they get behind, nobody worries. When we did get behind, I saw Russell be even more positive than he usually is. 'Not how you start, it's how you finish ... It's a 60-minute game ... " He's saying all that to the team. They've all bought in.''
So the Seahawks go from Seattle to Baltimore (Baltimore-Washington International Airport) Friday, Baltimore to Seattle Sunday night, then Seattle to Atlanta Friday, and Atlanta back to Seattle Sunday. That's four six-hour flights (give or take a half-hour) in nine days. Add round trips to Miami, Chicago and Toronto (to play Buffalo) since Thanksgiving, and you've got a road-tested bunch.
"When you're up in the great Northwest,'' Bevell said, "everything is a long trip. Pete never allows it to become an issue. We don't let it. So it isn't."
Seattle at Atlanta, 1 p.m. Sunday. The Russell Wilson Traveling Salvation Show makes its next stop.
One last question for Chip Kelly ...
The Browns, as of this morning, have $47 million in cap room in 2013. That's an astounding among of space to help build a competitive team quickly, both through the draft and in free agency. Sure you don't want to reconsider?
Coach and GM carousel thoughts
So what's Andy Reid thinking about his staff in Philadelphia? I'm hearing he's leaning toward bypassing Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator and naming his Eagles quarterback coach, Doug Pederson, as coordinator. Had he not been kept as Carolina head coach, Ron Rivera would have been in play with Monte Kiffin for defensive coordinator ...
New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will tell suitors -- if there are any -- after the Patriots' season he's staying in New England. McDaniels and his wife just had their fourth child in December, and he's happy with the Patriots, and he absolutely doesn't want to move his family for the third straight year (Denver to St. Louis to the Boston 'burbs), even if it meant he'd have a chance to coach his hometown Browns. He loves his lot in life now, coaching Tom Brady and coaching under Bill Belichick; why leave? I also think McDaniels understands the most important thing about the situation he's in: After being run out of Denver, he may get only one more chance at being a head coach, and so he wants to be sure the next time (if there is a next time) he steps into a place he knows he has a good chance to win ...
The Jags will allow their next GM -- either Steve Keim of Arizona or David Caldwell of Atlanta -- to decide if coach Mike Mularkey stays. Not a good sign, as I said on NBC Saturday, that all the Jag assistants have been told they can take other jobs. Keim, if offered the job by Shad Khan, will have to choose between raising Arizona or Jacksonville ... Good for Chicago GM Phil Emery, interviewing at least seven assistants, and maybe more, so far. Why wouldn't you want to pick the brain of smart people like Jay Gruden? Indy offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who handled strong-willed Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, might be the best man for Jay Cutler ... Hottest personnel guys: Keim, Caldwell, Indy's Tom Telesco, San Francisco's Tom Gamble, Marc Ross of the Giants.
Gil Brandt loves him some Johnny Manziel.
Don't get excited, Chiefs or Jags fans. The earliest Manziel could be eligible for the NFL Draft is April 2014. Even though he's only 20, and just 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, he had a Cotton Bowl Friday night that veteran conscience-of-the-NFL Gil Brandt told me was "the best game I've ever seen a player play in college football." Considering that the 79-year-old Brandt has been scouting college players for 52 years, that's quite a statement. Manziel, the Heisman Trophy winner, rushed for 229 yards and two scores, and threw for 287 yards and two scores, as Texas A&M beat Oklahoma 41-13. "It's the best individual effort I've seen,'' Brandt said. "The players we got in the game on defense now are a lot faster than ever before. I don't know how you describe this guy. He is so unique. He's just got unbelievable quickness and such great change of direction -- and remember, he didn't do this against a bad team. He played one of the better teams in college football, and he was a man among boys.'' As for Manziel's NFL prospects, Brandt said: "The game is changing a little bit in the NFL, and quarterbacks are running a lot now. He is not a great passer, but he is a more-than-accurate passer. I think he will translate to the pro game well. The only thing that worries me about him is he's a slightly built, I shouldn't say that, but not that well-built a guy for the NFL.
"I don't know if he can run the option without getting hurt. In saying that, did we think Wilson and Griffin would be like they are? No.''
Sounds like he'll be the ultimate debatable player when he comes out.
My Take on Pioli ...
Yes, it was inevitable that the Chiefs fired Scott Pioli, whose top three decisions in a four-year Chiefs run (hiring Todd Haley, trading for Matt Cassel, hiring Romeo Crennel) all turned out to be wrong. He trusted Cassel a long time, and by the time he knew he needed to get a quarterback, it was too late. He passed on some good prospects, as did many teams (Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson); maybe he didn't think outside the box enough at the game's most important position.
And Pioli was too private for his own good in what has become an increasingly public job. When Haley last year implied that Pioli wiretapped his phones, an outrageous and baseless allegation, Pioli let a team statement stand for his response instead of coming out swinging. But the vitriol chasing him out the door was over the top. He's a good man who didn't win enough. The personal attacks I just don't get.
I know Pioli well, and many of you will say, "He's just sticking up for Pioli because he likes him." Well, I have known Pioli for a long time, and yes, I do like him. I like a lot of people I cover. I can see when a man's getting kicked too much, and this is one of those times. Final point for those who believe Pioli left the cupboard bare: Think there's a reason the hottest ex-head coach on the market, Andy Reid, didn't consider any other jobs after he was offered the Kansas City deal?
My All-Pro team's here
Bring your protest signs, and send me emails and Tweets (@SI_PeterKing), and I'll address your problems with my team in Tuesday's column.
WR: Calvin Johnson, Detroit; Brandon Marshall, Chicago.
LT: Duane Brown, Houston
LG: Mike Iupati, San Francisco
C: John Sullivan, Minnesota
RG: Marshal Yanda, Baltimore
RT: Anthony Davis, San Francisco
TE: Jason Witten, Dallas
QB: Peyton Manning, Denver
RB: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
FB: Michael Robinson, Seattle.
DE: J.J. Watt, Houston; Cam Wake, Miami
DT: Geno Atkins, Cincinnati; Vince Wilfork, New England
OLB: Von Miller, Denver; Ahmad Brooks, San Francisco
MLB/ILB: Daryl Washington, Arizona; Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh
CB: Richard Sherman, Seattle; Charles Tillman, Chicago
FS: Dashon Goldson, San Francisco
SS: T.J. Ward, Cleveland
K: Blair Walsh, Minn
P: Thomas Morstead, N.O.
KR: Jacoby Jones, Balt.
PR: Leodis McKelvin, Buffalo
And for an explanation of these, see this column:
MVP: Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota
Offensive player: Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota
Defensive player: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston
Comeback player (tie): Peyton Manning, QB, Denver; Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota
Offensive rookie: Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle
Defensive rookie: Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle
Coach (tie): Bruce Arians, Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis.
Executive: John Schneider, GM, Seattle.
My two most underappreciated players of the year ...
Blair Walsh, K, Minnesota. Hard to imagine a kicker having a better season -- ever. Walsh averaged 3.4 touchbacks per game, missed three of 38 field goal tries all season, and converted all 10 of his kicks from 50 yards and out. And there's this: From 48 yards and beyond, he was 12 of 12. Arguably, he's had the best seasons by a kicker ever, if you take the touchbacks and long-range perfection into account. It's little secret why. "I think guys are starting earlier and getting training for it earlier,'' said Walsh, from Boca Raton, Fla., by way of the University of Georgia.
In his case, Walsh burned out on soccer -- he was in the highly competitive Olympic Development Program -- by the time he was beginning high school, and as a sophomore, he got a football kicking coach, former Penn State kicker Nick Gancitano. His coach believed in training the body through practice and the mind through meditation, and by the time he signed his college scholarship, Walsh knew he wanted to be an NFL kicker, and his monster leg at Georgia landed him a spot in the sixth round with Minnesota. The rest, for now, is rookie kicking history. I asked him how he's adapted so quickly, with apparently no nerves about the high-pressure gig. "You'd be surprised how much the snapper and holder can help,'' he said. "[Snapper] Cullen Loeffler and [holder] Chris Kluwe have been doing it together for, like, eight years. They've seen it all -- the noise, the weather, the different rushes we face. They approach every kick the same, and help me relax.'' Quite a team so far.
C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo. After seeing him rush for 1,244 yards in just 207 attempts (13 touches a game leaves 'em wanting LOTS more), a 6.0-yard clip, I had to ask Spiller for myself: Don't you think you ought to get the ball more in the future? "Everybody in the league wants to carry it more,'' Spiller said as he headed into his offseason in Florida. "Of course I'd love to carry it more, but I understand the business aspect of it. We need two good backs. You've got to have two fresh guys to win. I've never been one to get caught up in the numbers. Plus, I'll always remember something Emmitt Smith told me: 'Walk away from the game on your terms, not someone else's.' ''
Spiller got better in 2012, he said, because he learned how to be more of a scientific runner. He said he learned how to set up the defense, rather than have them dictate where he would run. "I used to always take the first option, the first little hole,'' he said. "This year, I learned to be more patient. You can't believe how much that helps you as a back, to let your hole and the blocking develop.'' He thinks his 62-yard run in Week 16 against Miami might have been a very short one had he not waited for his blocks to develop. Moral of the story: "You can definitely learn to be a better back, and I'm not done learning."
Each week, thanks to play-by-play game dissection by ProFootballFocus.com, I'll look at one important matchup or individual performance metric from one of the weekend's games. This week: How did the Packers, gashed for 409 Adrian Peterson rushing yards in two regular season games this season, hold him to 99 yards on 22 rushes Saturday night? PFF czar Neil Hornsby explains:
It may have taken the Packers three tries, but they eventually figured out how to slow Peterson. In the context of this game, although 99 yards at 4.5 yards per carry is pretty good in most circumstances, you could almost say "shut down" as opposed to "slowed down." It was an indictment of just how limited Joe Webb was that more than half those yards came after the Vikings fell behind 24-3 early in the third quarter. So how did they make the man look mortal?
When you study where and how well Peterson runs, the figures show clearly his favorite hole is outside the right tackle (and outside any tight end on the right side). During the regular season, in that area, he ran for 555 yards, or 26 percent of his rushing yardage, for 11.3 yards per carry. His next favorite hole, the A-gap between center and right guard, produced 403 Peterson yards.
He loves to cut right and outside, square his shoulders and run over or around anyone in the vicinity. In the two regular season encounters, over right end, he picked up 207 of his 409 yards running wide right -- at 15.9 yards per rush. So the evidence was clear: Stop Peterson getting outside to his right and you make him merely a great running back.
The Pack deployed their left outside linebacker on a reasonably wide split with a single mission -- do not let Peterson get outside. Time and again Dezman Moses and Erik Walden simply funneled Peterson inside. Good example: On the Vikings' first play of the third quarter, Walden was waiting, wouldn't let Peterson get wide, and put him down for a four-yard loss. Peterson did have an 18-yard run around end, but he finished with only 25 yards, 97 yards less than he gained there a week ago.
It's obvious the Packers have learned their lesson. Was everyone else watching?
1. Denver (13-3). Somewhere, a football Zeus (and I don't mean the late Orlando Brown) figured, Wouldn't it be great to have Ray Lewis, in what might be the last game of his life, be Peyton Manning's first foe in his Denver playoff career, and, if Manning wins that one, Tom Brady the second foe?
2. New England (12-4). Four weeks ago tonight, 35 minutes into the Houston-New England game, New England led 28-0, and Tom Brady had four touchdown passes. Wade Phillips is on his fourth roll of Tums this morning just thinking about it.
3. San Francisco (11-4-1). Justin Smith (elbow, triceps) will play against Green Bay, but how effective can the Niners defensive leader be?
4. Green Bay (12-5). In Joe Webb they trust.
5. Seattle (12-5). Russell Wilson's from Richmond. Big city to the north: Washington. Big city to the south (southwest, actually): Atlanta. Wilson won at Washington in a knockdown, drag-out affair Sunday. Wilson plays at Atlanta Sunday.
6. Atlanta (13-3). Only six more days of questions like, "Why can't you guys win a playoff game?"
7. Houston (13-4). Possess the ball in Foxboro. Limit Tom Brady's possessions. If Arian Foster had 40 touches against Cincinnati, make it 45 this week.
8. Baltimore (11-6). Pretty impressive performance by a defense we all had consigned to mediocrity.
9. Washington (10-7). It's 35 weeks until opening day 2013. Adrian Peterson played 37 weeks after major knee surgery, and played great. The MRI today will tell us if Robert Griffin III will need major knee surgery. If so, it'll be a race to opening day.
10. Indianapolis (11-6). Too many bodies swarming around Andrew Luck all day in Baltimore. GM Ryan Grigson will get to work shoring up the offensive line this offseason.
11. Minnesota (10-7). Christian Ponder's never been as popular in the Twin Cities as he is this morning.
12. Cincinnati (10-7). I've always been an Andy Dalton advocate, and I believe it's way too early to bail on him -- waaaaay too early -- but he's got to play better in big games.
13. Chicago (10-6). I thought Buffalo was Lovie Smith's best shot at a head-coaching job, and now that's gone. As for the Bears, it's too early to call anyone a leader in the clubhouse, but I'll be interested in what GM Phil Emery thinks of Bruce Arians. The Bears need to find a coach to motivate and coexist profitably with Jay Cutler.
14. New York Giants (9-7). Amazing. A defense that good last year was 31st this year.
15. St. Louis (7-8-1). Blake Williams, son of Gregg and the 2012 Rams defensive playcaller, didn't have his one-year contract renewed as linebackers coach and de facto defensive playcaller. It wasn't a firing, but it might as well have been. Blake Williams wasn't well-liked by the staff. Peers thought he was a bit of a know-it-all.
Offensive Players of the Week
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle. If Seattle had lost, Lynch would have worn the goat horns. But he atoned, and he atoned well, because the biggest fumble of his career nearly doomed the Seahawks in the third quarter. Lynch shook it off and ground down Washington with a 53-yard fourth quarter, including a bullish 27-yard touchdown run that gave Seattle the lead for good. For the day, he rushed 20 times for 132 tough yards.
Anquan Boldin, WR, Baltimore. Lots of receivers get more attention than Boldin, but he proved Sunday in Baltimore's 24-9 playoff win over Indianapolis that no wideout is more physical. He caught five balls for a Ravens playoff record 145 yards. The most impressive: Joe Flacco put up a high ball in the end zone, with Indy corner Darius Butler and Boldin jump-balling for it, and Butler got his arm in, but Boldin hung on for dear life. Touchdown.
Arian Foster, RB, Houston. Foster's getting an Emmitt Smith type of playoff reputation. His third playoff game, the 19-13 win over the Bengals Saturday, featured his third 100-yard rushing game in three playoff outings, all in the last 53 weeks. What a workhorse he was: 32 rushes for 140 yards; eight catches for 34 yards. His one-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was the only offensive touchdown in a snoozer of a game. "We like to run the ball and play good defense. It only takes one week to turn things around in the NFL, and we did that,'' Foster said. The Texans hope he's right, because the offense still struggled aside from him, and explosive New England awaits.
Defensive Player of the Week
Clay Matthews, LB, Green Bay. It helped, obviously, that a woefully unprepared Joe Webb was the Minnesota quarterback, and that Sam Shields played in the secondary the way he did in the postseason two years ago, when he terrorized the Bears in the NFC title game. But Matthews buzzed around Webb all night, sacking him twice and knocking him down a third time, and he forced and recovered a fumble. For Matthews, it's the kind of game that gives him hope he can dominate a postseason and propel Green Bay to win a very difficult game in San Francisco Saturday night.
Paul Kruger, DE, Baltimore. Headline day for Ray Lewis. Productive day for Kruger, who was the biggest reason why it seemed Andrew Luck never had a comfortable pocket all day. He had the 2.5 sacks, two additional quarterback hits, with a forced fumble and a deflected pass. The fourth-year man from Utah was the most important reason the Ravens, at least for one day, looked like a classic Baltimore defense (despite the Colts' 419 yards), holding Indy to three field goals.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Adam Vinatieri, K, Indianapolis. Two Indianapolis playoff games in history at Baltimore, and Vinatieri has scored all 24 points in them. His 40th birthday was a week ago, and he continued to produce for the Colts. The 17-year vet kicked 47-, 52- and 26-yard field goals -- the second at the halftime gun to keep Indianapolis in the game -- six years after one of the best days of his career in the same stadium. (He missed a 40-yarder in the fourth quarter, which turned out to be not significant in a 24-9 loss.) In Indy's 15-6 playoff win at Baltimore in the 2006 postseason, Vinatieri was 5 of 5, converting from 23, 42, 51, 48 and 35 yards. The longest postseason kicks of his life came in M&T Bank Stadium, the 51- and 52-yarders.
Dr. Z Unsung Man in the Trenches of the Week
The award for the offensive lineman who was the biggest factor for his team in the weekend's games, named for my friend Paul Zimmerman, the longtime SI football writer struggling in New Jersey to recover from three strokes suffered in November 2008. Zim, a former collegiate offensive lineman himself, loved watching offensive line play.
Matt Birk, C, Baltimore. Birk led a retooled offensive line -- Bryant McKinnie was back at left tackle, and played well -- that kept Joe Flacco (one sack) clean and paved the way for Bernard Pierce and Ray Rice to run for 173 yards. A year ago, you saw Birk get pushed around by the Patriots in the AFC title game. On Sunday, you saw Birk doing the pushing against the middle of the Colts line.
Coach of the Week
Dom Capers, defensive coordinator, Green Bay. As column contributor Neil Hornsby points out just north of this section in "The Deep End,'' Green Bay found a way to bottle up the great Adrian Peterson. Funny, describing Peterson as bottled up, when he rushes 22 times for 99 yards, a 4.5-yard average. But watching the game, you never got the feeling Peterson could get anything going.
Capers designed a scheme to clog the end-to-end area and prevent him from getting around the right end, which is his favorite place to run. The men at left end and left outside linebacker -- often Ryan Pickett and Erik Walden -- did a good job preventing Peterson from making it outside, and when he turned upfield inside the end, there was always a convoy of Packers to greet him.
Goat of the Week
Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati. Pretty simple. All you need to do after the Bengals' 19-13 loss is look at Dalton's third-down passing numbers: 1 of 8 passing for seven yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions and one drop.
Dalton's been a good player in getting the Bengals to the playoffs in his first two seasons. But for the second straight year the Bengals looked like the lone JV team in the 12-team playoff dance. Dalton has to play better in big moments. He sure didn't Saturday afternoon in Houston.
"I love y'all to death! I love y'all to death!"
-- Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, wired for sound by NFL Films, hugging his teammates after his last game in Baltimore, a 24-9 win over the Colts.
"I've been a nervous wreck letting him come back as quick as he has. He's doing a lot better this week, but he's still recovering and I'm holding my breath because of it. He passed all the tests and all the functional things we do, but it's been a trying moment for me, to be honest with you."
-- Dr. James Andrews, the Redskins' team orthopedist, to USA Today, on Robert Griffin III's four-week-old knee sprain. Andrews told the newspaper he didn't clear Griffin to return to the game on Dec. 9, though the Redskins said Griffin was cleared to return.
"No, I wouldn't listen. I'm done with football."
-- Bill Parcells, asked by ESPN-1050's Michael Kay on his New York talk show whether he'd have any interest in the Jets' GM job.
"I better get my hind parts moving."
-- Baltimore senior adviser of player development O.J. Brigance, who suffers from ALS, communicating through a voice-manufacturing device called DynaVox, in an ESPN feature Sunday. Brigance can't speak and is confined to a wheelchair, but ESPN captured his inspirational story well, showing a work ethic that still drives Brigance daily.
Bumper sticker spotted on a car seen on I-95 near Stamford, Conn., about 40 miles south of Newtown, Conn., on Friday: "VICTORIA SOTO IS MY HERO."
Soto, a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, was murdered in the mass shooting last month trying to shield her students from mad gunman Adam Lanza.
After a trip to Falcons training camp in August, I wrote this for the SI NFL preview:
Before a Falcons training camp practice this summer, new Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter pondered a statistic that, in part, made the Falcons want to breathe some new life into their offensive philosophy. Last season, Koetter was told, deep-threat wide receiver Julio Jones was 38th in the NFL in average depth of passing target -- meaning that 37 receivers in the NFL were targeted further past the line of scrimmage than Jones. And though Jones did make the most out of his chances, averaging 17.8 yards per reception, the Falcons wanted Matt Ryan airing out a couple of deep shots a game to him. Koetter took in the information, said the offense seemed pretty explosive to him, and went back to work.
That afternoon, the offense and defense had a spirited 15-minute 11-on-11 competition at the end of practice. The first throw, from Ryan to Jones, was a deep out along the left sideline; gain of about 35. A few minutes later, Jones took a corner one-on-one deep to the post, and Ryan led him with a perfect 65-yard rainbow.
When practice was over, Koetter left the practice field and said with a grin: "I don't think Julio's going to be 38th in that stat this year.''
He wasn't. He was 39th.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, which measures all things NFL except for the height of grass at each stadium, Jones' average depth of target fell from 13.2 yards downfield in 2011 to 12.8 yards this season. But it doesn't mean Matt Ryan just dinked-and-dunked with Jones. It means the Falcons threw a lot more screen passes to running backs and wide receivers this year -- something Koetter also emphasized more than his predecessor, Mike Mularkey.
In 1986, Harry Gamble was team president of the Philadelphia Eagles, who hired Buddy Ryan as their coach that year.
This week, the New York Jets will strongly consider hiring Tom Gamble, son of Harry, as general manager, to assist head coach Rex Ryan, son of Buddy.
The Gamble and Ryan families once owned a thoroughbred horse together.
The backup quarterback for the Vikings Saturday night was McLeod John Baltazar Bethel-Thompson, who played 12 games in three seasons as a part-time player for the Sacramento (Calif.) State Hornets.
"Least mode ...''
-- @wingoz, Trey Wingo of ESPN, after Marshawn Lynch's third-quarter lost goal-line fumble when the Seahawks were going in to take the lead in Washington. Lynch's nickname, of course, is "Beast Mode."
"Hail to the (racist name deleted)! Hail vic-to-ry. (Racist name deleted) on the (racial stereotype deleted)! Fight for all Dee Ceee!"
-- @realfreemancbs, Mike Freeman of cbssports.com, after some early excitement at FedEx Field Sunday, expletive-deleting "Redskins'' out of the Washington fight song.
"Why are players apologizing to fans for a 48-game season? Except for NFL, all pro seasons are too long. This is a gift to NHL fans''
-- @GerryCallahan, the Boston talk show host, after the resolution of the NHL labor dispute.
Couldn't agree more.
"Ah, 5 hour energy for a 230 am snack. It's like that sometimes @NFL_AM. #Livinthedream"
-- @wyche89, one of the hosts of NFL Network's morning show, which runs from 6-10 a.m. each weekday -- meaning 3-7 a.m. in Los Angeles, where the studio is.
How about Steve Wyche. The man, with his crew, worked Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.
1. I think this is what I liked about Wild-Card Weekend:
a. Whoa, Connor Barwin. Tremendous job blowing up a screen from Dalton to BenJarvus Green-Ellis for a big loss.
b. Carlos Dunlap saved four points on Houston's third field goal drive late in the first half. His pressure made Matt Schaub hurry a throw to Andre Johnson, who was open in the end zone. Don't blame Schaub for a lousy throw. Credit Dunlap for rushing Schaub into an errant throw, which turned a would-be touchdown into a field goal.
c. Great hands, Owen Daniels.
d. The Pack ran the ball better than I thought they would. Doesn't look like a big Achilles to me.
e. Clay Matthews, with Clay Matthews impact.
f. Fred Evans, the kind of unsung Vikings defensive lineman every line rotation needs.
g. Everson Griffen, becoming the pass rusher the Vikings drafted him to be. You could see his impact in the Packers-Viking games. He's giving Jared Allen a good bookend.
h. Adam Schefter, with the Doug Marrone-to-Buffalo scoop.
i. What a story on the ESPN pregame show Sunday about ALS patient O.J. Brigance, the former Ravens player and current senior adviser of player development. Everyone who's met him knows what an inspiration he is. Now America does too.
j. Vick Ballard picking up blitzing linebackers. Good blocker.
k. Very hard not to like Ballard, 170th pick in the draft. Strong runner. Drives through tacklers.
l. What a drive by Andrew Luck on his second playoff possession ...
m. ... Until that strip by Paul Kruger.
n. Great stat by Jim Nantz: Ray Lewis' first career sack, in 1996, came against Jim Harbaugh.
p. Great strip of Ray Rice by fellow Scarlet Knight alum Joe Lefeged.
q. What a tackle by Andrew Luck on that interception return.
r. Bernard Pierce, the forgotten third-round pick from Temple, with a 100-yard rushing game (103, actually) in his first playoff appearance.
s. Troy Aikman, on FOX, on the NFL's practice of mixing officiating crews in the playoffs -- making zebras who have never worked together work together in the biggest games of the year: "Seems a little counterintuitive, doesn't it?" Couldn't have said it better, Troy.
2. I think this is what I didn't like about Wild-Card Weekend
a Jermaine Gresham's hands. Had a chance to begin taking the crowd out of the game on Cincinnati's first series at Reliant Stadium, and a perfect Andy Dalton first-down-conversion pass slipped right through his hands. Punt.
b. Mike Zimmer's inactivity in the coaching derby. Excellent job by Mike Mayock, pointing out the folly of Zimmer, the Cincinnati defensive coordinator, not having an interview scheduled.
c. A.J. Green not being targeted a single time in the first half. As Boomer Esiason would say, "That's Bengaldom for you."
d. Joe Webb. I mean, tough spot. And he ran it pretty well a few times. But those two idiotic hot-potato throwaways when pressured ... crazy.
e. Webb, for the first 40 minutes of the game. Amazing to me Webb was an NFL backup quarterback. I realize he hadn't played all season, but sheesh. He's got to have more poise than that.
f. Ray Rice, who will be the first one to beat himself up for fumbling twice in a playoff game.
g. Call the facemask, please, Mike Carey's crew.
h. Don't drop picks in plus territory, Vontae Davis.
I. Holy cow. Speaking of dropped picks, Ray Lewis had the gem of the weekend.
j. Baltimore, second and third down from the Indy 5, second quarter. Two straight throws to ... Tandon Doss. Incomplete, incomplete. Was that steam coming out of Anquan Boldin's ears?
3. I think when I picture the first meeting since last spring between Roger Goodell and Sean Payton, I picture the next meeting of Harry Reid and John Boehner. Teeth grinding. Difficult smiles.
4. I think the coverage of the Rex Ryan wife-in-a-Sanchez-jersey tattoo was beyond over the top. I realize Ryan is a public figure, but following him on vacation and paparazzi-ing him for three days gives me the creeps for our business. And to speculate on how the tattoo will play with his players ... I mean, do you really think guys who play for Rex Ryan, and know how offbeat he is, will find it in any way objectionable (or even remotely meaningful) that Ryan has a tattoo of his wife in a Sanchez jersey?
5. I think Steve Freeman, the back judge in Washington-Seattle, made the call of the weekend in real time, immediately calling Redskins wideout Josh Morgan out of bounds in the back of the end zone. Excellent call in that game, too, by line judge Mark Perlman, who decisively ran into a play after another official ruled Sidney Rice out of bounds on a close sideline catch and demonstratively called the catch good. Immediately replays showed Perlman was right.
6. I think I've got to hand it to Bob Angelo, the NFL Films camera ace and documentarian, who called it two-plus months ago on my podcast, when others "close" to Ray Lewis said he wouldn't be retiring. "He wants to be a fan. He wants to tailgate. He wants to be a dad,'' said Angelo, referring to Lewis' desire to follow his son's football exploits on the field at the University of Miami beginning next fall. That's exactly what he's going to do, and I'm told by someone close to Lewis he's known he was going to retire for the last two months.
7. I think if I'm Chris Clemons, and I come out of the MRI tube in Seattle today with a torn knee ligament, and I'm gone for the rest of this dream playoff run and maybe for part of next season, and I see the replay of my leg planting and slipping on the poor field at Washington Sunday, I've got a huge problem with the working conditions. Huge. That was a subpar field, with lousy turf. The NFL needs to take more responsibility on late-season natural-grass fields, particularly in the east and north.
8. I think Jeff Darlington of NFL Network had a great piece of color in his story from Sunday's playoff games. He had Ray Lewis, with his iPad in the postgame locker room, trying to get digital coaches video from Denver's Week 17 game downloaded on the tablet. Great example of what a reporter does when he does his job: He takes the reader/viewer where he/she cannot go.
9. I think the Eagles liked Penn State coach Bill O'Brien more than any of us thought when that story came down the other night ... but not enough to hire him immediately, before interviewing more coaches, including Chip Kelly.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Hey, Michael Kay! Congrats to you and bride Jodi on the birth of your little girl. Enjoy Daddom.
b. Does Eddie Money think the Geico commercial is going to, like, rejuvenate his career? Not helping yourself, Eduardo. Eddie's playing Quapaw, Okla., on Friday night, and two tickets to paradise will cost you $40. Total.
c. This from Friday's New York Post: "An adorable white kitty in northern Brazil was caught trying to sneak into a prison transporting saws, drills and cellphone equipment for prisoners, local media reported. 'It's difficult to know who is responsible for this, since the cat won't talk,' officials at the medium-security prison told O Estado de S. Paulo, the country's largest newspaper."
e. You go, P.J. Carlesimo.
f. Whoever was responsible, thanks for the return of hockey. Now for the only three words in the world that I share in common with David Puddy: "Let's go Devils!"
g. You guys up in Alaska OK after that earthquake?
h. The "no" voters on the Sandy relief package in Congress included a couple of legislators from Mississippi and Louisiana. That, I find amazing.
i. Coffeenerdness: I don't imagine this will ever happen, but if I ruled the world, I'd gather all Manhattan baristas and teach them how to pull espresso shots -- so that they wouldn't be so inconsistent, bitter some days, watery the others.
j. Beernerdness: You make a nice IPA, Goose Island. And I don't say that just because you've got the greatest tap in all of brewing.
k. You still being held hostage, Mike Napoli?
l. Six weeks until pitchers and catchers, and this question to Red Sox GM Ben Cherington: "Are you really paying Shane Victorino $13 million a year?"
m. Alabama 20, Notre Dame 14. Should be a fun game.
Ray Lewis, postgame:
Dancing, hugging, loving. Hoarse.
Ripken ballpark lap.
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