Off-season thoughts: New rules

I don’t get too wrapped up in the small rules changes that happen each NFL off-season, but there are two changes this year that I think will sacrifice some of the entertainment value of NFL football:

1.  All plays that might have been scoring plays and all turnovers will now automatically be reviewed.  Why is this a bad thing?  First, replay reviews slow down the game.  A football game now very rarely ends in less than 3 hours - this rule change will probably add a few more minutes to the average game length next year.  Secondly, it’s entertaining to watch coaches incorrectly challenge calls and makes for great post-game second guessing of decisions.  Thirdly, although you want to have every call correct, a few missed/incorrect calls adds some drama and intrigue (football is, after all, entertainment).  I want to see a perfectly officiated game, but in lieu of that, a game that ends in 3 hours with a bit of added drama isn’t a bad alternative.

2. Changing the OT rules - This is a subtle change to make overtime more fair to both teams and to align the rules for regular season and post-season games.  That sounds good, but dig a little deeper.  Overtime in the regular season will now last longer due to multiple possessions.  When overtime lasts longer, a likely outcome is an increase in tie games.  A four hour game that ends in a tie doesn’t make anyone happy. 

Eagles off-season: 5 outstanding moves

Last year’s off-season for the Eagles was all sizzle.  Asomugha, Jenkins, Babin, Brown, Rodgers-Cromartie, and of course, Vince Young, the man who applied the unfortunate “dream team” label in his first press conference.  Five months later sporting a .500 record, it was clear that the off-season approach wasn’t successful.

This off-season is much more in line with the Eagles historic organizational philosophy of building from within.  I’m really excited by the moves to date, most of which haven’t garnered much attention from the media.  I think the Eagles have made 5 outstanding moves so far:

1. Long term deal for DeSean Jackson - I was somewhat surprised when I initially heard he was signed to a longer-term agreement.  I thought the Eagles would have him play out the 2012 season under the one year deal he signed after receiving the franchise tag.  However, looking at the longer term deals other WRs received this off-season, Jackson came at a bargain in market value terms.  If he can get his head out of his backside, play fearlessly and be a good teammate (those are BIG ifs), this will turn out to be a great signing. If he doesn’t, the Eagles are out a couple million dollars and can kick him to the curb after one year.

2. Extending Todd Herremans - Outside of Philly and die-hard NFL fans, people wouldn’t recognize his name.  His signing of a long-term deal is great news for the Eagles.  He’s versatile and can play 3 or 4 positions on the OL.  As the elder statesman on a young OL, he brings a mean edge and a great team first attitude.

3. Extending Trent Cole - Another great current player signed to a longer-term contract.  I think he’s the best all around defensive lineman in the NFL.  He doesn’t put up eye popping stats because he plays such a balanced game.  The guys that get all the attention are those racking up sack numbers (usually at the expense of defending the run).  Cole consistently gets 10+ sacks a year, stuffs the run, and takes up two blocks from the opposition’s OL.  He’s the MVP of the defence and now he’ll be around through 2017.

4. Re-signing free agent Evan Mathis - If there is an underrated player in the NFL, Mathis is it.  Interior offensive linemen only get noticed when they screw up, and he went an entire season without getting noticed in 2011.  When you look at the play by play ratings of NFL lineman, he was the top rated OL in run blocking and second in the league in pass blocking in 2011.   This was the guy I was most worried the Eagles would lose to free agency.  When he visited Baltimore, I was already seeing a huge void on the left side of the OL heading into training camp.  When he announced he was returning to Philly, I was elated.

5. Trade for DeMeco Ryans - Ryans gives the Eagles a legitimate middle linebacker for the first time in years.  He didn’t fit the Texans system, but I see him slotting in perfectly for the Eagles.  He comes with a steep salary, but the Eagles needed to make this bet.  Not only does he fill a hole, but it allows the other linebackers to settle into the outside LB positions which are more suited to their abilities.

The focus of the team will now turn to what to do with Samuel (trade, release or keep him and his large salary cap hit) followed by who to select with a high first round draft pick where they’ll be in position to grab another impact player for the upcoming season.

Off-season check-in

It’s been 7 weeks without football.  I’m well past the withdrawal symptoms and have actually made great progress enjoying the extra day in my weekend with which to accomplish things.   The NFL purposefully stretches out a very long off-season by giving its fans bits of interesting things to chew on every few weeks through the winter and spring:

The Combine for incoming players from college -  This is worse than watching paint dry.  About the only interesting thing is seeing 300 pound linemen run as fast as they can for 40 yards.   That’s not enough entertainment value for me.   I take a pass on this each year.

Free agency - This can be a sexy and exciting time for the fan until you realize that just about every team that makes a big splash in free agency generally fails to live up to expectations in the coming season.  Teams that win Super Bowls generally build from within using the draft (see: Giants, Patriots, Steelers, Packers for positive confirmation, see my Eagles last year to prove the negative side of the equation)

The release of next season’s schedule - The appeal of this for me: fall trip planning.  Once the schedule is released, I start looking for appealing games/locations based on match-ups, airline points available and other events going on in cities around the game days.  This year I’ve got my fingers crossed that the Broncos will be playing on one of two weekends in November that coincide with a trip to Denver.   The Peyton Manning news today only makes the anticipation that much better.

The Draft - I watch the first round of the draft like some people watch the Oscars.  It’s a great excuse to make football snacks, to listen to people talk about football and to think about football.   For three hours, it feels like football is just around the corner, until it goes away for the rest of the spring (and most of the summer).

Against my better judgement, I’ve been paying a bit more attention to the off-season activities than usual.  I’ll be writing more over the next couple of weeks looking at the changes and moves with an eye ahead to next season.

Super Bowl observations

The storyline of a football game can change a number of times before its conclusion.  It’s part of what makes the sport so captivating.  Heading into the 4th quarter, the storyline for Super Bowl 46 looked like it would be that of a cleanly and efficiently played game by two teams with the Patriots pulling out a win due to the Giants overall inability to capitalize on chances in the red zone while dominating other aspects of the game.

Like all good stories, this one had a few plot twists toward the end.

Cue plot change #1: Early in the 4th quarter up 2 points, Tom Brady throws an ill-advised pass intercepted down-field.  Momentum shifts to the Giants giving Eli Manning a chance to drive for a TD and overcome those red-zone challenges.  The momentum gained grinds to a halt as the Giants need to burn two timeouts due to formation confusion and they punt back to the Pats putting the original story line back on track.

Cue plot change #2: After running about 5 minutes off the clock on what is looking like a game sealing drive, the unthinkable happens: Wes Welker drops a pass (and/or Brady’s pass isn’t as accurate or perfect as we’ve come to expect) after running open in a terrible defensive breakdown by the Giants.   One play later the Pats have to punt, and Eli gets another crack at a comeback victory.  The storyline now shifts to whether Eli can add to his remarkable stack of 4th quarter comebacks already under his belt this season.

Cue plot change #3: In a bit of game strategy that likely was being explained across North America by football fanatics to casual viewers, the Patriots (up 2 points) basically allow the Giants to score a TD to go ahead.  The Pats elected to play the odds: they’d rather get the ball back with about a minute left being down 4 (or 6) points with a chance to come from behind to win versus trying to protect the lead and allowing the Giants to attempt a game winning FG as the clock would expire.  This kind of end game happens maybe a couple of times a year.  This gives the story a cliffhanger extension as now Brady has a chance to win his record tying 4th Super Bowl.

Cue plot change #4: As the Pats are driving for an attempt at a game winning TD, Patriots receivers drop 2 easy catches that would have helped them get in better position for a final TD attempt.  Even with those mistakes, the final hail-mary pass comes very close to being completed, but falls to the ground sealing the win for the Giants.

There have been better games this season with more exciting plays, but nothing comes close to the drama and stakes that played out over the last 12 minutes of the 4th quarter considering what was at stake.

Here’s what I saw as a few of the turning points and keys to the game:

1. Eli Manning - A simply stellar game.  His pinpoint 38 yard pass to Manningham on the game-winning drive was brilliant.  Everyone snickered before the season started when he stated he believed he was an elite QB like Tom Brady and a few others.  No one is laughing now.  As an Eagles fan, I hate that this has happened.

2. End-game strategy - I think Belichick made the right call playing the odds at the end of the game.  If the Giants, down by 2, don’t score the TD that the Patriots effectively gave them to go ahead, they get to kick a game winning FG with no time left on the clock that’s the same length as an extra point.  Those are made about 99% of the time.  The Pats had better odds intentionally giving up the lead and trying to score a TD with :57 left.  Those odds weren’t great, but they were better than 1%.

3. Patriots lack of down field threats in the passing game - One of the only offensive weaknesses the Pats have is the lack of a deep threat.  Knowing this, the Giants DBs were able to crowd the line of scrimmage and force short throws.  Brady was 0/5 in deeper passing attempts in the game (including the Welker drop and his one interception). 

4. The Gronkle: The Giants benefited from not having to worry about a clearly injured Gronkowski.  His high ankle sprain reduced him to a shell of his explosiveness.  That allowed the Giants to only play single coverage on him and thereby dedicate an extra DB to other aspects of pass coverage - a luxury other Pats opponents haven’t had this year.  

5. Patriots secondary weakness haunt them - With only marginal talent at the corner back and safety positions, the Pats played a lot of deep zone coverage that effectively allowed the Giants to take small low-risk passing gains underneath the coverage.  The Giants kept patient and took those yards which helped them control the clock.  It doesn’t really show up in the game stats other than Eli’s low yardage per attempt but this was a key factor that allowed the Giants to win.

6. Giants punting - I have a weak spot for special teams performance and the three downed punts inside the 10 was an “off stat sheet” reason the Giants were able to win.  The Pats had long fields to drive all night and had trouble sustaining drives (with the exceptions of the two that bracketed half-time).

Not a barn burner type of Super Bowl, but to the hardcore fan, the game was a chess match for 4 quarters and a fitting end to a great season.  Now what to do for the next 28 or so Sundays?

Memories of games past

Over the past 5 years or so, I’ve been fortunate to be able to combine two of my passions on a number of occasions - travel and football (make it 3 passions if you include stadium food).   With the spirit of one of my favourite days of the year (Super Bowl Sunday) upon me, here’s a quick pictorial look back at my football game experiences.

With my love at our first ever NFL game in Philadelphia in late October 2006 (Eagles lose to the Jags 13-6):

In New Orleans for my first Monday night game - Saints lose 31-14 in their home opener vs Titans in September 2007:

My love gets to see her team for the first time in Pittsburgh: Steelers beat Seattle 21-0 on a steamy 34C day in October 2007:

Some dumb luck getting cheap tickets and enough points to get free flights sees us back in Pittsburgh in October 2008, this time for a great rivalry game on Monday night: Steelers beat Ravens 23-20 in OT (to date, the best game either of us has seen in person):

Back in Philly to see my first Eagles win as they dominate Tampa Bay 33-14 in October 2009:

Jets beat the Bills 19-13 in one of their regular season games in Toronto in December 2009:

Another Monday night rivalry game - Bears beat the Packers 20-17 in Chicago.  From super swanky club seats in September 2010:

Crazy good luck timing of a business trip landed me in Seattle to see my Eagles lose to the Seahawks 31-14 in December 2011:

Looking back at my (very bad) NFL predictions

Before the season started this year, I wrote about some of my predictions.  Really, the only prediction I deserve to get credit for getting right was that making predictions is a fool’s game.   In the spirit of transparency and self-reflection, here’s a look back at what I thought would happen and what actually did.

1. Prediction: My Eagles aren’t going to win the Super Bowl.  Verdict: Correct, but that one was like shooting fish in a barrel.

2. Prediction: I see the Steelers winning the AFC North with minimal competition this year.  Verdict: Wrong.  They had a shot at this until they got Tebow’ed.

3. Prediction: Playoff teams from 2011 that won’t get back to the playoffs this season: Seattle, Chicago, Indy, Kansas City.  Verdict: Got that one right - woohoo for me!

4. Prediction: Teams that missed the playoffs in 2010 who make it this year: Detriot, Arizona, Tennessee, San Diego.  Verdict: Got Detroit and missed badly with the others.

5. A few assorted player and team predictions:

(a) Prediction: Tim Tebow doesn’t see a snap this year for the Broncos. Verdict: About as badly missed as any prediction this year.  Not only did he resurrect the Broncos playoff hopes, but he became the story of the year and turned his own name into a verb.

(b) Prediction: Iron man streaks for Eli and Peyton Manning both come to an end this year.  Verdict: Got the easy Peyton one.  I wish I was right on Eli.

(c) Prediction: Brett Favre makes a November comeback for some team with playoff hopes that lost its starting QB to injury for the season.  Verdict: Wrong (and happy for that).

(d) Prediction: Baltimore’s defence takes a big step back this year.  Ray Lewis gets exposed as a very aging LB.  They miss the playoffs.  Verdict: Think I was right on Lewis.  Missed badly on the other two parts of this one.

(e) Prediction: In the first 4 weeks of the season, someone gets a precedent setting 4 game suspension for targeting an opponent’s head.  The NFL finally takes a real stand on head injuries.  Verdict: Not close.   It actually looked as the season went on that the players started adapting well to the new rules.

(f) Prediction: Ben Roethlisberger has a monster season for Pittsburgh.  He was good before he even realized what practice was.  Look out this year.  Verdict: I’ll consider this one at least partly correct. 

(g) Prediction: The Cincinnati Bengals end up dead last in the league in offensive production and tops in the league in defensive production and play some of the lowest scoring football ever seen.  Verdict: Nope.  Dalton looked pretty good for a rookie.  They found their new star WR and they had an underrated OL.  Their defence (although solid) wasn’t as spectacular as I though they’d be.

(h) Prediction: Colt McCoy starts to look like a franchise QB for Cleveland.  Verdict: (Shaking and lowering my head…) What was I thinking on this one?

(i) Prediction: The once proud Oakland Raiders will have one of the top running games in the league, but without the ability to stop anyone on defence, they end up with 4 or 5 wins.  Verdict: Wrong again (except on the defence part).

(j) Prediction: Julius Peppers (Chicago) becomes invisible this year after a monster year last year  Verdict: Yikes, way off on that one too.

6. By Division predictions:

AFC North: Prediction:  Patriots, Jets, Bills, Dolphins; Verdict: Pats, Jets, Dolphins, Bills (Close, not too shabby)

AFC North: Prediction: Steelers, Ravens, Browns, Bengals; Verdict: Ravens, Steelers, Bengals, Browns (All wrong)

AFC South: Prediction: Titans, Texans, Colts, Jags; Verdict: Texans, Titans, Jags, Colts (All wrong)

AFC West: Prediction: Chargers, Chiefs, Broncos, Raiders; Verdict: Broncos, Chargers, Raiders, Chiefs (All wrong)

NFC East: Prediction: Eagles, Cowboys, Redskins, Giants; Verdict: Giants, Eagles, Cowboys, Redskins (Super Bowl finalist picked in 4th place in their division - horribly wrong)

NFC North: Prediction: Packers, Lions, Vikings, Bears; Verdict: Packers, Lions, Bears, Vikings (3 out of 4, pretty solid)

NFC South: Prediction: Falcons, Saints, Bucs, Panthers; Verdict: Saints, Falcons, Panthers, Bucs (All wrong)

NFC West: Prediction: Cardinals, Rams, 49ers, Seahawks; Verdict: 49ers, Cardinals, Seahawks, Rams (All wrong)

AFC/NFC championship observations

Wow.

Two games decided right at the end.  Two goats whose mistakes cost their respective teams a chance to win.   Here’s what I saw in one of the best conference championship weekends in recent memory:

Ravens-Patriots: 

1. The goat - Billy Cundiff’s missed 32 yd FG stopped the Ravens from forcing overtime and obscured the near TD pass moments earlier that would have won the game for the Ravens.  Everyone jokes about kickers until they miss a kick.  If Cundiff couldn’t be trusted for a 50 yarder earlier in the 4th quarter (he’s 1/6 in career FGs over 50 yards) and then misses a gimmie, you have to think Baltimore will look elsewhere next year.

2. Flacco - He took heat all week for his performance against Houston.  Some of it he brought on himself by complaining he never gets any credit when the team wins.  The rest of that was undeserved as he has subpar WRs who couldn’t get open.   Against the Pats, they did get open and Flacco looked strong. 

3. A couple of off-putting items in the Patriots winning performance: (1) Brady’s lack of accuracy in missing a number of wide open receivers; (2) the defence making Joe Flacco and his WRs look like an efficient offence; (3) uncharacteristically taking a knee at the end of the first half with about a minute to go rather than attempting to get into position for a scoring attempt - I can’t remember Belichick ever declining a chance to score.

4. Pats offensive tactics - Baltimore took away much of the passing game by crowding coverage inside the numbers (where the Pats are strong) using extra DBs.  Seeing this, the Patriots took a patient approach running the ball.  This is one of the underestimated abilities of the Patriots - they always take what the other team gives them.  Having a team where egos (players and coaches) don’t dictate offensive tactics is a hidden advantage for the Pats.

5. Ray Lewis - He looked old (and/or hurt) and was slow in coverage a number of times.  He still reads the play exceptionally well, but just doesn’t have 3 down coverage skills like he used to.

6. Coincidence? - Bernard Pollard nearly incapacitated another Patriot when he came close to breaking Gronkowsli’s ankle on Sunday.  He ended Brady’s season a few years ago when he played with the Chiefs and it was his hit on Welker as a member of the Texans that took him out of lineup for the playoffs two years ago. 

Giants/49ers:

1. The goat - With an injury to their primary punt returner, the 49ers were forced to use Kyle Williams in the return game and his two mistakes cost them dearly.  The first mistake was mental - after letting a punt hit the ground, you’ve got to get out of the way of the ball and let it roll dead.  Williams was clearly caught trying to make up his mind to go after the ball or let it roll.  In the process, it glanced off his knee and was recovered by the Giants leading to a TD.  The second mistake, a fumble on a punt return, led to the Giants game winning FG in overtime.  If he doesn’t make the first mistake, the 49ers may have won the game in regulation.  His second mistake, handed them the game on a silver platter.  

2. Ball security and special teams:  I love watching smart football teams play.  What was the strength of the 49ers throughout this season ended up being their downfall in this game.  This year the 49ers won games by not turning the ball over (best in the league), by forcing turnovers (led the league), by winning field position through exceptional special teams and by dominant defensive performances.  On Sunday, they had the defence, but the other aspects let them down and couldn’t mask another pedestrian (and that’s a generous description) offensive performance.

3. 49ers wide receivers - They’ve been non-existent all year, but even for them, they turned in a complete disappearing act against the Giants - one measly catch all game.  They couldn’t get open, and with the Giants able to play single coverage against the WRs, an extra safety was able to be committed to help slow down the running attack and to attempt to take away passes to the TEs.  Many pundits will put the offensive failures on Alex Smith, but in order to make passes, your guys have to get open.

4. 3rd downs - In a game like this, you need to convert a few third downs to keep your offence on the field.  The 49ers only converted one all game.  As a result, the Giants ran 90 offensive plays compared with only 57 for the 49ers.   If it wasn’t for the 49ers defence (and by the way, their tackling in this game was textbook and a real treat to watch), this game wouldn’t have been close.

5. Eli Manning - He was abused in this game - sacked, knocked to the ground, moved off his spot in the pocket, but he kept popping back up.  He made the big passes when they were needed behind an offensive line that didn’t have its best game and with virtually no running game.   Not the prettiest performance he’s ever had, but it was what was needed for the win.

So the Superbowl match-up is set featuring two teams I’m not terribly fond of.  The Patriots, who I dislike due to their fans (…. I don’t mean you, you’re one of the ok ones, honestly) against the Giants who are my Eagles’ nemesis (and who provide immense enjoyment when they’re struggling as they produces two of sport’s best images - “Eli face” and “angry Coughlin face”).    Should be a great one in two weeks time.  Now to remember what people do to fill their Sundays without football….

Divisional playoff observations

The divisional playoff weekend is probably my favourite football weekend of the year after opening day.   You know you’ll have 4 excellent match-ups and there are usually a couple of memorable games.  This year was no exception.

Saints/49ers - First game of the weekend and the last 5 minutes of this one were epic - easily one of the best playoff games I remember watching.  After the 49ers got out to an early 17 point lead, the Saints continued to chip away until they took a 1 point lead on a long TD pass.  That kicked off 3 more TDs in less than 4 minutes with the 49ers winning on a last second toss to Davis.   You had the feeling that the 49ers missed opportunities (only 13 points off of 5 Saints turnovers) would be their downfall, but those points were enough to squeak out the win.  Keys to the 49ers win:

1. Turnovers (obviously): Taking the ball away from the Saints 5 times gives you an enormous advantage. 

2. Tacking by the 49ers: with the exception of the 2 late TDs, the 49ers wrapped up and tackled runners and receivers on first contact, something the Lions last week couldn’t do.

3. Alex Smith to Vernon Davis: Davis had a monster day and every time he was matched up in 1-on-1 coverage down the field, Smith found him with a perfect pass.  Two long gains in the last 5 minutes of the game were crucial after the 49ers offense had no rhythm for more than half of the game.  The 49ers got no production their WRs all game long - Davis had 180 of the 299 yards of passing offence.

4. Taking away the run: People often discount the Saints running game, but they use it to keep defences off balance.  The 49ers made the Saints a one dimensional passing attack which allowed them to generate significant pass rush pressure.  Brees was under pressure on many passes and wasn’t as accurate as he had been over the past 5 weeks.

5. Special teams: Akers made all his FG opportunities (the 49ers are going to pay the price for poor red-zone execution at some point) and Lee had an outstanding game punting forcing the Saints to drive for scores from poor field position.   Coverage units generated 2 turnovers that led to points.  Special teams gets overlooked, but the 49ers are the best in the NFL and it made a huge difference in this game.

Broncos/Patriots - Brady was incredible.  His two TEs were a force.  The Pats defence looked good.  This game was a blow-out in every sense and wasn’t an entertaining game to watch (for the neutral viewer).  I can’t remember Brady even being touched all game long - his O-line was exceptional.  When Brady gets this kind of protection, the Patriots will put up 30+ points every time.   Tebow looked horrible and out of place and was completely outclassed.  The off season for the Broncos is going to be interesting.  They have to either fully commit to Tebow and his style of play (and that would mean altering the types of players they bring in to protect him, to back him up, etc.) or drop him and start fresh with a new QB (which would be a PR disaster).  Anything in the middle of those two options will continue to keep the Broncos as a middling offensive team for years.  Looking forward to watching John Elway to see if he has the courage to fully commit to one of two not terribly attractive options for long term success. 

Texans/Ravens - Joe Flacco complained to the media this week that he never gets any of the credit when the Ravens win - this week he showed he didn’t deserve any for the 20-14 win over the Texans.  The Ravens really won in spite of his inconsistent performance.  The defence and a few Texans mistakes get the credit for this win.  Three interceptions of Texans QB Yates (the last two being very much rookie mistakes - repeated throws deep into double coverage on Ed Reed’s side of the field) and a recovery of a muffed punt were too much to overcome.  

Giants/Packers - The Packers played almost flawless football in going 15-1 this season, then ventured into opposite land for this game: a slew of dropped passes, passes by Rodgers that were well off mark, 3 fumbles, missed tackles and an ill-timed poorly executed on-side kick.  The Giants are proving that it’s all about how you’re playing as the season ends and playoffs start.  After getting to 7-7 (and looking very bad in the process), they’ve rolled off 4 straight wins and look like they’ve fixed their woes on the offensive line and on defence.  In particular, their downfield coverage was exceptional on Sunday.  Early in the game when they were not able to generate much pressure on Rodgers, it was their secondary that made big plays to keep the Packers offence at bay.

Many people had an AFC match-up of New England and Baltimore called before the season started, but I assure you no one had the 49ers and Giants in the NFC championship game.   Looks like two great games next week.

Wild Card Sunday observations

Wild Card Sunday was indeed wild, especially at the end of Sunday.  The Broncos/Steelers game was one for the ages.  But let’s start with the dud of an early game:

Falcons / Giants -  The Giants completely dominated this game.  The Falcons, a solid regular season team for the past 4 years are now 0-3 in the playoffs with Matt Ryan as their QB.   They offered little resistance after the first quarter.  A key to the Falcons poor showing was their repeated failures in 3rd and 4th down with 2 yards or less to go.  In not being able to pick up short yardage situations, they kept giving the ball back to the Giants.  The worst miss was a 4th and 1 with 4 minutes left in the 3rd quarter.  Matt Ryan attempted a QB sneak out of an empty backfield formation which telegraphed the play call to the Giants defence making for an easy stop (lousy, uncreative short yardage play calls have doomed Atlanta a couple of times this season).  After that, the Falcons rolled over for the rest of the game.  Kudos to the Giants for rediscovering their running game in this one.   Their OL which has looked pretty bad most of the year has now played 3 good games in a row.

Steelers / Broncos - I’ll get to the main part of the game in a moment, but let me start with the end.   For a Broncos fan or a football fan without a rooting interest, to see the first NFL game under the new OT rules end on an 80 yard TD pass is one for the ages.   Right off the snap you could see Thomas had Taylor beaten to the inside (more on that in a second) and with Mundy dropping down to the line of scrimmage to stop the run, the middle of the field was wide open with no safety to help Taylor to the inside.  After Thomas caught the ball, it was a foot race to the end-zone that sent the crowd into a frenzy.  Awesome finish to a very entertaining game. 

A couple of things that caught my eye in this one:

a. Ike Taylor had a truly horrible game.  He was beaten on the game winning TD, beaten on a number of big pass plays in the 2nd quarter and was flagged for a couple penalties that sustained Broncos drives.   When you pay big bucks to a shutdown CB, you need to get more out of him.

b. The Steelers offence took too long to get into a flow.  Once Ben got moving around in the pocket in the 2nd half, the down field throws started to open up to him.   Backup RB Redman had an outstanding game rushing for 121 yards including a number of big runs in the second half that setup TDs.   Their stalled out last drive with less than 2 minutes left lacked urgency and purpose and cost them a real opportunity to get a game winning FG at the end of regulation.

c. The officiating was pretty bad across the board in this one.  Ron Winter (my least favourite ref) missed a number of facemask penalties and spent what seemed like a 1/2 hr in total under the replay hood.   His crew members blew a few calls that required a video replay to overturn (and one that video replay couldn’t fix because of an arcane NFL rule).  At the start of overtime, I was convinced he would find a way to affect the outcome of the game or screw it up somehow.

d. The Broncos showed a very nice game plan mixing up the run and pass and keeping the Steelers defence off balance all night.  When Tebow can hit the mid-range and deep passes off play action roll-outs, the Broncos can be dangerous. He only completed 10 passes, but saw those go for 316 yards.   The Steelers defenders couldn’t get a read on pass vs. rush plays and weren’t able to flush Tebow to his right to limit his effectiveness out of the pocket.  The Broncos may not have a traditional NFL offence, but on any given Sunday….

The Steelers loss puts an end to any household rooting interests the rest of the way.  I’m giving my loving fiance some space to grieve right now as she puts her Terrible Towel away for another season.

Wild Card Saturday observations

Two entertaining wildcard games on Saturday.  Here’s what I saw:

Bengals/Texans - Two evenly matched teams on paper with relatively predictable offences - this usually means that whoever wins the turnover battle and the battle of the offensive and defensive lines will emerge with the victory.  This was certainly the case on Saturday afternoon.  The Texans OL dominated the Bengals.  They ran the ball at will with very vanilla play calling.  The Texans DL got to Dalton a number of times (deflected passes, sacks, forcing an interception that was returned for a TD) and completely stuffed the run all game.  Three Bengals turnovers sealed their fate.

One side note on the Bengals - because a member of my household has a strong rooting interest in the AFC North, I end up catching a few more Bengals games a year than I might like to.  Their coach (Marvin Lewis) continued to show his ineptitude in game management (this wasn’t a one time thing on Saturday - this plagues that team every year).  His two replay challenges were utterly foolish.  His early challenge on the spot of the ball on a 3rd and 1 was clearly wrong (after a touch-back the runner has to get to the 30 yard line for a first down so there should’ve been no doubt on the call on the field) - you also just don’t see many spot challenges won.  For a relatively insignificant first down early in the game, it’s not worth wasting that challenge.  His second challenge on a catch by the Texans TE in the second quarter was just as bad.  He reacted to his players reaction on the field and got caught up in the emotion of the moment.  On the play, it was clearly a catch (ball never touched the ground, receiver was laying on his back so there was no way he couldn’t have been down by contact).  The cost of those challenges were two timeouts which meant their two drives at the end of the first half didn’t have the extra time they could have.  Although their lack of challenges the rest of the game didn’t cost them in the second half, it’s tough to overlook this lack of basic game management in a head coach. 

Lions/Saints - What started out as a close back and forth game turned into a blowout as a series of missed opportunities and mistakes started to stack up for the Lions.  In order to beat the Saints in New Orleans, Detroit needed to play mistake free football and capitalize on the few chances that would come their way during the game.  Instead, the Lions:

a. scored no points after recovering two rare Saints fumbles

b. dropped two interceptions on bad passes by Brees (one by Berry, one by Wright)

c. couldn’t tackle Saints running backs and receivers on first contact allowing significant extra yardage to a team that needs no additional help

d. missed opportunities to force the Saints to punt on three 3rd and long situations

e. failed to cover Graham (really, he’s 6’7”, 265lbs and you forget to put anyone on him?) on 1st and goal from the 1 resulting in an easy TD toss for Brees

f. completely blew the coverage on the Meachem TD with a safety jumping an inside route that needed no extra help leaving the WR wide open 20 yards behind coverage

… after all of that, the 2 interceptions thrown by Stafford late in the 4th didn’t matter much as the Lions were in desperation mode

On the Saints side of the ledger, an exceptional offensive performance by the whole team racking up more than 620 yards of offence (a playoff record).  The OL kept Brees clean all night - he only took one big hit all game with the Lions feared front 4 never getting any pressure.  Under the radar of Brees’ gaudy passing numbers was more than 160 yards of rushing in the game to help keep the Lions defence off balance.  I really loved the two aggressive calls by Sean Payton (going for it on 4th and inches inside their territory in the 3rd quarter and going for it on 4th and 2 from the Lions 40 with 11:00 to go in the 4th).  He knew the Lions had a potent offence and that his team couldn’t sit on their small lead at the time and hope their defence would win them the game. 

Report card: Eagles season in review

Failure.  

It’s the only word for a season of heightened expectations for a team and a city so desperate for a title.   With all of the free agent acquisitions and the amount of pure talent amassed this year, there is no other way to describe the season than as a failure.  A complete and absolute failure.  So how does a team that was stacked at many positions and with a coach entering his 13th year at the helm of a team stumble their way to an 8-8 record?  With my vision now 20/20 after 16 games, here’s how I saw the Eagles this year.

A couple of things to remember before the position by position report card (because really, at its heart, football is a team sport) ….

Offense: Ranked 4th in the league by yardage and 8th by points scored, this was all undone by a league worst 36 turnovers (including 24 interceptions).  Very simply, this was a case study in why protecting the ball is so important.  If the Eagles were just average in giving the ball away, they’re in the playoffs (and I have a reason to pull out my vintage Ron Jaworski jersey at least one more time before September).

Defence: Here too, the stats lie a bit on the overall effectiveness.  The Eagles ranked 8th in yards allowed, 10th in points allowed, middle of the pack in turnovers generated and led the NFL in sacks with 50.  A very respectable performance, except many of those stats were padded in games against teams that didn’t make the playoffs.  Take out their performances since starting the season 4-8, and the Eagles rank in the bottom third of the league in all defensive measures.

Special teams: As shown in a great statistical analysis here, the Eagles were almost dead on average in overall special teams performance (kicking, punting, returning, coverage) when adjusted for factors outside of their control.  Looking deeper two critical weaknesses become apparent: (1) the kick/punt returning was near the bottom of the league; and (2) their punting performance ranked 27th out of 32 teams; combine those two together, and the Eagles end up losing the field position battle too often in games - that is the hidden yardage for the opposition that doesn’t show up in the core offensive and defensive stats above.

Here’s how I saw the performance position by position, and in some cases, player by player.

Offensive line (grade: A) - One of the few bright spots.  What started out as a perceived weakness, really showed excellent form after the first game as a run blocking line.  As the season went on, the grouping of Peters, Mathis, Kelce, Watkins and Herremans began to pass protect as well.  This line has a nice blend of youth and experience and should the Eagles be able to keep Howard Mudd (OL coach) around for another year, this should be a strong point in 2012.

Wide receivers and tight ends (overall grade: C) - This unit just didn’t work in 2011.   Jackson (grade: D) looked disinterested most of the year and didn’t play fearlessly as he needs to.  Avant (grade: C), although generally reliable, had some untimely drops.  Cooper (grade: C) is still struggling to find his niche as a 3rd or 4th receiver.  Maclin (grade: B) became the team’s #1 WR this year and was the best of the bunch, but was still very quiet and inconsistent for long stretches of many games.  At TE, Celek (grade: B) was solid and had some spectacular contributions once Vick starting finding him as the year wore on. 

Running backs (overall grade: A) - McCoy (grade: A) had a breakout year and nearly won the rushing title.  Everytime he has the ball, he’s a threat for a big play.  The other running backs (Brown, Lewis) saw only spot duty through the season and I expect the Eagles will look elsewhere for complimentary backs in 2011.  Schmidt at FB doesn’t get on the field much but is a capable blocker.

Quarterback (overall grade: C) - Let’s first dispense with grading backup Vince Young (grade: F).  He was terrible.  With the exception of the 17 play drive in the 4th quarter to beat the Giants, he was cover your eyes bad and ruined the game I got to go to in Seattle.  Vick (grade: C) was only ok.  He turned the ball over far too often and his inability to slide or run out of bounds ended up costing him a few games as starter.  He continues to show athleticism which is unmatched, but the errors he made cost the team games this year.  As a short QB, he’s got to find a way to eliminate the number of tipped and deflected passes at the line of scrimmage. 

Defensive line (overall grade: B) - 2011 was a strong year for the front 4.  In particular, the line was able to exert pressure on the opposing QBs without needing to blitz (which did put them at a disadvantage in stopping the run until some scheme changes were made around the middle of the year).  Babin (grade: B) came close to leading the league in sacks but is one dimensional and was weak against the run.  Cole (grade: A) had another 10+ sack year and is dangerous against the run and pass - he’s the true star of the DL.  Jenkins (grade: B) provided stability and leadership.  Patterson (grade: B) doesn’t have flashy stats, but is solid and a key cog.   The Eagles use a rotation to keep their D-line fresh and the other guys (Parker, Landri, Tapp, Hunt, Laws) all played well in more limited duty.

Linebackers (overall grade: D) - This unit really struggled until the last quarter of the season.  Generally undersized and fast, they took poor angles in tackling, had difficulty covering RBs and TEs in the passing game and lacked the physicality needed to play in the front 7 (with the notable exceptions of games vs the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins in the first 3/4 of the season).  Rolle has speed to burn but was very inconsistent.  After a very difficult start, Matthews started to look more comfortable over the last few games but it’s hard to see him as much more than a situational contributor next year.  Jordan, Chaney and Clayton look like reasonable supporting pieces, but not as the featured full-time players they were in 2011 where they broke down too often.  Significant attention needs to be paid to this position group in the offseason.

Cornerbacks (overall grade: C) - Outside of the red-zone, this unit probably scores out as a B, but their play in the red zone drops them a letter grade in my books.  Samuel (grade: B) had a strong season, but will likely not be back in 2012.  Asomugha (grade: C) played ok, but had some very high profile mistakes throughout the year.  Rogers-Cromartie (grade: C) was underwhelming, but in a theme for the defence as a whole, played better in the second half of the year.  Hanson (grade: C) is serviceable as a 3rd or 4th corner but struggled when his playing time increased due to injuries with the rest of the group.

Safeties (overall grade: D) - Red-zone coverage failures and inconsistency drop their grade to D.  Allen is an enigma - at times he looks like a good young prospect, at other times he looks like a lost rookie.  Here’s hoping that with a completely healthy off-season he can play up to his promise in 2012.  Jarrett looked over-matched at times and didn’t do a great job in run support.  This is a position the Eagles have to address in the offseason.

Kicking (Henery - grade: B) - The rookie looked good throughout the year.  He cost the Eagles the game against the 49ers with 2 misses, but other than that, was very accurate.  He doesn’t have a big leg.  I watched him in warm-ups in perfect conditions in Seattle and he was barely making 53-54 yard kicks.  Kick-off performance was 19th in the league in average starting position for the opposition which is a bit of a weakness.  Henery needs better kick coverage to hide his weaker than average leg.  He can’t boom every kick for a touch back like so many other kickers in the league.

Punting (Henry - grade: D) - Another rookie, he looked uncomfortable at the angle punting game and trying to down punts inside the 10.   He doesn’t have a big leg, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Eagles really try to improve this position next year.  The Eagles ranked 27th in the league in net punting average (much of that on the punter, their coverage/pursuit looked at least average to me).  As a side note, the punter the Eagles released (Rocca, to the Redskins) had a career year for Washington.

Kick/Punt Returning (grade: D) - What was a strength in 2010 was a team weakness this season.  On the punt return the Eagles ranked 27th in average return length - Jackson couldn’t break any long returns and frequently lost yards looking for the big play.  The Eagles had 3 turnovers on punt returns this year - not acceptable.  On the kick return, I can’t remember one being brought back past the 40 all year and the Eagles ranked 31st in return average.  A few fumbles didn’t help either.   The returners and the blockers need a massive overhaul.

Specialty Coaching - This was a real mixed bag.  Starting with the positives, you could see the positive impact of Mudd (grade: A) coaching of the OL and Washburn (grade: A) coaching the DL.  Those two units were significantly improved over 2010.  Special teams coordinator Avril (grade: D) had a rough year as the Eagles ranked at the bottom of kicking and returning stats in terms of field position and net averages.  Overall defensive coordinator Castillo (grade: C) struggled until the last few games.  He never coached defence until this year and it showed.  Offensive coordinator Mornhinweg (grade: C) had his ups and downs - he still falls in love with the passing game and forgot he had a pro bowl running back for long stretches of games; overall he did a reasonable job in play-calling except in relying too much on the pass while Vick was injured.

Head Coach (grade: C) - The million dollar question for Eagles fans was whether Andy Reid will be back in 2012 - on Tuesday we learned he will be.  He was better in some aspects this year (replay challenges), but struggled with some familiar problems (timeouts and game management seem to be some form of kryptonite to him, and I can’t explain him promoting his OL coach into the defensive coordinator role for this season).  He still has command of the locker room as evidenced by the finish of the team which counts for something.   I think this year he’ll have to do a better job of selling his 2012 plan to team management.  I hope one of the items on his list is returning to having a team of high quality guys.  His recent experiments with highly talented but lower character guys (going back to TO, DJax this year, and dare I say it, Michael Vick) hasn’t panned out yet. 

Week 17 observations

And with the 17th week of football, the 2011-12 regular season drew to a close.  With the tension of having a horse in the race taken out of the equation for me, it was a good week to just enjoy some football and watch as many games as I could.  Here’s what I saw this week:

Eagles: The 34-10 win over the Redskins got them to 8-8 on the season and really just made me wonder what might have been.   The last 4 wins came against some pretty bad opposition that missed the playoffs themselves (Jets, Dolphins, Redskins, Cowboys) so the upswing needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  On Sunday, the defence played confidently and it never felt like Washington was going to mount a threat.  On the other side of the ball, with McCoy injured, the Eagles abandoned the run.  Vick looked comfortable most of the day in the pocket and Celek and Maclin both had big days catching passes.  All in all, it was hard to focus on this game as there was nothing either team was playing for.  I spent a good deal of the afternoon watching the other games flash by on RedZone.

Packers/Lions: Shoot-out games are great fun to watch.  Big props to Packers backup QB Flynn for setting single game Packers passing records for yards and TDs (eclipsing previous marks of some pretty good company: Starr, Favre and Rodgers).  A bit worrisome for the Packers is their defence going into the playoffs.  Although they rested a few key starters, they still give up far too much yardage.  Their hallmark all year has been generating turnovers.  If that dries up, it might cost them a trip to the Super Bowl.

Patriots/Bills: Another team with lights-out offence and cover your eyes defence, the Pats rolled up 49 straight points after getting down 21-0 early.  Of interest early in this game was Bills receiver Steve Johnson earning his second post-TD celebration penalty of the season for a premeditated celebration.  He was promptly benched for the rest of the game and that took the steam out of the Bills attack.   There’s no excuse for not knowing the rules and there really isn’t any excuse for his stupidity this year. 

Steelers:  They struggled for a 13-9 win in Cleveland, fighting through two big fumbles, a season-ending injury to Mendenhall, wicked wind gusts and an immobile QB.  They’re not healthy heading into their playoff game next week against the Broncos.  They tend to win ugly and I think they’re a decent bet to make the AFC championship game, even with the injuries.

Broncos: They completely backed into the playoffs and I think the Tebow mania has died down a bit.  After his 6/22 60yd performance in a losing effort, I’m not sure how the Broncos will generate enough offence against the Steelers next week to get a win.  The Steelers have the talent to match up man-to-man against the Denver receivers, commit an extra safety to stopping the tun and force Tebow to pass his way to victory.  If the Steelers keep the mistakes on offence and special teams to a minimum, they should be moving on next week.

Raiders:  With the Broncos loss, the Raiders could have made the playoffs with a win.  In true Raiders style, they choked away that opportunity and miss the playoffs yet again.  After the game, their head coach completely threw his team under the bus in his press conference, insinuating that it’s the players responsibility to make plays (it is, but abandoning the “it’s all about team” when the going gets tough is not a sign of leadership).  He also said next year he’ll be more involved in all facets of team preparation next year.  This is another great example of how most NFL teams, players and coaches don’t understand much about leadership and human behaviour. 

Cowboys/Giants:  I really dislike both of these teams, but it was good to see the Cowboys completely hand this one to the Giants with a laundry list of mistakes.  The ‘Boys botched 3 opportunities for fumble recoveries, dropped passes, missed open receivers, ran an ill-fated 4th and 1 play late in the game and that doesn’t even cover all of the bone headed defensive lapses by CB Newman.  The Giants OL looked good for one of the few times this year, but I wouldn’t trust this team to make a deep playoff run.  Not that they won’t, but the Giants have been far too inconsistent this year and one game doesn’t change that.

Although my Eagles season ended too early this year, I got a small moral victory on Sunday.  Each year, Jodi and I pick games against each other for bragging rights. I secured those rights when the Cardinals beat the Seahawks in OT to give me the slimmest of winning margins - 1 pick up after 256 games.   All tolled, I picked 173 of 256 correctly putting me ahead of all of the ESPN “experts” except their statistical analysis Accuccore picks.

Week 16 observations

Week 16 put football and Christmas Eve together - a perfect match.   We decided on a quiet day together with some holiday-themed snacks for the day of games.  This was our frozen holiday slush drink:

The late games/supper snack was cocktail meatballs (I threw a few of these on a bun with the sauce for an outstanding sandwich):

Here’s what I saw during this week’s games:

Eagles: What had been a virtual inevitability became official on Sunday, the Eagles will miss the playoffs this year.  That being said, they played a very efficient game against the Cowboys for a 20-7 win.  Granted, Dallas had their backup QB in the game and were resting some of their starters on offence, but it was a complete and clean game for Philly.   Vick had a strong game and was well protected by an OL that has really come together as the season has gone on.  The defence pressured McGee all game with a 4 man rush and added to their NFL leading sack total.  Now on a 3-0 run, the Eagles have a meaningless game next week with which to close out the season.  I uttered my annual “Maybe next year” on Sunday for my Eagles as their Super Bowl hopes ended - sadly, something I’ve said every year I’ve watched football.

Giants/Jets:  I needed the Jets to win to keep the Eagles alive for a playoff spot.  In their infinite wisdom, they called 64 (!) pass plays for Sanchez.   That was complete foolishness.  The Jets may still make the playoffs in the AFC, but they’ve really fallen from their near championship form from the past two seasons.   They’re a team with no running attack, an overrated defence and a coaching staff that might be running out of motivational tricks.  The Giants didn’t look much better in this game.  They’re set for a winner makes the playoffs game with Dallas next week.   Given how those two teams have played down the stretch, a tie might be a fitting result.

Steelers:  Charlie Batch may be the ultimate backup QB.  He was almost mistake free and led a balanced attack on the way to a 27-0 win.  The Rams really weren’t a challenge in this one.  The goal for Pittsburgh will be to win their finale against the Browns, hope for a Ravens loss and just get healthy for the playoffs. 

Packers / Bears:  After a very slow start, the Packers pulled away on the strength of 5 Rogers TD passes.  The Bears had a solid game plan early in running the ball, but couldn’t keep pace once the Packers offence warmed up.  For the Packers, Jordy Nelson is a really under-appreciated WR.   He’s quietly having an outstanding season.  After signing a 4 yr $14M contract, he might be one of the best contractual values in the NFL.  Funniest moment of the TV broadcast - a woman holding up a sign in the Lambeau Field crowd that read: “My cheating ex boyfriend is watching from the couch instead”

Indy/Houston: Nice win by the Colts using a last minute TD drive for their second win of the season.  A lot of undisciplined play by Houston aided that drive, but Orlovsky made 2 nice passes to Wayne to pull the game out.  Houston will make the playoffs but needs to play much more disciplined football once they get there to have any success.

Broncos/Bills:  Tebow came crashing back down to earth with a 4 INT game.  Someone once wrote that Tebow’s throwing motion looked like a moose trying to <expletive> a washing machine.  That’s a pretty accurate description of the performance on Sunday.  He’ll need to shake that off next week for a win to make the playoffs.

Saints/Falcons: Drew Brees eclipses Dan Marino’s single season passing record in a blowout win over their division rival.  Atlanta will make the playoffs, but it’s clear from this game they’ll be hard pressed to keep pace with the Saints should they meet them in the playoffs.   

Week 15 observations

You’d think that after 14 Sundays of football, the routine would get boring - but it never does.   We spent the morning preparing the day’s snacks, got the dual TVs setup and as the clock struck 2pm, I was ready for some football.  With Christmas decorating mostly done, here’s what game day looked like this week a bit later in the afternoon (Eagles/Jets on TV on left, Pats/Broncos on right):

A really outstanding day of snacks.  For the early game, I made a black bean dip based on this recipe.  The recipe is a bit on the bland side, so I punch it up with some lime juice, about twice the hot sauce and a bit of garlic.  For the late game, we tried a new wing recipe (we used drumsticks) that we loved - super easy, very tasty and delicious looking:

As for the games, here’s what I saw this week:

Eagles/Jets:  My Eagles kept their exceptionally slim playoff hopes alive.  In the back of my head, I know it’s just so they can let me down in some sort of spectacular fashion, but it keeps things fun for another week.  Prior to their game against the Jets, to stay alive they needed a Redskins upset of the Giants (can’t remember the last time I cheered that hard for the Redskins).  The game against the Jets was sloppy by both teams - so bad in fact, that the Eagles committed 4 turnovers and still won by 26.  Aside from three really bad turnovers (2 on special teams), the Eagles played well.  The defence harassed the Jets all game and looked very physical against a normally physical offence.  Vick and the offence moved the ball efficiently and turned each of the Jets turnovers into points.  Vick has to get some self-preservation skills quickly or his career isn’t going to last much longer.  His desire to keep plays alive saw him knocked to the ground violently a few times in this game - I was surprised he got up from a couple of those.   The most enjoyable thing to watch this year has been the running of McCoy.  He had 3 TDs in this game and has really established himself as one of the top running backs in the league. 

Steelers/49ers:  The two power outages that delayed the game meant I only stayed with it until half-time before heading to bed.  This is a tough loss for the Steelers and may have cost them the #1 seed in the playoffs.  Roethlisberger isn’t the same QB without mobility and it’ll be interesting to see if he gets rested in either of the 2 remaining games to ensure he’s healthy for the playoffs.  They’ve virtually guaranteed the #5 seed and a first playoff match-up on the road against the AFC West winner (Broncos and Tebow perhaps?).

Jags/Falcons: This horrible Thursday night match-up saw me head to bed before the half.  Although I enjoy the Thursday night games later in the season, match-ups and blow-outs like this can’t keep anyone’s attention.

Chiefs upset of the Packers: The Chiefs prove the saying that any team can win on any given Sunday.  It was a great physical display by the KC defence that won them this game.  It might also have been a sign that the Packers are going to have to change some of their game plans due to injuries along their offensive line.  Even Aaron Rogers looks human if the pass rush consistently gets to him. 

Baltimore’s loss: Maybe it’s because there’s a Terrible Towel permanently on display in my living room during the season, but it was a lot of fun watching the Ravens lay another egg… almost as much fun was watching Ray Lewis pout on the sidelines.  He, in particular, looked old and slow in this game.  This team is soft on the road. I’ve said it a bunch of times this year - don’t trust the Ravens.  However, if they can get the #1 seed and play at home throughout the playoffs, they’ll have a chance.

Smart football insights on Twitter - I really love following some of the football thinking on Twitter during the games.  In particular, @MikePereira (former VP of officiating for the NFL) has incredible rules based insight on complicated rulings that come up through the day.  If something odd happens in a game, he’ll have a perfect explanation in about 30 seconds posted while the announcers on TV (usually) have no clue and/or struggle with the rules.  He’s the best thing on Twitter every Sunday for anyone who’s a football geek.

Week 14 observations

The last quarter of the season kicked off with a great slate of games. Here’s what I saw this week:

Eagles - They got a very ugly 26-10 win over Miami.  The offence was bottled up for most of the day and the Eagles kept trying, but couldn’t get anything going in the running game.  They capitalized on a couple of turnovers and short fields to put points on the board.  Two things in particular I took note of that speak to the very rare showing of grit and toughness that helped them win this game:

1. The defence was the star of the game stopping Miami 6 times on 3rd or 4th down and less than 2 yards to go, sacking Miami QBs 9 times and forcing 3 turnovers.  Without those stops, it would have been a very different game. 

2. LeSean McCoy, although being bottled up in the run all day, he converted 5 of 6 attempts of 2 yards or less into first towns (or TDs).

The eternal optimist in me now knows the scenario by which the Eagles sneak into the playoffs - they need to win their last 3 games (Jets, at Cowboys, Redskins) and need Dallas and the Giants to both go 1-2 or worse.  That’s a very remote shot, but it keeps things interesting for at least another week.

Steelers - They earned a hard fought win over the Browns and look to have escaped a devastating injury to their QB.  Roethlisberger is a bit like a zombie - he just keeps getting back up to play.  After leaving for one series after what looked to be a horrible ankle/leg injury, he hobbled back to lead the team to the win in the second half.   The more troubling injury in this game may have been to their centre, Pouncey.  He suffered a similar injury late lat year which kept him out of the Super Bowl. 

Browns - On the opening drive of the game against the Steelers, they had a 4th down and goal from the 2 yard line.  This is a team that is missing the playoffs, has an ever more disenchanted fan base and is riding a 1-10 streak in games against their division-rival played in Pittsburgh.  Kicking a FG on the first drive of a game like this is akin to giving up before you get started.  Whenever you’re playing a team that so clearly outclasses you in talent, you’ve got to be aggressive in every decision to get a win.   Terrible decision made by a terrible coach of a (sadly) terrible team.

Bears/Broncos - All the press is about Tebow, but how about the things that happened that gave him a shot to earn the headlines.  With less than 2:00 left, if Bears running back Marion Barber simply falls down in bounds rather than running out of bounds, the Broncos would have only had about :15 left to mount a comeback, rather than more than :50.  Prater makes a 59 yard FG to tie the game and send it into overtime, then kicks another 50+ yard FG after Marion Barber fumbles the ball as the Bears were driving for the winning FG in OT.  Barber may have cost his team a playoff spot with 2 inexcusable mistakes.  The first one simply isn’t made by a smart football player.  Tebow was impressive in the 4th and OT and the hype machine will be torqued up to max for next week’s game against Brady and the Patriots.

49ers - With their loss, they opened the door for the Saints to reach the NFC’s 2-seed for the playoffs.  This team has got to figure out their red-zone troubles.  Even though I haven’t followed many of their recent games closely, I keep noticing David Akers running out for field goals and have noticed FG-heavy scores.  If they don’t start scoring more TDs, they could be in for an early playoff exit.

Patriots - Their secondary looks horrible.  The Redskins shouldn’t be able to score 27 on anyone.   It will be interesting to see if Brady and the offense can keep outscoring teams in the playoffs.