The Best Weekend of the Year lived up to its reputation this weekend, as the divisional round of the playoffs gave us three outstanding games. Here is my reaction, with a disproportionate amount of time spent on the Denver-Baltimore game, because, well, if you saw it, you’d understand.
One of the best playoff games in NFL history, and an instant classic. This game could be analyzed for hours and there are countless talking points (Fox playing not to lose, Manning’s playoff failures, Ray Lewis’ retirement tour making at least one last stop, Tim Tebow anyone?) that will fill up the schedules of ESPN and talk radio for weeks. But let’s start with a big picture review of the game from the perspective of the team I expected to win the Super Bowl.
If you want to assign credit and blame to Denver, this is how I would rank the five Broncos units on Saturday, from best to worst.
1) Special teams. Sure, Matt Prater missed a long field goal, but Trindon Holliday’s two return touchdowns were a thing of beauty — especially for fans of excellent blocking. Holliday’s runs were more about textbook blocking by the return unit and poor coverage by the Ravens than Holliday himself, but in any event, the Broncos special teams had a great day. In fact, here is how Pro-Football-Reference broke down the game by unit in terms of Expected Points Added:
The Broncos added 6.1 points on special teams, although that is dragged down by Holliday’s poor punt return in overtime (-7 yard return preceding Denver’s final drive of the year). But in regulation, Holliday’s two scores were huge, and he became the first player to return both a punt and kickoff for touchdowns in a playoff game. Also worth noting: Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal added 1.5 points of expected value to Baltimore, so the Ravens special teams units were at -7.6 points added before that kick (and because of how the system is designed, that means the Denver special teams were at +7.6 points added before the kick).
2) The Pass Offense. Peyton Manning deserves some criticism, but in general, Manning was one of the best players on the field for the Broncos. Now maybe that’s not enough, and when you’re Peyton Manning you need to be the best player on the field in every playoff game (even if such logic appears only to be applied to, well, Peyton Manning). He did have several bad plays — a sack/fumble and the ugly overtime interception — but I’m not going to hold the pick-six against him. That pass was right on target, pass interference easily could have been called, and the ball would have hit Eric Decker right in the hands if his arm wasn’t being restrained by a Baltimore defender. In any event, the ball hit Decker in the chest and was tipped into the air, so Manning doesn’t get blame from me on that one.
That play alone was worth 7 Expected Points. Certainly that deserves to go against the passing game of the Broncos, but if you absolve Manning of it, that means he (as a proxy for Denver’s passing offense) added over 13 expected points for the game.
Manning’s first two touchdowns passes, to Brandon Stokley and Decker, were absolutely gorgeous throws that few quarterbacks in history could ever consistently make. The Broncos gained 30 first downs on the day, and remember, they were cut short two possessions thanks to Holliday. Manning did not have a great game — he averaged only 5.9 NY/A — but some of the credit has to go to the Ravens’ defense, too. They had an outstanding game. And with the game in the balance, Manning took Denver 88 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 7 minutes left in the 4th quarter.
3) Denver Rush Defense. The Broncos run defense wasn’t great — Ray Rice ran for 131 yards — but they did keep him under three yards per carry on first down runs. Baltimore only rushed for four first downs, so you have to give Denver credit for doing its job against the run. Still, by allowing 155 rushing yards, the praise has to be tempered.
4) Denver Rush Offense. Ronnie Hillman, Knowshon Moreno, and Jacob Hester combined for 40 rushes and gained only 126 yards. The longest gain of the day was just 11 yards. The Baltimore run defense was outstanding on Saturday, but it’s hard not to put a fair portion of the blame on the Broncos running game. Denver rushed 6 times on 3rd/4th and short, converting four times. Perhaps you put the blame on Fox for running 40 times, especially since Denver only had 46 pass attempts (including three sacks). But the inability to do anything on the ground was a problem for Denver. On 20 first-and-10 runs, Denver gained only 74 yards. The running game is never expected to carry the offense with Manning, but this was a game where the Broncos relied far too much on an ineffective part of the offense.
[Huge Gap]5) Denver Pass Defense. I don’t think you can overemphasize how badly the Broncos pass defense played. Consider that Torrey Smith beat Champ Bailey deep for two possible touchdowns but Joe Flacco missed him. Even still, Flacco had a magnificent game. He joined Aaron Rodgers (vs. Atlanta) and Manning (vs. Kansas City) as the only quarterbacks to ever average 11 Adjusted Yards per Attempt on 30+ passes in a road game. He threw 3 touchdowns, no interceptions, and gained 331 yards on just 34 passes. Even before the 70-yard bomb to Jacoby Jones, he was still averaging 10.0 AY/A.
And about that pass. There’s no way to sugarcoat it – safety Rahim Moore made one of the worst plays in NFL playoff history on that touchdown. Up by 7, with 70 yards of field to defend, with the opponent out of timeouts and 40 seconds remaining, it is unbelievable that he could let Jones get behind him like that for the score. Much more could be written about this, but let me just say it was as bad as everyone said it was.
To recap: Peyton Manning played a good but not great game, which was better than just about every other Bronco on Saturday. Rahim Moore is the obvious culprit, but the Broncos defense — which ranked #1 in net yards per pass allowed in the regular season — looked like the Saints pass defense. When arguably the best pass defense in the league plays like the worst, that’s the story of the game. And, of course, much of the credit goes to Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, Jacoby Jones, and Joe Flacco for making that happen.
Also, because it’s awesome, take a look at the Broncos-Ravens Win Probability chart, courtesy of Brian Burke:
One final note on the game before moving to John Fox. I reviewed the game from the Denver perspective, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out two Ravens. Joe Flacco had a magnificent game — and perhaps the best of his career considering the competition. His agent had the best weekend of his life. And while Football Perspective focuses on rational analysis, it would be silly to ignore the intangible impact Ray Lewis has on the Ravens. He was not outstanding on the field, but I believe he makes his teammates better. I only watch him speak a few times a year, and I’m captivated every time he talks. I can only imagine how his teammates feel. Lewis may be a polarizing figure, but I don’t think the Ravens beat the Broncos with an inside linebacker who contributes what he did on the field and added nothing off it. Flowery analysis without foundation? Maybe. Give me a pass.
Coaching Conservatively, By John Fox
Of course, it’s hard not to ignore three conservative moments by John Fox. Yes, the Broncos pass defense had their worst game of the year, but that doesn’t mean Fox can’t shoulder some blame for his conservative decisions.
1) On 1st and 10 from their own 20, with 35 seconds left in the first half, the Broncos ran Hester for a yard and went into the locker room. Denver had all three of their timeouts, and Matt Prater — while he missed earlier and did not have a great season — has a history of long kicks at home. You need to go 40 yards for a field goal try, or 50 for a better than 50/50 chance at a field goal. The risk strongly outweighs the awards, and with three timeouts, Manning would have been able to get off five or six plays before settling for a field goal.
2) Facing 3rd and 7 at the DEN 47 right after the two minute warning, Denver ran Ronnie Hillman to the right side for one yard. Manning swallowed the sword for Mike McCoy there, saying he audibled to the run. Baltimore was out of timeouts, so running ensured that the clock would run and the Ravens would get the ball with about 70 seconds left. If Manning truly audibled from a pass to a run, he must have done it because he thought a pass was unlikely to work (and not because a run was going to be successful). I would have liked to have seen Manning take a chance to get the first down, and if no one was open, take a sack.
3) The second half situation was slightly less favorable than #1, but because of the circumstances, is the one everyone is talking about. Denver had one fewer timeout and four fewer seconds, but were again on their own 20 yard line. How difficult would it be to go 45 yards with 31 seconds and two timeouts? It’s tough to say — my gut tells me they have roughly a 15% chance of succeeding. Which is a whole lot higher than their chances of losing the game by being aggressive. Irony being what it is, Atlanta received the ball yesterday down by 2 with 25 seconds left at their own 28. They got to the Seattle 31 in 12 seconds using just one timeout. Suffice it to say, Fox probably dropped his team’s win probability from 58-60% to 50% with this decision. That’s nothing to compared to the disasters that were Bailey and Moore, but still, a disappointing performance.
If you haven’t had enough of the Broncos and Fox from that analysis, check out this great review by Its All Over Fatman, a great Broncos blog.Colin Kaepernick had one of the greatest “Hello, World” moments you’ll ever see. Many were too drained from Baltimore-Denver — myself included — to fully appreciate it, but Kaepernick was outstanding on Saturday night. He became the first quarterback to ever throw for 200 yards and run for 175 yards (in fact, only 16 college quarterbacks, including Kaepernick, have done that in the last 13 years). He set the record for rushing yards by a quarterback in any game, playoff or regular season. He made the Packers look foolish, and also threw in 263 yards and 2 touchdowns when he decided to pass.
To be fair, some of the numbers were inflated by just terrible coaching by the Packers. Their linebackers seem incredibly unprepared to defend a mobile quarterback, perhaps expecting or hoping for Joe Webb redux. But Kaepernick is far from a one game wonder. He’s now started 8 games in his career, or half of a season. Let’s say we double his numbers in those starts: that would give him the following season stat line.
Robert Griffin III was the only other quarterback to average 8.6 AY/A this year, but Griffin averaged fewer rushing yards per game and had a lower yards per carry average. It’s extremely early in Kaepernick’s career, but the ceiling is as high as it gets right now. As great as Tom Brady may be, the one quarterback I want to watch in six days is Kaepernick.
Another exhilarating game, although it lacked the constant tension of Broncos-Ravens. Richard Sherman was great early, but Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones, and Roddy White took over in the first half. Pete Carroll received some criticism for “passing on two field goals” but such analysis was misguided. The Seahawks went for it on 4th and 1 from the 11, trailing 13-0 in the first half. It should be obvious to everyone that read this site that going for it is the correct call there. (That said, the decisions to run Robert Turbin up the middle on 3rd and 1 and then Michael Robinson on 4th and 1 legitimately open him up for criticism, but even still, hindsight is certainly driving much of the argument.)The other missed field goal came at the end of the first half, and well, that was a disaster. Seattle, out of timeouts, had first and goal from the Atlanta 6 with 25 seconds left. Wilson threw incomplete to Sidney Rice, Russell Okung committed a false start, Wilson misconnected with Golden Tate, and then it was 3rd and 11 with 17 seconds left. The Falcons rushed right up the middle and got to Wilson almost immediately for a sack. Everyone knows you can’t take a sack there, but the blame doesn’t fall on Carroll or Wilson.
Watch the replay. Right guard J.R. Sweezy was destroyed by Jonathan Babineaux, who gets to Wilson before the quarterback can do anything. That’s simply bad execution, and it happens, even at crucial moments in playoff games.
I was glad that Matt Ryan finally got the playoff monkey off his back, but the star of the game was Russell Wilson. He broke Sammy Baugh’s record for passing yards in a playoff game by a rookie. He was 24/36 for 385 yards with 2 touchdowns (and an interception on the final play of the game, a Hail Mary — if not for that, he would have joined Flacco on the 11 AY/A list), making him by far the youngest player to average 10+ yards per attempt on 35+ passes in a playoff game. He also rushed 7 times for 60 yards and a score.
And he nearly lead the most incredible comeback since Bills-Oilers (or maybe ever). The Seahawks trailed by 20 points entering the 4th quarter. Only one team has ever trailed by 20+ points after three quarters in a playoff game, and come back to tie or take the lead. That was the 1983 San Francisco 49ers, and Russell Wilson had a lot of Joe Montana in him on Sunday. The Seahawks have a franchise quarterback, and should feel very lucky about that.
While Wilson was the star, two other notes from the game. Mike Smith was nearly the goat. Atlanta lead by 13 points with 17 minutes left in the third quarter when Ryan threw a five-yard touchdown to Jason Snelling. At the time, I tweeted that Atlanta had to go for two there. I mostly got a “who cares, Atlanta is now up 27-7” reaction from people, but Wilson was already carving up the Falcons defense at that time. It seemed very possible to me that Seattle could score three more touchdowns, and more importantly, there was almost no downside to going for two. Being up by 19 with 17 minutes to go is kind of like being up by 5 with 5 minutes to go, and going for two is obvious in that situation. Smith simply was asleep at the wheel here, and it very nearly cost his team the season.
It didn’t, of course, because Matt Ryan had his signature playoff moment. Trailing by 1 with 25 seconds left at his own 28, Ryan hit Harry Douglas for 22 yards and then Tony Gonzalez for 19 yards to bring Atlanta to the 31. That was enough for Matt Bryant to come in and hit the game winner. Anyone who ever wants to tell you Ryan is a choker needs to just watch those two throws. Outstanding. Ryan has now lead 12 4th quarter comebacks and 16 4th quarter game-winning drives over the last three years.
The only game that went according to script this weekend leaves me with little to add. Even without Rob Gronkowski, who re-injured his forearm early in the game and will now apparently miss for the rest of the postseason, the Patriots offense was unstoppable. Tom Brady was his typical excellent self: he went 25/40 for 344 yards and 3 touchdowns. Without Gronkowski, Brady connected with Aaron Hernandez and Shane Vereen 11 times for 168 yards, and hit Wes Welker 8 times for 131 yards. The Patriots gained 457 yards and 24 first downs despite shutting it down two minutes into the fourth quarter. There was an eight-drive stretch in the middle of the game where New England scored five touchdowns and a field goal. And until garbage time, the Patriots defense actually played pretty well. As for Houston, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson had good but not great games, while Matt Schaub ended with good-looking numbers but largely underwhelmed. J.J. Watt did not have a large impact, and recorded just one half-sack, one tackle, and three assists.