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Reviewing the Divisional Round of the Playoffs

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.

Baltimore 38, Denver 35

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:

Offense Defense Special Teams
Tm Total Tot Pass Rush TOvr Tot Pass Rush TOvr Tot KO KR P PR FG/XP
Denver Broncos -3.00 0.17 6.22 -6.05 -13.40 -9.89 -15.62 5.05 4.52 6.13 -1.62 9.58 2.97 -0.55 -4.25
Baltimore Ravens 3.00 9.89 15.62 -5.05 -4.52 -0.17 -6.22 6.05 13.40 -6.13 -9.58 1.62 0.55 -2.97 4.25

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.

[Big Gap]

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]

Textbook coverage if you want to become the goat.

Textbook coverage if you want to become the goat.

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:

den bal

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.

San Francisco 45, Green Bay 31

Kaepernick was outstanding against Green Bay.

Kaepernick was outstanding against Green Bay.

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.

Atlanta 30, Seattle 28

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.)

Wilson's arms are too short to stiff-arm opponents.

Wilson's arms are too short to stiff-arm opponents.

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.

Also, for you trivia fans out there: Julio Jones joined Keyshawn Johnson and Deion Sanders as the only players in the last 53 years with a reception and an interception in a playoff game.

New England 41, Houston 28

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.

  • JWL

    I thought Seattle should have kicked a field goal to make it 13-3. It is important to get those first points.

    • AMGM

      Seattle is quite good at converting short yardage, and Atlanta is not very good at stopping them. Going for it on fourth and 1 makes a lot of sense given the context. I see your argument for getting points on the board, but 13-3 is a two possession differential. That one possession can be a big deal over the course of the game. I definitely think the playcalling for 3rd and 4th down was bad, and hindsight says that it would have won the game to have the field goal, but in the moment going for it seemed like the right call to me.

      • JWL

        I’m not saying the decision to go for it was wrong. There is no right or wrong here. There are computer created charts that may point to it being more wise to go for it than to try a field goal, but that still does not mean it is right to have tried to convert for a first down.

        Hindsight is not an issue here. The game could have played out differently as soon as one play later. If it is 13-3, Seattle would have kicked off. Maybe Seattle would have recovered a fumble on the kickoff.

        It is too simplistic to say, “Well, Seattle lost by 2 points and they did not try a chip shot field goal in the 2nd quarter, so they lost because of that.”

        At the time of the call I liked it (was rooting against Seattle). I loved it when Pete Carroll decided not to have his team try a field goal. Did it cost Seattle the game? I cannot say that. The poor defense on the final drive cost them the game.

        The only reason I posted in this thread was because I did not agree with Chase’s comment that foregoing a field goal in that situation was right.

  • Coleman Kelly

    Do you have numbers to back that up or is that just a gut feeling?

    • JWL

      The numbers are 13-3 vs 13-0. Period. Chip shot field goal.

      I got into some sort of scuffle on this 4th and 1 stuff at the PFR blog after the Bill Belichick 4th and 1 call at Indianapolis a few years ago.

      I am a numbers and gut guy. Most reading this blog are likely to be strictly numbers guys. Perhaps I am a simpleton.

      • Anon

        JWL, do you really think any coach would choose 13-0 over 13-3? Obviously, that’s not the decision. The decision is a very good chance at 13-3 or you take a chance and go for it. You might not get it (13-0), or you might get a TD or even a FG still. Unless you have some evidence that “getting on the board” has some magical advantage to make teams play better, then this is a simple matter of expected conversion rates, which heavily favor going for it.

        • JWL

          I cannot prove it and you cannot disprove it.

          Down 13-0 on the road, I want points. I want to chip away at the deficit. I would like touchdowns, but it is still the first half. I will take the field goal.

          I don’t make every decision according to a chart.

  • Dorf

    Nice article, two points:
    On Trindon Holliday’s kickoff return, there was a blanant illegal block on a Baltimore defender, at the Broncos 10-yard-line. He was actually blocked into another Bronco, who tackled him. No one — announcers or anyone else — seemed to point that out. That’s not to say it evened out the lousy calls (it seems like the Broncos had a few more, including the uncalled PI on the pick-6), but Denver should have had the ball on their own 5-yard-line after the uncalled penalty, and not a TD.

    In the Atlanta-Seattle game, not only did Mike Smith ere in not going for 2 at 26-7, he idiotically called timeout with :13 to go, giving the Seahawks a chance at the final Hail Mary (or, if Wilson had hit a longer pass on first down, a shot at a game-winning field goal). Why did he do it? There was no way they were gonna run another play after the Gonzalez catch. He panicked and was clueless about the game situation. If you watch enough Falcons games (and I do), you know that game management/time management gaffes are a recurring problem with their head coach.

    • David Hart

      Suppose Atlanta had gone for two and missed, and been up 26-7, and then Seattle had gone for 2 on their last TD and made it, and gone up 29-26? We’d still be playing.

      • Chase Stuart

        Yes, that’s true. I shouldn’t have said there was no downside, as that is a legitimate point. But the downside far outweighs the risk. I think any Falcons fan would tell you that after Seattle had scored that TD, they were very angry Smith hadn’t gone for two earlier (if they had thought about it).

      • Dorf

        David, the Falcons earlier in the year had a very similar situation in New Orleans. Did not go for 2 (I think it was very early in the 4th quarter) and ended up losing the game 28-27. That experience alone should have been enough to cue the Falcons to go for it. If they hadn’t made that final FG and held on, I’d imagine that would have been a big story in Atlanta today.

    • Nguyen

      Or Atlanta made it, the game would be 28-28 with 31 seconds left. I think Atlanta would kneel and we would go to OT.

      • Chase Stuart

        Yes, I almost made the point in the OP but didn’t want to open up that can of marbles. Essentially Smith was rewarded for his poor decision because ATL was forced to be extremely aggressive at the end of the game. Kind of like the corollary to some of the stuff Brian Burke has written about how you sometimes need to coach expecting your opponent to coach suboptimally.

    • Chase Stuart

      I didn’t see the illegal block, but that’s a good point in the ATL-SEA game. I meant to hit on that but forget. It’s inexcusable but you see it all the time. One could argue that it would have made sense for Atlanta to just spike the ball once or twice to run clock after the poor decision to call timeout so early. But yes, it absolutely was a bad mistake.

  • Mark Oristano

    Why didn’t the Seahwaks use their first down at the Atlanta 2 to roll out Wilson and let him run some time off before throwing the ball away? Why give Atlanta 30 seconds to move into FG position in a domed stadium with a home crowd?

    • expat joel

      Because you don’t know that you’re going to score on the first try. Scoring from the 2 is a good chance but not a gimme like a short field goal. Maximizing your chance to actually take the lead has to be the priority in that situation.

      • Mark Oristano

        I think with that Seattle offense, 3 plays to score is plenty. Leaving time on the clock is getting to be a huge mistake.

        • AMGM

          After not converting a third-and-1 on two tries earlier, you really can’t expect them to not try to score there. It’s a bit of a gamble, but let’s be honest here: the Hawks defense should have at least been able to make it a challenge for Ryan, and they didn’t. Clock management was pretty strong on that drive, to take it from ~3 minutes to 30 seconds and score.

          • Mark Oristano

            Agreed. After 30 years covering and broadcasting in the NFL, I sometimes fall victim to the “I can coach at this level” syndrome.

    • Leo Joseph

      Mark you have to go for the touchdown when you’re down because you never know what could happen next. The team could have an off side penalty. Fumble on the exchange. Seattle has a great defense and you have to have some faith that they would prevent 41 yards in 20 seconds.

      • Mark Oristano

        In a league mandated to provide wide open offense, I’m not sure any defense is guaranteed to stop anybody anymore. I may be thinking against the grain, but I”d rather give the other guys as little time as possible once I’ve taken the late lead. Personal preference.

  • Leo Joseph

    I love your work Chase. This weekend was very entertaining to say the least.

    • Chase Stuart


  • George

    Just a quick thought on the Seattle, Atlanta game as there seems to be a number of issues in play. I still stand on the point that Seattle were the better team and over 100 games they would win more than Atlanta but they just didn’t catch breaks or in some cases tripped over there own feet (e.g. soft coverage on the last couple of plays after going ahead and possibly questionable coaching). My query is did they go back to Seattle after the Washington game? I’m thinking in terms of total distance traveled during the playoffs, (e.g. Washington and back, and to Atlanta) they are going to have traveled about 6500 miles compared to Atlanta’s 0. Does that have an effect? Would it account for them being a bit flat in the first quarter or at points in the game (e.g. fatigue)? There is also the issue of familiarity as I’m not sure how many times they have played in the Georgia Dome but I am expecting the most that any of the current squad has played in it can only be 1 or 2 at most (due to their age) and I’d figure that has to account for something.

    • AMGM

      They did indeed travel back to Seattle. The game was also the early game, so it was 10 am Pacific time at the game’s start. Those two factors almost certainly contributed to their slow start (in my opinion, hard to draw on any hard evidence). If I remember correctly, only one west coast team has won back-to-back playoff games in the Eastern time zone (not sure what the sample size is there) in NFL history.

      • George

        With a big enough sample size and a set of constant criteria (e.g. a fixed mileage limit – say 3000 – 5000 miles, and time) you could definitely put a number on it (admittedly it will still be a projection and things can deviate from projections e.g. maybe certain teams travel well). Just going back on my numbers in terms of familiarity the previous two times the Seahawks had played in that stadium were 2007, and 2002 so most likely (I can’t account for transfers) in most cases I would say that was only the second time they had played on that field against that crowd. Again with a certain set of criteria (e.g. disparity of times played on the field, say difference of 8, 24, 48 games for example) you could probably put a number on it (again it would only be a projection and you would probably have to do it by team rather than making allowances for transfers into teams).

        • AMGM

          Given the age of the Seahawks team (and the fact that Clemmons, one of their relatively few long-time players, was out), I suspect it was the first time in the Georgia Dome for the vast majority of the team, and almost all of the important playmakers.

  • greg

    Maybe I’m missing something but I don’t know where you are getting 104 yards per game for Kaepernick. Shouldn’t you divide that number by 16 not 8 which in that case makes his rushing yards per game comparable to RG3 not 50 yards higher.

    • Chase Stuart

      In fact, it is your author who is mathematically challenged. Good catch! I fixed the post.