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2009 NFL Championship Round Review by Lloyd Vance

Saints quarterback Drew Brees and the “Who Dat” Nation were all smiles as New Orleans made their first Super Bowl by defeating the Minnesota Vikings.  The Saints will play the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV

We now know that the 90th NFL Season will culminate at Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida with the Indianapolis Colts (16-2) against the New Orleans Saints (15-3).  Both teams, who seemed to be on a collision course earlier this season, showed their mettle by turning back extraordinary efforts by the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings to earn their respective tickets to the NFL’s biggest stage. 

For a long time this year’s Super Bowl match-up seemed predestined as both of these teams remained undefeated teams through 14 weeks – first time two 13-0 teams in NFL history —  and an 18-0 undefeated showdown seemed very possible.  Of course any talk of the “Perfection” Bowl ended with the Saints losing to the Cowboys in Week 15 and the Colts choosing to “rest” their players in a Week 16 loss to the NY Jets.  Though the match-up will be sans the undefeated part, many people’s intrigue around the Colts-Saints big game should be increased as two of the NFL’s top quarterbacks will be taking center stage.  This season, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning became the NFL’s only 4-time MVP while Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw more regular season touchdowns (34) than anyone else in the league.  Offensive fireworks are sure to fly in Super Bowl XLIV as both teams can put up points while their defenses are not known to be the stoutest — Colts ranked 18th in defense and the Saints finished 25th

Before we move onto the inordinate amount of hype that is sure to follow in the 2-week build up to the Super Bowl, let’s review the two Championship Games from this past Sunday that has brought us the NFL’s first No. 1 Seed battle since 1993 (Buffalo vs. Dallas in Super Bowl XXVIII). In a very odd side note, my crystal ball for the 2008 season said the Colts over the Saints in the Super Bowl.  Of course I am a year late and my picks for this year, the Steelers and NYGiants,  are nowhere to be found.

2009 AFC Championship Game

In the end, surefire Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and rookie head coach Jim Caldwell held the Lamar Hunt trophy, signifying the AFC Championship, aloft  after a dominating 30-17 win over the scrappy New York Jets.  After enduring much talk during the week of their inability to out-tough the physical New York Jets, the Colts showed their gumption by scoring 24 unanswered points after trailing by a deficit of 17-6 late in the 2nd quarter.

This time around Manning and the Colts’ regulars played the entire game and there was no “rest” until the job was complete.  The Colts showed the heart of a champion as they had to endure the brash young New York Jets, who turned their swagger into some early points.  The Jets continually throughout the 2009 regular season got early leads on teams and then allowed their vaunted defense to close the door.  But this time was different as Manning and the rest of his mates knew a 60-minute effort would be needed to make their 2nd Super Bowl in the last four years possible.

“We talked about being patient against these guys,” Manning said. “We knew it would be a four-quarter game.”  The road warrior Jets answered early Colts’ field goals by putting up two quick touchdowns and definitely seemed to be following in the footsteps of the old J-E-T-S of Joe Namath who beat the Colts in Super Bowl III.  Rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, the fourth rookie quarterback to lead his team to the conference title game, brought Jets’ nation to their feet with an 80-yard touchdown pass to  Braylon Edwards giving New York a 7-3 lead.

Then Jets Wildcat QB/receiver Brad Smith, a former dual threat passer at Missouri, connected with receiver Jerricho Cotchery for a 45-yard pass to the Colts 12.   Just three plays later, Sanchez hit TE Dustin Keller with a 9-yard touchdown pass to give the Jets a 14-6 lead and cause many Colts fans to recall playoff disappoints of the past.  The doom and gloom only got worse for Indy when running back Joseph Addai’s fumble set up Jay Feely’s 48-yard field goal to make the score 17-6 with halftime looming.

Alright queue the NFL Films music…Knowing that going into halftime down to the Jets, who sported the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense coming into the game, was recipe for defeat, the Colts offense answered the bell.  Manning led the Colts on an 80-yard scoring drive in only four plays.  The 4-time MVP found one his new favorite young targets, rookie Austin Collie, three straight times with the drive culminating with a 16-yard touchdown pass to the former BYU player with little over a minute left in the first half.  By leading the Colts to a more manageable 17-13 deficit, Manning and Caldwell (fifth rookie coach to reach the Super Bowl) grabbed back the momentum for the second half. 

After stopping the Jets to start the second half, Manning and Colts took the lead for good when the veteran quarterback hit the Player of the Game, receiver Pierre Garcon (11 catches for 151 yards and 1 TD), in the end zone to make the score 20-17 with 8:03 left in the third quarter.  The Colts never looked back and there were a variety of players that made their Super Bowl trip a reality.  Manning finished with unbelievable numbers of 26/39, 377 YDS, and 3 TDs while becoming first player to pass for three touchdowns against the Jets this season.  The veteran quarterback made the Jets pay for their blitz-happy ways as he moved the ball around to five different targets throughout the game. 

The Colts had to find other options than No. 1 receiver Reggie Wayne and they did.  With the Jets focusing their entire scheme on getting pressure on Manning and having Pro Bowl sticky corner Darrelle Revis shadow Wayne. Manning’s other targets Garcon, Collie, and TE Dallas picked up the slack with each catching a touchdown pass in the win. Collie and Garcon, both had career highs in yardage, combined for 18 receptions for 274 yards and two touchdowns while repeatedly coming up with big receptions in the clutch.  With the Colts’ O-line keeping the Jets at bay, Manning — first player in league history with seven 300-yard postseason games — got the ball out his hands quickly and dropped passes into “shoeboxes” despite tight coverage in the win. Caldwell said of his on the field leader, “Peyton had just an outstanding game. He’s one of those guys that can adjust to different situations. … A real champion.”

Credit for the win must also be given to the Colts often maligned defense, who shutout the Jets in the second half.   The Colts knew shutting down the Jets’ vaunted rushing attack was key and they did.  After averaging 170 rushing yards in their first two playoff games, the Jets’ top-ranked ground game was held to just 86 yards on 29 attempts – knocked rookie runner Shonn Greene out of the game with a rib injury.  And allowed the Colts to win the time of possession battle 31:25 to 28:35.  To his credit Sanchez (17 of 30 for 257 yards with two TDs and 4th quarter interception) did play some good football and produced some plays, but the Colts veterans on defense played with pride and forced one turnover.

The Colts are now headed back to the Super Bowl for the second time in four years and their fourth time in franchise history. To make things even more magical, the Colts will be playing at the same venue where they won Super Bowl XLI to close out the 2006 season.  Manning will also be facing the team he grew-up rooting for, the New Orleans Saints, who won 31-28 in overtime against the Minnesota Vikings in NFC Championship.  Peyton’s father, Archie Manning, who played many years for New Orleans said of the upcoming Super Bowl match-up, “I’m pulling for the Colts 100 percent, it’s not even close”

“We’ve been here before, we had seven comeback wins this year. I think the guys were a little rattled at first, I think we took their best shot, but we came back,” linebacker Gary Brackett said. “I think we did a great job of being the hunters and imposing our will today.”  The Colts their resiliency after the win, but they need to remember that is still one more game to go.  I know their fans will remind them as they will accept nothing less than a Super Bowl title to put “Rest-Gate” truly to rest.

2009 NFC Championship Game

Some will call this overtime thriller, where little known kicker Garrett Hartley connected on a 40-yard game-winning field goal to send the New Orleans Saints to their first  Super Bowl, an Instant Classic.  But I am not so sure as the Saints’ hard fought 31-28 overtime win over the Minnesota Vikings was thrilling  however it was very sloppy too. 

The great ending overshadowed a tough game that featured 9 fumbles (4 lost) and 2 interceptions between both teams including five turnovers by the Vikings.  Of course the “prettiness” of the win didn’t matter to the Saint’s faithful who packed the Superdome – franchise’s largest of 71,276 – then afterwards flooded Bourbon Street for a celebration that New Orleans had not seen in years. 

The biggest play of the game of course was Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre’s risky cross-field pass that was intercepted by Saints DB Tracy Porter near the end of the regulation (19 seconds left in the game). The Saints defense had harassed and battered Favre the whole game and the aging quarterback wanted to make a play so bad that he made a huge mistake that setup overtime.   “I’ve felt better,” said Favre after the game. “It was a physical game. A lot of hits. You win that and you sure feel a lot better.”  Favre’s final pass as a member of the Packers, Jets and Vikings are all interceptions.  I wonder when old No. 4 is going to start his retire/unretire talk this offseason.

The seesaw game also showed the good and bad of Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, who ran for 122 yards and three touchdowns, but also lost two fumbles.  Overall, the Vikings piled up 475 yards and 28 points but were undone by five turnovers and penalties.  Conversely, Saints quarterback Drew Brees (17 of 31 for 197 yards and three TDs) was cool and calm in the pocket as he led one of the NFL’s most downtrodden franchises to their first Super Bowl.   Brees showed the savvy and leadership that caused New Orleans to embrace him before the 2006 season.

In overtime, New Orleans won the coin toss and Brees quickly guided the Saints to the Minnesota 22 mixing both the pass and run.  Before Hartley’s field goal, the biggest play of the drive was RB Pierre Thomas converting a fourth-and-1 with a goal-line type leap.  After Hartley’s game-winner, the Superdome that once serve as a refuge for many after Hurricane Katrina was now alive as the “Who Dat” Nation” celebrated their unlikely hero.  New Orleans is the first team in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl after entering the playoffs with a losing streak of three or more games. The Saints’ record at home improved to 14-4 since 2008, including the playoffs.

Now former paper bag-wearing Saints fans could finally put their No. 1 fingers in the air as they had made it to the NFL’s ultimate game.  “It’s a moment I’ve been waiting for a long time and obviously we’re not done yet,” said Brees.  The Saints (15-3) will meet Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts (16-2) in the Super Bowl in two weeks in South Florida.  The Super Bowl match-up will be a highly anticipated offensive match-up, but Brees and the upstart Saints will have to finish the job against the veteran-laden Colts.  Immediately following Sunday’s game, Indianapolis was installed as 4-point favorites and already the line is moving higher.

Lloyd’s Leftovers

  • With the NFC Championship Game ending in overtime on the Saints’ first drive after winning the coin toss of the extra session, there is sure to be much discussion around the league of giving both teams a chance to score in overtime.  However recent history has shown that no one around the league is really “crying” over the current rules other than some fans and media.  Back at the 2009 NFL League Meetings, the Competition Committee listened to the evils of sudden death overtime and they decided to not vote on any proposals to change the existing overtime rules. Despite the fact that back when the discussion occurred after the 2008 season that 63 percent of overtime games were won by the coin toss winning team.  Most players that I have talked to, do not mind the current overtime format and want to fight it out in sudden death – just have your defense stop the other team.  And I must admit that I am also in agreement with the Competition Committee.

 

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

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2009 NFC Championship Game Preview by Lloyd Vance

Quarterback Drew Brees leads the home team Saints against the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (13-4) at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (14-3) (Sunday, FOX, 6:40 PM ET) 

Broadcast Team: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Chris Myers and Pam Oliver (Field Reporter)

This features two of the NFL’s best passers, Saints QB Drew Brees and Vikings QB Brett Favre squaring off in a highly anticipated offensive pinball type game.  This meeting marks the 5th time in NFL history top-2 scoring teams in NFL meet in Conference Championship Game.  Minnesota since signing veteran Brett Favre before the season has pointed to playoffs for the future Hall of Famer to make a difference and against the Dallas Cowboys last week, he paid dividends by producing a 34-3 dominating win.

Though the quarterbacks are the marquee players, I believe the team that can run the ball more effectively and gets the most defensive pressure is going to win this game.  The Vikings are more than just Favre (363-531, 4202 yards, 33 TDs – 2nd in the NFL, 7 INTs, and a rating of 107.2 – second in the NFL) as the 40-year old passer has many offensive weapons at his disposal including Rookie of the Year explosive receiver Percy Harvin, Pro Bowl receiver Sidney Rice, Bernard Berrian, and TE Visante Schiancoe. But don’t forget the key part of the Vikings offense is their formerly ground-churning running attack led by Pro Bowl RB Adrian Peterson – hasn’t been over 100 yards rushing in 8 games — and a huge offensive line built around Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson. 

The main key for me will be the Saints (+ 11 in turnover ratio, placing them 3rd in the NFL) ability to rattle Favre as the veteran will make mistakes when he is harassed – threw over 20 INTs last year for the NY Jets.  New Orleans will have their hands full as they will be missing pass rusher Charles Grant, who is on I/R, but expect veteran safety and former Packers Favre teammate Darren Sharper (9 INTs) to spearhead New Orleans’ defensive effort.   Gregg Williams’ Saints defense will also have the 70,000 plus Super Dome noisy crowd behind them to rattle Favre and the Vikings high flying offense. “There’s no fan base that deserves a championship more than New Orleans and the ‘Who Dat’ nation,” said Brees.  “Just the bond that we have with them is special.  They give us strength.  They give us motivation.  We want to do it for them.”

On offense the Saints, ranked No. 1 in the NFL with an average of 403.8 yards per game, need to find their explosiveness that allowed them to score over 500 points this season (510).  Though the Saints struggled down the stretch (lost last 3 regular season games), Brees and rest of the team proved last week against the Cowboys (dominated in a 45-14 win) that these are the new-look Saints in the postseason – now have an all-time 3-6 postseason record. The Super Dome will be rocking as it should be a Mardis Gras type atmosphere for the home team Saints and their raucous fans. 

The Saints offense has many weapons (WR Marques Colston, RB Mike Bell, TE Jeremy Shockey, and others), but last week they re-discovered explosive jitterbug running back Reggie Bush.  The former Heisman winner got the home crowd on their feet as he produced 217 total yards and became just the second player in NFL postseason history to score a touchdown on a rush and punt return in the same game.  “He’s a guy who can change the game,” said Saints head coach Sean Payton.  Surely the Vikings’ veteran defense led by Pro Bowl corner Antoine Winfield and All-World pass rusher Jared Allen (14.5 sacks to lead the NFC) will look to rattle Brees before he can get the ball to his speedy receivers (Colston, Bush, Robert Meachem and others).  And Saints head coach Sean Payton will probably look to help Brees by using their three-headed backfield monster of Bell, Bush, and Pierre Thomas against the Vikings D-line led by the Williams Wall (DT’s Pat and Kevin Williams). 

These two teams are meeting in the postseason for the 3rd time with the Vikings currently holding a 2-0 advantage.  In the overall regular season series, the Vikings lead that too by a count of 18-7.

LV’s Pick:  This is a tough game, because both teams have a ton of weapons offensively.  But the two “X” factors of running the football and getting to the quarterback will be prevalent.  I still believe the Vikings’ defense, led by Allen, can get to Brees as the Saints O-line has been a little leaky since losing LT Jamal Brown.  Expect a motivated Peterson to show-up and for Favre to be relaxed in his 5th NFC Championship Game (current record of 2-2).  The Saints home crowd should make it tough on the Vikings, but I believe Minnesota is more ready to go to the Super Bowl –Vikings 31, Saints 27

 

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

2009 AFC Championship Game Preview by Lloyd Vance

Multipurpose threat Brad Smith leads the J-E-T-S against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game

 

NEW YORK JETS (11-7) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (15-2) (Sunday, CBS, 3:00 PM ET)      

Broadcast Team: Jim Nance and Phil Simms

The pressure will be on the Colts to prove that they can win after “resting” key players down the stretch of the regular season in order to be prepared for the games that count. Colts President Jim Irsay said before resting players at the end of the regular season, “We’d love to get to 16-0. But the biggest focus is going to be on being prepared for that first playoff game.” This game is a direct rematch from Week 15 of the regular season, which many are calling “Rest-Gate”, right down to the venue.  Unfortunately for angry Colts fans, let’s go back to what happened back then.  The Indianapolis Colts, who were 14-0 and had already wrapped up the AFC’s No. 1 seed, came into the game riding a 23-game winning streak with a chance to match the perfect 1972 Dolphins (NFL’s only undefeated Super Bowl winner) and 2007 New England Patriots (16-0 regular season).  But unfortunately we all know that they  lost for the first time to the New York Jets by a score of 29-15.  The game was a  “C’MON MAN” moment for the Colts’ fan base.

The “real” Colts, namely quarterback Peyton Manning, left the crucial game in the 3rd quarter.  Holding true to their organizational philosophy, the Colts’ first teamers  after staking their second stringers to a 15-10 lead, took a seat on the bench — 5:36 left in the third quarter.  Subsequently the Jets outscored Indy  the rest of the way, putting up 19 unanswered points.  Of course Jets’ fans will not say it was a G-I-V-E-U-P, but who are they fooling.  Colts’ backup quarterback Curtis Painter was awful, to say the least, as he produced putrid numbers of 4/11 passing for 44 yards, 0 TDs and 1 interception in an effort that made most Colts fans long for former quarterback Jack Trudeau.  The former Purdue signal caller’s biggest play of the game, a fumble recovery for a touchdown by the Jets, came immediately after Colts’ fans realized Manning was done for the game and serenaded the young quarterback with boos.  Painter was hit by NY Jets linebacker Calvin Pace and lost the ball, with Marques Douglas recovering and scoring.   It was all downhill after Painter’s gaffe as the Jets added a  2-point conversion making the score 18-15 and New York never relinquished the lead.

After the game, Manning as he always does, said all of the right things.  The 4-time NFL MVP said, “Until any player in here is the head coach, you follow orders and you follow them with all of your heart. That’s what we’ve done as players. We follow order”.   But the loss robbed the 2009 Colts (Manning, Freeney, Wayne, Brackett, and others) of walking in destiny with the 1972 Dolphins (Cszonka, Griese, Warfield, Scott, and others).   The Colts may not have thought “resting” players was not a “give up”, but to their fans, it was.   “I don’t blame them a bit, man,” Colts’ center Jeff Saturday said after the loss. “I probably would have booed, too. I don’t blame them. They pay to come see us win games, and we didn’t get it done.”  The Colts’ management is hoping a trip to the Super Bowl will sooth their fans and Sunday’s game definitely is huge to say the least. 

The NY Jets are a tough physical team that loves to run the football with emerging rookie running back Shonn Greene (has posted back-to-back 100-yard games in the playoffs) and veteran Thomas Jones (over 1200 yards in the regular season).  Plus Gang Green also features an attacking defense led by shutdown corner Darrelle Revis.  If the Colts are to succeed and shut-up their very disgruntled fan base, QB Peyton Manning (regular season stats: 393-571, 4500 yards – 2nd in NFL, 33 TDs (first in AFC), 16 INTs, and a 99.9 QB rating) will need to protect the football and make some plays down the field to his multitude of weapons including Pro Bowl WR Reggie Wayne, TE Dallas Clark, and emerging youngsters Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. 

Even as good as Manning and his offensive passing weapons are, the Colts must find a running game to keep the Jets from pinning their ears back on every play –  led the NFL this season allowing 14.8 points per game.  “That’s the best defense I’ve played all year.  Against the run and against the pass, they’re really prepared”, said Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson after his team’s loss to the Jets last week.  Running backs Joseph Addai (219 rushes for 828 yards, 3.8 ypc, and 10 TDs) and Donald Brown will need to find a way to move the chains against the Jets’ high level tackling team.  The Jets can get pressure from variety of places (LB Calvin Pace – team leading 8 sacks,  LB Bryan Thomas, DE Shaun Ellis and others), but the key hitting the quarterback on every pass play – ala Rex Ryan’s Father Buddy Ryan’s former Eagles defenses of the late 1980’s – so Revis (6 INTs, which was 3rd in the AFC) and the rest of the secondary can get turnovers. 

On defense, the Colts will have to apply pressure from DE Dwight Freeney (13.5 sacks) and the rest of their D-line as Jets rookie QB Mark Sanchez (regular season stats: 196-364, 2444 yards, 12 TDs, 20 INTs and 63.0 QB rating) is essentially a caretaker right now.  The goal of Jets’ offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is to pound the rock by his huge offensive line filled with current and former Pro Bowl players (center Nick Mangold, guard Alan Faneca, OT Damien Woody, and OT D’Brickshaw Ferguson) while making the youngster throw 20 times or less.  However Freeney and the rest of the Colts small and quick defense will need to shutdown Jones and Greene as the Jets love to use their ground attack on the way to “ugly” wins.  Last week , the Colts shut down the Ravens’ powerful running game on their way to a 20-3 win.  And Indianapolis will need another strong performance this Sunday against the Jets’ top-ranked ground attack (172.3 yards per game).  Of last week’s effort against the Ravens, Caldwell said, “Our defense did not allow them to move the ball and get in a position to score.  They just did a great job overall.”  Watch for Colts’ safety Antoine Bethea (4 INTs in 2009) as the former Howard University hard-hitter has taken over for injured former Pro Bowl player Bob Sanders.

There is no love lost between these two teams going back a ways  as the Jets will forever be known as the team that put the AFL on the map in 1968 by beating the old Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in Miami, Florida.  These two teams have met two other times in the postseason with the Jets’ currently holding a 2-0 edge, but the Colts own a 40-26 edge in the regular season series.  And now the Colts and Jets are firmly at the center of the national “Rest or Play to win down the stretch” debate. 

LV’s Pick:  This is a tough one as every bone in my body wants to say that the Jets are red-hot while the Colts just want to prove everyone wrong about “resting” players to win.  The absolute key to this game will be the Colts ability to take away the Jets’ NFL leading running game and thus forcing Sanchez to beat them.  The Jets are a tough team, but I just don’t believe you can hide your quarterback in the playoffs.  I believe that the Colts will find a way to force Sanchez to make plays and that will make all the difference – Colts 27, Jets 20

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

2009 NFL Playoffs – Conference Championships Preview

January 25, 2010 2 comments

Everything will be on the line “Championship Sunday” as the Colts (TE Dallas Clark pictured) take on the Jets in the AFC Championship and the Vikings square off with the Saints in the NFC Championship

The Conference Championships of the 90th NFL Season, titled “Own the Moment”, are upon us and for the final four teams (Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, and Minnesota Vikings) it is time to show their mettle, in order to achieve their goal of playing in Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida. 

For a long time this year’s Super Bowl match-up seemed destined to be the NFL’s two undefeated teams through 14 weeks, the Colts and Saints, meeting in an 18-0 undefeated showdown.  Though the match-up could still materialize, sans the undefeated part, there is no denying that the 2009 NFL Season has truly been a wild rollercoaster type affair.  Not even the best prognosticators could have predicted two undefeated 13-0 teams through 14 weeks (first time ever), two rookie head coaches squaring off in the AFC Championship Game, the NY Jets going from last season’s Brett Favre led collapse to making the Conference Championship round, Favre unretiring and looking like the Vikings’ last piece for Super Bowl glory, and many other storylines that flipped the script on NFL history. 

Unfortunately last week’s divisional round was very ho-hum as the higher seeded Colts, Saints, and Vikings all won by double-digits.  Only the Jets-Chargers game produced a competitive battle, where rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez — only the 4th rookie quarterback to start in the Conference Championship since 1970 – led the J-E-T-S to the next round.  But there is no denying that this year’s NFL Final Four has produced two marquee games that feature some great storylines. 

These extraordinary teams have a combined regular/postseason winning percentage of 78% — combined record is 53-15. And did I mention this Sunday’s action on the field will feature the NFL’s career leader in quarterback wins and touchdown passes (Brett Favre), the NFL’s only 4-time MVP (Peyton Manning), the NFL’s number one rushing attack and defense (NY Jets) plus the NFL’s regular season passing touchdowns leader (Drew Brees – 34 TDs).

In Sunday’s early game, the Indianapolis Colts (15-2) will attempt to wipe away the nasty taste of their first defeat of the season, a 29-15 loss to the NY Jets in Week 15, and justify their “resting” players philosophy by winning a rematch this weekend in Indy.  You know irrate Colts’ fans, who have been ballistic since the team used back-ups in the Week 15 loss to the NY Jets, want revenge on Rex Ryan’s brash young upstart team. 

This game also has some of the same subplots of the historic Super Bowl III game between these two teams  — a heavy underdog Jets team, a young borderline-cocky NY Jets quarterback, a fiery Jets’ defense led by a Ryan, a good Jets’ running game and defense going against the an established team with a great record over a decade with a future Hall of Famer (Johnny Unitas) on their roster.  The Jets’ 16-7 win in Super Bowl III over 40 years ago put the AFL on the map and a win by the 2009 version of the J-E-T-S in the AFC Championship Game would be huge, but sorry…not historic. 

As good as the anticipation for the Colts-Jets “Rest-Gate” rematch game has been, the majority of NFL fans that I have talked to — via Twitter, email, and radio – all are looking more forward to the NFC Championship Game featuring the No. 1 seeded Saints against the No. 2 seeded Vikings.  After Week 12 of the 2009 NFL season, this match-up seemed a no-brainer, but both teams led by a pinball machine offense and an opportunistic defense had their moments where doubt crept into the conversation.  However both teams last week put up huge points on offense and their pass rushes were fierce in dominant wins over the Cardinals and Cowboys respectively.  So everyone is anticipating  a shootout in  the Super Dome between Pro Bowl quarterbacks Drew Brees and Brett Favre as the NFC Championship is on the line.

With three of the NFL’s best teams playing on Sunday, there is a distinct feeling that the cream of the NFL has risen to the top.  There is even a chance of the NFL’s two number one seeded teams can meet in the Super Bowl for first time since the 1993 season (Dallas and Buffalo).  Of course with the majority of the top teams still being in the playoff hunt, some NFL fans are asking, “Has parity finally left the NFL?”  I am not sure, but while some people like teams like the 2008 Arizona Cardinals going from a poor 9-7 regular season to the Super Bowl, it is wasn’t for me.  Though it has been nice to see Wildcard Round winners taking home three of the last four Super Bowl titles.  As someone who grew-up watching  perennial Super Bowl contenders like the Steelers, Dolphins, Niners, Cowboys, and Raiders serving as the bully for the rest of the NFL, I like watching the best teams fight it out.  Nothing against the upstart NY Jets, who are trying to match the 2007 NY Giants as a Cinderella team made good.  But I have always believed having the top teams in the Conference Championship round leads to more competitive games.

Whatever happens in this Sunday’s games, this round of the playoffs is truly special as the NFL’s junior prizes — conference championship trophies (George Halas Trophy for the NFC and Lamar Hunt Trophy for the AFC) — and a trip to the Super Bowl are all on the line.  However players on all four teams better focus on first winning this Sunday before looking ahead to confetti laced on-field celebrations and planning trips to Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida.  All the prepartion that the players and coaches have been through from OTA’s to training camp to the long grueling 17-week regular season, and two playoff rounds all hangs in the balance.  As Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre recently said about his team trying to achieve their goal of making the Super Bowl, “This is what I came back for”. 

Some Lloyd’s Leftovers for the Conference Championship Round:

NFL Television numbers support that the league is more popular than ever — There is no doubt that all of the excitement from the 2009 NFL season kept fans glued to their televisions and Football fans across America tuned into NFL games in the largest numbers in two decades.  According to Nielsen Media Research, the average 2009 regular-season game was watched by 16.6 million viewers – up 2 million viewers per game from last year and the NFL’s highest viewership average since 1990 (16.7 million), before the explosion of viewer choice on television and online.

Jets quarterback attempting to enter new rookie ground — New York Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan and his rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez can reach two milestones when they play Indianapolis Colts on Sundday.  Sanchez can become the first rookie quarterback to lead his teawm to the Super Bowl  — already tied with Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco, who won two playoff games on the way to the AFC Championship game  in 2008.) and Ryan can become only the sixth rookie head coach to reach that mark.

Ryan and Caldwell make history – When the Jets and Colts meet in the AFC Championship, their respective head coaches (Rex Ryan and Jim Caldwell) will become the first two rookie head coaches to oppose each other in the game.  In a great non-story, Caldwell if his team wins will be the 3rd African American head coach to lead his team into football’s biggest game – will join Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, who opposed each other in Super Bowl XLI.  After the Jets’ divisional round win over the Chargers, Ryan became the sixth rookie head coach in the Super Bowl era to win at least two playoff games.  But this is a much bigger prize and with the win, the winning coach will become the fifth rookie head coach to lead his team into the Super Bowl.  . 

Favre to add to his legacy – Certain Hall of Famer and Minnesota Vikings QB Brett Favre will not only be looking for a win against the Saints on Sunday.  But the NFC Championship Game  is an opportunity for him to extend his historic playoff numbers.  No. 4 ranks first in NFL playoff history in completions, and attempts.  But he is still second in passing yards and touchdown passes.  Favre needs 224 yards and three touchdowns to set postseason records in each passing category.  But getting a win against the Saints may prove to be tough for the graybeard passer, who 2-2 for his career in the NFC Championship Game including throwing a bad interception to end the 2007 rendition against the NY Giants.

With both No.1 seeds (Saints and Colts)  in action, we will see this Sunday if the trend of the top seeds in each conference  seeds not making it to the Super Bowl holds true.  Hard to believe it has been sixteen seasons since the last time two No. 1 seeds faced each other in Super Bowl (1993 season, Buffalo vs. Dallas in Super Bowl XXVIII).  But remember, since 1990 only 17 of 36 number one seeds in the playoffs have made it to the Super Bowl with only 8 of those teams winning it all. 

Not surprisingly both home teams (Saints and Colts) are favored this week by Vegas –- Saints are a 3.5-point favorite while the Colts are a suprising 9-point  favorite over the underdog Jets. Everyone including yours truly will be pontificating on what will happen, but luckily the games will be played on the field and anything can happen — Any Given Sunday…right??  “It’s the playoffs, anything can happen” said New York Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan this week.

My predictions are to follow and one game I have strong feelings about while the other is a lot tougher to pick.  But as is the case with most games, I still believe time-tested playoff tenants of Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense causing turnovers, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, Limiting Penalties/Turnovers, and just plain “Want-to”  will be the key determinants in all of the team’s fortunes this Sunday.

2009 NFL Playoffs Championship Round Games

NEW YORK JETS (11-7) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (15-2) (Sunday, CBS, 3:00 PM ET)      

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (13-4) at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (14-3) (Sunday, FOX, 6:40 PM ET) 

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

2009 NFL Playoffs – Divisional Round Preview by Lloyd Vance

New York Jets multi-purpose threat Brad Smith leads the J-E-T-S versus the host San Diego Chargers in one of this weekend’s four divisional round playoff games

The “Elite Eight” round better known as the NFL Divisional Playoff Round starts the “real” games as far as I am concerned.  Most fans and media live for the hype of the NFL Conference Championships and Super Bowl, but you can put my hearty vote in for the NFL Divisional Playoffs as the most exciting portion of the league’s now year-round calendar.  The splendor of the divisional playoff round is that the four best teams from the NFL’s regular season, after a well-deserved bye week, finally get to enter the playoff fracas to take on pumped-up wildcard weekend upstarts.  The wildcard round usually does a pretty good job of removing some of the teams that I like to call “Frauds” from the playoff picture.  But if some frauds are leftover surely the divisional round will sniff them out.  The final eight usually brings out the best in teams leading to highly competitive games before the suffocating hype, pressure, and “big stage” mentality of getting to the Super Bowl sets in. 

The great thing about the NFL divisional playoff games is that now teams that excelled in the regular season have to “Prove It” when it matters most.  “Everything that’s happened previously, you can throw out the window,” said Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell.  The outstanding rookie head coach added, “Those records don’t matter.  All that matters is what happens from here on, and we know that we’re facing a solid team.”  For a long time teams coming off byes seemed to have it made in the playoffs.  Since the league went to 12 playoff teams in 1990, which gave the top two seeds in each conference first-round byes,  the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are 57-19 (.750) in their first playoff game. However since 2005, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are just 7-9 (.438).  A prime example was in the 2008 NFL playoffs, both No. 1 seeds (Tennessee Titans and New York Giants) and the number two seed Carolina Panthers came off byes and lost. Only the AFC’s No. 2 seed, the Pittsburgh Steelers, won in the divisional round and then they went on to win the Super Bowl.  Definitely keep an eye on the winners from the Wild Card round as teams advancing from the round have won the Super Bowl 6 times including three of the last four. 

I usually also like to look at the hottest teams going into playoff games as favorites and no team is hotter than the San Diego Chargers.  The Chargers enter the postseason with 11 consecutive victories, the NFL’s longest current win streak.  San Diego is the No. 2 seed in the AFC and they carry the fifth-longest win streak to enter the playoffs since 1970.  Other teams currently on a roll are the Dallas Cowboys (4), NY Jets (3), Baltimore Ravens (2), Arizona Cardinals (1) and Minnesota Vikings (1).  Conversely the New Orleans Saints (3) and Indianapolis Colts (2) are entering the postseason on losing streaks.  Speaking of this year’s No. 1’s, the Colts and Saints both came out the gates with unprecedented 13-0 records, but now none of that not matters.  The Saints (13-3) surely will have their hands full with the Arizona Cardinals, who are coming off an impressive 51-45 shootout win over the Green Bay Packers.  The Saints will have to show that they are back in playoff form after trying for perfection and stumbling home with three straight losses to end their season.  The Cardinals are one the NFL’s most exciting teams and quarterback Kurt Warner has been in and won many big playoff games over the years.  While the nation will have an eye on the Saints-Cardinals game, interest in the Colts match-up with the physically tough Baltimore Ravens will be high too.  Since the Colts are at the center of the national “Rest or Play to win down the stretch” debate. 

The Colts having locked up the AFC’s No. 1 seed way back in Week 15 and with 2 games remaining, decided to acquess a legitimate shot at matching the 2007 New England Patriots 16-0 regular season mark.  To the ire of Colts’ fans, the team’s management decided that “resting” players for the playoffs was more important than any regular season glory.  Colts President Jim Irsay said before resting players, “We’d love to get to 16-0. But the biggest focus is going to be on being prepared for that first playoff game.” GM Bill Polian and Irsay’s plan began in the second half of the Colts-Jets game in Week 16.  With the undefeated Colts (14-0 at the time) holding a faint 15-10 lead, Indy sent in backup QB Curtis Painter and host of second stringers.  The Jets fueled by Colts’ mistakes, responded in the game’s final 25 minutes to win 29-15. Of his team resting players in a home loss and the fans reaction, veteran Colts center Jeff Saturday said, “I don’t blame them a bit, man, I probably would have booed, too. I don’t blame them. They pay to come see us win games, and we didn’t get it done.”

Think about it, the Colts (14-2) haven’t played a meaningful game since beating the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 17th and now they must turn the switch back on.  Their record says that they were the best team in the NFL during the regular season, but the hungry Ravens are waiting to pull an upset. The decision to throw away “perfection” so easily and not ride into the playoffs “hot” has firmly put a bull’s eye on the collective backs of rookie head coach Jim Caldwell, Polian, and Irsay.  And given the Colt’s poor history in gaining the bye this past decade, you would have thought team management would have wanted their guys hitting on all cylinders for the playoffs.  History is difficult to ignore if for no other reason than how poorly the Colts have fared in similar situations. The Colts record with Peyton Manning at quarterback after earning a postseason bye stands at 0-3.  While it is nice that the Colts have earned a playoff berth in 10 of the last 11 seasons, too often they have been one-and-done (six occasions), including the past two years losing to the upstart San Diego Chargers.  Right now the Ravens are looking a lot like the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers who led by their strong defense stormed out of the Wild Card round and came to Indy to face a “rested” Colts team with a similar 14-2 record.  In the game, the Colts were out-physicalled by the hungrier AFC North tested Steelers and went down to defeat by a score of 21-18.  I know Colts fans are hoping for a different result this time, but all of the pressure is on Indianapolis.  If the Colts do go on to win the Super Bowl, sure all will probably be forgotten within their fan base, but nothing is guaranteed.  If my two cents matters, I thought the Colts should have tried to enter the playoffs on a good note.   BTW… In the AFC since 1990, the No. 1 seed has compiled an 11-8 (.579) record in the Divisional round.

Others storylines to follow in the divisional round include:

Cowboys know how to win in the playoffs – As if the Cowboys’ Week 15 win over the formerly undefeated Saints and their total domination over the Philadelphia Eagles wasn’t enough, there is more evidence that Dallas is a dangerous team in the playoffs.   In fact, the Dallas Cowboys have won 33 postseason games, the most in NFL history.  With a victory against Minnesota in the Divisional Playoffs on Sunday, Dallas would advance to its 15th NFC Championship Game, surpassing the Pittsburgh Steelers (14) for the most appearances in a Conference Championship Game since 1970.

Jets head coach and quarterback attempting to enter new rookie ground — New York Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan and his rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez can reach two milestones when they play Indianapolis Colts on Saturday.  Sanchez can become the second rookie quarterback to win his first two playoff games (Joe Flacco in 2008) and Ryan can become only the sixth rookie head coach to reach that mark.

The Cardinals are flying high after their pinball machine win last week – In their huge 51-45 overtime win over the Packers, the Cardinals used an offensive display for the ages.  Arizona and Green Bay combined for an NFL postseason record 96 points and 13 touchdowns.  The game featured 1,024 yards of total offense, tied for the third-most in an NFL playoff game.  Yet, the decisive score came on a defensive touchdown when Arizona cornerback Michael Adams forced a fumble that was returned 17 yards by linebacker Karlos Dansby for the game-winning touchdown. 

Warner can still play at age 38 – Despite constant “retirement” questions, Cardinals veteran quarterback Kurt Warner is playing at a very high level.  Warner was nearly flawless as he completed 29 of 33 passes (87.9 percent) for 379 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions in the Cards’ overtime win last week.  The former Super Bowl MVP also improved his postseason record to 9-3.  He had more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four), becoming just the sixth starting quarterback to accomplish that feat in a playoff game.  Warner outdueled Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who passed for a team postseason-record 422 yards and threw four touchdowns in his first career playoff start.  It marked just the second playoff game in the Super Bowl era in which both quarterbacks threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns.  With 253 passing yards against the New Orleans Saints on Saturday, Warner will reach 4,000 passing yards in 13 career playoff games, making him the fastest player in NFL history to reach the milestone

The Ravens are tough on the road — This Saturday marks the 13th playoff game in Ravens’ history and the club’s ninth on the road.  Baltimore holds a 6-2 playoff record away from home, which stands as the top road winning percentage (.750) in NFL playoff history (minimum five games).  Baltimore looks to improve the mark against Indianapolis in the Divisional round. 

Favre to add to his legacy – Certain Hall of Famer and Minnesota Vikings QB Brett Favre will not only be looking for a win against the Cowboys, but also the game is an opportunity for him to extend his playoff numbers.  No. 4ranks second in NFL playoff history in completions, attempts, passing yards and touchdown passes.  Favre needs 23 completions, 14 passing attempts, 462 passing yards and seven touchdowns to set postseason records in each passing category.  But getting a win against the Cowboys may prove to be tough for the graybeard passer as he is 0-3 for his career against Dallas in the postseason.

We will have to see this weekend if the trend of No. 1 seeds not making it to the Super Bowl holds true.  Hard to believe it has been fifteen seasons since the last time two No. 1 seeds faced each other in Super Bowl (1993 season, Buffalo vs. Dallas in Super Bowl XXVIII).  But remember playoff tenants of Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, Limiting Penalties/Turnovers, and just plain “Want-to” will be the key factors as to which teams move on to the Conference Championship round on long treacherous road to Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida.

Surprisingly all four home teams are favored this week by Vegas after a Wild Card round where home teams went 2-2.  Remember to watch for turnovers in all four games as nothing can put a dagger in a team’s playoff hopes quicker than turnovers, especially ones that go to the house.

2009 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Games

ARIZONA CARDINALS (11-6) at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (13-3) (Saturday, FOX, 4:30 PM ET

Broadcast Team: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, and Tony Siragusa (Field Reporter)

After the Cardinals shootout win over the Green Packers last week, everyone is expecting another high-scoring affair.  In a game that features two of the NFL’s best passers, Saints QB Drew Brees and Cardinals QB Kurt Warner, I believe the team that can run the ball more effectively and gets the most defensive pressure is going to win this game.  The Cardinals are no longer just Warner and his awesome receivers (Fitzgerald, Boldin, Breaston, and Doucet), Arizona can also run the ball with rookie Chris “Beanie” Wells and Tim Hightower.  The main key for me will be the Saints ability to rattle Warner as the veteran will make mistakes when he is harrassed.  New Orleans will have their hands full as they will be missing pass rusher Charles Grant, who is on I/R.  On offense the Saints need to find their explosiveness that allowed them to score over 500 points this season (510).  Though the Saints struggled down the stretch, Brees and rest of the Saints want to prove that they can win in the postseason – only 2-6 postseason record in franchise history. The Super Dome will be rocking as it should be a Mardis Gras type atmosphere for the home team Saints and their raucous fans.

LV’s Pick:  Though not the pinball machine game from last week, there will be plenty of scoring dowin in the Bayou.  Look for Brees and WR Robert Meachem to hook-up for a big play or two — Saints 27, Cardinals 23

BALTIMORE RAVENS (10-7) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (14-2) (Saturday, CBS, 8:15 PM ET)      

Broadcast Team: Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf

The pressure will be on the Colts to prove that they can win after coming off a bye.  The Ravens are a tough physical team that loves to run the football with emerging second-year running back Ray Rice and attacking defense led by veteran linebacker Ray Lewis.  If the Colts are to succeed and shutup a very disgruntled fan base, QB Peyton Manning will need to protect the football and make some plays down the field to Pro Bowl WR Reggie Wayne.  Even as good as Manning and Wayne are, the Colts must find a running game to keep the Ravens from pinning their ears back on every play.  Running backs Joseph Addai and Donald Brown will need to find a way to move the chains against big defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg.  On defense, the Colts will have to apply pressure from DE Dwight Freeney and the rest of their D-line as Ravens QB Joe Flacco is essentially a caretaker right now – only 10 passing attempts last week.  However Freeney and the rest of the Colts defense will need to shutdown Rice and a rejuvenated Willis McGahee as the Ravens want to pound the rock on the way to an “ugly” win.  There is no love lost between these two teams as the Colts will forever be known as the team that left the Charm City for the “greener” pastures of Indy.  These two teams will be meeting in the postseason for 2nd time and the last time in January of 2007, the Colts beat Ravens 15-6 in Divisional Round.

LV’s Pick:  This is a tough one as every bone in my body wants to say that the Colts by virtue of “resting” in their last two games will lose.  But I just believe that the Colts will find a way to knock Flacco around and that will make all the difference in the world – Colts 20, Ravens 14

DALLAS COWBOYS (12-5) at MINNESOTA VIKINGS (12-4) (Sunday, FOX, 1:00 PM ET)      

Broadcast Team: Joe Buck, troy Aikman, Chris Myers and Pam Oliver (Field Reporter)

This is the game that a large portion of the country really wants to see.  TheCowboys are probably the hottest team in the NFC right now and have found a swagger that has not been seen in Dallas since 1996.  Dallas got their playoff monkey off their backs with a dominating 34-14 win over the Eagles and now they are looking to knock off the second-seeded Vikings.  Minnesota since signing veteran Brett Favre before the season has pointed to playoffs for the future Hall of Famer to make a difference and now is the time for him to pay dividends.  Favre and the Vikings were the darlings of the NFL earlier in the regular season, but after stumbling a little down the stretch, some are saying they are ripe for the picking.  If the Vikings and their head coach Brad Childress are smart, they will try to get RB Adrian Peterson going – hasn’t been over 100 yards rushing in 7 games.  Surely the Cowboys highly ranked defense led by pass rushers Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware will look to rattle Favre before he can get the ball to his speedy receivers (Berrian, Rice, and Harvin).  For Dallas offensively the plan is simple, run the ball behind their huge offensive line to help quarterback Tony Romo.  The Cowboys three-headed monster of Felix Jones, Marion Barber, and Tashard Choice will have to find holes against the Vikings D-line led by the Williams Wall (DT’s Pat and Kevin Williams).  Romo will also be looking for emerging WR Miles Austin.

LV’s Pick:  This is a tough game, because both teams have a ton of weapons offensively but you are not sure about their quarterbacks.  Favre has been known to throw interceptions in playoff games and Romo just finally has proven that he can win in the playoffs.  However in this kind of match-up I always like to look at the defenses.  The Vikings of late of struggled without MLB EJ Henderson while the Cowboys are playing a dominating brand of “D”.  Look for the Cowboys to return to New Orleans for a huge rematch with the Saints – Cowboys 31, Vikings 24

NEW YORK JETS (10-7) at SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (13-3) (Sunday, CBS, 4:40 PM ET)      

Broadcast Team: Jim Nance and Phil Simms

Jets QB Mark Sanchez returns to the West Coast in search of another playoff win.  But this time the NFL’s hottest team, the San Diego Chargers, await.  The absolute key to this game will be the Chargers ability to take away the Jets’s NFL leading running game and thus forcing Sanchez to beat them.  Remember the rookie quarterback is in his comfort zone when he is throwing the ball 20 times or less.  However look for Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera to dial-up pressure from his linebackers and secondary to force some turnovers.  Another intriguing match-up will be the Jets’ NFL leading defense’s ability to shutdown a Chargers offense that has Pro Bowl players everywhere.  San Diego triggerman Philip Rivers has an embarrassment of weapons at his disposal (RB LaDanian Tomlinson, RB Darren Sproles, and gang of giant pass catchers including TE Antonio Gates).  The Chargers can beat you with the run or the pass and it is going to be a difficult challenge for Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan to design a scheme that can shutdown such an explosive offense.

LV’s Pick:   Of all the games this weekend, I am the most sure of this one.  The Jets are a tough team, but I just don’t believe you can hide your quarterback in the playoffs.  No matter how great the Jets’ defense led by Pro Bowl CB Darrelle Revis can be, I just believe the Chargers have too many weapons — Chargers 38, Jets 10

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

The 2009 Philadelphia Eagles season ends by Lloyd Vance

With the Eagles’ disappointing lopsided playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys, many questions surround the team going into the offseason including will QB Donovan McNabb be back

The Philadelphia Eagles once promising 2009 NFL season came to a sudden and disappointing end as the Dallas Cowboys sent the Birds home with a dominating 34-14 victory in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.  I will not go into the gruesome game details, because in every phase the Cowboys dominated. 

The Cowboys removed their playoff monkey from their back – first playoff win since 1996 — by running the ball with effectiveness, some timely passing, and by smacking the Eagles offense — 3rd in the NFL in scoring coming into the game — in the mouth again and again.

Eagles’ receivers were unable to get off the line of the scrimmage and their rebuilt offensive line looked like they had not played together at all.  I could go on and on, but I know in the end, Eagles QB Donovan McNabb will receive the brunt of the playoff loss.  McNabb was not at his best, which is being kind.  He was harassed in the pocket and when he did throw the ball he was often times inaccurate.  The 33-year old quarterback finished with numbers 19 of 37 for 230 yards, with a touchdown and an interception plus a fumble lost.

In watching McNabb, I had the same feeling that I had watching former Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham struggle in his final game with the team, also a playoff loss to the Cowboys.  The much maligned quarterback was already on a very hot seat entering the season and his playoff performance will only add fuel to the fire of his doubters.

McNabb has said, “I want to be here and don’t want to be anywhere else”.  We will see after a season where the Eagles set a scoring record of 429 points if they believe that indeed that McNabb is the leader to take youngsters DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, LeSean McCoy, and others to the next level.  My feeling is that the Eagles have already made their bed by conceivably letting McNabb enter the 2010 season in the last year of his contract.

Of course McNabb is the focal figure on the hot seat after the Cowboys’ playoff bludgeoning, but he is not alone.  Eagles head coach and VP of everything Andy Reid is right next to his struggling quarterback.  After the game, Reid tried to over and over tip his cap to the Cowboys.  But the real story was the Eagles inability to keep up with a Cowboys team that has now passed them – outscored 78-30 in three losses to Dallas.  Yes the Eagles won over 100 games last decade, but past success doesn’t mean anything to loyal fans that have not seen a Super Bowl trophy during Reid’s tenure that started in 1999.

Some fans and evaluators may point to the team’s woes against Dallas of being McNabb, turnovers, non in-game adjustments, failing to run the football, poor coverage by the safeties and linebackers plus other excuses. But I believe that personnel is the largest problem for the Eagles.  Defenders of the team will point to overcoming injuries and an 11-win regular season, but in the end the Birds only beat one winning team in 2009 – Atlanta Falcons (9-7) – and were 0-5 against 2009 playoff teams. 

Over and over in his press conference, Reid said the Cowboys kicked his team’s butt and he was right.  Though the Eagles have some young studs, there are some glaring holes and Reid – makes all of the personnel calls – has to take a hard look in the mirror to move this team back to the NFL’s elite. 

Throughout the 2000’s no one ever thought that the Eagles could match-up with any opponent, but Dallas had a game plan (run the ball, look for turnovers, harass McNabb, and attack the Eagles’ smallish defense) and executed it to perfection based on positive personnel battles. 

Will year twelve of the Andy Reid regime bring a championship? We will have to wait and see, now it is on to the 2010 draft in trying to catch the Cowboys and the rest of the teams that will be playing next week.

The Eagles’ 2010 Draft List should include:

  1. LB – The season-ending injury to MLB Stewart Bradley (knee) in the pre-season hurt, but this unit had too many coverage lapses and missed tackles.  Sure veteran Jeremiah Trotter came out of retirement, but this group needed so much more.  The entire linebacking unit only had 4.5 sacks and 4 interceptions.  The NFL is now built on hybrid players and schemes at the LB area – see Cowboys LB’s Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware.  4-3 teams often incorporate 3-4 schemes and pass rushing based on the talent at LB.  The Eagles biggest problem is the aforementioned game-changing plays, but coverage is also a concern as teams like to run play action and screens on them.
  2. Safety — Sean Jones and Macho Harris were not the answer to replace Brian Dawkins (35-year old made the Pro Bowl for the Broncos).  Too many missed tackles and blown coverage assignments.  Also SS Quinton Mikell struggled without Dawkins.
  3. O-line – The guys upfront were influx all year and it looked like they never got on the same page.  From the Andrews brothers fiasco to Jason Peters struggling to center Jamal Jackson’s season-ending knee injury.  The Eagles could not run in some key short yardage situations and McNabb was sacked too often.
  4. DE – The Eagles got heat from a variety of players (44 sacks), but other than Pro Bowl player Trent Cole (12.5) no one had double digits.  Another young two way DE that can rush the passer is needed.
  5. RB – Brian Westbrook after missing 8 games and at age 30, just doesn’t look like he has much left in the tank.  LeSean McCoy is a good young back, but a partner better than Eldra Buckley is needed.

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

2009 NFL Playoffs – Wild Card Round Saturday Games Preview by Lloyd Vance

NY Jets (9-7) AT Cincinnati Bengals (10-6), Saturday January 9th, 4:30 PM ET on NBC

Broadcast Team: Tom Hammond, Joe Gibbs, Joe Theismann, Tiki Barber (Field reporter)

Let’s Do It Again…but this time, the game will be in Cincy.  Last week, the NY Jets needed a win to get in the playoffs and they dominated the Bengals by a score of 37-0.  I don’t know if the Bengals are suffering from playing a long hard 2009 season, where they lost both WR Chris Henry and the wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, but they need to look more like the team that swept the AFC North (6-0) than the group that has gone 3-4 in their last 7 games.

The Bengals have been a great turnaround story this season – won AFC North for the second time under head coach Marvin Lewis after starring on HBO’s Hard Knocks – but they are playing a young and energetic NY Jets team led by brash rookie head coach Rex Ryan.  The veteran defensive minded coach is trying to become 10th rookie head coach since 1990 to win his playoff debut.  Much like his father, former Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan, the former Ravens defensive coordinator has brought a “swagger” and a defensive presence to New York.  The Jets won five of their last six games after losing six of their previous seven games to make the playoffs.  New York allowed 252.3 yards per game and 14.8 points per game, which were both NFL-lows.

However as good as the Jets has been on defense, other than their vaunted running game – led the NFL with 172.3 rushing yards per game – New York has struggled to move the football offensively.  Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Ryan have developed an offense that relies on RB’s Thomas Jones (1,402 yards and 14 TDs – both 3rd in the NFL) and rookie Shonn Greene plus Wildcat QB Brad Smith (92 yards rushing yards including a 32-yard TD run last week) in an attempt to hide rookie starting QB Mark Sanchez (196-364, 2444 yards, 12 TDs, 20 INTs, and a 63.0 QB rating).  The USC rookie played well through the Jets’ first few games, but lately he has been a turnover machine.  Even in last week’s blowout of the Bengals, Sanchez had mediocre numbers of 8 for 16 passing for 63 yards.  If the Jets are to win, Sanchez is going to need to provide more and may have to throw the ball more than 20 times, mostly likely to his favorite target Braylon Edwards (35 catches for 541 yards and 4 TDs with the Jets). Look for the Jets to run at the injury-depleted Bengals defense — 257 rushing yards in Week 17 — that earlier lost big D-linemen Pat Sims (forearm) and Domata Peko (season-ending knee surgery).  Conversely, the Bengals (301.4 yards allowed – 3rd in AFC) will be looking to pressure Sanchez in the hope of more picks to their talented cornerback duo of Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph (career-high 6 INTs).

Offensively, the Bengals have a Fantasy Football roster of weapons including former Pro Bowl players QB Carson Palmer (282-466, 3094 yards, 21 TDs, and 13 INTs), RB Cedric Benson (over 1,200 yards), RB Larry Johnson, and WR Chad Ochocinco.  But last week the Bengals were pathetic against the Jets’ defense and will need to do better –1 for 11 on third downs and finished with just 72 net yards on offense.  In front of their home crowd, the Bengals will need to establish Benson and Johnson against the Jets’ stout defense led by their LB’s Bart Scott, Danny Harris (ankle), and Calvin Pace.  If the Bengals running game can produce some yards, then Palmer can go play-action which should help his mediocre numbers from last week — career lows in completions (1), yards (0), and passer rating (1.7).  But the Bengals will need find a way to get their catalyst Ochocinco (72 catches for 1,047 yards and 9 TDs) going.  The talkative receiver last week after bragging and “Tweeting” that he would show NY Jets Pro Bowl corner Darrelle Revis (6 INTs), “How to play the game”, never showed up.  Ochocinco was held to no catches (first time since September 29, 2002, a span of 120 games) and to make matters worse he tweaked his knee in warm-ups after slipping on the cold Meadowlands turf.  All indications are that No. 85 will play in the game and the Bengals will need him.

LV’s Pick: Last week you saw that the Jets are surging while the Bengals have not been able to sustain their early season success. But to me this game boils down to “physicality”.  The Jets can run the ball, control the clock, and produce turnovers.  The Bengals despite some good running backs are a passing team that is missing that does not have a deep threat any longer.  Unless Sanchez has an interception party, expect the Jets to win an ugly defensive game in the cold of Cincinnati – Jets win 17-13.

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) at Dallas Cowboys (11-5), Saturday January 9th, 8:00 PM ET on NBC

Broadcast Team: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Andrea Kremer (Field reporter).

If you thought the stakes were high in Week 17’s NFC East title showdown, then buckle-up because this is the playoffs and Jerry Jones’ billion-dollar playpen will be rocking.  The Eagles and Cowboys will play for the 3rd time this season after Dallas swept the other two games for the first time since 2005.  Not to bring up some awful info for Eagles fans, last week in one of the league’s most anticipated Week 17 games, the Cowboys won in dominant fashion by a score of 24-0 to claim the NFC East crown – first since 2005.  So with the thought that just 6 days earlier they dominated the Birds, the Cowboys are hoping to duplicate the efforts of the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers.  Last year’s Super Bowl champs beat the Baltimore Ravens three times, including in the AFC Championship game, on their way to the title.  Since 1970, 19 teams have gone 2-0 against an opponent in the regular season and then faced that club in the playoffs.  Surprisingly, the sweeping team has won the postseason meeting 12 times (63.2 percent).  On the other side of the rubber match, the Eagles will be trying to follow in the footsteps of the 2007 New York Giants who defeated the Cowboys in the Divisional round after Dallas had defeated them twice in the regular season.

The history between these two teams is lengthy (played 98 times with the Cowboys holding an edger of 55-43), but you know the recent Dallas’ star spitting incident involving Eagles web guy Dave Spadaro will make fans from both sides even more heated.  This will be the 4th time these two teams have met in the playoffs, but Saturday’s meeting will be the first time since 1995 when the Cowboys thumped the Eagles 30-11 – the Cowboys have won 2 of previous 3 playoff meetings.  The key player of the game will be much-maligned Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who broke three team single-season passing records this season — completions, pass attempts and yards – but as everyone knows he is 0-2 in two playoff starts.  Romo will be trying to put away his bobbled snap on a potential game-winning field from the Cowboys loss to the Seahawks in 2006 and his Cobo trip during the team’s bye week before their loss to the Giants.

But Romo and the Cowboys definitely have a new swagger about themselves after winning the NFC East for the first time since 2007 and putting up a respectable 3-2 record in December and January this season. Included in that end of season success were a huge win over the formerly undefeated New Orleans Saints and posting back-to-back shutouts in Weeks 16 and 17 over the Redskins and Eagles.  Make no bones about it, the Cowboys are a hot team right now, they won their regular-season finale for the first time since 1999, have won 3 straight games and swept the Eagles for the first time since 2005.  The Cowboys in their Week 17 win over the Eagles established the run early with power running Marion Barber and speedy Felix Jones (ran for 179 yards on just 19 rushes).  Then Romo hit some big throws to WR Miles Austin and TE Jason Witten as he was only sacked once by Philadelphia.  To show the Cowboys dominance in Week 17, Dallas had 21 first downs to Philadelphia’s 10 and doubled them in time of possession.  Look for the Cowboys to go right back to that same plan unless Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott can dial-up “pressure” that his mentor the late Jim Johnson was so great at doing against Romo and the Cowboys.  The key players for the Eagles defense will be Pro Bowl players CB Asante Samuel (9 INTs) and DE Trent Cole (11.5 sacks), but others, namely the Birds underachieving linebackers, will need to step-up.

When the Eagles have the ball offensive, they will need to get more out of their running game (only 37 rushing yards last week) and establish veteran running back Brian Westbrook and rookie LeSean McCoy on screens.  The Eagles lack of a running game or balance, allowed the Cowboys to harass Eagles QB Donovan McNabb all-day with 4 sacks to show for their efforts.  The Birds were never able to find explosive Pro Bowl WR DeSean Jackson (An NFL record 8 TDs of 50 yards +) or rookie Jeremy Maclin.  The Eagles failed to score and had their 6-game winning streak snapped – in 21 possessions against the Cowboys this season, Philly has produced 7 points.  With Dallas Cowboys head coach and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips running the show, the Cowboys defense has been awesome — allowed 37 points in their last four games and became the first defense to post back-to-back shutouts since 2000.  The Cowboys 2nd ranked NFL Defense will count on pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer plus Pro Bowl NT Jay Ratliff.  If the Eagles are to have any success against Ware and his mates, McNabb will need to make plays in and out of the pocket plus spread the ball around to everyone and not just emerging TE Brent Celek.

LV’s Pick: Last week the Cowboys dominated by a score of 24-0 and everyone is now picking them to finally end their playoff futility by beating Philly – Dallas has not won a playoff game since 1996.  However when I look at this match-up I have to point to the quarterbacks and head coaches.  Philadelphia head coach Andy Reid has never lost in an opening playoff game (7-0) while Phillips has zero playoff wins under his belt going back to his days in Denver.  McNabb is 9-6 playoff games and Romo has well documented playoff struggles.  With all of the pressure on the Cowboys, expect a looser Eagles teams to be more prepared.  The Eagles win a hard fought game on a David Akers field goal.  — Eagles win 23-20