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Wild-card Judgements: Another disappointing finish for Falcons

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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No run game spells dooms for Michael Turner and the Falcons, who get stuffed early and often. (US Presswire)  
No run game spells dooms for Michael Turner and the Falcons, who get stuffed early and often. (US Presswire)  

1. Like it or not, the Atlanta Falcons, Mike Smith and Matt Ryan are on the clock after their latest setback -- and not because the loss was egregious (which it was) -- but because it was another playoff failure. For the record, the Falcons are 0-3 under Smith and Ryan in the postseason, and you start to wonder not only when they're going to come around, but if they will. "You get what you earn in this league," Smith said after Sunday's 24-2 loss. "We earned a 10-6 record in the regular season; we were 0-1 in the playoffs. We did not play our best game and we are going to ... starting tomorrow ... do everything in our power to rectify the 10-6 record from the regular season and the 0-1 record in the postseason. That is the only way I know how to approach it."

2. People tell me that running the football doesn't matter anymore ... not in a league with three 5,000-yard passers. Then tell me why Denver won. No, better yet, tell me why the Giants did. I can tell you why Atlanta did not: Because it ran about as well as an Edsel. Three times when it needed one yard it failed, including two Matt Ryan sneaks on fourth down. "They won the battle of the line of scrimmage," Smith said. I'd say that's just about got it.

3. My first thought after watching Atlanta go oh-for-11 Sunday on offense was: How bad must Tampa Bay have been? The Falcons put 42 points on the Bucs in a quarter-and-a-half last week.

4. If the Giants are without cornerback Aaron Ross, sidelined with a concussion, it could be significant. Without him, they go deeper into their rotation, which means more playing time for Prince Amukamara. If Greg Jennings is back -- which he's supposed to be -- that could be an issue. Stay tuned.

5. Tell me again why Tim Tebow can't play. Somebody? Anybody?

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6. I guess that resolves those questions about what Denver does with the quarterback position next season. I don't care what happens next week in New England. It doesn't matter. Tebow not only took the Broncos to a division title; he won a playoff game ... against the frickin' defending AFC champions, for crying out loud. He goes into the 2012 camp as the unchallenged starter. Period.

7. Good news for T.J. Yates and the Houston Texans: Four of the last six rookie quarterbacks to start playoff games advanced to the conference championship game. The only ones who didn't were Matt Ryan (2008) and Andy Dalton.

8. That doesn't mean I like Houston's chances vs. Baltimore -- because I don't. The Ravens are home, where they beat the Texans ... and Matt Schaub ... by 15 in October ... in a game where they sacked him four times ... and in a game where they held Arian Foster and Ben Tate to 90 yards rushing. The Ravens at home aren't as overwhelming as New Orleans at home, but the results are the same. They haven't lost. In fact, they lost only one of their last 19 there.

9. I feel for Ben Roethlisberger. The guy played a courageous game on a sore ankle, escaping the pocket to make a sensational throw to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. It was vintage Big Ben, the right play at the right moment, and I'm convinced somehow, some way, he would have done it again had he gotten the chance in OT. Only he didn't.

10. Don't tell me New Orleans isn't a different team outside. Drew Brees played outdoors five times this season and had nine touchdowns compared to six interceptions. Oh, yeah, he was 3-2. In domes he had 37 touchdowns, eight interceptions and was 10-1. Three of the Saints' four lowest scores were outdoors, where they averaged 25.8 points per game. Outside they averaged 38 per game. Plus, they're 0-2 there in the playoffs under Sean Payton.

11. Nevertheless, I like New Orleans in San Francisco ... and here's why: The 49ers can and will defend Brees, but they can't score enough points. They produce field goals, not touchdowns, and field goals won't cut it vs. the Saints.

12. A coach I trust said he makes Atlanta's Mike Mularkey the frontrunner for the Jacksonville job, but how do you go to the front of the class fresh off that performance Sunday?

13. I still don't understand why Detroit's Jim Schwartz didn't challenge a Marques Colston third-quarter catch that was at least 2 feet short of a first down. Officials spotted it improperly, giving the Saints the first down at their 18, but Schwartz didn't budge. He should have. It would have been fourth down, and the Saints would have been forced to punt. As it was, they never punted in the second half.

14. Sorry, but I refuse to believe Jim Irsay and the Colts won't do the right thing and take Andrew Luck with the first pick of the draft. Luck is the slam-dunk top choice, and Irsay saw what happened in 1983 when his father, Bob, traded away the Colts' first choice to Denver. It was John Elway, and it took the franchise years to recover.

15. Denver won't be given much of a chance in New England, and I get it. But I also get that the Broncos hammered the Patriots defense when the two met earlier this season -- slashing it for 225 yards and 17 points on their first three possessions -- before three second-quarter turnovers finished them. People will tell you that it was Bill Belichick's schemes that stopped Denver. It wasn't. It was three Denver fumbles in one quarter. Tough to overcome that when you must overcome Tom Brady, too.

FIVE THINGS I LIKE

1. Everything about Tim Tebow in his first playoff game. Critics were waiting to trash him after Sunday, figuring he and the Broncos stood no chance against Pittsburgh. So what happens? Tebow torches the Steelers -- the league's No. 1 defense -- for 316 yards passing, including the game-winning 80-yard TD pass in overtime; throws for two touchdowns; runs for a third; and propels Denver to the next round of the playoffs. That makes him 8-4 this season. It also infuriates his detractors who said he wouldn't make it. Well, this just in: He has.

2. The top seeds holding. I didn't see it happening. In fact, I was sure it wouldn't in the AFC. But here we are moving to the divisional round, and the top four seeds in each conference are left standing, which means it's 4-0 in favor of the home teams.

3. The Giants' defense. Over the last three games, it allowed four touchdowns. Period. That means opponents were blanked on 37 of their last 41 drives, and, yeah, I like that a lot when your next opponent is Green Bay.

4. The stock in Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. Guaranteed, it skyrocketed following that overtime win. Someone's going to want to know who made all those calls to shred the league's top-ranked defense and has Denver advancing, and you're looking at him.

5. Former San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. as a Hall of Fame finalist. The 49ers won at least 10 games for an NFL-record 16 straight seasons on his watch, and, yeah, it helps when you have Hall of Famers like Joe Montana, Bill Walsh, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Steve Young. But it helps when you have an owner who knows how to run a top-shelf franchise, too.

FIVE THINGS I DON'T

1. Officiating at the Falcons-Giants game. Officials blew spots. They blew holding calls. They blew an obvious pass interference. I think it's say to say that referee Carl Cheffers is off the Super Bowl XLVI guest list.

2. Mike Smith on fourth-and-short. He keeps going for it, and he keeps losing. It cost him an overtime loss to New Orleans, and you can argue that his two failed sneaks Sunday cost him a playoff game. All I know is that it cost him and his team momentum they sorely needed.

3. Marvin Lewis' quick trigger. Someone needs to help him with replay challenges. His first vs. Houston was ridiculous; his second was spontaneous. Both were denied, so that by the middle of the second quarter the Bengals had no replay challenges left. Next season, Marvin, you gotta be smarter. Either that, or hire someone to help you make the calls.

4. Pittsburgh's coverage on that game-winning throw. The middle of the field was wide open, which happens when your defense bites on a play-action fake. But it's not supposed to happen to Pittsburgh. And it's not supposed to happen to Pittsburgh when Tim Tebow is on the other side of the line of scrimmage. The Steelers are tough on big plays, only they kept getting victimized by them Sunday. Don't tell me not having Ryan Clark didn't hurt these guys ... because it did.

5. The Detroit Lions on Twitter. Too bad their best defense this weekend was here. After getting torched by New Orleans, cornerback Aaron Berry tweeted, "Y'all can go back to being Broke and Miserable ... now back to regular-scheduled programming." He later apologized, but it was too late. How to stick up for those people who stuck by you, Aaron.

FIVE GUYS WHO HAVE SOME 'SPLAINING TO DO

1. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. His Steelers held opponents to a league-low 14.2 points per game this season, yet allowed Denver and Tim Tebow to put up 20 on them ... in the second quarter, then surrendered that 80-yard game-winner on one play in OT. His secondary allowed Demaryius Thomas to make catches of 80, 58 and 51 yards, three of the four longest gains on Pittsburgh this season, and that's not supposed to happen to LeBeau or his players. It's not supposed to happen when Tim Tebow is your opponent, either. But it did.

2. Atlanta's Mike Smith. He has fourth-and-1 at the Giants' 21. He's down by eight. There are over four minutes left in the third quarter. So why not kick the field goal? "Well," he said, "it was considered." It should have been more than considered; it should have been done. Instead, he called on Matt Ryan for another quarterback sneak, and you know what happened.

3. Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor. First, he lets Demaryius Thomas get free over the middle on the first play of OT. Then he fails to tackle him. Result: One play for Denver; one giant setback for Pittsburgh.

4. Detroit defensive tackle Ndamaukong Suh. He's the guy who said "I don't plan on anybody shooting our defense out" prior to the Saints shooting their defense out. The Saints had six second-half possessions and scored touchdowns on the first five. The only time they were stopped is when they stopped themselves, mercifully taking a knee at game's end instead of scoring again.

5. Atlanta's Mularkey. Where was the vertical passing game? The average Atlanta gain was 8.3 yards per pass, with nothing longer than 21 yards. When you have Roddy White and Julius Jones in your lineup how does that happen?

JUST ASKING ...

 Who's going to overpay for Matt Flynn?

 What are the chances LSU and the Saints each wind up champions?

 Did Mike Mularkey and Jay Gruden hurt their head-coaching chances?

 How much did the absence of Ryan Clark hurt Pittsburgh?

 Should the Colts trade Peyton Manning?

NUMBERS THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE

0-3 -- Cincinnati's playoff record under Marvin Lewis

0-3 -- Atlanta's playoff record under Mike Smith

1 -- Plays needed to decide the NFL's first OT game under the new playoff rules

4 -- Straight defeats of Atlanta by Eli Manning

204 -- Demaryius Thomas yards receiving on four catches

225-51 -- Yardage edge for Denver in the second quarter vs. Pittsburgh

1991 -- Last time Cincinnati won a playoff game

WEEKEND'S BEST

OFFENSE: Tim Tebow, QB, Denver. If you believe his critics, he's the Venus De Milo of quarterbacks. Except he just shredded Pittsburgh for 316 yards -- including an 80-yard TD on the first play of overtime. Oh, yeah, he also threw for another touchdown and ran for a third score as the Broncos brought down the defending AFC champions.

DEFENSE: J.J.Watt, DE, Houston. It was his 29-yard interception return that turned a tie game into a Texans' rout. Watt is a former tight end, so it figures he knows how to catch. But this catch was extraordinary. He stabbed the ball with one hand as he leaped, then returned it for a score. One of the best and brightest defensive rookies this season, Watt is a key component to the league's second-ranked defense -- and a reason the Texans are still alive.

COACH: John Fox, Denver. I remember when I was at training camp, and a group of reporters figured the over/under on Denver victories this season was six. Well, the Broncos won eight. They also won the AFC West. And now they just pulled off the biggest upset since Seattle toppled then-defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans this time last year.

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