Wild Card Weekend is in the books and history says one of the four winners should play through to the Super Bowl. In five of the past seven years a team has gone to the big dance after winning in the opening round of the playoffs. Can you pick a team that has the makings of a finalist? For some of the great players in the game, their career ends when the playoff run ends. Most likely that's already the case for the great London Fletcher, but Ravens' great Ray Lewis gets to play at least one more time. What do the Broncos, especially Peyton Manning, see when studying Lewis?
There were many terrific performances by running backs on wild-card weekend, but another position was getting the dirty work done to make offenses roll. Finally, if you like to predict the combined scores in games, you probably didn't see this coming in all four games. Here's a quick look at what wild-card weekend told me as I watched the games with Bill Cowher and Dan Marino. Of course, the coaching searches go on and Chip Kelly's decision to stay in college is a good one for him and a few of the real NFL candidates.
Seahawks provide blueprint for GMs
The Seattle Seahawks move on in the playoffs and there's a lot to like about this upstart team. Study how they are built, and there's a lesson for all aspiring GMs and head coaches. There's reasons they are playing well down the stretch and they are being labeled as the dangerous team no one wants to play right now. They are young and have plenty of gas left in the tank. They are going to need all the vitality they can muster because after the 6,000-mile round trip to Washington and back, they will be flying east to Atlanta this weekend on another 6,000 mile trip. And if they win there, they will fly to either Green Bay or San Francisco the week after. It's safe to say if the Seahawks get the chance to go to New Orleans, they are going to log between 13,000-15,000 beforehand.
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Not only is the roster young, but Seattle has plenty of salary-cap space because of its knack for finding talent in the draft and find gems on the cheap in the free-agent market. That will allow the Seahawks to continue the building process in the offseason. There are 19 players on the roster from the past three drafts, including 13 starters. What makes the Seahawks even more the envy of any personnel director in the league is the 10 undrafted players on the roster from the past three post-draft signings. Those kinds of players are typically called "camp bodies," meaning they fill out the summer roster and are released when September rolls around. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin and blitzing safety Jeron Johnson lead this group of players. Their kicker, punter and long snapper were all picked up on waivers or were street free agents. Speaking of street free agents, which are also inexpensive, Seattle has five more on their roster from that group. The reason this young team is so dangerous is because its players are so hungry.
Another lesson: When it came to the most important position on the field Seattle's brain trust didn't sit back and hope its quarterback situation would improve with offseason workouts and more playing experience like some clubs are doing right now. They kept rolling the dice until they got it right, even though the critics thought they just kept making mistakes. From Matt Hasselbeck to Charlie Whitehurst to Tarvaris Jackson to the signing of Matt Flynn and the drafting of Russell Wilson, they have been criticized the whole way, but no one is saying a thing right now. Wilson on Sunday became the sixth rookie quarterback since 1970 to lead his team to a victory in the playoffs.
Finally, the Seahawks were forced to replace the talent of Chris Clemons when their best pass rusher was injured in the wild-card win over the Redskins. Enter rookie Bruce Irvin, who was the most shocking first-round pick last April. Irvin who promptly went out and led all rookies in sacks this year, and he went to full-time duty when Clemons went down Sunday. He finished the game with a sack, a tackle for a loss, a pass defended and two hits on the QB.
Lewis lives to play another day
Ray Lewis had a triceps injury that sounded likely to end his career a few months ago. In typical Ray Lewis fashion he worked so hard that he made it back for the playoffs. It was a very emotional day in Baltimore as he came on to the field for one more encore performance in front of a sold out stadium in garbed in Ray Lewis jerseys. It gave me goose bumps to watch his entry, and then to watch him record 13 tackles in the game.
Out in Denver, the mad scientist also known as Peyton Manning was watching for different reasons. Manning has to beat Ray Lewis and the Ravens this week to keep his dream of another Super Bowl title alive. What did Manning see as he studied the return of Ray Lewis?
He watched a Ravens defense led by Lewis that he beat nine straight times (seven with Lewis on the field) when Manning was the Colts quarterback. In the seven games against Lewis, Manning has 18 touchdown passes and averaged 269 yards a game. Lewis has never intercepted Manning and only has credit for two passes defended in the 309 passes Manning has thrown against a Lewis-led defense.
In the Ravens win Sunday over the Colts, Manning saw a middle linebacker that struggled in his pass drops and lost some range to do things in space. There is little doubt in my mind that Manning will be planning a passing attack in the middle of the field with his tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen. The Ravens surely will recognize this is coming and make a few adjustments. Ray Lewis looked better to me coming downhill than playing behind his alignment. I expect to see more blitzing from him than dropping into coverage, otherwise Manning may have a chance to add to those consecutive wins over the Ravens. Ray Lewis has one more chance to stop Peyton Manning.
Tight ends get it done
The quarterbacks never go unnoticed in playoff games. The running backs that led their teams to the second round of the playoffs were exceptional. Everyone recalls the great performances of Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, but the tight ends did an exceptional job on Sunday blocking and catching the ball and they are hardly remembered.
Running the ball without good blocking tight ends is very difficult in the schemes used by Seattle, Houston and Baltimore and the coach's tape will show the tight ends did the dirty work. There was certainly an uptick in pressure calls by defenses in the playoffs and tight end receiving is critical to defeat areas vacated by blitzing linebackers and safeties. Zach Miller of the Seahawks did a masterful job of blocking a blitzer and releasing for short check down passes, none more critical than the 22-yard gain on a third-and-10 situation in the fourth quarter and the Seahawks trailing 14-13. Same for Dennis Pitta of the Ravens when he grabbed a 20-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco on a second-and-15 situation to make the score 17-6. What else has to be said about Texans tight end Owen Daniels, who led the team in receptions with nine, four of which moved the chains.
This week add Tony Gonzalez, Vernon Davis, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jacob Tamme, and Joel Dreessen to the tight ends playing and you start to realize teams with real good tight ends go pretty far in the playoffs.
Surprised by the scores
During my matchup show for Pro Football 360 every Thursday, Kevin Corke asks me for a final score. I was lucky last week picking all four winners, but every game came in under the total points number people felt would be the combined score. The Houston-Cincinnati number was 43 and I had 41 points. The final score? Thirty-two. The Vikings-Packers number was 46 and I had 47 points. The final total was 34. The Colts-Ravens number was 47 and I had 45. The final total was 33. The Seahawks-Redskins number was 46 and I had 44. The final total was 38. At least I was under the total number three of the four games, but the real question was why the low scoring?
Andy Dalton, Matt Schaub, and Andrew Luck threw 122 passes without a touchdown. Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Joe Webb threw 89 passes and only one touchdown each. Combine the two groups and there were 211 passes and three touchdowns. The only multiple touchdown quarterbacks were Robert Griffin III and Joe Flacco, and they had only two each in 42 attempts. For the entire Wild Card Weekend, in four games there were 253 attempts and only seven touchdown passes. That's one TD pass every 36 attempts. People can say all the rules favor offense, but on this Wild Card Weekend, the defenses won the battle.