All posts by Joe Wegescheide

Super Bowl LIII: Defense Matters

It is, of course, not surprising that the reviews of Super Bowl LIII were not outstanding.  Coming on the heels of one of the most prolific offensive seasons in the sport’s history, America was expecting a shootout between the league’s second (LA) and fourth (NE) highest scoring offenses.

During the 2018 regular season, all teams averaged 373.5 points (the second highest in history), and averaged 5635.6 yards (also second highest in history).  The 26.5 touchdown passes thrown per team were an NFL record.

It isn’t surprising that the casual fan, spoiled by the offensive excess of the regular season should take a little offense at the little offense provided a couple of Sundays ago.  It is easy to be underwhelmed by the New England Patriot’s 13-3 conquest of the Los Angeles Rams (gamebook) (summary).  Too many fans, I fear, have been drawn to the pinball-like quality of play over the recent seasons – to the point where they can no longer appreciate the achievement of both of these under-rated defensive units.

But the resounding message from both teams on this latest Super Bowl Sunday – and, perhaps a message that will resonate through the coming season – is that defense matters.

Defense matters a lot.

Last year we ran through a few of the offensive achievements of the almost-highest-scoring Super Bowl in history.  This year’s collection of Super Bowl notes will be much different.

Super Bowl Notebook:

New England’s 13 points were the fewest ever by a Super Bowl winner.  The Miami Dolphins completed their perfect 1972 season with a victory in Super Bowl VII (7) by scoring just 14 points in beating Washington.

With the 14-7 final, that game had been the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever until this one.

The Rams tied the record for fewest points scored in a Super Bowl game.  That was also set by the Dolphins when they lost Super Bowl VI (6) to Dallas, 24-3.

Back in Super Bowl III (3), Joe Namath famously guaranteed a victory.  His prediction was correct, but he, himself, threw 28 passes that afternoon without throwing for a touchdown.  He became the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl without throwing a touchdown pass, and his 28 pass attempts stood as the most ever thrown by a winning Super Bowl quarterback without throwing a touchdown pass.  That record stood until this last Super Bowl, when none of Tom Brady’s 35 throws resulted in a touchdown.

Jared Goff’s 229 passing yards were the fewest by a losing quarterback in the Super Bowl since Rex Grossman threw for just 165 in losing Super Bowl XLI (41) to Peyton Manning and Indianapolis 29-17.  That next year, the almost undefeated Patriots would lose the first Super Bowl of the Brady-Belichick era.

Speaking of Manning, he is still the last losing quarterback of a Super Bowl to average less than 6 yards per attempted pass in the big game.  In the shellacking that he and his Denver teammates absorbed at the hands of Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII (48), Peyton threw 49 passes, but gained just 280 yards (5.71 per attempt).  Goff came close to joining him – he averaged just 6.03 yards per attempted pass.  His 12.1 yards per completion is also the lowest among losing Super Bowl quarterbacks since that Manning game – Peyton averaged only 8.2 yards per his 34 completions.

Brady’s victory pushed Michigan ahead of Notre Dame as the college with the most alumni-quarterback Super Bowl victories.  Michigan now has 6 – all belonging to Brady.  The fighting Irish have earned four from Joe Montana and one from Joe Theismann.  Notre Dame quarterbacks have lost only two Super Bowls (one each by Theismann and Daryle Lamonica), so their percentage is still better.

University of California quarterbacks continues to struggle on the big stage.  With Goff’s loss, they are now 1-4, with Aaron Rodgers accounting for their only victory – but also one of their losses.  The other U-Cal losses belong to Craig Morton (2) and Joe Kapp (1).

The Rams’ 62 rushing yards were the fewest by a losing team in a Super Bowl since the Denver Broncos managed just 27 rushing yards against Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII (48), and the 35 rushing yards that Todd Gurley led the Rams with were the fewest yards rushed for by the leading rusher of a losing team since Denver’s Knowshon Moreno led the Broncos with 17 rushing yards in that Super Bowl against Seattle.

You have to go back 18 years, to Baltimore’s demolition of the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV (35) to find a losing team that managed fewer total yards than the Rams’ 260 this year.  On that day, the Giants finished with 152.  Those Giants were also the last team not to score an offensive touchdown in the Super Bowl until the Rams this year.

The previous record for fewest combined offensive touchdowns in a Super Bowl was two. This had been done in six previous Super Bowls – most recently in Denver’s 24-10 victory over Carolina in Super Bowl 50.  This year, the Rams and Patriots combined for just one.

On the plus side, a few individuals came through with noteworthy performances.

This Super Bowl now marks a dozen years since the winning team produced a 100-yard rusher.  Indianapolis’ Dominic Rhodes ran for 113 yards against Chicago back in Super Bowl XLI (41). New England’s Sony Michel’s 94 yards this year is the closest anyone on the winning team has come since then (although two losing teams have managed 100-yard rushers in the interim).

Meanwhile Julian Edelman’s 141 receiving yards are the most by a member of a winning team since Super Bowl XXXVIII (38).  That was another New England Super Bowl win, with Brady to Deion Branch accounting for 143 yards.

Taking On the Patriots

Defending the explosive and creative LA Rams is a significant challenge for any defense.  In some ways, though, the Patriots present a more difficult challenge in that they have been the playoffs’ most persistent and prolific running team.

They bludgeoned the LA Chargers with 155 rushing yards (and 4 rushing touchdowns) on 34 carries in their Divisional Round game.  They followed that up by laying 176 more rushing yards (and 4 more rushing touchdowns) on 48 rushes on Kansas City in the AFC Championship game.

Before them now was a Ram defense that had been exceedingly susceptible to the run all season.  All regular season, that is.  During the regular season, they had ranked twenty-third at stopping the run, allowing 122.3 rushing yards per game, and 5.1 rushing yards per attempt – the league’s worst such figure.

But as the playoffs dawned, this Ram run defense flipped the switch, providing a turnaround as unexpected as any I’ve witnessed.  Confronted with top running offenses in their first two playoff games, Los Angeles first muffled the Dallas Cowboys – possessors of the NFL’s top rusher in Ezekiel Elliott.  Dallas finished the game with just 50 yards rushing (47 by Elliott).  Next up were the New Orleans Saints.  The Saints had been the sixth-best running team in football during the season, while leading the league with 26 rushing touchdowns.  They had racked up 137 more yards in their first playoff game against Philadelphia.

Again, though, the surprising Ram run defense had all the answers.  The Saints managed just 48 yards on the ground against LA.

So one of the sub-themes of this contest would be the matchup of the suddenly unstoppable Patriot ground game against the suddenly immovable Ram run defense.

Starting the game with the ball in their possession – as the Rams deferred – the Patriots began with the ground assault.  On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Michel burst for 13 yards.  All of New England’s first four plays were runs, the first three of them gaining at least five yards. Three plays into the game, the Patriots already had half as many rushing yards (24) as New Orleans had managed against the Rams in the Championship Game.

The fourth running play managed “just” three yards, setting up Brady’s first pass on second-and-seven from the Ram 34.

New England’s Openings

To this point, this drive was eerily similar to the Patriots’ previous two playoff games.  Getting the ball first against both the Chargers and Chiefs, New England had authored two long clock-draining, soul-crushing touchdown drives.  They had marched 83 yards in 14 plays against the first LA team.  That drive had taken the game’s first 7:11.  In their next matchup against KC, they pounded them for 80 yards in 15 plays of a drive that consumed the first 8:05 of that game.

Four plays into the Super Bowl, the combined totals for all three of their first drives read 33 plays, earning 190 yards that had run a collective 18:02 off the clock.

But a funny thing happened as New England sat poised to score their third consecutive opening drive touchdown – an interception.

With Ram cornerback Aqib Talib dropping into deep zone coverage up the offensive right sideline, Receiver Chris Hogan sat down in an open spot in the flat. What should have been an easy first down, though, turned into disaster as Brady’s throw brought Hogan back toward the center of the field, allowing defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman to get back in the play, where he deflected the ball high enough in the air that linebacker Cory Littleton could slide under it and make the interception.

While that play didn’t necessarily turn the tide of the game, it did turn the tide on the Patriot running game.  After allowing those 24 yards on New England’s first three runs, Los Angeles would surrender just 37 more rushing yards on the Patriots next 16 runs (2.3 yards per attempt).  Of those rushes, the only one to gain more than five yards was an 8-yard wide receiver sweep run by Edelman.

Under-Appreciated Defenders

In the silencing of the Saint running game, the Ram defense was led by their two highest profile defensive linemen – Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.  Bill Belichik and Josh McDaniel’s brilliant response was to not run at Donald.  Of New England’s 32 rushing plays on the evening, only six were run in Donald’s direction – and two of those occurred when Aaron was the only defensive lineman on his side of the field.  If the Rams were going to stop the New England ground game, it would have to be stopped by someone other than Donald.

For most of the game, that someone (or those someones) tuned out to be Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler. Brockers made 7 of the Rams 31 tackles against the run after gains of just 17 yards (2.4 per). Fowler was primary on 3 tackles against the run for a total of one yard lost.

Even when they weren’t making the tackle themselves, they were disruptive forces in the run game.  Mostly lined up against Joe Thuney, Brockers consistently stood his ground, clogging the line and preventing linemen from advancing to the linebackers.

Fowler seemed especially aware of what the Patriots were attempting.  He foiled a couple of screen passes (and Brady and the Patriots were only 1 for 4 completing screen passes) and made quick penetration on several running plays.

With 9:55 left in the first quarter, and New England facing a first-and-ten on their own 24, they tried to send Michel up the middle.  The blocking scheme on this run called for Trent Brown – the tackle lined up opposite of Fowler – to help Thuney double Donald.  With that, the Patriots pulled Shaq Mason from the left side to block on Fowler. But Dante read the play instantly and was into the backfield before Mason could get near him, smothering Michel for a 4-yard loss.

Later on in that drive, now with 6:17 left in the opening quarter, New England sat at third-and-eight on the Ram 31.  They tried to sneak a draw to James White underneath the pass rush of Donald.  Fowler read that, too, and chased White down after a three-yard gain – a play that forced a failed New England field goal attempt.

This was the pattern through most of the game, as the Patriot offense ground to a near halt as the running game sputtered.

For a little while.

Persistence Pays Off

But the ever patient Patriots kept running the ball.  On 68% of their first down plays (23 of 34), the Pats ran the ball.  And eventually, the Rams did wear down.

Beginning with a 19-yard sprint from Michel with 1:18 left in the third, the Patriot running attack took over the rest of the game.  New England’s final 12 rushes would account for 94 yards (7.8 yards per), 4 first downs, one touchdown, and the two runs that basically decided the game.

The last Patriot drive of the season began on its own 4-yard line.  There was still 4:17 left in the game, and the Patriot lead was a slim 10-3.  After their first run earned a yard, the Patriots faced second-and-nine from their own 5.

To this point, NE had almost completely avoided running at Donald.  Of the six times they did test him, five of those runs gained just 4 yards.  At this critical juncture, though, with Donald playing three-technique (over the outside shoulder of right guard Mason), the Patriots lined up with two tight ends to the left of the formation (away from Donald). The Rams overshifted, moving their other two defensive linemen to the left side, leaving Donald and two linebackers alone on the right side.

Just prior to the snap, tight end Dwayne Allen came back in motion to the right side, balancing the lines.  At the snap, Marcus Cannon and Mason doubled Donald, with Cannon then going through for Littleton.  Allen kicked Fowler to the outside, and Thuney came pulling from left guard to lead through the hole by blasting undersized linebacker Mark Barron.  The rest was green grass for Michel, whose 26-yard gallop brought New England from the shadow of its goal line.

Now it is two plays later – with still 2:42 left in the season, but the Rams now down to one time-out.  The Patriots face second-and-seven on their own 41.  Now, the Patriots would do the same thing, but in reverse. And with the same success.

NE lined up with two tight ends to the right side, and the Rams responded by overshifting their line to that side. The Pats then motioned Rob Gronkowski back to the left side and ran there. Thuney and David Andrews put an initial double-team block on Brockers (lined over center, the farthest left defensive lineman the Rams had), with Thuney then going through to get in the way of Littleton. Brown tossed Fowler to the inside, and Gronk crunched Lamarcus Joyner to the outside. James Develin led through the hole and removed Barron from the equation. Rex Burkhead then sliced back inside and ran to daylight.

New England had done the same thing to Kansas City late in that contest to spring a couple of long runs.

With a second 26-yard run in a matter of four plays, New England authored a game-clinching, nine-play, 67-yard drive (all of them running plays!) that ended in a field goal.  It left the Rams with a ten-point deficit, no timeouts, and 1:12 of season left to do something about it.

Although they were essentially stalled for most of the game, in the end, New England finished with 154 rushing yards (and another rushing touchdown) and their sixth title.  In winning their three playoff games, NE had scored 11 touchdowns – nine of them on the ground.

The Develin Factor

Once a staple of offensive football, the fullback has become almost a relic.  In the new pass-happy NFL, the fullback has mostly given way to a third or fourth wide receiver.  But in New England, the fullback is alive and well in the person of James Develin – a specialist whose job it is to ensure green pastures for the running back who will follow him through the hole.  Develin was on the field for only 30 plays (42% of the offensive snaps), but his presence was felt.  The Rams had 13 runs of more than three yards in this game.  Develin led through the hole on 7 of them.  He also led through on the two-yard touchdown run.

It is a stretch to say that the success the Patriots have found with Develin will spread to other teams.  But the concept certainly works in New England.

Brady and the Passing Attack

With the running game mostly held at bay, the very confident Ram defenders gave Tom Brady and his receivers all they could handle.  In one of his least effective Super Bowls, Brady finished with 262 passing yards and a 71.37 passer rating.  Tom didn’t have his best game.  Some of his throws were off target, and a few of his decisions could well be questioned.  But the largest parts of this story are the Ram defenders.  Whether in zone or in man, Talib, Joyner, John Johnson, Barron, Robey-Coleman – and yes even Marcus Peters – continuously provided tight coverage and gave Brady few opportunities.

But with such opportunities as presented themselves, Brady managed to get the ball mostly to his two prime-time targets.  Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman finished catching 10 of 12 passes thrown his way for 141 yards and 8 first downs.  Tight end Rob Gronkowski caught 6 of 7 for 87 yards and 3 first downs.

Combined, Brady was 16 of 19 (84.21%) throwing to those two for 228 yards (12 yards per attempt and 14.25 per completion).  His passer rating to those two targets was a Brady-like 116.67.

But when the Rams managed to take away those targets and force Brady to go elsewhere, the story was much different.  Throwing to all other receivers, Brady was 5 of 16 (31.25%) for 34 yards (2.13 per attempt) with one interception – a 14.58 rating.

It’s Julian’s World

The challenge with Edelman is mostly a man coverage issue.  One of football’s quickest receivers, Julian is almost always able to get that first step on a defender.  And while he doesn’t have the kind of break-away speed that will leave a defender in his wake, he is as tough at catching footballs with defenders hanging on him as you will find in the league.

In this contest, Edelman was kept company by all of the principle Ram defenders.  He saw a lot of Talib, but frequently lined up slot-left where he would draw slot-corner Robey-Coleman.  He would then frequently run across the field (left-to-right) with Nickell in pursuit.  Of Julian’s receptions and yards he caught 5 of 6 for 73 yards and 4 first downs on the right side of the field.  Against all man coverage, Edelman caught 7 of 9 for 112 yards and 5 first downs – almost all of these with a defender within arms grasp.

These were difference making catches and yards.

Gronk in the Zone

While zone coverages will tend to minimize Edelman’s impact, they are a double-edged sword as someone will then have to deal with Rob Gronkowski, one of the NFL’s best at finding soft spots in zones.  Brady threw to Gronk in zone coverages 4 times, his 4 completions resulting in 40 yards (although just 1 first down).  Gronk would have his moment against man coverage, too.

There is 7:43 left in the season, game tied at that point 3-3, Patriots on LA’s 31.  Here would be the first of a series of plays that would determine the outcome of the season.

As the Patriots lined up, the Rams made one last attempt to confound the New England passing game.  As Edelman went in motion to the right, no one followed him – a zone indicator.  Then Littleton crowded the line, threatening a blitz – which would probably be man coverage.  Perhaps they were a little too cute, here.  Apparently, the only ones they confused were themselves.

On Brady’s last pass of the season, the Rams found themselves in man coverage, but with disadvantageous matchups.  They finished with safety Joyner on Edelman and cornerback Talib on running back Burkhead.

The defensive lineup also left Littleton one-on-one with Gronkowski all the way up the left side line.

For the game, Brady would only throw three long passes.  All would go up the left sideline.  The first two of these came with Marcus Peters isolated on Chris Hogan, with Peters responding to the challenge both times.  This time a perfect pass led Gronk over the top of Littleton.  Rob’s catch gave the Patriots first and goal on the two, and set in motion the end game.

Third and Less Than Automatic

Against the Chiefs, the Patriot offense thrived on third down, converting 13-of-19.  The Ram defense kept its team in the game by holding the Patriots to a much more pedestrian 3 of 12 on this down.  Here they played predominantly man coverage, leading to something of a hit-and-miss result.  In spite of the fact that New England only converted three of these opportunities, Brady was still 6 for 10 on third down, and the Patriots averaged 7 yards on third down.  The three first downs were all catches by Edelman (11, 25, and 27 yards).  New England’s other 9 third down plays accounted for a total of 21 yards.

Defending the Rams

With the Patriot offense managing just enough points, this game fell on the shoulders of the New England defense in their matchup against one of the game’s top offenses.

Ram quarterback Jared Goff supervised the NFL’s fifth-ranked passing attack, while he finished eighth in passer rating at 101.1.  When you have an offense that has too many weapons to concentrate on, usually the best answer is to stop it at its source.  The Patriots answered the new-age Ram offense with an age old defensive prescription.  They dialed up the pressure.

While Jared saw about an even mix of coverages (he saw man coverages 49% of the time) it was the effectiveness of the man coverages that made the difference.  In his 20 snaps throwing against man, Goff was just 8 of 18 (44.44%) for just 101 yards and his interception – a 39.35 passer rating.  He was also sacked twice.

And whether the Pats were playing man or zone, Jared was under frequent blitz pressure.  All told, Goff was blitzed on 46.3% of his pass attempts (19 of 41).  And even when they weren’t blitzing, the pressure on Goff was nearly constant.  After registering only 30 sacks during the regular season, the Patriots racked up 10 in three playoff games.  The use of blitzes was a big part.  Even more than that, though, over their last three games the Patriots raised the defensive line stunt to almost an art form.

The defensive line stunt has been in existence since the beginning of football.  The defensive end comes in and the tackle loops around.  It challenges the awareness of the offensive line.  By this point of the season – with football’s two best teams left – it should be assumed that both offenses can handle the concept dependably.

But in New England the Patriots have been tinkering with this – combining it with blitzes, stunting with linebackers, employing the experience of their defenders to analyze and adjust.  The benefits could not have been predicted.

Kansas City was never able to solve the Patriot stunts.  The Rams fell into the same pattern.  Goff faced at least some pressure on 30 of his 41 pass attempts (73.2%).  According to the scoresheet, he was hit on 12 of those (with linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower each accounting for 3).  Including the sacks, Jared faced extreme pressure on 16 of his passes (39%).  Repeatedly – especially early in the game when the Patriots played more zone – this pressure averted what could have been disasters downfield.  On the 12 passes when Goff was being hit while throwing, he completed just 3 for 36 yards and his interception.  His rating on those plays was 4.86, and, including the sacks, the Rams gained a total of 5 yards on those 16 plays.

By contrast Brady (who was only blitzed 8.3% of the time) only saw that level of pressure on 8.3% of his attempts (3 of 36).

Stephon Gilmore (who mostly stayed with Brandin Cooks) and Jonathan Jones (who was impressive against Robert Woods) were principle heroes in this contest.  Jones has not been a name to conjure with for the most part this season, but over the last two games, Jonathan has met the challenges of Tyreek Hill and Robert Woods.  He was most impressive.

The Results

The results of this suffocating pass defense could hardly have been anticipated.  Goff never completed more than three consecutive pass attempts, and LA – failing on its first 8 third down attempts – ended up punting on its first 8 possessions.  The Rams accounted for a total of 82 yards in those first 8 drives, averaging 2.7 yards per play.

Los Angeles ended the day 3 for 13 on third down.  Goff dropped back to pass on 12 of the 13 third-downs.  He finished 3 of 10 with 2 sacks, being blitzed on 6 of the 12 plays.  All told, Los Angeles’ 13 third-down plays totaled 13 yards.  The answer throughout the game was relentless pressure.  New England had several defensive lineman that executed the stunts to perfection and applied frequent pressure.  Lawrence Guy, Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers all played very well.

But the difference really was the linebackers Van Noy and Hightower.  With the speed to loop from one side of the formation all the way to the other, and the instincts that guided their timing in and through the line, they were a complication that neither the Chiefs nor the Rams ever managed to solve.

Fourth Quarter Excitement

Los Angeles’ first play of the fourth quarter came with 14:47 left and the score tied at three.  To that point, Goff and the passing game had been dominated.  Jared was 9 of 21 (42.86%) for just 95 yards (4.52 per pass attempt) and 3 sacks for 29 yards of loss.  The vaunted LA passing attack was sitting at 66 total yards for the night.

The fourth quarter – in spite of the fact that the Rams would never score again – would be different.  Throwing 17 times in the fourth quarter alone, Jared completed more passes in that quarter (10) and for more yards (134) than in the entire game previous to that point.  On the receiving end, Brandin Cooks emerged, catching 5 passes for 88 yards.  With the big quarter, Cooks finished the game with impressive totals of 8 catches for 120 yards.  But the numbers looked better than they played for both.

Almost all of this damage came during Los Angeles’ last two possessions.  With the season winding down Jared completed 6 of his last 11 throws for 102 yards and 5 first downs.  Cooks was the target on 5 of those throws – finishing with 3 catches (all for first downs) and 64 of the 102 yards.

But.

While the first of those drives began promisingly enough, there was much more opportunity there than was realized.  And the Rams’ last drive of the season – even after I’ve watched it several times – remains a head scratcher.

That Puzzling Last Drive

OK, I grant from the beginning that at this point the Ram chances were very slim.  With 1:12 left, they were getting the ball on their own 25, down by 10 and with no time outs.  Their bad situation was immediately complicated by a holding penalty by Rob Havenstein (who was certainly not in consideration for Super Bowl MVP).

Back on his own 15 now, with 66 ticks left on the clock, Goff and the Ram offense would throw three consecutive short passes to the middle of the field, completing the first two.  By this time, the New England zones were quite soft, as they invited Los Angeles to throw all the short passes they wanted.

Woods caught the first one for 10 yards and was tackled in bounds.  Cooks turned a dump off into a 24-yard gain up the middle, but was also tackled in bounds to keep the clock running.  When the third straight short pass fell incomplete, it was something of a blessing for the Rams as the clock finally stopped – albeit with just 21 seconds left.  During all of these short attempts, the Rams neither sent anyone deep toward the end zone, nor did they send any receivers to the sidelines.  Everyone ran short sit-down routes designed to get them open against zones – and they did achieve that.  But they were long past the point in the game where getting open underneath the zone coverages would do them any good.

The next throw was deep-ish, Goff tossing a nice pass into a small window into the arms of Cooks for 21 yards (and 45 of Cooks’ yards would come on his two catches on this drive).  But again, with no time outs, this throw went over the middle.  Down two scores, Goff finally made it up to the line and spiked the ball with all of 8 seconds left in the season.

Again, the situation was difficult and victory unlikely however they went about this last drive.  But exactly what they thought they would accomplish with that play selection will remain one of the enduring mysteries of Super Bowl LIII.

Wither the Ram Running Game

To this point, we haven’t discussed the Ram running attack – mostly because there is little to discuss.  As pointed out earlier in this piece, it has been a long time since a running attack accounted for fewer yards in the Super Bowl than the Rams’ did.  Truthfully, it didn’t seem like the running game was even an important part of the game plan.  Kansas City had seemed uninterested in running against the Patriots two weeks before.  They ran just 12 times all game.  In the Super Bowl, the Rams followed suit.  They ran just 18 times all day – in spite of the fact that until that last drive they were never more than 7 points behind.  Fifty-five plays the Rams ran this in this game within one score of the Patriots.  They threw on 37 of them.  They ran 20 plays with the score tied.  They threw on 14 of them.  Los Angeles ran only 16 plays all evening in New England territory – throwing on 15 of them.

These are not the numbers of a team with a running mindset.

And when they did run, they seemed almost insistent that they were going to run behind right tackle Havenstein.  Of their 18 running plays, 8 went over right tackle.  One of them developed into Los Angeles’ longest run of the day – through no success of Havenstein’s.  At the edge, he was stuffed by Flowers, but Gurley cut the run back the other way for 16 yards.  The other 7 runs behind Havenstein gained just 18 yards.

In-Offensive Lines

Heroes in the Divisional Round win against Dallas, when they racked up 273 rushing yards, the Los Angeles offensive line – all of them – came up short in the Super Bowl.  They struggled in pass protection all night and failed to generate any sustained semblance of movement for the running game.  In a game that was hard fought and tight throughout, the Rams’ fatal flaw was the offensive line that had been their backbone throughout their breakthrough season.

But of all the struggling afternoons, no one’s was longer than right tackle Rob Havenstein’s.  Especially the fourth quarter.

Rams’ first drive of the fourth quarter.  It is second-and-11 from the LA 22, game tied at 3 with 12:23 left.  Deep routes from Woods and Cooks cleared the right flat for Gerald Everett.  But Goff had no time to get the ball there as he was sandwiched between Flowers (who had slipped past Austin Blythe) and infrequently used defensive end John Simon, who beat Havenstein around the edge.  The throw fell incomplete.

Now facing third-and-11, the Rams profited from a defensive holding call and a 16-yard pass to Cooks – in spite of the fact that this time it was Guy who was beating Havenstein on the pass rush.

A 13-yard run from Gurley was then erased by a holding penalty – not Havenstein this time but center John Sullivan, setting up a first-and-20 from the LA 33.

With the Patriots in zone this time, Woods found an open spot deep in the middle of the coverage that would probably have achieved them the first down.  But Goff had no chance on this one, either.  This time it was Flowers turn to blow through Havenstein, who barely touched him.  Flowers flushed Jared immediately out of the pocket and into the arms of Jonathan Jones for a two-yard loss.

Goff was able to get the next throw off – incomplete on a deep route to Cooks.  There was pressure, though, from Hightower working, again,  around Havenstein.

Facing third-and-22, LA tried a running play.  This time it was Flowers, again, shooting past Havenstein to make the play in the backfield.  The Rams punted on the next play.

While this drive – in which he was beaten on five consecutive plays – marked the low spot, Rob’s day was generally underwhelming.  A defensive tackle named Deatrich Wise Jr – who didn’t play in the Championship Game against KC, and was only on the field for 31 snaps in this one – still led New England in tackles against the run with 5 (and after gains of only 18 yards).  Most of this success came at Havenstein’s expense.

This will not be a film Rob will look forward to reviewing.

The No Fly Zone

Of all the interesting statistical tidbits that emerged from this contest, maybe the most illuminating concerned the fifty-yard-line.  In this defensively dominated game, both offenses mostly had their way when they were operating in their own territory.

While on his side of the field, Brady completed 17 of 23 passes (73.91%) for 213 yards (9.26 per attempted pass and 12.53 per completed pass) for a 102.26 rating.  The Patriots ran 44 plays on their side of the field, gaining 335 yards with those plays (7.6 per) and earning 15 first downs.

Goff, for his part, was also better in his own end where he completed 14 of 25 (56%) for 181 yards (7.24 per attempt and 12.93 per completion).  His rating in his own end was 78.92, and the Rams gained 238 yards on their 44 plays in their own territory (5.4 per) with 11 first downs.

But as soon as each offense crossed the fifty, the defenses took over.

Brady was 4 for 12 (33.33%) for 49 yards (4.08 per attempt) and his interception in Ram territory (12.15 rating).  His Patriots managed 72 yards and 3 first downs in their 24 plays in Ram territory (3.0 per).

Goff was 5 of 13 (38.46%) for 48 yards (3.69 per attempt) and his interception (and two sacks) – good for a 17.47 rating.  With LA running just once on the New England side of the fifty, the Rams finished with 22 yards and 2 first downs to show for their 16 plays in opposition territory – 1.4 yards per play.

Combined the two star quarterbacks finished 9 for 25 (36%) for 97 yards (3.88 per pass attempt) with 2 interceptions and 3 sacks (a 14.92 rating) on the other side of the fifty.  The two teams ran a total of 40 plays in each other’s territory, finishing with just 94 yards (2.4 per play) and 5 first downs.

Of New England’s 154 rushing yards, 122 came on their side of the field.  All of Edelman’s passing yards, and 117 of Cooks’ 120 came on their own respective sides of the field.  The two teams combined for 27 plays that went for at least ten yards.  Only three of them came on the far side of the fifty.  The Rams had two of the three – 18 and 17 yard passes to Robert Woods when they were just barely over the fifty.

New England dialed up only one impact play in opposing territory – that last pass to Gronkowski.

That play to the Ram 2-yard line, set up Sony Michel’s touchdown run.  The game’s only touchdown thus came on the only red zone play from either team on an evening when neither team would start a drive in the other’s territory, and – thanks to superior punting from Johnny Hekker and Ryan Allen – each team started three drives inside its own ten-yard line.

That is how you get a 13-3 game.

In one of the most impressive post-season performances in memory, the Patriots played the league’s top two scoring offenses in consecutive contests. The Rams and Chiefs combined for 107 offensive snaps.  They never took one snap with a lead in either game.

The Plays that Weren’t Made

For all of that, though – for as well and as passionately as the Patriots played on defense – the entire contest could easily have gone in the other direction.  As always in tight contests like this, it comes down to a few moments – a handful of plays made and not made.  Most of these swirl around former Patriot Brandin Cooks, whose 120 receiving yards will be forever overshadowed by the yards he didn’t get.

There was 3:42 left in the third.  New England was clinging to a 3-0 lead, but the Rams were sitting on the Patriot 29-yard line.  New England was in cover four – a defense they don’t run very often, and don’t execute with much confidence.

Robert Woods settled into a pocket in the zone over the deep middle, drawing the complete attention of both of the middle zone defenders, Jones and Devin McCourty – so much so that Jones paid no heed at all to Cooks as he sped up the middle into the end zone unattended.  Just before he reached the end line, with no one else around him, he turned and looked for the ball.  Goff delivered a strike for what might have been a game-changing touchdown.  But at the very last second, Jason McCourty – whose assignment had been the deep right sideline – came racing from the far side of the field to deflect the pass, just as it was about to nestle in Brandin’s hands.

That enormous play fended off disaster and kept the Rams at bay until that penultimate – and game deciding – fourth quarter drive.  Here, down 10-3, they faced third-and-nine on their own 45 with 5:29 left.  The Rams will spend the off-season wishing they could have back any of these next four plays.

Goff converted the first down with an 11-yard toss over the middle to Josh Reynolds.  Effective, yes.  But this was one of the few plays in which Jared wasn’t under immediate pressure. And there were opportunities upfield.  Cooks had beaten Gilmore off the line and had a step on Stephon up the left sideline.  Perhaps even more open was Woods, who had split his doubleteam up the middle.  Either of those were big plays (and maybe touchdowns) waiting to happen.

Goff completes his next pass as well – this time 17 yards to Woods on the right sideline.  But again, the greater opportunity was missed as Reynolds had blown past Jason McCourty up the right sideline.  The Rams have moved to first-and-ten on the Patriot 27.  But with the rare gift of time in the pocket, the opportunities had been so much better.

Having passed up the deep option the last two plays, Goff wouldn’t let that happen a third time.  Cooks ran a go up the right sideline, separating just enough from Gilmore.  At the goal line, the football, Cooks and Gilmore all arrived at about the same time.  The throw was perfect.  Cooks had it briefly in his right hand.  But Gilmore had just enough hold of his left hand that he couldn’t bring it up to complete the catch.  A second later the ball was rolling harmlessly in the end zone.

Interference?  I would say yes.  Gilmore clearly held down Cooks’ arm and by the accepted understanding of pass interference that would qualify.  Should it have been first and goal?  Probably.  But before any Ram fans get too worked up, let me hasten to point out that this missed pass interference call was nothing in comparison to the flagrantly missed pass interference that put the Rams in the Super Bowl in the first place.

Karma, I suppose.

Now it’s second-and-ten.  For three straight plays, his beleaguered offensive line had bought Jared enough time to read the defense and make a throw.  They would not be able to provide him a fourth.

The Patriot blitz overloaded the offensive right side, with Hightower rushing to Havenstein’s outside shoulder, and Wise clubbing Blythe to the inside. Into the gap created by those two rushes, NE sent two defensive backs. Gurley properly took the inside rusher (Devin McCourty), but there was no one to account for Duron Harmon, who came free.

Under serious pressure Goff heaved the pass up the right sideline. With six rushing, New England’s defensive backs played deep, and Gilmore – staying on top of Cooks’ vertical – was waiting for the throw.

This was pretty much the dagger.  New England’s running game then keyed the drive to the field goal that gave us the final score.

Rare Symmetry

That interception was part of an uncommon symmetry that began and ended this contest.  After this interception, the Rams’ final drive of the season ended with a missed a field goal.  The Patriots had begun the game with an interception and a missed field goal on their first two possessions.  In a sense, the season itself was somewhat symmetrical as well.  Not quite five months earlier, the Falcons and Eagles had begun the season with what was expected to be a shootout.  It wasn’t, with Philadelphia escaping with an 18-12 win.  That was on a Thursday.  The next Sunday Patrick Mahomes would light up the Chargers and begin the magic carpet ride that was the 2018 season.

With this re-assertion by two determined defenses lingering now in our memories for the next seven months, it leaves us with questions to ponder as we await the 2019 season.  Does this game signal a turnaround for defenses?  Will there be concepts that other defensive coordinators will steal from these two teams that will cause scoring to drop next year?  During the season, a few teams turned to run-first philosophies.  Most of these of necessity, but at least one of them seemed to do it from choice.  Will Neanderthal football continue its resurgence?  Or was this just a non-passing fancy?  And what will be the result of the blown call that ended the season for New Orleans?  Will the NFL react to that? And how?

Every year, now, I find that instead of being the final answer, the Super Bowl leaves more questions to answer for the next year.  Enough to stew on over the next seven months.

Patriots Advance on a Head and a Hand

Heads is the call.

After 60 minutes, 128 combined plays, 739 combined yards, 8 combined touchdowns and 62 combined points, it came to this.  A historic night of football – one that had begun in controversy in New Orleans and continued in the bracing 19-degree chill of Kansas City (that, at least, was the temperature at the beginning of the game) – came finally to New England’s Matt Slater standing next to referee Clete Blakeman calling the overtime coin toss.

Heads.

It was a head, and that set in motion the series of events that would decide the NFL’s second overtime Championship Game of the day. 

The NFL’s requirement for getting both teams at least one overtime possession is pretty soft.  All the Chiefs needed to do to put the ball back in the hands of Patrick Mahomes was keep New England out of the end zone.  Keeping offenses out of the end zone, however, had become a lost art in this game.  The Patriots had taken each of their last two possessions 60 yards for touchdowns.  The Chiefs had scored on all of their last three drives – two touchdowns and a field goal.  Even that is deceptive, though.  Kansas City was only held to a field goal on its last possession because they began that drive on their own 31-yard line with just 39 seconds left and needing the field goal to tie.

As the coin went up in the air, there was a strong suspicion that a trip to Super Bowl LIII hung suspended with it.  The coin landed in New England’s favor, and the Patriots did not waste the opportunity.  Thirteen plays and 4:52 later, on the Chiefs’ 2-yard line, tight end Rob Gronkowski – lined tight to the left of the formation – pushed KC linebacker Breeland Speaks further out to the left and back towards the end zone.  At the same time, tackle Trent Brown (lined up next to Gronkowski) drove defensive tackle Justin Hamilton the other way – back into the line of scrimmage.  Through the opening produced by those two blocks came Patriot fullback James Develin.  He collided with – and pushed back – linebacker Reggie Ragland.

All this set the stage for Rex Burkhead, who plowed into the void, bowling through the attempted arm tackles of Ragland and Speaks to end the 37-31 Patriot victory (gamebook) (summary), and send New England back to the big stage for the third consecutive season.

The Running Patriots

The yards were the final two of an impressive 176 rushing yards the New England hung on the KC defense on the last of 48 soul-crushing runs – most of them into the middle of that over-extended defense.  The Patriots finished with touchdowns on 3 of their last 6 rushing attempts, and have now rushed for four touchdowns in each of their playoff games so far – this after rushing for 18 touchdowns through 16 regular season games.

It is somewhat characteristic of Bill Belichick that it would be Burkhead at the end.  On an evening when running back Sony Michel set the tone early and often – on his way 113 rushing yards of his own and two touchdowns – Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels switched to Burkhead with about six minutes left in regulation.  Rex isn’t quite the battering ram that LeGarrette Blount had been in seasons past – but he is stylistically similar. Rex is a no-nonsense, here-I-come kind of runner.  Perhaps, the Patriot brain trust wanted to employ a slightly more physical runner against the tiring KC defense.

Whatever the cogitations, it was Burkhead carrying the ball on 8 of New England’s last 9 rushing plays, including the dive that sent New England on and sent Kansas City home.

Mahomes Rises to the Moment

While the final taste is bitter for the Chiefs, it is nonetheless impressive that they pushed the game that far.  Mahomes and Kansas City ended the first quarter with minus 11 offensive yards, as Pat was 0-for-2 passing with a sack.  The Chiefs would be held to no points and just 32 offensive yards throughout the first half – a half in which Mahomes would throw just 8 passes while being sacked 3 times.

Had you watched only the first half, you would have left with the impression that this young Chiefs team was badly outclassed by the superior Patriots.  Even through three quarters, with New England holding a comfortable 17-7 lead, you might have considered the contest decided.

But back came the Chiefs, scoring 24 fourth-quarter points to force a tie game, with Patrick Mahomes throwing for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone.  After his unexceptional first half, the Chiefs’ first year starter at quarterback completed 12 of his 23 second half passes for 230 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Nine of those 12 completions went for first downs, and his passer rating for the half was a satisfying 126.81.

With his primary targets (Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce) getting heightened attention from the New England defense, Mahomes found success throwing the ball to a couple of less attended receivers.  “Other” receiver Sammy Watkins caught 3 passes in the second half for 102 yards, and running back Damien Williams caught 5 for 66 more yards and 2 touchdowns.

Along the way, though, this offensive performance by Kansas City was stylistically very different than most of their regular season games.

The Chiefs Try to Adjust

First of all, Kansas City abandoned their running game very early.  The ground attack whose 180 yards was very instrumental in dismissing Indianapolis the week before was a non-factor.  KC ran the ball only 12 times (and one of those was a scramble from Mahomes) for just 41 yards.  It is not at all clear that they ever intended to run the ball, and certainly after New England showed some early offensive success, the Chiefs were more than willing to put the running game away.

In the aftermath of that very entertaining 54-51 shootout that Kansas City had earlier this year against the Rams, I questioned both teams’ will to run the ball.  I think that came into play here.  The Chiefs were at home, playing against the twenty-second ranked pass defense (by yards) with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.  They didn’t want to get there running the ball.  They intended all along to pass.

In the end, KC threw the ball on 25 of their 29 first-down plays.

That suited New England just fine.  They would rather not have to concern themselves with the run.  Defending Kansas City’s passing attack was challenge enough.  Throughout the season, Mahomes had led a high-percentage passing attack.  With most teams backing off Hill – and sending a lot of defenders deep to watch him – and with Kelce usually dominant over the middle against both zone and man coverages – Patrick finished his regular season completing 66% of his passing attempts.  He was very near that in his first-ever playoff game against Indy (65.9% on 27-of-41 passing).

But now, New England will change the dynamic.  They tightened up the coverage and emphasized pressure.  They diligently double-covered Hill, and pressed Kelce off the line.  Tight press coverage has its advantages.  It gives the defending team an opportunity to challenge every pass – making it more difficult for the offense to sustain drives.  It is also a precarious decision, as press man coverage also opens the door to potential big plays down the field.

That is precisely what the second half of this game evolved into.  In a sense Belichick and McDaniels engaged in a high-stakes game of Russian roulette with Mahomes and the KC passing attack.

Patrick’s 12 completions in 23 throws is only 52.2%.  But half of those completions gained more than 20 yards (those 6 completions, in fact, totaled 196 yards) – including all of his last 4 completions of the season (which totaled 109 yards).  Of Mahomes’ 31 pass attempts, 9 were up the field at least 20 yards from the line of scrimmage.  He completed 4 of the 9 for 144 yards.

As the Chiefs advanced the ball out of their own territory, the downfield game became even more dangerous.  Between the 50-yard line and the red zone, Mahomes was only 4-for-8.  But all four completions covered at least 23 yards – totaling 121 yards.  In total, when starting on the New England side of the field, Mahomes was 6-for-11 for 134 yards, with all 6 completions going for first downs – including 3 touchdowns.  His passer rating in Patriot territory was an outstanding 137.88.

Defending Patrick

Man? Or Zone?

That’s always the question as a defense prepares a plan for an opposing passing game.  While there are no absolutes, a zone defense will provide more of a mental challenge to a quarterback, while man defenses will tend to challenge his physical abilities.  For that reason, I expected to see New England challenge Kansas City’s first year starter with mostly zone coverages.  They didn’t – although perhaps they should.

Mahomes saw no zone coverages at all in the first half of the game, and only 8 zone coverages in the entire game (22.9% of his drop-backs).  It’s a small sample size, but Pat didn’t respond very well to them, completing just 2 of 7 passes for 6 yards (and being sacked once).  Beyond just the numbers, he seemed hesitant.  Two of the throws he just heaved out of bounds.  Three of the others were just dump offs.  Only two of the attempted passes went beyond ten yards (one toward Kelce and one towards Williams) and both fell incomplete.

Hard to say how it would have played out if New England had kept mixing in zone coverages.

But the game plan against Mahomes and KC was more basic.  Deny Tyreek Hill.  To that end, Hill (and Kelce and Mahomes) saw a steady diet of man coverage.  In Hill’s case, it was an almost constant double-team, with Jonathan Jones pressing Tyreek at the line, and safety Devin McCourty staying over the top on any deep route.  With no safety help, Kelce was mostly given over to the care of a young defensive back named J.C. Jackson.

That part of the plan went pretty well.  Hill only beat the double-coverage once – his 42-yard reception being his only catch of the night, and Kelce finished the game with just 3 catches for 23 yards, although Jackson did commit a fairly critical pass interference penalty against him.

For the game, Mahomes saw some form of man coverage on 26 of his 35 drop-backs (and this doesn’t even count one play of prevent-man that New England ran against him late in the fourth quarter).  Mahomes met the challenge admirably – even without much participation from his two leading receivers.  Against the man schemes of the Patriots, Pat completed 13 of 23 passes (again, just 56.52%), but for 268 yards and all 3 of his touchdowns.  Ten of those 13 completions gained first downs, and his passer rating against these man coverages was a superior 137.32.

If the Patriots were intent on taking away Hill and Kelce, Mahomes made them pay with Watkins and Williams.  Sammy Watkins was 0-for-1 working against zone defenses, but he damaged the Patriots’ compromised man coverages to the tune of 4 receptions for 114 yards.  Williams results were similar – he was 1-2 for 4 yards against zone, but 4-for-6 for 62 yards against man concepts – but here a different weakness was exploited.

Super Check-Down.

The challenge against Watson was defending the vertical without safety help.  With Williams the problem was all the room allowed underneath.  All 4 of the passes completed to him were less than five-yards from the line of scrimmage, but he broke two of them for long gains (33 yards and a 23-yard touchdown on a screen pass).  His day might have been even more electric, as he was open up field on all three of the other throws sent his way.  In what was an otherwise sterling effort, those three passes (all overthrows) might be the only ones Patrick might wish to have back.

Pressing Pat

In as much as blitzing Mahomes goes, the Patriots were cautious.  Blitzing is one of those elements that will sometimes play to the strength of athletic quarterbacks.  They blitzed him only 10 times – but were very effective when they did.  Three of the 10 blitzes resulted in sacks, and Mahomes managed completions on only 2 of the 7 passes that he managed to get off against the Patriot blitzes (granted, both completions were chunk plays, totaling 69 yards).

Even without directly blitzing, the Patriots were still able to apply substantial pressure.  They were not always close enough to hit him as he threw – although they did manage that level of pressure on 13 of his drop-backs – but they were almost always able to provide enough pressure to keep him uncomfortable.  On 60% of Mahomes’ pass attempts (21 of his 35) there was at the very least an onrushing defender or a hand grasping for him, or some presence near enough to force the pass to come out sooner – or at a different angle – than intended.  For the most part, this pressure also achieved its secondary objective of keeping Patrick in the pocket.

The Patriots are not a team with a dominant pass rusher.  They, in fact, finished the regular season ranked thirtieth in sacks (with just 30) and thirty-first in percentage of times sacking the quarterback (Patriot opponents only went down on 4.7% of their pass attempts against New England).

The Patriots have picked up this area of their game now that the playoffs are upon us.  Against the Chargers, they sacked Philip Rivers only twice, but showed consistent pressure.  They sacked Mahomes 4 times in this game, with the pressure coming from several different defenders through a variety of line stunts – that Kansas City had repeated difficulty picking up – and disguised rushes from the secondary.  In this mix, defenders like Don’t’a Hightower, Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers were consistently in Mahomes’ face.

Most visible of all, though, was linebacker Kyle Van Noy.  Van Noy accounted for 2 of the 4 sacks and several other pressures.  In addition, he made 4 other tackles against the passing game, and 2 of the 11 tackles made against the KC running game.

Beyond the numbers, though, Van Noy seemed to be a constant presence on the field.  There were times during the game that you might have thought there were three guys out there wearing Kyle’s jersey.

More Mahomes

Through all of this, young Patrick kept bouncing back.  

At various times, New England threatened to turn the contest into a rout.  They lead by 14 at the half, and spent a good chunk of the game ahead by at least ten points.

At these moments, Mahomes played some of his best football as he kept bringing the Chiefs back.  Taking the field to begin three different drives with deficits of at least 10 points, Mahomes led his team to touchdowns on two of them.  The only time he failed was at the very end of the first half – down 14-0 – KC began with the ball on its own 42 with 27 seconds left.  That one-play drive resulted in a sack and a 15-yard loss, after which the Chiefs quietly retired to their locker room.

Through those other two critical drives, Patrick was 7 for 9 for 119 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Also, while one of the Patriot focuses was keeping Mahomes in the pocket, that kind of thing is easier said than done.  While they were mostly successful – and they did hold him in the pocket on 26 of his 35 attempts despite nearly constant pressure – they couldn’t always contain him.  And when Mahomes got outside of the pocket, he continued to demonstrate why he is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks on the perimeter.

I do, first, want to draw a distinction between Mahomes outside the pocket and under control, and Mahomes running for his life and just flinging the ball away.  The later dynamic did happen a couple of times.

But on the 7 plays where Patrick rolled out under his own control, he completed 6 of the 7 passes for 149 yards and 2 touchdowns.  It was on these plays that Watkins was at his most dangerous as well.  Three of the 4 completions and 104 of the 114 yards that Watkins totaled during the game came with Mahomes wandering from the pocket.

It was a dangerous, dangerous quarterback that watched from the sidelines as New England ended the game.  Sometimes, in this crazy game, it’s possible to be too dangerous.  It could, perhaps, be argued that on this evening Kansas City may have been too explosive.

Too Explosive?

If it’s true that New England’s use of man coverage provided opportunities for big plays, it is also true that those big plays minimized the time that Kansas City’s offense had on the field.  Kansas City hurt New England with 4 touchdown drives on their way to their 31 points.  But – because they were big-play dependent – those 4 touchdown drives consumed a total of 7 minutes and 54 seconds.  The Patriots opened the game with a touchdown drive that – by itself – was longer (8:05) than all of KC’s touchdown drives added together.

By the time Burkhead’s plunge ended the affair, the KC defense had been on the field – absorbing the relentless pounding of the Patriot running game – for an almost incomprehensible 94 plays and 43 minutes and 59 seconds.

This, too, was part of the Patriot game plan.  The most secure way to keep Mahomes from beating you is by keeping him on the sidelines.

This part of the game plan fed off the victory the week before, and begins to form a trend that the Rams should at least be concerned about.

Fast Starting Patriots

Against the Chargers, New England began the game with a withering 14-play, 83-yard touchdown drive that consumed the first 7:11 of that contest.  They bettered that drive with their opener against the Chiefs with a 15-play, 80-yard, 8:05 drive.  So, combined, their opening drives in their two playoff games have consumed 15 minutes and 16 seconds of playing time, while covering 163 yards on 28 plays.

In addition, the Patriots closed out the first half against LA with a 35-7 lead, 20:11 of ball control and a 347-128 yardage advantage.  The halftime numbers against KC were very similar.  Even though the lead was only 14-0, the time of possession sat at 21:07 and the yardage differential favored New England 245-32.  Combining the first halves of the Patriots two playoff games, New England has out-scored their two opponents 49-7.  They have outgained them 592 yards to 160, and have held the ball for 41 minutes and 18 seconds.

New England has opened both of these games on fire, and have put their opponents on their heels from the very beginning.  In this game, the Kansas City offense trailed on every single snap they took.

Tony Romo – calling both of these games for CBS – referenced New England’s supposed under-dog status as a driving force.  I suspect some of that is true.  After last year’s Super Bowl, I made note of the fact that the Patriots had made a habit of digging themselves early holes in their playoff games.  I think the realization that they have been less than emotional in these contests in recent years – amplified by the sting of last year’s bitter Super Bowl loss has fueled this Patriot resurgence.

If you asked them, I would bet that every single one of them remembers clearly the feeling walking off the field after last year’s big game.

Patriot Imperatives

Nobody understands or plays the game of complimentary football better than New England.  Much of their emphasis on the running game had as its underlying purpose the controlling of the clock and keeping Mahomes a spectator.  On their 43 first down plays, the Patriots ran 28 times.  Eleven of those 43 first down plays earned the necessary 10 yards to gain another first down – 5 of those coming from the running game and 6 from passes.

On their way to 36 first downs, New England failed to manage at least one first down only twice in their 12 drives.  One of those was a damaging fourth quarter drive when a pass bounced off the fingers of Julian Edelman for an interception.  The other was the kneeldown by Brady that ended regulation.

Inside Brady’s Day

All of this provides context for what appears, on one level, to be one of Tom Brady’s least productive playoff outings.  He did throw for 348 yards, but that was after 30 completions on 46 attempts.  With his one touchdown pass off-set by two interceptions thrown, his passer rating was a modest 77.08 (just 67.30 in the second half).  Challenged repeatedly with man coverage – and Brady saw man coverage on 76.1% of his attempts (35 of 46), he was consistently unable to convert those opportunities into big plays – his 22 completions in those opportunities accounting for just 235 yards (10.68 per).

Noticeably absent in these moments was tight end Rob Gronkowski.  Covered almost always by safeties Daniel Sorensen or Eric Berry, Rob was only targeted 7 times in man coverage, catching just 2 of the throws (note, this is against man coverage when KC was not blitzing.  Brady completed two huge passes to Rob when they caught the Chiefs in blitzes).

Most of this had little to do with any diminishment on the part of Brady – or even with him having a bad game.  In this particular matchup, one of the Patriot imperatives was no sacks – a point I’ll enlarge upon later.  While Kansas City’s defense has statistically underperformed in most categories this season, their one great strength was their pass rush.  Their 52 quarterback sacks led the league, and their 7.6% ratio of dropping opposing passers was football’s eighth-best figure.

Playing on the Chiefs home field, in front of their raucous crowd, the Patriots came to the determination that the one sure way that they could lose control of the game was to put themselves in long-yardage situations and let the Chiefs’ destructive pass rush pin back its ears and come after them.

There were at least a half dozen moments in the game where Brady would have had an up-the-field opportunity had he held onto the ball for just another second or two.  But that second or two – in this particular game against this particular opponent in this particular venue – proved to be an unacceptable risk.

Repeatedly in this game, Brady dumped off to the first open receiver to consistently keep himself and his team out of deeper trouble.  But don’t for one moment misunderstand.  When the play was there to be made, Brady made it.  And most of the time on the receiving end was one of football’s most underappreciated receivers. 

Indomitable Julian

There is 1:57 left in the season.  The Patriots, on their own 35-yard line, now trail 28-24.  About 15 yards downfield, Julian Edelman breaks over the middle – Kyle Fuller, closing fast, narrowing the window.  The throw leads Julian away from Fuller, and is just a tad high – high enough to make sure that only Edelman can catch it.  With Jordan Lucas descending from his safety position to make the play, Edelman stretches for the ball.  He pulls it in safely, and turns up field for about five more yards before absorbing the hit.

Another play in the life of Julian Edelman.

Edelman doesn’t make many lists of the top ten receivers.  He is not among the biggest or the fastest.  But I submit that Julian Edelman is among the toughest receivers in the NFL, with his mental toughness the equal of his physical toughness.  In fact, a great deal of the success that New England has had over the years, I believe, traces back to the mental toughness of role players like Edelman.  It is at the root, if you will, of the Belichick mantra “Do your job.”

Here with the season on the line Edelman runs a very precise route, and makes a very tough catch in a high-pressure situation.  That is his job.

And his arena is what I call the intermediate middle.  This is that area of the field between the numbers at least ten yards from scrimmage but less than twenty yards up field.  It’s a high-traffic area, where receivers are subject to the ministrations of a wide variety of safeties and other defensive backs.

It’s an area of the field where only the tough survive, and where Edelman dominates.  In this contest, in this intermediate middle section of the field, Brady and Edelman were 5-for-5 for 88 yards.  A zone can sometimes interfere with these routes, but the very quick Edelman is usually tough to deal with on a man-to-man basis.  In this game, Julian answered man coverage by catching 5 of 6 for 63 yards.

Patriot Imperatives, Revisited

In the avalanche of numbers, plays and observations that float in the wake of a game like this, there is one play and one meaning that keeps resurfacing.  The play is as innocuous as can be imagined, but what underpins that play is as revealing as any other moment in this game.

There are six seconds left in regulation.  Kansas City has just tied the game at 31.  Brady has the ball at his own 19-yard line.  He takes the snap and kneels.  And the game goes to overtime.

This is, of course, no big deal.  Most games end with a kneel down by one side or another.  Until you realize this.  New England ran 94 offensive plays in that long and historic evening.  This was the only one that lost yardage.

The Patriots ran the ball 47 other times.  Each and every time the runner made it at least back to the line of scrimmage.  (This might be one reason they switched to Burkhead in the fourth.)  Brady dropped to pass 46 times.  He wasn’t sacked in any of them – sometimes getting rid of the ball early before any hint of pressure could arrive.

With about 5:30 left in the third, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett is called for an offensive pass interference penalty.  It changes what would have been a third-and-four to a second-and-19.  Brady drops a screen pass off to Chris Hogan for 2 yards and then hands the ball of to James White for a couple more before they kick the field goal.

On this long and rewarding night, these were the only two plays the Patriots faced on any down the entire game that they needed more than ten yards for the first down.

One of the ramifications of this played out on third down.  New England converted 13 of 19 third downs.  Brady was 9 of 11 on third down (81.82%), for 119 yards, with all 9 completions going for first downs.  These were not all necessarily short-yardage third downs, either.  In fact, Tom was 6-6 for 84 yards (and 6 first downs) when faced with third-and-seven or longer.  But this was made possible by the fact that – with the exception of one drive – the Patriots never put themselves in a position where the KC pass rush could have at them.

(A footnote here.  On the game-winning, overtime drive, Brady faced and converted three third-and-ten’s.  Two of them went to Edelman in that intermediate middle.  The other was to Gronkowski, also in the middle but more underneath.)

Often I think we get caught up in game plans and designs.  While these are no doubt important, with the great teams I believe it frequently comes down to executing simple imperatives – with an imperative being an over-arching objective that may be of more importance than the actual game plan.

I actually think this is a constant of the Patriot approach.  They identify a few critical, necessary objectives, and then doggedly and consistently execute them.

Here, one of the Patriot imperatives was no negative plays.  At all costs, they wanted to keep themselves out of trouble by the Kansas City pass rush.  No negative plays is an easy thing to say. It’s the execution that’s the key.

A Final Moment to Ponder

And yet, for as well conceived and executed as the Patriot game-plan (and imperatives) were, they barely escaped to play another day.

For fans of the Chiefs, the long off-season might be filled with nightmares of a coin showing its head.  As damaging as that toss of the coin was, Chief fans might also have nightmares of a hand.

Dee Ford’s hand.

With 1:01 left in regulation, and with the Chiefs still ahead 28-24, Brady faced a third-and-ten from the KC 34 yard line.  But this time, his third down pass was intercepted by Charvarius Ward, and suddenly Kansas City had the ball and the lead, just 54 seconds away from Super Bowl LIII.

The euphoria was extremely short-lived.  There was a penalty.  Offsides – Dee Ford.  And there on the replay, plain as day, Dee’s hand completely across the line of scrimmage.

With the interception wiped out, it was only a matter of when.  Two plays later Burkhead scored the first of his two touchdowns, and the back-and-forth would continue.  Many Chief fans, I believe, knew then that this one was over

Kansas City committed only four penalties in the game for just 28 yards – and none in the first half.  That one will burn in the memory for a long time.

Up Next, Super Bowl LIII

With that, the stage is set for Super Bowl LIII (53, for those not into Roman numerals).  I’m afraid that I haven’t followed all the story lines, or any of the media madness which is attendant on this event, but mention must certainly have been made of Super Bowl XXXVI (36).  That was the first Super Bowl matchup between the Rams (then living in St Louis) and the Patriots – not yet a legendary franchise. 

Back then, St Louis was the established team – having won Super Bowl XXXIV (34).  They featured, arguably, the most renowned quarterback of that time – Kurt Warner, who led what was called the greatest show on turf.  The Patriots were the upstarts.  They had been 5-11 the year before, but were suddenly rising under a young first-year starter at quarterback named Brady.

The Patriots even advanced in the playoffs that year, like the Rams did this year, with help from a controversial game – you must remember the tuck rule game.  That was a Divisional Round game, and not a Championship Game – but the parallels are certainly there.  It would give a sense of coming full circle is the Rams and Jared Goff can do to New England what the Patriots did to them 17 years ago (has it really been 17 years)?

That will not be an impossible achievement.  The now-Los Angeles Rams present a significant challenge.  Again, their offense finished second in the league both in yards and in scoring.  If they are not quite as explosive as the Kansas City team New England just vanquished (KC finished first in both those categories), they are close (and certainly more balanced than the Chiefs).

I am also starting to believe in the LA defense.  I suspect that New England will have difficulty establishing that running game that has been so much a part of their first two playoff wins (they ran for 155 yards in their Divisional win against the Chargers).  In all honesty, I wasn’t overly impressed with the offensive line in this win – the 176 rushing yards notwithstanding.  It was more of a grinding effort than a dominant one, as NE averaged just 3.7 yards on their 48 rushes.

Of those 48 running plays, only 6 gained at least 10 yards.  Four of those came in the fourth quarter or overtime as exhaustion began to set in – and two of those took advantage of defensive lines that were over shifted, inviting New England to run to the under shifted side. 

On New England’s longest run of the day (a 14-yarder by Burkhead with 6:05 left in the fourth) the Chiefs only had two defensive linemen on the field. Xavier Williams lined up over the left shoulder of center David Andrews, and Allen Bailey played the three-technique tackle position in between right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon.  On the offensive left side, there was almost no one.  From Williams to the sideline, Kansas City defended with only rush-linebacker Ford – split quite wide to the outside – and safety Sorensen standing five yards off the line.

As Brady audibled to the weak-side run, Andrews held up Williams and left tackle Trent Brown pushed Ford further wide.  Left guard Joe Thuney had responsibility for Sorensen – who he did take care of, but had to run almost five yards downfield to get to him.  The Chiefs did this several times – creating a natural bubble that New England took advantage of.

The way Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh are playing, I believe New England will be hard pressed to establish a running game.

The passing situation is different.

For one thing, over their last two games, the Ram defense hasn’t had to deal with a tight end who is a threat.  Dallas was without their top receiving tight end (Geoff Swaim) and ended up throwing to Blake Jarwin and Dalton SchultzBen Watson – New Orleans’ best tight end – missed the Championship Game, and number two receiving threat from that position – Josh Hill – left after just nine plays with a concussion.  So the Rams will go from defending Blake Jarwin and Garrett Griffin to contending with Gronkowski.  Should be a stiffer test.

Secondly, while Aqib Talib played an outstanding game against Michael Thomas, I was still not all that impressed with the other corner, Marcus Peters.  He is still a weak link I expect Belichick to expose.

Even beyond the matchups, though, I think the Rams’ toughest challenge will be the endurance test.  Two Super Bowls ago, the Patriots wore down the Atlanta Falcons.  Two Sundays ago they wore down the Kansas City Chiefs (albeit it took them almost 65 minutes of football to do so).

While Donald and Suh are forces on that defensive line, it is also true that they rarely come off the field.  Will they in particular, and the Rams in general, have the stamina to stay with the Patriots for the full four (or perhaps five) quarters?

This New England outfit will be tough to deal with.  They have fought a long, hard year to get back here and the bitterness of the loss to Philadelphia is palpable around the organization.

My council to the Rams is, if you win the toss, take the ball.  Give yourselves the chance to hit the ground running.

Final Notes

First, to all those Cowboy fans who kept swearing to me that Tony Romo would make it to the Super Bowl, Sunday afternoon will prove you finally correct.  He will be there – in the broadcast booth sitting next to Jim Nance and predicting – with uncanny accuracy – what the offenses will do next.

Finally, Super Bowls past have sometimes been anti-climactic, with the game frequently falling short of the hype.  This matchup could produce one of the more exciting games.  But, for this game to top the Championship Games that have led up to this moment, well, it’s going to have to be some game.

Some game, indeed.

Yes, Virginia, the Wrong Team is Going to Super Bowl LIII

If he had taken a step to the right – maybe two steps.  It’s impossible to say for sure how the rest of the game might have played out, but it is certainly conceivable that all the story lines of Super Bowl LIII could have been re-written by one first-quarter play.

The NFC Championship battle between the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams, of course, ended in controversy – and controversy such that the wrong team is clearly going to the Super Bowl. But, when the Saints lined up on the Ram 15-yard line with still 7:55 left in the first quarter, the game seemed to hang in the balance (and, in fact, maybe it did).

The Saints began the game with an 11-play 56-yard drive that ate the first 4:56 of the game.  Disappointingly, for them, that drive only ended in a field goal.  Not to worry, though.  On LA’s third play of the afternoon, Demario Davis came up with an interception, and the Saints were sitting on the Ram 16-yard line with an early chance to pounce.

A first down run gained only a yard, so that brought us to this pivotal second down play.

Michael Thomas aligned wide to the right, and Tre’Quan Smith was in the slot to that side.  Both went vertically up the field.  At about the five-yard line, Smith found the Ram defender waiting for him.  With the defender assuming inside leverage, all Smith would have had to do is move to his right.  Even just a little bit.

He had – as a matter of fact – the whole right sideline as Ram defender Aqib Talib had followed Thomas deep into the end zone. But even failing that, a step or two to the right would have earned him enough separation to resume his vertical.

Instead, Smith turned left – right into the defender. Quarterback Drew Brees threw the ball in that direction anyway, thinking perhaps to draw a penalty.  He did not.  The officials ruled (correctly, let the record show) that Smith had initiated the contact.

The Ram defender on that play – by the way – was a young cornerback named Nickell Robey-Coleman.  It would not be the last time his name would be mentioned in this game.

After the third-down screen pass came up short, the Saints kicked the field goal.  The lead crept up to 6-0, but there was a feeling even then that this might come back to haunt them.  A huge opportunity was missed.  Even after they scored on their next possession – bringing the lead to 13-0 – the feeling persisted.  A 17-0 score (or even a 21-0 score if Dan Arnold had managed to hold onto a potential touchdown pass on that first drive) is a different game entirely than the 13-0 deficit the Rams faced.

Not Dead Yet

Even at that, though, an early 13-point lead should have been enough, right?  The Saints were, after all, the top seed in the Conference, bearing a 14-3 record and playing at home against a talented but young team unused to this kind of pressure or deficit.

In the aftermath of the contest – an eventual 26-23 Ram overtime victory (gamebook) (summary), some may have questions about the worthiness of the young team from LA. But coming back twice from deficits of at least ten points on the road in the playoffs in the ear-splitting din of the Superdome on a day when the Saints’ defense had mostly silenced the LA running game is no mean feat.

The Rams fought their way back into contention on the strong arm – and stronger will – of baby-faced quarterback Jared Goff, a suddenly effective defense, and a big play from the special teams.

Hekker’s Moment

Johnny Hekker is one of the NFL’s most decorated punters.  In general, punters aren’t the most sought-after players on the team.  You punt when your team has failed to convert on third down, so there is always an aura of failure attending your efforts.  Unlike place-kickers, there are no last second, game-winning punts that will put your name in the headlines of tomorrow’s newspapers.

That being said, the punting aspect of the game is very important, and through his first seven seasons, Hekker has been one of the best, sporting a career 47.0 yard average, to go along with four first-team All-Pro selections.

And, oh yes, he sometimes throws the ball instead of punting.

So now it’s the first play of the second quarter.  You are the Rams, and you are trailing 13-0. You do not yet have a first down in the game. You face a third-and-five from your own 30 (remember you are deep in your own territory). You cannot have another three-and-out.

But that’s exactly what happens.  The third-down screen pass comes up short, and the punting unit takes the field, ready to return the football – and the momentum – to the home team.  At this moment, things are feeling a little bleak.

Johnny took the snap.  Took one step like he was going to punt.  Then raised the ball in his right arm and tossed a perfect pass to Sam Shields in the right flat.  Sam avoided the first tackler, advancing the ball to the 42-yard line for a first down.

Shields, of course, had been a star in Green Bay in the early years of this decade.  He was an important part of the Packer team that won Super Bowl XLV (45).  Six years ago – in a Divisional Round game – Sam intercepted a Colin Kaepernick pass and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown.

His career seemed to be over after he played one game in 2016 and spent the rest of the year on injured reserve.  He was cut at the end of that year, and missed the entire 2017 season.  He reappeared with the Rams this season – healthier than he had been in a while – to flesh out some thinness in the Ram secondary – and to play on special teams.  He had even made two starts earlier in the season.  He had also caught a pass previously this season from punt formation – against Green Bay, as it turned out.

This was his biggest moment on a big stage in several years.

Considering where they were on the field and what the stakes were should the play backfire, the gamble was huge.

To this point, the game seemed to reverse-parallel the game the Saints had played the week before against Philadelphia.  In that contest, the Eagles came out with the early momentum, and it was the Saints finding themselves down 14-0 before they had even managed a first down.  They also turned the tide with a fake punt early in the second quarter – also from their own 30.

Here, though, the parallels ceased.  From that point on in the Eagle game, the Saints absolutely dominated.  In this one, the momentum switches were far from over.  The Saints went on to score a touchdown after their fake punt.  The Rams managed only a field goal.  But even that changed the feeling of the entire game.

Jared Emerging

By now, the Jared Goff story has been told and re-told.  The first overall pick in the 2016 draft, the Ram quarterback struggled through his rookie season.  Under a new coach in 2017, Goff has turned the corner and has now lead the Rams into the playoffs in consecutive seasons, posting 100+ passer rating in both of the last two seasons.

His accomplishments have generated no small stir around the league.  While I have been impressed as well, I always want to see a quarterback under the pressure of the playoffs.  That, I maintain, is when you can really tell what is in him.

Through his first two playoff games, Jared has been solid, but unspectacular.  In last year’s playoff loss to the Vikings, Goff threw a lot (45 passes) for not a lot of gain (259 yards on 24 completions).  He did throw a touchdown and did not throw an interception.  He played pretty well in the Divisional Round victory over Dallas this year as well.  But the passing attack that day – a modest 186 yards on 15 of 28 passing – was carried by the Rams’ overwhelming running attack (273 yards and 3 touchdowns on 48 carries).  So far – in all honesty – nothing to really show that Jared was the next great quarterback.

The final numbers in this contest were also modest.  Goff finished 25 of 40 for 297 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception.  Those numbers, however, don’t accurately reflect the achievement.  Inside those numbers was the performance the Rams had been hoping for.

The Saints in Evolution

As the season progressed, the New Orleans pass defense evolved from being one of football’s shakiest to one of the best.  I detailed some of that progress after the Eagle game as we looked at how they pulled the plug on Nick Foles’ playoff magic.  With their second-ranked run defense bottling up the Rams third ranked run offense (and LA would follow up that big game against Dallas with just 77 rushing yards), the Saints showed Goff a little bit of everything in pass defense.

Jared saw an almost even mix of man coverages (21 times) vs. zones (20).  He saw frequent blitzes – 16 in his 41 dropbacks (39.0%).  These were effective, too.  As with Philadelphia the week before, Jared almost always dealt with enough pressure to keep him uncomfortable in the pocket.  On 58.5% of his pass attempts (24 of his 41), he had some kind of traffic in his pocket.  This included 1 sack and 7 other times that he was hit as he threw.

In those attempts, he completed just 13 of 23 (56.52%) for 184 yards (8.00 per attempt and 14.15 per completion).  His interception also came on one of those attempts, for a passer rating of 64.40 when under pressure.  While he was never sacked during any of the 16 blitzes he saw, he was held to just 8 of 16 (50%) for just 105 yards (6.56 per attempt) – a 71.09 rating.

Pass Rush is Always the Key

Pressure is always a factor in the passing game.  As they say, even the best quarterbacks can’t beat you when they are on their backs.  Brees, by comparison, was blitzed only 7 times by the Rams, but completed only 3 of those 7 passes for 20 yards (albeit one of those completions went for a touchdown).  When they could get what I call “uncomfortable” pressure on Drew, his rating fell to 59.23 (9 of 14 for 112 yards and his interception).  The difference was that Brees felt that heat on only 16 of his 42 dropbacks.

The Rams, of course, are always a challenge do defend, both because of scheme and personnel.  With two primary targets – Robert Woods (86 catches, 1219 yards and 6 touchdowns) and Brandin Cooks (80 catches, 1204 yards and 5 touchdowns), defensive coordinator Dennis Allen understood he couldn’t rely on man coverage as much as he had against Philadelphia.  So he mixed things constantly throughout, challenging the young quarterback’s recognition and ability to respond to pressure.

That being said, when he did go to man coverage, he would need a big effort from slot-corner P.J. Williams.

Slot corner is – and has been for several years, now – a specialty skill.  Increasingly, teams are living and dying on the skills of a man who is commonly regarded as the third corner.  If you are a team like the Saints that relies on a particular slot corner, then that will always mean that the opposing team – in this case, the Rams – will get to dictate that matchup.  In short, whoever lines up in the slot gets covered by Williams.

Throughout the long afternoon of football, Los Angeles ran both of their lead receivers several times at Williams in the slot.  For the most part – and with a big assist from the consistent pressure up front – Williams held up.

He was beaten by Cooks once for a 36 yard pass up the sideline, and gave up two completions to Woods (7 and 16 yards).  Of the 21 times the Saints were in man coverage, they blitzed on 14 of them.

These blitzes were most likely to come against the Rams’ two-minute offense and in overtime.  In the last two minutes of the first half, the Rams saw blitzes on 4 of the 6 passes they threw.  They scored the touchdown, anyway.  In the drive that resulted in the game-tying field goal, Allen blitzed on 5 of the 8 passes without getting the big play hoped for.  Goff was also blitzed on all 3 of his overtime pass attempts. He got them in field goal range, anyway.

Even though he faced blitz pressure on 8 of his last 11 passes, and 12 of the 17 he threw in two-minute or overtime scenarios, Goff still led the team to scores in those three possessions.

On those occasions when pressure came without the help of a blitz, it almost always came in the form of Cameron Jordan.  With their second best defensive lineman (Sheldon Rankins) unavailable, everything fell to Jordan at his left defensive end position, locked for most of the afternoon in a battle with Ram right tackle Rob Havenstein.  Jordan did have his moments.  He collected New Orleans’ only quarterback sack of the afternoon, and disrupted – or nearly disrupted – several other attempts (including the last completion of the game to Tyler Higbee).  But Havenstein’s consistent effort against Jordan – most of the time without help – was a huge piece of the Rams’ victory.

Goff Abides

In the end, though, Jared Goff dealt with all of this.  He dealt with the blitzes, the pressure from Jordan, the noise, the deficit, the mixing of coverages that challenged him to get the ball to his best receivers.  And he steadily got better as the game progressed.

Trailing by three at the half (13-10), the Rams got the ball to start the second half.  Any expectations held by Ram faithful were quickly dispelled with another three-and-out, the last of those an incompletion by Goff as David Onyemata (playing for the injured Rankins) applied pressure up the middle.  The Rams punted, and the next time they saw the ball, they trailed 20-10 with 8:34 left in the third.

From that point until the winning kick sailed through the uprights, Goff took over.  He led them on scoring drives on four of their last five possessions.  Jared ended the game completing 13 of his last 18 passes (72.22%) for 183 yards.  In those pressure packed drives, he averaged 10.17 yards per attempted pass, and 14.08 yards per completed pass.  Nine of those 13 completions went for first downs, including 3 that gained at least 25 yards and the one touchdown pass to Higbee (that came off of play-action, by the way).  His passer rating coming down the stretch was 123.15.

Oh That Play-Action

Not enough has been said about the Rams’ use of play-action.  Whether it’s Todd Gurley or C.J. Anderson in the backfield, its impact on the defense is highly disruptive.  The touchdown to Higbee was set up by a 25-yard catch and run by Cooks up the left sideline.  The play was wide open because the defender that had responsibility for that zone (Demario Davis) had been completely sucked into the line by the play fake.  With 8:08 in the game and the Rams still down by three, another play-fake caused utter chaos in the Saint secondary – with half of them ending up playing man and half zone.  The confusion left linebacker Davis chasing Josh Reynolds from behind on a 33-yard play that led to the tying field goal.

If there is anything to say about the Rams’ use of play action, it may be that they don’t do enough of it.  While I’m sure there is a point of diminishing returns, LA went to play-action on just 13 of their 41 pass plays (Goff going 9 for 12 for 108 yards, 1 TD and 1 sack).  Goff’s passer rating coming off play action was a substantial 129.86.

That Last Drive

With all of this, perhaps Goff’s best moments came in the abbreviated overtime possession.  After John Johnson gave LA possession on their own 46 with an interception, Goff and the offense knew they needed a few more yards.  After play-action on the first play of the drive, Goff booted to his left and looked up to find Alex Okafor almost on top of him.  But there would be no loss here.  In a blink of an eye, Goff had the ball out of his hands in into the arms of Higbee for the 12-yard gain that put the Rams in the shadow of field goal range.

After a first down run pushed the Rams back to the 45, they faced second-and-thirteen, needing, perhaps, a few more yards for a more manageable long field goal.

With the season on the line, Cameron Jordan tore through the Rams’ line.  Eight yards behind the line of scrimmage, Jordan gripped Goff’s left shoulder with his meaty left hand.  The Rams were that close to being pushed out of field goal range.  On his way to the ground with what would have been a devastating sack, Goff floated a prayer to Higbee (again) stationed in the left flat for just such circumstances.  His catch and subsequent 6-yard gain was the final piece needed.

Two plays later, Ram kicker Greg Zuerlein ended the Saints’ season with a booming 57-yard field goal (that probably would have been good from 67).

That final heave to Higbee may have constituted equal parts skill and luck.  And while it is true that the Rams shouldn’t be headed to the Super Bowl – Goff’s heroics notwithstanding – the one thing this game did establish is that the stage is not too big for the young Ram quarterback.  Throughout the emotional roller-coaster ride that was this year’s NFC Championship game, Goff never unraveled.  He never dropped his focus.

Not all of his reads were flawless, and not all of his throws were great.  But for a very young man playing in the biggest game of his life (at least until Sunday) Jared Goff was everything the Rams could have asked for.

Not To Forget

The other huge aspect of this upset was the LA defense.  For all of the hoopla that surrounds the high-octane offense and the swirling controversy that surrounds the end of the game, the biggest story throughout really was the Ram defense.  And, frankly, for the second week in a row.

The Ram defense has been picked on all year – considered an albatross around the team’s neck.  In their regular season matchup with these Saints, they surrendered 45 points, 487 yards and 31 first downs.  They limped to the season’s end ranked twentieth in scoring defense – having allowed 384 points – and twenty-third against the run – allowing 122.3 rushing yards per game.  During the season, the Rams allowed an astonishing 5.1 yards per rushing attempt – the worst figure in the league.

This was supposed to be the mismatch.  The Saints – number eight in total offense, number three in scoring (they scored 504 points this year) and, especially, number six in rushing offense (126.6 yards per game) were supposed to take control of this game at the line of scrimmage and walk away with it.  After the Rams opened up their 13-0 lead in the first quarter, it looked like a mortal lock.

No one would have believed at this point that the Saints would manage just one more touchdown and one more field goal through the rest of the game.  But this just in.  All of a sudden – and out of nowhere – the Ram defense has suddenly become good.  Very good.  Especially against the run.

Their playoff run has taken them through two of the top rushing offenses in football.  Before they faced the Saints, they faced the Dallas Cowboys – the tenth ranked rushing offense (122.7 yards per game) and home of the NFL’s leading rusher in Ezekiel Elliott.  The Cowboy ground game never got out of neutral.  When the game ended, Dallas had all of 50 rushing yards (47 by Elliott) on 22 carries (20 by Elliott) – a sobering 2.3-yard average.

The Rams were just as good last Sunday against Mark Ingram (9 carries for 31 yards) and Alvin Kamara (8 carries for 15 yards).  Ingram had one 16-yard burst in the third quarter.  Subtract that run, and his totals were identical with Kamara’s.  For the game New Orleans ended with 48 yards on 21 attempts – again, 2.3 per carry.

So, in two playoff games, two top running offenses have combined for 98 rushing yards against this re-born Ram defense.  By comparison, in their last two games of the season, bottom-dwelling Arizona and San Francisco ran for 104 and 127 yards respectively.  Over their last ten regular season games, the only team that didn’t run for at least 100 yards against this LA defense was Kansas City – and that was only because they didn’t want to.  They were too busy throwing for 448 yards in that interesting 54-51 game.

This sudden prowess against the run has certainly come out of nowhere.  But the reason for it is fairly clear to anyone who watched the Rams during the season and in the playoffs.  If there is one player who is the difference here, that player would be Ndamukong Suh.

The Ndam-inator?

Ndamukong Suh was a star on the defensive line of the Detroit Lions in the early years of this decade.  A passionate player with a penchant to let his passions run away with him, Suh has worn out his welcome with two teams.  When the Rams brought him in on a one-year contract, they envisioned the unblockable combination that he would form in the middle of their defense with Aaron Donald, one of the elite defensive players of his generation.

Certainly, for most of the season, that dominant combination hasn’t been there – not consistently, anyway.  Suh has not played poorly – that would be unfair.  But for most of the season the Rams truly haven’t seemed to care about opposing running games.

That has changed.  The Rams most definitely care.  And as for Suh, that passion is back.  He was a one-man wrecking ball in the middle of the line, and a principle reason that neither Dallas nor New Orleans managed a pulse in their running games.  The rest of the defense has fed of his energy as well.

A re-invigorated Suh speaks well for the Rams in their upcoming battle with New England.  But there are also a couple of warning notes that need to be sounded.

First, historically Suh’s on-field passion has been a two-edged sword.  Yet to be determined will be how he will respond in that biggest of all stages.

Second, he and Donald are on the field a lot.  In this age of shuffling in defensive linemen to keep them fresh, Donald and Suh are decidedly old school.  Of the 67 defensive plays the Saints offense ran last Sunday, Suh played 61 and Donald played 66. (The only time he was off the field, by the way, was the ninth play of New Orleans’ opening drive – so Aaron was on the field for all of their last 55 plays).

This does take its toll.  By the end of the game you could see the weariness – especially in Donald who still gets double-teamed on every play – even if Suh is next to him.

I point this out because this is what happened to the Falcons when they played New England in the Super Bowl two years ago.  They spent the first two quarters chasing Tom Brady all over the pocket.  By the fourth quarter, they were all gassed.  Will Donald and Suh have the stamina to run with the Patriots for four (or more) quarters?

Still the Wrong Team

Yes, it was an impressive game by the Rams in so many facets.  In many ways, probably their best game of the year.  Doesn’t change the fact that they should be watching the Super Bowl on TV this year.  To this point we’ve looked at everything that shaped this fascinating game, except the play that will eternally define it.

The game is tied at 20.  There is 1:49 left in regulation.  The Saints face third-and-10 at the Ram 13 yard line. A young receiver named Tommylee Lewis circles out of the backfield and heads up the right sideline.  Brees floats the ball at about the time Lewis regains the line of scrimmage. It is at about this point that Robey-Coleman realizes that this is his man, and that he will probably not get there in time.  Panicking, and with the season on the line, Robey-Coleman puts his head down and races for Lewis.

He will not look back for the ball.  At this point, he doesn’t believe that he will arrive before it.  But Brees – throwing a tad early before the pressure can get close – puts quite a lot of air underneath. At just about the five yard line – yes the same five yard line that he had made contact with Smith in the first quarter – Robey-Coleman blasted through Lewis like a bowling ball picking up a ten-pin spare.

The good news was that he had prevented a potential touchdown.  The bad news was that he had just committed one of the most flagrant pass interference penalties in recent memory.  Far from his assessment of the situation at the beginning, Robey-Coleman not only beat the ball there, but he beat it by several yards, clearly tackling the receiver long before he would have a chance to make the catch.

Shockingly, no flag was thrown.  The All-Star officiating crew had missed it.  The play took four seconds – officially.  Its repercussions will ripple for a long while.

Thoughts in the Aftermath

I’d like to address this in a couple of ways.  While not at all denying that the missed call costs the Saints a Super Bowl trip, I don’t think this mistake should gloss over the self-inflicted injuries that New Orleans did to themselves to put themselves in this situation.

I mentioned earlier the missed opportunities in the Red Zone.  If one of those trips results in a touchdown perhaps the game is different.  There was also that almost opportunity to knock them out of field goal range in overtime.

Even more to the point was the handling of these last two minutes.  With marginally better decision making and execution, the Saints would be preparing for the Patriots right now, anyway.

Just before the two-minute warning, Drew Brees heaved the ball up the right sideline for Ted Ginn.  This is a connection the Saints had been trying to make all day.  This is the only time they connect, as Ginn leaps and comes down with a 43-yard reception.  Of four deep passes thrown by Brees today, this was the only one completed.  The connection puts the ball 13 yards away from the touchdown that would ice the game, with just 1:58 left to play.

Incredibly, the Saints will never gain another positive yard on offense.  In fact, their last seven offensive plays of the 2018 season will lose a total of 7 yards (including the one-yard kneel down that would end regulation).

At this point, they could have chosen to call three running plays, drain the Rams of their timeouts, and kick the field goal.  That would give the ball back to LA with about a minute left and needing just a field goal to tie.  In the Rams’ ensuing drive, the had only managed about to midfield at the one-minute mark, so there is some evidence to support the case for running the ball and kicking.

However, Coach Sean Peyton was understandably concerned about leaving a minute on the clock for Sean McVay and his offense, so he decided he needed to get at least one first down – preferably while still forcing the Rams to deploy their time outs.

So, he called a first-down pass.  A very safe first-down pass to Thomas, open over the middle.  But the throw was at his shoe tops, and Michael couldn’t come up with it.  Now what?  Not only is it second-and-ten, but the clock has stopped saving the Rams a time out.  Still 1:55 to go.

Kamara’s last running play of the season gains nothing.  Right guard Larry Warford and tackle Ryan Ramczyk try to lead Alvin around the corner, but neither can lay a block on linebacker Mark Barron, who slips between the two of them to make the play.  Third-and-ten, with the Rams using their second time out. Still 1:49 to go.

It was at this point that the infamous pass to Lewis occurred.  Even after the blown call, though, the Saints still had their chances.  They promptly did kick the field goal, so they had a three-point lead.  Had they kept the Rams out of field goal range, they would still have won.

Failing that, they also won the overtime coin-toss.  Later that evening, the New England Patriots would demonstrate what to do with an opening possession in overtime.  The Saints had that same opportunity.  Their three overtime offensive plays turned out to be equally instructive.

Starting with the ball on their own 26, Brees had a pass batted down at the line of scrimmage.  After picking up one final first down on a pass interference that was called (the fans let the officials hear it again), a six-yard loss on a Mark Ingram run attempt (with Garrett Griffin attempting to throw the critical block against Suh), and an interception thrown while Dante Fowler was hitting Brees set in motion the final Ram drive.

What To Do?

Still and regardless, it all never should have happened.  If the penalty had been called, the Saints would have been awarded a first down on the Ram 5.  There would still be 1:45 left, but LA at that point would have only one timeout left.  New Orleans could have drained the clock to about the last 20 seconds and then kicked their field goal.

There is no way to soft sell this moment.  It was a nightmare for the fans and players of the Saints – made more bitter by the fact that they had lost in heartbreaking fashion in last year’s playoffs.

It’s a nightmare for the league as well.  With their officiating always under scrutiny, they now have a documented case where the officiating sent the wrong team to the biggest game of the year.  However Super Bowl LIII plays out, it will be tainted by the absence of the Saints.  If Brady-Belichick win yet another ring, the question will always be, could they have beaten the Saints.  And if the Rams go on to claim the title – well, what can you say, then, to the team that had actually beaten the Rams.

It’s the kind of situation that needs to prompt change, but not over-reaction – a very hard balance to strike.  In that spirit, there are some changes I’d like to propose.

Send the Best Teams

First of all, for the last several years, the NFL has been sending All-Star officiating crews to the playoffs.  So, instead of officiating crews that have been working together all year, the NFL has graded each official and has rewarded the highest graded officials in their respective responsibilities by sending them to officiate the playoff games.

With this moment as Exhibit One, it simply cannot be said that the officiating has been any better in the playoffs than it has been during the season.  In the Indianapolis-Texas Wild Card game, the Colts were set up with a touchdown on a phantom pass interference call in the end zone.  There have been several other concerning calls.  In the Patriot-Chief game, a critical New England drive was kept alive by a phantom roughing-the-passer call.

If the All-Star teams are not any better than the best of the regular officiating crews, then my suggestion is to let the best crews go to the playoffs.

Opening the Box

Beyond that, I think the time has finally arrived to toss pass interference into the pool of challengeable calls.  I do this with some trepidation.  Opening penalties to review is a kind of Pandora’s Box, and certainly something to be wary of.  Clearly, every penalty can’t be reviewable.

On the other hand, there already are penalties that are reviewed.  Too many men on the field penalties can be reviewed, and no one has a concern with that for the very simple reason that too many men is completely cut and dried.  When the ball is snapped one team either has twelve (or more) players on the field, or they do not.  No gray area, here.

What this actually means is that the NFL is aware that some penalty calls are highly subjective.  Holding is a very subjective call.  Allowing holding calls to be reviewed would have horrific repercussions.

But my question is, is pass interference objective? Or subjective?  I am going to argue the former.

In the video era, thousands of pass interference calls (both those that were made and those that should have been made) have been relayed to television audiences.  As these enormously impactful calls have been scrutinized, I believe that the league has finally arrived at a clear standard – an objective standard, if you will – of what is and what is not pass interference.  (Defensive pass interference, at any rate.)  The arm bar, the turning of the receiver’s body, the holding down of the arm, etc. 

Conversely, offensive pass interference still seems to be very much open to interpretation.  There still doesn’t seem to be any real consistency in how much pushing off the receiver can do and still not get called for it.

I maintain,though, that at this point the standard for defensive pass interference is clear enough and consistent enough that it can be held to the review standard.  It would be a bold step, but in its defense let me point out that this will likely happen again.

Sadly, it is too late to give justice to the New Orleans Saints.  It is not too late to provide an opportunity for justice to the next poor team who gets denied a Super Bowl trip do to a mangled pass interference call.

Solving Nick Foles

While discussing the Rams’ victory yesterday, I made note of the impact of playoff emotion in the performance of the home teams in last weekend’s playoff games.  The Chiefs, the Rams and the Patriots all began their 2018-19 playoff runs with emotion-driven first halves that propelled them to victory.  Playoff emotion would be a palpable factor in the Division Round’s final game – although this game would serve up a variation on the theme.  This time the emotion would be present – at the start, anyway – on the visitor’s sideline.

In Week Eleven, the Philadelphia Eagles made their first visit to New Orleans.  The visit was less productive than they had hoped, as the Saints waltzed over and through them 48-7.  Now the Eagles – under the direction of their magical quarterback Nick Foles – were back in the Big Easy with a trip to the Championship Game on the line.  They vowed things would be different, and from the very first snap, they were.

With the first offensive opportunity, the Saints tested the Eagle secondary vertically.  Speed receiver Ted Ginn – who was injured when these teams met for the first time – went up the field, and quarterback Drew Breese rifled it out there.  But defensive back Cre’von Leblanc reached up and picked it off.

(As a side note, Breese would finish the first half with just 6 incompletions – four of them on pass attempts to Ginn, covered mostly by Leblanc).

Before the home crowd could digest the transpirings, Foles had lofted a 37-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews.  The Saints managed nothing on their second possession, and Foles promptly marched the Eagles 75 yards in 10 plays, leaping over the goal line himself for their second score.

As the dust of the first quarter settled, it was the sixth-seeded Eagles – the team that had been blown out on this very field not quite two months previous – the team who had advanced this far only because a last second field goal in Chicago the week before had hit the upright – was taking it to the top-seeded New Orleans Saints 14-0.  At that point in the contest, the Eagles had 151 total yards, 8 first downs, and 9:19 of possession.  The Saints had no yards, no first downs and 1:04 of possession.

Missed Opportunity

After the Saints punted on their third possession, the Eagles missed a huge opportunity to put a dagger in the hearts of the Saints and their fans.

The second quarter had just started.  Philadelphia faced second-and-nine from their own 48.  Against the cover-2 zone of the Saints, Matthews ran a deep cross – holding safety Vonn Bell toward the middle of the field, while tight end Zach Ertz surprised cornerback Marshon Lattimore by streaking up the left sideline.  With Ertz clearly open, a good pass would have opened up a 21-0 lead, and would probably have sent Philly on to Los Angeles.  I point out that this was just the type of pass that Foles had flawlessly delivered all throughout last year’s playoff run and in the first quarter of this game to Matthews.

But, in what would be a growing pattern though the rest of the contest, the Saints got just enough pass rush pressure.  This time it was Alex Okafor who just managed to get around left tackle Jason Peters quickly enough that Foles rushed the throw, hanging it just enough for Lattimore to run under it and intercept.

The Turning Point

Having barely survived what could certainly have been a game-clinching score, New Orleans coach Sean Payton knew his offense had to wake up and get his team back in the game.  The last thing his team needed right now was another three and out.

But that was exactly what he got.

When Mark Ingram’s dive over left guard resulted in no gain, the Saints were left to punt from their own 30 on fourth-and-one.  There were still almost 12 minutes left in the half.

Sometimes it is uncertain at exactly what point a team turns the tide in a game.  Some games pivot obviously and clearly on one single play.  In this game, that turning point was clear.

Backed deep in his own end, down by two touchdowns and facing fourth down, Payton rolled the dice on the season.  The punt was faked.  The snap went directly to up-back Taysom Hill who bulled his way through the middle of the Eagles punt return unit to earn the first down.  With that play, the New Orleans sideline – as well as the entire stadium – erupted.  From that moment, the game belonged to New Orleans.

On the next play, Brees hit Michael Thomas on a deep crossing route that went for 42 yards.  Seven plays later, Drew flipped a two-yard touchdown pass to Keith Kirkwood, and the Saints were officially back in the game.

Footnote on Hill

Used at quarterback, tight end, and receiver as well as on special teams (where he had blocked a punt earlier this year to turn the tide of another game), Hill’s biggest impact on offense has been as a running quarterback.  As a receiver, he had caught 3 passes on the season for 4 yards.  As a passer, he had thrown 7 passes, completing just 3 – albeit for 64 yards.

In all this usage, Hill had never caught a touchdown pass or thrown a touchdown pass.  On consecutive plays in the third quarter, he almost did both.

There is 7:45 left in the third quarter.  The Saints – still trailing 14-10 – have first-and-ten on the Eagle 46-yard line.  Hill lines up wide right and run a go up the sideline, streaking into the end zone and behind the secondary.  But Brees’ pass is just underthrown enough that Avonte Maddox was able to get back and just get a hand on the pass, knocking it away.

Undeterred, Payton lined Hill up at quarterback on the next play, where he delivered a perfect 46-yard touchdown strike to running back Alvin Kamara – a play nullified by a holding penalty on Andrus Peat.

Well, maybe this week against the Rams?

The Drive

Those plays came in the middle of the most impressive drive that I have seen in quite some time.  With 13:22 left in the third quarter, and still leading by four points, the Eagles punted the ball away to New Orleans.  The next time the Eagle offense took the field – now trailing by three points – there was only 1:40 left in the quarter.  Over the 11:29 of game time in between those points, the Saints had put together an 18-play, 92-yard drive, culminating in a touchdown pass to Thomas.  The drive highlighted another interesting variation on the trend established in the other Divisional Round games.

The Chiefs, Rams and Patriots had all had dominating halves in their victories.  In their case, those had all been the first half.  The Saints put together a half just as dominating as any of those teams – they just did it in the second half.

Over the last thirty minutes of this contest, the Saints racked up 15 first downs (to only 4 by Philadelphia) and 226 total yards (to just 51 by the Eagles).  They never punted – converting 6 of 8 third downs.

They held the ball for 22:32 of the final thirty minutes, running on 19 of their final 38 snaps.  Behind Ingram and Kamara, they pounded the Eagles for 96 yards in the half.  During the season, Philadelphia had ranked seventh in the NFL in stopping the run, allowing an average of just 96.9 yards per game on the ground.

And when they decided to throw it, Breese completed 15 of 19 (78.9%) for 130 yards and the touchdown to Thomas.

They didn’t light up the scoreboard like those other teams, but in its own way this victory was just as impressive.

But the clock-grinding offense was just one factor in the impressive second half.  At the end of the day, this team would still have to find a way to stop Nick Foles and his magic carpet ride.

The Pass Defense Finds Answers for Foles

In a sense, this game was a microcosm of the Saints’ pass defense this season.

As the 2018 season dawned, the Saints were something of a mess on pass defense.  Without a real concept, and with little feel for what they do well, they were consistently sliced up by opposing passing attacks.  The fact that they won seven of their first eight had more to do with an impressive offensive unit outscoring its opponents.

The first time they faced the Rams this season, LA quarterback Jared Goff threw for 391 yards and 3 touchdowns (in a 45-35 Saints win).  Eight games into the season, New Orleans had allowed at least 20 points in five game, giving 30 or more three times.

The first 294 passes thrown against them had resulted in 206 completions (70.1%) for 2601 yards – 8.85 yards per attempted pass, and 12.6 yards per pass completion. Opposing passers had flung 18 touchdown passes against them in just 8 games, while the Saint defenders had managed just 4 interceptions.  The Saints exited that game with the Rams with a horrific passer rating against of 112.1.  For the season.

But change was coming.

The first Ram game was Eli Apple’s second game with the Saints.  The story of the evolution of the Saints defense is tied to the acquisition of Apple, and his growing comfort level in the New Orleans secondary.  From shaky ex-Giant to solidifying presence, Apple hasn’t been the only change in the Saint secondary.  But he has been one of the most important.

Since the first Rams’ game, the Saint secondary has improved from one of football’s worst, to one of it’s best.  Over the 8 games preceding Sunday’s game against the Eagles, New Orleans had allowed just 178 completions in 279 passes (63.8%).  These completions have resulted in just 2022 yards (7.25 per pass and 11.4 per completion).  The touchdown-to-interception ratio has also become much more competitive at 12-8.  The second-half passer rating against is an impressive 87.7

This game followed a similar pattern.

In the two nearly flawless first drives, Nick Foles was the Nick Foles of last year’s playoffs.  Up until the throw that was intercepted, Nick had completed 9 of his first 10 passes for 127 yards and the Matthews touchdown.  His passer rating at that point was 152.1.

Beginning with that first interception from Lattimore (and, yes, there would be another), Foles completed just 9 of his last 21 passes (42.9%) for just 74 yards.  He would throw no more touchdown passes (the Eagles would not score again) and would end the day with 2 interceptions.  After his first 10 passes, his rating plummeted to 12.9.

After racking up 151 total yards and 8 first downs on those first two drives, Philly managed just 94 yards and 6 first downs the rest of the way.  After starting 2-for-2 on third down, the Foles third-down magic evaporated.  Philadelphia ended their season coming up short on their last 5 third-down attempts.

Much of the answer was the New Orleans offense.  With the Eagles getting only 7:28 of clock time in the second half, it was difficult for them to sustain any rhythm.  But even when they had their opportunities, the Saints’ defense found answers.

Covering the Receivers

If there was one constant after the first quarter it was the inability of the Eagle receivers to gain separation.  This actually happened from time to time during the season last year, and also earlier this year.  While the combo of Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor came up huge in last year’s playoffs, they have had frequent games where they have mostly disappeared.  In the second half of Sunday’s playoff game, Jeffery caught 2 of 5 thrown to him for 8 yards.  The only pass thrown in Agholor’s direction bounced incomplete.

After trying varying schemes and matchups early in the game, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen settled on a mostly simple scheme.  Man coverage with one or two safeties ready to help over the top.  For the most part, it was Lattimore accompanying Jeffery, while Apple occupied Agholor and P.J. Williams supervised Matthews or Tate.  While Foles’ performance wasn’t up to last year’s standards, in fairness he frequently had no place to go with the ball.

The trouble with man coverages, of course, is what to do with Zach Ertz.  Allen’s answer was a composite answer, with almost everyone else in the line backing corps and secondary taking a turn at covering Zach.  Sometimes – though not as often as you might have expected – Ertz saw double coverage.  Of the varying defenders assigned to him, Ertz may have seen linebacker Alex Anzalone and safety Vonn Bell more than others, but it was almost always someone different.  In short, it took a village.

On the surface, this wouldn’t seem like an awe-inspiring plan.  But it held up for two reasons.  First, when Foles saw his receivers in man coverage, his first looks were for Jeffery and Agholor down the field.  Second, the Saints – although they never sacked Foles – managed just enough pressure to disrupt him before he could cycle down to Ertz. 

When he did, he found opportunity.  Zach caught all three passes thrown to him in the second half for 35 yards.  Two of those receptions went for 16 and 17 yards – Philadelphia’s only second half plays to cover at least ten yards.

But if lack of open receivers was Nickys’ principle problem, it wasn’t his only problem.

Discomfort in the Pocket

One of the under-remembered aspects of last year’s playoff run was the pass protection afforded Nick Foles.  Almost all of those devastating deep passes that he delivered came from a very clean pocket.  Allen, of course realized that pressuring Nick would help his cause.  That, of course, would not be easy against the Eagles’ able offensive line, and became harder when New Orleans lost their second best pass rusher Sheldon Rankins for the rest of the season during Philly’s second offensive drive.

But Nick Foles isn’t one of those dangerous quarterbacks who gets outside the pocket and causes trouble with improvisation.  We have talked already this playoff season about young quarterbacks who have difficulty winning the game from the pocket.  The other side of that coin is a guy like Foles who does his work from the safety of the pocket and is less comfortable on the move.  Sometimes it only takes a suggestion of pressure to make him feel uncomfortable and throw him off his game.

Even without Rankins – and without ever sacking Nick – New Orleans was consistently successful in tightening the pocket around him and not allowing him the full extension of his long arms.  Additionally, the Saints’ defenders increasingly played tighter and tighter on the Eagle receivers.  Knowing that Foles likes to get the ball out quickly, they took away his easy first reads and forced him into quicker decisions than he was comfortable with.  And with Rankins unavailable, most of the heavy lifting would fall to star defensive end Cameron Jordan.

Matched against one of the top offensive tackles in the league in Lane Johnson, Jordan (with no sacks and one pass batted down) wasn’t as disruptive as he’s been in other games.  On Sunday, he was just enough.

On second-and-ten from his own 40, with 14:55 left game and trailing by three, Nick had Jeffery open up the right sideline.  But Jordan was pushing both Johnson and Stefen Wisniewski back into the pocket, and Foles opted to check down to Darren Sproles for a 2-yard gain.

On the very next play, Golden Tate was running away from P.J. Williams on a deep cross.  But Jordan was pushing Johnson back into the backfield again.  He flushed Foles from the pocket almost into the arms of David Onyemata.  Nick got the pass off, but not accurately.

Now there is 2:58 left in the Eagle season, and they are on their own 42 down by six.  Saints back in cover-2.  Jordan was coming around his right side, flushing him up into Tyeler Davison – who was pushing center Jason Kelce back into Foles’ face.  Tate was barely open in a tight window, but Nick couldn’t get a good throw off.

It was like this most of the night for Nick.

Where Were the Hot Routes?

The Saints don’t blitz much – they only did so a handful of times on Sunday.  But the few times they did they were more disruptive than they should have been.  There were only a couple of times that they actually came free against Nick, but, surprisingly, the Eagles didn’t have anyone running short routes (hot routes) to beat the blitz.

This caused an incompletion to Jeffery on the first play of the last quarter when P.J. Williams wasn’t picked up.  Again, on third-and-eight with 8:50 left in the game, Anzalone came untouched on the blitz and Foles rushed a throw in Matthews’ general direction.

There were other occasions when the blitz was picked up, but Foles still rushed his decision making process.

The Endgame

For all of this, Philadelphia still had that last shot.  One tick before the two minute warning, sitting on the Saints 27, but needing the touchdown, the Eagles’ run as defending world champions ended on a simple curl route against a soft cover-two and a well thrown pass that slipped through the grasp of Jeffery into the hands of Lattimore.  And with that, New Orleans secured its 20-14 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Marshon Lattimore played and excellent game.  He finished, ironically enough, with interceptions on two of his least impressive moments.  His first came on an underthrown pass to a receiver who was open behind him.  His last came as he was simply sitting in his zone minding his own business when the ball fluttered in his direction.

All talk of strategy aside, sometimes these things come down to the bounce of a ball.

And Now the Rams

So now, the Saints get the Rams with a Super Bowl trip on the line.  The world, I think, expects a shootout similar to the earlier game.  I am unconvinced.  The Saints still have one of football’s better run defenses, and they have actually played excellent pass defense over the second half of the season.

For their part the Rams are coming off, arguably, their best defensive game of the season – and a game in which they ran for 273 yards, to boot.  Additionally, both of these teams are now familiar with each other’s offense.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not predicting a 3-0 game won on a last second 50-yard field goal.  But my feeling is that the defenses on both sides will make points more hard earned this time around.

On Sunday afternoon, we’ll find out.

The Return of the Rushing Touchdown

A few weeks ago, we talked about the recent rise of teams that were beginning to run the ball more often than they threw it – I named them Neanderthal teams.

Those teams are all home now, but in the discussion I gave a timeline of passing vs running, both as far as plays called and touchdowns scored.  Once the number of touchdown passes eclipsed the number of rushing touchdowns, the trend has never reversed.  This year, the average NFL team threw 26.5 touchdown passes, while scoring just 13.7 times on the ground.

All of which makes last weekend’s results – the Divisional Round in this year’s playoffs – that much more unusual.

In Kansas City, young quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been the face of the passing revolution.  During the regular season, he led all passers, tossing an almost unheard of 50 touchdown passes.  Last Saturday, against Indianapolis, he threw none.  The Chiefs still hammered the Colts, though, as they bullied them with 4 rushing touchdowns.

A few hours after that game, the Los Angeles Rams took the field, hosting the Dallas Cowboys.  They are kind of the NFC face of the passing revolution, behind their young quarterback, Jared Goff.  Jared had thrown 32 touchdown passes during the season.  He also threw none in the Saturday playoff game.  The Rams, though, were also victorious – and looking almost Neanderthalish – as they bullied Dallas with 273 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns.

In the early game Sunday, the New England Patriots also won behind their running game.  They hammered the Chargers to the tune of 155 rushing yards and 4 rushing touchdowns.  Along the way, they did manage one passing touchdown.

So, the first three winning teams in the Divisional Round combined to throw for 1 touchdown, while piling up a combined 11 on the ground.

In Sunday’s late game, Drew Breese broke the spell with 2 touchdown passes thrown against none scored on the ground.  That game deviated from the general theme of the playoffs second round – early domination.

In the first three games, the eventual winning teams averaged 26.3 points scored in the first half, averaged 304 yards of offense (again, just the first half), and controlled the clock for an average of 20:37 (with all of them at least at 20:11 of ball control in the first half).  Their average halftime lead was 19.3 points, and they had outgained their opponents by an average of 112.7 yards.  The combined difference in first downs at the half was 62-18.

All of these offenses were slowed a bit in the second half, with the Chiefs and Patriots cruising to victories.  The Cowboys did manage to creep back into their contest and made a game of it, but in the end, it was just too steep a hole to dig themselves out of.

By way of profiling the league, it’s worth noting that the NFL’s final four contain all four of the top scoring teams in football, but only one of the top ten scoring defenses (New England finished seventh).  By yards gained, all of the offenses finished in the top ten, with three of them being in the top 5.  There are no top ten defenses left standing.

Two of the top 5 passing offenses (by yards gained) are still playing, as are three of the top 8 quarterbacks ranked by passer rating.  This total includes the NFL’s top two rated passers – Breese (115.7) and Mahomes (113.8), with Goff (101.1) ranking eighth.  There are no top ten passing defenses (by yards) left, and by passer rating against, only New England – number 7 in the league at 85.4 – will be playing this weekend.

Of note, three of the top six rushing offenses are still playing.  Of the top ten run defenses, only New Orleans – second, allowing 80.2 yards per game – is left.

There was a moment when a handful of upstart defensive teams – Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Tennessee – looked like they might disrupt the league’s offensive meme.  Those guys are all home now.  These days, if you want to hang with the elite’s in the NFL, you better pack a head-spinning offense.

The AFC is setting up to re-match New England and Kansas City.  They met in the Week Six Sunday night game – a 43-40 Patriot win that reflected the story of the season.  These teams combined for 946 yards the first time they met.  They are also coming off the two most dominant games in the Divisional Round.

Taming the Colts

The Colts had been, perhaps, the best story in the NFL in 2018.  They famously began the year 1-5 and then won 10 of their next 11, bringing them into Kansas City for the second round of the playoffs.

Eight minutes and 32 seconds into the contest – after Tyreek Hill had weaved his way 36 yards through the entire Colts defense for a touchdown (yes, a rushing touchdown) – it was pretty apparent that the Colt’s dream run had come to an end.  At that point, they were already down 14-0.  During that eight-and-a-half minute span, they had watched the Chiefs march the length of the field twice (140 yards in 13 plays) for 2 touchdowns.  In their first two drives, the Colts had managed all of 7 yards in 6 plays.

Their first four possessions were all three-and-out’s, totaling 21 yards of offense.  By the time they managed their first first-down (with 1:18 left in the first half), they had already seen Kansas City rack up 18 first downs and 274 yards.  The only reason they were only down 24-7 was because they had blocked Kansas City’s only punt of the first half – recovering it in the end zone.  It was the only blemish on a surprisingly effective KC defensive effort.

The potency of the Chiefs’ offense being what it is, the two scoring drives were not that surprising.  The expectation, though, was that the Colts would be putting up some points of their own.  While the Chiefs have been one of the elite offenses all season, their defense has rarely come to the party.  They, in fact, showed up at the dance with the NFL’s thirty-first ranked defense – number 27 against the run and number 31 against the pass (remember, there are only 32 teams in the league). They had given up 421 points through their 16 games (26.3 per), and were allowing 5.0 yards per attempted run.

Coming off their game in Houston where they ran for 200 yards Indianapolis must have felt they could run on the Chiefs.  And, perhaps, if they could have kept themselves in the game, they eventually might have.

As it was – even though they only rushed 14 times on the day – they were beginning to break through.  Their last 9 rushes of the game netted 66 yards.  But by then, they were out of time and Kansas City was well on its way to a 31-13 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Playing in the Snow

Arrowhead greeted Indianapolis with 30 degree temperatures and a light blowing snow.  One of the NFL’s enduring truisms is that dome teams or warm weather teams always look out of place in bad weather.  Taking nothing away from the Chiefs’ defense – which was dominant for most of the game – Indy never looked comfortable in that environment.  One week after converting 9 of 14 third downs against the Texans, Indy finished Saturday 0-for-9.  Along the way, they went 0-2 in the red zone and committed 10 penalties for 70 yards.

The Chiefs seemed to waver a bit late in the season – losing three of five at one point.  The week off seems to have done them good.  They appeared fresher and more energized than I had seen them recently.

And they will have to be at their readiest for next week.

Patriots Advance

With 15 seconds left in the first half, and already in field goal range, the Patriots decided to run one more quick play to better their field goal opportunity, even though they had expended their time outs. 

They faced a third-and-six on the Charger 36-yard line.  Quarterback Tom Brady flipped a quick pass out to wide receiver Philip Dorsett.  Although the Patriots believed that Dorsett had made it out of bounds at about the first-down marker, the official ruled that Michael Davis had managed to pull him down in bounds.  Caught by surprise, the Patriots were unable to line up and spike the ball before the half ended.  The field goal attempt never happened.

That was the first thing to go right all day for the beleaguered Los Angeles Chargers, who couldn’t wait to see the clock run out on that first half.  Of all the dominating early performances, this one by the Patriots was the most dominant.  They exited to the cheers of the crowd with a 35-7 lead that had featured 24 first downs, 5-6 conversions on third down, and a 5-5 performance in the red zone.  They had 347 yards of total offense, and already had a 100-yard rusher (Sony Michel with 105) and a 100-yard receiver (Julian Edelman with 107).  The Patriots finished the half with more first downs than the Chargers had offensive plays (23) and almost as many touchdowns (5) as the Chargers had first downs (6).

In the second half, the Patriots would take their foot off the gas a bit.  They would run the ball on 16 of their 31 second half plays.  They would score no more touchdowns, but would add two more field goals.  After controlling the clock for 20:11 of the first half, they would run it for 18:09 more in the second.

Charger quarterback Philip Rivers kept throwing the ball, and Los Angeles did a little late, cosmetic scoring, but this game – an eventual 41-28 New England win (gamebook) (summary) was over early.

Rattling Rivers

Even before the first half completely imploded, you could see Rivers seething on the sidelines and on the field.  He seethed at the officials, his own players, and probably his coaches, too – although the cameras didn’t catch that.

Composure has always been an issue for Rivers – even in his advanced years.  As a young player, he seemed to be more concerned about trash talking his opponent than focusing on playing quarterback.  In the past few years, that tendency has lessened, but he still has trouble letting go of things.  Yes, there were some calls that could have been made that weren’t.  Yes his teammates didn’t play very well – in particular his offensive line and running backs were frequently lacking at picking up the Patriot blitzes. But if you want to be that quarterback – the one that finally leads the Chargers to the promised land – then you really have to let go of things.

With the Patriots being so dominant, I don’t truly think there was anything that Rivers – composed or not – could have done to prevent them from advancing.  But his frustrations clearly impacted his focus and performance.  Philip just turned 37 in December.  He still has all the passion and competitiveness that he had when he was 17 – which is good.  Mostly.  With the few opportunities he has left, though, he will have to be mentally and emotionally stronger if he hopes to have his finger measured for that ring.

Meanwhile the Patriots

After last year’s Super Bowl I noted that the Patriots were finding it increasingly difficult to prepare for the start of playoff games.  After a decade plus of general domination, it seemed that playoff games didn’t matter to the organization as much anymore.  This was apparent in the recent playoff deficits this team has had to overcome.

Perhaps with the sting of the last Super Bowl still burning in their minds, this New England team was all business – all urgency – from the start.  They put together touchdown drives on all of their first four possessions, each consuming at least 63 yards.  Almost as if to add insult to injury, the one time in the entire half that New England punted, Desmond King muffed the punt, handing the thing back to New England on the Charger 35.  It took them four plays from there to punch in their fifth touchdown of the half.

A Lesson From the Masters

Analyzing the game on TV, Tony Romo kept making two recurring points, but never tied them together.  Let me do that for him.

Even before the opening kickoff, Romo warned that if the Chargers stayed in their normal zone defenses that Brady and the Patriots would pick them apart.  At various times before the game got completely out of hand, Romo implored them to change things up – especially in regard to pressuring Brady.  But they never really did.

At the same time, Tony marveled at the ability of the Patriots to morph into a completely different team almost at a whim.  In this case, he applauded the defense for their impersonation of the Baltimore Ravens.  This was a point he returned to often – how Bill Belichick and the Patriots can seamlessly adjust to any opponent or game situation.

Somewhere in the conjunction of these two concepts is a lesson for Chargers’ coach Anthony Lynn – and in fact for all coaches in the National Football League.

As much as anything else, Lynn’s Chargers were done in by the fact that they were inflexible.  Especially on defense, they did what they do.  Yes, most offenses cannot patiently and flawlessly work their way down the field against a disciplined zone defense.  At some point most offenses will make the drive-ending mistake.  Last Sunday, coach Lynn learned the hard way that the Patriots are not most offenses.

Meanwhile, those of us who have watched them for lo these many years understand that their adaptability is the main thing that has kept New England at the top.  The Patriots are not married to any particular offensive philosophy.  Nor are the constrained by any particular defensive approach.  Except for Tom Brady at quarterback, they are not committed to any set lineup.  And, except for a pronounced vulnerability when Brady gets pressure up the middle, there is no sure formula for beating the Patriots.

This is an extremely difficult pinnacle to reach.  There is a reason why New England’s success is unmatched.  But it might be the most important realization for any franchise that hopes to see itself someday appearing in their eighth straight Championship Game.

Tears for the Chargers?

In some of my discussions in 2016, I sounded a sympathetic note for the Chargers and their long-suffering fans.  In recent years, they have found all sorts of ways to let potential opportunities slip through their fingertips.

While I still feel some sympathy for some of the long-time players, I am finding it difficult these days to feel any heartbreak for the franchise.  As with a great many football fans, the thought of the Chargers selling out San Diego for the lucre of Los Angeles as left something of a bitter taste in my mouth.  This isn’t a harshness that I feel for the Rams – who originally moved from LA to St Louis.  (The Rams were actually in Cleveland until 1946.)  But the Chargers belong to San Diego.  Playing now before a mostly apathetic home crowd, it may well be many years before this franchise works its way through its bad karma.

The Championship Round

So, the NFL now has its final four.  It will be number one against number two in both conferences.  In a sense, though, it will be more than that.  Both conferences have something of a past-vs-future meme going on.

In New England and New Orleans we have two legendary coach-quarterback combinations.  Kansas City and Los Angeles (the Rams) bring a glimpse of tomorrow in rising stars Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff.  In the case of the Rams, the youth meme even extends to coach Sean McVay.

It is premature to suppose that either Brady or Breese is ready to pass the torch just yet, but it will be interesting to see how these two games will be remembered ten years from now.

Rams Dismiss Cowboys

Playoff emotion is a strange phenomenon.  Frequently, it makes it impossible to predict with any certainty how a playoff game will proceed.

Coming off compelling Wildcard victories, the Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers all seemed to have plausible chances of beating their Divisional round opponents. 

After all, the Colts had now won 10 of 11, winning their last game by rushing for 200 yards against a tough Houston defense.  Now they would face a Kansas City team, that, although they were 12-4 on the season and held the top seed in the playoffs, had also lost three of five games shortly before the playoffs began. Furthermore, their weakness was defense – especially run defense. On their way to finishing twenty-seventh in run defense, allowing 5.0 yards per rushing attempt, the Chiefs had allowed at least 119 rushing yards in four straight games.

Dallas went in to Los Angeles with wins in eight of their last nine games.  They sported one of football’s elite defenses.  They were number seven overall, number six in allowing points, and number five against the run.  Along the way, they had humbled two of football’s top offenses, New Orleans and Seattle.  They were facing a Ram team that had also lost a little steam down the stretch.  Their regular season ended in victories over two struggling units (Arizona and San Francisco). Their two games before that were losses in Chicago (15-6) and at home against Philadelphia (30-23).  They had also been a shaky defensive unit – especially against the run, where they ranked twenty-third.

The Chargers, of course, were coming off one of their best seasons in recent memory – in fact, they had fashioned a better record this season than the Patriots, who seemed to be more vulnerable this year than at any time in their recent past.  From Week 10 through Week 15, the Patriots had lost three of five games – with none of the losses coming against playoff teams (Tennessee, Miami and Pittsburgh).

As Divisional Weekend dawned, all three of these home teams looked ripe for the plucking.  By halftime in each of these games, the home team had accumulated comfortable leads after dominating first halves, and were well on their way to stamping their tickets to the Championship Round.

Certainly all three profited from the week off.  Getting that week off is always a big deal this time of year. But the dominations of these first halves was about more than rest.  Under the unique influence of playoff energy, these teams were able to perform at levels unknown to them during the regular season.

This was especially true of the defenses in Kansas City and Los Angeles.  Maligned all season – and, in fact, regarded as outright weaknesses of their respective teams – the defensive units of the Chiefs and Rams responded with their best games of the season.

Kansas City ate the Colts alive – running game and all.  But what happened in Los Angeles could not have been predicted by the most expert analyst anywhere.

Where Did This Defense Come From?

I have written a few times about the Ram defense – especially their weakness in stopping opposing running games.  A sampling of their ranking in a few important categories would show them twentieth in points allowed (384 – 24 per game), twentieth in completion percentage allowed (65.1%), twenty-third in rushing yards allowed per game (122.3), twenty-fifth in average yards allowed per completed pass (11.80), twenty-sixth in average yards allowed per attempted pass (7.70), twenty-seventh in percentage of passes going for touchdowns against them (5.8%), and thirty-second – dead last in the NFL – in average yards allowed per rush attempt at 5.1.

It wasn’t any kind of foregone conclusion that Dallas would win this game. But I think everyone expected them to score against the Rams – and especially (with Ezekiel Elliott and the league’s tenth most productive running attack) it was expected that Dallas would be able to run the ball.

To everyone’s amazement – except perhaps the players and coaches in the Ram locker room – the Cowboy running game never got off the launching pad. Allowing just 40 yards in the first half, Los Angeles’ run defense put up what I think is the most surprising statistical line of the week.  Over the last 30 minutes of this particular contest, 13 Dallas rushing attempts produced just 10 yards – a 0.8 average – with no single run managing more than 5 yards.  The Cowboys were 0-5 on third down in the second half, and just 1-10 on the game.

But the suddenly impenetrable run defense was only part of the story – and if Dallas’ second half rushing production was the weekend’s most surprising result, it was only slightly so.  Just behind it was this rushing line: 24 rushes, 170 yards, 7.1 yard average, and 2 rushing touchdowns.

That line belonged to the Ram offense.  For the first half.

The Running Rams?

As though they were running through defenders made of tissue paper, the LA running attack poured through the Cowboys and their fifth-ranked rushing defense.  The vaunted defense that had allowed just 14 first downs and 176 yards the entire game against New Orleans, watched the Rams roll up 291 yards of total offense – including 20 first downs – in the first half alone.  They never forced a Ram punt through those first 30 minutes.

By game’s end, LA had zipped through Dallas for 273 rushing yards, controlling the clock for 36:13.

Explanations?

Some of how this happened defies rational explanation.  The Ram offensive line is – of course – one of football’s best. But that night – under the playoff glare and responding to the electricity of the crowd – they may have played – individually and collectively – the best games of their lives.

This must especially be true for center John Sullivan.  I say that because it’s hard to imagine that he could have played any better. A ten-year veteran, Sullivan has never been honored with Pro-Bowl or All-Pro selections.  Last Saturday evening, he was a study in perfect technique.  As the Ram running game predominately probed the middle of the Dallas defense (and 145 of the 273 yards came between the guards) the constant in almost all of the successful Ram running plays was John Sullivan – with his pads under Maliek Collins or Antwaun Woods, and his legs constantly driving – running Dallas’ most accomplished run defenders out of the picture.  This was a day that John will long remember.

Much more recognized (and decorated) is the Rams’ veteran left tackle, Andrew Whitworth.  Whitworth has had many excellent days, but this was probably one of his better ones as well.  Every time I looked up, it seemed like Whitworth was flipping Randy Gregory to the ground.

These two I point out, but the domination was general across the line.

So, yes, all these guys played one of their best games.  But there were other factors at play here that also deserve a look.

First of all, LA was able to really exploit Dallas’ defensive scheme.  Dallas isn’t a team with big offensive linemen that clog the middle of the field, allowing the linebackers to roam as they will.  Dallas’ one-gap scheme depends on everyone – including their linebackers – holding his gap.  They got much more than they bargained for with the Rams’ down-hill running attack.  While Sullivan and Whitworth were moving people up and down the line of scrimmage, guards Rodger Saffold and Austin Blythe poured unabated into the second level of Dallas’ defense.  Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Xavier Woods will see these guys in their nightmares for the next few weeks, as they spent the entire afternoon trying to duck under or around the large, quick linemen that seemed always to be bearing down on them.

Another factor that contributed to some gaping holes for Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson was tight end Tyler Higbee.

A third-year player and second year starter, Higbee has developed into a fairly dependable target.  He caught 24 passes this season, one off of his career high (and added two more on Sunday).  But Higbee’s less discussed value for the Rams is as a blocker.  Tyler is actually among the better blocking tight ends in the league – and he was another Ram blocker who always seemed to be at the point of attack.

Among his better moments was a pancake of Demarcus Lawrence that opened the cutback lane for Anderson’s 7-yard run with about five minutes left in the first.  With four minutes left in the third, Higbee pushed Lawrence all the way down the line of scrimmage to open up an 8-yard run for Gurley.

He also came across the formation a couple of time to deliver potent wham blocks to defensive linemen brave enough to try to penetrate the LA backfield.  He did this to Caraun Reid with 8:45 left in the second to spring Gurley for 8 yards.  He also did that to Taco Charlton with 8:41 left in the game to give Anderson 5 yards up the middle.

LA’s Offensive Foundation

But the bigger picture here are the foundational principles that the Ram offense is based on.  They are actually built to be a dominant running team – and statistically, you would have to say that they are.  They finished third in the league behind the Neanderthal teams in Seattle and Baltimore, and averaged 4.9 rushing yards per attempt.

The two things that you always see from the Rams heavily advantage their running attack.

First, their almost undeviating use of three wide receivers always forces teams to match up with at least five defensive backs.  Even as the Rams shredded the Cowboy run defense, they still could only play two linebackers because they had to respect the Ram passing game.  The inherent danger in the Ram passing attack also prevents opponents from loading “the box” with more than seven defenders.

The other thing you always see from the Rams is tight formations.  You will see other offenses line receivers up from sideline to sideline.  This is a boon to the passing game, as it usually forces the defense to declare its coverage.  But it can make the outside running game a little more challenging as blockers will have to deal with defenders already defending the edges.

But tight formations bring all of the defenders in tight as well where the blockers can get to them more easily.  It also creates invitingly wide sideline alleys and forces defenders to race ball-carriers to the edges.  Dallas’ contain defenders only dropped outside contain a couple of times on Saturday, but every time they did it cost them a substantial run – including Goff’s game-clinching 11-yard sprint around right end on third-and-seven with just two minutes left in the game.

One other take-away from the Rams and their running attack.

Back when they outscored Kansas City in the 54-51 game, I noted that while both teams easily could have controlled the game by running the ball, both chose not to.  Based on that game, I questioned the will of those teams to keep running the ball even if the running game was available to them.  My evaluation then was that both of these teams were so invested in their passing attacks, that they would be compelled – at some point – to abandon the run and go back to the air.

If nothing else, this game disproves that opinion – at least as far as the Rams go.  After 48 running plays, I think the Rams have proven that they will – under certain circumstances – commit to the run.

Moments that Mattered

As with any one-score loss, there were a few pivotal moments – some that, perhaps, didn’t seem so pivotal at the time – that ended up being huge.  The Rams’ first field goal drive was aided by two offside penalties.  Moments before Gurley’s 35-yard touchdown run gave LA a 20-7 lead, Goff – still on his own side of the fifty – threw incomplete on third-and-14.  But instead of a punt, the Rams got a new set of downs as Byron Jones kept the drive alive with a hands-to-the-face penalty. 

With 52 seconds left in the first half, the Cowboys were in field goal range at the Ram 36 with an opportunity to cut the lead to 20-10.  On third-and-seven, with no one open downfield, quarterback Dak Prescott began to scurry around in the pocket.  As he ducked to his left, Ram linebacker Dante Fowler – who had been leaping to tackle Prescott – reached back with his right hand.  His elbow and forearm did actually strike Prescott in the helmet – albeit very lightly – while his fingers momentarily grasped the back of Dak’s helmet before sliding off.  That was the entirety of the contact on that play.  It was closer to being a “roughing-the-passer” penalty than anything else.  But it was somehow enough to have the play blown dead with an in-the-grasp call.  This would be the only quarterback “sack” by either team in the game.

That call pushed the Cowboys out of field goal range.

About half-way through the fourth quarter, the Rams faced fourth-and-goal on the Cowboy 1 yard line.  Ahead 23-15 at that point, a field goal might have made sense.  But Sean McVay gambled on the touchdown – and got it on a one-yard run from Anderson.  It’s the playoffs.  No time to turn timid.

Watching the Quarterbacks

Much of the evening’s attention went to the two young quarterbacks in the game.  Prescott was playing just his third playoff game, and Goff his second.  It’s still too early to tell for sure if either one is the real deal.  Both had moments of brilliance intermingled with moments of ineffectiveness.

Prescott was the more inconsistent of the two.  He is still much more effective outside the pocket than in it.  Still, he played his best at the end when the game was on the line.  That has been pretty consistent in all three of his playoff games.

Goff also missed some throws and made some decisions he would like to re-visit, but played well enough to win.  The question that I haven’t resolved yet is how much of the success we’re seeing from the passing game is Goff and how much McVay.  This Sunday’s contest in New Orleans should prove informative.

Going Forward

Los Angeles will bring a few question marks with them as they invade the Big Easy.  How good is this defense?  Are they the dominating team they appeared to be against the Cowboys? Or are their season-long ranking a better barometer?  Will they appreciably slow the Saint offense?  Or will the contest resemble the Week Nine game between these two teams – a 45-35 Saint win that saw New Orleans gain 487 yards of offense – 141 of them on the ground?

Is the league catching up with Goff and the passing game?  His passer rating has been under 80 in four of his last six games – with Arizona and San Francisco being the only exceptions.  The Saints have been getting better and better in pass defense – they were exceptional last Sunday.  Will New Orleans be able to slow the potent Ram offense?

And the running game?  So dominant against Dallas, will they be able to run against the Saints as well?  New Orleans was the league’s second ranked run defense.  That match-up may be decisive.

The back end of the NFL playoffs doesn’t usually play out like a soap-opera cliff hanger.  But these two teams seem to developing week by week.

In the AFC, the Chiefs will have to knock out the perennial champions in New England.  But the NFC is wide open.  Two short years ago, the Saints were 7-9 while the Rams were 4-12.  This year, one of those teams will play in the Super Bowl.

Sixth-Seeds Survive

If there was ever a more obvious game plan, I have yet to see it.

WildCard Weekend began with a matchup of divisional rivals.  The Colts and Texans were meeting up for the third time this season.  If you knew nothing else about this game, you knew that the Indianapolis game plan would rely heavily on the arm of quarterback Andrew Luck.

In game one (a 37-34 OT win for Houston), Indianapolis had managed only 41 yards rushing.  In the rematch, 10 weeks later, the Colts worked their ground game for only 50 yards in their 24-21 victory. Meanwhile, Luck had found plenty of matchups he liked in the secondary.  He threw 62 times in the first game for 464 yards.  He threw 41 more times in the re-match for 399 yards.

The season numbers seemed to back the game history.  In spite of the fact that Indianapolis had rushed for 158 yards in their season-ending victory against Tennessee, they still ended the season with the NFL’s twentieth ranked rushing attack – averaging just 107.4 yards per game.

Against them was one of the better defensive front sevens, highlighted by stars like J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Benardrick McKinney.  They finished the season third against the run, allowing just 82.7 yards per game.  The 3.4 yards per rushing attempt that opponents averaged against the Texans was the stingiest figure in the NFL.

In a weekend of down-to-the-wire action, the only game not to be decided on the last play (virtually) proved to be the most surprising.  That Indianapolis won may not be so surprising.  The Colts have wins in 10 of their last 11 games.  That it wasn’t a one score game is somewhat surprising.  Given the history of the two teams and the way the rest of the weekend went, you might have expected a last-minute field goal here.  That being said, the 21-7 final isn’t all that far from normal (gamebook) (summary).

The shocker here is how the Colts won.  On the ground.  On the road.  Against one of the three best run defenses in football.

With no apologies and little fanfare, Indianapolis blew Houston off the line of scrimmage to the tune of 200 rushing yards on 35 attempts, averaging 5.7 yards per attempt.

That, and a large early lead – Indy was up 21-0 at the half – forced Houston to pack away its own running attack (they were ranked eighth in the NFL) and try to win the game on the talented but inexperienced arm and legs of quarterback Deshaun Watson.  As things would play out, his first playoff game was not his finest hour.

First, the Colts Running Game

At the heart of Indy’s rebound from their 1-5 start is their re-invented offensive line.  They won fame this year by keeping Luck upright for 5 straight games.  There hasn’t been much mention made of this group’s ability to block for the run.  That seemed to be an ancillary function.

They were a most important cog in a passing game that saw their quarterback felled only 18 times all season.  They were a foundation upon which Andrew’s 4593-yard, 39-TD pass season was built.  If asked, I suppose most fans of the club would conjecture that these gentlemen could probably block for the run – if that need should ever arise.  But why would they want to?

Last Saturday afternoon, they wanted to.

Their 85 first-half rushing yards nearly equaled their total for the first two games played against these teams.  During the course of that back-breaking first half, the Colts ran the clock for 17:39, out first-downed Houston 20-6, rolled up 277 yards of total offense, went 6-6 on third down, committed just one 5-yard penalty, never punted (of course) and finished 3-4 in the red zone (the first half ran out on their last trip in).  And, of course, allowed no quarterback sacks – this would be yet another game that Andrew would not suffer a sack.

Even though they never scored in the second half, they kept brutalizing the Texan defense, adding 115 more rushing yards on 19 more carries to their total.  Running back Marlon Mack was the main beneficiary.  He ended the day with 148 rushing yards.

Most of that yardage, of course, came behind the blocks of sensational rookie left guard Quenton Nelson.  He set the tone for the night on Indy’s first long run of the game, Mack’s first-quarter, 25-yard sprint around left end.  Nelson pulled to lead, and drove Clowney off the edge and out of the picture.

Nelson has gotten a lot of praise – especially over the last several weeks – and all of it well earned.  But last Saturday the domination was general along the entire line.  This even includes the efforts of blocking tight-end Mo Alie-Cox.  He was also left to block against Clowney several times, and handled the assignment well – if not with the splash of the rookie Nelson.

In particular, I would like to make note of very strong games from the linemen who stand next to Nelson – center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Anthony Castonzo.

Kelly’s overall strong game was highlighted by key, impressive blocks made on the last series of the game, with Houston fully aware that the Colts would be trying to run out the clock.  With three minutes left, Kelly came quickly off his double-team block of Brandon Dunn to dig linebacker Zach Cunningham out of the middle.  That block sprung Mack for 15 yards.  On the very next play, while Kelly and right guard Mark Glowinski were in the act of crumpling Dunn to the ground, Ryan quickly bounced back up to get enough of the on-rushing Cunningham to help create the crease that led to Mack’s game-icing 26-yard run.

As good as Kelly was, Castonzo may have even been better.  He set the edge on numerous left side runs – including his own impressive take out of Clowney on a 29-yard run by Mack late in the third.

Castonzo was also in the middle of two very important runs by Luck.

On third-and-6, backed up at their own 16 early in the third, Houston flushed Luck out of the pocket with a blitz.  Damage was averted, though, as Castonzo was able to push Mercilus wide and open a running lane.  Luck’s 9-yard run netted a first-down and kept the clock moving.

On their next drive, they faced second-and-15 on their own 18.  The Texans blitzed again, with D.J. Reader bursting immediately up the middle.  Again, Castonzo provided the escape hatch as he wedged Clowney inside and gave Luck the corner.  He ran it for 10 yards.

Neither of these drives went on to produce points, but the Luck runs allowed them field position for the punts that would follow.

Containing Deshaun

When the football wasn’t in the hands of the Colts and their pounding offense, the Colts’ defense was busy putting its own imprint on the game.

As Deshaun Watson belongs to that class of young quarterbacks that is much better outside the pocket than in it, the Colts would challenge him all night to beat them from the pocket.  During the season, the Colts were one of the NFL’s most zone-heavy defenses.  Today they mixed freely, playing more man than usual, and blitzing more frequently than usual.

Even the blitzes, though, were designed to close escape lanes and keep Watson in the pocket.

From there, Deshaun had ample opportunities to damage the Colts, but kept at home, Watson was unable to consistently deliver accurate passes.  I counted at least 8 poorly thrown passes to open receivers from Watson while in the pocket – including the two potential game changers.  At the end of the second quarter, he had Hopkins in the end zone on fourth-and-one, but bounced the throw.  With 5:42 left in the third, he had Ryan Griffin all alone deep up the left sideline.  This pass he overthrew.

There were also times that he ignored other open receivers as he continued to look for DeAndre Hopkins, and other curious lapses of judgement.

Maybe the most curious of all occurred moments after he missed Griffin on the deep throw.  It is third-and-15, Houston on the Colts’ 47-yard line.  The Colts will blitz Kenny Moore off the slot to Watson’s left.

Deshaun looked right at him.  Saw him blitzing free from the slot.  And then casually turned away from him to see if Hopkins was opened.  Surprisingly, he was sacked by Moore on the play.

It was only his first playoff game, and young Mr. Watson is certainly a talented individual.  There is room for improvement in his game.

The Other Sixth Seed Also Survived.

Sunday night in Chicago, the other sixth-seed also advanced when Chicago kicker Cody Parkey (who kicked three field goals on the night) “double-doinked” (to borrow Chris Collingsworth’s phrase) the 47-yard field goal attempt that would have sent Chicago on to the divisional round.  After a season-long issue of hitting the right upright, this time Parkey hit the left.  From there the ball dropped down to the cross bar.  While it could just as easily have bounced over the crossbar, instead the ball bounced harmlessly back to the field.  And the rest was silence.

The statistical footnote on the Bears’ season? They finished the game 0-3 in the red zone.  They committed only three penalties in the entire game – all coming during Philadelphia’s lone touchdown drive.  They accounted for 52 of the 83 yards of that drive.

As I watched the game ending bounce of the field goal that sealed the 16-15 win (gamebook) (summary), I couldn’t help but remember that the Bears could have kept Philly from the playoffs if they had taken the second half of the last game of the season off.

Fodder for thought for the offseason.

Closing Out the Neanderthals

For thirty minutes last Sunday afternoon, the Los Angeles Chargers played about as perfect a half as they could have hoped for.  Embarrassed at home by the Baltimore Ravens two weeks earlier, the Chargers trotted off the field at halftime in Baltimore with a 12-0 lead.

Throughout their run to the playoffs, the Ravens and their Neanderthal running attack had gotten off to fast starts.  They had piled up over 100 rushing yards in the first quarter in the first matchup against the Chargers – a trend that had permitted rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson to find his way with the passing game.  To have any chance in this one, the Chargers knew they would have to bottle up the run game early.

Any NFL coach who gambles with something that has never been tried before, earns my respect.  Even more so when this gamble occurs against the backdrop of the playoffs.  And when this concept seems to be completely at odds with conventional wisdom, well, words fail me.  So, much of the credit for Los Angeles’ nail-biting 23-17 conquest of Baltimore (gamebook) (summary) goes to their very brave defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.

The idea of beginning the game against one of football’s most run-heavy team with seven defensive backs on the field seemed counter-intuitive.  Visions of large offensive linemen smashing through 140-pound cornerbacks to open gaping holes did pass through my mind.  But the concept was inspired.

Rather than a read-and-react approach to defending the run, the Chargers employed a penetration based concept – their quick secondary players shooting the gaps and disrupting the running game in the backfield.  As the half progressed, and the running game stalled, Jackson’s discomfort with the passing attack grew.  He finished the first half 2-for-8 with an interception.

As clever as the plan was, though, it was only half a concept.  If Baltimore was allowed to keep running the ball, eventually the big linemen would wear down the smaller defensive backs and the end result would be much the same as their first game.  Along with the early defensive success, Los Angeles desperately needed its offense to contribute enough points to force the Ravens to abandon the run and go to the air.

The offensive unit answered with a balanced, ball-control, safety-first game plan that almost out-Neanderthalled the Neanderthals.

Through the game’s first thirty minutes, the defense silenced Baltimore, holding them to just 69 total yards and 3 first downs while forcing 2 turnovers.  Offensively, the Chargers controlled the clock for 17:36 of the half, running the ball 14 times while committing no penalties or turnovers.  The only irritant for Los Angeles was an 0-for-2 mark in the red zone that forced them into kicking four field goals.  Even one touchdown – had they managed to achieve it – might have been enough to close out the Ravens.

The back-breaking play seemed to come on the opening kickoff of the second half.  Already hanging by their fingertips, the Ravens saw their season flash before their eyes as Los Angeles’ Desmond King took the second half kickoff 72 yards, putting the ball on the Baltimore 26-yard line.

It was at this point, though, that a looming blowout became the most compelling game of wildcard weekend.  In a matter of moments, the whole feel of the game flipped.

After the next three plays gained three yards, Baltimore’s Za’Darius Smith blocked the ensuing field goal attempt.  Baltimore’s offense still couldn’t unwrap itself, but at least they had an opportunity to punt the ball out of their own territory.  That would prove enormous when tight-end Virgil Green would fumble the second down pass, placing the Ravens at the Charger 21-yard line with a golden opportunity to get back into the game.  At this point, there was 10:26 left in the third quarter.

The frustration would continue for the Ravens’ offense.  Three more runs would manage only 6 yards, and the golden opportunity resulted in only a field goal.  But Baltimore’s special teams were not done with this one.  After the Baltimore defense – which finished the regular season ranked first in yardage allowed and second in points allowed – forced another three-and-out, Javorius Allen burst through the line and partially blocked the ensuing punt.  The Ravens, still down 12-3, were back in business on the Charger 40-yard line and (with 6:54 still left in the third) M&T Bank Stadium was shaking off its rafters.

But now the roller-coaster would tilt back the other way.  Baltimore’s still toothless offense would only manage 8 yards, and super-star kicker Justin Tucker would miss his first-ever playoff field goal (albeit it was a 50-yarder).

And now, back came the Chargers.

With 3:36 left in the third, LA quarterback Philip Rivers dropped a 12-yard pass into the arms of Antonio Gates.  That would be the first first-down by either team in the second half.  The Chargers would pick up two more on the drive, as their two longest plays of the second half would come on back to back plays.

With second-and-6 on the Raven 43, receiver Mike Williams managed some separation on a skinny post.  Rivers hit him in stride for a 28-yard gain.  That would be Los Angeles’ only 20-yard play of the game.  On the next play, Melvin Gordon gave the Charger’s dormant running attack it’s only spark of life as he picked his way around left-end for 14 more yards.

Now there are 11 seconds left in the half.  LA has a second-and-goal from the 2-yard line.  Little-used fullback Derek Watt (who had caught just one pass during the regular season), curled completely open into the right flat.  Rivers floated him the ball, but underthrew it just enough that Watt had to go to his knees to attempt the catch.

For a small eternity the ball bobbled between Derek’s hands, chest and knees – even as Watt was rolling his body toward the end zone, now close enough that he could breathe on it.  As he was rolling over the line – still untouched – he tucked the football securely into his grasp, just a heartbeat before Baltimore’s Chris Board touched him down.

The line judge ruled him down inches short.  Astonishingly – even though there seemed to be ample evidence to over-turn the ruling – the call withstood the review, and Los Angeles was denied the touchdown.

That call almost changed the game.

With the third quarter over, the teams switched sides.  But – mysteriously – the ball was now placed a full yard away from the goal line, instead of the fraction of an inch that it should have been.  This, too, would prove to be significant.

On third-and-one Gordon drove off left-tackle, stretching the ball for the end zone.  Then, suddenly, the ball was rolling free in the end zone.  It dribbled softly right up to cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who scooped it up, rolled to the opposite side of the end zone, and then soared up the offensive right sideline untouched for the score.

The apparent score.

While the Baltimore fandom erupted, thinking they had just closed the gap to 12-10 (assuming the extra-point), the scoreboard, in fact, now rendered the score as 18-3 Los Angeles, and the officials at the other end were signaling touchdown.  Touchdown, Chargers.  Their ruling was that Gordon had broken the plane before the ball came out.

After another extended review session, neither result held.  The final ruling was that Melvin had not broken the plane, but that he was down by contact just inches short of the goal line.  An argument could be made that the ball might have been loose before his elbow hit.  It is, of course, also true that had the officials either awarded Watt the touchdown to begin with – or even marked the ball appropriately to begin the quarter – all of this discussion could have been averted.

As it was, Gordon – running up the middle on fourth-and-1 – scored easily.  The resulting two-point conversion pushed the Charger lead to 20-3.  This became 23-3 when Michael Badgley added a 47-yard field goal with 9:09 left in the game.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Baltimore fans were calling for Joe Flacco.  As the final quarter ticked away, those calls mostly faded, as the Ravens fans were starting to accept their fate. 

Using essentially the plan that I described here, the Chargers had mostly resisted the urge to blitz Jackson, opting, rather to keep him in the pocket and confuse him with coverages.  As expected, it forced Jackson to hold the ball.  Jackson was sacked six times alone in the second half of the game.  When Jackson’s third-down pass to Hayden Hurst fell incomplete, the Ravens faced fourth-and-11 from their own 40, with only 7:02 left in their season.

At that point, Baltimore had -2 passing yards for the game.

And then, the game would turn for one final time.

Almost off the field – almost ready to go into victory mode – the Charger pass defense fell asleep on two consecutive plays.  On fourth-and-11, Jackson lofted a touch pass to Willie Snead in behind the soft zone coverage.  That pass gained 29 yards and kept the season alive.

On the very next play, cornerback Casey Hayward stood nonchalantly staring into the Raven’s backfield while Michael Crabtree blew past him up the right sideline.  Jackson arched him a perfect pass, and suddenly – with 6:33 left – Baltimore had crept to within 23-10.  Up until the pass to Snead, Baltimore had managed one first down in the second half of the game.  But things, suddenly, were different now.

After another three-and-out, Baltimore was in business again.  With less than five minutes to go, however, and up by two scores, the Chargers were content to give short passes as long as the clock kept running.

Now, the Ravens had pushed their way to midfield, but with only 3:21 left.  It was second-and-10.  After managing to keep Lamar in the pocket for most of the game, here Jackson managed to escape.  Rolling to his right – a step ahead of the pass rush – he flung the ball back across his body to the other side of the field where Derwin James waited to intercept it.  But Jackson threw with just enough arm to layer it agonizingly over James’ fingertips, and into the waiting arms of Kenneth Dixon.  By the time James would run him down from behind, Dixon would take the pass all the way to LA’s 11-yard line.

A few moments later, Jackson would roll to his right again before firing a 7-yard touchdown pass to Crabtree (that one would also require a lengthy review).  With two minutes left, Jackson had brought them back to 23-17 on the strength of his arm.

That would be as close as it would get.  The defense would respond with its second consecutive three and out – the sixth time in the game the Chargers would go three-and-out – but, with one last chance – with 66 yards to drive and 45 seconds to get there – Jackson suffered his seventh (and final) sack of the game – a strip sack that ended Baltimore’s final possession of the season.

For the game, Baltimore’s second-ranked run offense finished with just 90 yards on 23 carries.  No running back managed more than 5 yards on any individual carry.  Jackson himself was responsible for almost all of the running damage done – 54 yards on 9 rushes.

The Ravens had been the last of the Neanderthals in the tournament.  On Saturday, Seattle had fallen to Dallas 24-22 (gamebook) (summary).

In that game, the Cowboys matched the Seahawks with the fifth-ranked run defense.  Their one-gap concept was much different than the one the Chargers used, but was equally effective.

That game followed a similar pattern, with Dallas owning the first-half time of possession (19:24) and holding the NFL’s most potent running attack to just 73 yards, while running for 164 yards of their own – 137 of them from the legs of Ezekiel Elliott.

The Cowboys can be that kind of defense.  They had a similar game earlier this year against New Orleans – a game in which their defensive line just dominated.  Although they are not consistently this good, this defense – with Elliott and the running game – is dangerous.  Their next matchup is with the explosive Los Angeles Rams.

As for Seattle, their Neanderthal style revived their season and put them into the playoffs.  In this particular game, though, with the running game stalling, it seemed that they should have turned more to the passing game.  But that is the thing with running teams.  If you are committed to your running attack, then you have to stay with it.  Almost always the results show in the fourth quarter.  Dallas, in stuffing the Seahawks running game for the full four quarters, did something few teams are able to achieve.

How Seattle will want to revisit this next year should be interesting, and give notice on the future of Neanderthalism in the NFL.  They could reasonably adopt a more modified position, balancing the run and pass more than they did this year.

As impressed as I was with their running attack this year, I will have to say that this Wildcard game was one time when I felt that quarterback Russell Wilson was inhibited by the game plan.

For the Seahawks – as with everyone else not still playing this season – it’s a matter of tune in next year and see.

Chargers Ready for the Rematch?

It took a while, but after a substantial review the officiating crews on the ground and in New York determined that Jarvis Landry had maintained control of the football.  What had originally been called an incomplete pass now put Cleveland on Baltimore’s 39-yard line with 80 seconds left in the season.

At that point, the fate of three teams and one division teetered on the negotiation of just six yards – the six yards Cleveland would need to put themselves into field goal range – albeit a long field goal.

Cleveland – winless a season ago – needed those six yards for a shot at finishing 2018 with a winning record.  The Pittsburgh Steelers – their own game finished – had not left the field in Pittsburgh.  They were helplessly watching the scoreboards from their own stadium.  They needed those six yards and a successful field goal to vault past Baltimore and claim a playoff spot.  For the Ravens, everything depended on keeping Cleveland off the scoreboard.  Losing this game – a game that they had led 20-7 at the half – would cost them a playoff berth and end their season.

The drama of the final minute overshadowed – for the moment, anyway – three big first half moments that eluded Cleveland and forced them into this position.

With 1:53 left in the first half, the Ravens had first-and-goal on the 1-yard line. Ahead 20-7, they had their opportunity to salt the game away.  Quarterback Lamar Jackson leapt over the line, extending the ball over the goal for the apparent game-icing touchdown.

But he hadn’t gone far enough.  Replays clearly showed Jackson pulling the ball back to him before it crossed the line.  That might have brought up fourth-and-goal, and the Ravens may have tried it again, but as Lamar was bringing the ball back in, defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi stuck a hand between the ball and Jackson’s chest and batted the football out of Lamar’s grasp.

When Cleveland defensive back Jabrill Peppers picked up the ball on the 7-yard line, there was no one in front of him.  But the potential 93-yard fumble return touchdown was denied him.  Seeing the official rule the touchdown, someone blew the whistle, ending the play.  A review did give the ball to the Browns, but back on their own 7-yard line.

On the very next play, Landry, split the deep middle of the Raven defense.  Cleveland rookie Baker Mayfield saw him break clear and lofted the football in his direction.  It was a good throw, but not to either shoulder.  Baker tossed the ball directly over Landry’s head, and Jarvis was forced to try to run under it like Willie Mays making a basket catch.  As he looked up, the ball caromed right off his facemask – ending the opportunity for another huge play.

All of that bad luck notwithstanding, the Browns still ended the first half with Greg Joseph lining up a 46-yard field goal attempt.  Joseph – who would be tasked with attempting a 51-yarder if Cleveland could manage those last six yards – saw his 46-yard attempt fade wide to the left.

Had the results of any of those moments panned out in Cleveland’s favor, it might well have been the Ravens making a desperate late-game attempt.  Instead, it was the Browns sitting six agonizing yards away from field goal range.

Three incomplete passes later, Cleveland faced fourth down.  The second down pass had been open.  Landry – again – was running toward the left sideline with Jimmy Smith trailing.  But Mayfield’s pass was behind him and back toward the defender.

As they had on each of the preceding passes, Baltimore sent the house.  Eight players in pursuit of the Cleveland quarterback, who tried to get the ball to Duke Johnson on a crossing route that would probably have extended the drive.  But Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley – seeing that he had no chance to penetrate the Cleveland offensive line – instead took two steps backward.  Those two steps put him directly in line with the pass.  He stuck a hand up, batted the pass into the air, and then gathered it in on the way down.  The Ravens had held on, 26-24 (gamebook) (summary).

In a sense, the ending was anti-climactic (considering the setup), but it did finally bring clarity to the AFC North.  Pittsburgh was done.  After winning the previous two division titles and making four consecutive playoff appearances, the Steelers would be watching from home. (As a footnote, had the Tennessee-Indianapolis game later on that evening ended in a tie, the Steelers would have claimed the last playoff spot.  That of course, didn’t happen.)  Into the mix – breaking a three-year playoff drought – were the Ravens – even though by the skin of their collective teeth.

Inside the Baltimore Win

The Baltimore Ravens – in pure Neanderthal style – rolled up 121 rushing yards.  That was the first quarter.  They finished the first half with 179 rushing yards on 21 carries.  They finished the game with 296 rushing yards on 47 attempts.  These are college numbers, the kind the old Oklahoma Sooners used to ring up on the middling teams of the NCAA.  It was the fifth time in the last seven games that Baltimore had piled up more than 200 rushing yards, with Jackson throwing just 24 passes – only 8 in the second half.

Baltimore will be a tough matchup in the playoffs.  There is little mystery involved with them either offensively or defensively.  Their intentions are crystal clear.  But stopping them is another issue.

As far as this run-first offense goes, there are a couple troubling ways in which they are unique.  First of all, they usually find early success in the running game.  Over the years, running offenses have had to be a little patient and keep running, even if the early carries weren’t all that productive.  The process was a slow wearing down of the defense as the game progressed, with each successive running play – like a body blow – eroding the defense’s will.

This hasn’t been a problem with Baltimore. Even early in the contest, they rarely get stymied.  As mentioned earlier, here they had 121 yards in the first quarter.  Against the Chargers the week before, they ran for 119 in the first half – with 43 of those coming on the very first play from scrimmage.

It’s a tough thing for a defense to recover from.  When you are getting blown off the line of scrimmage from the very first play, it sends an impressive message.

Which brings me to the next point.  Unlike a lot of running teams, Baltimore’s running attack produces a surprising number of big plays.  Against Cleveland, Baltimore had seven runs of more than 15 yards, with five of those going for at least twenty.  When other teams run the ball on third-and-9, they are hoping either to fool someone or at least gain a few extra yards for the upcoming kick.  When Baltimore runs on third-and-9, they run with the expectation of getting the first down.

It’s actually a thing they feed off of.  Trailing 7-3 latish in the first quarter, Cleveland blitzed Jackson on second-and-3.  Lamar evaded all of the rushers, and then raced up the left sideline for 24 yards.  It was at that point, that the Ravens seemed to come alive.  Six plays later, Jackson sprinted right through the middle of the Cleveland defense almost untouched for the touchdown.  While they would sweat some at the end, Baltimore would never trail again.

The Baltimore passing game still trails its running game.  As he was in Los Angeles the week before, Jackson was as good as he needed to be Sunday against Cleveland, completing 14 of his 24 passes for 179 yards.  His best pass right now seems to be the slant – whether quick or deep.  When he has a receiver running away from a defender over the middle, Lamar usually delivers a confident accurate pass.  Fortunately for him, Cleveland frequently gave him that look as they blitzed him a lot, playing man behind.

As I contemplate defending Jackson and the Ravens in the playoffs, I’m not sure that I would blitz him all that much.  Teams blitz young quarterbacks to confuse them – and Cleveland did confuse Jackson some on Sunday.  But even when fooled, Lamar was consistently able to avoid the sack and resisted the urge to make dangerous passes.  He either threw the ball away, or turned on the blitzing defense for a big run.

That is the problem with blitzing Lamar.  You allow him to use his athleticism to surprise you.  If I were preparing Los Angeles’ defensive game plan, I would blitz Jackson sparsely.  I would show him the most exotic zone coverages I could manage, often showing him a false pre-snap.  My rush would focus on keeping Lamar in the pocket and making him beat me from there with his head and his arm.

Of course, I would still have to stop Gus Edwards, Kenneth Dixon, and that downhill running attack.

Los Angeles – having just played the Ravens two weeks ago – should profit somewhat from already seeing them up close.  With the WildCard round approaching, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the Chargers in the re-match.  They are, in the first place, decidedly small up front.  In the second place, the Chargers haven’t looked much like themselves for a few weeks now.

The Fading Chargers

When Los Angeles won their Week 15 matchup against Kansas City by driving 60 yards in the final 2:37 for the winning touchdown, they secured their tenth victory over their previous eleven games.  At that point it was easy to see them as a dangerous team going into the playoffs.

That Chargers team hasn’t been seen much the last two weeks.  In Week 16 they were dominated by the Ravens.  Last Sunday they had an opportunity to re-discover themselves against a struggling Denver team.  The Chargers eventually pulled away for a 23-9 victory (gamebook) (summary), but still showed more cracks than one would expect from a 12-4 team.

My greatest concern, if I were Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, would be an offense that struggled just as much against Denver and their twenty-second ranked defense as it did against Baltimore’s first-ranked defense.  In particular, it was the offensive line that has started to underperform coming down the stretch.

The Chargers tried repeatedly to run the ball against Denver’s twenty-first ranked run defense.  Austin Ekeler worked his way around right end for a clever 41-yard run in the second half, but that was the only real success they had on the ground.  Their other 29 running plays managed just 75 yards – 2.6 yards per attempt.

Meanwhile, the pressure up the middle on Philip Rivers was constant throughout the game.  They never sacked him, but truly with Rivers you would rather not sack him.  Even after all these years, Rivers is still inclined, under pressure, to make a dangerous pass to avoid a sack.  Denver intercepted him twice, bringing Rivers’ interception total to 12 for the year – six of those in the last three games.  Philip has, in fact, thrown an interception on the opening drive of each of those games.

Los Angeles’ best chance of subduing Baltimore rests with their offense.  The team that can manage to find some holes in that Raven defense and forge enough of a lead that Baltimore will have to abandon its running game stands an excellent chance to beat them.  But for that team to be the Chargers, they will have to fix an awful lot of things very, very quickly.

The Chargers, I think, are in trouble here.

Sizing Up Da Bears

Last Sunday afternoon in US Bank Stadium, Minneapolis Minnesota, the last real piece of business deciding the NFC side of the playoffs played out.

The suddenly re-invigorated Philadelphia Eagles would be playing against an injury-ravaged Washington team, so the Vikings had little hope that the Eagle season would perish quietly in the nation’s capital.  That left them with the imperative of winning their last game of the season – at home against division rival Chicago.

The Vikings had put themselves in “win-and-you’re-in” territory with consecutive solid wins against Miami and in Detroit.  On the one hand, they piled up 61 points in the two wins.  On the other hand, those two teams finished the season 7-9 and 6-10 respectively.  Would the recent success – which included 320 rushing yards in the two games – continue against this tougher opponent?

By the time the first half ended, it was more than apparent that it would not.  The Vikings hit the locker room trailing 13-3 with 18 rushing yards, and just 49 offensive yards in total.  They had no play gain more than 9 yards, were 1-7 on third down, punted 5 times and never made it into the red zone.

More than just being dominated by the Bear defense, Minnesota played tight, nervous football – none of them tighter or more nervous than quarterback Kirk Cousins – although, as Troy Aikman frequently pointed out, the Viking defense didn’t bring their best game either.

Trailing just 7-0 early in the second quarter, Minnesota surrendered a 10-play, 85-yard touchdown drive that ate 5:39 off the clock, and set the Bear victory in motion.  Crucial to the drive were two key third downs.

On third-and-11 from his own 24, Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky overthrew his receiver up the left sideline.  Instead of bringing up fourth down, however, Chicago found themselves with a first-and-10 at their own 39, courtesy of a roughing the passer call against Stephen Weatherly.  The push to the ground was comparatively gentle, but he did take that extra step after the pass was thrown.

Five plays later, the Bears were in third down again – third-and-7 on the Viking 41.  This time Trubisky made the critical completion finding Taylor Gabriel up the left sideline for 40 yards.  Cornerback Holton Hill – filling in for the injured Xavier Rhodes – made an enticing target all night.  Chicago scored on the next play.

Minnesota made some small attempts to creep back into the game in the second half, but on this afternoon it was evident early that Chicago was the better team.  So, in the aftermath of their convincing 24-10 victory (gamebook) (summary), the only real question to come out of this game is about Chicago.  Are the Bears “playoff ready?”

Super Bowl Shuffle II?

Defensively, the Bears have looked ready for most of the season.  After the Vikings finished just 1-11 on third downs, amassing just 164 yards of offense, Chicago finished the season as statistically dominant as any defense in recent years.  They finished first in interceptions (27), in percentage of passes intercepted (4.40), in lowest passer rating against (72.9), fewest points allowed (283), and fewest rush yards allowed per game (80.0).  They finished second in yards allowed per completed pass (10.2).  While ranking third in total defense by yards allowed, they also finished third in lowest percentage of pass completions allowed (61.3) and fewest yards per attempted pass (6.27).  Additionally, they were fourth in average yards allowed per rush (3.8) and lowest percentage of third downs converted (34.2).  They finished fifth in fewest percentage of passes going for touchdowns (3.6) and lowest red zone touchdown percentage (50.0).

What these numbers represent is a defense with no visible weaknesses.  They have demonstrated themselves as elite against both the run and the pass, while handling the situational moments (third down, red zone) as well as any other unit in football.

They reached their peak during their Week 14 dismantling of the high-powered Los Angeles Rams.  In that 15-6 victory, they limited Los Angeles to 14 first downs and 214 yards while taking the ball away 4 times (Chicago’s 36 takeaways also led the league).

Certainly any offensive coordinator faced with scoring against this unit will be challenged.  My best council for any team facing Chicago – beginning with Philadelphia this Sunday – is to preach ball security.  Throwing the ball away on third down and punting isn’t always the worst decision.

You see, while the Bear defense has established themselves as one of the elite NFL units, Chicago’s offense is less accomplished.  They finished the season ranked just twenty-first in total yardage and passing yardage.  While not one of the Neanderthal teams that I wrote about last week, Chicago is still quite reliant on its running game.  After watching young Mr Trubisky come down the stretch, I am of the opinion that if Chicago needed to rely on his arm to win a playoff game this year, they might be in trouble.

Mitch was just OK against Minnesota on Sunday.  While he completed 18 of 26 (69.2%), he threw for just 163 yards (just 9.06 per completion). Almost without exception, Trubisky’s best passing performances this season have come in games where he throws fewer than 30 passes.

Six times this year, Mitch has had the luxury of throwing fewer than 30 passes in the game.  Chicago won all six of them.  His passer rating was over 100 in four of those games.  His passer rating in those games combined was 118.5, with a 12-1 touchdown to interception ratio.

In his other eight games, Mitch threw the ball at least 30 times.  The Bears were 5-3 in those games.  His rating surpassed 100 only twice in those games, while he had five games under 80.  His rating in those games was a modest 82.2 with a 12-11 touchdown to interception ratio.

Offensively, the Bears turned the ball over 24 times themselves.

So, the game plan looks to me to be the following:  Take care of the ball.  Don’t give them any easy scores.  Take away the Chicago running game, and make Mitch throw to beat you.

By next year (as Trubisky matures) this strategy may not work anymore.  But I’m not sure that this year Trubisky is a consistent enough reader of defenses and thrower of accurate passes to put this team on his shoulders and carry them to a title.

Mike Nagy’s Interesting Dilemma

Going into the game, Mike Nagy confessed to Misters Buck and Aikman that he was at something of a loss on how to proceed coaching a game that might quickly become meaningless – at least to his team.  Whether he would rest key players, whether he would keep fighting to win the game – all of these were decisions that he would make at the time.

As things turned out, this game was, indeed, quickly rendered meaningless to his Chicago Bears – and just as quickly turned all-important to the team he was facing.  As the Rams and Eagles moved quickly in front of their opponents – on their ways to easy victories – it was obvious by halftime that the Bears, whether they would win or lose, would be unable to improve their playoff position.

However, going in at the half ahead by just 10 points, they were in a position to determine their opponent in the wildcard round.  It’s a point worth making.  At this point, it was quite clear that the Bears were better than the Vikings.  The Eagles, making a late season run that was at least reminiscent of their championship run of last year, present something of an unknown quantity.  With thirty minutes of football remaining, the Bears had it within their power to eliminate Philadelphia before they could even set foot in the playoffs.  An uninspiring second half that would coax the Vikings to victory would set up the rematch between these two teams next weekend, and leave Nick Foles and the Eagles watching on television.

It’s unknown whether this thought crossed Nagy’s mind – and if it did, it is very unlikely that Mike would bend that way.  The basic integrity of the NFL is stronger than people might suspect.  Nagy and the Bears did the thing they came to Minnesota to do.  They beat the Vikings, eliminating them from the playoffs.

Depending on what happens Sunday afternoon against the defending champions, that may be an opportunity that could haunt them through the offseason.