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Tag:Atlanta Falcons
Posted on: January 17, 2011 1:02 am
Edited on: January 17, 2011 2:16 pm
 

10 championship round stories worth attention

Posted by Andy Benoit

1.) Jets Win; So how are we supposed to feel?

Normally, a sixth seeded 8.5-point underdog going on the road and upsetting the runaway Super Bowl favorite would classify as one of those feel-good Cinderella stories. But because the garrulous New York Jets have irritated so many this season, we find ourselves in a silent state of ambiguity. Did anyone actually stop and think befoNew York (US Presswire)rehand about the possibility of the Jets backing up their words? Or were we all too busy preparing our clever one-liners about comeuppance and karma?

Most troubling for Jets haters is that the Jets didn’t just beat the Pats, they beat them while staying true to form. A great example was how Shonn Greene opted for the blatant 15-yard celebration penalty after his de facto final-coffin-nail touchdown run. It was an immature and untimely gaffe that Greene’s coach was surely going to chew him out for. That is, if Greene’s coach hadn’t run (OK, lumbered) to the end zone to join the celebration.

To be fair, Greene’s coach had plenty to celebrate. Rex Ryan said all along that this matchup was about him and Bill Belichick. Well, Ryan won it. The Jets defense stifled New England’s high-powered offense by pressuring Tom Brady (Mike DeVito had his best game of the season; Shaun Ellis had two of New York’s five sacks; Jason Taylor put left tackle Matt Light on skates in the second half).

The Jets pressured Brady primarily by locking down his receivers. Deep in the fourth quarter, Ryan’s gameplan was still befuddling Brady and the Pats (you think New England was intentionally milking the clock on that fruitless 15-play drive?). Maddeningly enough, the Jet most responsible for the lockdown job on Brady’s targets was, aside from the brilliant Darrelle Revis, one Antonio Cromartie. The ex-Charger might be an utterly unlikeable reprobate, but the reality is, the Jets wouldn’t be returning to the AFC Championship without him.

Cromartie wasn’t the only “villain” responsible for the win Sunday. Wideouts Santonio Holmes (who served a four-game suspension early in the season) and Braylon Edwards (who was arrested for DUI in September) both had crucial touchdown catches. And neither was shy about enjoying the moment.

So the Jets walked their talk. No one could have predicted it. After all, they lost by 42 in Foxboro just a month earlier. Not to mention, theirs was the type of talk that even Moses would have had trouble walking. But because they did it, we get at least one more week of hearing them rattle off all the reasons they’re going to win the Super Bowl. And this time, we’ll have to listen quietly.

 

2.) Aaron Rodgers: the best quarterback left? A. Rodgers (US Presswire)

Hard to believe that “Aaron Rodgers has never won a playoff game” was actually a viable storyline earlier this month. Rodgers’ performance at Atlanta Saturday night (31 of 36, 366 yards, three touchdowns) was within arm’s reach of flawless. It was Rodger’s second straight three touchdown-zero interception playoff performance. And let’s not forget, the man registered 633 yards while throwing five touchdowns to just one interception in Green Bay’s final two must-win games on the regular season (coming off his second concussion of the year, no less).

Rodgers is the quarterback many experts would choose if starting a team right now. That’s saying something considering Ben Roethlisberger, two wins away from a third Super Bowl ring, is only 20 months older than Rodgers. Rodgers, like Roethlisberger, has an innate ability to extend a play and find his third or fourth read. Also like Roethlisberger (and Cutler, too), Rodgers is blessed with incredible natural tools (strong arm, mobility, etc.).

But it’s Rodgers’ shrewd presnap awareness that sets him apart. The three other remaining quarterbacks are all, at best, average when it comes to diagnosing a defense before the snap. Rodgers, as his wideouts will tell you, is fantastic. Maybe – MAYBE – that’s because he, unlike the other three remaining quarterbacks, was not shoved into the starting lineup as a first-round rookie.


3.) Sanchez’s Spotlight

An indirect (or perhaps direct) consequence of Rex Ryan’s loquaciousness is that it diminishes the media’s spotlight on quarterback Mark Sanchez. Who’s to say whether that’s Ryan’s intent. (The guess here is it’s not, given that Ryan at one point talked openly about benching his young signalcaller.) But given Sanchez’s youth and the disposition of the New York media, a diminished spotlight is probably a good thing.
M. Sanchez (US Presswire)
Think about the intensity of the spotlight if it weren’t diminished. The Jets traded up to draft the USC superstar  fifth overall. In two seasons Sanchez has led the Jets to two AFC title game appearances. He already holds the franchise record with four career playoff wins. This postseason, he has defeated Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Granted, Sanchez did not outplay Manning. But with three touchdowns and no turnovers at New England, he did outplay Brady. (And besides, we’re talking about a media spotlight here; it doesn’t matter to the headline writers if he outplayed Manning).

This is a quarterback who could easily be overhyped. Adding fuel to the Sanchez fire is the fact that he’s far and away the most prominent Latino player in today’s NFL. Given America’s changing demographics, you think marketing execs aren’t salivating at this?

In a lot of respects, Sanchez still has a long ways to go as an NFL passer. But so did Eli Manning after two seasons. The New York media could not resist the urge to pile on Manning. That’s partly because Manning never had the luxury of playing for an attention-grabbing head coach.

 

4.) The irony of Santonio Holmes

The Jets probably wouldn’t be in the AFC Championship if they hadn’tS. Holmes (US Presswire) brought in Santonio Holmes. His speed, quickness and precise route running have infused a big-play element into an otherwise run-of-the-mill passing game. Holmes’ tiptoe (or tip-right-knee) touchdown in the back left corner of the end zone at Foxboro gave the Jets a critical 10-point advantage late in the second half. Earlier in the year, Holmes helped the Jets keep winning while they went through somewhat of a rough patch by registering a 52-yard catch-and-run set up a game-winning overtime field goal against the Lions in Week 9 and a 37-yard overtime touchdown against the Browns in Week 10.

Where the irony comes in is the Steelers might not be in the AFC Championship if not for dumping Holmes. Sure, Holmes was just as important a big-play weapon for Pittsburgh as he’s been for New York. (We all remember Super Bowl 43.) But Holmes’ extensive off-field transgressions also flew in the face of everything the Rooney Family’s organization stands for. It’s the commitment to character that, in the big scheme of things, has laid the foundation for the Steelers’ six Super Bowl titles.

What’s more, if Holmes didn’t depart Pittsburgh, third-year pro Mike Wallace might not have become a 1,200-yard receiver and lethal big-play specialist. And youngsters Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown probably wouldn’t have gotten enough reps to assume critical roles come playoff time.

 

5.) Jerry Angelo’s and Lovie Smith’s Gambles Pay Off

Before this season, every decision-maker in Chicago was on the hot seat. No seats were hotter than those hosting general manager Jerry Angelo and head coach Lovie Smith. In 2009, Angelo gave up a pair of first-round draft choices and handful of attractive ancillary pieces (namely quarterback Kyle Orton) to acquire Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler. The cannon-armed but petulant 26-year-old (at the time) tossed a league-high 26 interceptions in his first season as a Bear. L. Smith (US Presswire)

In the ensuing offseason, outside observers understood that Angelo had no choice but to stick with Cutler. What they didn’t understand was why Angelo would not invest in an offensive line to help protect his quarterback. Instead of bringing in reinforcements for one of the least talented front fives in football, Angelo handed more than $40 million in guaranteed money to free agent defensive end Julius Peppers. Peppers was a great acquisition, but his price tag would doom the organization if he remained as inconsistent as he was in Carolina.

As it’s turned out, Peppers has been sensational in Chicago. His eight sacks don’t begin to tell the story of his dominance. Brian Urlacher (whose return after missing 15 games with a wrist injury also reinvigorated the Bears D) says his first-year teammate deserves Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Cutler has been less spectacular than Peppers though still good enough to lead the Bears to an NFC North division title (despite operating behind a questionable front five). Credit the arrival of offensive coordinator Mike Martz. And, credit Martz’s arrival to Lovie Smith. Knowing that a fourth straight missed postseason would result in his unemployment, the defensive-minded Smith called upon the most offensive-minded coach football has seen in the past 10 years. Smith and Martz were old friends from their days in St. Louis, but many doubted that there would be enough humility in the air for their seemingly clashing philosophies to gel.

But gel they have, thanks to Smith’s willingness to be hands-off. He has let Martz handle the offense. He’s let Mike Tice, another former head coach, handle the offensive line. Tice has made chicken soup out of chicken…well, you know.

The offensive line’s consistent improvements are comparable to the consistent improvements of Chicago’s more-talented defensive line. Israel Idonije and Matt Toeaina have been particularly impressive, thanks to the tutelage of Rod Marinelli, the defensive line specialist who accepted the defensive coordinating responsibilities thrust upon him by Smith.

In all, with his job on the line, Lovie Smith delegated major responsibilities to three former head coaches who are now assistants on his staff. How many of the other 31 Type A personalities running NFL teams would be willing to do THAT?


6.) The AFC’s Rich Defensive Casts

The Jets and Steelers both run 3-4 defenses littered with big-name stars. For the Jets, it begins and ends with Darrelle Revis, the best shutdown corner since Deion Sanders (if not the best all-around cornerback of the post 80’s era). Then there’s playmaker Antonio Cromartie. And inside linebackers Bart Scott (outspoken Pro Bowl caliber veteran) and David Harris (tackling machine whom colleagues voted team MVP). Plus, outside linebacker Jason Taylor is a future Hall of Famer. I. Taylor (US Presswire)

The Steelers, of course, have the most identifiable defensive player in football: Troy Polamalu. Outside linebacker James Harrison is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and his counterpart LaMarr Woodley is not far behind. Plus, most fans recognize nose tackle Casey Hampton because a.) He’s the size of a small house and b.) He’s the fulcrum to a run defense that, in nine years under Dick LeBeau, has never ranked worse than No. 3.

LeBeau, a Hall of Fame player and innovator of the 3-4’s famed zone blitz, is a star himself – just like the coach behind the Jets’ complicated 3-4 scheme. All in all, the 2010 AFC Championship is ripe with big defensive names. But without the little defensive names, neither team would be here.

For the Jets, as we highlighted a few weeks ago, defensive end Mike Devito has been playing out of his mind. So has Shaun Ellis, who recorded two sacks and a slew of quarterback pressures against the Patriots. Backup nose tackle Sione Pouha, who took over when Kris Jenkins went down in Week 1, has also been pushing the pile with regularity. Pouha’s not the only backup thriving; safety Eric Smith has done a noble job filling in for injured defensive signalcaller Jim Leonhard. Smith brings valuable headhunting prowess to what is an otherwise finesse secondary (Revis aside), plus he’s a reliable filler against the run.

On Pittsburgh’s D, because Ike Taylor drops interceptions the way John Mayer drops women, many don’t recognize him as an elite corner. But that’s exactly what the lanky 6’2” veteran is. Taylor’s ability to shadow in man coverage and extend his long arms into passing lanes out of zone positions make him a bona fide stopper (which is exactly what a cornerback is supposed to be). What’s more, Taylor, like every Steeler defender, can tackle.

Before he made the Pro Bowl as an alternate, defensive end Brett Keisel would have earned an Ike Taylor-like “unsung hero” paragraph. Keisel is finally getting the recognition he deserves, so instead of piling on there, we’ll close by mentioning that Ryan Clark (aka “Pittsburgh’s other safety”) is one of the fiercest openfield hitters in the NFL.


7.) Rethinking Brady, Belichick and the Patriots

Stop and think about New England’s last three playoff appearances. There was the stunning divisional round loss at home to the rival Jets on Sunday. Last year, it was the blowout wild card loss at home to the Ravens. And in 2007 it waT. Brady (US Presswire)s the astonishing Super Bowl defeat and derailed perfect season at the hands of the Giants.

We think of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick almost as untouchable geniuses above all criticism. That’s understandable. They’re still the only head coach-quarterback duo to ever win three rings in a four-year span. And the reason two of their last three playoff defeats have been so shocking is because of the dominance that immediately preceded it: New England was a perfect 16-0 in ’07 and an NFL-best 14-2 in ’10.

That said, it was six years ago that Belichick and Brady last hoisted a Lombardi Trophy. And keep in mind, in 2006, the Patriots blew an 18-point second half lead to Indy in the AFC Championship.

Is this story meant to call into question the reputation of the NFL’s current greatest head coach and quarterback? Absolutely not. Over the past six years, Belichick and Brady have still accomplished more with less talent around them than anyone in football. But the beginning chapters of these men’s book were about the auras of two untouchable legends. In the middle chapters, that aura evaporated.


8.) Pro Bowl Snubs Shine

There were two NFC cornerbacks whom many felt got the shaft from Pro Bowl voters: Green Bay’s Tramon Williams and Chicago’s Charles Tillman. Largely because of their performance in the divisional round, both will be on the field for the NFC Championship Sunday.

Williams’ postseason brilliance began a week earlier than Tillman’s. The athlT. Williams (US Presswire)etic undrafted veteran who took over the No. 2 job when Al Harris blew out his knee last season clinched Green Bay’s wild card victory with an end zone interception in the closing minutes at Philly. Williams snagged a second end zone pick in similar fashion at Atlanta: by maintaining underneath technique against a bigger receiver (in this case, Michael Jenkins). After keeping points off the board with two interceptions, Williams put points on it with his third. With nine seconds left in the first half and the Falcons trying to get in field goal range, Williams jumped Matt Ryan’s ill-advised sideline pass to Roddy White and took it to the house for a momentum-swinging 14-point lead that Atlanta would not overcome.

As for Tillman, his excellence was key to Chicago's defensive dominance against Seattle. The Bears’ only true cover corner normally mans the left side of the D. But on Sunday, Tillman shadowed Mike Williams, holding Matt Hasselbeck's No. 1 target to four catches for 15 yards. Yes, Williams caught two touchdowns, but the second was thanks to sheer luck that resulted from Tillman’s textbook deflection.

It will be interesting to see what matchups Tramon Williams and Tillman draw this Sunday. Williams has the speed to run with Johnny Knox outside (figure the Packers will put an inside defender on Devin Hester, as Hester usually aligns in the slot). Tillman will have to rely on his physicality to keep the quicker Greg Jennings in check.


9.) Seahawks-Bears: Tough Watch

So the Seattle Seahawks weren’t a Cinderella team after all; watching them at Chicago was more like watching one of the evil stepsisters dance at the ball. Or like watching a sub-.500 team try to win a playoff game on the road. The game felt over before the midpoint of quarter two. As divisional round contests go, it was awful television. Shame. J. Cutler (US Presswire)

But whatever, doesn’t matter now. Besides, the story of Sunday’s unwatchable NFC divisional round game wasn’t the Seahawks, it was the Bears. Jay Cutler threw for 274 yards and two touchdowns in his first postseason game since high school. Aside from a small handful of first half glitches, Chicago’s once-putrid offensive line gave Cutler all the time in the world to throw. And when Cutler couldn’t find a receiver, he scrambled for positive yardage (he finished with 43 yards and two touchdowns on eight runs).

On the other side of the ball, the results were what you’d expect from the NFC’s No. 1 run defense going up against the NFC’s No. 16 run offense. With the Seahawks feeling compelled to throw on 49 of 61 offensive snaps, the Bears were able to sit back in that Lovie Smith Cover 2 and let their speed take over. Mike Williams, who appeared to tweak his upper leg early in the game, was manhandled by Charles Tillman. That hurt because the loss of tight end John Carlson (head injury) prevented Seattle from fully attacking Chicago’s questionable safeties.

If you want to get picky, the only concern Bears fans can take away from Sunday is that their defense took its foot off the gas late in the fourth quarter.


10. Quick Hits

*Most people believe that the Ravens lost at Pittsburgh because of turnovers. That’s valid, though let’s not forget, late in the fourth quarter Anquan Boldin dropped a huge touchdown in the end zone and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who had been carping for more balls all season, dropped a very catchable fourth-and-19.

*Terrell Suggs should change his name to Terrell Rooney because he owns the Steelers. Suggs had three sacks Saturday, giving him 15.5 in 18 career games against Pittsburgh.

*A storyline from Baltimore that didn’t get talked about (because of the nonstop intensity of the contest itself) is whether this was Ed Reed’s final game. The future Hall of Fame safety is 32 and contemplated retirement this past offseason.

*The Atlanta Falcons need to add one more playmaker to the center of their defense. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton is solid but does not have star tools. Neither of the safeties is a game breaker.

*Was anyone else surprised that Pete Carroll elected to punt with his team down 28-10 and just over six minutes to play?

*When Danny Woodhead fumbled in the fourth quarter (recovered by the Patriots) it brought to mind the episode of Hard Knocks where Rex Ryan flipped out in the preseason finale after so many of the Jets backups fumbled. In that episode, Ryan put Woodhead back in the game specifically because he knew he wouldn’t cough up the ball.

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @cbssportsnfl on Twitter and subscribe to our RSS Feed.

Posted on: January 15, 2011 11:38 pm
Edited on: January 16, 2011 12:00 am
 

Everyone's ready to say Rodgers is elite, right?

Posted by Will Brinson



Mercifully, thankfully, the world can stop complaining about Aaron Rodgers's resumé; after dismantling the Falcons in Atlanta (to the tune of 48-21), everyone can officially hold a call him "elite" and -- finally! -- fawn over him publicly.

Wins are important in football, of course. And playoff wins are even more important. But you simply can't judge a quarterback -- in his third year as a starter, no less -- based entirely on his won-loss record in the postseason.

Particularly when it's 0-1.

That's what the world's done with Rodgers, though. For some ridiculous reason (it involves either his draft position or having to follow Brett Favre in Green Bay), he's never garnered the respect that his talent deserves. At least until now.

Even if the Packers lose the NFC Championship game to the winner of Chicago/Seattle, there's no question that Rodgers has arrived. His 10 touchdown passes are the most of all-time for an NFL quarterback in his first three playoff games.

Given the way he took the Dirty Birds out to the proverbial woodshed -- an absolutely bananas 31/36, 366 yards, 3 TD performance -- in the ATL, you'd either have to be Stevie Wonder (blind) or Skip Bayless (blindly stubborn) to argue that Rodgers isn't elite. Oh, and humble, and funny, and ridiculously talented to boot.

"It was one of those nights," Rodgers said, grinning, after the game. "Guys made big plays, I felt like I was in the zone, I was able to escape a couple of times, keep drives going -- we didn't punt all night.

"It was a fun night."

Unless you're the Falcons anyway. Speaking of which -- there's good news for people who enjoy badgering really talented quarterbacks! Matt Ryan's now 0-2 in the playoffs. Which means that we can officially start questioning his legacy, even though he's only three years into his career. (He didn't play well against the Pack, but Atlanta inexplicably abandoned a good gameplan -- give the ball to Michael Turner and throw it short to Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White -- for something that involved either throwing deep or just not holding onto the ball.)

But back to Rodgers. This guy -- to coin a phrase from Jon Gruden -- is one terrible defense away from being 3-0 in the playoffs. This guy's 78 yards short of starting his career with three-straight 4,000 yard seasons. This guy's got 86 touchdowns and 31 interceptions as a starter. And this guy is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL.

No, but seriously, he is. And you can worry about debating that if/when he wins a title in 2010.

For now, it's important to note that Green Bay was a 8/10 on third downs with Rodgers in the game, and while Mike McCarthy definitely deserves some love for his playcalling, there were numerous times when Rodgers was about to get sacked on third-and-long, evaded a blitzer or rusher and took momentum for a rollercoaster ride by hitting either Jordy Nelson or James Jones with a laser for a(nother) backbreaking first down.

That's the crazy thing too -- all due respect to Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, who are both very, very talented, but you get the feeling that the Packers could do what they do even if Nelson and Jones were their top two options.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out exactly why that is, either.

It's Aaron Rodgers. And while he probably "arrived" the day he took the starting reins in Green Bay, Saturday night offered an unnecessary, but official, coronation for Rodgers as one of the game's best.

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @cbssportsnfl on Twitter and subscribe to our RSS Feed.
Posted on: January 13, 2011 1:59 pm
Edited on: January 15, 2011 9:37 am
 

Falcons vs. Packers: 7-Point Divisional Preview

Posted by Will Brinson



CBSSports.com's patented and award-winning 7-point preview gets you ready for each and every playoff game. As an added bonus, check out our playoff podcast preview:



1. Green Bay Packers (No. 6, NFC, 11-6) @  Atlanta Falcons (No. 1, NFC, 13-3)

in a week that features two unbelievably potent AFC rivalries, the NFC might actually sport the most compelling rematch when the Packers return to the ATL to try and avenge a 20-17 Week 12 loss . At the time, that game was considered a preview of the NFC Championship, and this time around, nothing's changed, except the two teams are meeting earlier than expected.

The difference in that first tilt essentially hinged on two plays -- an Aaron Rodgers fumble on the one-yard line and a fourth-down conversion during the ensuing drive for Atlanta. Things play out differently if the reverse of each play occurs, of course, but that was a 14-point swing that dramatically altered the outcome of the game. What makes things interesting is that this time around, the Packers have, theoretically, enough of a running game to potentially avoid Rodgers playing the role of "leading rusher" for Green Bay, and, perhaps, a devastating turnover.

2. PLAYOFFS?! Watchability Ranking



For a minute, I started photoshopping three Mora heads. Then I watched the highlights from the first time these teams met, listened to the video below, and frankly, it's just too good of a matchup not to be worth more. Only the potential AFC overshadow factor keeps it from the full five.

3. Key Matchup to Watch: Packers front seven vs. Michael Turner

In 2010, the Falcons went undefeated when Michael Turner (or Jason Snelling, if you want to include their 41-7 whupping of Arizona in Week 2) crossed the 100-yard rushing mark. When Turner rushed for less than 75 yards, they went 3-3, with one of those victories being the meaningless-by-halftime Week 17 game against the Panthers.  The other two sub-75 victories were by a total of 7 points, against San Francisco and Baltimore. In the Falcons three losses, Turner didn't total 100 yards combined

So to say that the rushing game is important for the Falcons is mildly understating things. Against Green Bay the first time, Turner ripped off three runs of 14 yards or more (and a slew of five-plus-yard runs) en route to a 4.8 yards per carry average (his season YPC was 4.1). 

The Packers can't blitz as much as they might against a team with a less, um, traditional offensive set -- Atlanta's old-school run game (two tight ends, big backfields) doesn't present a whole lot of holes where Dom Capers can send attackers, and Mike Mularkey specializes in deflecting the brunt of tacklers to give Turner room to work.

Additionally, Turner getting his motor running keep Matt Ryan from having to force things and opens up the Falcons ability to exploit Tony Gonzalez' receiving talents against an increasingly run-wary (and weary) group of linebackers. 

In other words, if Green Bay manages to limit the run game even somewhat substantially, their odds of strolling out of the Georgia Dome with a win increase exponentially.

4. Potentially Relevant Video

The people involved in this game aren't exactly old-school players (although Atlanta's style might be), but they're not new-school fools either. But if you like fish n' grits and all that, well, do you know what I am saying? (NSFW lyrics may apply if you click play. You'll also likely be fired if you keep throwing your hands in the air and waving them like you don't care. Please be warned.)



5. The Packers will win if ...

If Aaron Rodgers can grow up and leave less than 56 seconds on the clock when the Packers score for the last time in the game. I kid, I kid. The Packers need to match Atlanta's ability to sustain drives by incorporating the running game (thereby opening up the passing game) before taking some shots downfield. Oh, and stop the run and force Matt Ryan to make mistakes. It's really that simple. 

6. The Falcons will win if ...

They can limit big plays from the Packers passing game and get Turner over the magic 100-yard mark. Him hitting that high number means there's some salting-away of the clock and/or long, sustained drives going on, and that's good news for Atlanta.

7. Prediction: Falcons 23, Packers 20


Posted on: January 12, 2011 12:44 pm
Edited on: January 12, 2011 12:47 pm
 

Hot Routes 1.12.11 coaches fighting SNOW!?

Hot Routes


Posted by Andy Benoit

Former Bengals bust Peter Warrick is joining Cincinnati Commandos, an indoor football club where, we believe, all the players eschew underwear.


The unattractive Seahawks-Bears matchup (unattractive by divisional round playoff standards) is hurting ticket brokers in Chicago.


In his introductory press conference, Ron Rivera said the Panthers defense would remain a 4-3. (Rivera ran a 3-4 in San Diego but a 4-3 in Chicago.)


Bucs special teams coach Rich Bisaccia is jumping ship to San Diego. The Bucs replaced him with former fringe journeyman Dwayne Stukes.


Because of the snow in Atlanta, Mike Smith and some of his colleagues have turned the Falcons’ Flowery Branch headquarters into their personal residence.


Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter touted his head coaching experience during his interview with the Broncos. (The former Boise State head coach is obviously familiar with leading a Broncos team.)


Aaron Rodgers, who notched his first playoff win this past Sunday, said there never was a monkey on his back.


The Raiders are holding one of their near-annual head coaching searches.


After Drew Brees won it last year, Matt Hasselbeck is looking to take the “Best Postgame Celebration Photo With Your Kid” title for 2011.


Vernon Davis would love for Donovan McNabb to be a 49er.


For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @cbssportsnfl on Twitter and subscribe to our RSS Feed.

Posted on: January 10, 2011 12:28 am
Edited on: January 11, 2011 1:32 pm
 

10 Divisonal Round Stories Worth Your Attention

Posted by Andy Benoit

1. Goofy scheduling?

We can only hope that the divisional round is half as exciting as the wild card was. The NFL keeps the at-home viewer first in mind when scheduling the playoff games. But is that fan-friendly outlook coming at the expense of fairness to teams?

The schedule, which was set before the postseason began, looks like this: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh Saturday 4:30 p.m.; Green Bay @ Atlanta Saturday 8 p.m.; Seattle @ Chicago Sunday 1 p.m.; New York @ New England Sunday 4:30 p.m.

Because of when the wild card games occurred, Baltimore and Green Bay both have a six-day week ahead of them, while Seattle and New York get an eight-day week.

The NFL used to wait for the outcome of wild card games before determining the divisional round schedule (some might remember that in the ’02 postseason Bill Cowher was irked because the league gave the Steelers a Saturday divisional game after a Sunday wild card game while the bigger market Jets got a Sunday divisional game after their Saturday wild card contest).

If the Ravens or Packers wanted to raise a stink about the scheduling, they would have a legitimate argument. But the counter argument would also be legit. That counter argument? Television has made the NFL a cash cow. If coaches and players like being millionaires, they can deal with mild scheduling inconsistencies.


Baltimore Ravens (No. 5 seed; 13-4) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 2 seed; 12-4)


T. Suggs (US Presswire)2. R
aven D playing Ravenesque D

It’s tempting -– and rational –- to opine that the Kansas City Chiefs looked every bit like the young, untested playoff team it was Sunday. This was especially true offensively. Matt Cassel completed 9/18 passes for 70 yards and three interceptions. And, aside from a handful of impressive first half bursts from Jamaal Charles, Kansas City’s top-ranked rushing attack was unimpactful.

That said, Sunday’s game was more a case of the Ravens winning than the Chiefs losing.  Only three of Kansas City’s turnovers were relevant. All three of them were forced by Ravens defenders. The two fumbles resulted from scrawny finesse players getting blown up by thundering hits (Terrence Cody on Charles, Ray Lewis on Dexter McCluster). Cassel’s lone costly interception was a product of Dwan Landry lurking from his centerfield spot (earlier, Cassel’s first pick wound up netting a positive gain for the Chiefs because during his run back, Ravens rookie Haruki Nakamura fumbled while foolishly acquiescing to Ed Reed’s request for a lateral).

It wasn’t just the turnovers. Baltimore’s best linebacker, Terrell Suggs, and the rest of the front seven swarmed the Chiefs backfield all afternoon (Cassel was sacked three times, hit six and hurried umpteen). When the Ravens weren’t blitzing, their secondary, unafraid of a Kansas City receiving corps that boasted midweek free agent pickup Kevin Curtis as its No. 2 starter, sat in a zone and enjoyed free ball-hawking reign.

Expect defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to shy away from that zone concept against Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger is simply too dangerous when he bides time. But also expect Mattison to stay in attack-mode with his front seven, as the Steelers’ makeshift offensive line has struggled with blitz recognition at times this season.



R. Rice (US Presswire)3. Best rivalry in football
?

It’s hard to argue against Steelers-Ravens currently being the best rivalry in the NFL. Colts-Patriots is great, but aside from playoff time, those matchups have not always carried huge implications. The plethora of NFC East rivalries are fun but tend to wash each other out. The AFC West teams don’t like each other, but who cares? Bears-Packers is great rivalry from an all-time perspective, but currently, it’s only average because this is the first time since 2001 that both teams have reached the postseason.

The Ravens and Steelers, on the other hand, have been fistfighting for AFC North division titles for most of the past seven years. Their last six regular season matchups have been decided by four points or less (the Steelers have won four). In ’08, Pittsburgh beat Baltimore 23-14 in the AFC Championship. In Pittsburgh’s previous Super Bowl year (’05) they beat Baltimore 20-19 on Halloween and 16-13 in overtime in November.

These games have been like prize fights – most of which have been decided with 12th-round knockouts.



New York Jets (No. 6 seed, 12-5) @ New England Patriots (No. 1 seed, 14-2)


4. Or is THIS the best rivalry?

It depends if you view NFL coaches and players as athletic competitorsR. Ryan (US Presswire) or entertainers. Football-wise, Patriots-Jets is good but not great. The Patriots embarrassed the Jets 45-3 in the last meeting, though Rex Ryan’s Jets had won two of three before that.

It’s Rex Ryan’s personality that has given this rivalry most of its juice as of late. Months after getting his first head coaching job, Ryan famously said “I never came here to kiss Bill Belichick’s, you know, rings.” Just recently, Ryan complimented Peyton Manning’s work ethic by taking a jab at Tom Brady’s.

Garrulous as Ryan is, it’s that other coach -- the cranky, taciturn one -- that built the foundation for this rivalry. Recall that long before all the Eric Mangini handshake drama, Belichick was Bill Parcells’ top assistant with the Jets (’97-’99). He was nabbed as the Tuna’s successor in 2000 but announced his resignation during his introductory press conference. Shortly after that, he wound up in New England (the Jets received the Patriots’ first-round draft choice in exchange).



5. New York’s unheralded defensive lineman

Defensive end Shaun Ellis is the longest-tenured Jet (11 seasons). Aside from 14-year veteran Trevor Pryce, injured nose tackle Kris Jenkins is the most recognized name along the defensive line. Backup Vernon Gholston is the next most recognized name, but only because the former No. 6 overall pick has been a monumental bust.

The most important name on New York’s three-man line this Sunday, however, will be Mike Devito. The fourth-year pro from Maine was the primary reason that Indy’s recently-surging rushing attack was stifled Saturday night. It’s a shame there wasn’t a way for Devito’s constant penetration and destruction of interior blocking schemes to show up next to his six tackles in the box score.

The Patriots are pass-first team, though they fed BenJarvus Green-Ellis the rock at least 18 times in six of the team’s final eight games. They have the talent to block Devito -- Logan Mankins has been the most dominant left guard in football since Thanksgiving and left tackle Matt Light has some of the best feet in the game -- but every team has the talent to block the former undrafted free agent. Matching Devito’s energy and tenacity is a different challenge.



Green Bay Packers (No. 6 seed, 11-6) @ Atlanta Falcons (No. 1 seed, 13-3)


6. That Packer defenseB. Raji (US Presswire)

Second week in a row the Packer defense has been highlighted here. Did you see the job this unit did on Philadelphia’s explosive playmakers? Everyone, including Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg, was expecting Dom Capers to blitz the daylights out of Michael Vick. Capers did so late in the second half, but for much of the game, he had superstar Swiss Army Knife Charles Woodson spy the quarterback. He dropped his linebackers into a safe zone coverage, which took away running lanes and Philly’s potent screen game. And, most surprisingly, Capers trusted that corners Tramon Williams and Sam Shields could contain wideouts DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin -- which they did.

What gave Capers the confidence to burden his back seven with intense coverage assignments was knowing that Eagles right tackle Winston Justice -- who was eventually benched for King Dunlap -- could not handle Clay Matthews. (It’s curious that Philly did not slide protections and align help-blockers to the right side.) Capers also correctly figured that B.J. Raji would be too much for Philadelphia’s interior offensive line to handle.

Raji will be key in Green Bay’s next game, as Atlanta employs the purest downhill rushing attack the NFC has to offer. Michael Turner broke tackle after tackle en rout to 110 yards in Green Bay’s fruitless Week 12 visit to the Georgia Dome. To prevent a repeat performance, the Packers front seven will have to get stout and adjust from Reid’s speed-oriented West Coast sets to Mike Mularkey’s power-oriented two-back, two-tight end formations.



7. Coming out party

As was suggested late last week, the Packers found a new backfield weapon in James Starks Sunday afternoon. The sixth-round rookie may be a star in the making (only time, or another 100-yard rushing performance, will tell) but the story heading into Saturday night is the man under center. Same goes for the Falcons.
M. Ryan (US Presswire)
No matter what happens Saturday, an indisputable star will be born. Or, more accurately, baptized. Either Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan is going to lead his team to a conference title game. Both are stars already, though without celebrated postseason success, the only observers who truly appreciate the young flamethrowers’ greatness are those who study film for a living or those harbor a marriage-jeopardizing passion for fantasy football.

The national notoriety these two quarterbacks receive is not quite commensurate with their level of skill. This is especially true for the 25-year-old Ryan, who will be looking to do what the 27-year-old Rodgers just did: win his first playoff game (prior to 2010, both men had 0-1 postseason records, courtesy of the Cardinals).

Ryan and Rodgers will come away as majestically illuminated stars if their performance matches the one both gave when their teams squared off in Week 12. In that game Rodgers, who threw for 344 yards, tied the score at 17 with a 10-yard touchdown strike to Jordy Nelson with 56 seconds to play. But following that, one of Eric Weems’ many outstanding kick returns wound up giving Atlanta the ball at the 49 with 47 seconds to play. From there, Matty Ice calmly completed passes of nine, four, four and three yards to set up Matt Bryant’s game-winning field goal.

Rodgers and Ryan have a similar skill set. Rodgers offers slightly better arm strength and scrambling speed, while Ryan plays with slightly more fluidity and fundamental integrity. Both will be a blast to watch, one will take that “next step” in the eyes of fans.



Seattle Seahawks (No. 4 seed, 8-9) @ Chicago Bears (No. 2 seed, 11-5)


8. Mea Culpa (sorta)

M. Lynch (US Presswire)

I have received harsh emails from two different fan bases this season: Chicago’s and Seattle’s. Bears fans called me out early in the season for saying their team’s success was a mirage; Seahawks fans called me out late last week for saying their team didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs

To Bears fans: I’m more than happy to admit I was wrong. I incorrectly believed Mike Martz would be unwilling to compensate for Chicago’s shoddy offensive line by altering his complex offensive system. Martz was shrewd in the way he employed help blockers into his pass protections and he showed admirable humility (and sensibility) in substituting a few passes for runs.

To Seahawk fans: sorry, no mea culpa here. And no mea culpa is on the way, either. Even if the Seahawks go on to win the Super Bowl, it won’t change the fact that they did not deserve to be in the postseason in the first place. I know, I know, the rules state that a division champion gets a playoff spot. So, from a technical standpoint, Seahawk fans are right when they say their team deserved to be in. But it’s a flawed system when a sub-.500 team plays in the tourney while a pair of 10-6 teams (Bucs and Giants) sit home.

Divisions are cyclical -- I get that. That’s why I’m fine with a 9-7 division champ – and maybe even an 8-8 division champ -- beating out a 10-6 non-division champ for a playoff berth. But when you talk about a losing record getting in? Sorry, the math is too ugly at that point.

Unfortunately, because the Seahawks upset the Saints (again, a well-deserved win, as Seattle clearly outclassed New Orleans on Saturday), the NFL probably won’t amend the playoff rule by establishing an eight-win minimum. If this is the case, the league will be putting too much emphasis on the postseason and not enough emphasis on the regular season. That may sound silly, but look at what an uphill battle this kind of distortion has given the NBA.

All this being said, Seahawk fans, this is your time. Make no apologies for your team. Keep gloating and boasting. And keep sending harsh emails with words like moron, idiot, loser and jackass in the subject line to any sportswriter who criticizes your club’s postseason presence. Seriously -- that’s part of what being a fan is all about. All I ask is that if you were one of the fans who, before Week 17, said that you’d prefer to see Seattle lose to St. Louis and maintain a top 10 draft position, you at least refrain from sending your hate email in all caps (some things should be left for only the true fans).


9. No extended bathroom breaks
D. Hester (US Presswire)
Better stay in the room when specials teams units take the field this Sunday. For the first time in modern NFL postseason history, we have a kick returner with three touchdowns on the season (Leon Washington) facing a punt returner with three touchdowns on the season (Devin Hester). Washington’s contributions are remarkable; midway through last season, the then-New York Jet suffered what appeared to be a career-ending broken leg. Hester has also had a resurrection in 2010, though granted, he was never injured. He is the NFL’s all-time leader in non-defensive touchdown returns, but prior to Week 3 of this season, Hester had not scored a return touchdown since 2007.

10. Quick Hits: what went wrong for the wild card losers

  • New Orleans’ sixth-ranked ’09 ground game dropped to 28th in ’10 and proved problematic down the stretch. Of course, the ground game had nothing to do with the plethora of missed tackles and blown coverages at Seattle.
  • Peyton Manning’s genius was not quite enough to overcome Indianapolis’ copious injuries (yours truly turned out to be wrong about that one). By the way, did you happen to catch Reggie Wayne’s quote after the loss? After Darrelle Revis held him to one catch for one yard Saturday night, Wayne told Mike Chapell of the Indianapolis Star, “It's bull. It's bull, man. I give everything I've got no matter what. Every day, I give it everything. And . . . one ball, that's all. I shouldn't have even suited up. I should have watched the game like everybody else. I was irrelevant."
  • Chiefs rookie safety Eric Berry looked every bit like the No. 5 overall pick Sunday. Berry – like Seattle’s first-round rookie safety Earl Thomas, in fact – might have a little learning to do, but athletically, he’s outstanding.
  • With the offense regressing in the final weeks of the season, it wouldn’t be a shock if the Eagles use a franchise tag on Michael Vick, rather than invest a long-term contract in the 30-year-old. Vick’s vulnerable health and inconsistent decision-making (wild card game aside) might give a few people in that organization a bit of pause.

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @cbssportsnfl on Twitter and subscribe to our RSS Feed.

Posted on: January 4, 2011 7:49 pm
Edited on: January 4, 2011 8:17 pm
 

Hot Routes 01.04.11: Is Todd Haley a 'fraud'?

Posted by Will Brinson



Got a link for the Hot Routes? Hit us up on Twitter (@CBSSportsNFL) .
  • In case you didn't read it, Jason Whitlock of FOX Sports called Todd Haley "the biggest fraud in football." Well, "quite possibly the biggest fraud in football" anyway. That's a bold statement from a guy who knows KC pretty well. 

Posted on: January 4, 2011 2:35 pm
 

Exclusive: Ryan, Rice lead Gillette 'Young Guns'

Posted by Will Brinson

On Saturday during the NFL's Wild Card games, you'll see a new Gillette "Young Guns" commercial featuring a slew of young athletes: Matt Ryan, Ray Rice, Carlos Gonzalez, Evan Longoria, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.

The commercial will drop a little later in the week (virally, natch), but we got an exclusive sneak peek at the new ad with some behind-the-scenes footage of Rice and Ryan doing their thing.



What makes this a particularly interesting marketing move is that Gillette cancelled its "Champions" marketing program -- the primary speculation surrounding that was something involving Tiger Woods.

But, as the new program would suggest, it's really more of a move to bring in younger players, which bring in a younger audience (although not TOO young -- after all, you do want people who are shaving) who can identify with these stars and become more interested with what they do on- and off the field to prepare for success.

It's a smart marketing strategy, particularly the inclusion of two really personable football guys like Ryan and Rice and, as my friend Dan Levy points out, the combo of ICE/RICE is potentially devastating.
Posted on: January 3, 2011 2:05 am
Edited on: January 4, 2011 10:19 am
 

10 Wild Card stories worth your attention

Posted by Andy Benoit

1.) Momentum schmo-mentum

When a columnist or analyst starts talking about the momentum a team has or doesn’t have heading into the playoffs, really what they’re telling you is they don’t have anything to say about that particular team. Citing a team’s momentum is like citing a quarterback’s moxie or a head coach’s energy: it’s meaningless drivel.

The 2007 New York Giants lost two of their final three regular seasons games. How did momentum work out for them? Or what about the 2008 Arizona  Cardinals? They lost four of their last six regular season games, with three of those four losses by 21 points or more. They lacked momentum…heading into their Super Bowl run. Or there’s always the 2009 New Orleans Saints, who entered the playoffs on a three-game losing streak. If only they’d had momentum…they could have blown out the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, rather than beat them by a mere two touchdowns.

Momentum is relevant DURING games (we saw that early at rowdy Qwest Field in the Seahawks-Rams contest). But it’s not relevant week-to-week. It’s only logical that “momentum” would disappear after the game. After all, there are six days between games. And – just a guess – but the do-or-die scenario of an NFL playoff game changes the mood in the locker room over the course of those six days.

So here’s a promise: these next eight stories about the eight Wild Card teams will have nothing to do with “momentum”. The only references to what’s happened in recent weeks will pertain to actual events and tangible data – not that mythical force that lazy sportswriters have been allowed to pretend is real.



New Orleans Saints (No. 5 seed; 11-5) @ Seattle Seahawks (No. 4 seed; 7-9)   Saturday, 4:30, NBC


2.) Seahawks: undeserving

On Sunday night, many people saw the Seahawks play for the first time this season. Give them credit – thP. Carroll (US Presswire)ey deserved that win more than the Rams. The Seahawks got a solid game out of backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst. In the second half they discovered their long-missing rushing attack, registering 141 yards (their third highest total on the season) They stifled the fruitless St. Louis passing attack and used the famous Qwest Field buzz to their advantage.

Now, let’s hope America doesn’t get short-sighted and say, “Sure, the Seahawks are only 7-9, but they actually looked pretty good Sunday night; maybe they deserve to be in the playoffs after all.”

Make no mistake: it is an embarrassment that this club is in the postseason tournament. The Bucs and Giants were both three games better than Seattle. Yes, it is an honor to win your division…but the old-timers who say winning a division warrants an automatic playoff spot are just plain wrong. Division titles meant more back in the five-team division format. But since realignment in 2002, a team now just has to beat out three other teams to win a division. The problem is, the NFL’s current playoff format was in place long before the 2002 realignment. A division title should warrant an automatic playoff bid…just as long as the division winner is ABOVE .500. Yes, there have only been three instances where a team with a .500 record or worse reached the postseason. But two of those instances have come since realignment. And in both of those instances, the outdated playoff system screwed over playoff caliber teams.

This time, it’s also screwing over NBC. The network pays the NFL $1.1 billion a year to cover the NFL. You think Dick Ebersol likes getting stuck with a losing team on the Sunday Night Football regular season finale? How about having to broadcast that losing team again the next week in the Wild Card opener?

If you’re wondering why the NFL would stick the Seahawks on NBC for a second consecutive week (not to mention give the Seahawks a short week after making them play late on Sunday), it’s because of the way the playoff television format shakes out. Here’s how it works (based on observation): the NFL views the Saturday night late game as the premier television slot and alternates between using an AFC and NFC game in that slot. Last year the league took the Philly-Dallas matchup from FOX and put it in NBC’s Saturday night slot. This year, it was CBS’s turn to give up its premium game. Thus, you get Colts-Jets (the NFL’s most marketable player against the biggest market team). Because the Colts-Jets is a 3 seed vs. 6 seed, the NFL chose the NFC’s 4 seed vs. 5 seed matchup to fill the other Saturday slot. D. Brees (US Presswire)

Why are we discussing the logistics of the broadcasting schedule rather than the Seahawks themselves here? Because this article is designated for true playoff teams.


3.) Saints: Unable to march in?

Last season the New Orleans Saints ranked sixth in the league in rushing. This season they ranked 28th. The Saints come into the postseason averaging just 68.3 yards per game on the ground over their last three outings. They have barely even bothered with establishing the run in any of those outings.

Injuries have likely factored into Sean Payton’s thinking here. Until this past Sunday, leading rusher Chris Ivory had been out with a bum hamstring. No. 1 running back Pierre Thomas has battled a bad ankle all season. Veteran midseason pickup Julius Jones is too inconsistent to feature, while Reggie Bush has stolen about $8 million from the team this season (Bush has often looked sluggish because he hasn’t been processing information well).

The lack of a run game is part of the reason Drew Brees threw 22 interceptions this year (Brees finished the season with a 12-game interception streak, the longest the NFL has seen since Jon Kitna in 2006).

Is this play-calling unbalance a major problem? Meh; there are worse things than relying heavily on the reigning Super Bowl MVP and his litany of receiving targets. But make no mistake: this is NOT the formula New Orleans used in its Super Bowl run last postseason.



New York Jets (No. 6 seed; 11-5) @ Indianapolis Colts (No. 3 seed; 10-6)   Saturday, 8:00, NBC

4.) Jets: Surprisingly under-hyped?

At least the New York Jets didn’t sneak into the postseason through the backdoor like last year. Though the 11-5 Jets are two games better than they were in ’09, and though the offense has opened up considerably in Mark Sanchez’s second season, no one seems to consider this club on the verge of taking that next step. Except their head coach, of course. “I think we’re going to win it [all] this year,” Rex Ryan said after his team’s easy Week 17 victory over the Bills.

Because the Jets gave up 45 points in primetime to the Patriots and 38 points on a widely-watched Sunday afternoon game against the Bears, there is the perception that Ryan’s defense has dropped off from a year ago. But look at the numbers:

2009 Jets
98.6 rush yards allowed per game (8th in the NFL)
153.7 pass yards allowed per game (1st)D. Revis (US Presswire)
51.7 percent completion given up (1st)
32 total sacks (tied 18th)

2010 Jets:
90.9 rush yards allowed per game (3rd in the NFL)
200.6 pass yards allowed per game (6th)
50.7 percent completion given up (1st)
40 total sacks (8th)

All in all, the numbers between the two years are nearly identical. And the ’09 Jets forced just one more turnover than the ’10 Jets. The major difference between the ’09 Jets and ’10 Jets is that the ’09 Jets were not on Hard Knocks, were not playing on national television every other week and were not filling the tabloids with stories about harassment of a female supermodel reporter or foot fetishes.

A more important difference between the two is that the ’09 Jets could control games with their rushing attack (which always buttresses a good defense) while the ’10 Jets cannot. Expected breakout running back Shonn Greene has come close to topping his Wild Card performance against the Bengals last season. Thus, the ’10 Jets are still relying heavily on 31-year-old LaDainian Tomlinson, who has not rushed for more than 55 yards in a game since Week 5.



5.) Colts: Peeking at the right time

Okay, so the Titans gave the Colts a tighter Week 17 contest at Lucas Oil Field than anticipated. Defensively, ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were neutralized by the stellar Tennessee tackles (Michael Roos and David Stewart). Offensively, Peyton Manning and company were held to just 23 points.
D. Rhodes (US Presswire)
Fine – go ahead and bet against Indy’s pass-rush and passing attack. A lot of you did earlier in the season (you know, when Manning showed he might be washed up by throwing 11 bad passes over a three-week stretch).

It’s easy to say these 10-6 Colts are not their usual dangerous selves. But the Colts failed to earn a bye in 2006, when they went on to win Super Bowl XLI. The Colts didn’t find momentum in the’06 playoffs – they found their run defense. That was the postseason in which Bob Sanders returned after playing just four regular season games.

Sanders won’t return again this time (IR, biceps), but that doesn’t mean the Indy run defense won’t progress. The progression is already underway, in fact. This past Sunday, the Colts held Chris Johnson to just 39 yards on 20 carries. The Titans as a whole managed just 51 yards on the ground. The week before, Indy held Oakland’s No. 2 ranked rushing attack to just 80 yards. The week before that, they held Jacksonville’s No. 3 ranked rushing attack to 67 yards.

What’s more, the Colts seem to have rediscovered their own rushing attack. Joseph Addai (who also helps tremendously as a pass-blocker) is back after missing eight games with a neck injury. Addai has rushed for 45 and 44 yards the past two weeks. More impressive has been veteran Dominic Rhodes. The soon-to-be-32-year-old locker room favorite was a member of the UFL’s Florida Tuskers just a few months ago. Since resurfacing in Indy, Rhodes has rushed for 172 yards in three games His quickness and veteran savvy give the offense everything it was missing when first-round bust Donald Brown was starting.

And, of course, the Colts still have Manning. And, while they’re without Austin Collie and Dallas Clark, they still have one of the league’s premier one-two punches at wide receiver in Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon.



Baltimore Ravens (No. 5 seed; 12-4) @ Kansas City Chiefs (No. 4 seed; 10-6)   Sunday, 1:00, CBS


6.) Ravens: Joe Flacco to come of age?

Last year in the Wild Card Round, the Ravens went into Foxboro and punched the Patriots in the mouth/nose/throat/gut/groin. They ran the ball 52 times for 234 yards, which is why few people crowed about Joe Flacco’s almost irrelevant performanJ. Flacco (US Presswire)ce. The then-second-year quarterback was 4/10 for 34 yards…on the day. An interception made Flacco’s passer rating an imperfect 10.

We wont’ see another Pop Warner gameplan like this from John Harbaugh’s club. Sure, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will be enticed to attack the Chiefs’ 15th-ranked run defense– especially given that Ray Rice looks fresher than he did early in the season and that Oakland’s Michael Bush gashed the Chiefs for 137 yards in Week 17 (most of those yards came from attacking the undersized defensive ends on off-tackle runs). But the Ravens have been grooming Flacco for this opportunity. His 2010 numbers wound up being nearly identical to his 2009 numbers – just 10 fewer attempts, nine fewer completions and nine more passing yards overall – but the Ravens used less six-man offensive line formations and more spread receiver sets this season. In other words, they put more on Flacco.
This makes sense considering Baltimore traded a small ransom for wideout Anquan Boldin, signed veteran T.J. Houshmandzadeh, signed speedster Donte’ Stallworth and drafted tight end Ed Dickson. The Ravens have more aerial weapons than they’ve ever had, which is why this time they’ll ask their third-year franchise quarterback to be a weapon himself.



7.) Chiefs: Can coaches carry them?

For a man known for being difficult to work with, Todd Haley sure showed admirable humility this past offseason. The second-year head coach and respected offensive guru realized that clearing play-calling duties off his ultra crowded head coaching plate would ultimately help the team. So, Haley welcomed Charlie Weiss to his staff, knowing full-well that the former Patriots offensive coordinator would almost certainly get the lion’s share of the credit if, you know, Matt Cassel went from being a hot seat starter to 27 TD-7 INT passer.

Operating in Weiss’ familiar system (a system Cassel learned primarily from Josh McDaniels in New England), the 28-year-old ex-USC backup has been exactly what a team with the league’s best rushing attack needs: a caretaking quarterback capable of making the occasional big play. Much of the credit for Cassel’s success belongs to Weiss.

Weiss isn’t the only coach who has turned in a masterful season for the Chiefs. Offensive line coach Bill Muir has been fantastic with a callow unit that was originally thought to be very vulnerable at the tackle and center positions, while running backs coach Maurice Carthon has helped Jamaal Charles blossom into a 1,467-yard rusher (a 1,467-yard rusher who primarily comes off the T. Haley (US Presswire)bench, no less).

Defensively, coordinator Romeo Crennel’s system has flourished despite an undersized front seven and inexperienced secondary. That secondary, which has often featured dual rookies at the safety spots (first-rounder Eric Berry and fifth-rounder Kendrick Lewis) plus a rookie in the slot (cornerback Javier Arenas) has benefitted from the tutelage of Hall of Fame defensive back Emmitt Thomas. Finally, give credit to linebackers coach Gary Gibbs, who has overseen a unit that successfully transformed nickel inside ‘backers Derrick Johnson and Javon Belcher into starters. The emergence of the young safeties and those speedy linebackers has infused speed into the interior of Kansas City’s defense.

You could argue that no team maximizes its talent through a variety of personnel packages better than the Chiefs. But is the reliance on coaching a good thing? The Chiefs did not look very well coached in their season finale against the Raiders, particularly on offense. Cassel completed 11 of 33 throws and was under immense pressure the entire afternoon. One can’t help but wonder if the news about Weiss heading to Florida isn’t distracting (especially given that the relationship with Haley likely wound up having something to do with Weiss’ decision).



Green Bay Packers (No. 6 seed; 10-6) @ Philadelphia Eagles (No. 3 seed; 10-6)   Sunday, 4:30, FOX


8.) Packers: DE-FENSE! (boom, boom) DE-FENSE! (boom, boom)

Columnists and analysts will be most tempted to fall back on the moment myth when talking about the Green Bay Packers this week. They’re that team that “nobody wants to face heading into the playoffs”. It’s true, Green Bay is hot right now. But the reason isn’t momentum – it’s talent, deception and aggression on the defensive side of the ball.
C. Woodson (US Presswire)
Injuries have ravaged the Packers D, but only in the front seven. Coordinator Dom Capers has still be able to prove what Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams proved last season, and what Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau proved the season before that: you can basically do whatever you want with your front seven as long as you have an elite back four. In the NFL, an elite back four includes: a true cover corner (Tramon Williams, ala Jabari Greer/Ike Taylor), a rangy safety (Nick Collins, ala Darren Sharper/Ryan Clark) and a versatile playmaker (Charles Woodson, ala Roman Harper/Troy Polamalu).

What Capers has that Williams did not have (but that LeBeau certainly had) is a dominant pass-rusher. In fact, Green Bay might suddenly have two. Clay Matthews continues to punish teams with his speed off the edge (by the way, a side note, don’t listen to analysts who simply look at Matthews’ somewhat slender stature and determine he can’t anchor against the run – the guy has been a tremendous playside run defender the past few weeks). In addition to Matthews, undrafted rookie Erik Walden has exploded since filling in for injured Frank Zombo (another undrafted rookie who was filling in for injured Brandon Chillar….who was filling in for injured Brady Poppinga – seriously). Walden led the Packers with 11 tackles and two sacks Sunday against the Bears.

Aaron Rodgers is a great quarterback. Or, given that he hasn’t yet won a playoff game, perhaps we have to say he’s a quarterback with great skills. Either way, Rodgers makes Green Bay’s offense capable of greatness. But the absence of an adequate running back also makes Green Bay’s offense vulnerable.

The reason the Packers are in the postseason is because of their defense. It allowed just three points in the make-or-break finale against the Bears, and it forced six turnovers in the make-or-break matchup against the Giants the previous week.



9.) Eagles: A quarterback change?

Hard to believe – maybe even impossible to believe – but according to ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio (via Pro Football Talk), Andy Reid may consider benching Michael Vick in Philly’s Wild Card game against Green Bay. The Eagles coaching staff is extremely alarmed by Vick’s inability to recognize presnap blitzes. As ESPN’s NFL Matchup Show pointed out, M. Vick (US Presswire)recognition problems are what led to most of the sacks Vick took against the Vikings in the Tuesday night loss.

Vick did not practice with the team prior to the meaningless Cowboys game (which he sat out in order to rest his battered 6’0”, 215-pound body). Instead, he spent the week studying Green Bay’s 3-4 defense. Vick torched that defense in his 2010 debut off the bench back in Week 1, but that was only because the Packers had spent the week preparing for quintessential pocket passer Kevin Kolb (whom they destroyed, by the way).

It’d be great to know how much time the Packers spend preparing for Kolb this week. Do they – or anyone – really believe Reid would have the gall to pull the league’s presumed MVP runner up in the playoffs? The backlash Mike Shanahan took for pulling Donovan McNabb in a regular season game at Detroit would be a mere blip compared to the backlash Reid would take for pulling Vick in the City of Brotherly Love.

The Eagles obviously hope it won’t come to this. And it probably won’t. But this Sunday will prove whether Vick has really become a student of the game. No question he’s putting forth the effort to study the film and playbook; the question is whether that effort will pay off.




10.) Quick Hits: The bye week teams

With so much focus on the immediate playoff matchups, it’s always amazing how far off the radar the No. 1 and 2 seed teams drop during Wild Card week. Here’s just a little something to help keep the bye week clubs in the back of your mind.;

**The Patriots finished with an NFL-best 14-2 record. It’s the fourth time in Bill Belichick’s career that he’s reached 14 wins. (Too bad this stat, like virtually all other regular season stats, will be rendered virtually moot in two years when the NFL decides to water down its flourishing product by adding two more games to the regular season).

**The Steelers will be as well rested as a BCS bowl team once they take the field for their Divisional Round matchup. Pittsburgh will have played the hapless Panthers on Thursday night in Week 16, rested for 10 days, played the hapless Browns in Week 17, then rested for another two weeks.

**The Falcons might be the most banal, methodical No. 1 seed in NFL history. Their season has consisted of nothing but 12-play, 77-yard drives capped with a Michael Turner/Tony Gonzalez/Roddy White touchdown.

**Lovie Smith was true to his word: the Bears played to win in Week 17. The Bears didn’t get the win, of course, but no player in that locker room regrets the effort. And doesn’t it just seem like ever since the Giants gave the undefeated Patriots all they could handle on that epic Saturday night contest at the end of the ’07 season, more teams have played to win in their meaningless games?

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The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com