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Monday, January 16, 2006

Sunday Playoff Games


Peyton Manning will probably never win a Super Bowl.

The Steelers game was a perfect microcosm of why. Whenever his teams face the slightest bit of adversity, he turns into a huge dick. Early in the game, when the Steelers were up 14-0, every closeup of Peyton's face saw him smirking and shaking his head, as if he could not be more disappointed in his team. Even worse, the postgame press conference was Peyton Manning calling out his own offensive line. He stuttered a bit, then said "I'm trying to be a good teammate here … let's just say we had some problems with protection."

Peyton is supposedly a smart guy, so let me break this down: if the Steelers blitz, there are not enough linemen to stop them. Given the angles that come from a 3-4, there is ALWAYS going to be at least one unblocked rusher - either the safety (usually Polamalu) is going to make it through the interior, or one of the OLBs (typically Porter) will make it around the end. There's no way to get around that unless you go to a max protect and let Dallas Clark block Porter - or you trust your backs to pick up the blitz. Even then, in most cases the nose tackle will probably occupy at least two blockers, and you have the same problem inside.

There was one play with about six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter where I thought, against all odds, the "genius" tandem of Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning finally - finally! - figured out what most college coaches are totally aware of. Edgerrin James comes past the secondary, Peyton dumps the ball off, and James goes for like thirty yards. They didn't attempt that play again in the game. Instead, Peyton kept taking shots downfield, on the run, and it should have led to a game-ending Troy Polamalu interception. There was also the other near-interception on the final Colts drive where a Steelers player (I didn't notice who) dove and almost caught another one.

I'll give credit here, again - I was shocked that the Steelers won. Watching the first half, the Colts were just getting pasted. It was a beating, but I assumed the Colts would alter their game plan, mix in a lot more mid-range passes and underneath routes, and get back in it. They did not. Every time they tried one of those, they went for 20-30 yards. Reggie Wayne, their slot guy, had almost 100 yards on like five catches because each time the blitz came, there were massive gaps. But Peyton kept looking downfield. It was amazing.

Peyton never considers himself at fault. It's always someone else. He yells at recievers for not catching overthrown balls, he gets mad at his line for not being able to block seven on the blitz. He is a horrible teammate, and the only reason I add 'probably' to the above prediction about Manning's Super Bowl chances is that he's great during blowouts. When his team is killing a bad defense, he is jovial, and seems to have excellent rapport with his team. But it's unlikely he will ever make it the whole way through without facing a situation like last night - anyone who comes out, scores quickly and disrupts Manning early will always win because his desire to win all on his own and be the hero will hamstring him unless he learns humility. And given the 24/7 media fellatio he and his brother recieve, it doesn't seem likely that will happen.

This was really the last year for the Colts to make it - Peyton's contract is too big for them to retain Edge given the market this offseason. They won't be able to ever really get any big-namers, since they're just good enough not to have good draft position, but without the cap room to sign anyone. Next year, I wouldn't be suprised if they finished second in their division (if the Jaguars manage some offense this offseason), and miss the playoffs entirely.

Pittsburgh does deserve credit for realizing they couldn't beat the Colts in coverage - and not even trying. A lot of Colts casualties this year would drop six DBs into coverage to try and stifle the passing attack, without having the personnel to shut down the running game. Those would be the games where Edge got hundreds of yards.

Also worth noting is the officiating in this game. It was honestly the most blatantly biased officiating I have seen in my entire life. The non-call for pass interference where the Colts defender pushed off, hit, and then tackled Ward about three seconds before the ball arrived was just funny. The "Safety? Nahhhhhh.... he was down" call was also interesting. The overturned interception was ludicrous. And that play where half the Indy defense jumped over the line, and the refs just said "uh, no contact... we blew that dead for no reason." was also key. This game and the Denver game were both very, very poorly called. It's lucky for the NFL that in neither case did it really result in a different outcome.


The only good thing I can say about the Bears is, Rex Grossman seems to have been the right choice. If that's how good he is without any game experience, I can't imagine how good he would have been if he had been playing these last three years. I was very, very impressed. By the way: stop trash talking the Panthers. They seem to be the Hulk of the NFL. The Giants trash talk their defense, and they get blanked. The Bears trash talk, and they get smoked. Even Delhomme seems to be disinterested in the games unless they're in danger of losing. In the Super Bowl against New England, it seemed like every time New England would score, he would throw a perfect deep pass for a touchdown - but otherwise, he was decidedly average. And Steve Smith is insane.

I wrote before the game about Chicago, "This doesn't strike me as a particularly great defense; it just strikes me as a defense who hasn't had to play anyone." Hopefully, nobody will be disagreeing with me after they gave up 434 yards and 29 points. They didn't seem to be able to stop anything. They had limited success against the run, but Steve Smith spent pretty much the whole game in single coverage as a result. Always beware of "defensive powerhouses" that don't play anyone with an offense. Six games in the NFC North will skew anyone's rankings.

Next week's games:

DENVER (-3.5) over Pittsburgh

This is going to be a fantastic week for gambling. Denver is a slight favorite at home over Pittsburgh. This line is almost definitely influenced in a big way by Pittsburgh's performance against Indianapolis, who was overrated to begin with. In fact, the lines over at Pinnacle and BetUS have already shifted from -3.5 to -3.0. If they move any more than that, I'm betting the farm on Denver, and the reason is very simple: Pittsburgh's offense isn't going to do anything. They averaged 2.7 yards per attempt rushing against the 'formidable' Indy run defense. Not for nothing, but the Denver front seven is about seventy billion times better than the Colts'.

Indianapolis has Corey Simon and Dwight Freeny. Denver doesn't have a quick, pass rushing DE like Freeney, but Freeney was a complete nonfactor during the game because Pittsburgh has such a good offensive line. Denver's D-line is much stronger and more physical, and better at collapsing against the run. I'll take Trevor Pryce over the heifer Corey Simon any day of the week. Compare the Denver linebackers to Indy - DJ Williams and Ian Gold are much more athletic, and much, much faster than Cato June and David Thornton. They won't need nearly so much corner support to stop Parker's outside runs. And I honestly believe that Al Wilson is the best middle linebacker in the NFL. If the Steelers can't run against Indy, they're going to have some serious issues against the Broncos - especially since, if they start getting a rhythm, bringing Lynch up will probably put an end to that.

The biggest problem with the Steelers' run game is that it's still obvious what they're doing. If Bettis is in, shift to the middle. If Parker is in, shift to the outside. This also makes play-action, normally a big staple of a run-oriented teams' pass game, pretty hard since faking a toss or run to the outside doesn't work against an alert linebacking corps like Denver, so any time you see Willie Parker cutting up the middle after a handoff, 80% of the time it's a fake. And even if it's not, there's no need to dedicate additional defenders to stopping it, since he's not a power back and rarely gets to cut back once he starts running off-tackle. On the other hand, play action to Bettis is rare, since he is too upright a runner (due to his height) to fake well, and also because he can't help in pass protection after the fake (since he's just, you know, bad at it.)

In pass protection, Denver is just better than Indianapolis. The only weak link in the secondary is Nick Ferguson, but since the Steelers almost never go into a set with more than two receivers, he won't be needed to single cover, especially since Roethlisberger isn't particularly good at looking off. The O/U on the game started at 42.5 (which is way too high, it's since shifted to 41.0 and 41.5). I doubt there will be more than 30 points. I'm guessing that as the week goes on, Pittsburgh will be the trendy pick (as noted yesterday, Wojciechowski on ESPN has already picked them. Interestingly, in his new column, he's already backing off that prediction - he went from "They'll win by a touchdown" to "They'll squeek by." I think he was so sure the Colts would be hosting the AFC championship that he didn't have to bother backing up his Steelers pick.) but it will not be the correct pick.

Denver 17, Pittsburgh 6

Coming tomorrow, Carolina/Seattle...

cranked out at 12:22 PM | |

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