First Round, Remarkable Upset Both Complete
BY JAKE SALTZMAN
Boston Sports Desk Correspondent
I tend to shy away from making picks for two reasons; one, because games are often far to close to call, and two, to save myself from embarrassment. So when I called for the New Orleans Saints to handily defeat the Seattle Seahawks in the wildcard round of the NFL Playoffs last week, I was pretty confident. In fact, so were the experts: some even had the Saints winning by twenty-plus points. That didn’t happen however, and instead of the Saints heading to Chicago to take on the Bears this weekend, Pete Carroll and his Seahawks will be the ones invading Soldier Field. Can the Seahawks possibly do it again? I’d say no, but don’t take my word for it.
BALTIMORE 30, KANSAS CITY 7
The most one-sided affair of the weekend came in Kansas City, where the feel-good Chiefs saw their playoff dreams halted immediately by the Baltimore Ravens, 30-7. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco overcame a lackluster first quarter to lead the offense to 27 unanswered points, and led his team on an impressive ten-minute touchdown drive to salt the game mid-way through the fourth quarter. The third-year pro finished the day with 25 completions for 265 yards and two touchdowns. More importantly for Baltimore however, especially given the fact that this weekend’s game is set to take place in Pittsburgh, home of one of the league’s hungriest defenses, Flacco appears to have recently developed some serious chemistry with veteran tight end Todd Heap. Heap caught ten balls for 108 yards in the win over Kansas City, his first 100-yard game of the year. While Heap is a proven pass-catcher, his involvement in the offense does far more than give the Ravens yet another receiving option. Instead, it creates space for Baltimore’s receivers, namely Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Derrick Mason. Though Flacco hasn’t shown any sort of inability to spread the ball around this year, if Heap can force the Steeler defense to cover the middle of the field, tremendous mismatches could be created for a trio of receivers who are already capable of reeking havoc on a defense. If the Ravens cannot find success with the deep ball, look for a pair of rookie tight ends (Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson) to see some time in special packages, especially down near the goal line. Though neither has seen extensive time this year, the Ravens remain confident in the rookies’ ability to make plays in the short and intermediate passing games.
JETS 17, COLTS 16
The other wildcard game in the AFC proved to be much closer, as despite taking the lead late in the fourth quarter on an Adam Vinatieri field goal, the Colts defense ultimately unraveled, paving the Jets’ last-second road to victory, 17-16 over the Colts in Indianapolis. The Jets ran the ball 38 times in the win, and though it was ugly for much of the game, eventually found success with LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson carried for 82 yards in the win, and also punched in both NY touchdowns. Shonn Greene also carried the ball frequently for the Jets, but unlike Tomlinson failed to develop much rhythm with the ball in his hands. Greene wasn’t alone in failing to find a groove on offense however, as despite completing 18 passes, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez threw for under 200 yards and an interception. The bottom line for Rex Ryan’s crew is that it was a good thing the defense came to play. Despite only sacking Peyton Manning once and failing to force any turnovers, the Jets played an unusually-laid back, reserved style of defense that very well could prove to be the blue print for containing Peyton Manning in the future (only a dozen years too late!). Instead of repeated blitzing, the Jets relied on sound coverage and a “bend but don’t brake” approach Sunday, and while Manning completed his usual number of passes, the Jets minimized the damage on third-and-longs and in the process almost always managed to prevent the big play. Of course things don’t get any easier for the Jets, as just one week after staring down Peyton Manning on the road, Gang Green heads to Foxboro to take on Tom Brady and the rest of the New England Patriots. Sounds about right to me.
PACKERS 21, EAGLES 16
The Green Bay Packers somehow succeeded in moving the ball on the ground against the Philadelphia Eagles, and despite a late Eagles touchdown earned the win on the road, 21-16 in Philadelphia. Aaron Rodgers was brilliant in managing the game for his team, refraining from forcing passes and making risky throws, and despite racking up a mere 180 passing yards actually accounted for all three Green Bay touchdowns. Rodgers was indeed successful in getting the ball to his playmaking receivers, but was no doubt at his best when either on the move, or when dumping the ball off to his backs and tight ends for solid gains on first and second down. The result meant not only receptions by nine different players, but also touchdown catches for the seldom-utilized Tom Crabtree and frequently overlooked James Jones. Rodgers and the Green Bay offense also benefited from a resurgent ground game in the win. Rookie James Starks carried 23 times for 123 yards and had by far his best day not only as a pro, but in fact since his junior season at the University of Buffalo. Starks appeared destined for the label of draft-bust early in the season, but has emerged lately to become a nice fit in an otherwise beat-up Packer back field. I thought way back in September that the Packers had one of the best off-seasons of any team in the NFC, and now, four months later, Mike McCarthy’s rookies appear to finally be coming full circle.
SEAHAWKS 41, SAINTS 36
In the game that was never supposed to happen like it did, the game in which the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks knocked off the reigning Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints 41-36, as well as the Seahawks played, it is also worth noting just how miserably the Saints played, especially on defense and special teams. Granted Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck played out of his mind, throwing for a season-high four touchdowns, and not to take anything away from one of the league’s best pros, but for the New Orleans Saints to allow 422 yards against in a single game? Something went terribly haywire. Again, Hasselbeck was tremendous, as were his receivers and tight ends. Normally, 422 yards from scrimmage will say more about the offense than it will the defense. But not when that defense features guys like Tracy Porter, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer and Roman Harper, proven superstars and recent Super Bowl winners. The Saints defense allowed at least one reception by five different Seattle wide receivers, notable for the fact that three of those receivers, Brandon Stokley, Golden Tate and Ruvell Martin, were either largely irrelevant, or in Martin’s case predominantly inactive for much of the regular season. Stokley in fact had his best game of the season, catching four passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. It wasn’t just the pass-defense that plagued the Saints either. Running backs Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett had a collective field day for the Seahawks, combining for over 150 yards on the ground, and one very memorable 67-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter in which Lynch broke a plethora of tackles en-route to only his second touchdown in his last five games. Though the deafening Qwest Field faithful accounted for three false starts against the N.O. offense, and as well as the Seahawks played in all three phases of the game, as much as Seattle won this thriller, New Orleans lost it. With Seattle still alive and last season’s Super Bowl participants now eliminated, the 2010 NFL Playoffs have literally become anyone’s game.