Football gods punish Patriots again
Since taking the field with a 18-0 record in Super Bowl XLII, just 60 minutes from perfection, the New England Patriots have not won a playoff game. In their latest postseason collapse, versus the New York Jets, New England's offense, averaging a league-best 32 points, was held to 14 points at home until a garbage-time touchdown with seconds remaining.
There are many reasons for New England's postseason woes: some specific to the Patriots, others generic to all football, one particular to a great performance by the Jets' defense. But Tuesday Morning Quarterback thinks this is the core reason: The football gods are not yet finished punishing Bill Belichick for Spygate.
Belichick suffered public humiliation -- plus the Patriots' loss of a first-round draft choice -- when it was revealed that for years he had staff methodically film other teams' sidelines. But Belichick has never owned up to what seemed like cheating to practically everyone except him. Though NFL prohibitions against sideline filming are crystal clear, Belichick insisted he mistakenly believed such filming was allowed. To sum the whole of Spygate: If Belichick really thought filming the opposition sideline was allowed, why didn't the Patriots do so openly? After being caught, Belichick said he wished "to apologize to everyone who has been affected." But he's never admitted to cheating, hard as it is to think of any other word for what Belichick did. Apparently the football gods are still angry.
When the Patriots were denied perfection by the New York Giants, your columnist thought that was Belichick's punishment. The next season New England went 11-5 but was denied a playoff appearance: perhaps, I thought, that concludes the punishment. The next season the Patriots outscored opponents by a spectacular 142 points, yet played terribly in their home postseason opener, losing to the Baltimore Ravens 33-14. That, I thought, must be the end of the punishment. This year New England finished 14-2 with the league's highest-scoring offense, then lost its first playoff game at home.
Punishment finally concluded? Perhaps not, since to paraphrase Longfellow, the mills of the football gods grind slow, yet they grind exceeding small. In mythology, the gods punish hubris by imposing frustration -- allowing a mortal to come close to his desires, then be denied. That's what keeps happening to Belichick. Perhaps until such time as Belichick may do the right thing and admit that he cheated, the football gods will continue to punish this team. It's a shame that New England fans are caught in the backwash.
The Brian Kenny Show
Gregg Easterbrook shares his thoughts on the Patriots' postseason exit and looks ahead to Jets-Steelers.
Other explanations for the Patriots' collapse:
• The Jets watch NBC. Three weeks ago Rodney Harrison, a former New England star who's now an NBC analyst, said the way to beat Tom Brady was to jam his receivers at the line while mixing coverages in the center of the field. Too many teams, Harrison said, show Brady backed-off simple coverages because they're afraid of giving up a big play. Jam and mix instead.
That's what Jersey/B did. Its corners were almost always on the line, jamming receivers to throw them off routes. Linebackers jammed the New England tight ends: just before the fateful botched fake punt, Brady tried a quick out to tight end Rob Gronkowski on third-and-4, but Gronkowski was jammed at the line by linebacker David Harris and stumbling as the ball arrived. Jersey/B spent most of the contest in a 3-3-5, with the extra defensive back, Drew Coleman, sometimes playing man-to-man and sometimes playing zone. The Jets used combo coverages: man-to-man on some receivers, zone on others. Brady expected to be blitzed -- like all top quarterbacks, he wanted to be blitzed -- but the Jets rarely sent more than four rushers. It was a Rodney Harrison game plan. Rex Ryan should send Harrison a fruit basket.
• Defense trumps offense in the playoffs. The 1998 Minnesota Vikings went 15-1 in the regular season, setting what was then the record for points scored; they then lost at home in the NFC championship. In 1990 and 1991, the Buffalo Bills were the NFL's highest-scoring team; they lost their first Super Bowl 20-19 and in losing the next, scored only 10 points until garbage time. The 1995 San Francisco 49ers were the league's highest-scoring team, then scored 17 points in losing their playoff opener at home. The 2007 Patriots hold the NFL' s all-time scoring record, yet scored only 14 points in their Super Bowl loss. The 2010 Oregon Ducks were college football's highest scoring team, averaging a hard-to-believe 49 points, yet scored only 19 points in their BCS title loss.
High-scoring offenses need rhythm, which is great when it's there -- but such offenses can become discouraged if the team doesn't fly down the field. Proficient defenses are about disruption and maximum effort on every snap. Obviously, every football team wants a high-scoring offense. But a top defense generally (not always) trumps a top offense.
• The playoffs are about mindset. During the regular season, if you lose a game, oh well, there's another one next week. During the postseason, lose and you go home. This cranks up the pressure, and some teams handle pressure better than others. The Jets lost to the Patriots 45-3 during the regular season and said, "Oh well." They came into Gillette Field on Sunday, in a do-or-die situation, mentally stronger than the Patriots. Their mindset was to destroy New England, while New England's mindset was to finesse the Jets. New England's mindset obviously has good points -- it sure worked in the regular season. But say what you will about the Rex Ryan show and all the Jets' crazy shenanigans, the result was an extremely determined mindset.
Pressure hits maximum in the Super Bowl, where all the players and coaches who have reached that point are good, and mindset often is decisive. The four teams still standing -- the Steelers, Bears, Packers and Jets -- all play power defense. Who's got the mindset for the upcoming maximum pressure?
In other football news, "the Seattle Seahawks" are now the answer to the future trivia question, "What was the only team in football history to play 18 games and lose 10?" High school and college teams never appear in 18 games. Many NFL teams have reached the 18th game, but all previous NFL teams to do this began the postseason with winning records. A couple of 8-8 teams reached the NFL postseason, but it's impossible to advance from 8-8 to 8-10; a couple 4-5 teams reached the postseason during the 1982 strike, but no NFL team played 18 that season. On Sunday, Seattle became the NFL team to finish a season 8-10.
Seahawks' players returning to their hometowns this winter will be able to swagger around saying, "Yeah baby, first 8-10 football team, nobody will ever take that away from us." They'll be telling their grandchildren, "I was on the only 8-10 football team of all time."
And in other football news, What the Martz! The Chicago Bears leading 28-3 early in the fourth quarter against the losing-record Blue Men Group, Mike Martz sent in a trick play -- tailback Matt Forte lines up in the Wildcat, then throws long. What the Martz? The Bears have the game all but sewn up, and should be grinding the clock in order to get starters off the field. Instead trick play, interception, Seahawks quickly make the margin 28-10 and Lovie Smith is forced to leave his starters in until the two-minute warning -- Smith remembers the Giants had a 21-point fourth-quarter lead against the Philadelphia Eagles and lost.
As the what-the-Martz pass fluttered into Seattle hands, whoops of celebration must have been heard in homes and taverns across Wisconsin. The Bears next host the Packers, who played Saturday, and rested starters late in a walkover against Atlanta. The failed trick play triggered a sequence that forced Chicago to keep its starters on the field. Green Bay will now enter the NFC championship with its starters having had a full day more rest than Chicago's. Games have been decided by less.
Stats of the Week No. 1: In the past three seasons, New England is 3-4 versus the Jets and 32-11 versus all other teams.
Stats of the Week No. 2: In three playoff appearances with Aaron Rodgers as its starting quarterback, Green Bay has scored 114 points.
Stats of the Week No. 3: Santonio Holmes has scored touchdowns in five of his six career playoff games.
Stats of the Week No. 4: Atlanta and New England were a combined plus-42 on turnovers in the regular season and a combined minus-4 in their home playoff games.
Stats of the Week No. 5: Versus Pittsburgh, Baltimore is on a 6-5 streak in the regular season and a 0-3 streak in the postseason.
Stats of the Week No. 6: In three postseason games against Pittsburgh, the Ravens' offense has averaged 158 yards.
Stats of the Week No. 7: Since the start of the 2009 season, the Steelers are 15-4 when Troy Polamalu plays and 6-8 when he does not.
Stats of the Week No. 8: Matt Ryan has followed a 19-1 streak in home starts with a 1-2 streak.
Stats of the Week No. 9: Tom Brady is on a 28-0 streak in regular-season home starts and a 0-2 streak in postseason home starts.
Stats of the Week No. 10: In the last four years, the Patriots are 51-13 in the regular season and 2-3 in the postseason.
Cheerleader of the Week: Missy of the Vikings, who not only has the ultimate cheerleader's name but according to her team bio is a past National Dance Association champion who is studying for a master's in science education at the University of Minnesota. Also according to her team bio, Missy reports, "I love a good math or science problem," which is not something one hears a cheer-babe say every day.
Sweet Play of the Divisionals: TMQ loves the ploy, on a high-pressure play, of going to some guy who never gets the ball. Game tied, Pittsburgh faced third-and-19 on its 38 just before the two-minute warning. Baltimore, a power defense team, made an egregious defensive mistake -- see below. Steelers coaches sent rookie Antonio Brown -- who came into the postseason with 16 receptions, and who, when he does play, lines up in the slot as a possession receiver -- deep up the right sideline to draw safeties away from Hines Ward.
Ben Roethlisberger saw Ward covered, and he saw Ed Reed was on the left of the field. Roethlisberger throws the deep sideline route better than any NFL quarterback, so he turned right, away from Reed, and let fly to the little-used Brown, whose 58-yard reception positioned the Hypocycloids for the winning points. Brown even caught the ball against his helmet, just like David Tyree did in the 2008 Super Bowl. Let's hope Brown enjoys a longer career -- Tyree is already out of sports.
Sweet Coaching of the Divisionals: A month ago the Patriots pounded the Bears in snow, as New England threw and Chicago ran -- this TMQ explained how snow days favor the passing game. Sunday the Bears hosted the Seahawks in snow, and learned their lesson, coming out throwing. On the first Chicago possession, Bears facing third-and-2, Jay Cutler -- playing in his first postseason appearance since high school -- saw Seattle in a run defense, with safety Lawyer Milloy just seven yards off the line. He called a deep seam to tight end Greg Olsen, who blew past Milloy for a 58-yard touchdown. The Bears kept throwing till they led 28-0.
Sour Coaching of the Divisionals: Green Bay ahead 21-14, the host Falcons had the ball on the Packers' 35 with 10 seconds remaining till intermission, out of timeouts. One reason for Atlanta's string of successes in close games is that the Falcons have Matt Bryant, a strong-legged place-kicker who entered the contest 8-for-11 beyond 40 yards. The game is in a dome, which presents ideal kicking conditions. So let Bryant launch a kick. If it's 21-17 at the half, Atlanta is in good shape, especially considering the fourth quarter is the Falcons' best quarter.
That can't be the offense about to run an extra play! With no timeouts, the play must go either to the sideline or to the end zone, anything else ends the half. Green Bay knows this! Calling cadence, Matt Ryan looked up and saw two Green Bay safeties standing on the goal line -- meaning no hope of throwing into the end zone. He saw both Green Bay cornerbacks on the outside shoulders of their receivers, meaning no hope of throwing to the sideline. Because the Falcons had no timeouts, he couldn't cancel the play and wave for the kicking team. Because it was a 52-yarder from the current spot, Ryan couldn't take a delay-of-game penalty, which would've made the kick a 57-yarder. If he had this play to do over, surely Ryan would have snapped and thrown the ball away, stopping the clock to allow a 52-yard try. He didn't think of that and instead ran the play the coaches radioed in, a quick out. Undrafted corner Tramon Williams -- who made the 2010 TMQ All-Unwanted All-Pros -- knew what was coming, cut in front of the receiver and returned the interception 70 yards for a touchdown with no time showing. Down 28-14 at the half, Atlanta was broken.
Green Bay knew exactly where the pass would go! The reason corners don't cut in front of outs all the time is that they must defend the many other patterns the receiver might run. In this case, Williams didn't have to honor any other pattern: he was certain the play would be an out. What a botched call by Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey! Perhaps Mularkey didn't have his head in the game because he had spent part of the Falcons' bye week interviewing for the Cleveland Browns' head coaching vacancy. The Falcons didn't show any formation or playcalling variation on offense, either. Mularkey was too busy, perhaps, with his résumé to compose an original game plan.
Atlanta had the No. 1 NFC seed largely on the strength of protecting the football and smart coaching; the last play of the first half was among the worst coaching errors TMQ has seen. And it wasn't Atlanta's only coaching error. Down 35-14, Atlanta defensive coordinator Brian vanGorder panicked and started calling lots of blitzes, which only led to big plays for the Packers. Scoring to pull within 42-20 at the start of the fourth quarter, why didn't the Falcons -- desperate for points -- go for two? Maybe because their coaches had quit on the game. The Falcons have twice attained the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and both times lost their playoff opener at home.
Sweet 'N' Sour Play of the Divisionals: Trailing 21-11 with 5:19 remaining, New England faced fourth-and-13 on the Jersey/B 34. Needing two scores, Bill Belichick decided not to try a 51-yard field goal, one of his many puzzling calls on Sunday -- kicker Shayne Graham was 13-for-13 on the season to that point, though with a long of 41 yards. Play had stopped on the previous down for a minor injury to Darrelle Revis; Rex Ryan opted to take him off the field for the fourth down rather than use a timeout, a puzzling call by Ryan since the Jets had all their timeouts. On fourth down, the Revis-less Jersey/B defense forced an incompletion, positioning the visitors for a monster win. Sweet.
The Patriots lined up trips right with Brandon Tate wide and Deion Branch alone on the left side. Antonio Cromartie was in press coverage on Branch; on the right, nickelback Drew Coleman was way backed off against Tate. At the snap, safety Eric Smith blitzed, meaning Tom Brady had to release the ball quickly. Brady never looked right, "telegraphing" his decision to throw left to Branch, who was jammed at the line by Cromartie and in the wrong place when the ball arrived. Tate was open on a curl for the first down, but Brady never looked that way. Sour, especially for a player viewed as a master quarterback. On the previous snap, third-and-13, Wes Welker had been open on the right for the first down, but Brady never looked that way, throwing an incompletion over the middle.
Tech Bubble: The Sequel: Two weeks ago, Facebook, which is privately held, sold 2 percent of its equity for $1 billion, a transaction that values the company at $50 billion. (Two percent of $50 billion is $1 billion.) That value is hard to believe, even assuming Reuters is right about Facebook revenue. Last week, Groupon -- which before Christmas rejected a $6 billion takeover offer from Google -- hinted at plans to value itself at $15 billion in an initial public offering.
Investing fads go in cycles, which investors endlessly forget and relearn the hard way -- just as Americans endlessly forget and relearn that real estate prices have peaks and troughs, neither always up nor always down. (NPR said a few days ago that California real estate values may "never" rebound.) The Groupon and Facebook situations sound an awful lot like the irrational tech-stock exuberance of just 15 years ago -- have investors already forgotten?
Here, William Cohan, one of the best writers on finance, notes Goldman Sachs is positioned to make serious money on a gold rush for Facebook shares even if the company is overvalued, or tanks. The New York Times played the suspicious "$50 billion valuation" on its front page, without irony, a great way to drum up investor demands -- then a few days later ran Cohan's column deep inside on the op-ed page. A lot more people look at the front page than the op-ed page, and the Times didn't note that the Times itself was a factor in the hype Cohan decried.
As for Groupon -- I just checked the site, which promptly offered me a coupon to the Penn State-Indiana football game that occurred two months ago. This is cutting-edge technology? It may not be long till Groupon shareholders dearly wish they'd taken the Google offer. Groupon sure sounds trendy, combining local promotion with social networks and coupon bar-codes beamed directly to smart phones. But is the business model an electronic pyramid sales scheme?
Yes, I know that 10 years ago no one would have guessed how valuable Google would become -- shares at $622, market capitalization of nearly $200 billion, a crazy number. (Here is Google's view of Google's value.) But investors, about Facebook and Groupon -- don't say you weren't warned.
Baltimore at Pittsburgh Analysis: "This better not be another three-man rush!" Your columnist exclaimed those words -- I've got multiple witnesses -- as the Steelers broke the huddle, game tied, facing third-and-19 on their 38 just before the two-minute warning.
All football tactics involve an element of luck -- something that's not worked earlier might work now. But for the Ravens, the three-man rush had been a disaster in the second half. Early in the third quarter, Pittsburgh had first-and-goal on the Baltimore 9, and the Ravens rushed three. The result was a touchdown pass to Heath Miller, who was open even though Baltimore had eight players dropping into coverage to cover five receivers in a small space. Late in the third quarter, Pittsburgh had third-and-6 on the Baltimore 8, and the Ravens again rushed three. The result was a touchdown strike to Hines Ward, again despite eight defenders covering five receivers. On third-and-10 with 3:25 remaining, the Ravens rushed three and allowed a 12-yard reception by Ward, though they had eight dropping into coverage to cover four on that snap. Then came the third-and-19 breakdown -- 58-yard reception by Antonio Brown, even though two safeties were lined up more than 20 yards off the ball at the snap.
A three-man rush can work when it's a surprise: when the quarterback expects a three-man rush, he can pat the ball and wait for someone to uncover. Roethlisberger took his sweet time on third-and-19 and created the game's decisive down. The Ravens list 20 assistant coaches and six scouts. None of them noticed the three-man rush wasn't working? The winning Steelers, by contrast, used a three-man rush on just one snap. In the final minute, leading 31-24 and Baltimore possessing the ball at midfield, the Steelers rushed either four or five to sustain pressure on the visiting quarterback.
Baltimore keeps coming into the postseason looking like a power team, and its offense keeps wheezing out. On Flacco's killer interception at the end of the third quarter, the call was a play-fake. Flacco launched the pass deep, assuming the safety had bitten on the fake and come up: he didn't and made the pick instead. To that point in the contest -- almost three quarters played -- the Ravens had 24 yards rushing. Who's going to fall for a play-fake under those circumstances?
The Ravens' megabucks offensive line faltered -- no push on the run, five sacks allowed, including James Harrison twice reaching Flacco after being only chipped by running backs, not blocked by any lineman. At the endgame, Anquan Boldin dropped a third-down pass in the end zone before a field goal, then T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped a perfectly thrown fourth-down pass at the Pittsburgh 35 with a minute showing. Houshmandzadeh yakked, yakked and yakked about the Ravens not featuring him, then dropped the ball. What I'd feature if I were John Harbaugh, is Houshmandzadeh's cab fare to the airport.
Ravens backers have legit complaints about officiating. A ticky-tacky holding penalty wiped out a 55-yard punt return touchdown for Baltimore in the fourth quarter; the Ravens settled for a field goal. A ticky-tacky, and quite rare, holding penalty against a Baltimore defensive lineman converted a Steelers' third-and-goal at the 3 into a first-and-goal at the 1 in the final moments. Both calls were the sort that could be made against any team on any snap of any game, and both went against the visitor in the fourth quarter of a postseason contest. On the defensive holding at the goal line, to me it seemed the Steelers, not the Ravens, were the ones holding. The punt call cost the Ravens four points and the goal-line call all but awarded the Steelers four points -- had it gone against Pittsburgh, a field goal was the likely result of the possession. That's eight fourth-quarter points for the home team in a game it won by seven points.
As for the Steelers, they prevailed despite Troy Polamalu having a rare off game, and Mike Tomlin using up his challenges in the first quarter. The first challenge, on the opening kickoff, resulted only in Baltimore being backed up 14 yards; the second challenge was of a call clearly correct on the field. Had the Steelers lost this close game because they lacked a challenge late, the sports world would be having a field day with Tomlin. Now the Steelers take on the Jets -- good luck, Jersey/B, rushing against the Pittsburgh front seven.
Like defense? The second half of this contest featured fourth-and-21, fourth-and-19, fourth-and-18, fourth-and-15, fourth-and-15, fourth-and-15, fourth-and-12, third-and-21, third-and-19, third-and-16, third-and-14 and third-and-12.
800 Americans Killed by Guns Since the Arizona Shootings: This column rails against politicians and government functionaries who surround themselves with taxpayer-funded bodyguards. In the wake of the unspeakable shooting in Tucson -- six dead and a congresswoman gravely harmed -- many readers, including Margaret Smith of Chandler, Ariz., have written to propose, "Doesn't this mean you were wrong about security details for government officials?" I don't think so, though the events surely show that a police officer should be present when a member of Congress, or federal official of similar stature, makes a public appearance.
My items about bodyguards have concerned excessive security details and or guards for minor functionaries. Some examples I have cited in past columns: former New York Gov. David Paterson regularly traveling through Manhattan in a presidential-motorcade-style caravan of multiple SUVs of state troopers; Texas Gov. Rick Perry spending $1 million in taxpayer money to take bodyguards with him overseas on a series glorified vacations; the former mayor of Baltimore taking two Baltimore policemen with her to Florida on her vacation; a Cleveland-area county commissioner surrounded by bodyguards; a New York state health commissioner with a full-time security detail. In these cases the bodyguards are funded by taxpayers and their primary duties were not security but to make the person they were surrounding seem more important, while allowing him or her to double park, cut to the head of lines and so on.
This sort of thing -- both wasteful of taxpayer money, and causing government officials to live like pashas -- is corrosive to democracy. Having a police cruiser parked near an appearance by a member of Congress is not, and obviously needs to be standard operating procedure from here on.
Last week brought another example of the kind of "security" that's actually little-pasha syndrome. The Better Government Association of Illinois has for decades nobly pursued the lost cause of eradicating corruption from the Chicago City Hall and the Springfield statehouse. Three recent Illinois governors have been jailed for taking bribes: the state's license plates should read, ILLINOIS, CRADLE OF GRAFT. Last week the BGA revealed that the treasurer of Cook County has a $94,000 taxpayer-supplied "bodyguard" who functions as her chauffeur and errand boy, driving her to personal events and picking up her dry cleaning.
Commenting on a tax-funded servant for a midlevel bureaucrat, Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune perfectly summed my case about most security details, deriding "the absurdity of a system in which genuinely controversial figures -- Congressman, judges and so on -- go without bodyguards in most circumstances, while self-important functionaries who are never in the headlines for anything controversial demand protection at taxpayer expense."
It is a sign of the state of U.S. discourse that the Arizona tragedy led immediately to political finger-pointing. Perhaps Jared Loughner was influenced in some way by Tea Party commentary, but there's no proof of this; diseased minds are hard to understand. Yet left-wing commentators jumped to the assumption that Loughner was somehow acting on the orders of people such as Glenn Beck, and that Beck and his ilk condone murder: absurd contentions. On the right, Sarah Plain -- referring to herself as "we" -- denied that her rifle-crosshairs-graphic showing the congressional district of Rep. Gabriella Giffords was reckless, then declared that "journalists and pundits" who call attention to her crosshairs graphic cause "hatred and violence." So Palin need not apologize for using a bull's-eye graphic, but anyone who points out Palin's own action is inciting violence. This is incoherent even by the low standards of contemporary politics.
More important is that Loughner, with a record of mental instability, legally purchased not just a concealed weapon but a high-rate-of-fire Glock -- same gun used in the Virginia Tech massacre -- plus a 33-round combat magazine. Combat magazines have no relevance to hunting, marksmanship or self-defense. In what self-defense situation would a law-abiding person fire 33 times? Combat magazines are useful for two purposes, infantry battle and mass murder. In Arizona, anyone can buy them.
TMQ is a gun owner, and agrees with this 2010 Supreme Court decision, which made clear that firearm possession is an individual, not a collective, right. The same decision further states that government may impose "reasonable" regulation of weapons. No serious person can maintain that allowing a man with mental health problems ready access to a concealed semiautomatic weapon with a combat clip is "reasonable." True, a criminal might obtain a gun in violation of even the best-written law. But acquiring the means of mass murder shouldn't be easy! The legislators and governor of Arizona, and of other states that lack reasonable firearm regulation, deserve contempt. How many among them care more about campaign donations than human life?
In a free society, the lone nut with a gun will always be a menace. The framers of the Constitution debated security versus liberty, and chose to err on the side of liberty. Their choice was wise: the kind of social order that would have imprisoned Loughner for posting weird comments on the Internet is not the social order many among us would want. Given our society is free and also has firearm rights, government officials making public appearances should contact the local police department and ask that an officer be present -- that strikes the balance between liberty and safety, without wasting tax money on ego-stroking security details. But it's far from enough response to the tragedy.
Based on figures in the article linked below, it's likely 800 Americans have been killed by firearms since that day, with a large share being homicides. All attention focuses on the one tragedy with media ramifications, but what about all the other firearm deaths? State legislatures, and Congress, should stop kneeling before the far fringe of the gun lobby -- most gun owners don't want firearms in the hands of the irresponsible -- and enact reasonable regulation. As Nicholas Kristof notes, the United States regulates toys more strictly than guns.
Green Bay at Atlanta Analysis: "Did anybody get the license number of the truck that hit us?" That was the expression on the Falcons' faces. Atlanta has been fading late in the season, as other teams understand the predictability of its play calling, then had the misfortune of meeting a team that's peaking late.
Aaron Rodgers is football's best quarterback, at least as of January 2011. Not only was his 31-for-36 performance fantastic. Three times Atlanta defensive end John Abraham beat his man and came unhindered toward Rodgers, three times the Green Bay quarterback spun away and either ran or passed for a first down.
Part of this was smart coaching against the Falcons' surprisingly weak coaching. Abraham is one of the league's few defenders who has the green light to make lots of inside moves, playing for the sack but abandoning containment. A dozen times Saturday night, Abraham made an inside move. Rodgers knew that if he saw Abraham coming from inside, there would be no containment, and he should spin to that side. Quarterbacks are coached: "When you scramble, the sideline is your friend." Scrambling to the middle means heading toward defenders; on the sideline, there's space. So Rodgers knew what to do. That he was able to evade Abraham so smoothly -- recognize the situation in one second and get away to the correct spot -- was impressive. I don't want to jinx Rodgers, but on Saturday night he looked like John Elway.
The Green Bay defense showed the variation the good-but-predictable Atlanta defense lacked. The Packers blitzed corners, dropped defensive tackles into coverage: you never knew what would happen next. Three times future-Canton cornerback Charles Woodson came unblocked on a blindside corner blitz. It wasn't till the fourth time that Atlanta finally noticed this and adjusted, but by then the game was lost.
The Packers' offense showed as many packages as a UPS truck -- five wide receivers, three running backs, two fullbacks, defensive tackle in backfield. During the Patriots' 2007 record-scoring season, New England had a different offensive package on almost every play. It's a tactic that causes problems, and the Packers are mastering it at the right moment.
TMQ feels for Tony Gonzalez, the all-time leader for receptions by a tight end, who has never appeared in a playoff victory, now 0-4 in the postseason. Otherwise the week before the season, yours truly forecast a Super Bowl of Colts versus Packers. Looks like my chips are on Green Bay now.
NBA Expansion Franchise in Kiev to be Called the Chickens: Headline on ESPN.com basketball page: "Mayo not appealing to Nuggets." I'd certainly rather have nuggets with BBQ sauce.
Adventures in Officiating: Is the crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits already over? Brandon Meriweather of the Patriots launched himself into LaDainian Tomlinson of the Jets helmet-first. No flag, no comment by the CBS announcers. Curtis Lofton of the Falcons lead with his helmet on vicious hit against John Kuhn of the Packers. No flag, and the Fox announcers blandly said "Kuhn sure got hit hard," as if all this fall's helmet-to-helmet hits controversy never happened.
Buck-Buck-Brawckkkkkkk: The Seahawks, first football team ever to be 8-9, first NFL team ever to appear in the divisionals with a losing record, trailed the host Bears 7-0 when they faced fourth-and-1 on the Chicago 40-yard line -- and punted. The punt occurred in the first quarter -- and TMQ wrote the words "game over" in his notebook. Yea, verily, it came to pass.
You're a losing team trailing on the road in the playoffs -- and punting on fourth-and-1 in opposition territory? Later when it was 28-3 and too late, then the Seahawks went for it on fourth down. This is the classic coach's blame-shifting dance: Don't try on fourth down when the game is close, try when it's too late.
Trailing 28-0 at the end of the third quarter, Pete "One Step Ahead of the NCAA Posse" Carroll ordered a field goal from the Chicago 12-yard line. Sure at this juncture the odds of a comeback are slim, but don't play to avoid being shut out, try to win! Then Carroll didn't even have the dignity to onside kick, rather, ordered his charges to kick away. Scoring to pull within 28-9 in the fourth quarter, Carroll didn't go for two -- the Seahawks were desperate for points! -- rather ordered a singleton PAT, hoping to make the final score seem respectable.
Overall the Seahawks' effort was so lame -- throwing short when down 28-10 late in the fourth quarter -- the game doesn't even merit full analysis.
The pregame flyover was by F-18s from Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada. In-flight refueling is required for fighters to travel a distance like Nevada to Illinois and back. Flyovers count as training hours for air crew. But with even Defense Secretary Robert Gates calling defense spending out of control, does a formation of four fighters really need to make a 3,600-mile round trip to help promote the NFL?
Clang! Clang! Clang! The Cleveland Cavaliers shot 1-of-14 from the 3-point line, and 23-of-77 overall, in losing to the Los Angeles Lakers 112-57 on Jan. 11. With 54 missed shots, the Cavaliers managed to miss more than a shot a minute.
Jets at Patriots Analysis: The Patriots staged an impressive 14-play clock-killer drive in the fourth quarter, consuming 7:35 -- except they were trailing 21-11 at the time. Why wasn't the home team in a hurry-up? This was one of the many questionable decisions by Bill Belichick, normally a master of tactics. Belichick called six rushes on the possession, keeping the clock ticking. Even when behind, occasional running plays make the defense honest, and the 3-3-5 look that the Jets were using is vulnerable to the run. But the Patriots appeared to be trying to kill the clock -- and were down by two scores.
New England ran a fake punt on fourth-and-4 from its own 38 with 1:14 remaining in the first half -- the play was stopped, positioning the Jets for a touchdown and a 14-3 lead at intermission. After the game, Belichick refused to explain the play, other than to call it "a mistake." The snap went directly to upback Pat Chung, who fumbled the snap and then was hemmed in. The play might have been an automatic -- meaning Chung made the call when he saw an alignment that Patriots coaches believe a fake would work against. New England had seven blockers around Chung, while Jersey/B had six defenders in the box area -- the odds of gaining four yards were good, if Chung hadn't bobbled the snap. But whether the call was made by Chung or came from the sideline, the play resulted in the kind of field-position error -- essentially a turnover -- that New England had avoided during its victory string.
Trailing 21-11 at the two-minute warning, Belichick opted for a field goal on fourth-and-9 at the Jets' 17. True, the Patriots had failed on fourth-and-13 on their previous possession. But at that juncture they needed a touchdown in the final two minutes, and were only 17 yards from paydirt. In a two-scores endgame situation, go for the touchdown when you're close.
When the 18-0 Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the Giants, New England expected lots of blitzing and instead Jersey/A barely blitzed, recording five sacks of the rarely sacked Brady with defensive line pressure alone. Sunday, New England expected lots of blitzes and Jersey/B, by its standards, barely blitzed, recording four of its five sacks of the rarely sacked Brady by defensive line pressure alone. Often Jersey/B showed big blitz, then backed off at the snap -- as this column notes, TMQ's favorite defensive tactic. Skilled quarterbacks want to be blitzed, because someone's always open. Expecting blitzes then not getting them threw Brady for a loop in his most recent Super Bowl, and threw him for a loop Sunday.
On one snap, defensive end Shaun Ellis threw Patriots guard Dan Connelly to the ground and sacked Brady. Nothing fancy, no stunts. The Jets front just beat the Patriots' front, which is what the Giants' front did to the Patriots' front in the Super Bowl. On the only blitz sack, Patriots leading lead 3-0 and facing third-and-5 in the second quarter, the Jets showed an overload to offensive right. Brady called an audible to shift protection that way, then the Jets shifted the overload to the offensive left. Linebacker David Harris put his hand on the ground to become a defensive end, drawing the attention of left tackle Matt Light. Nickelback Drew Coleman came unblocked from Harris' shoulder toward Brady's blindside.
That play -- both the hit, and being outsmarted -- seemed to rattle Brady, who is accustomed to standing in the pocket combing his hair with no pass rusher near him. Five sacks and several other hard hits caused Brady to exhibit "happy feet," nervously moving around, worried about where the next hit would come from. Almost all quarterbacks play less well after they've been hit hard several times in the pocket -- the main exception is Ben Roethlisberger, whom the Jets face next, who doesn't even seem to be aware he's being hit, much less care. Brady is a pretty-boy both on and off the field, and the sacks took a toll on him. Most were coverage sacks -- there was no one open -- but sacks all the same.
Many Patriots had poor games, or played with uncharacteristic lack of discipline. The Flying Elvii reached midfield with 18 seconds left before intermission, holding a timeout. That created a good chance of a last-second field goal -- but Logan Mankins was called for a very dumb personal foul during the dead ball, pushing the Patriots back into their territory, where Brady knelt to conclude the half. Its offense stalled, New England's defensive shortcomings were exposed. A team that usually has a big lead can manage with a so-so defense. When the game is close in the fourth quarter, a so-so defense doesn't cut the mustard -- whatever that means.
Even the New England crowd had a bad game! They booed loudly when Brady knelt to end the half. When Brady threw a checkdown to improve punting position in third-and-22, they booed loudly. Sure you've won three Super Bowls in the past decade, but what have you done for us lately?
The Jets were magnificent on defense, and after dropped passes and missed open receivers early, Mark Sanchez and his receivers made several terrific plays when it counted. David Harris intercepted Brady in the first quarter and seemed on his way to a touchdown, then began to jog at about the 20, while no Jets ran to convoy-block for him. Harris was caught from behind by Alge Crumpler, a blocking tight end who is not fast; the Jets were stopped and missed a short field goal. Had Jersey/B not gone on to win, sports touts would be highlighting this play as a terrible screw-up.
The Jets' defenders were confused as New England lined up to go for two -- why didn't Rex Ryan call timeout? The successful deuce when Jersey/B was expecting a kick would also be a sports radio fodder if Jersey/B hadn't won. And pulling within 21-14, New England attempted an onside kick at 1:57. Antonio Cromartie had a good play on the ball: fall on it and cradle it! Instead he scooped up the ball and ran 23 yards to the New England 25. Fall on it and cradle it! Any high-school coach would have made Cromartie run hills for an hour for risking a scoop instead of falling on the ball. But that's the Jets -- zany, wacky, what can I tell you? Two snaps later, Shonn Greene iced the game with a touchdown run -- Pro Bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo visibly quit on the play -- and Ryan sprinted beyond the coach's box to hug him. The celebration flag that flew was well-earned.
Buck-Buck-Brawckkkkkkk Addendum: The Jets punted in New England territory four times, including on fourth-and-1 from the Flying Elvii 41, and yet won the game. The football gods promised an investigation.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Show: Producers of the troubled mega-musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," which has been in preview since Halloween, just announced previews will continue until mid March -- a nutty 15 weeks of previews. The New York Times noted that a mid-March opening means the show "will have run longer in previews than some Broadway musicals run in their entirety." What's the difference between previews and once the show opens? Preview tickets still cost up to $275 each. But during previews, the show may stop if something goes wrong, and so far all the Spider-Man previews have lacked a closing number: the singing, dancing superheroes simply stop without a conclusion.
From the producers' standpoint, the key thing about previews is that reviewers, by custom, say nothing till official opening night. It seems obvious at this point that Spider-Man producers know they have a woofer on their hands, and want to drag previews out as long as possible -- perhaps for years? -- until the show officially opens and then promptly closes.
Wacky Wine of the Week: "With hints of almond, black cherry and vanilla." Increasingly, wine promotional claims make little sense. "Black cherry dominates the nose, with a hint of milk chocolate candy," says one placard in TMQ's local wine store. "This merlot exhibits a complex aroma of black cherries, leather and floral raspberry," a description found by Googling "hints of black cherry." I am not sure I want to quaff a wine that has the aroma of leather. "Bold, concentrated aromas of wild berries, spices and smoke," another description found in the same manner. Berries and smoke? White wine description: "Blends nutmeg, roses, cinnamon and buttered toast." Buttered toast?
Hidden Play of the Week: Hidden plays are ones that never make highlight reels, but stop or sustain drives. New England had just scored to pull within 14-11; the Jets faced second-and-6 on their 29 at the start of the fourth quarter. Mark Sanchez threw a quick crossing route to Jerricho Cotchery, who was covered by a linebacker. Cotchery sprinted to the sideline then turned upfield, legging out a 58-yard gain -- where were the safeties? A few snaps later, the Jets led 21-11, and the crowd began to sense doom. Had Jersey/B not scored on this possession, all momentum would have shifted to the home team.
Taking over on the Jersey/B 34 after the missed fourth-and-13 with 5:19 remaining, the Jets, leading by 10 points, ran the ball into the line three times then punted. This possession was bland as they come -- but ground the clock and forced New England to use a timeout. TMQ's Law of the Obvious states: sometimes all a team needs is to run up the middle and things will be fine. Resisting the urge to throw, and perhaps stop the clock, Jersey/B ensured that when the Patriots regained possession with 3:29 remaining, panic time had begun.
Reader Comments: Dan Bestul of Monroe, Wis., writes, "The Packers have played well in part because Donald Driver -- once the featured receiver in the offense -- has been willing to accept a diminished role in exchange for wins. Compare that to Reggie Wayne's 'I shouldn't have suited up' whining."
Ken Emery of Piedmont, Calif., writes, "You mention that Nobel Prize winners who visit Cornell University can eat free at an Ithaca restaurant. At the University of California at Berkeley, if a faculty member wins or already has a Nobel Prize, the reward is a free parking spot right next to the building you work out of. Parking on campus is highly restricted, so this is nothing to sneeze at -- a lot more valuable than a nice dinner. It's a bit of a saying when someone at Cal wins a Nobel Prize, 'The best part is he gets a great parking spot.'"
Tucker Mitchell of Florence, S.C. writes, "Regarding Jim Caldwell and the mystery timeout that helped the Jets defeat the Colts, his antics are no surprise to long-suffering Wake Forest fans. When Caldwell coached at that school (1993-2000, 25 victories in eight seasons) he did a lot of things right, including seeing to it that his players graduated. But it was apparent then that game day was not a strength. He regularly stumbled with late-game situations. Calm demeanor aside, he was also thin-skinned in his college days, sometimes punishing players who criticized his coaching choices in the press. So, the nutty timeout and his incoherent postgame explanation are exactly in character."
Frank Reed of Newberg, Ore., writes, "This year, Oregon football had one of the best academic semesters ever, 58 players with a GPA of 3.0 or better, the previous high was 36. While that doesn't affect graduation rates, it's impressive. Chip Kelly has gone to classes to make sure players go, and required them to study two hours a day while in Arizona for the BCS championship. LaMichael James said at the beginning of the season that making the Pac-10 all-academic team was one of his goals, and he did. More college stars should set that example."
Next Week: The Jets hit Ben Roethlisberger, and he doesn't notice.
In addition to writing Tuesday Morning Quarterback for Page 2, Gregg Easterbrook is the author of the new book "Sonic Boom" and six other books. He is also a contributing editor for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly. His website can be found here.