Home cooking pays off in divisional playoffs
The Eagles, Falcons, Steelers and Pats proved that there is a reason why they all had home-field advantage.
PHILADELPHIA -- Standing in front of his locker stall on Sunday evening, Philadelphia Eagles tight end L.J. Smith wasn't so much gloating as he was stating the history of bye-week teams. "Everyone talked about the whole momentum thing," said Smith, referring to those who had predicted the Eagles might struggle early in their first playoff game. "I think you saw today that it didn't matter. We were a fresh team, fresh legs, so can we put that whole thing to rest now?"
The New England Patriots acquired the onetime malcontent to provide them the consistent running game dimension they had lacked, and the veteran has certainly proved his value. Dillon blasted his way to 144 yards on 23 carries in Sunday's victory over the Indianapolis Colts and his presence allowed New England to control tempo throughout the game. By virtually all accounts, Dillon has been a model citizen in the New England locker room, a guy motivated not only by a second chance but by the lure of a possible Super Bowl ring.
• "That kid (Kevin) Curtis of the Rams is going to be a heck of a receiver in that system. You wrote about him last week and you were either lucky or have a little better eye than I ever give you credit for. He's got great speed, gets out of his breaks, and can add yards after the catch. I read where (coach Mike) Martz said he thinks Curtis is ready to be a starter next season. I wonder what that means for Isaac Bruce, who's been dinged up more at this point in his career and has probably lost a step. I haven't looked at Bruce's cap number for next year, but I'm betting it's pretty big. And if Martz is going to play Curtis, we might see something happen with Bruce in the offseason."
• "Pittsburgh lost the 2001 AFC Championship Game at home because of its terrible special teams play and Saturday reminded me of how big the kicking game might be next weekend. The Steelers have played a lot better on 'teams' this year, but then they let (Santana) Moss go 75 yards on a punt return. You can't have that kind of (stuff) in the playoffs. I mean, their defense didn't allow a touchdown and they only won because the guy from the Jets (kicker Doug Brien) couldn't make a field goal."
• "You saw on Sunday why the Eagles signed (second-year wide receiver Greg) Lewis to a five-year contract extension. He's pretty raw still, but there is something there, and he's going to be a factor in that offense by next season. Nice, young player, and the Eagles, as usual, locked him up until, like, forever."
• "What a difference (middle linebacker) Jeremiah Trotter makes for that Philly defense. He's given them a presence in there and, the couple times he blitzed on Sunday, he really hurt the Vikings. The Eagles are going to need a big game from him next week if they are going to slow down the Atlanta running game."
• "If I were the Falcons, even with all the pressure of the playoffs, I would keep playing (rookie wide receiver Michael) Jenkins. They're using him in three-wideout sets but maybe they ought to get him on the field even more than that. I mean, the rest of their wideouts are nonentities, really, and that kid looks like he can make some plays."
|Heard in the pressbox|
|The Buffalo Bills probably won't get the second-round choice they are seeking for tailback Travis Henry, to whom they have granted permission to speak with other teams about possible trade scenarios, but there is a pretty good market already for him. Henry is a tough inside runner whose résumé includes two 1,000-yard seasons, and agent Hadley Engelhard has already talked to several interested suitors. ... Saints head coach Jim Haslett is going to face a major staff overhaul. He fired running backs coach Dave Atkins late last week and offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy is interviewing this week for similar jobs in Jacksonville and Detroit. McCarthy is definitely ready to move on. The amazing part is that, for as bad as the New Orleans defense was, there might not be major staffing changes on that side of the ball. ... Buffalo assistant general manager Tom Modrak might quietly be a candidate for the GM post with Nick Saban in Miami. ... It won't be too surprising if ESPN.com analyst Randy Mueller is the new team president of the Seattle Seahawks. Mueller and former Seahawks vice president Mike Reinfeldt, who left the club a year ago, appear to be the front-runners for the job. ... Tampa Bay is said to be interested in veteran wide receiver Rod Gardner, who is being dangled by Washington, which probably will trade him for a middle-round draft choice.|
Every other game was decided by at least 13 points. No one should have been surprised that all four home teams won because home teams almost always win in the divisional round. The visitors have won only 11 of 60 divisional-round games since the NFL installed the current 12-team playoff format in 1990. Only once since 1990 -- in 1995 -- did the visiting teams win more than one game in the second round of the Super Bowl derby. This marked the sixth time in 15 years that all four of the home teams advanced.
There is a reason that teams play so hard to secure a bye -- take note, Indianapolis Colts, since establishing residency at the RCA Dome for the playoffs might be the only way to win a ring -- and it's because the weekend off is a coveted luxury.
The Eagles looked a lot more rested than rusty Sunday and, in a locker room where the prevailing theme was one of unfinished business, the players lauded coach Andy Reid for his approach to the playoffs. Reid had rested many of his key starters in the final two regular-season games.
"For all the talk, well, Andy knows this team best and he knew exactly what he was doing," said defensive tackle Corey Simon. "Last week, believe me, we had the best practices we've had in the five seasons I've been here. I mean, the energy level was really high, people were into it. All that (rhetoric) about being rusty, all the concerns, about how we would come out and re-establish our momentum, you didn't hear any of that coming from us, did you?"
The good news for Peyton Manning -- and we're using the term good here in the most relative sense possible -- is that his quarterback rating against Bill Belichick-designed defenses only dropped one-half point, to 73.8, with Sunday's 20-3 loss. The bad news is that Manning, who has a 94.4 passer rating against everyone else in the league, still faces the prospect of having to get through the Patriots for the foreseeable future to earn a Super Bowl berth.
The Pats likely are losing both their coordinators -- Charlie Weis will depart for Notre Dame and the league's worst-kept secret is that Romeo Crennel will be the new coach of the Cleveland Browns -- but Belichick isn't going anywhere. Unless, that is, he decides in a couple weeks that winning three Super Bowl rings in four seasons is more than enough gratification, and he decides to retire. Nah, that's not going to happen.
For once, though, it wasn't just the Belichick game plan that got to Manning and the Colts offense. Indianapolis' latest playoff pratfall was almost as much a product of the Colts' offensive design as it was the play of the New England defense. Sure, the elements were a factor, but Sunday was a game that begged for the Colts to spread the field with their three record-breaking wide receivers and attack the undermanned New England secondary.
Instead, the Colts played their base, two-tight end set much of the first half. And they played, it seemed, right into the hands of Belichick and the Patriots. So, critics, don't lay all of this one on Manning, who, along with Tony Dungy, has to conjure up a way in 2005 to get home-field advantage for their team.
As for Belichick, it makes one wonder what's next to be added to his team's arsenal. A couple years ago, he needed an interior presence in the secondary, added strong safety Rodney Harrison, and the guy had 10 tackles and an interception on Sunday. Then, when Belichick needed a running dimension, he went out and traded for malcontent tailback Corey Dillon last spring and, after the veteran back blasted his way to 144 yards on Sunday, the second-round draft choice the Pats spent to acquire him from Cincinnati looked like a pretty good investment.
Belichick will probably figure out a way this spring to get a cover corner, a double-digit sacker and a speed receiver. And you can bet he'll make savvy decisions, too, in filling his two coordinator positions.
One of the biggest question marks for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense in training camp was whether young safeties Troy Polamalu and Chris Hope, both entering their first year as starters, would be able to handle the mental workload demanded by the game plans of coordinator Dick LeBeau.
In Saturday's 20-17 overtime victory, Polamalu and Hope once again demonstrated why the concerns were ill-founded. The Steelers safeties, arguably now the best young tandem in the league, combined for 17 tackles, an interception and two passes defensed.
Polamalu, who is headed to the Pro Bowl, might be the best all-around strong safety in the league not named Ed Reed. And Hope, who from his free safety position calls many of the defensive switches in LeBeau's very taxing scheme, quietly has enjoyed a terrific season as well.
LeBeau has said many times that he has not scaled back the playbook despite assimilating the two youngsters into the lineup at the same time.
Pittsburgh will need strong performances from Polamalu and Hope next weekend in the AFC Championship Game. The two are going to have to support the run against Dillon and somehow also get into the short passing lanes to take away the quick slants Tom Brady loves so much. So far, though, Polamalu and Hope have met every challenge.
When defensive coordinator Lovie Smith left the Rams to become the head coach in Chicago after last season, Mike Martz had a lot of potential candidates he could have turned to as a successor. Dick LeBeau. Dick Jauron. Chuck Bresnahan. Wade Phillips. Ed Donatell. Instead he hired his longtime buddy, Larry Marmie, who had been coordinator in Arizona under Dave McGinnis.
A year later, as St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz pointed out on Sunday morning, Martz might have to consider dumping his buddy as the first step toward fixing what ails the Rams porous defense.
In surrendering 327 rushing yards to the Falcons on Saturday night, the performance by the St. Louis run defense Saturday night was nothing shy of deplorable. It's one thing to have quarterback Michael Vick, the league's most slippery playmaker, weaving through tacklers. It's another to be consistently gashed off-tackle by Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett, especially when, as one Rams defender noted, teammates were calling out the Falcons' plays even before the ball was snapped.
What makes the ugly loss even more difficult to absorb is that the Rams have invested a ton of high-round draft choices on defenders who have not played up to their lofty draft status.
Let's take a look at the seven defenders with the most responsibility on Saturday night for stopping the run: Both starting defensive tackles, Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett, were first-round picks in the 2001 draft. Middle linebacker Robert Thomas was a No. 1 selection in '02. He was flanked by Pisa Tinoisamoa and Tommy Polley, second-rounders, respectively, in 2003 and 2001. Strong safety Adam Archuleta was a first-round pick in 2001. And free safety Antuan Edwards, signed late in the season after being released by Miami, is also a former first-round choice, albeit it not by the Rams. Another one-time first-round tackle, Jimmy Kennedy (2003), was the third man in the Rams' interior rotation.
That's a lot of time and money invested in a bunch of defenders who, in the words of end Bryce Fisher, "played like we were wearing handcuffs."
It might be hard to jettison all of those players, although it seems that most of them wouldn't be missed. Martz will have to think long and hard, though, about a new coordinator. Problem is, when the old coordinator is such an old friend, handing the guy a pink-slip isn't easy.
Falcons rookie head coach Jim Mora and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell have done a masterful job this season in plotting out game plans. Now they need one more big effort to land them a Super Bowl berth.
The biggest challenge for the Falcons schemers next week might be how they defend Philadelphia tailback Brian Westbrook who, in the absence of wide receiver Terrell Owens, certainly has emerged as the centerpiece of the Eagles offense. Westbrook had 17 touches on Sunday, averaging 6.9 yards. Almost as significant, he lined up at four different spots on the field, including in the slot and at wide receiver.
Minnesota coordinator Ted Cottrell, whose job could be in some trouble, kept trying to cover Westbrook with a linebacker, typically E.J. Henderson, and failed miserably. (In fact, it seemed the Vikings were trying to cover everyone with linebackers, as strong-side starter Keith Newman was overmatched on the first touchdown catch by wide receiver Freddie Mitchell.)
The Falcons will have to be a lot wiser in checking Westbrook, the go-to guy now for Donovan McNabb, and they probably will be. Don't be surprised to see a lot of "nickel" looks from Atlanta, with maybe even a cornerback on Westbrook.
Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress, noting his respect for both Mora and Donatell, allowed he doesn't know what to expect yet from the Falcons defensive braintrust.
"The last time we played (Mora), and he was the coordinator in San Francisco, it was a blitz-fest," Childress said. "I don't know that they've been blitzing as much this year, but those two guys are smart, and they'll come in here well prepared."
The Jets on Saturday became the first team in NFL history to play three straight overtime games. New York lost at St. Louis in the regular-season finale, then defeated San Diego in the wild-card round, before losing at Pittsburgh. ... Jets wide receiver Wayne Chrebet essentially made no impact Saturday and, with his history of concussions and a seven-figure salary for 2005, might be released. One guy almost certain to be cut loose by the Jets is offensive coordinator Paul Hackett. The much-maligned Hackett has been a target of the media the past two seasons and word is that head coach Herm Edwards made the decision weeks ago to find a new coordinator for 2005, no matter how far his team advanced in the playoffs. ... Turns out that Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss wasn't the culprit on the botched fake field goal attempt by his team in the second quarter. An unnamed offensive lineman who was not supposed to be on the field failed to come out of the game. Moss, who was to come toward the sideline as part of the ploy planned by coach Mike Tice, continued to the bench, blowing up the play, because he knew the Vikings already had 11 players on the field. ... Fullback Fred McCrary, signed by the Falcons late in the season after they lost three players at the position to injuries, had a monster game on Saturday night as the lead blocker for Dunn and Duckett. The veteran journeyman absolutely mauled the Rams linebackers. ... Under head coach Bill Cowher, the Steelers are 1-3 in AFC championship games at home.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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