Going into the weekend, it looked like there was a clear split in the entertainment value of the four games on tap. On the AFC side we had two blow-outs scheduled, with Denver and New England both favored by about 9 points. On the NFC side we had two more interesting games, and potentially even upsets, with the home teams favored by about 3. Instead we ended up with an early/late game split, with the first game on each day providing most of the excitement while the later games resulted in runaways for the winner. Here’s how it went down.
The first game of the weekend was probably the most exciting, depending on your predilections, and provided the only upset of the weekend. The Broncos were heavy favorites and seemed like a good bet to win, even if I thought it might not be as handily as some others did. If you had told me before the game that the Broncos would have two kick returns for touchdowns, though, I might have just gone ahead and given them the win. However, things didn’t quite turn out that way. The Ravens were able to counter one kick return with their own tipped ball pick six and won the turnover battle overall, which is pretty important when you’re on the road. One of those turnovers was a pretty important interception in overtime, but even before that the Ravens were hanging strong, never trailing by more than a touchdown.
The Ravens mostly did it with the deep ball. There was the obvious 70 yard bomb to Jones to tie the game near the end of regulation, but Torrey Smith also spent most of his day, it seemed, running behind the Broncos’ defense. He only ended up with two long catches but nearly had a couple others, and the threat presumably changed the Broncos’ defense a bit. In the end Flacco barely completed over half his throws but still had 331 yards on nearly ten yards per attempt. The deep ball is a dangerous game, much as in basketball where you can live by the 3 and die by the 3. For this game, the Ravens lived by the deep ball.
Pretty much everything about the Broncos has already been covered (just go take a look at the few most recent articles at Advanced NFL Stats). The Broncos were a bit unlucky, to be sure, but they didn’t do themselves any favors with their running game or conservative approach to the end of halves. Brady Hoke does the same thing at Michigan (kneeling out the end of first halves even given a bit of time and time-outs), and it always drives me crazy. Yes, there’s some chance of turning the ball over and giving the other team a chance to score. But turnovers are rare enough that it can’t be a strong concern. And if you can’t trust your offense to hold on to the ball for about a minute, what’s your offensive philosophy exactly? As best as I can tell from the pro-football-reference play finder, in the past 12 years there have been 67 turnovers returned for touchdowns in the last two minutes of a first half. That’s not very many. Obviously there are some other turnovers that happen and could lead to scores by the opposing offense, but I would be shocked if it outnumbers the number of scores by the offense in the first place. And in any event, it’s a playoff game. You have to play playoff games to win, not to not lose. At the end of the game why not at least try running into the line to see if something breaks free, or throw a screen if Manning can’t get it deep?
The Green Bay – San Francisco game was simultaneously closer and less close than it feels in hindsight. My memory tells me that the 49ers dominated and (literally) ran away with the game, but in fact they were only ahead by a field goal at the half and one touchdown at the end of the third quarter. Then of course they finished their drive just into the fourth to go up 14 and that was pretty much the end of things. Kaepernick was the story this game, as he moved the ball well pretty much however he wanted to, either running or passing. Green Bay played well enough on offense; they put up 31, including a touchdown on an interception. They just didn’t have enough defense to win the shoot-out. I don’t know if it’s true, but during college football games (particularly if Army is involved), the announcers always mention how it’s hard for teams to defend the option because they don’t see it very often. If that’s true, we’ll see how the next team handles Kaepernick given the game they just played.
Atlanta and Seattle was penciled in as the most interesting game of the weekend because a) it wasn’t a rematch, b) it involved Seattle and Russell Wilson (instantly the best rookie QB of the year because he made it the furthest in the playoffs, right? Let’s forget about the other 50 guys on the team), and c) it involved perennial over-rated first seed Atlanta. The main story here seems to be how Atlanta nearly blew the game, but let’s not forget two things: the Falcons still built that lead in the first place, and they made it look pretty easy; and if the scoring all happened but just in a different order, we’d be talking about how Atlanta had the fortitude to pull out this great back-and-forth game. Instead of the game going back-and-forth though, Seattle was uneven early and didn’t really get going until the second half. They even had the good fortune to intercept Ryan when the Falcons were driving into Seattle territory, but Lynch fumbled it right back to Atlanta.
Seattle was a bit unlucky in that they made some good, aggressive calls that just didn’t turn out. They turned the ball over after failing to convert a 4th and 1 at the Atlanta 11 and they ran out of time at the end of the first half. Of course, Wilson took an unforgivable sack that caused the Seahawks to run out of time there, which will mostly go unmentioned this week. But as the game went, Atlanta played well and basically controlled the game until the 4th quarter. And even with giving up the comeback, they got the drive they needed to win. I think some of Atlanta’s quality is going to be lost in the details of this game. And, for what it’s worth, now they’ll have another week and an actual game of prep against an option/running quarterback offense. Maybe they’ll be better prepared for the 49ers next week.
To wrap up we have the Patriots and Texans. The Patriots were expected to win big and they did; the Texans played relatively well but they simply aren’t in the same class as the Pats. If New England doesn’t turn it over you’re going to have to do every other little thing right, and the Texans just didn’t have it in them. The Patriots demonstrated why they should be Super Bowl favorites this year, passing and running efficiently while holding an underrated Texans offense in check. The Ravens are surely happy to get a rematch with the Patriots for last year’s playoff game, and hope to repeat their victory from earlier in the year, but if I were them I wouldn’t be that happy.
As far as the models go, Luigi was 1-2 on the games it had an opinion on for the spread and 3-4 in winners and the moneyline; Yoshi 1 was 0-2 on the spread and 2-3 on the moneyline (3-4 outright); and Yoshi 2 was 1-2 on the spread, 2-3 on the moneyline, and 3-4 on outright winners. Predictions for the Conference Championship games later in the week.