Everyone misfired on Colts-Chargers … and we now have a two-way deadlock for first place heading into the conference championships:
THE PREDICTIONS SO FAR:
ANDREW MASON: 4-4
GREEN BAY 42, SEATTLE 20
“Is it snowing there?” queried a friend back in Colorado via text-message as the Packers and Seahawks battled in a gorgeous snowfall that is surprisingly rare for playoff games at Lambeau Field.
Where I was — elsewhere in Wisconsin — the landscape was wintry, but the skies were dry.
There was no snow beyond a few flurries in Madison, which is 135 miles south-southwest of Green Bay. But by dining at the locally renowned State Street Brats, a favored establishment among University of Wisconsin students and state-government officials alike, I gave myself the next-best experience to being at Lambeau, replete with Brett Favre jerseys galore and the ubiquitous “Go Pack Go” cheer being played over the speakers throughout the restaurant.
(And by the way, from being at Lambeau Field once before, I can only offer this thought on the “Go Pack Go” cheer — cut it back a bit. It’s like going to games at Oklahoma or Tennessee, where one hears “Boomer Sooner” or “Rocky Top” after every … single … play. Two-yard run off tackle? Strike up the band! Less is more, everyone.)
As the contest devolved into a blowout, my focus wandered. Mike Holmgren’s decision to punt on fourth-and-1 with a 22-point deficit early in the fourth quarter led me to utter, “Game over,” and the focus turned to finishing the food that rested in front of me — the gastronomic and coronary arterial challenge known as the “Brat Burger.” It is exactly what the name says — smoked beef bratwurst, sliced lengthwise, perched atop a grilled hamburger patty.
Like most college-adjacent haunts, it’s priced within reach of the budget-conscious consumer like myself at $6. Completing the Wisconsin “Cardiac Combo” was an order of cheese curds, a Dairyland specialty on which I’d never before dined.
They might look like tater tots, but brother, they ain’t.
Two days later, I’m back at home and eating light. Nothing but lettuce, rice, seafood and grilled chicken until I head to Mobile for Senior Bowl week Sunday.
But back to the game itself. The Packer Backers were panicky when their side fell behind 14-0 in the game’s opening moments. Being more neutral, I assured all within earshot that their team was just fine, the victim of a poor confluence of circumstances. I was wrong about many aspects of the divisional round of the playoffs, but on this one, I was right; by the time the Packers had forged a deadlock at the end of the first quarter, the outcome seemed destined.
There was no way the Packers would lose a playoff game on a snowy day at Lambeau.
NEW ENGLAND 31, JACKSONVILLE 20
I never felt as though New England was seriously threatened by the Jaguars in this game.
Yes, the Jaguars led early. Yes, the game was a 14-all draw at halftime. But there never was a moment where the Jaguars seemed to have the Patriots strangled. Their performance was not unlike the work of a skilled surgeon — clinical, delicate, efficient, with cool detachment in their reaction to the unexpected and their ability to compensate commensurately.
Saturday night, that meant largely removing the deep pass from the equation and focusing on short, well-timed tosses to Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk.
As expected, the Jaguars came after Tom Brady. The Patriots responded with ease, mostly eschewing the deep-pass dagger-in-the-heart for imposing death by dink-and-dunk paper cuts upon the visitors. Then, when circumstance called for the dagger, Brady found Donte Stallworth for 53 yards, and passage to the AFC Championship was as good as clinched.
Jacksonville played reasonably well, although Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew only combined for 19 carries. Jones-Drew led the Jaguars with six receptions, and the two collectively amassed 115 yards from scrimmage — not bad for a running-back combination, but not what the north Floridians needed.
The Jaguars were merely good. But perfection was necessary. San Diego had best take heed; defeating New England will require an effort free of flaws.
SAN DIEGO 28, INDIANAPOLIS 24
Much to the consternation of our blog guests — who pick against the Chargers by following their Bronco-orange-blood-pumping hearts, God bless ‘em — these Chargers won not only with depth but by displaying the speed and opportunistic ability that has for years rested within their realm of capability, but has often been untapped until the last four months.
It may be time for a little revision on my assessment of these Chargers. We’ve long known that they possess ample talent. Head Coach Mike Shanahan said as much last Thursday.
“(It is) a team that’s probably as talented as any in the National Football League, especially on defense,” Shanahan said. “If they put their best game together they can beat Indy and New England. Now they have to put their best game together. They’ve been inconsistent this year. They’ve played their best football in the latter half.”
Now they’ve won eight in succession. They’ve eliminated the defending champions. Since a 1-3 start, they’re 12-2. Their defense bent but rarely broke under the Colts’ crushing assault, forcing three takeaways and logging a pair of crucial stops in the final minutes.
But it was the observation of all with whom I conferred during the game that quarterback Philip Rivers simply needs to stop yelling at opponents, opposing fans and whoever happens to be within earshot and simply play football. His shouts as he left the field for treatment of his ailing knee and after the game-clinching fourth-down stop nearly overshadowed a performance that saw him match Peyton Manning pass for pass, even with favored targets Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson sidelined.
Note that I say “nearly” overshadowed. His efforts and his growing presence resulted in a stellar performance — 14-of-19 passing, three touchdowns, 264 yards, an interception and a 133.2 passer rating. The promise of the fourth-year quarterback has become reality
At the Senior Bowl in 2004 — a game in which the Chargers’ coaching staff worked — I watched Rivers and thought, “I hope the Chargers don’t get him, because I don’t want the Broncos to have to deal with him for a decade.”
Four years later, we’re witnessing the result. Fortunately for Denver, Jay Cutler‘s development is ahead of Rivers’, who had not even started at the same point. Rivers made the Pro Bowl in his third pro season. Cutler hopes to do the same.
N.Y. GIANTS 21, DALLAS 17
The Cowboys didn’t lose because Tony Romo and Jessica Simpson went to Mexico. They didn’t lose because both Romo and head coach Wade Phillips are 0-for-the-playoffs in their positions; Romo is 0-2, while Phillips is now 0-4 as a postseason head coach with losses on the sidelines of the Broncos, Bills and now the Cowboys. They didn’t lose because the New York Post — a paper that has, in recent decades, hemorrhaged money — flushed dollars down the toilet to jet a Simpson look-alike in from Washington state, snag her a ticket and place her in the stands.
No, they lost because their offensive line caved under the pressure that largely came from the Giants’ front four alone, leading to three costly penalties and a pair of sacks on Dallas’ three fourth-quarter possessions.
A false-start infraction on Marc Colombo, an illegal-formation penalty and a presser-induced intentional-grounding call against Romo cost the Cowboys 20 crucial yards on their last three possessions. A pair of sacks of Romo set them back 19 more.
Dallas, therefore, spent the fourth quarter stuck in neutral. But the seeds were sown throughout the day, as the Cowboys were called for 11 penalties covering 84 yards.
“Dallas isn’t playing badly,” I uttered as I watched the game, “but they’re doing just enough wrong to ensure defeat.”
When I said this, Dallas was in front 17-14 and had the ball, but Leonard Davis had just incurred an unnecessary-roughness call with 2:06 left in the third quarter. New York scored on the following series to snatch the lead permanently.
In the final quarter, Dallas’ defense did what it was supposed to — thanks in part to conservative Giants play-calling, including three runs for nine yards midway through the quarter on a series that seemed more suited for trying to preserve the lead in the final minute, rather than less than halfway through the fourth quarter.
But a pair of three-and-out stops did the Cowboys little good as Romo ran around, up and down the field more than a soccer midfielder. Twenty fourth-quarter snaps netted just 71 yards for the Cowboys — an average of 3.55 yards a play. Fifteen fourth-quarter snaps recorded no gain or lost yardage, counting the penalties Dallas incurred.
With that kind of failure ratio and with the Giants’ snarling pass rushers coming after Romo as though he were a raw New York strip, he — and the Cowboys — had no chance.
It is that pass rush of which Favre and the Packers must be wary this weekend … but we’ll get more into that in a few days.
Tags: Dallas Cowboys, Food, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, New York Giants, Personal Thoughts, Playoffs, San Diego Chargers, Seattle Seahawks, Self-Indulgence, Thoughts from the road