Observations, witticisms and other random thoughts from a playoff weekend …
THE PREDICTIONS SO FAR:
ANDREW MASON: 2-2
Worthy kudos to Mike, Kyle and John. Perhaps I’ll forecast next weekend’s contests with a clearer head now that the team for which I had season tickets while growing up — Tampa Bay — has been scratched from the docket.
SEATTLE 35, WASHINGTON 14
So much for momentum.
Washington’s lofty hopes were spoiled quickly and exploded like a ripe banana in a microwave. Two plays from scrimmage, two Seattle touchdowns — one on a D.J. Hackett reception and the other on Marcus Trufant’s 78-yard interception return — sent the Redskins home just when it seemed they had snatched all momentum and were poised to deal the Seahawks a humbling home defeat.
In victory, however, the Seahawks did not manage to find the remedy for their ailing run game. Shaun Alexander gained 46 yards on 15 carries — just 3.1 yards per rush. While much is placed upon Alexander and the broken left wrist with which he’s struggled throughout the year, don’t underestimate the impact of fullback Mack Strong’s in-season, injury-spurred retirement. The longtime Seahawk had steadily improved throughout his career and was one of the league’s most effective fullbacks before he was forced to exit the sport.
The Redskins’ loss nullified numerous trends established during Joe Gibbs’ two stewardships of the burgundy and gold, while allowing Seattle to win a fourth successive postseason clash at Qwest Field; its only playoff setback at the five-and-a-half-year-old facility came in January 2005 in a wild-card game against division rival St. Louis. Yet while the Rams have yet to win a playoff game since, the Seahawks have won four more — all at home.
Their playoff record away from the Pacific Northwest, however, is less promising — seven straight defeats dating back to Jan. 8, 1984, including a neutral-site loss in Super Bowl XL. Three of those seven road setbacks have come under the stewardship of Mike Holmgren, who returns to his former home stadium next Saturday. And while the opposing Green Bay Packers have home-field advantage and the presence of future Hall of Famer Brett Favre under center, it is the Seahawks who possess the vaster reservoir of postseason experience on their roster.
But we’ll discuss that further on Friday, and then in a subsequent entry I’ll let you know how Wisconsin handles “Holmgren Bowl II,” since I’ll be meandering somewhere along State Street in Madison, Wis., next Saturday afternoon, without doubt in front of a television.
N.Y. GIANTS 24, TAMPA BAY 14
What ailed the Giants most in 2007 were turnovers. What boosted the Bucs was the ability to force them. But a new year spelled a reversal of trends for both clubs, leaving the Bucs flummoxed and losers of a second consecutive home playoff game, while the Giants moved forward past the wild-card round for the first time in seven years.
Just as the Seahawks’ win was far closer than the final score implied, this one was not as narrow as the 10-point final margin. Once the New Yorkers had Tampa Bay in a temporary 7-all stalemate, they exercised a vice-grip lock over the proceedings.
New York’s dominance was so total that it left me only wondering where it became most evident that the Buccaneers were doomed.
Was it on Micheal Spurlock’s fumble of the kickoff return that opened the second half, leading to a Lawrence Tynes field goal?
Was it Jeff Garcia’s ill-advised third-quarter lob towards Joey Galloway in the end zone when the Bucs were in range for a Matt Bryant field goal that would have drawn them back within seven points?
Was it Eli Manning’s deft scramble and third-and-7 pass to Amani Toomer on the final play of the third quarter, pulling the Giants out from deep in their own territory and launching a 15-play, 92-yard drive that consumed both 8:37 of the clock and all of the Bucs’ hopes of playoff advancement?
The answer? All of the above.
This was a thorough Big Blue thrashing in which Manning was error-free and pitch-perfect. They know the Cowboys well, and their clash with Dallas in Texas Stadium next weekend could be a memorable affair. Hard to believe it’s the first time those two teams have dueled in the postseason, too. All their rivalry is missing is a touchstone playoff clash; next Sunday could provide that.
JACKSONVILLE 31, PITTSBURGH 29
A cursory analysis of game flow in Saturday evening’s Heinz Field clash shows a game fairly similar in its composition to the teams’ meeting three weeks earlier — a tight first half, a Jacksonville run to a big lead in the second half, a Steelers comeback that the Jaguars eventually squelched.
The particulars were slightly different. Pittsburgh did manage to claim the lead for a few minutes before Jacksonville countered. Yet the Jaguars’ dominance of the front lines remained. Jacksonville rushed for 98 more yards than the Steelers, held Pittsburgh to a piddling 1.7 yards per carry — it would be at once kinder and more damning to say 4.96 feet per rush — and sacked Ben Roethlisberger six times, all while overcoming the loss of bellwether defensive tackle John Henderson to a strained hamstring.
Henderson did manage to become one of six different Jaguars to notch sacks, thus underscoring the overall power-based superiority of the Jaguars’ defense. And while it buckled in allowing the Steelers to score three fourth-quarter touchdowns, it rallied for a pair of stops on two-point conversions and a critical three-and-out in the game’s waning moments, as well as the clinching strip and recovery of a Roethlisberger fumble.
In short, it succeeded when it most needed to do so.
Then there was David Garrard’s 32-yard fourth-down run, easily one of the most memorable carries by a quarterback in recent NFL history.
“That guy is BIG,” observed my girlfriend, amazed that someone of Garrard’s size — 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds — could prove so maddeningly elusive to several empty-handed defenders, left grasping in vain as Garrard dashed downfield to victory and a permanent place in Jaguars folklore.
Big, yes … and on Saturday night, big-time, giving the Jags their first playoff win nearly eight years.
And, if I may gush … what fun this game was to watch. A classic example of what I like to say when I’m incapable of enjoying a splendid, taut contest involving one of my favorite teams: “It’s a great game if you don’t care who wins.” I reckon Jaguars and Steelers supporters had no fingernails left when this one was complete; I merely had a smile on my face having witnessed the kind of engrossing fourth quarter that makes playoff football into, as NBC is wont to proclaim, “must-see TV.”
SAN DIEGO 17, TENNESSEE 6
Norv Turner did what Marty Schottenheimer couldn’t do in two tries at Mission Valley — coach the Chargers to a playoff win, their first since the 1994 AFC Championship at long-since demolished Three Rivers Stadium. But Turner has only taken these Chargers as far as Schottenheimer did last year.
The Chargers dug themselves a hole Sunday, but climbed out of it after intermission with a second half that saw them bludgeon the Titans in virtually all aspects of the game.
In the second half …
FIRST DOWNS: San Diego 14, Tennessee 4.
THIRD-DOWN CONVERSIONS: San Diego 6-of-9; Tennessee 2-of-5.
TOTAL YARDS: San Diego 256, Tennessee 70.
PLAYS: San Diego 42, Tennessee 19.
RUSHING YARDS: San Diego 62, Tennessee 30.
PASSING YARDS: San Diego 194, Tennessee 40.
TIME OF POSSESSION: San Diego 21:36, Tennessee 8:24.
The numbers were a virtual reversal of the first half. The difference was that San Diego used its advantages to outscore the Titans 17-0 after halftime, while Tennessee could only parlay its early edge into a pair of Rob Bironas field goals.
The Titans are young, particularly up front. One reckons they’ll be back, particularly as the offensive line not only develops chemistry and effectiveness, but also becomes better attuned to the Tarkenton-esque improvisational skills of Vince Young, who, apporpriately, wears No. 10 like the legendary Minnesota passer of That’s Incredible! stardom and flowing fair-haired locks that are still as prominent as ever, evidenced by his recent appearance on pre-game and halftime shows at the Sugar Bowl in which his alma mater, Georgia, disposed of upstart Hawai’i with extreme prejudice.
Yes, Young struggled on Sunday, but let’s not forget that this is Year No. 2 for him. Unless your name is Dan Marino, the second year as an NFL quarterback is fraught with bumps, even when flashes of brilliance are evident. Just look at how John Elway had more touchdowns than interceptions in his second pro season.
Young and the Titans will be in the mix next year. But they, like the Buccaneers, Steelers, Redskins and 20 other teams eliminated before them, are now left with dreams and schemes for the future, with eight months in which to work on construction, acquisition, analytical observation and practice-field execution before the games begin counting again.