Sunday is the day that fates are sealed and legacies determined. Teams that make the Super Bowl live forever in the football narrative; teams that do not are forever perceived as inadequate, if they are remembered at all. Sometimes it’s fair, more often it’s not, and the difference between fame and infamy often comes down to something tiny: a defensive coordinator making an adjustment, a young quarterback doing something unprecedented, a veteran receiver catching a pass that another veteran receiver might have dropped.
Sometimes destiny is preordained, sometimes it is just a bunch of stuff that happens, but either way, Lowdown is your Championship Week chronicle.
49ers at Falcons
3 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: 49ers by 3
As we watched Colin Kaepernick reenact Bo Jackson’s best moments from Tecmo Super Bowl on Saturday night, we had time to reflect on the two primary approaches defensive coordinators have taken to the proliferation of Pistol and option offenses in the NFL.
Approach One: Well, this offense is very different from what we typically face in the NFL. Luckily, most of our players faced a variety of option offenses in college and know the basics. We’ll spend the week reviewing the fundamentals and installing some wrinkles that could give us a chance to dictate what their quarterback does, or force them out of the system. We may not be able to install a perfect defense on the fly, but we can be ready for them, force their quarterback to give up the ball or take some licks, hold them to 17 points or so, and let our offense finish the job.
Approach Two: Pistol, Shmistol. Go get ‘em, Clay and A.J.
Now, Approach Two is a slight oversimplification of Dom Capers’ strategy against the 49ers. Packers assistant Kevin Greene defended his coordinator and claimed that Capers’ critics “really don’t understand football;” Greene probably wasn’t lumping Charles Woodson in that category. Whether Kaepernick’s 181-yard, rarely-touched, often-the-only-person-on-the-television-screen performance was the result of the “breakdowns” (as Greene suggested) or the stubborn refusal to install the basic anti-option and anti-scramble tactics that have a proven track record at all levels of competition (as humans with eyes witnessed), the fact remains that gauging a defense’s success potential against the 49ers starts with determining both their ability and willingness to stop Colin Kaepernick and the Pistol.
The Falcons faced an option-flavored offense last week, though the Seahawks are not as married to option tactics as the 49ers are. Mike Nolan’s defense had early success against Russell Wilson option plays, with defenders “staying at home” on the option side of the field (or blitzers crashing off that edge) and forcing Wilson to hand off, then stuffing or stripping the ball from Marshawn Lynch. The Falcons also used a containment-style pass rush on passing downs to keep Wilson from scrambling; this had less success (Wilson sometimes just ran through it, and other times took advantage of the slow rush to find open receivers), but it was at least clear that the Falcons had done their homework. Their best defense against the read-option turned out to be a good offense: as they mounted 20-0 and 27-7 leads, the Seahawks were forced to switch to a more conventional passing scheme.
That is where the problems started for Nolan’s Falcons. In the second half, Nolan became the Anti-Capers. Instead of ignoring the read-option, he ignored everything else.
Robbing Russell to Pay Sidney. Wilson spent the second half of the Falcons game throwing to receivers so gapingly open that it looked like the Seahawks were on a two-man advantage power play. What actually happened is that the Falcons sat back -- no, leaned back -- no, grabbed a Snuggie and some warm milk, in the softest zone defenses imaginable.
Figure 1 shows the Falcons protecting a 27-14 lead on first down early in the fourth quarter. They appear to be using a Cover-3 zone, with two cornerbacks and a safety dropping deep. The Seahawks counter with three receivers to one side of the formation and a zone-flooding route combination. Two receivers, including Sidney Rice (18) run layered out-routes, while Marshawn Lynch (24) runs a little play fake with Wilson, then releases to the same side.
The Seahawks deserve credit for a fine call here: the layered outs are perfect for this kind of defense, and the option-Lynch threat slows the pass rush so Rice has time to run a deep pattern. But … what’s up with this defensive look? The Cover-3 can be adjusted for a three-receiver set: defenders can be shaded to the offensive left, assignments tweaked, and so on. The “stay at home” principle is a great way to limit the success of an option offense, and zone coverage allows defenders to keep their eyes on the quarterback to prevent scrambles or keepers. But it is 27-14 in the fourth quarter: time to allow some eight-yard rushes in the name of stopping 24-yard passes. This diagram sets the record for Most Empty Grass Guarded by a Defense: four Falcons defenders are defending absolutely no one while Rice catches a 24-yard pass with no one around him.
If this were a one-time lapse, it would just be a smart call by the Seahawks. But variations on this theme kept happening throughout the second half, and the poor coverage choices were compounded by awful, awful tackling. Cue Uncle Sal, finishing his fifth beer:
TIPSY UNCLE SAL: I hate this prevent defense! All it prevents is winning!
Usually Uncle Sal does not know what he is talking about (the defense could rush seven guys and ol’ Sal would still call it a “prevent” defense if the pass was completed), but the Falcons defense got too soft, too soon, and may have been so worried about the Wilson running threat that they forgot the Wilson passing threat.
The Falcons are very familiar with another team with an option-spiced offense: Cam Newton’s Panthers. Remember Newton, last year’s uncontested Rising Star of the NFL? The guy we spend the first two months of the season burying like he was a septic tank? Kaepernick and Wilson should brace themselves for backlash; Robert Griffin should just concern himself with elevating his leg. At any rate, the Panthers rushed for 199 and 195 yards against the Falcons, while Newton completed 38-of-60 passes for 502 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions (but two fumbles), even though one of those games came at the height of the Epoch of the Sulking Towel. The Falcons lost one Panthers game 30-20 and won the other game 30-28 with a late comeback slightly less shocking than the one they needed on Saturday.
Colin Kaepernick is better than Newton and faster and more dangerous as a runner than Wilson. The 49ers receiving corps is better than those of the Seahawks and Panthers. Jim Harbaugh knows when to run the option and when to use it as a ruse. The Falcons’ anti-49ers spirit may be willing, but their flesh -- and their ability to contain both the run threat and receivers like Vernon Davis, Randy Moss and Michael Crabtree -- may be weak.
The Gonzo Trio. The Falcons and Packers defenses weren’t the only ones that got surprised last week. The outstanding Seahawks secondary met its match against the Falcons receiving corps. If the Falcons have hope this week, it lies with their offense.
When great receivers face great defensive backs, and they have a quarterback good enough to deliver the ball, the great receivers have an automatic edge. The rules of football are stacked in favor of the receivers. The Seahawks came face to face with this fact through three quarters on Saturday. Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and the others did a great job covering Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and Roddy White. But Gonzo and company still caught their allotment of passes. Jones is just going to out-jump someone like Sherman once in a while, and there is not much the defender can do about it. Gonzo has been using body-shield and low-post moves since Chancellor was in the fifth grade; since defenders cannot touch receivers five yards downfield, all Chancellor can do is force Matt Ryan to make a perfect pass. Ryan made a lot of them: many in the first three quarters, then two more after it looked like his composure had taken the first flight out of Atlanta late in the fourth quarter. Factor in a resurgent running game, and the Falcons have enough firepower to score 27 points on a great defense, then inch it up to 30 in an emergency.
The 49ers have a great defense. Their secondary is not as good as Seattle’s, but they can compensate with a better pass rush. Their defense is also more experienced that the Seahawks’, in the playoffs and otherwise, which can be a factor when playing the likes of Tony Gonzalez. Still, the Falcons are capable of doing what the Packers did last Sunday: forcing a 24-24 tie midway through the third quarter. Ryan is no Aaron Rodgers, but the Falcons running game and offensive line are better than the Packers’, so the 49ers won’t be able to concentrate as exclusively on pass defense as they did against the Packers.
History suggests that both teams should be able to score 24 points on the other. What happens after that will decide who goes to New Orleans.
The Only Nolan. Several core members of the 49ers defense, including Patrick Willis and Justin Smith, were on the team back when Mike Nolan was their head coach. There have even been stories this week talking about the 49ers defense’s Nolan influence, or suggesting that Nolan deserves some credit for assembling the current unit.
As you probably know, Scandinavians were the first Europeans to “discover” America. Erik the Red and his children established tiny settlements along the coast of Newfoundland, cut down some trees, and traded a bit with Native Americans, before deciding that it was an awfully long way to go for some lumber. They never did anything with their discovery, which is why we remember Christopher Columbus, who hit upon the idea of settling permanent colonies and exploiting the local populations so viciously that it changed the course of history. This is not fair or nice, but it is a reminder that it takes more to stake your claim upon something than to leave a few coins and vague sagas behind.
The Nolan connection came close to not being a storyline at all, because Nolan needed the Falcons offense and special teams to bail him out from a defensive collapse so bad that it rivaled Capers’ in Green Bay. Nolan led a 49ers team that did not play up to its talent from 2005 to 2008, and he now coordinates a defense that did not look up to the challenge it faces in the second half of last Sunday’s game. The Falcons defense cannot afford to be a little better than they were against the Seahawks. They must be better, smarter and tougher, or else Kaepernick will either run through them or, if Sunday’s game is evidence, wear out his arm by slinging balls to shockingly open receivers.
The one coaching staff and defense that really knew what it takes to stop Kaepernick -- the one with the heavy tacklers, disciplined scheme, experience with option concepts on both sides of the ball, and a recent beating of the 49ers under its belt -- was knocked out of the postseason when the Falcons beat the Seahawks. Nolan deserves a little credit for that win, just as he deserves a little credit for showing Willis and Smith around the locker room years ago, but his defense looks destined to come up short against his (and his father’s) former team. The guy keeps giving to the 49ers organization, and on Sunday he will give a little more.
Prediction: 49ers 34, Falcons 27
Ravens at Patriots
6:30 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Patriots by 9½
Those who were surprised to see Joe Flacco throw a game-tying pass in the final seconds of a postseason game must have forgotten Lee Evans.
It’s easy to forget Lee Evans. In Baltimore, he is a repressed memory. In Buffalo, he is part of the blur that started at Jim Kelly’s retirement and continued until whatever moment you are reading this. Evans was a fine deep-threat receiver during his prime with the Bills, and the Ravens signed him last year because they like to throw long bombs and can always use an extra guy who can catch them.
Unfortunately, deep-threat receivers often reach a point in their early-30s at which they can still run down the field really fast but cannot do much else: change direction crisply, adjust to the ball, recover from nagging injuries, catch. Evans caught just four of the 26 passes to him during the regular season, which is the NFL equivalent of a .154 batting average, but he was still involved in the game plan when the AFC Championship arrived.
Now you remember, and we apologize if the memory caused Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Ravens fans. Flacco floated a pretty back-shoulder pass to Evans, who turned, appeared to haul it in, and then had the ball batted from his arms by defender Sterling Moore. Evans’ non-catch was the game-winning fourth quarter touchdown pass that wasn’t, the drop that changed destiny.
The Ravens replaced Evans with this year with Jacoby Jones, a notorious pass-dropper for the Texans who has recently become reliable when it counts, and it never counted more than last Saturday afternoon. (Evans went on to Jacksonville, where he lost a roster spot to Cecil Shorts. The man is a witness to history.) If both Evans and Jones caught their fourth quarter passes, then the Ravens, Flacco, and the NFL in general would look very different to all of us. If both dropped their passes, this would be yet another Brady-versus-Manning preview, so thank heavens for small favors. If Evans caught his and Jones dropped his, then Tom Brady would have never reached the Super Bowl last year, and Peyton Manning would be in the playoffs this year, throwing all of our assumptions and trusty narratives about winners, losers, champions and choke artists into a state of chaos.
Ultimately, Evans’ drop and Jones’ catch do not make Flacco “elite,” Brady any better, Peyton any worse, or anyone any anything -- except Evans, who should not have been playing in last year’s AFC Championship Game. It was just a bunch of stuff that happened.
Hooman Group: We interrupt a Ravens-heavy game preview (you do not need me to explain the Patriots to you) to celebrate the career of Michael Hoomanawanui, whose name is Hawaiian for “just a guy.”
The Patriots acquired Hooman, a former starter for the Rams, during the same tight end bender that found them signing and releasing Kellen Winslow II. Hooman stuck with the team, and the more talented Winslow did not, because #3 tight ends are obligated to stay healthy and keep their mouths shut, and Winslow has never been able to do either.
The Patriots went tight end crazy in the first place because their offense is now built around Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, and they need viable alternatives when one of those players are injured. Sure enough, Hernandez got hurt early in the season, Gronk late, and Hooman proved viable enough to play 290 offensive snaps during the regular season, catching five passes.
Hooman is the kind of H-back that can be found on most rosters: good blocker, can catch a pass that’s on the money, can outrun the left guard in a sprint. He will be forced to play Gronk’s role for the rest of the playoffs, and Gronk’s role was designed for someone a little more athletic. The Patriots will adjust, of course, but there are times that Hooman will lumber up the seam in an attempt to threaten the deep safety. This tactic works well against the Texans, who had to prepare for Gronk and could not immediately adjust. A few times in the first half, Wes Welker or some other traditional Patriots weapon got open against single coverage while both a linebacker and safety followed Hooman up the seam like sanitation workers chasing a trash truck.
The Ravens know they will not have to face Gronk, and they can build their coverage schemes knowing that only Hernandez is a serious threat deep. At the same time, they cannot fall asleep on the Hooman, who had 32 and 41 yard receptions late in the year. The 41-yarder came against the 49ers. The Patriots lined Hooman up between Hernandez and Danny Woodhead in one of their patented base-personnel, empty-backfield formations. Woodhead and Hernandez ran short routes, while Hooman thundered up the seam, caught Donte Whitner off guard, and beat him by a step.
The Hooman may be just a guy, but you still have to cover him.
Now, back to the Ravens, and the vagaries of destiny.
A quick note: the list above has a built-in bias against older quarterbacks. The Wild Card round only arrived in 1978, so players like Bradshaw, Staubach and Stabler missed opportunities to win (or lose) an additional playoff game per season early in their careers. Go back before 1967, and essentially all you have is a championship game. If Starr had to play through playoffs, he might be 13-1 or 15-1, or perhaps a Packers safety might have been caught flat-footed in the waning seconds of some playoff game and we would remember how he “couldn’t get it done” against Milt Plum and the Lions.
All that aside, Brady passed Joe Montana for first place on the all-time postseason victory list last week. Had Lee Evans caught the ball, Brady would be 16-6, tied with Montana, and still incredibly awesome, so who cares.
It’s the fellow at the bottom of the list who should grab your attention. Flacco has won more playoff games than Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese, Len Dawson, Fran Tarkenton, Phil Simms, Dan Fouts, or Warren Moon. Some of those guys played in the olden times, so that list is a bit of a cheat. Flacco has won more playoff games than Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees. If Evans caught that pass last year, he would be tied with Marino and Young, and who knows what would have happened if Flacco and Eli met in the Super Bowl?
There is a necessary and predictable overreaction, and an equal, opposite, necessary and predictable overreaction, to the information above.
Overreaction A: Flacco has proven that he is an “elite” quarterback. He gets it done when it matters! Great quarterbacks win the playoffs, period! Pay him Drew Brees money!
Overreaction B: Judging quarterbacks by their wins and losses is incredibly stupid, as evidenced by the fact that Mark Sanchez is 4-2 in playoff games, while Trent Dilfer is 6-1. Anyone who ever looks at a quarterback’s win-loss record understands nothing about football in any way whatsoever.
Somewhere between these overreactions lies a truth about quarterbacks in general and quarterbacks like Flacco in particular. The “elite” thing is just silly: it’s bait to hook casual fans into reading/watching general interest sports coverage. No one seriously thinks Flacco is on the same level as Brady, Rodgers, or Brees, and few would even think that if Evans had caught that pass last year. Citing a win-loss record is a great way to oversimplify football, miss the point completely, and draw ridiculous conclusions about players like John Skelton because of a defense-and-kicker fueled hot streak.
On the flip side, ignoring win-loss records completely -- not across half a season, but across years -- veers into contrived skepticism. Brady’s 17-6 record in the playoffs is a meaningful signifier of his quality as a quarterback, and his historic significance. Colin Kaepernick’s 1-0 record in the playoffs reminds us of his inexperience. Randall Cunningham’s 3-6 playoff record speaks to his shortcomings; Archie Manning’s 0-0 record speaks to his franchise’s shortcomings. There are dozens of oh-fers, from Y.A. Tittle’s 0-4 to Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin’s 0-1 to the many 0-0’s, to remind us that no bad quarterbacks, and only a few good ones, have given us 12 playoff games to dissect.
In short, playoff game totals and playoff win totals tell a story. For the 19 players above, they tell us that a quarterback was good enough to start for a playoff team for a high number of games and seasons. By extension, that tells us something about the quarterback, something holistic, that adds perspective to the drops, coverage lapses, sacks, bombs, fumbles, dominant performances by teammates, missed field goals, and everything else that makes up a starting quarterback’s career.
The Patriots beat the Ravens on a dropped pass and a missed field goal last January. The Ravens beat the Patriots in the 2009 playoffs with 234 rushing yards, 34 passing yards, and three interceptions of Brady. These games do not make the 2008-2012 Ravens, their coach, or their quarterback “elite” or awful, though they stake out some territory on the better part of in-between. They have proven their worthiness just by showing up over and over again.
Stuff Keeps Happening. There is only one quarterback on that all-time postseason win list that is vaguely comparable to Flacco: Jim Plunkett. Plunkett was a big guy with a live arm and a running style that made it look like he was still figuring out the whole concept of ankles. His grace inspired no poetry, but he threw hard and gave a great effort, and his defense-and-rushing-oriented Raiders teams won a lot of games. The similarities can be taken too far -- Plunkett had all of his success late in his career, unlike Flacco -- but you can draw parallels between their playing styles, their supporting casts, and the results.
The Raiders were the second best team in the 1970s AFC, behind the mighty Steelers. Plunkett took over just as the Steelers started their slow fade, and the Raiders, after years as playoff fodder, squeezed into the postseason as a Wild Card, got hot, and won a Super Bowl. Two years later, they came back and won another one. The metaphor for the Patriots and Ravens is obvious, though if the Patriots are fading, it is the slowest fade since the final chord of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”
Last week, we compared the Ravens to the 1970s Rams. This week it is the Raiders. The message is that many things are possible, even though few are likely. The Ravens can squeeze into the Super Bowl like the 1979 Rams or start a mini-dynasty like the Plunkett Raiders. If Evans had caught that football last year, these things may have even come to pass.
The gap between the Patriots and Ravens appears yawning, but it is small. The Patriots are the better team, their home field advantage is significant, and I am picking them to win. But an upset would not be shocking, unprecedented, or out of character. The Ravens just have to do what they do best, as well as they possibly can, and they will keep the game close enough to change the national storyline.
History is often just a bunch of stuff that happened, reorganized into a storyline that makes it feel meaningful. The triumph of the Patriots and Ravens, for over a decade now, has been a triumph of being great enough often enough to be in position to change history with a play or two. The Patriots have a habit of benefiting from those plays, but the Ravens cannot be underestimated, because they proved last week that sometimes the ball lands where it is supposed to.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Ravens 24