Here are 20 thoughts on this weekend's playoff action, many of which have an Eagles slant:
1. I guess we should start with Tim Tebow. He might not even be the Broncos starting quarterback at this time next season, but who cares? Tebow's performance yesterday is THE story from wild-card weekend. He completed just 10 passes, but set career highs with 316 yards and 15.05 yards per attempt. Perhaps most importantly, Tebow did not turn the ball over. Consider this: In the entire regular season, the Steelers' defense allowed two pass plays of 40+ yards, the fewest in the NFL. Tebow completed four such passes, including the game-winner to Demaryius Thomas for 80 yards. Thomas was outstanding, finishing with four catches for 204 yards. And the Broncos' offensive line, going up against a depleted Steelers defensive line, deserves a ton of credit. Tebow had all day on many of those throws. Denver might get blown out next week (New England opens as a 13.5-point favorite, per sportsbook.com), but who's not going to tune in to that game?
2. It's hard to look at the Texans' defense and not think of the Eagles. Both teams brought on new defensive coordinators in the offseason. The Eagles went with Juan Castillo, who had never done it before. The Texans went with Wade Phillips, who had been a head coach or defensive coordinator for the previous 29 seasons. Both teams added free-agent cornerbacks. The Eagles signed Nnamdi Asomugha, who didn't meet expectations in his first season here. And the Texans added Johnathan Joseph, who was named a second-team All Pro. But maybe most importantly, Houston got immediate contributions from rookies J.J. Watt (1st round, 11th overall) and Brooks Reed (2nd round, 42nd overall). The pair combined for 11.5 sacks. The Eagles have drafted 14 defensive players in the past two seasons, and I wouldn’t be comfortable saying any of them (except maybe Briain Rolle) played at an above-average level in 2011. New coordinator, new personnel, shortened offseason, young contributors, and the Texans improved dramatically on defense.
3. The Saints hung 45 points on the Lions, even though they turned the ball over twice in the first half. New Orleans scored touchdowns on five straight possessions in the second half before running the clock out to end the game. I guess you could say the Drew Brees to Marques Colston connection was effective. Brees completed all seven passes he attempted to Colston for 120 yards. Overall, Brees completed 33 of 43 passes for 466 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He averaged 10.8 yards per attempt.
4. The Saints don’t have a single running back among the top-30 rushers in the NFL, but Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory get the job done. They combined for 164 yards on 31 carries (5.3 YPC) against the Lions. According to Football Outsiders, the Saints had the second-best rushing attack in the NFL during the regular season.
5. Speaking of Sproles, Al Michaels reminded Eagles fans (and America) that the speedy running back picked the Saints over the Birds last offseason. Sproles set career highs with 603 yards rushing and a 6.9 yards per carry average. He also set career highs as a receiver (86 catches for 710 yards). Plus he returns kicks and punts. The Eagles have tried to find a reliable backup for LeSean McCoy the past two seasons. Mike Bell and Ronnie Brown were disasters. Jerome Harrison was good, but he left after one season. This offseason, they’ll again have to find someone to fill that role, unless they think Dion Lewis can do it.
6. You’re going to hear a lot this week about how the Giants' front four will be the key to beating the Packers. And in many ways, that’s true. ESPN flashed a stat Sunday morning, which showed the top teams in the league at picking up sacks without blitzing. The Eagles were No. 1; 38 of their 50 sacks came without sending extra pressure. Of course, those numbers could look vastly different in 2012, depending on what happens with Steve Spagnuolo, Castillo, Jim Washburn and the coaching staff.
7. Matt Ryan is taking a lot of heat this morning, and a lot of it is fair. But the Falcons' offensive line was not good enough Sunday afternoon. Early on, Chris Canty put a big hit on Ryan, beating center Todd McClure up the middle. Jason Pierre-Paul did not have a sack, but continues to show he’s a complete player and outstanding against the run. And Rocky Bernard, who did not have a sack all season, beat Falcons guard Joe Hawley, bringing Ryan down in the second.
8. Failures to convert in short yardage killed the Falcons. In the second quarter, they had a 4th-and-1 from the Giants' 24, but Ryan couldn't pick up the first on a QB sneak. And in the third, down 10-2, Ryan was stuffed again on 4th-and-1 from the Giants' 21. For the record, I really don’t have a problem with going for it on those two occasions. If your offense can't convert in those spots, chances are, you're not going to go very far in the playoffs anyway.
9. There were three running backs taken ahead of McCoy in the 2009 draft: Knowshon Moreno (Broncos), Donald Brown (Colts) and Beanie Wells (Cardinals). Clearly, McCoy has outperformed all three through three seasons. But there’s another running back from that class, whose numbers are similar to McCoy: Arian Foster. As you've probably heard by now, Foster, who had 153 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Texans' win over the Bengals, went undrafted back in 2009. Here’s a look at how he and McCoy compare. The first table is rushing yards only.
As you can see, the numbers are very similar.
Both are versatile backs, who can also catch the football. Here are their receiving numbers:
McCoy has more catches, but Foster has been more prolific in the receiving game. Brian Westbrook's best yards-per-catch number was 10.1, back in 2005. Foster's averaging 10.3 yards per catch for his career. That's impressive.
Looking ahead, Foster will be a restricted free agent this offseason. McCoy is signed through 2012, but could get an extension in the coming months. It will be interesting to see how each is compensated by their respective teams.
10. Six of the eight teams that played this weekend are on the Eagles' 2012 schedule. The Broncos and Texans are the only exceptions. The Falcons, Bengals and Lions all travel to the Linc. That means whoever the defensive coordinator is will have to game-plan for Calvin Johnson (12 catches, 211 yards, two touchdowns vs. the Saints). The Eagles travel to New Orleans and Pittsburgh. And of course, there are the usual two games vs. the Giants.
11. Did you see who was starting at right guard for the Bengals? It was former Eagle, Mike McGlynn. Hard to believe it was just last season (2010) when McGlynn was the Eagles' starting center. Mike Mayock criticized McGlynn on the game-changing play where he was lined up against Watt, who intercepted Andy Dalton and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown to put Houston up, 17-10, late in the first half. The way I saw it, Watt just made an outstanding play.
12. Other ex-Eagles who were on the field this weekend: Quintin Demps, Brodrick Bunkley, Joe Mays and Donald Lee. OK, Lee is probably a stretch. He spent training camp with the Birds this past summer but was never on the 53-man roster. Against Houston, he had a 36-yard grab, which turned out to be Cincinnati's longest play from scrimmage all game. Demps, a fourth-round pick by the Eagles in 2008, played in 11 games the last two seasons with Houston. Mays, a sixth-round pick by the Birds in 2008, started 13 games for Denver in 2011. And Bunkley, a first-round pick in 2006, was traded to the Broncos this past offseason. He had a very good season and sacked Ben Roethlisberger in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game.
13. Late in the fourth quarter, it seemed like Roethlisberger was going to lead the Steelers to victory. He bought time and somehow fit a throw past Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams to Jerricho Cotchery for a 31-yard touchdown that tied the game with 3:48 left. With 29 seconds on the clock, the Steelers had a 1st-and-10 from the Broncos’ 45 yard line, but Roethlisberger could not find a receiver, and Denver's Elvis Dumervil sacked him, forcing a fumble in the process. Pittsburgh lost 11 yards and never got the opportunity to attempt a field goal. The Steelers have made the playoffs in four of five seasons under Mike Tomlin, including two Super Bowl appearances and one title. They've won at least 12 games three times in that span.
14. One thing I don’t get: Why do players adamantly encourage their head coaches to challenge plays when they clearly are not sure what the right call is? For example, Pacman Jones went crazy in the second quarter, urging Marvin Lewis to challenge a completion to Texans tight end Owen Daniels. Lewis threw the red flag, was wrong, and the Bengals were out of challenges before halftime. I know, I know. Anyone who’s listening to Pacman deserves what's coming to them, but I see this constantly and have never understood it. The players are only hurting their teams by acting like they're sure, when clearly, they are not.
15. For the third straight week, the Giants' offense got a huge YAC play from one of its wide receivers. This time, it was Hakeem Nicks going 72 yards in the third to put New York up, 17-2. About 67 of those yards came after the catch. In the two previous weeks, it was Victor Cruz coming up with the big catch, but Nicks was the playmaker in this one, finishing with six catches for 115 yards and a pair of scores.
16. A day to forget for Bengals safety Chris Crocker. He dropped a potential interception in the third with Cincinnati down, 17-10. Three plays later, T.J. Yates hit Andre Johnson for a 40-yard touchdown. Later, Crocker got stiff-armed/run over by Foster on his 42-yard touchdown run.
17. Eli Manning completed 23 of 32 passes for 277 yards and three touchdowns. His 27-yard TD to Mario Manningham in the fourth quarter was a beauty. The last time Manning was in a playoff game was against the Eagles back in 2009. In that game, he completed just 15 of 29 passes for 169 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. The Eagles advanced to the NFC championship with a 23-11 victory, before falling to the Cardinals.
18. The biggest mistake I make every year is assuming that what happens in the regular season will carry over into the postseason. The Giants' offense had just four runs of 20+ yards in 16 regular-season games, fewest in the NFL. But yesterday, they had two - a 34-yard run by Brandon Jacobs and a 30-yard run by Ahmad Bradshaw. New York had 172 yards on the ground and averaged 5.5 yards per carry. In the regular season, they averaged 89.2 rushing yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry.
19. Remember last year’s Eagles-Packers first-round game? Green Bay averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in the regular season, 25th in the league. But against the Eagles, James Starks carried 23 times for 123 yards, averaging 5.3 yards per run. We like to think that we have a good handle on these teams after 16 games, but the truth is, the playoffs are different. Certain players elevate their games, and teams exploit matchups, sometimes showing different strengths and weaknesses than we expect.
20. Leftovers: Can someone ask NBC’s Tom Hammond who Matt "Schube" is? ...Not sure how I feel about those red contact lenses, Kyle Vanden Bosch. Quite frightening, actually. …The only negative about the Broncos' quick touchdown was we didn’t get to hear Phil Simms stumble over the new overtime rules. ...The Saints (-3.5), Patriots (-13.5), Ravens (-7.5) and Packers (-8.5) are your favorites for the divisional round. New Orleans is the only road favorite among the group.