Here are 20 thoughts (with an Eagles slant) on this weekend's playoff action:
1. On Nov. 21, the Giants sat at 6-4. They had just come off a 17-10 loss to the Eagles at New Meadowlands Stadium. A loss in which their offense punted nine times, turned it over twice, scored one touchdown and one field goal in 13 possessions. A loss in which Vince Young led an 18-play, 80-yard game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. The Packers, meanwhile, were 10-0 on Nov. 21. They were coming off a 35-26 win over the Bucs. They had scored 30+ points in four straight games and seven of their first 10. And they were the odds-on favorite to repeat.
2. Which is part of what makes yesterday so remarkable. The Giants went into Lambeau and beat the Packers soundly, 37-20. They are now 2.5-point underdogs entering Sunday's game in San Francisco and are in great position to compete for their second Super Bowl title in five years, despite going just 9-7 in the regular season. So, how'd they do it? Let's start with the Giants' offense and Eli Manning, who completed 21 of 33 passes for 330 yards, three touchdowns and one interception (114.5 QB rating). In two playoff wins, Manning has completed 44 of 65 passes (68 percent) for 607 yards (9.3 YPA), six touchdowns and one interception. He's now two wins away from having one more Super Bowl ring than his brother.
3. Waiting for Manning and the Giants are the 49ers, who knocked off the Saints, 36-32. With 14 seconds left in the game, San Francisco lined up at the Saints' 14 yard line, down 32-29. I was watching the game with a bunch of friends. The feeling in the room was this: Don't make a mistake, Alex Smith. Be smart. Even if you don't score, a David Akers field goal will force overtime. But looking back, the truth is that to get to the Super Bowl, your quarterback is going to have to make a play at some point. This was that point for Smith and the 49ers. He dropped back and hit Vernon Davis in the end zone. Not only did Davis catch the ball, but he simultaneously crushed Saints safety Roman Harper, for the game-winning touchdown. A moment Niners fans won't soon forget, and a moment that reminded many of Terrell Owens making a similar catch against the Packers 13 years earlier.
4. In the AFC, the Ravens handled the Texans, 20-13, to advance to the AFC championship game in New England. Joe Flacco is in his fourth season. And while the Ravens have won a lot of games with him, the quarterback needs to be evaluated individually. That's a long way of saying Sunday's game is huge for Flacco at this point in his career. He's only 27 years old and in his fourth season, but as I mentioned with Smith, at some point, your quarterback has to make a play. The Ravens' offense was unimpressive against a good Texans defense. The Patriots' defense has holes, and Tom Brady will be on the other sideline, not T.J. Yates. The Ravens will have to rely heavily on Ray Rice and their defense, but at some point, Flacco will be expected to make a play. Baltimore scored just three points after the first quarter Sunday. That won't get it done against New England. Big spot for Flacco.
5. The most boring game of the weekend was the Patriots' 45-10 win over the Broncos. Not much to really say about that one, as Tebow-Mania came to and. Taking a step back, Tim Tebow was good for the league this year. Did some (ESPN devoting a full hour to him comes to mind) get carried away? Of course. But in Week 13, after the Eagles lost to the Seahawks on Thursday night, I went to Boston for the weekend. I was watching NFL games at a bar that Sunday afternoon, and you know which game captured my attention? Broncos-Vikings. Denver scored 28 second-half points en route to a 35-32 win. As I said last week, I'm not sure Tebow will even be the Broncos' starter at this time next year, but he certainly gave Denver fans some great memories this season, including last week's win over the Steelers.
6. Last week, I mentioned how the Texans added a new defensive coordinator (Wade Phillips) in the offseason, switched systems, lost Mario Williams for the year and still improved dramatically in just about every defensive category. The one area I probably undersold them was the play of their rookies. Houston's top two picks - J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed - combined for 20 tackles (15 solo), five sacks and a forced fumble against the Ravens. Danny Watkins and Jaiquawn Jarrett, the Eagles' first two picks, could very well end up being good players. But Watt and Reed provided quite a contrast to what we saw from the Birds' rookies this season.
7. And the 49ers have done a pretty good job of disproving the whole lockout/shortened offseason excuse too. With a new head coach (Jim Harbaugh), they went from 6-10 to 13-3 and are now one win away from the Super Bowl. Alex Smith set career highs in pretty much every statistical category. San Francisco signed Carlos Rogers to play cornerback, and he had a great year. And first-round pick Aldon Smith had 14 sacks (not including the one he had on Drew Brees on Saturday).
8. Speaking of draft picks, the Eagles and Giants both selected wide receivers in the first round in 2009 and defensive ends in the first round in 2010. In '09, the Eagles traded up to get Jeremy Maclin (19th overall). The Giants picked Hakeem Nicks at No. 29. In 2010, the Birds took Brandon Graham with the 13th pick, and New York selected Jason Pierre-Paul at No. 15. I'm not making this point to rip the Eagles. The truth is, Maclin is a really good player. And it's unfair to properly evaluate Graham until we see how he performs when healthy. But Nicks and Pierre-Paul are already superstars. This is going to be a comparison worth monitoring for years to come.
9. More on Nicks: in two playoff games this season, he's got 13 catches for 280 yards and four touchdowns. The Giants have gotten huge YAC plays from either Nicks or Victor Cruz in each of their last four games. Against the Packers, Nicks took a Manning pass 66 yards for a touchdown in the first half; about 49 of those yards came after the catch. And he also came down with the 37-yard Hail Mary. In case you're wondering, here's a look at how Nicks and Maclin stack up (regular season only):
10. One more comparison to make: LeSean McCoy and Ray Rice. Rice wasn't all that productive on Sunday, accumulating 80 yards on 25 touches. His longest run went for just 9 yards, although Rice did have a 20-yard catch. Why compare him to McCoy? Because Rice is a free agent this offseason and was a second-round pick (55th overall) in the 2008 draft. McCoy was the 53rd pick overall a year later. His contract is up after the 2012 season, but the Eagles could lock him up this offseason. Here's how their numbers from 2011 compare:
Rushing yards are nearly identical, although I should mention that McCoy played one fewer game. And while McCoy's receiving yards were down, it should be noted that he had 592 through the air in 2010. Keep an eye on what happens with Rice's contract situation, because the Eagles and McCoy could be looking at his deal as a model to follow.
11. Special teams played a key role this weekend. Jacoby Jones' fumble on a punt return in the first quarter led to a Ravens touchdown. And the Saints fumbled twice on special teams; both led to 49ers field goals. That got me thinking about the Eagles' special teams. According to Football Outsiders, that unit took a step back in 2011, ranking 18th overall. The kicking game ended up being fine with Alex Henery, but the return game was terrible. That's something else to keep in mind as the Eagles tweak their roster this offseason. They need to improve in the return game.
12. Last offseason, we threw around several names when discussing how the Eagles would upgrade at right cornerback: Ike Taylor, Carlos Rogers, Johnathan Joseph, Nnamdi Asomugha, Jimmy Smith. Taylor had a nightmarish game last week against the Broncos. Rogers had a career year. Joseph was a second-team All-Pro. And Smith, the rookie, is playing a lesser role with the Ravens. I expect Asomugha to bounce back in 2012, but that's not how I expected things to play out in 2011.
13. I don't remember which broadcast it was, but they mentioned that Gregg Williams rushed six or more defenders more than any team in the league this season. Williams was the Saints' defensive coordinator, but is expected to join Jeff Fisher in St. Louis this offseason. Over the weekend, I brought up the possibility of Jim Washburn joining them both. On the surface, a Washburn/Williams reunion doesn't make sense: A defensive coordinator who likes to send big blitzes and a defensive line coach who likes to rely on pressure from the front four? But Tommy Lawlor over at IgglesBlitz.com recently had a good post about how Williams has run several different kinds of defenses in his career. That point relates to the possibility of Washburn and Steve Spagnuolo working together here. Good coaches evaluate their personnel and craft the system around it, don't they? That's why I'm not ready to discount the possibility of Washburn and Spagnuolo meshing.
14. The Giants' defense had plenty of good moments, but the Packers' offense has itself to blame for not executing when it had chances. Green Bay dropped six passes, and Aaron Rodgers missed throws that we never see him miss. Rodgers was sacked four times, and Green Bay turned it over four times also. The Packers' offense delivered its worst performance of the season at the worst possible time.
15. Two announcing notes: Did you hear Moose Johnston reference the concussions of Kevin Kolb and Stewart Bradley during the Saints-Niners game? Kolb and Bradley were allowed to re-enter the Packers game in Week 1 of the 2010 season after suffering concussions. Johnston brought their names up after Saints tight end Jimmy Graham took a big hit from Donte Whitner early on. Meanwhile, in the Giants-Packers game, Troy Aikman talked about how much Green Bay missed Cullen Jenkins. The Eagles had plenty of misses this offseason, but Jenkins was not one of them.
16. OK, I lied. Some more viewing notes:
- Fox's Tony Siragusa said Chris Ivory's nickname was Baby Brontosaurus. Is there any way to check if that's even remotely close to being true? And if it is, it's officially the worst nickname of all-time.
- Quite a few commercials about the new Burger King fries. I've tried 'em. Same taste, just a little thicker.
- At what point did Subway think: You know, if we can get Jay Glazer and Michael Phelps to do a commercial together, I really think we'll sell a lot more sandwiches?
- I used to be a constant "flipper" during commercial breaks. Now I just look at my phone and catch up on Tweets. Anyone else find themselves doing that more and more during games?
17. My favorite play of the weekend might have been Justin Smith bull-rushing Jermon Bushrod, reaching over him and dragging Drew Brees down. Eagles offensive lineman Evan Mathis Tweeted this during the 49ers-Saints game:
There's nobody in football that plays harder than Justin Smith. I'm convinced he's a robot.
Smith, of course, forced a Maclin fumble in the Niners' 24-23 win over the Eagles during the regular season. Had that not happened, the Birds would have had the ball at the San Francisco 32 with 2:06 left, down just one point and needing a field goal to take the lead.
18. The idea that you just have to get into the playoffs, get hot and anything can happen is true (to a point). We're seeing it with the Giants. And we saw it last year with the Packers. It's also true that in many cases, you need the quarterback to be hot. Alex Smith played well on Sunday, but can he put together a three-game stretch that's good enough? And more importantly, from an Eagles perspective, can Michael Vick put together a three- or four-game stretch that's good enough? It'll be interesting to see if Joe Banner or Andy Reid reference the Giants when they address the media at some point this offseason.
19. Luck always plays a little bit of a role. The Texans and Ravens both fumbled three times. Houston lost one that led to a Ravens touchdown. Baltimore didn't lose any. Oh, and don't forget that Neil Rackers' 50-yard field goal that hit the crossbar.
20. Leftovers: The Ravens are 17-1 at home the past two seasons. The Eagles are 7-10. ...The worst call of the weekend had to be the Greg Jennings non-fumble that should have been ruled a turnover. How did that call hold up after a booth review? I didn't think that one was even close. ...Good job by Aikman to point out that Rodgers had Jennings wide open on the play where Osi Umenyiora stripped him. ...At one point, the Packers had a seven-possession stretch of three fumbles, two punts, one turnover on downs and one field goal. That's where the game was lost.
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