It’s a good omen when the playoffs begin with a football game out of a movie. Chiefs-Colts wasn’t expected to be the most action-packed contest of the weekend when it came out of the regular-season hopper, but it was one of the classic playoff games in recent memory, filled with surprises and drama from both sides from start to finish. It’s hard to imagine that matchup and last week’s Giants-Washington game coming from the same set of parents, but it was one of those breathtaking games that reminds you why it’s exciting to sit in front of a television all weekend and watch teams you don’t root for.
You already know it was an awesome game, though. Here’s the bigger question: How on earth did the Colts manage to come back from a 28-point third-quarter deficit and a 1 percent win expectancy to hold on for a wild victory? Was it that the Colts never gave up? That they wanted it more than the Chiefs? Probably not. Even Jim Irsay couldn’t have dreamed of a comeback that stunning. Instead, there were tangible reasons why they were able to make their way past a game Chiefs team to a matchup with the Patriots next Saturday night.
That begins with the guy slinging passes around for the Colts. I think this win told us the most about Andrew Luck and where he’s currently at in terms of his development. It has been pretty clear since his sophomore year in college that the ceiling for Luck is to be the best quarterback in football, and while he’s probably further away from there than his record might indicate, he’s also a player who can look every bit that good for stretches at a time.
Throughout the season, the Indianapolis coaching staff has repeatedly harped on how important it is to focus on the run and be a team built around its rushing attack. It hasn’t rung true with the nature of the NFL in 2013 or, to be honest, with how the team has performed on the field. Outside of the second half of the San Francisco game in Week 3, Indianapolis’s offense has seemingly worked best when it has relied upon Luck to make plays and used the run as a change of pace, as opposed to the other way around. It seemed like the Colts were adopting that tack when they threw on all seven plays of their opening drive, with Luck going 7-for-7 while driving the team 74 yards for a touchdown, and they mostly abandoned the run after Trent Richardson’s fumble early in the second quarter. Down 23-7, 41 of their ensuing 55 plays1 were attempts to pass. The situation might very well have forced the Colts to employ their optimal offensive strategy, because it certainly looked like Luck couldn’t be stopped for most of that run.
Luck was stopped, of course, in spectacular fashion: For a guy leading an incredible comeback, he kept the Chiefs in it by feeding them three interceptions, including what appeared to be backbreaking picks on consecutive passes on either side of halftime. They included a trio of problems that young quarterbacks often run into. The first interception saw Luck lock onto his receiver with his eyes, allowing veteran cornerback Brandon Flowers to read where Luck was going with the football and undercut the route for an interception. After halftime, Luck’s second pick saw him force a throw to the sideline to a receiver who wasn’t really open, with safety Husain Abdullah able to drive on Luck’s pass to make a relatively easy interception. Later, Luck would throw a checkdown behind T.Y. Hilton, who bobbled the pass and allowed Abdullah to snatch it out of the air. Some young quarterbacks have those problems on every pass they throw, often compounding one another in the process. Others have it pop up once every few passes. Luck is better than just about any young quarterback in football, but even he has to deal with those growing pains as he matures. On a good day, you get away with those mistakes, like when the Chiefs dropped two Luck would-be interceptions in Week 16. On a tough day, the opposing safety snatches the ball out of midair and manages to stamp his feet in bounds.
When the Chiefs weren’t creating turnovers, they were basically witnesses to one of the more incredible halves of football you’ll ever see. Colts punter Pat McAfee’s only punt of the game came at the end of the first quarter, as Indianapolis’s 10 ensuing drives produced four turnovers, a field goal, and five touchdowns. During their furious second-half comeback, the Colts felt downright unstoppable, and the numbers back that feeling up. Indy averaged 11.1 yards per play during their seven meaningful second-half drives, with 21 of their 34 plays from scrimmage producing first downs. The Colts faced just two meaningful third downs all half, converting them both. And when Donald Brown fumbled for the first time since 2009, in what was likely the biggest play of the game, Luck’s preternatural instincts kicked in quickly enough to be the first man to the football before lumbering his way across the goal line for an instant classic of a touchdown.2
If you’re a Chiefs fan, you have to be disappointed in how the pass rush turned out. With the return of Justin Houston expected to reinvigorate them, it was reasonable to imagine the dominant Chiefs defense from the first half of 2013 reappearing. Instead, they got a good effort out of Houston and little more from the rest of the rush. Houston picked up the team’s only sack and had three of Kansas City’s four knockdowns of Luck, but a limited Tamba Hali had little to offer,3 and Dontari Poe failed to make an impact after a year of heavy snap counts. After their 38-10 peak, the Chiefs knocked Luck down just once while offering no resistance to his withering blows. ESPN Stats & Information reports that the Chiefs pressured Luck on just seven of his 49 dropbacks on Saturday, which is a season low for the Colts, with just two pressures amid 26 dropbacks in the second half. With nobody bothering Luck, a secondary that eventually lost top cornerback Flowers to an injury just couldn’t hold up against the masterful Hilton and a bevy of underneath targets, as the Colts were able to repeatedly burn overmatched free safety Kendrick Lewis, notably on the game-winning touchdown to Hilton.
Those injuries obviously materially affected the Chiefs as the game went along. It’s ironic, of course, because the Chiefs might very well have made the playoffs thanks to a lack of injuries; their starters missed a total of just 17 games this year, which will rate as one of the lowest season-long totals in recent memory. With first overall pick Eric Fisher already ruled out before the game and Hali listed at well less than 100 percent, the Chiefs were already a little wary about their team health heading into the contest. The biggest blow came early, as the Chiefs lost star halfback Jamaal Charles to a concussion after just five snaps, leaving Kansas City without its MVP candidate and one of the most irreplaceable players in football. It would eventually lose his backup, Knile Davis, to a knee injury, leaving the team with Cyrus Gray (nine carries in 2013) and Dexter McCluster (a converted wide receiver who played halfback in college) at running back. Wideout Donnie Avery, who caught a 79-yard bomb from Alex Smith for an early touchdown, also left the game with a concussion. Flowers was injured on a third-quarter touchdown and could not return, and Houston was forced from the game one play before Luck’s comeback-completing bomb to Hilton.
It’s hard not to imagine the availability of even one of those players changing this game. Do the Chiefs continue to blow the lead if Flowers is in the game at cornerback, pushing Marcus Cooper into the nickel role and Dunta Robinson to the bench? Could Fisher have helped keep Robert Mathis off of Smith on the strip-sack that helped give the Colts life in the third quarter? Would they have been able to run the ball in the second half and kill more clock if Charles had managed to stay in the contest? Crucially, in a play that I imagine will haunt Chiefs fans all offseason, would Charles or Davis have been able to come up with the long bomb down the sideline from Smith that a wide-open Gray wasn’t able to bring in? A touchdown there would have given the Chiefs a 48-31 lead with a quarter to go; instead, less than five minutes later, the Colts were within three points at 41-38.
For those reasons, I don’t think you can really blame too much of this collapse on Andy Reid, who took a lot of flak after the game. To put it in simple terms, imagine telling a Chiefs fan that Kansas City would lose Charles on the first drive and allow the Colts to score 45 points. After the Chiefs fan asked you how you could see into the future, they would probably express their disgust at getting blown out in the wild-card game. Nobody would have given the Chiefs a chance without Charles and with a terrible game from their defense. And yet, somehow, the Chiefs managed to scrape together 44 points and come within an intentional grounding penalty of having a good shot at winning this damn thing. How is that not an incredible referendum on Reid’s performance? Alex Smith — Alex freaking Smith — went 30-of-46 for 378 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in this game. He was throwing to Dwayne Bowe and Avery and, by the end of the game, completing elaborate cross-field pick plays to A.J. Jenkins for first downs.
For what should Reid take the blame? Does he get it for not running the ball during the second half? It seems equally likely that, had Reid run the ball, he would have taken flak for running the ball with a fumble-prone rookie in Davis and a totally inexperienced backup in Gray. The offense was still able to create plays out of nothing with crafty design during the second half, notably the pick play with Jenkins and the missed bomb to Gray.
There was some consternation about Reid’s mismanagement of the clock at the end of the game, when the Chiefs let the clock run down to the two-minute warning before coming up to the line and calling their final timeout, but it wasn’t a move that was without logic or one that materially changed their chances of winning. Their previous play, a screen to McCluster, ended at 2:18 and left the Chiefs with a fourth-and-11. Were they supposed to rush up to the line of scrimmage and get the play off before the two-minute warning? That also seems suboptimal. Reid could have called the timeout at 2:18 and set up for a fourth-down play, but had the play failed, it would have turned the ball over to the Colts with somewhere around 2:12 left. Even if the Chiefs had somehow found a way to force a stop for the first time since the first quarter after turning the ball over on downs, they would have gotten the ball back deep in their own territory under that scenario with 27 seconds to go, leaving them with little chance of winning. It also would have left them without a timeout as they drove after the two-minute warning in search of a possible game-winning field goal. Had they let the clock run to the two-minute warning and failed on fourth down without using their timeout, they could have gotten the ball back with about 22 seconds left. Basically, the Chiefs were, for all intents and purposes, all-in to win on that drive. You would rather have that extra 27-second possession to work with, just in case something goofy happens, but they were going to lose if they didn’t pick up that fourth-and-11. And when the Chiefs came out of the timeout, they ended up with Bowe matched up one-on-one versus Josh Gordy, a dream matchup for Kansas City, only for Bowe’s route to drift too far to the sideline, with Smith’s throw carrying him out of bounds. Better execution on that play and the Chiefs likely win.
There was a moment when Reid hurt his team’s chances of winning, but it’s not the point most remember. Instead, the moment when Reid really cost his team with a subpar decision came hours before that fateful fourth down. It would be fair to have forgotten it, given all that happened afterward, but Smith’s first long completion of the game in the first quarter found an open Bowe, who rumbled all the way to the 2-yard line after the catch for a 63-yard gain.4 After advancing the ball to the 1 on second down in between one incomplete pass and two Kniles Davis runs, Reid sent out Ryan Succop and kicked a 19-yard field goal to give the Chiefs a 10-7 lead.
This is the simplest example of the go for it/kick the field goal debate, and it’s also the one that leans heaviest toward the side of attempting to score a touchdown. The break-even rate justifying going for it in a vacuum is 43 percent; throw in the added benefit of likely pinning the opposing team inside the 1-yard line even with a miss, and the break-even rate gets even lower. Brian Burke pegs it for this situation at 34 percent. Reid might have been more conservative because Charles was out, but he could have had Nile Rodgers at running back and succeeded 35 percent of the time with a yard to go. He couldn’t possibly have known it then, but his team ended up really needing those four points.
Chuck Pagano, meanwhile, got aggressive when his team needed a big play and came up with a stunning riposte. With his team down 24-7 in the second quarter and Coby Fleener stopped one yard short of a first down, it wouldn’t have been hard for a coach to contort himself into justifying a punt. The ball was at midfield, and failing would have given the Chiefs excellent field position with a chance of producing a lead from which the Colts wouldn’t have been able to come back.5 Instead, Pagano left his offense out on fourth-and-1 and ran, of all things, the read-option, with Luck correctly reading a Chiefs linebacker crashing down to attack Richardson before holding the ball himself and sprinting around the vacated end for 21 yards. It was, according to the records of ESPN Stats & Information, the first and only time the Colts have run the read-option all season.
As for the Colts, well, they finished their stunning second half having produced the second-largest playoff comeback in NFL history despite losing the turnover battle6 four to one, making them the first team since 2003 to win a playoff game with a turnover margin of minus-3.7 It’s easy to make an anecdotal case that this game will lead them in one direction or another; if you’re an optimist, you might suggest that the Colts will follow the lead of the 2012 Ravens in letting an inspirational, incredible comeback lift them en route to an unlikely Super Bowl win. If you’re a pessimist, you might point out how the winners of the most incredible playoff games in recent memory — like the 2011 49ers win over the Saints and the 2010 Seahawks beastquaking over, um, the Saints — failed to come up with victories in the games following their emotion-draining playoff wins. As a realist, I will suggest that the Colts will go as far as Luck can take them, and that nobody knows just how far that might be.
Who needs the Superdome? After a week of hearing that they couldn’t win on the road and wouldn’t be able to handle the frigid weather in Philadelphia, the Saints traveled to the City of Brotherly Love and came away with a 26-24 victory on Saturday night. In doing so, the Saints ironically adopted a game plan that has been used to try to beat them in their home for so many years: keep-away.
The Saints managed to keep Philadelphia’s explosive offense off the field and mitigate their own issues passing the football by running the ball consistently and effectively throughout the game. The Saints saw the league’s best rushing attack on the other side of the field and outran them by 105 yards. In fact, the Saints ran the ball more times (36) than they passed (30). That has happened occasionally in Saints blowouts during the Sean Payton era, but across the 41 previous Saints games that had been decided by one touchdown or less during Payton’s tenure, the Saints had only run the ball more than they’ve thrown it a total of three times, and never since the 2009 season.
That’s even more impressive considering that the Saints were without Pierre Thomas, their top running back. Instead, the Saints ran 36 times for 185 yards and 14 first downs, averaging 5.1 yards per carry in the process, by handing the ball to Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson, and Darren Sproles. The much-maligned Ingram was the battering ram between the tackles that the Saints envisioned when they traded up to take him in the first round of the 2011 draft,8 with Robinson filling in as the supplementary back. The duo combined for 26 carries and 142 yards, while Drew Brees filled in as an unlikely short-yardage back, picking up three first downs on third-and-1 sneaks, including a pair of conversions on the final drive to set up Shayne Graham’s game-winning field goal. The Saints even ran in situations when it didn’t seem to make sense — the third-and-11 draw to start the fourth quarter stands out — but managed to find a way to make their broader game plan work.
It’s tempting to turn everything Eagles-related into an analysis of how it jibes with Chip Kelly and his outlook on football, and here, the Saints’ game plan put a spin on Kelly’s mantra that time of possession doesn’t matter. Kelly might very well be right about that, but what does matter are the things that time of possession imply: possessions and plays. By running the ball effectively, the Saints kept the clock moving and starved Philly of chances to get its own offense on the field. The Eagles averaged 12.2 meaningful possessions9 and 65.9 offensive plays per game this year. On Saturday night, the Eagles’ offense only got 10 possessions and 57 plays to work with, both of which were tied for its season low.
Kelly would likely suggest that 57 plays and 10 possessions are plenty if you execute well on offense, and that can be true, but it’s also pretty clear that the Eagles would have wanted an extra possession after their offense got going late in the second half. Nick Foles & Co. scored a touchdown at the end of the first half after a Brees interception left them with a short field; otherwise, the Saints’ defense held Philadelphia scoreless on their first five drives, with the only threat coming from a missed 48-yard field goal from Alex Henery.
A drop by a wide-open Riley Cooper to set up a third-quarter punt seemed to suggest that it wasn’t the Eagles’ day, especially when they proceeded to allow an Ingram touchdown to go down 20-7 on the next possession, but the Eagles sprinted back into the game after Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis went out with a concussion. Lewis had been the primary corner on star Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson, and on the next play, Foles hit Jackson on a jump ball for 40 yards, with the Eagles scoring on a fourth-down handoff to LeSean McCoy four plays later.
The next fourth down the Eagles faced was the one that might have cost them the game. Kelly, famed for his aggressiveness in college, had his team facing a fourth-and-110 from the Saints’ 7-yard line with 11:24 to go, down 20-14, and decided to kick a field goal. It was a curious move. Kicking still leaves you tied if you can muster another field goal, so it doesn’t drastically increase your chances of winning; a made field goal, according to Burke, would only increase Philly’s chances of winning to 32 percent. A successful conversion would leave the Eagles in excellent position to take the lead, and even without moving the ball into the end zone, it would improve Philadelphia’s chances of winning to 47 percent. Burke’s numbers suggest that Philly should have gone for it if its chances of success were greater than 41 percent. In discussing the call, there were some concerns raised that the Eagles aren’t a great team in short yardage, but there’s scant evidence for that; they converted 31 of 46 attempts (67.4 percent) on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go this year, while the league average was 60.1 percent. Only the Broncos and Panthers were better in short yardage. It was a misstep from Kelly.
Payton’s contentious call came earlier in the game, when his team went up 13-7 and then 20-7 after he chose to kick extra points as opposed to attempting two-point conversions. Given how well his team had been running the ball, that was a surprise, especially on the second touchdown, which came with 19 minutes to go in the game. With a 12-point lead and that much time to go, the Football Commentary model suggests that the Saints should have attempted a two-pointer if they thought their chances of success were higher than 39 percent. That’s right on the borderline, and in those cases, I think it’s best to defer to a coach’s read on his own team.
Payton’s decision to kick extra points seemed to come back to haunt him after Zach Ertz’s three-yard touchdown catch gave the Eagles a 24-23 lead with five minutes to go, only for the Saints to produce a game-killing drive. A mistake by Eagles coverage team member Colt Anderson on the ensuing kickoff allowed Sproles to get outside for a big gain, which was only exacerbated by Cary Williams’s horse-collar tackle to bring Sproles down. The Saints were set up on the Philadelphia 48-yard line, and while that was obviously an advantageous situation, it was important to try to score while leaving as little time as possible for Philadelphia to pick up a score of its own. The Saints pulled that off with a run-heavy 10-play drive that absorbed Philly’s final two timeouts and the two-minute warning before winding the clock down to three seconds,11 at which point journeyman kicker Shayne Graham punched a 32-yard field goal through the uprights to send the Saints to Seattle. Had the Eagles been able to stop Brees on one of his two third-and-1 sneaks, they would have gotten the ball back with a chance to win the game, regardless of whether Graham hit his field goal or not. Instead, the Eagles couldn’t come up with a stop when they needed one. And with those Seahawks and their league-best pass defense lurking, I wonder whether the Saints will continue their run-happy ways in an attempt to pull the upset in Seattle. Seattle’s offense isn’t as explosive as Philadelphia’s, but a successful run-heavy attack would keep Russell Wilson off the field while limiting the likelihood of turnovers, upon which Seattle’s defense thrives. Nobody created more takeaways this year than the Seahawks, and 28 of those 39 takeaways came on interceptions. It seems counterintuitive to take the ball out of Brees’s hands, but as he showed on Saturday, Brees can still find a way to affect the game when his team focuses on the run.
OK, so let’s be fair: This was the stinker of the weekend. Getting three exhilarating wild-card contests out of four is a stretch anybody would be happy with, so let’s not be too angry at the Bengals and Chargers for putting together a relatively sloppy contest. But it’s also fair to say that this game is less interesting for what it was than what it means. Obviously, at the simplest level, what the outcome of this game means is that we’ll be seeing a rematch of San Diego’s upset of Denver in Colorado next Sunday, thanks to the Chargers outplaying the Bengals in a 27-10 road victory.
It would be fair to say that the Chargers team that showed up for this win looked almost nothing like the unit that fell to the Bengals on December 1. I mean, there was probably a bolo tie in Philip Rivers’s locker somewhere back then, but those Chargers certainly didn’t play like these guys. In my preview, I noted that the Chargers had basically given Andy Dalton all the freedom he wanted in the first game, going the entire contest without sacking him or even hitting him once. That was not the case on Sunday. The San Diego pass rush came to life against one of the league’s best offensive lines, sacking Dalton three times and knocking him down six times across his 54 dropbacks. When they weren’t hitting Dalton, the Chargers were also doing a steady job of getting pressure on the underwhelming quarterback, which directly led to a number of inaccurate throws and both of Dalton’s interceptions. The Cincinnati running game was effective, but Cincinnati got out of its game plan and flipped its script from the first contest; after running the ball 38 times against just 23 passes the first time out, the Bengals threw 51 passes against just 25 runs during this playoff contest.
Meanwhile, the Chargers were the team that took over and ran the ball down Cincinnati’s throats for most of the game. Even after losing starting center Nick Hardwick to an injury in the first quarter, the Chargers stayed committed to the run and put together what was likely their most impressive game of the year on the ground. Liberally rotating Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead, and Ronnie Brown, the Chargers ran the ball 40 times for a whopping 196 yards on Sunday, very nearly averaging 5.0 yards per carry in the process. Those totals are admittedly inflated by a 58-yard touchdown run from Brown that came after the game was over as a contest, but given that Rivers threw just 16 passes in what was a close game until the fourth quarter, it’s pretty clear that the Chargers came in with a run-heavy game plan. Their offensive line deserves kudos for executing it.
At the same time, it’s also fair to say that the Bengals did much to beat themselves in this game. Marvin Lewis had yet another distressingly conservative game, punting on each of his first two possessions when his team faced a fourth-and-short inside Chargers territory.12 However, there is lots of blame to hand out in the Cincinnati locker room: Gio Bernard fumbled after making a catch inside the 5-yard line, turning a likely touchdown into a turnover; James Harrison took one of the stupidest personal foul penalties you’ll ever see (ripping Woodhead’s helmet off by the face mask while three Bengals players held the diminutive back in their grasp); and A.J. Green dropped a would-be long touchdown pass that hit him in the hands.
And Andy Dalton? Oh, Andy Dalton. After a solid first half, Dalton collapsed in a tragicomic second half that saw him turn the ball over on three consecutive possessions. First, Dalton tried to game the quarterback protection system by finishing a scramble while diving headfirst, in an attempt to either draw a penalty or roll forward untouched for a first down. Instead, Dalton fell with his body weight on the football, which squirmed out from underneath him to be recovered by the Chargers. On the next possession, a big Chargers blitz got through, leading a desperate Dalton to fling the ball out in the hopes of avoiding a sack, only to find a lurking Shareece Wright for an interception. And then, on the subsequent drive, Dalton stared down Tyler Eifert and had his soft out route jumped by linebacker Melvin Ingram for another pick. The possession after that even ended with Dalton facing a must-have fourth-and-3, only to overthrow Marvin Jones on a low-percentage route by a good 10 yards. The Bengals entered that four-drive series with a 42 percent chance of winning and left it with a 4 percent chance. Much of that has to fall onto Dalton’s shoulders.
After such an ignominious second-half performance, Dalton’s future with the team is obviously going to be called into question. There were already doubts that Dalton was going to be capable of leading this team on a deep playoff run, and now those fears seem to be founded. After three playoff starts, Dalton has thrown one touchdown pass against six interceptions, throwing in Sunday’s fumble for good measure. The Bengals are now 0-3 in those playoff games, with Dalton having lost to T.J. Yates, Matt Schaub, and Rivers. I mentioned last year that both Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan started their playoff career with three losses, but neither played as poorly as Dalton has during his brief postseason run.
Even ignoring the playoff performances, it’s telling that there are still doubts about Dalton after his third season at quarterback. Dalton’s numbers are competent and reflect a roughly league-average quarterback, but are there any reasons to think that Dalton should suddenly get better or that there’s something he needs to take the next step? He’s spent his entire career with a true superstar wideout on the roster. The Bengals have put an above-average or better offensive line in front of Dalton in each of the past three seasons, and their running game has been a strength each of the past two seasons. They used two of their top three picks this year on weapons for Dalton, adding Bernard and Eifert with two of the first 37 picks in the draft. They even have a highly regarded offensive coordinator in Jay Gruden. What else can the Bengals even get Dalton to aid his development? And if they can’t get him anything, how long should it take for Dalton to take a leap forward?
This isn’t some argument over pithy adjectives in a vacuum, either; there’s a real decision to be made here, and it’s coming up very soon. Dalton just finished his third year with the Bengals, which means he will be entering the final year of his four-year rookie contract in 2014. While players taken in the first round under the new CBA have a fifth-year team option available in their deals, Dalton was a second-round pick, so no such clause exists. The Bengals will be getting a relative bargain by paying Dalton $1.6 million during the final year of his deal next year, but at that point, they’ll have to decide whether they want to give him a new long-term contract, franchise him at an exorbitant cost (unlikely given that they will owe Green a mammoth contract at the same time), or allow him to hit unrestricted free agency. Given the leverage extracted by quarterbacks like Joe Flacco and Jay Cutler as they were about to hit unrestricted free agency, it seems wise for the Bengals to make a decision on Dalton before he finishes his deal. That would require them to make a call on his future with the team this offseason.13
That move could also be tied, directly or indirectly, to Lewis’s future with the team. It’s hard to imagine a coach getting much more out of this roster than Lewis has, but as Chase Stuart noted in May, no coach in NFL history has coached one team without winning a playoff game longer than Lewis has with these Bengals. That’s a record you don’t want to hold. Lewis didn’t suggest that anything was up after the game, saying, “I don’t have any questions about Andy’s role,” but that’s unlikely to remain the case. Assuming that Lewis survives this offseason, he would enter the 2014 season as a long-running playoff loser with a lame-duck quarterback. If Dalton struggles and/or the Bengals don’t win a playoff game, the team would likely move on from Dalton and, in the process, have a very good excuse to fire Lewis. On the other hand, if the Bengals were to decide to move on from Dalton now, there would be reasonable doubt that Cincinnati’s problems were Lewis’s fault as opposed to Dalton’s, which would get him time with a new quarterback to prove that he could win in the playoffs with the right guy under center. It’s difficult to forecast the quarterback market, but that could be a credible story if the Bengals were to pick up somebody like Michael Vick, Schaub, or Josh McCown14 in free agency to take over for Dalton. The Bengals wouldn’t get a load in return for Dalton, but the midround pick they would likely receive from a quarterback-hungry team would probably be better than any compensatory pick they would receive if Dalton left as a free agent.
It’s telling that one poor half is capable of making this a viable discussion, too. There are people out there who believe that Dalton might very well be Cincinnati’s franchise quarterback. There are others who don’t. It’s really hard, though, to imagine that anybody is sure he’s the man in Cincinnati. And after three middling years, well, you can’t be angry at the Bengals if they decide to move on.
Save the Best for Kap
Playoff football is often unfairly cast as a matchup between two quarterbacks. I literally just talked about Dalton losing to Yates in the previous section, as if they were competing one-on-one and the small consideration of A.J. Green or J.J. Watt being involved was basically irrelevant. Sorry about that, but after throwing out that conceit, allow me to make the same mistake with regard to 49ers-Packers. If there was ever a game that was decided by the freakish skills of the two quarterbacks at hand, the final playoff game of the weekend sure felt like that game. In subzero temperatures and on what appeared to be the field from Mutant League Football, the extra efforts of Colin Kaepernick and Aaron Rodgers were the shots that seemed to propel this game back and forth for 60 minutes.
For the 49ers, of course, Kaepernick’s legs carried the day. Having been victimized by Kaepernick’s rushing ability in a record-setting performance during last year’s divisional round, the Packers focused on slowing Kaepernick and the San Francisco running game during their opening-week loss to the 49ers this season, only to allow Kaepernick to throw for 412 yards in the process. This time, they (and the cold weather) actually did a good job of slowing down the San Francisco passing attack, and Frank Gore failed to break off a run longer than 10 yards in a 20-carry, 66-yard day, but Kaepernick created two enormous plays scrambling with his legs that changed the game.
The first came in the second quarter, with 4:37 left and the 49ers trailing, 7-6, thanks to a Kaepernick interception and a long ensuing touchdown drive from the Packers’ offense, which had previously been booed off the field by its freezing home fans. On the play, the Packers get pressure with a five-man rush against a six-man blocking scheme, but Kaepernick is able to step up in the pocket with little worry. The Packers don’t appear to have anybody spying Kaepernick on the play; linebacker Brad Jones is in position to make a play when Kaepernick starts scrambling, but he’s presumably assigned to cover Gore out of the backfield. What makes the whole thing happen is Gore, who sees what Kaepernick’s about to do and sprints out of the backfield to cut Jones, which creates just enough time for Kaepernick to get by Jones and the trailing rushers. Once he gets into the open field, it’s over; Davon House badly misses a tackle, and by the time Morgan Burnett can clip Kaepernick’s heels, he’s picked up 42 yards.
Kaepernick’s good and bad sides would show up again in the fourth quarter, when he badly underthrew a would-be huge play to Vernon Davis on second down, seemingly thanks to some very questionable mechanics, before he recognized man coverage without a spy on the next play and ran for 24 yards on third-and-3. He hit Davis on a seam route for a touchdown on the next play. His biggest play of the game came on the final drive. There, with 1:13 left and a third-and-8 looming in the no-man’s-land of the Green Bay 38-yard line, Packers safety Jarrett Bush made a crucial mistake. Coming in on a blitz out of the slot, Bush was mostly bottled up by his blocker, but crucially responded to a Kaepernick pump fake by leaping up to the inside to try to block his pass. You can’t blame Bush for wanting to try to make a play, but in the process, Kaepernick was able to get outside Bush’s contain, allowing him to sprint toward the sidelines and make the biggest San Francisco first down of the game. The 49ers kicked the game-winning field goal five plays later.15
As for Rodgers, well, I just hope that his ridiculous escape of a sack and subsequent completion to Randall Cobb doesn’t get lost to history because the Packers lost on Sunday. It was one of the more ridiculous plays you’ll ever see, which is bizarre, because Rodgers has now made two of these plays on fourth down in two weeks. Another constant on those two plays: Evan Dietrich-Smith holding. The Packers center got away with a big hold on the fourth-and-8 conversion last week that created just enough space for Rodgers to find the wide-open Cobb for the game-winning score. This week, Dietrich-Smith saw Rodgers in distress and just yanked Ray McDonald off his quarterback by grabbing the defensive lineman’s jersey and tugging. No, really:
I’m not criticizing Dietrich-Smith, especially given that he reportedly was vomiting after halftime, since it’s not holding if you don’t get caught. With that being said, things might be very different in the NFL right now if coaches could challenge anything they wanted, including the enforcement of penalties, as some have suggested they should.
That sort of arrangement would have hurt the 49ers, who treated their timeouts like they were unwanted Christmas gift cards in this game. Everybody takes a bad timeout now and again, but the 49ers burned their first two timeouts on offense during the first six minutes of the first half, and then used their third to ice Mason Crosby before a 34-yard field goal attempt at the end of the half. OK, so people have bad halves, too. That would have been one thing on its own. Somehow, it got worse after halftime. The 49ers returned the opening kickoff of the second half to their own 18-yard line, at which point they somehow lined up and needed to call a timeout before running an offensive play. To top it all off, six minutes later, the 49ers came back from an injury timeout and needed to call their second timeout. They would eventually use their third timeout to stop the clock with three seconds left before their game-winning field goal attempt, a stoppage that they didn’t need to make. The 49ers had six timeouts in this game and somehow didn’t use any of them in a meaningful situation. It seemed like one of those things that would eventually come back to bite them, but they somehow managed to avoid ever needing one.
Beyond the quarterbacks, what decided this relatively even matchup was a matter of efficiency versus reliability. The 49ers were able to sustain their drives throughout the game, with seven of their nine possessions producing 30 yards or more, thanks to some excellent work on third down. San Francisco picked up six of its 12 third downs on the day, along with a 31-yard Kaepernick completion to Michael Crabtree on fourth-and-6 that extended their first drive of the game. Their problem was red zone execution: Each of San Francisco’s first two drives made it inside the 10-yard line, only for the 49ers to settle for field goals both times. Their third drive of the game peeked its head into the red zone just long enough for Tramon Williams to intercept a misguided Kaepernick pass on the 13-yard line. Holding the 49ers to a total of six points on those three possessions was enough to keep the Packers in the game early. And then, after a 57-yard drive and the aforementioned post-injury timeout, Kaepernick took a “Matt Stafford” that turned a third-and-5 from the 25-yard line into fourth-and-13 from the Green Bay 33-yard line, which eventually became a punt from the 38-yard line.
The Packers, meanwhile, mixed an inability to consistently move the ball with great success when they did so. Five of Green Bay’s nine possessions either failed to pick up a first down, resulted in negative yardage before punting, or both. Unlike the 49ers, the Packers were a dismal 3-for-11 on third down. Their other four drives, however, each produced 60 yards or more. Those four drives produced two touchdowns and two field goals, representing all of Green Bay’s scoring output. They were more efficient deep in opposing territory, but they still managed to come up one touchdown short. Had Rodgers been able to punch it in on third-and-goal from the 8-yard line on Green Bay’s final drive, they might have had enough to hold on and win the game.
Instead, Green Bay’s surprise run into the playoffs comes to an end at home, with the 49ers moving on to a rematch of Week 10 with the Panthers next weekend. That game was one of the most physical matchups of the season, something closer to a brawl than a football game. About the only thing that might excite the 49ers about its road trip is that the wind chill in Carolina probably won’t push the temperature down into the negative teens. A win in Carolina, combined with an upset by the Saints in Seattle, would bring Candlestick Park back to life for one more home game against New Orleans in a hypothetical NFC Championship Game. And if the 49ers can make it back home one more time, I suspect they won’t care how cold it is when they get there.