That Championship Mailbag

The Thrill of Defeat

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Matt Ryan

Who Is the Real Matty Ice?

Atlanta falls short again, and the rest of the news you need to know from championship weekend

Matt Ryan is an unclutch fraud of a quarterback. When his team needed him more than ever, he couldn’t come up with the big play. Sure, he managed to luck into a playoff win last week when the Seahawks left too much time on the clock for his kicker to avoid bailing him out, but he couldn’t deliver this week with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Ryan was the one who couldn’t get the job done in the red zone, somehow missing a wide-open Tony Gonzalez on fourth down and instead forcing a season-ending pass into the arms of a covered receiver. And this was at home, too, where he spends most of his days beating up on cupcakes and terrible pass defenses. Imagine if it had been outdoors, where he’s ter—

Whoa. Sorry about that. Think my wiring shorted out somewhere. Matt Ryan is a pretty good quarterback, guys. Can you believe how well he played against one of the league’s best pass defenses? You know, the same unit that had Aaron Rodgers looking furious amid a stream of checkdowns for most of the game last week? Ryan threw for 396 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 9.4 yards per attempt while completing in excess of 71 percent of his passes. Nobody has had a game like that all season against the 49ers except for Russell Wilson, and Wilson only played that well on half as many dropbacks as Ryan. He lost his starting halfback during the game and basically had no running game to work with, but it didn’t matt—

Of course it mattered, dummy. Who cares what Ryan did in the first half? You stuck your head out of your spreadsheet long enough to actually watch the game this week, right? Do I have to give you a quiz? Can you pick the security guard that had his entire lower torso destroyed by Julio Jones out of a lineup? I didn’t think so. Speaking of, most of Ryan’s big day was really Jones just leaping over and through defensive backs to make huge catches, or blown coverages from the San Francisco safeties. When the second half rolled around, the 49ers shut the Falcons out. Scoreboard. And didn’t you say the Niners were going to regr—

Yeah, I also said they’d win 27-24 on Sunday, too, so I’m not always wrong.1 Who do you think was delivering those passes to Jones in places where only he could make a play on the ball? Or who was the guy manipulating those safeties into making false steps or getting lost in traffic? And — last time I checked — points in the first half do count in determining who wins NFL games, right? Or were all those points the 49ers racked up in the first half against the Patriots in Week 15 meaningless, too? You’re just some idi—

Yeah, those points matter. And you know which points matter more? The ones that win football games. And those are the ones that Colin Kaepernick came up with. When Matt Ryan needed to protect a lead, what did he do? For the second week in a row, he threw it away. He’s the one who threw an interception and fumbled away a snap while the other team was making a comeback, right? That doesn’t matter because, what, one of his teammates probably screwed up and that excuses every dumb thing he did while Rome burn—

Oh, come on. Roddy White slipped on Ryan’s interception; the ball was out of his hands before White even fell down. After completing what felt like 17 straight passes on slant/flat route combinations, Ryan is supposed to anticipate that this is going to be the one when his receiver falls down and hold onto the football? Is that what winning quarterbacks do? See into the future? And sure, Ryan fumbled away a snap, but the Falcons were unlucky to recov—

The Falcons were unlucky to recover a fumbled snap? You mean unlucky like how the Niners were unlucky to fumble the ball away on the one-inch line? Or does luck only apply when it fits your story of how Matt Ryan’s secretly a great quarterback who doesn’t appear to be particularly interested in winning playoff games? If it weren’t for that Crabtree fumble and yet another missed field goal from David Akers, the fourth-down play at the end doesn’t even matter. And that wasn’t a catc—

You’re really going to argue that the Harry Douglas play at the end wasn’t a catch? You should be thanking the stars above that Douglas falls down on that play, because if he doesn’t get eaten alive by a turf monster and stays on his feet, that’s a lead-taking touchdown. And if that happens, we’re not having this conversation about Matt Ryan right now. So your entire argument about Matt Ryan, then, revolves around the fact that Harry Douglas tripped on the turf and wasn’t able to catch the touchdown pass that Matt Ryan put right in his wheelhouse on what was, to that point, the biggest third down of the game? Does Matty Ice have to catch the passes, too? Can Kaepernick do that? He’s pretty fas—

I sure saw Kaepernick grab a terrible snap on the last 49ers touchdown and bring it in for a quick handoff to Gore. Ryan can’t even catch snaps that hit him in the hands. And I don’t care if Douglas stood up, fell down, did a pirouette, or reconstructed that security guard’s leg as he was trying to bring the ball in, it wasn’t a catch. It was a gift, one that Matt Ryan held on to for all of six more plays before giving the ball right back to the Niners and ending Atlanta’s season. In fact, Ryan was lucky that his pass on third down wasn’t picked off. Want a stat? In the second half, Atlanta had five drives. Two ended on Ryan turnovers, one was a three-and-out, one ended on downs, and the fifth was the one in which Ryan threw a Hail Mary 40 yards too short. It wasn’t just that one wheel route. Ryan had a bad second hal—

But it is that wheel route! If Douglas doesn’t fall down on the wheel route, he scores a touchdown and the Falcons probably win. And if the Falcons win, we’re not having this conversation right now, evil doppelgänger. You’re talking about how Matt Ryan’s finally proven himself to be a winner and how nobody believed in the Falcons, which meant that they had nothing to lose. You would have already forgotten about that interception and written off that bobbled snap as bad luck. When you determine what you think of a quarterback solely by winning and losing and the contest comes down to one slipup on a game-changing play deep in the fourth quarter, you can’t just write off that failure as one mistake among many. Matt Ryan played well and still lost—

No, Matt Ryan played just well enough to lose. There’s a differenc—

One day, instead of defining all of this after the fact, can you point this out to me during the game and then stop changing your mind about what everything that happened during the game means afterward because one team won and one team los—

As long as you promise to stop trying to calculate win probabilities in your hea—

Deal. Now, seriously, can we talk about that security guard getting hit? Is he OK? Can we make fun of him, then? It looks lik—

It looks like a Jackass sketch. Unsuspecting guy gets trampled by horse. It has to be awkward when you’re an NFL player and you take out somebody on the sidelines, right? You probably want to say you’re sorry, but you really didn’t do anything wrong, and you also have to get back to the huddle … and really, as the article notes, this guy did a better job of covering Julio Jones than anybody on San Francisco did all day. Imagine how good he would be if he was actually facing the field.

You in Reverse

When discussing the clutch records of athletes like Matt Ryan and LeBron James in the past, I’ve brought up the idea of looking at Tom Brady’s playoff record in reverse chronological order to highlight just how much of our opinions on athletes can be defined by what they do early in the “big moments” of their career. Just for fun, since we’re all trying to figure out what this round of playoffs means for the legacies of guys like Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Peyton Manning, let’s actually go through year-by-year and see what opinions might have cropped up with regard to Tom Brady if we flipped his 13-year career on its head. I promise that I will only be as jaundiced in the descriptions as most people would be about the likes of Ryan and Manning. You can play along with his playoff game log here.

Record: 1-1
Career-to-date: 1-1

Brady makes his playoff debut and easily dispatches the Texans at home, but despite the fact that his Patriots are heavy home favorites against the Ravens, New England loses when they fail to produce in the red zone. Brady shows his inability to handle pressure situations when he mismanages the clock at the end of the first half and has to settle for a field goal, a problem that should hopefully go away when he matures. The Patriots have a shot late in the game, but an ill-timed Brady interception2 puts New England’s title hopes to rest.

Record: 2-1
Career-to-date: 3-2

Although Brady takes a leap forward and makes his first Super Bowl, his performance during the playoffs leaves a bit to be desired. Brady runs up his stats against the lowly Broncos and Tim Tebow, throwing for six touchdowns and 363 yards. In the AFC Championship Game, Brady throws two picks against the Ravens and posts a passer rating of 57.5, but his defense bails him out with the famous strip of Lee Evans in the end zone and the Billy Cundiff missed field goal. And despite a stretch of hot play in the second quarter, when he sets a consecutive completions record, Brady comes up short when his team needs him most in the second half, failing to connect with Wes Welker on a long would-be touchdown and failing to protect a lead inside four minutes of the fourth quarter. Brady almost literally hands Eli Manning and the Giants the Super Bowl.

Record: 0-1
Career-to-date: 3-3

In a shocking upset, Brady’s Patriots lose as 9.5-point home favorites to the Jets, who befuddle Brady while sacking him five times and forcing an early interception to set the tone. It’s Brady’s second playoff loss as a heavy home favorite in three years.

Record: 0-1
Career-to-date: 3-4

It’s another crushing loss for Brady, who appears to have never recovered after blowing the lead in the Super Bowl and failing to hit Welker with the game on the line. He turns over the ball four times, including three times on the first four drives, as the Patriots fall to 2-3 at home in the playoffs under Brady.

Record: 2-1
Career-to-date: 5-5

The ultimate regular-season superstar comes up short yet again on the big stage. After a stunning 16-0 season earns Brady his first MVP award, a mediocre playoff run ends in failure for the Patriots. Sure, Brady beats up on the AFC South at home, as he throws for 262 yards and three touchdowns against the Jaguars, but what happens when the competition gets tougher? He throws three picks against the Chargers in the conference championship and only wins because he’s playing a guy on a torn ACL. And while Brady manages to finally beat the Giants for the first time in Week 17, he still can’t beat them when it really counts, as the perfect team falls just short. Brady can only muster a measly 5.5 yards per attempt as he endlessly checks down and scores just 14 points.

Record: 2-1
Career-to-date: 7-6

Can Tom Brady ever beat a Manning brother? First, it was Eli. Now, it’s big brother Peyton getting into the act, as the Colts launch a dramatic comeback in the AFC Championship Game to produce a 38-34 victory. Again, Brady beats up on the league’s weaklings before playing worse in each successive game; he throws for 212 yards and two scores against the Jets, but then has another three-pick game against the Chargers in a contest where the Patriots only pull the game out after the Chargers try to return Brady’s final pick deep in the fourth quarter and Troy Brown manages to strip the ball loose. In that AFC Championship Game, Brady fumbles a snap into the end zone that’s recovered for a touchdown — wouldn’t a clutch player be able to hold onto a snap? He also gets a pick-six to eventually go up 21-6 heading into halftime, but the Patriots blow a 15-point lead and lose when Brady fails to come through with a lead on third-and-4 inside of three minutes, giving the ball to Manning and setting up a game-winning score. Is he ever going to have a big drive when his team really needs it?

Record: 1-1
Career-to-date: 8-7

Yawn. The book on Tom Brady’s already been written. Sure, he throws for 201 yards and three touchdowns against the Jaguars at home in an early-round victory. Who doesn’t beat up on the weaklings of the AFC South? When he has to travel on the road to play the Broncos, though, Brady puts up an empty 341 yards as he throws two picks, including one in the Denver end zone that Champ Bailey returns 99 yards to the 1-yard line on a drive that would have given New England the lead. The Patriots never recover.

At this point, Brady’s playoff reputation is something resembling Peyton Manning. He’s the guy who beats up on weak links and never shows up when his team really needs him. He’s got various maladies: He can’t beat the Giants or can’t beat a Manning brother, he chokes when his team is a huge favorite at home, he can’t produce a drive to kill off a game, he’s distracted by his model wife. In what approximates a full season, Brady’s line is good, but not great: 363-583 (62.3 percent completion percentage), 3,998 passing yards, 31 touchdowns, 19 interceptions. That’s too many picks for a guy who averages only 10 interceptions per year. Antsy New England fans call for Bill Belichick’s head because they want a head coach who has proven he can win Super Bowls.

And yet, despite the fact that you “know” Tom Brady, that he’s the guy who can’t come up with the big win, that he’s just another quarterback who looks better in fantasy football than at the helm in the real thing, Tom Brady goes 9-0 in his next nine playoff games and wins three Super Bowls. He throws 11 touchdowns against three interceptions. He beats teams on the road. At home. As a favorite. As an underdog. He produces incredible, game-winning drives that will stand the test of time and redefine his legacy. Bizarro Simmons — undergoing a dramatic downward spiral that somehow takes him from hosting a show on ESPN to living in Charlestown and bumming cigarettes outside of Store 24 — has to laugh off years of columns about how he’ll never be stupid enough to bet on Tom Brady when it really matters. Brady’s career culminates with an incredibly gutsy performance against the Raiders at home in the snow, when he leads his team to a narrow victory before winning the next two games and claiming his third Super Bowl title. His legacy secure, Brady rides off into the sunset victorious.3

So, with that all in mind, you should take two things away from this silly exercise. First, what a quarterback does in the playoffs at the beginning of his career isn’t any more meaningful than what he does in the middle or at the end of his career. You don’t win an extra half Super Bowl if you do it before you turn 25. Second, you don’t “know” what a quarterback is going to do in the playoffs because of how he’s previously performed in the playoffs. We have 15 games over seven seasons saying that Tom Brady’s a playoff flop, and that information means absolutely nothing in determining how Tom Brady would play in the future. Looking at the games under the proper chronological order says just as much: We had nine games suggesting that Tom Brady was unstoppable in the playoffs, and afterward, we’ve had 15 games implying that he’s actually just like any other good quarterback in the postseason. That he’s “been there before” means nothing, just like it did in 2001, when Brady made it to the Super Bowl and won it without having been there before. He’s still capable of screwing up and making mistakes, as Sunday showed. He’s also still capable of being great and winning a Super Bowl. The truth isn’t quite as satisfying as a one-word label like “clutch” or “unclutch,” but football’s a lot more complicated than one-word labels. It deserves better, and just as the likes of Manning and Ryan are demeaned with overly simplistic stories about their playoff performance, so is Brady.

VD Spreading

Only one week after dramatically changing their offense to beat the Packers, San Francisco made more changes on offense during their narrow victory over the Falcons in Atlanta. For one, Vernon Davis is back, everyone! After a seven-game stretch that saw Davis cumulatively produce seven catches for 105 yards, Davis matched that total in one game by snagging five catches for 106 yards with two touchdowns. He also had one long catch called back by holding on the offensive line. It was a breakout game for a player who was supposed to have broken out for good last year in the NFC Championship Game and then again once Kaepernick entered the lineup, only for the ball to seemingly avoid Davis during the run-in to the playoffs. With Atlanta’s subpar defense against tight ends yielding 142 yards to Zach Miller last week, it was no surprise that the 49ers decided to target Davis heavily in their passing game this time around. Atlanta tried to stop Davis in man coverage with Thomas DeCoud, leading to a rather notable crotch chop by DeCoud after he batted away a pass to Davis to end San Francisco’s drive. Somewhere, Miguel Tejada is livid.

The 49ers also had a change inflicted upon them by the Falcons. Seemingly determined to stop Colin Kaepernick from running around the edge for endless gains, the Falcons responded to read-action plays by forcing Kaepernick to hand off to Frank Gore. That was fine by Gore, who ran for 90 yards on 21 carries while scoring twice. There were no GIF-worthy moments like Clay Matthews doing a 360 spin to diagnose who had the football, just situations in which Kroy Biermann stares into the backfield and ponders existence while waiting for the ball to show up. And as our Chris Brown pointed out, the 49ers went with the inverted veer on LaMichael James’s touchdown. And this was one week. Imagine how impressive the San Francisco offense will be with two weeks of practice for the Ravens game.

Thank You for Not Coaching

The AFC Championship Game saw yet another conservative team pay for their mistakes, as the Patriots played not to lose in the first half and got beat in the second. The old cliché is that you can’t dance with the champ, but you don’t become champ by hanging on for dear life, either. Although they’ve been among the most aggressive teams in the league since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady got to town, the Patriots chose a very curious time to play field position and rely upon their defense. The result was an ignominious loss as a heavy home favorite for Brady’s team.

By my count, there were four different situations during Sunday’s game when the Patriots chose a surprisingly conservative route on fourth down where a more aggressive option was within the realm of reason.4 In each case, the numbers suggest that going for it would have been either a far superior decision or one of similar merit in a vacuum. Given the makeup of the New England roster, the injury to Aqib Talib, and the success that the Patriots have had in the past being an aggressive team when the numbers were equal, it would seem to behoove the Patriots to try going for it when the percentages were similar. Each of these plays also came while the game was tied or when the Patriots had a lead, suggesting that New England had a chance to create a comfortable margin against Baltimore and failed to do so.

The first play saw the Patriots kick a field goal on fourth-and-2 from the Baltimore 12-yard line in a scoreless game. With 51 minutes to go in a scoreless game, it was surprising to see the Patriots line up and kick a field goal amid swirling winds in Foxborough to go up 3-0. It’s always nice to get points on the board, but with so much game to go, your goal has to be to create as many points as possible for your team; given the probabilities of converting (and promptly scoring), failing (and stranding the Ravens deep in their own territory), or kicking a field goal, Brian Burke’s fourth-down calculator estimates that the Patriots should have gone for it if they thought they had a 48 percent chance of converting on fourth-and-2. There’s not a big sample for the Patriots trying fourth-and-2, but they’ve converted third-and-2 on 42 of their 65 attempts (64.6 percent) over the past three years. You can invent whatever argument you want about momentum5 and how it means something three hours before the final whistle, but it’s certainly within New England’s right to go for it. Certainly, I’d imagine that most Ravens fans felt happy about the decision to kick a field goal.

An even rarer decision came on the next drive, when the Patriots advanced the ball to the 35-yard line before being stopped and facing a fourth-and-9. That’s normally a no-man’s zone for offenses, as it falls into the narrow range where it’s too long to kick a field goal but too short of a distance to really gain much by punting. When you consider the windy conditions in New England, it made sense to pass on the field goal try. That would seem to point to a decision to go for it, but instead, the Patriots punted the ball away and picked up 27 yards of field position in the process. The Patriots followed that with an eerily similar move at the beginning of the third quarter, punting on fourth-and-8 from the Baltimore 34-yard line. This isn’t unprecedented for the Patriots, but it’s pretty close: Since the 2001 season, the Patriots had punted only 14 times in 12 seasons in that situation, and five of those punts were in the fourth quarter of blowouts. They did it twice in one game on Sunday.

Throw in a punt on fourth-and-2 from the Baltimore 45-yard line, and that’s four plays in which it seemed logical for the Patriots to leave their offense on the field and attack the Ravens with their best player. Instead, New England went for it only once on fourth down amid those conservative decisions, picking up a fourth-and-1 on a direct snap to Danny Woodhead during their two-minute drill. That drive ended with a mystifyingly naive set of decisions from a team that’s supposed to be among the smartest in football.

In a way, the problems were set up by Aaron Hernandez. When Brady hit Hernandez for a 17-yard completion to pick up a third-and-10, Hernandez made an ill-advised decision to avoid going out of bounds and instead curled back toward the hash to try and pick up extra yardage. In gaining maybe one additional yard, Hernandez cost the Patriots their second timeout. On the subsequent play, Brady scrambled and caught Ed Reed with a studs-up slide that would have seen him sent off if he was playing another sport. Brady tried to rush his team back to the line of scrimmage, but they ran eight seconds off the clock before they were forced to use their final timeout and kick a field goal.

The poor decisions cost them at least one shot at the end zone. If Hernandez goes out of bounds after his catch, the Patriots have two timeouts and 27 seconds to score from the 10-yard line. Even if Brady scrambles on the ensuing first down for the same three yards, the Patriots call timeout and have about 20 seconds to work with. With Brady in the shotgun, they can throw twice into the end zone on second and third down before kicking the field goal on fourth down. And even if Hernandez stays inbounds and Brady scrambles on first down, calling a timeout immediately after Brady’s slide leaves the Patriots with enough time for at least one throw into the end zone before Stephen Gostkowski’s field goal. You can’t leave opportunities for points like that on the field. The Patriots did, and while it wasn’t the entire margin of victory, the decisions all added up to a team that was sloppy and excessively conservative on offense. In 2011, the Ravens out-executed the Patriots, but the Patriots caught the breaks at the end of the game to win. In 2012, the Ravens out-executed the Patriots and caught the breaks, too.

Filed Under: Bill Barnwell, People

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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