Monday, January 17, 2011

The Divisional Playoffs: A tale of Familiar Foes

Why is football America's most popular sport? One can argue its the violent nature, the rattling hits, and the cheerleaders. But, more than that its the drama. This season, like so many others before it, what the masses thought would happen usually has not. We are always left shocked, jaws dropped to the floor wondering if what just transpired was a hallucination from the bad chinese we ate the night before. Games that experts and fans call locks really aren't and the supposed underdog can always win.

On any given Sunday anything can happen. Similarly this makes football dramas on television so compelling. From the movie Any Given Sunday to Friday Night Lights, (Did Billy-Bob Thorton really not play a jerk for once?) and everywhere in between, we know the drama we see on the silver screen also occurs on the turf every Sunday.

This past weekends divisional round of the NFL playoffs provided upsets and drama that we have come to expect as routine, but as they unfold still amaze us. A story line set up as Atlanta at home with Matt Ryan being 20-2. This was a Falcons team that was the best in the NFC all year with the best record. But, just as the great football movies we love, football proves once again that any team with a heart beat has a chance. The Packers are probably the most dangerous sixth seed that has ever been in the playoffs with one of the hottest quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers.

Packer fan this morning at the breakfast table: "Brett Favre who? and "Honey can you pass the Woodsen Wheaties".

It's fitting that the golden globes were on right after the wild weekend of football games came to a close. Football continuously proves to be epic theatre and entertainment with plot twists at every turn. With the odds against them, the Packers not only won, but puts up 48 points on the Atlanta defense. Nostradamus couldn't have predicted that. Rodgers had arguably one of the best playoff performances in recent memory throwing for 366 yards and 3 touchdowns, while converting 86% of his passes. It's funny how everything works out. Matt Ryan was praised all year and rightfully so, gets a spot ahead of Rodgers for the pro-bowl, and now Ryan will be watching Rodgers from his couch as the Packers move on to the NFC championship game.

If you only look at turnovers on the box score of any game, you probably can tell who won. Commit less turnovers and there's a great chance you come away with a victory. The Steelers/Ravens game was a testament to just that. Heinz field in Pittsburgh had more turnovers than the Ford factory in Flint, Michigan. First the Steelers committed them in the first half, but the costly turnovers came in the second half by the "why can't we ever beat the Steelers in the playoffs" Ravens. If you want to beat a team like the Steelers at home, you have to play close to perfect and committing three turnovers is most certainly a death sentence. When the Steelers fell behind two touchdowns, everyone thought it was over. We all thought the Ravens defense would hold up to a Steelers offense that had been pedestrian all year. We thought Joe Flacco wouldn't make costly mistakes to give the game away. Again, we all thought wrong.

If anyone picked the Jets to win against the Patriots, I need to meet you for stock tips. The Jets won at Gillette Stadium, really? The Jets broke Brady's 26-game home win streak, really?? Rex Ryan out coached Bill Belichick, really??? Where is Seth Myers and Amy Poehler for this as an SNL skit, really? Yes, it happened. The second biggest upset game of the playoffs happened last night. (The sea-chickens routing the defending champs still has to be number one). The stunning part was how seemingly easy the Jets handled the Patriots. A Patriots team that a few weeks ago destroyed the Jets 45-3. Earlier in the week Rex Ryan said it was all about Ryan vs. Belichick. We all laughed. How could the game be about two coaches? Its the players on the field, right? Belichick, master game-planner extraordinaire, got out-coached last night, offensively, defensively and on special teams.

The Patriots played poorly, but also uncharacteristically. Their disciplined, militaristic style was shaken. The Patriots had 6 penalties for 44 yards and a big unnecessary roughness penalty called on Mankins. The team that usually does no trash talking and does their talking on the field, had Wes Welker  poking fun at the footie during the week causing Welker to be benched for the first series. This was the third meeting between these two division rivals and it seemed that the Jets learned from their other meetings how to beat the Patriots. The Jets understood they were more athletic and that the way to beat a team that executes their system to perfection is to take away what they do well. The Jets made Brady uncomfortable all game, not blitzing constantly but changing it up, sometimes dropping back in coverage. The Patriots all year and the entire Belichick era have always been the disciplined child of the family, but last night confusing blitz packages and deceptive zone coverages had the Patriots "acting out" of character.

We all know Brady is the best at his position and even he seemed out of sync. The first drive when he threw an interception, the first since October, gave the Jets momentum for the rest of the game. The next few drives, Brady seemed hesitant, a bit flustered, something very uncharacteristic of this years best player and league's MVP. 

As reporters filed into the locker room, Jets safety James Ihedigbo's voice could be heard above the thumping bass of Jay-Z's "On to the Next One".

"They all doubted us!" Ihedigbo yelled over and again. "They all doubted us!" Yes, we all did. But that doesn't matter. Once again, football proves to be the sport of ultimate drama and suspense, leaving us speechless after sixty minutes.

Stats are made to be broken: No team in NFL history had lost by at least 35 points in the regular season and then won a rematch in the playoffs. In each of the previous five instances, the losing team lost by at least two scores in the rematch.

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