Sunday, January 20, 2013

NFL '12 Dread News - Week 19

You heard it here first (in my report three weeks ago): when Torrey Smith scores a TD, the Ravens win. So when Smith burned Hall-of-Fame-bound CB Champ Bailey deep for a 59-yard TD catch (photo below) to tie last weekend's game at Denver at 7 in the 1st quarter, it was already game over right then and there. No need for all of that drama that followed later in the game; the Ravens already had it in the bag. Right??
All kidding aside, what a disastrous and heartbreaking defeat that was for the Broncos and their fans. Wow. I mean, giving up a 70-yard TD to tie the game with 31 seconds left? And not just any game, a playoff game. Are you kidding me? You don't deserve to win when you do something like that, and fittingly the Broncos didn't, as they fell 38-35 when the Ravens kicked a FG early in the 2nd overtime period.

Honestly, when Peyton Manning decided the Broncos would be the team with whom he would make his comeback, my first thought was about how he would handle the late-season weather in Denver. Manning, of course, had played his first 13 NFL seasons in the domes at Indianapolis; and with his arm not being the strongest, I thought it might be a problem if he had to play in bad weather. Now the winter weather in Denver is highly variable, and it could just as easily have been 60 degrees last Saturday. But it wasn't. Instead Manning had to make his Broncos' playoff debut in the Broncos' coldest playoff game ever, as the temperature was near the 10-degree mark throughout the afternoon. But it wasn't windy, just cold. And Manning decided to wear a glove over his throwing hand. He didn't do poorly, passing for 290 yards and 3 TD. But he also had 3 costly turnovers - 2 INT and 1 fumble - all of which the Ravens converted into points. Was the cold a factor in those turnovers? Maybe, maybe not; but I'd bet that Manning would have played better if it had been warmer. 

Defensively part of the Broncos' game plan was to have Bailey cover Smith one-on-one and shut him down. Well, it was a good plan on paper. But once the game began it very quickly became obvious that Torrey was way too fast for the 34-year old Bailey. After scoring the TD in the 1st quarter, Smith got behind Bailey twice more in the 2nd; but on one of the plays the pass was overthrown, and on the other (photos below) Smith bobbled the ball, allowing Bailey time to recover and knock the pass away.

Then in the final minute of the half Smith ran another deep route down the sideline; and while Bailey was doing everything he could just to stay step-for-step with Smith, he couldn't turn back in time to make a play on the ball, and Torrey leaped up and snatched the pass with Bailey still on the ground and took it to the house for a 32-yard TD, tying the game at 21. Other than picking up a pass interference penalty while covering Smith on the Ravens' first possession in OT, Bailey was spared any further embarrassment in the 2nd half, mostly because no more deep passes were thrown to Smith in the 2nd half. I don't know; maybe the coverage changed and Bailey was getting deep help. 

It was looking bleak for Ravens fans in the final minute of the 4th quarter, with the Broncos leading 35-28 and the Ravens facing a 3rd and 3 from their own 30-yard line. But then suddenly the game was tied - on a play that will be remembered for a long time by fans of both teams. QB Joe Flacco launched a pass as far as he could - and when it came down it landed right in the hands of WR Jacoby Jones, who somehow had gotten behind clueless S Rahim Moore at the 20-yard line (photo below). Jones took it the rest of the way for an astonishingly easy 70-yard TD. If you like, click on this link to see the play:
After that, overtime was a battle of punts until CB Corey Graham picked off Manning for the second time in the game, giving the Ravens the ball at the Denver 45. And six plays later the Broncos' season was over after the Ravens kicked a 47-yard FG. I noticed that the Broncos DBs coach was fired a few days after the game. But come on, how about firing the player instead? In that situation Moore's only job was to be sure nobody got behind him. A simple task, but yet he still found a way to mess it up. 

While the AFC #1 seeded Broncos were eliminated on a FG, the top seed in the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons, are still alive thanks to a FG, defeating the Seattle Seahawks 30-28 in a thriller at the Georgia Dome. Even though I am a huge Falcons fan, all season long I have been convinced that they aren't the best team in the NFC, even as they racked up win after win on their way to a 13-3 record. But they have taken advantage of their favorable schedule to gain home field advantage; and regardless of whether they're the best team or not, they can beat anybody at home.
The Falcons took the suggestion I made last last week and went right after motor-mouth CB Richard Sherman - early and often. On the very first play from scrimmage QB Matt Ryan threw deep to WR Julio Jones, but Sherman was there to knock the pass away (photo above). 9 plays later WR Roddy White had Sherman beat in the end zone on 3rd and 3; but Ryan had to take a second to avoid the rush, and by the time the pass got to White, he wasn't open any more and Sherman knocked it away (photo below).
Not wanting to have to deal with Sherman yapping at him all day, Roddy (with reduced dreads this week) desperately wanted to have a good game; and he was visibly upset on the sideline after the play, because he knew he had a TD there if the pass had been on time.

The Falcons settled for a FG there but went ahead 10-0 later in the 1st quarter, scoring on a 61-yard drive that began when DT Jonathan Babineaux recovered a fumble by RB Marshawn Lynch. After the Seahawks punted on their next drive, RB Jacquizz Rodgers began the Falcons' next drive with a highlight reel 45-yard run to the Seattle 42. Then on the next play Ryan tried Sherman again; but Sherman got the job done again, getting his 3rd PBU of the game on a deep ball intended for Jones (photo below). That drive ended with a FG to make it 13-0. 
It took the Seahawks just 2 plays to reach the red zone on their next possession; but then on 4th and 1 from the 11-yard line, after being stuffed for no gain on a 3rd down run up the middle, they tried another run up the middle and again were stopped cold, with FB Michael Robinson being dropped for a 1-yard loss. For real I don't understand what coaches are thinking sometimes. First of all, it's OK to take the FG there and make it 13-3. That's what I would have done. But if you decide to go for it on 4th down, why not do something other than run the ball up the middle? That's the easiest play for the defense to stop.

Anyway, the Falcons promptly went 88 yards in 4 plays, with White finally getting some satisfaction. On 1st down from the Seattle 47 the Falcons challenged Sherman one more time, and this time they hit the jackpot. Trying to stay with White on a deep post route, Richard stumbled and fell near the 5-yard line, and White easily caught the on-target pass for the TD, as S Kam Chancellor was too late getting back to help Sherman on the coverage (first photo below). WR Harry Douglas came over to celebrate with White, but all Roddy wanted to do was to talk to Sherman about it (second photo below). Men will be boys.

With the score 20-0 I was feelin' pretty good, and things got even better when the Seahawks messed up another scoring chance on their next drive. After a completed pass to the 6-yard line the Seahawks used their final timeout with :31 on the clock. If you had been watching the game with me, you would have heard me mention that the Seahawks were driving toward that same end zone in the Georgia Dome where the Saints failed to score just before halftime back in Week 13 thanks to poor clock management and where two days later Georgia also ran out of time without scoring at the end of the SEC championship game against Alabama. It wouldn't happen again, would it? Well wouldn't you know it, it did.  After incomplete passes on 1st and 2nd and goal, QB Russell Wilson made one of his few mistakes on the day, allowing himself to be sacked by Babineaux (photo below). With 4th down coming up and not enough time to rush the FG unit onto the field, the Seahawks tried to line up and run a play, but the clock hit :00 before they could get the ball snapped. Wow. Instead of the score being 20-3 at halftime, or 20-6 like it should have been if they had taken the earlier FG, it was still 20-0. Unfortunately the real Falcons' defense showed itself in the 2nd half, and it was discouraging to say the least to watch how easily the Seahawks moved the ball.
The half began with three 80-yard TD drives - two by the Seahawks - making the score 27-14. And when S Earl Thomas got an INT for the 2nd week in a row, picking off a pass intended for White with 11:03 to play in the game, I knew the Falcons were in trouble. The Seahawks went 62 yards in just 4 plays to make it 27-21; and then after both teams punted, the Falcons punted again, giving the Seahawks the ball at their own 39-yard line with 3:00 to play. I'll tell you, it was a helpless feeling watching the Seahawks move right down the field - again. But if you had been watching the game with me, you would have heard me say that if Seattle scores again, at least the Falcons will only need a FG to win. The Seahawks did score moments later, as Lynch barely crossed the goal line from 2 yards out before fumbling the ball (photo below). The extra point gave the Seahawks the lead 28-27. But they scored too soon. There were still 31 seconds on the clock.

Rodgers, the shortest player on the field, stood tall in those final seconds - in an unsung hero kind of way. First he brought the kickoff return from 6 yards deep in the end zone out to the Atlanta 28-yard line (not a great return, but the 28 is still better than the 20). Then two plays later - after Ryan hit Douglas for 20 yards on the first play, Jacquizz moved over just in the nick of time to pick up a blitzing DB, preventing Ryan from being hit and giving him the time to throw to TE Tony Gonzalez for a gain of 19, moving the ball into FG range. When K Matt Bryant then nailed the 49-yard FG on the next play, that was one of the best feelings I've had while watching a Falcons' game in a very long time.

There were still 8 seconds to play, however, and when Bryant flubbed the squib kickoff, the Seahawks got the ball near midfield and suddenly had a chance. Thankfully the Falcons were able to hang on, as Jones came in on defense an intercepted the pass into the end zone on the final play. As happy as I was, I was even happier for Gonzalez, who finally, in his 16th season in the league, finally got his 1st playoff win. Now let's see if he can get two more.

Things don't figure to be any easier for the Falcons in the next game - not after what 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick did to the Packers in the other NFC semifinal. Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards (the most ever by a QB in NFL history) and 2 TD and passed  for 263 yards and 2 TD to lead the 49ers to a 45-31 home victory. The 49ers shredded the Packers' defense to the tune of an incredible 579 total yards. Now I don't think the 49ers are as good as the Packers made them look. But if they really are that good, they'll be taking home the trophy a couple of weeks from now. RB DuJuan Harris continued his fine play for Green Bay, picking up 64 total yards on 13 touches, including an 18-yard TD run (photo below) to give the Packers their last lead at 14-7 late in the 1st quarter. Harris has earned himself a lot of money in the past month, because now everyone knows that he indeed can play. Whether it will be with the Packers or elsewhere in the future remains to be seen.
There were 7 TD by players with dreads in the 4 games last weekend (that's more than there were during 5 of the 17 weeks in the regular season). The only game that had just 1 TD was at New England, where the Patriots knocked out the Houston Texans 41-28. I didn't watch very much of the game, so I missed WR Brandon Lloyd's TD catch for the Patriots. Playing in his 11th season in the league, and for his 6th different team, Lloyd (with his dreads reduced, of course) finally played in his 1st career playoff game and finished with 5 receptions for 32 yards.

I haven't yet added up the total number of TD by players with dreads for the 2012 season. But without even looking, I already know that the NFC East finished in last place - again - among the 8 divisions. For whatever the reasons, dreads are sparse here. And ever since Marion Barber left the Cowboys, touchdowns have become almost nonexistent.

No complaints about the dreads here - they are sick. But the problem is with the number of players with dreads - only three. The sickest, of course, are the super long dreads of Dwayne Harris (photo below). After not doing much in the first season and a half of his NFL career, Harris came on strong down the stretch in 2012, displaying his ability to make big plays on a weekly basis - just like he did in college at East Carolina. His 2 TD were the only 2 scored by anybody in the entire NFC East. Mike Jenkins' contract expired and he is now a free agent; it will be interesting to see if the Cowboys want him back. WR Anthony Armstrong still growing his hair; hasn't converted to dreads yet (maybe next season). 
ACTIVE: WR Dwayne Harris, CB Mike Jenkins, S Danny McCray

To their credit the Giants have tried to add some dreads to the team; but things just haven't worked out. S Chad Jones, drafted in the 3rd round in 2010, probably would be a star by now if he hadn't seriously injured his leg in a car crash a few weeks before his first training camp. He's had 14 surgeries since then and still hasn't recovered enough to play yet. LB Greg Jones played a little as a rookie last season but didn't make the team this year. Marvin Austin (before and after photos below from June 2012 and September 2012), drafted in the 2nd round in 2011, missed his entire rookie year due to injury; and when he showed up for training camp this season, well ......  .... 13 years - wow. S Will Hill also now an ex-dread. He had dreads when he was at the Combine in 2011. But after not being drafted at all (after skipping his senior year at Florida) due to off-the-field issues, he decided that dreadlocks would not be part of his new image.
INACTIVE: CB Brandon Bing (PS), CB Laron Scott (PS)

Asante Samuel - traded. 6th round draft choice Brandon Washington - cut. Mardy Gilyard (who had 2 TD catches in the preseason) - cut. Anybody left? Darryl Tapp (celebrating his FR in Week 15 in photo below) was the only contributor. Antonio Dixon, who just started growing dreads this season, was cut at the end of training camp then brought back near the end of the season.
ACTIVE: DT Antonio Dixon, S David Sims, DE Darryl Tapp

Sadly we didn't get much of a look at the awesome dreads of Brandon Meriweather. After injuring his knee during the preseason, he was set to make his Washington debut in Week 4 but re-injured the knee in a collision with a teammate - during pre-game warmups. Finally made his debut in Week 11 - only to tear the ACL in his other knee. Cedric Griffin and DeJon Gomes were major contributors (although Griffin missed a lot of games). Brandon Banks (photo below) was benched late in the season for poor play. Rookie Adam Gettis was healthy but didn't play at all. What about Santana Moss? I don't know. He might have dreads. It's impossible to tell because he's always wearing a skull cap. Moss has let his hair grow long several times throughout his career but has never committed to growing dreads. I'm going to wait 'til next season to see if I need to welcome him into the house.
ACTIVE: WR/KR Brandon Banks, G Adam Gettis, S DeJon Gomes, CB Cedric Griffin
INACTIVE: S Jordan Bernstine (IR), CB Korey Lindsey (PS), S Brandon Meriweather (IR)

1. Ravens LB Dannell Ellerbe celebrates as teammate Corey Graham takes an INT return to the house while Broncos WR Eric Decker waits in vain for a penalty flag to be thrown during 1st quarter at Denver. On the slow motion replay, yes, Graham should have been called for pass interference; but in live action it was a close call, and the officials decided not to call a penalty. Graham's 39-yard pick 6 put Ravens on top 14-7.

2. Ravens LB Josh Bynes stands and watches as WR Tandon Doss is tackled by CB Omar Bolden at the 19-yard line after an 8-yard punt return early in 2nd quarter. How about blocking the guy next time, Josh. Bynes finished the game with 1 tackle (1-0).

3. Dannell Ellerbe had another excellent game for Baltimore - except for this one play, as he gets beat by RB Knowshon Moreno for a 14-yard TD catch, completing an 86-yard drive that put Denver ahead 21-14 midway through 2nd quarter. Dannell finished the afternoon with 9 tackles (9-0) and 1 PBU.

4. WR Torrey Smith beats CB Champ Bailey for a TD for the second time in 1st half, going high to make the catch for a 32-yard TD to tie the game at 21 with 36 seconds to go until halftime. Smith was the only player to make the dread stars list this week. He finished with 3 catches for 98 yards and 2 TD.

5. Torrey Smith and QB Joe Flacco (#5) are all smiles as they congratulate rookie K Justin Tucker after he nailed a 47-yard FG early in 2nd overtime to win the game. Ravens advanced to the AFC championship game for the 2nd year in a row after defeating Broncos 38-35.

6. Patriots LB Brandon Spikes is in pursuit as RB Arian Foster carries the ball for the Texans during 1st half at Foxborough. Don't know if Spikes made the tackle on this play, but he finished the game with 6 tackles (4-2).

7. Playing in the first playoff game of his 11-year career, WR Brandon Lloyd celebrates his 1st playoff TD, coming on a 5-yard catch and dive into the end zone to increase Patriots lead to 31-13 late in 3rd quarter. Brandon finished with 5 catches for 32 yards.

8. Texans S Danieal Manning had an outstanding day returning kickoffs, with returns of 94, 35 (plus a horsecollar penalty), and 69 yards; but the Patriots got him on this one as LB Niko Koutouvides (#90) teams up with CB Marquice Cole to stop him at the 14-yard line after an 18-yard return of the kickoff following Lloyd's TD. Cole finished with 3 tackles (1-2), all on special teams.

9. For goodness sake, Deion, don't just stand there, go for the ball! WR Deion Branch has a close-up view as S Eddie Pleasant (#35) and LB Bryan Braman of Texans try to recover an onside kickoff with 5:11 remaining in game after a Texans' TD made the score 38-28. Neither Branch, Pleasant, Braman, nor S Patrick Chung recovered the ball. Patriots LB Rob Ninkovich did, and Patriots went on to win 41-28 to advance to the AFC championship game against Ravens for the 2nd straight year.

10. Packers CB Tramon Williams grabs WR Michael Crabtree by the shirttail to make the tackle after a reception during 1st quarter at San Francisco. Williams finished the game with 8 tackles (8-0), 1 PBU, and 1 costly holding penalty.

11. It's Michael Crabtree with legal use of hands to the face as he tries to shake S Morgan Burnett on the run after a catch on 2nd play of 2nd quarter. Burnett, with an assist from S Charles Woodson, made the tackle at the SF 49 after a 9-yard gain that converted a 2nd and 5. 49ers had to punt 4 plays later, and ......

12. ..... S C.J. Spillman, with dreads starting to be barely visible outside his helmet, pounces on the ball at the GB 9-yard line after a muff by WR Jeremy Ross trying to catch the punt. This play was the turning point of the game. 49ers scored 3 plays later to tie the game at 14. 

13. LB Erik Walden tries to tear RB LaMichael James' head off as he combines with Morgan Burnett and S M.D. Jennings for the tackle at the GB 25-yard line after a 14-yard run on 3rd and 1 during 2nd quarter. Burnett and Jennings were given credit for the tackle. M.D. finished the game with 3 tackles (2-1). Three plays later ...... 

14. ...... Walden (on right) and Jennings bring the pain, but QB Colin Kaepernick converts another 3rd down with a 15-yard run to the 9-yard line on 3rd and 9. After surviving the hit, Kaepernick was so fired up that he picked up a taunting penalty after the play. But 2 plays later, he threw a 20-yard TD pass to Crabtree, giving 49ers their first lead at 21-14.

15. On 1st and 10 on the first play after the 2-minute warning, Morgan Burnett knocks a pass away from TE Vernon Davis. The drive ended with a FG 8 plays later, giving 49ers a 24-21 halftime lead. Burnett finished with 6 tackles (4-2) and this 1 PBU.

16. S Dashon Goldson, unfortunately with his dreads reduced, makes WR Greg Jennings pay for this reception, driving him into the turf at the GB 43-yard line after a 30-yard gain on 2nd and 8 early in 3rd quarter. The drive ended with a FG 7 plays later, tying the game at 24. Goldson finished the night with 7 tackles (4-3) and 1 FF.

17. Colin Kaepernick makes the play of the game midway through 3rd quarter, getting past Erik Walden and sprinting untouched 56 yards to the house on on option play, putting 49ers ahead for good at 31-24. Walden first looked inside thinking the RB had the ball, and by the time he turned around Kaepernick was already gone. It wasn't one of Erik's better games. He finished with 5 tackles (2-3) with 1 TFL. Of course, nobody else on the Packers' D was any good either, as 49ers racked up a whopping 579 total yards and 29 first downs. 49ers won 45-31 to advance to NFC championship game for the 2nd year in a row.

18. Falcons WR Roddy White makes the catch at the Seattle 28-yard line and gets both feet inbounds in front of CB Richard Sherman for a key 13-yard gain to convert a 3rd and 2 on Falcons' opening drive at the Georgia Dome. Falcons kicked a FG four plays later, after Sherman broke up a pass to White in the end zone on 3rd down, to take a 3-0 lead. Roddy finished the game with 5 catches for 76 yards and 1 TD. Sherman finished with 0 tackles and 3 PBU.

19. On the third play after Seahawks got the ball on a turnover, they turn it back over to Falcons, as RB Marshawn Lynch is stripped of the ball at the ATL 39-yard line by LB Sean Weatherspoon after an 11-yard run with 5:51 remaining in 1st quarter. DT Jonathan Babineaux got the FR for Falcons.

20. On the first play after a punt on the final play of 1st quarter, DE Red Bryant tries to stop RB Jacquizz Rodgers but only ends up tearing his jersey at the 20-yard line .....

21. ..... then S Earl Thomas tries to stop Rodgers at the 23-yard line, but .....

22. ..... comes up with nothing but air as Jacquizz bounces off the hit and keeps going .....

23. ..... then after a weak and futile attempt by Richard Sherman to make the tackle at the 26-yard line, Rodgers breaks into the clear past Sherman and Bryant and doesn't stop until he picks up 45 yards. Falcons settled for a FG 10 plays later to take a 13-0 lead. If you'd like to see a video of the play, please click this link: . Rodgers finished with 64 yards rushing on 10 carries, 2 catches for 8 yards, and 4 kickoff returns for 105 yards.

24. After trailing 20-0 at halftime, Seahawks finally get on the board on their first possession in 2nd half, as WR Golden Tate bounces off CB Dunta Robinson's attempt to drive him out of bounds inside the 10-yard line .....

25. ..... and gets past S Thomas DeCoud to finish off a 29-yard TD reception. You'd like to see Robinson actually try to wrap up the ball carrier for a change, but I don't think anybody ever taught Dunta the right way to tackle. He finished the afternoon with 4 tackles (3-1) and 0 PBU.

26. Richard Sherman goes high but can't break up the deep pass intended for WR Harry Douglas and is fortunate that Douglas doesn't make the catch with 5:07 to go in 3rd quarter. Falcons got a TD anyway 6 plays later to go back up by 20 at 27-7.

27. Thomas DeCoud knocks a deep pass away from WR Sidney Rice on 1st down from midfield with just under 6 minutes remaining in game. Seahawks  punted three plays later, their only punt in 2nd half. Rice finished with 4 catches for 60 yards.

28. On 3rd and 5 on Seahawks' final drive, Marshawn Lynch, wide open, in left flat, catches the pass and races all the way to the 3-yard line for a 24-yard gain. Then, after an illegal substitution penalty against Falcons, Lynch scored a 2-yard TD on the next play, and the extra point put Seahawks in front 28-27 with :31 to go.

29. Seahawks' lead didn't last for long. Falcons get into FG range in just two plays as Earl Thomas tackles TE Tony Gonzalez on the second of those plays at the 31-yard line after a 19-yard reception with :13 remaining. Falcons kicked a FG on the next play to regain the lead.

30. Seahawks won a game back in Week 3 on a last-second Hail Mary, but not this time as WR Julio Jones makes the leaping INT in the end zone on the final play of the game. Sidney Rice is pretty good on jump balls too, but the pass was thrown too early, before he had a chance to run down to the end zone. Falcons win 30-28, ending Seahawks' 6-game winning streak, and advancing to their first-ever NFC championship game at home.
WEEK 19 TDs: DuJuan Harris (GB), Anthony Dixon (SF), Torrey Smith 2 (BAL), Roddy White (ATL), Marshawn Lynch (SEA), Brandon Lloyd (NE)

WEEK 19 INT: Earl Thomas (SEA)

It's a special day for me. The Falcons don't make it to the NFC title game very often. Let's hope it ends up a happy day. Over in the AFC, it's Ravens-Patriots II. God willing, the Ravens will prevail this time.

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