Before we move on to the divisional playoff action, let’s take a look at Sunday’s wild card games in the NFL — a shocker in New England and a shootout in the desert.
Click here to check out my notes from the Jets and Cowboys wins on Saturday.
AFC Wild Card
Ravens 33, Patriots 14
Starting off with a big play
One play. You hate to judge playoff games by one play over the course of four quarters, but when it’s the first play from scrimmage — and it goes for an 83-yard TD — it has to be brought up. Almost as an indication of how this day would play out for the Pats defense, the Ravens ran your basic power play with counter action in the backfield, and Rice hit the second level of the defense at top speed. As a defensive back, this is the last thing you want to see, but instead of closing the space between himself and the ball carrier, Pats FS Brandon Meriweather broke down and allowed Rice to make a cut — and he was gone. Meriweather has to take a shot on that play and get him on the ground. You can’t start a game like that in the post season.
The Ravens’ game plan
You could tell the lack of respect the Ravens had for the Patriots’ defensive front seven by their game plan on offense. Baltimore ran the ball 52 times for 234 yards. But it was the way they did it — with the basic power game — that made it so impressive. This wasn’t a gimmick attack; instead, it was the Power O, the Lead Iso (strong and weak) and the one-back zone runs that hit the edge and allow the ball carrier to make one cut and get up field. Nothing sexy by any means, but when you have control of the offensive line, the basic running package leads to production and allows you to control the flow of the game. I haven’t seen a Bill Belichick-coached team get whipped like that up front in a long time.
The loss of Welker
The Ravens’ defensive scheme
The Ravens has a nice mix of pressure and coverage that they threw at the Patriots. Man pressure, zone pressure and 3-man rushes that allowed them to drop eight into coverage and force Pats QB Tom Brady to throw the ball underneath — where they could rally, make a tackle and get off the field. But it was the pressure schemes that allowed this defense to get to Brady and make him throw with people in his face.
Not the game I expected to see from Brady. Randy Moss was a non-factor, the early hole the Pats fell into took away the running game and didn’t allow them to establish any sort of rhythm on offense, and Brady never looked comfortable in the pocket. However, what was most surprising was the way Brady started to force the ball in the second half. The third-quarter INT, when he tried to hit TE Ben Watson on a 7-route, is a throw only young QBs make. But we see that even from the best players in the league when the game plan has to be scrapped because a team is behind and is forced to try and make a play.
Ray Rice/Willis McGahee
Baltimore hasn’t something going with these two. Both have big-play ability and both can run with power and get to the second level with quickness. With the way they come off the ball on the offensive line, don’t expect Baltimore to change the game plan from an offensive perspective when it heads to Indy this weekend. You can ride running backs like this for a while in January.
NFC Wild Card
Cardinals 51, Packers 45 (OT)
The early turnovers
Turnovers are killers in the postseason, and what happened Sunday in Arizona to the Packers disrupted their game plan until the second quarter. You prepare all week and script what you want to do from an offensive perspective, but when you turn the ball over on your first two series, you begin to scramble. It wasn’t until the second quarter that the Packers could settle down and incorporate the running game and the rest of their offense into the play calling. Horrible start.
Warner and Rodgers
We got to see two of the NFL’s elite play at QB — and they are so different in their style of play.
Warner is a rhythm quarterback. He works within the offense and doesn’t do much with his feet. He takes his drop, sets and throws. But when he has time, there aren’t many QBs who can stand up with him when it comes to production and accuracy. The Cardinals completely dominated Green Bay with routes that require Warner to make a quick read and unload the ball — almost as if he were throwing to a hot receiver. Very easy to do against man-to-man teams such as the Packers, who play with outside leverage. Run inside breaking routes and Warner will put it there every time.
With Rodgers, it’s just the opposite. He is so good at making plays with his feet. Whether it’s stepping up in the pocket, sliding past the rush or throwing the ball on the run, he can be counted on for production The Packers used a lot of empty sets and various route combinations to get receivers open on the boundary or down the middle of the field. And Rodgers didn’t miss much. If there was one play he would want back, it would have to be the double move to Greg Jennings that he missed in OT. Jennings set up and ran by Cardinals safety Antrel Rolle. If Rodgers hits that, Green Bay is still alive in the dance.
The Cardinals’ balance
Even though Warner threw for five TDs, we have to realize that the Cardinals did have balance on offense. Warner threw the ball 33 times and the Cards ran the ball 23 times — the exact game plan that put them on that Super Bowl run last season. And with Beanie Wells at RB, this team has something moving on to New Orleans. As we talked about above, as good as Warner is in the pocket, when they abandon the running game, opposing defenses will turn up the heat from a pressure standpoint. But when they get production from Wells and Tom Hightower, this offense is really tough to beat.
Missed adjustment by Capers?
As I wrote about with Warner, the Cardinals were doing the same thing we saw from Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in December when they tore up the Packers’ secondary. Rub routes, combination routes out of the bunch and stack alignments and, most of all, routes that break inside — back to the quarterback — away from the defenders’ leverage. If I’m Dom Capers, I start playing some Cover 1 Robber — where the defense drops a linebacker to a depth of 10 yards between the hashes. What this does is allow defenders to run those underneath crossers that the Cardinals were producing on to a “rover” who can force the ball to go elsewhere. It looked too easy against a man-to man scheme with a deep middle of the field safety as the only help. Charles Woodson and the Packers secondary looked outmatched.
Using Jermichael Finley
I wrote about the Green Bay TE on Saturday because I like that he has the talent and versatility as an athlete to line up all over the field — and that’s exactly what Green Bay does with him. We saw Finley with his hand in the ground, in the slot and matched up on the outside with a corner. Big day because he was able to win matchups using his speed and size when he was aligned outside of the formation as a wide receiver. He’s a ballplayer, and he’s so versatile when it comes to the Packers’ offensive schemes: six receptions for 159 yards.
The strip…and score
The play that won the game for the Cardinals was your basic nickel man pressure. But I still think Rodgers could have recognized the pressure and gotten rid of the football. Arizona blitzed nickel back Mike Adams off the slot, with the strong safety dropping down into coverage to replace him. The Packers, who had four receivers aligned away from the formation, motioned the RB weak to create an empty set — leaving five to block the Cards’ five rushers. For Rogers, you know pressure is coming when you see the safety walk down before the snap and with five receivers out; you have to unload the football. A tough way to end an impressive game for Rodgers, but still a mistake that gets you beat in the postseason.
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For another look at the Cards-Packers, check out this story from Bleacher Report.