Sunday rewind: Week 17

Dallas takes the East

One thing that has stood out to me over the last three weeks of the regular season is the Dallas game plan on offense under Jason Garrett. Just as we saw Sunday when the Cowboys ran the Eagles out of Dallas to win the NFC East and secure the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs, there’s been a constant in the way they approach the game on offense. QB Tony Romo has been efficient, and he’s done a great job protecting the football, but it’s the way he operates within this system — one that’s balanced with a power downhill running game, and the use of TE Jason Witten and WR Miles Austin in the passing game. Felix Jones is healthy, and Marion Barber is very accountable when the ‘Boys run the Power O, the Lead Open and the Lead Draw. Basic running plays that are mixed in with the very basic route schemes by Witten and Austin. But the difference is the execution by Dallas. The Cowboys use Witten to create mismatches in the middle of the field, and there aren’t many corners who can play with Austin in the 3-step game or stay with him down the field right now. The Cowboys don’t have to use gimmicks or gadgets because they can install a game plan on Wednesday and execute it on Sundays.

The Ravens stay simple

I liked the way the Ravens approached their playoff-clinching win in Oakland — especially when Raiders QB JaMarcus Russell came into the game. Baltimore knows that Russell is not going to establish long drives or generate points for the offense when he’s in the game, and the Ravens’ offensive play calling reflected that. The 3-step passing game, the power running game out of Tank personnel (2 TE, 2 RB, 1 WR) and a great combination of Ray Rice and Willis McGahee that not only wore down the Oakland offense, it also ate up the clock and created field position. It isn’t sexy by any means, but it’s the perfect game plan when you’re facing the Raiders with Russell at QB. And now, they’re in the dance because of it.

Woodson wraps up defensive POY award

I don’t put much stock into Green Bay’s pounding of Arizona when Kurt Warner throws only six passes, and we’ll talk a lot more about this matchup throughout the week before these teams meet again this weekend in the playoffs. But isn’t it time to hand out Charles some hardware to Woodson? I’ll admit that I was all over the Saints’ Darren Sharper at the midway point in the season, but Woodson’s play – and his team’s – improved as the season progressed. His ninth pick and another TD yesterday are just examples of how prepared he is to play on Sundays. The biggest playmaker on the defensive side of the football this season.

The loss of Wes Welker in New England

The early reports are a torn ACL and MCL for Pats WR Wes Welker. Questions will arise about his availability for training camp, but more important is how this affects New England in the playoffs. We have to understand that New England is a team that relies on Welker in the third-down game and in their various route combinations — especially in the red zone. Yes, Julian Edelman can fill in, but can he provide the same production as Welker, and can he provide the same results after the catch — where Welker is so dangerous? The Patriots’ offensive scheme in the passing game is designed to get Welker open on option routes, in the flat in bunch routes and down the seam where he can see man-to-man coverage. I see this as a major loss for this offense and something we should keep an eye on in terms of how the Patriots use their personnel on wild-card weekend. Do we see more of an emphasis on the power running game or do we see the same offense with Edelman in Welker’s role — and the hope of similar production? The Pats are still a player in the postseason because of Tom Brady and Randy Moss, but it will be interesting to see how they prepare their offensive game plan without Welker, especially their third-down package.

Favre produces — again

We’ve been down on the Vikings, and rightfully so, after they dropped three of four, but how good was Brett Favre in a win over the Giants that locked up the No. 2 seed in the NFC? Again, he was able to create in and out of the pocket and, just like the second half of the game last Monday night in Chicago, he was able to challenge defensive backs down the field — and his guys go up and get the football for him. I understand that Favre’s 316 yards and four TDs came against a Giants team that completely shut it down, but he still had to go out and produce. And like we’ve seen most of the season, the Vikings did this by using the movement passes (boots, play action) and by Favre stepping up and sliding out of the pocket to create throwing lanes. Big win for Minnesota.

The Jets’ game plan

If you watched the Jets beat the Bengals last night to clinch the final wild card spot in the AFC, you saw an offense that was well scripted to play to the strengths of the team — the running game and defense. Off-tackle power running plays with Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene; short, high percentage passing from rookie Mark Sanchez (slant, WR screen, hitch, out, the boot and sprint game), and some exotic plays with Brad Smith out of the wildcat that took the pressure off the quarterback position and allowed Rex Ryan’s defense to play with a lead. And when you have an attacking man-to-man defense that can take chances with a lead, a team without its feature running back in Cedric Benson doesn’t stand a chance. That was a perfect example of a team using a game plan that’s low risk and plays to all its strengths in a crucial game and is a sign of good preparation. The Jets impressed me, and now they have a chance to pull some upsets in the playoffs.

Pat White gets some clock

No one wants to see a player get hurt, and I can tell you from my own career, it’s an eerie feeling when the stretcher is brought onto the field on Sunday. But before the hit by Steelers CB Ike Taylor that took Dolphins QB Pat White out of the game, we got to see the former West Virginia star play for the first time this season in a conventional role. This wasn’t the wildcat or some other gimmick offense. With Chad Henne forced out with an eye injury, White came into the game and, from my perspective, looked tentative. He didn’t have good feet in the pocket, came off his reads too fast in his route progression and, to be honest, was not prepared to play in a pro style offense. We see this a lot with rookie QBs from spread option offenses when they get into a pro style system, and the best way to judge a player is to watch his pocket awareness. White looked small and outmatched against Pittsburgh.

The “what if’s” of the AFC

With so man y teams playing to get into the AFC wild card Sunday, and so many teams needing “help” plus a win to get in, let’s look at why those teams are home — and not going to the dance.

Pittsburgh: Ben Roethlisberger was good again, but the Steelers are always going to look back at that five-game losing streak that included losses to Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland. Add the loss of Troy Polamalu and a defense that couldn’t close out games, and the defending champs had to rely on too much help on the final day of the season.

Houston: I was all over the Texans in the preseason, but they were never really a true player in the AFC because of the games they couldn’t win. Fourth-quarter collapses and mistakes in the kicking game always had us asking questions about their toughness. But the strong finish will probably bring back coach Gary Kubiak.

Denver: The 6-0 start had many of us (myself included) handing out coach of the year awards to Josh McDaniels, but this team lost eight of its last 10 games. The running game was an issue on both sides of the ball, and Sunday’s loss at home to the Chiefs — by 20 points — was inexcusable for a playoff team.

Jacksonville: Did anyone actually believe in the Jags when they were considered a player at the beginning of December? Jacksonville and coach Jack Del Rio went 1-4 in December and lost four straight, closing out the season with a 35-7 loss on the road at New England and a bad performance yesterday in a loss to the Browns.

Quick hits

* Congrats to the Titans’ Chris Johnson, who went over the 2,000-yard mark in Tennessee’s win over Seattle. We have to wonder where he’d be in the MVP talk if Tennessee didn’t start out 0-6.

* A game ball is in order for Chiefs LB Derrick Johnson. He picked off Kyle Orton twice yesterday in the second half — and brought both of them back for touchdowns.

* How about Bears QB Jay Cutler the last two weeks? Two Chicago wins to go along with eight TD passes and only one INT.

* Carolina played so well down the stretch we have to wonder where this team would be if Matt Moore had been given a shot at QB earlier in the season.

* How long until a press conference is called today at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va., for a coaching announcement?

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