Coaching Matters in Championship Weekend

January 19, 2010

Two weeks ago I thought the Cowboys and Chargers were going to the Superbowl.  The recipe was in place: two red hot teams that match up well against any of their upcoming opponents.  For whatever reason I threw all historical and conventional wisdom out the window and picked Wade Phillips to face off against Norv Turner in the biggest game of the year.  This was very stupid.  Three minutes into Sunday’s game between the Vikings and Cowboys I knew I was cooked.  Wade Phillips had a 4th and 1 at the Vikings 31 and he decided to kick a field goal with the immortal Sean Suisham, whose biggest moment of the season was when he shanked a sure thing against the Saints when he was still on the Redskins.  That’s right people, Wade Phillips elected to kick a Field Goal from 49 yards on the road with a guy who’s already been cut once for missing a chip shot at home this season.  Needless to say he missed and the beating commenced.  After Minnesota’s beatdown the Jets and Chargers game started with Rex Ryan differing the ball to San Diego, a brilliant tone-setting move that the likes of Norv Turner could never come up with.  Ryan knew a) His defense is pretty good, b) His offense was not about to drive the ball the length of the field on the opening drive and didn’t want to lose field position early, and c) The crowd would stay quieter than if the Chargers forced a Jets’ 3 and out.  The tone was set; the Jets’ defense came to play and the Chargers were outcoached for 4 quarters.  The fact is that coaching matters when we get to this stage and never, under any circumstance, talk yourself into Wade Phillips and Norv Turner this time of year.  So where does that leave us heading into Sunday?  We have 4 coaches left in the mix: 2 who are in their first year, 1 semi-proven guy and 1 wildcard who could double as any creepy bad guy from any bad action movie ever made.  Let’s take a look at these guys’ resumes heading into the biggest game of their lives.

Sunday 3 PM EST: Jim Caldwell (Colts) vs Rex Ryan (Jets)

The Jury is still out on if Caldwell's headset is plugged in all the time

Jim Caldwell

Experience: Spent years under the tutelage of Tony Dungy learning the ins and outs of the Colts.  Started the season 14-0 and ironically decided to not play his starters against the Jets, which sacrificed a perfect season and allowed the Jets to get into the playoffs.  That decision may not have only cost him perfection but potentially a chance at the Superbowl if the Jets spring the upset.  I’m unclear as to whether or not his headset is actually plugged in at any point when the Colts have the ball on offense, as most television viewers have never seen him speak.  Up until the infamous 4th and 2 Sunday Night Football game against New England half of the country had no idea what he looked like.

Advantages: He has Peyton Manning, who by all accounts can make any coach look good, even Jim Mora.

Disadvantages: The Colts don’t do anything different then what they always have done, so a creative defense (hello, Jets) can come up with a unique gameplan to confuse Manning.  If this happens we will have no idea if Caldwell is capable of making adjustments because he’s never had to do so on a stage like this.

Pressure Level: Tremedous.  The blood will be on his and Bill Polian’s hands if the Jets win.  They let this team in by conceding perfection and now they need to knock them out to get to the Superbowl.  All that nonsense about “We want to win our last game of the season, blah, blah” will be for naught if they go down to the same team that wouldn’t be here if they had played out the string and gone for perfection.

Rex has his Jets rolling into Championship weekend

Rex Ryan

Experience: Son of famed defensive guru Buddy Ryan of ’86 Bears fame, he spent most of his pro career in Baltimore coaching the best defense of last decade in under various titles, including a spot as defensive line coach for the Superbowl Champion Ravens in 2000, which is only measured against his Dad’s ’86 Chicago squad in terms of greatness.  He’s a big fan of sleeveless sweater vests with turtle necks underneath and could potentially make millions as the next Subway spokesperson if coaching doesn’t work out.  Mistakenly thought his team was eliminated after a Week 15 loss against Atlanta only to find out not only were they alive but their final two opponents had nothing to play for.

Advantages: Playing with house money by getting to the AFC Championship.  All of his defensive players carry the same swagger and bravado as he does and they are playing as loose as any team around right now.  They also have the “nobody believes in us” mantra going for them which has fired up plenty of teams in recent history.  Also if the Jets need to go to a fourth string nose tackle he could most likely fill in.

Disadvantages: Has a rookie quarterback about to play in a hostile atmosphere in the biggest game of the season against one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game on the other side.  Completely one dimensional on offense and cannot rely on Mark Sanchez to out-duel Peyton Manning under any circumstances.  If the Colts get ahead early his team has little to zero chances of coming back.

Pressure Level: None.  Nobody thought the Jets would be here and for a fanbase as tortured as the J-E-T-S Jets! Jets! Jets! fans, two playoff wins is more than enough.  Even if they get dismantled on Sunday look for Fireman Ed to motion for a 300 lb statue of Rex Ryan to be built in front of the new stadium next year.

Sunday 6:40 PM EST Sean Payton (Saints) vs Brad Childress (Vikings)

Brees and Payton have been the NFL's most potent offensive duo in recent years

Sean Payton

Experience: After brief stints with the Eagles and Giants in the late 90s he moved within the division to Dallas where he worked under Bill Parcells as an assistant coach.  Was dealt a short hand while in Dallas having to coach Quincy Carter, Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe but hit the jackpot when he took over in New Orleans and Drew Brees signed on as a free agent.  Of all the coaches in the Conference Championship round, Payton has the best credentials.  He led the Saints here three years ago but got throttled in Chicago by the Bears; many of the players remain on the Saints this year and will be ready for the challenges to Conference title game brings.

Advantages: Will be coaching at home in what should be the loudest Superdome crowd in history.  The Saints have the best homefield advantage in all of the NFL and it will be thunderous in New Orleans on Sunday.  He is the most creative playcaller left in the playoffs and has a plethora of weapons at his disposal.  He creates matchup problems for any defense which will help neutralize Minnesota’s pass rush.

Disadvantages: The jury is out on if his defense can come through in a big game.  If the Vikings pass rush is getting to Brees he is going to have to dig deep into his bag of tricks to get the Saints moving.  While the Saints are capable of winning any kind of shootout they’ll need some semblance of defense to avoid an early deficit and keep to the Superdome rocking.

Pressure Level: Moderate.  While the Saints are the favorites in this game the good people of New Orleans will not be calling for anyone’s head if they go down.  After Dallas ended their run at perfection in December the Saints fans stayed an applauded once the final whistle blew.  A win would push him to “never have to pay for a meal in New Orleans” status but everyone’s safe if they lose.

A made for TV movie villian has a chance to go to the Superbowl

Brad Childress

Experience: Worked under offensive guru Andy Reid for several years in Philadelphia and unfortunately inherited his former boss’ clock management skills as well.  Bounced around a good chunk before landing in Philadelphia then ended up in Minnesota where he probably would have already been fired if the team hadn’t landed Adrian Peterson in the 2007 NFL draft.  His career record with the Vikings is 36-28 and 1-1 in the postseason.  Wears an odd earpiece/headset thing to communicate idiotic time management and play calls back and forth.  Decided to grow a beard to distance himself from looking like any made for TV movie serial killer but ended up looking like a picture seen on the news in any kind of Amber Alert case.

Advantages: Brett Favre has enough playoff experience to make up for the rest of the Vikings who may have a deer in the headlights look shared by their head coach.  Adrian Peterson can run and help keep the Saints’ offense of the field and New Orleans has a below average secondary that Favre will pick apart if given the time.  Unless he reverts back to the recent playoff Favre where he will throw at least 2 spine crushing interceptions for Vikings fans.

Disadvantages: Cannot handle the two minute drill whatsoever, is incapable of properly working with timeouts and often challenges calls that you are not allowed to challenge.  He also has the ticking time bomb that is Brett Favre who can explode for 4 picks in 6 possessions if he gets the yips.

Pressure Level: High.  Favre came back to win the Superbowl, America had to sit through the entire offseason soap opera and if they don’t get to the big game bringing him back got one more win in the playoffs then last year and now they have to deal with the will he or won’t he talk through minicamp and beyond.  Enjoy!

If we had to rank these coaches it would go something like this: 1. Payton 2. Ryan 3. Caldwell 4. Childress.  There are going to be plenty of other factors at play and Peyton Manning pretty much levels any slight edge Ryan has over Caldwell.  You can’t get this far without being somewhat competent but you also need savvy along the way.  But how would you feel if your favorite teams’ season rested on the acumen of Brad Childress in a big spot?  These are the questions that are going to decide who plays in Miami in a couple weeks.

Stay Tuned for a podcast and picks for Championship weekend later in the week.


Sorting Out the AFC Playoff Picture

December 29, 2009

Before we get to sorting out the AFC playoff picture, I have an announcement:  I am resigning from this blog.  Actually its more like a leave of absence…on second thought I’m just going to keep going with it as scheduled.  Glad we got that out of the way.

Also, just one quick thought on the biggest news story of the weekend: so this guy Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who allegedly tried to blow up a plane supposedly was on some kind of “watch list” but deemed “not dangerous enough to be on a no-fly list.” Can we all agree that if you’re on a watch list it’s a good idea to just go ahead and bump them to the no-fly list?  I mean, he had to be doing something to get on the watch list so let’s just not take chances in this type of situation in the future.  How does that sound to everybody?

Onto the hazy AFC Playoff picture.  After a crazy Week 16 in which we saw a team concede perfection (Colts), a team who is so undisciplined they let their bitter division rivals keep breathing (Ravens), a team fight all the way back on the road only to lose control of its own destiny in the final 2 minutes (Broncos) and an emerging juggernaut (Chargers) blow out one of the hottest teams in football on the road, I think it’s a good time to sort out this mess as we head into the final weekend.  We know four AFC teams are locked into the playoffs: Colts (1), Chargers (2), Patriots (3), and Bengals (4).  The only shifting that can happen to these four teams this weekend would be if New England loses and Cincinnati wins; Cincinnati takes the 3 spot heading into the playoffs.  The 5 and 6 seeds remain up for grabs, so let’s run down the teams in contention going ranging from win and in scenarios all the way through teams needs all kinds of help.  Seven teams make the list: The Jets, Ravens, Steelers, Dolphins, Texans, Jaguars and Broncos.

*Note: if there is a tie in any of the below even more hell will break loose and also lead to some confusion from Donovan McNabb*

In Control of their own Destiny:

Baltimore Ravens (8-7): Despite being the team that has perpetually underachieved and committed idiotic penalties in key moments all season, if the Ravens win in Oakland on Sunday they will be in the Playoffs.  At first glance one would think that this is an easy W for Baltimore but 4 of Oakland’s wins came against Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Denver.  For whatever reason Oakland shows up against contenders but if Baltimore can beat the Raiders,  the Ravens are in.

Playoff Outlook: Very Good

Rex's Jets may waddle into the playoffs depsite a shaky second half

New York Jets (8-7): Simple equation for the Jets: beat Cincinnati at home on Sunday Night Football and they are in the playoffs and will head to New England for the Wild Card Round.  Cincinnati is in a position with little to gain, so much like their fraudulent win in Indianapolis on Sunday the Jets will benefit from playing second string players.  If the Bengals beat the Jets there is no scenario in which they can get into the playoffs.  The Jets have the same fate as Baltimore: Win and in, lose and the Jets’ season is over.

Playoff Outlook: Good

Teams that need a win and some help:

Denver Broncos (8-7): The Broncos were close to going all the way back in Philadelphia, and being in control of their own destiny as they prepare to host the horrendous Kansas City Chiefs at home to close out the season.  The reality is that we are probably looking at one of the few teams ever to go 6-0 and the miss the playoffs.  They are the only team that could potentially get in with a loss as well but if they lose at home to the Chiefs they don’t deserve to be in the playoffs.  To get in the Broncos need:

  • A Win and a Jets and Ravens loss
  • A Win and Jets and Steelers loss
  • A win, a Texans win (vs New England) and a Jets loss
  • A win and a Steelers and Ravens loss
  • A win and a Texans win and Ravens loss

They can also get in if they lose and…

  • The Steelers, Ravens, Texans and Jaguars all lose
  • The Steelers, Ravens, Texans, and Jets all lose
  • The Steelers, Ravens, Jaguars and Jets all lose
  • The Steelers, Texans, Jaguars and Jets all lose
  • The Dolphins, Ravens, Jaguars, Texans and Jets all lose

Playoff Outlook: They will be big Bengals fans on Sunday and given the Jets history of ripping their fans hearts out and stomping them into the ground there is a chance Denver avoids a complete collapse–not a good chance, but consider the Broncos’ Lloyd Christmas after a chat with Mary Swanson (“So you’re telling me there’s a chance!!!”)

Looks like it will be another dissapointing title defense for Big Ben and the Steelers

Looks like it will be another disappointing title defense for Big Ben and the Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers: The defending champions need to win in Miami on Sunday to have a chance which is no easy task.  On top of that they also need Houston to lose to New England (The Pats will be resting their starters) and a Jets loss vs Cincinnati (not likely but possible).

OR

  • Win at Miami, Houston loss to New England and Baltimore loss at Oakland (again not likely but possible)
  • Win at Miami, Jets loss, Ravens loss, and Broncos Loss in Denver to Kansas City (more likely then a Ravens loss but not something to be counted on)

Playoff Outlook: Unlikely

Houston Texans (8-7): Let me be the first to offer the Texans a congratulations on another year that will have people thinking “Hey this team isn’t that far off, they finished strong down the stretch last year!!” late next summer.  Houston needs to win at home over New England; the Patriots will treat this game like a preseason game, a series or two for Brady and the starters then the Brian Hoyer show will take over from there.  Given that at full strength the Patriots secondary has been picked apart by elite offenses this year I would expect Andre Johnson to have a monster day vs the New England backups.  On top of a win the Texans need a Jets and Ravens loss.

OR

  • A win, Jets loss and Broncos loss
  • A Win, Ravens loss and Broncos loss

Playoff outlook: Not likely but not inconceivable (scenario 2 being the most likely way in)

Teams that need a ton of help:

Miami Dolphins (7-8): A valiant season put in by Miami this year that will ultimately leave them on the outside looking in.  There is only one scenario that gets Miami in: a win over Pittsburgh and  the Jets, Ravens, Texans and Jaguars to all lose (Jacksonville is at Cleveland, which is no gimmie: cold weather, improving team, Jags coming off an embarrassing loss in New England).  Even if the Browns pulled an upset the likelihood of the Jets, Ravens and Texans all losing plus the need to beat Pittsburgh gives Miami as good of chance of getting in as Tiger had of not getting caught.

Playoff Outlook: Almost impossible

Jacksonville Jaguars (7-8): The Jags travels to Cleveland in hopes of stopping a 3 game losing streak; meanwhile the Browns are on a 3 game winning streak and are looking to finish the season strong after playing flat out abysmal football for the first 13 weeks of the season.  Any playoff scenario for the Jaguars starts with a win.  If they do avoid an upset the Jags need the Steelers, Ravens, Texans and Broncos to all lose.

OR

  • A win and a Steelers, Ravens, Broncos and Jets Loss
  • A win and a Steelers, Ravens, Texans and Jets Loss
  • A win and a Steelers, Texans, Broncos and Jets Loss
  • A Win and a Ravens, Texans, Broncos and Jets Loss

Playoff Outlook: Enjoy the offseason

I would say the most likely scenario is that the Jets and Ravens are in and will promptly lose to the Patriots and Bengals in Round 1.  All season long I’ve read articles about how the parity era is ending with these decade-long dominating teams but given that we have no idea what is going to happen heading into Week 17 I think somewhere Pete Rozelle is smiling.  Onto the top 12 as we sit on the doorstep of the playoffs:

1. Colts (14-1): They win that game if Jim Caldwell doesn’t rest his starters–a philosophy I disagree with as I wrote about a few weeks ago.  He did put a stamp on his season though, so if the Colts lose in the playoffs the biggest piece of the blame cake is going to the rookie head coach.

2. Chargers (12-3): Now in possession of the league’s longest current winning streak at 10 games, the Chargers look like a juggernaut after dismantling the Titans on Christmas night.  Interesting debate for you to have: if you’re a GM with the #1 pick in the 2004 draft who do you take?  It’s between Rivers and Big Ben and it is very close.

3.  Eagles (11-4): The return of Brian Westbrook is a welcome one and their offense looks as good as it has all decade.  One concern would be the Eagles propensity to allow teams to hang around in the second half which could come back to bite them in the playoffs.

4. Saints (14-2): Its not just the two straight losses that should have New Orleans fans concerned; since crushing the Patriots on Monday Night the Saints barely beat Washington (Abysmal), Atlanta (without Matt Ryan) then lost to Dallas and Tampa Bay in the Superdome.  That’s 4 straight below average performances for a team that may have already peaked.

5. Vikings (11-4): You can’t blame last night’s loss on Favre’s wheels falling off in December but for the third time in 4 games the Vikings secondary was shredded.  Once in Arizona, once in Carolina and now in Chicago by a quarterback who may throw the most interceptions in a season for this decade by the end of next week.  (First on the list: Brett Favre!)

6. Patriots (10-5): Outside of their one blowout loss in New Orleans the Patriots’ other 4 losses are by a combined 12 points. (7 at the Jets, 3 at Denver, 1 at Indianapolis, 1 at Miami).  The Patriots are flawed but will be a tough out for any AFC team. (Thank you to my buddy James for that stat as he was trying to talk me into a Patriots’ playoff run when I was back home this weekend)

7.  Packers (10-5): If not for a loss with no time on the clock in Pittsburgh a week ago, Green Bay would currently be riding a 7 game win streak.  They still have issues on the offensive line but with Ryan Grant keeping defenses honest Aaron Rodgers continues to shine in his second full season as a starter.

8.  Cardinals (10-5): They know how to win on the road in the playoffs as we learned last year and the equation remains the same: keep Warner protected and the Cardinals can beat anyone.

9.  Cowboys (10-5): The Cowboys have won 2 meaningful games in December for the first time in the Tony Romo era but they need to win a playoff game for me to buy into any kind of “Look out for Dallas” talk.  A playoff warm up in Jerryworld this weekend against the Eagles could end up being the spark to get the Cowboys rolling.

10.  Bengals (10-5): Consider these guys a mega sleeper–nothing about them stands out but they will be able to keep high powered offenses such as San Diego or Indianapolis off the field with their stout running attack.  It doesn’t appear that they have enough fire power to pull a monster upset this season though.

11. Ravens (8-7): Underachieving whiners for the majority of the season it will be interesting to see who they blame for their first round playoff exit.

12. Jets/Broncos/Steelers (8-7): Take your pick, whoever ends up in this spot will have a razor thin chance to win a road playoff game in New England.