I was surprised that 31 minutes actually elapsed between the final gun of the Colts-Patriots game Sunday and the first e-mail I received from a gloating New England fan ridiculing me for picking the Colts in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. Others followed. Exactly two Pats fans had e-mailed me about that prediction before the game, and one of them admitted that he really couldn’t argue with the pick. It never ceases to amaze me how smart everyone gets after the game has been played.
Look, I don’t want to get defensive here because predicting badly is a key weapon in my arsenal of shtick, but folks, it’s not so easy to pick NFL games correctly. Even real, honest-to-goodness experts — a class to which I don’t belong — correctly pick the winner of NFL games less than 70 percent of the time.
And that’s in the regular season, when you get some gimmes. Sure, any given Sunday and all that, but, just to grab an example, look at the AFC South. The Titans and Colts, who were expected to do well and did, went a combined 7-1 against the Texans and Jaguars, who were expected to do poorly and did.
In the playoffs, the competition is all the more evenly matched.
I’m always glad to hear from every one of you, but if you haven’t written before kickoff to tell me that my pick is idiotic, writing me afterward to call me a fool is, shall we say, less than impressive. Here’s my favorite e-mail gambit: “I didn’t get around to reading your predictions until after the game …” In the immortal word of Bill Cosby: Riiiiiiiight!
Anyhow, I did pick the Colts, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. They got spanked. But it’s not like I was supremely confident that I was going to be right in the first place. I’ll share with you some entries from the notes I took as I watched the game.
After the Patriots scored a touchdown on the opening possession: “Going for it [on fourth and a foot at their own 44 on the first series of downs] was key. Set the tone for the game. If the Colts don’t answer here, it’ll be a long day for them.”
After the ensuing kickoff: “Colts procedure [penalty] on first play. No offensive penalties in first two games. Is this going to be a meltdown?”
After Peyton Manning’s second interception, to Ty Law, on the first play following a field goal that made it 10-0 Patriots. “As soon as he threw it, before Ty Law appeared on-screen, I said, ‘Intercepted.’ Is this game over? Looks like it.”
Next possession, still early in the second quarter, the Patriots faced a fourth and 8 at the Indy 29 and went for it: “I like this call. Field goal is too tough. [The Pats get the first down on a 16-yard pass from Tom Brady to Troy Brown.] First down pass to Brown to 13. This game’s over, period.”
I’m pretty smart after the fact too.
But where’s the love for my rare displays of foresight? No one, after the fact, has written to congratulate me on this, from my season preview in September: “The Panthers went 7-9 last year, and given recent history that ought to make them favorites to go to the Super Bowl this year,” I wrote. Then, after some doubtful stuff about then-starting quarterback Rodney Peete and his eventual replacement, Jake Delhomme: “But what the heck: Here’s your Super Bowl dark horse.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but if I’d written it about the Chargers, I’d have heard from you.
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Fumbles, replays, Panthers props and more [PERMALINK]
A few leftover thoughts from Sunday’s games. There’s time for this sort of thing because of the return to the awful dead week before Super Bowl week. We’ve covered this subject before so let’s not get into it again, but a permanent return to playing the conference title games and the Super Bowl on consecutive Sundays is another of my hopeless causes.
The Steve Smith fourth-quarter fumble in the NFC Championship Game is a perfect example of what’s wrong with instant replay, other than the constant interruptions to the flow of action. It turns the game from a human activity to a ridiculously technical laboratory experiment.
Panthers receiver Smith had made a nice play, making a second and third effort to continue to get yards after a catch. He was finally corraled around his own 45 after gaining 15 yards. He fumbled and the Eagles recovered. The Panthers challenged that Smith had been down by contact, the technocratic current NFL term for “tackled.” The challenge was upheld and the Panthers kept the ball.
Here’s what happened. Smith was hit and wrapped up, and as he was going down one of the tacklers ripped the ball from his arm. The replay showed that the ball was coming out of Smith’s hand, he’d lost his grip on it, before he hit the ground, but because it was still in contact with his forearm at the nanosecond when his knee made contact with the top of the grass blades, he was ruled “down by contact.”
Before instant replay, it wouldn’t have occurred to any rational person to call that play anything but a fumble. Football is a rough and tumble game that, thanks to instant replay, becomes diamond cutting at certain key times. The guy gets tackled and drops the ball. That’s a fumble. With instant replay, it’s not anymore. That’s not a change for the better. Instant replay takes a game designed by humans, played by humans, and turns it into something illogical. Instant replay is a court of law, not justice.
Not that it ended up mattering, but what were the Eagles thinking not challenging the call that left them at their own 8-yard line on that fourth-quarter punt that should have been called a touchback? That would have been their last challenge, but what were they saving it for? There were a little more than nine minutes to go, Koy Detmer was coming into the game for the first time to replace the injured Donovan McNabb, and they were down 14-3.
Putting Detmer in the shadow of his own goal line for his first snap against one of the best front fours in the league, if not the best, when you could let him start at the 20 was a terrible idea. With a little over seven minutes before that last challenge expires anyway, the risk of something more important than those 12 yards coming up for a challenge was acceptable to say the least.
You can’t really do this, because the possession would have developed differently if it had started at the 20 instead of 12 yards back, but let’s do it anyway: When Detmer threw the interception that ended the drive, the Eagles were just shy of the Panthers 12.
We’ve seen it two weeks in a row now: Why do so many NFL coaches seem to have this maniacal desire to die with arrows still in their quiver?
I’m tired of hearing about how Donovan McNabb is an inaccurate passer. He’s a career 57 percent thrower, 57.5 percent this year. That’s bad. But has the guy ever had a decent crop of receivers to throw to?
On Sunday his receivers dropped, estimating conservatively, five passes as he went 10 for 22, 45.5 percent. If they’d caught four of those five, McNabb’s completion percentage would have been 63.6 percent, and that’s not counting the fact that two of McNabb’s three interceptions looked to most observers like they were the fault of receiver Todd Pinkston, who stopped in the middle of his pattern.
Every quarterback has some balls dropped, and I didn’t watch every Philly game this year so I don’t know how unusual Sunday’s performance was. But I have seen the Eagles’ receivers enough to know they aren’t very good, so I think it’s conservative to assume at least one drop a week, which would have brought McNabb’s regular-season completion percentage to 60.9 percent. That’s middle of the pack, the neighborhood where Super Bowl quarterbacks Delhomme and Brady live. Given McNabb’s leadership and running abilities, that would be plenty good enough. Let’s see how good a passer McNabb is if the Eagles ever give him somebody to throw to.
I wrote Friday that I didn’t think much of Panthers running back DeShaun Foster even after his nice game against the Rams in the divisional round. I still don’t think he’s going to be a top-flight back, but that 3-yard touchdown run he turned in against the Eagles was a piece of work. He fought his way through at least four tacklers and turned what looked like no gain at best into the touchdown that put Carolina up 14-3 late in the third quarter. Fox announcer Cris Collinsworth correctly called the Eagles’ tackling attempts “pathetic,” but it was still a hell of a play by Foster. Panther fans have noted that I’ve been knocking the whole team all year, never quite believing in them. Counting the playoffs, I only picked them to win six of their 18 games. And I’m probably not going to pick them to win the Super Bowl.
But they’re going to be a tougher foe than the quick installation of the Pats as seven-point favorites might suggest. They’re probably going to be tougher than the Colts were.
There’s no doubt the Patriots won Sunday’s game by shutting down Manning and the Colts offense, but a major factor that’s being overlooked a little bit in the aftermath is that the Pats were able to do pretty much whatever they wanted on offense in the first half. The first three times they had the ball, the Patriots went 65 yards on 13 plays for a touchdown, 67 yards on 13 plays for a field goal and 52 yards on 11 plays for a field goal. Brady was 14 of 22 for 142 yards and a TD, with no interceptions and no sacks.
The three drives allowed the Patriots to build a 13-0 lead by the middle of the second quarter, and even though Indy outscored them 14-11 the rest of the way, the Colts were never really in the game. That kind of offensive dominance won’t come so easy against the Panthers.
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