The NFL is a league of surprises, one in which no upset is really an upset. It's also one in which no loss to the New England Patriots in the playoffs is an upset, at least not in this century.
And yet. How can a team go 14-2 and then play as poorly -- forget poorly; as stupidly -- as the San Diego Chargers did Sunday? There is actually talk of the Chargers firing coach Marty Schottenheimer. After a 14-2 season.
How can a good team play so badly that that talk actually makes sense?
The Patriots will renew the decade's most fascinating NFL rivalry Sunday night on the road against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game. The Colts upset the Baltimore Ravens 15-6 Saturday, riding their defense for a second straight game. That last is as big an upset as anything that's happened in the NFL since New England's first Super Bowl win.
In the NFC, the Chicago Bears beat the Seattle Seahawks 27-24 in overtime and the New Orleans Saints beat the Philadelphia Eagles by the same score in regulation, ending the year's second-best Cinderella story and continuing the best one. The Saints visit the Bears in the NFC Championship Game Sunday afternoon.
The Chargers screwed up just about any way you can screw up in losing to the Patriots, 24-21. Not to take anything away from the Pats, always so sensitive to any slight, always so underappreciated and disrespected. The Patriots did what has made them one of the NFL's great dynasties. They played well enough to have a chance to win, then seized that chance when it presented itself.
But boy, did it present itself!
The Chargers dropped passes, muffed punts, took incredibly inane, drive-sustaining 15-yard penalties and, finally, killingly, fumbled away an interception -- of a fourth-down pass! That's right, a pass that should have been knocked down. Dropped intentionally. Kids playing pickup games know this.
Marlon McCree didn't know it. San Diego was leading 21-13 with about six and a half minutes left and the Patriots had a 4th-and-5 at the Chargers 41. McCree, a safety, jumped a route perfectly, stepping in front of Reche Caldwell and intercepting Tom Brady's pass at about the 31.
In other words, 10 yards downfield from where the Chargers would have taken over had McCree just knocked the ball down. San Diego could then have worked on protecting its lead, running down the clock and possibly scoring the clinching points by handing off to LaDainian Tomlinson, who is, not to put too fine a point on it, the best player in the league.
McCree took a few steps on what he figured would be his runback to glory. "Anytime I get the ball," an unapologetic McCree said, apparently still unaware in the postgame gloom that he'd made a colossal error, "I am going to try and score."
Well good for you, Sparky. You go ahead and enjoy that fact about yourself for the whole rest of this month and the first week of next month. Plenty of time on your hands.
Patriots receiver Troy Brown, who has played defensive back when his team has been particularly depleted by injuries, stripped the ball away. Caldwell fell on it. First down, New England.
And then Schottenheimer compounded the mistake by challenging the ruling of a fumble, which cost the Chargers a timeout, not exactly a Phi Beta Kappa move in the waning minutes of a close playoff game. A replay that aired on CBS long before the Patriots were ready to snap for the next play revealed that not only was McCree not down when he fumbled, he wasn't even falling. It was that not-close.
It was all Brady and the Pats needed. Five plays later Brady hit Caldwell for a touchdown. Kevin Faulk took a direct snap on a trick play and ran in for the game-tying conversion. And then after a three-and-out, the Pats drove from their own 15 to the San Diego 13 before Stephen Gostkowski hit the go-ahead field goal with 1:10 to play.
And, of course, the Chargers were out of timeouts.
The Chargers started on their 25 with 1:05 to play. Philip Rivers completed a 14-yard pass, inbounds, to Antonio Gates. The Chargers rushed to the line and Rivers hit Gates again for four, inbounds. Rush to the line, spike. Forty-one seconds had elapsed. One more completion, to punt-muffer Eric Parker, got the Chargers to the 36, and they spiked it again with eight seconds left.
That put the game on the foot of Nate Kaeding, who needed to match his career high by hitting a 54-yarder. He didn't get it there.
You think with a timeout at the start of the drive, the Chargers could have completed one more pass, gotten within Kaeding's range? We'll never know, because Schottenheimer put an exclamation point on the Chargers' mistake festival by making one last one all by himself.
That the Chargers only lost by three, and possibly only because they ran out of time at the end, is a testament to what a blown opportunity this was for them.
All credit to the Patriots, who pulled out yet another one in the playoffs. Brady is 12-1 as a postseason quarterback now. But they had to have something to work with, and the Chargers gave them that.
Fire a coach who went 14-2? How about one who's 5-13, Schottenheimer's career playoff record. How about one who hasn't won a playoff game since 1993, when he was coaching the Kansas City Chiefs. One whose teams have lost six straight. That includes a 12-win team, two 13-win teams and now a 14-win team, all bounced in the first round.
Schottenheimer's done a good job in San Diego, helping turn the franchise around after nearly a decade spent as a consistent loser. But his work there is done. It's time for that team to win some playoff games.
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The divisional round [PERMALINK]
Aside from the Chargers choke job, the story of the divisional-round weekend was the Colts defense. For the second straight week, that group, so bad all season, carried Indianapolis to the win. Last week the Colts stuffed Larry Johnson and beat the Chiefs, this time they took care of the Ravens' lesser running attack, but also kept Steve McNair from beating them with the pass.
McNair was terrible. It was possible to watch the game and forget that Derrick Mason played for Baltimore, and Mark Clayton, the team's leading receiver, wasn't much more of a presence. Throw in a rare Todd Heap fumble and not one but two apparent Ravens interceptions lost because linebacker Ray Lewis deflected a ball that was headed straight for the numbers of a teammate and you have an Indy victory despite yet another subpar playoff performance by Peyton Manning.
Manning wasn't terrible. He made most of the plays he had to make and he did direct four scoring drives of at least 47 yards, two of them going 65 and 67. But all four resulted in field goals, as did an eight-yard "drive" following a turnover. Manning also threw two interceptions, though one of them was essentially a punt. Still, he might have had two more if Lewis were a half-step slower.
The Colts won because of their defense and because their running game, particularly Dominic Rhodes at the end, was able to salt away the game. Since the AFC Championship Game is widely thought of as the real Super Bowl, the million-dollar question this week in the NFL is whether that Colts defense is for real.
Could it be that the two playoff games are a better indicator of the quality of the Indianapolis defense than the 16 regular-season games? Could there be something to the idea that the Colts have grown bored with the regular season, that they glide until the postseason? Is there a playoff switch in Indy? And if so, why is it only the defense that has this issue?
It's a mistake to think of the AFC Championship Game as the real Super Bowl, by the way. The NFC may be the much weaker conference, but either of the surviving NFC teams, New Orleans and Chicago, can beat either the Colts or the Patriots, and that's not even taking into account that this is the NFL, and no upset is really an upset.
The Eagles, down 27-24 to the Saints, had a fourth-and-10 at their own 44. Do or die play. Jeff Garcia, under pressure, throwing off-balance as linebacker Scott Fujita roars in on him untouched, somehow completes a pass to a diving Hank Baskett, who had been blanketed by DeJuan Groce. First down at the 36! Shades of Donovan McNabb to Freddie Mitchell in Green Bay in 2003!
Flag on the play. No play. False start. Now it's fourth-and-15 at the 39. And the Eagles punt!
You've just made it on fourth-and-10, your quarterback has made an unbelievable play, you're inside the two-minute warning on the road and your opponent has Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, who have combined for 181 yards on 30 carries to that point -- 6 yards a pop. And you're not going to go for it again on fourth-and-15?
McAllister for four. McAllister for five. McAllister for five. Game. See you in Chicago, Saints.
See you next year, Eagles. Heck of a run after McNabb got hurt and Garcia took over, but boy, you play it like that, you deserve to lose.
That's certainly not unthinkable, but the way the Bears had to escape, in overtime, at home, against a very ordinary Seahawks team, and the way the Chicago defense has been making those early-season comparisons to the 1985 Bears D sound like even more of a joke than they sounded like at the time, and the way the Saints have Team o' Destiny written all over them, it's not something I'd bet a lot on either. The Bears beating the Saints, that is, in case you got lost in that last sentence.
"The flag was for illegal contact after the ball was in the air. It was not enough for defensive pass interference. Therefore there is no flag on the play, no foul."
It looked like pass interference to me. Rolle got in Wayne's way 20 yards downfield, put his hand in his chest and impeded him. Wayne fell down and the ball sailed over both of their heads.
The defender can't touch the receiver more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage, but according to this call, if the defender waits till the ball's in the air, he can touch the receiver as long as it's "not enough" to be pass interference, however much that is. Apparently, stopping the receiver's progress cold is "not enough."
Totally bizarre ruling, yet another product of the NFL's crazed welter of rules. Look, you can either hit the guy or you can't. Here are the pass interference rules on NFL.com. Check out 4(a) and (e):
"Actions that constitute defensive pass interference include but are not limited to: (a) Contact by a defender who is not playing the ball and such contact restricts the receiver's opportunity to make the catch [and] (e) Cutting off the path of a receiver by making contact with him without playing the ball."
Exactly what Rolle did.
The NFL needs to simplify its rules. If this was just a blown call, which it appeared to be, it looks to me like it was blown because the zebras can't keep all the crazy rules straight. Not enough for pass interference? They're making it up as they go along.
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