I think I would like to open this review of Wildcard Weekend with an overall point that in at least 3 media places last week, I saw/heard/read NFL media people pontificating about the idea that the NFL better look in the mirror regarding the potential for non-sellouts of their playoff games. The media types, who it should be noted must come up with compelling content every day and sometimes miss their mark, were trying to make the point that this is a serious matter and that the league better beware of what might be its popularity plateauing before its very eyes. If you can't sellout playoff games in a timely fashion, you better recognize that some are not thrilled with your product!
I said it then and I will say it now. If you think there is anything remotely as compelling as a playoff weekend in the National Football League anywhere in sports today, then we will have to agree to disagree. The lack of sellouts in a small way may speak to the idea that the league is going to have to adjust to the way its consumer enjoys its products (as in, slightly less gate revenue (especially in arctic conditions), and substantially more television revenue), but the idea that the league has done anything to affect the number of people who cannot wait until the next weekend's playoff games is just flat out ridiculous.
And I believe this point is easily substantiated by the gigantic television numbers and what appeared to be 4 stadiums that were rocking and rolling despite 3 of them in the outdoor winter north.
I know we get bored sometimes, NFL media, but you can save yourself from looking silly by scratching the "is the NFL losing popularity" topic off your list. It seems to be doing just fine. We can certainly ask if the blackout rule is silly and antiquated, but as far as how many humans are consuming the NFL product either in person or through their television, that number has never been higher and will surely only continue to go up.
Now, each playoff Monday, we want to examine the games a bit and look at it from a purely NFC point of view, as we continue to see where the Cowboys are and where they need to go. You know, one major point from Jerry Jones over the last several seasons is that the Cowboys are really, really close. This is proven to him by the idea that the team is playing for the NFC East division on the final week of the season in 2011, 2012, and 2013. And, if that game goes slightly differently, his team - and not their opponent - will represent the division by hosting a playoff game in the tournament and then, "anything can happen!"
Of course, it resonates with the audience a bit better when the Giants then go on a Super Bowl run like they did in 2011. However, the truth is that when a team that is 8-8 is playing for its division title on the final Sunday, chances are really good that the division lacks any sort of real power. And, as Philadelphia was dismissed by New Orleans on Saturday - like Washington last season at home to Seattle - we see that there are no easy games in the playoffs even if they are at home and the Cinderella runs that some teams go on are the exception to the rule and not the rule itself.
The NFC East did look like it sent its best team to the playoffs this year, and the Eagles must be optimistic about the idea of Chip Kelly now having another offseason to further put together a roster that suits his overall vision. I do continue to see that although the efficiency of Nick Foles is amongst the best single-season QBs of all time, he certainly has a ways to go with regards to playing the position at an elite level. I realize we are stat driven in our analysis and I am in no position to leave that post, but when I look at Foles and see his actual game action, I am left wanting in many categories. Maybe the first thing he has to clean up is his inability to recognize game theory under fire and although he loathes throwing the ball where it can be intercepted, he simply cannot take sacks in certain scenarios. He also is not great at adjusting when his first read is gone and the biggest point of all is that this offense is set up to protect the QB from having to do too much as Foles leads the league in screen pass yardage and low leverage throws that are both safe and able to reap big yards with runs after the catch. However, there is a time in every game where you have to move the chains on 3rd and long, and that requires a QB who can see and attack the whole field, and I know he is young, but I don't see Foles as that now and am not high on him in the future.
I realize he is young and has all sorts of room for improvement, but I don't think NBC is doing him any favors by putting him on the screen with Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Peyton Manning for two weeks in a row and basically grouping them all together based on single-season QB Rating. The truth is that I anticipate that Chip Kelly's QBs will always be over 100 in QB rating, but that might prove more of an issue with how QB rating is calculated than it does the excellence of a QB who accumulates most of his yardage by either horizontal throws or deep throws over the top (one of the safest throws in the sport) and never attacks the secondary where the elite QBs often do. Nobody debates that he is a better QB than Michael Vick at this point, but I wouldn't be shocked if Chip Kelly keeps looking and by 2015 has a new starting QB in Philadelphia.
The Eagles lost the game mostly because they could never get their offense going like they were accustomed to doing. They were out gained by nearly 200 yards by the Saints and despite having a giant +2 turnover advantage as Drew Brees was feeling generous, were not looking themselves offensively for the 2nd week in a row. There is no question that Kelly's offense raised the bar in the league for standards of excellence, but you would feel a bit better if it didn't end the season with two offensive games that were rather unimpressive at the moment of truth.
Meanwhile, the NFC North also had a rough year in producing a fantastic champion, and like the NFC East, the north now has nobody left in the tournament, either, as Green Bay lost at home to the mighty 49ers. Now, a lot is being made about Green Bay losing at home and that they are the dominant home team that they once were, but for whatever reason, people are ignoring the fact that the 49ers were favored in this game, and only because of the NFL's playoff format granting a division champion a home game would a 8 win team ever host a playoff game in the first place.
I picked San Francisco to play Denver in the Super Bowl back in August, so that should speak of what I think of the 49ers, and I honestly don't think I am changing my mind now. I am leery of Colin Kaepernick's consistency level throwing the ball, but that team is built as a team should be built. Strong, physical, and just solid across their entire lineup. It doesn't seem that they rely on any one player on either side of the ball, as SF has a roster that compliments itself wonderfully.
Kaepernick's ability to improvise on a key 3rd down blitz when he broke the contain of Jarrett Bush was the play that won the game and it is so difficult to defend. But, overall, I think the physicality on both sides of the ball is what makes SF a legitimate contender again this year and what has sent the Packers home again in this entertaining rivalry.
Much like the Saints/Eagles game, the final score was determined by a kick in the final seconds. Fox did not do a great job in describing what had happened so there are plenty of fans this morning that believe that the Packers almost saved themselves with this near block of the Phil Dawson field goal effort at the end. The ball goes through the arms of Davon House and nearly hits him in the face. How did he not block that? And didn't the football gods smile on the 49ers.
Well, no. Fox didn't tell you the important thing here is that House was offsides. Even if he blocks it, the 49ers get another FG, even closer and they still win.
From the game book:
(:03) P.Dawson 33 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-K.McDermott, Holder-A.Lee.Penalty on GB-D.House, Defensive Offside, declined.
The Saints move on to travel to Seattle and the 49ers head to Carolina. What seemed obvious 3 months ago was that the Seahawks and 49ers were the 2 best teams in the NFC and that they would likely play for the NFC Championship game. Now, here we are, and I don't really have any issue with that forecast at all, but I am sure the NFC South teams will and that is why we will tune in and be ready to roll next weekend for another great list of games.
Home teams won just once this weekend (1-3), as the Colts beat the Chiefs in a real classic that we shall talk about for years. And the winner of the turnover battle also went 1-3, as the Chargers were the only team to turn the opponent's generosity into points.
Watching these games on the first 2 weekends of every playoff year always make me arrive at the same spot. The games are so close and so competitive that you have a hard time with firm conclusions that are just cut and dried. But there is one that is reached in my head. And that is that as fans or media, we have an unrealistic view of our team compared to the guys who run those squads.
Sure, the ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl, but I imagine the best organizations understand that in a 12 team tournament, it is just not realistic to plan very many parades. For crying out loud, the Patriots have been shut out for a decade (2004 was last Super Bowl win) and Peyton Manning has only scaled the mountain one time. It is really hard to win the Super Bowl. Rather, if pressed, I imagine a NFL architect would have to concede that the real goal is to get into the playoffs every year and give yourself a chance. Once in there, the ball can bounce oddly and it might be in your favor. If you are always in the tournament, at some point, the dealer might smile upon you.
If you go to the postseason 7 years in a row, or 8 out of 10, odds are very good that you will have a magical run in there. But, that is the trick. Not to make the playoffs twice a decade, but to build a team with depth and quality that can go every year and even though most of those runs will end in tears, once or twice, you might win a few games and get on a roll with the injuries avoiding you.
4 teams remain in the NFC and 8 in entire NFL. That means good news and bad news. The good news is that we have 7 more games remaining in the season of playoff gold. The bad news is that we have just 7 games left in the NFL season before we have to do something else with our time.