Perfection (an ode to Aaron Rodgers)

January 16, 2011

“Maybe I’m just so pumped up for the playoffs, but I thought there was a slight tremble in his voice when he mutterred (sic) ‘Atlanta’ in his interview after the packers (sic) win over the eagles (sic). If he’s not then he sure better be, with our defense starting to peak at the perfect time. They’ll be scraping Rodgers leftovers off the Ga Dome turf come Saturday night.” – poster War Bird, on a Falcons message board before the game

Fantastic.

Amazing.

Masterful.

Pick your superlative – they all fit Aaron Rodgers’ performance last night. Rodgers put up not only the best performance in Packers postseason history, but one of the best performances in NFL postseason history.* His 86.1 percent completion percentage was the fifth best in postseason history and only Tom Brady in the 2007 divisional playoffs threw for over 300 yards and had a higher completion percentage than Rodgers.

* And that’s not even a Packers’ fan’s subtle knock on Brett Favre. Favre and Rodgers have different skill sets. Favre’s the gunslinger; he’s just not the type of quarterback that could put together a complete clinical destruction of a team like Rodgers did last night.

31-for-36. 366 yards. 3 touchdowns. 1 rushing touchdown. 10-for-10 on third down. Touchdowns on five straight possessions against the fifth best scoring defense in the NFL. Drives of 81, 92, 80, 80, and 50 yards. Pick any stat you want – it’s all incredible.

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“When our big dog is playing well, all the other big dogs roll behind him.  And that’s how we roll.” – Packers wide receiver Donald Driver

Rodgers got off to a rocky start. The Falcons’ pressure forced him to hurry his first pass of the game, an incompletion to running back Brandon Jackson. On the Packers’ third play, Rodgers hit Greg Jennings on a quick slant over the middle for thirty yards, but Jennings fumbled. The Falcons recovered and scored seven plays later, sending the already raucous Georgia Dome crowd into a frenzy.

On the ensuing drive, the Packers seemed content to run forty seconds off the play clock every play to help slow the Falcons momentum. Running backs James Starks and Brandon Jackson ran the ball on five of the Packers’ first six plays on the drive, until they faced a third-and-7 at the Falcons 41.

And then the clinic began. Rodgers was hit from behind as he tossed the ball to Greg Jennings over the middle. It didn’t matter. Jennings caught the on-target ball for the first down.

Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson with an eight yard completion on third-and-3 from the 16. On second and goal, the Falcons again closed in on Rodgers. And again, it didn’t matter. Rodgers hung in the pocket and hit Nelson for six-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7.

Final tally for the momentum changing drive: 13 plays, 81 yards, 7:56 elapsed.

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“We had our (No.) 12 rolling. Man! When he’s playing like that . . . boy, he makes us a tough team to beat.” – Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings

And just like that, the Falcons stole momentum back. Pro Bowl kick returner Eric Weems took the ball two yards deep in the end zone. Fourteen seconds later, he had the record for longest play in postseason history and the Falcons were back up 14-7.

The Packers have struggled to find their own dynamic return man since the heyday of Desmond Howard and Allen Rossum ten years ago. It was painfully obvious in this game. On the Falcons’ kickoff, James Starks dropped the ball out of bounds at the eight-yard line, leaving Rodgers 92 yards away from the end zone.

Now down 14-7, the Packers decided to abandon their “control time of possession by running the ball” plan. Good decision.

Rodgers hit Jennings for six yards. Then Driver for 24. Then Jennings for 12. After a rare incompletion, Rodgers made perhaps his best play of the game. Falcons safety William Moore came unblocked around the outside. As Moore went in for the tackle, Rodgers pulled a Vick-like spin move and Moore whiffed on the tackle. Rodgers rolled out to the right and threw a perfect pass on a rope to a covered James Jones, who toed the sidelines for 34 yards. Trent Dilfer on ESPN broke the play down after the game; it turns out Rodgers was in the air when he threw the bullet.

Three plays later, the Falcons finally stopped Rodgers on third down…but only because cornerback Chris Owens tackled Greg Jennings in the end zone before Rodgers got the pass away. With new life, the Packers scored three plays later on a John Kuhn 1-yard run to tie the game at 14.

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“Aaron was unbelievable and our whole offense was unbelievable.” Packers defensive end Ryan Pickett

The game started to look like last year’s devastating 51-45 overtime loss to the Cardinals, in which neither team was capable of stopping the other. But on the next drive, Matt Ryan caved. Already in field goal range, Ryan forced a deep pass to Michael Jenkins. The ball was underthrown and Jenkins slipped, allowing Packers cornerback Tramon Williams – the hero of the Packers’ win over the Bears to qualify for the playoffs – to intercept the pass in the end zone.

Rodgers took over on the 20 with a quick six-yard completion to Andrew Quarless. The Falcons then tried to pressure Rodgers again. And again, it didn’t matter – Rodgers took off for a six-yard scramble.

On the next play, the Falcons tried dropping eight into coverage. Didn’t matter. Rodgers hit Greg Jennings for 20 yards. He then hit Andrew Quarless for eight more. After an incompletion (gasp!), Rodgers made another highlight reel play.

Facing third-and-2 from the 40, the Falcons defensive ends got past the Packers’ line around the outside. Rodgers stepped up into the pocket and – channeling the spirit of a certain former Packers quarterback – flung the ball back across his body to Donald Driver for a twenty-yard completion.

On the next play, Rodgers threw a perfect pass to James Jones in the corner of the end zone for the 21-14 lead. Poor Brent Grimes couldn’t cover the play any better. Rodgers went into the locker room 18 for 21 for 234 yards and two touchdowns.

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“Win or lose, I’m moving Aaron Rodgers onto my Barry Sanders Memorial ‘Do Not Gamble Against Under Any Circumstances’ list.” – ESPN’s Bill Simmons on Twitter

The Packers would have been happy to go into the half up 21-14. But then Matt Ryan caved again. Ryan drove the ball to the Packers 26 before Clay Matthews sacked him back at the 35 with ten seconds left in the half. The Falcons were forced to use their last timeout.

Coach Mike Smith controversially called for a quick out pattern to pick up more yards for kicker Matt Bryant. The same Matt Bryant who once kicked a 62-yard field goal for the Buccaneers.

Of course, it’s the Falcons who would say the play call was controversial. Packers fans would use the word “thankful.” Tramon Williams intercepted Ryan’s pass and ran it back 65 yards for a touchdown to give the Packers a stunning 28-14 halftime lead.

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The Falcons tried playing zone coverage. They tried playing man-to-man. They tried mixing zone and man together. They tried blitzing Rodgers. Nothing worked.” – D. Orlando Ledbetter, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In the second half, the Packers took over at the 20 needing a touchdown to put the game away. As Packers fans know, putting teams away has not exactly been the team’s strong suit this season.

It started off exactly how Packers fans feared. On the first play of the half, the Falcons finally got to Rodgers as John Abraham sacked him for a ten-yard loss. Abraham, now infamously, mimicked Rodgers’ championship belt celebration. That would turn out to be a mistake.

On second and 20, Rodgers hit Jennings for seven yards. Then he pulled off some more magic. Linebacker Stephen Nicholas came around the left end unblocked. Like he did to Moore earlier in the game, Rodgers spun and left Nicholas grasping for air. He rolled out to his left and threw across his body. His dart to a covered James Jones resulted in a 15 yard gain and another first down.

Just to mix things up, Rodgers handed the ball to James Starks for four out of five plays. A few plays later, facing third and seven from Atlanta’s 32, the Falcons brought six on the rush. The Packers picked it up. Uh oh. Rodgers hit a streaking Jordy Nelson for 14 yards and the first down.

He then hit Nelson for 11 yards and another first down. On the next play, the Falcons finally had every receiver covered. It didn’t matter. Rodgers scrambled for a seven-yard touchdown run, capped off with an emphatic championship belt celebration.

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“I know this sounds crazy, but Aaron Rodgers throws like Dan Marino & moves like Steve Young. He really does. I’m still not over it.” – Ross Tucker, ESPN.com

Now down by 21, Ryan had no answer. The Falcons went three and out on their next possession and punter Michael Konnen shanked the punt. The Packers took over on the 50. That was just too easy for Rodgers.

On third and six from the 46, Rodgers hit Nelson for eight yards. On third and five from the 33, Rodgers hit Driver for 22 yards. Finally, Rodgers hit the immortal John Kuhn from six yards out for the touchdown.

After three quarters, Rodgers was a staggering 27 of 31 passing for 330 yards and four total touchdowns (three passing and one rushing).

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“Around the league, they will call this teaching tape. They will put on this performance by Aaron Rodgers and say this is how you play the quarterback position.” – Trent Dilfer, ESPN

On the next possession, Matt Ryan finally led the Falcons on a touchdown drive to pull back within 42-21. Poor Matt – aside from the terrible interception at the end of the first half, he didn’t play all that bad.* He went 20-for-29 for 186 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The first interception was a poor pass, but would have been broken up if his receiver hadn’t fallen down.

* Yeah, I’m aware that’s a big aside.

But he ran into a buzzsaw on this night. Rodgers made him look so bad that at least 95,000 people on Twitter made some variation of “the artist formerly known as Matty Ice” joke.

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“Aaron Rodgers is better than your quarterback. 31-36, 366 yards and 3 scores. For the record, at least one of those was a drop.” – Stephen Douglas, The Big Lead

When it was all over, the Packers had won 48-21. The 48 points were the most that the Packers franchise has ever scored in the playoffs. And it really wasn’t even as close as the final score indicated.

This was the type of game that was so good that the team’s fans stay up late to watch SportsCenter air the same highlights over and over again. I know I did. You don’t get chances to watch perfect games that often; when it happens to a team that you follow, it’s all the better.

Rodgers might not be able to capture that magic again next week. Who really knows what will happen on any given week? Although Packers fans appreciate just how good Aaron Rodgers is, nobody could see this coming.

For one night anyway, he was perfect.

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“I would never have imagined that happening.” – Falcons coach Mike Smith

Me neither.

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NFL Divisional Weekend Picks

January 14, 2011

A fantastic weekend of football coming up in the NFL. Four matchups and not a single clunker. We have games from the two biggest rivalries in the AFC, the two best teams in the NFC, and the luckiest team in the league versus America’s adopted underdog. Here are my picks:

Baltimore (13-4) at Pittsburgh (12-4, -3)

This game is pretty simple: one team is going to win by a field goal. Here are the results of the seven Ravens/Steelers games since Joe Flacco entered the league in 2008 (away team first):

12/5/10 – Pittsburgh 13, Baltimore 10
10/3/10 – Baltimore 17, Pittsburgh 14
12/27/09 – Baltimore 20, Pittsburgh 23
11/29/09 – Pittsburgh 17, Baltimore 20 (OT)
1/18/09 – Baltimore 14, Pittsburgh 23 (playoffs)
12/14/08 – Pittsburgh 13, Baltimore 9
9/29/08 – Baltimore 20, Pittsburgh 23 (OT)

Five of those seven games were decided by a field goal. And even that’s deceptive. Pittsburgh won by 9 in the 2009 playoffs only after Flacco threw a late TAINT and won by 4 in the 2008 regular season on Ben Roethlisberger’s TD pass with 43 seconds left.

So basically we just have to figure out which team is going to win by three.* Let’s roll through some considerations.

* This could be the first game ever where I’d actually think about taking “push” if someone offered it.

At first I thought that Baltimore might be better than Pittsburgh this year based on their head-to-head matchups. They both finished 12-4 and the Ravens had the season series in the bag in the closing minutes in Pittsburgh in Week 13. The Ravens had the ball facing second and five on their own 43, up 10-6 with 3:20 left. Inexplicably, Joe Flacco drops back to pass.* Troy Polamalu comes around the outside, strips the ball and LaMarr Woodley returns it to the 9-yard line. The Steelers punch it in and steal the division from the Ravens just like that.

* I like going for the win in this situation as much as anybody. But, come on, if you’ve held the opposing team to six points in the first 57 minutes of the game, you absolutely have to run the ball, punt if necessary, and take your chances that they can’t drive for a touchdown in the last two minutes.

But then I looked back to the Week 4 game. Flacco needed to drive the ball forty yards in the last 55 seconds for a last-minute touchdown to give the Ravens a 17-14 win in Pittsburgh. Charlie Batch was at quarterback for the Steelers. Yeah, I’d call the season series a wash.

Then I thought about giving the edge to the Steelers based on the home field advantage. Road teams are 3-4 in this series since 2008 and won both games this season. Another wash.

My favorite tiebreaker in these tight games is which quarterback I trust more. Roethlisberger’s playoff record: 8-2, 2 Super Bowls, 1-0 vs. Ravens. Flacco: 3-2, 0-1 vs. Steelers. Huge advantage for the Steelers. If you’re going to go down with someone, you’d rather it be with Roethlisberger than Flacco. And yes, that was a subtle Big Ben joke.

To top it off, 62% of the public is on the Ravens this weekend – the highest of any team. Enough said. Steelers win 20-17.

Seattle (8-9) at Chicago (11-5, -10)

How quickly things change: just a week ago, fans considered Seattle a joke and I actually picked against them getting 10.5 points at home. A few poor decisions from Sean Payton and one highlight reel Marshawn Lynch touchdown run later, and suddenly the Seahawks are America’s darling and a trendy pick to upset the Bears this weekend.

It’s not difficult to see why. The Seahawks put everything together and looked incredible last weekend against the defending champion Saints. Matt Hasselbeck had the game of his life, throwing for 272 yards and four touchdowns. That was the first time he threw more than two touchdowns in ten career playoff games and only the sixth time he’s thrown four touchdowns in a game since his career began in the late 1970s. And his best receiver was Brandon Stokley. I didn’t know Stokley was still alive. I can only assume is immortal, so that’s another huge advantage for Seattle. Then there’s the 23-20 Seahawk upset victory over the Bears on the road back in Week 6.

Meanwhile, the Bears have Jay Cutler, who holds the record for most times making an entire fan base say “are you shitting me?” in unison. In his defense, he has decreased his interception total from 26 last season to 16 this season. He has compensated for that by increasing his sack total from 35 last year to 52 this year, capped by an insane nine first half sacks against the Giants. Cutler has never won a bowl or a playoff game before. The last time he played in a playoff game of any kind? The 2000 Class 3A Indiana High School State Championship. Again, in his defense, his team won that game…but I think the Bears should pack some extra pants just in case.

This game will come down to which Seahawk team shows up for the game. If it’s the team that struggled to finish 7-9 this season, the Bears win easily. If it’s the team from last week’s Saints game, the Seahawks could actually pull off a second straight huge upset.

Again, I’ll point out the same statistic from last week – the Seahawks either win (8 times) or lose by more than 15 (9 times). Last week, I didn’t think the Seahawks could win outright, so I picked the Saints. This week, I do think the Seahawks can win outright. They’ve already done it once this season and are playing better football now. Naturally, I’ll end up way off, but for now Seattle is the pick. Seahawks win 31-21.

New York Jets (12-5) at New England (14-2, -8.5)

The Jets spent the week trash-talking the Patriots. Antonio Cromartie called Tom Brady an asshole and Rex Ryan called the rivalry personal. Brady shrugged it off, saying that he’s been called worse. Then wide receiver Wes Welker did this at a press conference, presumably as the entire team cracked up behind the curtain:

Call me crazy, but I think the Patriots might come out a tad bit looser than the Jets. The Patriots are already a better team than the Jets – they beat them 45-3 on this same field just a few weeks ago. Trash-talking yourself into a corner might not have been the best approach to this game, although it is certainly the most amusing.

I just can’t see any way the Jets win this game. Of course the last time I said that, I picked the Saints to dominate the Seahawks. If you’ve learned anything so far, you should immediately go put your money on the Jets. The Patriots win 41-14.

Green Bay (11-6) at Atlanta (12-4, -2.5)

If I couldn’t provide any objective analysis last week, I definitely can’t this week. Am I terrified that #1 seed Atlanta isn’t even favored by the standard 3 points at home? Am I even more terrified that the majority of the public is on the Packers? Am I most terrified that the Packers have become a trendy Super Bowl pick? Yes, yes, and yes. The Packers still win 24-21.