Sorting the Playoff Pile, Wild Card Weekend: Norv Turner Loves This Time of Year
Sorting the Sunday Pile looks back at the NFL weekend that was. It's also an unofficial Mittens blog.
Six weeks ago, the 2008 Chargers were effectively done. They were 4-8 after having lost at home to the Falcons, and worse, division rival Denver held a three-game lead with four games to play. Well, we know how the final month of the regular season played out: the Power of Norval Eugene compelled San Diego. The Chargers won out, finished 8-8, and the cherry on top: they smacked around the Broncos in what amounted to a Week 17 play-in game.
The Chargers, not content to just get to the postseason, kept hope alive against the Colts, many people's favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl next month. And while the records suggested that Indianapolis would come into Qualcomm Stadium long enough to hang 30-plus on a suspect San Diego defense before making its way to Tennessee, it didn't happen. Never got close, really. Sure, the Colts had won their final nine games to finish 12-4, and the Chargers backed into the playoffs, but there are a couple things worth considering.
First, any conversation about the '08 Chargers has to include The Game -- the Week 2 affair in Denver that Ed Hochuli would like to forget. (To his credit, Hochuli rebounded nicely and did a swell job during Sunday's Ravens-Dolphins tilt.) Seven days before, San Diego lost on a last-second Jake Delhomme-to-Dante Rosario touchdown pass (Rosario's only touchdown grab of the season, by the way).
And then, in Week 11, there was the one-point loss to the Steelers followed by a three-point loss to the Colts. Put differently: a few plays go San Diego's way in the previous four months and they could very easily be 11-5 or, hell, 12-4.
I'm not making excuses for how things turned out, I'm just pointing out that going strictly by wins and losses can be a little misleading. More proof: according to the eggheads at Football Outsiders, the Chargers finished the regular season ranked eighth in team efficiency, just one spot behind the Colts. Their record might say they're a .500 team, but they're a top-10 outfit on a per-play basis. (By comparison, the 8-8 Broncos ranked 23rd in team efficiency, just behind the Texans and Jaguars.)
And now San Diego heads to Pittsburgh, in all likelihood, without LaDainian Tomlinson. But you know what? Just like the '07 playoffs, the Chargers showed that they can win without LdT. Darren Sproles may not be the prototypical every-down back, but it's a three-game season and he'll do just nicely on short notice. Not only that, but as long as Philip Rivers and -- I can't believe I'm about to type this, but 12-1 is 12-1 -- Norv Turner are on the field, the Chargers have a legit chance to win.
Leftovers from playoff action...
... I'm not completely shocked that the Cardinals won at home against the upstart Falcons. For one, Arizona, for all its East Coast road woes, was 6-2 at the Pink Taco (the average margin of victory in those wins was nearly 16 points). Also, Kurt Warner, Superstar, showed up Saturday.
Despite his advanced age, when Warner's on, he can carve up a defense like he's Matt Leinart and it's 2005. He'll occasionally struggle with turnovers (both fumbles and interceptions, it doesn't seem to matter), but that's part of the deal; for every "he didn't just throw that" pick, Warner will connect with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in mind-blowing fashion. And those plays usually culminate with Neil Rackers kicking an extra point. This may sound familiar.
Arizona now makes its way to Carolina for the divisional round, and, if history is any guide, a beatdown the likes of which we haven't seen since, well, two weeks ago. (Unless, of course, the Cards win. It could happen. Seriously.)
Thinking beyond the next month of football, however, the Cardinals have to decide on their long-term plans at quarterback. Warner's 37 and he'll be a free agent in March. Leinart, save the blowout cameos, is comfortably ensconced in his role as the guy in front of Brian St. Pierre on the depth chart. Apparently, Arizona wants to keep Warner around, and I imagine he feels the same. He's perfectly suited for this offense's fun-and-gun style. Plus, it's not like Leinart is pushing him for playing time.
... I've marveled on several occasions at Derrick Mason's ability to get open. Partly because he's the only guy Joe Flacco throws to (slight exaggeration, but not by much), but also because he's a fossil. That said, he might be one of the most underrated players in the league. At 34, he hauled in 80 passes for 1,037 yards in a run-heavy offense, and he did it the last month of the season with a bum shoulder. To me, that's more impressive than anything Ray Lewis might've done in the previous two or three seasons. Maybe Mason needs a pregame dance.
It doesn't matter now because the Dolphins' season is over, but some advice for Chad Pennington should he face the Ravens in 2009: Find Ed Reed. Throw to other side of field. Or better yet, let Ronnie Brown do it.
... While watching Donovan McNabb efficiently matriculate the ball down the field against the Vikings Sunday afternoon, it occurred to me that he's got a less severe case of what ailed Rex Grossman in 2006. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Donovan is Rex, just that he's been maddeningly inconsistent this season. Unlike Grossman, McNabb can take over games when he's on; the best the Bears could hope for was that Rex would get out of the way long enough for Robbie Gould, Devin Hester and the defense to take care of the scoring.
But when McNabb's off, well, it's tough to watch. He did avoid any Grossman-esque 0.0 passer-ratings efforts this year, although we'd all like to forget what happened in Baltimore back in Week 12 (and that includes Kevin Kolb).
Now we'll have six days to find out which McNabb will show up in the Meadowlands. Whatever happens, though, it looks like Donovan and Andy will be back. Frankly, it's hard to believe that we were even talking about it a few weeks ago, but to be fair, that Ravens game was brutal. On the upside, Andy Reid's decided not to shave, which, if only momentarily, deflects attention away from the fact that he's a chubby guy wearing a track suit.
Quotes that Emmitt Smith might like...
"From the first run, it was evident that I just didn't have the burst ... I couldn't put my foot on the ground and get through the hole the way I wanted to. I went as long as I could. After the TD run, it was at the point where I felt like I was making it worse."
- Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who struggled to play through a groin injury against the Colts
"No one is surprised at the way Ed Reed plays ... He may be the best player in the game."
- Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, speaking the truth
"Donovan did a great job today leading this team. Basically putting the team on his back ... We really didn't have too much of a running game, but he put this team on his back and threw the ball down the field -- just sitting there in the face of the blitz. And that's what you expect from a superstar quarterback like Donovan."
- Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, also speaking the truth
"A lot of people coming into this game said we were the worst playoff team ever to get in ... I think we rallied around that."
-Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who should get some mileage out that pep talk this week, too