Monday Musings After A Wild NFL Finish

Later this week, I’ll have a closer look at the Saints victory last night in the NFC title game — not the game so much as  what it means to the city and to the area as a whole.  But until then, some brief thoughts from yesterday’s action:

— New Orleans’ win over the Vikings was a strange one in a number of ways.  Minnesota’s total yards gained versus New Orleans’ total represented the biggest offensive disparity seen in an NFC title game where the team on top lost — though when you turn the ball over five time, it’s tough to beat even the worst NFL teams, never mind the team that recorded the best record in the conference.

Both teams seemed to be feeling their nerves at different points in the game, as players on both sides had increasing trouble holding onto the football as the game progressed.  There were the two costly Petersen fumbles — the one with the Vikings in the red zone after the huge Bush fumble just before the end of the first half being the most costly.  New Orleans players other than Bush also seemed to be suffering from the jitters, evident by the normally sure-handed Marques Colston having a potential huge gainer slip through his fingers on the final drive, and Robert Meachem juggling his huge reception as well (though unlike Colston, he hung on).  The one player whose nerves didn’t seem to be an issue was Saints kicker Garrett Hartley — who was suspended for the first four games of the season and hadn’t made a field goal of 40 yards or longer all season — who calmly booted the biggest field goal of his life and in franchise history through the uprights.

New Orleans’ defense bent all day, but it ultimately didn’t break, as they forced turnovers at the most opportune moments, none more so than the interception at the end of regulation.  Lost in Favre’s interception was the 12 men in the huddle penalty the play before, which pushed the Vikings just beyond kicker Ryan Longwell’s range.  Before that penalty, Minnesota likely would have run the ball, leaving Longwell a 45-50 yard kick to win the game as time expired, certainly a makable field goal for the veteran.  Instead, Favre was passing on that crucial last Vikings play — and as predicted here, for that one moment we saw the old gunslinging Favre return, as he threw an ill-advised pass across his body that was easily intercepted, effectively ending Minnesota’s season.

In Favre’s defense, he showed a great deal of courage all night, as New Orleans hammered him all game.  After his first interception and the crushing hit he took on the play, I thought we might have seen the last of Favre, as Tavaris Jackson began to loosen up on the sidelines (either that, or he was looking for his helmet — did the Vikings even pack Jackson’s gear for the trip?).  But the old man’s fortitude has never been questioned throughout his career, and Favre gamely played the remainder of the contest, likely in tremendous pain until the final moments.

The Saints’ defensive pressure — which started to show fruit in the second quarter — resulted in a lot of hurried throws by the Minnesota quarterback, and the tone of the game subtly changed at that point.  Even through New Orleans’ defense never actually sacked Favre, their pressure was key to the team’s victory — as doing the same against Manning in two weeks it will be vital if they’re to win again in Miami.

He's been the best option in the backfield for the Saints all season -- and Sean Payton looks like he may have realized it

And lastly, Pierre Thomas was a huge weapon in the game, and no two bigger plays in his season were there than his kickoff return to start off overtime and his leaping dive for a first down on 4th and short on the final drive.  For most of the season, Payton has mysteriously underused Thomas all season, preferring to go with the ineffective Mike Bell (who I think I saw with the “Have you seen me?” tag on the side of a milk carton last night), Bush (who is many things, but a short-yardage back is not one of them) and even Lynell Hamilton.  Thomas has found himself on the sidelines particularly in short-yardage situations (despite the fact that Thomas has shown numerous times over the year to be a bruising, powerful runner himself).  Indeed, earlier in the game, the Saints failed to convert two 3rd and 1 opportunities, as Hamilton and Bush were both stuffed for losses.  However, Payton might have finally learned his lesson. and it was Thomas in the game at the end on short-yardage situations on which the team’s whole season was riding.  Thomas may be overlooked as we head to the big game, but he gives New Orleans a running threat that, frankly, the Colts just don’t have.

— Which leads us to the Colts-Jets contest.  For a half, it was exactly that — a contest — as the Jets were actually putting points up on the board and, except for a drive by Manning and company at the end of the half, stifling the Colts offense.  But the injury to Shonn Greene and Manning’s brilliance in figuring out how to exploit the Jets’ defensive schemes marked the beginning of the end of New York’s remarkable playoff run.

There’s not a lot for me to really say about this game; despite the Jets’ two upset victories, there were still a 9-7 team with a rookie quarterback that would have represented one of the most unlikely Super Bowl teams in history if they’d managed to actually win.  For all of the vaunted strength in the AFC we heard about all season, we didn’t see it in the playoffs, as the Colts road to Miami went through two teams who were badly flawed and who were, arguably, worse than any of the teams who made it to the dance in the NFC.  I predicted a Colts victory yesterday because it was hard to imagine anything but that happening — but it’s hard to be terribly impressed with a team doing exactly what it was supposed to do.

While watching the game yesterday, I referred to the Colts execution as robotic, mechanical, and … dare I say it … boring.  Watching the Colts beat the Ravens and Jets was about as thrilling for me as watching the T-1000 from T2 hunt down normal civilians — we’ll all know a lot more about the Colts when they get to face their version of Sarah Connor in Miami.

A moment in yesterday’s game that for me represented what these Colts are all about (and that has been forgotten already since Indy won, and it ended up not mattering) was the call of Coach Caldwell when the Colts faced a 4th and goal from the 1 in the first half, trailing 7-3.  You’re at home, you’re facing a team that’s not your equal, you have a ton of offensive weapons and arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, and even if you try and fail, you’ve backed up a  rookie quarterback into his own end zone — the obvious call here is to go for it, right?  Yet Caldwell meekly sent out the field goal unit instead.  If the Jets had won, this would have been the turning point of the game — as it stands, even in victory, it’s reminder of the Colts “afraid to lose” mentality that showed in their late-season tank job to avoid injury (unlikely as that possibility might have been) and to forgo the immortality that beckoned them.  That type of over-the-top conservatism — something that New Orleans has not exhibited all season — could well come up and bite them in two weeks.

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