|The Packers fell Sunday, but Pat Kirwan writes that they'll be back in the hunt for next year's Super Bowl.|
Pat Kirwan provides six observations from this weekend's divisional playoff action.
The divisional round of the playoffs is the best weekend of football we have because it offers four games between the eight best teams in the NFL. When the games are over, four teams with a very empty feeling must resist the temptation to overreact to the loss and the other four teams must get their emotions in check and prepare for championship weekend. Here are the six storylines that jumped out at me as the weekend came to an end.
Where do the Packers go from here?
It was a tumultuous week in Green Bay, with personnel man Reggie McKenzie named GM of the Raiders, and of course the tragic death of Michael Philbin, son of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin. A few Packers assistants will probably follow McKenzie to Oakland, and my experience has been that assistants who coach when they know they will be leaving after the playoffs are a distraction. The Packers were still talented enough to beat the New York Giants, but fell short in a 37-20 loss.
Like the Giants, the Packers are a well-built organization and they will be right back in the race for next year's Super Bowl. In the short term, they'll have a few sleepless nights as players and coaches ponder whether resting Aaron Rodgers and some other veterans in the last regular season game was a good idea. The Indianapolis Colts dealt with that issue a few times but eventually came to realize that wasn't the reason they got bumped from the postseason.
The personnel decisions that have to be made in the next few weeks aren't all that tough for a team that has built its core with the draft. Green Bay's list of unrestricted free agents is eight players long (with starters Scott Wells, Jermichael Finley and Erik Walden the primary players to be dealt with this winter). Don't expect all of them back in 2012, and Ryan Grant will probably be replaced by James Starks at running back. The business decision surrounding Matt Flynn is an interesting one considering how well he played in the last regular season game. Right now the Packers should have about $14 million of cap space and I find it hard to believe they would use all of it on a franchise tag to retain Flynn even if it was to trade him. (Keep in mind if Flynn gets a franchise tag and signs the tender it guarantees the salary.)
When the coaches break down this final game film they will see things that need to be fixed. Possibly they will see a reason to upgrade their defensive line and add some youth to the roster. Charles Woodson (35), Chad Clifton (35), Ryan Pickett (32) and Donald Driver (36) are all going to be a year older and it may be time to seriously think about their future.
Packers fans should take this loss as a one-game phenomenon and believe like me that coach Mike McCarthy will have this team right back in the middle of the playoff race next year. The Lions are closing in, but they're still at least an arm's length away.
'Let them play' is more alive than ever
I pointed out after wild-card weekend that penalties were down when compared with the regular season. Thirty-nine penalties were called that weekend -- down 25 percent from a regular season set of games between eight teams. This weekend put last week to shame with only 19 penalties called in four games. Baltimore and New Orleans weren't penalized at all.
It's clear officials are letting a few things go, and offensive holding leads the list. There were 328 pass plays in the four games this weekend and they produced a grand total of two holding calls. Last week there were six holding calls in 298 pass plays. So, two weeks of playoff games have seen eight offensive holding calls in 626 pass plays. I spoke with a defensive lineman who played in one of Sunday's games and he said: "The offensive linemen know they aren't calling holding and they were practically tacking guys."
Some free agents used the weekend as a job interview
Playoff games are watched by every NFL executive and coach and become an unparalleled forum for players preparing to enter free agency. Here are 10 veterans who really helped their financial standing for next season:
Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco. Smith completed 24 of 42 for 299 yards with three touchdowns and generally looked like one of his famous predecessors at quarterback for the 49ers. I got a kick out of Alex wearing a shirt with his name on the front in case NFL people wondered who looked so good.
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Brees didn't need more exposure for people to realize how good he is, but any time a guy throws for 462 yards and four touchdowns it serves as a great reminder.
Marques Colston, WR, New Orleans. Colston caught nine passes for 136 yards and a touchdown and would fit into a number of offenses around the league.
Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore. Rice is one tough football player who touched the ball 25 times for 80 yards in the win over Houston. He's had better games with bigger numbers but he helped himself this weekend with his ability to set the tone for how a game will be played.
Carl Nicks, OG, New Orleans. The Saints paid his teammate Jahri Evans and may not be able to satisfy his demands. His game against a top defense like San Francisco will be viewed over and over again by teams interested in going after him.
Tight ends rule
I knew when the Denver Broncos figured out how to utilize the skills of Shannon Sharpe years ago that the tight end position was evolving. Then along came Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates and tight ends no longer looked like extra tackles helping to run the ball or double-team pass rushers. Now, the divisional round of this season's playoffs has blasted the tight end position into the stratosphere.
This weekend, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots were joined by Jimmy Graham of the Saints and Vernon Davis of the 49ers to combine for 26 receptions, 483 yards and eight touchdowns. The other eight tight ends in action this weekend had 14 receptions and 171 yards.
The four wild-card games featured 40 receptions, 654 yards and another eight touchdowns from tight ends. It's starting to look like if your favorite team doesn't have a dynamic tight end who's a matchup nightmare, said team may not go very far.
Assistants could be left out of job hunt
Winning in the playoffs is the ultimate goal of every player and coach in the NFL, but for aspiring head coaches, winning in the playoffs can have a down side. Owners tend to want to get their new coaches in place before Senior Bowl week, which starts Jan. 22. That means coordinators on the final four teams can be eliminated from consideration because they are potentially unavailable until after the Super Bowl.
It struck me Sunday that 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano may not get a chance to compete for a head coaching position this offseason. I got a call Sunday night from a decision maker looking at head coaching candidates and when I mentioned these three men for consideration the conversation quickly changed to the timing issue. I have seen it before when a hot coordinator gets left out of the mix for a job. I hope some owner is patient enough to wait, because it would be worth it.
Turnovers still big key to winning
Bill Cowher and I watch all the playoff games together, and there's much to learn from his playoff experience. If he said it once this weekend, he said it 100 times: "Forcing turnovers is a major key to winning at this level of play."
Three of this weekend's four games were solid illustrations of Cowher's point. Baltimore created four turnovers to the Texans' one. The three interceptions and one fumble recovery by the Ravens defense led directly to 21 points, while the Texans got zero points from their turnover. The game was decided by 7 points. The Saints created one turnover in Saturday's first game, but the 49ers created five. San Francisco parlayed those five turnovers into 13 points while the Saints didn't generate any points on their turnover. Margin of victory was four points. In Sunday's nightcap, the visiting Giants' defense took the ball away four times while the Packers' D did it just once. New York put 10 points on the board off those turnovers and the Packers fired a blank.
The final four teams know how to force turnovers -- but which two teams win that important battle next weekend?