The first weekend of the playoffs is called "Wild Card Weekend," which is why I always feel bad for the division winners that have to play in the first round. Still, the four division winners that played this weekend had homefield advantage. Two of them advanced. Meanwhile, lots of interesting things came out of these four games.
Dominance of 3-4 defense
The NFL is still predominantly a 4-3 defensive league. The 3-4 defense is spreading, but the majority of teams still play the 4-3. So it was interesting to see that seven of the 12 playoff teams this year play a 3-4 defense and just five play 4-3 defenses. And the first week of the playoffs wasn't kind to the 4-3 teams. All four winning teams were 3-4 defenses and two 4-3 teams were eliminated.
More head coaches and general managers will continue to study why the 3-4 is so successful. The only 4-3 teams left are the Colts, Saints and Vikings. I asked one former defensive coach what he saw this week and he thought the flexibility and the ability to bring pressure from different spots was the best reason for this success. I'm not sure you can prove it, but it is worth watching.
The one thing I can say is that teams that created the most points off turnovers all won and they all played a 3-4 package. Arizona (20 points off turnovers), Baltimore (20 points), Dallas (10) and the Ne York Jets (7) all outscored their opponents in points off turnovers. The Eagles and Bengals did not generate any points off turnovers while the Packers and Patriots only generated seven points each off turnovers. The winning teams recorded 57 points and the losers 14 when the defense got the ball back for the offense. I don't know if it had anything to do with a 3-4 defense or an opportunistic offense, but I do know it was a good day for the guys in the "odd" front.
Pressure busts pipes
Getting after quarterbacks and putting them on the ground before they throw the ball is a critical component to success. The four winning teams this weekend called 95 pass plays and were sacked just three times! The winners were sacked once every 32 attempts. The four losing teams called 172 pass plays and they were sacked 15 times, or once every 11 attempts. Pass pressure busts quarterbacks and offenses; all four of the wild-card winners won that battle.
Take the Green Bay Packers, for example: In their five regular-season losses, they allowed an average of five sacks per game. In the past month -- or since left tackle Mark Tauscher got back on the field -- the sacks disappeared. But against the Cardinals Sunday, they hit that magic number five again and they lost.
The Eagles struggled once again versus the Cowboys' defense. Last week, in the fight for the division title, Eagles QB Donovan McNabb was sacked four and the Eagles lost. McNabb was sacked four times this week and Philadelphia lost again.
The 2009 season marked the first time in NFL history that 10 quarterbacks threw for more than 4,000 yards, and it is clearly a league that passes to set up the run. But wild-card weekend told a different story. It was a weekend in which running the ball well was rewarded with a victory. The four winning teams ran the ball 151 times for 759 yards and nine rushing touchdowns. The four losing teams combined for 73 carries, 381 yards and one touchdown. Every winning team scored on the ground and only one of the four losers (Cincinnati) crossed the goal line on the ground.
Football is the greatest team sport and rarely a game goes by without some unheralded player unexpectedly rising up to a challenge to do something to help his team win. Jay Feeley, the New York Jets' kicker, also had to pick up the punting duties Saturday night in the win over the Bengals when punter Steve Weatherford could not play. Not only did Feeley make his three extra points and his only field-goal attempt, but he punted seven times without one being blocked.
Chris Carr, the excellent return man for the Ravens, came into the game with four starts at cornerback and knew he would be a target of the Tom Brady passing attack. He responded with five tackles, two for a loss, an interception and another pass defended.
Finally, Cardinals corner Michael Adams was picked on all day. He struggled in pass defense and also missed a sure sack off a nickel blitz. But in the overtime, when it counted most, he had the sack and forced fumble that won the game.
Wade must stay
Teams in the NFL have no trouble throwing millions of dollars at unproven rookies drafted in the first round. They have no trouble dropping a franchise tag on a veteran they don't want to lose. But when a coach proves he's the right man for the job, it amazes me how tough it can be to get an extension. I know of at least six assistant coaches that worked this weekend in playoff games that don't have contracts for next year, and there may be more. As for head coaches, what else must be done by Wade Phillips to not only have Jerry Jones pick up an option on his contract but give him an extension? The win over the Eagles along with a defense -- which Phillips is personally responsible for -- that has given up a grand total of 33 points in the last four games (vs. the Saints, Redskins and Eagles twice) is more than enough proof he's the right man for the job.
Pocket passers prevail
We all love the excitement generated by the Wildcat and the scrambling quarterback, but once again the pocket passer prevailed. The combined rushing of the four winning quarterbacks (Kurt Warner, Tony Romo, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez) this weekend was 11 carries for seven yards. Not all of these guys threw the ball a lot but scrambling and making plays down the field with their feet was not an ingredient for success. Warner never crossed the line of scrimmage once and Romo only crossed over two times. Flacco was the big runner with six carries for five yards. Sanchez lost two yards in his three attempts. As Dan Marino said, "A good QB can do the most damage right in the pocket."