Special teams that weren't very special when it counted most
Many factors go into why a team wins or loses and most head coaches pray that special teams aren't a reason they lose. In an average NFL game, there are usually 30 to 35 special teams plays. In the two conference championship games there were 64 total special teams plays. Special teams can produce big plays and occasionally touchdowns. They can be game-winning kicks like the Giants got in overtime yesterday. They can change field position and put opponents on a long field, reducing chances of scoring. Special teams plays can also create injuries, penalties and turnovers. Plain and simple, special teams plays are explosive and just waiting for some team to take advantage.
The irony of the 49ers' loss is that they are a great special teams unit under the direction of Brad Seely, one of the best in the business. The top Niner return man, Ted Ginn Jr., couldn't play due to injury, and a rain-soaked field with an inexperienced return man was a lethal combination. As we all know now, Kyle Williams muffed a fourth-quarter punt which resulted in a turnover by a heads-up Devin Thomas of the Giants. That play led to a Giants touchdown. Williams fumbled another punt return in overtime, and once again Thomas was Johnny-on-the-spot, recovering the football. This led to the game-winning field goal. On the latter miscue, the Niners were in a punt rush and the Giants' gunners were singled up and easily beat the blockers. Also, left end Jacquian Williams had an easy release and was down on top of Williams before he could really get going. A veteran return man probably would have called for a fair catch with the punt-block call, but young Williams was trying to make something happen. By the way, the Niners had 170 return yards in the game compared to the Giants' 72 yards, but that hidden yardage went unnoticed with the game being lost to two big mistakes in the punt game.
The missed field goal by Billy Cundiff of the Ravens that would have sent the AFC title game into overtime was a big surprise to me when you consider Cundiff was 10-for-12 from that range during the regular season and 2-for-2 in the game prior to the final kick. Cundiff did miss eight field goals during the regular season, but six of them were from longer range. The irony of the big miss yesterday was that he missed the kick to his left. All of his misses during the regular season were wide right.
Holding is still getting a green light
Breer: Mara's steady hand
I have been documenting the amount of holding calls being made in the playoffs. As startling as wild-card weekend was -- when there were only six holding calls in 298 pass plays -- holding calls disappeared even more in the divisional round. During that weekend, in the four divisional games, there were two holding calls in the 325 pass plays. That brought the holding calls to eight in 623 pass plays over eight playoff games, or one holding call every 78 pass plays. The refs were clearly letting guys get away with some grabbing and in some cases tackling of defenders. Well, in the conference championship round, the liberal view on holding continued with just one call in 169 pass plays over two games. So now, in 10 postseason games and 792 pass plays, there have been a grand total of nine holding calls, or one every 88 pass plays. Trust me when I tell you the offensive linemen and line coaches are aware that the officials are letting them play up front. Eli Manning and Tom Brady due to throw close to 90 passes between them in Super Bowl XLVI, but it'll still be hard to get to the quarterback with his trend.
Things I didn't expect
We spend all week prior to big games studying all the game tapes, the statistics, the trends, and the strengths of the opponents. We create a mindset for how we think things will play out. And then, of course, the game takes twists and turns and leaves us scratching our head wondering why we didn't see that coming.
I didn't expect Tom Brady to win a game without throwing a touchdown pass. He had thrown a TD pass in 18 straight games and threw 22 touchdown passes at home this year. On the contrary, if I asked anyone to pick who of the four teams that played this past weekend would rush for the most touchdowns, I don't think many would have selected the Patriots. New England's two rushing touchdowns were tops in the two games.
The Patriots' defense has been the subject of criticism all year -- many wondered if the Patriots' offense and 31st-ranked defense was a combination that could get to a Super Bowl. I know I had some reservations about the New England defense. The effort and production against the Broncos the week before -- especially with the five sacks -- should have been a clue. I certainly didn't expect the Pats to produce three sacks and an interception, as well as hold the Ravens' running game to 3.7 yards per carry and zero touchdowns on the ground. Now they look solid enough to at least not be a liability against the Giants.
It wasn't too long ago that quarterbacks in the shotgun meant hurry-up offense and two-minute drill. Teams would go to the shotgun to play catch-up. This past weekend was another indicator that the shotgun is a part of winning football. The Giants and the Patriots used 91 shotgun plays to just 70 from under center. The Ravens and 49ers used just 43 snaps of shotgun to 79 plays from center. Developing a good run game from shotgun is the key to using it as a base offense. New England called nine run plays from shotgun, mostly in the second half, after they convinced Baltimore the shotgun package was there to pass the ball. For New England, it was a "key breaker" which threw off a Ravens' defense that was predominantly in a nickel package. Those nine runs against a great Ravens defense delivered 47 yards and clearly set up the second-half shotgun pass attack.
The Giants and Patriots have similarities
Darlington: The sequel
The two teams that will face off for the Lombardi Trophy have so many things in common. Both head coaches are from the Bill Parcells tree and were in fact staff members together with the Giants under Parcells. Both men teach discipline and have a tremendous ability to identify "team" players. We rarely hear a peep from the members of these teams -- that's a lesson for the other 30 franchises. Both teams employed a 4-3 defensive scheme this year and both came through when it counted most, even though things looked bleak earlier in the year. Both teams have classic dropback passers who rarely run. In the conference championship games, Manning and Brady combined for seven carries and minus-one yard. Both field generals win with their brains and accurate arms. Both teams have fallen in love with the shotgun offense.
I tip my hat to them in defeat
There's a winner and a loser in every game and we tend to ignore the efforts of the losers. I tip my hat first and foremost to Jim Harbaugh and his staff. Against all odds the rookie coach built a football team in a few months without the benefits of spring practices, and most of all with great faith and insight into the potential of Alex Smith.
To his brother John, you deserve so much credit for the fine football team you have constructed in Baltimore. You almost did enough to win that game on the road in New England, and there's little doubt in my mind the Ravens will be heard from next year.
To the quarterbacks of the losing teams -- both of whom answered the bell and played at a championship level -- congratulations on silencing the critics. Both of you deserve franchise-quarterback contracts, and that's something I expect to see in the coming weeks.