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Tebow's heroics sets up epic divisional games

Shorts and Shells: Wild-card edition

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Posted Jan. 09, 2012 @ 1:14 a.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

So how many reps do you think Brady Quinn will receive this week?

While we absorb the Sunday-night madness, we ask you to consider the following for a moment.

Combined playoff wins for Jason Hanson and Tony Gonzalez, two men who should end up in Canton one day: zero.

Combined playoff wins for T.J. Yates and Tim Tebow, each of whom is a win away from facing off in the AFC title game: two.

The rules and sanity have been thrown out the window quickly in the postseason, even though some semblance of order was restored when all four home teams advanced in Round One.

This, too: Running the ball and playing defense do still matter, even if the Saints have a funny way of achieving the latter. Still, the job gets done quite well.

We'll see more of that in Round Two for a different dimension of games. The Ravens, 49ers, Texans and Broncos all have the tried-and-true formula of running the ball and keeping scores low, and the Giants dusted off that way to win games after a lengthy hiatus through most of this season.

But for now: Tebow.

Just that.

He gets way too much guff for his funky delivery and probably receives too much praise for things he has little control over. But you can't deny Tebow's ability to put his team in a position to win and then make his biggest plays when the opportunity is there. That's it. We need to embrace him for what he is and forget the numbers.

That's exactly what Josh McDaniels wanted to do in Denver. He had a vision. He saw the magic. McDaniels knew Tebow could revolutionize the position, or perhaps just be the same uniquely skilled player he was at Florida. A player who transcended the stats in the fantasy football world we live in.

So it's quite the gorgeous irony that Tebow and the Broncos — and Demaryius Thomas, please don't forget — will be headed to New England. McDaniels' first day with the Patriots is Monday, and the Patriots officially announced his hiring no more than 10 minutes after Tebow hit Thomas on the 80-yard TD that stunned the Steelers in overtime. It was almost like reminding the world how devilishly genius and cunning Bill Belichick is.

McDaniels will be giving the Patriots every secret file he has on the two players he maneuvered so hard to get, two moves that in a way got him fired from the Broncos. But now he's back in New England on the sideline, ready to take over for Bill O'Brien whenever the Patriots are eliminated and O'Brien takes off for Happy Valley.

What an incredible story line it is. But please don't forget about the others the divisional round — the best two days of football on the calendar, I might add — provides:

  • A rematch of the 2007 NFC championship game between the Packers and Giants in Green Bay and a rematch of the highly entertaining (best non-Tebow regular-season game) contest at MetLife Stadium between these teams back in Week 13. You remember — the game where Aaron Rodgers had his first sub-110 passer-rating game (a paltry 106.2) but also took only four passes and 58 seconds to drive his team to victory. Eli Manning was pretty special in that one, too.
  • A classic offense-vs.-defense matchup in San Francisco. The 49ers and Jim Harbaugh have been ball-gagging the naysayers all season long. This is the position they wanted. Bring on the Saints, who have been blistering offensively, winning nine straight. Three of the four games next weekend feature rematches, with only Saints-49ers new to our eyes. But for those curious about what kind of game it might be, watch the tape of the Saints-Titans game from Week 14. It was one of those drag-it-out games many have said the Saints could not win in the past. This one feels like an unstoppable force going against an immovable object.
  • A classic defense-vs.-defense game in Baltimore. Maybe the least sexy of the four games, but it features two of the game's better runners (Ray Rice and Arian Foster), defenses (Chuck Pagano and Wade Phillips doing the scheming) and two big-play receivers (Anquan Boldin and Andre Johnson) who have had to play through injuries, including now. The fearless Yates, coming off his first playoff win, will match throws with Joe Flacco, veteran of seven postseason contests. Winner goes to Foxborough if the Patriots win.

What were amazing were the slow starts for the winning teams in wild-card weekend. The Texans looked out of sorts offensively to start the game. The Saints trailed a couple of times early after two first-half turnovers. The Giants were safetied by the Falcons and didn't score until the final minutes of the first half. And the Broncos were looking like their bland, December selves until Tebow cast his magic spell — all after Eric Decker left with what appeared to be a very serious knee injury.

The underdogs — especially the Broncos — cannot afford to be so generous in the first quarter. Actually, the Broncos need a second quarter like they had against the Steelers, which is when they took early control of the game. When the Broncos faced the Patriots in Week 15, they were ahead 17-6 when the wheels came off with three fumbles in the second.

The Patriots will have a week to get ready for that style of offense again and, of course, they'll have McDaniels offering whatever he offers. It makes for one quarter of a fantastic divisional weekend.

 

Injuries ultimately too much for Steelers to handle

When Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel and Max Starks went down in Denver, it started looking pretty dire for the Steelers. LaMarr Woodley missed some snaps, too, adding to the misery. They already were without Rashard Mendenhall, Maurkice Pouncey and Ryan Clark, and Ben Roethlisberger was out there on a gimpy ankle, clearly not himself in the first half (11-of-23 for 134 yards and an interception).

What was interesting to note is that Roethlisberger rallied for a big second half (halftime cortisone?) and Isaac Redman came alive with 98 yards on eight touches after the half. The Steelers were not dead. They scrapped and clawed, in classic Steelers fashion.

And it appeared they were in a position to steal the game after Tebow couldn't put a drive together in the final three minutes. But a bad snap by Doug Legursky (Pouncey's replacement, who otherwise was solid) and another Roethlisberger sack on a three-man Broncos rush ended that drive.

They limped into overtime where their biggest loss became evident. Tebow had been having success finding open receivers downfield all day, and he wasted no time doing so in OT. He hit Thomas on a slant, a high-percentage play that should have gone for no more than 15 yards, really. But Troy Polamalu bit hard inside and overran the play, leading to Thomas racing to the endzone and saving the masses from trying to figure out the new playoff overtime rules.

What happened? You have to think that, with Clark back there, that play never happens. Neither, then, do the scores of other pass plays that led to Tebow throwing for 316 yards on only 21 attempts and 10 completions. For all of the Steelers' injuries, we now know which one hurt the most.

 

End of the road for Texans?

The Texans have a daunting history against the Ravens, having been outscored 143-89 in five previous meetings — all Ravens wins.

They have a rookie quarterback going up against the finest guts of a defense in this generation — and maybe ever: future Hall of Famers in Ed Reed, Ray Lewis and (yeah, I'll say it, at this pace) Haloti Ngata.

The Ravens beat the Texans 29-14 earlier in the season, and that was with Matt Schaub on the field, having a pretty good game. Foster and Ben Tate combined for a pedestrian 3.8 yards per carry and a long run of 16. Phillips' defense, which wasn't undermined too often this season, was worked over a little. The Texans' offense stalled often past midfield — it drove into Baltimore's side of the field a whopping seven times but scored only two TDs and was blanked on its final five possessions.

Now comes word that TE Owen Daniels is having his hand X-rayed for a possible break. His availability is very much up in the air.

The world is very much against these Texans, for all the reasons above and maybe more. But they seem to embrace this role; heck, many people picked the fairly nondescript Bengals to come into their house and beat the Texans.

The Ravens, remember, did have a bothersome pattern of playing down to teams they should have beaten, although those were all on the road. The last Ravens loss in Baltimore was to the Steelers in December 2010 — 11 games ago.

 

Bucs' coaching list lacks inspiration

It's hard to believe that Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik is the sole proprietor responsible for the team's head-coaching interview list. To date, here's who we have ...

Brad Childress is the latest to be added to a list that includes Mike Sherman, Wade Phillips, Jerry Gray and Mike Zimmer. The latter choice actually sounds quite good; I have been a fan of Zimmer's work since his Dallas days, and let me tell you, he will get rid of the dead weight. That's for damned sure.

But what of the others? Childress was a micromanaging egomaniac, some Vikings people have told me, who required final personnel say. Would Dominik relinquish any of that? Not likely, although Childress would continually sink his teeth into draft picks as time went on, if my sources are right and Childress hasn't changed. Sherman also maintained final say on picks in Green Bay in what lightly could be called the dark ages up there. Sure, they won games with veteran talent, but the young depth dried up fast under his watch.

Gray — let's face it — fulfills their Rooney Rule requirement. I hope like heck I am sorely misguided on this one, because Gray is a respected defensive mind leaguewide. But you have to call it like you see it in these cases.

And Phillips, great as he is, has proven that he excels at coordinating a defense and perhaps is nothing better than a good head coach. His record shows he can win games, but there is a health concern, too. He recently had gallbladder surgery and has admitted that he has lost some stamina.

Let's hope the Bucs either hire Zimmer or Gray or have a rabbit up their sleeves. You can understand the drawbacks of the job, but they do have a talented quarterback to build around, which should attract a decent coach, and they have a more attractive situation than the Jaguars do.

 

Falcons' failure doesn't fall solely on Smith

It would be easy to guillotine Mike Smith for his two failed fourth-down decisions against the Giants, and it doesn't take ginkgo biloba to remember a similarly disastrous failure in overtime earlier this season against the Saints in a game that might have cost the Falcons the division.

By nature, I like aggressive coaches. Sean Payton. Bill Belichick. Rex Ryan, to a degree. Smith deserves to be on this list. He believes in his players.

But his biggest failure is not understanding or accepting the team he has and coaching the way he would like to coach, not the way he has to. By building this team far too much from the outside in and with not enough attention paid to the interior line, the Falcons have lost some of their DNA.

This was a classic power-run-sets-up-the-vertical-pass team a few years ago, but age and attrition have killed the center of its offensive line. It is left with a too-old Todd McClure at center and an average Joe at guard, Joe Hawley. Justin Blalock is solid but hardly worth the $38 million extension he received in July. None of them will appear in a Pro Bowl.

Guards and centers are perennially overlooked but always sorely needed. It's far sexier to draft receivers and cornerbacks, and yes, of course, those players are hard to find. Elite ones, anyway. But you can't forget about your guts: the guys up the middle who are your backbone and your core.

The teams that have drafted these positions and found blue-chippers are very happy. The Pouncey brothers have become bedrocks in Pittsburgh and Miami. Mike Iupati is a road grader for the second-seeded 49ers. Second-rounder Zane Beadles has been a find for the Broncos. Alex Mack is a stud in Cleveland. Eric Wood was by far the Bills' best lineman; after he got hurt, they completely fell apart. Ben Grubbs leads the way for the Ravens and their run game.

It's not all on Smith, as the team hasn't made the position a priority, fairly well ignoring it since drafting Blalock in Round Two in 2007.

But Smith has to realize what he has when he makes a critical decision. You want to go for it? Fine — throw to one of your high-priced receivers, Julio Jones or Roddy White, or hand off to Michael Turner. Having Matt Ryan sneak the ball behind two ordinary offensive linemen won't cut it.

Before Smith can coach the way he wants to coach, he has to have the kind of team that can support such weighty decisions. It will be the job of the front office, lacking a 2012 first-round pick (in the hands of the Browns because of the Jones trade), to help Smith get that kind of player. Until it does, he has to coach his team the way it is built. The Falcons are entering a make-or-break type of season before talk of blowing up the operation may become a chorus.

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