Falcons, Lions can't channel slights properly

Posted Nov. 12, 2012 @ 1:18 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

Does being mad make you play better? Steve Smith has made a career out of it, and Aaron Rodgers seems to channel his energies against any slights, perceived or otherwise, into pretty good motivation.

Sunday, Smith’s former coach, John Fox, did earn his “take that” victory over the Panthers, capped off by a sack-for-safety on Cam Newton and a late run-it-up score just to make sure everyone knew how he felt about returning to Carolina. Maybe Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley will get his chance to run it up against his former Chiefs team on Monday for all of his pent-up anger lurking beneath.

But vengeance is a dangerous tool when unchecked. It’s a drug in need of prescription and management. Anger is not often best unshackled. Some NFL teams figured to learn this following a strange and telling Week 10.

The Falcons spent the week upset at perception. They felt they deserved to be mentioned as an elite team, even the elite team in the NFL. Well, elite teams beat 3-5 teams, even on the road, even in rivalry games. That’s undisputed. That's why they are 8-1 today.

The Saints kept pressing the issue in Week 10 and came out on top in a game the Falcons should have won if motivation was the issue. They were upset last season that the Saints stopped the game in New Orleans when Drew Brees broke the single-season passing record, feeling they overdid the celebration in the course of the action. The Falcons vowed to remember that game Sunday, using it as their driving force. It didn’t help a bit when Jimmy Graham was tearing them up right down the seam and when the Falcons’ run blocking was getting blown up every other play.

The Lions had fueled themselves after a series of shots across their bows and had won three of four games. The anger seemed to be winning. People asked C Dominic Raiola about anonymous comments made to Pro Football Weekly (which basically questioned his ability), and his don’t-give-a-damn fire was a rallying point in the locker room. The problem Sunday is that it was left there … in Detroit. The Vikings took control of the action early and were the better finishers, too.

On the flip side, Christian Ponder easily could have been angry at Vikings fans who continued to boo him following a few missed red-zone opportunities Sunday during his best game in more than a month. But he blocked out the naysayers and focused on doing his job properly.

Many of those same fans also questioned Ponder’s rumored relationship with ESPN’s Samantha Steele having an effect on his game, perhaps looking for any nitpicky excuse to bench him during an uneven sophomore campaign.

"I want to thank my girlfriend since she has such a big impact on how I play," Ponder said, dripping in sarcasm after the week’s media side story.

We media love to look for story angles to games, and it’s natural. This coach versus his former boss. That player against his old team. A rematch of this Super Bowl. A preview of this possible playoff game. Everything is geared at building drama, adding texture to the games themselves.

But don’t think the players don’t have these same themes in mind. They circle their calendars the day the schedules are released. They know which games really matter. And they get angry and additionally motivated against certain teams. It’s a natural development, and sometimes it’s a good thing.

All signs pointed to the Bills getting blown out at New England, but they outgained the Patriots and nearly came away with the victory. They were tired of losing to the Patriots, especially in Foxborough, and that remains the case. But their motivation didn’t cloak their efforts; they enhanced them.

The problem is that the Falcons created their own drama. They chose to listen to critics, or rather the lack of cooers crowning them the would-be-champs. For a team that is 0-3 in the playoffs during the Mike Smith era, you’d think they’d worry less about regular-season praise and more about proving they are built to last.

The Lions haven’t been able to strike that balance this season between playing with an edge, drawing on critics’ claims and worried about their own kitchen. Jim Schwartz is a smart man and a good tactician, but it’s one knock you can have with this talented team.

Ask Vincent Jackson about wanting to prove himself or Danieal Manning about payback. Guessing Sunday’s games against their former teams meant a lot but that once they started, emotion was safely compartmentalized. But Mark Sanchez missed on his chance of payback, with no clear indication where his head laid heading into his matchup against the coach (Pete Carroll) who said Sanchez needed to stay in school.

One of the reasons why Mike McCarthy gets some sentiment from me as Coach of the Year is the way he has rallied his team in the face of adversity. The Packers are not going to be underdogs with Rodgers anytime soon, but McCarthy has his team thinking and preparing like they are not chalk. Feeding off the negative energy of the Seattle Hail Mary mess and turning it into a positive was a terrific, brilliant job of coaching.

Other players, coaches and teams struggle to master that concept.

Saints’ defensive limitations put in perspective

You’ve heard it once this season, you’ve heard it a million times: The Saints only can go as far as their defense takes them. It’s wrong, but you’ve heard it. The people who say it say that defense wins championships, but that’s been proven to be only partially true. And one interesting thing to note is that you don’t need a great defense to do some real damage in the postseason.

The Patriots proved that last season. If the Saints can win next week at Oakland and beat the 49ers in a motivation game (see above) at home in Week 12, they’ll be 6-5 and in real consideration for a playoff spot in the wide-open NFC. That would set up a terrific Thursday game in Atlanta for the rematch with emotions cranked up even higher.

Here’s the news: The Saints’ defense doesn’t have to be great, not with Drew Brees and Co. hitting their stride. It just has to make a few big plays per game. That got a flawed but dangerous New England team to the Super Bowl and within a few minutes of winning it all.

In fact, when it comes to a few defensive stats, these Saints and last season’s Patriots are pretty close in comparison:

The biggest differences come in turnovers forced and points allowed. The Saints don’t get enough of the former and allow too many of the latter. The Patriots weren’t quite the 2006 Bears in this regard, but they had a habit of letting teams cruise down the field and making a big play in the red zone when they had to. It’s not a perfect formula, and the Patriots knew they couldn’t keep living this dangerously, so they beefed up the “D” in the offseason. But for one season, it kind of worked.

The Saints live and breed chaos, and they are starting to make their formula work for them. They still give up too many points, although they've been better the past five games, but have had the requisite big plays needed. In Week Seven it was Malcolm Jenkins chasing down Vincent Jackson 95 yards to keep him from scoring, followed by a goal-line stand. In Week Nine it was Patrick Robinson’s game-changing pick-six from the red zone. This week it was the under-2:00 goal-line pass “D” against the Falcons.

Whatever it takes to win.

Dangerous Seahawks coast into bye

Many teams have had to use their bye week this season to investigate how they can fix what’s wrong. The Seahawks earned their Week 11 mini-vacation with a second straight victory after losing two straight in Weeks Seven and Eight.

Both of those games were on the road against tough opponents, the 49ers and Lions. They dropped the Seahawks to 4-4 and seemed to neutralize them in terms of what they did best: run the ball and dominate games on defense. But with Russell Wilson gaining steam and that defense resharpening its teeth, the Seahawks stand at 6-4, having not left home since before Halloween, and in great shape for the home stretch.

Tough road tests await at Miami (that’s a 3,000-mile flight) and Chicago the next two games, but three of four (all division games) after that are in Seattle. The Niners’ division grip loosened with Sunday’s tie to the Rams, and the Seahawks have the easier slate of the two teams. They’ll of course have to beat the Niners in the game in Seattle for any chance of winning the West (San Fran won the first matchup), but nothing is written in stone yet.

They’ve now beaten Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Tom Brady, and they’ve taken Christian Ponder and Mark Sanchez apart the past two weeks. The six quarterbacks left on the schedule — and with Alex Smith and Jay Cutler suffering concussions Sunday, who knows who will be out there? — are not that daunting.

This is a Super Bowl sleeper team. Yes, the Seahawks are that scary if Wilson, Golden Tate, Sidney Rice and the passing game keep up their work from the past few games.