The two conference title games show the value of good scouting and smart front offices. You might not find any better and well-run personnel departments than those of the Ravens, 49ers, Falcons and Patriots.
If you had any wonder why there is so much front-office upheaval this offseason, here’s your proof: Teams are trying to mimic the formulas that these four teams have perfected.
Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta lead an incredible group in Baltimore. Trent Baalke, Tom Gamble and Paraag Marathe have built some monster in San Fran. The Falcons, led by Thomas Dimitroff, are the model for teams that are redoing their personnel departments. And where did Dimitroff cut his teeth? In New England, of course. Bill Belichick and his staff know how to pick players and put them in roles to succeed.
That’s really what all these teams have done well: Build rosters from the bottom up. And it’s really those unsung players and forgotten elements of teams that end up coming up big in the postseason when it’s really most needed.
Sometimes a group just comes to play and carries a team in the playoffs, and here’s a look at the four groups — one for each of the winning teams on Saturday and Sunday — that deserve special mention for their unheralded work.
Hard to narrow it down further. It was everyone. They were all great, the entire unit. Consider what those defenders went through to earn a second straight trip to the AFC championship game.
Ninety plays a week ago vs. the Colts. Ninety-four against the Broncos in Denver.
At that altitude (you know, a mile). In that cold (you know, approaching zero degrees).
Against a future Hall of Fame quarterback, maybe the best of his generation, in his reckoning season.
There were a ton of individual efforts worth lauding.
Corey Graham, a full-time special teamer a year ago, authoring an early pick-six to flip the game on its head. Terrell Suggs, with one good Achilles and one good arm, sacking Manning twice. Ray Lewis, with one non-robotic arm, making 17 tackles, seven more than anyone else on the field. Paul Kruger with a few big hits on Manning and the massive (if not controversial) fumble recovery. Dannell Ellerbe, Albert McClellan, Haloti Ngata, Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed all were listed on the injury report and clearly were playing hurt.
Only 16 men took defensive snaps for the Ravens on Saturday. By comparison, the Broncos used 20 players on defense. Five Ravens — Graham, Lewis, Ellerbe, Reed and Pollard — took all 94 snaps. There’s really no way to further quantify what they accomplished out there.
The fascinating part is that the Ravens played pretty vanilla in the first half, hardly pressuring Manning. But when they sensed they could get to him, they dialed it up a notch and really came after him. Hit after hit after hit.
Manning's first half passing numbers: 14-of-22 passing, 168 yards, two TDs, that INT off Eric Decker’s hands and no sacks.
And Manning in the second half and both overtimes: 14-of-21 passing, 122 yards, one TD, one fumble lost, one INT and three sacks.
49ers offensive line
Colin Kaepernick was superhuman. He was. But did you see the heavens open up … time after time after time? The Packers didn’t do themselves any favors by continuing, time and time again, to lose gap control and overrun plays. Kaepernick’s read-option fakes were a part of that. Frank Gore (23-119-1 rushing) ran exceptionally hard and well. But that line — left to right: Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone and Anthony Davis — dominated. The reason the Packers were roasted for 579 yards was because they had no physical answer to the 49ers’ front wall.
I saw two noticeable mistakes all game. Staley — with a right arm that was killing him all night — gave up a sack to Clay Matthews. Goodwin and Kaepernick were off on a shotgun snap count once. That was about it. It was as clean and dominant a game as you can expect a fivesome to put together.
Did you see Iupati pancake Matthews? It was textbook domination. Davis sealed the right edge for several big Kaepernick runs. It gave him time to hit Michael Crabtree for several big plays. LaMichael James provided a spark. Gore had his first 100-yard game with Kaepernick under center. Something was different. It didn’t matter who had the ball — they were going places. That line was an immoveable force.
“Our offensive line came out and they dominated up front, so that makes it easy on a quarterback,” Kaepernick said.
I thought the Falcons’ game plan, through most of the win over Seattle anyway, was terrific in terms of setting a tone with the offensive backfield. They mixed in Jacquizz Rodgers (30 of 62 snaps), Michael Turner (22 snaps) and Jason Snelling (13 snaps) beautifully and exposed a Seahawks run defense that had done a nice job most of the season. The Falcons even used a fullback, Morgan Cox on 28 plays, much higher than normal.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter called a brilliant game. He inserted Rodgers early for speed and energy. After runs of seven, one, five and one yard, Rodgers burst out for 45 at the end of the first quarter. It appeared to stun the Seahawks. Rodgers broke several tackles and jacked up the crowd.
Then it was Turner’s go at that point: runs of four, two and three yards, followed by — boom! — 33. Another back-breaker that got the Falcons out to midfield. Two plays later, Matt Ryan hit Roddy White for a 47-yard TD that made it 20-zip. It was clear the two backs were pushing each other.
Cox delivered some hearty blows. Snelling snuck in for a five-yard catch that pushed the lead up to 20 again after the Seahawks had countered with a big third-quarter score.
Running the ball and stopping the Seahawks’ run (at least with Marshawn Lynch) were the two big goals the Falcons had to accomplish to win Sunday. They got both done.
Danny Woodhead hurt his wrist on the first play from scrimmage. A few plays later, Rob Gronkowski’s forearm gave way. Nothing like having your offensive game plan go up in smoke early, eh?
But this is what makes the Patriots so dangerous and Josh McDaniels such a good offensive coach. They have a Plan A, B, C and D and aren’t married to any one approach. Stop them in one area, and they’ll come back somewhere else.
Now it was clear that Shane Vereen would be a big part of the game when he played the first two series and Stevan Ridley sat. But to anyone who guessed Vereen would account for three touchdowns, including two receiving, hats off to thee.
Vereen hadn’t caught the ball like he did (5-83-2, including a gorgeous over-the-shoulder TD from Tom Brady in the fourth quarter to pretty much seal up the victory) since he was at Cal. The Patriots have been patient with Vereen’s development, and it’s clear they had an idea he could be a factor in this one matched up against the Texans’ linebackers and safeties.
TE Michael Hoomanawanui, who quietly has been a key figure lately, stepped up his game Sunday with Gronk out. Although Hoomanawanui didn’t catch a single pass and wasn’t targeted once, he threw several key blocks for both Vereen and Ridley and allowed the Patriots to rush for 122 yards (5.1 yards per carry) against one of the best defensive fronts in football.
The Patriots continued to play a ton of two-TE formations, their offensive bread and butter which kept the Texans in their base defense most of the afternoon, and Hoomanawanui logged 51 important snaps in a 41-point output.
“Hooman was great today,” Belichick said when asked about Gronkowski’s injury.
Another surprise performer: DE Justin Francis. He took over snaps that others previously had taken, and Francis worked inside and outside with great effectiveness.
Although his statistics don’t pop off the page, it was clear he was physically imposing his will, especially when rushing from a DT spot after Chandler Jones went down.
Players such as Vereen, Hoomanawanui and Francis can help you win titles. Belichick always stresses the idea of expecting the unexpected, and though it’s a trite phrase, time and time again it proves to be valid.