It was a weekend of great football, and surprisingly too. Usually one game turns into a giant blowout, and this weekend, well, only one game got out of hand.
1. The 49ers beat back the Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers, in an alternate reality, squandered his NFL potential as the first overall pick in the draft for the 49ers several years ago. However, in this reality, he was a Super Bowl champ and MVP for the Green Bay Packers, and was trying to derail the 49ers, his team as a kid, on their quest for a sixth Super Bowl. For a half, he looked poised to do just that. The Packers and Niners fought a war of attrition for the first half, with the 49ers only leading by a last second field goal by the emotionally besieged David Akers. In that half, second year player, and first year starter, Colin Kaepernick threw a pick-six; the 49ers in turn got 14 points off of turnovers. Whichever team could force the most mistakes seemingly would win the game.
Then, something weird happened: the vaunted Packers began stumbling, over and over, and those mistakes cost them the game. In addition to being unable to contain Colin Kaepernick, they had difficulty stopping the Niners on third down when the Niners weren’t trying to run out the clock (i.e. when all options were available and it wasn’t a foregone conclusion they would run the ball). The Niners wore down the Packers’ D, sustaining long, grueling drives that yielded touchdowns. The Packers offense couldn’t come back, and that, as they say, was that.
Lest we forget, though, that the Packers’ biggest mistake was something no one could account for: they underestimated Colin Kaepernick, who set a new rushing record for quarterbacks with 181 yards, including a fifty-plus run for a touchdown. He contributed to four touchdowns, two passing, two running, and even Charles Woodson had to admit that Packers couldn’t stop him.
2. The Ravens top the Broncos in Denver
It was supposed to be the beginning of a new golden age for the Denver Broncos. The first major run for an organization which hadn’t had serious success since John Elway was quarterback; Peyton Manning did an Elway impression, unfortunately it was younger Elway, not the more mature Elway.
There are a lot of things that cost the Broncos the game, and that’s before Manning’s interception that set up the game winning field goal. It was John Fox’s overly conservative play calling, which sacrificed not only a chance to win in regulation, but also failed to put them in a position to clinch in regulation before that. The biggest thing that cost the Broncos, though, was Baltimore’s will to win for their spirited leader, Ray Lewis.
If John Fox played not to lose, which he did, then the Ravens played with aggression, albeit controlled aggression. Joe Flacco’s 70 yard TD bomb to Jacoby Jones in the closing minutes of regulation is a great example; the Ravens, akin to the 49ers in many respects, set up the long ball early; they threaten it as part of their set up early in the game. They play the game, and interweave their long field shots with their ground and pound style of play. Flacco’s shot to Jones, although easily foreseeable, was intermixed with mid-level passes up the middle; the defense had difficulty seeing it coming.
In the end, though, the Ravens forced their style of play, and consequently won the game. No one would have thought twice about the fact that the only thing keeping the Broncos in the game was special teams, until they struggled and you realized that. Ray Lewis and the Ravens won, and their ride ain’t over yet.
3. The Houston Texans get routed by the Patriots
It was no secret that more people had the Patriots beating the Texans. It was no surprise when they won. What was surprising, to me at least, was the utter disappointment in Houston’s second half performance against the perennial contenders.
Seriously, think about it. Houston was down by four at the half; no one had that in their heads. Either Houston was going to be up at the half, or down so much no one would have tuned in for the third quarter, with the job of the halftime analysts to say “there’s still thirty minutes of football left” made much more difficult than normal. Houston had a shot, and they looked, quite sincerely, like they were going to be good with it, until Tom Brady got banged on the side of the head and remembered “hey! I’m Tom Brady!” and proceeded to clobber the Texans into a cold and brutal submission.
I suppose that Bill Belichick, who is no longer just a solid defensive mind, but a great football mind overall, may have underestimated the Texans in the first half, with coupled with the departure of Gronkoski, kept them in the game. Brady and him realigned the offense, got the defense fired up, and won the game in the second half.
If there was anything that the Patriots had to be amused by, it was the realization the day before the game that they wouldn’t be facing Peyton Manning, thus depriving us of another epic Brady-Manning duel. Maybe the shock of seeing Manning fall back to Earth like that hadn’t quite passed during the first half? Seriously, they pull that crap with the Ravens, and the Ravens will be picking at their carcass by the end of the third quarter.
4. Atlanta goes up! Seattle comes back! Atlanta wins!
One game that was a difficult sell at the half was Atlanta vs. Seattle, in which Seattle was down by twenty at the half. However, the game, partially buoyed by the fact it was the early game and bored football fans were too lazy to change the channel, lived up to expectations in the second half, with the dramatic resurgence and comeback of the Seahawks; the comeback faltered in the last minutes, when Matt Ryan got the Falcons into field goal range, Matt Bryant scored the game winner, and Russell Wilson threw his only interception of the game; amusingly enough, that pick, the only one by the Falcons defense, wasn’t caught by a full time defender, but rather wide receiver Julio Jones, who really earned his living in this game.
All right, let’s get a few things straight: Russell Wilson played exceptionally well for a rookie in bad circumstances, and although it counts statistically, that interception was off of a hail mary, which may as well be a coin flip. The Seahawks, drained after that miracle comeback, cannot be blamed for being exhausted at the end of the game, even though the defense could have played better on the Falcons’ final drive.
The Falcons, on the other hand, got gashed defensively, and are in serious need of damage control right now. Props to them for a brilliant first half and pulling it together at the end, but they still have a lot of work to do, especially now that the afterglow of their victory has worn off.
Bonus: The Rookie Sensations
With the end of the Seahawks season, the last of the rookie quarterbacks has seen their season end. The remaining four quarterbacks include a Super Bowl champion and MVP (Tom Brady), two veterans (Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan), and an inexperienced second year QB (Colin Kaepernick).
However, for Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Andrew Luck, nothing changes what they actually accomplished: they had unprecedented success in the regular season for rookies under center and/or in the shotgun; throw Kaepernick into the discussion as a first year starter, and you see the change and evolution of the quarterback position. The rookies, each with a solid wide receiver corp and strong coaching, redefined what a quarterback could do. Andrew Luck is the most traditional of the bunch, yet even his style is more mobile and reliant on improvisation and moving in and out of the pocket than Peyton Manning’s is. Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick all use some version of the read option in a substantial amount of their plays, which reflects their ability to not only run, but to gauge the play, in the play, and make the executive decision on whether to pass, or run.
It made a lot of waves, the number of young QBs this year. However, remember that Mark Sanchez looked good his rookie year, but has faltered of late. On the other hand, Flacco and Ryan both showed great potential, and much of that has been realized; in the process, though, they have become the veterans; they’ve been there, they’ve done that, and that has made them sharper and more dangerous.
The rookie sensations this year could become great quarterbacks in the future, or they could flounder. Let’s hope they become great; the NFL is always searching for the next big thing, and I do believe we have found it.