Each week, the Washington Post’s Mark Maske provides in-depth Monday morning NFL analysis with “First and 10,” a dissection of the league’s most important developments from a weekend of action.
First and 10: Jan. 5
1. Divisional Round picks | 2. The flag that wasn’t
3. Flacco’s postseason poise | 4. Coaching searches continue
5. Cardinals QB woes | 6. Rare goal line angle
7. Rooney Rule update | 8. Mueller report coming soon
9. Playoff expansion too late for Texans, Eagles | 10. Kelly’s new role in Philly
PITTSBURGH — The Baltimore Ravens want to spoil the NFL’s plans.
Or something like that.
So says Ravens linebacker — and apparent conspiracy theorist — Terrell Suggs.
“We all know the matchup the NFL wants to see … something for the TV, for the sponsors,” Suggs said after the Ravens won at Pittsburgh, 30-17, Saturday night in a first-round AFC playoff game to earn a trip to New England this weekend for an intriguing conference semifinal. “We’ve got faith in ourselves, the Ravens nation. And we’ll see if we can disrupt some people’s plans.”
Suggs didn’t say what supposedly favored matchup he was referencing. The Patriots’ Tom Brady vs. Denver’s Peyton Manning in the AFC title game? New England vs. Seattle in the Super Bowl? Whatever. He clearly meant he believes the NFL doesn’t want to see the Ravens advance any further.
It’s Baltimore at New England and Indianapolis at Denver next weekend in the AFC, and Carolina at Seattle and Dallas at Green Bay in the NFC. They are mostly compelling games, and one thing is clear about the top-seeded Patriots facing the sixth-seeded Ravens: New England has drawn a difficult matchup.
With Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Haloti Ngata, the Ravens have the pass rushers to bother Brady and disrupt the timing of the Patriots’ passing offense. The Baltimore defense sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times Saturday and intercepted him twice.
The Ravens have an offense that, when clicking, can run the ball with tailback Justin Forsett or throw it with quarterback Joe Flacco targeting wide receivers Steve Smith and Torrey Smith. Flacco rises to the occasion and is a far better postseason quarterback than regular season quarterback (more on that later). And the Ravens are not intimidated by the prospect of playing at New England. Far from it.
“It’s a great achievement,” Suggs said Saturday night of winning a playoff game at Heinz Field. “It’s gonna be short-lived, though. We’re going to enjoy the plane ride home. We’re going to enjoy it. But we all know who we’re dealing with next. … Everybody knows the history of these two teams. We’re going to play a football game that it’s the Ravens versus the Patriots and everybody knows the story lines with this. So we’re going to save that. Right now this is still Ravens-Steelers and we’ll see you all next week.”
Suggs was asked how the tone of the Ravens’ rivalry with the Patriots compares to that of their rivalry with the Steelers.
“If you ask me, they’re one in the same,” Suggs said. “It’s a little bit more hated because of the identity of these two teams. It’s clear these two teams [the Ravens and Steelers] don’t like each other. But there’s a tremendous amount of respect just because of our style of football. New England traditionally plays a different style of football. This is a more heated rivalry. Next week’s game against them [the Patriots] is also a rivalry. But like I said, we’re going to worry about that next week. We’re going to enjoy this one tonight.”
The Ravens under Coach John Harbaugh are 7-4 on the road in the playoffs, including 2-1 at New England during the postseason. They have played two AFC championship games at New England under Harbaugh, losing there in the 2011 season — a game in which wide receiver Lee Evans had the ball knocked from his hands on a potential game-winning touchdown pass and kicker Billy Cundiff missed a would-be tying field goal in the final seconds — and winning there in the 2012 season en route to a Super Bowl triumph over the San Francisco 49ers.
“To win on the road [in the playoffs], you’ve got to be on the road,” Harbaugh said late Saturday night. “We’ve had plenty of opportunities. I’m proud of our guys. Our guys, we gave them a T-shirt this week: ‘Faith and Guts.’ I’d probably throw fortitude in there. … Have each other’s back. Keep playing for one another. Don’t let adversity get you down. When things go the wrong way, you stick together and come out and keep fighting. Our guys have done that all year. Over time, that pays off.”
… AND TEN
After a 4-0 performance in the opening-round picks, there’s nowhere to go but down.
So here we go:
NFC: No. 4 Panthers at No. 1 Seahawks (Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET)
Carolina was much maligned for winning the NFC South with a losing record. But the Panthers redeemed themselves somewhat with Saturday’s first-round playoff triumph over Arizona. They have played well lately and they can run the ball.
But this isn’t Arizona and it isn’t Ryan Lindley that the Panthers are facing now. It’s Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. The defending champions are back to playing in a manner resembling how they played during last season’s oh-so-impressive run to the Super Bowl title.
It will take a very good team playing very, very well to go to Seattle and win during these NFC playoffs. The Panthers aren’t that team.
NFC: No. 3 Cowboys at No. 2 Packers (Sunday at 1:05 p.m.)
Dallas was fortunate to escape with Sunday’s victory over Detroit. The officials’ decision to overturn a key pass interference call against the Cowboys was stunning (more coming on that).
The Cowboys will have to start quicker and play better overall to have a chance in Green Bay. But they’re back in their away-from-home element: The Cowboys went 8-0 on the road during the regular season, compared to 4-4 at home. Quarterback Tony Romo might feel unburdened after securing his second career postseason win Sunday.
The Packers are so reliant on Aaron Rodgers, and there’s little doubt that the quarterback and league MVP front-runner will play this weekend. But his calf injury has lingered. If he’s limited Sunday or is forced to leave the game even temporarily, the Packers might find it difficult to overcome that.
AFC: No. 6 Ravens at No. 1 Patriots (Saturday at 4:35 p.m.)
The Ravens clearly have a chance. They’re not afraid of the Patriots. They actually seem to welcome the challenge of playing in New England. Flacco is a big-game quarterback.
But they, like most teams, don’t have answers for how to deal with Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. This is a superb Patriots team that has an excellent chance to give Brady and Coach Bill Belichick their fourth Super Bowl triumph in tandem.
If they’re going to fall short of that, it won’t be this short.
AFC: No. 4 Colts at No. 2 Broncos (Sunday at 4:40 p.m.)
It’s Manning against his successor in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck. Will the kid who took his job with the Colts end Manning’s latest bid for his second career Super Bowl victory?
Manning struggled at times with interceptions in the second half of the regular season. He steadied himself in the regular season finale, and the rest that comes with having had a first-round playoff bye could only have been beneficial for him.
Luck was highly productive in Sunday’s win over Cincinnati after being given early exits in the Colts’ final two regular season games, with the AFC South title already in hand. But the Colts weren’t particularly sharp in the early going Sunday, with their dropped passes and other gaffes keeping the Bengals close in the first half. The Broncos would be far more opportunistic if presented with such generosity. They’re also playing at home.
Luck’s time to play conference championship games and Super Bowls is coming. But it’s not quite here yet. Manning advances to one more big-game duel with Brady.
The controversy of the weekend was the picked-up penalty flag during the Cowboys’ 24-20 win over the Lions.
The flag was thrown for pass interference against Dallas linebacker Anthony Hitchens while covering Detroit tight end Brandon Pettigrew and would have given the Lions a crucial first down as they tried to protect a fourth-quarter lead. Instead, the Lions faced fourth down and opted to punt with less-than-desirable results. The Cowboys converted that short punt into the go-ahead touchdown.
The non-call was widely assailed. Mike Pereira, the Fox rules analyst who is the NFL’s former vice president of officiating, wrote on Twitter: “Biggest call was the DPI [defensive pass interference] pickup. It was DPI and it was defensive holding as well. Not good.”
Many observers also wondered by Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant was not penalized for leaving the sideline to go on the field, without a helmet, to protest the call that originally was made.
Replays showed Hitchens grabbing Pettitgrew’s jersey before the pass was thrown, then putting his arms up with his back to the ball as he tried to defend. However, such “face-guarding” is not an automatic pass interference call in the NFL.
Referee Pete Morelli told a pool reporter: “The back judge threw his flag for defensive pass interference. We got other information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn’t warrant pass interference. He thought it was face-guarding.”
My view? It clearly was defensive holding. It probably was defensive pass interference, although that was less blatant. Both players did some grabbing and shoving. Face-guarding alone does not constitute interference. But the call generally is made against the defensive player on such a play. That’s just how the game is played and how it’s officiated nowadays. And, once called, the flag never is picked up.
Flacco threw for 259 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions in the Ravens’ win in Pittsburgh.
That led Harbaugh to say after the game: “Joe Flacco, what can you say?… That’s playoff football. That’s Joe Flacco. He’s the best quarterback in football. We’ll take him any day of the week and twice on Sunday or Saturday night, whichever the case.”
Calling Flacco the best quarterback in football is a rather obvious overstatement. He was the league’s 16th-rated passer this season. He never reached 30 touchdown passes in a season and has a career regular season passer rating of 84.8.
But calling the former Super Bowl MVP a terrific postseason quarterback is on target. Flacco has 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his past five postseason games.
“I think Joe is a great quarterback every month,” Harbaugh said. “I really do. I believe that. … Joe is resilient. Joe does not get rattled easily. Joe can have a bad series, like they all do, and come off and gather himself and come out and play the next series well. That’s probably his greatest trait. And he can throw the ball, too, really well. That helps.”
Flacco certainly had help Saturday, as when Suggs made a key fourth-quarter interception by “catching” a Roethlisberger pass with his knees while on the turf.
“Greatest catch in football,” Harbaugh said. “Never seen a greater catch. I just gave him the game ball. It was the greatest catch in the history of football. And I tossed it to him. What happened, do you think? He dropped it. [But] he caught the one that mattered.”
Suggs did not discount the Ravens’ good fortune in not having to face Steelers tailback Le’Veon Bell. The league’s second-leading rusher this season was on the inactive list Saturday because of a knee injury suffered in the regular season finale.
“He’s a fantastic player and him not playing definitely worked to our benefit,” Suggs said. “We’re just going to be honest. Had they had him, that’s another whole weapon between him and [wide receiver Antonio Brown] and the players they have. It always benefits the defense when they don’t have an explosive player on the field.”
Some quick thoughts on the ongoing head coaching searches around the league:
* It appears that Rex Ryan, after being fired by the New York Jets, has a very good chance to land a head coaching job during this hiring cycle. Some within the league regard him as a top candidate in Atlanta. He also has drawn interest from the 49ers and his name has been raised in Buffalo. Ryan apparently won’t return to being a defensive coordinator and is making plans to be in broadcasting if he doesn’t get a head coaching job.
* Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, formerly a head coach in Oakland, is expected to be interviewed by the Bills and perhaps also could be a candidate in Atlanta.
* Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles becomes a very attractive head coaching candidate now that Arizona is out of the playoffs. Bowles could interview this week with the Jets, Falcons, 49ers and Raiders.
* Cleveland offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is expected to interview for San Francisco’s head coaching job. That puts both him and his father Mike on the list of 49ers candidates.
The Cardinals’ 27-16 loss at Carolina was fairly predictable, with the Cardinals down to third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley after losing Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton to knee injuries.
The Cardinals lost all three of Lindley’s starts, including two at the end of the regular season. Coach Bruce Arians initially announced plans to start rookie Logan Thomas in the regular season finale, then switched back to Lindley after Thomas struggled in a midweek practice.
After watching Lindley throw for 82 yards in a 16-for-28, one-touchdown, two-interception performance Saturday, the question becomes: Just how bad must that practice by Thomas have been for Arians to switch back to Lindley?
The Cardinals managed only 78 yards of total offense, the fewest ever by a team in a postseason game. Their defeat keeps intact the streak of no team ever playing the Super Bowl on its home field.
Arians perhaps can be questioned for not turning to Thomas, a fourth-round draft pick in May from Virginia Tech, at some point during Saturday’s game. But, in truth, he had no good options. Thomas completed only one of nine passes during his rookie season, although that one completion was an 81-yard touchdown.
The Panthers continue to follow in the footsteps of the 2010 Seahawks. Carolina won the NFC South at 7-8-1, joining those Seahawks as the only teams ever to reach the NFL playoffs with a losing record in a non-strike season. Like those Seahawks, who beat the New Orleans Saints, the Panthers won a first-round postseason game at home against an 11-win team.
Carolina must hope the similarities end there. The Seahawks lost a conference semifinal at Chicago. The Panthers now have won five straight games and are at .500 for the season, at 8-8-1.
The instant-replay reversal that gave the Cardinals a second-quarter touchdown Saturday was possible only because ESPN, which was televising its first-ever postseason game, had a camera angle from directly along the goal line.
That angle showed that Cardinals running back Marion Grice managed to get the ball across the goal line before losing possession of it. The play originally was called a fumble recovered by the Panthers.
An executive with another NFL team said Saturday it is “very rare” to have a camera angle from directly along the goal line available at game.
Pereria wrote on Twitter that the league should have cameras along the goal lines at every game, regular season and postseason.
“Need cameras on the goal line all the time,” Pereira wrote. “Same on sidelines. Up to the NFL to figure out[.]”
NFL teams searching for new offensive or defensive coordinators are not bound by the Rooney Rule, which requires each franchise with a head coaching or general manager vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate.
The Fritz Pollard Alliance, the watchdog group that works with the NFL to promote diversity in hiring, did not renew its push this year to extend the rule, named for Steelers owner Dan Rooney, to coordinator jobs.
“After visiting with them, and Mr. Rooney, we felt we really shouldn’t take that out of the hands of the head coach,” John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said by telephone last week. “It’s moving pretty well when you look at it. The number of [minority] coordinators is on the upswing. We talk to them [NFL officials] all the time. We had a pretty good exchange of views. There is a method to it. It’s worked out.”
The Fritz Pollard Alliance asked the league in January 2013 to extend the Rooney Rule to cover most coordinator vacancies; teams with newly hired head coaches would have been exempted. The NFL announced in March 2013 that it would not extend the interviewing rule to coordinator jobs.
The expectation recently has been that the report by former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III will be released very soon, probably this week but with a chance of it happening next week.
The NFL appointed Mueller in September to investigate its handling of the Ray Rice case. People familiar with the thinking of team owners have said that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s job would be in jeopardy only if Mueller’s report determines that Goodell was guilty of egregious and willful misconduct in the case.
It is not known what Mueller’s report will conclude.
The investigation was overseen by two owners, the Steelers’ Art Rooney II and the New York Giants’ John Mara.
The NFL, meanwhile, has not yet hired a new chief disciplinary officer after revamping its personal conduct policy last month. The league has hired a search firm and is said to be conducting a national search.
Goodell said at the December owners’ meeting in Dallas that the new disciplinary officer would be hired as soon as possible. The new executive is to oversee the league’s independent investigations of off-field misconduct by players and other employees, and make initial disciplinary rulings in those cases. Goodell retained the right under the reworked conduct policy to hear and resolve any appeals of the rulings made by the new disciplinary officer.
This is probably the final year with a 12-team NFL playoff field. The owners are to decide in March whether to expand the postseason to 14 teams beginning next season, and it widely is believed that the measure will be ratified.
If so, it will come a year too late for the Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles. They finished the regular season as the No. 7 seed in each conference.
If the playoffs had been seven teams per conference this season, the Eagles would have played a first-round game at second-seeded Green Bay in the NFC and the Texans would have played an opening-round game at second-seeded Denver in the AFC. Seattle in the NFC and New England in the AFC, as the two No. 1 seeds, would have had the lone first-round byes, and the other opening-round matchups would have been the same.
The proposal to expand the playoffs is designed to generate additional revenues for the sport, primarily through the league’s network television contracts. With six opening-round games instead of the current four, one game in the first round likely would be played on Monday night.
The measure will have to be approved by at least 24 of the 32 teams to go into effect.
Coach Chip Kelly has the power in Philadelphia. Now it’s up to him to deliver results.
The Eagles’ front office restructuring announced Friday puts Kelly in charge of the team’s personnel department. Howie Roseman’s title was changed from general manager to executive vice president of football operations. He is to oversee the salary cap and contract negotiations, according to the Eagles. Kelly is to lead the Eagles’ effort to choose a new front office personnel executive.
Most NFL teams in recent years have moved away from giving head coaches the final say over all player-related decisions, believing that the dual jobs of roster construction and coaching are too much for one person. That model has worked in New England, of course, with Belichick. It has been less successful in other places. Mike Shanahan had that authority in Washington before being fired by the Redskins following last season, at which point General Manager Bruce Allen inherited Shanahan’s final say over player moves.
If indeed there was a power struggle between Kelly and Roseman in recent weeks, as some reports indicated, Kelly emerges as the clear winner. The interesting thing is that he has been in the NFL for only two seasons, and his second season must be categorized as a disappointment. The Eagles won 10 games but missed the playoffs after being widely regarded as a clear to overwhelming favorite entering the season to repeat as NFC East champions.
Kelly arrived in the NFL from the college ranks at Oregon saying he had no interest in possessing GM-like powers.
“I’m a football coach,” he at his introductory news conference with the Eagles in January 2013, according to Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia. “I’m not a general manager. I’m not a salary cap guy. I coach football. I need people who can go out there and say, ‘Hey this is what you want. These are the people.’ And it’s going to be a collaboration. We’re all going to be on the same page. I’ve got no delusions of saying that I want all these different titles. I just want to coach football.”
According to CSN Philly, Kelly said in August 2013 of his relationship with Roseman: “I think he sees the big picture. I see the big picture. So I think that’s why we get along so well.”
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