Sunday, January 15, 2006

NFL Notebook, January 15, 2006

Divisional Playoff Results:

Seattle 20, Washington 10
Denver 27, New England 13
Pittsburgh 21, Indianapolis 18
Carolina 29, Chicago 21

Important factoid: Not a single 100-yard rusher this weekend, and these were games featuring the likes of Shaun Alexander, Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James, Corey Dillon and Jerome Bettis... The Seattle Seahawks head into the NFC Championship Game hoping that RB Alexander will recover sufficiently from a concussion suffered in the team's victory over the Redskins... The 'Skins made a noble effort against the 'Hawks, but it's hard to advance at this time of the year with a popgun offense. With a tough defense in place, Washington needs to find help at wide receiver, tight end, and maybe even in the backfield, where Portis could use a complementary short-yardage running mate. Then there's the ultimate question of QB Mark Brunell. He's a courageous competitor, but is he the guy who can take the 'Skins to the next level? Drafting any good athlete on defense will also help shore up the team's obvious strength... I guess the Patriots' mystique is now a thing of the past. Still, they had a lot of people believing they would win their game in Denver, and they held on for a good long while, until turnovers kept adding nails to their playoff coffin. This team needs to fine-tune certain areas, but in general they can be expected to return to the postseason at the end of '06. There's simply too much talent on that roster... The Broncos looked strong at home, and Mike Shanahan's team features a balanced attack and an eager defense, and should be favored to defeat Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game... Can the Steelers' keep up their winning streak, which has now reached six games? In general, they did what they had to do against the Colts, and they did the one thing that a team must do in order to stop the Indy offense: Get to Peyton Manning physically. It's been proven time and again that you can't out-think the Colts' QB. But Pittsburgh effectively assaulted the Colts' offensive line, hurrying and sacking Manning without mercy. It sounds simple, but if you rob Manning of time, you rob him of his throwing capabilities. Of course, this is a formula that works against any QB, but is rarely achieved against the Colts. Bill Cowher's defense stepped up hugely and rattled Manning's cage. Despite all the fourth-quarter dramatics and freakish occurrences—Bettis' fumble, Vanderjagt's shanked field-goal try—it was the Steelers holding the Colts' offense to 18 points that was the ultimate story of the game... Observers will once again look at the Colts and ask why they haven't come up big in the playoffs. What might be said about what is still a remarkably gifted football team is, "They're not mean enough." The Colts are talented on both offense and defense, and they're well-coached technically. So while it may sound a little cliched, it's not out of bounds to suggest they lack killer instinct in the clutch, or simply the kind of mental toughness that often distinguishes big-time winners. Maybe they need a "thug" or two on defense, to lead the unrelenting charge and to consistently let opponents know they mean business... Who'd have thought that the Carolina-Chicago game would produce the most points (50) of any game this weekend? What was presumed would be a tough defensive battle turned into a crazy-quilt game of offense, in which case the Carolina triumph surprised no one. The Bears' vaunted D got chewed up for over 400 yards, and that's not how the Bears got it done during the regular season. Steve Smith's performance for the Panthers—12 catches, 218 yards, 2 TDs—was hands-down the stellar performance of the weekend, and despite getting banged up a little, his team goes to Seattle for the conference championship with a legit chance to advance to the Super Bowl... Hats off to the Bears for an exciting season. They're still young, still talented, and still hungry. They need to tweak their offense, and presumably another year under the belt of QB Rex Grossman will help that situation a lot. His performance Sunday was gutty but erratic. His youth and inexperience showed, but the kid's got chutzpah. Like the Redskins, the Bears could use help at the receiver position, and nothing made that point any better than the appearance in the Bears' lineup Sunday of Eddie Berlin, a WR of average skills who couldn't even crack the starting lineup of his previous employers, the Tennessee Titans (9-23 the last two seasons).

Predictions and thumbnail sizeups for the conference championships next week will follow shortly.

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