Of all these columns that I've done, this was the hardest. Seriously, how was I supposed to decide where to focus my second guessing of the Seahawks? That was a lot harder than you'd think. To the weekend ...
Apologies in advance for everything I leave out from Falcons-Seahawks. It's hard to imagine a game with more shining stars and would-be goats -- in Matt Ryan's case, he was both -- boneheaded decisions overcome by spectacular play, and so unforgettable moments than the Falcons' thrilling, monkey-shaking 30-28 win over the Seahawks Sunday. So many things happened that it's almost impossible to focus on any one focal point or play. Almost.
Say what you want about Pete Carroll's decision to go for it down 13-0 in the second quarter, but there's no telling what would have happened had the Seahawks attempted a field goal. Same goes for the clock management disaster at the end of the first half. But we know, had Carroll not called timeout before Matt Bryant's attempted a field goal with 13 seconds left, Seattle would have won. We saw Bryant miss that first kick, and we saw that he figured out exactly what he did wrong. There was no doubt about Bryant's game-winning 49-yarder from the moment his toe hit the ball.
Sure, there was plenty to second-guess from both coaches, and the Falcons' collapse would have been one for the ages. But there's only one thing that could have gone differently that absolutely would have changed the outcome, and that falls directly on the shoulders of Seattle's head coach.
No, really, he did it. Last year Joe Flacco, in a losing performance, outplayed Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game. Saturday, he did the same to Peyton Manning, but he and the Ravens came out with a 38-35 double-overtime win over the Broncos. Flacco wasn't put the best positions by Jim Caldwell's seemingly immutable run-run-pass playcalling strategy, but he made every big throw the Ravens needed him to make. He challenged Denver deep early, making life much easier for Ray Rice. Fourteen of his 18 completions went for first downs. A lost fumble notwithstanding, he dug his offense out of the holes Ravens special teams put them in. He, more than anyone else, was responsible for Baltimore's trip to Foxboro Sunday.
On the other side, it's fair to pin most of the blame on Manning. He's the guy who committed three turnovers. He's the one who seems unable to challenge teams downfield, a flaw big enough to get Alex Smith benched in San Francisco. And while many have questioned John Fox for not trying to mount a drive with 31 second left in regulation, it's safe to wonder if Fox just didn't think his guy had enough of an arm to get the Broncos that far, that fast (not that Fox ever needs to be convinced to play it safe). Manning is a Hall of Famer, and he had a season better than anyone could have expected. But it's safe to wonder if, at this point in his career, he is capable of leading a team to the Super Bowl.
Speaking of Alex Smith.
That's all I have to say about Niners-Packers.
So can the Ravens take New England down? The Broncos couldn't throw downfield because of their quarterback's limitations. But do the Patriots have the receivers to do so? New England had no problem stretching the field against the Texans, but their last two postseason games against Baltimore have been dreadful for Tom Brady. He averaged 3.7 yards per attempt and threw three interceptions in a 2009 Divisional Playoffs loss, and the Ravens took away the deep ball and coaxed him into two more picks (and no touchdowns). Those games were with Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski, respectively, as vertical threats. Gronkowski, after breaking his left forearm again, won't be there.
The Patriots will have to run to win, but that's nothing new. They were seventh in the league in rushing and ran the ball more times than every team in the regular season but the Seahawks, a total padded by quarterback runs. Most importantly -- they only had four games when they gained less than 100 rushing yards, and they lost them all. And that includes Week 3 against the Ravens.
Can the Falcons do it? The Falcons' magical 1998 season was marked by two wins over the 49ers, the franchise's long-time tormentor. The first, in Week 11, signaled to the city that this team was for real. The second, the Falcons' first home playoff game in 18 years, started a run that didn't end until the Man of the Year got busted picking up a vice cop the night before the Super Bowl. Anyway, the point there was that it's kinda neat that the Niners are all that stand between Atlanta and a trip to the Super Bowl.
The problem, of course, is that San Francisco seems perfectly built to beat them. They have a rushing attack that can punish Atlanta's poor run defense, and a mobile quarterback who could give the Falcons the same fits Russell Wilson and Cam Newton did this season. But sure to be lost in Sunday's madness at the Georgia Dome was the fact the Falcons ran effectively and did a great job stopping Marshawn Lynch.
After not doing so in their previous three trips to the playoffs, the Falcons met the magnitude of the moment Sunday, even if it nearly consumed them. Now they'll have to do it again, and they'll have to do it the same way -- with their weakness emerging as a strength.
Where do the Texans go from here? The Texans were outclassed by the Patriots, beaten so soundly that most of the particulars seem irrelevant in the aftermath of New England's 41-28 win. What can't be ignored, however, is the middling play the Texans got from Matt Schaub. Of the eight quarterbacks who started this weekend, Schaub put in the weakest performance. Past that, is there any quarterback of those eight over whom you would take Schaub?
Schaub has demonstrated himself to be more than capable of holding a lead. But he simply isn't dynamic enough to make things happen himself. In Houston's last five games, with weapons like Arian Foster and Andre Johnson, they scored five offensive touchdowns. Only twice in that stretch did Houston come from behind to take a lead. Not to win, but just to take a lead.
Houston has a good quarterback. But today, they needed a quarterback capable of greatness. After six seasons as a starter, it's safe to say Schaub isn't that guy. He is, however, the Texans quarterback for the foreseeable future. For better or worse.
Was this John Elway's worst nightmare? When Elway signed Peyton Manning, he got a quarterback who was unequivocally superior to the starter he had, Tim Tebow. He also got a quarterback with a sub-.500 postseason record. Not all of those fell on Manning, but that spoke to the fact that a Hall of Fame quarterback didn't guarantee postseason success.
And just because the universe refuses to rid us of Tebow, Denver's season ended without a playoff win. Last season ended with a miraculous win, and this year's finished with one of the biggest upsets in postseason history. Tebow threw a game-winning touchdown on the first play of overtime against Pittsburgh, and Manning threw a crippling interception in the second overtime period. Worst of all, Manning gave reason to question if he can get his team to the promised land at this point in his career, which would make him, effectively, no different than Tim Tebow.
Nope, Elway will never hear the end of this one, no matter how ridiculous it is to blame a man for jettisoning a player no one else seems to want for one of the two best quarterbacks of his generation.
You sure you don't care about Lance Armstrong anymore? Many claim to not care about Lance Armstrong, but that seems impossible. Because of his spectacular stardom, his alleged deceit would be the greatest fraud perpetrated in the history of American sports. No one can take Armstrong's defeat of cancer from him, but he coupled that story with athletic dominance fueled by illicit drugs to make himself an icon. A filthy, stinking rich icon.
Now, he's going to do an interview Oprah Winfrey, and he promises to be candid. That's a hilariously ironic statement from a man who seems to have furiously lied to the world for over a decade. There's hardly a way anyone could believe Armstrong was telling the truth, unless they had an overwhelming desire to do so.
Sure, Armstrong's done plenty to fight cancer's ills, but he's spent most of the last decade doing what was best for himself. He's sitting with Oprah for the same reason. Small problem for Armstrong -- Winfrey's in it for herself, too. Just as easily as Armstrong could start on the path of redemption, Oprah can blow that road to smithereens. There's no way I'll miss that.
In case you have a problem the Rooney Rule. Word broke Sunday that the Eagles interviewed former Ravens coach Brian Billick for their head coaching vacancy, and they'll interview Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden on Monday. Pretty good work by these guys' agents. Only once in nine seasons in Baltimore did Billick's teams finish in the top 10 in scoring offense. Gruden's been an offensive coordinator for two seasons, and his teams have been ranked 20th and 22nd in total offense. Yet, no one had to force Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie to call Billick, nor did any team require institutional prodding to call the surprisingly in-demand Gruden.
So, when teams are calling guys like these of their free will, how could anyone have a problem with the requirement that they interview at least one non-white candidate? The fact black candidates are almost always referred to in the context of the Rooney Rule -- as if there would be reason to interview them otherwise -- speaks to the discrimination present in coaching hires, as does the fact the NFL only adopted the rule to avoid a lawsuit from the late Johnnie Cochran.
But seeing these guys get calls while non-white candidates can't even get a sniff at coordinator positions should tell you how unlevel the playing field is in coaching. Sitting idly without trying to rectify that means one of two things -- the status quo is based on merit, or fairness isn't a goal worth pursuing, even if that pursuit is costless. Good luck arguing either point without sounding worse than you'd prefer.
The best image to come from the weekend.
The next time we'll see them together in suits, chances are they'll be wearing beautiful(ly ugly) yellow blazers.