National Football League

Stalter’s Game Notebook: NFL Championship Week

+ It’s unnerving to hear some people in the media claim that Peyton Manning needs to win another Super Bowl to be mentioned in the same conversation as Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Terry Bradshaw and John Elway. These people are kidding, right? There’s no question that multiple Super Bowl victories would put Manning in another stratosphere when it comes to quarterback greats, but he doesn’t need two rings to validate anything that he’s accomplished in his career. Brett Favre only won one Super Bowl, and people still rank him among the best ever. Have you looked at Favre’s postseason numbers compared to Manning? They’re almost identical in certain categories. Why does Favre get an automatic pass in the conversation of all-time greats, but everyone needs to see more out of Manning? Look, Montana was the best ever. If Brady wins his fourth title, then an argument could be made that both he and Montana are on the same level. But I’m not going to omit Manning from the discussion because he “only” won one championship. That would be like saying Albert Pujols wasn’t one of the all-time greats in baseball had the Cardinals come up short in 2011. Everyone is so eager to talk about football being a team game, unless the conversation turns to Manning. Then it’s, “Well, he couldn’t get it done a second time.” Please. He couldn’t get it done a second time because he played in the same era as Brady and the Patriots’ dynasty. I’m not holding that against him. Here’s hoping he goes out like Elway…

+ It was interesting watching the NFC South take on the NFC West in the divisional round this year. The NFC South had two excellent representatives in New Orleans and Carolina in the postseason, one year after Atlanta came within seven yards of advancing to the Super Bowl against San Francisco in the NFC title game. But it’s become apparent that New Orleans (at least on the road), Carolina and Atlanta don’t consistently play four quarters. The Panthers are the closest thing to an NFC West team as the South has because they play defense and can run, but even they play a finesse style at times. If you’re going to beat Seattle or San Francisco, you better play be willing to fight tooth and nail in the third and fourth quarters because neither of those teams lay down. Atlanta laid down in the second half of the NFC title game last year, producing a goose egg vs. San Francisco. After dominating for most of the first half on Sunday, Carolina also wilted in the second half vs. the Niners, and New Orleans did too little, too late offensively in Seattle to beat the Seahawks. After posting great regular seasons the last two years, the NFC South clearly is lacking the same mental fortitude that the NFC West has displayed.

+ Colin Kaepernick is an interesting case study. He looked rattled by Carolina’s defense for much of the first half on Sunday and was bailed out of a potential third-and-long situation when Michael Crabtree made a spectacular 20-yard catch on a second-and-10 that helped set up an eventual scoring drive right before the half. His best drive came midway through the third when he led the Niners methodically down the field on an eight-play, 80-yard drive that was capped off by his 4-yard touchdown run. At times he doesn’t look like he is reading defenses or going through his progressions. But he always seems to make the big plays in crucial situations, which is a mark of most successful quarterbacks. The last two times the Niners and Seahawks met in Seattle, Kaepernick did next to nothing through the air while averaging a dismal 4.5 yards per attempt. But he was also without Crabtree, who obviously makes him a better quarterback. It’ll be interesting to see if Kaepernick continues to straddle the line between being a raw passer playing backyard football and a dynamic playmaker.

+ One thing the Niners can learn from the Saints is how not to spend three quarters attacking Seattle’s defense. With no vertical threat to worry about in coverage, the Seahawks were able to sit on the underneath routes and break up passes over the middle. Seattle did a nice job having Bruce Irvin or another linebacker play underneath Jimmy Graham in coverage and also have a safety over top. But without the threat of the deep pass, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas didn’t have to worry about covering a lot of ground. On Sunday, the Niners will need to utilize both Vernon Davis and Crabtree in the vertical game if they want to open things up in the short-to-intermediate. Otherwise Chancellor and Thomas can fly to the football just a quickly as they did last week vs. the Saints.

+ If the Seahawks are going to beat the Niners, then Darrell Bevell can’t take his foot off the pedal like he did last Saturday in the third quarter when Russell Wilson only attempted three passes. I realize that Wilson and Seattle’s offense hasn’t looked sharp in weeks, but the answer isn’t for Bevell to become conservative with his play-calling. He was fortunate that his defense finished the game when his offense couldn’t, but there’s no reason that New Orleans should have been in that game in the end.

+ If the Rams, or any team for that matter, want to sniff the same kind of success that New England has had over the past decade, they need to learn how to be adaptable. From 2007 until 2010, Bill Belichick’s philosophy was to attack opponents by spreading them out and testing the boundaries of their defense vertically. He was able to accomplish those feats because he had Randy Moss and Wes Welker at his disposal, as well as Tom Brady and an offensive line that could pass protect on deeper drops. After trading Moss five weeks into the ’10 season, Belichick utilized more double-tight formations because he snagged Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in that year’s draft. But with Gronk sidelined with a torn ACL and MCL and Hernandez in jail, Belichick once again tweaked his offense this past Saturday by employing a run-heavy, play-action approach vs. the Colts that made LeGarrette Blount an overnight sensation. Belichick’s ability to adapt over the past 10-plus years is one of the reasons that the Patriots are always competing deep into January. Perhaps no coach has a greater feel or understanding for his personnel than Belichick, who also doesn’t mind taking risks with said personnel.

+ One risk Belichick took on Saturday night was using Jamie Collins to shadow Colts tight end Coby Fleener. Normally an outside linebacker or a defensive end, Collins lined up opposite Fleener out wide on a third-and-goal from the three-yard line early in the second half. After calling an audible and spreading his tight end out wide, Andrew Luck threw a fade pass to Fleener along the sideline. The pass fell incomplete thanks in large part to Collins’ ability to hang with Fleener, which forced Indy to settle for a field goal. Later in the half, Collins was once again tasked with covering Fleener, whom this time jetted up the seam of New England’s defense. While getting depth in coverage, Collins kept his eyes on Luck, turned his hips when Fleener started to break toward the middle of the field, then spun around to locate the ball perfectly for an interception. Most defensive backs don’t flash that kind of range, instincts or awareness, and Collins did it beautifully as a 250-pound defender. When the dust settled, Collins finished with six tackles (two for loss), a sack, an interception and three QB hits. Granted, he did play defensive back, defensive end and linebacker at Southern Miss, so it’s not as if the Patriots were unaware of his athleticism. But credit Belichick for trusting his scheme and continuing to put his players in the best position to succeed.

+ Luck continues to have as bright a future as any young quarterback in the league. No quarterback who reached the postseason, outside of maybe Philip Rivers in San Diego, did more with less than Luck did this season. That said, whether he’s surrounded by Jerry Rice, John Taylor and Roger Craig or T.Y. Hilton, LaVon Brazill and a highly ineffective Trent Richardson, he can’t continue to make the same mistakes in the postseason if he’s ever going to lead the Colts deeper into the playoffs. He set the tone on Saturday night by staring down Brazill on the pass that Alfonzo Dennard intercepted and nearly returned for a touchdown. And despite the epic comeback against the Chiefs the week before, he turned the ball over multiple times in that game, too, giving him a total of eight turnovers in two three playoff games the past two years. The Colts have something special in Luck, who will probably lead Indianapolis to a Super Bowl at some point in his career. But just because he’s accomplished so much in his first two years doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have plenty of room to grow.