For those of you just tuning in to the second week of the National Football League playoffs, we would like to confirm that, yes, Saturday was strange.
Was that Tom Brady, arguably the greatest quarterback of his generation, doing his best Jeff Hostetler impersonation? Hand the ball off, hand the ball off, hand the ball off, make high-percentage throw, hand the ball off, touchdown. During his team’s 43-22 demolition of the Indianapolis Colts, Brady bore a striking resemblance to the guy who hands you your Big Mac at the drive thru window.
Or how about Seattle Seahawk Russell Wilson, one of the brightest young quarterbacks in the game? In the second half of his team’s 23-15 victory over the New Orleans Saints, he completed two passes. Instead, the Saints were merely fed into the ravening maw of Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who devoured Saints defenders like a King Size bag of Skittles.
Even the losing Saints quarterback, Drew Brees, the only human ever to throw for 5,000 yards in a single NFL season more than once (and he’s done it four times) handed the ball off more than he passed it through the first three quarters, which, last time we checked, was one of the signs of the Apocalypse.
Saturday was odd times in the NFL. The only team that committed to passing the ball were the Colts, the team whose coach once said that his winning recipe was: “run the ball, stop the run.” Saturday, they did neither, and they were demolished.
Watching a game in which Tom Brady, plays, wins, and yet could have played much of the game while holding a box of popcorn is enough to shake a football fan to the core. This is a passing league, right? Quarterbacks win championships, right?
Well, not Saturday. And that raises the question: Why, on the biggest day of their seasons so far, did the three competitive teams Saturday essentially take the ball out of their exceptional quarterbacks’ hands for most of the games?
Weather, of course, played a big role. Both games were played in gales that only the Weather Channel loves. Then again, it’s winter. Unless you’re in Pasadena, rain and wind is not exactly a shocking forecast. Is playoff football different? Is Colts coach Chuck Pagano right? Are championships won on days like Saturday, when the team that ran the ball and stopped the run best won?
It is a storyline that old-schoolers would certainly love, and on Saturday, it proved to be the case. In truth, however, Saturday underscored a different and more enduring reality for the modern NFL: mediocrity is the mother of invention.
Let’s be honest, the two teams playing each other in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday were shells of themselves. Almost half the Colts starting lineup on offense was out with season-ending injuries, including their No. 1 wide receiver (Reggie Wayne), tight end (Dwayne Allen), and running back (Vick Ballard), as well as a starting linebacker and cornerback on defense. The Patriots were missing tight end Rob Gronkowski, their most vital cog on offense (besides Brady), as well as virtually all their best defensive players.
And don’t be fooled, neither team was a juggernaut to begin with. Even when healthy they had flaws. In the salary-capped NFL, winning is a matter of managing flaws. No one has enough money to build the perfect team. So add catastrophic injuries (which, this year at least, appeared to be the norm league-wide), and you have two teams essentially playing left-handed.
For the Patriots, that looked a lot like LeGarrette Blount, the slab of running back who changed the game when he turned “three yards and a cloud of dust” into 73 yards and game, set, match in the fourth quarter. For the Colts, it looked a lot like interception after interception. They had no Plan B, so on go the Patriots and home goes Pagano to dream of a day when his team will be able to run or stop the run.
The injury situation wasn’t quite so dire in Seattle, but Brees certainly looked like he was throwing left-handed into the teeth of a Pacific gale. With a better defense and a better running game, the Seahawks simply had more ways to win on a blustery day that grounded the passing attack, so they did.
Today’s NFL is not about the run. Nor is it about defense. Or the pass, for that matter. It is about finding some way to win when your Plan A goes out the window (and perhaps your Plan B and C) as it is almost certain to do during a playoff run – either through injury, weather , or even (gasp!) the play of the other team.
On Saturday, that looked a lot like football circa 1960, lacking only leather helmets and broken teeth. Next week, it could be 400 yards passing and a cloud of touchdowns. In today’s NFL, who knows?
But one thing seems sure. You better come with your B game.