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Ten Things I Liked About The Divisional Round

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The best weekend in sports delivered, just like it always does.

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Being a football fan can be an exhausting endeavor. There’s incessant chatter about NFL ratings, concussions, what is and isn’t a catch as the play is reviewed frame by frame by frame while Tony Romo squeals “OOOO, DID IT MOVE?”, franchise relocation, stadium deals that always steal from the tax payers, concussions, heart breaking stories of former players, terrible September football, national flag kneeling discussions, and uninspired play by half the teams in the league. To wiggle around this I watch condensed versions to sift through the rocks, find the jewels, and inject pure football right into my brain stem. I‘ve had to make watching the game work for me in order to push aside the carrion associated with the game.

This all leads to days and weeks where I don’t know why I watch, why I spend my free time watching and writing and reading about something that intrinsically doesn’t matter. Why I sit hunched over a monitor after spending the majority of the day hunched over the monitor, when there’s the sun, and the grass lying outside the window. Weekends like this make this question simple. Easy and clear. Basic and transparent. I like it. When football is at its best there isn’t a sport better, there isn’t anything with greater viewing pleasure.

This weekend we had a nice outdoors-defense-run game slop fest that brought out canine Eyes Wide Shut masks, a great team beating a bad team, a ridiculous upset, and an all-time classic with an October baseball ending. All of it was beautiful, and exhausting, but in a good way.

1.) KEEEEENUUUUUM

All of these words that are pouring out of the faucet could really just be a love letter for the performance Case Keenum had on Sunday. The undersized scrappy undrafted free agent, who tasted being a NFL starter in 2013 with Houston, bounced between Houston and the Rams’ organization until getting his brains scrambled as a car cover for Jared Goff. I thought we wouldn’t see him start a game again after last season. With Teddy Bridgewater’s leg still filled with shrapnel he was able to catch on as the back up in Minnesota. And after Sam Bradford’s knee injury he was the starter for the time being.

They always say make the most out of your opportunities. Keenum did more than that. He elevated to a higher plane of existence. The Vikings were 11-3 with him as the starter. Keenum had career highs at completion percentage (67.6%), touchdown rate (4.6%, 22 total), yards per attempt (7.4), QBR (71.3), and he also led all quarterbacks in DVOA at 28.6%, and was 4th in DYAR with 1,298. Keenum was, dare I say it, ELITE.

During the regular season no one expected for this to last. Mike Zimmer never officially named him the full time starter. When the postseason started no one questioned the Vikings’ talent...but Keenum still rolled around in heads. He was an aberrant sore on the team, ready to pop at any moment and spew ropes of pus and fluid.

Yet the clock still hasn’t hit midnight. Keenum’s silk dress has yet to turn a post apocalyptic mash of plastic bags. He attacked a top ten defense, and went up against Drew Brees, completing 25/40 passes for 318 yards and threw 1 touchdown and 1 interception. The most important of which was a miracle play, a miracle that always happens against the Vikings.

I can’t believe it. When it happened I couldn’t. Now that it’s two days later I still can’t.

It looked like the Saints were playing cover two with each safety playing half of the field. The instructions seemed be: not let anyone get behind you, and don’t let the receiver get out of bounds. Marcus Williams whiffed on both completely. It looked like he ran to play the ball. Then once he realized he wasn’t going to get there in time he tried to take out the inside half of Stefon Diggs to keep him in bounds. He missed. Took out his teammate Ken Crawley. There was nothing that could stop Diggs from scoring.

It’s strange too. Williams has been great all year. He faced a similar play earlier in the game. A pass was lofted high to the sideline. He came over the top. But in this earlier situation he intercepted it, and gave the Saints a short field to close the gap.

The young man just made a mistake. Hopefully, he bounces back and doesn’t become the next Rahim Moore, another second round pick who went through a similar situation.

That play is what will be remembered in this game. But don’t forget some of the throws Keenum made in this one. One of the ideas of quarterback evaluation is that a guy needs to have an incredible trait that he can rely on to move the ball. Like a pass rusher’s rip, the quarterback needs something he can base his game around. Keenum has this. It’s his perfect high lofting touch passes. My favorites are the back foot fadeaway tosses.

Keenum is best in a clean pocket though. If he gets time to set and look downfield he always puts it in the right spot where only his receiver can get it.

The future doesn’t exist. It’s way too early to begin talking about contracts and what could happen while the playoffs are happening. Regardless, it’s going to be intriguing to see what the Vikings do with their quarterback stable of Bradford, Bridgewater, and Keenum, who they hold onto, and how much they pay to do so. But for now, in the better and immediate present, we get to imagine Keenum going up against Philadelphia’s sweltering defense.

Until then,

KEEEEEEENUUUUUUUUUUUM

2.) The Saints Came Marching Back

Everything that happened before the Minneapolis Miracle is going to be lost. Like how everyone remembers Nelson Cruz leaping into the right field wall, and David Freese’s home run, but nobody thinks of Josh Hamilton’s go ahead dinger that should have clinched it. What’s going to be forgotten in this game is what the Saints came back from to get the lead.

In the first half they couldn’t stop the Vikings. Every play was successful. First downs picked up four yards, second downs picked up five, short third downs were converted. They couldn’t create negative plays. Systematically, Mathematically, the Vikings marched through the Saints’ defense to score 17 points in the first half.

The Saints’ offense didn’t convert a third down until 5:39 was left in the third quarter. They didn’t score until 1:23 was left in that same window of time. Brees was picked off twice. The first was on a deep pass attempt to Tedd Ginn that he didn’t get enough on. Anthony Barr intercepted the other by catching a pass tipped off of the back of Everson Griffen’s hand at the line of scrimmage. Griffen didn’t even see the ball. Terron Armstead swallowed up his spin move, and with his back turned he stuck an arm into the air.

Things changed quickly, like they are apt to do, thanks to the Saints moving the ball on the ground with outside zone runs, their receivers finally figuring out how to beat man coverage, Drew Brees’ turning back into the most accurate passer to ever live, and their defense finally creating negative plays. All of this came together to create a spectacular comeback that gave them a 24-23 lead that was extinguished by something even more spectacular.

3.) Marshon Lattimore v. Adam Theilen & Xavier Rhodes v. Michael Thomas

From an inside football perspective, my favorite part of this game were the defensive back v. wide receiver matchups that went on. Ken Crawley’s physicality against Diggs was great, Tedd Ginn finding the holes in the zone was fun too, but the best part were two premier receivers taking on two premier defensive backs.

This game had the rookie gesticulation Marshon Lattimore against Adam Theilien’s floppy yellow Mickey Mouse custodial gloves, and the Vikings’ number one cornerback, Xavier Rhodes, dealing with the strangely strong, and top 1% quick Michael Thomas. All throughout this game these pairs battled back and fourth.

4.) 4th Down Conversions

My favorite overreaching arch of narrative that joined these games together were the fourth downs these teams converted. It started right away. With 10:32 remaining in the second quarter the Eagles went for it at the Atlanta one yard line. Down by three, and with Nick Foles at quarterback, they seized the day instead of meekly whimpering away with three points.

They ran a power run play with Brandon Brooks and the full back pulling to the right. Rather than dump the ball up the middle they ran off tackle. A great play call. The Falcons have an undersized defense. They loaded up the center to make up for this weakness. So Philadelphia countered by getting LaGarette Blount wide. Oh my did the fullback make a spectacular cut block on LaRoy Reynolds (#53)

Down 15-10 on Atlanta’s final drive they were forced to go for it twice on fourth down. Both times they attempted to get the ball to Julio Jones. The first time it worked on 4th and 6 with 3:30 left in the fourth quarter, the second time it didn’t facing 4th and goal on Philadelphia’s 2 yard line.

Atlanta went trips left with Julio as the slot receiver. He swam over the press coverage and broke open in the middle of the field. Against man coverage he was open right away. Ryan stared down the right sideline before finding Jones.

The next morning the Jaguars did the same thing the Eagles did. With the ball breathing on Pittsburgh’s goal line they didn’t take the points. They spat right in the face of Phil Sims. Doug Marrone elected to hand the ball off to Leonard Fournette, who literally flew into score. Making the game 7-0, and creating a lead the Jaguars wouldn’t give up.

From this point on Ben Roethlisberger was scrounging around for points and desperate. In this manic state he made two of the greatest throws of his career to turn long fourth downs into touchdowns. On the first he found Martavis Bryant deep down the center of the field to make the game 28-14 before the half.

On the second he found Antonio Brown running past A.J. Bouye down the left sideline. Roethlisberger ran up the pocket and put the ball inside of Brown to prevent Bouye from coming over the top to bat the pass down.

The final fourth down conversion of the weekend came with the Saints down 23-21. They had just thrown three straight incompletions. They had the ball at Minnesota’s 44 yard line, and faced 4th and 10. Brees went through his progressions and found Willie Snead open on an out route. Exultations. The Saints drive continued until a Wil Lutz field goal gave them a loose tooth lead.

I hope you are taking notes if you are one of these big fat loser coaches watching football from the couch just like the rest of us nimrods. Going for it on fourth down is good! It maximizes your ability to score the most points, from a probability stand point it makes the most sense, and it’s also fun as hell. There’s nothing better than a 4th and 1 conversion attempt in the red zone. Do this in the regular season too. It makes the games more enjoyable, and it gives your team the best shot to win, so that you, yes you, can be standing on the sideline in January instead of trying to stick to the hungover aspirations you wrote down back on the first.

5.) Big Ben On The Move

Ben Roethlisberger had 47 rushing yards this season. During his career he has averaged 6.7 yards a game on the ground. Some inventions are genius crafted in moments of luck and desperation. This past weekend Roethlisbeger forever changed the game of football in this fashion.

With nobody open Roethlisberger was forced to step up in the pocket to create something from nothing. He ran across the line of scrimmage. But instead of sliding and letting the clock continue running, or attempt the Bortle where you throw the ball after you pass the line of scrimmage, he threw the ball backwards to Le’Veon Bell who walked in for the score. This is 3018 football.

I’m actually sad that Mike Mularkey got fired. He would 100% find a way to put this into the exotic methmouth playbook. Remember this play, I don’t know who it will be with, where or how, but we are going to see it next year somewhere. We may even see entire offenses based around this play in a sci-fi universe. Accidentally, football will never be the same again.

6.) Strip Sack!

QUICK.

Who led the NFL in forced fumbles this year?

That would be Yannick Ngakoue. The Jaguars’ defensive end forced six fumbles this season. His first going all the way back to week one when he slapped the ball out of Tom Savage’s hand, igniting one of the greatest streaks in NFL history.

This weekend he created another one. It was good pass protection by Alejandro Villanueva. Roethlisbeger just walked his way up the pocket and into the vicinity of Ngakoue. He hopped onto the quarterback’s back like a spider money, and used his long spider arms to knock the ball out. Telvin Smith was sitting in the middle of the field in zone coverage. He covered the space between him and the ball in a flash and scooped and scored. It would be pretty cool if this happened to Tom Brady.

Also, it’s just fun to yell STRIP SACK. Knock a loaf of bread out of somebody’s hands and holler it. Slap the bone out of the dog’s mouth and yell it. It’s always a blast.

7.) Bortles Making One Throw

The Steelers were able to chip and chip and chip away at the Jagaurs’ lead. After their first drive of the half they brought the score to 28-21. At this point Jacksonville could no longer carry on and win by running the ball, limiting Bortles, and punting. They were going to have to score. Bortles was going to need to make a throw of some sort.

When the time came he rocked it. Bortles went back to 2015 and became the downfield slinger he was in the past. Undrafted Keelan Cole beat Artis Burns off the line of scrimmage and got inside placement. Bortles put the ball over the safety, who laid shallow in a robber position after the play action. And Burns played the ball like a machine pitch little leaguer. Cole went up and got it. Fournette scored on the next play. The lead was back to two scores.

8.) New England’s Game Plan

The Patriots are a very smart football team. They continue to do very smart things. They took the best part of the Titans’ offense, Derrick Henry breaking runs outside, and snipped it. Henry had two edge runs. He picked up -2 yards. Last weekend he had 41 yards on 5 attempts.

They also attacked the worst part of the Titans’ defense. Tennessee was 32nd in defense DVOA when covering short passes. They had a DVOA of 17%. Alex Smith attacked this part of the field in the wildcard around going 23/28 for 237 yards and 2 touchdowns. Tom Brady and the Patriots put their fingers in this same hole. Brady completed 33 of his 48 passes for 285 yards and 3 touchdowns. They specifically used Danny Amendola and Dion Lewis in this part of the field. The two combined to catch 19 passes on 21 targets for 166 yards.

Additionally, they saw how the Titans struggled at covering Travis Kelce. They used motions, and wide receiver formations, to get Rob Gronkowski in one v. one coverage. They didn’t allow the Titans to jam him at the line of scrimmage with a linebacker, and then have Kevin Byard pick him up after. Instead they pre-snap placed him in isolation. And there Gronk was too big for the NFL’s leader in interceptions to do much of anything other than hold onto his waist once passes were completed.

Jams like this were rarely able to be used because of Josh McDaniels ingenuity.

It’s easy to hate the Patriots. They have won six titles. They have made it to the AFC Championship each of the last seven years. They always finish 12-4. But it’s impossible to hate them for being smart. Instead you should hate rest of the AFC, for always allowing New England to get away with it.

10.) Line Of Scrimmage Love

There were five spats of line of scrimmage play I was able to pick up on from the television.

First was Brandon Brooks picking up this stunt. He’s the best in the league at helping pass the defender over and coming back to his gap to pick up the looping defender. At first glance it looks like he’s leaning too far over. But he always steps deeper to come across and hit the oncoming rusher. It also works to his advantage. By doing this he’s able to pop the side of the defender. This leaves him splayed and flaying.

The second one came on a screen pass to Jay Ajayi. The guard opposite of Brooks, Stefen Wisniewski, made four blocks to lead the way on this screen. First, he tosses the pass rusher and jettisons up the field.

He’s supposed to block the first guy he sees in the open field. Almost always this is the safety. On this play it’s Robert Alford (#23). He gets scared though. He doesn’t want to come face to face with all that monstrous flesh. He decelerates. With fear alone, Wisniewski makes his second block.

Ricardo Allen (#37) goes to make the tackle and comes across his face. Wisniewski shoves him down out of the play.

Immediately afterwards he makes his fourth and final block on Keanu Neal (#22). The scaredy cat then chases back across the play to make the tackle.

In addition to this there were a few pass rushes I loved.

Cameron Jordan long armed the hell out of a tight end to force Keenum’s inerrant toss to the sideline that Williams intercepted.

Everson Griffen timed a snap perfectly to strip sack Brees. This one was absurd. Not only is he going up against a left tackle that runs a 4.8, but he knows the snap count as well. It doesn’t matter. Griffen springs past him and around his diving cut block attempt, then loops back around and hits Brees from behind to put the ball on a platter.

Takkarist McKinley has the name of an enormous man from the Old Testament. He’s not that enormous though. He’s only 6’2” 250 pounds. Regardless, he tormented Halapoulivaati Vaitai with a brutal bull rush that left the tackle flat on his back, and McKinley into Nick Foles’s legs for the sack.

11.) BONUS—My Favorite Route Combination

Finally, it’s one route combination. I love this play so much, too much. Teams use a trips formation. The two outside receivers will run slants and drags to build a wall. Then the inside receiver will loop around this carnage down the sideline. I have no idea how a team playing man coverage stops it. The receiver either doesn’t get passed over, or the defender covering the wheel route can’t get back across. Both Minnesota and New Orleans ran this play to perfection.

Someone, anyone, tell me the smart football coach name for this route combination. I’m trying to start a family. I need names for future sons and daughters.