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NFL Playoff Observations -- Divisional Round

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The Ravens-Steelers game was a joke. Yes, I had a half on the Ravens with the spread and another half on the moneyline, but my own personal rooting interests are beside the point. The Steelers got their first touchdown on a phantom pass interference call, the Ravens got their second because of a fumble that everyone stood around and watched, and the refs took away one of the more electrifying returns of the year on an inexcusably bad holding call. Not only wasn't it holding, it was textbook A+ blocking, and ref who threw the flag just assumed it was a hold because the defender fell down. In a game of that magnitude to disallow a touchdown based on something you didn't actually see is beyond failing at your job - it's failing at life and in so doing, destroying whatever slim hope there was for humanity prior to Saturday.

Moreover, Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh had unforgivably bad drops, and these are veteran receivers who can't outrun Jeff Erickson, so what good are they if they can't hold onto the ball?

And Steelers fans, please spare me the indignation. Yes, you're in the AFC title game, and you're obviously happy about that, and yes the game was close and dramatic, but it was totally arbitrary and borderline suspicious like the Seahawks-Steelers Super Bowl. I have to believe the NFL is too big to be susceptible to undue influence, but it happened in the NBA finals, so who the hell knows? A truly faith-shattering game in the beauty of the NFL.

The Falcons-Packers game was enjoyable to watch because Vanilla Ice was exposed as the uninspired caretaker he so obviously is at this stage of his career. The kid plays in a dome and has 6.5 YPA? But somehow he's being put in the Philip Rivers/Aaron Rodgers tier. Let's put it this way - I'd take Jay Cutler or Mark Sanchez now and going forward over Ryan, who belongs in the Joe Flacco/Matt Cassel tier.

Despite being right handed, Aaron Rodgers, not Michael Vick, is the true heir to Steve Young. Rodgers is dangerous in the pocket, can scramble for big yards and destroyed the Falcons by throwing with incredible accuracy on the move. I have no idea why Troy Aikman thinks Mike McCarthy should win Coach of the Year, or that Green Bay has such great receivers. To me, the team is Rodgers and a top-3 NFL defense, led by the second best cornerback tandem in the NFL.

The Bears won decisively which is what should have been expected, and I don't think we can take too much from this game except to note that Matt Hasselbeck turned out to be quite a solid pick in playoff drafts, certainly much better than anyone on the teams guaranteed to play two games (Saints and Pats). The Bears match up pretty well against the Packers with two close games against them, and Jay Cutler is a poor man's Rodgers who could outplay him on any given Sunday.

The Jets-Pats was easily the best and most interesting game of the weekend. New England's track record over the second half of the season (8-0, 31 or more points in every game, 13-point win @PIT, 42-point win vs. Jets, 4-point win vs. GB, 29-point win @CHI, i.e., they swept the final four teams, three of them in blowouts) made it appear they were an all-time great team like the 1984 49ers or 1985 Bears. But after the first two drives, the Jets were no longer fooled, and the reality of New York's superior personnel on both sides of the ball became insurmountable.

Tom Brady was either under pressure or had nowhere to throw, and New England was forced to run the ball down 10 points in the fourth quarter, chewing up valuable time and eventually stalling as the field shortened in Jets territory. Just like Peyton Manning who chose to run the ball on 3rd and 7 inside the 15 down 4, Brady had no good options, as his receivers lacked the physical skills to separate or make plays without getting separation (when Brady threw the ball to a covered Deion Branch, Darrelle Revis was able to reach around and force the ball out of his hands).

On the other side, Braylon Edwards boxed out two defenders and overpowered them past the goal line, and Santonio Holmes made a spectacular leaping catch at the back of the end zone. Neither player was "open," but both had the skills to make plays nonetheless. Maybe, Bill Belichick was a genius for letting Randy Moss go, but the Patriots lack of playmaking was badly exposed Sunday.

We had Mike Salfino on the SXM show Friday (and also today), and he took exception (on Friday) to the notion that the Jets had a 20 percent chance to beat the Pats, meaning no matter what happened, the Pats were better, and it would just be a matter of the Jets getting the right card to flop, something one could expect to happen every five games.

Instead, I suggested that given the available data, there was an 80 percent chance the Pats were the better team (no matter what), and that there was a 20 percent chance the Jets were the better team no matter what. That we couldn't know for sure until they played, but based on past data, that's the best guess we could make. He accepted that, and I agree it's the better formulation.

There are counterarguments - that winning in and of itself doesn't prove who's better and even that winning decisively doesn't mean that the same team would do so again if the teams were to meet next week. But the first is moot because the Jets did win decisively, i.e., not on a fluke bounce or bad call, and the second is moot because the NFL is not best 2-of-3, i.e., this was the game to settle it. All past performance can be viewed as a way of handicapping it, but once the decisive contest starts, it's meaningless. The map is not the territory. Otherwise, we could re-litigate every playoff game in history where the underdog decisively prevailed.

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