January 11, 2009

NFL Divisional Weekend Recap: Trench Wars Are For The Birds

These NFL playoffs have certainly been for the Birds.

Yes, the Ravens, Eagles, and Cardinals all advanced this weekend in postseason play along with the Steelers who certainly were the odd team out in terms of mascots.

But all four teams had something in common that really fueled their victories this weekend. They won the battle at the line of scrimmage.

The Ravens did not give up a single sack against the vaunted Titans' O-line as Joe Flacco was given enough time to make several key throws including the big 48-yard TD pass to Derrick Mason. On the other side of the ball, the Ravens notched a sack on Kerry Collins who had only gone down eight times coming into the game.

The Ravens won 13-10.

The Cardinals traveled to Carolina to face a Panther team that was rested and ready to go against a team many felt still did not belong in the play-offs.

Arizona has long possessed the weapons to make a run in the play-offs, but what always seemed to prevent it was poor offensive line play. That all changed when Ken Whisenhunt brought Russ Grimm with him from Pittsburgh to coach the Cardinal offensive line.

Arizona drafted Levi Brown to play right tackle and Deuce Lutui has played well alongside him. Thus far in the postseason they have given up just one sack while facing the likes of Julius Peppers and John Abraham.

Last night, Kurt Warner had a lot of time to throw the ball and that enabled him to get his playmakers plenty of touches. Larry Fitzgerald had eight catches for 166 yards and with Anquan Boldin possibly making a return next week, the Cardinals might have the best offense left.

Arizona even ran the ball well last night with the combination of Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower. The O-line was able to open up some holes as the Cardinals rushed for 145 yards and a score, dominating a highly-touted Carolina front seven led by all-pro Jon Beason.

Finals score: 33-13, Cards.

Sure the takeaways by the Cardinal defense played a huge factor and we can rave about how great Larry Fitz is (because he is), but to me the offensive line really got the job done and allowed the Cardinals offense to pummel the Panthers.

The Eagles' win best illustrated the importance of winning the war in the trenches. Philadelphia's offensive line went up against Steve Spagnuolo's supermen (Justin Tuck, Matthias Kiwanuka, Fred Robbins, and Barry Cofield) and came up big, surrendering zero sacks. Not bad considering the Giants front four is one the most prolific I've seen in recent years.

Sure there was the safety, but aside from that play, McNabb was given light years of time in the pocket throughout the day. He almost seemed surprised to have so much time on several plays.

Jon Runyan was reportedly limping around in pre-game warmups, but he still played and performed solidly. The Eagles have one of the oldest O-lines in the league and yet they have withstood the arthritis and played deep into January.

Again, you can credit some great defense as the Eagles completely bewildered Eli Manning, but I truly see that offensive line play being the most integral part to the Eagles success as it cut out the heart of the Giants defense.

Looking at the Eagles in the defensive trenches, you can see more of them same. The Eagles stemmed the Giants surge twice on short yardage fourth downs in the fourth quarter to preserve their lead. The Giants had established themselves as a phenomenal rushing team throughout the season, largely due to stellar offensive line play, but they failed to stop Philly's penetration on two key plays.

Result: Giants lose 23-11.

In the final game of the weekend, Pittsburgh also made some key plays early, pushing back center Nick Hardwick on several occasions to disrupt the Chargers running game. The Bolts were unsuccessful in getting the ground game going, finishing with just 15 yards rushing.

The Steelers on the other hand received a monster game from Willie Parker (146 yards and 2 TDs) and rushed for 165 yards total, overwhelming the Chargers front seven. The Steelers are a totally different team from the Colts and their physical style led to match-up problems for San Diego. They were manhandled along the line of scrimmage and as such couldn't get off the field.

Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked one time, a big feat considered the beating he took during the regular season, and he made some key third down throws in the second half to keep the pressure on the Chargers; defense. Big Ben was dumped 49 times in the regular season, but in the finale vs. Cleveland the line gave up zero sacks and they carried over their strong performance into the play-offs.

The Steelers won 35-24.

This week truly demonstrated the importance of strong line play in the play-offs. A good offensive line can transform a decent offense into an efficient one, an efficient one into an explosive one. Likewise on the defensive side of the ball. Just ask the Birds (and Steelers).

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