What Have We Learned From 2015 Playoffs after Wild Card Weekend

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Joe Flacco, James Harrison

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco looks to pass as he scrambles away from Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison (92) in the second quarter of an NFL wildcard playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

 

Here is What Have We Learned from  the 2015 Playoffs/Wild Card Weekend, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

Ups

  • OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — In the afterglow of a playoff victory over Pittsburgh last weekend, Ravens coach John Harbaugh proclaimed Joe Flacco to be “the best quarterback in football.”Given time to reflect on his comment, Harbaugh didn’t back down.

    “I said it. I meant it,” Harbaugh said after Tuesday’s practice.

    Flacco’s numbers in the postseason support Harbaugh’s lofty assessment.

    After throwing two touchdown passes in a 30-17 win over the Steelers, Flacco improved to 5-0 in his last five playoff games. He has 13 TDs, no interceptions and a 116.6 quarterback rating during that span. He was Super Bowl MVP two years ago, is 10-4 in the postseason and has more road playoff wins (seven) than any quarterback in NFL history.

    Flacco has twice as many playoff wins as peers Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger.

    So, is this guy elite or what?

    “At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what everybody wants to think,” Flacco said. “It obviously means a lot for a head coach to stand up in front of everybody in the whole world and say those kind of things. Whether it really means anything, I don’t know. But it definitely means a lot to me.”

    Harbaugh became Baltimore’s coach in 2008, the same year the Ravens made Flacco their top draft pick out of Delaware. The two have been to the postseason in six of seven years.

    “Joe has a great arm, is a very good athlete, a big, strong guy in the pocket, can make any throw in any kind of weather,” Harbaugh said.

    Especially in the playoffs.

    “He’s a good quarterback, period,” said New England coach Bill Belichick, whose top-seeded Patriots (12-4) host the Ravens (11-6) on Saturday.

    “I have a lot of respect for him,” Belichick said. “He has a great arm, can throw the ball the length of the field with guys hanging all over him. He’s mobile. He’s athletic enough to extend plays, makes good decisions, uses all his weapons.”

    Flacco and the Ravens beat the Patriots 28-13 in the AFC championship game two years ago to advance to the Super Bowl. Flacco joined Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to throw 11 touchdown passes without an interception in a single postseason.

    “Big-time players show up when you need them most, and that’s how he’s been,” Ravens fourth-year receiver Torrey Smith said. “He’s as good as anyone, and maybe the best in the playoffs these past few years.”

    Soon after Baltimore beat San Francisco 34-31 in the Super Bowl, Flacco received a contract worth $120.6 million that made him the highest-paid player in NFL history.

    To this point, it’s been a worthwhile investment. Although the Ravens went 8-8 and missed the playoffs last year, they’ve never had a losing record and are 82-44 (including the postseason) with Flacco as a starter. Oh, and he’s started every game since the outset of his rookie year.

    Flacco has thrown 166 passes in the playoffs since his last interception, in the 2011 AFC title game in New England.

    “I’m doing the best I can to put everybody in position to do good things,” he said. “Put the ball in their hands and let them take over.”

    Flacco is 6-foot-6 but surprisingly agile in the pocket. Against Pittsburgh, he scrambled to his left to elude the rush and threw off his back foot to connect with Smith for an 11-yard touchdown that made it 20-9.

    “His athletic ability is underrated,” Smith said. “He’s been making plays like that for a long time.”

    In the playoffs, though, something special happens when Flacco is on the field.

    “He’s a franchise quarterback and has had a great career,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said.

    Brady is among a select few top-shelf quarterbacks considered to be the best in the game by those not named John Harbaugh.

    “The cool thing about it is, Tom was playing for who knows how many years before I got in here,” Flacco said. “I was in high school watching him win Super Bowls.”

    Flacco is 2-1 in the playoffs against the Patriots, but warns that those games — and this one — aren’t about Brady vs. Flacco.

    “It’s not really me outdueling Tom or him outdueling me,” he insisted. “We’re not playing against each other.”

  • OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — The roar that filled the stadium in the first quarter had long since disappeared, and so had the majority of Pittsburgh Steelers fans.As the Baltimore Ravens walked off Heinz Field following their 30-17 victory Saturday night, a few hundred purple-clad folks lined up near the visitors’ tunnel.

    Smiling broadly, Ravens coach John Harbaugh slapped high-fives with those who made the trip from Baltimore.

    It is a ritual that has become quite commonplace over the past seven years.

    No team over the past 40 years has traveled better in the postseason than the Ravens, whose 10 road wins are the most by any team since the 1970 merger.

    No. 10 came at the expense of the hated Steelers, making Baltimore the only team to win on the road last weekend.

    That provided the Ravens (11-6) with the opportunity to pin another defeat on the Patriots (12-4) in New England on Saturday.

    “It’s a business trip, certainly,” Harbaugh said Monday. “The bottom line is, it’s going to be emotional. There’s a lot at stake. They’re the No. 1 seed and we’re the No. 6 seed. We understand what that means. That’s all there. But in the end, it’s a game.”

    The Ravens have reached the postseason in six of Harbaugh’s seven years as their head coach. They are 7-4 on the road over that span, leaving Harbaugh tied with Tom Coughlin and Tom Landry for the most road wins since the merger.

    Harbaugh says the team goes through the same routine, at home or away, and insists there’s no big secret to his success.

    In his view, quite simply, the better team won.

    “I really don’t have an explanation for that other than the fact that we played well,” Harbaugh said. “You’ve got to play well on the road, obviously, to have a chance to win.”

    That’s what happened in Pittsburgh. The Ravens forced three turnovers, had five sacks and punted only twice in yet another win on the road.

    “It’s great after you do it, but it doesn’t mean much for the next game,” Harbaugh said.

    The Patriots are 15-4 at home during the postseason. Half of those defeats have come against the Ravens, whose previous visit to New England served as a precursor to a trip to the Super Bowl.

    Baltimore eliminated the Patriots in 2010, lost by a field goal in the 2012 AFC title game and rolled to a 28-13 victory in 2013.

    And now, two of the AFC elite will meet again.

    “They’re tough. They’re physically and mentally tough,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the Ravens. “They can play in tough situations and they’re talented. They keep coming at you.”

    Even on the road, as the Steelers learned on Saturday night.

    “It was very special and meaningful,” Harbaugh said. “To be in the locker room, and then the plane ride home with the fellas, you never forget that stuff. That’s really why we do what we do … for moments like that.”

    Asked where that victory ranked on his list of favorites, Harbaugh replied, “It’s the best one because it’s the last one. The next one will be even better.”

  • INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Mike Adams spent his first 10 NFL seasons developing his own perception of the Colts.He bought into the theory that Indianapolis needed a high-scoring offense to win games. He also realized the Colts needed a better defense to win championships.

    Now, the Colts’ starting strong safety and his teammates want to show the rest of the league image isn’t everything.

    “We’re good enough to win, and that’s what you need to do at this point in the season. Stats don’t matter,” Adams said Monday. “But to win games like this, at Denver, our defense has to step up.”

    The defense has done that before.

    During their 2006 title run, Indy held Pro Bowl running back Larry Johnson to 32 yards on 13 carries in a wild-card round win, limited Baltimore to two field goals in a divisional-round win, closed out the AFC championship game victory with Marlin Jackson’s interception and sealed their previous Super Bowl win with a 56-yard interception return from Kelvin Hayden. All that came after the Colts had allowed 375 yards rushing in a Week 14 loss to Jacksonville.

    Could it happen again? Perhaps.

    Since allowing 244 yards rushing in Week 11, the Colts have buckled down.

    When Andrew Luck and the offense were plagued by turnovers and a rash of drive-killing penalties over the final six regular-season games, the defense played well enough to help the Colts (12-5) win five of the six.

    When Luck protected the ball in Sunday’s 26-10 wild-card win over Cincinnati, the defense held up again. Indy limited Cincinnati to five first downs, 98 total yards and four straight three-and-outs in the second half.

    Sure, detractors will contend the Bengals’ top two receivers, A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham, were inactive because of injuries. But the Colts also limited the NFL’s top rookie rusher, Jeremy Hill, to 47 yards on 13 carries. And after allowing a 23-yard end around on Cincinnati’s first offensive play, the Bengals ran 20 more times for 87 yards.

    Defensive tackle Cory Redding liked what he saw Sunday, but he knows the Colts must play even better this weekend to survive against Peyton Manning at Denver (12-4).

    “I think we did enough to do what we needed to do (against Cincinnati). We got the win,” Redding said. “So we’ve got to keep the same mojo, the same mindset this week.”

    It was Manning’s release in March 2012 that spurred a major change in the Colts’ plans.

    Team owner Jim Irsay, general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano agreed that Indianapolis needed to be more than a point-scoring machine to be a contender. They invested in a bigger, more physical defense and stronger special teams.

    Three years later, that investment appears to be paying off.

    Kicker Adam Vinatieri and punter Pat McAfee are All-Pros, long snapper Matt Overton played in last year’s Pro Bowl and Indy’s coverage units were ranked among the league’s best this season.

    Adams, who played with the Broncos in 2013, shared the league lead with seven takeaways. Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who signed as a free agent last winter, led Indy with 111 tackles. Both are Pro Bowl alternates.

    Linebacker Jonathan Newsome finished with 6½ sacks, the second-highest total among rookies.

    And over the past nine games, the Colts have allowed 4.2 yards per carry, matching the league average. Excluding Tennessee’s 142-yard performance in the regular-season finale, when the Colts subbed more freely than usual, and the number drops to 4.1.

    Meanwhile, Indy spent most of the season ranked in the top half of the league in pass defense and finished in the top 10 in sacks (41) — despite losing 2013 NFL sacks champion Robert Mathis for the entire season.

    “We’re getting there,” defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said when asked to compare this defense to the stout units he was with in San Francisco. “There are a few things we’re still looking to improve. But I think we’re getting closer and closer, and I think we’ll get above that standard this postseason.”

    Perhaps just in time to change their reputation.

    “Even though we love No. 12 (Luck), we don’t want to put all that on his shoulders,” Adams said. “We want the defense to have an identity, we want the defense to go out there and make plays.

Downs

  • CINCINNATI (AP) — Coach Marvin Lewis couldn’t go to sleep until he had a chance to watch video of the Bengals’ latest playoff meltdown.There weren’t a whole lot of answers in the viewing.

    And not much sleep to be had, either. This bad dream won’t go away.

    A 26-10 loss at Indianapolis on Sunday made it four straight years with first-round losses, an NFL record. No matter what they accomplish during the regular season, the Bengals fritter it away in the playoffs.

    Happens every year.

    “This one, it stings,” defensive tackle Domata Peko said on Monday as he left the locker room. “We had another opportunity of doing it, and just falling short again — it really hurts, man. You could tell by the emotion in the locker room right now.”

    The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season, a 24-year stretch of postseason futility that is the sixth-longest in league history. Lewis is 0-6 in the playoffs, which ties several coaching records for playoff futility.

    So what’s going to change? Nothing major.

    Lewis has one year left on his contract and is expected back next season. He bristled on Monday when asked if he was happy to be able to return after losing in the playoffs again.

    “Do you think people are releasing people that put a team in the playoffs four years in a row?” Lewis said. “Is that what you’re saying? OK then. You don’t really want me to answer that, do you? I probably shouldn’t.”

    No, he’ll be back.

    So will quarterback Andy Dalton, who is 0-4 in the postseason. He didn’t make any glaring mistakes on Sunday, but didn’t do anything especially noteworthy, either. Dalton reinforced his legacy as a game-manager rather than a game-changer.

    Dalton got a contract extension before the season with most of the guaranteed money front-loaded into the first years, so he’ll be back as well for at least one more try at the elusive playoff win.

    “We’ve done everything that you can do in the regular season,” Dalton said on Monday. “The last four years, we’ve won 40 games. We’ve got to figure out what’s going to get us to win once we’re in the playoffs.”

    The offense has been the biggest postseason problem. During those four losses, the Bengals have been outscored 57-6 in the second half. They’ve scored only 43 points in those four games, with seven of them coming off Leon Hall’s interception return for a touchdown.

    The offense is expected to return mostly intact, although coordinator Hue Jackson will get interest for open head coaching jobs.

    There could be significant changes on defense. Coordinator Paul Guenther said on Monday that linebacker Vontaze Burfict will likely have a second knee operation soon. Cornerback Terence Newman said he’s considering retirement.

    And the Bengals will be looking to overhaul a defensive line that was a big disappointment. Cincinnati finished last in the league with 20 sacks, their second-lowest total for a 16-game schedule. Tackle Geno Atkins was a disappointment coming off knee surgery — only three sacks and 34 tackles.

    “Geno was coming off injury,” Guenther said. “He wasn’t the quite same. We need to infuse the line because we’ve got to get better at rushing the passer, period.”

  • ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) — Golden Tate was at the Detroit Lions’ practice facility wearing a red sweatshirt with the words “Detroit Against The World” on it.That sentiment resonates quite a bit in Motown right now.

    “Prime example last night, I guess,” the Detroit wide receiver said.

    Tate and the Lions enter the offseason after an unusually bitter postseason defeat. They led for most of Sunday’s game against Dallas, but the Cowboys rallied for a 24-20 win. Detroit was miffed by a disputed call in the fourth quarter, and the loss was agonizing for the fan base. After going 11-5, the Lions made a spirited bid for what would have been their second playoff victory of the Super Bowl era, only to fall short.

    “A good year, you make it into the playoffs. Great years, you win it all. We didn’t win it all obviously, but I do think that we put ourselves in position to do so,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “An analogy could be similar to a golf game: If you hit it on the green enough times where you’re putting for birdie and you end up with par, if you keep giving yourself enough opportunities, pretty soon you’re going to sink a birdie somewhere along the way.”

    The Lions made strides in Caldwell’s first season at the helm, but Detroit faces an uncertain future. Defensive star Ndamukong Suh is eligible for free agency, and so is fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has received interest from other teams as a head coaching candidate.

    Suh was emotional after Sunday’s loss, and veteran center Dominic Raiola fought back tears Monday when he spoke with reporters.

    “There’s no words,” he said. “I just wanted so much more for this team, guys in this locker room, city, deserve so much more. I don’t know. I’m still numb to it.”

    With Detroit ahead 20-17, the Cowboys were flagged for pass interference, but officials rescinded the call moments later, leaving the Lions facing fourth-and-1. Detroit punted, and Dallas drove to the winning touchdown.

    The Lions made the playoffs for only the second time in the last 15 seasons, and they came close to some even more memorable accomplishments. Detroit lost the regular-season finale at Green Bay with the NFC North title at stake. Then the Lions took an early 14-0 lead against Dallas, but couldn’t hold on. They haven’t won a postseason game on the road since 1957.

    Suh’s future is the biggest issue facing the Lions this offseason. He’s been one of the league’s most dynamic players during his five years as a pro, and he’s had little to say lately about his future plans.

    “That will continue to be one of our highest priorities. That’s going to be addressed constantly here until we come to some conclusion,” Caldwell said. “He’s a dominant, dominant player who we benefit from, greatly, from having his services. He’s a tremendous asset to our team and I’ll leave it at that. He’s quite a player.”

    Detroit’s strength this year was its defense, especially a line that was among the toughest in the NFL to run against. Keeping that group together may be difficult.

    Offensively, the Lions never clicked on a consistent basis. Quarterback Matthew Stafford avoided the types of mistakes that had plagued him in 2013, but behind a shaky offensive line, his numbers dipped a bit, and Detroit was forced to rely on its defense.

    Still, the Lions’ formula resulted in a playoff berth, and they nearly extended their season with an upset victory at Dallas. There were a number of reasons Detroit lost, but that one curious officiating decision will linger for a while.

    “It’s in the past now,” Tate said. “If I go back and look at it, it’s probably going to upset me more, thinking about the what-ifs.”

  • TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — A season of what might have been ended in inglorious fashion for the Arizona Cardinals.Several injuries, especially at quarterback, took their toll on a team that got off to a 9-1 start only to lose five of its last seven.

    “I don’t look at ‘what if?’,” coach Bruce Arians said at his season ending news conference on Sunday. “‘What if?’ will drive you crazy. I look at what can be, and what can be is a great football team with a few new pieces next year, but the core is here now.”

    There’s a strong possibility that the team’s future will not include Larry Fitzgerald.

    The eight-time Pro Bowl receiver would count a whopping $23.6 million on the Cardinals’ salary cap next season under his existing contract. He is due an $8 million roster bonus in March, so it should be clear by then whether he remains on the only NFL team he has known.

    While general manager Steve Keim has insisted Fitzgerald’s salary is “baked in” to the team’s current budget, conventional wisdom is that Fitzgerald will have to take a pay cut to remain in Arizona.

    Add in the fact that Fitzgerald isn’t thrilled with his role as a slot receiver after all those big years as a wideout, and his record-setting career with the Cardinals could be over.

    “Obviously everybody in this locker room wants Larry back,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “All the fans want Larry back, but there are some business things that I’m sure will happen and need to happen, and I hope he is back.”

    Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett’s future with the organization also is uncertain due to money concerns. His existing contract would count $9.8 million on next year’s cap.

    Here are some things to take from the Arizona season.

    INJURIES: Dockett missed the entire season after injuring his knee in training camp. Outside linebacker John Abraham sustained a season-ending concussion in the opener. Punter Dave Zastudil was lost with a groin injury. Fitzgerald, defensive end Calais Campbell, safety Tyrann Mathieu and outside linebacker Matt Shaughnessy all missed time with injuries.

    Before all that, inside linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for the season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

    The most significant injuries were to Palmer and his backup Drew Stanton. Palmer was 6-0 as a starter before tearing an ACL and going down for the season. Stanton, 5-3 as a starter, missed the final three games with a sprained knee that might require surgery. That left the job to Ryan Lindley, signed off the San Diego practice squad after Arizona initially released him at the end of preseason.

    Lindley struggled mightily and was at the controls Saturday when the Cardinals managed just 78 yards, an NFL record for playoff futility.

    “I think it’s pretty scary, just looking at our roster,” Mathieu said, “if we were healthy, how good we could have been, how far we could have gone.”

    NO QUIT: Through all the injury issues, Arians said, he saw no quit in his team, even as things got worse and worse.

    “I’ve been on teams when they lost their quarterbacks or they lost Darnell Dockett, they tanked it,” Arians said. “You couldn’t get them to work. They just put in their time. These guys played to win the game every week, all the way to last night.”

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