Here’s a tip for understanding the N.F.L. postseason — keep your eye off the ball.
Ninety percent of football action occurs away from the ball. Yet the television tetragon has trained viewers to focus on the pigskin, always looking at the quarterback. He’s one of 22. Most of the action is happening elsewhere.
Keeping your eye off the ball is easiest if attending a game; you choose what to look at, rather than having a television producer choosing for you. At a game, when the quarterback begins his cadence, locate and count the safeties. You’ll be doing what the quarterback is doing at that instant, and soon what happens next will make a lot more sense to you.
If you see two safeties deep — Cover 2 — that means the offense is likely to respond with a short pass. If one of the safeties has “come down to the box,” poised at the line of scrimmage, that means the defense expects a run. If there is one safety deep with both cornerbacks just off the line of scrimmage — this is Cover 3, what Seattle usually shows — expect the quarterback to look first for his tight end. If there is no safety deep, the rare Cover Zero, expect an all-out blitz. The quarterback is likely to audible to a quick slant or a go pattern, and the result is likely to be a big play one way or the other — a long gain or a sack.
If you’re not at the game, you can still keep your eye off the ball. Each series, choose a player to watch who is not the quarterback. Focus on an offensive lineman, defensive lineman or linebacker: they almost always begin inside the television tetragon. Just watch that guy for the series — if there’s a big play involving the quarterback, you can always see that on replay.
Choosing a lineman to watch will help you appreciate the otherwise seemingly random appearance of running holes and pass-rush lanes. You’ll see that offensive linemen are not just plowing ahead, but rather executing choreography involving pulls, traps and double-teams. If you focus on a defensive lineman, you won’t wait long before observing one of several possible “stunts” in which one lineman gives himself up to create a rush lane for another.
If you focus on an outside linebacker, you’ll see his basic choice on each play — come forward (“crash”), move sideways (“string out”) or backpedal (“drop”). If you focus on an inside linebacker, you’ll realize the best ones take an angle toward where the runner is going, not where he is.
If you see an inside linebacker suddenly sprint backward, you’ll realize that you are watching the renowned Tampa Two, generally the most effective N.F.L. defensive set — its signature is a conventional four-man rush with the middle linebacker dropping surprisingly deep in pass coverage. Movements by the middle linebacker are hard to predict, which is why quarterbacks such as Tom Brady always announce him presnap — “59 is the mike!” you will hear Brady shout should the Cats meet the Pats in the Super Bowl.
Of course it’s tempting just to watch the quarterback as he lofts a pass: When a tight spiral is soaring above a dozen athletes’ heads as two sculpted men engage in a footrace for the catch, there’s an instant of suspended time that is among the aesthetic rewards of football. But as the playoffs begin, try keeping your eye off the ball. And see below for Tuesday Morning Quarterback’s wild-card-round cheat sheet.
In other news, Peyton Manning is back in the saddle, and Denver has the A.F.C. first seed. That means a bye week and a home postseason date. On his career, Manning is 2-5 in the postseason at home after a first-round bye.
Peak Interest ... in the Draft? The playoffs are about to begin, with a champion to be crowned — ostensibly, the whole reason for the professional football enterprise in the first place. But rather than feel excited, many football fans are sad, because 20 of 32 teams are eliminated.
During the regular season, even if your favorite team is struggling, there’s always the possibility of a huge victory next week. Now for the majority of N.F.L. enthusiasts, that possibility is foreclosed.
That 20 teams have shut it down is a reason that interest among some N.F.L. fans may decline during the playoffs, when there ought to be peak interest. Purists are fascinated with the questions of which roster, coach and tactical choices will result in a Lombardi Trophy. But because the teams they care about are done, many N.F.L. fans won’t wait to fixate on free agency and the draft, since these create hope that next year’s team won’t be as bad as this year’s. Soon mock drafts will be ubiquitous: The “Monday Night Football” on-air crew started yakking it up about the draft way back in November. Millions of football fans are already drifting off into a dreamworld about what their teams will do in the 2016 season, when the current season is just reaching its zenith.
Sweet Offensive Play of the Week. San Diego and Denver tied at 20-20 in the fourth quarter, the Broncos faced first-and-10, an expected running down considering the game situation. Tight end Owen Daniels set in-line on the right. Then he shifted into the backfield to become a slot back, and went in motion left. This caused San Diego to assume a run-left; the Chargers’ defense reacted by overshifting left. Tailback Ronnie Hillman ran right, directly through the gap the Chargers’ defense had just abandoned because of motion the opposite way, for the 23-yard touchdown that represented the game’s winning points.
Sour Defensive Play of the Week. Miami leading the favored Patriots 17-10 in the fourth quarter — New England, sputtering, had just punted on fourth-and-26 — the Dolphins faced third-and-11. The Flying Elvii showed a nine-man press front, seemingly daring Ryan Tannehill to throw deep; actually the plan was to tempt Tannehill to throw deep because only three Patriots rushed while everyone else backpedaled. Seeing almost the entire New England defense backpedaling, Tannehill scrambled up the middle for 19 yards, positioning Miami for a game-icing field goal. Tannehill reached the line-to-gain before many New England defenders, their backs turned, realized he had taken off running.
Stats of the Week. Stretching back to last season, the Panthers are on a 20-2 run.
The Steelers are on a 10-2 stretch versus the Browns.
The Bears finished 1-7 at home; the Lions are on a 6-0 streak versus the Bears.
In calendar 2015, the University of Alabama won more football games in the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium than the Cowboys did.
Minnesota broke an 0-5 streak at Lambeau Field.
The future Hall of Fame coach Tom Coughlin of the Giants bowed out with a home loss and a 1-6 stretch.
The teams of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger made the postseason: And the Super Bowl is on a 12-for-14 stretch of games with quarterback starters named Manning, Roethlisberger or Brady.
How Oregon Self-Destructed. From the point at which Oregon took a 31-0 lead over T.C.U. — why doesn’t the N.F.L. offer fun name pairings like Ducks versus Frogs? — till overtime, Oregon posted possessions of 1:47, 3:38, 1:05 and 1:15. Inexplicably, Oregon stayed in its ultra-quick-snap offense, rather than huddling up to work the clock. Leading 31-20 with 7:45 remaining in regulation, Oregon went quick-snap run, quick-snap run, incompletion: The incompletion stopped the clock, Oregon punting back at 6:40. Leading 31-28 with 3:32 remaining in regulation, Oregon rushed and then called timeout, then went incompletion, incompletion and punted back at 2:17. Three times on this possession, Oregon stopped the clock for T.C.U., which would kick the overtime-forcing field goal with 19 seconds showing.
On its final possession of regulation, had Oregon simply run up the middle for no gain — had Oregon simply had the quarterback kneel! — the Ducks probably would have prevailed. Instead coaches kept calling passes, the only tactic that could keep T.C.U. in the contest. This was an epic fail by Oregon Coach Mark Helfrich.
The Fundamental Difference Between the N.F.L. and Football Factories Is Closeness of Games. Compared with the pros, college football has a pleasing rah-rah atmosphere, a rich store of traditions, a lot more cheerleaders and halftime shows by marching bands. What college football often does not have is close games. Because the football factory programs enjoy such built-in advantages of recruiting power and gimmick schedules — Oklahoma’s regular season was seven home games and five away dates, including a matchup versus the Akron Zips — the top-ranked colleges often win by blowout margins. Then because top-ranked colleges spend much of their seasons running up the score, when an equal opponent is encountered, the result may not be pretty. The fourth-ranked Sooners, who posted regular-season wins by 55, 55, 38, 36 and 35 points, proceeded to get blown out in their elimination game.
On New Year’s Eve in the big-college semifinals, Alabama won by 38 points, Clemson by 20 points. On New Year’s Day, in the Rose Bowl (now officially the Rose Bowl Game), Stanford won by 29; in the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State won by 16; Ole Miss won the Sugar Bowl by 28. In other bowl games pairing two ranked teams, Tennessee won by 39 and Michigan by 34. All these highly promoted contests were over by early in the third quarter. The sole bowl pairing of ranked teams won by a touchdown or less was T.C.U. over Oregon by six points.
In the N.F.L., all coaches work with roughly the same amount of talent, while no one has a gimmick sked to pad results. Looking at a 20-year average, 45 percent of N.F.L. games have been decided by a touchdown or less. Of the last 10 Super Bowls, only one (Seattle 43, Denver 8) was a walkover, while seven were decided by a touchdown or less, and six went down to the closing seconds.
At least this year’s football-factory title matchup offers a clear clash of styles — the up-tempo Xbox offense of Clemson versus Alabama’s traditionalist offense and power defense. When offense meets defense in a title game, defense holds the high card. In the 2014 Super Bowl, Seattle’s No. 1 defense crushed Denver’s record-setting offense; of the N.F.L.’s 10 highest-scoring teams, only the 1999 Rams won the ultimate game; after that Rams squad, the 2009 Saints were the sole team that led the league in scoring and then took the Super Bowl.
Wild-Card-Round Cheat Sheet. Don’t overlook this initial stage. Six wild-card teams have won the Super Bowl. Three Super Bowl victors of the new century — Green Bay of 2010, Jersey/A of 2007 and Pittsburgh of 2005 — not only appeared in the opening round but played all their postseason games on the road.
Cincinnati: Dan Quayle was vice president the last time the Bengals took a playoff game. Could 2016 be the charm? Since drafting Andy Dalton, the Bengals are 52-27-1 in the regular season, 0-4 in the playoffs. Worse, Coach Marvin Lewis is 112-92-2 in the regular season, 0-6 in the playoffs. In the postseason, Lewis turns hyper-conservative. Last year during the Bengals’ playoff loss to Indianapolis, Lewis ordered a punt on fourth-and-short in Colts territory though Cincinnati was trailing; later, still trailing, the Bengals punted on fourth-and-short from midfield. The previous postseason, during a loss to underdog San Diego, twice Lewis ordered punts on fourth-and-short in Chargers territory. There are many similar examples of his record of postseason folly. Until Lewis plays to win rather than playing not to lose, Cincinnati postseason woes may continue.
Green Bay. On the wrong end of consecutive season-ending big games versus Arizona and Minnesota, the team just does not have it this year. Green Bay’s offense has dropped to 23rd from sixth in 2014. The Packers’ struggles open the door for Washington’s first postseason victory in a decade.
Houston. The injury to left tackle Duane Brown, among the league’s premier linemen, hurts the Texans’ long-shot bid. Imagine how good Houston’s third-ranked defense would be if the team had selected Khalil Mack in the 2014 draft rather than the underwhelming Jadeveon Clowney.
Kansas City. Two weeks ago, the Chiefs became the first N.F.L. team to lose five straight and then win eight straight; last week, the Chiefs became the first N.F.L. team to lose five straight and then win nine straight; this week, the Chiefs became the first N.F.L. team to lose five straight and then win 10 straight. Kansas City is this season’s feel-good story. The feel-good part coincides almost exactly with the star Jamaal Charles’s placement on injured reserve. Just as the Seattle offense improved when Jimmy Graham was hurt, the Kansas City offense got better without Charles. Football being a team sport, high-profile ball-handlers can have a corrosive effect. Kansas City has a solid chance of becoming the first team to lose five straight and then win 11 straight.
Minnesota. The Vikings are 31st in passing, despite defenses’ focus on containing Adrian Peterson. It’s possible to succeed in the contemporary N.F.L. without a ground game — the 2011 Giants won the Super Bowl while last in rushing. But an N.F.L. team that can’t throw is a screen door on a submarine. The Vikings have just six passing plays of 40 yards or more, a number that barely avoids being the league’s worst and should be very different considering how opposition safeties creep up to the line.
Pittsburgh. Buick wants to be a trendy young-person’s brand; Pittsburgh wants to be trendy quick-snap pass-wacky. Against the Browns, Pittsburgh had 349 yards passing, 30 yards rushing. The Steelers are third in passing offense, 30th in passing defense, a pairing of stats few expected.
Seattle. Last season the Seahawks struggled early, closed strong and ended up one yard shy of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. This season Seattle opened 2-4 and has been 8-2 since. Unlike in their two recent Super Bowl runs, the Seahawks, seeded sixth, cannot play at home. Under Russell Wilson in the playoffs, the Seahawks are 4-0 in Seattle, 2-2 on the road or at neutral sites. To return to the Super Bowl, Seattle will need to win at Carolina, which looms as its divisional-round opponent.
Washington. Jay Gruden has done what Joe Gibbs, Marty Schottenheimer and Mike Shanahan could not — gotten Chainsaw Dan Snyder under control. This team’s season already is a success because of a playoff date; a playoff victory would be the cherry on the sundae.
Unhappy Hour in Hell’s Sports Bar. Hell’s Sports Bar is closing for renovations, since all N.F.L. postseason games are aired to everyone. Hell’s Sports Bar will reopen once the Super Bowl is over, featuring gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Iowa caucuses plus continuous-loop IMAX screening of the “Fantastic Four” reboot. Renovations will include racks and Iron Maidens with table service (reservations required).
Ryan Fitzpatrick Turns Back Into a Pumpkin. The Harvard quarterback’s 11-year N.F.L. career has not included a playoff appearance. Visiting Buffalo, the 10-win Jets had only to best the also-ran Bills for Fitzpatrick to finally reach the postseason. In 53 starts for Buffalo, Fitzpatrick was known as a solid quarterback whose downfall was the cringe-worthy fourth-quarter interception. Sunday, exposure to Buffalo snow turned him back into the old Ryan Fitzpatrick, and he threw three fourth-quarter interceptions, including his sole red-zone pick of the season. Brandon Marshall, an accomplished player who had never appeared in the postseason, also was denied by the Jets’ loss.
4th Down Bot note: Buffalo upset the Jets partly by going for it twice on fourth down, converting both.
Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk. Arriving at Denver 4-11, trailing by a touchdown in the first quarter, the Chargers faced fourth-and-2 on the Broncos’ 32 and sent in the place-kicker. T.M.Q. wrote the words “game over” in his notebook — in the first quarter. Arriving at Kansas City eliminated for the 13th consecutive season, trailing by two touchdowns in the second quarter, the Raiders faced fourth-and-2 on the Chiefs’ 11 and sent in the place-kicker. T.M.Q. wrote the words “game over” in his notebook — in the second quarter.
Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk (Bowl Mania Edition). Trailing Alabama 31-0 in the third quarter of the big-college semifinals, Michigan State punted on fourth-and-1. Who cares if the spot was the Spartans’ 23? The punt conceded the contest, and the third quarter is too soon to wave the white flag. Outraged, the football gods saw to it that the margin soon was 38-0. Trailing Mississippi 34-6 in the third quarter of the Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma State punted on fourth-and-1. Who cares if the spot was the Cowboys’ 28? The punt conceded the contest, and the third quarter is too soon to wave the white flag.
In Theaters Soon: “Batman v the Bot.” Which Hollywood robot should play The Upshot’s 4th Down Bot in a big-budget theatrical biopic? Producers are hoping to sign Terence Stamp to play Bill Belichick, Jennifer Jason Leigh to be the N.F.L. commissioner, Andy Serkis to portray a digitally altered evil mastermind and Chloë Sevigny as the Bot’s love interest. Tweet your casting suggestions for the Bot to @EasterbrookG. You can suggest either an actor who’s played or voiced a robot, or a mechanical Hollywood robot such as Robby from “Forbidden Planet.”
Record Season for Green-Dot Helmets. Houston made the playoffs despite starting four quarterbacks — Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden. (Seven guys attempted passes for the Texans.) The Colts played four at quarterback, bringing in a situation-substitution fifth quarterback; the Cowboys and Ravens started four at quarterback. The Browns, Rams and 49ers changed quarterbacks on coaches’ decisions; the Bengals, Bills and Broncos changed quarterbacks owing to injuries; the Titans changed quarterbacks both for injury and for coach’s decision, giving a spin to Alex Tanney, the Division III player who became known for trick passes on YouTube. Can the Texans advance in the postseason with a quarterback turnstile? The 1974 Steelers are the sole team to have won the Super Bowl despite major quarterback turmoil, at times starting Terry Bradshaw, Terry Hanratty and Joe Gilliam.
Subsidized Statuary. T.C.U.’s great moment on the field last weekend coincides with a low off the field: It said it would erect a statue of Coach Gary Patterson. There are no statues on the T.C.U. campus of scientists, writers or philosophers, but generations of students will be expected to venerate a jock. It’s bad enough when large public universities present themselves as sports meccas first, educational institutions second. Now this worldview is spreading to a midsized private college at T.C.U., which has 209 staff members in its athletic department versus 43 staff members in its history department.
Bear in mind that in college athletics, nearly everything is either tax-free or tax-deductible. This means families that can only dream of being able to afford to send a child to a selective college like T.C.U. (sticker price for tuition, room and board $58,270 per year) nonetheless are compelled to subsidize college athletics. One reason earnings for college coaches have skyrocketed is that athletic departments rake in money and then don’t pay their fair share of taxes. Nobody likes taxes, but granting tax favors to college athletics, or to any special interest, results either in average people paying more, or in higher government debt. If the ridiculous Patterson statue — I intend that clause to be read as “ridiculous statue,” though it will have the added effect of making Patterson personally seem ridiculous — is funded by deductible donations, average families will be handed the bill for roughly a third of the cost.
Subsidies are a problem stretching broadly across collegiate athletics, where multitudes of football and men’s basketball programs function as tax-exempt businesses that lease their school’s logos and benefit from its I.R.S. favors, while contributing little or nothing to educational endowments. Overspending on athletics is a factor in rising college attendance costs that leave students from average families saddled with debt, or shut out of college entirely. Thus the Patterson statue and other sports statues at other colleges don’t just represent misplaced priorities — they symbolize one of the mechanisms of inequality.
Authentic Games Standings. This week’s shocking development is that I will reveal an Authentic Games methodology — for the final regular-season edition, the only games considered are those versus other teams that reached the postseason. (Authentic metric quirks remain, such that a 5-2 record is better than 4-0.) The new perspective forecasts an all-animal Super Bowl of Panthers versus Broncos.
Arizona, New England and Seattle should threaten for Super Bowl invitations. The defending champion Patriots have faltered down the stretch owing to injuries, but Bill Belichick will inject players with some mysterious substance like grape Ovaltine extract and suddenly they’ll be fine for the playoffs. Tom Brady has 29 more touchdown passes than interceptions; that’s Authentic.
Arizona and Seattle are tied for the league’s best set of team stats — the Cardinals being first in offense, fifth in defense, while the Blue Men Group is second in defense, fourth in offense. The Cardinals’ meh season finale home performance gives pause. It’s been 23 years since a team reached the Super Bowl for the third consecutive season — don’t count the Seahawks out for that distinction.
New England 3-1
Cincinnati, Green Bay, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Seattle 3-4
Chip Kelly Skedaddle Watch (Series Finale). T.M.Q. started this running item back in October, and already Kelly is out the door. Like Steve Spurrier, Kelly came from a football-factory environment where recruiting power and gimmick schedules equate to 30-point walkovers, and couldn’t adjust to an N.F.L. reality in which a good outcome is winning by a field goal on the final play. In Kelly’s first season at Philadelphia, the Eagles posted Ducks-like scores of 54, 49 and 48 points. In his second, Philadelphia hit scores of 45 and 43 points. This season the Eagles did not exceed 40 points, while giving up at least 40 on three occasions.
There’s a big psychological difference, too, between football factories and the pros. At Oregon, Kelly’s decisions were rarely questioned, while boosters and others treated him as a little god. At the N.F.L. level, decisions are micro-analyzed and media knives are always out. Most successful N.F.L. head coaches pay their dues as N.F.L. assistants, in the process learning to deal with the crazed stresses of the professional ranks. Big-deal college coaches come into the league expecting to be little gods who post easy wins, and it just doesn’t happen.
The very model of the modern N.F.L. head coach is Jeff Fisher, who has worked in the pros exclusively, as an assistant or a coordinator before becoming head coach at Houston, Tennessee and St. Louis for 21 seasons. Though he’s attained just six winning campaigns in that span, he stays employed because he keeps his cool, doesn’t clash with owners, is polite to the sports media and is active in behind-the-scenes matters, working on the N.F.L. competition committee. Fisher appears more interested in the league than in himself; Kelly gave the opposite impression.
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