Apportioning out blame for losing football games is an inexact science. As fans, we create scapegoats out of the players who screw up at the end of games and ignore the ones who failed even minutes earlier. The line between hero and zero can be as thin as a referee's whistle. A slightly more aggressive zebra might have whistled Lee Evans' catch in Foxborough a touchdown before Sterling Moore slapped the pass away, which would have turned Moore — beaten on the play for what would have been a second touchdown allowed — into a whipping boy for Patriots fans and the ultimate signifier of New England's many draft failures.
Contrast that to San Francisco, where a possibly overzealous referee blew Ahmad Bradshaw's forward progress dead on a fumble with 2:29 left in the fourth quarter of a tied game. A Niners recovery either results in a defensive touchdown or a chip shot game-winning field goal for David Akers, and we're all probably talking about how brave Kyle Williams was to respond to his crucial muffed punt with a 40-yard kickoff return.
Don't get us wrong, now. We're not saying that the calls on the field were necessarily incorrect, or that Evans, Williams, and Billy Cundiff should be excused for how they played. They're certainly part of the reason why their teams lost. There's a lot more that goes into losing a playoff game than one player's performance on one or two plays, though. Considering how good Sunday's conference championship games were, the losing teams deserve a more accurate epitaph.
Baltimore's Bitter Blues
If you want to trace the story of this Ravens loss back to its roots, skip past Evans and Cundiff. You need to go back to the last drive of the first quarter, when a mix of subpar play and conservative decision-making satisfied the small picture while ignoring the big one. It didn't cost the Ravens the game, but it certainly hurt their chances of winning.
That drive started after the Ravens had gone three-and-out on each of their first three possessions, with Joe Flacco taking two sacks and scrambling for a minimal gain on the team's first three third downs, despite the fact that the Patriots only rushed three or four players on each play. Flacco looked like a caricature of the bumbling quarterback who had nearly cost his team the game against the Texans the previous week.
On the opening play of that fourth drive, the Ravens took a shot downfield. Flacco hit Torrey Smith for a 42-yard reception, moving the ball deep into New England territory in the process. A great play? Well, depends on how you define great. It was meaningful, sure, and it resulted in an improved situation for the Ravens, but it's hard to argue that it was actually great. Smith beat a busted coverage and carved out a huge swath of space for himself up the sideline. If Flacco had seen that Smith was open earlier and hit Smith in stride, it would have been an easy touchdown for the Ravens. Instead, Flacco's throw was late and short, and Smith had to stop and turn back before catching the ball. The pass went for 42, but Flacco left 28 additional yards and six crucial points on the field.
That came back to haunt the Ravens six plays later, when a checkdown to Anquan Boldin came up two feet short of a first down, leaving the Ravens with a fourth-and-1 on the New England 3-yard line. Baltimore, as you might remember, chose to try to convert a fourth-and-inches on the goal line against Houston last week and came up short. Whether that factored into this week's decision is unclear, but the Ravens chose to kick a field goal and tie the game at three.
Now, the math on this isn't all that complicated. Brian Burke's fourth-down calculator uses history to say that the Ravens will score an average of 4.10 points by going for it and 2.38 points by kicking.1 The Ravens would have been correct to go for it if they thought they could succeed even 36 percent of the time on their fourth-down play. The league-average success rate on those plays is close to double that, at 69.6 percent; Vince Wilfork had been giving the Ravens fits in the ground game, but it's hard to imagine that the Ravens wouldn't succeed on this play more than half the time if they got one hundred shots at it. They also went on to convert a third-and-1 with a Rice carry on the next drive, their only third-and-short run of the day.
The logic behind the Ravens choosing to kick doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. It was a three-point game in the second quarter, and while tying the game is great, this argument seems to fall under the same umbrella employed by those people who don't like going for two before the fourth quarter; you shouldn't be concerned about the score of the game until it's late. Phil Simms, who will actually mail you one of these umbrellas if you send in five Bigelow tea proofs of purchase, noted that the field goal would result in "positive reinforcement" for the offense, which makes no sense. If you were a member of the Ravens offense, would you have felt good that your coach didn't trust you to get two feet in a playoff game after you failed the previous week? And if they did have positive reinforcement, how long does that last? Considering that the Patriots scored a touchdown on the subsequent drive, did anyone go into the huddle and mutter, "Well, we might be down a touchdown, but we scored a field goal last time, so we're going to be just fine!" If you want to argue that the Ravens shouldn't have gone for it because Vince Wilfork looked to be living in their backfield, that's debatable. Once you get to the point of creating sugarplum fairies of positive reinforcement or entirely arbitrary rules about always taking the points on the road, you're spouting ex post facto gibberish.
Later on, a seemingly aggressive decision by the Ravens was forced by conservative play calling. With a three-point deficit and 3:36 left, Baltimore chose to run a draw with Ray Rice on third-and-3 from the Patriots' 30-yard line, losing three yards on the play. You know, against that same dominant run defense they couldn't trust the offensive line to pick up two feet against earlier. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron might have been trying to make Cundiff's game-tying field goal attempt a little easier, but the difference between a 47-yarder and a 45-yarder is just about negligible, and the difference between a 47-yarder and a 50-yarder can be enormous. Again, this was a play-calling decision that might have been affected by last week, when Flacco took an eight-yard sack on third down to knock the Ravens out of field goal range.2 The logical move would be to throw the ball and instruct Flacco to avoid taking a sack at all costs, but Cameron might not have trusted Flacco to avoid being sacked. The loss moved the ball out of field goal range, at which point the Ravens were forced to go for it and fail on fourth-and-6 from the 33-yard line. They also used a timeout between third down and fourth down, which is inexcusable; Cameron should have had a play ready immediately upon deciding to call the draw, knowing that it might not work.
Ironically, the Ravens would be properly aggressive on their final drive, but it wouldn't work out for them. After a long pass to Anquan Boldin gave the Ravens the ball on the 23-yard line, some teams might have ground the offense to a halt and tried to run out the clock before attempting a 40-yard field goal. Baltimore, with a three-point deficit and 58 seconds left to go, rightly went for the jugular. They picked up nine on another pass to Boldin before going to Evans in the end zone on the now-infamous drop. Flacco made a terrible decision while scrambling on third-and-1 and nearly threw the game away, but Moore merely broke up the pass as opposed to intercepting it, setting up Cundiff to be the goat when he missed on the 32-yarder. John Harbaugh has been criticized for not using his final timeout while Cundiff was rushing on the field to kick, but the real problem was using the team's first timeout between third and fourth down on the previous drive. If the Ravens had that extra timeout to work with, they could have run the ball on third-and-1,3 likely picked up a first down, and then taken three more shots at the end zone with 22 seconds left before turning the game over to Cundiff.
The Patriots were also surprisingly conservative with their decisions on offense, considering how effective they were at moving the ball against the Ravens, with just three three-and-outs all day. Was there a Ravens fan on earth who felt anything but joyous relief when the Patriots chose to kneel on the ball at the end of the first half, with 58 seconds and two timeouts to work with? When the Patriots kicked on fourth-and-2 from the 6-yard line on their next drive? They chose to run one of the many Tom Brady sneaks in their arsenal on fourth-and-inches from the 1-yard line after a previous Brady sneak failed on second down, producing an easy score that ended up serving as the margin of victory.
When Flacco threw an interception that gave the Patriots the ball at midfield, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien went for it all and had Brady throw a bomb to a double-covered Matthew Slater that resulted in a tipped interception. It's another play that likely would have been subject to plenty of after-the-fact justification. Since the pass didn't work, Brady was stupid to throw a bomb to his fifth wideout who hadn't caught a pass since September, and the Patriots were stupid to go for the knockout blow when they had a slight lead and could try to run out a huge chunk of the clock with 7:22 left. If it had succeeded, Brady's a genius who trusts his receivers enough to throw to any of them in any situation at any time, which makes him impossible to defend, and O'Brien (and, by proxy, Belichick) would have been a vicious coach who always wants to deliver the knockout blow. The reality is somewhere in between. The idea was fine, but the throw probably wasn't there. If it's tipped to the ground and falls incomplete, nobody remembers it, but because it stayed in the air just long enough to be intercepted, it became a value judgment on this Patriots team.
Slater's cameo was one of the many plays during the game where the weak points of New England's clearly stretched roster were exposed. Slater has been a fine special teamer as a fifth-round pick, but he failed to catch even a single pass at UCLA; his one reception against the Dolphins in Week 1 was his first reception in a game that counted since high school. Moore, an undrafted free agent who was signed off the Raiders' practice squad and started immediately at safety before being released (and eventually signed again), allowed a touchdown pass to Smith and nearly allowed a second to Evans at the end of the game before heroically knocking the pass out of the veteran's hands. Moore didn't even know what the play call was on his now-famous defensed pass. Wide receiver Julian Edelman, who took 27 snaps at cornerback while playing mostly bump-and-run coverage against star Ravens wideout Anquan Boldin, got lost and appeared to take the wrong man on the third-and-1 pass to Boldin that went for 29 yards and set up the game-tying field goal attempt. Danny Woodhead fumbled away a kickoff. The guys who are supposed to be in these roles, the early-round draft picks with the talent to play at a consistently high level who were supposed to be the core of this team, are either inactive, injured, or in a different organization. Darius Butler, 2009 second-rounder, was one of the league's worst players as a Patriots cornerback last year and was cut in September. New England chose him one round before Lardarius Webb, who was drafted by the Ravens and has developed into a fine starter. The Patriots did not win because of the work done by guys like Moore and Edelman, even if their everyman approach is celebrated during these next two weeks. They won in spite of them, because of the brilliance of players like Wilfork and Rob Gronkowski, because the Ravens made a number of critical mistakes and chickened out at the wrong times.
As for Flacco, the plaudits his performance has received are generous. He was playing the league's fourth-worst pass defense and a unit that lost starting corner Kyle Arrington to an eye injury for half the game. The Patriots clearly built their game plan around stopping Ray Rice — who averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and had a single catch for 11 yards — while forcing Flacco to beat them and assuming that he would make mistakes frequently enough to justify the scheme. He missed on two possible touchdowns to Smith, coming up with the 42-yarder on the first and overthrowing him on the second. He kept the chains moving against a defense that allowed more first downs than anybody else in football this year. It was an average-at-best performance masked by opponent effects.
After another traumatic playoff loss, the Ravens will undoubtedly make changes. For the second year in a row, their postseason defeat saw the veteran wide receiver they acquired during the preseason drop a key pass at the end of the game. Evans' drop was more meaningful than T.J. Houshmandzadeh's last year, but both of those receivers were brought in to contribute as a third option and offered little. Baltimore needs to inject more youth into the lineup at wideout behind Boldin and Smith, and after he's gotten dominated in the interior of the line in consecutive playoff games, it's probably time to move on from veteran center Matt Birk, too. After getting years of bargain-basement production out of Rice, the unrestricted free agent will likely receive the franchise tag, and with a year left on his rookie deal, it's about time to decide whether Flacco is truly the answer at quarterback. Baltimore remains one of the league's most talented organizations when it comes to drafting and developing talent, but with aging stars on defense and question marks going forward on offense, it's entirely possible that the Ravens might have fielded a better team on Sunday than they will at any point during the next three years. When Cundiff's kick sailed wide of the uprights yesterday afternoon, it might have sealed Baltimore's window of opportunity shut.
They Took On Eli
To some extent, it's "fairer" to scapegoat Kyle Williams for the 49ers' loss to the Giants in overtime on Sunday. New York's chances of winning leaped from just 22 percent to 46 percent after Williams' muffed punt handed them the ball, and hopped from 52 percent to 85 percent when Williams fumbled the ball away a second time in overtime. Those are pretty enormous swings, and while Williams did contribute a 40-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter that set up the game-tying Niners field goal, he caught just one of the five passes thrown to him. If he didn't cost San Francisco the game on his own, he was a huge part of the equation.
Consider the disastrous game from Williams from the perspective of the San Francisco organizational philosophy, though, as opposed to the mistakes of an individual player. The Niners have built their 2011 team around elite special teams, fantastic defense, and winning the turnover battle. There was a fourth factor that went relatively unreported: staying healthy. Injuries eroded the Niners' ability to dominate in those facets of the game on Sunday, and while they didn't force Williams to fumble the game away, they created personnel issues the Niners could not overcome.
Williams is not San Francisco's regular return man. If the San Francisco wideouts had stayed as healthy as the rest of the team, Williams might not even have been active on Sunday. A healthy scratch in Week 1, Williams has seen virtually everyone in front of him disappear. Braylon Edwards was injured before being released. Josh Morgan fractured his ankle in October and went on injured reserve. Ted Ginn went from fourth wideout and primary return man to key starter alongside Michael Crabtree, but Ginn suffered a knee injury last week that kept him out of the conference championship. That pushed Williams into the starting lineup at wideout and made him the team's lead returner, with catastrophic results.
The second-year wide receiver also wasn't the only player to struggle as an injury replacement for the Niners on Sunday. Starting cornerback Tarell Brown was forced out of the game after colliding with a teammate at the end of the third quarter. He was replaced by Tramaine Brock, the team's fourth cornerback, who has never started an NFL game. Two drives later, Brock was beaten by Mario Manningham on third-and-15 for a 17-yard touchdown catch, giving the Giants a three-point lead. The 30-yard pass to Ahmad Bradshaw that nearly set up the game-winning field goal at the end of regulation? That also went to Brock's side of the field, which he abandoned once it looked like Bradshaw had stopped running. Every team has to go through some level of dealing with injuries, and their performance suffers as a result, but this season's Niners have had to deal with that far less than most teams in football. The Niners had to pay the piper at precisely the wrong time, and they weren't able to hide their weak spots for very long.
Outside of Brock, the pass defense mostly showed up. Victor Cruz had a monster first half, with eight catches for 125 yards, but the Niners adjusted at halftime and held him to just two catches for 19 yards during the second half and overtime. Manning wasn't able to find anyone else for consistent yardage, and he went 16-of-31 for 135 yards after halftime while the San Francisco pass rush took over. Across Manning's 64 dropbacks, the Niners sacked Eli six times and knocked him down on 12 occasions. That included a crucial sack on third-and-3 from the 49ers' 44-yard line in overtime that turned a potential game-winning drive into a punting situation until Williams fumbled the punt away. The Giants scored a total of 20 points on 17 possessions; the Niners basically turned them into the Jaguars offense.
That stat gets even more impressive when you consider how closely linked field position was to points in this game. We always talk about field position mattering, and it does, but it's hard to think of a clearer example than this game. The Giants scored ten points after the two Williams fumbles, each of which gave them the ball inside the Niners' 30-yard line. The Giants had four drives start between their own 31- and 36-yard lines and scored 10 points on those. Each of their other 11 drives started at or inside the New York 30-yard line, and those 11 drives produced zero points.
The Niners weren't immune to the impact of field position on offense, either. They started two drives past their own 35-yard line and scored a total of 10 points on them. Their other touchdown came on a 73-yard bomb to Vernon Davis. Otherwise, San Francisco spent the day punting. They had six three-and-outs on offense, and produced a miserable 1-of-13 performance on third down, with the lone conversion coming on a checkdown during the meaningless final play of the fourth quarter.
After the two late drives against the Saints served as his redemption song and national coming-out party, Alex Smith really didn't have a very effective performance in the NFC title game. He hooked up with Davis when the tight end got open downfield for two long scores, but he was frequently inaccurate and bounced far too many passes into the turf. Smith started the game 3-for-10, with the Davis pass sandwiched between two checkdowns to Frank Gore, and he finished an incredible 1-for-9 for three yards on throws to his wide receivers. Michael Crabtree was effectively bottled up by Corey Webster, and outside of a missed bomb to a somewhat-open Williams, the wide receivers didn't do Smith any favors.
In reality, the narrative surrounding Smith and his passing having turned the corner with the Saints win was inflated by the drama behind it (and Smith's incredible sweep for a touchdown). The Niners went up 17-0 early in that game with a nice touchdown pass to Davis and a couple of Saints turnovers. The offense basically stalled from that point on until late in the fourth quarter, when Smith led two long drives against the league's sixth-worst pass defense (per DVOA) to win the game. It was wildly entertaining and Smith made some great throws, but it wasn't even up to the standards of what Tim Tebow did against a far better defense in the wild-card round, let alone some marker that Smith had taken a big leap forward. Against a good pass defense on Sunday, Smith didn't get the job done. His defense gave him three realistic drives late in the game with a shot at winning the NFC, and if we ignore the fourth drive that started with 19 seconds left and served to pad his stats, Smith went 1-for-6 for 11 yards with a sack and a dangerously forced checkdown.
And while the Niners had been able to count on picking up turnovers when they needed them, they were the ones giving the ball away at crucial times on Sunday. Williams' second fumble and the ensuing recovery by the Giants meant that the Niners lost the turnover battle for just the third time this season. After losing the only turnover of the game in their loss to the Ravens on Thanksgiving night, the Niners went five consecutive games without a turnover and then had just one against the Saints in the divisional round, accruing an incredible 17 takeaways in the process. No team on the planet can sustain that sort of turnover ratio, and when the Niners failed to do so, it cost them their shot at the Super Bowl.
Much like the Ravens, it's hard to imagine that the Niners are likely to launch a trip to the conference championship game again next year. That remarkable run of health that kept the vast majority of their stars in the lineup for their meaningful games this year is unlikely to recur. They got career years out of veterans like Carlos Rogers and Justin Smith and played a friendly schedule in a division that should be better in 2012. The Niners aren't likely to collapse and fall below .500 next year, but consider that there have been eight teams since 1983 who have improved their win-loss record by seven games from one season to the next, as the 6-10 Niners did by going 13-3 this season. Not one of those eight teams was able to maintain that new record in the subsequent season, losing an average of 4.8 more games than they had after their stunning rise up the charts. Perhaps the Niners will buck the trend, but it seems unlikely that the Niners will host two home games again during the 2012 playoffs.
Then again, it seemed unlikely in December that the 7-7 Giants would even make the playoffs, let alone make it all the way to a Super Bowl rematch with the Patriots. They basically played something resembling a draw with the Niners on Sunday, winning on the slightest bounce of a fumbled ball. That doesn't mean that the Giants were lucky to win; it means that these two teams were so close that it was probably going to take a lucky bounce for one team or the other to get the victory. They might still be playing right now if it weren't for one. Williams will get painted with the scarlet "C" for choker until he does something memorable enough to replace it, but the Giants deserve a lot of credit for hanging with one of the league's best home teams long enough to take advantage of a mistake, and then capitalizing on that mistake to win. They beat the Patriots during the regular season and have been the better team of the two, by far, during the postseason. Now they've just got to keep that up for one more game.