Playoff Observations: AFC Championship Game


Earlier today I posted what was good from the Arizona Cardinals 32-25 win over the Philadelphia Eagles to send the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl.  Now it’s the AFC’s turn.  The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens 23-14 in a hard-fought matchup pitting two of the NFL’s fiercest rivals opposite each other.

First off, Ravens fans can’t blame the referees for losing this game.  Yes, the referees missed two huge calls: the roughing the kicker call after Mitch Berger fell on his butt when Edgar Jones just happened to be lying on the ground next to him and Ryan Clark‘s helmet-to-helmet hit on Willis McGahee.  More on the second one later.  But a blind monkey could have made that first call.  The ridiculousness of that call is unspeakable.  So for once I will side with the Ravens fans.  But your team didn’t lose because the referees and the NFL are out to get you.  Take some solace and go cry in your Natty Boh over that one.

Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed are two of the top safeties in the NFL today, but Polamalu showed on Sunday why he should be considered the premier safety in the NFL.  Polamalu outplayed Reed, bad calf and all.  The Steelers schemed against Reed perfectly, and his name was only called by Jim Nantz a few times.  The Ravens schemed against Polamalu, but he still found ways to get himself involved in the play of the game, notably in the fourth quarter when he read Joe Flacco‘s eyes perfectly and stepped in for the pick, and made a very Reed-like return for the touchdown to seal the game for Pittsburgh.  After seeing Reed v. Polamalu in the AFC and Brian Dawkins v. Adrian Wilson in the NFC, we get Polamalu v. Wilson in the Super Bowl, which promises to be another great safety matchup.

I love the Pittsburgh wide receivers.  Starting with Hines Ward, and right down through Limas Sweed.  They play the game the way it is supposed to be played.  They can catch.  They can run.  And most of all, they can block.  The attitude comes straight from Ward who isn’t afraid to hit somebody.  I don’t call his play dirty at all.  He does his job for his teammates and plays until the whistle is blown.  When defensive players complain about the way he plays the game, it just sounds like they don’t want to get hit.  Those defensive players can dish the pain, they just can’t take it.  Sweed is a notable example.  After having a sure touchdown catch bounce off his fingertips, Sweed came back a few plays later and delivered an absolutely crushing block on Corey Ivy to help spring tight end Heath Miller for extra yardage.  My friend & I DVR’d that play at least five times.  It was a clean block and that’s what coaches want their wide receivers to be doing.  You can’t complain with the way they play.  Santonio Holmes is a speedster.  His early touchdown catch was an absolute thing of beauty.  He shows great instincts on the run after the catch and on punt returns.  He fits the mold of the Eagles’ DeSean Jackson, although he was better size than Jackson.  The Steelers wide receivers are probably one of the most underrated crews in the league.

My hat goes off to Joe Flacco.  At the beginning of the season, I did not think they would be able to get anywhere with him at quarterback.  Well I was wrong.  He showed maturity and poise beyond his years this whole season in dealing with a city still smarting from the Kyle Boller debacle.  Flacco said all the right things and did all the right things this whole season and showed that he is indeed a good guy.  I don’t chalk up his loss to the Steelers as a rookie choking on the big stage; I see it as a quarterback running into a tough defense that schemed against him perfectly.  Kerry Collins or Phillip Rivers would not have been that successful against the defense that Dick LeBeau put out there.  Flacco gives the Ravens security at quarterback they have never had before.  All they have to do is add a big play wide receiver and they’re good to go on offense for years to come with Flacco, Le’Ron McClain, Ray Rice, and the emerging Mark Clayton.

I mentioned Ryan Clark’s hit on Willis McGahee earlier and I come back to it here.  I have to say that was one of the scariest things I have ever seen on a football field.  I immediately froze after that hit.  It was great to see the response from the medical staff and the players on both sides.  McGahee is in my prayers and it was great to hear that he was talking and moving around late last night.  That being said, there definitely should have been a flag thrown on that play for a helmet-to-helmet collision.  The NFL said they were going crack down on helmet-to-helmet hits recently, but I have not seen that happen one bit.  With the way the players are playing now, it’s getting way too dangerous not to call those penalties.  Football is football.  Guys are going to get hurt.  Guys are going to lead with their helmets.  They won’t always be able to remember that they aren’t supposed to lead with their helmets.  But if it is in the rule book, it should be enforced.  The hit on McGahee was especially brutal, with the way his head snapped back after the impact.  It looked more like he got hit by a car than another player.

I was impressed by the way the Steelers played against a tough Ravens team Sunday night; but I’m still rooting for the Cardinals.