Tuesday, January 11, 2005

NFL - Peyton and thems

I watched the Colts-Ravens game last night, which makes the second year in a row that the only non-Raiders-v-Broncos NFL game I’ve seen start to finish involved the Colts (last year’s comical comeback against Tampa Bay was the other – was that last year? Let’s not dwell).
Hell of a thing. There were two, maybe three, really amazing parts of the game, one of which was the obvious: You may have heard that Payton Manning was 2 Tds away from Dan Marino’s record of 48 in a season. Having thrown at least 2 Tds in something like 15 straight games, this seemed like the night he would at least tie it.
He did not, and the story of how the Ravens held was quite a thing.
So that was one thing.
The second thing was AJ Freeney, the Colts defensive end and the NFL’s sack leader, taking on Jonathan Ogden, the NFL’s premier current (maybe ever) left tackle. Or rather, it was watching Freeney abuse and embarrass Ogden as badly as you are ever likely to see a first-tier athlete get abused in his native element. I’m struggling for a comparable example – maybe Jordan abusing Ewing, or Ty Detmer’s run-in with Texas A&M.
And the third thing is: no WAY the Colts are a serious contender. No shot. I’ll get to that.
So Manning – first drive, he comes out firing, mixing pass and run (the Ravens, playing against the pass, let Edge James get loose for two 10+ runs on the drive) and goes 65 effortless yards down the field. Or at least most of those were effortless. His final two passes near the endzone go through the hands of defenders, and the Colts get the field goal.
And that about did it for Payton Manning’s easy night.
From that point on, the same thing happened on each play of the Colts’ ensuing possessions – Manning would bring the Colts out of the huddle and, as he famously does, call the line at the play. You could hear his voice check off over and over (keep that in mind). He’d point, move his players around, make hand signals, etc. His adjustments and constant check-offs were so prevalent he could easily have been accused of having no idea what the hell he was doing.
And as he would do so, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed (safety) would do the same, sliding in and out of position, barking orders to their guys, moving dudes around. On top of that, the Ravens probably didn’t take 2 snaps all night in the same defensive look. One play they’d have 3 guys down with everybody else floating, the next snap they’d bring 8 or 9 – and on at least one snap 10 – guys onto the line to show, and often bring, a blitz. Guys popped on and off the line like they were setting screens at the top of the key.
Again, if you didn’t know better, you might look at their alignments from snap to snap – the only consistency between them being general chaos – and think they had no idea what the hell they were doing.
And of course, in both cases, they did.
Manning never really solved it in the first half – after the 65 yard field-goal drive, he got 68 yards in the next 4 drives. They had some ridiculous punter stat, like he kicked more in that half than in any two previous games or something.
Edge James, fast as he is, wasn’t much of a challenge. The Ravens game plan seemed to be, sensibly, “We’ll stop Manning, Ray’ll handle Edge.” Hand-off to Edge middle, Ray Lewis with the stop. Hand-off Edge student body right, Lewis blows up the blocking. Screen pass to Edge – Lewis stayed home and makes the hit.
Which left Manning-v-Ravens for everything else.
I don’t think there’s anything dumber in all of sports entertainment than describing a football game as a ‘chess match’ (a Thiesman favorite) and I won’t. But since neither the Colts O or the Ravens D benefited at any point in that half from the other team simply screwing up (ie bad pass for a pick, corner falls down, etc), I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the outcome of every play was decided in the seconds before the ball was snapped. And it was pretty cool to watch.
Then, of course, Manning came out in the second half and found a rhythm, started hitting tight-ends on the exact knuckle to beat double coverage and never saw a third down until he hit Marvin Harrison on 3rd-and-1 with a 20+ yard TD pass. And on that play Harrison threw one of the absolute sickest out-and-in moves of all-time – yip, all-time – at corner Chris McAlister. Harrison cut towards the outside and the instant McAlister turned his hips outside to run with him, Harrison cut back in. With one step Harrison had 5-yards of seperation but way more important he had McAlister literally running the wrong way. He was open by, conservatively, 15 yards when he caught the TD – which was, needless to say, delivered by Manning about 1.5 inches off his cheek.
That made it 13-3, and the Ravens clearly weren’t going to overcome that.
It’s worth nothing, though, that Jamal Lewis, chronic chronic user, put up a terrific effort. At one point, the Rs faced a 3rd-and-15. Kyle Boller (Kyle Boller?) threw over the middle, tipped at the line, ball tumbles toward turf, Lewis running underneath scoops it up for a silly 5-yard, lucky completion surrounded by Colts – and promptly turns upfield and bull-runs for the next 10 and the unlikeliest first down of the game. Unbelievable play. And I’m pretty sure the only reason he was able to get that far was because AJ Freely was too busy hitting Boller. Again. After beating Ogden. Again.
I think Ogden – who even ON AN NFL TELECAST – looks inhumanly huge is playing hurt. They said something about bad ankle or something. But seriously – I don’t think he stopped Freely even once. Not once. It got to the point where it wasn’t even fun to watch – you knew Freely was about to embaress the guy again and then, wham, he would. Ogden wouldn’t even stand in the huddle by the end of the game cuz he was so pissed at himself. In one sequence, Freely (rushing from the right end everytime) slammed into Ogden then spun inside on him, using Ogden as his own personal pick and roll to slam Boller. Next play Freely ran right past him outside for the sack. Next play Freely went outside him again so nakedly that Ogden literally left his feet to leap and tackle – aka hold – Freely as he blew by.
Clinic.
They’d do those ABC-perfected super-slo-mo replays, the kind where you can see Emmit Smith’s quad muscles slowly jiggle as he plants his feet for a juke, and even at that speed – I swear – Freely would be out of his stance and into his rush in a single frame. Nobody else on either side of the ball would so much as lift their hand off the turf and he’d be a step and half into the backfield. As the booth team said, “how is he not off-sides?’ To be honest, Ogden never had a prayer.
So I’ll just say it. Considering that everybody on that field is, by definition, among the top-point-zero-one-percent of the world’s fastest people, NOBODY is that fast. Or rather, nobody is that much FASTER. Not naturally at least.
For what it’s worth.
Also, in the fourth, up 20-10, Payton had the Colts rolling downfield, the ravens finally deflated and faced a 4th-and-1. They go for it and get it. 4 plays later, 4th-and-5.
Tony Dungy elects to kick the fieldgoal. Easy, easy call, right.
Manning comes off the field visibly livid. He wanted to go for it again. Interesting moment and begs a question – was Manning simply in his groove, believing he had the D on the run? Or was he gunning for a shot at the record? The mood of the moment (and common sense) says Manning was just being competitive. Fine. But he was PISSED coming off (particularly when ol’ boy missed the FG – ha ha).
But that set up the final minute with the Ravens driving with the possible-but-doubtful thought of overcoming a 20-10 score (Payton wisely let Edge run in another in the 4th). Boller threw a brutal interception which the Colt guy returned 70+ yards for an evident TD and, clearly, the ballgame.
Only they said the guy, all alone, stepped out of bounds inside his own 10 (think about that). Fine.
So Payton retakes the field for the last 50-odd seconds, 10 yards from the endzone. Kneel down, kneel down, ballgame.
Duh.
Only, as Payton took those knees, the Indy fans BOOED. They wanted Payton to take that final opportunity – handed to him on a RIDICULOUS fluke/botched int-runback – and go for the record with the game utterly decided (and in fact at the non-zero risk of giving the game back).
Unreal.
What was cool was the immediate smiles and comraderie that erupted between the R’s D and the Colts O – they had fiercly battled for the last few hours and you could tell they each had loved it. The Colts won the game, and scored a lot of points, but P didn’t get his record. Jump ball.

Which brings us to the final analysis. Baltimore clearly took Payton’s quest for 47 personally. And they held, and it wasn’t close. He never really got close to that second TD. In fact, the Ravens nearly picked him more times than he threatened to score. So the Payton machine, with focus and willpower, can be stopped.
And all that ‘chess match’ stuff was conducted in the near-silence of Payton’s homefield. It was eerie how quiet it was. That’s how you could hear the P’s voice and the D’s counters so clearly. The crowd let Payton set up in silence.
Which will NOT be possible on a hostile field, in hostile non-dome weather.
Plus, Freeney CAN’T be that fast on grass. It’s not possible. And nothing else about the Colts defense looks convincing. Jamal Lewis shredded them, just plundered his way downfield. And Kyle Boller (Kyle Boller?) got some decent yardage on them, had a TD dropped late and was driving to stay close late. Kyle Boller.

No way the Colts win big later. But it was a hell of a game.

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