The Scramble: Pivotal Points

| December 31, 2011

The arrival of the regular season’s final week stirs thoughts of how fast it’s all gone by and flashes of the twists the past four months have given us. With playoff scenarios mapped out and a majority of the slots filled, a step back to consider how we’ve got to this point provides some broad perspective, bringing into view key moments that have shaped the 2011 season.

A hot start ends, a dominant mid-season run takes form, a late fade rips away hope … all of these story lines can be boiled down to important moments that triggered change. This week’s Scramble assignment was to identify four of those points and with so many teams experiencing some sort of season-altering event, the list of choices was long. Whether a tailspin spurred by a crushing injury, an ascent sprouting from a fortunate play, or a subtle shift from a familiar path, rewinding the season to root out those fate-determining instances was an interesting exercise.

So as fans are marinating in thoughts of what could have been or riding high on waves of bounces that went their way, we look at four of this year’s critical turning points and invite you to complete the list–can you pinpoint the moment that defined your team’s season?

 

Injuries Signal Chicago Slide

By Steve Palazzolo

The timing could not have been worse. The Bears were putting the finishing touches on a 31-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers to win their fifth straight game, and at 7-3 were seemingly in control over their own destiny as they battled for an NFC Wild Card spot. Quarterback Jay Cutler was playing his best game in a Bears uniform as he hit on five of seven passes beyond 20 yards and graded at +6.9 for the day. It was the type of game Bears fans envisioned when the strong-armed Cutler was first paired with offensive coordinator Mike Martz in 2010. Martz loves to challenge the defense vertically and Cutler possesses the kind of arm strength coordinators dream about.

With Chicago in firm control of the game at the 10:03 mark in the fourth quarter, Cutler dropped back to throw a deep in route to wide receiver Johnny Knox. Cutler delivered the ball well before Knox’ cut, but the receiver slipped coming out of his break. The result was an easy interception for Chargers’ cornerback Antoine Cason who looked to turn the course of the game with a big return. Cutler hustled to cut down Cason on the sideline, but broke the thumb on his throwing hand on the attempted tackle. Although Cutler slowed Cason enough to save the game, the injury would prove to be the beginning of the end for the Bears’ season.

Cutler was replaced in the coming weeks by backup QB Caleb Hanie who experienced the usual ups and downs associated with a player seeing his first significant starting action. The downfield passing game was no longer, and Hanie turned the ball over at an alarming rate. While Cutler’s injury was certainly a major setback, there remained hope that they could contend behind a strong defense and an emerging MVP candidate in running back Matt Forte whose +17.8 season had him ranked second at the position.

The season-long narrative in Chicago was about Forte’s value to the Bears and his needing a new contract to reward his outstanding all-around play. He was playing so well that many felt he could mask Hanie’s inexperience by handling the workload on a weekly basis. Those hopes came crashing down on the Bears’ ninth play from scrimmage Week 13 against the Kansas City Chiefs. A simple run play turned disastrous as Forte suffered a sprained MCL on a low tackle by linebacker Derrick Johnson. The Bears mustered only three points in the game, and their offense has not been the same since.

The Bears have not recovered from Cutler’s injury and a once-promising 7-3 season now has them eliminated from the playoffs and fighting to finish 8-8. Though neither Cutler nor Forte has played since their respective injuries, both players were just placed on injured reserve on Tuesday. The symbolism proved a perfect synopsis of the Bears’ season as their two most important offensive players had their seasons officially end on the same day.

 

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Flacco Finds the Road Home 

By Gordon McGuinness

It’s 3rd-and-10 with 16 seconds remaining, Joe Flacco stands in the shotgun at the Pittsburgh 31-yard-line, trailing the Steelers 20-16. He’s already seen six passes dropped by his wide receivers, including four by rookie Torrey Smith.

This is exactly the type of game that has evaded the Ravens in the Harbaugh-Flacco era and the type of situation where it normally all goes wrong. But this was different, Flacco had already played the game of his life (+5.9 PFF grade for this game) completing 27 of his 42 passes despite those six drops. Dropping back, Flacco finds Smith in the end zone and, though being held back by William Gay, Smith makes the catch. For the second year in a row, Flacco had delivered a game-winning drive in Pittsburgh.

Fast forward to Week 17 and the Ravens find themselves with the opportunity to clinch the AFC North and a first round bye in the playoffs, but more importantly, they would play a playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium for the first time in Flacco’s career. For a team that has gone 8-0 at home this season, that’s huge and wouldn’t be possible right now if it hadn’t been for that late touchdown throw in Pittsburgh. Forget a turning point in the season, the Ravens needed to win that game to turn around their fate in the AFC North and their rivalry with the Steelers.

You can’t fault what they have done in the playoffs in each of John Harbaugh’s first three seasons as head coach, winning at least one playoff game every year and doing it all on the road. But it’s hard to win three straight road playoff games and this puts them in the position where they would need, at most, one road win this year to book a place in the Super Bowl.

The play also represented a huge moment between Flacco and Smith. It would have been easy for Flacco to go to Anquan Boldin, who had carried the team in the second half comeback at home to Arizona the week before. Yes, Boldin had two drops himself, but he’d also pulled in seven catches for 88 yards by that point. Instead, Flacco opted to go back to Smith, who had looked so bothered by his earlier drops that veterans Ed Reed and Ray Lewis had to try and talk him back up. Since that touchdown catch, he has dropped just two passes and has grown into his role.

Of course, this moment will be all for nothing if they can’t close out their perfect division record with a win over the Bengals on Sunday. If they don’t, they’ll likely find themselves back on the road in Denver or Oakland next weekend. However, for all the Ravens’ road woes this season, they can look back to that last drive in Pittsburgh to show that they can overcome even the most difficult of circumstances when away from home. If Flacco doesn’t make that throw, we’re not talking about the Ravens as the team expected to wrap up the North this weekend. Instead we’d be questioning their chances with the daunting prospect of three road games in the playoffs.

 

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Opportunistic Start to a Streak

By Chris Benson

With a 2-5 record heading into their Week 9 rematch with the Oakland Raiders, the Denver Broncos and their Tebowmania craze that has captivated the national media almost didn’t materialize. Denver couldn’t do anything right in a 45-10 drubbing at home against Detroit the week before, so when Oakland jumped out to a 17-7 halftime lead, it didn’t seem likely that Denver would regroup and complete a comeback effort on the road.

John Fox wasn’t even willing to commit to giving Tim Tebow another start after the Oakland game, but with his back against the wall, Tebow led a touchdown drive to open the second half. The true turning point for the Broncos’ season didn’t begin with that touchdown, however, but rather with the second-to-last play of the third quarter.

Up 24-17 with 0:14 remaining in the third, the Raiders were in the midst of another nice drive after answering Denver’s first score of the half with a touchdown of their own. Needing 11 yards on third down, Denarius Moore proved too fast for weak side linebacker D.J. Williams as he broke over the middle, but Carson Palmer’s overthrown pass was too high even for the leaping Moore’s outstretched hand. The deflection instead sought the arms of undrafted rookie cornerback Chris Harris, who’s contributions this season I discussed in the inaugural Scramble article.

Instead of picking up a demoralizing first down in field goal range, the Raiders gave the ball back to the Broncos, who promptly scored on the ensuing snap with Willis McGahee’s 60-yard touchdown run. The momentum had clearly shifted and, from that point on, the Denver defense stiffened–11 of the Raiders’ final 19 plays (the entire fourth quarter) generated 3 yards or less. The Broncos then went on to win their next five games, mostly through similar defensive displays.

It’s amazing to consider just how differently this season could have played out if Palmer (+2.7 passing that day) hadn’t misfired on that one attempt. The Broncos’ offense came alive in the second half, but the Raiders answered and if Palmer hits that throw, perhaps the Raiders score again and the sudden resurgence of the Denver defense never occurs. Even the field goal they could have had (it would’ve been an attempt of less than 40 yards) may have been cushion enough to preserve the win.

If Oakland had held on to that lead, they’d already have the division locked up this week as the Broncos’ 0-2 head-to-head record would have eliminated them in the tie-breaker. Some may point to the Miami comeback as the Broncos’ defining moment this season, but without the Harris interception, Denver may never have kick-started the six-game winning streak that has put them in position to potentially win the West. The pick wasn’t a spectacularly impressive play by any means, but the defensive turnaround born from it has been.


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Transformed Texans 

By Rodney Hart Jr.

Coming off a 37-9 blowout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers–a win that gave the Houston Texans a two-game division lead–Gary Kubiak announced that quarterback Matt Schaub (+10.7) had suffered a foot injury. A few hours later, what had initially sounded innocent enough was revealed to be a season-ender. Just 27 offensive snaps later, the thing snapping was Matt Leinart’s collarbone, leaving the Texans to fend with their third-string quarterback right on the heels of clinching their franchise’s first playoff berth. In the blink of an eye, transformed from a scary, well-balanced team, to a team considered by many one of the easiest outs in the AFC playoffs.

The Texans turning point isn’t without irony, either. When I wrote the Texans’ season preview this summer, my biggest hesitancy in believing they’d be able to clinch a playoff berth was their ability to unseat the perennially dominant Manning-led Colts. That is until Manning’s injury was such a turning point for the Colts, that the team that played this season looked so good at being bad, you would’ve sworn they’d been bad for a really long time.

Yes, Tyler Yates (-2.6) won his first two-and-a-half games. The sixth-round rookie out of North Carolina ought to be commended for that. The offense has been productive and–unlike the case of the Manning-less Colts–recognizable. Like many others, I’m sure, I couldn’t have been happier for Yates when he threw a game-winning touchdown pass to clinch the Texans’ spot in the playoffs with his parents looking on from the stands. It’s a storybook tale, but unfortunately for him and for Houston, we’re in the real world and in the Texans’ two most recent defeats, it’s been obvious that they are a far less-scary team without Schaub leading their offensive efforts.

None of this is to say that I think the Texans will go without a fight. On the contrary, this is a Texans team that has been battling injuries not only to their quarterbacks, but also to keystones like Mario Williams and Andre Johnson. Put simply, if I were told that by week 16 T.J. Yates had more snaps then Williams and just a handful less than Johnson, I certainly wouldn’t have pegged them for 10 wins.

Adding a layer to all of this, there could be a case made–in the face of their injury challenges–for their rejuvenated defense being the absolute key to their fortunes. After a 2010 season where the Texans’ defense drew more laughs than the Tim Tebow Saturday Night Live skit, the offseason was spent focused on improving from the inside out. It’s worked. They’ve gone from PFF’s second-worst overall graded defense in 2010 to the third-best this season. It’s a remarkable change thanks to the new scheme brought in by Wade Phillips, better secondary performance thanks to additions like free agent Jonathan Joseph, and unexpectedly impressive play from guys like rookie J.J. Watt.

How they fare in the playoffs will show the final answer. If the they suffer an early exit, the Schaub turning point unavoidably will be the most obvious cause. If, on the other hand, they go on a march, their defensive 180º will have proven strong enough to overcome.

 

 
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  • ItsJustWerner

    A very disappointing finish to what could have been a promising Bears season following a run at the NFC champ.