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Week 16 Observations
By Matt Horkman

Thomas DavisMany attribute the dominate play of linebacker Luke Kuechly as the most significant reason for Carolina’s defensive rise. However, fellow linebacker Thomas Davis is also playing well in Ron Rivera’s defense. His impact was noticeable in Carolina’s victory over New Orleans. In the first quarter, Davis made three outstanding stops. On back-to-back screen passes, Davis did an excellent job of reading the plays and immediately pouncing on the running backs. Later in the quarter, New Orleans isolated him one-on-one with fullback Jed Collins, but Davis stopped Collins in his tracks for a two-yard loss. He also made a crucial second-quarter interception that setup Carolina's first touchdown. Overall, Davis ended the game with 14 tackles and 1 interception. Not to be outdone, Kuechly ended the game with an amazing 24 tackles and 1 interception.

Given his underwhelming career, it’s easy to forget New Orleans running back Mark Ingram won the Heisman in 2009. He displayed a bit of that Heisman-winning talent on a key 34-yard run against Carolina. Ingram showed vision and patience on the play. With nowhere to run in the middle of Carolina’s defense, Ingram had enough awareness to bounce outside, and enough patience to allow Collins to get out in front and deliver a key block.

Thanks to guard Travelle Wharton, DeAngelo Williams went practically untouched on his touchdown run. Wharton did a nice job of blocking New Orleans linebacker David Hawthorne, opening up a huge hole for Williams to exploit.

Carolina’s pressure was the difference in the game. In the first half alone, the Panthers sacked quarterback Drew Brees five times. They did it with a variety of showings, including blitzing defensive backs, who accounted for 2.5 sacks.

On New Orleans fourth-quarter touchdown drive, tight end Jimmy Graham had three catches for 62 yards and a touchdown. Prior to that drive, he had just two catches for 10 yards.

Awful clock management nearly cost Carolina an opportunity at winning this game. Rivera should not have called a timeout with 4:03 remaining in the game. What sounds better: 4:03 and two timeouts or 3:23 and three timeouts? There’s not much of a difference, especially with the two-minute warning in play. Speaking of which, the Panthers did an awful job of managing the game around the two-minute warning. On the ensuing drive, they took too long to punt on fourth down, resulting in the play ending with less than two minutes remaining. This prevented the Saints from running at least one play prior to the two-minute warning. If the Panthers are going to make a Super Bowl run, their coaches will need to better prepare the players (and themselves) for crucial situations, as you can’t expect Cam Newton to bail you out every time.

The key play that setup Dallas’ game-winning touchdown may have happened because of simple luck. Before Tony Romo found DeMarco Murray for the game-winning touchdown, he connected with wide receiver Terrance Williams on a 51-yard throw. Williams was open on the play, in large part because Washington cornerback Josh Wilson lost his footing and slipped. Had Wilson not fallen down, Williams may not get open. 

Maybe you could talk me into a holding or illegal contact penalty against Baltimore cornerback Jimmy Smith on New England’s second possession, but Smith did not commit pass interference on wide receiver Julian Edelman. The officials called interference in the end zone, however, resulting in first-and-goal from the one for the Patriots. It setup New England with their first score and they never looked back.

A bizarre sequence of events led to Green Bay taking a 21-17 lead in the third quarter. It all started when the officials incorrectly called running back Le’Veon Bell down by contact on a carry from inside the Steelers’ own five-yard line. Replay showed that Bell fumbled the ball prior to going down to the ground. The Packers won this challenge, setting themselves up with first-and-goal. However, Pittsburgh prevented Green Bay from reaching the end zone, forcing the Packers to attempt a field goal. The kick was blocked, and in the aftermath, defensive lineman Ziggy Hood batted the ball out of bounds. Batting the ball is a penalty. This is where things get confusing. The officials ruled that possession never changed hands, so Hood’s foul automatically gave Green Bay a fresh set of downs. Possession did change hands, though. Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark made a clear recovery and flipped the ball backward in an attempt to keep the play alive. The officials failed to spot it, and for some reason, replay rules prevented Mike Tomlin from challenging the call. Therefore, Green Bay got the ball back and scored on the next play. This sequence of events brought back memories of the replacement officials from last season.

One of the more interesting aspects in Pittsburgh's victory over Green Bay was Mike McCarthy‘s play-calling. The pass-run ratio didn’t make sense. The conditions at Lambeau Field were snowy and windy, yet McCarthy called 11 more first-half passes than runs, despite the Packers leading throughout the half. It wasn’t as if running back Eddie Lacy wasn’t producing. He averaged over seven yards per carry in the first half. Most notably, though, Green Bay cost themselves dearly in the closing seconds. After tight end Andrew Quarless went down at Pittsburgh’s five-yard line, the Packers called a run to running back James Starks, even though they had no timeouts remaining. They rushed the next play and right tackle Don Barclay jumped before the snap. If a team has no timeouts left, a foul under one-minute remaining results in a 10-second runoff. According to the Packers, the officials prevented center Evan Dietrich-Smith from snapping the ball immediately, so that may explain why quarterback Matt Flynn lacked urgency in those final 10 seconds. Nevertheless, poor play calling and execution probably cost the Packers at least two plays in the final 20 seconds.

Philadelphia was so dominating in the first quarter that Chicago never had a chance. The Eagles ran 21 plays for 149 yards. They scored 21 points and had an impressive 10 first downs. The Bears, meanwhile, had just one first down on nine plays. They gained just 25 yards and were shutout.

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