Doug Martin was going to run for a zillion yards against the Bears and become the league's leading rusher. The Patriots were going to beat the Jets and secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Steelers were going to make Ryan Mallett wish he had stayed in bed. The Panthers against the Falcons? A sure thing. A no-doubter. A lock. Nothing was going to stop the Panthers from becoming the second team in NFL history to start 15-0, and definitely not the team they crushed 38-0 two weeks prior.
It all made perfect sense. And none of it actually happened.
After Week 16, do you even know what to believe anymore? We live in a mad, mad world now, a world where the Bears can stop the run, where teams don't want the ball first in sort-of-sudden-death overtime, where Ryan Mallett is punctual, where the Panthers are 14 and — gasp! — one.
How can you even be sure that your mother means it when she tells you she loves you?
Worse yet, can you trust Peyton Manning when he denies using HGH?
So much uncertainty, but here we are. Week 17. Back for more. Me with a long-winded introduction and you graciously reading it, all of us trying once again to understand a sport that just might not be meant to be understood.
This week's narrative: Cam Newton and the Panthers, dispirited after their 20-13 loss to the Falcons, are seeking redemption/momentum/some other abstract concept that doesn't mean anything as soon as the ball is kicked off at 4:25 p.m. Sunday. And home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, too.
Is there any chance the 6-9 Buccaneers avenge their 37-23 Week 4 loss? If so, the defensive line will need to play a key role like the Falcons' line did last Sunday.
Atlanta recorded only two sacks but was able to pressure Newton on 44 percent (15 of 34) of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. The pressure hindered Carolina's passing attack, as Newton struggled to get the ball down the field. He averaged 4.73 yards per attempt — his fewest since 2013 — completed only three passes thrown 10 or more yards and failed to throw a touchdown pass for just the second time this season.
Struggling to make sense of the Falcons' sudden aptitude for rushing the quarterback, I reached out this week to former Buccaneers cornerback (1996-2001) and current IMG Academy defensive coordinator Donnie Abraham and asked for his thoughts on the game.
Here are our observations.
Situation: Panthers 7, Falcons 7, first-and-10 at the Atlanta 44-yard line, 11:34 remaining in the second quarter
The Panthers come to the line in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two receivers). The Falcons look as though they might rush five. If they do, the Panthers' running backs will stay in to block; if they don't, they'll begin running their routes.
The Falcons rush only four, as linebacker Paul Worrilow drops into coverage. Even so, they're able to pressure Newton when defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman overpowers guard Andrew Norwell and drives him upfield. With Hageman bearing down, Newton throws a pass deep down the right sideline to Ed Dickson that lands out of bounds. It's either a "hope" pass or an intentional throw out of bounds.
"He probably felt that he had time because it's not a blitz," Abraham says. "And he probably shouldn't have thrown this ball, but it goes back to they've been having success all year, they're undefeated, 'I'm the MVP of the league. I'm gonna make this throw. I'm gonna make a play.' "
Dickson isn't expecting the ball, Abraham says. Note how he is he looking back toward Newton and tight end Greg Olsen most of the way. Olsen is likely the primary target, and Dickson is running a clear-out route.
Unfortunately for Newton, Olsen is essentially triple-covered. If he is running a choice route (also known as an option route), the Falcons have a linebacker present if he runs to the inside, a linebacker present if he runs to the outside and a safety present over the top.
What else could Newton have done?
"Right now, because we're in the film room and can break it down and stop it, we can easily say he should have taken the check down (fullback Mike Tolbert in the flat)," Abraham says. "If he had time, he probably would have worked (to the left side of the field) or to the check down. But he doesn't have time because someone's in his face right now, so he has to throw it up, and it looks like that's what he did here."
Situation: Panthers 7, Falcons 7, second-and-10 at the Atlanta 44-yard line, 11:29 remaining in the second quarter
On the next play, the Falcons rush five. Their pressure pushes Newton out of the pocket, and he throws the ball away to avoid a sack.
Initially, the Falcons give the Panthers a two-deep safety look, but after the snap one safety drops down, giving Atlanta three total defenders underneath. They're in Cover 3, a zone coverage in which the high safety and outside cornerbacks are each responsible for deep passes into their third of the field.
The high safety shades toward the right side, where the Panthers have two receivers, Jerricho Cotchery and Philly/Corey/back-to-Philly-again Brown. The Falcons do this, in part, because they're not worried about the left side. They're trusting that Desmond Trufant, their top cornerback, will shut down Ted Ginn Jr.
Ginn, Cotchery and Brown all run vertical routes, while Olsen stays in to block before releasing into his route. But because of the pressure and sound three-deep/three-underneath zone coverage, Newton doesn't have time to wait for the routes to develop.
"This is pretty much a combination of vertical routes and not being able to hold up, offensive line-wise," Abraham says. "Atlanta's doing a good job with their matchup coverage and sending five. It just boils down to they can't hold up."
Philosophies and schemes fall in and out of favor, but no matter how the NFL evolves, one truth remains: Defenses slow offenses by disrupting the quarterback.
"We all know if you get pressure on the quarterback, it doesn't matter who you are," Abraham says. "You can see that from Aaron Rodgers this year. He's gotten a lot more pressure, and he's not as sharp as he usually has been."
Situation: Panthers 7, Falcons 7, second-and-1 at the Atlanta 21-yard line, 2:40 remaining in the second quarter
The way the Panthers are moving the ball on this drive — 64 yards on eight plays — a conversion on second-and-1 seems like a certainty.
Just as in the play above, the Falcons show five-man pressure. Because both corners are up near the line of scrimmage, it looks as though they're going to play man-to-man, Abraham says. Again, the high safety leans toward the right side of the field, away from Trufant.
Just before the snap, Robert Alford, the cornerback on the right side, begins to bail, a signal that the Falcons might not be playing man-to-man. After the snap, they back out of the five-man rush look as the linebacker who was on the line runs out to the right flat. It turns out that Atlanta is actually playing a three-deep/four-underneath zone.
Because they can assume that Trufant, the cornerback on the left side, will take Ginn out of the play, they gain favorable matchups elsewhere, Abraham says. Basically, they have a three-on-one advantage against Corey Brown on the right side and a three-on-one advantage against Olsen over the middle.
Newton has no obvious option and ends up holding on to the ball. The protection can hold up for only so long.
The rush eventually gets to Newton when linemen Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux execute a stunt. Biermann loops around the right side of the center, and as the center moves to block him, Babineaux loops around his left side. Instead of throwing the ball away, Newton tries to evade the rush but is unsuccessful and loses 16 yards. It's an especially costly sack because it drops the Panthers back to the fringe of field goal range.
The stunt wasn't called from the huddle, Abraham says. If the play call was a run, the five defenders that were on the line before the snap would have stayed in their rush lanes. It only turns into a stunt because it's a pass and because the Panthers knock Biermann wide and thwart Babineaux's initial push.
You can't stop Julio Jones, the NFL's leader in receptions and receiving yards, but Carolina cornerback Josh Norman came close when the Falcons and Panthers first played two weeks ago. When Matt Ryan targeted Jones in Norman's coverage, he completed four of six passes for 33 yards and a rating of 80.6, according to Pro Football Focus.
The second time around, Jones won the matchup. When Ryan targeted Jones in Norman's coverage Sunday, he completed five of six passes for 80 yards and a 118.8 rating. That's the most yards Norman has allowed this season while in pass coverage and the highest quarterback rating he has allowed.
Nineteen of those yards came on this second-quarter pass.
Situation: Panthers 7, Falcons 7, first-and-10 at the Atlanta 13-yard line, 11:08 remaining in the second quarter
Jones initially lines up on the outside right of the formation. Norman lines up across from him and is almost on top of the line of scrimmage.
When the Falcons send Jones in motion to the left side of the field, Norman tracks him. One key difference after the motion: Norman is longer in press coverage. After faking the handoff, Ryan hits Jones on a comeback route 19 yards downfield.
The Falcons do an excellent job of getting Jones in position to get a clean break off the snap, and Jones masterfully sells the go route. It's an extremely difficult route to defend, especially when arguably the best receiver on the planet is running it.
According to Abraham, two things could have helped Norman break up this pass, one of which is better alignment.
After the Falcons put Jones in motion, Norman plays in what Abraham calls "no-man's land." If the cornerback can't press or isn't going to press, he needs to play farther off — as many as 8 or 9 yards away from the receiver, he says.
"If Josh Norman starts at 8 or 9 (yards away), he has, what, 2 or 3 more yards of cushion to work with," Abraham says, "and he'll be able to see this comeback because Julio has to break this thing off because his quarterback has to throw the ball."
"Just imagine if he had 2 or 3 more yards here, he would be able to see the comeback, he would be able to pivot, turn and come back and break on the out."
Had Norman kept his eyes in the backfield, Ryan's body language would have offered a clue on the type of route that Jones was going to run.
"If he reads (Ryan's) back to him, as corners, DBs, we know that's play-action," Abraham says. "Nine times out of 10, deep comebacks are associated with play-action passes."
Here's the difference between a normal dropback and a play-action dropback:
"As a corner, you have to know that play-action means 15- to 18-yard deep routes," Abraham says. "Based on Julio's alignment, he's telling me the only thing he can run is a deep comeback."
Considering the Bucs' sometimes shaky pass protection, they'll want to move Mike Evans around in a similar way and also put him in alignments that limit Norman's opportunities to press.
It also might be wise to avoid Norman altogether. In Week 4, Winston threw into his coverage eight times, and the results truly couldn't have been much worse. Bucs receivers caught as many passes (two) as Norman. He ran one of those interceptions back for a touchdown and proceeded to ride the football as though it were Delta, his noble steed.
It's not hyperbole to say you could have done better. If you took eight snaps and threw each pass directly at a lineman's butt, you would end up with a better passer rating (39.6) than Winston had when he threw anywhere near Norman (3.6).
My record: 7-7
Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.