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Washington Postage Stamp, November 16, 2008
Connecticut Beats Down
Capitols, 24-17

Jackson Sacked 9 Times On Way
to Season-Ending Loss

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by Cap Hiller
The only solace the Capitols can take from their 24‑17 playoff loss to the Connecticut Comets is that they were still in the game inside the two-minute mark. The Comets (8‑7) were superior to their hosts in all phases of the game and deservedly move on to the championship game against the winner of today’s Delaware-New York game at Delaware. For the Capitols (10‑5) the season ends with a semi-final playoff game loss at home for the second straight year.

The Comets had their way with the Capitols. Their offense moved with precision, and they played smash-mouth defense.

  • Tom Brady was 25-for-40 for 345 yards, and his two starting wide receivers, Jerricho Cotchery and Antwaan Randle El, each had more than 100 receiving yards.
  • Led by Justin Tuck and his 4 sacks, the Connecticut defense laid some nasty nines on Tarvaris Jackson. They sacked him 9 times and held him to a paltry 9 completions for 99 yards.

The team yardage totals are a better indicator than the final score of Connecticut’s dominance — the Comets outgained the Capitols 393-165. Capitols wide receivers had a mere 2 — count ’em, 2 — receiving yards.

Yet, after Jackson scrambled for a 4-yard score and Jared Allen recovered David Akers’ beautiful onside kick, the Capitols found themselves with the ball on their own 47 with 2:12 to go and within a touchdown of tying the score.

But Connecticut quickly put an end to any thoughts the home fans were having that the Comets would let victory slip from their grasp. They stopped Adrian Peterson for no gain on first down. On second down Jevon Kearse sacked Jackson for a 9-yard loss. Then on 3rd and 24, following an offsides penalty against Washington, James Harrison barreled in on Jackson, wrapped him up, stripped the ball, and recovered it himself at the Capitols 25. Ball game!

The Capitols hung with Connecticut for a quarter. Jackson threw an interception to Quintin Mikell to end the first Capitols possession. Brady then hit Cotchery with a bomb for a 50-yard gain, with Nick Collins saving a touchdown by dragging down Cotchery at the Capitols 1. Inspired by Collins’ hustle, the Capitols’ defense made a marvelous goal line stand to force a 19-yard Nate Kaeding field goal. On first down they dumped Willis McGahee for a yard loss, and then stopped McGahee and Jackie Battle for no gain.

The teams traded punts and then Jackson drove the Capitols 72 yards in 6 plays, tying the score at 3 on a 30-yard field goal by Akers. The drive started with a 54-yard dash through the middle of the Comets’ defense by Adrian Peterson. The rookie would eventually gain 104 yards on 15 carries.

The Comets asserted themselves defensively in the second quarter, forcing three straight three-and-outs and keeping the Capitols pinned in their own end of the field. Meanwhile, Brady shifted Connecticut’s aerial attack into high gear, driving the Comets to a touchdown and a second Kaeding field goal to build a 13‑3 lead. By halftime Brady had completed 15 of 23 passes for 234 yards. Jackson, on the other hand, was 5-for-15 at that point for only 30 yards.

Connecticut’s second quarter touchdown came on a bizarre 3rd and 16 draw play from the Washington 20. McGahee took the handoff from Brady, burst into the clear, and made it down to the 3 where he was hit by Rosevelt Colvin and fumbled. The ball squirted sideways about 10 yards and then freakishly bounced back toward McGahee. He took it on the bounce at the 3, manuevered around Ty Law and Bryan Thomas, and dove into the end zone. About then it was starting to look like it might not be the Capitols’ night.

Connecticut missed a chance to add to its lead as the first half ended. Facing 3rd and 9 at the Capitols 19 with 0:22 left in the half and no timeouts available, the Connecticut coaching staff sent Kaeding on to the field for a field goal attempt before Brady could spike the ball to stop the clock. The coaches called for Kaeding to come back, causing Brady to think, he said after the game, that the coaches had changed their mind and wanted to go for a touchdown. The Capitols were in position to defend against the play Brady thought the coaches wanted. He tried to audible but his teammates were confused and the result was a broken play with McGahee gaining nothing as the clock hit zero.

Had the Comets been able to get three more points then and taken a 13-point lead into the locker room at halftime, the Capitols might have gone away quietly. As it was they did exactly what they needed to do to start the second half, taking the opening kickoff and driving 59 yards on 8 plays for a touchdown to cut the deficit to 13‑10.

Early in the drive Gibril Wilson put his helmet on Jackson’s helmet, negating a sack and turning what would have been a 3rd and 23 uphill climb into a first down. Jackson then hit Cooley for 34 yards, the longest Washington gain of the day, and then again for 15 yards to set up the Capitols with a 1st and goal at the Comets 6. Then with the Comets threatening to make what would have been a momentum-stifling goal line stand of their own, Laurence Maroney dove through the outstretched arms of London Fletcher-Baker on 4th down from the 1 for the score.

Connecticut responded by driving for another field goal by Kaeding, his third of the night, to make it 16‑10. Quarterbacks became dead meat for the remainder of the third quarter and into the first minute of the fourth as Tuck and Allen put on quite a show. Two consecutive Tuck sacks pinned the Capitols at their own 11 with 14:12 to go, forcing a Chris Kluwe punt.

Taking over at midfield, Brady and the Comets finally put some distance between themselves and the Capitols. On 3rd and 5 at the Washington 19, Michael Straham almost sacked Brady, but Brady wriggled from his grasp and found Randle El in the left flat for 9 yards and a first down. Two plays later Brady connected with Cotchery for an 8-yard touchdown. Brady then found L.J. Smith with a two-point conversion pass giving Connecticut a 24‑10 lead with 10:18 left.

The hole proved too deep for the Capitols to dig their way out. Roscoe Parrish had a 21-yard punt return to set them up at the Comets 40 with 4:54 remaining. The subsequent drive yielded Jackson’s touchdown run, but 24‑17 was as close as the Caps would get. On that drive Jackson was picked off by Tye Hill but the turnover was negated by an offsides penalty.

Allen had 5 sacks in addition to the onside kick recovery. He was one of the very few Capitols who appeared to be on their game.

The Comets exposed what was, in retrospect, a Washington team with significant weaknesses. Their 10 regular season wins were accomplished with smoke and mirrors, not a little moxie, and a healthy dose of MVP candidate Darren Sproles (who last night, by the way, was not a factor). Going forward coach Clint Hillary should consider the notion that Jackson is not the right answer at quarterback.

 

Wilmington Snooze-Terminal, November 17, 2008
Tomlinson, Cherries KO
New York, 35-17

Rodgers Comes On to Spur
Advance to Title Game

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Rip Snorter

Sideline Euphoria Turns to Calm
Determination in Locker Room

You couldn’t blame the Cherries players.

You couldn’t blame them, that is, for celebrating with gusto on the sidelines during the final minutes of their 35‑17 semi-final trouncing of the New York Empires. Previously they hadn’t had an opportunity to celebrate any of their not insignificant accomplishments given the circumstances:

  • On the 1st of this month the Cherries were being blown out by the Lakers when they learned they had backed into a playoff berth. It’s a “violation” to celebrate a loss, especially a blowout.
  • They weren’t even on the field the next morning when Hershey crushed the Emps to hand the Central to Delaware — the players were watching on TV.
  • On the final night of the regular season when the Cherries were closing out a win in New York and clinching the #1 seed, it would have been another “violation” to celebrate in front of the Emps players, who didn’t know yet whether they had made the playoffs and furthermore were the most likely Cherries’ playoff opponent. The risk of potential blowback, in the form of angering New York, was too great.

Moreover, yesterday it would have been hard for the players to contain the sheer joy of knowing they were about to clear the semi-final hurdle after experiencing disappointing playoff losses at home the last two seasons.

Still, though, the Cherries players’ sideline celebration seemed excessive. They bordered on euphoric. There was high-fiving, chest pounding, and hip bumping galore. There were fists pumped in the direction of the stands in response to celebratory cheers. Coach Jon Brams even got a Gatorade bath administered by Donte Whitner and David Barrett. Talk about your violations! In my opinion, the opportunity for unabashed celebration like that should be earned in a championship game setting, the setting the Cherries will be in when they host the Connecticut Comets 6 days from now.

Watching those hijinks made me concerned that the Cherries haven’t been keeping their eyes on the big prize.

So I was greatly relieved when I made my way to the Cherries’ locker room minutes later and found a much more sober group of players assembled. I could tell they recognized they are only halfway home and the tougher half is to come. I could sense in them a calm determination to prepare more rigorously for the Comets than they have for any game they’ve ever played and to come to the stadium ready to put forth maximum effort for the full 60 minutes. (I was also the target of barbs, ribbing, and angry stares for having predicted the Cherries would lose to the Emps. Gulp!)

I later confirmed my hunch that Brams had gathered his players together upon their arrival in the locker room, praised them for their play against New York, reminded them what will be at stake Sunday, and urged them to immediately focus on their ultimate goal.

While the Cherries didn’t play like champions against New York, they played very well. After Philip Rivers went to bench with a sore elbow in his left (non-throwing) arm, Aaron Rodgers came in and picked up right where he left off two weeks ago against the Lakers. He threw touchdown passes to Sidney Rice and Lee Evans to give the Cherries a 14‑3 lead early in the second quarter. A few minutes later Yamon Figures broke an 84-yard punt return to make it 21‑3, and for awhile it looked like the Cherries would coast.

Then they hit some bumps in the road. You could almost see it coming. Rodgers led a drive into the red zone, relying heavily on the running of LaDainian Tomlinson. The Cherries found themselves with a 4th and 3 at the New York 19 with 2:45 left in the half. Many of us expected Brams to go for it, the idea being that the Emps might wave the white flag if faced with a four-possession deficit. Brams said later he considered going for it and probably would have had they needed only 2 yards. Instead he sent out John Kasay to try a field goal. He said he didn’t want to get greedy and would have been happy to have a three touchdown lead.

Right then I got a gnawing feeling that Brams’ failure to go for the jugular might come back and bite Delaware. That bite came immediately: Kindal Moorehead broke through and blocked Kasay’s kick. Moorehead picked up the bouncing ball and ran it up to the New York 43. Five plays later Chad Pennington threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Tony Gonzalez, and the Emps, although still down by 11, seized some momentum going into the break.

After intermission, what Figurs had given, Figurs took away by fumbling the second half kickoff. Eric Barton of New York picked it up but had it knocked out of his arms. His teammate David Bowens picked it up but he too fumbled only to have Barton recover, putting the Emps in prime scoring position at the Cherries 11. On 3rd and goal at the 5, the Cherries failed to put double coverage on Gonzalez and the big tight end burned Whitner for a touchdown. The Emps were right back in it at 21‑17.

Rivers, having had a few more minutes to ice the elbow as a result of Figurs’ fumble, came back in and thankfully had the right prescription, a 9-play, 75-yard drive ending with a 6-yard touchdown run by Priest Holmes, of all people, behind a savage block by Chris Samuels. The key sequence started with the Cherries facing 3rd and 6 at the New York 31. Rivers, under heavy pressure from Brett Keisel, found his secondary receiver Heath Miller for a big 17-yard gain. Then Michael Turner ran inside the 10 but fumbled when Angelo Crowell hit him. Fortunately, Jordan Gross alertly fell on the ball for Delaware. Holmes scored on the next play for a 28‑17 Cherries lead with 8:20 left in the third quarter.

There was one more bump in the road to victory and again it was a special teams gaffe.

With 12:15 to go, Dante Hall decided at the last second that he would let Sav Rocca’s punt fall behind him and roll rather than making a fair catch. Right before the ball reached the turf, it clipped Hall’s heel, and Brad Hoover corralled it for the Emps at the Delaware 14. I slapped my forehead and thought, “Do [the Cherries] really want to win this?”.

This time, though, they dodged the bullet. On 3rd and 8 Terrell Suggs forced Pennington from the pocket and he threw across his body in the direction of Jason Dunn. Ray Lewis deflected the pass and Whitner intercepted it in the end zone as he landed on his behind. Rivers then drove the Cherries 80 yards. Tomlinson capped off the drive by blasting up the middle for a touchdown on 3rd and 5 from the New York 6. It had taken almost a quarter and a half but the Cherries had rebuilt their 18-point lead. The crowd was jubilant, and the aforementioned sideline celebration would soon start.

Collectively the Cherries might not have played like champions, but Tomlinson, the heart of the offense, and Lewis, the soul of the defense, sure did.

Tomlinson was a real workhorse. He carried 26 times for 196 yards and added 37 yards on a team-high 5 catches.

  • He set the tone on the first offensive series. Brams gambled on 4th and 2 at the Delaware 41 with the Emps up 3‑0. Rivers intended to pitch the ball back to Tomlinson, but he bobbled the snap. When he gained control, he shoveled the ball behind Tomlinson who had to reach back to gather it in. The delay in execution threw the New York defense off balance, enabling Tomlinson to find a soft spot and ramble 49 yards to the Empires 10. (Rivers fell on his elbow making that pitch and was sidelined until the second half.)
  • Even with the game well in hand, Tomlinson’s contributions were important: He ran 4 straight times for 2 first downs to nearly run the clock out.

After the game Tomlinson anticipated my question about redemption. “Yes, I remember what happened last year [against New York in the playoffs when he was held to 39 yards], and I was determined to make up for it. Now we have Connecticut to contend with and I’ll be ready.”

Lewis led the defense, which held the Emps to 274 yards, with 9 tackles. In addition to the deflection that enabled Whitner’s fourth quarter interception, Lewis made a couple of other big plays:

  • Early on his tackle of Gonzalez 4 yards short of the marker on 3rd and 11 forced New York to settle for a Rian Lindell field goal on its first possession. Had the Emps gotten 7 on that drive rather than 3, the whole complexion of the game would likely have changed.
  • Late in the third quarter with the Emps having 2nd and 5 at the 50, Lewis fought off a Gonzalez block allowing LaMarr Woodley to bring down Willie Parker and at the same time knocking Gonzalez out of the game with a hamstring pull. One play later New York had to punt. The Emps offense was hamstrung, if you will, by Gonzalez’ absence.

Lewis is psyched for the opportunity to play in the championship game. “The defense didn’t have a great year, but it’s money time now and we want that ring, baby!”