1,400 years ago in modern-day Peru an ancient people called the Wari lived long, prosperous lives amid the arid Pacific deserts and towering Andes peaks. They flourished by merrily establishing vast empires and subjugating their foes by demanding forced labor on Wari construction projects in order to not be slaughtered. They lived here for hundreds of years, spreading as far north as Ecuador and southward, deep into Bolivia and Chile. The Wari produced complex textiles and dazzling art, including vast amounts of intricate pottery (I know because I did archaeological excavation, cataloguing, and reconstruction of a billion smashed pots for three straight months in the Peruvian desert.)
The Wari also were arguably the first South Americans to invent beer.
This pottery shard also proves they invented Angry Birds.
The Wari chugged along for half a millennium, dominating everyone around them, giving no quarter to their foes, continually renowned (if hated) for their adeptness at statecraft. By most accounts they are South America's first empire: revolutionary, insurmountable, indefatigable, beast of the South. That is, until the Inca showed up around 1100 AD and changed the world forever. Known for Machu Picchu, brutal human sacrifices, and armies of insanely-disciplined, song-singing, axe-weilding maniac soldiers, the Inca carved up the Wari Empire with little effort, forever supplanting it as the dominant native force on the continent.
The Wari Empire sounds a wee bit like the New Orleans Saints. Dominant for a half a decade, they rode an extremely talented quarterback, opportunistic defense, and illegal, universally-condemned bounty program all the way to a Super Bowl win. Neighboring teams looked at them with hatred, plotting their downfall but never able to execute. But just as the Inca came, so too came the Carolina Panthers. Insanely disciplined and willing to brutally sacrifice opposing players, the Panthers have once again churned out the best defense in the league. They are merciless, they are berserk Inca warriors, and they'll produce the same on-field meat grinder for the Saints that they trotted out last week against the Cowboys.
In fact, let's take a look at a few plays from Thursday's mauling of Dallas. It was Carolina's reaction time on defense that contributed most to that win, and has helped establish dominance all season long. Here's Kurt Coleman's interception return for a touchdown with :59 off the clock. The Cowboys line up with a wide trips formation at the bottom of the screen. Both outside receivers are running fly routes, with Romo reading both safeties as playing in deep zones. At the line he sees both Davis and Keuchly dropping down, showing blitz, and knows two things: (1) he's gotta get it out quick if it's a blitz, and (2) if they drop back into zone he can't throw directly to the middle off the field.. What to do?
Why, throw at Colin Jones, of course! He's been getting beaten in Benwikere's spot for a while now. This makes Witten (lined up across 42) Romo's primary target: outside receivers will be bracketed up top, and a blitz leaves Witten across a vacated middle zone. Even if they drop back Witten can still get inside Jones for a strike up the seam. The ball is snapped, and below you can see Keuchly dropping into coverage. It's zone! Jones stays in, Witten finds the space around him, and looks to be going up behind 59.
Tony Romo sees Witten break open! Those pesky safeties are playing the deep ball because their outside corners aren't good enough to cover those receivers! Better huck it to Witten since those safeties aren't anywh-
OH GOD NO WHY GOD
Tony Romo didn't realize the free safety was squatting in the zone rather than dropping deep, and his mistake went for six. But Romo's misdiagnosis aside, it's Coleman's reaction time that really makes this play possible. He was ten yards from the play when Witten made his cut and got open, but he instinctively cut inside the instant he saw Romo's eyes flash up the seam. No hesitation. In fact, he got there so fast he he almost outran the interception.
That was six points, an incredible play. But somehow Luke Keuchly managed to top it. Late in the second quarter the Cowboys got the ball, determined to march down the field and score before the half. Here they line up with a 3WR 1TE set, out of the shotgun. This is a pretty nice play design. It puts strong safety Roman Harper in the unenviable position of having to diagnose three routes: the WR2 running a complex slant, the slot receiver running a quick out, and the tight end running a fly up the seam.
The ball is snapped. It's important to note that Luke is the MLB playing in zone coverage: he's got a broad area assigned, the middle of the field. Notice how Witten, the tight end, is nearly open here: he's streaking the fly, with Keuchly trailing in coverage, and Roman Harper still in limbo, waiting to go deep with the TE or drop in to bracket that streaking Z receiver who's about to break into his slant.
Tony Romo can choose one receiver or the other. Seeing Keuchly's back turned upfield drawn away by Witten,, Romo decides to fire at the Z-receive, the guy about to step into his slant.
But right as Romo's releasing the ball, Keuchly instinctively breaks off the TE because he's leaving the zone. This releases him to the coverage safety (Harper) and Luke, knowing the strong side of the field is exposed, then instinctively breaks to his right, towards the gap in the zone, the area most likely to be exploited by a slant/out route combo.
OH GOD TONY NO
Ridiculous instincts, ridiculous discipline, ridiculous execution. Not many players in the league have what it takes to commit to covering a dominant tight end of Witten's caliber well enough to force Romo to a different receiver and then jump that route anyway the moment he decides to make the throw. That is true mastery of his position and the defensive scheme. It's hard to believe Luke was once criticized as being a subpar coverage linebacker.
So where do the New Orleans Saints come in?
It's simple: they play the Wari to the Panthers' Inca. We're facing a New Orleans team in a New Orleans dome that once represented the impregnable capital fortress of the South. But just like the advancing Inca merely sashayed into the imposing Wari palaces at Pikillacta, so too can the Carolina Panthers - playing historically great defense and set to trounce the declining Saints for the next one thousand years - march into the Superdome and emerge as victors.
As a final note: this assertion is supported by the archaeological record. Behold: prophetic, pre-Inca pottery featuring a Panther stealing a Wari person's beer, and a scary winged Panther with a spear featured on a royal vase.
When archaeology says you win, you don't lose. 12-0
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