The Glass Eye: NFL Divisional Playoffs Preview

Last week went just about the way I thought it might – there were a couple of blowouts, a relatively tame affair in Houston, and the drama in DC. This week offers much the same – a couple of games that appear to be mismatches, and a couple of games that are VERY hard to read. Let’s get into the numbers and take a look!

RAVENS at BRONCOS:

The Ravens were out of Indy’s class last week – their defense was much better than the Colts’ defense, and while I thought Andrew Luck fought gamely, his teammates dropped a TON of his passes. Having said that, Baltimore showed once again that they are by no means a dominant team – they let Indy hang around the entire first half, Flacco was as inconsistent as ever (12 completions for 282 yards is good – only completing 12 out of 23 passes is bad), and they allowed over 400 yards to Indy’s offense. Baltimore simply cannot throttle good teams on defense anymore, and their inconsistent offense will be forced to make a lot of big plays to hang around with top teams.

Denver is what Baltimore used to be – an EXTREMELY tough defense with a strong running game…plus, arguably the greatest QB of all time as a bonus. Denver finished second in points scored, fourth in points allowed, and second in point differential (+192!) Perhaps most impressively, the Broncos compiled these impressive stats without the help of turnovers – they were -1 in turnover differential. Defensively, they didn’t allow a single 300-yard passer despite facing Brees, Brady, Big Ben, and Matt Ryan. Only three teams rushed for 100 yards against them, and after allowing 31 points to the Texans and Pats early on, no team scored more than 24 against them the last 11 games. Other than against the Chargers (nine in two games), this isn’t a defense that forces a lot of turnovers – they simply play extremely solid, mistake-free defense. They are particularly stout against the run – they held opponents to 1400 total rushing yards and a 3.6 per-carry average, both top-five marks.

Offensively, Manning is such a HUGE upgrade for this team – he came back after a missed season and seems as good or better than ever, having completed almost 69% of his passes for over 4600 yards, 37 TDs and only 11 INTs. If not for Peterson’s late-season heroics, Manning would likely be the runaway selection for league MVP yet again. He has solid receivers in Decker and Thomas (85+ receptions each), and two pass-catching tight ends.

What he does NOT have is a particularly effective running game – with McGahee out for the season, Knowshon Moreno has to carry the load and he only averaged 3.8 yards per carry – but Manning had this situation the last few years in Indy as well, and it didn’t really slow the offense. Under Manning’s guidance, this was probably the most consistent offense in the league this season – they never scored 40 points, but they scored 30 ELEVEN TIMES and were only once held under 20.

We also have to factor in home-field advantage – Denver has traditionally had one of the largest advantages in the league, due to the altitude, and the bye week certainly would have helped this team as well. Finally, keep in mind these two teams played a month ago, in Baltimore, and Denver was ahead 31-3 late before Baltimore scored in ‘garbage time’. This is in my opinion the biggest mismatch on the board this week – to win, Baltimore needs two or three turnovers, they need Flacco to play at his highest level, and they need to put pressure on Manning . As I often say, anything is possible in a 1-game scenario, but it’s hard to find a reason to pick the Ravens this week. Denver is a 9-point favorite and rightly so – I think the BRONCOS win BY 13 in Ray Lewis’ last game.

 

PACKERS at 49ERS:

Let me just say right up front that this game is VERY hard to analyze – it all comes down to what numbers you want to favor. Do you prefer teams with good defense? The home team (with a 6-1-1 record)? The team with the better rushing attack? The (arguably) more consistent team? Then the 49ers are clearly your pick. However, if you prefer to look at the team with (by far) the best QB, the hotter team down the stretch, the team that battled more injuries (and is healthy now), the team with more playoff experience, then Green Bay should be your pick.

San Francisco was a fascinating team in 2012 – they switched QBs mid-stream and went from a safe, short passing team under Alex Smith to a read-option, more downfield passing team under Colin Kaepernick virtually overnight. I’d venture to say that no QB who had completed over 70% of his passes through eight games, had his team four games above .500 and had a 13-5 TD-INT ratio has ever been benched in NFL history – and looking at a few key numbers, Kaepernick has clearly not been as efficient. He has completed 62% of his passes, thrown 10 TDs and 3 INTs. The hidden value of Kaepernick, though, is on the ground – he ran for over 400 yards, averaged 6.6 yards per rush, and made the 49ers a much more dangerous offensive team. Frank Gore was solid running the ball, with 1200 yards at 4.7 yards per carry, and the Gore-Kaepernick 1-2 punch rivals Seattle for the best rushing attack left in the playoffs.

WR Michel Crabtree also finally broke out, finishing with 85 receptions for 1100 yards.  The problem with the passing game is the lack of consistent secondary targets – TE Vernon Davis became an afterthought, finishing with only 41 catches, and no other wideout managed more than 42 receptions. Look for the Packers to take away Crabtree and force the 49ers to find other targets. In the final analysis, though, this 49er team is significantly improved on offense from a season ago.

Defensively we know San Francisco is stacked, especially in the front seven – Aldon Smith has become a star, with 19.5 sacks in 2012. Other than Smith, the defense didn’t generate many sacks (38 overall), and the return of fellow DE Justin Smith is crucial this weekend. Smith missed the last three games, and the 9er defense was significantly weakened in his absence. Interestingly, while the 49ers were typically strong against the run, I think they actually had a better year against the pass – only one QB passed for 300+ yards on them (Brady torched them for 425) and opponents completed less than 60% of their passes. They had a few head-scratching games, but San Francisco’s defense is still a top-5 unit.

Green Bay’s offense is almost all about Aaron Rodgers – they have a motley collection of running backs, all of whom are mediocre, and they shuttle receivers in and out at will, yet Rodgers keeps on putting up huge numbers. The return to health of WRs Randall Cobb and Greg Jennings will certainly help, and having three or four top receiving threats makes Green Bay VERY difficult to defend through the air – but Rodgers would produce with almost any set of wideouts.

The Pack’s defense is much more of a mixed bag – they were outstanding against the pass, allowing only 55% to be completed, but struggled badly against the run (4.5 yards per rush). They shut down the Bears twice and the Seahawks early on (the infamous Replacement Ref hail-mary game – that game REALLY affected playoff seeding by the way, had that call gone the other way, Green Bay would have earned a bye and the 49ers would have played last week), but they were unable to shut any other quality opponents down. Getting Charles Woodson back helps, but let’s keep in mind that he’s 37 and not the star he once was. Overall, while Green Bay’s defense is by no means BAD, it’s not the top-10 unit it was in 2009-10 either.

The one thing these teams have in common is kicking woes – both David Akers and Mason Crosby have struggled all season, and in a game that figures to be close that could be a HUGE factor in this game. Truly, this game is unpredictable – if Kaepernick struggles the 49ers will almost certainly lose – but he hasn’t faltered yet, and he has the better team around him. I’ll say SAN FRANCISCO BY 3.

 

SEAHAWKS at FALCONS: Another fascinating matchup – Seattle is the road team, and Atlanta is the #1 overall seed, but most see this as a pick’em game or even give Seattle the edge because of how dominant they’ve been and how sluggish the Falcons have looked at times. Atlanta has some faults, but let’s start with their strength: the passing game. QB Matt Ryan has become a truly elite QB; he has completed almost 69% of his passes, thrown for over 4700 yards, and improved every season. He has three tremendous receivers in Jones, White and Gonzalez, and he rarely takes sacks. The pass defense has also been elite for the Falcons – they have only allowed 14 TD passes while intercepting 20 passes.

The problem is that the ground game is a major weakness for Atlanta on both sides of the ball – they only rushed 378 times (sixth-fewest in the league) and only averaged 3.7 yards per carry. They allowed just under 2000 yards rushing at a whopping 4.8 yards per carry, and only held three opponents under 100 yards rushing. In fact, while they were fifth in points allowed as a defense, they were 24th in yards allowed – and those yards were usually not ‘garbage time’ yards, this team really didn’t shut anyone down other than the hapless Cardinals.

The Seahawks match up extremely well with the Falcons – their ground game is the best in the NFL this season, and their pass defense is also elite. They have the corners to match up with Jones and White man-to-man, and they can play pass defense even more aggressively without having to worry as much about the Falcons’ rushing attack. Last week showed that the Seahawks have poise and patience – despite an early 14-0 hole, they stuck to their game plan and wore the Redskins down.

Normally I’d mention homefield advantage, but I really don’t see that as a factor this week – Seattle just went to Washington, which was a crazy, amped-up environment whose fans were just thrilled the team made the playoffs. Atlanta has disappointed in recent years, and their fans will likely be quiet if the visitors take an early lead. The Falcons will gain more yards and more points than the Redskins did, and if they can force a few Seattle mistakes they could easily win this game….but Seattle has proven to me they are an elite team and I actually think they are the NFC favorites at this point. SEATTLE BY FOUR.

 

TEXANS AT PATRIOTS:

Last week, the Texans showed how fleeting trends and momentum can be – they came in ice-cold, while the Bengals came in red-hot…but the Texans controlled the game thoughout. They caught a break, because the Bengals were very 1-dimensional – if you stop AJ Green, you stop the Bengals most of the time. This week, they get to defend the most versatile offense in NFL history. New England finished first in yards, points, and (most tellingly) total plays. They ran about 160 more plays than their opponent, or about 10 more per game. They typically run a fast-tempo offense that does not allow the defense time to adjust, but what separates them from recent Patriot teams is that they are as comfortable running the ball (2184 yards, 25 TDs) as they are passing (4662 yards, 34 TDs).

New England will very comfortably take whatever the defense gives – they have two playmakers at every skill position and with the notable exception of Wes Welker (118 catches) they don’t force-feed any one player. Tom Brady’s completion percentage slipped a bit (63%), but otherwise he was as deadly as ever. Finally, despite running the most plays in the league, the Pats only committed 16 turnovers.

Defensively, New England is still a work in progress. They gave up almost 4600 yards passing and were not great at pressuring the QB, but forced 20 interceptions to minimize the damage. They were more effective against the run but not much better than average, allowing 3.9 yards per rush – but they forced a whopping 42 fumbles and recovered 21 of them. The key to even having a chance against New England is to protect the ball – the Pats forced a turnover in every single game this season, and forced two or more in 13 of 16 games. If the Texans don’t turn it over, New England can be scored on – they allowed 20+ points nine times.

Houston features a VERY strong ground game anchored by Arian Foster, which they use to set up play-action passing. They have two excellent receiving threats in Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels, but they are not really a diverse offense and if they cannot establish the run, they will be in serious trouble. Matt Schaub is a competent QB who can show flashes of brilliance, but he’s certainly not elite. In short the Houston offense is above average, and their #8 ranking in points scored is probably an accurate reflection of their ability.

The Texan defense was the strength of the team for much of the season, and after a late-season slump they reasserted themselves last week, holding the Bengals to only 198 total yards. JJ Watt is likely the defensive player of the year, and he had another great game last week with a sack and pass deflection, while playing great run defense. The rest of the unit is much like their offense – above average but not elite. They were average against the run, slightly above average against the pass but the Patriots TORCHED them a month ago in a 42-14 loss, so I can’t call their pass defense a strength this week.

Speaking of that game…I think the result will be closer, things snowballed out of control for Houston that day, but there’s simply no question that the Patriots are the better team. The defenses are similar, but New England has the best offense in the NFL and barring a spate of turnovers, I expect them to hold serve and head to Denver next week for the latest Manning-Brady Bowl. PATRIOTS by TEN.

 

Dave Glass can be reached at buggyracer@verizon.net.

 

 

 

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