The Glass Eye: NFL Divisional Playoff Preview

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OK, so last week’s previews weren’t exactly on the mark – and from now on, Cincinnati’s NFL team is officially the ‘Bungles’ with me until they PROVE otherwise – but hey, it’s a new week, and a new chance to try to predict the unpredictable! Let’s start with lessons learned last week…

#1: The Bengals stink. OK, ok, mea culpa, I won’t pick them again until Dalton shows me he’s legit or until they replace him. Let’s give at least a BIT of credit to the Chargers, though – they have been perhaps the league’s hottest team down the stretch.

#2: Andrew Luck – and by extension, his team – is the most unpredictable in the NFL, capable of extreme highs and lows from quarter to quarter and even drive to drive. I’ll dive into the numbers, but take my word for it now…I have absolutely NO idea what will happen in Foxboro this weekend.

#3: New Orleans has a real ‘puncher’s chance’ this postseason, because their defense is much better than in years past. I’m not saying they will win Saturday, but more than any other team the Saints impressed me last weekend.

#4 San Francisco is suddenly in a good position – Carolina was probably the BEST matchup they could have drawn. Lest we forget, this team came within a play of being the champs last year, and in some ways they are better this season.

On to the analysis:

NEW ORLEANS at SEATTLE (-8)

We covered the Saints quite a bit last week – and while they surprised me by winning on the road, the fact is that they are now 4-5 away from home on the season, and the environment gets MUCH harder this week – Seattle is by far the toughest road trip in the league.

Seattle is the best defensive team in the NFL…but their ability to stop the pass is remarkable, especially in this pass-wacky era. The Seahawks held 11 of 16 opponents under 200 yards passing – that’s unheard of!! For the season they allowed only 2752 yards through the air, an average of 172 per game. They allowed only 16 TD passes and had 28 interceptions. If the Saints fall behind and are forced to throw every down (as was the case in their 34-7 loss in Seattle earlier this season), they basically have no chance. Seattle also forced a turnover in 15 out of 16 games…and forced two or more in 12 games! They had a +20 turnover ratio which also led the league.

Seattle’s only flaw – and it’s not a large one – is that their run defense is only slightly above-average. They allow just over 100 yards rushing per game, and they allowed four teams to rush for 150+ yards. So the keys for New Orleans are to stay patient, run the ball as much as possible, LIMIT TURNOVERS, and try to make this a 4th quarter game.

Offensively, the Seahawks are very good but not dominant. Their passing game in particular was prone to poor stretches – they threw for less than 100 yards three times, and none of those were blowout, run-all-second-half games. On the other hand, this is a rush-first team – only one team attempted less passes than Seattle, and overall the ‘Hawks are very efficient through the air. QB Russell Wilson completed 63% of his throws for 3300 yards, 26 TDs and only nine INTs. He has a fairly deep stable of targets, but there are no All-Pro receivers on Seattle’s roster. They win by running the ball, primarily with Marshawn Lynch (1250 yards) and Wilson (539 yards, 5.6 yards per carry) and taking care of the football.

New Orleans hasn’t been a strong running team all season, but Mark Ingram was very good last week for the Saints – finally showing the form that made him a first-round draft pick in 2011. The Saints have a bevy of receiving threats, but look for Seattle to work hard to neutralize TE Jimmy Graham and force Brees to look for other, less potent options.

Defensively the Saints, as mentioned, are much-improved, especially against the pass. They were weak vs. the run most of the season but COMPLETELY shut down the Eagles’ vaunted rushing attack last week – the Eagles ran for only 80 yards, or about 120 less than I expected. When New Orleans faced Seattle in December, the Seahawks passed for 300 yards AND ran for over 140 – it was the worst defensive performance of the season for the Saints. Look for them to work hard to limit the ground game this week and force Wilson to win the game with his arm.

New Orleans has improved since that game, and they appear to be peaking at the right time…certainly I expect a much closer game this time around. However, Seattle is VERY healthy; they have the best home-field advantage in the league, and the best defense to combat Drew Brees and Co. I like SEATTLE by 10.

INDIANAPOLIS at NEW ENGLAND (-7)

For years this matchup featured Manning vs. Brady – now Brady gets to tangle with young Luck, who is quickly showing that his team is much like the 90’s Penguins…no lead is safe for EITHER team when Indy is playing!

As I studied their stats, what jumped out to me is how eerily similar these teams are. Both have QBs who completed just over 60% of their passes (very low for Brady), both QBs generally take care of the football, (nine INTs for luck, 11 for Brady), both passed for about the same number of TDs (23 for Luck, 25 for Brady). Both teams have one ‘go-to’ receiver (Hilton for Indy, Edelman for NE) and both teams, while spreading the load around, run the ball quite effectively overall (1700+ yards and a 4.3 average per carry for the Colts, 2000+ yards and a 4.4 average for the Pats).

Defensively they also are mirror images – both teams defend the pass reasonably well, but both struggle to stop the run. The Pats in particular were gashed on the ground all season, only three opponents were held under 100 yards rushing and the team allowed 2145 yards and 4.5 yards per carry. Indy was almost as bad, allowing the same 4.5 yards per carry and 2000 rushing yards.

For Indy to win, they have to run the ball – but with Donald Brown, NOT Trent Richardson. Brown is clearly the superior runner and needs to be the featured back. The Colts need to avoid falling behind, as the Pats’ defense thrives on pressure and forcing turnovers. Luck will have some opportunities in the passing game, but he needs to be patient – I expect Belichick to work hard to cover Hilton and force the other Colts’ receivers to beat him.

For New England, they also need to establish the run – and they need to remember that a couple of fumbles do not mean a running back is useless. Stevan Ridley has been benched much of the last month after a couple of fumbles, but he and LeGarrette Blount form a devastating 1-2 punch if both are used properly. Brady has less passing weapons than at any time since 2006, but he will have some opportunities against the young Colt secondary, especially if Indy has problems stopping the run.

As I said above, I have no clue what is likely to happen in this game. I could see New England pulling a classic Belichick masterpiece, clamping down on Luck and the passing game and winning handily…or I could see Luck continuing to progress towards being an elite QB and shredding the Pats’ mediocre defense. I think the defenses are about even, and the passing games are about even, but I like New England’s ground attack just a bit more…so I am going to pick the PATRIOTS TO WIN, but only by three…so the COLTS WILL COVER.

SAN FRANCISCO at CAROLINA (EVEN)

And here we find yet ANOTHER ‘mirror match’ – two teams that play excellent defense, love to run the ball, and have freakishly athletic, yet somewhat unrefined QBs. They played a 10-9 defensive brawl of a game in October, and there’s little reason to expect a shootout this time around.

Let’s start with Carolina’s defense – they ranked second in the league in points and yards allowed, despite facing the offense-heavy Saints and Falcons four times, as well as the Seahawks, 49ers, and Patriots. Their run defense was so good that most teams didn’t even bother trying to run – only five teams rushed for more than 100 yards, and the Panthers faced the fewest rushing attempts in the league. Against the pass the Panthers allowed a relatively high percentage of completions – 66.7%, partly a function of facing Brees, Ryan, and Brady – but they also recorded 20 interceptions and a league-leading 60 sacks (five per game!) Only one team gained 400 yards against them (Buffalo in Week 2) and only the Saints, in the Superdome, scored 30 points against Carolina. In their last 12 games, only those Saints scored above 20, and eight were held to 16 or less.

Offensively, the team is not nearly as dominant, especially through the air. Carolina did not pass for 300 yards in a SINGLE GAME this season, and was held under 200 yards in 10 games. Part of that is because they often held late leads, but make no mistake – this is not a dynamic passing offense, or an offense built to overcome large deficits. Their top receiver is journeyman TE Greg Olsen, and they don’t have a single receiver on the team under the age of 27. QB Cam Newton threw for 3379 yards, 24 TDs and 13 INTs and completed 61% of his passes – not dynamic numbers, but considering the run-heavy system, not bad either.

The run game is where Carolina needs to excel to win – they rushed for over 2000 yards and averaged 4.3 per carry. DeAngelo Williams was their leading rusher, but Newton is the ‘x-factor’ – he rushed for almost 600 yards and 5.3 yards per carry.

San Francisco is almost the exact same team – defense a little less dominant (third in points, fifth in yards allowed), passing game a little better and more dynamic, especially with Michael Crabtree healthy. Colin Kaepernick is almost a carbon copy of Cam Newton – he runs about as often, completed a few less passes but also threw five fewer INTs. The 9ers also have more viable rushing options – in addition to ‘Kaep’ and Gore, they have a capable change of pace in Kendall Hunter.

This game is likely to be extremely close, and I judge it the most likely game to end up going to OT. In a defensive battle like this, turnovers are especially critical and the easy prediction is that the team that wins the turnover battle will win the game. Carolina has home field, and I expect a great atmosphere Sunday, but I think the Niners’ experience to be a pivotal factor. I like this Carolina team and they could be favorites as soon as next year, but I think they are not QUITE ready for prime time yet. SAN FRANCISCO by THREE.

SAN DIEGO AT DENVER (-9.5)

I’m going to keep this short, folks…the 2013 Denver Broncos are the most prolific offense in HISTORY. They are the first team to score 600+ points, they set records for passing yards and passing TDs, FIVE different receivers caught at least 60 passes (and nine receivers caught 10+ passes). Peyton Manning’s stats look like something out of TECMO Bowl: 68% completion, 5477 yards, 55 TDs, 10 INTs, only sacked 18 times…and he’s 37 years old!

Their run game is very good and underrated…Knowshon Moreno is a very solid back, but late in the year rookie Montee Ball made a big splash and I expect him to be a big part of the offense on Sunday. Ball averaged 4.7 yards per carry compared to Moreno’s 4.3, and he has more speed and elusiveness.

Denver’s defense is, of course, not very good – they ranked 22nd in points allowed and 19th in yards allowed. They were decent against the run (albeit partly because teams had to pass to keep up with Denver all year), but pretty terrible against the pass – 27th in attempts, completions, and yards allowed.

Much will be made of San Diego’s win in Denver on December 12, and there are some positive signs for the Chargers: they played two competitive games against Denver, they held the Broncos under 100 yards rushing (that only happened two other times all season), and allowed only 18 rushing yards in that win.  In both games the Chargers were able to rush effectively themselves, allowing them to control the clock and shorten the game.  They also didn’t turn the ball over in either game. All told, that’s a perfect blueprint for beating Denver…but I don’t think they can do it again.

Let’s look at some advantages Denver has: they had two weeks to rest and prepare, whereas the 12/12 game was a Thursday game that left Manning only three days to rest and prepare. Manning has ALWAYS thrived on preparation, and at his age rest and exploiting film study are more important than ever. The Chargers won the turnover battle in both games, but are likely to commit at least one turnover this week – they committed at least one in 11 of 16 games on the season, and Denver forced at least one turnover in 12 of 16 games.

As we discussed last week, San Diego has a good-but-not-great offense and an average defense. They won going away last week, sure, but that was mainly because they won the turnover battle 4-0…they gave up 439 yards on defense, which won’t work this weekend in any case.

Look, the Chargers are going to score. They put up 47 points in two games against Denver, and the Broncos only held four teams under 20 points all season. The issue is, can San Diego contain Denver enough to hold them under 30-35 points? I say NO; in fact I think this game will become a blowout by the end of the third quarter. I like the BRONCOS by 14 in a very high-scoring affair.

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

 

 

 

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