The Glass Eye: NFL Playoff Preview – Conference Championship Games

While last week’s games may not have been as dramatic and exciting as the first round games, I think we learned a lot about all eight teams involved. Let’s look at some of those lessons, and then preview two excellent games this weekend. Let’s look at the teams that lost first.

-New Orleans made a lot of progress this season, especially defensively, but you have to wonder if it might have been one season too late. The Saints were one regular-season win away from the #2 seed and a home playoff game, and despite a TERRIBLE start they played a respectable game in Seattle. However, the team has big-time salary cap issues, Drew Brees will be 35 next year, and Jimmy Graham is a free agent – and came up EXTREMELY small this postseason (four total catches in two games, only one last week). With the resurgence of the Panthers, and the likelihood of improvement from the Falcons and Bucs, you have to wonder if the Saints’ window might have just slammed shut.

-The Colts reaffirmed that their defense is not nearly good enough to win a title – 234 rushing yards to the Pats?? Come on – but Andrew Luck threw six interceptions in two playoff games, and that’s simply not good enough. I understand he made a lot of big plays, and I’m a Luck fan, but I’m amazed that he’s more or less gotten a pass for his play while Cincy is ready to send Andy Dalton packing after his poor game. Still, I think Luck will learn from this and get better….but the team needs to get a LOT better on defense, and trading away their top draft pick for Trent Richardson was a TERRIBLE move, one that will hurt them in 2014.

-The Chargers won the turnover battle (again), held Manning under 300 yards (again)…and were never truly in the game after halftime, because a.) they could not stop the run this time, and b.) their offense went NOWHERE in the first half. Philip Rivers enjoyed an amazing renaissance, but the injury to Ryan Mathews completely crippled the running game – which tells me the Bolts need to draft a back to share the load in 2014. The front seven also needs work defensively. Still, after a 5-7 start, the season has to be considered a great success for San Diego – their biggest problem is their tough divisional foes.

-Carolina played almost exactly the kind of game I thought they would – they went toe-to-toe with the 49ers through the first half, but they were done in by some poor penalties and by turnovers. I thought they outplayed San Francisco and were unlucky to be down 13-10 at halftime, but San Francisco took over the game in the third quarter and that was that. Carolina clearly has a defense good enough to carry the team, but Newton desperately needs a game-breaking receiver – he tried to do a lot himself in this game, but it’s hard to blame him given the lack of talent around him. Get him two legit targets and Carolina is a team that can win it all in the next year or two.

On to this week’s games…

NEW ENGLAND at DENVER (-5.5)

These teams met in November and it was really two games in one – Denver beat the tar out of New England all throughout the first half, taking a 24-0 lead, then completely imploded in the third quarter. Their first four drives of the second half ended fumble, punt, interception, punt…and New England scored 31 points on their first five drives of the half.

Denver turned the ball over four times that night, and the easy prediction against a Belichick team is that if Denver does that again, they will lose again. But Denver does have a few things going for it: they ran for 280 yards in that game, which absent the turnovers would have been good enough to win. Their own run defense has really stiffened of late – four of their last five opponents have been held under 100 yards rushing, and under 300 total yards. Finally, the game is at home, and the forecast is PERFECT – 59 degrees and sunny skies. Manning’s issues with cold weather are well-documented, but the flip side of that is this undeniable fact – in good weather/indoors, the man is almost unstoppable.

Meanwhile the 2013 Patriots have more in common with the 2001-2003 Pats than with the offensive juggernauts of 2007-2012. This team was not great on either side of the ball, especially late in the year, yet all they do is win. Frankly, I now believe Belichick is the best coach in the history of the league at doing more with less – when his teams are talent-poor and injured, he still manages to coax 10-12 wins out of them and win playoff games. This team has lost SEVEN defensive starters, both of their all-star tight ends, and they don’t boast a single game-breaking receiving threat. They have gone from a feared aerial attack to a run-first offense that tries to shorten the game and grind out wins – but as long as Brady is healthy, they are ALWAYS a threat through the air.

Both teams have to have the same goals in this game – run the ball, stop the run, win the turnover battle. Looking at each team’s record, those are really the key factors – but I think they are more crucial for the Pats, because they have far less margin for error. Manning’s offense is so strong that I think they will put up 24-35 points this week even if their run game stalls and they suffer a couple of turnovers – but the Pats MUST take care of the ball.

I’ve learned that it’s not really wise to bet against Brady and Belichick in these situations, and if the weather was colder or this game was in Foxboro I’d likely go the other way. However, I think this is Manning’s last true shot at a title, and I just cannot see him laying an egg, at home, with perfect weather, especially against a defense so ravaged by injury. Expect 60-70 total points, but I like the BRONCOS by 10 here.

SAN FRANCISCO at SEATTLE (-3.5)

Much like those epic Baltimore-Pittsburgh playoff games, there’s only so much you can analyze when divisional opponents square off in a playoff game – they know each other so well already. The past two seasons the teams have split 2-2, with the home team winning every time. Both games in San Francisco have been close, while the games in Seattle have been blowouts; 42-13 in 2012, 29-3 this season. I’m not sure that really helps us, though, because a.) we know Seattle is one of, if not THE toughest, road venue in the NFL, and b.) both teams have changed since that Seattle win in week 2.

Let’s start with the obvious: both these teams want to run the ball first and foremost. They ranked second and third in rushing attempts on the season, and both teams attempted more rushes than passes – a rare thing in the NFL these days. Both teams thrive on turnovers, finishing first (Seattle, +20) and fourth (+12) in turnover margin this season. What’s most interesting to me is that Seattle has had almost no success throwing the ball against San Francisco – in those four games, Russell Wilson has been held under 200 yards every time. Now, in the blowouts that’s understandable, but even when trailing and needing to make big plays, he has not been able to get it done. This season the Seahawks did a similar number on the 49ers passing attack, holding them to 107 and 155 passing yards.

The x-factor in the passing game has to be Michael Crabtree. He’s the biggest threat on either team, and he appears to finally be near full strength after missing most of the season. Combining his elite skills with Boldin and TE Vernon Davis give San Francisco versatility they were sorely lacking in the passing game much of the season. Seattle has a similar x-factor in WR Percy Harvin, but he’s missed the entire season until last week, and he was only able to play about 50% of last week’s game before suffering a concussion – so I’m not predicting much from him this week.

Seattle has to get the edge in pass defense – as mentioned last week, their pass ‘D’ was by far the best in the league. I also like their running game more, mostly because I think at this point Lynch is a better back than Gore. I think San Francisco gets the edge in run defense and pass offense – they simply have better receivers than the Seahawks.

This is extremely likely to be a low-offense, low-scoring game – in the two previous games, no team had more than 318 total yards. Looking at recent trends, Seattle has REALLY struggled on offense down the stretch – they have not gained 300+ yards since Week 13, while the 9ers have not been held under 300 since week 10. San Francisco has been a bit more vulnerable defensively, but much of that has been via the pass and I don’t think Seattle can win an aerial shootout with San Fran.

This game is SOO tough to call – recent trends point to the 9ers, while the entire body of work plus homefield points to the Seahawks. This feels like a three point game to me, and while I expect turnovers to really be the determining factor, I think Seattle is just vulnerable enough to lose this one at home. 49ERS by THREE in a real slugfest.

After a week off, the Eye will preview the Super Bowl on 1/31.

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

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