The Pundit’s Playoff Preview, Round 2

So, last weekend was interesting. I was oh-for-Saturday and perfect on Sunday, bringing my playoff predictions to 2-2 overall. The scores? Way off. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I don’t gamble (on NFL games, anyway).

On to this weekend’s picks:

Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh

Breakdown: For the casual football fan who enjoys high scoring games featuring prolific offenses and minimal defense, this is probably the game you want to plan to finish running errands during. The Steelers and Ravens played each other twice this season, and scored 54 total points in two games. That basically means that people watching this game will see two touchdowns scored all game (again – total), or maybe three if they’re lucky.

Here’s the thing about the Ravens: this isn’t the usual Ravens team that we’ve grown accustomed to for the better part of the decade. Now, they actually have a semi-productive offense (slightly above average rushing attack, just below average passing attack). Flacco is steady if not unspectacular, but he has a howitzer for an arm and generally makes the right decisions with the ball. Ray Rice is a like a not-quite-as-rich-man’s version of Maurice Jones-Drew. But we also found out a little secret about them last week: their defense isn’t what we’re used to seeing either.

The Ravens finished the season in the bottom third of the NFL in passing yards allowed per game. And in last weekend’s match-up versus the Chiefs, Kansas City’s running backs were absolutely gashing the Ravens defense for huge chunks of yardage, at least until the Chiefs decided to completely self-destruct in the second half. In fact, while the final score of last week’s game was 30-7, let’s not forget that the Chiefs were up 7-3 halfway through the second quarter, giving the Ravens everything they could handle. What exactly did the Chiefs do? They stopped the run (Ray Rice had 10 yard rushing in the first half, Willis McGahee had nine), they harassed Joe Flacco, and they established their own running attack (Jammal Charles had over 70 yards rushing in the first half).

That’s exactly how the Steelers want to play this weekend. They enjoy smashmouth, ugly, downright violent football. Their run defense won the triple crown, stat wise: tops in the least yards allowed, yards per carry allowed, and rushing touchdowns allowed. We know the Steelers can get after the quarterback, whether it’s mano-a-mano, or with Dick LeBeau bringing the blitz.

It’s up to the Steelers to not out think themselves, and simply wear down this admittedly “older” defense with the power run game. Rashard Mendenhall might not be as fast as Charles was, but he’s one of those running backs who runs hard all game and has deceptive speed when he gets to the second level of a defense, the last thing a defense wants to deal with when they’ve been bludgeoned for the better part of three quarters. It’s like body shots on a heavyweight fighter: wear them down and go for the knockout punch late.

Deciding Factor: Flacco is one of those quarterbacks who you can trust to not lose the game for you, but I don’t know that he’s the type of guy that can go out and win you the game yet. If the Ravens can’t run the football, the game falls in his hands, and I don’t see that ending well. On the flip side, Ben Roethlisberger was still on suspension when the Ravens beat the Steelers in their first meeting. When Ben is in the lineup, he’s 8-2 against the Ravens, including the playoffs.

Pick: Pittsburgh, 20-16.

Green Bay vs. Atlanta

Breakdown: You know that old cliche, about being the team that nobody wants to play?

The Green Bay Packers are that team, the one that nobody wants to play.

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, Aaron Rodgers has already established himself amongst the top five quarterbacks in this league. He’s got all the tools you need in a quarterback: he’s smart, he’s fearless, he plays with swagger, and his teammates love him. He can go toe-to-toe with any offense in a shootout, he can put on an airshow when needed, or he can make the conservative yet smart decisions and simply manage the game.  In a league that’s more quarterback-driven than ever, that should be more than enough for you to take notice.

Yet right when it matters most, the Packers have developed a running game. After ranking in the bottom quarter of the league in rushing yards this season, Packers running back James Starks – a guy that even the most learned of fantasy geeks nor defensive coordinators had never heard of – tore up the Eagles defense for 123 yards rushing on over five yards a carry. Suddenly, they’re not so one dimensional anymore. When the Packers lost in Atlanta earlier this season, Rodgers ended up as their leading rusher for the game. The Packers most productive running back that day? Brandon Jackson, with a paltry 26 yards.

When designing a  defensive scheme, your objective is to take away one key player or element of the opposing defense. If you’re Atlanta, what do you do? Do you really design a game plan using the theory of “We have to stop the Packers running game, and force Aaron Rodgers to beat us”? That’s suicide. On the other hand, are they supposed to ignore what happened to Philadelphia last week, design a game plan to stop the passing game, and have the Packers ambush them with the power running game?

Here’s what we know about Atlanta: they’re a likable team. Outside of fans of opposing NFC South teams, can you really dislike the Falcons?  Matt Ryan is a quarterback who plays the position like a guy who is 25 years old, going on 53. Roddy White is a top five receiver in the league, without question. Michael Turner runs the ball like he was shot out of a cannon. Tony Gonzalez, even after 14 years in the league, is still one of the very best at his position. And even though the offense gets all the notoriety, the defense has also played really well. They’re fifth in the league in sacks, and first in tackles for a loss. They play smart, disciplined defense: maintaining their responsibilities within the defense, while bringing the pressure at opportunistic times.

Deciding Factor: I’m sure I’ll catch some flak for this, but I’m going to say it anyway: I really feel like the Falcons are paper tigers, one of those teams built to have success in the regular season but not in the postseason. They’re still young, inexperienced, and not battle-tested. When all the proverbial marbles were on the line (the NFC South title), in a Week 16 match-up against New Orleans, the Falcons completely pooped the bed in front of the whole country on their home field, losing to the Saints in a a place where they were supposed to be “unbeatable.”

Contrast that with the Packers, whose playoff essentially started sometime in mid December, and who happen to be playing their best football right now. Last week, Rodgers got that “never won a playoff game” monkey off his back. At this point in time, he’s mustard (that’s a good thing; look it up).

Pick: Packers, 24-20.

Seattle vs. Chicago

Breakdown: I think there are a lot of people – present company included – who owe the Seahawks an apology.

The Seahawks came out with a great game plan to stop the defending champs, made huge plays when it counted (Matt Hasselbeck had a near career day), ran the football down the Saints throat, put them away for good with Marshawn Lynch’s insane 67 yard touchdown run that should win “NFL play of the year” in a landslide.

Now for the reality check: Seattle loses its deafening, earth-shaking home-field advantage this week. You could legitimately make the argument that Seattle is the toughest place to play in the entire NFL because of the way the noise circulates in the stadium, and the absolute frenzy of the fans in it. Put the Seahawks at home, and they can beat anyone, but take them out of Seattle and they can get blown out by anyone. That’s how significant the advantage is for them at Qwest Field.

Last week, Seattle astutely turned New Orleans into a one-dimensional team, eliminating any semblance of a rushing attack (the Saints runner’s averaged less than 3.3 yards per carry last week) and forcing Drew Brees to pass on every play while the Seahawks defense dropped six or seven guys into coverage. But this week, Seattle won’t have the luxury of playing against CFL/UFL-caliber backs like Julius Jones and Reggie Bush (without question, the most overpaid and overrated player in the entire NFL).

Shockingly, at some point during the 2010 season, Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz realized that running the ball may be an effective strategy, as opposed to having his quarterback get his brain beat in on every play because he’s taking seven step drops while five receivers run deep, long-developing patters. After Jay Cutler spent the majority of the first half of the season taking a near criminal-like beating, Martz actually started calling more plays with shorter drops and more tight ends on the field, but perhaps most surprisingly, he also started running the ball a lot more. Over the second half of the Bears season, Matt Forte had 668 yards rushing and averaged over 16 carries per game; not coincidentally, the Bears went 6-2 over that span . When the Bears played Seattle earlier in the season they ran the ball for a grand total of 14 times (and two of those carries were by Jay Cutler). That can’t happen again.

But at the end, the outcome of this game comes down to Cutler’s performance. He doesn’t have to go out and win this game; he just has to not lose it. Bar none, Cutler is one of the most Jekyll-and-Hyde players in the NFL. On some days, he’ll complete throws that perhaps no other quarterback in the NFL can make. On other days, he makes decisions with the ball that would even have Jeff George shaking his head in disapproval. His outstanding arm strength and ability to place the ball into the tightest of spots is simultaneously his greatest asset yet his greatest source of destructive hubris.

If Cutler doesn’t hand the ball back to Seattle with dumb decisions, and doesn’t give the Seahawks any additional hopes for another upset, Chicago should win this game. If Seattle wins the turnover battle, all bets are off.

Deciding Factor: Seattle had the “let’s shock the world” factor going for it against the Saints, in a game symbolizing the “nothing to lose” cliche. All the pressure was on New Orleans, the defending Super Bowl champs, to go and take care of business against a (supposedly) inferior opponent.

Seattle doesn’t have that, this time. Everyone is taking notice, because nobody wants to be their next victim.

In a game that will be shockingly close, Chicago pulls this one out in a squeaker.

Pick: Chicago, 20-17.

NY Jets vs. New England

Breakdown: The second of the two rubber matches in the AFC, which the NFL smartly turned into the weekend’s headliner.

Look, I’m not exactly the biggest Tom Brady supporter in the world, but the level he’s played at this year is just nothing short of ridiculous. He led the NFL in touchdowns thrown and in passer rating. His completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdown numbers this year are the second best even in his career, only behind his record-setting year in 2007. He’s had the lowest number of turnovers in his entire career, and shattered the NFL record for most attempts thrown without an interception.

The media talking heads made a great point last week: the Jets defense was constructed and better suited for stopping a vertical passing attack with superior wide receivers, like the one that the Indianapolis Colts employ. But that’s not how the Patriots play. Like a world-class symphony conductor, Brady orchestrates a passing attack predicated on short-to-intermediate passing range, spreading passes out amongst a plethora of players (receivers, tight ends, running backs, or anyone else on the active roster with two functioning hands and feet), forcing mismatches in coverages from opposing linebackers and safeties.

Even if the Jets try to lock up Deion Branch and Wes Welker by having Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie cover them, Brady still has too many options to throw the ball to (although I fully expect Brady to throw in Cromartie’s direction plenty often, given the way Cromartie was running his mouth all week). Maybe the Jets can account for Branch and Welker, but then who’s left to cover Ron Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Alge Crumpler? What about Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the screen passing game? With near surgical precision, the Patriots find the weakness in the defense and exploit it without relent.

And here’s the best part about facing the Patriots, which not enough people are talking about: they can run the ball effectively, too. They ranked in the top ten in the NFL in running the football. For the first time in five seasons, they have a thousand yard running back; Green-Ellis had 1008 yards and 13 TD’s rushing this year. Since Logan Mankins returned to the Patriots lineup, they’ve been ripping off 4.9 yards per carry against their opponents, during a stretch where they played 4 of the top 10 run defenses in the league. So even if you do somehow manage to slow Brady down – much easier said than done – they actually have a running game that they can reasonably rely upon.

There’s only one way to stop the Patriots offense: Get to Tom Brady. If he constantly has defenders in his face and knocking him to the ground, he can and will get flustered. Make him think about who is coming at him instead of where the ball is going. That’s really it. You’re not going to confuse him with exotic looks in coverage, because he’s more than happy in taking exactly what you give him and checking down the ball (I think he prefers it, actually). Contrary to what Rex “the foot solider” Ryan thinks, Brady studies plenty of tape, and you’re not going to confuse him all that much.

If the Jets want to have any chance in this game, Ryan has to empty the playbook and throw everything he’s got in there at New England. If that includes the kitchen sink, fine; throw in someone else’s kitchen sink too, while you’re at it. Mix up blitzes and coverages on every play. Make Brady and Patriots have to think an extra second more than they’d like to.

Deciding Factor: Even if the Jets do somehow manage to slow down the Patriots offense – again, much easier said than done – they don’t have the consistency on offense to exploit a Patriots defense that can be had.

Don’t think they didn’t notice the fact that the Jets rushed for almost 170 yards against the Colts, opening up the play-action passing game for Mark Sanchez. The Patriots are going to sell out to stop the run, forcing Sanchez to beat them in the air. The Jets were actually running the football with some level of effectiveness the last time these two teams played, before the Jets got down by 17 and had to start throwing the football. There’s no way that Belichick is letting that happen again.

Personally, I don’t see this game ending well for the Jets, especially with all the yapping done by Ryan and Cromartie at the Patriots this week. They’re like the annoying hyena taunting the sleeping lion from a distance. What happens when you wake the lion up? There will be hell to pay.

Pick: New England: 34-13.

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