nfl playoff preview
Well, here we are again: Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. There’s a chance that this is the last time we see these two faceoff, so let’s try to enjoy it. That being said, this game isn’t just about the quarterbacks; it’s about the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots playing with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Let’s take a closer look at the AFC Championship Game.
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
Both teams had a great regular season, won their division, and ended up with a first round bye in the playoffs. Last week, the Broncos held off a feisty but overmatched San Diego team, while the Patriots withstood a good effort from Andrew Luck and the Colts before ultimately winning by a sizeable margin.
NEW ENGLAND OFFENSE VS. DENVER DEFENSE
The Patriots have made a surprising transition to a run-based offense that they’re hoping will take them to the Super Bowl. Last week LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley combined for 48 carries while Brady threw the ball just 25 times. Blount has become a near unstoppable force, running for 189 yards in the regular season finale against Buffalo and 166 yards against the Colts last week, and scoring eight touchdowns over the last three games. Even with all the injuries to their secondary, the biggest threat to the Broncos is New England controlling the ball and the clock with their ground game and keeping Manning off the field. Denver has to find a way to stop the run at all costs, so they can put the Patriots in passing situations and give their pass rush a chance to get in Brady’s face. If New England has success running the ball, not only will it keep the Denver offense on the sidelines, but it will also set up play-action for Brady, where he can be deadly, especially against a Denver secondary that could be vulnerable without a steady pass rush.
DENVER OFFENSE VS. NEW ENGLAND DEFENSE
Despite a good collection of defensive talent, the Patriots have rarely shut teams down this season, and they certainly haven’t faced a dangerous set of skill players like this since they played Denver earlier this season, except this time they won’t the benefit of strong Foxboro winds deterring Manning from throwing the ball all over the field. The biggest area of concern for New England could be their rush defense, which was one of the worst in the NFL this year. Manning and his receivers get most of the credit, but the Broncos generally have a good balance on offense and have gotten steady production from Knowshon Moreno all season, as well as meaningful contributions late in the season from rookie Montee Ball. If New England can’t slow down Denver’s running game, the Broncos will stay ahead of the chains, putting Manning and his receivers in advantageous positions to challenge the New England secondary down the field. The Patriots will have to find a way to get the Broncos in long-yardage situations so that their pass rush can get after Manning, although the Denver offensive line has done a great job all season of keeping Manning on his feet, and as long as Manning is on the field and on his feet, it’s a safe bet that the Broncos are going to be able to move the ball and score points.
Pay no attention to the first meeting between these two teams; it was such an odd game played in unusual weather conditions, and if not for a botched punt return by the Broncos in overtime the game likely would have ended in a tie, so these two teams match up fairly evenly with one another. At least for now, the forecast in Denver calls for clear skies and fair temperatures, which is a sign that the Football Gods are smiling upon Manning and the Broncos. Brady will get his and both teams will score a lot points, but this game is Denver’s to lose. Denver 38, New England 24.
For the first time ever, these two bitter division rivals will face one another in the postseason, doing so appropriately in a season in which they split the regular season matchups, with each team winning on the other’s home field. Let’s take a closer look at round 3 between the Chargers and the Broncos.
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
Rarely was there a doubt this season that the Broncos would end up being the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Despite a couple hiccups, Denver finished 13-3 and will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. As for the Chargers, they won their final four games of the regular season in must-win situations and they carried that mentality into Cincinnati last week and came out with a convincing win after a dominating performance in the 2nd half.
SAN DIEGO OFFENSE VS. DENVER DEFENSE
The Chargers beat the Broncos back in week 15 because they were able to run the ball effectively and control the clock, keeping Peyton Manning and the Denver offense off the field, and that’s something the Broncos need to be aware of repeating itself this week. Outside of his 23-yard touchdown run in the 3rd quarter, San Diego running back Ryan Matthews rarely broke off a big run, but he consistently got positive yards with each rush attempt, which moved the ball down field and kept the Denver pass rush at bay. Matthews and the Chargers need to do their best to repeat that performance if they expect to knock off the Broncos in Denver for the second time this season. As well as Philip Rivers has played this season, San Diego does not want him in a shootout with Manning, as the Chargers have a .500 record when Rivers attempts more than 30 passes in a game, so they need to make sure they stay balanced on offense. Moreover, even without Von Miller on the field for the Broncos, San Diego does not want to give the Denver pass rush a chance to pin their ears back and come after Rivers, if that starts to happen the Chargers will be in trouble. But the Broncos need to make a commitment towards stopping the run so that they aren’t dominated in time of possession, even if it means relying on their banged-up secondary to contain Rivers and the San Diego skill players.
DENVER OFFENSE VS. SAN DIEGO DEFENSE
In the last meeting between these two teams, the Broncos had the ball for just 21 minutes but still managed to score 20 points, which says all you need to know about the Denver offense this season. The Broncos have been historically good this season, and keeping them off the field is just about the only way they’ve been stopped this season. Wes Welker has been cleared to play, which means he will rejoin the lineup alongside Demaryius Thomas, who is heading to the Pro Bowl, Eric Decker, who came on strong late in the season, and tight end Julius Thomas, who is also heading to the Pro Bowl. Of course, it’s not all about Manning and the passing game, as the Broncos stay balanced with running back Knowshon Moreno, who’s had a great season and has been an underrated part of the Denver offense. San Diego’s best hope for defending the Broncos would be to put pressure on Manning, as their pass rush was a big part of their 2nd half dominance over the Bengals last week. However, the Denver offensive line has held up well this season amidst injuries, Manning is great at getting rid of the ball quickly, and blitzing the Broncos leads to one-on-one matchups with their receivers, which can be a problem, putting the San Diego defense between a rock and a hard place. If the pass rush is effective, the Chargers will have a chance to keep the Denver offense from blowing them out; otherwise, the Broncos could start clicking on offense and be tough to stop.
To San Diego’s credit, they’ve played two good games against the Broncos this season, and they’ve made a great run by winning their last five games and reaching the second weekend of the playoffs. However, this is where their magical run comes to an end. It’s unrealistic to think that the Chargers can control the clock the way they did in week 15. That game was also played on a short week, while this time around Manning and the Broncos have had an extra week to prepare, which should make a difference. The Chargers will play well and put up a fight once again, but the Broncos will eventually be too much for them. Denver 38, San Diego 21.
The second weekend of the NFL playoffs gets started with a rematch of two teams that were once thought to be the best two teams in the NFC, and possibly the entire league. They now meet with a spot in the NFC Championship Game on the line; let’s take a closer look at the Saint and Seahawks.
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
The Saints traveled to cold and blustery Philadelphia last week and came away with the first road playoff win in franchise history, continuing the momentum they built up in their regular season finale after losing three of their previous four games, a run that started with a 34-7 loss in Seattle. The Seahawks have been virtually unbeatable at home this season, losing only to the Cardinals in week 16, and despite losing two of their final four games, Seattle finished 13-3, which was enough to give them a bye last week and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
NEW ORLEANS OFFENSE VS. SEATTLE DEFENSE
Despite some struggles late in the season, Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense have started to click again the past two weeks. Brees shook off a couple early turnovers against the Eagles and went on to throw for 250 yards, doing a great job of spreading the ball around to a multitude of receivers. More importantly, the Saints were effective running the ball, getting a surprising effort from Mark Ingram. If the Saints can repeat that performance this week, they’ll be in great shape. However, the Seahawks are much better defensively than the Eagles, and the New Orleans offense had all kinds of problems when they played at Seattle earlier in the season, as they were made one-dimensional after falling behind early. It’s imperative that the Saints establish a viable rushing attack, because without it the Seahawks will be able to blitz Brees and put pressure on him, which is when the Saints tend to struggle offensively. The Seahawks also have three players in their secondary who were either first or second team All-Pro selections, which puts them in good position to defend Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, and the rest of the New Orleans playmakers, especially if the Saints aren’t a threat running the ball. If the Saints can avoid trailing by multiple scores and force Seattle to respect their running game, they’ll be in position to win the game with a quarterback like Brees leading the way; however, if New Orleans becomes one-dimensional offensively, the Seahawks should have their way against them, just like they did back in December.
SEATTLE OFFENSE VS. NEW ORLEANS DEFENSE
Russell Wilson had his way with the New Orleans defense back in week 13, throwing for over 300 yards and three touchdowns, but with the Saints having the second best pass defense in the NFL, he’s unlikely to repeat that kind of performance. Wilson has been solid but unspectacular this season, and with New Orleans getting a second chance to face him this season, they’ll be better prepared to face him than they were in the first matchup, especially after the Saints held Nick Foles and the high-flying Philadelphia offense in check last week, limiting the Eagles to 256 total yards. The Saints should have little reason to fear the Seattle wide receivers, which means the Seahawks will need to rely on Marshawn Lynch and their running game to move the ball, while hoping Wilson can make plays without turning the ball over. The Saints may have to sell out on stopping the run, especially against a powerful back like Lynch, and take their chances on Wilson not being able to beat them with a 300-yard passing game for the second time this season.
Seattle beat New Orleans 34-7 during the regular season, but this game will be a lot closer, especially with the Saints getting the monkey off their back with regard to winning a road playoff game and the Seahawks not being perfect at home this season. Expect a close game without either offense having a lot of success, but expect the Seahawks to pull it out at home. Seattle 21, New Orleans 17.
The NFL has given us what could be a spectacular playoff game on Saturday night between two offenses that have the potential to be explosive. Let’s take a closer look at the wildcard matchup between the Saints and Eagles.
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
Earlier in the season, the Saints were arguably the top team in the NFC, but they struggled heading down the stretch and in the end they needed to beat Tampa Bay in week 17 to secure a playoff spot after losing three of their previous four games. Even more troubling is that they’ve lost their last three road games, and their only road win since week 5 is a close game against the Falcons. As for the Eagles, they weren’t in great shape at the midway point of the season, but they went 7-1 during the second half of the season and won the NFC East, so they enter the postseason with plenty of momentum.
NEW ORLEANS OFFENSE VS. PHILADELPHIA DEFENSE
This is a matchup, which some might call a mismatch, between one of the top passing offenses in the NFL and one of the most porous pass defenses. Drew Brees had another outstanding season, but like the rest of the team he struggled on the road down the stretch, throwing three touchdowns and four interceptions in the team’s three most recent losses. The forecast calls for low temperatures, but little wind or precipitation, which should help keep Brees somewhat comfortable throwing the ball, although the conditions are not what the Saints would like them to be. If Brees plays well and isn’t hindered by the weather conditions, he has the weapons to do a lot of damage against the Philadelphia defense, especially Jimmy Graham, who should be a matchup nightmare for the Eagles. However, New Orleans doesn’t have the most balanced offense, and sometimes their running game is either under-utilized or ineffective. The Eagles are strong up front and have been good at stuffing the run most of the season, especially lately. Between that and a high-scoring offense, the Eagles have a chance to make New Orleans one-dimensional on offense, which would allow the Eagles to attack with their pass rush, and teams with a good pass rush have been kryptonite to the Saints this year. If Philadelphia is able to get consistent pressure on Brees, the New Orleans offense could have trouble moving the ball down the field consistently.
PHILADELPHIA OFFENSE VS. NEW ORLEANS DEFENSE
Over the last eight games, the Philadelphia offense has been nearly impossible to slow down for four quarters. Even in their only loss in the last eight weeks, the Eagles scored 30 points; and even when they were held scoreless for the first half in the snow against Detroit, the Eagles ended up with 34 points. Nick Foles has received a lot of the credit for making good decisions and playing mistake-free football, but LeSean McCoy has been the real catalyst for the offense. McCoy is averaging five yards per carry this season, and the fear opposing defenses have of him breaking containment along with a strong offensive line have given Foles time in the pocket and open passing lanes. However, the Saints have one of the best defenses the Eagles have seen in a long time, as New Orleans ranks second against the pass, allowing less than 200 yards per game. The Saints have the fourth most sacks in the NFL this season, and even against a good offensive line they’re going to have the ability to put pressure on Foles, which could lead to sacks, as Foles tends to hold the ball instead of risking throws that could lead to turnovers. If New Orleans can get pressure on Foles and keep the Eagles in long-yardage situations, it will make McCoy less dangerous and keep Philadelphia from moving up and down the field with great ease on every drive. However, stopping McCoy on early downs is another issue, and the Eagles will be able to get in a good rhythm and open up the playbook if McCoy is getting big chunks of yards on first down, so slowing him down on early downs will be the key to the game for the New Orleans defense.
This is a tough game to call; both teams can put a lot of points on the board, but both defenses have a chance to pressure the quarterback and at least slow down the opposing offense. Weather may not be much of a factor, outside of cold temperatures, but momentum coming into the game will play a role. The Eagles have played great football over the second half of the season and have won their last four home games, while the Saints have struggled on the road, especially on offense. Ultimately, the Philadelphia offense will be harder to keep under wraps for four quarters, and the Eagles will get the job done at home against a New Orleans team that looked more threatening two months ago than they do right now. Philadelphia 30, New Orleans 20.
The NFL playoffs get underway Saturday afternoon when the Chiefs visit the Colts, a rematch of a week 16 game that the Colts won in Kansas City. Let’s take a closer look:
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
Kansas City backed into the playoffs, losing five of their final seven games, although they played well in their week 17 loss to the Chargers while many of their key starters were inactive. However, the Chiefs are far from the team that started the season 9-0, and while some may marvel at an 11-5 wildcard team, they haven’t looked like an 11-win team in two months. Meanwhile, a month ago the Colts looked like a team that was going to back up into the playoffs, but they ended up playing well down the stretch, winning their final three games and outscoring their opponents 88-20, albeit against weak teams, including the Chiefs.
KANSAS CITY OFFENSE VS. INDIANAPOLIS DEFENSE
The Indy defense has really stepped up its play over the final three weeks of the season, allowing just 20 points during that span, including just seven points against the Chiefs two weeks ago. They do have a bit of a weakness at stopping the run, which is a strength of the Kansas City offense behind Jamaal Charles, but the Chiefs trailed for most of the game two weeks ago, which means they couldn’t take advantage of the Indianapolis rush defense, as Charles was limited to just 13 carries, even though he averaged eight yards per carry. The Chiefs need to get Charles as many touches as possible and stay out of obvious passing downs, as the Indy pass rush sacked Alex Smith five times two weeks ago, forcing three fumbles from Smith and six fumbles overall. Kansas City was hurt by four turnovers in that game, and that’s something they’ll have to avoid this time around. The Chiefs will also need to stay ahead of the chains and remain within striking distance of the Colts, as they’ll be in trouble if they have to overcome a deficit against Indianapolis on the road.
INDIANAPOLIS OFFENSE VS. KANSAS CITY DEFENSE
The Kansas City defense that dominated teams the first half of the season has been no better than average during the second half of the season, and they had all kinds of trouble trying to defend Andrew Luck two weeks ago. Injuries to their linebacker corps have taken away their terrifying pass rush and left the rest of their defense vulnerable. Meanwhile, Luck has survived the loss of Reggie Wayne and rebounded from a mid-season slump, looking real sharp the final two weeks of the season. T.Y. Hilton continues to emerge as a big-time playmaker and a favorite target of Luck, and the Colts also have a few solid complementary receivers like Coby Fleener and Griff Whalen, who were both college teammates of Luck at Stanford and players he’s comfortable throwing the ball to. Of course, Indy’s offense has its flaws, as their running game can be inconsistent and the offensive line is not always reliable either. Some of the banged up players on Kansas City’s defense should benefit from sitting out last week, and if they can get healthy and stuff the run, they’ll give their pass rush a chance to do some damage. However, if Luck is given time in the pocket, he’ll be tough to keep under wraps for four quarters.
A big part of the postseason is momentum and playing well at the right time of year. The Chiefs have sputtered down the stretch, and on the season they have exactly one win over playoff teams. Meanwhile, the Colts are riding a three-game winning streak and have come out of their mid-season slump playing good football in December, and that gives them an advantage heading into this game. This game will go just like the game two weeks ago went: Luck will have his way with the Kansas City defense and the Chiefs will struggle to come from behind. Indianapolis 27, Kansas City 10.
Just like many of us expected would be the case back in Week 14, the Patriots and Texans will meet in the playoffs today. The only catch: it is going to be in Foxboro instead of Houston.
The fact that the Texans somewhat backed into the playoffs this year may rear its ugly head on Sunday as they go back to New England, the place where they got trounced only 2 months ago. As a matter of fact, it would appear that the game against the Patriots in Week 14 is what sent the Texans reeling. After that shelleacking the Texans would lose 2 out of 3 and apparently lose their pass rush as well.
Over the past 3 games the Texans have only managed 4 sacks after averaging about 3 per game before that stretch. This does not bode well for them against the fast-paced, hurry up offense of the Patriots. If the Texans are not able to get more pressure on Tom Brady than last time, it could make for an even longer night for the road team considering the fact that the Patriots are finally completely healthy (especially Rob Gronkowski).
Now, the Patriots have had two weeks off and could get off to a slow start, so it will be crucial for the Texans to get on the scoreboard early and often. Which hasn’t been too much of a problem for the Texans, but doing it by the way of touchdowns, certainly has. At home against the Bengals defense last week the Texans had 420 yards of offense, yet only managed to score 1 lone TD. That won’t cut it when Tom Brady is on the other sideline.
Speaking of Tom Brady, now that the Broncos have lost, the Patriots have the ability to play at home until the Super Bowl. Not only that, but this will be the first game all year in which the Patriots offense will have both of their talented tight ends in the lineup. Based on Week 14, that means bad things for the Texans defense. The Patriots have averaged 35 points per game this year and have yet to be at full strength.
With all that being said, the Patriots defense will be the key today. This is a defense that struggled most of the year, yet somehow managed to continue and create turnovers and limit TD’s. In order for Texans to keep this one close, they will not be able to settle for field goals and they CANNOT turn the ball over.
I think the Texans know this though and I wouldn’t be surprised if they go for it on manageable 4th downs throughout the game, but I don’t see that being enough.
Had this game been in Texas, it could be a much different ballgame, but the way that the Texans just handed New England home field advantage could prove the Texans biggest mistake in this game.
In the end, the Texans are not designed for a shootout and I think that is what this will turn into. That combined with the fact that the Patriots are at home and will be able to run their no huddle offense extremely effectively makes it hard to think the Texans can pull of such a huge upset. I think the Texans could make it interesting early if the Patriots start slow, but the Patriots pull away in the end. Pats by 12.
Follow Cole Stevenson on Twitter: @Cole_Stevenson
After sending the Colts home last week the Ravens look to keep their good play going against the hottest (and maybe best) team in the NFL. The Broncos have won 11 straight games and have been clicking on all cylinders. The Broncos boast the NFL’s 3rd best defense and the 2nd best scoring offense. Peyton Manning has transformed his group into a true title contender that the Ravens are going to be hard pressed to slow down without playing a great game themselves.
Key Matchup: Ray Rice vs. Denver Defense. If the Ravens are going to win this game they need to control the ball. Rice has had a mediocre year by his standards, but he is still one of the best running backs in the NFL and he plays the one position that the Ravens outmatch the Broncos in. Rice needs to have a big day because the Raven defense isn’t going to stop Peyton Manning; so the longer he’s on the sidelines the better. Likewise, if Rice is running the ball effectively it may open up some big play opportunities for Boldin and Smith. If the Broncos shut down Rice and Flacco has to throw the ball all around the field, the Ravens can’t win. Rice must have a big day.
Injury Report: Like most teams at this time of year the Ravens are nicked up all over the place. Luckily, though, it looks like most of the key players will start on Saturday. The only players likely to not start are Vonta Leach and Bernard Peirce. Danelle Ellerby (who has been the unsung leader of this defense) is questionable and will be a game time decision. The Broncos will be without Willis McGahee for sure, even though he returned to practice this week. The question mark is Tracy Porter. The star cornerback is still ailing from a concussion and hasn’t been cleared to play yet. All in all, both teams have to be somewhat satisfied with where they stand injury-wise.
Player to Watch: Joe Flacco. I have been an outspoken doubter of Flacco, but he’s going to have his chance to prove me (and many others) wrong this weekend. I don’t think Ray Rice is going to have a huge day. He is only averaging a bit over 70 yards per game and this isn’t your average defense. That means the burden of keeping up with the high scoring Broncos will fall on the shoulders of Joe Flacco. Can he step up and into that elite class that many think he belongs in? I doubt it, but we’ll see.
My Prediction: Ravens 17 Broncos 31. I don’t think this is going to be that close of a game. The Broncos are just too strong for the Ravens on both sides of the ball. In the playoffs it almost always comes down to the battle of the superior QBs and this one isn’t even close. The cold weather could affect Manning a little bit, but I think he’s just too good to not put up big numbers on this struggling Raven defense.
The haterade floweth freely against the Falcons. So many people scoff at their 13-3 record, citing mainly the lack of strength of schedule. The undeniable truth, however, is that the Falcons have it all going for them this year. They went 13-3 in an NFC South division that featured 34 wins as their division rivals all finished 7-9. They were phenomenal at home going 7-1 only losing a cleanup game to a feisty Buccaneers team. They don’t have to worry about the pesky Saints club this year that finished 7-9 despite a horrific start to the season in the midst of their bountygate scandal, and having their eyes set on a Super Bowl XLVII that would have proven to be a home game for them.
Matty Ice has had a career year posting his best numbers in yards, touchdowns and passer rating. Most notable of those numbers being the 4,700+ yards passing that should put him into the “elite” talk that sports pundits love to cite. Tony Gonzalez is having his best year since joining the Dirty Birds or rather since he was a young whippersnapper at the age of 32. The offense in general is looking well-balanced and efficient, and the defense is looking as stout as it has ever looked during Ryan’s tenure as the Falcons have scored an impressive 419 points and held their opponents to an even more impressive 299.
All signs point to postseason success for a habitually underachieving Falcons team that have fizzled come January year after year. The only thing that has the Falcons looking like Plaxico Burress (shooting themselves in the foot) is sustaining key injuries to Dunta Robinson and John Abraham in the final game of the season. Let me just say, I feel bad for Mike Smith. He’s an old school careful calculator that knows how to put a good team together even if he lacks the gall to be modern NFL coach and lacks in leadership. You can tell he is frustrated, there is a sense of being backed into a corner in Atlanta both by fate and by the media. An easy reference to such frustration is the relationship between the Brees Saints and the Ryan Falcons in the last few years. You can go back to Ryan’s rookie days where Smith took the old school approach and trusted his defense.
In 2008 the Falcons were facing a 4th and 5 with about 3:30 left and 2 timeouts trailing the Saints 25-29. Smith decided to go the conservative route and punt the ball to Brees and lo and behold Brees closed out the game. Then fast forward to 2010, where the Falcons are trailing the pain-in-their-side Saints on Monday Night Football facing a 4th and 6 from their own 44 with two timeouts and 3 minutes to go. Smith decides to punt again and déjà vu Brees closes it out. The very next year the Falcons manage to take their big brother Saints to OT and face a 4th and inches from their own 29. You can only take so much right? Smith finally fights back, but with an outdated old school approach and chooses a run up the gut that the Saints were plenty ready for and handed them a victory.
“Stigma” is the word. That sort of stigma doesn’t fade from the Saints-Falcons rivalry, and Smith has developed an even more significant stigma with postseason play.
In Ryan’s rookie year in 2008 the Falcons managed to earn a wildcard spot against the Cardinals going 11-5. The rookie Ryan’s nerves stunk up the football and the defense was itching to pounce on him. He started the game with a pick and Smith reacted by breaking out the Vince Lombardi playbook and called an old man’s game from there on. The Cardinals were all over it and forced a key fumble and another pick to end the Falcons run. Now I’m sure that loss didn’t sting too bad. You had a rookie quarterback that was nervous which isn’t rare by any means and you ran into a team of destiny.
When the Falcons returned to the playoff spotlight in 2010 they decided to try and get into a shootout with Aaron Rodger’s Packers, which is basically like trying to get into a shootout with Wild Bill. They did manage to trade punches for most of the first half, but the game was defined by one play. After throwing a pick in a 14-14 tie late in the second that led to a Packers touchdown, the Falcons managed to get into field goal range with only seconds to work with. Ryan dropped back, let one fly, and found himself trying to chase down Traymon Williams as he housed a pick 6 with as time expired to give the Packers a 28-14 lead that came from 14 points being scored in less than 3 minutes. The Falcons never recovered, fumbling twice in the fourth quarter and losing by 27. You could almost hear Smith saying “No I’m telling you this’ll work! It’s how I’ve always played the game.”
Last year the Falcons got yet another shot. After a huge momentum boost in getting a safety in what looked to be a defensive struggle and field position battle, the Falcons just quit playing. The offense did absolutely nothing and the defense began to lay down for the eventual Super Bowl Champion Giants. It was the same old game plan from the same old coach.
I have to admit, this year the team looks to be playing at today’s NFL speed and cunning. You see the zone runs and stop routes, the utilization of the tight end and some beautifully orchestrated play action.
The only thing is that the damage is done.
To win now under Smith the Falcons will have to play perfect, or get a visit from the Men in Black and have their memories erased with a poof of red light. Even with no Saints, a not-so-young quarterback that is now of veteran-elite status, and a stellar season at their backs, the Falcons have a looming air of failure. All it will take is one or two small things, a turnover, a missed block, a sack, even a three and out might do it. The memories of the failures of years passed will haunt them.
Smith will be haunted most.
There has to be a sense of injustice that besieges this poor man. In his eyes he’s doing nothing wrong, he putting a solid team together, and keeping true to the old school mentality of the way the game is played that he holds so dear. He’s getting results from his team with plenty of wins and success in the regular season and fails to see why it doesn’t work in the postseason. The answer is that you have to take risks to win in January. Teams save their best for playoff games, tricky plays, surprises left and right. If you are taught to stand your ground like a Smith coached team is, then it’s no wonder that you are caught flat-footed. The key to the Falcons winning in the postseason is ridding themselves of an outdated stigma named Mike Smith.
Before you bet the mortgage on Seattle or Denver to win the Super Bowl this week, a quick word of advice that the talking heads on TV either do not want to believe or choose not to recognize.
Momentum doesn't matter.
During the first group of playoff games this season five teams were coming off of victories while three squads entered the postseason having lost on the final Sunday of the regular season. The three teams coming off of defeats went 3-0. The only winner among teams with “momentum” was Seattle, who helped snap Washington's seven game winning streak.
This is not a new phenomenon.
Last year during the first round of the playoffs both Houston and Denver earned victories. Both teams began the post-season having dropped three straight. Teams coming off of a loss were 2-2, exactly the same record as squads entering the playoffs off of wins.
The last six Super Bowl winners have been a mixed bag as to how they finished the regular season. None of the six won more than two straight to end the year. Only New Orleans, who lost their final three games, entered the postseason with setbacks in weeks 15 and 16. Besides Pittsburgh rolling off seven of their final eight, and last year's Giants winning three out of four down the stretch, recent champions have tended to approach the playoffs with good but not great resumes.
That is seemingly good news for Houston, Baltimore, and Atlanta. Both the Texans and Ravens won with relative ease during the Wild Card round despite playing less than their best at the end of the regular season. Atlanta hosts Seattle Sunday having dropped two of their last four. All three of these teams have something in common. They each were securely in the playoffs for most of the season and did not need tremendous finishes in order to secure postseason births. In the case of Baltimore it allowed key veterans extra rest before the playoffs began. Perhaps there is something to be said for limiting the number of stressful “must win” regular season games.
Maybe being fresh for the playoffs trumps having “momentum.”
I'm never quite sure what decision-making trends to expect out of the NFL playoffs. It seems any decision can be justified by the playoffs. "It's the playoffs," one of the exalted keepers of the true knowledge can say. "You have to leave it all on the line," he says as the coach keeps the offense on the field for a fourth and goal.
But, he could just as easily say, "You don't have a choice here. You have to live to fight another day." The field goal team trots out for a 20-yard chip shot instead.
The field goal teams were out in force for Wild Card Weekend. Presented with 27 fourth downs inside the opponent's 40 yard line, teams kicked 17 field goals, punted twice, and went for it just eight times. Of the 17 field goal attempts, only eight were the optimal win expectancy choice according to the 4th down calculator. All told, coaches left 0.24 of win expectancy and 6.3 expected points on the table with these decisions.
Overall, teams saw 66 fourth down plays and made the optimal decision 49 times. Only one of the 11 decisions to go for it was suboptimal (by Washington when they were already down by 10 late in the game) and seven of the 33 punts were as well. The biggest whiffs were typically in field goal situations, but to the coaches' credit, the kickers were sharp: they combined to convert 16 of the 17 field goals on the week.
Still, there were a few calls worth questioning even given the true kicks. After making a borderline call to go for it on fourth-and-5 from the 34 -- probably the right call given the unreliability of Mason Crosby this season -- and succeeding, the Packers kicked on a fourth-and-goal from the one yard line with 3:25 to go in the 2nd quarter. The Seahawks, up by seven against the Redskins, chose to kick on fourth-and-goal from the 4 with 5:32 to go in the game.
Despite the automatic nature of field goals from such short distances, the Packers were leaving 2.1 points on the board (they "led" the week with 4.3 EPA and 0.10 WPA below optimal decisions). For the Seahawks, leaving Washington pinned inside the five down by seven was a roughly equivalent position to leading by 10 and giving them the ball on a kickoff; leading by 14 would have all but assured overtime as the worst possible case.
Fourth down decisions made a boring game in Houston between the Texans and Bengals into an infuriating one. Gary Kubiak's Texans chose to kick from inside the 10-yard line three times and again on a fourth-and-1 from the 30; he also punted on a fourth-and-1 from the 50 up by six in the third quarter. All told, he left 3.3 points and five percentage points of win expectancy on the table.
Marvin Lewis had fewer tough decisions to make, but he was somehow even more passive. He twice chose to kick field goals down by nine, first on a fourth-and-2 from the 16 in the third quarter -- the one miss of the weekend -- and again on a fourth-and-2 from the 29 in the fourth quarter. Lewis left a full point on the table with these decisions and, more importantly, seven percentage points of win expectancy.
Of course, solid play and good coaching in other areas can more than overcome these (usually) small tactical errors. The Packers and Seahawks won despite worse decisions (by WPA) than the Vikings and Washington. The Bengals and Colts were losers in the same situation.
A breakdown by team and situation can be seen below:
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