We’re about to experience the greatest weekend of the NFL year. Shocking upsets make it great when we see which of last week’s winners can go on the road and beat the rested bye teams, who obviously compiled the top records in the league. Anymore, it’s hard to keep calling them upsets when the playoffs produce so many of these results every year. You have to go back to the top-heavy 2004 season to find a home sweep on Divisional weekend.
At well over 7,000 words, I think I’ve done my share of analysis on the AFC games, so please click here to read that if you haven’t.
What I will do here is share opinions as a fan for these games, since they obviously mean more to me than the NFC games. I’m not afraid to admit I am pulling hard for a Colts-Broncos AFC Championship, but I feel like it’s the least likely scenario. After having to watch Ravens-Patriots the last two years, I could use a true rooting interest next week (and in the Super Bowl). Yet I feel like we’re headed for Chargers-Patriots, and I just hope Philip Rivers gets through the weekend with his knee ligaments intact so that game’s not compromised again.
“And the captain’s abandoned ship. Can you believe it? No! They had to. No! It won’t do. It’s hard to swim when lies will drown you.” – Stop It!!
Yes, I essentially picked the Denver Broncos to win Super Bowl XLVIII the moment Super Bowl XLVII ended. I picked Denver in April. I picked them in August and in the first week of September when I made my season predictions. Now prior to their first playoff game, I am siding with the Chargers to knock them out.
Jameis Winston asked me why I’m picking San Diego. He said, or I said, not even my cousin in THE AFGHANISTAN said he can believe I’m picking San Diego. Is my confidence strong with this pick? No, but I said we strong. He said we strong then. San Diego strong.
All jokes aside, the real question is at what point am I allowed to change my mind based on new information?
Part of the reason I liked Denver was the potential of the defense, which had a solid 2012 performance. They don’t have to be a dominant force for this team to go the distance given the offense, but they can’t be a liability. Based on the last four months, I see a postseason liability and I see the unit’s best player, Von Miller, sidelined for the year with a torn ACL. Miller returning from his suspension and being a dominant force to lead the defense, which of course also lost Elvis Dumervil over a fax fiasco, was part of my expectations for Denver. That’s gone.
What’s left is a pass-happy offensive juggernaut, and everything I have learned about NFL history tells me such a team fails in the postseason, because the defense has to come through too, and unless you’re the 1999 Rams, so does the running game at least once. The loss may not be on Sunday, but winning a Super Bowl will be very difficult for this team without some significant changes in performance. No one can do it winning 35-31 every week in the playoffs and I see Denver having to do that twice just to get to New Jersey.
I would probably be talking about things much differently if the Broncos were facing Kansas City or Indianapolis this week, but it’s San Diego and that’s a problem as I detailed in my preview. Now this isn’t a reliable opponent, but I feel like I know a Peyton Manning team very well through years of analysis. I can usually pick out on the schedule in April which games will be difficult for his team to win. Yes, he’s changed cities, coaches and teammates, but he puts his stamp on a team unlike anyone else.
Being the most consistent player in NFL history, running basically the same offense his whole career and being tied to flawed defenses, it all creates for a lot of consistency in how certain opponents play Manning’s team. Two of Denver’s three losses this year coming against New England and San Diego are no surprise at all. For the Chargers to win it has to come as it usually does: win the trenches, win the field position battle, own the running game and get those mistakes from Manning’s passing game any way they can. This team is built to do that and the Broncos are not the highly efficient juggernaut their 26-6 record suggests the last two years. They are only -1 in turnover differential, which is absurd when you consider New England (+34) and Seattle (+33) in that department since 2012.
So much of the game is about red zone and turnovers. Denver’s great in the red zone, but must stop fumbling the football and get some more takeaways.
Am I going too historical on this one? I don’t think so. There’s an interesting 10-game sample of the Chargers against Manning — defensive coordinator John Pagano was on defensive staff for all 10 games — and we see a lot of the same things happen regardless of all the changing parts. Forcing a one-dimensional passing attack while Philip Rivers turns into more of a game manager to control the clock with the run is one of the biggest parts of the plan. Some damn good luck has worked too.
To counter myself, let’s recall the setting of a playoff game in the 2003 AFC Wild Card between Manning’s Colts and the Denver Broncos. In Week 16, Denver went on the road as a 6.5-point underdog in a prime-time game and dominated the clock, holding the ball for 44:58. Manning only threw for 146 yards and the offense scored 10 points on 8 drives. Denver won 31-17. Now I don’t recall the specific chatter two weeks later in the postseason other than “when’s Peyton Manning going to win a playoff game?!”. The game was in Indianapolis again, but the Broncos were only a 3-point underdog this time and came in with confidence of dominating there. Well, Manning went 16-of-18 for 327 yards and 4 TDs in the first half to build a 31-3 lead on the way to an easy win.
So much for the road underdog having confidence from a few weeks ago. I doubt we see that type of history repeat itself, but I’ll feel pretty foolish if it does. At least I’ll be a satisfied fool.
I hate to even get into the “Manning’s 9-11 in the playoffs; eight one-and-dones!” thing before he takes the field this postseason, but I feel like I wrote a pretty definitive article about eight of those losses last year. I’ve read some pretty bad articles this week about the topic. I know I’ll have more to write about Manning and other quarterbacks in the coming weeks.
I was going to conclude with a rant about how sometimes I start to believe the critics are onto something. Maybe Manning is too robotic/over-studied for the playoffs and that’s holding him back in the big moments. But then I just slap myself with the dose of reality that seven of the guy’s one-and-done postseasons were by a combined margin of 26 points and none of the most critical, game-changing plays in those seven games was a mistake he made.
So that rant can wait another day, because there’s no shortage of idiocy during the postseason to refute.
Saints at Seahawks
The more I think about Seattle’s 34-7 thrashing of New Orleans over a month ago, the more I think we’re going to get a much better game this week. Let’s not forget there was an unfortunate bounce in good field position on the Brees fumble that became a touchdown return. While Brees is no stranger to turning the ball over on the road, that quick score and 10-0 deficit really drove the crowd wild in the way a turnover 50 yards down the field that just gives Seattle the ball in a 3-0 game would not have done. Then in the third quarter the Seahawks got that crazy bounce on a touchdown to Derrick Coleman. It was just Seattle’s night, but it’s 0-0 starting on Saturday.
I’m not sure the Saints are getting enough respect in this game. Yes, the road woes are worth mentioning, but any time you’re talking about one of the best coaches and quarterbacks in the league, any game can be had with a brilliant performance. But the Saints aren’t likely to get brilliance from Brees against the league’s best pass defense.
Seattle’s only allowed more than 24 points twice at home in their last 24 home games. Both of those games were in 2011 before this was a playoff team. That also includes a 34-12 loss to the 2011 Bengals in which Cincinnati scored two return touchdowns. This defense is very difficult to score on, especially at home. The key to doing it is to have great talent at wide receiver to match up with those cornerbacks. The Saints are lacking a bit in that department this year, so boxing up tight end Jimmy Graham with size and safety help from this Seattle secondary makes that a less than favorable matchup for New Orleans compared to most weeks.
That’s why the key to the game will be to win the rushing battle in the way New Orleans surprisingly did against Philadelphia on the road. If there’s a vulnerability to the Seattle defense, it would be stopping the run. On the other side, the Saints did a very good job against LeSean McCoy and the No. 1 rush offense. They also shut down Marshawn Lynch on MNF, holding him to 45 yards on 16 carries. Lynch has quietly had some poor games down the stretch this season, only topping 4.0 YPC once in his last six outings.
So I’m not concerned with Lynch running all over the Saints. Russell Wilson is the problem. He was so effective on the move in the first meeting and he really does that every week, but was especially deadly that night. Wilson holds onto the ball a lot, so the Saints have to find a way to make him pay. I think Rob Ryan should dial back the blitz and try to make Wilson overthink what he’s seeing. This is not the greatest receiving corps in the playoffs and I’m not expecting a ton from Percy Harvin in his return to the lineup. Make Wilson hold the ball, plaster the receivers and the defensive line needs to play a hell of a game.
If the Saints are going to win this game, it’s going to be about helping Brees with the support of a running game so he doesn’t have to be perfect, not letting Lynch dominate and keeping Wilson’s big plays down. It’s not helping New Orleans with Kenny Vaccaro out at safety. Roman Harper would like to burn every tape of the last performance he had in Seattle in the playoffs.
But if Seattle’s going to lose in the playoffs, it’s going to be on the offense having a low-scoring day. I don’t see the Saints being the team to force them into one.
49ers at Panthers
This was a 10-9 game last time, but the 49ers are bringing more firepower for the rematch. Still, with these defenses, this is almost boringly predictable to be the weekend’s lowest-scoring game, and probably the closest for that reason. It could just come down to which mobile quarterback has the ball in his hands last.
ESPN had a good article on how both Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton have beat up on bad defenses in 2013 and struggled with the good ones. Yeah, another 10-9 score wouldn’t be that shocking.
The resurgence of the Panthers at 12-4 has been framed incorrectly this season. Riverboat Ron is more of a legend than a producer of on-field results. I posted this on Twitter over a week ago, but the idea of Cam Newton regressing in 2012 is just as laughable as the idea he’s progressed in 2013:
What’s really changed is Carolina has gotten so much better on defense. Only the Saints have scored more than 24 points against the Panthers and that was in the Super Dome. I do think the front seven can give Kaepernick a lot of problems in this game. They already did in San Francisco when he couldn’t even break 100 yards passing. However, he is playing his best this season right now.
This game comes down to two glaring weaknesses for me. I think Jim Harbaugh is clearly the better head coach and while I expect points will be difficult to come by, I can’t ignore one glaring difference in the makeup of these teams:
- Panthers have a great defensive front, but not much in the secondary. The 49ers are bringing Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin to the party.
- 49ers have a strong defense with no glaring unit weakness. The Panthers have an injured Steve Smith, Ted Ginn, Greg Olsen and Brandon LaFell.
If this was a back alley brawl, I might take the Carolina guys on Smith’s craziness alone, but for this game, give me the 49ers. Now Carolina has home-field advantage and that is going to be tough for the 49ers to go back on the road again from west to east for an early game, but I have to go with the better team.
Oh yeah, SF-CAR will be the 500th playoff game in NFL history. Equating that to the regular season would take you back to the final late afternoon kickoff in Week 1 of the 2012 season. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Yet it feels like most NFL legacies are built around these few precious moments…
Let’s just say my scores did not work out too well last week (2-2 too). Closest was Green Bay needing to score four fewer points to nail that game at 23-20.
- Seahawks over Saints, 27-24
- Patriots over Colts, 34-17
- 49ers over Panthers, 17-13
- Chargers over Broncos, 34-28
If I have my first losing week of the season, I won’t mind.