Friday, January 13, 2012

Zach's Amazing NFL Playoff Picks: Divisional Round

I’ll gladly take going my 2-2 record in last week’s games knowing that the Steelers will not be hoisting the Lombardi trophy at the end of the season. To be fair, I did predict the Broncos would play really well – but this was in the same column where the following words were uttered: “No way Houston gets to 30 points,” “I see Tebow pulling something tragic . . . Or maybe it will be the first game to head to overtime and Tebow will pull a McNabb and misunderstand the rules,” “I’m picking Atanta.” The lesson, as always, is never listen to me.

New Orleans at San Francisco

The ’00 Titans. The ’01 Bears. The ’05 Bears. The ’06 Ravens. The ’08 Titans. And now the ’11 49ers. What did all of these teams have in common? A lot, actually…

Wins Seeding Def. Rank (Points/Yards) Off. Rank (Points/Yards)

’00 Titans 13 1 2/1 13/14

’01 Bears 13 2 1/15 11/26

’05 Bears 11 2 1/2 26/29

’06 Ravens 13 2 1/1 12/17

’08 Titans 11 1 2/7 14/21

’11 49ers 13 2 2/4 11/26

Now the most common element between the first five teams is that they lost their first playoff game at home and were knocked out of the playoffs. In those playoff games, on average, the five teams scored 13.2 points and lost by an average margin of just under 10 points.

The even more sobering news for the 49ers is that none of those teams even squared off against good offenses, with the exception of the 2006 Ravens, who lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Colts. For the other four teams, they lost to a playoff opponent which, on average, ranked 18th in offensive yards gained (although they averaged a more modest 10th best in points scored). In case you’ve been living under a rock the past four months, the New Orleans Saints did not simply gain more offensive yards than any team in 2011, but more than any other NFL team in history. Maybe they were slipping in offensive points scored, since their 547 was 13 points less than the Packers, and good for only 4th all-time. But who’s counting?

But let’s stay focused on San Francisco for just a second. There is no doubt they have the weapons to stop the Saints’ attack (if the Rams could do it, couldn’t the 49ers?) They led the league in fewest turnovers (a record-tying 10), most takeaways (38, good for 10th all-time), and fewest rush yards allowed. They didn’t allow a rush touchdown until December 24. As for their passing defense, they were around the middle of the pack, but their ability to force turnovers nullified otherwise strong performances by Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger. Yes they played the NFC West, but they also played 9 teams with .500 records or better. The turnover stat may be a bit deceptively optimistic; the other three teams in NFL history who turned the ball over less than 13 times in a season were the 2008 Dolphins, 2008 Giants, and 2010 Patriots – all of whom lost their first playoff game.

There is no point in talking about what the Saints can do, except it does need to be noted that on the road, they eclipsed 30 points on only three occasions. Their five victories came against the Jaguars, Panthers, Falcons, Titans, and Vikings – not really a killer lineup. On the road, Drew Brees threw 17 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, but 5 of those touchdowns came in one game against the lowly Vikings. The Saints also struggled to create turnovers; in no away game this year did they force more than 1 turnover, and their turnover margin on the road was an unimpressive minus-seven. Their running game also suffered. Including last week’s win over the Lions, the Saints averaged 165.8 rushing yards at home; away, that average spiraled down to just over 100 yards. At home, the 49ers gave up an average of 68.6 yards.

The running game is critical for the Saints’ success in opening up the passing game. Their three losses came when they were held to 81, 70, and 56 yards on the ground, respectively. I think it’s safe to say that the New Orleans running game will not be the same; but their prolific passing offense make up the difference?

I say it can, based primarily on the similarity between this year’s 49ers and the other five teams listed earlier. Previous success is a key indicator in games like these, where the “hot” team’s strengths will be tested by an otherwise unproven, less experienced squad. No way the Saints go into this game more intimidated than the 49ers. I love how the 49ers play; run the ball, do nothing fancy, play for field position, put from the opponent 40. Bill Simmons pointed out earlier this week that San Francisco never deviates from this conservative, ball-control strategy, even if they are trailing by double-digits (look at the Baltimore game). The Saints are a great example of a team that gets erratic when panicked (witnessed even a little bit in the second quarter of last week’s Wild Card game).

I really want to pick the 49ers in this game, mostly because they public overvalues the way that the Saints are playing, and have been deceived by the weak level of their opponents over the last several weeks. Few people have seen this San Francisco team, the unique game plans they run, and how 2000 Ravens-like the defense looks at times. But in a stroke of supremely horrible luck, the 49ers drew arguably the most prolific offense in history, and I don’t think the mild January San Francisco weather will stagnate Brees and company too substantively. Any other opponent – and I mean any other opponent – for the 49ers and we would be talking about a different result.

Prediction: New Orleans 31, San Francisco 24

Playoff doppelganger: 2005 NFC Divisional Round, Carolina 29, Chicago 21. People don’t remember how great the 2005 Bears defense was, with Urlacher, Briggs, Tommie Harris, Mike Brown, and Charles Tillman. Unfortunately, their quarterbacks were Rex Grossman and rookie Kyle Orton, and the team’s fastidious ball-control strategy quickly had to be abandoned after the Panthers, who had made the Super Bowl two years earlier, went up 13-0 early. Steve Smith 1.0 couldn’t be stopped, with 218 receiving yards, 2 TDs, and some serious jumping on the goal posts.

Denver at New England

Last week was a classic Tebow performance of “You Doubted Me So Now I (And Jesus) Will Show That You’re Wrong.” So why shouldn’t we believe Tebow can do the same thing against the Patriots? If he can throw for a season-high 316 yards against the league’s best pass defense, why can’t he put up even bigger numbers against a New England defense that allowed more than 316 passing yards on eight occasions this season?

The answer, though, is that he cannot and will not (actually, I’ll restate this: I don’t think he will. I hate idiotic sports writers who make guarantees as though they’re clairvoyant.) You can point to the matchup last month between the two teams, and look at Tebow’s statistics – 11 of 22 for 194 yards, 0 TDs or interceptions – and infer that it was easily the Patriots best performance against the pass all season. But what was more important was the Broncos defense’s inability to get to Brady. He was sacked only twice, and when pressure can’t get to Brady, he burns defenses every time.

As a Patriots fan, I can’t deny that I have serious doubts about this team. They didn’t beat a team with a winning record all season, and only three other teams had easier schedules (the Broncos game, in fact, may have been their most impressive victory.) This is a team that found itself trailing 17-0 and 21-0 at home to the Dolphins and Bills, respectively, over the last two weeks of the regular season. We all know about how horrific their pass defense was, but their rush defense wasn’t anything special either, ranking 17th in rushing yards allowed and 24th in yards per carry. And as a Patriots fan, I cannot (nor ever will be able to) entirely erase the memory of last year’s horrific home playoff loss to the Jets. Never as a football fan was I more upset at a game in my life.

Can the Broncos do it again? The story isn’t too different from the Jets last year; one month prior to their playoff meeting, New England had destroyed them in the regular season, 45-3 (New England beat Denver 41-23 on December 18). But although they have flaws, there are too many other positive things the Patriots do to have me pick against them. In their eight games since November 13, the Patriots have turned the ball over a total of 3 times (they forced 20 turnovers). They score an average of 30.75 points at home; the Broncos allow an average 25 points per game on the road. So you have to think the Broncos must score over 25 points to win the game, which they’ve only done twice this year, including last week. New England has scored 25+ points in all but three games this season. Don’t expect the blowout some are predicting (the 13.5 point spread for New England is too much), but it’s mostly a no-brainer.

Prediction: New England 28, Denver 20

Playoff Doppelganger: 2010 NFC Divisional Round, Chicago 35, Seattle 24. OK, I don’t get any points for originality here. Lots of loser talking heads talking about the similarities between this Broncos team and the unlikely 7-9 Seahawks from last year. They have radically different styles, but both benefit enormously from homefield advantage in the Wild Card round. No team finishing .500 or below has won more than one playoff game, and Tebow is unlikely to start that trend this year.

Houston at Baltimore

Quietly, the most intriguing matchup of the divisional round. On paper, everything should point to a Baltimore victory. During the regular season, the Ravens went 8-0 at home, with an average margin of victory of 13 points. In Week 6, they beat the Texans 29-14, and that was with a healthy Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, and Ben Tate. They went 6-0 against playoff teams this year, and the fans will be pumped for the Ravens’ first home playoff game in five years. Flacco has one at least one playoff game each year of his career.

But I am not sold entirely on the Ravens. For a team that prides itself on tough, grinding physical football, they are wildly inconsistent at times, especially when they are unable to run the ball with success. When they ran the ball over 26 times, the Ravens were 12-0; when they ran the ball 17 times or less, they were 0-4. In their losses, they averaged 14 rush attempts for 61 yards, and Ray Rice averaged only 39 yards per game. Keep in mind that their four losses all came against unimpressive teams that missed the playoffs. Not to mention that the ’08 Panthers, ’09 Patriots, and ’10 Patriots each went 8-0 at home in the regular season before blowing their first home playoff game.

And then there’s Joe Flacco. There’s no denying that there’s a Roethlisberger-esque stench about him; in other words, the more he gets involved in the Ravens offense, the worse the rest of the team plays on a whole. And Cam Cameron was not afraid to have him air the ball out on several occasions; Flacco threw over 32 times in eight games this season (the Ravens went 4-4 in those games). Flacco looked great a few times, such as Baltimore’s crucial win in Pittsburgh, and in both victories over Cincinnati. But then there was the quarterback who completed under a third of his passes against the Jets, and the quarterback who had 23 incompletions against the Seahawks, and the quarterback who forgot to show up in San Diego. In 2011, he completed a career-low 57.6 percent of his passes, good for 26th in the league; Rex Grossman, Tavaris Jackson, Carson Palmer, and Kevin Kolb all ranked higher.

Flacco is inconsistent at best, and he’ll need to play well against a defense that has excelled against the run all year. The Texans haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since October 16, when (appropriately enough) Ray Rice eclipsed the century mark. So why haven’t I focused on T.J. Yates going against another steller Ravens defense? Because although statistically they’ve looked good against the pass (allowing a league-low 11 passing touchdowns), they are playing a team which fundamentally does not need to rely on a solid passing game to win. Kinda like the Titans, Jaguars, and Seahawks. Just sayin’.

Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. This is a difficult game to find many concrete reasons defending my pick; everything on paper says Baltimore (I didn’t even mention that Houston had the NFL’s easiest schedule this year). But something isn’t right. Maybe it’s that, the last game I saw Ravens play, they were laying a massive egg against the Chargers. Maybe it’s knowing their disappointing recent playoff history, and the sting of last year’s Divisional Round loss to the Stealers. Maybe I’m taking too much from how good the Texans looked against a pedestrian Bengals team. But I see the Texans taking a quick 7-0 lead, and the Ravens hastily turning to the pass, leading to disastrous results. You cannot win a Super Bowl in this era with a bad quarterback, and Flacco has not definitively proven he is not one. T.J. Yates, meanwhile, still hasn’t made that crucial rookie mistake that kills his team’s playoff hopes. It won’t be happening this week either.

Prediction: Houston 16, Baltimore 13

Playoff doppelganger: 2009 AFC Divisional Round, NY Jets 17, San Diego 14. Low-scoring, unspectacular, fairly boring game that turned in favor of the road underdog after the home team’s quarterback made too many gaffes. The Chargers had won 11 straight games heading into the matchup and, like the Ravens, it was hard to justify why they would lose except for the disappointment of their recent playoff history.

New York at Green Bay

Probably the easiest game of the weekend to pick.

I’ll briefly make the biggest arguments for the Giants: They had the third-toughest schedule in the league, playing ten teams finishing .500 or above and four playoff teams (they became the first team since 2006 to beat Tom Brady in Foxboro in the regular season); their running game finally looks intact, and (including last week) the Giants were 8-0 in games where they rushed for 102 yards or more; if you buy into this whole “2007 all over again” vibe, you can point to the fact that the ’07 Giants lost to the Cowboys, Packers, and Patriots in the regular season before defeating them in the playoffs (defeating Green Bay at Lambeau). When the Giants played the Packers in Week 13 this season, they kept pace with the Packers and nearly pulled off an upset.

Also, my favorite random Giants stat: Since 2006, every team that has made the Super Bowl has played the Patriots at some point during the regular season. The only NFC team to play the Patriots this year: The Giants. OK, that was a stupid, but undeniably interesting, fact.

Believe it or not, this is Aaron Rodgers’ first home playoff game. The Packers finally get Greg Jennings (and a couple of key offensive linemen) back, and you could certainly argue that giving up 41 points to the Lions at home in Week 17 was a fluke, since so many defensive starters were on the bench. They have the second-best scoring offense of all time going against a Giants defense that gave up just under 27 points per game on the road. But it’s reasonable to throw out regular-season statistics with New York, because according to the regular season, the 2007 Giants should have lost their first playoff game.

Sorry, I’ll stay on the Packers. The only team that stopped the Packers this season was the Chiefs in Week 14 (a time when injuries were seriously beginning to stack up for this team). Kansas City controlled the ball for 36 minutes, did not turn the ball over (the only team all year that didn’t turn the ball against the Packers), picked up 23 first downs, and sacked Aaron Rodgers four times . . . and only beat Green Bay by five. In other words, it is extremely difficult to beat this team. You need a balanced offense that can keep Rodgers off the field and completely eliminate turnovers. And that still doesn’t account for Rodgers’ remarkable accuracy and poise when he’s on the field.

In some ways, that loss to the Chiefs may have been a good thing for the Packers, since they are now no longer under the same kind of pressure for perfection as the 2007 Patriots. The Giants are a tough first draw, but I don’t see how their secondary can contain Green Bay’s passing game. This will be a high-scoring game which will not be as close as the scoreboard may reflect.

Prediction: Green Bay 38, New York 29

Playoff doppelganger: 2007 AFC Divisional Round, New England 31, Jacksonville 20. The Jaguars were a genuinely good team that season, and were coming off an awfully impressive performance against the Steelers. But the Pats offense and Tom Brady were just too much to ask for that secondary.

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