Here’s what we learned from last weekend’s first round of NFL playoffs:
1. The playoffs are considerably less fun without: Tim Tebow, Rex Ryan, Rex Ryan’s wife’s feet, Ryan Clark’s genetic condition in high altitudes, Mike Tomlin/Omar Epps/Ike Turner, Scott Skiles/JasonStatham/Don Rickles, lookalikes in general, A.J. McCaron’s hot girlfriend, 1-point safeties, the words “Terrell Owens” and “danger” and “diving board.”
2. No team last week scored more than 24 points or less than 9 points. And yet somehow we ended up with four boring-ass games.
3. Grady Little and Pedro Martinez should never, ever be significant parts of professional sports teams in Washington, D.C.
4. Fortunately for the Beltway, John Wall is safe from getting injured as a result of excessivephysical activity. Maybe too many Honey Nut Cheerios?
5. Seattle is now 2-0 in bullshit good luck games this year and 10-5 in all other games.
6. “Thanks, Papa!”
OK, I’ll try my best to go easy on the Seahawks in this week’s column (12th Man fans
may even be pleasantly surprised by my pick). The plus side is that whenever I try to ease my hatred of Seattle, I tell myself two things: They haven’t won a Super Bowl, and they haven’t won a road playoff game since the Reagan administration. Now that one of those statements is no longer true (and the other may not be around too much longer), I’m just a little more justified in hating them. Go Thunder!
Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos (-9)
Saturday, January 12, 4:30pm EST, CBS
Oh boy. This Ravens team is starting to look very ’08-Cardinals-’10-Packers-’11-Giants-like. After looking rather pitiful in four of their final five regular season games, Baltimore played an outstanding game last week. They gained 441 yards of offense, held the Colts out of the end zone, and disrupted the line of scrimmage. Was it a fluke? Was it because there was no way Ray Lewis was going to lose in his final home game? Was it because old-time Baltimore fans still hold long-standing resentment against the Colts? Or was it because, more simply, a veteran playoff team shut down a group of playoff newbies like they should have on paper?
Here’s another surprising thing to take from last Sunday’s game: Joe Flacco played really
well. Really well, in fact. He only completed 52 percent of his passes, but averaged 23.5 yards per completion, threw two touchdowns and no interceptions, and was only sacked once. He had a quarterback rating of 125.6 (his best since Week 1 of 2012) and a QBR of 89.5. On last Sunday, his composure and sudden lack of stupid plays seemed like less an anomaly, and more of a norm (what was an anomaly Sunday was Anquan Boldin, who has not had over 145 receiving yards in a game since 2008).
So OK. The Ravens looked great against a team that last week I had no problem coming with ten reasons why they shouldn’t have won the game (and yet, improbably, I still picked the Colts. At least you can’t call it “pulling a Flacco.”) But why should we believe Baltimore can beat a team they lost to by 17 points at home 24 days ago? Yes, the Ravens are now 5-0 in the Harbaugh era in their first playoff matchup . . . but only 1-3 in their next game.
Well, in the words of Bill Clinton at this year’s DNC, let’s look at the facts: The Broncos seemed pretty dang good this year. They finished in the top five in: Offense (points and yards), defense (points and yards), passing (yards for and yards against), rush defense, and sacks (performed and surrendered). Peyton Manning had his best statistical season since his famous 2004 season. The Broncos scored 30+ points in 11 games and allowed 24 points or under in 13 games. In fact, in those games the Broncos were 13-0. And ever since trailing 24-0 at San Diego on that fateful Monday night game on October 15, the Broncos have outscored opponents 346-151.
But beneath those sensational numbers lie a few other telling but must less widely-discussed statistics. Of all the remaining playoff teams, Denver had the easiest schedule. They only beat two playoff teams all season, and lost to the Falcons, Texans, and Patriots. The Ravens will only be the second team with a winning record the Broncos will face at home all year, and the first since September. On the season, Denver’s turnover ratio was -1 (in their twelve victories after their bye week, that ratio was only +2). No other remaining playoff team has a ratio of under +6. And in their last six games of the year, the Broncos as a team averaged a paltry 3.67 yards per carry. What is strange is that while their yards per carry declined as the season progressed, their total rushing yards per game actually increased. This statistic would indicate that the Broncos ran the ball a lot when leading big in the second half.
This is a much harder game to figure out than the Vegas line would indicate (in other words, I’d take money on Baltimore +9 in a hot second). Peyton Manning is 9-2 against the Ravens (including 2-0 in the playoffs) and hasn’t lost to them since 2001, which also happens to be the last time Baltimore won a game in Denver. But let’s not also forget the seven seasons in which Manning lost his first playoff game (four of which occurred at home; in a related story, Joe Flacco has four road playoff victories). Let’s not forget that the depleted defensive unit that took the field for the Ravens on December 16 was missing Ray Lewis. And let’s not forget the makeup of the past few Super Bowl champs – veteran teams underperforming at the end of the regular season, but coming together healthily in the postseason at just the right time.
It’s difficult to entirely predict, but hell, I’ll go with the Ravens. I don’t see a blowout either way. This is the game where Joe Flacco is transformed into simply “Joe.” This is not the last game the Ravens players want to play with their franchise’s all-time greatest player. This will be the sixth straight game where the Ravens’ opponent is over .500; this will be only the Broncos’ second such game since November 4. If Baltimore wins, I’ll look like a genius. And if they lose, I’ll look like the same guy who picked the Bengals, Colts, and Redskins last week.
Prediction: Baltimore 17, Denver 13
Playoff Doppelganger: 2005 AFC Divisional Round, Pittsburgh 21, Indianapolis 18. Ravens fans would be loath to ever compare a squad of theirs to the Stealers, but with Lewis’ imminent retirement, this feels a little like the ’05 Jerome Bettis squad that helped the referees win the Super Bowl for The Bus in his hometown of Detroit. Like this year, the Colts hadn’t played a meaningful game in weeks, had manhandled Pittsburgh in the regular season, and were stunned by the Stealers’ aggressive play.
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers (-3)
Saturday, January 12, 8:00pm EST, Fox
No serious NFL fan can say he or she doesn’t like seeing at least one playoff game every year at Candlestick Park in San Francisco; something about it just feels right, like “home fries,” “unlimited breadsticks,” or “Weinstein Oscar corruption.” This year, it’s a rematch of the two best NFC teams of the 90s not named the Dallas Cowboys; it’s Aaron Rodgers returning to the region where he grew up, while it’s Colin Kaepernick’s matchup against a team that plays 100 miles from where he was born. These two teams are a combined 9-1 in Super Bowls, and that number could reasonably swell to 10-1 after this season. Given Seattle’s momentum, it seems likely that the winner of this game could host the NFC Championship against a Seahawk team each is eager to have payback against for earlier regular-season losses.
It would be fascinating if Green Bay wins and ends up beating Seattle next week; that would mean the first three playoff quarterbacks they beat en route to the Super Bowl were Joe Webb, Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson (cue Bears’ fans collective head bashing). The oft-criticized secondary performed well last week, but if you were watching the game, you know that a good portion of Joe Webb’s 19 incompletions (on 30 attempts) had nothing to do with strong cornerback play and everything to do with the fact that Joe Webb somehow threw 30 passes.
That begs the question of Kaepernick’s effectiveness. The good news is that he is undefeated at home and has yet to throw an interception at Candlestick. You can say what you want to about Kaepernick being a running quarterback, but the truth is that in the eight games he started this year, he averaged exactly as many pass attempts per game (26.1) as Alex Smith in his eight starts. In fact, in the eternal Kaepernick vs. Smith debate (which will inevitably resurface unless San Francisco wins the Super Bowl), the only real verdict is that their numbers were frighteningly similar: Kaepernick was 6-2-1, Smith was 5-2, Kaepernick threw for 1814 yards and had 15 total TDs, Smith threw for 1737 yards and had 13 total TDs. The only real difference was that in Smith’s starts, the 49ers gave up an average of 14.1 points per game, while in Kaepernick’s starts, they gave up 20.8.
This stat could indicate a few things. The first would be that San Francisco played tougher opponents down the stretch (including road games against the Patriots and Seahawks, who scored 34 and 42 points on them, respectively). Another inference could be that Justin Smith, Dashon Goldson, and Carlos Rogers have been fighting more injuries in the second half of the season. Or it could be that with Kaepernick at QB, the 49ers play at a faster pace than they did with Smith, and therefore are more prone to surrender points after the offense scores.
They will need to keep up the pace against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense. Green Bay cannot realistically rely on DuJuan Harris to find any sort of success against the 49ers rush defense (pending, of course, the healthy statuses of Smith and Goldson), so it will likely come down to if the Packers can have success through the air. In his Week 1 loss, Aaron Rodgers completed 30 passes and had 303 yards; in last year’s electrifying divisional victory against the Saints, Drew Brees threw for a ridiculous 466 yards. A few weeks ago, Tom Brady tore up the 49ers defense after trailing 31-3, and nearly pulled off the improbable comeback. The common throughline for these three games is that in spite of giving up big passes, especially toward the ends of each games, the 49ers still prevailed. The secondary knows how to take a hit, but still finish games.
The teams which have had success against San Francisco (St. Louis, Seattle, New York) were all able to run the ball and dictate the tempo of the game. In games where the 49ers gave up 140 or more rushing yards as a team, they were 0-3-1; in all other games, they were 11-1. Additionally, San Francisco did worse in games where they turned the ball over; they were 2-3 in games which they committed two or more giveaways. But only one of those games was at home (the rather fluky Week 6 26-3 loss to the Giants). In the seven other home games this season, San Francisco turned the ball over a total of three times and outscored opponents 195-85.
I love Aaron Rodgers, but the truth is that the only three reasons to doubt the 49ers are their injuries on both sides of the ball (on offense, Mario Manningham and Vernon Davis), the Packers’ sudden momentum, and Kaepernick’s inexperience. Of course, Alex Smith had no experience before last year’s playoff game against the Saints, and no team had more momentum heading into the postseason last year than New Orleans. As for the injuries, there’s always a chance they will affect the game. But with all the success Adrian Peterson had against the Pack in the last month, why shouldn’t we believe that Kaepernick, Frank Gore, and maybe even LaMichael James could tear it up on the ground?
Up until writing this (Thursday night) I was fully prepared to take the Packers, but every year, there always seems to emerge one team that looks too good to be true in the wild-card round. There are many examples of this (2002 Jets, 2005 Patriots, 2011 Saints) and inevitably they disappoint the millions who bet on them and lose in the divisional road game. I think this will be a close one, but the Packers (4-4 on the road, 2-5 in the regular season when allowing 115+ rush yards, 1-4 when unable to force a takeaway) looked a little too good against a weak team last week and on paper this week seem a little overmatched.
Prediction: San Francisco 25, Green Bay 22
|Usually I post funny/stupid pictures (see Joe Flacco) but this was too awesome not to post.|
Playoff Doppelganger: 2001 AFC Divisional Round, New England 16, Oakland 13 (OT). Is it presumptuous to compare Colin Kaepernick’s first playoff game to Tom Brady’s “tuck rule” playoff debut? Maybe, but like the Packers this week, everyone and their mother had money on the experienced Raiders beating some guy named Belichick and Drew Bledsoe’s backup. San Francisco has the defense and rabid fan base to pull off a win, but it will take poise by Kaepernick to advance in the playoffs. Call me crazy like they did 11 years ago, but I think this guy has it.
Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons (-2.5)
Sunday, January 13, 1:00pm EST, CBS
Last Sunday, I texted Todd that Seattle’s win over Washington was similar to the 2005 Stealers beating the Carson Palmer-less Bengals after the vicious Kimo von Oelhoffen hit. Think about it for a second. The Bengals had a 66-yard completion on the second play of the game, and had a 10-point lead at home after the first quarter. But after Palmer’s injury, the Steelers took control of the game and won by 14. We’ll never know how Pittsburgh (or Seattle) would have fared had its opponents’ quarterback remained healthy for the entirety of the game. Does this scenario sound familiar?
Now the Seahawks move on to the Falcons, a team which like the 2005 Indianapolis Colts plays in a dome and hasn’t exactly had a great deal of previous playoff success (I’ve already used the Steelers victory over the Colts as a playoff doppelganger for the Ravens-Broncos game, so I’ll have to come up with something else). Like the 2005 Steelers, this Seahawk team appears incredibly dangerous and it’s difficult imagining a foreseeable scenario where a team can beat them.
Can the Falcons do it? Most statistical indications would say that, not unlike the past two seasons, the Falcons are vastly overrated. Michael Turner had his worst-ever season as a starter, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. But Jacquizz Rodgers hasn’t exactly been a relief, as he only averaged 3.9 yards, contributing to the fourth-worst rushing attack in the league. Seven of Atlanta’s wins were by a touchdown or less, and they haven’t played a playoff team since October 7, when they faced the then-2-2 Redskins (including last week, Seattle has played seven 10+ win teams). It also doesn’t help that the Falcons have never won a postseason game in the Matt Ryan era (they are 0-3, and have been outscored 102-47) and since 2005, 1 seeds are 6-10 in the divisional round. Since 2006, only one 1 seed in the NFC (the 2009 Saints) has advanced to the championship round. It’s amazing to think that, given recent history, the odds favor the Ravens and Seahawks this weekend.
The good news is that the Falcons are playing at home, where they won every game this season, save a meaningless Week 17 matchup against the Buccaneers. Although they only played three games against teams above .500, they went 3-0 in those games and outscored those opponents by an average of 16 points per game. And although Atlanta won a lot of close games, Matt Ryan had the second-most game-winning drives of any NFL QB (6). They are a top ten team in points scored, points allowed, giveaways, takeaways, and allowed the fewest passing touchdowns of any team in the league. The best thing the Falcons have going is their superb passing game; Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez each had over 79 catches, 900 receiving yards, and 7 touchdowns.
Seahawks fans should worry about their secondary – in the second half of the season, they didn’t face a single quarterback who ended up throwing for more than 4,000 yards (Matt Ryan threw for 4,719). The loss of Chris Clemons hurts; he accounted for 11.5 of the teams 36 sacks on the season (32 percent). In last week’s win over the Redskins, the Seahawks sacked a hobbling Griffin only twice, and it was Clemons who forced the near-fumble/incomplete pass at the beginning of the second quarter.
Thus, the key matchup for this game will be the Falcons’ putrid running game against the Seattle defensive line. Atlanta is 11-0 in games where they rush for over 65 yards as a team; last week, the Seahawks allowed 104 yards to Washington. Of course, the Redskins have a different philosophy than the pass-happy Falcons, but Atlanta wants to keep Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch off the field as much as possible. On the other side of the ball, I don’t think any defensive unit can contain Wilson and Lynch. It’s just not possible. They don’t turn the ball over, the run the ball at will, and they control the clock and tempo. Atlanta finished in the bottom 12 for both passing yards and rushing yards allowed. In their two games against Cam Newton (a quarterback in a similar physical mold to Wilson), they surrendered 202 rushing yards and two touchdowns on only 18 carries to him. The Falcons had eight players run for 80+ yards against them; the Seahawks only had four such players. Unless Atlanta controls the clock and Michael Turner has a 2008-like outing, they will lose this game.
The other key matchup will be if the Seahawks can eliminate the big passing plays for Julio Jones and Roddy White. The two combined for six touchdowns receptions of 39 yards or longer. But again, this is a stat that favors momentum, and in the second half of the season, Seattle allowed the third-fewest passing yards; Atlanta’s offense has the fifth-most (interestingly, their defense also allowed the fifth-most passing yards). But the Falcons were moving the ball against teams like the Saints, Lions, Buccaneers; the Seahawks’ D defeated quarterbacks the likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Tony Romo.
And yes, those games were in Seattle. With their win in Washington last week, the Seahawks move to 4-5 on the road this season. Matt Ryan is 33-5 at home overall. But Seattle is 4-2 all time at Atlanta, and the last time these teams met in the Georgia Dome in 2007, the Seahawks put up 41 points. Seattle’s defense gave up 54 fewer points on the season, Russell Wilson has a better QB rating than Matt Ryan, and as a team, the Seahawks ran for nearly twice as many rushing yards than the Falcons did in 2012 (2,579 to 1,397). Sadly, I think this game is kind of a no-brainer.
Prediction: Seattle 34, Atlanta 14
|Over/under on Seahawk fake punts when leading by 20+: 1.5|
Playoff Doppelganger: 2010 NFC Divisional Round, Green Bay 48, Atlanta 21. This is a no-brainer doppelganger for 12th Man nation, and Seahawks fans surely like thinking about the 2010 Packers, a wild-card team that overcame injuries to dominate the NFC en route to the Super Bowl. Seahawk fans will also like the fact that the last four playoff opponents the Falcons lost to (2004 Eagles, 2008 Cardinals, 2010 Packers, 2011 Giants) all eventually reached the Super Bowl. This is a promising indication that the Falcons have not been effective at stopping teams on a roll.
Houston Texans at New England Patriots (-9.5)
Sunday, January 13, 4:30pm EST, CBS
Sunday, January 13, 4:30pm EST, CBS
Do you know what I hate most about this matchup? As a helplessly superstitious Patriots fan, I don’t really think about Gronkowski’s left forearm or Houston’s zone-blitz schemes. The thing I worry the most about – and hate the most – is that this game is being played on Sunday afternoon of the divisional round.
For those of you who need a refresher, the late Sunday game has not exactly been friendly to higher-seeded teams. Here’s what the recent history offers:
2012: (4) New York Giants 37, (1) Green Bay 20
2011: (6) New York Jets 28, (1) New England 21
2010: (5) New York Jets 17, (2) San Diego 14
2009: (2) Pittsburgh 35, (4) San Diego 24
2008: (5) New York Giants 21, (1) Dallas 17
2007: (4) New England 24, (1) San Diego 21
2006: (5) Carolina 29, (2) Chicago 21
So not only have six of the last seven Sunday afternoon division games have featured road team victories (the exception being, who else, the Stealers), but these matchups have generally been bad for the remainder of the postseason. Both Giants teams went on to the Super Bowl to beat the Patriots, the 2011 Jets lost to the Stealers in the next round, and the 2006 Panthers fell in Seattle the following week. And believe it or not, but I remember quietly rooting for the Chargers in 2007.
Now let’s get real. History and superstition are about the only things the Texans have going in their favor. Yes, there are some similarities between this game and 2011. Two years ago, the Pats beat the Jets 45-3 on a Week 13 Monday night matchup; this season, New England beat Houston 42-14 on a Week 14 Monday night matchup. But the 2011 Jets team that stormed into Foxboro and won (a playoff defeat which personally hurt me more than either Super Bowl loss) had already won three road playoff games in previous two seasons, and had gone 2-2 against the Patriots during that same span. They had experience, which this year’s Texans do not. Houston has never won a road playoff game, and until last week, Matt Schaub had never played in a playoff game. In their two games in Foxboro, the Texans have been outscored 82-21. Last week, they nearly lost to a team that mustered 198 yards of offense and didn’t move the ball past the Houston 47 until midway through the third quarter.
As a Patriots fan, that loss to the Jets will always scar me and make me afraid of opponents we blew out in the regular season (there are always so many!) Actually, in reality, that fear goes back to 2007, when we beat the Giants to clinch 16-0 but lost to them five weeks later in the Super Bowl. See, I believe that, not too unlike the Yankees in baseball, the other 31 NFC teams have a special motivation to beat the Patriots because we’ve been so dominant the last decade. I firmly believe that Schaub, Arian Foster, and J.J. Watt will be out for blood this Sunday. And I believe that it will be very unlikely for the Patriots to replicate their 28-point blowout five weeks ago. The playoffs change everything.
But I just don’t see how New England loses this game. When they beat the Texans, they did it without Rob Gronkowski. During the regular season, the Patriots outscored their opponents by 226 points; only two other teams since 2000 have outscored opponents by more. Remember how I said Denver finished in the top five in offense, both in points and yards? Well this year’s Patriots finished third in scoring offense and fifth in yards gained . . . of all time in the regular season. Remember how I said Denver’s -1 turnover ratio was disturbing? Over the last three seasons, the Patriots are +70 in turnover margin; the team with the second-highest margin is the Packers, at +41. In that same span, New England has 43 turnovers; this season, three teams alone had 37 (and Denver had 25).
I’m sorry I’m talking about Denver . . . (perhaps prematurely.) I know I shouldn’t look past Houston, but with how shaky they looked last week, at home against a team which hadn’t won a playoff game in 22 years, it’s just hard to see a 2011 repeat. To beat New England, you need to score points; in their last six games, the Texans have not eclipsed 30 points, and have only scored 20+ twice. Last week, Houston’s defensive line only sacked Andy Dalton twice, and Cincinnati ran only 46 offensive plays. Let me repeat that – 46 offensive plays! And although that may be a testament to Houston’s success, you can’t expect those same kind of numbers with a juggernaut Patriots offense that averages just over 74 plays per game. To win, Houston will have to control the line of scrimmage and the clock, convert third downs, keep Brady in check, and score touchdowns instead of field goals – all in a hostile outdoor environment. It has been done before (ask Colin Kaepernick). But I don’t see Houston as a team capable of doing it.
Now the Patriots’ offense didn’t end the year in the same dominant fashion as they were mid-season (during one four-game stretch, the Pats averaged 47.5 points per game). But their oft-criticized defense dramatically improved; in their final six games, the allowed over 19 points only once. The extra week of rest for Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard will be beneficial, and a healthy Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will wreak havoc on the Texans’ secondary. New Orleans is where Tom Brady won his first title; he wants another trip back.
Prediction: New England 38, Houston 24
|Win one for Gigli and his callous Oscar snub.|
Playoff Doppelganger: 2007 AFC Divisional Round, New England 31, Jacksonville 20. It wasn’t quite a rematch (or a blowout) but the Jags were a relatively inexperienced team with a strong defense and good running game. They did hold the Pats to a 14-14 tie at halftime, but New England outscored them 17-6 in the second half, with Brady going a remarkable 26 for 28 passing. It wasn’t the best the 2007 Patriots looked, but they were assured and effective, and Donte Stallworth led all receivers with 68 yards (hopefully this weekend he will repeat catches like these). That game was on a Saturday night, though . . .