Friday, January 16, 2015

Zach's Fearless NFL Playoff Predictions 2015: Conference Championships

            It’s championship Sunday!  What better antidote to witnessing the unthinkably catastrophic than six hours of in-your-face, edge-of-your-seat, mildly predictable NFL football?  Here is the only thing we know right now: The four remaining teams in the NFL playoffs unquestionably deserve to be here.  Need some reasons why?  Take a look at the resumes of the final four contenders for this year’s Super Bowl:

A.    The defending Super Bowl champs with the best defense since the 2000 Ravens and maybe the best homefield advantage in league history.
B.     The greatest playoff quarterback/coach combination of all time with arguably its most talented lineup – on both sides of the ball – ever.
C.     This year’s NFL MVP looking for his second title, but this time with a substantially better running game and defensive line.
D.    The most versatile young quarterback in football coming off a career-defining win against his franchise’s most venerated figure (and the only aforementioned team to defeat Team A).

            But of course the very thing that makes the NFL so compelling and decidedly unpredictable is that depending on your outlook, you could also characterize those four teams in the following ways:

A.    A team that just beat a 7-win team with a hobbling QB at home, still struggling to overcome injuries, and is by all accounts facing its first quality quarterback since Week 6.
B.     A team that last week had to overcome two 14-point deficits while rushing for 14 yards.
C.     A team going against a squad it has lost to by margins of 25, 21, and 22 points in its last three games since 2012.
D.    A team traveling into the toughest environment to play in the NFL, having lost four regular-season road games by an average of 15 points.

            Depending on which perspective you agree with, you can look like either a genius or a moron after Sunday’s slate of games.  But as General Eisenhower once said, “Preparation is everything until the battle starts, and then it doesn’t mean anything.”  Thus, without further ado, here are my observations and picks for this weekend that soon won’t mean anything.

Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks (- 7½)
Sunday, January 18, 3:05pm EST, FOX.

            Are the Packers really one of those classic New Orleans Saints/Atlanta Falcons/(dare-I-say) Seattle Seahawks type Jeckyll-and-Hyde teams that look phenomenal at home but lousy on the road?  This is the critical question going into this Sunday’s matchup because if the Packers have any hope of upsetting the Seahawks, they will have to play a virtually perfect game.  This may be a lot to ask, considering that Aaron Rodgers is at roughly 70 percent health, that last week Tony Romo (143.6 QB rating) and company probably should have won,  and that the Packers already lost by 20 points to the Seahawks at Qwest Field earlier this season. 
            Is there any meaningful evidence to suggest that the Packers’ woes on the road are statistical outliers?  For Seahawk haters like myself who are desperate for hope, there is some relief in this category.  Green Bay’s Sunday night loss to the Saints on October 26 has to be thrown out due to Rodgers’ injury midway through the game.  Their loss to the Bills on December 21 came against a stellar Buffalo defense that also beat the Lions and Patriots and nearly beat the Broncos.  That leaves the Pack’s other two losses, both of which occurred in the first three weeks of the season (before Aaron Rodgers to everyone to relaxxxxx).  Yes, Green Bay scored a ton more points at home (316) than they did on the road (168) and Rodgers’ QB rating was comically better at home (109.8 or above in every game) than on the road (109.7 or below in every game but one).  But their takeaway totals were about even (14 at home, 13 on the road), as were Eddie Lacy’s rush totals (601 yards at home, 538 on the road).  Hey those things are important, right?
            If you’re going to believe that Green Bay has a chance to win, you have to invest faith in the theory that the NFC Championship Game has sometime produced fluky results – especially when it involves teams from the old NFC Central.  Remember the infamous Gary Anderson game in 1999 when Minnesota was an 11-point favorite and did the unthinkable by losing to lowly Atlanta?  Or the Bert Emmanuel game in 2000 when the Greatest Show on Turf was held to 11 points – and still won?  Or when the Kerry Collins-led Giants did their best impression of the ’85 Bears and beat the Vikings 41-0?  Even last year was pretty weird; the Seahawks had dominated the 49ers at home in their previous two contests, but found themselves quicky trailing 10-0 and needed three fourth-quarter Kaepernick turnovers and horrendous officiating to eek out a close victory.  Did you know that each of the last seven NFC title games have been decided by 7 points or less?
            If you’re going to believe that Green Bay can win, you have to go back to January 2011 when the Packers won three road games en route to an improbable Super Bowl championship.  In that NFC title game, Rodgers was statistically subpar (17/30 passing, 0 TDs, 2 INTs) and the Packers nearly survived a late rally helmed by the inimitable Caleb Hanie.  You also have to believe that the Packers can line one of their three outstanding receivers (Adams, Cobb, Nelson) against Richard Sherman and still have two dangerous downfield vertical threats.  You have to believe that the Green Bay coaching staff will make considerable adjustments since the two teams’ Week One matchup, in which Rodgers was held under 200 yards, no Green Bay rusher had over 38 yards, the Packers had eight penalties, and the Seattle offensive line was barely challenged.  You have to believe the Seahawks have had fun feasting on the Ryan Lindleys and Shaun Hills of the league and as a result, their defensive statistics have been exaggerated and overlook key injuries to Brandon Mebane, Jordan Hill, and Tony McDaniel.  And you have to believe that if Aaron Rodgers really is the MVP of the NFL, he will play like one in spite of grievous overacting injuries.
            So there you have it: The best case scenario for the Packers.  As you can probably tell, those are not really substantive reasons.  The Seahawks are a not only a significantly better team than the Packers, but the luckier one: Instead of a rematch with the lone team (Dallas) to defeat them in Seattle – the same team that went 8-0 on the road in the regular season, and is a much healthier and worrisome matchup – they get the hobbled team that can’t play on the road and needed a controversial call to cement what should have been a much more authoritative win.  There’s no argument that the Packers are a classic Jeckyll-and-Hyde team, and the most damning evidence that they cannot win on the road is this: Their 2014 road victories came against Chicago (by 21 points), Tampa Bay (17 points), Minnesota (3 points), and Miami (a 3-point win coming on Rodgers’ miraculous last-second touchdown to Andrew Quarless).  You’re telling me that a team whose only impressive road wins came against a 2-win Bucs team and this guy can suddenly march into the most fearsome stadium in pro football and come away with a win?   
            But it’s more than just the Seahawks’ homefield advantage.  The Packers offensive line is mediocre at best, and will have a mighty challenge trying to defend a quarterback whose mobility has been taken away.  News has come out of Green Bay this week that Eddie Lacy is now banged up (maybe suffering from a food hangover after an all-night cheeseburger binge?) and the defensive line gave up over 5 yards per carry last week to the Cowboys.  We all know who the Seahawks are – the team that looks offensively incompetent for two-and-a-half quarters until a big defensive play effectively clinches the game.  They’re also a team which only loses because of insane fake punts or overheating or playing legit quarterbacks away from home.  They don’t lose games they’re expected to win, against teams they’ve already beat, against quarterbacks who are injured, in front of a national TV audience.  This one will be over in the first quarter.

Prediction: Seattle 44, Green Bay 10.

Playoff doppelganger: 2000 NFC Championship, New York 41, Minnesota 0.  This game was over in the first five minutes, when the Giants took a 14-0 lead after two Vikings turnovers and never looked back.  The most memorable thing about this game?  Besides the ridiculous overhype it gave the otherwise mediocre Giants (the 2000 Ravens were only favored by 3 points in Super Bowl 35), the over/under for this game was 41½.  When it was 34-0 at halftime (and 41-0 with 12:13 left in the 3rd Quarter), those who took the over were buying rounds of drinks for everyone at the bar, celebrating the easiest bet in the history of sports gambling.  Whoops.  For those of us who took the under (like me and my dad), it was one of the most nervous, tense, and heart-pounding quarters-and-a-half of 41-0 blowout football anyone’s ever seen.  Long live Kerry Collins!

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (-7)
Sunday, January 18, 6:40pm EST, CBS.

            Can we talk about Tom Brady for a second?  This last weekend was pretty big for him.  For the first 10 years of his career, his biggest foe in the AFC was Peyton Manning and the Colts, but since 2011 the rivalry has sharply shifted to the Baltimore Ravens, a team whose defense always had Brady’s number.  Last week not only did Brady singlehandedly beat the Ravens (and definitively answer the eternal “Brady vs. Manning” debate by the end of the weekend) but tore the Baltimore secondary apart with his throwing arm.  He also had one of the top-five best throws of his career in the first NFL playoff game where a team overcame two different 14-point deficits.  
            Side note: I didn’t see the final ten minutes of last week’s game.  I had to make an airport run (I did listen to the radio broadcast).  I’ve missed a surprising number of fantastic Patriots finishes over the last few years: The Saints in 2013 (on a cross-country road trip), the 24-point comeback against the Broncos (on a plane), and the onside kick game against the Browns (on a jog after I thought a 12-point deficit with two minutes left was too much for Tom and company).  I’ve certainly been there for all the bad finishes – don’t worry about that.  More evidence for why I shouldn’t even bother to watch the inevitable Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl?
            Here’s the question I have about this week’s game: Both of these teams are coming off improbable, once-in-every-three-seasons type wins.   We know about the Patriots, but how often do you go into Peyton Manning’s home stadium in the playoffs with an unproven running game and mediocre secondary, score only 24 points, and come away with a win?  (I’m not even including the two interceptions thrown by Luck, or the ten penalties, or the missed field goal by the greatest kicker of all time).  Sure, there are certain types of unbelievable, improbable, come-from-behind wins that propel a team toward a championship (ask Joe Flaccid).  But what the Patriots and Colts did last week were respective gifts from the gods and frankly it feels weird that one of them will win at least one more game this postseason.
            All signs in this matchup point to New England.  In the Andrew Luck era, the Pats have defeated the Colts by scores of 59-24, 43-22, and 42-20.  In two of those games, New England had rusher slash the Indianapolis defense for over 160 yards and four touchdowns.  Luck has thrown a total of eight interceptions against the Patriots and has never had a lead after the second quarter.  In their most recent matchup two months ago, the Colts’ best rusher (Ahmad Bradshaw) was injured in the first half and Indy mustered a paltry 19 yards on the ground all game (I don’t think it was Belichick’s intention to replicate that game plan versus the Ravens last week).  The Colts were also missing Dwayne Allen and both teams were sorely missing the Jones Brothers, Chandler and Arthur. 
            Luck is obviously a talented quarterback who has stepped up this postseason (and his porous numbers against the Pats scream “small sampling”), but to be honest, the Colts’ success has been mostly due to their defense.  Excluding their Week 16 debacle in Dallas, Indianapolis has only allowed 43 points in its last four games and has been especially stout in defending the pass; they’ve allowed only one 300-yard passer since their bye on November 9 (props for the three of you who correctly guessed that that passer was Colt McCoy).  The brilliant game planning of Belichick Jr. Chuck Pagano has called for superb man coverage by Vontae Davis and LaRon Landry, and with the absence of Patriots OL Bryan Stork, I highly doubt New England will annihilate the Colts on the ground like they’ve done so in the past.  I do question how the Colts plan to defend Rob Gronkowski, but it’s not like any team has successfully done so all season (Gronk had only four catches for 71 yards and a TD on November 16, which wasn’t terrible).
            I watch the Patriots far more than I like to admit (except, naturally, during their clutch wins) and I intimately know the way this team loses games: When they can’t pick up first downs, when they can’t stop the run, when they’re playing from behind, and when they’re held to field goals.  Those are not radical observations, but it was noteworthy how the Ravens were able successfully hold the Patriots to three of those four things (fortunately for New England, Stephen Gostkowski’s leg was a virtual non-factor last week).  The Colts will have to replicate the Ravens’ success in those categories, plus one additional component that Baltimore failed to tap into last Saturday: They can’t settle.  The Ravens looked unstoppable on long passes last week, but chose to go away from that game plan when they had leads of 14-0 and 28-14.  It’s certainly understandable in those situations to opt for more conservative game calling (especially when Forsett was torching the Pats’ defense in the way that he was) but Baltimore lost its aggressive edge until it was too late – and it was precisely that aggression that, perhaps poetically, led to its downfall.
            The Patriots feel like a considerably better team than the Colts – but then again, they felt like a considerably better team against the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship game, and also the considerably better team against Mark Sanchez and the Jets in 2010.  Last season’s loss to the Broncos was the first time in a while Patriots fans weren’t necessarily shocked to lose in January.  Would I be shocked if the Patriots lose this Sunday?  Considering how bad they looked at times last week (along with their increasingly long list of post-2004 bad playoff performances), I cannot say I would be shocked.  Preparation or prognostication doesn’t mean anything, to paraphrase our 34th President.  But I would be surprised if they lose, and regardless of the outcome of this game, Seattle fans should be worried (and not just because what 50 Shades of Grey did to the city of Seattle, the new Gronkowski erotic novella will do for Boston). 

Prediction: New England 34, Indianapolis 27.

Playoff doppelganger: Either the 2007 AFC Championship (New England 21, San Diego 12), or the 2012 AFC Championship (Baltimore 28, New England 13).  Either we’re playing an injured team coming off a huge win over Peyton Manning on the road – a team coming off its best game of the season and is just happy to be there – or a team we have an excessive amount of confidence against, gleefully overlooking the fact that the post-2004 Patriots lay more playoff duds than Tom Brady douchebag photo shoots.  

Thoughts? Disagreements? Impressed that in September I predicted a Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl? Let me know below.

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