Well the Wildcard round continued as the season did, bad times for favorites we were 2 -2 straight up and 1 – 2 – 1 against the spread. That was a good weekend of football and the games all had interesting points and some degree of controversy in clock management, officiating, and play calling.
The divisional round may not be quite as good as three of the games do not look to be nearly as competitive as the games in the wildcard round but we will see. This is the new NFL and every team has a chance as any given Sunday is any given weekend. The divisional round features teams three teams played each other in the regular season and in two of the games on the same field and of course, none of that really matters a lot.
New Orleans at Seattle – New Orleans gets a rare (unique) road win during the playoffs, so that monkey is off of their backs. They were crushed 34 – 7 playing in Seattle five weeks ago in a game that was not as close as the score. But they have the best offense of the NFC teams in the playoffs at this point and that counts for something.
The issue will be getting that offensive potential translated to points. The matchup here is not good as the weak link offensively has been the line play and giving Brees time. They face the best defense in the NFL and the best defensive secondary which means that it will take time for receivers to work free. The offense can take over a game but against this opponent it will take a very good game plan and execution. New Orleans has that kind of capability which gives them a chance.
The defense has been a pleasant surprise all year playing better than expected and developing some young talent in the process. Still the talent is mostly on the offensive side of the ball but the defensive scheme is aggressive and generally well executed. Their performance last week against the Eagles running attack was very good but the challenge this week is quite different as they face a prototypical power running team that additionally has a mobile quarterback. An interesting challenge there are likely to be a lot of stacked defenses and run blitzes called up.
Seattle lacks a consistent big play threat, Harvin was supposed to have that role but his health has been a limiting factor. Wilson makes good decisions with the ball and Lynch is the kind of running back that intimidates defenses. The receiving corps has been a bit random good plays intertwined with undisciplined plays. The offensive line has been injured and out of synch much of the season. It is largely healthy at this point but still not playing to its talent level.
The best chance that the Saints have is to the get an early lead and force the tempo of the game while also taking the crowd out of it a bit. Look for them to take some early chances, particularly on defense; they should load up against the run and play to keep Wilson in the pocket to force him to try to beat them with his arm, hopefully generating a turnover or two in the process. For Seattle this is the same formula as always, keep the play calling flexible and let the defense control field position. They should win the battle of the lines on both side of the ball, Seahawks win 24 – 17.
Indianapolis at New England – The Colts had a comeback for the ages last week as the defense did their all too familiar Jeckyll and Hyde imitation and Andrew Luck continued to pull rabbits out of his hat (helmet, or some other part of his anatomy). This team has been difficult to predict, they seem to play above or below their talent level but never actually at it to appear average.
The offensive line play has been inconsistent at times; Luck takes a lot of hits and is under pressure almost constantly. He has great pocket awareness and is a threat to run which has made him very successful despite line issues. Indianapolis would like to (and often tries to) feature the running game with mixed results. Luck is their best player and most effective weapon which seems to be obvious to everyone not on the Colt’s coaching staff.
The defense seems to vacillate from average to terrible often in the same game. The pass rush is mostly one player and the coverage can be very bad as most of the starting cornerbacks are dealing with some kind of injury at this point.
New England has injury issues of their own. The offense has been breaking in new receivers pretty much all season and Brady has had a poor statistically poor season (for him). The running game has been shuffling backs around but has a deep rotation available there. This is not a good offensive team, they are methodical and patient and do what they have to do to get poi9nts but this is very different from other years for them.
The defense has also seen its share of injuries and it is not a particularly deep group to begin with. They do have some talent there that is playing well but the loss of Wilfork in particular has been a blow to their run defense.
This game will take some special play if Indianapolis is going to have a shot. They cannot afford to give up big plays with blown coverages which has been one of their hallmarks this year. They need to be efficient and above all take care of the ball; four turnovers this week (like most weeks) are not going to be survivable. Belichick will certainly scheme to take away Hilton as a receiver and the weapons available to the Colts are very limited after that and the extra week of preparation will be well used, Patriots win 24 – 20.
San Francisco at Carolina – Carolina has a very good defense coupled with a very pedestrian offense. In week eleven they came back from a nine point deficit to win 10 – 9 at San Francisco. That game was a as much an offense stalemate as it was a defensive gem.
The Carolina offense is based on the running game and not much else. Steve Smith has been the long time passing threat in this offense but he has never had much in the way of help. He has gotten older and has lost a step and there is no big play threat in the passing game. Cam Newton has played well and is a threat by himself as both a passer and a rusher.
The Carolina defense is very good; the front seven are the best in the league. The secondary is average but the pass rush protects them to a large extent and the linebacker play has been particularly impressive. They will be facing a more complete team than in the prior meeting as their opponent has a healthy receiving corps so the task of keeping both pressure and containment will be much higher in this meeting.
San Francisco played their typical game last week, playing positional football and relying on the defense to keep them in the game. The passing game is much more effective with Crabtree available and that also opens up Davis but much of the damage is done when Kaepernick improvises as a runner. The read option game is not as effective as it was last year bt that in conjunction with the scrambles has made the offense much more effective now that there is a real passing game.
The San Francisco defense has been solid though perhaps not as dominating as it has been in the past few seasons. Good linebacker play is still the hallmark here but the secondary is not quite as good. They play very solid and disciplined ball which will be important in keeping Newton in the pocket.
The style of both these teams is to play conservative defensive games that run off of field position so turnovers can be fatal. Carolina has the better defense but not by much. The offenses are both limited but here San Francisco has a much clearer edge. This rates to be the most competitive of the divisional round games which means it probably won’t be, Forty-niners win 23 -20.
San Diego at Denver – San Diego won in Denver in week fifteen 27 – 20 in one of their best played games of the season. It was a classic game plan to beat a Peyton Manning led offense, keep him off of the field by running the ball, be highly efficient offensively and do not commit any turnovers. It worked but it does not always (ask Miami 2009). In order for this plan to work you have to face an average sort of Manning performance.
San Diego has a capable offense, the passing game is statistically the second most productive in the AFC and the running game has progressed as the season has gone on. The offensive line play has been somewhat inconsistent at times but that to has gotten better as the season has progressed. This is a solid offense; the injury to Matthews is a concern.
The defense has been a problem but the play has been better of late and the improvements have been in the linebacker play. The secondary is still suspect but they are no longer exposed as much as they were as the defensive pressure has gotten better. The challenge will be depth but if they can maintain ball control that might not be an issue
You may have heard that the Denver offense is pretty good. It is Manning centric which makes a lot of sense. The weapons here are probably the best that he has ever had; big plays can literally happen on any play. The return of Welker though is hard to overstate as he will be where Manning expects him to be a represents the ultimate safety outlet.
The defense here is suspect; injuries and inconsistent play have been an issue. The strength here, such that it is rests in the back seven. They do not have to make a lot of stops given the points that the offense can put up but they have to make critical stops.
Manning will sometimes start slowly after a layoff so the best chance will be if San Diego can start out and play from ahead, then they just have to hope that Manning will have an average game. Playing the Broncos multiple times is a difficult proposition, the chances of beating them with the same game plan twice is vanishingly small, Broncos win 34 – 27.