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NFL Championship Weekend Preview

A few leftover thoughts from a divisional weekend that went more or less by the book in the AFC while veering wildly off script in the NFC. Let’s focus on the latter.

History will determine where 49ers 36, Saints 32 ranks among the all-time classics. In terms of dizzying back-and-forth finishes to an NFL playoff game, it’s right there at the top of the list. Twenty-eight points and four lead changes in the final 4:02 after nearly 56 minutes of extremely physical, defense-dominated football made for a game the likes of we which we may not see again for a very long time.

While the Saints were in excellent shape to steal a berth in the NFC Championship game after clawing back from a 17-0 deficit to take their first lead (24-23) with four minutes remaining while simultaneously deflating what had been a raucous crowd, both defenses were running on fumes by that point, which laid the groundwork for the track meet that ensued over the final 242 seconds.

Defenses traditionally tire in the waning minutes of bone-crushing bloodbaths like the one these teams waged at Candlestick Park. In a game that featured everything ranging from extracurriculars to flat-out brawls after nearly every whistle, it becomes a lot easier to understand why neither defense had anything left in the tank for the furious finish. The last team with the ball was going to win, and the 49ers were that team …

The Packers didn’t merely lose to the Giants, they were completely undone. If it weren’t for some questionable calls and Aaron Rodgers’ ability to scamper for multiple first downs in key situations, the game could have been even more lopsided than the 37-20 final score.

NFL offensive Player FootballThe second-quarter fumble by Greg Jennings that was correctly called on the field, incorrectly changed to a down by contact after an officials conference and inexplicably upheld after a Giants challenge was an egregious officiating error. That sequence led to a Green Bay touchdown that tied the game at 10 early in the second quarter. Then in the fourth quarter with the Giants leading, 30-13, a phantom roughing the passer call on Osi Umenyiora gave Rodgers a new set of downs that enabled the Packers to ultimately strike for a touchdown that made the game close again.

In addition to the officiating nightmare and Eli Manning picking apart the Green Bay defense, what stuck out most was how New York’s defense defied conventional wisdom in stopping Rodgers and the Packers’ offense. Going into the game, the consensus was that the only way the Giants could slow Rodgers was via their front four. Yet for much of the first three quarters, the Green Bay offensive line did its job against the Giants’ pass rush. Rodgers frequently had all day to throw but no one to throw to, which forced him into seven scrambles for 66 yards. Six of those carries went for first downs, which were all that that prevented the game from turning into a laugher. While Rodgers also uncharacteristically missed his target on more than one occasion, the play of the Giants’ secondary and linebackers in coverage was exceptional …

Now, on to championship weekend, which is guaranteed to spit out a headline-grabbing Super Bowl, be it Harbaugh Bowl II (Ravens-49ers), a 2000 Super Bowl rematch (Ravens-Giants), a Tom Brady extravaganza (Patriots-49ers) or a seismic and end-all sequel (Patriots-Giants).

With everything on the line, matchups will be key. Here are three matchups from each championship tilt that will go a long way toward determining the AFC and NFC champs.

AFC Championship: Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at New England Patriots (14-3)

Key Matchup No. 1 – Matt Light vs. Terrell Suggs

When the Ravens tuned up the Patriots in a 2009 wild-card game, Suggs abused Light, and consequently, Tom Brady. The likely 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year has made no secret of his feelings for Brady (they are not warm), and thus will be playing with a chip on his shoulder. While the Patriots will attempt to slow Suggs with chips of their own (likely from tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski), it is incumbent on Light to do his job and keep T-Sizzle away from his quarterback.

Key Matchup No. 2 – Patriots linebackers vs. Ray Rice

Anyone who recalls the ’09 playoff game knows Rice had a field day from the outset against New England, his 83-yard touchdown run on the game’s first play from scrimmage setting the tone for a 22-carry, 159-yard, two-touchdown performance. The Patriots’ linebackers will need to have their heads on a swivel to keep track of the diminutive and explosive Rice, who is often tough to pick up behind a mountain of offensive and defensive linemen. Brandon Spikes – whose return has been key for the New England run D – must repeatedly punish Rice. If he can do that, the pressure will shift to quarterback Joe Flacco, which gives the Patriots the advantage.

Key Matchup No. 3 – Tom Brady vs. Ed Reed

There may be no love lost between these teams, but between Brady and Reed there is no doubt a deep-seated mutual respect. Reed remains one of the greatest freelancing safeties in the history of the game. Brady has consistently lit up opposing defenses between the hashmarks, his receiving trio of Hernandez, Gronkowski and Wes Welker proving to be virtually impossible to cover in open space. Whoever prevails in the cat-and-mouse game between Brady and Reed will be leading his team to Indianapolis.

Bottom Line: In 2009, Brady didn’t have Welker (injury) or his tight ends (college). As long as he is upright, the Ravens can’t contend with all three downfield.

Patriots 27
Ravens 21

NFC Championship: New York Giants (11-7) at San Francisco 49ers (14-3)

Key Matchup No. 1 – Smiths vs. Giants offensive line

The Giants have done a fantastic job of protecting Eli Manning throughout the playoffs, but neither the Falcons nor eli3Packers boast anything resembling the duo of defensive end Justin Smith and outsider linebacker Aldon Smith. The twin terrors combined to sack Drew Brees twice and hit him an additional nine times last week. Manning’s Achilles heel is making bad decisions in the face of a strong pass rush, which has been the calling card of the Smiths this season.

Key Matchup No. 2 – Bradshaw/Jacobs vs. Patrick Willis

Lost in the sublime play of Manning and the Giants’ defense of late has been the resurgence of the New York running game. Ahmad Bradshaw appears to be fully recovered from the foot injury that cost him the month of November and Brandon Jacobs has reprised his role as the ultimate downhill runner, the kind that evokes images of a boulder careening down the side of a mountain. With rain having pounded the Bay area all week, the Giants will need to get something from their rushing attack if they want to hold the San Francisco pass rush at bay. Willis spearheads the Niners run defense. If he is swarming to the ball and choking the point of attack, the Giants will have no choice but to become one-dimensional.

Key Matchup No. 3 – Giants kick units vs. 49ers return units

San Francisco was exemplary on special teams during the regular season, ranking first in the NFL in yards per kickoff return (27.2) and fifth in yards per punt return (12.4) while taking one of each to the house. The Giants, meanwhile, were middle of the pack in terms of return yardage allowed. They tied for 10th in the league in kickoff returns, allowing an average of 22.9 yards per, and tied for 16th by allowing 9.9 yards per punt return. If New York can battle the 49ers to a stalemate on special teams, that will be as good as a victory.

Bottom Line: It’s nearly impossible to lose a playoff game with a plus-four turnover ratio, which the 49ers almost did last week. The Giants won’t be nearly as careless with the football.

Giants 23
49ers 19

2012 NFL Divisional Preview

Before jumping into previews of this weekend’s divisional games, some brief postmortems on a pair of the one-and-dones from wild-card weekend …

Marvin Lewis better think long and hard before throwing a challenge flag next time he leads a team to the playoffs. The Bengals’ head coach blew both of his challenges in the first half of Saturday’s 31-10 loss to the Texans, the second straight playoff game he has been without any red flags after the intermission.

The point here is not to dissect the challenges. What’s notable is each could have been avoided if Lewis had called a timeout instead of reaching for the red flag. Timeouts carry very little significance in the first half, and they buy a coach and the guys upstairs time to look at a play before coming to a conclusion. In the case of each challenge Saturday, a few looks would have made it clear that the odds were not good for a reversal. Losing a timeout (which happens on a failed challenge anyway) is not a big deal in the first half. Losing a challenge is critical. Losing both is an early deathblow, something Lewis has managed to do in consecutive postseason games …

Not only were the Steelers banged up beyond belief, but defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s defensive game plan resulted in a monumental backfire in Sunday’s 29-23 overtime loss to Denver. By stacking the box and playing a ton of Cover Zero, LeBeau anticipated the run-heavy offense of Tim Tebow and the Broncos would be stuffed at the source and Denver would be unable to move the ball.

ray-lewisLeBeau underestimated how the loss of starting safety Ryan Clark would impact the Pittsburgh secondary. In a game that he was leaning uncharacteristically heavily on his safeties, putting backup Ryan Mundy on a island was not a good idea. It didn’t help that Ike Taylor played one of the worst games of his life at the most inopportune time, but LeBeau seemed like he never entertained the notion that the Denver game plan might be to try and make plays over the top of his defense …

Houston Texans (11-6) at Baltimore Ravens (12-4)

These teams met in Week 6 at M&T Bank Stadium, with the Ravens pulling away in the fourth quarter of an eventual 29-14 win. Joe Flacco and the Baltimore offense moved the ball with surprising ease against the top-rated Houston defense, piling up 402 total yards. However, following an opening 97-yard touchdown march, Baltimore had to settle for field goals on five of its final six scoring drives, which kept the game close.

Houston had two things going for it that day. For one, Matt Schaub was still under center. The Texans quarterback submitted a modest performance, completing 21 of 37 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown. The key was he took care of the football, something opposing quarterbacks traditionally have lots of difficulty doing in Baltimore. Houston actually won the turnover battle, 2-0.

That won’t be happening again with T.J. Yates going into one of the more hostile environments for his first road playoff game. Yates was decent against the Bengals (11-for-20, 159 yards, touchdown), but nearly all of his completions came off play-action and he also made one terrible throw that Bengals safety Chris Crocker would have likely taken the other way for a game-tying touchdown in the third quarter had he not dropped an easy interception.

The Ravens grind inexperienced quarterbacks into the ground in the playoffs. In blowout wins over the Matt Cassel-led Chiefs in 2010 and Chad Pennington’s Dolphins in 2008, the Baltimore D forced a combined 10 turnovers (seven of which were interceptions). The Ravens did something similar to Tom Brady (four turnovers) and a house-of-cards Patriots team in 2009.

Those games were all on the road. Having obtained home-field advantage for the first time in the Flacco era and fresh off seeing the team that has thwarted their Super Bowl aspirations twice in the last three postseasons get bounced in a Mile High shocker, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are circling the wagons. The Ravens smell blood in the water.

Ravens 27
Texans 10

Denver Broncos (9-8) at New England Patriots (13-3)

Two recent patterns, working in tandem, have emerged over the past few postseasons. A heavy underdog first pulls off a huge upset in the wild-card round. Then that unlikely victor, headed on the road to a rested top seed, proceeds to gain steam throughout the following week as the talking heads find a way to make a case for another odds-defying triumph.

Except that’s not what happens.

Exhibit A: 2008, the 8-8 (and formerly 4-8) Chargers knocked off the 12-4 Colts in Round 1 at home. San Diego then went into Pittsburgh as seven-point ‘dogs and found itself down 28-10 in the fourth quarter en route to a 35-24 defeat.

Exhibit B: 2009, the 10-6 Cardinals won a wild 51-45 overtime shootout with an 11-5 Green Bay team many had pegged for a Super Bowl run. Just when everyone started wondering if a second straight Super Bowl might have been in the “Cards,” the Saints blew the doors off Arizona in the divisional round, 45-14.

Exhibit C: Last year, in the grandaddy of them all, the 7-9 Seahawks shocked the world by bumping the defending champion Saints, 41-36. Like clockwork, the momentum built up throughout the week as Seattle – a 9.5 point underdog – made its way to Soldier Field for a date with the Bears. Chicago led, 35-10, with three minutes to go before the Seahawks scored a pair of garbage touchdowns in a 35-24 loss.

That brings us to Saturday night, when Tim Tebow and the miracle-working Broncos will attempt to become the latest team to spoil a Patriots season at Gillette Stadium.

Denver’s impressive victory Sunday notwithstanding, one would be remiss not to note that it came against a Pittsburgh team that was without starting center Maurkice Pouncey, safety Clark, defensive end Aaron Smith and running back Rashard Mendenhall. The Steelers’ problems were compounded by an immobile Ben Roethlisberger, the early losses of the rest of their defensive line (nose tackle Casey Hampton and defensive end Brett Keisel), the above-stated ill-conceived defensive game plan and the unenviable task of playing from behind in the thin air.

Tebow made some big plays, for sure, but everything broke right for the Broncos.

Against a New England team that has the benefit of extra preparation time, tape from the teams’ Dec. 18 meeting and the return of Josh McDaniels (who drafted Tebow and star wideout Denarius Moore during his brief tenure as Broncos head coach) to the war room, the Broncos are going to be hard-pressed to give the Patriots another serious for their money.

Last month in Denver, New England was flummoxed by the Broncos’ rushing attack (167 yards in the first quarter) before settling down defensively. That allowed Tom Brady to kick it into high gear, as the Patriots ripped off 27 straight points to turn a 16-7 deficit into a blowout.

For a Patriots team that hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2007 AFC Championship and has made no secret that it continues to covet that elusive 60-minute performance, a fast start with no letdown appears imminent.

Patriots 38
Broncos 21

New Orleans Saints (14-3) at San Francisco 49ers (13-3)

A classic contrast of styles, the dominant San Francisco defense will look to slow Drew Brees and the explosive Saints offense. If the 49ers can keep this game in the high teens or low 20s, they will be in excellent shape to punch a ticket to the NFC Championship game. Alex Smith will not win a shootout with Brees.

The San Francisco D, which has been great all year, has absolutely suffocated opponents on its home turf – particularly in the red zone. The 49ers rank first in virtually every red zone defensive statistic at home, including opponents’ scoring chances per game (1.5) and touchdowns allowed (0.4).

Those numbers translate to the San Francisco defense yielding a touchdown on just 25 percent of opponents’ penetrations inside the 20-yard line. For some perspective, the Browns ranked second in the league in that category at 39 percent, putting them closer to the 17th-ranked Jets (52.4 percent).

Given that grass has served as something of an equalizer for the Saints offense – Brees is merely terrific, as opposed to superhuman, outdoors – the game figures to be relatively low-scoring and tight.

The deciding factor may very well be third downs. Specifically, New Orleans’ ability to convert them. While the Saints have averaged 27.2 points per game on the road and 25.8 points outdoors – as opposed to 41.6 in the Superdome – it has been their knack for converting third downs in bunches on the road that has helped them enjoy success.

The Saints checked in with a league-best 54.7 percent third-down conversion rate on the road in the regular season. If the 49ers defense has an Achilles heel at home, it is an inability to get off the field on third down. San Francisco allowed opponents to convert third downs at a 39.5 percent clip at Candlestick Park, 20th in the NFL.

For a team so defensively stout in its house, that kind of inefficiency in key situations could be its fatal blow. The last time the Saints played outdoors was Week 14 at Tennessee, a game that saw the Titans defense hold New Orleans to three field goals through the first three quarters. But on the strength of a 58 percent third-down conversion rate (11-for-19), the Saints struck for a pair of touchdowns late in a 22-17 win.

aaron-rodgers-falconsThe 49ers defense will come out strong and hold Brees at bay for a good chunk of the game, but the Saints’ ability to come through on third down will wear San Francisco out by the fourth quarter.

Saints 24
49ers 22

New York Giants (10-7) at Green Bay Packers (15-1)

The game of the weekend and the rematch everyone has been waiting for, there are no illuminating stats or hidden metrics that can paint a clear picture of Giants-Packers II.

Either the New York pass rush is going to make life miserable for Aaron Rodgers or the Packers offense is going to have its way against a banged up and beatable Giants secondary.

Whoever blinks first will be in a heap of trouble.

If Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Chris Canty and Osi Umenyiora are eating Rodgers’ lunch from the opening whistle, the likely NFL MVP will start having flashbacks to Week 15, when Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali (three sacks) took up residence in the Packers’ backfield and Kansas City held Green Bay to 315 total yards and 14 points.

In that scenario, the Giants’ front four will suddenly see a redux of Super Bowl XLII against the Patriots, which will only fuel them further.

In the alternative scenario, the Giants’ pass rush will fail to harass Rodgers, which will enable the Packers to jump out to an early lead. When – as is often the case – Green Bay plays from ahead, it not only puts pressure on the opposing offense to match scores with one of the highest-powered attacks in the league, but it also allows Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and the Packers defense to start inching upfield and sniffing out big plays.

Part of the reason Green Bay led the league with 31 interceptions and ranked behind only San Francisco with a plus-24 turnover differential in the regular season is because playmaking defenses have the benefit of becoming even more opportunistic when playing from ahead.

If the Giants’ pass rushers throw the first blow and Eli Manning puts points on the board before Rodgers, Green Bay’s entire defensive philosophy will become compromised. Manning’s trio of downfield threats (Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham) will have to be paid extra attention by the Green Bay secondary.

This game is so close it’s pretty much impossible to call. Sometimes you have to go with your gut. In the worst-case scenario for each team, Manning has the chops and weapons to win a potential shootout with Rodgers. Rodgers, on the other hand, simply won’t have the answer if confronted by a clicking and unrelenting Giants pass rush.

History would indicate that the Giants – as well as they have played over the past three weeks – have yet to peak. The Packers appear to have already peaked.

Giants 27
Packers 24

2012 NFL Wild-Card Preview

Wild-Card weekend is nearly here and there’s lot to break down, so let’s get right to it.

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) at Denver Broncos (8-8)

If Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t playing with a high ankle sprain, Rashard Mendenhall wasn’t out with a torn ACL and Ryan Clark didn’t carry the sickle-cell trait, it would impossible to see this matchup ending in anything but a Pittsburgh romp.

But the Steelers are dealing with all kinds of adversity, as well as the burden of being a big road favorite in the playoffs. With the Saints’ shocking loss to the 7-9 Seahawks on the road in a 2010 wild-card game still fresh in everyone’s memory, it’s tough not to ponder the Broncos’ chances at an upset, given the circumstances.

As opposed to Seattle, which had two things going for it – a running back, Marshawn Lynch, who has a remarkable ability to get stronger as the season progresses; and a quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, who had been to a Super Bowl – Denver is afforded no such luxuries to fall back on.

Running back Willis McGahee averaged just 78.3 rushing yards over the final four games. Quarterback Tim Tebow crashed and burned during that time, fumbling seven times (four lost) and throwing five interceptions.

The Denver pass rush, spearheaded by Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, should be able to make life difficult for a hobbled daltonRoethlisberger and keep the game close. But for a Broncos offense that scored a combined 17 points over the final two weeks against the Bills and Chiefs, it’s going to be nearly impossible to find the end zone against a Steelers defense that ranked first in the NFL in points allowed (14.2) and didn’t give up a touchdown in three of the last four games.

The Broncos will need a defensive or special teams score to throw a scare into Pittsburgh, which isn’t likely.

Steelers 16
Broncos 6

Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) at Houston Texans (10-6)

There’s always one wild-card game game featuring a team or teams that, talent-wise, are a notch below the rest of the field. Last year it was the Chiefs, who were smoked at home by the playoff-seasoned Ravens. In 2009 it was the Bengals, in ’08 the Dolphins etc. The downfall of the so-called playoff fraud always boils down to its ability, or lack thereof, to take care of the football.

Make no mistake: Turnovers will determine the outcome of the Bengals-Texans game. Neither team protected the ball well when they met in Week 14. Houston committed four turnovers and Cincinnati two. And both teams continued to have ball security issues down the stretch. The Texans gave the football away at least once in each of their final three games, and turned it over nine times from Weeks 14-17. The Bengals have also yet to play an errorless game in that stretch, tallying six turnovers.

A closer look paints an even darker picture for the Texans. Of those nine turnovers, five were committed by T.J. Yates. The rookie quarterback threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles over the final quarter of the season, while also fumbling an additional time.

Dig a little deeper and go back to Houston’s 17-10 win over the Falcons in Week 13, a game in which Yates lost one fumble, lost a second on a strip-sack that was returned for a touchdown before a pair of bizarre offsetting substitution penalties called it back, and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. That play was overturned because of a holding penalty, taking a second defensive score off the board for the Falcons.

Certain contests, despite the outcome, can serve as a harbinger of things to come. The Atlanta game was noteworthy in that respect.

On the flipside, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton fumbled one time and threw just one interception from Week 13 on.

Not to be lost in the mix are the issues of Texans star running back Arian Foster, who has put the ball on the ground in four of the last five games, fumbling a total of five times (three lost).

Considering either one or both of Yates and Foster will be touching the ball on every snap – or, gulp, Jake Delhomme – Houston’s recent problems taking care of the football are unlikely to suddenly vanish. Dalton may be a rookie quarterback going on the road for his first playoff game, but all the pressure is on the Texans to come through in the franchise’s maiden postseason appearance. How does Houston respond following a turnover late in a tight game that hushes an anxious crowd? The writing is on the wall for an upset.

Bengals 20
Texans 17

Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at New York Giants (9-7)

With the Giants, it’s a ongoing case of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. Which team is going to show up? The one that nearly knocked off the undefeated Packers in Week 13 and followed with three stirring victories in the final four games (two over Dallas and one over the Jets)? Or the one that got flattened by the Redskins in a critical Week 15 tilt?

Anyone who is able to properly diagnose the Giants can predict how this game will play out. The Falcons couldn’t be any different than New York, in that you know what you’re getting from them. According to the number-crunchers at Football Outsiders.com, Atlanta is the most consistent team ever measured by its DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) system.

The Falcons play at a similar level week in and week out, a level that was good enough to knock off the likes of Detroit, Tennessee and Carolina, but not the Saints, Packers or Texans.

Looking at the Giants, it’s easy to finger the Redskins loss as evidence of a similar performance looming in the playoffs. But the Redskins also handily beat the Giants in Week 1, which suggests they may have simply had their number this year. The ebbs and flows of divisional rivalries can be tough to quantify sometimes.

The Giants fell victim to the most brutal of stretches from Weeks 9-13, during which they faced, in succession, the Patriots, 49ers, Eagles, Saints, and Packers, arguably the five best teams in the NFL.

The Falcons are consistently decent but never spectacular. The Giants are better than their record and playing at home. staffordA primary strength of both teams is their ability to throw the football. Eli Manning has a Super Bowl MVP; Matt Ryan is 0-2 in the playoffs.

Giants 27
Falcons 21

Detroit Lions (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

Winners of eight straight, the Saints are blistering hot. Drew Brees has thrown 27 touchdowns and four interceptions throughout the win streak, during which New Orleans has averaged nearly 37 points per game, including back-to-back 45-point eruptions against the Falcons and Panthers at the Superdome to close out the regular season.

To underscore just how unstoppable the Saints have been, consider the following: They had 10 drives apiece in those games. Against Atlanta, those drives went touchdown, touchdown, interception, touchdown, interception, touchdown, field goal, punt, punt, touchdown. One of Brees’ picks came in the end zone and the pair of punts didn’t come until New Orleans had a 38-16 lead in the fourth quarter and had taken its foot off the pedal.

The Saints’ efficiency against Carolina was even more ruthless: touchdown, touchdown, interception, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, punt, downs. Brees was picked at the Panthers’ 11-yard line and the Saints had driven 63 yards to the Carolina 13 before Chase Daniel took a knee four times to conclude the game.

If any team stands a chance of hanging with the Saints in the dome, it’s the Lions. Led by a white-hot Matthew Stafford, Detroit finished the season with wins in three of its last four games. Stafford threw for 520 yards and five touchdowns in a wild Week 17, 45-41 loss to Matt Flynn and the Packers. He has averaged nearly 378 yards per game in that span, throwing 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions.

The Lions have made a habit of getting down big early before surging back. Detroit has overcome deficits of 13, 17, 20 and 24 points to win. Stafford has been at his best in the second halves of those big comebacks against the Raiders, Panthers, Vikings and Cowboys.

The problem with that formula is that it requires the other team to either have a quarterback prone to making multiple huge mistakes (Tony Romo, Cam Newton) or an offense that can be stopped for consecutive drives (Vikings, Raiders).

Brees won’t be gift-wrapping any turnovers and the Saints’ last 20 drives don’t bode well for a Lions defense that has allowed an average of 26.5 points and 455 yards per game over the last four, and a Stafford-led offense that tends not to get its wheels turning until the second quarter. Brees will be motoring toward San Francisco by that time if Detroit stalls out of the gate Saturday night.

Saints 41
Lions 27

A six-pack of observations heading into the NFL playoffs

Before diving headfirst into Wild Card weekend (complete game-by-game breakdown to come Thursday), let’s first take a broad view of the 2011 NFL season, one which almost didn’t happen (but not really).

1. Parity officially took hold in 2011

Of all the professional sports leagues, the NFL routinely features the most turnover among playoff participants.

This year is no different, as six teams (Giants, Lions, 49ers, Texans, Broncos, Bengals) are returning to the postseason after varying hiatuses. The Lions end the NFL’s longest playoff drought (1999) while the Texans are set to play in January for the first time since entering the league as an expansion team in 2002.

breesBut the league-wide parity runs even deeper, with eight teams having finished 8-8, the most since 2006. An additional five squads went either 7-9 or 9-7, meaning a full 40 percent of teams settled in the seven-to-nine win range.

2. A top-heavy league officially took hold in 2011

Yes, that statement is in direct contradiction to the previous one, yet for only the second time since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978, four teams reached the 13-win mark (Packers, 49ers, Saints, Patriots).

As opposed to 2007 – when the Patriots and Colts in the AFC and the Packers and Cowboys in the NFC all won at least 13 games – three of the four 13-win teams reside in the NFC this year.

Losing the conference-record tiebreaker to San Francisco means New Orleans becomes the first team in the 16-game format to win at least 13 and have to play Wild Card weekend.

3. Of the 12 playoff teams, seven are title contenders

Let’s start by crossing off the non-contenders. In the AFC, the Broncos – losers of three straight – are only in the tournament because San Diego and Oakland (both superiorly talented teams) were unable to overcome their respective mid- and late-season swoons. The Bengals went 1-6 against teams with winning records and the Texans fell flat over the final three games, the weight of the losses of Mario Williams, Andre Johnson and all of their quarterbacks too much to bear.

In the NFC, the Falcons are a classic beat-up-on-the-cupcakes and struggle-to-hang-with-the-brass team, their most notable victory coming back in October against the Lions in Detroit. The Lions, meanwhile, are too young and undisciplined to make a serious run.

That leaves the Patriots, Ravens and Steelers in AFC, and the Packers, 49ers, Saints and Giants in the NFC. Early edge in the AFC goes to New England, because Tom Brady is the only elite/healthy quarterback in the field. The NFC figures to be a dogfight from the start; while the Falcons and Lions will ultimately be overmatched, they are both better and/or healthier than any of the AFC’s bottom three. Naturally, Green Bay is the odds-on favorite to repeat as Super Bowl champs. However …

4. Beware of the 15-1 curse

Before the 2011 Packers, only four teams had completed a campaign 15-1. The first pair (1984 49ers and 1985 Bears) finished the job and went 18-1. The most recent two, however, saw their seasons come to crashing halts before reaching the Super Bowl.

The 1998 Vikings, led by Randall Cunningham, Randy Moss and Cris Carter, were bounced by the Falcons in the NFC Championship when Gary Anderson hooked a would-be game-winning 38-yard field goal, after going 39-for-39 up until that point. And the 2004 Steelers, after snapping the Patriots’ NFL-record 21-game win streak in October, were undressed by Tom Brady and Co. at Heinz Field in the AFC Championship, 41-27.

That’s not to say the Packers are destined to fall victim to recent history, though that does bring us to …

5. Beware of the New York Giants

If Eli Manning and the Giants have proven anything, it’s that they are never to be underestimated when the deck is seemingly insurmountably stacked against them. Who can forget the colossal effort the Giants put up in a meaningless Week 17 defeat to the 15-0 Patriots in 2007, a loss that served as a springboard to a rematch in Super Bowl XLII that no 120609Giants08kcfootball fan will ever forget.

Forget the symmetry between the identical 38-35 scores by which New York lost to New England in 2007 and Green Bay in Week 13. Forget that Manning used that Packers loss to rediscover his mojo (likewise for the New York pass rush) and lead the G-Men to (another) improbable postseason berth.

Actually, scratch that. Remember it all. And when the Giants are headed to frigid Lambeau Field in two weeks, remember it was Manning who took down the mighty Packers in Brett Favre’s Green Bay swan song four years ago.

6. The Patriots are somehow under the radar

Which is to say they are exactly where they want to be. Has a team that finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak ever gone into the playoffs with more baggage? From an historically bad pass defense to injuries up and down the unit to multiple-score deficits faced in each of their last three contests, there is ample reason to doubt the Patriots.

That, along with an 0-3 run in the playoffs dating back to Super Bowl XLII and including home defeats to begin the last two postseasons. A combined 27-5 record over the last two regular seasons sure doesn’t buy what it used to.

While it’s crystal clear New England has its flaws, can a case truly be made that Pittsburgh – with an injured Ben Roethlisberger, no Rashard Mendenhall and a defense that ranked last in the AFC in takeaways – and Baltimore – with its persistent road woes, an unreliable Joe Flacco and a secondary that can get be beat – are in any better shape?

Apparently so.