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.
LeBeau 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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.