I’m still here. New content coming soon. For now, here’s a picture of Joe Theismann from 1988.
The Denver Broncos are as likely as any team to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
That was the opening line to my March preview of the 2013 Broncos. I have been riding the Denver bandwagon for a long time now. In April I called it “The Year of the Broncos” after the schedule came out. On numerous occasions I have compared the 1996-97 Broncos to the 2012-13 Broncos, thinking they’d bounce back and go the distance this season. I picked them before the season started in spite of the Von Miller suspension. I only wavered when San Diego was the first opponent in the playoffs, actually believing the Chargers had the right stuff to pull the upset. I was wrong.
So how can I go against Denver now that they’ve reached the destination I always believed they were headed for?
With Wilson’s development and continuous improvement to the roster, the Seattle Seahawks are primed to have the NFL’s next dynasty.
That was the closing line to my piece last May on the NFL’s next dynasty. I chose Seattle and a championship this season would certainly put the Seahawks on the right path to becoming that.
So both of my babies have made it and we get the perfect Super Bowl matchup. These were the two best teams down the stretch last year and both had heart-breaking losses in the Divisional Round, surrendering the lead in the final 40 seconds. They were the best teams again this year and make this only the second Super Bowl between No. 1 seeds in the salary cap era (1994-present).
We have all the potential for an instant classic and I have a ton of thoughts to share on this game, which may not flow together well, but my goal was to finish this in less time than it will take me to watch the game.
I’m all about that action, boss.
NO. 1 DECIDING FACTOR: HOW WELL THE RECEIVERS ARE COVERED
I cannot see anything more decisive in this game than how well each defense covers the receivers. We know Seattle’s going to get grabby and physical and there is concern over whether or not Denver’s group of receivers can handle that for 60 minutes. The Seahawks are mostly built like the 2001-04 Patriots where it’s hard to key in on any one receiver and they’re all capable of making a big play. And you can bet Russell Wilson will be looking for the bombs, either off play-action or one of his Fran Tarkenton-esque scrambles. Denver’s had some big problems with covering receivers down the field.
If you’re expecting some pass interference calls, don’t. In the last 10 Super Bowls, only two defensive pass interference penalties have been called (4 OPI). The receivers are going to have to work hard on Sunday to win battles.
DENVER’S OFFENSE SHOULD WIN BIG MATCHUP WITH SEATTLE’S DEFENSE
First the big disclaimer: Denver’s offense has not played a defense anything close to Seattle. Seattle’s defense has not played an offense anything close to Denver. It’s a big step up in competition for both sides.
The more I think about this dream matchup the more I think it favors Denver. Sure, things will not look as pretty as they have this postseason (SD/NE) and Denver will probably have more punts by the end of the first quarter than the one they have this whole playoffs. Seattle’s defense will win some battles (series), but I think Denver’s going to win the war (overall matchup).
These units are amazingly talented and rely on that talent to execute what is not an overly complex scheme built on variety, trickery and deception. Denver’s going to load up in “11″ personnel (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) for most of the game with Manning often in the shotgun. Seattle’s going to mostly rush four, not blitz much, play a lot of Cover-3 and you can count on Richard Sherman lining up on the defensive left and Earl Thomas often in the middle.
When you give Peyton Manning two weeks to prepare for such a defense, I have to believe he’s going to figure out the mismatches quickly. Seattle’s vaunted pass rush is something I don’t remember hearing much about until the last two weeks. The attention was all about the secondary. Manning gets the ball out so quickly that most of the rush gets neutralized when the ball’s coming out in under 2.5 seconds. Kansas City was supposed to have a great pass rush and could barely breathe on Manning in the first meeting this season when Tamba Hali and Justin Houston were healthy. Those are more talented rushers than Seattle’s and Manning’s not playing his first game with a taped-up high ankle sprain like he did that night.
The Seahawks rotate in a lot of guys to rush the QB, but Manning, the least-pressured QB in the league, should be able to stop that by going with the no-huddle offense and not allowing for substitutions. So much of Denver’s offense works with the 11 personnel and they still have flexibility. Julius Thomas can line up at wide receiver and create a mismatch thru speed with any linebacker or even Earl Thomas. The three wide receivers are a lot for Seattle to cover even if Sherman locks up Demaryius Thomas.
I also don’t see Sherman being a big factor for the reason that he does not shadow the top receiver from side to side. Manning’s old offense was more rigid in how Reggie Wayne would almost always line up on the left. In the 2010 playoffs against the Jets and Darrelle Revis, Manning showed Revis too much respect, throwing just one target (a screen) to Wayne all night.
But in Denver, guys move around and I fully expect Demaryius to get his targets on the offensive left with a guy like Byron Maxwell in coverage. I saw the 49ers accomplish that with Michael Crabtree, but Kaepernick was not seeing the field or throwing the ball as well as Manning.
STATS LLC show that Manning does not favor one side of the field over the other and is great in every area:
Demaryius will likely not have a huge game, but he’s going to get Sherman-free opportunities in this one.
Seattle’s worst defensive game of the season was in Indianapolis (season-high 27 points allowed). The Colts have arguably the closest comparison to the Broncos in terms of a good QB and multiple receiving options (Saints just didn’t have the horses on the outside this year; so much of it was RBs and Jimmy Graham, who played really soft in press coverage in 2013). Remember, that was the Colts with Reggie Wayne.
In that game against the Colts, the Seahawks faced a season-high 46 snaps from 11 personnel used by Indy. Denver used 11 personnel 33 times against New England…in the first half alone of the AFC Championship. Yeah, that’s their base offense and Seattle’s going to get a ton of looks at it.
As Aaron Schatz notes, the Seahawks only faced shotgun on a league-low 45 percent of snaps. They were still No. 1 against shotgun offense. The Broncos used shotgun a league-high 78 percent of the time, so once again Denver will be running an offense with more talent than Seattle has seen and in formations the Seahawks are not as used to having to defend this year.
I’m a strong believer in any defense Matt Schaub and Mike Glennon can have success against, Peyton Manning can have success against too.
I also think the running back screen will be more important than those wide receiver screens that Seattle snuffs out very well. Seattle has been vulnerable to passes in the short middle and we may see Knowshon Moreno/Montee Ball eat up some catches. Remember, Joseph Addai had 10 catches in SB 41 from Manning who was playing a very good, but also very predictable Tampa-2 defense from Chicago, so he should know where to pick and prod. The crossing routes and pick plays will also give Seattle some trouble.
Manning has already played the six best passing defenses for a playoff team since 2006, based on defensive passer rating. His results speak for themselves:
Running backs in general are important for Denver in this game, though I think a 30-carry, 110-yard night would be more than adequate to get the win. It can’t be Manning throwing 50 times into that secondary, but this does not have to be a huge rushing performance. When the pre-snap look is there, Manning has shown he’s willing to take it.
I just think unless Seattle does show some defensive wrinkles exclusively for the SB, then Manning has an opportunity to pick them apart. Remember, the Saints had a different game plan for every quarter of SB 44. I’m not sure any of them really worked, but all it takes is one play for a corner to jump a route and that can be the ballgame. Of course, Seattle’s offense matching the potent efficiency of the 2009 Saints sounds very unrealistic based on the last six games of the season.
WHICH SEATTLE OFFENSE SHOWS UP?
Remember how brilliant Russell Wilson looked in Week 13 on MNF against the Saints? I think it was after that night I started picturing this matchup and how Wilson and Lynch could give this Denver defense fits in New Jersey. Well, a lot has changed in two months. Seattle’s really resorted to relying on big plays on offense and getting great field position from mistakes to score points on short fields. The defense of course obliges them, but this is not a game the Seahawks can win with a low score. The offense, which ranks 30th on third down since Week 14, needs to step up.
While Marshawn Lynch should get his touches and opportunities, the game really comes down to young Wilson. He threw a great game-winning TD pass on fourth down against San Francisco, but the rest of his game was very uneven. He was impotent against the Saints as well, showing some major accuracy issues on easy slants. Some point to the defensive schedule in recent weeks, but then look at how the Broncos have stepped up and held down better offenses from San Diego and New England. The defensive line is getting it done with the emergence of “Potroast” and a surprisingly good pass rush without Von Miller. Now Wilson is far more mobile than Brady or Rivers and I expect him to rush for 40+ yards and give Denver fits, but many of his wild scrambles are also unproductive plays for Seattle. He’s the most pressured QB, so I expect Denver will have some success, but the secondary better plaster downfield. Champ Bailey is back for Denver, but he hasn’t been tested much at all (3 targets in the playoffs).
Wilson will need to exploit the secondary of Denver and hit on some deep balls, which is a strength of his. The Seahawks love to use play-action. Brady had the perfect play-action bomb setup on Denver in the AFC-C, but terribly missed a wide open Julian Edelman. Wilson is better on those throws, though I wonder if his accuracy will be an issue early if nerves get to the 25-year-old.
I don’t expect nerves to be a problem by the end of the game for Wilson, but for that portion to matter, he’s going to need some help.
Who knew Lynch was like a prisoner on a chain gang from Cool Hand Luke? “Wiping it off here, boss!” The shame is if he has a bad game or a big fumble, some will blame his handling of the media for why he blew it. Let’s do the right thing and give Denver credit or Lynch some criticism.
Lynch is a trendy pick for Super Bowl MVP, but I don’t see it. Denver’s been very good against the run all season, so Lynch gashing the Broncos would be a surprise. Lynch has only topped 100 rushing yards five times in 18 games this year. That’s really not impressive for an elite RB. Someone asked me how many 95-yard games he had, but who cares? If Lynch has 95 yards, advantage Broncos. If Lynch has a game like he did in the NFC Championship where half of his production (3 carries for 56 yards, TD) came on one drive, then advantage Broncos (unless it’s late in the game and he puts Seattle ahead with that TD, but you feel me, boss). For Lynch to truly dominate and have a MVP performance, he’ll need to consistently rip off good runs and have a 25-carry, 150-yard night. I don’t see that happening.
Then I hear how there’s “Playoff Lynch” where he “raises his game” in the playoffs. Nope, don’t buy it. One week after he put himself on the map with that TD run against the Saints, Lynch had 4 carries for 2 yards in Chicago. Last season he had 16 carries for 46 yards in Atlanta (a “soft” defense) in the playoffs. He’s also had multiple fumbles in his playoff career. His numbers look fine the last two weeks, but Denver’s defensive line has really stepped up and this game is more on Wilson’s arm to win it, not Lynch’s legs.
Should Denver score like they’re capable of, that just makes it even less likely Lynch has a big impact.
WILSON NEEDS TO FINISH, MANNING NEEDS TO START AND FINISH
While I think Wilson has to come through for Seattle to win, he may only need to play his best in the fourth quarter instead of all four quarters, which is exactly what Manning needs to do for his offense to work against this defense. Wilson can get by with a pedestrian start, which I think will happen. He’s young and we’ve seen nerves get the best of quarterbacks before. Colin Kaepernick looked a bit shaky last year before getting back on track in the second half. Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Hasselbeck never really calmed down in SB XL. I think Wilson’s a gamer and will be at his best in the fourth quarter.
The last 10 Super Bowls have had a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity (only 13 of the first 37 did). Hopefully that streak continues, because I want to watch something great. It should given these teams’ competitiveness.
Manning has had a fourth-quarter lead in 13 straight playoff games (NFL record).
Seattle has been at least within one score in the fourth quarter in 50 straight games. Seattle’s led in the fourth quarter of 29 straight games:
Going back to college, Wilson is on a 64-game streak of being this close late and not getting blown out. Denver actually just ended New England’s 63-game streak in the AFC Championship, keeping the Patriots down by 10+ the entire second half. Breaking Seattle’s streak too would be epic, but I wouldn’t bet on that happening. Seattle’s too good and balanced.
Yep, the Super Bowls have been much closer, but remember when it was 28-6 Baltimore last year shortly after Beyonce shit the house down (in the words of Joe Theismann)? Well, it still ended up close eventually, which is my saying for all Russell Wilson games.
But which team is more likely to make a big comeback in the second half? Believe it or not, I lean towards Seattle, just because of the difference in defenses. That would be very tough on Manning to abandon the run and keep throwing against that defense and pass rush. For Wilson, look no further than the way the Broncos have let up in the fourth quarter with three-score leads to the Chargers and Patriots. But you might think taking advantage of a prevent requires cutting down on risk and Rivers/Brady are far more likely to take what the defense gives them while Wilson looks for big plays.
That sounds logical, but then I remember Wilson being down 27-7 in the fourth quarter in Atlanta last postseason and making big play after big play to put his team ahead in the final minute. Can he do it again in this game? Absolutely, because that plays right into Denver’s weakness (big passes) and away from their strength (stopping the run). I actually think Wilson’s best playoff game was the only one he lost.
Seattle is 34-5 (.872) under Pete Carroll when leading by 7+ points at any time in the game. Only the Steelers (4) have fewer losses in that time. The Seahawks have lost three games after leading by 10+ points since 2010. Denver certainly has the firepower to pull it off, but both teams better stay close. Super Bowls aren’t known for big comeback wins:
Looks like Manning’s Law, where anything that can go wrong will go wrong for Peyton Manning’s teams in the playoffs, is getting a break. The weather was fantastic for the AFC Championship and it looks like the weather should not be a factor on Sunday night. Manning doesn’t magically turn into Scott Mitchell when the temperature dips below 40 anyway, but there’s no doubt good conditions (that’s more about wind and precipitation than temperature) are a big positive for the pass-heavy team.
PERCY HARVIN: SUPER BOWL MVP?
Though if there is some Manning’s Law at work here, it would be Percy Harvin having a monster game and MVP performance after giving the Seahawks nothing all year. We don’t really know what Seattle’s offense with Harvin looks like since they never had him healthy long enough. He can definitely have a big impact even if it doesn’t show up in his individual stats. Denver being down their top pass-rusher and a very good cornerback (Chris Harris) makes the passing matchup difficult, but I’ll be surprised if Harvin has a lot of catches. He just hasn’t had the reps with Wilson, who is not exactly playing his best football right now. Harivn’s also a bit of an overrated receiver. He’s known for big plays, yet his longest catch in the NFL is 53 yards (that’s out of 281 receptions). In three career playoff games, he has 9 catches for 60 yards, or the Trent Richardson equivalent for a wide receiver.
Where Harvin can dangerously impact the game is with kick returns. He could be like Desmond Howard for the 1996 Packers. But of course, more kick return opportunities only come after Denver scoring drives.
SH!+ I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT
So he’s like a 2010′s version of Prince? Not interested.
SCORE BIG TO BEAT MANNING
All seven of Denver’s losses under Manning have seen the opponent score 27+ points (Denver had at least 20+ too). Manning is 80-0 when he starts and finishes a game where his team allows 0-16 points. You’re not going to beat him 16-10 (Jim Sorgi on the other hand…).
UNUSUAL PASSING PRODUCTION FOR A CHAMPION
No matter which team wins, it will be historic for passing standards. The Broncos set a NFL record with 5,444 net passing yards. Those teams never win a Super Bowl. The Seahawks ranked just 26th with 3,236 passing yards. That would be the lowest ranking in passing for any Super Bowl winner.
Wilson had a season-high 25 completions in Week 1. Manning’s had 25+ completions in 15/18 games this year. Different strokes…
I get the feeling Decker’s going to have some really pathetic play that turns into an interception for Seattle. He needs to play his most physical game to match up with Seattle’s secondary. That goes for all of Denver’s skill players, but especially the reality TV star looking for big bucks in free agency.
I know you don’t really make that catch in Super Bowl XLVI, Wes, but how about catching the ones in your wheelhouse this week? Too many drops from this guy in the last few years and he should be an important part of Denver’s success if he’s up to it. A big performance and a ring could be a difference maker for his legacy when you’re talking about the Hall of Fame. Manning and Champ Bailey could play the worst games in Super Bowl history and both should still be first-ballot HOFers. Welker will be viewed as the guy who redefined the slot receiver in his era, but he could use a signature moment here.
According to the NFL Network, Seattle has 18 of its 30 interceptions off tipped balls this season. That sounds way too high to be random luck, so there’s some skill involved here. Richard Sherman’s tip-to-a-pick in the NFC Championship is a replica of a play he made to force Eli Manning’s fifth interception last month.
Turnovers are always huge in the Super Bowl. This is an area that strongly favors Seattle, which is +20 in turnover differential this season compared to 0 for Denver.
Since 2012 (including playoffs), Seattle is +37 in turnover differential compared to -5 for Denver.
That’s just a stunning difference, and yet Denver has reached the same playoff round in both years as Seattle. But this is not a game that can be won with a poor turnover differential. Seattle capitalizes too well on mistakes. Denver has the #ObligatoryDenverFumble to worry about and Seattle is very good at stripping and tipping the ball. That could be huge.
I did a big third-down study for this game last week at ESPN Insider.
In summary, Seattle’s offense is mediocre, has been poor lately, but Denver’s pass defense is historically bad in these third-down situations. Seattle has the best third-down pass defense since 1989 by DVOA, but Manning’s still pretty elite on these plays too.
The big stat: quarterbacks are 1/39 at converting on 3rd-and-11 or longer against Seattle this season.
Yep, Carson Palmer somehow had the one conversion. I believe Manning has 7 such conversions in 2013.
These are two teams that actually have a tangible home-field advantage they won’t have this week in New Jersey. I think the neutral field favors Denver, just because the Seahawks have a decade of evidence that they really do play much better in Seattle than on the road. In terms of DVOA, Denver is basically the same offensive team on the road versus at home and a bit worse on defense, but the Seahawks have considerably larger declines on the road on both defense and offense. They’re still the No. 1 road defense, but not as dominant.
Seattle also hasn’t played a road game since going to MetLife a month ago.
COMPARISONS TO PAST SUPER BOWLS
This is one of those meaningless things we talk about before the game and can better answer after the game. I see a lot of comparisons to the 2007 Giants/Patriots. I don’t think the game will be like that and the New England offense was slumping down the stretch anyway. Giants showed some cracks in that matchup in Week 17.
I’ve seen comparisons to 1990 Bills/Giants. I highly doubt the Seahawks will hold the ball for 40+ minutes and keep Denver to 1/8 on third down. Seattle’s boom or bust on offense right now. It takes a lot of successful plays to do ball-control offense.
Carolina (8) is the only offense to have fewer than nine possessions against Seattle this year.
2002 Bucs/Raiders – kill that noise. Jon Gruden knew what plays were coming and the 2002 Bucs had the best pass defense this century. Denver’s offense is much better than Oakland’s and these teams have little familiarity at all.
The game I actually might think compare best is Super Bowl 34 between the 1999 Rams/Titans. I think Denver will move the ball well, but may struggle in the red zone while the Titans struggle for the better part of three quarters before mounting a comeback behind their mobile QB. No, Demaryius Thomas won’t beat Richard Sherman with a great move for a 73-yard touchdown like Isaac Bruce had, and there won’t be a bad slant from Wilson to Harvin that gets stopped at the 1-yard line, but I think that might be the Super Bowl this compares to best when it’s over.
John Fox and Pete Carroll are two of the league’s better coaches. I don’t see any significant advantage in this area of the game. This isn’t like Jim “Bernie” Caldwell matching blank stares with the calculated, aggressive genius of Sean Payton. Both had equal time to prepare and like I said earlier, their strong units really are more about execution than the scheme. Denver is usually a dominant second-half team, though that did start to slip after Fox had his heart surgery and Jack Del Rio took over on an interim basis. In the last four games, the Broncos have allowed a total of 16 points in the first three quarters (that’s 12 quarters total), and only 3 points in the last 3 games, but obviously the late prevent is giving up points.
I don’t put stock in preseason games. These teams haven’t met since 2010, but have changed dramatically from that year to the point where it’s not even worth any analysis.
One thing I did find interesting is how Seattle struggled with the AFC South this year. Indy beat them, Houston had them down big, the Titans were tied in the 4th quarter in Seattle and well, the Jags were the Jags. What’s interesting is Carroll never coached against that AFC South, which last played Seattle in the 2009 season, a year before Carroll was hired.
So unfamiliarity is an interesting topic in this game, but I imagine these teams will quickly get acquainted with each other Sunday night.
This favors Seattle, but it’s a game involving Peyton Manning, so what do you expect? Take the last 47 Super Bowls and the 94 teams and rank them by special teams performance on Super Sunday. I’d be shocked if the 2006 Colts and 2009 Colts didn’t rank 93rd and 94th. In 2006, the Colts allowed an opening-game kickoff score to Devin Hester, botched an extra point and missed an easy field goal in the first half. That’s an 11-point difference, which is the only reason the Colts didn’t win in a blowout. In 2009, the Colts had the third-worst starting field position in any playoff game I have studied (2nd worst for a Super Bowl) and of course Hank Baskett botched the onside kick recovery to start the third quarter. Matt Stover missed a long field goal in the fourth quarter while New Orleans’ Garrett Hartley was great on his long kicks.
Trindon Holliday has been very quiet and still hard to trust with fumbling.
I trust Matt Prater, who has missed twice all season (incl. playoffs), not to pull a Scott Norwood, but there will be no Denver altitude here. His ability to get touchbacks is another huge part of the game as Harvin is likely to get some opportunities to give Seattle great field position.
Oh, and in case you missed it, Wilson’s had the best starting field position in the playoffs (34.81) of any quarterback I’ve studied, and this is in the era where starting at the 20 is oh so common. Manning (27.34) ranks 30th out of 32. Could be a lot more shorter fields for Seattle.
MANNING AFTER A BYE WEEK
I was asked by a few people how Manning’s done with a bye/extra week to prepare. I think that’s lessened in the Super Bowl when both teams have the same time, but here’s the table:
As you might expect, the results are favorable. Manning’s worst game was in his rookie year (his 8th career game). In the 23 games, Manning had at least 224 yards and scored at least 16 points all 23 times.
Oh noes, he’s 3-5 in the playoffs!!
Yeah, I think I’ve handled those games before. Not concerned with his play. He’ll be prepared.
MANNING VS. ELITE PASS DEFENSES
Clearly Denver did not get here with records by playing a tough defensive schedule. The highest-ranked pass defense Manning played was Kansas City (7th) twice. Of course, had the Chiefs not played Manning twice, they may have ranked in the top five, but it is what it is.
I had the table earlier about Manning against the top pass defenses, but that was for playoff teams and based on DPR. Based on DVOA, here’s Manning since 2003 against top 5 pass defenses (playoffs in blue, Weeks 16-17 rest games in tan):
Again, a lot of favorable results.
Since I’m getting into “Manning table” mode, might as well jump into the next section before I make my final prediction.
PEYTON MANNING’S LEGACY
She’d have been a legend with or without that god damn song. – Quote from a bad movie that works better in a song
I promised I was not going to walk down Idiocy Boulevard with another Peyton Manning Super Bowl appearance. I spent the week on it four years ago when the narrative was “with a win on Sunday, Manning will be the greatest quarterback in NFL history!”
That’s a label that will never reach a consensus, and there’s nothing to stop me from already saying Manning is the greatest ever regardless of what happens on Sunday. We know even with a win, all it will take is a close playoff loss at home next year coupled with a Tom Brady Super Bowl win for the conversation to change again. I’ll just let 15 years of evidence speak for itself when I talk about who is the greatest.
When asked about his legacy this week, Manning had the perfect response:
“If I had my choice, what my legacy would be, would be that I played my butt off for every team that I ever played on, I was a really good teammate and I did everything I could to win. Whatever happens along in that time is fine with me. Those are things that I care about.” – Peyton Manning
That’s basically become my go-to argument for Manning over the years. No quarterback has ever done more to put his team in a position to win regardless of circumstances. That’s all you can ask for from the quarterback in this team game.
Now don’t get me wrong. Winning on Sunday night by any means necessary would be huge for Manning — about as huge of a win as any quarterback could ever have. There’s far more to gain with a win and hardly nothing to lose with a loss this week for Manning.
Becoming the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two different teams would be the perfect accomplishment for Manning’s career. It proves his style works and that he was able to transplant it perfectly from Indianapolis to Denver, even after four neck surgeries. He’d have won it his way (twice), not putting the share of the offense on a young running back like his boss John Elway did at the end of his career. He’d put a cherry on top to the greatest quarterback season ever, even surpassing what Joe Montana did in 1989 with a loaded San Francisco team. Montana was very good in Kansas City, but he wasn’t dominant like Manning’s been in Denver. Brett Favre’s first year in Minnesota was great, but how did the encore go?
Can anyone picture Tom Brady, without Bill Belichick, going to any of the 31 other teams in the league and having the type of impact Manning’s had in Denver? Not a chance. Manning’s in his third Super Bowl with his third head coach. Someone like Bart Starr was an embarrassment without Vince Lombardi. Manning’s impact on a whole team is unlike any other quarterback’s impact.
Yet somehow being “the best regular-season quarterback” has become an insult. The same regular season that makes up 91.3 percent of Manning’s career starts somehow takes a backseat to the postseason, where Manning has been one of the best playoff quarterbacks by every measure except the one he has the least control over: the win-loss record. He can get over .500 with a win and pick up his 12th playoff win (sixth most).
By recognizing Manning as the greatest regular-season quarterback ever, you’ve just eliminated over 99 percent of the competition for the GOAT. And there is no argument against that either. No quarterback has ever been so individually decorated with 5 MVP awards, 7 1st-Team All-Pro selections and 13 Pro Bowls. He has the records and longevity to back that up.
For those who care about more intangible things, a record 13 postseason berths (#winning) and changing the standards of the game with regards to the no-huddle offense and how to call plays is more than enough proof of his legacy.
So at the end of the day, we’re talking about the postseason. Manning will pass Brady for the most passing yards in playoff history, doing so in three fewer games. He’s already engineered some of the best playoff games in NFL history, including the largest comeback in a championship game ever. With one more win, he would have beaten the league’s No. 1 defense in the playoffs in all three of his Super Bowl runs. If Manning should lead a game-winning drive against Seattle, it would be his 52nd, moving him past Dan Marino for the all-time record.
Then there’s the fact that no leader in passing yards has ever won a Super Bowl (0-47). Manning would do that, all while likely throwing over 60 touchdowns and for over 6,400 yards (another record). Of all the 48 Super Bowl wins, this one would be the most quarterback-dependent of them all.
That’s a hell of a lot to gain from one game, so no pressure, Peyton. But even if he comes up short, show me another quarterback capable of having a chance to accomplish all of these things.
I do not expect Manning to retire even with a win, but there would never be a better opportunity to go out on top. There is nothing he has left to prove, and that’s just as true on February 1 as it will be tomorrow night.
THE NUMBER 24
I think the number 24 is huge in this game, and that’s not really a reference to Marshawn Lynch. I’m talking about points. Seattle’s only exceeded that point threshold in half of their games (9 games with 27+, 9 games with <24). Denver’s hit 24+ in 17/18 games and can join the 1983 Raiders as the only teams to score 20+ in 19/19 games.
It’s very difficult to score that much on Seattle, but if any offense can do it, it’s this one. The Seahawks have allowed 24+ points only five times since 2012 and they are 1-4 in those games with an overtime win over Tampa Bay this year.
If Denver has even one of its worst games of the season, that should still force Seattle to have to score 24+ to get the win.
So what more can I even say? A lot of the numbers and history tell me to go with the Seahawks, because they’re the more balanced team for both offense/defense and run/pass. They’re younger and more physical. They’re even better on special teams and have the health bonus (though it’s no given Harvin lasts long). The offensive juggernaut with the MVP QB tends to flame out against the No. 1 scoring defense, which is 12-3 in the big game.
I tried to hide the heart from the head. – Rites of Spring
I make no secrets about it: I want Manning to win. I love having a real rooting interest in the Super Bowl and have been fortunate to have a lot of them in the last decade.
But I really do like Denver’s chances this week. I just don’t love them and can see many reasons why Seattle could (should?) win the game.
In the end I see Denver protecting a 4-point lead and the most fitting ending would have to be a Hail Mary from Russell Wilson. Fans of Wisconsin and the Packers know how big that play has been in his football career. It’s the play both teams have to overcome from last season. Golden Tate needs a Hail Mary everyone believes he caught. The Broncos need to get over the Rahim Moore debacle. Knock it down if there’s no one trailing the play. I really do think it comes down to the last drive, producing an instant classic.
It’s a game like this that makes you wish the NFL would stop all talks of expanding the playoff field and instead make a best-of-3 Super Bowl.
Win or lose, Seattle should be the favorite to win it all next season. This is Denver’s best chance as the roster is going to experience a lot of changes. Denver started the season in historic fashion with a 7 TD takedown of the defending champions. Why not end it with another groundbreaking performance over a proud defense?
Final prediction: Broncos 24, Seahawks 20
Super Bowl MVP: Peyton Manning
Part of me is happy the AFC game is on first Sunday, but I also feel like I’m going to miss some of the NFC game afterwards for reasons still in my control, but I just can’t help myself. The endless Peyton Manning-Tom Brady debate grabbed me again on Saturday and I really didn’t even plan to write much about it this weekend.
There’s a good chance the best quarterback on Sunday won’t win, but the better quarterback should at least prevail in one of the games. I actually think it’s more important in the NFC game where two similar teams built around the model of physical defense and running game will meet for the third time. I don’t think it will be a blowout like San Francisco’s last two trips there. Jim Harbaugh won in Seattle in 2011, but the offense’s struggles to get the play called in on time does worry me with the 12th man’s noise.
Still, I think the game is decided by which quarterback makes more plays and fewer mistakes. Colin Kaepernick has been playing better and has more weapons, but Russell Wilson has home-field and the better overall defense. While the Seattle offense (passing game) does concern me, I have to side with the home team here to pull out a close one thanks to that defense.
Final prediction: 49ers 17, Seahawks 20
See, I barely gave the game any attention with a week to prepare, so who knows what Sunday will bring. If you want to read a detailed preview of the NFC Championship, read Aaron Schatz’s preview, which I did contribute to for one part.
Manning vs. Brady: Just the Facts
So after Tom Curran accidentally sent the latest Patriot brigade my way on Twitter on Saturday, I did not bother trying to fight them off one-by-one. I instead stood back and lobbed my own Twitter grenade with this line:
Tom Brady is the most overrated playoff QB in NFL history. Period.
Now some wanted me to prove that statement, which I think I can eloquently do without even making a 100% effort. Simply put, for the people who fawn over Brady as the best playoff quarterback ever or one of the top two or even just “wayyyyy better” than Peyton Manning, what I’m about to go through should show just how silly that notion is.
In fact, I do think Manning is a better playoff quarterback than Brady. Factors out of his control just tend to work against his teams more than Brady’s, but more on that later.
Let’s begin with some help from a fictional (but realistic) character that I’m going to call BRADYGUY.
BRADYGUY: Scott, this is asinine. EVERYONE knows Tom Brady raises his game this time of year and Manning falls off from his high regular-season perch.
Oh yeah? Then explain this comparison of performance in the regular season against playoff teams (teams who made the playoffs that season) compared to actual postseason performance:
Note: I haven’t fully explained DAPR yet, but it’s a simple calculation of passing stats that adjusts for opposing defense. The higher the DAPR the better.
We could start with the obvious that Manning’s playoff stats are more than respectable, if not outright better than Brady’s. But there’s something more interesting than that here.
Somehow Manning remains within one tenth of his winning percentage, completion percentage, YPA and passer rating against playoff teams from the reg. season to the postseason. One tenth. His DAPR gets even better as he’s played tough defenses in January and February. Meanwhile Brady is the one who suffers the bigger declines in his performance, including half a yard per pass attempt.
Overall, Brady’s 6.74 YPA in the playoffs ranks 39th all time (min. 150 attempts). One of the best statistical indicators of success, YPA does not suddenly become irrelevant in the playoffs.
Brady’s DAPR also dips well below normal levels. Now in the bottom half of the table where games from non-playoff seasons are excluded (as are the games Manning rests in Weeks 16-17 and usually watches his team lose), Manning does experience decline. That’s natural when you’re not playing the 4-12 Raiders or Bills in January.
Still, Brady’s decline is steeper with a 7-point drop in passer rating and going down even more in the other categories compared to the top half. So no, there’s zero evidence Brady elevates his game in the playoffs, and Manning certainly does not decline more.
BRADYGUY: Come on, Scott. Brady’s been to seven AFC Championships and five Super Bowls! He’s playing better competition in the playoffs than Mr. Eight Times One-and-Done Manning.
Are you sure? I can’t see Manning losing to Eli’s 9-7/10-6 squads, nor do I believe playing the Jaguars at home (2005 and 2007) was harder than starting with the 2005 Steelers and 2007 Chargers. Hell, what would have happened last year if Manning got a slumping Houston team and Brady had to start with the champion Ravens that often make him struggle? But we have objective measures for team quality like DVOA to look at.
For quarterbacks with at least 5 playoff starts since 1989, here are the averages for their playoff opponents in Team DVOA, Defensive DVOA and Pass Defense DVOA (average season ranks also included as well as rank [Rk] on the list):
There are actually 41 quarterbacks compared here, but I’m showing 30 so it’s easier to read (click to enlarge).
Manning’s played teams with an average DVOA of 20.1% (8th), -6.6% Defense DVOA (20th) and -6.5% Pass Defense DVOA (14th). Brady’s ranks are 26th, 31st and 22nd, respectively.
So yes, Manning has played better overall teams, better defenses and better pass defenses. He’s also played two-thirds (14/21) of his playoff games on a home/neutral field compared to 80% (20/25) for Brady, which does matter this time of year.
BRADYGUY: Fine, Scott. Teams who make the playoffs are usually pretty good. But you can’t overlook the biggest part: Tom Brady is 18-7, Peyton Manning is 10-11. THAT’S HUGE. How can you justify Manning only being 10-11?
What I can do is ask the proper question. Why is Manning 10-11 and Brady 18-7 when their level of play is not that different in the playoffs?
BRADYGUY: Heh, but IT IS MUCH DIFFERENT. Brady puts up more points to help his team win.
Brady averages 2.13 points per drive in the playoffs; Manning averages 2.10 points per drive.
This meager difference comes despite Brady starting his average drive nearly four yards closer to the end zone than Manning. It also comes despite other factors out of the QB’s control like missed FGs (7 for Manning, 6 for Brady) or fumbles on completions (6 for Manning, 3 for Brady). It also includes two one-play touchdown drives from last week where LeGarrette Blount just took the handoff from Brady for a touchdown.
Speaking of missed field goals, Manning is the only QB in NFL history to twice watch his last possession in a playoff game end with a missed FG (2000 Dolphins in OT, 2005 Steelers at end of regulation down 21-18). That was Mike Vanderjagt and those kicks were as wide right as they come.
BRADYGUY: Brady got his kickers closer.
No, Adam Vinatieri had to kick a 45-yard field goal in the snow after the Tuck Rule just to get to OT against Oakland. In the Superdome in Super Bowl 36, he kicked a 48-yard field goal on the last play of the game. In 2003 against the Titans on a -10 wind chill night, Brady completed one pass on a drive in a 14-14 tie, forcing Vinatieri to nail a 46-yard field goal for the game-winner. He did.
Meanwhile, Vanderjagt missed a 49-yard attempt in Miami — one he told the coach he could make and had made a 50-yard kick moments earlier in the game — and a 45-yard attempt in the RCA Dome against Pittsburgh.
Switch those kickers and ask Vanderjagt to make those kicks in Foxboro. Might be looking at an 0-2 start in the playoffs for Brady (both losses at home).
BRADYGUY: Manning knows best about losing at home in the playoffs. He’s done it five times (NFL record). How can you defend that?
Yes, Manning has five home playoff losses…by a combined 14 points — the smallest margin for the 30 quarterbacks with multiple home playoff losses.
“See, the luck I’ve had can make a good man turn bad”
Brady lost by 15 points at home to the Ravens in last year’s AFC Championship and by 19 points to the Ravens in 2009. He played very poorly in those games as well. Notice how Manning had some of the very best statistics in those home playoff losses.
That’s the common theme. Manning can play well, but still lose. Brady can do anything and still seemingly get a win.
BRADYGUY: Brady puts his teams in better position to win because he makes fewer mistakes than Manning in the playoffs.
Both quarterbacks have 22 interceptions in the playoffs. Brady has 115 more attempts, but studying all 44 plays show some key differences.
Brady has 18 bad throws and 4 tipped balls. On the tips, one was tipped at the line, one hit Donte Stallworth in one hand, one hit Sam Aiken high in one hand and another practically got Ben Watson killed in 2009. Two picks were thrown desperately in the fourth quarter with the Patriots trailing 27-13 (2005 Denver) and 28-13 (2012 Ravens). That’s still not garbage time yet as one score sets up an onside kick opportunity in a one-score game either way. Brady was at the Baltimore 22 on last year’s pick.
Manning has 15 bad throws, two QB/WR miscommunications with Marvin Harrison (both vs. Ty Law/2006 Chiefs) and five tipped balls. On the tips, one hit Marcus Pollard’s hand too high, one hit Reggie Wayne in the hands high, one deflected right off Kenton Keith’s hands deep in the red zone, one hit Eric Decker and the refs missed the defensive pass interference and one last week hit Decker in the chest and was deflected and caught in the end zone by San Diego. Three of Manning’s picks were in obvious garbage time: down 34-0 vs. Jets (4Q), down 41-0 vs. Jets (4q), down 20-3 vs. 2004 Patriots (12 seconds left). Against the 2006 Ravens, he threw a bomb on 3rd-and-17 with a 12-6 lead that was intercepted by Ed Reed. That served as a punt.
Each quarterback has had one interception fumbled back to them. Manning’s came in 2009 (BAL) with a 17-3 lead in the 3rd quarter. Brady’s came in 2006 (SD) with the Patriots down 21-13 and 6:16 left in the 4th quarter.
Luck Advantage: Brady
Each quarterback has had a turnover on the field reversed to an incomplete pass. Brady’s was the fumble that introduced us to the Tuck Rule against the Raiders in 2001. Without the call, the game would have been over with Rich Gannon taking knees. Manning’s was in 2005 against Pittsburgh on a Troy Polamalu interception overturned to an incompletion. Manning still trailed 21-10 with 5:26 left. Manning also lost a fumble last season against the Ravens on a very similar play to the Tuck Rule, but did not get that call in the last possible case it could have been used before the NFL removed it this offseason.
Luck Advantage: Brady.
Brady turned the ball over three times at home in the first quarter alone in an ugly 2009 loss to the Ravens. Manning threw three interceptions at home against the 2006 Chiefs, but still completed 30-of-38 passes (including a spike and one drop) in a 23-8 win.
Oh, and which quarterback threw four interceptions in the 2003 AFC Championship? When watching the game, felt like both, but only one defense took advantage.
Brady has four red-zone interceptions. All four were bad/forced throws. Manning has five red-zone interceptions. The last three all deflected off his receiver and the very first came when he trailed 41-0 in 2002 (Jets) and had the ball at the 19.
Manning has thrown three pick-sixes in the playoffs, including last year’s botched no-call. Brady has none, because Ben Watson tracked down Champ Bailey to the 1-yard line and prevented a 100-yard return in 2005.
Brady has 10 fumbles (3 lost) in the playoffs. Manning has 5 fumbles (2 lost). Fumble Luck Advantage: Brady
Manning’s first lost fumble was a handoff on a running play to Joseph Addai in Super Bowl XLI. The Bears recovered. Brady is credited with a botched handoff fumble in the 2006 AFC Championship in Indy. The Patriots recovered it for a touchdown. Fumble Luck Advantage: Brady.
Brady only had 3 INTs when he started 10-0 in the playoffs, but clearly that part of his game has changed and he’s always been as or more likely to have a bad turnover in a close game or in the red zone than Manning in the playoffs.
BRADYGUY: Scott, maybe you didn’t hear me. 18-7 vs. 10-11…
No, I heard you. I’ve just yet to find anything compelling that shows why there’s such a difference in record based on what the quarterbacks and not their teammates and coaches have done.
BRADYGUY: Isn’t it obvious? CLUTCH. Brady’s oozing with IT, and Manning’s just a choker. That’s where you need to look.
Third downs are pretty important situations. In the playoffs, Manning has converted 43.41 percent of his third downs compared to 40.78 percent for Brady. That rate for Brady is about average for prominent active quarterbacks in the playoffs.
BRADYGUY: I bet Brady’s better on tougher situations like third-and-long that are harder to convert.
Manning faces a longer third down on average and converts more often on the medium and long situations. Brady is a hell of a lot better on the quarterback sneak, regular or post. That is one area I will give him over anyone.
BRADYGUY: Meh, that’s just one down. What about the WHOLE game?
Well we have stats like Win Probability Added (WPA) and Expected Points Added (EPA) that can account for how much the quarterback is contributing to his team scoring and winning the game. Credit to Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats for these stats, which I’ve collected for quarterbacks with 5+ playoff starts since 1999:
Once again, Manning comes out near the top, ahead of Brady, who looks somewhat pedestrian given his lofty winning record. Manning’s the only player in the top 8 with a losing record. These stats also control for garbage time, so there’s no point in bringing that up. Obviously Manning hasn’t played in many blowout games in the playoffs to compile meaningless stats.
BRADYGUY: Can’t Manning boost his EPA by throwing short touchdown passes like last week, while Brady loses out when his team rushes for six scores against the Colts?
The EPA gained from a short touchdown pass is actually quite minimal since you’re already expected to score a touchdown that close to the goal line.
Besides, if anyone has padded their postseason TD total on short touchdown passes, it’s Brady by a HUGE margin:
So out of 25 QBs all time with 15+ TD passes in the playoffs, no one throws them shorter than Brady, who has a staggering 29 scores from 1-9 yards out. Oh, and Manning has the deepest active TD pass among the active quarterbacks. Go figure.
These next two facts also fit the “Manning gets screwed, Brady has great luck” idea quite well.
Brady has the most playoff wins ever without a touchdown pass (4). Manning has the most playoff losses without an interception (5).
And no, if you remember from earlier, Manning did not have a fumble in any of those games without an interception. No other quarterback has more than 3 playoff losses without an interception.
This is the kind of stuff I pointed out last Saturday night with this table:
C and D are especially telling in how impotent Brady has been in half of his playoff wins, while Manning doesn’t look bad at all in comparison for the times he went one-and-done.
BRADYGUY: The difference has to be Brady gets it done when it matters most, and that’s when Manning folds. It’s WHEN they make their mistakes.
Well, for starters, the WPA would already pick up on a lot of that, but sure, let’s get silly.
How about when it’s a one-score game in the fourth quarter/overtime in the playoffs? Surely Brady’s going to show his superiority there, right?
Oops, that didn’t work. Pro-Football-Reference shows neither guy can feel too good about what they’ve done in those situations, though they do have the most attempts by far. Yet there’s Manning doing better than Brady, who dips under 6.0 YPA again.
I didn’t even point out all the dropped passes yet, but we need to save something for next year’s edition.
BRADYGUY: But Scott, it’s when those mistakes happen that matters. Manning’s BURIED his team against the Saints and Ravens and…teams.
Of course you’d bring those two plays up. They’re the only two times Manning’s done that in crunch time in the playoffs, yet the stigma of him always doing that existed even before Super Bowl XLIV. Brady did it in back-to-back weeks in the 2006 playoffs.
So enough with the “Manning throws killer picks” thing. Brady has too and they came on days he played worse overall.
BRADYGUY: Okay, I think I got it. Brady has 7 game-winning drives in the playoffs and Manning is 1-9 at game-winning drive opportunities in the playoffs. I GOT YOU! Checkmate! Why can’t Manning finish in the playoffs like Brady?
He can’t? I think the numbers in the previous table show Manning’s just as adequate (or inadequate) as Brady in crunch time in the playoffs. It’s what happens around those quarterbacks that has created that 7-1 split in playoff GWDs, which I guess would be 8-0 if Brady’s defense came through for him (again).
You tell me how much of this is on Manning in GWD opportunities:
1999 Titans – Down 16-9, Manning threw a perfect pass downfield to Marvin Harrison, who dropped it on 3rd-and-22. Titans added a field goal and Edgerrin James later dropped a fourth-down pass.
2000 Dolphins – In overtime, Manning set up the field goal, but as mentioned, Vanderjagt shanked it badly and Manning never got another chance.
2003 Patriots – Despite his worst playoff game ever (4 INTs), Manning had the ball down 21-14 with 2:01 left. But we didn’t even get to see what he’d do on the drive thanks to some illegal defense from the Patriots that helped lead to reinforcement of illegal contact. The NFL quietly admitted both incomplete passes on third and fourth down should have been penalties on New England.
2005 Steelers – Getting one last chance from a Jerome Bettis fumble, Manning set up Vanderjagt for another classic shank in a 21-18 loss that would have sent the game to OT. Manning trailed 21-3 to start the fourth quarter.
2006 Patriots – Down 34-31, Manning drove the Colts 69 yards in 24 seconds — that’s pretty efficient — to let the running game finish off the game-winning TD drive with a minute left.
2007 Chargers – Manning threw a go-ahead touchdown pass to Anthony Gonzalez in the fourth quarter, but the Colts’ No. 1 defense allowed backup QB Billy Volek to drive for the game-winning touchdown. On his last drive, Manning threw good passes to Reggie Wayne (3rd down) and Dallas Clark (4th down), but both were dropped, including an embarrassing flub by Clark to end the game.
2008 Chargers – What GWD opportunity? Manning needed two yards to end the game on a third-and-2, but his rookie tight end forgot the snap count and didn’t get out of his break until it was too late. Manning was sacked and the Chargers tied the game late. Manning never got the ball in OT as the Chargers drove for the winning touchdown.
2009 Saints – Notice the lack of Manning mistakes? Here we go for a change. Manning threw the pick-six to Tracy Porter and that’s mostly on him. I’ll still say Reggie Wayne’s route was poorly run (just watch the feet), but Porter did a good job to jump the route and make the play.
2010 Jets – Manning only had three second-half possessions and ended each with a field goal, including the last one to take a 16-14 lead with 0:53 left. That usually holds up, but one big kick return by Antonio Cromartie crushed that idea and the Jets got the 17-16 win in Manning’s last game with the Colts.
2012 Ravens – Manning led a go-ahead 88-yard TD drive with 7:11 left, but obviously the Rahim Moore disaster stands out there. In OT, the Broncos dropped Joe Flacco’s picks, but the Ravens made sure to hang onto Manning’s bad throw and bad decision.
So that’s all of them. Still want to say it’s the quarterback?
Brady’s GWDs mostly consist of long field goals just like the ones Vanderjagt missed, a fumbled interception on fourth down in San Diego, missed FGs by the opponent, Drew Bennett not catching a pass in 2003 and other unbelievable failures like the Lee Evans-Sterling Moore play in the 2011 AFC Championship.
Isn’t that the crux of this whole thing? Joe Flacco throws a pass to knock Brady out of the playoffs, yet Sterling Moore defends it away in the end zone and Billy Cundiff chokes on the FG. The next year, Flacco throws a TD pass over Rahim Moore to force OT and Justin Tucker delivers on the 47-yard FG in cold conditions to end Manning’s season and make his INT his last throw of the game. Manning and Brady were helpless in these situations, yet Brady won despite playing an inferior game and Manning lost despite playing very well. Same old story.
Brady’s celebrated for his playoff GWDs, yet when it comes down to one guy stepping up and making that game-deciding play, more often than not we see someone not named Brady do it for New England and someone not named Manning screw it up for Indianapolis/Denver.
So when I say Brady’s the luckiest QB in playoff history and Manning’s the unluckiest, this is exactly what I’m talking about. No quarterbacks have more close wins (Brady) or close losses (Manning) in the playoffs than these two, yet all the stats (advanced or not) and tape show there’s no significant difference in how they played in these situations.
If anything, you’d think Manning would be the one with a 18-7 record and Brady would be under .500.
BRADYGUY: But Scott, isn’t a loss a loss? Manning has tied Favre for the most playoff losses (11) ever.
Well aren’t we talking about being the best? Do you want a guy that’s going to lose by 15-19 points at home and play like crap, or do you want someone who can give his team a chance to win every single playoff game? Sometimes that’s going to lead to some losses with perhaps a late-game turnover. Play long enough and that can happen to anyone. Is that really worse than the guy who shits the bed in the first quarter and never gives his team a chance? Manning also set a record with his 13th playoff berth this year.
Manning has had a fourth-quarter lead in his last 12 playoff games. No one else in NFL history has had a streak longer than 10 games.
Not even Brady.
BRADYGUY: Isn’t Brady just more consistent in the playoffs? Manning has a few huge games, but Brady is more likely to give you a solid performance each week.
No. Brady started his playoff career with five mediocre performances, five very good games to get to 10-0, but since then, he’s a mixed bag that hasn’t put together two good performances in back-to-back playoff games since Super Bowl 39 and January 2006 (Jacksonville).
Meanwhile Manning’s done this:
Not a passer rating fan? Understandable, but an 80, especially in the playoffs, is usually the indicator of an okay game.
I did see this from ESPN on best cumulative playoff Total QBR since 2006: Colin Kaepernick (85.4), Aaron Rodgers (77.2), Kurt Warner (75.3) and Peyton Manning (72.2).
Familiar names at the top, right? And Brady’s missing again. That doesn’t even factor in defense, like how Manning had a 60.6 QBR in the 2006 playoffs (yes, even with 3 TD and 7 INT). That year, Manning became the only QB in NFL history to beat the top three defenses in the same postseason.
BRADYGUY: …but 18-7 and 10-
I have to cut you off there, BRADYGUY, or else we might keep going until kickoff. I didn’t even crunch the numbers on Brady’s superior running game and defense in the postseason.
So taking this all in, seeing where Brady stacks up relative to Manning and other quarterbacks, there’s really nothing more misleading in the NFL today than 18-7 and 10-11. For that matter, Aaron Rodgers being 5-4 and Drew Brees being 6-5 also makes little sense relative to Brady.
Well, it makes sense to people who can see it’s a team game and no team has played better than the Patriots since 2001, but that doesn’t mean the QB is always deserving of the credit.
People don’t like to hear it, but at some point you have to chalk up the record to better team play and downright good fortune. You know, it’s a team game after all, but for some reason every Marvin Harrison dropped ball or Edgerrin James fumble is overlooked because god forbid Deion Branch or Kevin Faulk could make those plays for Brady. (They did)
They weren’t high draft picks, they can’t possibly be great. Manning lost the playoff game, he can’t possibly have played well.
S.O.S. for a decade-plus now.
Now some will say I put a jinx on Manning today by putting this out there. That’s impossible. The guy’s had a playoff jinx on him his whole career. I’m not adding anything to it. I’m just pointing out the facts instead of dropping to my knees for Brady and Belichick in the playoffs like too many other writers and fans have done.
And I’m still picking the Patriots to win this game.
Oh, About the AFC Championship…
Do I still have the energy to go past 4,000 words? Sure, but I’ll keep this preview relatively short.
When the Patriots won aforementioned game in San Diego in the 2006 playoffs, that was the last straw for me. I said I wouldn’t pick against the Patriots in a big game again. Something ridiculous always seems to happen for them. So I picked them to beat the Colts and they choked away an 18-point lead the following week. They blew a perfect season at 18-0 in 2007. “We’re only going to score 17 points?” No, 14. Despite going 16-0 in the regular season at home in 2008-09, the Patriots went one-and-done in back-to-back years against the Ravens and Jets, teams they beat in the regular season including a 45-3 smacking. They should have lost to the 2011 Ravens and did lose again to the Giants in SB 46, despite being favored. They were the favorites again last year when a Ravens team I thought had a great chance to go in there and win did just that, holding the Pats to 13 points (second-half shutout).
(Note: a lot of this further applies to why Brady is the most overrated playoff QB).
All seven of the playoff losses under Belichick/Brady have been rematches. This game with Denver is a rematch. The last game really doesn’t apply too much in that the venue is different, the weather will be much better, there’s no Rob Gronkowski and Von Miller (among others) and John Fox is back on the sideline.
While you probably think I’m dying to pick Denver (and I am, and I like, but not love, their chances), I’m not going to do it.
A depleted Jack Del Rio defense that has a tendency to leave guys wide open on third and fourth down? Uh-oh. For as much talk as there’s been about NE’s running game, and the run will be huge for both teams, I wouldn’t be surprised if they come out throwing with Brady early and often. This isn’t a “do what we do every week” team. They adjust for each opponent and the weakness in Denver is the pass defense. The run defense has been solid all year with and without Miller, so it would be a surprise to see them gashed there. The pass is the problem without Chris Harris and without Miller, who played great in NE, rushing Brady.
Quentin Jammer and Kayvon Webster may just combine to Rahim Moore another season for Denver. Somehow Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola continue to get open underneath when it’s painfully obvious Brady is going to them with the ball. Do I trust Del Rio to adjust? Of course not. New England’s offense should do fine. Shaun Phillips has to have a huge game against Marcus Cannon in Miller’s absence. That’s a matchup to watch.
On the other side (both sides, but moreso on this matchup), I’ll be curious to see how much contact is allowed in the secondary. That’s NE’s best hope to jam these receivers and throw off the timing routes. Manning needs to work on the 8-15 yard range in this game and not try to bomb it out. Wes Welker will want to have a huge game, but I think this is about Thomas & Thomas again.
I have been getting a lot of Patriot fans talking out of both sides of their mouth this week. On one end, it’s “Manning has the best weapons ever!” On the other, it’s “Talib and Jamie Collins will shut down Thomas & Thomas, Eric Decker is super soft and Julian Edelman could cover Welker AND outplay him at receiver and punt returner!” Okay, so which is it?
I think the Patriots can get some stops in this game, but it’s going to be hard to shut down the passing game that never got going last time due to the crazy start with fumbles. Manning should have a much better game this time, but any 400 yards/4 TD expectations are lunacy. The Patriots rarely give up 30+ points of offense in 13 years under Belichick. I think they have to hold Denver under that to win this one. I still think Demaryius is the key guy that makes this offense go, so he can’t be under 50 yards for Denver to pull this one out.
This is Manning-Brady XV, but remember, these games have never been a shootout. Maybe we’ll get that for an instant classic, but I’d sooner expect Denver to fall behind by 17 points and make a dramatic comeback again. Denver’s constant ball security issues bother me. Last week they had a lot of bad plays with drops, fumbles and stumbles, but maybe that was a little rust and they’ll be sharper this week.
They’ll have to be. The Patriots are not the Chargers. Belichick won’t mail in a conservative gameplan like new job-seeking Whisenhunt did and the Patriots will capitalize on every little mistake. New England hasn’t been impressive on the road, though their best road game was their last (at Baltimore).
At the end of the day, I see a Denver team with a better QB and better receivers, but the Patriots hold the other advantages. Well, except for home-field this time. What do you think historically wins more of these big games?
I’ll call my shot here. In the nature of what I’ve presented above, this game clearly has two possible endings: a game-ending Brady interception or a dropped pass by Wes Welker on fourth down.
Either way, we already know which QB will get more credit for a win and which will get more blame for a loss. I hope to enjoy a potentially historic Sunday and do what I do every week: watch the games, write later what actually decided the outcome and who to hold accountable. Isn’t that the easiest way to do this job? Why do some feel the need to continue a decade-old narrative, facts and new information be damned?
Final score: Patriots 30, Broncos 27
And I am rooting for Denver-Seattle, because I want to see the best offense play the best defense. “So for once in my life, let me get what I want…”
I’m not a X’s & O’s guy, but most reading this already know that. I do statistical analysis and watch a lot of games to pick up on trends and how certain teams/players perform on the field.
What I think I have is a common sense approach to how the game should be played. Part of my educational background is studying how to limit motions to improve efficiency for various processes. Leaving a team’s best receiver wide open is probably a terrible decision no matter if the defense that was specifically called was done correctly to the coaches’ wishes. Now this is a rant that literally just popped in my head so this may get branched out into a legitimate article later, but for now, just bear with me.
In preparation for the AFC Championship between Denver and New England, I have been pointing out how limited the New England passing game is without any tight end threat or even a real vertical threat at this point. It’s basically all Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola (Austin Collie when they need a breather) running short routes, often from the slot, and yet no one has really found a way to shut it down yet. Shane Vereen can catch passes out of the backfield, but he’s not Marshall Faulk. New England has mostly worked on the running game lately, but the passing game will be crucial for the remainder of the postseason and it has to be these same receivers.
So when coaches who get paid millions of dollars like Chuck Pagano, John Fox and Jack Del Rio sit down to prepare for this Rob Gronkowski-less offense, how can they not see the same things I see from my home? I’m not going to get into the statistics for the increase in short passes, but we know most teams throw shorter more often today. Yards per completion are down as the spread/shotgun offense is used more. Yet we still see defenses play this archaic style of trying not to get beat deep, even when the very best vertical passing games will be lucky to hit 30 passes more than 20 yards down the field in a given season.
Tom Brady, for example, is 14/58 on passes thrown 21+ yards this season. Is that really something to fear? That’s in line with his previous seasons too. You can even leave a guy open and there’s a decent shot he will miss him, like he missed Amendola against the Saints this season. With the way offenses are setting records for points and yardage these days, giving up a quick strike is hardly the burden it used to be. But alas, I’m ranting again and need to get to what I saw in Saturday night’s game against Indianapolis.
Edelman caught 105 passes this year. He’s clearly Brady’s No. 1 target, so the Colts naturally should counter with putting their best starting cornerback Vontae Davis on him. That’s smart. But look what happens on this play early in the first quarter. It was 2nd-and-9 with Brady in the shotgun so there’s no reason not to expect a pass. You can see Davis lined up on Edelman at the snap:
Here’s what I would have done on the play as a defensive coordinator (and yes, I only have Paint and not Photoshop):
I shadow Edelman with Davis so he would pick him up on the crossing route. I let my linebacker, who has no chance with Edelman here, come up to prevent the running back having open space in the left flat. There, those two players are taken care of with the proper matchup for their skill talent and you can see the right side is matched up well already too.
What did the Colts do?
Davis took a few leisurely steps backwards and ended up covering nothing on the play because Brady’s pass was already out and easily caught by Edelman, who had a lot of open field to run after the catch and turn it into a 25-yard gain.
How can any coach justify Davis’ defensive assignment on that play? It’s not like Brady’s going to pull it down and run and make Davis the last line of defense. That’s not Kaepernick out there. Is RB Brandon freakin’ Bolden out of the backfield worthy of Davis’ coverage? You mean to tell me your best corner isn’t better off covering the guy with 105 catches? Is Darrelle Revis, under Rex Ryan at least, really the only cornerback capable of covering a guy all over the field? Even that performance was probably overblown.
Say what you want about the late Al Davis, but that concept of playing tight, bump-and-run man-to-man coverage makes the most logical sense. Throw off all these timing routes with the contact you’re allowed to have within five yards. Why are coaches leaving a team’s favorite receiver wide open or letting him breeze past linebackers that have no hope of covering him? Yeah, you can mix it up with man and zone, but what value does leaving Davis where he was on that play have for the defense? What in the hell is he going to limit there that a linebacker can’t?
It’s hard to play defense now, but a lot of that is self-inflicted when guys, by instruction or not, are letting receivers go and watching action they have no shot of doing anything about.
If you think I’m freaking out over one play, consider what happened in the second quarter. This time Davis did stick with Edelman out of the slot, but Edelman just beat him on the catch after a play-action pass. Still, the defense was there to limit this to a 12-yard gain instead of a 25-yard gain like the earlier crosser. You can see the defense in great position to wrap Edelman up at the 40:
Well, Edelman broke tackles and gained 15 more yards to turn it into a 27-yard gain. So it’s poor defense either way, but it’s a hell of a lot better to live with the designed coverage on that play than the free release and easy 25 yards on the first play.
Then again, for a coach who thought punting on 4th-and-1 in the fourth quarter down 43-22 was the right call, is it even a stretch he would think having Davis spy the running back would be better than following the guy most likely to get the ball?
We’re about to experience the greatest weekend of the NFL year. Shocking upsets make it great when we see which of last week’s winners can go on the road and beat the rested bye teams, who obviously compiled the top records in the league. Anymore, it’s hard to keep calling them upsets when the playoffs produce so many of these results every year. You have to go back to the top-heavy 2004 season to find a home sweep on Divisional weekend.
What I will do here is share opinions as a fan for these games, since they obviously mean more to me than the NFC games. I’m not afraid to admit I am pulling hard for a Colts-Broncos AFC Championship, but I feel like it’s the least likely scenario. After having to watch Ravens-Patriots the last two years, I could use a true rooting interest next week (and in the Super Bowl). Yet I feel like we’re headed for Chargers-Patriots, and I just hope Philip Rivers gets through the weekend with his knee ligaments intact so that game’s not compromised again.
“And the captain’s abandoned ship. Can you believe it? No! They had to. No! It won’t do. It’s hard to swim when lies will drown you.” – Stop It!!
Yes, I essentially picked the Denver Broncos to win Super Bowl XLVIII the moment Super Bowl XLVII ended. I picked Denver in April. I picked them in August and in the first week of September when I made my season predictions. Now prior to their first playoff game, I am siding with the Chargers to knock them out.
Jameis Winston asked me why I’m picking San Diego. He said, or I said, not even my cousin in THE AFGHANISTAN said he can believe I’m picking San Diego. Is my confidence strong with this pick? No, but I said we strong. He said we strong then. San Diego strong.
All jokes aside, the real question is at what point am I allowed to change my mind based on new information?
Part of the reason I liked Denver was the potential of the defense, which had a solid 2012 performance. They don’t have to be a dominant force for this team to go the distance given the offense, but they can’t be a liability. Based on the last four months, I see a postseason liability and I see the unit’s best player, Von Miller, sidelined for the year with a torn ACL. Miller returning from his suspension and being a dominant force to lead the defense, which of course also lost Elvis Dumervil over a fax fiasco, was part of my expectations for Denver. That’s gone.
What’s left is a pass-happy offensive juggernaut, and everything I have learned about NFL history tells me such a team fails in the postseason, because the defense has to come through too, and unless you’re the 1999 Rams, so does the running game at least once. The loss may not be on Sunday, but winning a Super Bowl will be very difficult for this team without some significant changes in performance. No one can do it winning 35-31 every week in the playoffs and I see Denver having to do that twice just to get to New Jersey.
I would probably be talking about things much differently if the Broncos were facing Kansas City or Indianapolis this week, but it’s San Diego and that’s a problem as I detailed in my preview. Now this isn’t a reliable opponent, but I feel like I know a Peyton Manning team very well through years of analysis. I can usually pick out on the schedule in April which games will be difficult for his team to win. Yes, he’s changed cities, coaches and teammates, but he puts his stamp on a team unlike anyone else.
Being the most consistent player in NFL history, running basically the same offense his whole career and being tied to flawed defenses, it all creates for a lot of consistency in how certain opponents play Manning’s team. Two of Denver’s three losses this year coming against New England and San Diego are no surprise at all. For the Chargers to win it has to come as it usually does: win the trenches, win the field position battle, own the running game and get those mistakes from Manning’s passing game any way they can. This team is built to do that and the Broncos are not the highly efficient juggernaut their 26-6 record suggests the last two years. They are only -1 in turnover differential, which is absurd when you consider New England (+34) and Seattle (+33) in that department since 2012.
So much of the game is about red zone and turnovers. Denver’s great in the red zone, but must stop fumbling the football and get some more takeaways.
Am I going too historical on this one? I don’t think so. There’s an interesting 10-game sample of the Chargers against Manning — defensive coordinator John Pagano was on defensive staff for all 10 games — and we see a lot of the same things happen regardless of all the changing parts. Forcing a one-dimensional passing attack while Philip Rivers turns into more of a game manager to control the clock with the run is one of the biggest parts of the plan. Some damn good luck has worked too.
To counter myself, let’s recall the setting of a playoff game in the 2003 AFC Wild Card between Manning’s Colts and the Denver Broncos. In Week 16, Denver went on the road as a 6.5-point underdog in a prime-time game and dominated the clock, holding the ball for 44:58. Manning only threw for 146 yards and the offense scored 10 points on 8 drives. Denver won 31-17. Now I don’t recall the specific chatter two weeks later in the postseason other than “when’s Peyton Manning going to win a playoff game?!”. The game was in Indianapolis again, but the Broncos were only a 3-point underdog this time and came in with confidence of dominating there. Well, Manning went 16-of-18 for 327 yards and 4 TDs in the first half to build a 31-3 lead on the way to an easy win.
So much for the road underdog having confidence from a few weeks ago. I doubt we see that type of history repeat itself, but I’ll feel pretty foolish if it does. At least I’ll be a satisfied fool.
I hate to even get into the “Manning’s 9-11 in the playoffs; eight one-and-dones!” thing before he takes the field this postseason, but I feel like I wrote a pretty definitive article about eight of those losses last year. I’ve read some pretty bad articles this week about the topic. I know I’ll have more to write about Manning and other quarterbacks in the coming weeks.
I was going to conclude with a rant about how sometimes I start to believe the critics are onto something. Maybe Manning is too robotic/over-studied for the playoffs and that’s holding him back in the big moments. But then I just slap myself with the dose of reality that seven of the guy’s one-and-done postseasons were by a combined margin of 26 points and none of the most critical, game-changing plays in those seven games was a mistake he made.
So that rant can wait another day, because there’s no shortage of idiocy during the postseason to refute.
Saints at Seahawks
The more I think about Seattle’s 34-7 thrashing of New Orleans over a month ago, the more I think we’re going to get a much better game this week. Let’s not forget there was an unfortunate bounce in good field position on the Brees fumble that became a touchdown return. While Brees is no stranger to turning the ball over on the road, that quick score and 10-0 deficit really drove the crowd wild in the way a turnover 50 yards down the field that just gives Seattle the ball in a 3-0 game would not have done. Then in the third quarter the Seahawks got that crazy bounce on a touchdown to Derrick Coleman. It was just Seattle’s night, but it’s 0-0 starting on Saturday.
I’m not sure the Saints are getting enough respect in this game. Yes, the road woes are worth mentioning, but any time you’re talking about one of the best coaches and quarterbacks in the league, any game can be had with a brilliant performance. But the Saints aren’t likely to get brilliance from Brees against the league’s best pass defense.
Seattle’s only allowed more than 24 points twice at home in their last 24 home games. Both of those games were in 2011 before this was a playoff team. That also includes a 34-12 loss to the 2011 Bengals in which Cincinnati scored two return touchdowns. This defense is very difficult to score on, especially at home. The key to doing it is to have great talent at wide receiver to match up with those cornerbacks. The Saints are lacking a bit in that department this year, so boxing up tight end Jimmy Graham with size and safety help from this Seattle secondary makes that a less than favorable matchup for New Orleans compared to most weeks.
That’s why the key to the game will be to win the rushing battle in the way New Orleans surprisingly did against Philadelphia on the road. If there’s a vulnerability to the Seattle defense, it would be stopping the run. On the other side, the Saints did a very good job against LeSean McCoy and the No. 1 rush offense. They also shut down Marshawn Lynch on MNF, holding him to 45 yards on 16 carries. Lynch has quietly had some poor games down the stretch this season, only topping 4.0 YPC once in his last six outings.
So I’m not concerned with Lynch running all over the Saints. Russell Wilson is the problem. He was so effective on the move in the first meeting and he really does that every week, but was especially deadly that night. Wilson holds onto the ball a lot, so the Saints have to find a way to make him pay. I think Rob Ryan should dial back the blitz and try to make Wilson overthink what he’s seeing. This is not the greatest receiving corps in the playoffs and I’m not expecting a ton from Percy Harvin in his return to the lineup. Make Wilson hold the ball, plaster the receivers and the defensive line needs to play a hell of a game.
If the Saints are going to win this game, it’s going to be about helping Brees with the support of a running game so he doesn’t have to be perfect, not letting Lynch dominate and keeping Wilson’s big plays down. It’s not helping New Orleans with Kenny Vaccaro out at safety. Roman Harper would like to burn every tape of the last performance he had in Seattle in the playoffs.
But if Seattle’s going to lose in the playoffs, it’s going to be on the offense having a low-scoring day. I don’t see the Saints being the team to force them into one.
49ers at Panthers
This was a 10-9 game last time, but the 49ers are bringing more firepower for the rematch. Still, with these defenses, this is almost boringly predictable to be the weekend’s lowest-scoring game, and probably the closest for that reason. It could just come down to which mobile quarterback has the ball in his hands last.
ESPN had a good article on how both Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton have beat up on bad defenses in 2013 and struggled with the good ones. Yeah, another 10-9 score wouldn’t be that shocking.
The resurgence of the Panthers at 12-4 has been framed incorrectly this season. Riverboat Ron is more of a legend than a producer of on-field results. I posted this on Twitter over a week ago, but the idea of Cam Newton regressing in 2012 is just as laughable as the idea he’s progressed in 2013:
What’s really changed is Carolina has gotten so much better on defense. Only the Saints have scored more than 24 points against the Panthers and that was in the Super Dome. I do think the front seven can give Kaepernick a lot of problems in this game. They already did in San Francisco when he couldn’t even break 100 yards passing. However, he is playing his best this season right now.
This game comes down to two glaring weaknesses for me. I think Jim Harbaugh is clearly the better head coach and while I expect points will be difficult to come by, I can’t ignore one glaring difference in the makeup of these teams:
If this was a back alley brawl, I might take the Carolina guys on Smith’s craziness alone, but for this game, give me the 49ers. Now Carolina has home-field advantage and that is going to be tough for the 49ers to go back on the road again from west to east for an early game, but I have to go with the better team.
Oh yeah, SF-CAR will be the 500th playoff game in NFL history. Equating that to the regular season would take you back to the final late afternoon kickoff in Week 1 of the 2012 season. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Yet it feels like most NFL legacies are built around these few precious moments…
Let’s just say my scores did not work out too well last week (2-2 too). Closest was Green Bay needing to score four fewer points to nail that game at 23-20.
If I have my first losing week of the season, I won’t mind.
Last season I did an unusually good job of picking playoff games. I even got really close to the final score on Wild Card weekend. My 9-2 record only consisted of losses by the Colts (too much of a heart choice) and Broncos (“Rahim Moore should die of gonorrhea and rot in hell”). This season, I have virtually zero confidence in having a good month of predictions. This is not a lack of confidence in myself. It’s the inconsistency the 2013 playoff field has shown us.
Factor in the declining quality in officiating — you just know at least one team is going to get royally screwed here — and literally anything could happen. Sure, I would never bet on Chargers-Saints in a February blizzard, but that’s really not even that crazy. I feel like any of the 12 teams could go on a run or could go one-and-done. I’ve never felt this way before about a playoff field. Last year I would have never believed the Colts could win in New England or Denver. I didn’t picture Baltimore doing it, but the Ravens did. Even before we found out it was going to be a lousy game with Joe Webb at quarterback, I gave the Vikings little chance to move past the Wild Card round, let alone win another game.
But each year I see more playoff randomness and there are way too many great players on these teams unable to participate due to injury. So the flaws are all very real. We’re in for a bumpy ride.
I did not have time to start it this week unfortunately, but I will be running an epic series of articles on quarterbacks in the playoffs starting on Football Outsiders next week. If you want a great source of data to bookmark, this will deliver. If you want something to shove in someone’s face when they say something stupid, consider it a belated gift.
Speaking of gifts, make sure to download my updated playoff chart for every team in the Super Bowl era.
Chiefs at Colts
Practically everything I needed to say about this game can be found in my preview at Football Outsiders. I do like the Colts in a much closer game than the one in Week 16.
One thing I will add here: I hope Andrew Luck gets his first playoff win today, just so we don’t have to go through this stupid “when’s he going to win one?” thing that is sure to come in today’s media world. “Oh, Russell Wilson won a playoff game last year. Colin Kaepernick went to the Super Bowl. WHAT’S WHRONG WIT ANDROOW LUCK!?!” We went through this recently with Tony Romo, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, but none of those players were the No. 1 pick in the draft.
Now I’m not saying we need to absolve Luck of all blame if he has a horrible game against the Chiefs, but I don’t think anyone expected the Colts to go 22-10 the last two years with such a revamped and flawed roster. Just being in this position is worthy of respect. Cam Newton didn’t do this in 2011-12. Robert Griffin III already fell off in year two and the Redskins are a mess.
The Colts have beaten the best teams in the league this year without really being one themselves. Imagine that.
Saints at Eagles
Again, it’s been a busy last few days of playoff preparation. You can read my ESPN Insider article (if possible) on Nick Foles’ totally unexpected elite season here. He might look like he failed to land the lead role in Napoleon Dynamite, but the kid can play and it’s not just the Chip Kelly system. I’m impressed and I think he has a good shot to win this game against a Saints team that, let’s face it, hasn’t played well on the road this season.
So what is it about that “Saints are awesome at home, but forget them on the road” thing? I give my thoughts on that here. It is overstated a bit, but until the Saints win a game like this, people will continue to doubt them outside of the dome. Pierre Thomas reportedly will not play, but the Saints still have plenty of backs. They just don’t have nearly the type of reliable running game the Eagles have. The balance is why I like the Eagles to win at home, because it’s not like Foles has to do it all while Brees is likely to go over 45 pass attempts.
You may recall an article I did on offensive balance this summer. The 2013 Eagles rank 18th in balance-adjusted yards per play since 1970:
Should be a lot of points scored, but give me the home team here.
Chargers at Bengals
Here’s one where literally anything could happen. The Chargers probably aren’t happy about the 10 A.M. PST kickoff, but they couldn’t even bitch about a crack of dawn start time after the gift from the officials and Ryan Succop last week to even be in this game.
Plain and simple: the Bengals have the best defense in the AFC, they can contain San Diego’s offense, but Andy Dalton cannot blow the game for them. Dalton threw four picks last week and still won. He can’t throw more than two and win this week, because San Diego loves to shorten the game with long drives (death by papercuts). The Chargers had the fewest offensive drives (158) in the league this year and averaged the most possession time per drive and ran the most plays per drive. That’s just how they play football because the offense makes a lot of successful plays and the poor defense allows a lot of first downs.
That all shortens the game, so Dalton cannot waste possessions for his teams and give up field position with turnovers. I think the Bengals are best equipped in the AFC to handle a bad game from their quarterback due to the defense and surrounding offensive talent, but few teams are equipped to overcome a postseason pick parade.
The Bengals are 8-0 at home this season. I may do a short post on this at FO, but I found 50 teams to go 8-0 at home since 1978. They went 43-16 (.729) at home in the playoffs. Only 11 teams went one-and-done at home in the playoffs.
As long as Dalton keeps the picks under three, the Bengals should move on here, but I’ve been wrong before on San Diego.
49ers at Packers
I guess the weather’s going to be a big story here. What’s the forecast?
If scoring is down, then I just think that favors the 49ers even more in a tough, grind it out game. The Packers are different now that they have a running game with Eddie Lacy, but the 49ers are such a balanced team on both sides of the ball. They’re frankly just a better team than the Packers, who I think in the future would not be hosting this game as an 8-7-1 team over a 12-4 team they already lost to. But we can’t fix the playoffs this month, so tough shi+.
Dom Capers has had no answers for Colin Kaepernick. By air or ground, it’s been a nightmare the last two games and even Alex Smith picked this defense apart in the 2012 opener. I’m not sure enough has changed for Green Bay to get past the 49ers, which is the exact opposite of this series in the 90s with Brett Favre always getting past Steve Young except for that time Jerry Rice fumbled and no referee cared.
Wait, you mean the NFL referees have always sucked?
The Packers have Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb back, which is great and it means there’s always a chance, but this defense is awful and will be without Clay Matthews. The Packers have allowed at least 21 points in 10 straight games (at least 26 in 9/10). They’ve been behind by a lot of unusually big deficits in the second half almost every week since the Rodgers injury. It was a great effort to rally back and make the playoffs, but I just don’t see the defense being strong like it was in 2010 for this team to put together a run.
The 49ers simply continue to be a bad matchup for the Packers.
Oh I’m never a fan of picking the scores because they just provide more ways to show how wrong you were, but here we go.
It’s the eve to the end of another NFL regular season. They sure go by quickly. This Sunday should be as eventful as any with only the Chiefs locked into their playoff seeding. There are a few notable story-lines to focus on this week.
Peyton Manning: Best QB Season Ever?
I’ve been asked by a few people if I think Peyton Manning is having the best season ever by a quarterback this season. The simple answer is no, it’s not even the best Peyton Manning season. The reasoning is a bit more complex.
For starters, Manning’s season is not over yet, so it’s not exactly fair to ask this question right now. He has one more game and if we are to factor in the postseason, then that’s 1-3 more games. From a pure statistical volume standpoint, I do think it will go down as the best season in that he has a good shot to reach 55 touchdown passes and 5,500 passing yards.
When factoring in efficiency, caliber of opponents and how he’s compiling the numbers, then I think it falls short of the all-time great seasons.
Manning has already thrown 631 passes this season. He only needed 497 when he threw 49 touchdowns in 2004. His passer rating is 113.0, which is below the 121.1 he had in 2004. While his interception percentage (1.6%) is the lowest of his career, he has career-worsts in fumbles (10) and lost fumbles (6). The standard of defense has also fallen off greatly this season around the league and it’s hard to acknowledge many of the defenses Manning’s played as being good, let alone great.
Manning only took the field for 149 drives in 2004 when he compiled his amazing numbers. This season the Broncos have 182 drives with one game to go. Even after we take out a few that Manning did not play, he simply has had quite a few more opportunities this season to put up touchdowns and yards.
So I think 2004 is a superior season from Manning and I think his finest overall effort was 2006. No, that’s not because he won the Super Bowl, but it’s because he carried that heavily flawed team so effectively each week. He had to overcome the horrific run defense. He led the best third-down offense ever at the time. He had a rookie running back (Joseph Addai). He had no No. 3 WR thanks to injuries to Brandon Stokley. He was as effective as ever at throwing downfield to Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. He only gained 34.3% of his yards via YAC, which is a career low. In 2013, he’s enjoying a career-high 48.5 YAC% from his receivers.
When ESPN introduced their QBR stat, the first season I wanted to see was Manning’s 2006, because I felt it could be as high as any in the last decade. Sure enough, when ESPN added more QBR data, Manning’s 2006 is the best at 87.2. His 82.2 QBR in 2013 is only his personal 4th-best season and this thing only goes back to 2006.
With all that said, I do think Manning came up just a few drives short from having had the greatest season ever this year. The margin in football is usually that small. Had Manning completed a 19-point comeback in the fourth quarter in Indianapolis, threw a game-winning touchdown in overtime in New England and at least tied the game with a 97-yard touchdown drive against San Diego, then I probably would say it’s the best QB season ever. Why would it change after three drives? Because in addition to boosting his stats even more, that’s adding the stuff of legends to his season.
Remember when Peyton went back to Indianapolis and brought his new team back from a 19-point deficit in the fourth quarter? No, I just remember him getting hit as he threw and the pass was intercepted. Then his running back fumbled in the red zone to end the last rally attempt. Ho-hum.
Remember when Bill Belichick took the wind in overtime and Manning embarrassed him again with a game-winning touchdown pass? No, I just remember two punts and the game pathetically ending on a muffed Denver punt.
Remember when Peyton led his team back from 14 down in the fourth quarter with a 97-yard game-tying touchdown drive against San Diego? No, I just remember another play where he was hit as he threw and the pass was intercepted.
See, it’s only three drives and I frankly don’t even care if the Colts/Chargers both came back to win. Had he finished those games with 3 more TD passes (and 2 fewer INTs in return), then yes, that would probably be enough for me to put him over top of his own seasons and ones like Dan Marino 1984 and Tom Brady 2007.
Ultimately, the fact that one quarterback has multiple seasons in the conversation for best ever says enough about Manning.
NFC De Facto Playoff Game 1: Green Bay at Chicago
The 2013 Green Bay Packers are Above the Law, making comebacks that never happened under Mike McCarthy’s watch with better quarterbacks. This team is Hard to Kill and has been Marked for Death since November 4, but they’re Out for Justice against Chicago this week. Jay Cutler will be Under Siege against a team he’s been terrible against. The Bears are On Deadly Ground and it could be Dark Territory on Sunday night. It was an Executive Decision to hold him out this long, but Green Bay’s Glimmer Man is back in action and there’s a Fire Down Below in Rodgers, a true Patriot playing his first game in almost two months. The Bears might be leaving 2013 with some Exit Wounds. They’re going to regret starting last week’s game Half Past Dead.
Damn, Steven Seagal’s career really hit the skids over a decade ago.
I picked Green Bay in the preseason to win the division. When Marc Trestman made the move to go back to Jay Cutler, I felt the Bears would beat Cleveland, but lose to the Eagles and Packers (with a good assumption that Aaron Rodgers would be back) to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs. Now I did expect the Lions to be the team that took advantage, but it’s the Packers coming through and bringing back one of the best players in the game just in time for the Week 17 division clincher.
Is this one really as simple as Rodgers is great, he rarely has a bad game and he’s going to feast (as will Eddie Lacy) on that poor Bears defense while Cutler has to overcome the 1-8 mark against Green Bay (with atrocious stats)? It would seem so, but at least the game is in Chicago and there’s an expected rust factor from Rodgers. Still, let’s not forget it was Josh McCown for the first meeting and he made some incredible throws in that 27-20 win in Green Bay.
There’s not a throw McCown can make that Cutler can’t. The problem is there’s a lot of stupid throws Cutler will make that any smart quarterback wouldn’t, and that’s how he gets himself into trouble. The Packers are scoring and allowing plenty of points, so it would expect to be a high-scoring game, but Rodgers has the lowest turnover ratio in NFL history while Cutler is more prone than most to giving away the ball.
When you talk about a QB’s legacy, this is a huge game for both. Cutler is playing for a long-term job in Chicago, which could be likely should he come through with a big performance and push the Bears into the playoffs. For Rodgers, this would be a lost season for most quarterbacks after breaking their collarbone in November. He’s had just enough time to recover and the Packers have won just enough games — coupled with Detroit & Chicago losing enough — to stay alive for his Week 17 return. It wouldn’t be fair to put a lot of blame on him for losing and missing the playoffs on Sunday night, but it’s a great opportunity and his playoffs start now. He has to play well in this one and I think he will. I also think Cutler will make just enough mistakes.
If Chicago wins, it’s almost predictably going to be with a fourth-quarter comeback, which Cutler usually does well at as long as the game actually gets to that point. Now would be a great time for Rodgers to snap that eyesore streak of being 0-20 at fourth-quarter comebacks against teams .500 or better.
I don’t think the Packers have enough on defense to make a 2010-type title run, though there are 2010-like things happening for them again. It all starts with beating the Bears in Week 17 to make the playoffs, then they can go from there.
Final prediction: Packers 27, Bears 20
NFC De Facto Playoff Game 2: Philadelphia at Dallas
It’s the game many people expected would decide the NFC East since the schedule came out. But there is one big surprise: it’s Kyle “Neckbeard” Orton instead of Tony Romo at quarterback for Dallas. So let it be known Romo finished 2013 with a 1-0 record in elimination games, because he can’t lose this one after having back surgery. It’s a shame because it does weaken the game as Orton, while more than capable of moving the ball in this offense, is just not that effective when the pass rush gets to him. Romo has that unique ability to get out of trouble and make something happen. The last road game for Philadelphia featured an unexpected shredding of the improved defense by Matt Cassel, so anything’s possible, but I think the Eagles are playing too well on both sides of the ball for Dallas to pull this one out. The Eagles (especially the offense) have actually played better on the road than at home this season.
Nick Foles did have his worst game of the season — really his only down performance — in Philadelphia against the Cowboys, but that was the day he suffered a concussion. Given his season and the way the Cowboys have played on defense most weeks, it’s hard to imagine the Eagles fail to score at least 28, which should be enough here.
Final prediction: Eagles 31, Cowboys 21
NFL Week 17 Predictions
Do I think the Steelers have any hope of making the playoffs? They need four things to happen: win, Miami loss, Baltimore loss and San Diego loss. I expect the biggest problem will be getting the San Diego loss since the Chargers are at home against a Kansas City team basically mailing it in for Week 17. Now if the NFL actually had a great playoff system where every win counted, then the Chiefs would be playing for a higher seed and would actually try to win this game.
Winners in bold:
The Saints cannot be trusted on the road. The Patriots rarely lose two games in a row.
These are two talking points battling with my gut when picking some of the top games in a loaded Week 16. Regardless of venue, I know the Saints have favorable matchups against that Carolina secondary, which was predictably torched by Drew Brees two weeks ago in the Superdome. I know more talented versions of New England’s offense have struggled with Baltimore’s defense, and the Ravens have had one of the toughest home venues for any visitor. Most of the past meetings were in Foxboro.
So should I just trust my gut on these two games and trust the superior QBs to make up for last week’s shortcomings, or is there something off about both matchups that really does favor the home teams?
The “Saints are so bad on the road” thing has gotten too out of hand this week. Lest we forget the Saints are a league-best 24-15 (.615) on the road since 2009 (New England is second at 23-16; tied with Philadelphia). That’s hard to ignore.
But what happens when we only look at road games against teams finishing the season with a winning record? Then the Saints are 7-8 (.467), which is still the best winning percentage since 2009. They are on a 1-6 stretch, but four of the losses were last year without Sean Payton. From 2009-11 the Saints were 6-2 with a 42-34 loss decided on the final play in Green Bay (2011) and a 30-24 loss in December in Baltimore (2010). Yes, this does not include outdoor playoff losses to the 7-9 Seahawks (2010) and 13-3 49ers (2011), which certainly fuel the narrative.
The Saints clearly do not put on many dominating displays against quality teams like they do in the Superdome, but this team can play on the road and the Panthers are nowhere near as tough of a matchup like Seattle was. I still expect a tough, close game with the NFC South title on the line. I expect Carolina to show much more offense than two weeks ago, but I have changed my mid-week pick and am going with the Saints to get this one now.
Final prediction: Saints 24, Panthers 20
The team that does drop significantly on the road against a quality opponent is the Patriots, who are just 3-11 (.214) with six straight losses, including three this year that ended with Tom Brady throwing a game-ending interception inside the 30-yard line. Post-ACL injury, rarely has Brady done well on the road against a quality opponent, yet leave it up to NFL Network’s Deion Sanders to say Brady can play anywhere while Peyton Manning needs home-field advantage.
Brady also has a career history of under-performing against Baltimore’s defense. He has 8 TD, 10 INT in eight career meetings. This is not one of the best Baltimore defenses he will see, but it’s not a bad one and it did just hold down the Lions pretty well on Monday. It sounds like Aaron Dobson will be back for the Patriots, so it won’t just be a bunch of white slot guys controlling the offense, but there still isn’t a tight end threat or any real deep-ball threat. It’s also being reported that Nate Solder and Kenbrell Thompkins are out, so that makes it harder on the Patriots.
Baltimore has done well in the past to limit the YAC for Wes Welker, so I doubt Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will go off the way they have against Buffalo and Miami this year. Then again, those were division opponents who should have known what to expect by now. I have a bit more faith in John Harbaugh’s staff — Ravens have played the Patriots as well as anyone in recent years.
The Baltimore offense worries me with the lack of a running game and the way Joe Flacco has played most of the season. If they can turn it on again for the Patriots — there are some favorable matchups down the field — then I can see this being a successful day, but it’s going to hinge more on the defense keeping the score down.
If this game’s not close, then something’s really off. Both teams (along with Chicago) have played a league-high 11 games decided by one score this season. Both have had some absurd wins in the last few weeks alone. Baltimore (8-6) needs this game even more than the Patriots right now. I’m going to give it to them, but I know what picking against the Patriots usually leads to.
Final prediction: Patriots 20, Ravens 23
NFL Week 16 Predictions
I have no real confidence in the Steelers/Packers, Cowboys, Dolphins and Bears/Eagles, so this should be an interesting week. Also, for some reason — oh yeah, the defense — I’m feeling a bad vibe over Denver in Houston. Matt Schaub starting raises the probability of an upset. That Denver defense needs more stops. Houston plays almost everyone close and has lost 12 in a row (8 failed GWDs).
Winners in bold:
If the Chiefs have another impressive showing against the Colts, then this might be the team to watch out for in the playoffs. It could be another case of things coming together at the right time, namely the offense starting to produce and the chances of the defense getting back to where it was to start the year.
Is it worth anyone’s time to do a full rant about the absurdity of Tom Brady, who spent half the season playing his worst football yet, being a top MVP candidate? No, that’s nonsense I expect to take care of itself naturally the next two weeks. Peyton Manning will get 40-plus votes while a few (mostly homer) votes may go to people like Brady, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson.
A MVP should always be about the current season (all 16 games) and not a lifetime achievement award, but let’s forget about it entirely and go big picture beyond just 2013 since some on social media think I’m purposely putting down Brady’s season. Let’s file this one under “Well Allow Me to Retort.”
Since 2007, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have each lost 23 games they finished.* That includes Thursday night for Manning.
*Finished can be tricky semantics when Brian Hoyer comes in for the last drive, but it really just means games they played into the fourth quarter and didn’t leave early so Jim Sorgi or Curtis Painter could make the game unwinnable (and unwatchable).
I took each QB’s 23 losses and crunched some numbers for points per drive production for their offense and defense and what their Total QBR (credit to ESPN) was.
The results were not surprising. On average, Manning plays a little better when his team loses and his defense plays worse compared to Brady. This is why I write and say what I do about each quarterback.
Here are the 23 losses for each:
Not drastically different averages, but we do see Manning’s teams almost score and allow about a FG (3 points) more per game than New England. Manning’s led his offense to at least 20 points in all seven losses as a Bronco. Brady’s longest streak of scoring 20+ in a loss is three games.
We’re only going to score 17 points?
Brady’s offense has been held to 17 or fewer points in 11 losses since his famous quote before Super Bowl XLII. Manning: seven times.
2013 results still pending, but it would appear Manning has lost to 4 teams with a losing record and 15 playoff teams. For Brady, it’s 5 losing teams, 14 playoff teams.
A 50.0 QBR is average, and Brady (50.1) is right there while Manning is better at 55.8. Those are straight averages from the 23-game samples as I do not have the ability to get a cumulative QBR number. I would imagine it’d be close to what’s there.
Then I took the 23 games and sorted them from worst to best in terms of offensive points per drive and QBR.
Manning outpaces Brady every step of the way here. Manning’s worst game was 1.17 Pts/Dr, which Brady falls under four times. Manning has 13 losses with at least 2.0 Pts/Dr, including Thursday night’s game (2.22). Brady has six.
Same thing, but with QBR sorted from worst to best:
Here we see a closer race, especially for Games 9-15 where Brady ranks higher twice, then Manning pulls away.
Brady’s two worst games were 4.2 and 8.7 and both were playoff games. Manning’s worst was 19.9 in Atlanta last season when he threw a trio of first-quarter interceptions. His highest was 92.3 against Brady in 2012.
If we expanded this back to 2001-06, we wouldn’t have QBR for 2001-05 for starters. But in terms of point production, there’s a good chance it’d be the same trends (Manning scoring more, getting fewer drives and Brady’s defense being not as bad).
The general stats from 2001-06 in losses sure would seem to support that. Manning had 48 TD, 51 INT, 78.8 PR compared to 29 TD, 43 INT, 66.1 PR for Brady.
So what you’re saying is…
This week was a painful exercise in sports media manipulating the narrative again.
After the Cowboys lost on Monday night, allowing 45 points and getting zero stops, this was the headline I heard on TV on Tuesday morning: “TONY ROMO LOSES IN DECEMBER AGAIN…”
After the Broncos lost on Thursday night to a ball-control San Diego performance, this was the headline I heard on TV on Friday morning: “DID PEYTON BLOW HIS SUPER BOWL CHANCES?”
Yet if Brady has a dud performance in Miami — something as reasonable as the 21-0 dud he laid to a team with Joey Harrington at QB in 2006 — on Sunday, in the biggest game of Week 15 (game with the best records and the No. 1 seed on the line) you know Monday morning is going to instead start with “WHO DEY GONNA BEAT THE BENGALS?! IS ANDY DALTON MAKING A LATE MVP PUSH?”
That’s just the facts.
NFL Week 15 Predictions
I learned the hard way to trust my gut after last week’s big error.
I showed you my picks like I always do, but after noticing I had the home team finishing 15-1, I scrambled to make some changes and posted a second “official” set of picks. Those changes went 0-4 as I was right with my initial gut picks. Now every week will feature games that you can make a great argument for either team winning. Those are the hard ones, but we must trust our gut even when things look silly like picking so many home teams. Sometimes, crazy shit just happens.
Trust the gut. I knew San Diego had a good shot to win with playing ball-control offense, but I went with Denver anyway, so 0-1, and I’m okay with it.
Winners in bold:
I really do love the Cowboys this week against GB. The “ebb and flow” pick of the week. After such a bad performance on Monday, I expect a much stronger game on both sides of the ball. It won’t be as bad as Thanksgiving for Green Bay, but I think Dallas wins big.
I also really want to pick Washington to have a good game and win with Kirk Cousins so Mike Shanahan can look smart, but since when do I still think Shanahan’s a good coach? Put him out to pasture already.
And if Cousins does have a good game, no, we don’t have to start putting him in the damn MVP conversation.
I have been getting the “big games” correct lately, though the Patriots did not finish the job in Carolina. Still, that game provides part of the reason why I expect the Saints to beat Carolina on Sunday night. Until the last drive, which called for some desperate throws, Tom Brady picked apart the Panthers’ suspect secondary all night. The Patriots are the best passing team Carolina has played all season, which says a lot since it’s the worst New England passing offense since 2006.
The only other respectable passing game Carolina saw was Seattle in Week 1. While the Seahawks put up 12 points, Russell Wilson was 25-of-33 passing for 320 yards and a game-winning touchdown pass. Carolina enters on a nice eight-game winning streak, but the three wins against teams .500 or better came by a combined 9 points.
Playing a top quarterback makes a difference. Just ask the Kansas City Chiefs. While both games against Brady and Wilson were at home for Carolina, Sunday will be in New Orleans in the Superdome against Sean Payton and Drew Brees. Given how poor the effort was in Seattle on Monday night, expect a much better performance. The Panthers do not have the secondary to match what Seattle did.
Brees is typically lights out in these situations going back to 2006:
The very first game on the list was the emotional return to the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina. It was a great night for the Saints, but it was actually one of the weaker offensive performances on the list. The nine games since 2011 have been freakishly good, and there’s no great explanation for it. Four of those last nine wins were against playoff teams and that number could grow to five or six depending on how Miami and Dallas finish this year.
A Thursday game is beneficial to the home team in terms of not having to travel on a short week. A Monday game would give the Saints an extra day of preparation, which benefits the best-coached teams. But there’s no real reason the Saints should be any better at a Sunday prime-time game than the Sunday 1-4 p.m. games.
This season the Saints are 6-0 at home and four of the wins have been against teams .500 or better. Sean Payton has won his last 15 home games, dating back to 2011.
I have never been to New Orleans, but the atmosphere down there for a prime-time game seems like it would be more beneficial than for most teams. That’s why home-field advantage was so crucial for this team and why Monday was such a letdown, but truthfully it was always going to be a struggle to get the No. 1 seed. The Saints likely have to take care of Carolina twice just to win the NFC South, so this game is the most important one in the regular season for New Orleans. Forget about Monday. I’m sure the Saints have and will until they have to return to Seattle.
I’m not expecting Carolina to get blown out like many teams do in New Orleans, and that’s a tribute to the No. 1 scoring defense. But if the Saints handle this week the way they usually do against a Carolina team with flaws that have rarely been taken advantage of, it’s going to be a long night for the Panthers.
Final prediction: Panthers 17, Saints 28
NFL Week 14 Predictions
Apparently I am done picking the Texans again this season. Good lord…
Okay, including the fact Jacksonville already won, I have home teams going 15-1 by my picks. I’m totally screwed here. Just based on this simple fact, I’m going to change a few picks, so here are my official choices:
Okay, that looks better, even if I don’t feel any better about it.