Did you notice a trend on Wild Card weekend? Defenses stepped up again. The four winning teams allowed 10, 16, 17 and 20 points. That includes a couple of safeties from the Saturday games, and it’s not like Ryan Lindley did much to earn those two Arizona touchdowns on short fields. Only Dallas gave up 20 thanks to a slow start, but came through with the late fumble to clinch the win.
It’s not so much about running this time of year, but strong quarterback play and team defense are what drive so many playoff victories.
This week it’s all about elite home teams trying to avoid upsets on the greatest week of the NFL year. This year’s group is especially dominant at home with a combined 30-2 record. Dallas won in Seattle and the Bills beat New England in a meaningless game with plenty of reserves getting playing time. It’s going to be hard to get a road upset this week, but every season since 2005 has had at least one in the Divisional round.
Ravens at Patriots
Since 2001, the Patriots are 9-0 in the playoffs against a new opponent and 9-8 in a rematch from the regular season. Baltimore plays New England so often that it’s not really a “new” opponent, but so be it. I actually think there’s been too much hype about the Ravens’ past success in Foxboro, which includes two playoff wins (2009 and 2012) and that of course should be three without one of the most disastrous endings ever (2011 AFC Championship). But these teams have changed a lot since 2012. Then again, I’m willing to bet these teams changed a lot from 2009 to 2012, and Baltimore still kicked NE’s ass in that second half on its way to the Super Bowl. Still, for a guy like Baltimore cornerback Rashaan Melvin, those past games mean nothing this week.
The Ravens are uniquely built to deal with the Patriots better than any team in the AFC this year. A big part of that is coaching, because John Harbaugh, Dean Pees and company are the only staff in the AFC playoffs you could trust to head into Foxboro and get the job done. Bill Belichick has a massive advantage over the other coaches, especially if you give him a bye week to prepare. Pittsburgh’s elimination has probably helped create a better AFC playoffs.
The defense that steps up is going to win this game. We have trashed Tom Brady’s deep ball so much this week I almost expect him to hit one in this game, though it will probably be on a blown coverage or something of that nature. Still, that’s a possibility with this secondary and the way NE schemes so well to get receivers open. Brandon LaFell checked his verticality at the door when he joined the Patriots this year and we know Julian Edelman isn’t that kind of receiver. In the past Baltimore has done a good job of limiting that slot WR’s production in this offense. He might catch nine passes, but only for 70 yards. Baltimore is actually quite good at defending the short passes this year (ranked 3rd), but those deep throws are where this defense is most vulnerable (ranked 31st). That’s why the front seven, which is led by so many great veterans, must dominate this game with Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata applying pressure on Brady. This isn’t a very consistent OL or running game like the Patriots have had in past years. Look at how the Jets held NE to 17 points recently. They got after Brady despite a poor secondary. The Ravens can do the same through their front seven and general coaching familiarity with the NE offense.
A difference maker this year should be Rob Gronkowski, who is finally healthy for the playoffs. How do you ever match up with that guy? He can take this game over, and he may have to because this isn’t that dominant of an offense unless he’s playing at a high level. Everyone wants to ignore the first month of the season for the Patriots when Gronk was recovering. Okay, let’s do that. That means the worst four games of the season for this offense have been the last four. In the last eight games of the season Brady’s YPA is just 6.81 (below league average). When you try to do everything methodically on offense, those little mistakes like penalties, drops and sacks can easily kill drives. The Ravens are also the No. 1 defense in the red zone, so they’ll have to hold up there and limit Brady to field goals. Again, uniquely constructed to give the offense a chance in this one.
The Ravens will also be hoping there’s some rust from the NE offense, which had a bye week and rested guys in Week 17. The last time this offense looked really sharp was in the second half against Miami. That was on December 14.
Joe Flacco has to live up to his playoff hype and play a great game against a stingy defense that has allowed 12 points after halftime in its last six games. Yeah, that’s just ridiculous and has only been done three times since 1960 (1976 Steelers and 1989 Redskins) to end a season. Flacco has — gulp — been the most consistent playoff quarterback in the AFC since 2011, but he’s relied largely on avoiding interceptions despite his general inaccuracy and willingness to launch bombs. I think he’s going to find quickly that won’t work well against this secondary with Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Devin McCourty. Flacco has to be more precise or there will be tips and picks. He also has to be very nimble and able to escape pressure and still make plays like he did in Pittsburgh. Gary Kubiak’s offense is known for play action and bootleg action, and used to have plenty of success against Belichick defenses when Kubiak was with Mike Shanahan in Denver. Hell, Jake Plummer went 3-0 against the Pats in 2005-06. Flacco has to hit big plays and limit mistakes, which is far easier said than done in the toughest building to win in the NFL.
The Patriots have allowed one fourth-quarter comeback at home since 2001 (Eli Manning in 2011). ONE.
Left tackle Eugene Monroe is questionable for the game. That worries me, because the rookie James Hurst is a major liability. I also don’t like guard Marshal Yanda at right tackle, because that means he’s farther away from Vince Wilfork in the middle. This might not be another good day for Justin Forsett, who needs to help out. At least the Ravens are unique in their passing game that there’s no obvious No. 1 WR for Revis to try taking away. Flacco will throw to whoever, but both Smiths have to show up big. I also think Owen Daniels deserves some look in this game. The Patriots rank 30th against tight ends.
Should be a good one, but I think New England is a superior team playing at home. The only good team’s Baltimore really been able to beat was Pittsburgh (twice), and that team was very flawed. I felt good about the Ravens in 2011-12 to pull of those upsets. I don’t have that feeling this week, because I think the NE defense is going to rise to the occasion this time.
Panthers at Seahawks
Let’s see. Seattle has allowed 39 points in its last six games, first team to do that since the legendary 1976 Steelers. Yes, that team failed to win the Super Bowl, but go look up their defensive run to see why I called them legendary.
The Panthers have put up 28 points in three games at home the last three years against Seattle (0-3). So where are the points coming from this week? Even if the Carolina defense gets Russell Wilson contained, hit, sacked and turned over at least once, where are the points coming from? Cam Newton isn’t even healthy right now and he played poorly at home when he was healthy against this defense.
Warning: Cam Newton has led Carolina to 19 points on 27 drives against Seattle in his career.
The Seahawks are pursuing a dynasty. Losing this game at home to such an inferior opponent would really destroy that mystique. It would also destroy the dream matchup in the NFC of seeing Seattle against Green Bay/Dallas, not to mention a potential dream Super Bowl of Seattle against any AFC team (okay, maybe except Baltimore). Carolina winning would be like some cretin walking into an extravagant party and taking a giant shit in the middle of the ballroom floor. You just shit all over the playoffs, Ron Rivera. Are you happy now?
Seattle’s offensive shortcomings are the only reason to worry this will be another close game, and the Seahawks definitely don’t want another one of those against Carolina. Some day the ball is going to bounce the other way.
2012 (L 16-12): Newton short-hopped a go-ahead touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter.
2013 (L 12-7): After a Wilson bomb put Seattle back on top, DeAngelo Williams fumbled in the red zone and the Seahawks ran out the clock with a long drive.
2014 (L 13-9): Wilson led a great GWD late for the win while Newton ended by bouncing a screen pass off the ground on 4th-and-25.
Don’t let the game get to that point again, but I think we’re in for a lot of punts and a generally uninteresting game.
Then again, the Seahawks are usually better at home and the game is in prime time instead of a 10:00 A.M. start. There are studies that suggest Pacific teams are at their peak in these prime-time games.
Sure enough, Pete Carroll is 15-1 in prime time with Seattle, only losing to another Pacific team (49ers) in 2012 in a low-scoring game back when Wilson still had his training wheels on.
Cowboys at Packers
Alright, a 8-0 road team against a 8-0 home team. About time. This is the best shot of the week for a road upset, because Dallas has the balanced offense to control this game and the clock. Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers have been the best quarterbacks this season playing behind two of the most improved offensive lines. Each team has a great No. 1 wide receiver too, but I think this is a game for Eddie Lacy and DeMarco Murray to take center stage given the weather and the fact that both quarterbacks have some injury concerns. Neither run defense is very good, though the Cowboys also have the worst pass defense (ranked 22nd in DVOA) of the remaining eight teams. That sounds like advantage Green Bay and Rodgers, but will he still be Rodgers with the calf injury? Dallas would be silly not to attack early and test that mobility. Rodgers can still execute from the pocket at a very high level, but it’s not the same offense if he’s stuck in that box and trying to release everything quickly.
It’s always crucial to survive the early part of the game against the Packers, especially at Lambeau. We know how quickly the avalanche of points can come. We also know if you punch this team in the mouth and make them play a 60-minute game, then you have a great shot of pulling out the late win, something Romo and Dallas have done often over the years. Last December the Cowboys blew a 23-point lead at home to Green Bay, but that was with Matt Flynn at quarterback. At least we know if something happens to Rodgers again with the calf, the Packers have one of the more competent backups.
The Packers have trailed for 9 minutes and 15 seconds in the second half at home this year (all in Week 2 vs. Jets).
I don’t fear Dallas getting avalanched in this one, because this is a much better team than most of the ones GB has faced this season. We also saw the Jets perform well in this building, as did the Falcons in the second half after a horrible start. I don’t think either one of these defenses is good enough to ignite a championship run, but the one that gets the turnovers and big stops on Sunday will earn this win. Rodgers hasn’t thrown a pick at home since 2012, so you really have to rely on a tipped ball or fumble. Dallas has 31 takeaways this season despite a no-name defense.
So often this year the Cowboys have gone against expectations. I’m not calling them a “team of destiny” or anything like that, but this is a team with a lot of guys playing their best football ever and the results speak for themselves.
Colts at Broncos
Anything I had to analyze about this game is in my massive preview at Football Outsiders, so please go read it there.
I’ll just say this: any Indianapolis fan that’s painting Peyton Manning as a bad playoff quarterback needs to get a clue. He’s only one of the best playoff quarterbacks in NFL history. The Colts failed him as a team far too often and you are going to experience the same damn thing this weekend when Andrew Luck tries to take his one-man show on the road against a superior team*.
*Of course I should not be held responsible for a Jack Del Rio-influenced letdown, but good luck to the Colts trying to find a running game and defense this week. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
I just couldn’t take all the home teams again.
- Patriots over Ravens, 23-16
- Seahawks over Panthers, 20-10
- Cowboys over Packers, 30-26
- Broncos over Colts, 28-21
- Week 1: 8-8
- Week 2: 9-7
- Week 3: 11-5
- Week 4: 8-5
- Week 5: 11-4
- Week 6: 9-5-1
- Week 7: 10-5
- Week 8: 10-5
- Week 9: 11-2
- Week 10: 10-3
- Week 11: 8-6
- Week 12: 12-3
- Week 13: 9-7
- Week 14: 11-5
- Week 15: 14-2
- Week 16: 10-6
- Week 17: 11-5
- Wild Card: 3-1
- Total: 175-84-1