Sunday, January 20, 2013

And then there were four...

All these teams are one step closer to their ultimate prize

I told you. I said it; I said that I might have a hard week.  It’s no excuse for going 1-3 (4-4 overall) last week, but at least I gave you fair warning.  Still, given the great games of this weekend I wasn’t totally heartbroken as I watched my hot streak cool dramatically. 

San Francisco 49ers (-4)

The 49ers showed up and showed out vs the reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.  Colin Kaepernick silenced all critics of Jim Harbaugh’s midseason move to replace Alex Smith, by dominating on the field with 263 yards passing, 181 yards rushing, and a combined 4 touchdowns running the spread option-read offense to perfection.  Kaepernick rebounded from an early pick six from Sam Shields, to eviscerate the Packers defense. I thought he would struggle given that he hasn’t even started a full season's complement of games for his career. Usually rookies (which is essentially what he is, given that he didn’t start until midseason this year) struggle, but Russell Wilson and Kaepernick have continued the trend of young QBs outperforming their predecessors.

Despite playing one of the league’s most potent offenses, the defense was able to hold the Packers to 3 points for the majority of the 2nd half (they gave up a meaningless TD late).  They also forced two turnovers against a team that was one of the better squads at holding onto the ball.  The 49ers have boasted one of the most physical front seven defensive fronts in the League, but did give up 6.5 yards per rush to the anemic rushing offense of the Packers.


Atlanta Falcons

What. A. Game.  I came into the matchup last week saying that I trusted Wilson more than Matt Ryan.  I was right to do so; Wilson outplayed Ryan for the duration of the game.  Despite Ryan’s head-scratching interception late with the Seahawks surging, Ryan took the Falcons down the field in 31 seconds with two Timeouts for a game-winning Field Goal.  Ryan hadn’t won a playoff game despite the plethora of weapons this team has possessed for years. The last playoff game showed the best and worst of the QB from Boston College.  In the first half he led them to a 20 point lead, followed by a lackluster showing in the 2nd half that featured a turnover and drives that were completely ineffective. Still, that last second drive with the weight of the city and previous poor playoff performances weighing on him was huge and gave me the ultimate respect for the signal-caller.

The Defense played a high-wire act all game last week vs the Seahawks, giving up long drives and lots of yards but no points in the first half.  Those small things that bounced their way (be it a poor coaching decision or bad clock management by the Seahawks) came crashing down on them in the second half.  Wilson and the Seahawk defense got everything they wanted out of the game as the contest drew to a close.  They were able to hold on, but gave up 28 unanswered points during the stretch run of the game. 

Matchup:  It’s hard not to see Kaepernick and think of another tall, evasive QB that the Falcons had trouble with this year—Cam Newton.  In the two games (split 1-1) that the Panthers and Falcons played, Newton was 38-59 compiling 502 yards with four TDs through the air with another 202 yards and 2 TDs on the ground running a similar style offense.  It’s arguable that without that weary, jet-lagged performance the Seahawks put up in the 1st half, the Falcons wouldn’t be in the NFC Championship game.  Regardless, they found a way to win and deserve to be here.  I hope they enjoy it, because their run ends in Atlanta. 27-17 San Francisco 49ers. Over/Under 49.

Baltimore Ravens (-8.5)

I didn’t believe.  I thought that the Ray Lewis’ swan song was sung.  And with about a minute left, I looked to be right.  Then this happened and I had picked the team on the wrong side of destiny once again. The Ravens found a way to win, despite their defense and special teams giving up 35 points, the offense overcame with more of Joe Flacco’s patented deep ball throwing.  I’m concerned that the Ravens won’t be able to sustain a drive, but their ability to stretch the field has proven to put a huge amount of pressure on the opposing defense.

Despite the large number of points the Broncos scored, late in the game the Special teams provided Peyton Manning with some short fields.  The actual defense played well late, holding the Broncos to one touchdown in the second half.  Again, while giving up yards, the defense has been good a minimizing the opponents points.  Ray Lewis has been racking up tackles and stopping gaps in the run game, while being somewhat exposed in coverage. A lot has been made of his emotional leadership that he provides; I don’t know how much there is to it, but I know the defense as a whole is playing well and the secondary has been (specifically Cary Williams) better than advertised.


New England Patriots

Tom Brady was Tom Brady last week.  He was effective and relentless all game.  Moreover, he has more playoff wins than anyone in NFL history.  That said, he has some teams that give him trouble.  The NY Giants have been consistent annoyances to him, as have the Ravens.  The Pats also lost Gronkowski, but to be fair he had been hurt for several weeks and they should be able to bounce back. Shane Vereen replaced another injured Patriot (Danny Woodhead who is expected to be available this week), and had a phenomenal game.  The weapons keep coming off the assembly line for the Pats offense.

The defense was 25th in yards allowed this year, but top 10 in points allowed.  In this way, it is a lot like the ravens defense; they bend, but don’t break.  Vince Wilfork has been overlooked all season for the great work he does.  He keys the attack at the line of scrimmage, and is an uncompromising hurdle for every team’s run game.

Matchup: How great is it that we get Ray Lewis against Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in successive weeks? It’s tough to pick against the Pats, but it’s impossible not to think of the Ravens as a team destined for the Super Bowl after that improbable Jones TD reception late last week. Maybe I’m picking with my heart, but I won’t pick against Ray Lewis as long as there is an NFL breath in his body. 24-20 Ravens. Over/Under 51.5

Saturday, January 12, 2013

2013 Divisional NFL Prospectus

I went 3-1 last week.  I say that less to boast (all four favorites won, so no big deal really) and more to preemptively fight any poor showing in my picks this week. As last week, I will include my predictions for the score, the line, as well as the Over/Under.

Baltimore Ravens (+9.5)
As I alluded to last week, I’m a huge Ray Lewis fan.  He and Charles Woodson are the greatest defensive players I’ve had the pleasure of seeing.  The defense responded like you’d expect a veteran, ball-hawking defense to respond vs a rookie QB—they dominated.  They held the Colts to 9 points and forced two turnovers.  While they were able to hold the team to three Field Goals, they surrendered 419 total yards, including over 150 yards on the ground to Indianapolis.  The Colts were always one play away from busting open the game on several drives, but (either through poor execution or turnover) couldn’t do it.  I’m not used to seeing a bend-but-don’t-break defense from the Ravens, but it was effective last week.

Joe Flacco was confounding against the Colts.  He would go from looking inept in executing their gameplan, to looking like an elite QB in the same drive.  Flacco may be the first QB that I can remember that throws a better deep ball than intermediate one.  Flacco completed seven pass plays for over 20 yards (legitimately long passes too, only one of those was a short completion that the receiver turned into yards after catch). Ray Rice lost two fumbles on promising drives that otherwise would’ve probably resulted in points and made the final score (24-9) even more lopsided.


Denver Broncos
My favorite QB of all time is Peyton Manning.  I can’t think of anything cooler than a Quarterback getting a play, calmly walking to the line of scrimmage and saying, “nah, G”.  Manning has been a welcomed surprise all year; he went from people questioning if he should return at all (following several neck surgeries) to being in the thick of the MVP race. He left the only franchise he had ever known (that Colts one...the one that just lost last week) to a team that was getting over “Tebow Mania”.  In that short time period, he has implemented his system of checks and Demaryius Thomas has emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber talent. 
Additionally, Knowshon Moreno seamlessly took over for an injured Willis McGahee, rushing for 510 yards over the final 6 games of the season.

Defensively, this team bears a hell of a striking resemblance to that Colts squad that Peyton led to the title in 2006.

[Sidenote: Have you ever gone to look at Peyton’s numbers from that run? Despite being 2nd in the league in points scored that year and averaging a Quarterback Rating of 101 for the regular season, Manning was mediocre at best during their title campaign.  He had a 69.1 Quarterback rating over that span. For context, Trent Dilfer had a 83.7 rating in the playoffs when the Ravens won their title]

They are built to play with the lead.  They have two fantastic QB rushers in Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller who combined for 29.5 sacks this regular season.  They gave up the 4th least amount of points this year, and didn’t allow 300 yards passing in a single game all year.  Really the only question surrounding this unit is if they can continue their dominance vs good teams. The Broncos were only 2-3 vs playoff teams this year; and in those games they gave up 25.8 points per game, nearly a touchdown more than their season average.

Matchup: Soak in Ray Lewis’ last game folks.  Those drives that Luck couldn’t complete and resulted in FGs will be the ones that Manning hammers home.  While I’m concerned about the Broncos secondary and the long bombs they may give up with those fast and physical receivers of the Ravens, I think Flacco will succumb to the pressure late. Over/Under 46. 28-17 Broncos.

Green Bay Packers (-3)
The Packers rolled vs the Vikings.  Aaron Rodgers was comfortable all game in the knowledge that the Vikings were never a threat to score without their QB.  Rodgers has been sensational this year with 39 TDs and only 8 INTs.  Additionally, he has the highest Quarterback rating in postseason history.  It’s tempting to look at the week 1 matchup between the teams to see how he performed, but honestly both of these teams have changed drastically since then.  Green Bay is a passing team that runs to close games and to alleviate the opposition’s pass rush.  Despite it being largely one dimensional, the Packers are a seasoned team with weapons in the passing game. They are absurdly dangerous racking up the 5th amount of points per game despite a litany of injuries.

A lot will be written about the 49ers defense (and rightfully so) but the Packers have a talented team in their own right.  They ranked 11th in points allowed per games, but did so without Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson for a large chunk of the season.


San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers underwent the most change of any playoff team because of the switch at QB.  Colin Kaepernick took over when Alex Smith was knocked out of a game with a concussion.  Since then, Kaepernick and the 49ers have gone 5-2.  Despite the controversy surrounding the switch, Jim Harbaugh has never wavered from his decision.  Perhaps it’s because the numbers put up by both Quarterbacks are so comparable.  Smith threw a higher completion percentage, while Kaepernick threw for more yards per completion.  A lower percentage of Kaepernick’s throws resulted in Interceptions, but a higher percentage of Smith’s resulted in TDs.

Despite the change in QB, the running game is the meat of the offense.  The team was 4th in rush yards per game, led by Pro Bowler Frank Gore.  Maybe Coach Harbaugh is so confident in his decision because it really doesn’t matter who hands the ball off from center. 

The 49ers defense was imposing all year.  They were able to pressure the QB while being the 4th best team against the run.  Sadly their line took major hits with injuries to Justin and Aldon Smith (both are questionable for this Saturday’s game). Aldon had 19.5 sacks this year, and figured to be vital to making Rodgers’ day more comfortable.   

Matchup: Of all of the weekend’s games, this is the most difficult for me to predict. I’ve liked the 49ers all season because of their makeup.  They are a strong, physical team that has been consistent all year.  But rookie QBs in the Playoffs historically don’t perform well, and Aldon Smith’s tricep injury makes me believe Rodgers may not face the pressure he would have otherwise. Over/Under 45. 24-20 Green Bay.

Seattle Seahawks (-3)
This team performed exactly as I thought it would last week.  Russell Wilson threw the ball proficiently and Marshawn Lynch closed the door in the 4th Quarter.  Wilson looked shaky on a couple of throws downfield, but it was his first postseason game in the NFL.  All year his WR corps has gotten more and more reliable, and Leon Washington looked on the verge of breaking a few big returns last week vs Washington.

Despite allowing two straight TD drives, the defense was exceptional for the rest of the day.  Sadly the Seahawks lost DE Chris Clemons (11.5 sacks), who would’ve been instrumental in pressuring Matt Ryan.  The secondary was able coax an INT out of RG3, who only threw 5 during the regular season.


Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have an array of weapons on offense.  They have the most physical and athletic pair of WRs in the League.  Michael Turner and upstart Jacquizz Rodgers are a quality pair of backs.  Their success comes down to quality play calling, and Matt Ryan’s execution.  He has been maligned for not winning a playoff game previously in his career.  I like when this team establishes their run game, and makes it as capable a threat as their loaded passing offense. 

Their defense is ranked 5th in points allowed.  Even though the team boasts stars in Assante Samuel, Thomas Decoud and John Abraham, it’s a true team effort, and only gave up 30+ points twice this season.


I believe in Russell Wilson more than Matt Ryan.  There, I said it. I know what I said earlier about rookie QBs (in reference to Colin Kaepernick) but this isn’t his first game and he already has more postseason wins than Ryan. Both the Seahawks corners and Falcons WRs are used to physically dominating their counterparts. I’m really interested to see the Falcons WR play the Seahawks physical corners.  They will need another turnover from this secondary to win this game, and I think they’ll get it. 28-24 Seahawks. Over/Under 46.

Houston Texans (+9.5)
The Texans handled their business vs the Bengals.  Their defense was the story as they confounded Andy Dalton and Arian Foster ran for 140 yards and a TD.  The offense didn’t blow out Cincinnati, but the Bengals had a good defense.  It’s hard to look at how ineffective they were against the Patriots.  As I said last week, they’re monumentally talented with stars at all the offensive skill positions. Dynamic though they may be, the defense is the real star of the Texans.  They are able to pressure the QB without blitzing, which is paramount in defending the pass.  They were embarrassed last time they faced the Patriots, though, when they surrendered 42 points.


New England Patriots
Tom Brady.

The Defense has improved steadily all year and the regular season ended with a shutout of Miami.  They rank 9th in points allowed this year, but have been run on pretty consistently.  Their secondary has improved with the addition of Aqib Talib via trade earlier in the season. Devin McCourtney has come along and now the team boasts a ball-hawking secondary.

Matchup: There are numbers that suggest a team beaten by 20 points and later playing that team in the postseason have had some success (11-11). Plus the Pats drubbed the NY Jets in 2010, only to lose to them later in the playoffs. Still, I can’t bring myself to pick the Texans.  Plus I believe in Brady more than Matt Schaub. 31-21 Pats. Over/Under48.5.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

My NFL Postseason Picks: Wildcard Weekend

Hello all, it’s the beginning of the best postseason in major sports this side of March Madness.  The NFL playoffs kickoff today. Below is the Breakdown of each game.  Of note, I will include the line, the Over/Under, and what I think the score will be.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals have been on a winning streak since beginning the season 3-5.  Since their week 9 loss to the Broncos, the Bengals have gone 7-1.  The defense, which has a litany of former first round talent, has allowed the 8th most points in the League this season (spearheaded by Defensive Tackle Geno Atkins).
Their run was fueled by feasting off of poor teams. The biggest question mark for this team, is how they will do against the better teams they’ll face in the Playoffs?  The Bengals played 3 playoff teams (the Ravens twice) this season, going .500 in four games;  that stellar defense that gave up 20 points per game, allowed more than 30 in such contests.


Houston Texans (+4.5)

Houston comes into the playoffs limping a bit as they lost their grip on first place (and a first round bye) with their loss to the Colts in the final week of the regular season. Add that to a 1-3 record over the last four weeks, and the former darling of the AFC has lost some support nationally from analysts and pundits.
Offensively, only the Texans can boast a 1500+ yard Wide Receiver, a running back that hung up 1400 yards for the season, and a QB that topped 4,000 yards this year.  Their balance is completely unmatched with pro bowl-level talent at all of their offensive skill positions. The Texans ranked 8th in points scored this year at 26 points per game.

Defensively the team has been inconsistent.  Houston has given up 30+ points four times this season, but has also allowed single digit points three times. Defensive Lineman, J. J. Watt, has been in the Defensive Player of the Year discussions since the season began and anchors a line that has shown the ability to pressure the QB consistently with 44 sacks on the season (tied for 5th overall this year).

There’s really nothing wrong with this team.  It’s just that Matt Schaub has never won a playoff game, and it seems like this franchise has been talented for awhile with no tangible form of success to show for it whatsoever. They’ve suffered some humiliating losses to the Packers and Patriots (they gave up 42 in each affair), but they’ve also been in the discussion for the League’s best team right up until the end of the regular season.

The Bengals are hot. Regardless of the class of their competition, they could only beat who was put in front of them. But their poor defensive showings against the class of their schedule worry me. Add that to the fact that Houston only lost two home games, and I’ll avoid the chic pick and go with the Texans 27-24. Over/Under 43.0.

Minnesota Vikings (-7.5)

It’s nice in 2013 to have a throwback team based on running the ball.  This is all about Adrian Peterson and how effective he will be in the contest.  Usually a look back to the schedule and how they fared against top competition would be necessary, but the combatants are divisional rivals and just played last week.  The Vikings prevailed late in that contest as Peterson willed them down the field late for a game-winning FG to cap the final drive of the game.

Christian Ponder has only thrown one interception in the four-game winning streak that the Vikes have enjoyed since week 14. The team is not overly talented outside of the RB and offensive line, so limiting turnovers will be at a premium in this final contest of the year between the AFC North rivals. In the games where the Vikings have limited themselves to one turnover or fewer, they are 7-1 (3-5 in all other contests).


Green Bay Packers

The Packers have managed to fly under the radar most of the season.  After starting off poorly, and surprising experts by losing to the Seahawks (albeit in controversial fashion) and the Colts (who no one predicted would be a playoff team), they finished the season strong going 9-2 over their last 11 contests.  Everyone knows that the Packers can score with arguably the best QB in the League. Additionally, WR Randall Cobb has emerged as Greg Jennings recovered from injury this year.

The real story has been the Packers defense as they lost Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson for stretches of the season (although both will be playing today). Also of note, they’ve been historically gashed by Adrian Peterson with a two game total of over 400 yards. 

Matchup: It’s as simple as this, limit Peterson to a mortal’s amount of yards and they will win the game.  Easier said than done…and they haven’t been able to say it or do it in their two previous meetings. The League’s best QB vs its best Running Back; I don’t believe the Packers will stop Borg.  Resistance will be futile for Green Bay and they will fall 24-21 to the Minnesota Vikings. Line 45.5. 

Baltimore Ravens (+7)

The tone of this game completely changed once Ray Lewis announced his retirement from the NFL after this season.  Previously, it had been all about the Colts, and whether the Ravens could continue to play well on Defense to help their inconsistent offense led by QB Joe Flacco.  With his start Sunday, Flacco becomes the first Quarterback to start a playoff game in each of his first five seasons. 

The Ravens are 1-4 over the past 5 games.  Because they clinched early, the Ravens seemed to have relaxed and lost their edge. Baltimore also fired its Offensive Coordinator following its Week 14 loss to the Washington Redskins, and replaced him with Jim Caldwell who was formerly the QB coach for the team. Since Caldwell took the reins of the offense, the team has averaged 22.3 points per game.  Before the replacement, Baltimore averaged a full FG more with 25.5 points per contest.


Indianapolis Colts

The team did a masterful job of handling a potentially awkward situation at the Head Coach position.  Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with Leukemia at the beginning of the season and Bruce Arians was tagged to takeover.  Arians did a wonderful job helping star rookie QB Andrew Luck to improve steadily throughout the season and steered the team into the playoffs before Pagano came back to win the season finale.

More important than the coaching carrousel has been Luck’s maturation, specifically his dearth of turnovers over the past three weeks, after being among the League’s leaders midway through the season.  Despite the fact that the team beat the playoff teams of the Texans, Vikings, and Packers, they failed to beat a team over .500 on the road.

Matchup: There are some great storylines to this game; Ray Lewis’ exit and Pagano’s return are paramount among them.  I have a hard time seeing a rookie QB (that has a tendency to be loose with the ball) beating a ball-hawking defense led by the most dangerous Defensive Back in history in Ed Reed. 27-21 Baltimore. Over/Under 47.

Seattle Seahawks (-3)

I can’t even begin to be objective about this team.  I screamed that teams would regret that they didn’t take Russell Wilson in last year’s draft. Wilson was dynamic at NCSU and featured beautifully at the University of Wisconsin.  Pete Carroll took him in the 3rd round and had a legitimate QB competition in training camp, despite the fact that the team spent $10 Million on free agent QB Matt Flynn.  Wilson beat Flynn out, and has marched to the head of the Rookie of the Year class.  He has continued to improve on a team that already featured a fantastic running back in Marshawn Lynch.  Between Lynch and Wilson, Seattle boasts a strong running game that allows it to use play-action and option-read plays to get the ball down the field in the passing game.

The most exciting thing about this team may not be the Pro Bowl RB, or the ROY-candidate QB.  Seattle’s defense is physical, fast, and swarming.  They’re effective too, the defense surrendered the least amount of points in the League this year.  Brandon Browner returns from suspension for use of performance enhancing drugs, and will start alongside Cornerback Richard Sherman.  The team has the most physically imposing tandem of corners in the league, if not the outright best at the position.


Washington Redskins

Robert Griffin III is the League’s most exciting player.  One of the most accurate deep ball throwers in the league is also its fastest…at least he was, until he was hurt in the Ravens game.  Griffin missed the next game and the Redskins showed exactly how well coached and deep it was when backup Kirk Cousins led the team to a must-win game over the Browns.  Indeed, Griffin may not even be able to beat out a fellow rookie on his own team for the coveted ROY award.  Alfred Morris had 1600 yards rushing this season and joined the pantheon of Running backs that Coach Mike Shannahan uncovered late in the draft (6th round) that ascended to the League’s elite.

Despite losing All-Pro Brian Orakpo early in the season, Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has the defensive squad playing extremely well.  In their finale against the Dallas Cowboys, they stifled and confused Tony Romo into three interceptions that ultimately cost Dallas the game and their chance at the postseason.

Matchup: This matchup is the perfect “Good Look/Bad Look” game.  It’s a good look that, due to this matchup, we are guaranteed that one of the three rookie sensations at QB will be in the next round.  Obviously that also means that this matchup also guarantees that one will be going home as well. 
The Redskins and Seattle are mirror images of one another, dynamic QBs at the head of run-first teams.  Add two really good defenses, and it has the makings for a tough game filled with big plays.  With RGIII still gimpy from his LCL strain, I think Wilson & Co. will beat the Redskins in the Nation’s Capital. 28-21 Seahawks. Over/Under 45.5.