Thursday, January 5, 2006

2005 Playoff Preview

Here we are; finally at the real season, the NFL playoffs. 12 teams vying to win enough games to play in the last game of the year in Detroit, Super Bowl XL, and of course, all hoping they can win that game, too. But as we know, not all playoff teams are created equal. Some are just about a lock to go to Detroit, others have no prayer, and still others could go either way. And I'm here to help you separate the wheat from the chaff. And so, here are my rankings of each team and why I think they can or cannot get to the big game in February. (Note: if you're only interested in the Patriots game, skip forward to the "Patriots vs. Jaguars" section.)

Cream of the Crop:

1. The Indianapolis Colts have the best chance to win Super Bowl XL. They have home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, a great passing game, a very good running game, and a defense that is good enough to complement their amazing offense. Clearly the team to beat.

2. The Denver Broncos are slightly behind the Colts because Jake Plummer is still unproven. Plummer has been near-perfect for a lot of the season (18 touchdowns, 7 INTs), and the brilliant running game has allowed him to thrive. If Plummer can handle the increased stress of the post-season, the Broncos have a great chance to get to Detroit. But there's still an "if" at the front of that sentence.

Other Contenders:

3. Your New England Patriots got healthy and ended the season on a roll. The starting Patriots defense held their last four "real" opponents to an average of 31.25 rushing yards per game (excluding the Miami playoff tune-up), and the key to their post-season dreams is whether they can continue to stop the run with their front-seven. If they have to commit defensive backs to the run, they are finished; so the D-line and linebackers must play well.

4. The Chicago Bears have a bye week, home field for their first game, a savage and opportunistic defense, and they play in the NFC. The offense is the worst among the playoff teams, but never, never, never forget that defense wins championships (especially a defense that forces turnovers; the Bears had 32 this year). And also remember that a great defense can overcome uncertainty at QB.

5. The Seattle Seahawks have the game's best running back, a QB who completes 65% of his passes (and had only 9 INTs all year), and the seventh best defense in the NFL. So why are they at the bottom of the list of contenders? Because they played easiest schedule among the playoff teams (opponents winning percentage was .430), so they are not battle-tested, and their QB has proven nothing. In fact, if they didn't have a first-round bye, they'd be in the next category down.

Not Quite There:

6. The Pittsburgh Steelers have the running game to plough their way to the Super Bowl, but I don't think they can win it. You simply can't ride a running game to a championship; you need either a very good passing game or an historic defense (see the Chicago Bears, above). The Steeler defense simply isn't good enough to carry the offense, and the offense isn't diverse enough to carry the team.

7. Washington is the only other sleeper with a chance. Joe Gibbs has won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, and he's getting enough out of QB Marc Brunnel, receiver Santana Moss, and running back Clinton Portis to make some noise in the playoffs. The defense is a little suspect, but I'd give them a better shot than the five teams listed below.

Lovely Parting Gifts:

8. The Carolina Panthers are the only team out there that I don't think has gotten the proper respect. QB Jake Delhomme proved he could play with the big boys when he nearly pulled off a Super Bowl upset against the Patriots; I always thought DeShaun Foster was a better running back than Steven Davis, and WR Steve Smith is a monster to try to control. Their problem is their defense is banged up and they haven't beaten much of anyone this year. They've got a puncher's chance to make the NFC Championship game, but their road woes against good teams makes even that unlikely.

9. Cincinnati has a fantastic offense but can't stop anyone.

10. The New York Giants have Tiki Barber, but he's offset by Eli Manning. Manning might turn out to be great, but the Giants lack two things you need in the playoffs: a pressure-proven kicker, and the ability to stop the run. The Giants kicker is terrible under pressure and the defense recently gave up 156 rushing yards to Washington, 174 to Kansas City, and 175 to a bad Eagles team.

11. The Jacksonville Jaguars are like the Pittsburgh Steelers Light. They do everything not-quite-as-well as the Steelers, and their problems at QB will likely doom them in the playoffs. Besides, they have to travel north and win in the freezing cold this Saturday just to stay alive; and you know I would *never* predict they could do that.

12. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can't win this year. QB is too inexperienced, their running game is too easy to shut down, and their defense isn't good enough to counter those two problems.

Patriots vs. Jaguars

So now that that's out of the way, how will the game go this Saturday, you ask? Well, here are some points of interest.

Point #1: It's easy to claim the weather means nothing... until your January trip to Foxboro.

The Jaguars have a pretty good record in December/January games up north. They are 7-8 under such conditions, including wins in the playoffs. But they are 1-4 all time against the Patriots (their only win coming at home in the playoffs), and in his only game against the Pats, Byron Leftwich (Saturday's starting QB) salvaged his otherwise awful day by tossing a very late touchdown pass to lift his QB rating from a terrible 51.3 to a very bad 63.3.

Just for the record, the high temperature in Jacksonville today is 71; the high temperature during the game Saturday will be 26.

Point #2: The Patriots offense can't help but start the game faster without a bye week. Can they?

Since Bill Belichick took over as head coach, the Patriots have played eleven games after bye weeks. They have scored zero points in the first quarter in seven of them. They average less than 3 points per first quarter and less than 8 points per first half in games after a bye. Maybe it's the offensive timing, or the rhythm of playing every week, or maybe it's their bye week routine; but something slows them down when they wait an extra week. Now is the time to prove they can start fast and stay ahead; 'cause if they fall behind, it could be a very tough game.

Point #3: Quarterback uncertainty could unravel the Jaguars.

If there's one lesson from seasons past, it is this: don't change your quarterback late in the season if you expect to go far in the playoffs. Byron Leftwich got injured earlier this year, and David Gerrard is 5-1 since replacing him. But the Jaguars decided to put Leftwich back in for their first playoff game, which is insane. If this was November, you could still make the change and the new/old QB would have a month to get back in sync with the rest of the offense. But as a friend of mine pointed out, this would be like starting the 2002 "Snow Bowl" (vs. Oakland) with Drew Bledsoe under center for the first time in two months.

It might work this weekend; Leftwich could lead them to victory as they rally around him. But you basically give up any chance to win the Super Bowl, and that's what it's supposed to be about.

Point #4: The Jaguars are big and strong and will try to impose their will on the Patriots. But if that doesn't work, they have no backup plan.

One thing you need in the playoffs is the flexibility to change things if your initial plan fails. But the Jaguars simply don't have the speed or complexity on offense to change a failing game plan. Nor do they have enough flex on defense to change much if that fails. Granted, their defense is very good and their offense is pretty good. But if they can't run the ball up the middle or over-power the secondary with their big receivers, what will they try next? Screen passes? three-step drops? end-arounds? fumble-rooskie?


So here's how I see the game. The Patriots haven't played the iron of the league recently, but they did play teams with very good defenses (Miami, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, and New York [Jets]). However, Jacksonville played some of the worst defenses in the NFL (Tennessee, Houston, San Francisco), so it's interesting to me that the Patriots offense still has a slight edge in almost every offensive category over the last five games:

Points: 136 to 126
First downs: 120 to 111
3rd-down conversions: 50% to 40%
Average total yards: 361 to 336
Average time of possession: 35:46 to 31:35 Fumbles lost: 0 to 4

I think that means the Patriot offense is playing significantly better than the Jaguar offense at this point in the season. The two defenses are probably about equal, but I think the Patriots will be able to score more easily and regularly, which will put the Jaguars into the precarious position of trying to come back on the road in the playoffs. And folks, that just doesn't happen very often.

The Jaguars are good at coming back; but their four losses this year were all to quality teams that they fell behind. Anyone can come back to beat the Browns or 49ers, but when the Jags started losing to the Colts and Broncos, they had no real answers. Their only comeback victory over a 2005 playoff team was a 23-17 win over Pittsburgh -- and they needed overtime to pull that one out.

No comebacks this week, no overtime, no miracles for the warm-weather Jaguars. Patriots 27, Jaguars 16.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Expect Indy, Denver, Seattle and/or Chicago in the big game this year. Since the NFL went to their current playoff format, 25 of the 30 Super Bowl teams have had a first-round playoff bye."

Keep the faith,

- Scott



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