Friday, January 5, 2007

2007 Playoff Preview (1/5/2007)

Welcome to the game of "Survivor" -- NFL style. Where weaklings and pretty boys are booted out early, the winnowing process is much faster (multiple teams are eliminated each week), and only one tired, dirty, sweaty team will be left standing at the end to be declared the champion. And if you think those are the only similarities, consider this: both the Super Bowl and "Survivor" take place in warm weather climates, they both feature catch-up shows halfway through, both "tournaments" are about the same length of time (35 days for the playoffs, 39 for "Survivor"), they both have scantily clad women parading in front of the cameras (can you say "wardrobe malfunction"), and both feature well-coiffed announcers who make obvious points the whole time.

Well, the tribes have merged, and our final contenders are ready for their close-up. Of course, some are more ready than others. Here's a breakdown of how I figure their chances of winning the whole thing. (Note: if you want to read about the Patriots/Jets game, skip down to the "Patriots vs. Jets" section below.)


1. The Baltimore Ravens have the best chance to win it all this year. Their defense leads the NFL in points allowed; they have a very good quarterback; and their coach has won it before. They've given up an average of 9 points a game over the past 7 weeks, lead the NFL in turnover differential (+17), and their defense can outscore you all by itself. If you had to pick one team to be left standing, this would be it.

2. The Chicago Bears have some trouble at quarterback, but they are the dominant team in sad-sack NFC. Their path to the Super Bowl is the easiest in the league, and if they follow form, it gives them a 50-50 chance to win it all -- because they'd be one of the last two teams playing. Add to a very good defense (ranked third in points allowed) and superb special teams play, and it makes a good possibility to go all the way.


3. The San Deigo Chargers have the horses to win it all this year, with a great rushing offense (featuring LaDainian Tomlinson) and a defense ranked seventh in points allowed. However, you'll have to forgive me for bucking the experts, who have overwhelmingly picked the Chargers to win it all. I don't trust quarterback Philips Rivers, who completed only 47.5% of his passes for a 65.96 QB-rating against playoff teams this year. And in the past, head coach Marty Schottenheimer been to the playoffs 12 times, and even though he's had the #1 seed three of those years, his record is 5-12. He is what he is -- until he wins it all. That's why the Chargers are a notch below the Bears and Ravens

4. The New England Patriots can win it all if they have both Vince Wilfork and Rodney Harrison back for the games after this weekend. Their defense is second in points allowed and they have both a good running offense and a great run-stopping defense, all to compliment championship-level coaching and quarterbacking. They are in the second group because their special teams are still suspect, and Harrison probably won't be back before the AFC Championship weekend -- and the Pats would likely need him to beat either the Colts or Chargers, should they prevail over the Jets.


5. The Philadelphia Eagles are coming on strong at the right time. They've won five in a row, but there's a problem. Their last three losses are all against teams from the AFC; so they could well make the Super Bowl playing against the inferior NFC. But their current winning streak is against bad teams, and on the year, they are tied for 15th in points allowed. Their chances of winning it all aren't great.

6. The Indianapolis Colts run defense is the seventh-worst in NFL history. So unless QB-to-the-gods Peyton Manning can make some tackles on defense, the Colts need everything to fall just right to get to the big game. There are just too many good running teams in the playoffs this year.

7. The New Orleans Saints have a bye week and a very good quarterback, a good one-two punch at running back, and are a nice story. But they went 10-6 in a very bad division, they are -4 in turnover differential, don't pressure the passer particularly well, and give up 4.9 yards per rush (31st in the NFL). And I also think their big passing numbers come from being behind all the time. Can't see them making it to the big game, let alone winning it, unless everything falls in their lap (read: if the Bears lose in their first game).


8. The New York Jets are also a nice story, with 10 wins in head coach Eric Mangini's first year, but their last two "big wins" have come in the rain and slop on terrible fields. And in each of those games, they needed a touchdown with about two minutes left in the game to eke out the win -- both times after what I would call "poor" offensive days. Their quarterback has limited arm strength, and I think they won their "big game" this year when they beat the Pats in November. They could possibly upset the Patriots, but they have no realistic shot at the Super Bowl.

9. The Seattle Seahawks are unlikely to make the Super Bowl, but given the state of the NFC, you can't discount last year's NFC Champions entirely. But they are not the team they were a year ago.


10. The Kansas City Chiefs have a great running game and very good overall offense, but not much else. They needed three teams to lose last weekend just to make the playoffs, so they'll probably be out this weekend (or next, should they get past the Colts).

11. The Dallas Cowboys are a mess, with a floundering first-year starter at quarterback, a receiving corps that talks better than it plays, and a defense that's been torn to shreds the past four weeks. Maybe next year... but not this time around.

12. The New York Giants make the Cowboys look stable by comparison. Locker-room diviosns, head coach sniping, and injuries, injuries, injuries. Tiki Barber could carry them to one victory, but key defender Michael Strahan is injured, and the team is 2-12 over his career when he doesn't play. Buh-bye.


And now to the main event, the breakdown of this week's game against the Jets (Sunday at 1:00, be there or be non-circular). As per usual, I'll look at the most recent game between the two teams and try to decide if enough has changed to alter the outcome. That last game was a 17-14 Jets win in Foxboro this past November. (If you don't want to slog through all this stuff, feel free to skip to the Conclusion section.)

Point #1. In November, the Jets were coming off a bye week, while the Patriots played on Sunday night.

The bye week gave the Jets extra time to plan and practice ways to slow down the Patriots offense, ways to attack their defense, and ways to beat their special teams. Well, 0.5 out of 3 isn't bad. They did a great job of frustrating the passing game, sacking Brady 4 times and holding the team to 25% on third-down conversions. What they failed to do was stop the running game (25 carries for 143 yards, 5.7 yards per rush), effectively attack the defense (6 drives with less than 3:10 of possession time, 161 net passing yards, and only 17 points), or win the battle of special teams (it was a draw).

Now contrast that with the Patriots, who played the Colts on Sunday night the previous week. That means they had a division game against the Jets after a shortened week, and an emotionally draining game against one of their biggest rivals. The Pats had no extra time to plan anything, and were *still* one Ellis Hobbs play away from winning anyway.

The November schedule the favored the Jets. But it's January now, and it favors neither team.

Advantage Patriots.

Point #2. The venue might be the same, but the field isn't.

In November, the game was played in perhaps the sloppiest conditions of any NFL game this season. And even though both teams played on the same field, I counted far more slippage by Patriots players than by Jets players. The field was so bad that the Patriots replaced it with artificial turf before the next game. And Tom Brady happens to be 22-1 in his career on artificial turf.

Advantage Patriots.

Point #3. Personnel changes will play a role.

The Patriots kept Ty Warren out of the earlier game as a precaution, and he might have been their best defensive lineman this year. With him in there, the Patriots have one of the most dominant lines in football. Without him, well, they went 0-1 this season :) Also, Richard Seymour played the last Jets game with a severely injured elbow, and the O-line also had injury trouble. Starting guard Stephen Neal was out for the game, Billy Yates (his replacement) went down during the game, and Wesley Britt (Yates's usual replacement) was also injured. Seymour is playing much better than he did then, and Neal will start this Sunday. And lastly, a little addition-by-subtraction -- Doug Gabriel won't be on the field to commit a costly turnover, like his fumble in November.

How about the Jets, you might ask. In November's game, they had two backup running backs out, and that was about it. In fact, one of the amazing things about the Jets season is they had an NFL-low number of man-games lost to injury (I believe it was 9 for the year, whereas the Patriots had almost 200 -- and no, that's not a misprint).

So what's the change for this game? The Jets are banged up, with 15 players on the injury report but all of the with at least a 50-50 chance to play. But more importantly, Warren will play, Seymour is healthier, Gabriel is gone, and Neal will be on the field -- as will Vince Wilfork and Kevin Faulk, both of whom missed parts of the last three games.

Advantage Patriots.


Add to those three changes the following quick facts:

Fact #1: the Patriots offense averaged 24 points a game this season, but almost 35 over the past three games.

Fact #2: even with all the ink wasted on the Patriots lack of a deep threat, they have more pass plays of over 20 yards than the Jets this year (46 to 38).

Fact #3: the Jets rank in the bottom half of the league in scoring, rushing offense, rushing defense, and turnover differential.


I almost hate to say it because it could always come back to bite me, but I think this game has rout written all over it. It's not as much of a domination as last year's playoff win against Jacksonville (which ended up 28-3), but I think something like 27-14. The Jets offense simply doesn't have the deep threat to scare the Pats defense out of their probable run-stopping mode. And the Patriots offense has enough of a rushing attack to beat the Jets without ever trying the deep threat -- although I expect they will get some big gainers during the game. The Pats will be prepared for all the stuff that surprised them in the November game, and I don't think Mangini has enough other tricks up his sleeve to stop the Patriots again in the same season.

Look for the Patriots to play patiently, be careful with the ball, and use their superior talent to win the day.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: All four NFL teams with "new" in their name made the playoffs this year (New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, and New York Jets).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Let's just say the Jets offense doesn't scare me and the Pats can run on the Jets defense."

Keep the faith,

- Scott



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