Thursday, January 7, 2010

Playoff Preview 2009 (1/7/2010)

That's right, Jim... it's the PLAYOFFS!! The real season, the tournament, the one-and-done, win-or-go-home time of year when parity is the watchword and any team that's in has at least a chance to make a run and hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Miami on February 7. The time when frozen toes and scream-induced laryngitis are a small price to pay if your team advances, when even the meekest fan raises trash-talking to obscene new levels, and when unknown players can become legends and well known stars can punch their tickets to Canton (link).

31 days from now a new NFL Champion will be crowned. And even though logically it's true that every team has a chance, here is my take on which teams have the best chance to prevail, which ones might do it but probably won't, and which ones are just party crashers that security staff should escort to the exit. (Bear in mind my low success rate at predicting the eventual winners. I only continue this tradition to give people a chance to mock and deride me. Keeps me humble.)

The Faves

1. The San Diego Chargers have the most momentum of any team entering the playoffs. They won their last 11 games, have the QB who *should* win the MVP (Philip Rivers) and a dynamic pair of wide receivers, Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson, both of whom went over 1,000 yards for the season and who had 17 touchdowns between them. Rivers was third in the NFL with a 104.4 QB rating, is rarely sacked (less than 1.5 times a game), and his 28 touchdowns to just 9 interceptions show he is making good decisions with the ball, which is crucial in the post-season.

Their kicking game is solid if not spectacular, and you can run on them if you stay close. The big question mark for the Chargers is whether they can overcome past playoff failures. Head coach Norv Turner has never taken a team to the Super Bowl, always failing in the first or second rounds. In fact, he might be praying for a Ravens upset on Sunday, because if the Patriots prevail, they will travel to San Diego, and that has not been a good matchup for the Chargers. But if Norv and company can hold it together in that first game, this is a great chance for an athletically gifted team to finally live up to expectations.

2. The Indianapolis Colts are one of the three clear favorites. They boast the best record in the league, took the last three weeks getting their players healthy, and will play at home as long as they last in the AFC playoffs. Peyton Manning is not the best QB in the league, but it doesn't matter. When he needs to rise to the occasion, he is currently the QB you want under center when the game is on the line (sorry Tom Brady). They have no running game, but no matter the weapons, no matter the circumstances, Manning delivered about a hundred comeback wins this year (okay, it was really nine).

If your team can stop the offense, the defense can be had, as several key players are nursing injuries and there is a lack of experience in the secondary. But the players are playoff tested, and the entire organization is supremely motivated to win it all, especially after they got put through the ringer for not going all out for an undefeated season.

The only reason they are listed behind the Chargers is that they can't beat them in the playoffs. But if someone knocks off San Diego, it'll be clear sailing for another Colts trip to the Super Bowl.

3. The Green Bay Packers enter the playoffs on a 7-1 streak, with the loss a last-second miracle touchdown by the Steelers in Pittsburgh. They played three playoff teams during that streak and dominated the Cowboys, man-handled the Ravens, and embarrassed the Cardinals. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers takes too many sacks, but he has 30 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions (only 2 in the second half of the season), and boasts the quietest 103.2 QB rating in NFL history (fourth in the league).

On the flip side, the defense allowed a QB rating of 68.8 (and 6.4 yards per attempt), grabbed 30 interceptions and the team sports an absolutely *sick* turnover ratio of +24 (+9 ahead of the second place team). The Pack scores 28 points a game and gives up only 18, and they have serious momentum going into the playoffs. That is a team to be reckoned with, my friends.

A Notch Below

4. The New Orleans Saints are the first seed in the NFC, but appear ripe for a first or second round exit. They are a lot like the 2007/8 Dallas Cowboys (another NFC #1 seed that I correctly predicted would lose early in the playoffs). The Saints are playing their worst football at the worst possible time; the last four games in which they played their starters went as follows: almost lost at Washington, almost lost at Atlanta, lost at home to Dallas, and lost at home to Tampa Bay (YIKES!). Those two home games exposed some serious weaknesses; too many turnovers, poor special teams, their QB play is slipping, and after those two home losses, no one will be intimidated by the home crowd or the 13-3 record.

Additionally, no team has ever won the Super Bowl after losing its last three regular season games (which New Orleans did); they have no playoff experience to speak of, and their offensive output has dropped from 37 points a game (through week 12) to 23 (in their last 4 meaningful contests). There's also the fact that only two dome teams have won the Super Bowl -- trivia question: can you name them (answer below)? The Saints were the early favorite to go all the way, and they could still win it all. But don't be surprised if they're out before Feb. 7.

5. At first glance, the Minnesota Vikings should be ranked higher: a 12-4 record, scored the second most points in the league, good run offense and defense, and finally have a decent QB. But a closer look reveals a lot of cracks in their armor. All-world running back Adrian Peterson hasn't broken 100 yards since mid-November; it's been even longer since D-linemen Jared Allen had a big game; their last three road losses were bad ones (@Chicago, @Carolina, and @Arizona); they seem to have lost their big play ability, and there is locker room dissent with the QB vs. the Coach drama. Also, there's that pesky "dome team" thing (noted above), and I don't see the Vikes becoming the third dome team to win it all. I almost put them in the next category down.

A Puncher's Chance

6. The New England Patriots could get blown out in the first round or find themselves on the way to Miami. But there are too many variables and questions to give them anything more than a puncher's chance at the crown. Running backs Laurence Maroney and Fred Taylor bring different strengths to the position, but both had fumble problems. Wideout Randy Moss is hot-and-cold, and the most important receiver (Wes Welker) was replaced by rookie Julian Edleman for the playoffs. The O-line is great when their best five play, but injuries are a problem there. And speaking of injuries, QB Tom Brady has hand, rib, and shoulder problems, and he's been inconsistent. Oh, and they can't score in the second half.

And that's just the *offense*! The defense is young and improving, but linemen Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren have been out, and their replacements are about a 50-50 proposition. The linebackers are good but not great, sometimes the pass rush gets consistent pressure and sometimes it disappears, and the secondary is young and probably thinks it's better than it really is. However, at least the defensive coaches make good adjustments; the halftime adjustments on offense have been pathetic.

So if Edelman plays like a vet, Wilfork is healthy, they get past the Ravens and the Chargers fall apart in the second round, then it's possible they could play for the AFC Championship. That's a lot of "ifs" that have to go their way, but with the playoff experience and Brady and Belichick it's possible. Just don't be the mortgage on it.

7. The Philadelphia Eagles would be higher up, but they lost to Dallas the final week and now have to win three straight road games to get to the big game. The quarterback and coach have plenty of playoff experience (5 NFC championship games and 1 Super Bowl), they have playmakers on offense (Donovan McNabb, DeShawn Jackson, and Brian Westbrook), defense (Asante Samuel), and a solid kicking game. If this was about which team would win this weekend, they'd be ranked lower. But even on the road for the entire playoffs, the Eagles have a better chance to be in Miami than any of the teams listed below.

8. Last year, the 2008 Arizona Cardinals took the league by surprise, winning a mediocre division before storming through the playoffs and almost pulling out a Super Bowl victory. Their big win during that run was a drubbing of the Panthers in Carolina, and they were fortunate that the Eagles knocked out the Giants, which brought the NFC Championship Game to Phoenix. And honestly, the Cardinals still almost lost that game. But give them credit; they would have been Super Bowl champs if they'd tackled James Harrison on his 100 yard interception return.

So what changed this year? Arizona won a mediocre division, scored fewer points than they did last year, gave up fewer points than last year, and now they can't take anyone by surprise. Half of their dynamic receiving duo is hobbling (Anquan Boldin) and half of their dynamic cornerback tandem is hobbling (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie). They've got the playoff experience where they need it (coach and QB), but the stars must align perfectly for them to make another run, and it just ain't happening two years in a row.

9. The Dallas Cowboys won their division and secured the #3 NFC position; they rank second in points allowed and pitched two shutouts to end the season, and they lost by just three points to the mighty Chargers. So why the low ranking? They have been to the playoffs recently and always flame out early, had only one decent road victory all year, and head coach Wade Phillips and QB Tony Romo inspire no confidence at all. That places them squarely in the "puncher's chance" category -- could win if everything falls just right.

Soon to Receive Lovely Parting Gifts

10. The Cincinnati Bengals are a real enigma this year. They swept their division, but by an average of only 5 points a game (including back-to-back-to-back 3 point wins). They had terrible losses to the Raiders, the Vikings, and the Jets (47-0 last week) but almost won on the road in San Diego three weeks ago. Their defense is ranked sixth in points allowed, but they only scored 14 more points than they gave up. The bottom line is that they need to win four games in a row, and have no playoff pedigree. Just not going to happen.

11. The Baltimore Ravens scored 130 more points than they allowed this year, and yet only finished 9-7 and squeezed into the playoffs on tie-breakers. They notched their only big road win four months ago (September 20) in San Diego, before the Chargers found themselves and reeled off 11 wins in a row. They have very little positive playoff experience, have a defense that feeds off emotion (and that happens to have its best player, safety Ed Reed, injured), and it's tough to see them cranking it up to win on the road three straight weeks. They fell out of the "puncher's chance" category because they depend on emotion and it's tough to summon that for three straight road games. But they do have a decent running game, so they could give some teams trouble. Just not enough trouble to make it to Miami.

12. The New York Jets have a very good defense and a good running game. But their coach is too unsteady and the QB turns the ball over way too often to win three road games and a Super Bowl. They had a nice year, but sneaking into the playoffs with a 9-7 record and favorable tie-breakers isn't a great resume. They will need more offensive firepower to contend again next year. To contend this year? They need more offensive firepower *and* a new QB -- but the trading deadline is long past :)

So there's your Playoff Preview for 2009. Enjoy the games!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

PPS. Trivia answer: The St. Louis Rams and the Indianapolis Colts are the only two dome teams to win the Super Bowl.

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