Friday, January 4, 2013

2012 Playoff Preview

Ignore warning Lo and behold, playoff time is here again!  Time to forget Black Monday firings, replacement referees, BountyGate, the Jets' bluster, and where Josh McDaniels will coach next year -- and sit back and enjoy the best post-season tournament this side of NCAA basketball.

Here is my handicapping of the field, from the contenders to the pretenders.  If you are a loyal reader of this blog, you know better, but a word of warning to the uninitiated: this is for your entertainment only.  Momentum and matchups play a much larger role in the NFL playoffs than regular-season records, and no one can predict who will face whom in any round.  Suffice it to say, this is just one person's opinion -- and in a year with no clear favorite, it's even more likely to have a flaw or two.

The Faves

1.  The Denver Broncos earned the #1 seed in the AFC, and deservedly so.  Winners of 11 consecutive games, they are the only team to rank in the top 5 in both scoring offense and defense (second and fourth, respectively).  They also possess one of the top home field advantages in sports, and have a reborn passing game complimented by a decent running attack.

Potential problem: The Patriots offense regularly thrashes defenses coordinated by Denver coach Jack Del Rio.  Just like they did earlier this year, when Brady completed 74% of his passes and threw no interceptions, and the running game compiled 251 yards on the ground.

2.  The New England Patriots earned the #2 seed in the AFC, and deservedly so, too.  Winners of 9 of their last 10 games, they have the post-season experience and pedigree that make them dangerous most any year.  Their offense scored almost five points more per game than any other team, and they set a record with 444 first downs and had the fewest three-and-outs in the league, by far.  They also lead the NFL with a +25 turnover ratio, owing to a young and opportunistic defense.

Potential problem: Health is the biggest issue.  Tight end Rob Gronkowski and cornerback Aqib Talib the keys to the offense and defense.  With either one missing (or too limited to make a difference), the Super Bowl is that much less likely.

3.  The San Francisco 49ers have four important elements to a potential Super Bowl run: (1) an innovative coach, (2) a very physical defense, (3) a good running game, and (4) explosive players in the passing game.  The defense finished second in points allowed, the running game ranked third in yards per carry and fourth in yards per game.  And quarterback Colin Kaepernick leads all playoff signal-callers with 8.3 yards per pass attempt (a stat very closely associated with winning games).

Potential problem: Place-kicker David Akers was the worst in the NFL this year, missing 13 kicks and succeeding only 69% of the time -- very bad numbers in the modern NFL.  He's been so bad, they tried out another kicker this week, and in the playoffs, every point, every possession, everything is that much more important.

A Notch Below

4.  The Green Bay Packers entered the 2010 playoffs as the #6 seed, won three road games, and then upset the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the Super Bowl.  They have a lot of the same elements in place this year.  QB Aaron Rodgers led the league with a 108.0 QB rating, and combined with the fourth-ranked passing defense (74.1 defensive QB rating), the Packers could indeed be formidable.

Potential problem: The Packers' poor performance running the ball and defending the run could cost them against several teams.  They rank 23rd in yards-per-carry against, and 20th in yards-per-carry on offense.

A Puncher's Chance

5.  Washington is the only team starting a rookie quarterback in this category, and no rookie QB has ever won a Super Bowl.  So why Washington?  Because they have great run/pass balance on offense and a proven playoff coach in Mike Shanahan.  They rank second in yards-per-rush (5.2) and quarterback Robert Griffin III ranks third in QB rating (102.4).  And Shanahan has shown he can win the big games if he has a good running attack and gets good play at quarterback.

Potential problem: Griffin is injured, and the defense is middle of the pack against the run, the pass, and in points allowed.

6.  The Atlanta Falcons are the #1 seed in the NFC, but that ranking is deceptive.  They've played poorly the last few weeks, and suffered injuries in the final game of the regular season.  They enter the playoffs 2-2 in their last four games, and they rank a dismal 29th against the run (4.8 yards per carry).  Most years that might be okay, given they played better against the pass, but the NFC has three very strong running attacks to contend with (San Francisco, Washington, and Seattle).

Potential problem: Matt Ryan's career record is 56-22 in the regular season, 0-3 in the playoffs.

7.  The Cincinnati Bengals are an intriguing team.  Enough of a pass rush and a stingy enough defense that they could be this year's New York Giants.  Andy Dalton is a second-year QB, and two of them have won the Super Bowl this century (can you name them... answer below).  The problem is, no real running game, and a complete lack of playoff experience.

Potential problem: Marvin Lewis' playoff record is the same as Matt Ryan's, 0-3.

Soon to Receive Lovely Parting Gifts

8.  The Seattle Seahawks are ranked this low for two reasons.  First, they have a rookie quarterback, and no rookie quarterback has ever won a Super Bowl.  Second, just to make it to the Super Bowl, they will very likely have to win three road games -- and they were 3-5 on the road this year.  Maybe they win one game, but very difficult to imagine them winning three away from home to advance to the Super Bowl.

Potential Problem: listed above.

9.  The Houston Texans spent much of the year flying high, leading the rest of the AFC field by as many as two full games.  But they went 1-3 down the stretch and lost home-field advantage, so they have to play this weekend and then go on the road if they emerge with a victory over Cincinnati.  At this point, they look shell-shocked, following up their 42-14 drubbing at New England with lack-luster performances against playoff teams Minnesota and Indianapolis.

Matt Shaub looks like he needs at least another year of seasoning, and the defense looked predictable and flat against all three teams they lost to down the stretch.  12-4 is impressive, until you realize all four losses came against playoff teams.

Potential problem: Will have to win in cold-weather, outdoor stadium to make the Super Bowl, and New England and Denver are unlikely to be hospitable to the dome-team Texans.

10.  The Baltimore Ravens fired their offensive coordinator a few weeks ago, a desperate act by a desperate team.  11th in yards-per-rush and 16th in QB rating, they could rally and win a game, maybe even two.  But with a middling quarterback and not enough defensive horses to stop teams, they can't win three to get to the big dance.

Potential problem: Joe Flacco is not, and never will be, an elite quarterback.

11.  The Indianapolis Colts were a great story all year long, but they lack the offensive fire-power and frankly their defense isn't that good away from home.  They gave up 19.25 points per game at home, but that average ballooned to 29.1 points a game on the road.  They are the fifth seed, so that likely means winning three shoot-outs, games they are not well-prepared to compete in.

Potential problem: Reggie Wayne can't do it alone.

12.  The Minnesota Vikings have a great running game and not much else.  Nice that they made the playoffs, and they could beat the Packers on Saturday.  But no way they get through two more road games to the Super Bowl -- not with the shaky play at quarterback and lack of offensive firepower.

Potential problem: The defense is decent against the run, but bad against the pass.  Look for Aaron Rodgers and any other NFC quarterbacks to audible to pass plays, over and over again.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  12-4 & 0-0!

PPS.  Rookies Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson, and second-year QBs Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, and Christian Ponder all start in this year's playoffs.

PPPS.  Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger both won the Super Bowl in their second seasons.

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