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NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round

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Last weekend saw the elimination of the Packers, Bengals, Chiefs and Eagles from the race to the Super Bowl. It did go to show that the suggested changes to the playoff system in future years would be absurd, as it brought about two good games, one great one and one frankly absurd comeback win. Twelve top teams getting the chance to compete for the Super Bowl seems like the right fit, and it would be a shame to see the level of post-season games be diluted in years to come. Whether that matters if more money could be made with changes is an entirely different matter.

This weekend sees the winners of last weekend (Colts, Saints, Chargers and Forty-Niners) progress to the next round, where their reward is to play against the top two sides from their respective conferences. Scant reward, a game against one of the Broncos, Patriots, Seahawks or Panthers, who will be coming off of a week’s rest. But everyone left standing is in with a shot of going to New York for Super Bowl XLVIII. Here, we review the games taking place this weekend, which will set up the conference deciders.

NFC Divisional Round: 

New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks (Saturday, 21:35)

New Orleans have defied lazy journalism everywhere and actually won a game away from home. They went to a very snowy Philadelphia and managed to fend off the Eagles. While Philly have a team that is somewhat similar to their own (strong and varied run game, creative offense and a fairly average defense), the Seahawks will be a big step up in class.  The Saints had been finding some defensive success by gambling and blitzing pretty heavily, but with Kenny Vaccaro and Jabrari Greer both out with season-ending injuries, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan either hasn’t been willing or been able to pull it off with the same success. This game will likely come down to both teams strong points though, which is New Orleans offense trying to put up points on a mean Seattle defense. The Saints have a hugely varied attack, and normally cause problems for any team. Mark Ingram looks like a running back who is out with something to prove, and they have so many options to throw the ball to. Expect Drew Brees to really go after the Seattle secondary (known as the “Legion of Boom”), not because it’s a weak link, but simply they must come up with more big plays than they did last time they went to Seattle for a game. Expect a much better performance this time.

Seattle claimed the first seed in the NFC, despite being in the toughest division in Football. The NFC West ended the season with a combined 42-22 record, three teams with winning records and play some really hard football. That Seattle were able to top their conference in spite of six games against the Rams, Cardinals and Forty-Niners is a testament to the high standards of ball Seattle have been playing. They have a strong roster with great depth, where losses of Brandon Browner, Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin have hardly been noticed. While the other two won’t be coming back, it looks now like Harvin will return to provide another explosive option at wideout. Harvin will provide a wildcard for the Seattle offense, but it seems unlikely they will veer away from the powerful run game led by Pro-bowl running back Marshawn Lynch. The ‘Hawks squashed the Saints in the regular season game when top seed was seemingly on the line, and they also have had an extra weeks rest to prepare.

Pick: Seahawks

San Francisco Forty-Niners at Carolina Panthers (Sunday, 18:05)

San Francisco went to Green Bay last weekend and held off the Packers to advance to the divisional round. They didn’t have it all their own way, and needed a field goal with three seconds left to secure the win. Defensively, they gave up some big plays, but nobody gets away from a game against Aaron Rodgers without seeing some playmaking from under center. Fortunately for San Francisco, Carolina’s game is based a lot more around powerful running. The All-Pro San Francisco linebacker core of Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman, along with last year’s 19.5 sack leader Aldon Smith are fast, strong, hard ball-chasers who won’t give up too many big plays on the ground. Then offensively, they leave you with the painful decision of which one of Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree or Vernon Davis to leave in single coverage. San Francisco is a hot team on a roll, who are strong on both sides of the ball. It’s going to take a big performance from someone to knock them out.

Carolina came from nowhere, after a 1-3 start with coach Ron Rivera on the hot seat early, to nick the NFC South from New Orleans and claim the second seed in the NFC at the same time. Along the way, they beat the Niners in San Francisco in a one touchdown tough 10-9 win. The Niners are promising revenge for that, but the Panthers are a strong team who are going to have home field advantage for this game. Jonathan Stewart is back to share running back duties with DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert in a strong run game, but the big return is that of Steve Smith at wide receiver. The veteran is going to need to make some plays if Carolina is to come out with the win, as the San Francisco secondary is the weakest part of their defense. QB Cam Newton is a dual threat, able to throw bombs up field and stretch the play by running himself. But somehow, there’s a fear he is still inconsistent and “Bad Cam” could show up any day. Winning a big playoff game like this might put those notions to bed.

Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Green Bay Packers

Pick: Forty-Niners

AFC Divisional Round:

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (Late Saturday/early Sunday, 01:15)

Indy exercised their knack for huge Fourth quarter comebacks once more last weekend, coming back from 38-10 down to the Kansas City Chiefs, only to rally to a 45-44 win in the end. As impressive as it is that the team could make such a comeback, you have to examine the reasons why they were able to fall so far behind in the first place. Andrew Luck did throw three picks before he set about a herculean fourth quarter. There was also a poor fumble lost by running back Trent Richardson, who still owes this team a big performance. Hard to say if he’ll get the chance to provode it this season. though.Then, there is a defense that has been said is performing above the level of its individual pieces, but some of those pieces are of a poor standard for a team looking to win playoff games. Going to New England will be a big ask though, for a team who could be emotionally drained from such an outing. Apparently, you can never count Indy out though. How many times a team can come back like that against strong opposition is hard to know.

New England claimed their annual spot atop the AFC East and got the second seed and first-round bye, as per usual. But this Patriots team has been ravaged by injury, especially at the defensive tackle position. Vince Wilfork (and the several other defensive tackles that are out) has been a huge loss, but Rob Gronkowski going down once more is another huge blow for the offense. It makes the Pats a much less threatening opposition, although they are still able to move the ball and win games. The Patriots and Bill Belichick are usually able to take away the best weapon that an offense has, and if they are able to shut down T.Y. Hilton, it’s hard to see where else the Colts would be able to make big plays from. Although, aside from Aqib Talib, the Patriots secondary hasn’t been playing lights out stuff, and Hilton is a serious speedster so it’s not going to be easy to stop him. Belichick, Brady and the Pats just seem to be able to find ways to win every year, and this looks like one they can take.

Pick: Patriots

San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos (Sunday, 21:40)

The Chargers provided the shock of the weekend, going to Cincinnati and knocking out the Bengals. Admittedly they were helped by poor play from Andy Dalton, the Bengals QB, but San Diego were impressive nonetheless. They didn’t give up a score in the second half, and were able to run the ball and put the game beyond the home team. San Diego have now won five games in a row, and one of those was a win at Mile High against the Denver Broncos. There was more than a touch of luck about them getting into  the post-season, but they’re here and they’re on a roll. Yet it would be a stretch to say they have nothing to fear from the Broncos, a team with such a strong receivers set, and probably the most fearsome team in all of football. San Diego really need to dial up some pass rush, something that has eluded them for most of the season. The Chargers are just a game away from the conference decider and, although it would be brave to pick them to win in Denver, they’ve got huge momentum behind them.

The Denver Broncos waltzed through the AFC this year, with the only bumps along the way being losses at Indy and New England, as well as at home to the Chargers. All three are playoff teams, and there is no shame in losing those games. But while the loss of left tackle Ryan Clady early in the season had a surprisingly minimal impact on the team, the more recent loss of  edge rushing extraordinaire Von Miller for the remainder of the campaign will surely affect them more. Admittedly, they were without Miller for the first few games of the regular season and still managed to remain unbeaten until after his return, this is the time of year to have your special players on hand to make the difference, and Miller is just that. Well, just as well for Denver that even if their defense doesn’t get the job done, no team is better equipped to win a shoot-out. Peyton Manning throwing to Wes Welker, Eric Decker, and Julius and Demaryius Thomas, with running backs Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman to boot? Wish San Diego good luck trying to keep all of those guys out of the end zone.

Pick: Broncos

All kickoff times are Irish time.

Image courtesy of Sky News

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