The NFL playoff field has dwindled to eight contenders. I’m a week later than usual, so let’s breakdown and rank the remaining participants before Alabama and LSU play a third time.
Could Cure Cancer If It Were Ahead Or Tied In The 4th Quarter
This may be sacrilegious, but I’m not ready to declare the Broncos Superbowl favorites. The key to analyzing the NFL Playoffs is to stay grounded and not let one week sway your opinion of any team too far in either direction. Yes, the Broncos’ win on Sunday against the Steelers was epic. Tim Tebow and his Denver teammates were magnificent. It was a thrilling contest with an even better ending. Still, I refuse to go overboard on the Broncos.
Let’s not forget the Steelers were a shell of themselves after injuries and blood defects ravaged their roster. Let’s also not forget Pittsburgh’s best player was competing on one leg and still managed to carry his team to a tie at the end of regulation. And most importantly, let’s not forget the Patriots were the first team to spread the Denver defense and thrash them up and down the field.
Does this mean Denver has no shot? Of course not. If the game is close late in the 2nd half, you might as well book the AFC Title game in Houston or Baltimore. Tim Tebow doesn’t lose close games (except against the Chiefs). If cancer had a two point lead with less than two minutes to go, Tebow would find the cure. There’s no doubt.
Shorthanded. Otherwise, Superbowl Champs
I apologize for causing you to spit whatever beverage you were drinking all over your computer screen. To fix the damage, I’ll credit you a free 2012 membership to 4thandDone.com.
Seriously though, the Texans were and would be (if healthy) the most complete team in the playoff field. While the NFL statistical rankings support my claim, I’m going to mostly ignore them and simply look at how Houston would match up against the playoff heavyweights.
In the AFC, the prohibitive favorites are now the Patriots and Ravens. The Patriots struggle defensively and rely heavily on an aerial attack. The Texans can grind opponents with a ground game featuring one of the best backfield tandems in the NFL. Also, Matt Schaub is good enough to have easily shredded a mediocre secondary like New England’s. Furthermore, Houston’s defense generates a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Without a running game to carry the offense, Tom Brady and the Patriots would be at the mercy of the NFL’s 3rd ranked pass defense.
What about the Ravens? Sure, Houston fell to Baltimore earlier in the season. However, that was before Arian Foster was fully healthy and the Texan defense was still adjusting to Wade Philips’ 3-4 scheme. Baltimore’s defense is good, but it’s not “we can go out and win a game on our own,” good, at least not anymore. If you offered me Joe Flacco or Schaub, I’d take Schaub. Arian Foster or Ray Rice, I’d take Foster in a coin flip. Andre Johnson or Anquan Boldin? Andre Johnson. Again, the Texans were the most balanced team in the league. With a healthy Schaub, they would have been the AFC’s top seed and the eventual conference champion.
Could they have stopped Green Bay or New Orleans in the Superbowl? I think so. Unlike any other team in the playoffs, the Texans could eat clock, move the football, and score. If the opposing defense got too aggressive against the run, Schaub and Johnson could connect over the top. Although Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are nearly impossible to defend, the Texan defense has been the best and most consistent defense over the past two months with the possible exception of the 49ers.
I watched a lot of football and at no time did I watch a more complete team than the Houston Texans. They do so many things well that I’d have liked their chances against a playoff field full of teams that do some things great and others poorly.
Sadly, Houston is without its starting quarterback, its Pro-Bowl pass rusher, and relies almost entirely on its running game and a hobbled Andre Johnson. Oh well. (Did I just waste 500 words discussing what could have been? Yep.)
Hi, I’m Alex Smith. I’m Your Quarterback
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have the defense to contend with Drew Brees and the N’awlins offense. But they won’t hold the Saints scoreless. Alex Smith will need to score and produce at least one sustainable drive each quarter. Smith has been a reliable and consistent quarterback this season for the 49ers. He’s done enough to help them win and more importantly, he’s avoided the back-breaking mistakes that lead to defeat.
The playoffs are a different game, though. Will Smith (haha, get it? Will Smith?) panic in the moment? If the Saints jump out to an early lead, does Smith have the confidence and composure to lead his team back? It’s impossible to know the answers to these questions because Smith has never been put on this stage, nor has he been asked to carry his team to victory. If the 49ers are to compete for a Superbowl, that will undoubtedly change. Smith must play a more aggressive role in winning if the 49ers have any hope of advancing past the Saints.
Unpredictable Wild Cards
New York Giants
The pieces to winning a title are all there; great quarterback, elite pass rush, solid coaching. Whether or not all those pieces will be properly functioning on a weekly basis is the question. If they are, and they can muster a decent running game out of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, the Giants are just as dangerous as the Saints, Patriots and Packers. New York’s greatest asset is knowing exactly what it’ll take to knock off the NFC favorites. The Giants won a Superbowl by disrupting Tom Brady and limiting his opportunities to make plays. Hit any quarterback in the mouth often enough and he’ll start missing throws and thinking about self-preservation rather than waiting for a receiver to break through the secondary.
I think this year’s offenses led by Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are even more dangerous than Brady’s 2007 arsenal because of their depth at the skill positions. Stopping either offense won’t be easy, but if any team knows how to derail a potent offense, it’s the Giants. Whether or not they’re capable of doing so depends solely on the highs and lows of the roller coaster ride known as the New York Giants.
Baltimore is the ultimate clunker franchise. None of the Ravens four losses came against a playoff team. They’re always good for at least two inexplicable losses each season. Conversely, the Ravens defeated all six playoff teams they faced in 2011. In other words, the Ravens get up for big games and overlook the lousy teams. While that’s bad news during the regular season, it’s great news come playoff time. A clunker at home in the organization’s first home playoff game in years would be an absolute shock, especially against a 3rd string rookie quarterback.
Last year I argued the burden of getting Baltimore to the promise land fell on Joe Flacco. That burden has only increased this year. If Baltimore is to advance to its first Superbowl in over a decade, Flacco must lead them there. The Baltimore defense is fading and can only give Flacco and the offense a chance to win. They can’t win on their own anymore. Although Ray Rice is an elite running back, teams will undoubtedly key on Rice and dare Flacco to beat them. If Flacco is up to the task, the Ravens are every bit as balanced as any team in the postseason. Flacco couldn’t get it done last year in Pittsburgh. A shot at redemption will most likely be in New England. Considering Flacco finished 2011 with his lowest output since his rookie season (lowest completion %, yardage, TDs, TD to INT ratio), I’m not holding my breath. But then again, I probably said the same thing about Eli Manning in 2007.
Two’s A Coincidence, Three’s A Trend
New England Patriots
Obviously, the Patriots are Superbowl contenders and now prohibitive AFC favorites because of the combination of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. It’s hard to argue otherwise. However, it’s hard for me to believe a team with such a lousy defense will advance to the title game. Mike Wilbon made the point on Monday’s PTI that you just have to believe at some point defenses will be the deciding factor. I agree with him. Defenses win championships. I still believe that.
Does that mean the Saints, Packers and Patriots can’t win? No. The Colts finally won because Peyton Manning’s defense erased a horrific regular season and carried the team to a title. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of the aforementioned teams’ defense established itself in the playoffs and bailed out its high-flying offense a time or two. I just have a hard time believing it will be the Patriots.
Lucky for them, the AFC playoff field is as week as I can remember. The Steelers were a force until injuries crippled their chances. The Ravens are, again, unpredictable. The Broncos are all grit and heart. That is always effective in the playoffs, but for how long? The Texans are playing a few cards short of a full deck. That makes the Patriots the obvious choice to win the conference. If they were in the NFC, I think they’d struggle to advance past this weekend.
It’s now or never for a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2007 and has been knocked out at home each of the previous two playoffs. If they make it three years in a row, expect another tea party in Boston.
Can’t Touch This. No, Really. You Can’t Touch This
New Orleans Saints
Right now, if I had to choose, I’d take the Saints offense over Green Bay’s. The Packers may boast a better receiving corps, but New Orleans has the conference’s best tight end and a more explosive backfield. While neither team can really run the ball (nor do they try), the Saints use Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas effectively enough in the passing game to create a faux running game that works almost the same in keeping the safeties honest and the linebackers close to the line of scrimmage.
For Green Bay, James Starks was the leading rusher over Ryan Grant (by 19 yards), but neither really lights the world on fire in the running game or through the air like Thomas or Sproles. On the other hand, Starks did come out of nowhere to pace the Packers running game throughout their Superbowl run last year. Maybe he has that in him again.
Either way, the Saints are the better offense right now, in my opinion. Drew Brees is playing at a level we haven’t seen before. How long his tear lasts will probably determine how deep the Saints go in the postseason. The Saints have their first chance to prove they can continue their rapid pace outside of the Superdome this weekend in San Francisco.
Green Bay Packers
You’re probably wondering why the Packers are listed here over the Saints after I just stated that I like the Saints offense a little better. Well, two reasons; flexibility, and defense.
While I believe New Orleans’ offense is the superior unit right now, the Packers offense has proven itself indoors and out. In cold and warm weather alike. Conditions don’t impact this offense. The same cannot be said for the Saints simply because they haven’t been tested. Of their 16 games this season, the Saints played outside only five times. What’s more, the Saints played in temperatures below 65 degrees only once. That’s right, ONCE. It was a cool 41-degree afternoon in Nashville, TN and the Saints offense struggled to score. Totaling 22 points in a narrow victory over the Titans.
Furthermore, I think the New Orleans defense is the weaker of the two. It’s simple to compare the Saints and Packers defenses because both were often faced with protecting large leads. As a result, both passing defenses were ranked in the bottom three of the NFL. Again, that’s a somewhat distorted stat because both defenses had double-digit leads in the 2nd quarter in most weeks. Regardless, Green Bay’s secondary has more playmakers and dominated the Saints defense in one very important statistic… turnovers.
In fact, the Packers defense as a whole more than doubled the Saints in takeaways. That’s a big deal. Although Green Bay was surrendering chunks of yardage, they were limiting the damage on the scoreboard. Green Bay was especially aggressive against the pass as they led the NFL with 31 interceptions, more than three times as many as New Orleans who had only 9. In the postseason, defenses that force turnovers are worth their weight in gold. Fittingly, the Packers offense is money, which you know, is green.
And finally, Aaron Rodgers. Drew Brees has been unstoppable but I think Rodgers’ athleticism gives him an edge. Even in Kansas City when Rodgers was under heavy pressure, he gave his receivers opportunities to make big plays. Unfortunately, they often let those opportunities slip through their hands (literally). More importantly, Rodgers didn’t allow the Chiefs pressure to force him into any turnovers. As long as his receivers hang on to the football, Rodgers and the Packers aggressive defense should repeat as NFL champions.