Rob Gronkowski will be a healthy participant in the Patriots playoff run for the first time in years. Do the Ravens have an answer? (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Last Week: 2 – 2 – 0
Playoffs: 2 – 2 – 0
Saturday, January 10 (4:35PM ET)
(6) Ravens at (1) Patriots
The Poor Patriots were expecting a nice stroll through the park in the Divisional Round against the Bengals or Colts. Instead they’ll need to run through the gauntlet of past playoff nightmares courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens were supposed to lose in Pittsburgh last week as a result of an injury-depleted secondary. Instead, they effectively contained the NFL’s 2nd ranked passing attack. Of course, the loss of Le’Veon Bell certainly made Baltimore’s job easier, but the blueprint this week should remain the same. Pressure Tom Brady like they did Ben Roethlisberger, and make the Patriot offense one-dimensional. Actually, that 2nd task may not be too hard.
New England’s dirty secret this season is their lack of a running game. After finishing in the top ten a year ago, the Patriots dropped ten spots in 2014 after the season-ending injury to Stevan Ridley. Though New England signed LeGarrette Blount and received a one-game gem from Jarvis Gray, the running game has been mostly inconsistent since Ridley’s exit in Week 6. Don’t expect Baltimore’s 4th ranked rush defense to have trouble containing the run. Baltimore’s toughest task will be to stop Brady and the passing attack. Enter Rob Gronkowski.
Gronkowski will make his first playoff appearance since New England’s 2011 run to the Super Bowl. (He technically appeared in 2012 but re-injured his arm in the 1st quarter against Houston.) Gronkowski’s absence when these teams met in the AFC Championship two seasons ago was devastating to New England. The offense struggled mightily. As we’ve witnessed throughout the season, Brady and the Patriots offense is a different animal when Gronkowski is healthy. He’s completely un-guardable unless a defense commits two and often three defenders to him. With the Raven secondary already in shambles, committing even two players to limit Gronkowski will open up other areas for Brady to exploit.
Let’s also not forget this is the best defense Bill Belichick has had in a decade. Joe Flacco torched a dreadful Steeler defense last week. This week he’ll face the league’s best cornerback. Like I said last week, I trust Flacco in a postseason game more than any other quarterback right now. It’s amazing how far Flacco has come since he first beat the Patriots in the 2009 playoffs despite finishing 4/10 for 34 yards and an interception. Still, I think it’ll take a mammoth effort by Flacco to escape with another road win in New England. Even then, I’m still not sure it will be enough. Gronkowski is such a game-changer. PATRIOTS If I were Charles Barkley; Patriots -6
[*Wouldn’t it be a total Bill Belichick move to unleash Gray again this week? I may be crazy, but isn’t it possible Belichick buried Gray on the bench after his breakout performance so that he could spring him on an unsuspecting team in the playoffs? This seems like something he would do.]
Saturday, January 10 (8:15PM ET)
(4) Panthers at (1) Seahawks
I know a few Panther fans that were less than pleased with the opening 11 point line for the Panthers/Seahawks contest. Carolina’s Mike Tolbert even called it “disrespectful” to the Panther’s defense. Sorry, Mr. Tolbert, but that line has nothing to do with your defense. It has everything to do with how poor Carolina’s offense looked against Arizona.
You see, Carolina can’t throw the football. Cam Newton is just one big injury at this point of the season; ribs, back, wrist, knee. He stands up from a huddle like he’s 52 years old. He literally can’t put anything into his throws. Any torque on the ball comes from his arm and only his arm. While that may be enough against the NFC South and the similarly injury-depleted Cardinals, it won’t suffice against the NFL’s premiere defense.
Also, let’s not get carried away with Carolina’s five game win streak. They beat three NFC South teams (neck and neck with the AFC South for worst division in football), the Browns and the aforementioned Cardinals. Sure, you can argue the Panthers are simply playing their best football of the season and I wouldn’t have much to prove otherwise. Sadly, the reason I couldn’t prove you wrong is because of how poorly Carolina performed all season, especially against teams with winning records. If you’re wondering, the Panthers finished 1-5-1 against teams that finished 2014 with a winning record. Their average margin of defeat in those five losses was 19. Carolina’s best game of the year was in Week 2 against Detroit when the defense still resembled the 2013 version and Cam Newton could walk without limping.
With all that said, the Seahawks are the best opponent for Carolina. Green Bay and Dallas’ offenses are too potent. The Steelers, Eagles and Packers each dropped at least 37 points on the Panthers and won by three scores. Newton and the offense can’t match that output. Seattle, on the other hand, thrives on defense. While Russell Wilson is a great quarterback, the Seahawks don’t have the playmakers outside to consistently make big plays and run away from opponents. Their bread and butter is Marshawn Lynch pounding away on a defense and Wilson sustaining drives with jaw-dropping conversions on 3rd down. Thus, Carolina, at the very least, has a chance Sunday.
As I mentioned last week, Carolina battled Seattle better than most over the past two seasons. Though, neither game was in Seattle. If Carolina’s defense is truly back and not simply a product of subpar competition, the Panthers will keep it close. Unfortunately, I don’t see how the Panthers offense generates points. Seattle surrendered the 3rd fewest turnovers in the NFL, so it’s unlikely Carolina gets any help there.
I like the Panthers. I think injuries and the Greg Hardy suspension undercut what could have been another impressive season. The Newton auto accident and now Ron Rivera’s house fire give the team some “us against all odds” swagger and that makes me nervous about my pick. Ultimately, though, the Seahawks are too good. I’m expecting a beat down. SEAHAWKS If I were Charles Barkley; Seahawks -10
Sunday, January 11 (1:05PM ET)
(3) Cowboys at (2) Packers
Strangely enough, the Packers are a better matchup for the Cowboys than the Lions. With the NFL’s top rush defense, Detroit could contain DeMarco Murray without committing eight to the box. The Lions could then double Dez Bryant and dare Tony Romo to beat them with Jason Witten and Terrance Williams. Everything went according to plan for Detroit. The only problem was Romo was good enough (with some help from the officials) to win the game without Bryant and Murray in starring roles.
Unlike Detroit, Green Bay’s defense is bad against the run. The Dallas offensive line that was abused last week should have little problem imposing its will when establishing Murray and the ground game. An effective ground game then gives Romo time to stretch the defense. While the Packers pass defense ranked among the top third of the league, Julio Jones’ performance in Week 14 must be running through Dez Bryant’s head all week. That’s the good for Dallas.
Here comes the bad. The Cowboys are an atrocious pass defense. I still don’t get why Detroit stopped attacking with quick slants in the 2nd half after tormenting the Dallas defense early. But I digress. The Packers have Aaron Rodgers who will likely win his 2nd MVP award after an astounding 38:5 touchdown to interception ratio. Rodgers’ offense led the league in scoring and did so without playing what equated to an entire football game due to sitting early in four different blowouts. Like any quarterback, Rodgers’ kryptonite is pressure. Get in his face, disrupt his receivers and you can at least limit his potency. Seattle and Buffalo were successful this year in harassing Rodgers, as were the 49ers the last two postseasons. However, Dallas doesn’t have that kind of defense. Rodgers will likely have time and space to do what he pleases. They may try blitzing him but Rodgers on the move isn’t ideal for a defense either. Controlled chaos is the key. Fluster him but keep him contained in the pocket. Again, Dallas doesn’t have the right horses on the defensive line, in the secondary, or on the sideline to have more than a prayer of disrupting Rodgers. Look as his numbers against a Rod Marinelli defense (via @JADubin5):
To recap, Dallas can’t compete with the Green Bay offense.
Though, there is hope. That hope is Rodgers’ injured calf. If it tightens up again and Rodgers is a sitting duck, the potency of the Green Bay offense is severely limited. Furthermore, cold weather has always acted as a natural deterrent to elite offenses. Players react slower, the ball travels differently, and most importantly, Rodgers’ hampered calf will get stiff. While Dallas’ offense can win a variety of ways, the Packers don’t win without a healthy and functional Rodgers.
Last week I thought Dallas would go to Green Bay and win. I’m feeling less confident now. Though they rallied a week ago, the Cowboys again exemplified the emotional frailty that has plagued them the last decade. Frail teams don’t survive playoff games in sub-freezing temperatures against the NFL’s best player. Then again, an injured Rodgers isn’t the NFL’s best player. I’m torn. I hate the Cowboys but gut feelings says Rodgers is limited and the Cowboys win. I hate myself. COWBOYS If I were Charles Barkley; Cowboys +6
Sunday, January 11 (4:40PM ET)
(4) Colts at (2) Broncos
I know Peyton Manning hasn’t played a great game in nearly two months, but the combination of CJ Anderson, Denver’s defense and Indianapolis’ lousy defense makes me believe the Broncos win as long as Manning doesn’t throw a handful of picks and self combust as he did last month in Cincinnati. Besides, after Andrew Luck lost to Tom Brady in last year’s playoffs it’s appropriate Luck completes the initiation process by losing to Manning this year. As you can see, I find this the easiest pick of the weekend, which means something goes awry and the Colts advance to the AFC Championship Game. Oh well. BRONCOS If I were Charles Barkley; Broncos -7
If I were Charles Barkley…
Last Week: 1 – 3 – 0
Playoffs: 1 – 3 – 0