My overriding emotion after last week’s games was one of sadness, and not because there are now only three competitive games left, but the way Peyton Manning and the Broncos played left me feeling down. I’ll take a look at the teams leaving us before examining the Conference Championship games.
The were a lot more points scored in the first game of the weekend than I was expecting, but to take a fourteen point lead, have the Patriots level the score, get another fourteen point lead, the Patriots level once more, then take another lead, and yet finally lose the game must really hurt. The Ravens were able to move the ball well, running for over a hundred yards and passing effectively, but Joe Flacco threw two interceptions. On both of these, the safety came down to intercept balls thrown to Torrey Smith. What I didn’t know was that the first interception came whilst the Ravens were running a play that had worked in the first quarter, but flipped to the other side. If you get a chance, watch this video on the Patriots website with Belichick breaking down some key plays from the game, it’s one of the more fascinating tape segments you’ll see all year, and I owe a thanks to the excellent Michael Carlson for tweeting the link. The part that surprised me about this game was the defence, with the Terrel Suggs and Elvis Doomerville having quiet games, but whilst the Patriots were very pass heavy, Brady was getting the ball out of his hands before the pass rush could get there.
The Ravens are going to be a very good football team again next year, they have a lot of players already in place, are keeping their coaching team in tact, and they can reinforce the secondary as well as get players back. I’m getting worried already.
The Panthers gave a really good account of themselves in a really difficult place to play, but this game demonstrated that they are a team on the up rather than one pushing for a championship. There was more scoring in this game than I was expecting, but at the end of the day they simply were not talented enough to compete with the Seahawks when it mattered most. This will be an interesting offseason for them as they will have a little more cap room to play with, but the Cam Newton contract will be key, and to a large extent determine how they continue to build this team going forward.
The Cowboys benefited from officiating in their Wildcard game, and then suffered in this one, although the rule as it is currently written was enforced correctly. I thought Dez Byant had made the catch, although the bobble at the end made me think he was down inside the one. However, as soon as I saw the ball move on the replay I thought it would be overturned. This is the problem with replay, as whilst you want calls to be right, and replay helps you get this, as fans we want to see football plays and Dez Bryant made an excellent play. In fact, the Cowboys played really well in this came and could have won it.
There was not a lot of pressure up the middle from the Cowboys’ defence, but Rod Marinelli really took advantage of Rodgers limited mobility and there were several times when you could see huge spaces that he couldn’t run into. However, once the Packers adjusted in the second half, putting more receivers on the field to spread the defence, Rodgers was able to move the ball through the air and finished the game with over three hundred yards passing.
The Broncos fell out of the playoffs with a limp display that has led to the firing of Jon Fox. There are questions surrounding Peyton Manning’s arm strength, the extent of his leg injury, and whether he will come back next season. Selfishly I would like to see him come back as I still enjoy watching him play, when he’s not facing the Bengals, and as recently as three games ago he managed a terrifying third quarter in Cincinnati that makes me think that if can get injury free, he can still be effective. However, whether he can get that healthy, stay there, and still has the will power to go through everything required to play football only he will know. As much as anything, I would like a better end to his amazing career than this damp squib of game.
Whilst Manning struggled, so did the rest of the team. One of the few bright sparks was CJ Anderson who managed eighty yards on eighteen carries, and whilst there several drives that consisted of short runs on first and second down with a missed fade pass on third down, given Manning’s struggles in the pass game and these figures, a commitment to the run game could have kept the game closer. The big surprise for me on the other side of the ball however, was how little pass rush Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware managed as they managed no sacks and barely any pressure. This is a good team, but with so many free agents and now coaching upheaval, in addition to the status of Peyton Manning, the offseason could be something of a soap opera in Denver.
But enough of the teams that have left us, there are three more games to go so let’s get to the Conference Championship games:
Packers @ Seahawks
DVOA Packers Seahawks
Overall: 4th 1st
Offensive: 1st 4th
Defensive: 18th 1st
Special Teams: 30th 17th
The Seahawks very much took care of business last week, scoring more points than I thought they would whilst conceding more. In truth they got less out of Marshawn Lynch in the running game than I was expecting, but Russell Wilson was solid in the passing game and added twenty-two yards of rushing. They may not be a unit full of high-powered names, but the Seahawks skill players are playing very solid football and Russell Wilson continues to impress as a quarterback. They will be hoping to have a better day in the run game, but the Packers defence is not as fearsome prospect as the Panthers have been in recent weeks and they could have some success.
The Packers defence had some worrying moments last week, and whilst it was a great play by Julius Peppers to knock the ball out, it did look like DeMarco Murray was about to rip off a huge run with the defence opening up before him. In fact the Cowboys moved the ball pretty well and were certainly able to run the ball. This is perhaps not surprising as they were only ranked twenty-fourth in rush defence by DVPA through the regular season and this could be a real problem for them in Lynch get going.
The Packers are constructed for their defence to do enough to win, relying on their excellent offence, but in this game they are facing the best defence left in the playoffs, and probably the best in recent week. The Seahawks got some of their linebackers back and have been playing great defence for weeks now. Their secondary is incredibly strong with Kam Chancellor having an amazing game last week, demonstrating amazing agility to leap over the line in an attempt to block a field goal as well as getting a pick six. It will be interesting to see how they do against a Packers team who did not throw to Richard Sherman’s side of the field in their meeting on opening day back in September, but who have come on a long way since then. I would expect them to be aggressive early in the pass rush to test Aaron Rodgers movement and see if they can disrupt him in the passing game.
The Packers offence is different to where it was at the start of the season. Their o-line has coalesced and changed since the start of the season and has been playing excellent football. However, there is marked difference in the Packers home and away performance, and it has been talked and written that at home they are able to go through a number of plays to find the right one due to how quiet the stadium is. This is very much not going to be the case in one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL. The other problem for the Packers is that Aaron Rodgers played brilliantly last week on one leg, but it was clear that his calf injury was forcing him to play a different game, and whilst he could get away with this against the Cowboys defence, I’m not sure he will able to this week. You might think that it would be a good idea to rely on the run more to protect him, but although the Seahawks defence is famed for its secondary, they are still ranked second by DVOA in rush defence, which is in fact one place higher than their pass defence. There were some moments from Eddie Lacy, but he didn’t look that impressive for stretches of last week’s game and the Packers could do with a big game from him. However, in the passing game, whilst they did not get a strong game from Jordy Nelson last week, this didn’t matter as they got one hundred yard games out of Randall Cobb and Davante Adams so if they can spread the field again, maybe they can find a matchup they like,
This will be a fascinating game that I suspect the Seahawks will win due to their home field advantage and the difference in the way the Packers play away from home.
Colts @ Patriots
DVOA Colts Patriots
Overall: 13th 2nd
Offensive: 19th 3rd
Defensive: 7th 12th
Special Teams: 15th 7th
There have been talks of a possible second passing of the torch game for the Colts this week, with Andrew Luck having beaten Peyton Manning and now facing Tom Brady.
The matchups in this game will be interesting because the Patriots as a team are so mutable, you never know what Belichick and his staff are planning. Last week they abandoned the run game in the second half, ran plays with four linemen, and dusted off an options play the type we haven’t seen from them in years. That said, earlier in the year they pounded the Colts using extra linemen and racked up 246 rushing yards that included a two hundred yard, four touchdown day for Jonas Gray who has barely been heard from since. We don’t know if Belichick will revert back to the run attack this week, or if he will try to do something else, so from a tactical point of view this will be a fascinating game.
The Patriots offence had to rely on deception to get the win against the Ravens last week, but the Colts are a different proposition. They have looked very good in the playoffs so far, but the Patriots will offer a far more balanced challenge, Although talk of his demise were premature, Tom Brady doesn’t have the same ability to go deep he had when Randy Moss was running those go patterns, but he does have receivers that suit this offence, and Rob Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare for every team in the NFL. That said, they will miss their centre Bryan Stork, and one of the first things to look for is whether the line problems the Patriots suffered at the start of the season will resurface as they have to shuffle this unit.
The Colts defence has looked excellent for two weeks in a row, but the Bengals were missing too many receivers for Andy Dalton to excel, and the Broncos were strangely limited even taking into account the issues affecting Peyton Manning. The Patriots may be shuffling their line so there could be issues, Brady has his weapons and this could stretch this defence. They played great as a unit last week, and Vontae Davis was all over the field, but the Patriots don’t really have a single threat for him to man up against and at six foot and two hundred pounds, he doesn’t really match up with Gronkowski. This has been a tough tackling unit that has been really well coached, but I wonder if they get exposed against the Patriots like they were earlier in the season, two hundred yards is a lot to give up in the running game.
The Patriots defence has been a talking point for its fans as it has been as good as they have had for a long time, but it didn’t exactly catch the eye last week. The secondary that has been much improved did manage to get two interceptions last week, but as unit they gave up a lot of points and go against another good unit this week. That said, the Colts offensive line is not as good as the Ravens and so there is more chance of the Patriots getting a sustained pass rush. It will be interesting to see how much of this will come from Jamie Collins who is excellent at both pass rushing and coverage. What he is doing could well be a key as to what the Patriots think is the priority in this game and how they plan to get to Andrew Luck.
This leads us nicely to the Colts offence, which is only slightly more than Andrew Luck. Up until a couple of weeks ago I was only really impressed with four Colts players and three of them play in this offence. I don’t know if Andrew Luck will supplant our current great quarterbacks as some have been saying, as there are just too many variables, but he has certainly started his career in spectacular fashion. The throw he made to Donte Moncrief against the Bengals with defensive linemen round his feet was nothing short of spectacular. I have been pretty impressed with two of his targets, but whilst TY Hilton has an amazing knack of getting open, he drops too many balls, and Luck’s numbers would be even more impressive if Hilton had held onto some more of the very catchable balls that he has dropped. That said, I have been very impressed with his tight end Coby Fleener who has caught fifty balls for seven hundred yards this season, and seems to be good for several big plays a game whenever I’ve watched the Colts. However, the problem is that their o-line is not very good and whilst they could triple team Carlos Dunlap against the Bengals, I think they will be challenged more this week. But then again, I thought that last week and it didn’t materialise against the excellent pass rushers of the Broncos so only time will tell.
I am not sure how this game is going to go, as my instinct says that the Patriots should take care of business at home, but their o-line shuffle worries me and the Colts have been on a real run recently. That said, I’m not that impressed with the talent spread against their roster, and whilst they have been coached really well and are playing very tough football, I can see them coming up short against the elite teams in the league, and the Patriots are very definitely one of those.