Three games. That is all we have left if you discount the Pro Bowl, which I do. They look like exciting games, or at least intriguing, but I’ll be looking at them in a bit because what I want to focus on first is how we got here.
There is a simple reason that I am writing about this, which is that in the last two weeks I have found myself repeatedly reaching for the same phrase. This was one game too far for this team, or variations of that. And in each case I am talking about a team that has done well, but for various reasons fell short, but the primary one at this time of year seems to be injury. This is not a new theme for this blog, I have been writing about the importance of depth all season, but it takes on an extra significance at this time of year thanks to the structure of the NFL schedule.
All four of what are traditionally considered the major sports in America operates with a playoff structure, as well as the expanding MLS despite football’s tradition of leagues and parallel cup competitions across the globe. It is simply the expected format over in the States, and it still feels odd to someone who grew up with team sports being settled by everyone playing each other home and away in a league to decide the best team. In the NFL’s defence, there is simply no way for them to schedule such a league wide format with thirty-two teams who are already stretched to breaking point by a sixteen game schedule spread across seventeen weeks.
The reason I bring this up here, is that whilst all the sixteen games look to have the same mathematical value initially, in practice some games are literally more valuable than others. Thanks to the importance of winning your division, and the record comparison that can be used to determine who wins a division or makes the playoffs via the wildcard places, there are some games that are more helpful for getting to the playoffs than others. This in of itself is nothing new to competition, it is impossible to make things absolutely fair, and even in the league format scheduling and timing, not to mention the timing of injuries can play a significant role in the outcome.
For those who are not interested in Premier League football, one of the stories of the season has been Leicester City’s performance, which has seen them top the league and remain in contention through and after the festive period. For me this was always the real test as it is not uncommon for a team to have a good start, but have their performance tail off over the second half of the season, with the fixture congestion over the festive period often really testing a team’s squad and their ability to maintain a title challenge or a top four finish so they get into the Champions League. Not only is great for the team in your city to be on such a run of form, but in the last couple of weeks they have been social media contact between them and the Carolina Panthers, as City had spotted the similarity in both team’s season of unexpected success, and both clubs have been sending each other jerseys.
Whilst there is plenty of season to go for Leicester City, the Panthers are coming down to crunch time. I’m sure their fans won’t be thinking about it, but to some it might seem curious that a team which finished with a 15-1 record, two games better than any other team in the league, still have to win three games to be crowned champions. At its heart, the NFL is an entertainment business and so they can’t help by love the drama and tension of playoff football, and in fairness we all do.
I wouldn’t want to change this as I have already mentioned, but I do think it should be remembered when evaluating teams and players. I will cover the way injuries are likely to affect the teams when I go over the games, but I thought I would cover an aspect of the first game as I prepare to write about the Conference Championship games.
The number of people in involved in an American Football game is greater than any other sport that I can think of, with over forty active players, various coaches, and the required sport staff. It is very much a team game, which is what makes it somewhat ridiculous to start billing the upcoming Patriots at Broncos as Brady vs Manning seventeen. They are in very different places in their career right now, even if they are not so far apart in age. This could be the last game we see Peyton Manning play, the brain is still willing but the body whilst not exactly failing, is no longer truly up to the rigours of the NFL. The most frustrating thing for him must be that in most games he still makes a really good play, but he can no longer do it consistently and the arm strength has become a real problem.
The other qualifier that is often mentioned when looking back over Manning’s career is his playoff record, and this is usually compared negatively to Tom Brady’s. It is not that this is an unfair comparison, but that I think it gets over played. They are both outliers in terms of ability, each are Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and there is no argument that Brady has the more impressive post-season résumé. There is even a structural criticism in that by taking the salary that Manning has in a salary cap sport, it has meant that his teams have had to build their roster in a different way to the Patriots, where Tom Brady’s more team friendly deal allow the Patriots be more competitive. However, whilst I think there is some validity to all of this, the overlooked part is that Brady has also played his entire career with one of the all time great coaches, who not only wins tactically, but seems to have mastered the art of taking players that other coaches have let go, and put them into a position to succeed with the skills they do have.
In a culture where we seem to love building up heroes and then knocking them down, there is so much to admire in Manning’s come back from four neck surgeries and his performance over the last few seasons. One of the best defences we have seen in a long time stopped him winning that second Super Bowl, and it wasn’t him who snapped the ball over his head. There are different ways of leading, it doesn’t have to be screaming and shouting on the side line, and Manning’s preparedness is legendary.
All of these things will be played out one more time in the AFC Conference Championship, which will be hugely pressured, but in something as volatile as game of football there are no guarantees. Not only that, but injuries could well play a part as the four top seeded team play for the right to face each other in the Super Bowl.
New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos
In the opening drive of last week’s game we saw that the Patriots had managed their injuries well over the last few weeks of the season, and looked more like themselves on offence. Tom Brady was able to get the ball out quickly again, as the Patriots threw the ball all over the Kansas City Chiefs, who were unable to get pressure on Brady. The Patriots come into this game with not the best history of playing in Denver, and they face a team that have been winning ugly all season.
The Broncos won last week with a solitary touchdown on offence, but with better special teams than the Pittsburgh Steelers and a defence that held Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers in check. However, a large concern for them is that corner Chris Harris is struggling with a shoulder problem and was in and out of the game a lot. This is a problem for the Broncos defence as he is their most effective slot corner, and when facing a team with both Danny Amendola, and particularly Julian Edelman, you want your best slot corner to be on top of their game as they will do their damage from these positions.
The other worry for the Broncos is that Belichick’s game plan on defence is always to take away what the opposition do well and force them to win by doing something they are less comfortable with. I would expect this to take the form of the Patriots focusing on stopping the run and short passes by packing the middle of the field, daring Manning to make the deep and sideline throws that have given him problems this season. With some of the injuries to the Patriots front seven, it might be that the Broncos will be able to run the ball, but they will have to if they are to keep this game close.
I am expecting the Patriots to win this game, I think that the better balance between offence and defence will be too much for the Broncos to overcome, but they got here for a reason and so if they can keep it a tight game they stand a chance. There is part of me that still wonder if Manning has one or two moments of magic left in him, but even if he hasn’t, it has still been an incredible career.
Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers
This is going to be a cold game, with the east coast storms freezing an already torn up grass field. It is into this environment that the Cardinals come after playing three straight games in the warm dome that they call home.
More worrying for the Cardinals is that quarterback Carson Palmer was clearly having problems throwing the ball last week. It may be that his finger will feel better for another week of recovery, or they can make further changes to the taping of it, but balls were consistently sailing on Palmer lat week. Not only that, but he didn’t look quite as poised or as aggressive as he has for most of the season, and the long ball is a big part of Bruce Arians’ offence.
They are going against a team whose defence has been excellent, but with the injuries in the secondary, you might be able to get at the Panthers with the deep passing game. However, in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short the Panthers have two defensive tackle that could really cause the Cardinals problems with pressure up the middle, which stops a quarterback from stepping up and Carson Palmer was never the most mobile of quarterbacks. The defence also features one of my favourite player sin Luke Kuechly, one of the best linebackers currently playing who is equally effective making a tackle in the run game as he is when dropping back in coverage. The Panthers will be hoping their predominantly zone coverage will hold up against an offence that loves to attack a defence at multiple levels.
The Panthers power running game might be well suited to counter the aggressive Cardinals defence, particularly as the Cardinals play with a converted safety at linebacker, relying on the speed of their extra secondary players, which might struggle on the Panthers’ turf. However, the Panthers have been making their passing game work with a less than stellar group of receivers, and Arians has been talking about how the Cardinals’ focus will be stopping tight end Greg Olson. Whether this will be enough with Cam Newton’s deep passing game causing many teams problems, particularly as you have to respect the dual threat that Jonathan Stewart and he present in the running game when they run play action, is yet to be seen.
I think this is likely to be my favourite game of this week. I have so much respect for both coaches, and it will be great to see an unfamiliar team going to the Super Bowl from the NFC given the recent stretch of dominance from the Seattle Seahawk.
Most of all however, we should be savouring both of these games as there is so little football left. Sure we will all be pouring over the offseason moves as every fan base transitions into the hopeful offseason part of the year, but the games are what it is all about. More on that next week.