Sunday, January 20, 2013

Championship Round picks

Well, it's the championship round, and my Packers are nowhere to be found.  Sad.  Heartbreaking, really.  No matter how many times I see my team lose in the playoffs, it never gets easier.  Each loss brings new & terrible feelings.
I was planning on writing a post this week detailing how the Packers lost.  How their defensive scheme changed (if it changed).  What they could've done to prevent Kaepernick from running all over them.  I had some ideas kicking around in my head, but I just never got around to actually looking at the coaches film.  The wounds were still too fresh.  Maybe this next week I'll delve into it.
In the meantime, Ben Muth at Football Outsiders wrote this tremendous column about basically the same thing I was planning on doing.  While I was going to take a slightly different look at it, this is much more comprehensive than what I would've ended up going.  So, while I may still do it this week, take a look at Muth's column, because it's amazing.

At least hockey is back, right?  (The Wings lost 6-0 on opening night?  Balls.)

To the picks.

Atlanta over San Francisco
For one major reason: you know those turnovers I predicted for Kaepernick last week?  I think they'll happen this week.  I think the Falcons defense will be more disciplined than the Packers were last week.  They'll keep him in the pocket, and force Kaepernick to beat them with his arm.  And, while he's a tremendous passer (we saw a lot of that last week, too), he's more prone to mistakes in the passing game.
The Falcons offense should be able to do just enough.  Their high number of wide receiver screens set the table for their shots downfield.  They connected on some big plays against the Seahawks last week, and the Niners secondary isn't nearly as good as the Seahawks.  Ryan will take some sacks, but he'll also connect on some big plays.  Combine that with a couple Kaepernick turnovers, and I think the Falcons will squeak by here.

New England over Baltimore
The Patriots are a better team than the Broncos, and Brady's arm is not going to get tired.  Belichick will not go conservative late in the game (I love all the outrage over Fox playing it safe.  He's John Fox.  It's what he does.  If you were surprised by his actions, then you haven't been paying attention to his career).  Watching Ray Lewis in pass protection is laughable.  The Patriots will attack him relentlessly.
That being said, I wouldn't be surprised if this was a close game.  For one reason or another, these Patriots/Ravens games always seem to be pretty close.  But the Patriots will win.

Even though last weekend was rough for me, there were two amazing games.  The Ravens/Broncos game was one of the more entertaining games I can remember, especially since I'm not really a fan of either of those teams (I wasn't so much cheering for the Ravens as I was cheering against Peyton), but it was still a tremendous game.
The Atlanta/Seattle game wasn't quite as entertaining (it was 20-0 at the half), but the end was fantastic.
That's what playoff football should be.  Two teams going back and forth, trading shots.  No lead being too big.  Big plays.  Huge catches at big moments.  I loved it.

Still digging on that A$AP Rocky album pretty hard.  There's some amazing stuff there.  My favorites are "Hell" (love Santigold on the hook), "Wild for the Night", and "1 Train" (mainly because I'm a sucker for anything with Bronson on it).

Saturday, January 12, 2013

NFL Playoff Picks- Divisional Round

Same old Bengals. My annual "Fake quit the team for good, fake talk myself into next years team" piece should be up soon. I know the streets have been clamoring for it.

Denver over Baltimore

This pick is more so for my lack of faith in Baltimore, than it is for my abundance of faith in Denver. Even in his advanced age, I think Champ Bailey will be able to keep Anquan Boldin from feasting the way he did last week. I'm not sure who will keep Torrey Smith from going deep, but I'm also not sure Baltimore's line will give Flacco enough time for him to go deep. Denver lead the league in sacks, and I can see Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil both having good days here. If Baltimore decides to give Ray Rice a healthy number of touches, they could offset the pass rush via screens and whatnot...but they hate to give Ray Rice touches. This means Joe Flacco will have to win this game. He is certainly capable of throwing for 330 yards and 3 TD's here. He could also complete 47% of his passes and throw for 117 yards here. I'm thinking that latter. On the flipside, I think Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker will be too much for Baltimore's corners. Manning doesn't take sacks and Baltimore doesn't really get sacks, so I can't imagine they get to Manning consistently enough to give him happy feet. McGahee will be healthy, so he and Moreno should be able to keep the defense honest a week after the Colts rushed for 150 yards against Baltimore. I just don't see this ending well for Baltimore. I can already see Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis sharing a long embrace at midfield after the game, and Lewis poking Manning in the chest and screaming inaudible inspiration at him.

Sidebar: Ray Lewis is clearly one of the greats. No denying that. What I don't like is all the analysts claiming that he hasn't lost a step in wake of him announcing that he is retiring. Ray Lewis is still an effective player for sure, but to say the he hasn't lost a step is ridiculous. The Ray Lewis I was afraid of, as a Bengals fan, retired in 2009.

Packers over 49ers

This game should be a doozy. I agree with your analysis. I'm hoping that Good Kaepernick shows up, because that San Francisco team is amazing to watch when he is. But even so, a turnover or two isn't out of the question. The home crowd should help him out, but his first playoff start against a defense like the Pack, may cause him to throw one up for grabs or to be a little sloppy with the pitch. On the other end, San Francisco's defense is so solid because they are always where they are supposed to be, they don't miss tackles and they don't drop interceptions. This doesn't really affect the Packers as much as it does other teams, because they don't necessarily depend on the big play. Rodgers can lead a 15 play touchdown drive as easily as he can go down the field on two or three plays. If Justin Smith was healthy, he'd have a hand in disrupting GB's flow. But he's not. Packers win a great game.

Sidebar #2: I will never get over Justin Smith being a solid defensive end in Cincy for seven seasons before leaving for San Fran and racking up All Pro appearances. This year he made second team All Pro at two positions. He was a trooper during some awful Cincy seasons so I'm rooting for him, but I'm still amazed at the success he is having out west.

Seahawks over Falcons

I actually like this Falcons team and was ready for them to break their playoff slump...until I found out Seattle was coming to town. This seems to be a really bad matchup for Atlanta. Seattle runs the ball extremely well, and the Falcons aren't too keen at stopping the run. Marshawn Lynch is a little banged up, but I still see he and Robert Turbin making some hay on the ground. On defense, Seattle losing Chris Clemons is a big deal but they have first rounder Bruce Irvin to step into his shoes. They could be a lot worse off. The real key here is Tony Gonzalez. I think Seattle's big cornerbacks and Earl Thomas at safety will be able to limit the damage Roddy White and Julio Jones do, so Gonzalez will have to do work on the intermediate routes for Atlanta to move the ball consistently. I don't think Gonzalez alone will be able to beat Seattle and Atlanta's playoff woes continue.

Patriots over Texans

I'd love to actively root against Houston for putting us out of the playoffs, but I really can't. They didn't dance on the field after putting us out of the playoffs for consecutive years. Arian Foster and Andre Johnson seem like good guys. Love watching JJ Watt play, and Kareem Jackson is a fellow Macon native. I wouldn't mind seeing them get the victory here, but I can't imagine anyway that they do. Foster sliced us up last week, but Schaub looked awful. Our pass rush is better than New England's, but they have the edge as far as secondary play. Settling for three 20-something yard field goals won't cut it against New England, but I'm not sure they will be able to do much better. Matt Schaub just isn't playing well enough right now to put up the 25+ points that it will take to beat New England in their house. If the Patriots can keep JJ Watt in check, Tom Brady should be able to shred that Houston secondary. Andy Dalton had his shots and missed some throws, and multiple drops by our receivers didn't help him out either. Brady won't miss those shots and his receivers won't drop those passes. This one might get ugly.

Divisional Round

It's the Divisional Round.  I'm giddy.  Pretty nervous, but very excited.  

Big up for the write-up on the two games last week.  Very well done.  I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

I mentioned before last week's Packers game that Joe Webb scared me a little.  I had images of him coming out and running a successful option offense with Peterson and absolutely shredding the Packers.
In my head, I knew this wouldn't work.  Besides Peterson, the Vikings offense doesn't really have any other weapons that scared me.  And that includes Joe Webb's downfield passing.  For a successful option offense to work, you need at least 3 running threats (for the sake of misdirection) and the threat of a deep passing game.  The Vikings don't have that.  They drove down the field pretty well on their first drive, using a lot of option concepts.  But, once the Packers realized Webb had no chance of completing a long pass into single-coverage, they were able to bring their defense close to the line of scrimmage and bottle up the running game.  And then it was over.
The Packers looked slightly less than impressive in the second half of that game, but it's because they weren't really trying to put up any points.  The goal of the second half was to make sure the Vikings didn't have a chance to come back.  That means no turnovers.  So Rodgers wasn't really forcing the issue, opting to take the checkdown over the big play for the most part.  If they needed to, they could've ramped up their offense.  We'll see a bit more of that this week.

Sorry about your Bengals.  I didn't catch most of the first half, but I know they looked pretty terrible in the second half.  The only reason they had a shot was because the Texans looked equally terrible.  With as bad as they looked, they only needed Dalton to hit that throw in the end zone to win.  Pretty incredible, really.

To today's games.

Baltimore over Denver
Just a hunch, really.  I have a feeling the Ravens defense will be able to clamp down on the short passing game of the Broncos.  Manning is good for a couple deep passes, but not very many.  I think the Ravens learned their lesson the last time these teams played.
I've seen a lot of people reference the Broncos "red-hot 11 game winning streak".  Winning 11 games in a row certainly is impressive, but who were those games against?
Chargers (twice)
Chiefs (twice)

Not exactly a murderer's row.  The Bengals and the Ravens are the only two playoff teams in that bunch.
Again, 11 wins in a row is impressive, but that is far from a hard schedule.  In fact, of their 13 wins, their only two wins were those Bengals & Ravens games.  Of their three losses, every single one was to a playoff team (Falcons, Texans, Patriots).
I think they'll come back to Earth here.

Green Bay over San Francisco
I went back and watched their meeting in week 1, but it didn't tell me much.  These teams are remarkably different now than they were back then.  
So I decided to watch the Niners/Patriots game from week 15, instead.  It worked perfectly for what I wanted.  I got to see how the offense worked with Kapernick in the first half, and how it stalled in the second half.  I also got to see how their defense looked with Justin Smith vs. how it looked without him.
I know Justin Smith is active for this game, but, judging from reports I've heard, he's not exactly 100%.  So he may well be a factor, but I'm not counting on him having a big impact, or even playing very much.  
Without Justin Smith, Aldon Smith suffers.  He's still very good, and I'm sure he'll be in the backfield a handful of times, but he won't be the force that he is with Justin Smith in the line-up.
That being said...
The Niners have a pretty good pass rush, but it's far from suffocating.  Rodgers will take a few sacks (he usually does), but he should have enough time to hit a number of big plays down the field.  With the emergence of DuJuan Harris, Rodgers appears a bit more comfortable with taking the checkdown.  Of course, he will have to take some shots downfield pretty early in the game to soften up the defense.  The Niners defense is very good at attacking the underneath stuff unless you give them a reason to play back a little.  Take some shots downfield early, and that will open up the underneath throws.
The Packers should also have a decent day running the ball.  Not amazing - of course - but I wouldn't be surprised to see them throw up 75 yards (they also use a lot of screens and short throws that function as a running game).  

With Woodson back and Matthews healthy, I think the Packers will be able to slow down the Niners running game.  Gore has been wearing down as the season has gone along, and James hasn't been quite the weapon I thought he would be.  They can still run a terrific option game, but, if the Packers play the disciplined run defense they showed last week, they can slow down the running game.
That puts the game in Kaepernick's hands.  And that's a win for the Packers.  He's extremely talented, but he'll give you chances for turnovers.  In his 7 starts this year, he fumbled the ball 6 times (most of those while taking snaps from under center) and threw 3 interceptions.  Those three interceptions don't sound like much, but he seems to throw quite a few balls that could be intercepted every game.  The Packers need to take advantage of those mistakes.  Based on what I've seen (both in the Patriots game and the other games I've seen of his), I'd say he's good for 4 possible turnovers in today's game.  The key is making sure they can capitalize on those mistakes.  If they can capitalize on 2 of those, they'll win the game.
Providing, of course, that they take care of the ball themselves.  I know it's simple to say, but it's true: they need to stay away from turnovers.  That won't be easy against an aggressive and attacking defense like the Niners have.  I think the Packers can get away with 1 turnover, but that's the maximum.  Any more than that will severely hamper their chances of winning (unless they are able to capitalize on 3+ turnovers from Kaepernick).

Unless Kaepernick implodes (of which there is a decent possibility of happening), this should be a close and relatively low-scoring game.  But I see the Packers coming out on top.

Happy Divisional Round, everyone!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Wildcard Weekend Playoff Thoughts

We finally made it. Playoff football is here. And for the third time in four years, the Bengals are here. We've come a long way.

Bengals at Texans

This game is a rematch from last season's 31-10 whooping in Houston. I was bummed last season, but the loss wasn't unexpected. An extremely young team that was 4-12 the year before going on the road to a Houston team making their first playoff appearance in team history. That is not the case this season. Houston is stumbling into the playoffs losing three of their last four, including a Week 17 loss to Indianapolis that could have secured them a first round bye. To be fair, Houston lost three in a row last year to end the season, but that was due to Matt Schaub going down and Matt Leinart/TJ Yates getting snaps in his absence. In last seasons meeting,Yates playing quarterback shifted the pressure to Cincy to beat Houston with their third string QB in. That is not the case this season. Schaub is healthy this year, playing in his first career playoff game and the pressure is (rightfully) on a 12-4 team.

Cincinnati offense vs. Houston defense: JJ Watt is amazing. Houston defenders not named JJ Watt are... less amazing. 2nd best defender Jon Joseph isn't healthy and hasn't been all season. 3rd best defender Brian Cushing is on IR. The rest of their starting linebackers haven't fared much better. Does Houston put a diminished Joseph on AJ Green, or take their chances with Kareem Jackson? I'm not sure it matters because I like Green's chances over either. Green has hit a rough stretch lately with drops, but he's still the best receiver in the playoffs. The key will be keeping Watt out of the backfield, which is much easier said than done. Hopefully Kevin Zeitler/Andre Smith can team up to keep Watt from wreaking too much havoc. I figure a double team on Watt won't hurt too badly, as Houston will likely have to double team AJ Green. If Andy Dalton has time to throw, I think he will have opportunities to find Green, Jermaine Gresham, Marvin Jones and Andrew Hawkins in open space. Dalton hasn't looked great lately, but drops by Green amongst others have made his numbers look worse than they are. Dalton is 11-6 (playoffs included) on the road in his career and the dome environment will keep weather from affecting his passes. Benjarvus Green-Ellis played much better during the second half of the season, is coming off a week of rest and should be able to keep the defense honest. I'd love to see Andrew Hawkins involved early, as well. He has phenomenal speed and one big play early could keep the box open for BJGE to gain nice yardage.

Cincinnati defense vs Houston offense: The reason the Bengals are here is because of defense. During our 7-1 run to close the season, the defense allowed 20 points or more just one time (20 exactly to Dallas). Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap have been fantastic at getting to the quarterback and I don't see any reason they can't thrive here. Matt Schaub has not looked good lately and has played a big part of Houston's collapse down the stretch. I'm hoping his subpar play continues here. Our secondary is decent, but is elevated to above average by our great pass rush. We don't have anyone to cover Andre Johnson (who does?) but I feel confident that we can limit Houston's secondary receiving options. Arian Foster put up great numbers, but only because he had a lot of touches. The running lanes haven't been there for him this season, and his declining YPC will attest to that. Ben Tate was a great change of pace option last year that Houston just hasn't been able to utilize this year. Houston combined to score 22 points in their last two games against Minnesota and Indianapolis (15th and 21st on points allowed per game, respectively). Hopefully they don't get into rhythm here.

Between our momentum, Houston's collapse, the pressure shifting to Houston this time around, the gap in special teams play (Cincinnati 7th in the league vs. Houston at 32nd), I really think we can win this game. Last year I was bummed that we lost, but I was just happy to be there. Not the case this year.

Cincinnati 23, Houston 13

Vikings at Packers

What a great game between these two teams last week. But Minnesota had everything to play for, and still barely eeked out a victory. I think this one will turn out a little differently.

Minnesota offense vs. Green Bay defense: Christian Ponder's numbers looked great from last weeks game and he made some great plays, but only a fool would be sold on him. He still made some very questionable decisions, and was bailed out by some great catches (Michael Jenkins in the end zone comes to mind). Charles Woodson is back for GB, and even a rusty Charles Woodson would scare me if I'm a Vikings fan. His ability to roam and follow the eyes of unsuspecting young quarterbacks could prove disastrous for Ponder. The Vikings will probably need another 200 yard day from Peterson just to keep things close. Because he's Adrian Peterson, this is completely feasible. As a matter of fact, I'd be surprised if he goes for anything less than 140 yards just because that's what Minnesota will need to stay in this game.

Minnesota defense vs. Green Bay offense: This is where it probably gets messy. Rodgers shredded this defense last week. And now he gets Randall Cobb back. Who will join Greg Jennings, James Jones, Jermichael Finley and Jordy Nelson giving the Pack who their top five options, who will all be on the field together for the first time since December 2. Jared Allen will probably be able to get loose for a sack or two, and the Vikings pass rush will probably be able to get to Rodgers on a reasonably consistent basis. But it won't be enough. Because Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jermichael Finley will all be healthy this game. And they have Aaron Rodgers throwing to them. At home.

If Ponder has the game of his life here, I could see Minnesota keeping things close long enough for Peterson to take over. But I don't see that happening. I think it gets out of hand quickly and the Vikings never catch up.

Green Bay 41, Minnesota 23