Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Storyline Super Bowl

There are so many Super Bowl Storylines every year. Some are real (Ray Lewis' last season ends with Dream Super Bowl Win?), and some are manufactured (Packers and Steelers, Oh My Gosh! What History!). This time, they don't really have to manufacture any. There are so many conflicting storylines that it beats last year (Brother vs. Brother, New-Age QB vs. Drop-Back QB) and matches up close to what Super Bowl XLII was. Anyway, let's get to the different storylines.

The Small Storylines:

Can Champ Bailey get a Ring?

I like all 1st-Ballot HOF-type players to win a ring sometime in their career. It just fits. Everyone that great should get the opportunity to bask in the glory of all the hard work they've put in. That's why I wanted the Ravens to win more last year than the 49ers, to see an All-Time Great like Ed Reed get a ring (Patrick Willis, whose resume is closer to 'All-Time Great' than most know, will get more chances). Only four players playing in Super Bowl XLVIII have played in a Super Bowl before (Peyton, Welker, DRC, Mike Adams), and only one (Manning) has won the Super Bowl before. Champ is the only other sure-fire Hall of Famer playing in this game. He waited 15 years to get this chance, and thankfully he's healthy enough to play in the game. Since he's played mostly inside since coming back, his matchup with Percy Harvin could actually play a giant role in this game.

Will Pete Carroll change the future prospects for All College Coaches?

There's a caveat here in that Pete Carroll was twice an NFL coach before becoming a College Coach, but he doesn't get the Seahawks job without his performance at USC. Pete Carroll was hired before the 2010 season. At that point, the most recent College coaches to get hired were of the Bobby Petrino, Nick Saban type. They failed. Carroll worked. He's turned the Seahawks into a defensive power by getting a little bit better each year, finding a new scheme to play, capitalizing on a market inneficiency (big-corners) that was much more important in a pass-happy NFL than it was earlier. He's done everything you can want from a head coach. The success of Chip Kelly, and potentially Doug Marrone, could help this as well, not to mention Jim Harbaugh, but Carroll was there first.

Which kind-of-illegal way of doing things will last, and which will be investigated in the offseason?

Both the Broncos and Seahawks specialize at doing something borderline illegal that counts on the referees not calling them on it. The Broncos run illegal screens a lot, marking a significant portion of their offense off of what the Patriots started. This was brought up in full by Belichick's ridiculous assertion that Welker committed one of the 'dirtiest plays he's ever seen', but while Welker's play was legal, many other Broncos plays are not. That evens out to what the Seahawks do on defense. Ex-officials have already said that the Seahawks pretty much grab and hold and do all the things 'Bill Polian made illegal' on almost every play in the plant that referees won't call them on it every time. It's true. The Seahawks pass-defense is spectacular, but they definitely do commit Illegal Contact and Defensive Holding quite often. Considering Peyton Manning has already lost an infamous game because of the ref's insistence on not calling Holding, I can't see it happening again. Either way, both quasi-illegal plans will be investigated this offseason.

The Four Big Ones

Manning's Legacy

In a way, this is kind of a manufactured storyline in the extreme sense. Way too many people will write the "Manning is the Greatest QB in NFL History" story if the Broncos win, and way too many will write the "Manning Still Can't WIn the Big One Twice" story if the Broncos lose. That's manufactured importance since one game should never mean that much in a career of 250 games. That said, it will shut up a lot of idiots forever if Manning wins this game.If he can beat a great defense, in cold weather, to win his 2nd Super Bowl, what could people possibly say about him? That he doesn't have three?.... Actually, they most certainly will say that. Nothing will ever be good enough. It will always be a moving target for Peyton that he can never match. The more interesting part of Manning's legacy is that he could become the first QB to win Super Bowls starting for two teams. He's defined two different franchises. He immediately turned the Broncos into the best team in the NFL over the past two seasons. He's returned from an injury that easily could have been career ending and put together the best two-season run of statistical play in NFL history (Rodgers, 2011-12 comes close, as does Manning's 04-05) and might cap it off with a Super Bow. That's the better story than just the number two.

Can the Seaawks Start a Dynasty?

The NFL is starting to approach 10-years without repeat champions. The last two teams to win multiple Super Bowls are the Giants, who have missed the playoffs four of the past five seasons, and the Steelers, who have missed the playoffs the last two seasons. There are few easy candidates at a next potential dynasty, but the Seahawks are the clear leader. First, they have a cheap, young QB who will still be cheap for two more seasons. Plus, Wilson will likely not have the raw numbers to be paid like Luck (or Manning/Brady/Brees/Rodgers before him) and take up a giiant chunk of the cap. The Seahawks best players are all rather young. They have kept their coaching staff in-tact, have qualities of their home-field advantage that won't go away (noise). Everything about the Seahawks spells the best franchise in the NFL over the next five-to-ten years. Can it all begin in earnest this weekend? It hurts them going forward that either the 2nd or 3rd most likely next-dynasty is in their own division (49ers), but they can do what the 49ers didn't last season: win the Super Bowl.

Top-5 All Time Offense vs. Excellent Defense

Great offenses have played Great Defenses in the past in the Super Bowl, but there's never been something close to this. The closest I could think of was the 2002 Raiders vs. Buccaneers. While the Broncos offense is substantially better than that Raiders unit, that '02 Buccaneers defense was also substantially better than this Seahawks unit (both statements are jarring; random aside - how good was that Buccaneers defense? They held opposing QBs to a 48.4 QB-rating that season. That is stunningly incredible). No, this is something special. The Broncos are the highest scoring team of all time. They have the QB who, by volume, had the 'Greatest' season of all-time. They have four receivers who caught 10 TDs, and a running-back who had double digits as well. Both teams rank historically good by DVOA, the Broncos the 6th-best offense since 1989, and the Seahawks the 7th-best defense. I actually think both stats underrate the respective teams. The Seahawks cover like they were playing football in 1978, but do it in the most pass-happy era ever. The Broncos put up numbers that were never envisioned. Who can win this battle? Despite conventional thinking, the Great Offense has won a decent amount of these matchups (Steelers over Cowboys in '78, 49ers over Broncos in '89, Colts over Bears in '06). Defense Wins Championships is still meaningful, but historical offenses win as well.

Can a Cold Super Bowl Work?

I actually think this is the most important storyline of the game going forward for the NFL. If this Super Bowl goes off without too much of a hitch (which is probably anything but a blizzard that ruins traffic), cold weather Super Bowls could become a thing. There are loads of cities that would be great in hosting Super Bowls (Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Seattle). Obviously, good weather this time doesn't mean good weather a different time but the NFL is dumb that way. Just look at the reactions to Indianapolis and Denver. Indianapolis had an unseasonably-warm weather during Super Bowl week and had such a good response it is almost a lock to get another Super Bowl. Dallas had unseasonably-cold and bad weather that ensures it might not get it for a while despite its appealing qualities. Some of the most memorable NFL games were played in the cold, but if cold weather ruins the best matchup of this game (Denver's pass offense vs. Seattle's pass defense) the game will be remembered as a mess. If the wind doesn't play up and we get a competitive game (which the forecast six-days out makes that seem likely), this could be the start of something. Even if the game goes well, I can't see this being more than a once-a-decade sort of thing, but the rotation needs to be opened more, especially with the NFL essentially black-balling Miami and Atlanta until they build new stadiums. The future of the NFL depends on this game.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Too Nervous to do Anything Else

I didn't watch the AFC Championship Game. At least I didn't watch it live. I couldn't do it. I couldn't stand it. The pressure was too much. The haunting memories of the terrible sports moments I've had due to the spoils of victorious Boston teams. The haunting memories of Peyton Manning's team's inventing new ways to lose games. It all was too much for me. I couldn't do it. I decided not to watch the game right after the Broncos beat the Chargers a week ago. I waffled back and forth throughout the week if that was the right decision, the wrong decision, or the stupidest decision ever made by any at-worst-semi-rational person. In the end, I chose not to do it. Instead, I cowered in my dark bedroom watching The Godfather, Pt. 2.

Am I embarrassed that I care so much about sports that I couldn't even stomach watching the game? I don't know. In a way, I'm also proud of me following through on that promise to myself, in my ability to avoid checking the score, to avoid giving in to the nagging sense of doom in my stomach. In a way, it was kind of exciting to be sitting there in my dark room (this isn't an intangible adjective, I never put my lights on as darkness descended) and be totally blind to what was going on in the world. It was a unique feeling of independence.

I picked The Godfather, Pt. 2 mainly because its 200 minute running time pretty nicely matched up to the length of a playoff game. Both sides of that statement are revealing - The Godfather, Pt. 2 is absurdly long, and as is a playoff game. It was invigorating watching Al Pacino and Robert De Niro do their work while Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were doing their work. There might be a future in this, but for my sake I hope not.

Nothing about sports excites me like the nervousness of the experience. This was true when I played rec sports, true when I played Tennis for my school, and true when I've watched sports since like 2003 (the '02 Raiders and '02-03 Devils were the first teams I really followed in the true sense of the word). I can still remember those breathless, haunting nights in my basement watching the 2005 Astros take on the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS. Or my despair turned the joy turning to despair again when the Colts took on the Steelers in the 2005 playoffs. To think Sports can invigorate you when you're doing nothing but watching something happen that is disconnected to you is amazing. And over time it grew too much for me in this one specific case.

Sometime during the past five years the despair of being a Peyton Manning fan became too much. Having to listen to blind idiots say how he chokes, how he can't win the big one, how he's not as good as Tom Brady, how he's the most overrated QB ever, how he doesn't deserve his MVP awards, how what he did in the regular season was meaningless. All of that. It beat the life out of me. I think it really hit me last year, when Manning returned from an injury that some thought would end his career and had an MVP-caliber season, and when December hit, no one cared and everyone started saying 'all that matters is what happens in January'.

Why? Why is that all that matters? Why do people care so much about single-elimination games? Why do people weight 15 playoff games over 200 regular season games? Why can't people just accept Peyton for Peyton. Even this year, as he set every passing record ever, regained his Passing TDs record (smashing it, really) and having an insane season, everyone still acted like nothing was meaningful until January started. I couldn't handle the fall-out of another potential January loss, especially to Tom Brady and hte Patriots.

I still love football more than any sport in the world. I loved the 1st half of the Panthers-49ers game. I loved everything about the 49ers other two playoff games. The Colts amazing comeback against the Chiefs brought me back to the height of hte Manning era. The Panthers-Saints regular season game was probably my favorite regular season NFL game in two years. The 49ers-SEahawks game enthralled me so much I watched the whole thing the next day and was still entertained. Yet none of this matters when Manning's involved because the stakes are too high.

I chose not to watch the game because I couldn't. In the end the game happened about as good as I could have ever imagined save for a Tom Brady vs. the Ravens in 2009 type meltdown. Manning was technically perfect. There was nothing to take away from his performance. It was a great game by him that I would have loved watching, but I couldn't do it. I watched Michael Corleone lose grip of his life instead.

I don't even know what the point of writing this is. I guess it is just how stunned I am at myself that I was able to decide not to watch a live playoff game involving my favorite player and my most hated team. I'm someone who will watch playoff games from earlier in the decade, knowing exactly what happened and love all of it. I'm someone who dreamed of being a defensive coordinator, adn would still love to work in the NFL. And despite all of that, I couldn't watch this game.

Does sports mean too much? I don't know. I would never do this in any other sport, even in football in any other matchup. I think the legacy of Peyton Manning means too much. It's odd since I don't know him, and will likely never meet him, but I care about him. I wrote on a Colts blog this year that 'I Love Andrew Luck, but I Lived Peyton Manning.' I'm not quite sure what that means, but he's been my entrance into football. He's been my vehicle to become more knowledgeable about football, to know how to see what's smart football analysis vs. dumb football analysis. He's been everything I could have ever asked for as a sports fan, and nothing means more to me as a sports fan than for him to win a 2nd ring.

I started this blog in October of 2009. That season was an interesting one that ended with probably the largest gap between Peyton Mannign and Tom Brady in terms of how they were viewed. Manning's team, entering Super Bowl XLIV, won all the games they tried to win and he won his 4th Super Bowl. Tom Brady's team went 10-6 (their worst record with Brady starting since 2002), and lost in embarrassing fashion in the playoffs to Baltimore. I was so confident f Manning's greatness at that time I wasn't the least bit nervous when they fell behind 17-6 in the AFC Championship Game.

And then the Super Bowl happened. The Colts led 10-0. But Pierre Garcon dropped a 50-yard pass. Hank Baskett couldn't recover an onside kick, and an ancient Matt Stover couldn't hit a 51-yard field goal. They lost the game and none of it mattered. Suddenly, Manning was a choker again. One year later he willed a mash-unit to the playoffs, while Tom Brady went 14-2. Two years later Manning's career was in jeopardy. Every day that goes by the pain of Super Bowl XLIV gets a little worse and worse, and that pain reached its climax when I couldn't watch an AFC Championship Game live.

I long for the day when Manning retires (hopefully with 2 or more rings) and Tom Brady retires, and I can go back to just being a fan. I love football. It's the greatest sport in the world. It is the most perfect sport in the world, but I don't love what I have to deal with right now. I want it to end. The one way it all ends is if Manning wins the Super Bowl in 10 days. The other way is when he retires. Please let it be the first one, as that is an offer I cannot refuse.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

2013 NFL Playoffs: Championship Sunday Review

Player of the Week - Peyton Manning (QB - DEN)

Who else? Peyton Manning is now 3-1 in AFC Championship Games, and in those three wins, he's put up one performance better than the other. The first was The Comeback against New England. Then his picture-perfect demolition of the Jets' top-ranked pass defense in 2009. And now this. This was the weakest defense he's played, but he never gave them a chance. Peyton was masterful spreading the ball around, hitting deep throws, short throws, medium throws, every throw. There was a lot of pressure on Peyton Manning to perform, and he did that and more, shredding a Belichick defense to a degree that has rarely ever happened.

Runner-Up - Michael Bennett (DE - SEA)

Many players on defense from that game deserve mention, but I thought Bennett was the best on the field. Consistent pressure on Kaepernick, great work in the run game. Bennett was a sneaky great free agent signing by the Seahawks in the offseason, still paying dividends.

Goat of the Week - Colin Kaepernick (QB - SF)

For 45 minutes, Kaepernick might have qualified for the runner-up for Player of the Week. He was that strong rushing, and made enough throws including an absolute laser to Boldin for the TD to go up 17-10. That 4th quarter, though, was just bad. The first pick was an awful read and worse throw. He showed little pocket awareness on the strip-sack. And his final throw was rushed after wasting too much time on the two-minute drive. Colin Kaepernick played his first bad playoff game - it was due to happen sooner or later.

Runner-Up - The Patriots Running Game

All week long we had to hear about how incredible the Patriots running game was, about how the Patriots were so versatile on offense, that they could beat you in multiple ways. The Patriots power-running game was going to make the Patriots more dynamic. Well, none of that happened, as LeGarrette Blount had just 6 yards. Their only rushing TD was by Tom Brady.

Surprise of the Week - The Broncos O-Line

The Broncos gave up the fewest sacks because they have Peyton Manning. They are not a great O-Line, especially after losing Ryan Clady and being on their 3rd string tackle. Well, they were incredible. Their run blocking was great, but Peyton puts them in advantageous positions. The real brilliance was their job protecting Peyton. The Patriots had 48 sacks this year, and they hit Manning once. What a job by a unit that has allowed more pressure on Peyton than in previous years.

Runner-Up - Marshawn Lynch Getting a Run

At this point, maybe it shouldn't be a surprise, but Marshawn Lynch became the first play in roughly 30 years to get 100 yards rushing against the 49ers defense. 40% of it came on one run, but he was still great throughout the game, especially in the 2nd half. What a game by Lynch. That trade was so ridiculed when it was made, but he's paid back the Seahawks four-times-over.

Disappointment of the Week - The Patriots deciding to not really show up

There's a crazy stat about the Jets being outscored 48-0 over a 60:20 span from the middle of the 2009 AFC Championship to the middle of the 2010 AFC Championship, while outscoring their opponent 36-6 in the time around it. Well, the Patriots did something similar. They were up 13-7 at halftime of the 2012 AFC Championship, and then proceeded to get outscored 44-3 over the next five quarters of Title Game action. Of course, because they won a Super Bowl 9 years ago, no one will give them shit for failing to show up again.

Runner-Up - Seahawks Ability to not let Kaepernick run. 

Really guys, you let the one big weapon the 49ers have beat you that badly? Kaepernick running is the biggest X-Factor the 49ers have, and the Seahawks seemed totally unprepared to stop it at all. They took terrible angles, their 'spy' was worse at his job than Edward Snowden. Just a shameful performance. Where was their preparation. They stopped the 49ers passing game, but that doesn't mean they have to be absolutely helpless against Kaepernick running.

Team Performance of the Week - Denver Defense

The Broncos defense's best performance in their first 14 games was giving up 17 points to the Chiefs. Then, mid-way through game #15 they lose Von Miller, one of the five best defensive players in the NFL. Well, since then they've given up 13, 14, 17 and 16 points. The last two games were against two of the six best offenses in the NFL (San Diego and New England), and those two combined for a total of three points through their respective first three quarters. The defense on Sunday eliminated the Patriots running game completely, manufactured enough pressure on Brady, and didn't let anyone get behind them except for one play. For a team missing a bunch of guys on defense, that was a great performance.

Runner-Up -Seattle Seahawks Pass Defense

It's boring to keep praising the Seahawks pass defense over and over again, but it is amazing how good they are each week. They're the best pass defense since the 2009 Jets, if not the 2002 Buccaneers (who are historically good), and they've done this without having a dominant pass rush (similar to the Jets in that way) and just incredible secondary play. Sure, some of it is pushing the boundaries, but it is not like they're reenacting the Patriots from the 2003 AFC Championship Game. What's more amazing is losing Brandon Browner hasn't hurt them at all. Walter Thurmond, Byron Maxwell, it doesn't matter.

Team Laydown of the Week - New England Patriots Defensive Scheme

The offense of the Patriots wasn't good, but the defense wasn't much better. Even their two good defensive stands in the red zone were more about Julius Thomas dropping an easy TD and an uncalled-penalty. The Broncos averaged 60 yards per drive, which is just insane, and while some of that is about how good the Broncos were, the Patriots made it easy. They got zero pressure. Literally, they had no hits on Manning. They couldn't cover anyone, they couldn't stop anyone. Another banner performance by that defensive genius's unit.

Runner-Up - Nothing. Nothing even compares to the Patriots futility.

Storyline that will be Beat Into the Ground for 2 Weeks - Can Manning Win in the Cold

The Superbowl is outdoors this years. Did you know that? Did you know it might be cold, and Peyton Manning is roughly 2-132 in the cold in his NFL Career. He can't complete a pass. He can't do anything. He'll be powerless to stop the Seahawks pass defense from picking him off six times. He'll basically be a sitting, shivering duck.

Storyline that Should be Beat Into the Ground for 2 Weeks - Can the Great Offense beat the Great Defense

The weather may play an impact, but assuming the weather is OK, this is a great matchup. Here we have the best passing offense of hte year, and one of the five to six best passing offenses ever matching up with a Top-10 pass defense over the past 24 years (per Football Outsiders). The matchups are great. Sherman vs. Demaryius. Maxwell vs. Welker. Smith and Wagner vs. Julius Thomas (the Seahawks have dominated opposing TEs). All the matchups are great. In recent years the Great Defense has won these battles ('02 TB over OAK, '08 PIT over ARZ, '05 PIT over SEA), except for one, when the Colts massively underrated passing attack in 2006 systematically destroyed the Bears defense.

A lot of Super Bowl related stuff in the next 12 days.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

2013 NFL Playoffs: DIvisional Round Review

Well, the Divisional Round was a slight step down from the Wild Card Round in terms of excitement. After a Wild-Card round that featured two games that could potentially go in the Top-10 of the post-realignment Wild Card Games, but none of the Divisional Round games will even go in the Top-15. Anyway, it does set us up for a potentially amazing Championship Sunday, if not a potentially harrowing one for yours truly.

Player of the Week - Earl Thomas (S - SEA)

He did drop an interception that became a 52-yard pass (Byron Maxwell also going for the interception did not help), but man was Earl Thomas incredible. The whole Seattle pass defense lived up to their expectations for 57.5 minutes (and if Marshawn Lynch went down at the 1, it would have been the whole game) and Thomas was the star. He draped Graham when he covered him, played amazing zone, helped in the run game. He's become the next Ed Reed, one of the best recent secondary players drafted in the NFL.

Runner Up - LeGarrette Blunt (RB - NE)

Blount's day until the 73-yard run really was more about him vulturing TDs, but he was still a load to bring down all game. He has sneaky breakaway speed as well, as it was the 2nd game in a row he had a long TD scamper after breaking some tackles at the LOS. He was really good for Tampa in 2010, and he's rediscovered that form in the best way.

Goat of the Week - Jimmy Graham (TE - NO)

This is the natural complement to my Player of the Week. While Thomas excelled when he covered Graham, the league's best TE was a no-show. In arguably two of the biggest games of the season for the Saints (@NE in the regular season), Graham had 1 catch. He was dominated by that physical secondary, unable to break press coverage. That doesn't happen to Rob Gronkowski. It doesn't happen to the best TEs in history. It happens to Graham a little too much.

Runner Up - Greg Hardy (DE - CAR)

Greg Hardy made himself a lot of money with his dominant performances in Weeks 16-17. He may have lost some with his relative no-show in the Divisional Round loss. He wasn't invisible, as he got a few pressures on Kaepernick, but he was a nothing in the run game, and Joe Staley dominated him. The Panthers needed Hardy when Johnson pulled up lame on the first play, and he did not show up.

Surprise of the Week - Anquan Boldin (WR - SF)

Anquan Boldin was a really good player back in the day with the Cardinals. He was an overrated receiver in Baltimore. He was a great receiver for one game with San Francisco. He was then sort of lost when Crabtree came back, but in a game where Crabtree did nothing, and Vernon Davis was relatively quiet, Boldin was dominant against Carolina, winning against press coverage, finding holes, running good routes. He did everything.

Runner Up - Shaun Phillips (DE - SD)

When Von Miller went down, and Derek Wolfe went down, someone needed to step up for Denver's pass rush. Phillips, who was very good early in the season when Miller was suspended, was that guy. Man, was he good against San Diego. He'll need to be at least that good against New England for Denver to prevail.

Disappointment of the Week - Panthers' Red Zone Offense

Ron Rivera was right the first time to go for it on 4th down. They didn't get it, but the negative side of the scenario worked perfectly. San Francisco went three-and-out, the Panthers got great field position, and scored one play later. They went back in the red zone and didn't score another time, and because of their six failed attempts from the 3, 2, or 1 yard-line, Rivera decided to kick a field goal the 2nd time. The Panthers lost the game right there, a game they were absolutely DOMINATING up until that point. Even if they fail the 2nd time, an up-to-that-point impotent 49ers' offense wasn't going 99 yards for a TD. It was a mistake by Rivera to kick a field goal, but it's hard to blame him when none of the Panthers red-zone plays came close to scoring.

Runner Up - Carl Cheffers' Crew

I'm focusing a lot on the 49ers-Panthers game because contrary to popular belief, I think if they play that game 10 times in Carolina, the Panthers win 6 of them. Cheffers' crew gave the 49ers six-points early when their offense did nothing. They PF call on Mitchell for hte hit on Boldin was idiotic. The PF on Munnerlyn for the headbutt was bad, but made so much worse when they didn't call the EXACT SAME THING on Boldin. Just a mess of a game by a referee who never seemed all that great anyway.

Team Performance of the Week - Denver Broncos Defense 

Yes, the Broncos defense didn't have the greatest 4th quarter, but the first two TDs came against semi-prevent. The Broncos defense did hold San Diego to a field goal after the recovered onside kick. Anyway, back to the part that backs up my choice. The Broncos defense was dominant in the first three quarters. They held the Chargers, the 2nd best offense in the NFL by DVOA, to 54 yards in the 1st-half, and one net-yard passing. They controlled that game, never allowing the Chargers to get into any type of rhythm. On a day the offense left about 17 points on the field, the Broncos defense didn't make it matter.

Runner Up - San Francisco 49ers Offense

The Panthers defense is really good. Despite what happened on Sunday, they still are really good. I firmly believe they are the 2nd best defense in the league. That's why I was so impressed by the San Francisco offense. Kaepernick still has major accuracy issues, but when he can run, and Gore can run, and the offense can be designed so well, it doesn't matter. The 49ers offense was awesome in the 2nd half, sucking the life out of the Panthers defense. Bravo!

Team Laydown of the Week - Indianapolis Colts Rush Defense

Some credit goes to the Patriots running backs and their ever-excellent o-line, but man was the Colts rush defense terrible. The Colts aren't a good rush-defense, but they were in their biggest wins (Seattle, Denver). They seemed to not be aware of what the Patriots were going to do, and after it became obvious the Patriots were going to stick with the run, they didn't do anything to adjust. The Colts aren't as good as the Patriots, and I'm probably being hard on an already below-average unit, but the rush defense needed to show up and it most certainly did not.

Runner Up - New Orleans Saints Offense

The Saints decided to run a lot. That's great, but they also decided to tell the Seahawks that they were going to run a lot, by lining up in way too many two or three TE sets. They basically forfeited the passing game until they were way down. The run game worked, but they weren't going to win that game unless their passing game made some plays and they made about zero of them. Brees wasn't great, but Graham was a nothing, all the receivers apart from Colston were invisible, and the RBs dropped umpteen screen passes. Not a great game for the final memory of Payton's first season back.

Storyline that will be Beat Into The Ground this Week - Peyton Manning is playing for his legacy!!!!

If Peyton Manning's TEAM loses this game to Tom Brady's TEAM, than he will be ruined. If his TEAM fails to beat their TEAM, then Manning will go down as the ultimate choker of all times. If his TEAM gives up another 4th quarter lead that Manning's offense leads them to, or if his TEAM allows the other TEAM to recover an onside kick, or if his TEAM allows the other TEAM to complete a hail mary, or his TEAM allows the other TEAM to recover a surprise onside kick, or his TEAM allows the other TEAM to drive for a TD with a backup QB, or his TEAM doesn't remember the snap count, then he will be the chokeriest choker who ever choked.

Storyline that SHOULD be Beat Into The Ground this Week - Are the 49ers more likely to give Seattle a game this time around?

Everyone is loving this 49ers @ Seahawks game. It is probably the best intra-division rivalry currently in the NFL getting a 3rd matchup for a spot in the Super Bowl. It harkens back to 2008 (my favorite NFL season - [ADD LINK HERE]), when the Steelers adn Ravens staged Round 3 in the AFC Championship Game. That game lived up to most of the hype. The Steelers won kind of comfortably, but there were tons of big hits and physical play. This should be the same thing, but let's look back at the last two times the 49ers went to Seattle. Last year, they lost 41-14. This year, they lost 26-3. Now, both games were probably a little closer than the score, and was pushed to a blowout because of turnovers, but when that happens two years in a row it might mean something. The 2013 NFC Championship Game has a lot to live up to, as the last three times the NFC had the 2nd Title Game, two of their NFC teams staged a classic (Giants beating the Packers and 49ers in ()T in '07 and '11, and the Vikings @ Saints game in 2009). I hope this game comes close to those three, but I'll settle for a repeat of the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Either way, I still think the Panthers @ Seahawks would have been a more compelling game, if less compelling matchup. As someone who would watch anyway, I would take the more compelling game each time.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

2013 NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round Picks

(N6) New Orleans Saints (11-5)  @  (N1) Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

Sat 4:35  -  FOX  |  Seahawks -9

State of the Teams: Well, the Saints are still on the road, and the Seahawks are still at home. See how easy it is to make this game seem really easy? The Seahawks are not only at home but get their nominal #1 receiver back for the 2nd time all year (and the first time lasted one game) in Percy Harvin. The Seahawks have few injuries really to worry about. Their o-line hasn't been good for much of the year in pass blocking even after their starters came back. The Seahawks also have no real weakness. They rank in the Top-10 in DVOA in pass offense, rush offense, pass defense and rush defense. The standout unit is the pass defense, which was by far the best in the NFL this season. They were in the Top-10 covering #1 recievers, #2 receivers, other receivers, tight ends and running backs. There is really no weakness there. The Saints have weaknesses. Their rush defense is not great over the course of the season (it was fantastic last week). The Saints are good in pass defense, mainly coming from their pass rush. Cameron Jordan and Junior Gallette have been monsters all season long. The Saints have also had to hear, right after winning a road playoff game, how they can't win this game on the road.

Matchup: We saw this matchup recently, a game that the Seahawks dominated to no end. The Seahawks even refused to give the Saints garbage-time yards. Brees completed 23 passes, for just 147 yards. They had no run game. On the other side, Russell Wilson cut them up, having one of the best games of his career. Even outside of that game, the Seahawks have all of the matchup edges. They get to go against a soft defense. They have a defense themselves that excels against the pass, and the Saints will need more from their passing game this week than they got last week. The Seahawks were #3 in DVOA against Tight Ends, #2 against Running Backs, and #5 against #1 receivers. So I guess the Saints better hope Lance Moore has a big game. The Seahawks are also by far the best red zone defense in the NFL, while the Saints have struggled in the red zone, especially on the road. Even the weather - expected rain showers throughout - point to Seattle. The only matchup that favors the Saints is they have a good enough pass rush at times to dominate the Seahawks O-Line.

The Pick: Obviously, everyone is taking the Seahawks in this, most with the points. The line is high, and in recent years there has been a big favorite losing each year (at least since 2007 it's happened every year). I just can't see it here. I think the Saints defense is good enough to keep them in the game, and I'll take the Saints to cover a low-scoring game, but their offense is just not good enough on the road, despite what a nice rushing performance against a poor defense last week says. The Saints struggle to get YAC on the road, and the Seahawks are awesome at stopping YAC. I think either of the two teams they could potentially play in the NFC Title Game has a shot at beating Seattle, but the Saints just don't have the matchups to do it in my mind. Nothing points to them, especially the Saints lack of red zone play on both sides of the ball.

Saints 16   Seahawks 24   (NO +9)

(A4) Indianapolis Colts (11-5)  @  (A2) New England Patriots (12-4)

Sat 8:10  -  CBS  |  Patriots -7.5

State of the Teams: Coming into the game, we will hear a lot about the Patriots injury situation. Admittedly, it is scary how many of their better players they have lost for the year (Wilfork, Mayo, Spikes, Gronkowski, Vollmer), but they still have more talent. The Colts themselves are missing their top-two offensive players not named Luck from preseason (Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen). TY Hilton might take over from Allen, but this would be a better team with Dwayne Allen playing. Both teams have been effected by their injuries and overall responded well. The Colts are more high-variance, so on days they aren't up, the lack of depth kills them as seen by their bad losses to St. Louis, Arizona or Cincinnati. The Patriots are the least variable team in the league, essentially playing pretty equally each game, so their down performances aren't bad, but their top performances aren't special. Both teams have played a bevy of close games, and both have had their share of comebacks in this season. By DVOA totals and splits, the defenses are pretty much equal. The offenses aren't, but without Gronkowski, the one major weakness for the Patriots offense, their red zone offense, could cripple them in the playoffs.

Matchup: By DVOA, these teams are closer than people would think. The major difference is the Patriots offense ended better than the Colts offense. I'm skeptical for a few reasons. First, the Patriots offense by design is loved by DVOA. Far better Patriots offense's by DVOA have thrown up terrible playoff performances. Secondly, they've struggled without Gronkowski. The Colts offensive numbers are also depressed by struggling after Wayne went down, but they've seemed to realize that the answer to that isn't 'Run Richardson More'. Both teams are average in the red zone on offense and defense. Both teams are average or worse covering any type of receiving option. The Patriots have a better pass rush, but worse secondary. The big difference is variance. The Colts defense, which is not great, has the highest variance in DVOA in the NFL. They can play great games, they can play bad games. Most of their great games came against good offenses (Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Indianapolis, KC in the regular season). It could happen again. On the other side, Brady has taken more sacks, so some try to blame to O-Line injuries, but the O-Line has done a fantastic job of opening up running lanes for Ridley and Blount. The matchups are close, but a lot of that depends on which Colts team shows up.

The Pick:
I can't believe that I have hope the Colts win this game, but I can't pick them. The line has steadied around a TD, which I think is fair. When you are picking games, you can't bank on things like high variance teams. Factor in that the simulation where the Colts bring their A game and win could happen, but it isn't something you can count on. The injury situation in the secondary really hurts the Colts, as they lost their advantage against teh Patriots receivers. The Patriots also will not make the coverage mistakes the Chiefs made. They'll keep guys behind Hilton. They have an underrated pass rush that can get consistent pressure on Andrew Luck. I hate that the Colts could have their first real playoff run of the Luck era end in New England.

Colts 20  Patriots 30  (NE -7.5)

(N5) San Franciscio 49ers (12-4)  @  (N2) Carolina Panthers (12-4)

Sun 1:05  -  FOX  |  49ers -1.5

The State of the Teams: The 49ers enter hot off of seven straight victories. Of course, they entered the first meeting with Carolina hot off of five straight victories. The difference is the players that are back for the 49ers. That first meeting was Aldon Smith's first game back after his leave for rehab. Aldon Smith looked dominant against Green Bay. The 49ers also didn't have Michael Crabtree in that game and he looked dominant against the Packers. The 49ers also lost Vernon Davis midway through the game with a concussion, and while he didn't look dominant against the Packers, he scored a TD and is still good. The Panthers on the other side rested their #2 defense in the NFL. On defense they do everything well. They force the most field goals in the NFL. They get more pressure on the QB than any team in the NFL, becoming the first team since 2006 to have 60 sacks. Their offense struggled the last two weeks of the season, but are probably getting Steve Smith and definitely getting Jonathan Stewart back. Both teams are really good, and however hot the 49ers are, the Panthers themselves are 11-1 in their last 12 games, the lone loss being a SNF loss in the Superdome.

The Matchup: Yes, the last time they played it was a 10-9 game with the 49ers missing guys, but the 49ers were also fortunate to get 9 points. Two of their drives started in Carolina territory, one after a muffed punt the other after a Newton interception. The 49ers had just 151 yards on the day. They had just one drive over 20 yards. That is staggeringly great defense. The Panthers abused the 49ers o-line which quietly is not nearly as good at pass blocking as people think. The 49ers rush defense isn't nearly as good this year as it was the past two years, which is not a good thing heading into a game with the #4 DVOA rush offense. The Panthers are also really good in the red zone offensively. Overall, I think people are assuming the 49ers in 2013 are the same as they were in 2011-12. They aren't. The defense is merely good, not great. They dominated some bad teams, but struggled against most of the good offenses the played against. Kaepernick definitely looks better with Crabtree back, but he still struggles to throw under pressure (not on the run - so if he escapes pressure he's fine), and is too inaccurate. Contrary to popular belief, there really isn't much the 49ers do better than Carolina.

The Pick: The biggest weakness of the Panthers is their secondary. Now, it's better than most believe, but it can be picked apart by good QBs who get time. Kaepernick likely won't have time. The Panthers have the best pass rush in the playoffs, and they'll be at home. I think it has gotten lost how good this defense is. They played a better offense three weeks ago in New Orleans, and held them to 13. If they do that, they likely win. Twice this year we've asked if the 49ers have the ability to beat the good teams. A three-point win over a 8-7-1 team doesn't do it for me. The fact that they're favorites makes it even easier. The 49ers know this game. They were the last team to be a home underdog on divisional weekend. I can't think of a better motivator for the Panthers than that.

49ers 13  Panthers 20  (CAR +1.5)

(A6) San Diego Chargers (9-7)  @  (A1) Denver Broncos (13-3)

Sun 4:45  -  CBS  |  Broncos -9

State of the Teams: The Chargers enter off their 2nd best performance of the year (the 1st being their win over Denver in the regular season), beating the Bengals down in a way that mirrored what the Jets did to the Bengals in 2009 - capitalizing on a bad game by the Bengals QB and rushing the ball wild while having their QB complete 12 passes. The Chargers play a certain way. They control the ball, convert 3rd downs, stay on the field, and make you beat them in less possessions than normal. It works when their defense can get a turnover or two. It doesn't when they can't or if they struggle in the red zone. The Broncos are the opposite. They play fast, try to score as much as possible, and try to make each game last as long as possible so their offensive advantages have time to make an impact. The Broncos are the best in the red zone, converting trips for TDs far more than any other team, putting a lot of pressure on the opposing team to do the same. The Broncos defense comes off of their two best performances of the year even without Von Miller, but that came against two bad offenses, not a great one. They'll need their pass rush to step up, particularly Shaun Phillips who was great when Miller was suspended in Weeks 1-6. The Chargers have a lot of crucial guys questionable, like Nick Hardwick and Ryan Mathews, and if they're out it could severely limit their chances to do what they want to do.

Matchup: They played twice. Yes, despite what the Chargers did in Week 15, they did lose to Denver earlier. That game was actually similar to the Week 15 game. The winner went up big early and ended up winning a game less close than the score indicated. The difference was Denver didn't even play their best in Week 8, but played their absolutely worst game in Week 15. The biggest key to me is red zone. The Chargers are great on 3rd down, while the Broncos are bad on 3rd down defense, but the one place on offense the Chargers struggle on is in the red zone. They struggled mightily there in the 1st matchup, and even struggled last week as they could have put the Bengals away sooner but twice settled for field goals inside the 10. They can't do that to Denver. Denver also needs to not make the same mistakes as they did last time. Manning saw their blitzes in Week 15, if he can diagnose them, he should cut apart the weak Chargers secondary. On the other side, the Broncos secondary is healthier than it has been all year, but their pass rush is at its weakest. A key will be the play of Bailey, who I'm guessing they put on Keenan Allen at least to start.

The Pick: I think the Broncos win. To me there are a lot of similarities here to the Ravens @ Colts divisional round game in 2009. Those Ravens also went 9-7, and then beat down the #3 seed in the Wild Card round on the road by capitalizing on a QB meltdown (for them it was Brady), and nearly 200 yards rushing. Those Ravens played those Colts once, a close 17-15 loss. They went in hot and motivated, and lost 20-3. I think this will be closer. This Broncos defense is not as good as that Colts unit. The line is just too high. Only once have the Chargers lost by more than a TD this year. They just don't make the game long enough to lose by that much. In the end, the Denver offense is just better. If they don't drop passes, or go offsides on punts giving the Chargers free 1st downs, they should be fine. It might get tough at times, but they're too good offensively against a defense too average to not score enough to win.

Chargers 23  Broncos 31  (SD +9)

Enjoy the Games!!

Monday, January 6, 2014

2013 NFL Playofffs: Wild-Card Weekend Review

Looking Back at Last Week's Picks

Chiefs (-3)  over  COLTS  (WRONG  =  0-1)
Saints (+3)  over  EAGLES  (CORRECT  =  1-1)
BENGALS (-7)  over  Chargers  (WRONG  =  1-2)
49ers (-2.5)  over  PACKERS  (CORRECT  =  2-2)

Player of the Week - TY Hilton (WR-IND)

I'll give it away now, but my runner-up was Andrew Luck. I give this to Hilton because he had no bad plays. Luck did have three interceptions, two of which were bad throws that led to points. Hilton was not the intended target on any of those TDs except the last one. Hilton also had 13 catches and 224 yards (both Colts' playoff records), and two TDs. Hilton ran every type of route, kind of showing the world that he is more than just a deep-threat, although the National Media will pretend that all he did was run deep routes. What a game for him.

Runner Up - Andrew Luck (QB-IND)

Once again, the first two inteceptions by Luck were bad throws. But outside of that he was incredible. He stayed tough in the pocket early when the Chiefs were getting pressure. He ran when he needed to. He made incredible throws in the 2nd half. He was a tad overrated just by his statistics, but my God was that an amazing performance, a true coming-out party (of course, if he goes 20-37 for 220 yards with 1 TD and 2 INTs this weekend in a 34-17 loss, no one will remember this).

Goat of the Week - Andy Dalton (QB-CIN)

There is a lot of blame to go around for the Bengals offense (and I'll get to those guys in a bit), but Dalton was just awful in the 2nd half. His fumble was totally inexplicable. The first pick was a rushed throw, but a bad one. The 2nd was a terrible read. Just a bad game overall by Dalton. He wasn't helped, but he was bad on his own. Before people crucify him, Matt Ryan also started his career 0-3 in the playoffs, with quite bad performances in all three games. As did Peyton Manning. I still think Andy Dalton is no worse than Joe Flacco.

Runner-Up - Chip Kelly (Coach-PHI)

What was going on with their game-plan? I'll admit I haven't watched as much Eagles football as I should have this year, but did he ever have so many plays called with Foles under center as in that game? Did it seem like they were taking more time than normal between plays? It just felt like the Eagles lost their identity in that game, which is pretty inexplicable at home. The Saints defense played well, but Kelly's strangely conservative gameplan didn't help. Then to cap it all off, his decision to kick a field goal down 20-14 facing 4th and 1 was quite bad.

Surprise of the Week - San Diego Pass Rush

In their Week 13 loss to the Bengals, the Chargers got just one pressure on Andy Dalton during the game. That is not a type. One solitary pressure. In this game, they had many pressures. Their blitzes worked wonderfully (see their first interception). Their four-man rush worked wonderfully. Melvin Ingram had a huge game. The pass rush needs to be as good against the Broncos for them to have any chance.

Runner-Up - Kansas City Chiefs Wideouts

The Chiefs wideouts were maligned much of the year. For good reason, as highly-paid Dwayne Bowe did nothing all year long. Their two top receivers by receptions were running backs. Well, they wideouts played great in this one. The only mistake was Bowe getting 1.5 feet in bounds on the last play. Bowe was great all night running a various number of routes. Avery caught a deep TD. Even Junior Hemmingway played well. Nice game in a losing effort.

Disappointment of the Week - Green Bay Packers Passing Offense

It wasn't all Aaron Rodgers fault, but a team performance. So much was made about Aaron Rodgers coming back, Randall Cobb coming back and that thing exploded in their face. Yes, they didn't turn-it-over, but Aaron Rodgers returning didn't make the Packers suddenly good at pass protection. He didn't sudden;y make James Jones into a sure-handed receiver. But some of it goes on Rodgers too. He looked deep way too often, allowing the pass rush to get to him. He was inaccurate on those downfield throws at times. Of course, when he was accurate, his receivers couldn't catch it. Just a bad performance.

Runner-Up: LeSean McCoy (RB-PHI)

Some of the blame goes on Chip Kelly for basically letting the Saints know when they were going to run by going with heavy sets, but McCoy did nothing. This is the leading rusher in the NFL who basically laid an egg in a playoff game. He didn't even get open in the passing game. A forgettable performance for a good player, which is a statement that could be made about any player on the Philadelphia Eagles offense.

Team Performance of the Week - New Orleans Saints defense

I've criticized the Eagles offense a lot so far, but I should probably also give some credit to the Saints defense for making it all happen. The Saints rush defense was below average at best all season, and they shut down the league's best run attack. The pass defense was good enough, making Foles have to go to his 2nd and 3rd read a lot. I was so wrong about Rob Ryan's defense all year long. My opinion in the preseason was well-founded on previous results, but he's done work that he has never done before this season.

Runner-Up - San Diego Chargers Rush Offense

The Chargers rush offense is not bad, but it isn't good either. Well, they were excellent in this game. Whether it was Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead, or even Ronnie Brown, the Chargers were able to run the ball against one of the better fronts. Yes, the Bengals were missing Geno Atkins, but that didn't let a lot of other teams run the ball effectively against them. The Chargers dominated and frustrated the Bengals all day with that run game.

Team Laydown of the Week - Cincinnati Bengals Skill Positions

So, Andy Dalton was terrible, but so was Gio Bernard, AJ Green and Tyler Eifert. Bernard had probably the biggest mistake of the game, fumbling at the 4 yard line. Going into halftime up 14-7 insetad of 10-7 isn't that big, but it changed the rest of the game. Green dropped one of Dalton's few well thrown deep balls with the Bengals down 20-17 with quite a bit of time left, more than enough to pull the game out after that. Finally, Eifert showed no effort and lazy route running on Dalton's 2nd INT. Andy Dalton was bad, but so was the rest of the Bengals offensive skill position players.

Runner-Up - Kansas City Chiefs pass defense

Yes, Brandon Flowers got hurt, but the rest of the Chiefs pass defense was terrible. Marcus Cooper has never recovered from being beat by Peyton Manning in Weeks 11 and 13. Dunta Robinson looked like he had never played football before. Eric Berry was bad in coverage. Both DBs on the game-winning TD were totally lost. Just a pathetic display.

Storyline That Will be Beat Into the Ground this Week - Playing a Divisional Opponent is Tough

The Broncos and Chargers will square off for the 3rd time this season on Sunday. Of course, because they are divisional opponents somehow this a harder challenge. That never made sense to me, as both teams have the same chance to take something from their two meetings. Yes, the Chargers beat Denver in Denver, in by far the worst game the Broncos played all season and the best the Chargers did. The Broncos also beat San Diego in San Diego, which is as meaningful. In recent years with division teams playing a 3rd matchup, there is little correlation between regular season results and the postseason.

Runner-Up - The 49ers were Missing So Many People

The 49ers have already been bet into being a favorite in their game at Carolina. Of course this is after the Panthers beat San Francisco in Candlestick earlier this year. Many people will point to Michael Crabtree not playing and Vernon Davis being concussed midway through, I think the Panthers will be very undervalued. This is a team that has played better at home, and that should have won the first meeting by a lot more than 10-9. They dominated in yardage and overall play, but played a close game because of field position. If anything, they are about the same this time around.

Storyline That Should be Beat Into the Ground this Week - Colts @ Patriots is Future vs. Past

The Patriots have been the best franchise of the past 15 years. The Steelers/Colts/Ravens have some argument for 2nd, but the Patriots are the best franchise. Well, they're playing the team with the best outlook for the next 15 other than maybe Seattle. The Colts are best equipped to be the next Patriots. They have the best young QB in the game. They have a dynamic young receiver and two young TEs. More than anything, they have Luck. The real fun is just beginning for Colts fans, and the Pats will try to hold off them for one more year.

Runner-Up - Defense is Alive, Baby!

The NFC Playoffs had just one team cross 400 yards of offense, and no QB throw for 300 yards. I would find it unlikely that either San Francisco, Carolina, or their two QBs match that in this weeks game, and given what happened the last time New Orleans trekked to Seattle, maybe they won't either. For all the pomp about the QBs in the NFC, the playoff field in that conference is defined by their defenses. They showed that last week, and can easily continue this week and the next. The only offense-first team left is one that won't be hosting any more games.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

2013 NFL Playoffs: Wild Card Picks

The playoffs are here. The greatest 5-week mini-series in the world. 11 games. 12 teams. 9 different stadiums. 3 networks. 6 announcing crews. So much to love. Let's get going with the Wild Card picks.

(A5)  Kansas City Chiefs  (11-5)   @   (A4)  Indianapolis Colts  (11-5)

Sat. 4:35  -  NBC  |  Kansas City -1.5

The State of the Teams: The Chiefs enter this game on a low of a 2-5 finish after a 9-0 start (the worst ever finish for a team that finished 9-0), but on the high of nearly winning a game playing just two starters against a team playing for its playoff life. The Chiefs are basically the reverse of what they were early in the season. The offense has stayed pretty consistent but definitely got better as the year along. The defense, in large part due to injuries to Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, fell apart after a great start to become a decidedly mediocre unit. Houston is expected to play, which will help pump life into a listless pass rush. The Colts, on the other side, come in off of three complete games. In the immediate aftermath of the Reggie Wayne injury the Colts struggled mightily, but have righted themselves by stopping their abashed commitment to the run and letting Luck loose. The defense has also allowed just 20 combined points over their last three games. This is an odd situation for the Colts, to actually enter a playoff tournament playing really well.

The Matchup: These teams played just two weeks ago, and the Colts won relatively easily. They won in Kansas City, shutting down an offense that had scored 80 points in the previous two games and allowing just 7 points. Of course, there seems to be little correlation in recent years from regular season results to playoff rematches. That doesn't mean the Chiefs will win (the Texans certainly played the same in their regular season and playoff losses to New England last year), but doesn't mean the Colts will win. First, the Chiefs have some of their horses back, like Houston and Brandon Albert. The biggest individual unit mismatches are in the Chiefs favor. The Chiefs had the #2 rushing DVOA in the NFL, while the Colts were #22 against the run. The other unit vs. unit matchups are pretty even, but that one is jarring. The other edge is the Chiefs in Special Teams. They were the #1 Special Teams by DVOA, mainly because of their returning proficiency. The Colts aren't bad like they were in the Manning era, but they have been below average covering kicks. The Colts play enough receivers in most of their plays to get some good matchups with the lower depth of the Chiefs secondary, which is necessary, since the Chiefs are good against #1 and #2 receivers. In the end, the Colts scored 23 points because they got an uncharacteristically sloppy game from the Chiefs, and had two hard to repeat long Donald Brown TD. The game itself was closer than the 23-7 score.

The Pick: The Chiefs have lost their last 8 playoff games, three of which were to the Colts (1995, 2003, 2006). This very matchup started off the 2006 playoffs, a nice little de-ja-vu for Colts fans. That said, I do like the Chiefs here. The Chiefs have the one largest unit vs. unit advantage, with their #2 rush offense against a poor rush defense. They also have both edge rushers for the first time since Week 11, which should help them get pressure on Andrew Luck. The Colts have risen to the occasion this season against good teams, and that could certainly continue, but the matchups just don't favor the Colts here. They have to hope that their high-variance team (3rd highest offensive variance, the highest defensive variance) hits both of its high marks today, and that isn't all that likely. I hate picking against this Colts team, mainly because they've done some incredible things, but this team still has too many holes and a good, balanced team like Kansas City should take advantage of them.

Chiefs 27  Colts 21  (KC -3)

(N6)  New Orleans Saints  (11-5)   @   (N3)  Philadelphia Eagles  (10-6)

Sat. 8:05  -  NBC  |  Philadelphia -3

The State of the Teams: Do you know that the Saints aren't great on the road? No, well let me tell you about it. At home, they were 8-0, scoring 272 points and allowing 125. If you take their home numbers are double them (essentially a 16-game season at home), they score 545 points, allow 250, gain 7,092 yards and allow 4,324. Basically that would make them the greatest team of all time. On the road, they are decidedly mediocre in every way. If they played a 16-game road season, they score 284 points, allow 358, gain 5,690 yards and allow 5,458 yards. The most points they allowed at home was 17. The fewest points they allowed on the road was 14. The fewest points they scored at home was 23. They only crossed that number twice on the road. This may have not been true early in the Brees/Payton era, but since 2011 it has gotten to a scary degree. The Eagles are entering hot, off of a 7-1 streak to end the season. They have been a very good team, but they really don't have many big wins, and if anything their final win against Dallas showed some flaws that were hidden in big wins against bad teams. They have trouble protecting Foles (or Foles takes too many sacks), and their defense has trouble if they can't get ressure.

The Matchup: I don't have Football Outsiders premium, so I can't see their home/road splits for the Saints (and if I did, I probably wouldn't put stats they give behind a paywall here), so I can only go by their overall season stats. I would assume they are worse across the board at home. The Eagles bad pass defense (25th by DVOA) is not a good matchup against the #3 passing offense, but that passing offense is worse at home, and the Eagles pass defense has gotten better week by week over the season. The more interesting matchups come on the other side. The Eagles offense big weakness is their o-line, which has allowed way too much pressure on Foles. Well, the Saints are 3rd in adjusted sack rate, and they can easily pressure Foles a lot in this game. Both the Saints defense and Eagles offense struggles in the red zone, and I would think the unit that overcomes its problems there will win the game. The Saints rush defense is better in advanced statistics than it is in conventional ones, but LeSean McCoy can still have a good game.

The Pick: It is odd to think this about the Saints, but I don't see them winning a high scoring game. I can see them winning a lower scoring one, though. First, their defense is decidedly better than the Eagles defense, despite the recent improvement by Philadelphia on that side. The Saints best chance really could be their pace. They specialize on having long, drawn-out drives on the offensive side, while the Eagles allow long drives. They can easily shorten this game to less than 10 possessions despite how quickly the Eagles play on offense. The Saints are not great on the road, but they do have some nice matchups edges here with their pass rush against the Eagles porous o-line and Foles who doesn't fare well against 4-5 man pressure. I hate to use motivation to pick these games, but the Saints have heard all week how bad they are on the road, and how the franchise has never won a playoff game on the road. That all said, I would love to pick the Saints, but those season-long numbers on the road vs. at home speak numbers. The Saints screen and YAC parts of the offense don't work as well on the road. The line is pretty low giving some value for Philadelphia, and I think they pull it out.

Saints 23  Eagles 28  (PHI -3)

(A6)  San Diego Chargers  (9-7)   @   (A3)  Cincinnati Bengals  (11-5)

Sun. 1:05  -  CBS  |  Cincinnati -7

The State of the Teams: The Chargers enter the playoffs with the longest winning streak (4 games). That hasn't led to much success for the team holding that distinction in recent years (Broncos last year, Patriots the two years before, the Chargers in 2009), but the 4-game win streak doesn't compare to those (11, 8, 8, 11 games). The Chargers offense comes in playing exceedingly well, but because they limit the game (something odd for offense-heavy teams), they never end up really scoring that much. The Chargers defense is not good, and they're coming off a low with needing some help to beat a team playing its backups. The Bengals are probably ruing their OT loss to Miami, or their partially flukey loss in Pittsburgh as it cost them the #2 seed. They do enter 8-0 at home, and while I won't go through the whole process like I did with the Saints, they have been dominant in most of those games, scoring 49, 42, 42, 41 and 34 points in their last five home games. The Bengals are reasonably healthy, getting both TEs back this week and possibly Terrence Newman. The weather is expected to be quite poor. Not all that cold (especially relative to what is going to happen later on Sunday), but with rain and snow.

The Matchup: This game really comes down to the Chargers offense (#2 in the NFL) against the Bengals defense (#5 in the NFL - better than that most likely at home). The Bengals have help up very well despite losing Leon Hall and Geno Atkins. Their pass rush has dropped since Atkins went out, but not by all that much and their depth in the secondary and their linebacker play has picked up for it. The Bengals are excellent covering #1 and #2 receivers, and TEs, which could give a problem to the Chargers. The one bright spot for San Diego is the Bengals relative weakness against RBs in the passing game, and the fact that the Chargers use Danny Woodhead, a lot. The Chargers have a lot of long sustained drives, but too many of them end in field goals, while the Bengals are a Top-10 red zone defense. On the other side, the Chargers have the worst defense by DVOA, and while the Bengals are just average, they have the ability to play better. Dalton has had some terrible games, but he's generally been good. These teams did meet a month ago in San Diego, a game which Cincinnati won 17-10. This will probably be higher scoring, but since the Chargers love long drives, on offense and defense, it might not be.

The Pick: Cincinnati is better in almost every way. Even San Diego's biggest strength (their pass offense), a matches up with Cincinnati's biggest strength (pass defense). The Bengals are even better on Special Teams. And this is all stats that don't even adjust for the fact that the Bengals are at home this week and are undefeated at home, playing really well each game. The line is high, though. The Chargers have only lost one game this year by more than a TD, an 8-point loss to Denver. They did lose this very Cincinnati team by a TD, but the Chargers generally have been competitive in their losses. They rarely get beat by a lot mainly because they shorten the games in terms of number of drives so that it is hard to get too far ahead. The line is high, and I would love it if it was -6.5, but I think the Bengals are better, and the time is right for them to finally win a playoff game in the Marvin Lewis era.

Chargers 17  Bengals 28  (CIN -7)

(N5)  San Francisco 49ers  (12-4)   @   (N4)  Green Bay Packers  (8-7-1)

Sun. 4:35  -  FOX  |  San Francisco -2.5

The State of the Teams: Aaron Rodgers is back. That is a good thing because Aaron Rodgers is fun to watch, and it allowed the Packers to win this game, win their division and host a game in the substantially-below-freezing cold. Of course, it also makes looking at the Packers offense really tough since the stats I use don't have it broken down (they do, but again, if its behind a paywall on Outsiders' it's not right for me to use it here). The Packers enter off a great win, but they needed some good fortune (including a very lucky TD off a Rodgers' fumble) to beat a mediocre Bears team. The 49ers enter really strongly. Not only are they playing a team they have beaten three straight times, all in different ways, but they have won 6 straight games and since Michael Crabtree returned their offense has began to resemble the dynamic unit that led them to a Super Bowl appearance last year. Kaepernick still hasn't reached that level, but they no longer are struggling to get to 300 yards on offense anymore.

The Matchup: As I said, it is hard to really break down the Packers offensive DVOA and stuff since half the season they did not have Aaron Rodgers (or Randall Cobb, who is important as well). On the other side, the 49ers didn't have Aldon Smith for 6 games either, so their defensive numbers are depressed. The 49ers didn't have a Top-10 defense by DVOA. They were slightly better against the pass than the run, which helps against Green Bay, but the 49ers defense did well when broken down per drive. They force a lot of punts, are low-end Top-10 in the red zone. The one thing they don't do very well is rush the passer, but the Packers don't protect well either, so those weaknesses are a wash. The other side is more interesting not only because their Outsiders' numbers are more real. The Packers defense is bad, and is now playing without Clay Matthews. There is nothing the Packers defense does above average. Nothing. They are Bottom-5 in most areas. It shows too. They give up a boatload of points, rarely force turnovers, are not great in the red zone. The one area by DVOA that they are decent in is that they rank #10 against 'other WRs' (not #1 or #2), which is pretty useless here since the 49ers rarely use 3-WR sets. The 49ers defense actually grades out well by DVOA (a totally surprising 4th in pass offense - which I thought was a misprint). So much of that is due to playing a ridiculously tough slate of defenses. There's really no good matchup for the Packers defense.

The Pick: So after spending a lot of words saying why this is a terrible matchup, will I do what I did in the Saints-Eagles part and pick the Packers to win? No, I won't. The ridiculous weather even favors a run-first, more physical team like the 49ers. With Lacy, the Packers are more ready to win that type of game, but they don't have the defense for it, and Lacy's hobbled ankle won't feel too good in -15 wind chill. Rodgers looked rusty against Chicago, but this isn't even about Rodgers. That defense is just too bad to win these types of games, or at least pick them to win with any confidence. Aaron Rodgers is a special player, but as we've seen in all three playoff losses in the Rodgers era ('09 to Arizona, '11 to the Giants, '12 to San Francisco), their defense will let them down.

49ers 26   Packers 17  (SF -2.5)

Enjoy the Games!!!

Friday, January 3, 2014

2013 NFL Playoffs: AFC Playoff Primer

6.) San Diego Chargers  (9-7  =  396-348)

Stat Breakdown:
= Conv.: 396 ptf (12th), 348 pta (11th), +48 pd (12th), 6,293 ydf (5th), 5,864 yda (23rd)
= Outsiders: +5.8% team (12th), +22.5% off (3rd), +17.5% def (32nd), +0.8% st (15th)

Offense: The Chargers offense is really good. It may not look that way on paper, because none of their volume stats are that amazing. Their yardage total is Top-5, bit they only finished 12th in scoring. Some of this has to do with their average performance in the red zone, but most of it is pace and shortage of drives. The Chargers led the NFL in yards per drive. They led the NFL in fewest 3-and-outs as a percentage of total drives. They just perfected having long, clock-killing drives. Too many of them ended in 3 rather than 7, but shortening the game is an effective strategy for a team looking to hide its inferior defense. Despite having an average O-Line at best, the Chargers had an effective running game. He wasn't great, but Ryan Mathews had the best year of his career running the ball. The real talent, though, of the Chargers was their passing game. 2nd in the league in efficiency, the Chargers were awesome through the air. Philip Rivers did a great Tom Brady circa 2010 impression, utilizing short routes to have an absurdly high completion percentage. He even used Brady's version of Rivers' version of Sproles, in Danny Woodhead, who had a 78-catch year. The Chargers are really good on offense. Rank: 2nd

Defense: It's good that the Chargers are really good on offense, because they are quite bad on defense. I think Football Outsiders is undervaluing them a bit ranking them 32nd on defense. They don't seem that bad. But they really aren't that much better. All the things that they are so good at on offense, they are bad at on defense. They give up the 3rd most yards per drive, and force the 4th fewest three-and-outs. The red zone defense is below average. They just don't have enough capable players outside of Eric Weddle and Corey Liuget. The rest of their secondary is made up of a mix of castoffs and young, unproven mid-round draft picks. The other two levels have no real players of note. They have to rely on scheme to really shut teams down. Scheme and their offense limiting the amount of time the Chargers defense has to spend on the field. That said, they limited the Bengals to 17, the Colts to 9 and the Broncos to a season-low 20. Of course, they just let a Chiefs offense led by Chase Daniel and Kniles Davis to drop 24. Rank: 6th

QB: Philip Rivers, welcome back to the Elite. I predicted Rivers would have a bounce-back season in 2012 after an underratedly solid 2011 season. That didn't happen, as Rivers played worse, looking like an old, prematurely washed-up version of himself. Then, he got some new coaches, got a Sproles-like player back, and a great rookie WR to throw to, and he became the 2nd best QB in the NFL in 2013. Philip Rivers wasn't just good, he was great, and he was great behind an average at best O-Line, and losing his top two receivers from the preseason. First 2012 breakout Dennario Alexander tore his ACL, then Malcolm Floyd suffered a scary back/neck/head injury in Week 2 against Philadelphia. What did Rivers do? Just lead the NFL in completion percentage, and finish 3rd in passer rating (and 2nd if you take away Foles), 2nd in DYAR and DVOA by Football Outsiders. Rank: 2nd

Coach: Mike McCoy's real skill was making an offense led by Tim Tebow into a functional unit. It seems that many people can coordinate for Peyton Manning as McCoy did in 2012, but only one man could for Tebow. McCoy helped Rivers resurrect that career. He was also very aggressive, and used his timeouts well. He has two good coordinators by his side also. It's obviously his first time in the playoffs, but his coordinator led a similar 9-7 team with a ressurected QB to the Super Bowl five years ago. Rank: 4th


5.) Kansas City Chiefs  (11-5  =  430-305)

Stat Breakdown
= Conv.: 430 ptf (6th), 305 pta (5th), +125 pd (4th), 5,396 ydf (21st), 5,885 yda (24th)
= Outsiders: +17.4% team (7th), +2.8% off (15th), -6.7% def (13th), +7.8% st (1st)

Offense: The Chiefs offense is good. The six-best offenses in the AFC made the playoffs, and the Chiefs are one of those 6. However, to me they are the 2nd-wrst of those 6. Now, I don't think they are the worst offense of all the playoff teams. I think they have a more reliable offense against good competition than San Francisco, but that's probably moot. The Chiefs are a strange team on offense. They punt a lot - 3rd most punts per drive in the NFL. However, whenever they do move the ball, good things happen. They ranked 5th in Red Zone TD%. They rarely turn it over. Alex Smith's aversion to interceptions definitely came with him to Kansas City. They have the 2nd best running back in the NFL, who also provides a dynamic receiving option. They also have a backup running back that provides a dynamic receiving option. They are better than people think at picking up chunk yardage, and Andy Reid can utilize anyone at his disposal. Rank: 5th.

Defense: Lost in the Chiefs offensive explosion late in the season, save for the Colts loss, was the fall of their once-proud defense. They still have a good defense, and a very good pass defense that ranked 7th by DVOA, but their run defense is below average, and that pass rush which had 35 sacks in its first 7 games, on pace for an NFL record of 80, had just 12 in the last 9 games. Some of that is injury, and those guys are back and healthy now, but the real mystery has been the strange mid-season decline of Dontari Poe. Maybe he's never adjusted to being offenses focal point when Hali and Houston were banged up? The NFC actually has the three-best defense in the playoffs, so even with their slow finish to the season, the Chiefs are a good defense in AFC terms. They just aren't nearly as good as they were when they were playing a string of backups. The results got better when they weren't playing Peyton Manning or Philip Rivers, but it is those types of guys that are alive at this point. Rank: 2nd

QB: Alex Smith has started and won playoff games before, which puts him more in the 'playoff winner' category than Andy Dalton or Andrew Luck. Of course, Smith isn't really as good as those players in totality, but has skills that is better than them. He's more careful with the football. He's more accurate than those two. He doesn't have the arm of either, but he can use it well. The problem is the AFC has some good QBs in the playoffs. Smith might not be able to win a game by himself, but he's closer to doing so than people believe: Rank: 6th

Coach: Andy Reid has coached a lot of playoff games, and though he's also lost a lot of playoff games, few are hard to really pin on him. His offenses were disastrous in their losses in 2002 and 2003, but after that all their losses were either close or big losses to Dallas. Reid has also won a lot of playoff games. The defensive coordinator Bob Sutton hasn't looked as good recently, but he's done a good job making a roster with good talent into a very good unit. Rank: 2nd

4.) Indianapolis Colts  (11-5  =  391-336)

Stat Breakdown:
= Conv.: 391 pta (14th), 336 pta (9th), +55 pd (10th), 5,468 ydf (15th), 5,713 yda (20th)
= Outsiders: +3.4% team (13th), +4.2% off (13th), +0.8% def (16th), -0.1% st (17th)

Offense: The Colts offense really had three periods in this season. The first was before the Wayne injury, when the Colts had a good passing offense that was being limited by a stupid addiction to trying to establish the run. Then was the period right after Wayne's injury, when they had a mediocre passing offense that was being supplemented by a stupid addiction to trying to establish the run. That period had some horrible losses to St. Louis and Arizona. Finally was the final period, when they effectively benched Heyward-Bey and Richardson, and became a good passing offense with an average running game that they weren't addicted to. I have no idea which of the post-Wayne offenses will appear in the playoffs, but even the final version had a hard time scoring more than 25 points against average defenses. Andrew Luck has little to work with right now, and definitely started playing better later in the season, but he still too innacurate and too sturdy in the pocket. The run game has come alive relatively after Richardson's benching, but Brown quieted down in Week 17. The Colts don't have anything more than a nice solid offense that does nothing particularly well aside from never fumble. Rank: 6th 

Defense: The Colts defense has two qualities that are good. First, they have Robert Mathis, who had led the NFL in sacks with 19.5 despite having no one else on the team have more than 5. Mathis was dominant all season long. The Colts also force a lot of fumbles on defense. Other than that, they are decidedly mediocre. They have one corner in Vontae Davis that alternates between great and terrible. Their safety play is very inconsistent. Jerrell Freeman and Cory Redding each had nice season, but are surrounded by people who had average seasons. What is nice for the Colts is they aren't particularly bad at anything, just average at a lot of things. A lot of their success is due to the schemes of Chuck Pagano and Defensive Coordiator John Manusky. Scheme only goes so far though. Rank: 5th.

QB: Andrew Luck definitely was better in his 2nd season, but probably not as much better as people think. The stats on him that really improved were partly due to a scheme change. He threw shorter far more this year than last year in Arians' scheme. That's largely why is Y/A dropped, but his sack rate and int rate improved so much. His completion percentage rise was also due to this. What hurts Luck is the part that isn't explained by this change: why is completion percentage is 60.2%. That isn't good in the modern NFL in any scheme. Too often he throws too high or too late. This should get better over time, but could hurt the Colts chances in 2013. Rank: 5th

Coach: I am in two minds about the Colts coaching staff. On the defensive side, I think the staff does a great job of preparing and scheming that defense. Their stats are better than their talent would indicated. Most of their defensive success apart from Robert Mathis comes from scheme. That said, the offensive side is a mess. Their strange love for Smash-Mouth football despite no evidence they can play that way is maddening. Finally, on the game management side the Colts need improvement. Pagano is way too conservative, something that could kill this team. Rank: 6th

3.) Cincinnati Bengals  (11-5  =  430-305)

Stat Breakdown:
= Conv.: 430 ptf (6th), 305 pta (5th), +125 pd (4th), 5,894 ydf (10th), 4,888 yda (3rd)
= Outsiders: +14.5% team (9th), +0.5% off (17th), -12.7% def (5th), +1.3% st (12th)

Offense: The Bengals are a more silent version of the Saints and Seahawks, in that they are far better playing at home than on the road. They finished 8-0 at home. Most of their home dominance was defensive (even aiding their point total, as they scored a slew of defensive TDs at home), but some was offensive as well. They put up 49-41-42-42 points in four striaght home games before 34 (27 offensive) against Baltimore in Week 17. The Bengals in a way resemble a better form of last year's Ravens. I said about them before the playoffs that they were a better than good offense in terms of what they could be, and this is the same. Dalton may have 20 interceptions, but most came in a handful of games (10 against Baltimore twice and Miami). AJ Green is still dominant. Marvin Jones solidified himself as a solid #2. They have two TEs that make plays and a slew of other receivers who have pretty defined roles. Their running game isn't great, but is consistent. It rarely gets stuffed and converts short yardage. If Dalton improves going forward, this could be a Top-5-7 offense. For right now, they are a good offense, especially at home. Rank: 4th

Defense: The Bengals have lost their two best defenders for the year with injuries back in midseason. First Leon Hall went down, and in their next game Geno Atkins went down. However, they really haven't fallen off too far since then. Their secondary was the deepest in the NFL before Hall went down, and remains a solid unit that can go 3-5 deep. Their defensive line was deep before Atkins went down and remains with a solid rotation. This year it was Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry picking up the slack with 15 sacks between them. The linebacker crew is also quite deep, but there was no standout, lost to injury or otherwise. Vincent Rey had a really nice season. Cincinnati's defense is still very good. The led the NFL in Drive Success Rate on defense. They were Top-5 in fewest Yards Allowed, Points Allowed, TDs Allowed per drive, and Top-5 in most punts and three-and-outs force per drive. Their red-zone defense is solidly in the Top-10. Considering the injuries, it is amazing how good the Bengals defense stayed. Rank: 1st

QB: Andy Dalton had 33 TD passes this year. That is good. He had 20 INTs, which is bad. What is the real Dalton? I don't really know. To me, he's a more high-variance version of Joe Flacco. He can be better than Flacco. He can easily win games for you. He can also be worse than Flacco, and throw three or four picks. Now, 10 of his 20 INTs came against his divisional rivals, and in his biggest games he had few picks. Dalton was thoroughly mediocre in DVOA (18th), but that is what happens when you have some awful games and some very good ones. Rank: 4th

Coach: Marvin Lewis rewarded Mike Brown's patience and has turned the Bengals into one of the better-run franchises in the NFL. They have drafted well and developed well over the years. His staff has also done a great job adjusting to injuries and personnel. Jay Gruden's offense has deftly added two rookies to the mix and used the receivers well. The real star, though, is Mike Zimmer, who's defense has survived losing a pro-bowl corner and all-pro tackle, and still been a Top-5 unit. The only fault is Marvin Lewis's terrible use of timeouts (though he is aggresive). Rank: 3rd

2.) New England Patriots  (12-4  =  444-338)

Stat Breakdown:
= Conv.: 444 ptf (3rd), 338 pta (10th), +106 pd (8th), 6,152 ydf (7th), 5,969 yda (26th)
= Outsiders: +19.0% team (5th), +16.5% off (4th), +4.1% def (21st), +6.7% st (2nd)

Offense: The Patriots are a different offense without Rob Gronkowski. That much is obvious. How different, though? Well, early in the season they were also missing Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola for a number of those games and the results were bad. Before Gronkowski's initial return the Patriots were an average offense by DVOA, and Tom Brady had completely below-average stats and had a DVOA below zero. Then, with Gronkowski, they were the highest scoring offense in the NFL in that period. Then Gronk went out again, but the other guys were there, and they were a good but not great offense for four games. The numbers look nice but Brady's numbers without Gronk aren't great in the past three games. The O-line is shuffled but good as always, and the three-headed RB-by-committee has worked. They're nowhere near what they were from 2010-2012, but going into the playoffs, they are better than the 2009 unit for sure. And given how average they were looking early in the season, the Patriots have ended up 3rd in the NFL in scoring, and Top-10 in yards, tds and avoiding-three-and-outs per drive. The one area of concern in red zone efficiency, which is above average with Gronkowski, but well below without him. Rank: 3rd

Defense: The Patriots, like the Bengals, lost their two best players in Wilfork and Mayo. Unlike the Bengals, their defense has slipped. Before the Mayo injury, they were close top Top-10 by DVOA, and they ended 21st. They've entered an interesting place where seemingly they can only defend the run or the pass each week, but rarely both (unless you are Baltimore and can't do either yourself). Take the Broncos win, where they totally played to stop the pass, but couldn't touch the run. Or Carolina, which was the reverse. The pass defense is still aggressive at times, but they're starting to play more zone to hide their big but slow linebackers. What the Patriots do really well is rush the passer. Quietly, they picked up 48 sacks. Now, sacks were way up league-wide, but 48 is still good for 6th. Their defense is really good at stopping 4th downs, which gives them a good overall points per drive despite not being great at keeping teams out of the end zone. Belichick schemes them well, but they have less talent this year than any, even in 2011. Rank: 4th

QB: Tom Brady did not have a good year for his standards, especially in games where Rob Gronkowski did not play. I don't care how much people try to explain thing away, that he had no one to throw to, that he had a bad o-line. Well, Philip Rivers also lost his top two targets from the offseason. Brady barely completed 60 percent of his passes. He had a y/a under 7. He had a QB rating under 90. None of these things are good. Of course, he's still Tom Brady and he was definitely better in the 2nd string of games without Gronk than he was in the 1st. Rank: 3rd

Coach: Bill Belichick and his staff are in that machine phase that the 49ers entered into in the post-Walsh era, when they had future Super Bowl winning coaches running their offense and quality guys running the defense. Now, Belichick's assistants probably aren't that good, but Bill is better than George Seifert. Belichick had some strange moments in terms of game management this year, but that offense and defense is always schemed well. They never get less than the sum of their parts. Rank: 1st

1.) Denver Broncos  (13-3  =  606-399)

Stat Breakdown:
= Conv.: 606 ptf (1st), 399 pta (22nd), +207 pd (1st), 7,317 ydf (1st), 5,696 yda (19th)
= Outsiders: +32.8% team (2nd), +33.7% off (1st), -0.2% def (15th), -1.1% st (21st)

Offense: It all begins and ends with Peyton Manning and his band of brothers. The key matchup nightmares really are Knowshon Moreno, who's proven a really capable receiver from the backfield, and Julius Thomas, who was the 2nd best TE in the NFL by DYAR. Or maybe the keys are Decker and Thomas, who were both Top-5 in DYAR for WRs. Or maybe it is Welker, who will be back after missing three games. Or really it is just Manning, who makes this whole thing work. The Broncos are actually not 1st in yards per drive, as that goes to San Diego. But they are first in TDs per drive (by a lot), fewest punts per drive, and best red zone numbers per drive. Despite some notable moments of consecutive three-and-outs, they rank as the 2nd fewest in that category as well. There is a reason this is the highest scoring offense of all time. They may not be the best offense ever, but they have the talent to be that in any one game, especially with all their main weapons back in the fold. Even their running game is good, ranking #10 in DVOA, with Moreno having a solid season, and Montee Ball getting better as the season went on. Rank: 1st

Defense: Last year the Broncos had arguably the best defense in the NFL. Then they went and crapped the bed in their playoff loss, preceded to lose Elvis Dumervil in the offseason, and Von Miller early in Week 16. Their defensive DVOA was actually Top-10 with Miller playing, but there were other guys who were also playing then but not when Miller wasn't, like Chris Harris, Wesley Woodyard, Robert Ayers (who all missed their defensive nadir, the 51-48 win over Dallas). Derek Wolfe is also expected to be back, and Champ Bailey finally seems healthy. The Denver defense has actually been pretty average round the board (which is good enough given their offense) except for one area, which is in the red zone, where they are bottom-10 in the NFL. That has to get better. The easiest way for them to ensure wins is trade 7's from their offense for 3's from the opponent. Rank: 5th

QB: There's really not more that could be said about Peyton's incredible 2013 season. By DVOA, it only comes out 8th in the DVOA era (from 1989), behind his own seasons from 2006 and 2004. However, he held that value over more throws, to have the 2nd best DYAR (behind Brady in 2007 - ahead of Manning in '04). There were three distinct periods in Manning's year. First was his first 8 games, where he was on record pace everywhere. Then, at the end of Game #9, he hurt his ankle and was limited the next three games. Then, the ankle healed up and he was awesome once again. Since the 2nd KC game, his deep ball has looked really good, which is an added bonus over Manning from 2012. Rank: 1st

Coach: The Broncos had to survive losing John Fox for 6 games to a heart procedure, but now that he is back they seem to be playing more disciplined. Fox has been far more aggressive this year in terms of 4th down and late game situations. Del Rio has done a decent job covering up for personnel issues, but too often the receivers are let open. Finally, Manning is the league's best offensive coordinator, so no real problems there. Rank: 5th

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.