Wednesday, January 19, 2011

NFL 2010: Championship Round Playoff Preview

NFC Championship Game: A Black and Blue Classic
(6) Green Bay Packers [-3.5] at (2) Chicago Bears

This is the oldest rivalry in the history of the game. And for them to face each other (the 182nd time) for a chance to play in the Superbowl? Does not get bigger than this, does it?

I cannot overstate how healthy the Bears have been all year. The only starter for them to miss games this year was Pisa Tinoisamoa. Apart from being extremely fortunate in games all year long (the Calvin Johnson game winning non-catch, playing a few teams with backup QBs etc), the Bears defense has carried their team through some gritty wins this season, earning them a first round playoff bye. And then a semi-bye, playing a Seattle Seahawks team in the Divisional Round that was just happy to be there. So they definitely have the edge here in terms of the chance to be most prepared for this game in terms of health and rest. They also have the reputation of playing the Packers hard the last few years. They are not scared of the Packers as the '90s Bears did.

The Packers have taken an unconventional path to the Championship game; their run featuring loads of injuries and setbacks sprinkled with moments of rallying and rebounding from all that adversity. In short, to reach the super bowl, they will have to have won five consecutive elimination games; including the last three playoff games on the road. And the No.6 seed has reached the super bowl only once in the history of the super bowl era. That's what the Packers are facing.

Packer Game Plan

The Packer offense goes against a highly ranked Tampa-2 Bears defense. Starks did not have a great game last week against Atlanta, but evidently that kid CAN run. But this week, the Bears will stop the run for sure, making the Packers throw a lot. This is where the Packers have to be careful. They cannot afford to be tempted to go deep early and often. The Bears safeties will keep plays in front of them all day long and the deep plays have a chance to be successful only if there is a defensive lapse. The Packers should rely on their short/intermediate passes trusting the 'yards after catch' ability of their WRs. The Tampa-2 Bears defense will allow you to have these passes most of the time. This was the key also in the Atlanta game lame last week. If the Packers get greedy and get sucked into constantly throwing deep, it will only shorten drives with a lot of 3-and-outs.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Streaking Pack

How about them Packers?

Great Expectations

Before the 2010 season started, the Packers were everyone's trendy pick to go deep into the playoffs. The Packers were entering their third year with Aaron Rodgers as their starter. Mike McCarthy was building up this potent attack, which on the face of it might look like a full fledged passing attack.

Apart from their deep group of Wide Receivers, a lot of the offense was going to be run through TE Jermichael Finley, whose size and speed would be a big match up problem for most opponents. But the un-advertised, less fancy ingredient in the success of this offense was a steady rushing attack. RB Ryan Grant was the steady, one-cut runner that was a perfect fit for the needs of this offense.

On the other side, the 3-4 defense was in its sophomore year under Dom Capers. The off-season hopes were for, apart from steady improvement of the defense as a whole, they needed a big jump in production by the cornerback and linebacker positions (other than Clay Mathews, of course).

That meant, CBs Tramon Williams, Pat Lee, Brandon Underwood or any of the rookies had to pick up their game. Or else, they would have to hope that Al Harris comes back from ACL surgery as a savior mid-way through the season. Among LBs, all eyes were on how Brad Jones would develop his second year. And yeah, Atari Bigby was supposed to be the starting Strong Safety opposite Pro-Bowler Nick Collins.

The Plague

Ryan Grant would go down Week 1 of the season for the year, making Brandon Jackson the No.1 running back for the team. That was followed by a slew of injuries, including the center piece of the passing offense, Finley as early as Week 4. The loss of Mark Tauscher was big for the offensive line. Not to mention Rodgers missed a game (and a half) due to a concussion.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

NFL 2010: Divisional Round Playoff Preview

Before getting to this weekend's games, a few thoughts about the Wild Card round last week:

A big win for the Packers on the road at Philadelphia. The Packers defense did a good job of containing Vick in the pocket. They were not too aggressive with their blitzes. But used a bunch of delayed/stunt blitzes to disrupt Vick. It also worked in their favor that the whole world was talking about big time blitzing as the way to stop Vick. And presumably, the Eagles game planned thinking that is what the Packers would do. Must have taken them by surprise that the Packers did not come out all-out with their blitzes. The defense did a good job all over the field, especially the tackling.

The biggest surprise for the Packers though was their running game. James Starks might be a new name for most people. But Packer fans, including yours truly, have been clamoring for more Starks playing time for a few weeks now. But I should admit, I didn't expect him to come out and rush for a 123 yards. But it does bode well for the Packers that they have a respectable running game moving ahead in the playoffs.

One of the biggest stories out of that win for the Packers, was that Aaron Rodgers won his first playoff game. To me, it is a non-story. It was only his second playoff game. And in his first game, in spite of his two albeit crucial mistakes, he threw for 400+ yards and four TDs, helping the Packers score 45 points. Not a bad showing by any means. This was surely not one of those "monkey of his back" moments; like it took Peyton Manning 4 playoff games to get his first win (throwing just one TD and two INT in his first three playoff games - all three losses). This is not an attempt to make a low blow at Manning. But more to put things in perspective that Rodgers is just getting started. Give him some time before you make judgments about his "playoff achievements".

The Packer Crusade: (6) Green Bay Packers [+2.5] at (1) Atlanta Falcons

The Packers are on the road for the second straight week now. This time they are at the Georgia dome facing the No.1 seed. Matt Ryan has an incredible 20-2 record in the dome. This is the re-match of the November 28th meeting between the two teams at Atlanta, where the Packers tied up the game with a TD with about a minute left; after which the Falcons aided by a decent return and a personal foul by the Packers managed to kick a game-winning 47 yard field goal. This time around, the Packers will be hoping for a different ending.

Packers Game Plan

Thursday, January 6, 2011

NFL 2010: Wild Card Playoff Round Preview

A crazy NFL regular season came to an end last week; crazy in many ways.

For the first time ever, we have a team with a losing record, the Seattle Seahawks (7-9) winning their division (NFC West), and, in the process, making the playoffs. The Kansas City Chiefs managed to hold off the San Diego Chargers, who usually surge towards the end of every year to claim their division crown (AFC West); not so this season. The Oakland Raiders managed to win every game within their division (6-0), but had an overall record of only 8-8, missing the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with the St Louis Rams, to a certain extent, proved that it is possible in this league to win consistently even in a rebuilding year. A redemption story on the side-track that inspired most people in the country (and of course angered a fringe few): Mike Vick.

Of course there were the expected "another day in the office" trends this season. The Patriots are back to being one of the better teams; more so due to their schemes and coaching than any particular addition(s) to their roster. Peyton Manning carried the Colts to the playoffs, as usual, in spite of his depleted offensive weapons this year. The Texans, in spite of their hot start, ended the season in the pile of mediocrity (yet Kubiak's job is still safe). The NFC West sucks. The Cowboys are over rated. And then of course: Brett Favre. Brett Favre. Brett Favre.

Now, on to the Wild Card round of the playoffs (seeding in parenthesis)....

AFC Game 1: (6) New York Jets [+4.5] at (3)Indianapolis Colts

So many angles to this game. Rex Ryan defense vs the Peyton Manning offense. Colts off-late improved run defense against the Jets' mainstay running game. Outspoken Rex Ryan and his Jets against the held back Jim Caldwell and his Colts.

Jets Game Plan:
On offense, the Jets will have to maintain a good run-pass balance; starting the game with more passes and eventually control the game with the run. The Colts defense is very one-dimensional and a balanced attack is the first step in exploiting their weakness. The Jets' running game will be there, but the onus will be on Mark Sanchez to complete some critical passes to keep drives alive and keep Manning on the sidelines. The Jets D should be happy that Manning is without some of his trusted weapons. Still, they will need Revis island to be on his A game shadowing Reggie Wayne. That will allow others in the Jets D to curtail Peyton Manning. The most important thing though, which we almost always take for granted is the absence of the Colts running game. It will be imperative for the Jets D to keep it that way, to even give them a chance.

Colts Game Plan:
Peyton Manning may have lost some of his most trusted receivers for the year, but he will still have to make the necessary plays on offense to give his team a chance. He is so good with pre-snap reads, along with his