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

On offense, the Packers need to keep two things in mind: the first being, offensive rhythm (which I seem to keep mentioning week after week and will do until they get consistent). And second, which will also help the rhythm, is the WRs holding on to balls thrown at them. Last week, Jones dropped a would-be TD and Jennings had a couple of drops that should have been routine completions at this level. The Falcons Defense may not have big names in the secondary, but they do have some young above average players. Still the Packers passing offense should be able to take advantage of the Falcons secondary.

As far as the rushing rookie sensation of the Packers that burst out last week, James Starks, the Packers should not expect a whole lot from him this week. I would not be surprised even if he has lesser carries than Brandon Jackson. But, no doubt, the Packers will have to call a bunch of running play calls, as they always do. They would love to have a better rushing game than the Nov 28th game, when the Packers had less than 40 yards total rushing. On the other hand, if Starks has a similar game like last week, this Packers offense will be real hard to stop.

The Packers defense will love to carry over their current form into this game. They have been lights out off late. It all starts with great game plans from Dom Capers. The fact that they played the Falcons a few weeks ago, would have given Capers a better idea of how to defend these guys. The Falcons love to run the ball down their opponents throat with Turner. The Packers had a bad tackling night last time around; part of the reason being they didn't realize how hard Turner was to tackle until they had a chance to bring him down. This week, they will be prepared to bring him down with the first tackle. Stuffing the run will be the most important thing the Packers defense will want to accomplish. Because, that will put Matt Ryan in longer third down situations. Falcons typically don't attempt too many deep passes, so the defensive game plan should be to concentrate on the short and intermediate routes. Also, they need a plan to contain Tony Gonzalez. Packers defense usually grades poorly against opponent TEs.

Falcons Game Plan

The Falcons will want to establish their run first. In the process, making sure Matt Ryan has managable 3rd and short yardage to keep drives alive. Also Ryan will try to find Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez repeatedly. On defense, they will first want to make sure they shut down any hope for a Packers running game making the Packers offense one dimensional.

The X-Factor: James Jones (Yeah...not James Starks, the other James). He will want to make up for his potential TD drop at the end of the first half last week. And maybe do some more.

My Pick:
Outright Win: Packers
v/s the Spread: Packers [+2.5]

Mortal Combat: (5) Baltimore Ravens [+3.5] at (2) Pittsburgh Steelers

These AFC North teams, of late, keep playing each other real close. While on the face of it, people might say these teams are similarly built. But in reality, they differ in so many ways. Yeah, both offenses have run-first philosophies. But the Steelers pass way more than they run with Big Ben at QB (partly because of their awful offensive line). On defense, of course both teams have great safeties in Ed Reed and Troy Palamalu. But their strengths as a unit lies in the Linebacker core for the Steelers and the Defensive Line for the Ravens. Not that other units of both teams' defenses are anything to sneeze at. And when they play each other, more often than not, its going to be a blood bath.

Ravens Game Plan

The Ravens would want to surprise the Steelers and throw more than they run, taking advantage of all their offensive weapons in the passing game. On defense, they would like to put pressure on the weak Steelers O line and try get a break down there. And bring down Big Ben, which is harder to do than one would think.

Steelers Game Plan

The Steelers will want to establish the run first. And then try hit Mike Wallace on a play action play call. The Steelers might be able to score only on some big plays. It will be hard to establish a chain moving offense with that abysmal offensive line. On defense, the Steelers will want to make sure Ray Rice does not have a big game.

The X-Factor: Troy Palamalu. If he makes a game altering play, that could seal the game.

My Pick:
Outright Win: Ravens
v/s the Spread: Ravens [+3.5]

It's always personal: (6) New York Jets [+8.5] at (1) New England Patriots

Unlike the Steelers-Ravens game, this match up is not even a rivalry. The Patriots have won like 13 of the last 17 meetings between the two. That all the more makes no sense in why the Jets are trying to draw out Belichick and the Patriots with their baseless thrash talking. And if the Jets do not back their talk this week, they lose whatever little credibility they have now.

Jets Game Plan

The Jets will have no option but to try run down the throat of the Patriots defense. If they have to depend on Sanchez to throw their way to victory, it is going to be a long day for the Jets. On defense, Rex Ryan will have to come up with a blue print to stop this juggernaut of a Patriots offense, which looks unstoppable on the surface.

Patriots Game Plan

The Patriots have the number of the Jets defense. They should be able to overwhelm the Jets defense just based on the variety of plays they run in terms of offensive sets and formations. On defense, will the young guys on the team carry over the momentum they had to finish the regular season? It will work in their favor that the onus will be on the offense to keep the game away from the Jets, lessening the pressure on the defense.

The X-Factor: Patriots run defense. If they allow the Jets run amok, will keep the Patriots offense off the field, which is exactly what the Patriots do not want.

My Pick:
Outright Win: Patriots
v/s the Spread: Patriots [-8.5]

Lightning in a bottle?: (4) Seattle Seahawks [+10] at (2) Chicago Bears

The Seahawks pulled off a major upset last week, taking out the defending Champs at home. This time though, they have their hands full on the road at Soldier Field. Here again, it's their second meeting of the season. The Seahawks won their last meeting, but that was early in the season when the Bears were still trying to find their identity on offense.

Seahawks Game Plan

The Seahawks will just have to hope Hasselbeck can remain hot and throw another handful of TDs. And then hope Marshawn Lynch can run over a few more defenders this week; which won't be as easy as the Saints defense. Moreover, it will be a Tampa 2 defense this week where Lovie will have his guy keep the plays in front of their safeties. On defense, the Seahawks have to try put pressure on the Bears O line. A little pressure on Cutler could push him to make a mistake. And if they cannot stop Matt Forte, they need not even show up to play.

Bears Game Plan

The Bears should learn a few things from the Saints game. Run the offense through Matt Forte and make Cutler make just safe throws and let him manage the game. The Bears defense should try remain in their base formation of Tampa 2 all game long. If they try to get aggressive with blitzes, they risk Hasselbeck making a few plays like he did against the Saints last week. Bears should have this if they can just play smart.

The X-Factor: Jay Cutler plays his first playoff game of his career. Staggering stat to keep in mind. First time playoff QBs have a record of 5-17 since 2003.

My Pick:
Outright Win: Bears
v/s the Spread: Seahawks [+10]

Last Week:
Outright Win Record: 3-1
v/s the Spread Record: 4-0

Regular Season Record:
Outright Win Record: 161-95
v/s the Spread Record: 123-118-8

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