Hit & Run (Sunday’s Divisional Picks)

Saturday Notes: The surprising thing about the Ravens-Patriots win was how (depending on your point of view):

  • Amazingly good the Baltimore offense was.
  • Amazingly bad the New England defense was.

31 points, 428 yards. 5.9 yards per rush; 6.5 per pass. No sacks; two runs stuffed.  No fumbles. Four defensive penalties for 35 yards. (Not counting the taunting penalty on the punt)

Of the two interceptions, FS Devin McCourty‘s was what you’d call a marginally good defensive play. He read QB Joe Flacco’s eyes, guessed the pattern, ran halfway across the field and scooped the ball away. The only thing you can ding it for is that Flacco was staring at his intended receiver– which is something defensive backs are supposed to pick up on.

On the second interception, WR Torrey Smith had the defender beat by 2-3 steps. A good throw and that’s at least first and goal.

If that’s the best New England can do against Flacco (who is a cut below either Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning), it’s unfathomable that they can beat either team they’ll face.The only thing they’re have going for them: neither team plays run defense the way the Ravens do.

As for the Ravens…

  1. 7 rushes for 61 yards (8.7 per carry)
  2. 5 rushes for 25 yards (5.0).
  3. 9 rushes for 23 yards (2.6).
  4. 7 rushes for 33 yards (4.7).

I have no idea why they ran 28 times and passed 45, other than something a coach once told me:

“When the other side keeps passing [New England passed 51 times, ran only 9 and kneeled 4] it’s hard not to imitate them. It’s unconscious… you see them throwing– especially if they’re in a no-huddle or a hurry-up– and you start thinking you have to throw too..”

It happens in other sports– it’s why you’ll see a coach shouting at “Play your game– don’t play theirs!” at an athlete or a team.

So, even though New England didn’t take the lead until the TD that put them up 35-31 with 5:04 left in the game, Baltimore never played like they were in command.

One other thought… When a team uses a trick play (like the pass from former Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman to Danny Amendola), or a player who hasn’t been used much has a big game (Amendola went 5-6 for 81 yards and 2 TDs), there’s a tendency to think that they used gimmicks, or got lucky )because the game was a fluke).

That can be the case. But often it’s just an example of “They took away what we usually do, so we did something else, instead.”
And in the case of Edelman, the Patriots commented that they’d had the play in the playbook for nearly a year, but were waiting for the right moment to use it.

As for the other game… I’m surprised that Seattle let Carolina hang around that long.

The one point I will make: last week, Cam Newton had a rating of 82.6, with 2 TDs and an interception. This week it was 79.6, with 2 TDs and 2 INTs.

The performances were not materially different– same late throws, same mechanical errors, same erratic accuracy. What changed was the other team’s ability to score. Arizona couldn’t score. Also, while they are also very talented defensively, they played a very conservative defensive game plan. They were afraid that any mistake they made might be the winning points.

This week, Seattle could take a gamble or two. Kam Chancellor‘s 90-yard pick-six was a gamble– he misses that ball and Carolina scores easily. You can try to make an “all-or-nothing” play if you feel like the rest of the team will pick you up.

Newton is a former #1 overall pick. And that’s his third ordinary performance in a playoff. If you’re thinking about gambling everything to get Rufus La Poopus (my name for the annual “Can’t-Miss” quarterback the media wants teams to draft), you might want to remember that they don’t all pan out.

Dallas at Green Bay: It’s hard to find a more comparable matchup than this:

  • Both teams are 13-4.
  • Green Bay is 8-0 at home… but Dallas is 8-0 on the road.
  • Green Bay is #1 in points scored (30.4 a game); Dallas is #5 (29.2).
  • Green Bay is #13 in defense (21.8 a game); Dallas is #15 (22.0).
  • Green Bay is third in point differential (8.6 a game); Dallas is fifth (7.2).

The differences are:

  • Green Bay played a harder schedule (AFC East; NFC South) than Dallas (NFC West; AFC South)
  • Green Bay has a better takeaway-giveaway ratio (+14, best in the NFL) than Dallas (+6; ninth)
  • Green Bay has been to the playoffs for the last five years (one of those trips was a Super Bowl win), while this is Dallas’s first trip in five years.
  • The game will be played in freezing weather, which Green Bay has more experience with.

Notice that I didn’t say “Green bay has the advantage”… I’m not sure they do. WR Jordy Nelson (98-151 for 1,517 yards and 13 scores) was born in a cold-weather area (Kansas) and played his college ball there. But RB Eddie Lacy (1,139 yards, 4.6 average), and Randall Cobb (91-127 for 1,287 yards and 12 TDs) are warm-weather guys. QB Aaron Rodgers is 6-4 lifetime in the playoffs… but only 1-2 at home.

Yeah, I know they’ve heard all about the Packer tradition… doesn’t mean they enjoy playing in cold-weather or are good at it. Tomorrow is the first time Dallas and Green Bay have met in the playoffs in Green Bay since the Ice Bowl in 1967. That doesn’t mean squat either.

Is Dallas going to be a better cold-weather team? Probably not. Are they going to outplay the Packers– a veteran team, with older guys looking for a title (like DE-LB Julius Peppers)? Is head coach Jason Garrett (who made some strange decisions last week, though nothing you could definitely call “bad”) likely to outcoach Mike McCarthy? Doubtful.

Green Bay is healthier, and they performed better in the season. Dallas was erratic; they ran up the score on some bad teams. I’m going to pick the Packers.

But if I had to pick an upset this week, this be the game. Dallas has been hearing, all week long, about how much they suck and how they only beat the Lions because the referees threw the game to them. Sometimes a team like that will come out in a rage, determined to show everyone– and get up 21-0 before the opponent knows what hit them. Packers 31-24.

Indianapolis at Denver: This game could also be a surprise. When they met in week one, in Denver, the Broncos won by only 7 points. Denver jumped out to a 24-0 lead with 5:10 left, the Colts mounted a furious comeback… the Final score was 31-24.

The line I’m hearing is:

  • Indianapolis came very close in game 1.
  • They’re a young team, and they’ve matured a lot during the year.
  • Denver is a veteran team that has gotten older.
  • They won 5 of their last 6, losing only to Dallas (by a 42-7 score where everything went wrong)
  • They looked great last week against Cincinnati
  • Denver lost to the Bengals in game 15
  • They’re not as overwhelming as they were in 2013
  • They’re older and they’re heading down.
  • QB Peyton Manning is 11-12 in the playoffs, with an 89.2 rating and a 37-24 TD-INT ratio.
  • Indianapolis’s QB Andrew Luck has won two of his last three playoff games and looked impressive in each. He’s coming of age.

Denver in Denver was 8-0 this year and nobody likes to pick against the home team in the playoffs. But the feeling is that Indianapolis can probably play them even– and maybe win.

I don’t see it. I think Denver will win, and it won’t be particularly close.

When I run through the indicators, they all trend toward Denver:

1. Denver won one game more, despite playing a tougher schedule (it was also tougher than last year’s schedule).

2. They ranked higher than Indianapolis on both offense (#2, as opposed to #6) and defense (16th; the Colts were #19).

3. Denver is +5 in turnover plus-minus; Indianapolis is -5. Denver doesn’t get many takeaways (25, which is 14th), but only five teams turned the ball over less often.

Indianapolis forced one more turnover… but gave the ball away 31 times… only three teams were worse.

4. Both teams collected 41 sacks… but Denver allowed only 17 on 607 passes (2.7%) Indanapolis threw only 54 more passes (661), but allwoed 29 sacks (4.2%).

5. Denver, as you might guess, has a more balanced attack and a better running game. They’re not great (15th in yardage, 20th in rushing average)… but they’re Vince Lombardi’s packers, compared to Indianapolis (22nd in yards, 25th in average).

Then you get into the injury situation.

In the movie Jaws, there’s a scene where Robert Shaw takes a look at the shark cage Richard Dreyfus is planning to use in order to study the shark.

“You go inside the cage?” Dreyfuss nods.

“Cage goes in the water. You go in the water. Shark’s in the water. Our shark.”

Whereupon Shaw shakes his head wonderingly and sings “Farewell and adieu to you, fair Spanish ladies. Farewell and adieu, you ladies of Spain. For we’ve received orders for to sail back to Boston. And so nevermore shall we see you again.”

Here is the situation Indianapolis finds itself in:

  • Both running backs that have had some success in the past (Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard) are on injured reserve. It’s Dan Herron and Trent Richardson.  Remove Bradshaw’s 4.7 average on 90 carries (425 yards) and things get stagnant.
  • Both their starters on the right side of the line– tackle Gosder Cherilus and guard Hugh Thornton— went onto injured reserve this week.
  • Indianapolis is on their third center of the season– and last week, Khaled Harrison looked really bad.
  • Denver’s LB Von Miller had 14 sacks. Veteran DE DeMarcus Ware had 10.

Farewell and adieu to Andrew Austen Luck. Tom Brady got away with not having a running game today, but his line wasn’t broken, and he’s a lot more experienced. As are Brady’s coaches and receivers. Both head coach John Fox and coordinator Jack Del Rio know how to apply pressure. Plus he brought in CB Aqib Talib and SS T.J. Ward, and both guys like to blast the passer.

There’s also the ex-Browns factor. Teams playing in their first playoff game tend to press. That’s because the players tend to press. Indy has Josh Cribbs returning kicks and D’Qwell Jackson at linebacker. Maybe they’ll both pour their hearts into the game and excel… but they might also just tank.

Could I see the Colts rise up against the veteran Broncos– beating them with energy and fresh legs? Yes, of course. Manning can produce a bad game at any moment. But WR Demaryus Thomas improved– and Emmanuel Sanders replaced Eric Decker nicely. Wes Welker tailed off, but he could have a big game if needed. RB C.J. Anderson rushed for 849 yards (4.7 a carry) in year two. TE Julius Thomas has caught 12 scores for two years running.

And they’re at home.

Denver might never be able to beat the Colts again, but I see the margin as being unusually wide– and Andrew Luck showing his inexperience under pressure. Denver 31-13.


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