Divisional Playoffs (Sunday)

Another day, two more correct predictions. The Patriots covered the spread– through not by as much as I expected. Kansas City hung in there well… and New England couldn’t run a lick. I had the winner, but missed on the spread in the Arizona-Green Bay game… but I was on track to tie until that “Hail Mary.”

If I cared more about such things, I could argue that Arizona’s decision to pass on their final possession of regulation (the incompletion stopped the clock and gave Green Bay a lot of time) screwed it up. On the other hand, Green Bay gave the time back by not spiking the ball after the first long completion.

Really liked Green Bay’s use of Mike Pettine’s defense in overtime. The defender who left Larry Fitzgerald wide open because he decided to chase Carson Palmer will be infamous for many years.

So let’s see what we got today…

Seattle at Carolina (-1.5)

This is a harder game to pick than you would think. Carolina went 15-1, but they played the weakest schedule in the NFL– six games against the NFC South, four against the NFC East and four against the AFC South. The only competent teams they played were the other two first-place teams: Green Bay (a 37-29 win) and Seattle (27-23). They went 6-1 in games decided by seven points or less (normally they’d be 4-3 or 3-4).

You can’t blame Carolina for that– all they could do was play the teams on the schedule; they did go 15-1. I’m just pointing out that the record would be 11-5 or 12-4 if luck hadn’t been with them.

Seattle, meanwhile, did not have luck on their side. They played the tenth-toughest schedule– six games against the NFC West, four against both the AFC and NFC North and then Dallas and Carolina. They went 2-5 in close games. Normalize it and you have an 11-5 or 12-4 team.

They’re pretty comparable, by the numbers:

  • Carolina averaged 31.2 points per game (first in the NFL); Seattle scored 26.4 points per game (fourth).
  • Carolina allowed 19.2 points (sixth); Seattle 17.3 (first).

But Seattle, because it played a tougher schedule, looks stronger.

Seattle also has a narrative that plausibly explains its record. Over the off-season, they let LG James Carpenter and two-time Pro Bowl C Max Unger leave in free agency. They gave up 31 sacks in the first seven games until they got the line straightened out. They gave up 15 in the last nine games.

Seattle put the money they saved into bringing three-time Pro Bowl TE Jimmy Graham from New Orleans. He turned out to be a classic “Fish out of water” signing. He went down for the year in the 11th game, and was on pace for his worst season since his rookie year.

Seattle also lost both RB Marshawn Lynch (who played only 7 games) and backup Thomas Rawls (13 games), making it “Russell Wilson & Doug Baldwin v the Defense.”

On defense, they had to replace their coordinator (who got hired by Atlanta) had a holdout and some badly swollen egos. They struggled, but they did allow fewer points than anyone else.

Plus, it’s a veteran team that beat the Panthers in the playoffs last year. And in the game Seattle lost to Carolina, they were leading 23-14 with 8:08 left in the fourth quarter. Carolina scored a TD with 3:55 left to make it 23-20, got the ball back with 2:20 left and scored with 36 seconds left.

Had Seattle not tried to throw on all five plays they ran on their final drive, they might have killed more time. I see this more and more. I realize that if a pass is more likely to get a first down than “Metcalf up the middle”, you should try it. But when you’re trying to kill the clock and it doesn’t work, it looks terrible.

It sounds like I am trying to talk myself into picking the Seahawks– and that is, in fact, what I am going to do. I know why I’m leaning that way– but I can’t bring myself to do anything different.

1. I don’t see tangible reasons for Carolina’s improvement. When a team makes a dramatic jump (a year ago, the Panthers went 7-8-1), I like to see clear reasons. If your #1 pick has 1,200 yards and the big free agent gets 11 sacks, that’s a reason. The Panthers don’t have that. The big gains are:

  • Jonathan Stewart stayed healthy for 13 games and just missed 1,000 yards.
  • When second-year WR Kelvin Benjamin went on IR in training camp, WR Ted Ginn stepped up.
  • The Panthers replaced both tackles and fixed the offensive line.
  • QB Cam Newton (not one of my favorite players) had his first good season as a passer.

Defensively, everyone played better than they had a year ago, and CB Greg Norman turned into a very good player.

2. Carolina improved its defense largely due to turnovers. A year ago, the Panthers were +3; this season, they’re +20. Improvement on offense accounted for very little of that– it was almost all defense:

  • Carolina turned the ball over 23 times last year (13th); this year it was down to 19 (8th).
  • Carolina had 26 takeaways in 2014 (10th). This year they were first, with 39.

The big jump there was interceptions, which increased from 14 to 24. And it isn’t due to a huge bump in sacks. They went up, but only from 40 to 44.

About 50% of the time, a jump in turnovers represents a real change in ability– the team has developed or acquired “ballhawks” who will make big plays year after year. The other half, it’s a fluke. So I don’t take this seriously until I see it two years in a row.

In 2013, the Browns, despite being led by the greatest defensive coordinator in NFL history, Ray Horton, had only 21 takeaways. In Mike Pettine’s first year, they jumped to 29. This year, they went back to 21

And of course Ray Horton is the greatest defensive coordinator in NFL history. If you don’t believe me, just ask Horton. That Hue Jackson is considering this showboating incompetent as his defensive coordinator– that he retained Chris Tabor to run his kicking teams and wants to hire Pep Hamilton as his coordinator– should tell you a lot about his chances to succeed.

3. I don’t like a lot of the people on the offense. Until this season, Newton was an average quarterback, who improved his standing to above average due to his skills as a running back. A quarterback who:

  • Has a rating between 82.1 and 88.8 in four seasons (80.0 is the border between average and below-average)
  • Gets between 7.0 and 8.0 per pass (7.5 is good)
  • Has thrown 82 touchdowns and 54 interceptions (it should be 2-1 or better; his best was 24-13)
  • Gets sacked on 7.3% of his pass attempts

Simply isn’t a good quarterback. Newton’s ability to run– in his first four years, 467 carries, 2,571 yards (5.5 per carry) and 33 TDs– was genuinely remarkable. But he’d offset that by fumbling 27 times and losing it 11 times.

This season, Newton was outstanding— everything you would want. The passer rating was up to 99.4, he threw more than three times as many TDs (35) as interceptions (11) and got 7.8 yards per pass. He was sacked on the smallest percentage of his pass attempts (6.2%) and added 636 yards rushing (4.8 per carry), 10 scores and only 5 fumbles. The only thing you could knock him on is that he lost a fumble four times (tied for seventh).

By the way, Josh McCown tied with Marcus Mariota for the league lead (6), despite playing only 8 games, but he’s such a clutch savvy veteran gamer that nobody should count that. It’s not McCown’s fault for being sacked– it’s the line’s fault for not protecting him until he decided to throw.

If Newton has another year like this, I’ll have to agree with the consensus. Right now, I think he’s overvalued by many people.

Stewart is also an erratic running back. He’s been in the league since 2008, cracked 1,000 yards only once. Only four seasons with a good rushing average; played 103 games and missed 25.

At receiver, I know Benjamin was supposed to be the #1 guy, but when Jerricho Cotchery and Ginn are your big wideout threats, I’m not going to be impressed. Olsen is a good tight end, but not great.

Mike Shula is definitely not a great quarterback coach or coordinator– we know this because he’s been coaching since 1988.

4. I believe the alibi I was given for the Seattle’s loss to Carolina and the near miss in the Minnesota game. Normally when a team wins a playoff only because a kicker missed a chip shot, I’m gonna count it as a loss and ratchet my opinion of them way down.

But I have a friend who works for Microsoft and knows Paul Allen (the Seahawks’ owner) pretty well. He tells me that Allen told him that Pete Carroll told Allen that Marshawn Lynch could have played last week. The Seahawks chose to keep him out because they wanted him to heal up.

According to this account, Carroll knew he would need a strong running game to get through this game, the NFC championship and the Super Bowl, and that giving Lynch another week off would make a big difference. Since the Seahawks had drilled the Vikings during the season, without Lynch playing (Rawls played and did well), Carroll felt they could get by Minnesota without Lynch.

This assumption nearly proved false, but they now have Lynch close to 100%.

I’m further told that the loss to the Panthers was partly due to the line issues and partly due to Seattle’s decision to try to get Graham integrated into their system. Graham had a good game (8-12 for 145 yards), but none of the other receivers did. Without Graham, Wilson (who really doesn’t like to throw to his tight end) could do what he does best– throw long to receivers.

When a friend tells you stories, it is often best to discount them. Usually it’s fannish exuberance and prejudices. But my buddy’s tips over the years have been very good (he told me in July that Ahtyba Rubin would make the team– that Carroll loved his quickness on running downs).

His comment this week I don’t know if we have the 1988 49ers here, because I don’t know if they can work Lynch in with the passing game. But we might.”

The 1988 49ers, was Bill Walsh’s last NFL team. They snuck into the playoffs with a 10-6 record, thanks to a 2-4 stretch during the season, where Walsh benched Joe Montana. But once they got into the playoffs, they crushed Minnesota (whom they squeaked by in the regular season) and Chicago (who beat them) and won the Super Bowl on a last-minute drive.

I don’t think these Seahawks are that good a team (the 49ers didn’t have to squeeze by on a missed field goal). But Newton also has struggled in the playoffs. So I’ll play this hunch.

Prediction: Seattle 24, Carolina 21

Pittsburgh at Denver (-7.5)

Man, do I ever want to pick against Denver.

1. Broncos coach Gary Kubiak makes terrible decisions, which cost his team a game or two every year. He’s already made one.

2. Peyton Manning has had a miserable season– his worst ever, and it isn’t even close. He’s 11-13 in the playoffs, and 0-5 in cold-weather games. But he’s going to start. And because he’s P-E-Y-T-O-N  M-A-N-N-I-N-G, of course he won’t be pulled, no matter how badly he plays.

Brock Osweiler has a strained ligament in his right knee and he’s listed as questionable. Maybe he really is hurt and can’t play well enough. Maybe he’d lay an enormous egg in his first playoff start. He isn’t a great player. But he’s been a better player than the 2015 Manning.

3. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is 1-5 in the playoffs as a head coach. As a coordinator, his defenses have a history of underperforming in the playoffs.

4. Denver isn’t really sure who their running back is. C.J Anderson (720 yards, but 4.7 a carry) and Ronnie Hillman (863 yards, but only 4.2 a carry) alternate. If they’re both ‘on’, it’s no problem. When one isn’t, it takes Kubiak a long time to ride his hot hand.

5. Despite being 8th in takeaways (27), Denver is –4 in turnover ratio. They’ve turned it over 31 times. Manning’s TD-INT ratio is 9-17 and Osweiler’s 10-6. (They don’t fumble that often.)

6. While the Steelers have serious issues on offense, their defense is healthy and it’s been great at forcing turnovers. They had 30 this season, fourth in the NFL.

7. The best part of the Denver offense is the receivers; the worst the line. As Sam “the Sham” Rutigliano used to say, “You cannot throw the football from horizontal parade rest.”

8. Pittsburgh beat Denver earlier this year. They won 34-27 by stifling the running game, forcing two turnovers and outscoring Osweiler. They could do the first two again– and they’re facing a weaker QB.

9. The Steelers were able to run the ball against Cincinnati last week.

10. Terry McAulay will be the referee. In a typical game, McAulay calls half a dozen penalties that no other referee in the league will call– and he’ll withhold 3-6 others. This game is likely to be very close, and he could easily decide it for the Steelers, by ruling that Manning’s incompletion– thrown 20 yards into the end zone– is a backwards pass, or somesuch thing.

But then we get into the problems with Pittsburgh.

1. They’re lucky to be here. They played the Browns in week 16, while the Jets had to play the Bills, who were coached by the guy the Jets fired and sucked it up to win for him.

2. They wouldn’t have gotten by the Bengals if either Vontaze Burfict or Pac Man Jones hadn’t committed really stupid penalties, and if A.J. McCarron hadn’t played so poorly in quarters 1-3.

3. To win that game, the Steelers also needed a TD catch that the VP of Officiating says was wrongly ruled a catch.

4. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is admitting to a sprained right shoulder and torn ligaments, which probably means the arm fell off and needed to be reattached. If he can’t play, the immortal Landry Jones has to.

5. Both running backs– LeVeon Bell and DeAngelo Williams– are out.

6. WR Antonio Brown will miss the game due to a concussion caused by a deliberate attempt to injure him. That leaves the ball in the hands of Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton.

7. The game is in Denver, in late afternoon, where it is likely to be both cold and windy.

8. Even when he is 100% healthy, Roethlisberger often has games where he tosses up 2-3 interceptions. He did in the Denver game; the Broncos just couldn’t capitalize.

So, while I could very easily regret this, I’ll go with the team with the better record, playing at home.

Prediction: Denver 14, Pittsburgh 10

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