NFL Playoffs Preview: Week 3

Week two’s predictions (1-3) were somewhat less successful than week 1 (4-0). To address them quickly.

Atlanta-Seattle: Seattle’s defense was much, much slower than Atlanta’s offense. All four defensive linemen are 30 or over, and they couldn’t get to Matt Ryan in time. The back seven were all at least 26, and the Falcons simply outran defenders with too many miles on their tires.

On offense, the Seahawks need to get people who can block and somebody who can run the ball. They haven’t had a good draft since 2012, and if they don’t have one in 2017, they’ll be under .500 next year. I won’t make the mistake of assuming the organization knows what it is doing.

Green Bay-Dallas: The game was decided on a last-second, 51-yard field goal– the Packers’ previous score was a 56-yard field goal. I can’t feel too badly about picking wrong– I could very easily have been correct.

The game demonstrated why some people stress playoff experience so much. The defense was perfectly dreadful– I mean it literally. On Green Bay’s first three possessions, they gave up 245 yards and 21 points. The only way they could have been worse was if all three Green Bay drives had started on their own one.

They snapped out of it, allowing 13 points and 225 yards in the last 37 minutes. But they had the “deer in the headlights” expression just long enough.

Not that the offense did the Cowboys any favors. During their first three possessions, they gained 65 yards and scored three points. When they got their feet under them, they rolled off 375 yards and 28 points. But if they’d dome more in the first 22 minutes, they could have had the game in hand.

Pittsburgh-Kansas City: It was a two point game with a debatable call. I’m not going to bitch, other than to say that some crews would have done the “let the players play” routine and let the two-pointer stand.

My buddy Peter, who lives in Philly, hooted at me for imagining that a team coached by Andy Reid could possibly live up to expectations in the playoffs. The point is duly noted. I thought Ben Roethlisberger was hurt and that he would play badly. I feel I was right on both counts– I was just a little off about how hurt and how badly.

The two big differences were both on the Chiefs side. First, they’d had several key defensive players miss games due to injury. Kansas City said LB Justin Houston and DE Dee Ford were healthy and raring to go. But the defense allowed 5 yards per rush, 7.5 per pass and had only one sack.

Second, Kansas City forced 33 turnovers and committed only 17 going into the game. They turned the ball over twice and took it away only once.

So let’s get to the games. Both feature teams who played during the year, so I’ll lead with the scores of those games.

Green Bay (10-6) @ Atlanta (11-5)
(Atlanta 33-32 in Atlanta)

You couldn’t have a closer game, obviously. It was decided with 31 seconds left, when the Falcons scored a touchdown with 31 seconds left and kicked the extra point. Both teams ran 19 times (Green Bay for 108; Atlanta for 90) and the quarterbacks had huge games:

  • Aaron Rodgers went 28-38 for 246 yards, and 4 TDs
  • Matt Ryan went 28-35 for 288 yards and 3 TDs

Atlanta let Devonta Freeman run it in from the 1.There were no turnovers, 13 penalties for 114 yards (not a lot), no dreadful calls and no major mistakes. Atlanta went for a two-pointer and missed with the score 21-19.

Point being that anyone who tells you he knows how this game will turn out is handing you a line. It could have gone either way in the regular season– it’ll probably go down to the final drive here.

This was the first loss in the four-game losing streak that made the Packers look entirely beatable going into the playoffs. After this entirely-acceptable loss, they got beaten by Indianapolis (31-26, so sort of OK) and then stomped by Tennessee (47-25) and then Washington (42-24), neither of which was OK.

Green Bay offset it a little with a six-game winning streak, but five of the six wins came against teams with struggling offenses: Philly, Chicago, Houston, Minnesota and Detroit with an injured Matthew Stafford.

The other game in the streak was a 38-10 beating of the Seahawks– a more convincing pounding than the one the Falcons dished out. So there’s that.

If you believe in veteran savvy and intangible motivation, then the Packers are the proper pick. DE Julius Peppers is 36, LB Clay Matthews is 30, Rodgers is 33, Jordy Nelson 31. Mike McCarthy very likely would have been fired had the Packlers missed the playoffs; talk is that GM Ted Thompson is going to retire at the end of the year.

There are parallels between this team and the 1988 San Francisco 49ers (Bill Walsh’s last team). They hit a mid-season spin, righted themselves and went all the way.

There isn’t terribly negative I can say about Atlanta Falcons– other than that I don’t really believe in them. They have a high-powered offense (540 points, best in the NFL) that has been erratic; Green Bay (432, fourth) isn’t that far behind.

Atlanta’s defense (406 points) is worse than Green Bay’s (388), even though Green Bay got lit up twice. I can’t really say that the Falcons came together down the stretch– they won some blowouts, but they had late season games against the 49ers and Rams.

The NFC North wasn’t anything special; neither was the NFC South. Green Bay has old defenders; so do the Falcons. The Packers are beat up– but they were beat up last week too.

I have real reservations about this. But seeing the Falcons blow by the Seahawks– and seeing the Packers struggle to edge by the younger team– I can’t bring myself to bet on the veterans in this game.

Prediction: Atlanta 34, Green Bay 31

Pittsburgh (11-5) @ New England (14-2)
(Patriots 27-16 in Pittsburgh)

This game is difficult to forecast, because I don’t know who’s going to show up– on either side.

If the Patriots play as badly as they did against Houston, they’ll lose. At 14:51 of the fourth quarter, New England was up only 24-16,, even though Brock Osweiler was playing like Spurgeon Wynn.

Yes, Houston has a good defense, and they were busting their butts. But the Patriots aren’t a great team. The defense has been rebuilt, but the offense is just “Let’s see how you decide to stop Tom Brady, and use our role players to exploit the weaknesses you create.”

Against a team that tries to kill opponents with its pass rush– and has players who can make that work– New England looked like a team playing rejects at running back (which is what LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis are), with an old man throwing to journeymen receivers behind a weak line. New England committed three turnovers and needed a kickoff return for a TD to build that lead

Pittsburgh’s defense doesn’t have as overwhelming a pass rush as Houston’s, But the Steelers play the run well. They allowed less than 100 yards in 10 of the 16 regular season games– and both playoff wins. The Patriots beat them in the regular season because:

  • They got 140 yards rushing, which took pressure off the passing game
  • Pittsburgh struggled to put the ball in the end zone as badly as they did against the Chiefs
  • New England still had Rob Gronkowski playing (4-4 for 93 yards and a score)
  • Pittsburgh had Landry Jones at quarterback

Even though the Patriots won’t have Gronkowski, I’m still going to pick New England. Jones didn’t play terribly in that game… more precisely, he had the kind of game (29-47 for 281 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) that Roethlisberger often has. Against the Chiefs, Roethlisberger went 20-31 for 224 yards, with an interception. It’s a better result, but not by a lot.

And the Patriots have a better defense than the Chiefs do.

The problem with the Steelers continues to be the same issue: stop two of the big three and you beat them. New England couldn’t stop Antonio Brown (7-11 for 106 yards and a score). But they did neutralize Le’Veon Bell. He had 21 carries for 81 yards rushing and 10 catches (on 13 targets) for 68 yards.

Plus, there is a chance that the Patriots will come back from their lose with a very strong performance.

I’ll predict the Steelers will do a little better than they did the first time out, and the Patriots will do a little worse. I’ll also acknowledge that this could go the other way. If Roethlisberger is sharp and Brady isn’t a lot better, the Steelers could go back. Maybe I’m overestimating the old guys again, but that’s the way I’m betting.

Prediction: New England 24, Pittsburgh 21

 

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