Ten Thoughts from Wild Card Weekend

The bottom of the NFL has been sifted. The unworthy have been ousted. The weak have been terminated. Only the mighty remain. So what did we learn? Here’s the top 10 revelations from this weekend’s games.

10) Picking winners ahead of time is really hard: Without a final-minute interception, I would have gone 0-4 in picking the wild card games. If I go .500 in any playoff, I’m lucky. I’m not sure what it is that allows professionals to do this better than I do. Perhaps they have access to statistical resources that I don’t (I’m basically using ESPN and whatever articles I happen to read). It may be that once your job becomes entirely about watching and analyzing teams, you develop a more nuanced understanding of what it takes to win games, so you start to see factors in teams that less critical eyes don’t. It might be these guys just get lucky. But whatever it is, if I don’t turn this around at some point I worry people are going to start thinking I don’t know what I’m talking about.

9) Turnovers- not that big a deal: There was no consistency to the turnover battle this weekend. The only team to win the turnover battle and the game was Baltimore, forcing five but still committing two themselves. New Orleans and Seattle each gave it away once, and both the Packers and Jets turned the ball over more than their opponents. But the Ravens, Packers and Jets all won at least partially on the strength of their defense, which limited their opponents to a combined 39 points. If a team can avoid turning the ball over deep in their own territory and has a defense that can get stops, the offense can take a few more chances on plays that might produce a turnover but have higher yardage possibilities. You put more pressure on your defense, which can eventually wear down (like Kansas City’s), but a defensive stop after a turnover can kill an opposing team’s momentum in an instance. The true teams are those that don’t get shaken up by the odd turnover.

8) Saints secondary… really, really bad: Watching New Orleans-Seattle, what was most striking was how vulnerable the Saints backfield looked. Most of the Seahawks’ big plays came when receivers simply slipped behind the Saints safeties. Matt Hasselbeck might not be the greatest quarterback in the world, but he’s very capable of floating a pass in front of a receiver who has gotten behind the defense, giving him a clear path to the end zone. The Saints defense also had trouble tackling, especially in their secondary. On the Seahawks’ victory-clinching 67-yard touchdown run, Marshawn Lynch broke five or six tackles, mostly by secondary players, including once by literally throwing the would-be tackler into the ground after stiff-arming him. As the Patriots have shown repeatedly, those extra few yards gained by a receiver dragging a tackler or falling forward instead of backward can add up to points really, really quickly. The Saints could not contain the Seahawks down-field, and it cost them the game.

7) The Seahawks won’t produce the same intensity next week. The Seahawks were the only team to win a home game this weekend, and they finished the season 7-9. They didn’t exactly play well, but they played angry, and in the NFL that can be all that matters. Teams will look for any opponent’s quote or analyst’s criticism in an effort to generate even an extra ounce of motivation. Nobody picked the Seahawks, and that motivated them go out and make a statement against the defending Super Bowl champions. It didn’t hurt that they were playing on their home field, a stadium that averages the most opposing false start penalties in the league. But what’s going to happen next week? Can the Seahawks really generate that same degree of intensity at Soldier’s Field? The Bears play much better defense than the Saints, and the special teams unit is going to have a far harder time with Devin Hester than they did with Lance Moore or Robert Meachem. The crowd won’t be with them, and Chicago’s defense is far smarter, faster and more physical. Seattle justified its crappy season and proved its place as a playoff team by beating New Orleans, but it’s unlikely they do it again.

6) Ravens defense is its key: The dominant defense of the Ravens (fifth-best run defense, third-best scoring defense) is what made their win the only double-digit victory of the weekend. The Ravens held the Chiefs to just 161 total yards, over 150 yards fewer than the next losing team’s. Along the way, they forced five turnovers, including three interceptions. The Ravens rushing game wasn’t spectacular (only one touchdown, just 3.6 yards per carry, less than half their passing average), it was just good enough to take advantage of the good field position afforded them by their defense (average starting spot for Ravens: 37.4 yard line; average for Chiefs: 28.3 yard line). But the Chiefs never managed a drive longer than 4:30, either. If the Steelers can avoid turnovers and extend drives, the Ravens won’t be able to manufacture as many points on offense. Defense can win playoff games, but it rarely wins Super Bowls. Defenses inevitably slow down, which is when the offenses have to come alive and carry the slack. The Patriots beat the Ravens by holding them scoreless for nearly 30 minutes, finally kicking a field goal after the Baltimore defense blinked. Pittsburgh can do the same next week.

5) Quarterback experience matters: Coming into this weekend, Hasselbeck has played in three more playoff games than Drew Brees. Joe Flacco had played in five playoff games, and Matt Cassel had never played in one (beyond a kneel down in 2005). Michael Vick had played in four playoff games and Aaron Rodgers had only played in one, but Rodgers was in the playoffs last year, whereas Vick had not played a playoff game in six years (postseason following the 2004 season), and the specific atmosphere of the playoffs is something that could easily be forgotten with a long absence. Having an experienced leader on the field matters. Now, Mark Sanchez has played far fewer playoff games than Peyton Manning, but Manning’s legacy will always be tarnished by his perpetually .500 playoff record. So if you have to choose between two quarterbacks, go with the more experienced one (that’s one reason why I like the chances for the Packers, Patriots, and Steelers next week). Unless it’s Manning.

4) Running game… not just a cliche: Take a look at this: The Seahawks out-gained the Saints on the ground 144-79; the Jets out-gained the Colts 169-93; the Ravens out-gained the Chiefs 142-108; and the Packers out-gained the Eagles 138-82. In all four games, the winning team had the better running game. This didn’t always translate to more total yards or time of possession, but the old adage that stronger running teams win playoff games is absolutely true. So when people start analyzing the divisional games, the first thing on everyone’s mind should be which teams are better rushers and which teams are better at stopping the run. If the two teams are indistinguishable beyond that, go with that as the deciding factor.

3) Beware the Green Bay Packers: In beating the Philadelphia Eagles, the Packers looked like a classic playoff team. The Packers rushed more than they passed (32 rushes vs. 27 pass attempts), which enabled them to sustain long drives (two touchdown drives that each ate up at least six minutes) and control the ball (32:00 vs. 28:00 time of possession). They rushed on early downs and gained enough yards (4.3 per carry) to put them in short-yardage third downs, which they usually converted (8-13). They made few mental errors (just two penalties and two turnovers, one on the first punt of the game). On defense, they shut down the run, usually prevented big plays, and varied their pressure strategies. If rookie James Starks can have the performance he had on Sunday next week in Atlanta, they could absolutely beat the Falcons.

2) Jets Offense- Stop the Run, Stop the Team: I already showed how running contributed to all four victories this weekend. But nowhere was it more evident than in the Jets-Colts game. In every other game, the winning quarterback threw for at least two touchdowns while posting a quarterback rating over 110. Sanchez did neither of those things, throwing for no touchdowns while posting a measly 62.4 quarterback rating. He out-threw Rodgers by just 9 yards to avoid the lowest passing total of any winning quarterback as well. This team won because it got sacks and because it ran the ball. The Jets rushed for more yards than any other playoff team, and they were the only team to rush for more than one touchdown. When they come to Foxborough, it will be imperative that the Patriots stop the run. Doing so will force Sanchez to carry the team, and he still hasn’t proven he can do that.

1) The Jets defense works best against “big play” offenses: Here’s why the Jets beat the Colts, and why they won’t beat the Patriots next week: Darrelle Revis is good enough to cover the best wide receiver on a team, but that’s it. The Colts are a team that likes to go deep, to match their wide receivers in single coverage against the opposing corners and trust Manning to put it where only the receiver can catch it. But Revis is so good at staying tight to his man that he can play any ball thrown his way. So if your offense relies on long passes and features one or two receivers only, Revis and the Jets can shut you down. But with an offense that features two wide receivers, two tight ends and a check-down running back that can all go anywhere on the field, the “featured cornerback” strategy won’t work. And that’s why you have to love the Patriots next week, no matter what the Jets proved by avenging their AFC Championship loss last season against the Colts.

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