Jan 222014
 

BroncosRavensAFCsnDSC_2831

(*and what they should worry about instead.)

So, it’s the Broncos and the Seahawks. For only the second time in the past 20 years, both of the top-seeded teams have made it to the Big Game. Huzzah.

Broncos fans (myself included) are quietly bemoaning the fact that in this, of all years, the NFL has decided to experiment with a cold-weather venue for the Super Bowl. In light of Peyton Manning’s documented struggles in below-freezing temperatures, we ask, wouldn’t it have been nice to wait until a round number (maybe Super Bowl L?) before messing with a good thing?

Regardless, a shot at a Lombardi Trophy is something to celebrate — it’d be nice not to obsess over East Rutherford weather forecasts along the way.

On the other hand, perhaps Peyton Manning’s struggles in the cold have been somewhat overblown… Below, I present the case for ignoring the weather (and instead putting the worry where it belongs).

First of all, it’s a small sample size. Manning has played 23 games in which the temperature at kickoff was below 40°. That’s only 9% of his games played. Of those, one can be tossed out (in Week 17 of 2004) because he made a total of two pass attempts before sitting down (playoff seeding had already been decided). In the remaining 22 games, Manning’s teams have a record of 9-13. Not very good, huh?

However, as I argued in my last column, Manning shouldn’t be judged solely on his teams’ results — he is only one out of 22 players on the field, after all. No, we should instead focus on his individual performances. Here, there is still room for concern, although not as much as the conventional wisdom might tell you:

Temperature Games Cmp Att Yds TD Int Rating
40° or above 239 5555 8470 65,586 492 212 97.9
30-39° 14 308 483 3,649 21 20 83.9
20-29° 6 126 219 1,256 7 6 73.2
19° or below 3 81 120 782 7 3 102.8

 

Clearly, Manning’s numbers have suffered as the temperature drops through the 30s and the 20s. On the other hand, once you get to 19° or below, the stats pick up again. The main reason for this is because two of Manning’s three games in such cold temperatures have been during his stint with the Broncos — and if you limit the sample to 2012-2013, the chart looks like this:

Temperature Games Cmp Att Yds TD Int Rating
40° or above 30 799 1156 9.626 85 20 111.7
30-39° 2 50 70 593 5 1 114.8
20-29° 1 19 36 150 2 1 70.4
19° or below 2 67 102 687 7 2 109.4

 

The sample size here is admittedly even smaller, but it seems Manning’s weather-related struggles have somewhat abated in Denver. There is one glaring exception — that game played in 20-29° temperatures, when Manning only got a 70.4 rating.

That was back in November, in New England.

It’s possible that was due to the gameplan, which clearly emphasized the run (32 runs versus 15 passes while Denver had the lead). It’s possible the Patriots simply have Manning’s number. Or — and this is where we get to the crux of the problem — perhaps Manning just hates the Northeast.

Consider this: in his career, Manning’s rating in above-40° weather is 97.9; below 40°, it’s 82.6. Outside of New York and Boston, his rating is 98.5; on the road against the Giants, Jets, and Patriots, it is 76.2. That’s a drop of 16% in cold weather, but a drop of 23% in the Northeast. Still not convinced? Remove the games at New York and New England, and Manning’s cold-weather rating is 91.0.

Manning doesn’t have a problem with the cold. He has a problem with New York.

Curse you, Roger Goodell!

Jan 102014
 

bradymanning

Barring a shocking development (which is not out of the question in today’s NFL), the league will get yet another Manning/Brady showdown come January 19. If it happens, it will be the fifteenth time they have faced each other, the fourth time in the playoffs, and the third time a trip to the Super Bowl is on the line.

If you thought the hype was big back in November, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

So, what’s an interested fan to do but join in? It’s time for Danny’s answer to the Great Quaterback Debate. Here’s the executive summary:

Manning is a better quarterback than Brady.

Sure, I’m a homer, having been a Bronco fan since the early Elway days and a Manning supporter more often than not (Super Bowl XLI being the rare exception — curse you, Rex Grossman!). However, I fail to see any way of honestly viewing the numbers that convincingly shows otherwise. That being said, Manning and Brady are clearly #1 and #1A in the modern era. (I’ll leave the “Best of All Time” argument for another day.)

“But what about winning?” asks the voice on the other side of the screen. “Brady has the highest winning percentage of any quarterback in history! Brady has three rings; Manning only has one!”

My response is simple: “So what?”

Football is a team sport, not an individual one. Baseball statisticians long ago figured out wins are the absolute worst way to assess the effectiveness of pitchers; one day, football will catch up and realize the evaluation of a quarterback does not begin and end with “games won”. To suggest otherwise is ridiculous, unless you can explain his role in winning during the 50% of the time he is not on the field. At best, the quarterback’s job is to run the offense effectively and score as many points as possible; even then, he is severely limited by the talent pool around him. Sure, he can play a role in defense by keeping his offense on the field, but that only goes so far — particularly since the better the quarterback, the more likely the team is going to score quickly.

In fact, assigning wins to quarterbacks makes even less sense than doing the same for pitchers. A superior pitcher essentially negates the talent of the rest of his defense. Surround Walter Johnson with seven scrubs for nine innings, then do it again with seven All Stars. The results are going to be surprisingly similar. No one with a functioning brain can suggest the same is true with a quarterback.

Further, if a quarterback’s value is solely in championships won, please feel free to argue that Trent Dilfer is a better quarterback than Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Dan Fouts, and Jim Kelly.

Simply put: if your answer to the Manning vs. Brady question is, “Wins and championships are all that matters,” you’re not going to like this article. Then again, you are objectively wrong, so I can safely dismiss you.

For the rest of you, here goes.

Pro-Football-Reference.com tallies 26 statistical categories for passers. Of these, several can be discarded:

  • Games Played and Games Started have little to no bearing on a QB’s effectiveness; all they can tell us is how often the player was considered the best option for the team signing his paychecks.
  • Quarterback Record (i.e. team win-loss record when the player started) is, as stated above, one of the worst ways to evaluate a quarterback.
  • “Raw” statistics, like Completions, Attempts, Yards, Touchdowns, and Interceptions are useful, but not as much as the related “rate” stats.
  • Longest Completed Pass is mildly interesting at best. As it represents the single most successful pass thrown in a given season, its value in assessing a player’s overall performance is limited.
  • Yards per Game is a “rate” stat, but it is much more dependent on the team’s gameplan than the quarterback’s skill level.
  • Total Quarterback Rating has only been tracked by ESPN since 2008, so it can’t really tell the whole story of our two players’ careers.
  • Times Sacked, Yards Lost, Net Yards per Attempt, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, and Sack Percentage have some relation to the player’s skill level, but they are much more a reflection of the offensive line playing in front of him.
  • Fourth Quarter Comebacks and Game-Winning Drives are highly subjective. Just because two players have the same number of game-winning drives does not mean they are equally skillful. You have to consider, for example, how often the team has had to play from behind, how big the deficits were, and so on.

This leaves us with seven categories: Completion Percentage, Touchdown Percentage, Interception Percentage, Yards per Attempt, Adjusted Yards per Attempt, Quarterback Rating, and Approximate Value (Pro-Football-Reference.com‘s proprietary rating system). (The remaining category — Yards per Completion — is simply a combination of Completion Percentage and Yards per Attempt, and is therefore superfluous.)

A direct comparison of career totals shows that Manning leads in six of the seven:

Statistic Manning Brady Difference
Completion Rate 65.5% 63.4% +3%
Touchdown Rate 5.8% 5.5% +5%
Interception Rate 2.6% 2.0% +23%
Yards per Attempt 7.7 7.5 +3%
Adjusted Yards per Attempt 7.7 7.6 +1%
Quarterback Rating 97.2 95.8 +1%
Adjusted Value 16.9/season 15.8/season +7%

 

Admittedly, the numbers are remarkably close. Manning throws more touchdowns, but not decidedly so. Brady throws fewer interceptions, although Manning is a touch more accurate overall.

Okay, so Brady and Manning are essentially neck-and-neck. But what about consistency? After all, a quarterback who throws 40 touchdowns one year and 10 the next will have the same average as one who throws 25 touchdowns year after year, yet it should be obvious which would be the preferable signal-caller.

Manning and Brady have played in 11 seasons together, not counting years when one or the other was sidelined by injury: 2001 through 2007, 2009-2010, and 2012-2013.

Peyton Manning
Year Comp% TD% Int% Y/A AY/A QBR AV
2001 62.7 4.8 4.2 7.6 6.6 84.1 15
2002 66.3 4.6 3.2 7.1 6.6 88.8 15
2003 67.0 5.1 1.8 7.5 7.8 99.0 18
2004 67.6 9.9 2.0 9.2 10.2 121.1 21
2005 67.3 6.2 2.2 8.3 8.5 104.1 18
2006 65.0 5.6 1.6 7.9 8.3 101.0 20
2007 65.4 6.0 2.7 7.8 7.8 98.0 17
2009 68.8 5.8 2.8 7.9 7.8 99.9 17
2010 66.3 4.9 2.5 6.9 6.8 91.9 16
2012 68.6 6.3 1.9 8.0 8.4 105.8 15
2013 68.3 8.3 1.5 8.3 9.3 115.1 19

 

Tom Brady
Year Comp% TD% Int% Y/A AY/A QBR AV
2001 63.9 4.4 2.9 6.9 6.4 86.5 12
2002 62.1 4.7 2.3 6.3 6.1 85.7 13
2003 60.2 4.4 2.3 6.9 6.7 85.9 11
2004 60.8 5.9 3.0 7.8 7.6 92.6 16
2005 63.0 4.9 2.6 7.8 7.5 92.3 15
2006 61.8 4.7 2.3 6.8 6.7 87.9 14
2007 68.9 8.7 1.4 8.3 9.4 117.2 24
2009 65.7 5.0 2.3 7.8 7.7 96.2 16
2010 65.9 7.3 0.8 7.9 9.0 111.0 18
2012 63.0 5.3 1.3 7.6 8.1 98.7 18
2013 60.5 4.0 1.8 6.9 6.9 87.3 13

 

As you can see, Manning has been better in each of our categories at least 8 out of the 11 seasons — except for interception percentage, which Brady has won 6 of 11 times. More impressively, Manning was better than Brady in all seven categories for four straight seasons, from 2003-2006, and again in 2013, and bested him in six of the seven in 2009 (the year after Brady’s knee injury). Brady was better in a majority of categories only twice: in 2007, when he won all seven, and in 2010, when Manning surpassed him only in completion percentage (the season before Manning’s neck surgery).

In fact, one of the big points assumed to be in Brady’s favor is his consistency; yet, over those 11 seasons, look at the coefficient of variance (standard deviation divided by average) for each player in each stat:

Statistic Manning Brady
Completion Rate .026 .040
Touchdown Rate .251 .251
Interception Rate .318 .315
Yards per Attempt .076 .081
Adjusted Yards per Attempt .133 .134
Quarterback Rating .102 .107
Adjusted Value .113 .225

 

In every case, Manning has been at least as consistent as Brady, if not more so. To further highlight this, consider the players’ best seasons — in 2007, Brady had what is arguably the best year either has seen in leading the Patriots to a perfect regular-season record. Manning’s 2013 campaign comes close, but not quite. And yet, if you express their stats in terms of standard scores (i.e. numbers of standard deviations above or below the career average), something interesting emerges:

Player Comp% TD% Int% Y/A AY/A QBR AV
Brady (2007) +2.15 +2.44 -1.08 +1.26 +1.72 +2.13 +2.30
Manning (2013) +0.92 +1.72 -1.21 +0.94 +1.37 +1.52 +0.88

 

In nearly every case, Manning’s “great year” numbers are closer to his career averages than Brady’s. In other words, Brady’s 2007 season was possibly the best a quarterback has ever had, but it was more of an outlier than Manning’s only slightly less-impressive 2013 season.

Take names out of it, and ask yourself this question: if you are comparing two players and one (a) has better career numbers, (2) has better season numbers more often than not, and (iii) has maintained the same level of performance year in and year out, who would you conclude was the better player?

As noted at the outset, you cannot reasonably say a quarterback’s sole job is to win games; a quarterback can throw for five touchdowns per game, but if his defense gives up six, he’ll lose every time. That being said, I can feel the doubters out there: “Just win, baby!”

So, we’ll take a quick look at winning.

Using the Pythagorean win percentage, we can look at how many games each player’s teams can be expected to have won based on points scored versus points allowed. Over the 11 seasons both Manning and Brady have been in the league together, their teams have performed as follows:

Player Points For Points Against Estimated Win % Expected Record Actual Record
Manning 4985 3738 .664 117-59 129-47
Brady 4836 3232 .722 127-49 134-42

 

It can be argued that Brady’s one clear advantage is explained by the fact he has had much better defenses on the other side of the ball. Swap them, and this is what you get:

Player Points For Points Against Estimated Win % Expected Record Actual Record
Manning 4985 3232 .736 130-46 ?
Brady 4836 3738 .648 114-62 ?

 

Another point often trotted out in Brady’s favor is the idea of “intangibles”; that he “knows how to win” or somesuch drivel. Frankly, the evidence doesn’t bear that out; if anything, Manning has the advantage here, as well. As shown above, Brady’s teams “should have” won 127 games during those 11 years. In reality, the Patriots won 134 games, or 6% more than expected. Meanwhile, Manning’s teams, projected to win 117 games, actually won 129, or an increase of 10% over the expected win total.

Or, if you don’t like the whole Pythagorean thing, consider this: in their careers, Brady has won 12.4 games per full season as a starter; Manning has won 11.1. Are you really comfortable saying the Patriots’ demonstrably superior defenses (and arguably the most effective head coach of all time) are worth less than 1.3 wins per season?

“Okay,” say the Brady defenders. “We can’t argue with the stats, and Manning seems at least as good at winning. But that’s the regular season; and everyone knows Manning chokes in the Big Game.”

Do we really know that?

Brady has won more playoff games than any other quarterback — but as we’ve said, you can’t lay those wins solely at Brady’s feet, nor can you entirely blame Manning for his teams’ 11 playoff losses. Instead, let’s look at their individual performances in the playoffs:

Player Record PPG Comp% TD% Int% Y/A AY/A QBR
Manning 9-11 23.0 63.2 4.2 2.8 7.5 7.1 88.4
Brady 17-7 25.4 62.3 4.7 2.5 6.7 6.5 87.4

 

Brady throws more touchdowns than Manning in the playoffs, but the difference in interception rates is narrower than in the regular season, while Manning is significantly better in both Y/A and AY/A. Note that both players’ QBRs are the same, relative to each other, from the regular season to the playoffs, so it’s hard to justify claiming either player “chokes” more than the other.

Honestly, when I started this analysis, I assumed I would find the conventional wisdom borne out: Manning would have clearly superior regular-season statistics, while Brady would shine in the playoffs. It turns out both assumptions were wrong. Manning’s performance in the regular season has been consistently better, but not by much. Meanwhile, in the playoffs, Brady’s performance suffers more than it improves relative to Manning’s.

In short, while Brady is a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback, Manning is a notch above. This is not a prediction of the outcome should the Patriots head to Denver next Sunday — the Broncos’ defense is far too questionable for me to put money on that (and that blown 24-0 lead back in November still stings). But in the battle of individual performances, there can be no realistic doubt: Peyton Manning is the best quarterback of his generation.

Oct 072013
 

Scrolling through my Facebook feed this morning, I stumbled across this gem: Broncos-Cowboys game underscores diminishing role of defense in NFL.

OK, so that Broncos game Sunday was very exciting. It kept us all on the edge of our seats, and it certainly enlivened my son’s birthday party. But what about defense?

1381108333000-USP-NFL-Denver-Broncos-at-Dallas-Cowboys

Now, I love a good “kids nowadays” rant as much as anyone. (Don’t get me started on how every one of today’s stars is the “Best. Player. EVAR.”) But I like my arguments to be underpinned by actual… um… whaddaya call ’em?

Oh, right.

FACTS.

The NFL has done everything it can to prevent defenses from doing what they are supposed to do, which is to stop the other team from scoring, not lay down and provide a doormat for them. Offensive linemen are allowed to do all sorts of things that would have been called holding in the past. Defensive backs are severely restricted in what they can do to impede wide receivers.

I’ll leave aside the obvious counter-argument that anyone who supports the Green Bay Packers has no idea what he’s talking about, and simply focus on those pesky facts: this year, the National Football League is averaging 23.1 points per team per game. Remove the ridiculous start by the Denver Broncos, who will likely regress to the mean, and that average is 22.3; or a half-point lower than last season (22.8), and almost identical to 2011 (22.2).

If you want to argue recent rules changes have shifted the league towards the passing game, you can do that. So far this year, 2.32 yards have been gained through the air for every yard gained on the ground; five years ago, the ratio was 1.82:1.

Sadly, Mr. Meyer forsakes the rational argument for one based on his emotional attachment to what he thinks was the game of his youth:

I like old-school football. I grew up watching Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers teams, which included nine Hall of Fame players. They played great defense, and they had a nearly unstoppable running game. They had a Hall of Fame quarterback, but in his five championship seasons Bart Starr averaged 157 yards passing per game. He averaged 13 touchdown passes per season.

Unknowingly, Mr. Meyer completely undercuts his own position, while simultaneously making the case for the current era representing a shift in offensive focus, rather than an upending of the traditional offensive/defensive balance of power. Statistically, Bart Starr’s best year was 1966, when he had a 105.0 passer rating. Like me, I’m sure you are curious to know what the scoring average was that year.

It was 21.7.

That’s right: in the defense-heavy struggles of yesteryear, teams scored 0.1 points per game MORE than were being scored during the decade from 2003-2012. Sure, if you only focus on the last five years, teams are scoring 0.4 points more per game than in 1966; but that’s the equivalent of two additional field goals per season.

Also, for what it’s worth, the scoring average in 1966 represented a slight drop-off from 1965, when the scoring average was… wait for it…

23.1.

You might recognize that number, since it’s the same as we’ve seen through the first five weeks of this season.

So, if scoring isn’t really up in the modern NFL, why do Meyers and so many others persist in making such claims? For one possible answer, consider the following lines from the linked article:

“…They played great defense, and they had a nearly unstoppable running game…”
“…I like watching a good running back wear down a good defense…”
“…great defense, great running game…”

In Meyers’ mind, a good running game and good defense go hand in hand, to the point that the one is interchangeable with the other. He grew up with an NFL in which the running game was much more prevalent than today (although not dominant — the air/ground yardage ratio in 1966 was 1.47:1), yet “remembers” a league in which defense played a bigger role. And that is objectively untrue.

Meyers’ disdain for the passing game reaches its apex here: “…it has become so easy to throw touchdown passes.”

Seriously?

In the past fifty years, the number of passing touchdowns has remained remarkably steady, averaging about 1.3 per game. The coefficient of variance is 10%; that means two-thirds of seasons fell within 10% of the average. Last year, it was a whopping 1.5. Sure; that’s an increase of 15% over the fifty-year average, but so what? That’s one additional touchdown through the air for every five games.

Why does all this matter? Isn’t Meyers just another sloppy sports journalist with column inches to fill?

Perhaps. But arguing for the revocation of rules changes to “correct” a non-existent imbalance is not only farcical, it is downright dangerous when you consider many of those changes were put into effect out of respect for player safety. Maybe the rules make the game safer; maybe they don’t. Regardless, it’s clear they aren’t substantively tilting the game in favor of the offense. (At least not yet.)

You don’t have to like the same things about football that I like. If you would prefer three yards and a cloud of dust, that’s your prerogative. But don’t take your prejudice and dress it up as some existential threat to the very nature of the game.

Jan 132013
 

The Denver Broncos vs Baltimore Ravens AFC Divisional playoff game.Saturday was a great day to be a football fan. It was also a pretty good day to be a Harbaugh brother.

The early game, and we use the term “early” loosely, turned out to be a classic as the Baltimore Ravens edged the Denver Broncos 38-35 in double overtime in the fourth longest playoff game in NFL history. And while that game was wrapping up, the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers were engaged in their own slugfest, which the 49ers eventually took control of as they went on to a 45-31 victory. Here are quick recaps for the two games.

Baltmore Ravens 38 Denver Broncos 35 (2OT)

Justin Tucker kicked a 47 yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime to give Head Coach John Harbaugh’s Ravens a shocking 38-35 win over the host Broncos.

Ray Rice ran for 131 and a score on 30 carries, and Joe Flacco lit up the Broncos’ secondary for 331 yards and three scores, including an inexcusable 70 yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with only 41 seconds remaining to allow the Ravens to force overtime. Torrey Smith also burned Champ Bailey for two big touchdown receptions as the Ravens generated 479 yards of offense.

The Denver loss spoiled an amazing performance by Trindon Holliday, who ran back a first half punt 90 yards for a touchdown and then brought the opening kickoff of the second half back for a 104 yard score.

Peyton Manning struggled for consistency, having a solid first half, but seemingly melting under pressure in the second half and in overtime. Manning was 28/43 for 290 yards and three scored, but threw two costly interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown in the first quarter by Corey Graham, and another that was picked off by Graham near the end of the first overtime that set up the game winning field goal.

While Broncos’ fans will no doubt point to some suspect officiating as costing them some opportunities, there are too many internal causes for the defeat. At the end of the first half the Broncos got the ball back with 36 seconds left on the clock and time-outs in hand, but chose to instead run out the clock. The Broncos similarly had a chance to end the game on a third down play late in the fourth quarter and chose to run the ball on third and seven rather than let Manning try to pass for the first down. But the biggest reason for the Broncos loss was the pitiful play of the secondary, including Champ Bailey getting beat deep twice and Rahim Moore giving up the late bomb to Jones. After the game, Moore said, “It is my fault, plain and simple.” But really the fault rests with a secondary that helped make Joe Flacco looked more like Peyton Manning than Manning did.

Baltimore will now travel to face the winner of the New England Patriots – Houston Texans match-up in the AFC Championship.

San Francisco 49ers 45 Green Bay Packers 31

Four plays into the game, Colin Kaepernick threw an interception that Sam Shields returned 52 yards for a Green Bay touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. But after that, Kaepernick was unflappable, as he threw for 263 yards and two scores, and ran for another 181 yards and two scores as the 49ers dominated the Packers 45-31  at Candlestick Park.

The two teams fought a back and forth battle throughout the first half, with the 49ers taking a 24-21 lead on a David Akers field goal to end the half. After an Green Bay field goal almost midway through the third quarter, San Francisco took control of the game. Kaepernick exploded for a 56 yard touchdown run to put the Niners in front, and then Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon each scored on two yard runs as San Francisco closed the door and advanced to next week’s NFC championship, where they will face the winner of the Atlanta Falcons – Seattle Seahawks contest.

Michael Crabtree had a huge game for San Francisco, catching nine passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, while Gore ran for 119 yards and one score. James Jones caught four passes for 87 yards and a score for the Packers, while Greg Jennings added six catches for 54 yards and one touchdown.

The Green Bay offensive line did a good job of limiting the San Francisco pass rush, limiting the 49ers to one sack and three quarterback hits. But Aaron Rodgers never seemed to get into synch in the contest, and Kaepernick was simply too much for the Packers’ defense. The young quarterback is making Head Coach Jim Harbaugh look like a genius for choosing to start him over veteran Alex Smith. “It feels good. We’re one step closer to where we want to be,” Kaepernick said. “I feel like I had a lot to prove. A lot of people doubted my ability to lead this team.”

Jan 092013
 

Ravens-BroncosThree of the four NFL Divisional Playoff match-ups this weekend are rematches of regular season games that were so one sided that nobody, sans the revenge seeking losers of each game, would clamor to see based on the initial result. Less than a month ago, Denver traveled to Baltimore and opened up a 31-3 lead behind Knowshon Moreno’s 115 yards en route to a 34-17 victory. For the Broncos it was their 9th straight win and also the 9th straight win for Peyton Manning against Baltimore. His mere presence at the helm snapped a 5-game losing streak for Denver in Baltimore and provided further proof that recent Bronco history must receive a separate distinction between pre-Manning and the present. For the Ravens Week 15 this marked the first performance of the Jim Caldwell offense, as Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron in the midst of what would turn out to be a 1-4 stretch to close the regular season.

Both teams arrive at this point, the Divisional round, for the second straight year-albeit under much different circumstances from a season ago. This time last year Denver was riding Tebowmania and an upset of a battered Steelers team in the Wild Card Round. This year Manning is at the helm and the offense has improved from 23rd a season ago to 4th; meanwhile, the defense has made a similar climb from 26th to 2nd. A season ago, Baltimore was the team coming off the bye and would roll into the AFC Championship and land a heartbeat away from a second Super Bowl appearance. Baltimore on the other has seen its defense fall to 17th after a myriad of injuries to Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis (who did not play vs. Denver), and company—its worst ranking since 2002 and only its second time out of the top 10 since 1998. Nonetheless, it was the defense that led the way in a 24-9 Wild Card weekend victory over the Colts to set up a rematch of December 16th—this time in Denver. Baltimore’s road to the Super Bowl in 2000 began with a 21-3 victory over Denver; they will likely need more than history on their side against this Denver team.

The Keys for Baltimore
Joe Flacco needed only 12 completions last week to tally 282 yards and two touchdowns. Baltimore handled the Indianapolis rush extremely well last week and Flacco was sacked only once. Baltimore will need to give Flacco time to use his downfield accuracy. He was able to strike downfield consistently against the Colts, particularly to Anquan Boldin. Boldin was unable to secure a single reception against Champ Bailey and the Denver secondary in the first match-up and will need a performance more reminiscent of last week’s 145 yard effort for the Ravens to find success. The type of protection provided last week was not there for Flacco in the regular season match-up (While sacked only three times he was pressured all day. Boldin and counterpart Torrey Smith combined for just 15 yards between them and their inability to get open compounded things for Flacco. The turning point in that game was when Flacco was pressured into an interception that Chris Harris returned 98 yards. Baltimore fell down too deep in that game to utilize the Bernard Pierce-Ray Rice Combo. The duo rushed for a combined 58 yards in the first meeting. Last week, the tandem rushed for 178 yards—overcoming two Ray Rice fumbles– and will be counted on to take pressure off of Flacco and maintain favorable time of possession. Baltimore will need similar output from the running game minus the fumbles, along with mistake free football from Flacco to pull out the upset.

Fairly healthy for their game against Indianapolis, Baltimore was able to notch 3 sacks and two turnovers with constant pressure on Andrew Luck. The Denver offensive line unit is much more capable than the Colts and yielded only 21 sacks; however, similar pressure will be needed for Baltimore if they are going to force Manning into a rare mistake. In the first match-up—if anything could be taken as a positive—Baltimore’s defense was able to tame Manning for the most part with the exception of a couple of long play action plays that stemmed from Moreno’s effective ground output. The Raven’s can point to Ray Lewis’ 13 tackle performance in his return and the fact that Moreno’s Week 15 performance came in Lewis absence as an indication that they have a true advantage against the Broncos running game. If Baltimore can limit the running game they can limit the play action; in conjunction with a solid pass rush they will then boil things down to their ability to match Denver in man coverage. Last week, despite all the pressure the brought, Baltimore’s secondary did yield 300 yards to Luck. The Raven’s will be counting on their defense to rush the passer similarly to last week and handle Denver in man coverage like they did in the first game. A tall order; but a necessary one if Baltimore is to spring the upset.

The Keys for Denver
Historically, Peyton Manning has had mixed results in the post season against teams he has played (5-6) and defeated in the regular season (2-3). During the regular season meeting with Baltimore he was mostly held in check as Baltimore held him to 204 yards. Incidentally, Knowshon Moreno had his finest performance in what has been mostly a shoddy performance as the starter in Willis McGahee’s absence—his ability to duplicate his 115 yard performance, or even approach it, will be tested with Ray Lewis in the lineup for this match-up. If Moreno comes close it will go a long way toward positioning Denver for a victory. Moreno’s effective running paved the way for an strong play action game that benefited Eric Decker. Decker had 8 catches for 133 yards; however, Demaryius Thomas struggled against Carly Williams and the Baltimore secondary. While Moreno will be counted on to produce on the ground, Thomas will need to step his game up on the outside with a performance more becoming of the 1400 yard receiver he has become. Denver would get a solid boost in the pass game if their line can hold up to Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger in a battle that will pit a top pass protection unit versus a strong pass rush. As stated, Manning has been sacked on 21 times this year and the battle up front has been consistently won by Denver throughout the season.

Denver’s 52 sacks ranked atop in the NFL and they have already experienced the results yielded by Joe Flacco when faced with heavy pressure—a game changing turnover and a completion percentage of 50%. Denver’s will need to continue to get the type of pressure they have gotten in their 11 game winning streak from Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, and company. Meanwhile, the secondary will need to continue its strong play–despite featuring a heavy rush and leaving their secondary in man coverage situations no team was as proficient against the pass on third down in the regular season. This trend must hold true for Denver on Saturday. The Broncos compounded Baltimore’s problems by grounding Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce in Week 15 early and then forcing Flacco into a key mistake that dashed any hope of the Ravens establishing any stability on the ground. Pierce was the more effective back last week, topping over 100 yards while Rice was a mixed bag of big plays and lost fumbles, but Denver’s 3rd ranked rushing attack will need to contain both backs in order to orchestrate a repeat of Week 15.

The Outcome
It is tremendously difficult to locate a distinct advantage that Baltimore has in any key area that can be exploited to foster a victory. The return of Ray Lewis and the defensive momentum garnered against the Colts further tempered by the facts that they were playing an inexperienced Colts team, in Baltimore, which was not yet equipped experience success on the playoff stage. Denver has won 11 in a row…true momentum. Denver certainly yields a talent advantage at running back where Moreno is nowhere near the talent of the Rice/Pierce duo. Nonetheless, their run defense negates even that potential area of strength for Baltimore. It’s hard not to love the game breaking ability of Jacoby Jones and the stellar kicking of Justin Tucker but Baltimore won’t be kicking 7 field goals and returning two kicks for touchdowns.

The stagehands can lower the curtain on Ray Lewis’ career. Denver is better in all aspects and will win going away.

Denver Broncos 31-Baltimore Ravens 17

Oct 072012
 

In the end this game turned out almost exactly as I expected it to. The teams exchanged early touchdowns before the Patriots asserted control over the game for two quarters, and then the Broncos played a frenzied fourth quarter to close the gap to ten points and make the score respectable. And while the Broncos left some opportunities on the field Sunday, including two blunders by Willis McGahee, the game really wasn’t as close as it seemed at the end.

While Peyton Manning outdueled Tom Brady on the stat sheet, it was the Patriots’ dominance in the run game that once again stole the show for the Patriots. Stevan Ridley led the way with 151 yards on 20 carries, while the Patriots amassed 251 total rushing yards on the day and a team record 35 first downs. Brandon Bolden ran for 54 yards and Danny Woodhead added 47, including a huge 19 yard run on a 3rd and 17 play that was instrumental in an early third quarter score as the Patriots opened up a 24-7 lead and turned the Broncos into a one dimensional team for the rest of the contest. On the other side, the Patriots’ defense limited McGahee to just 51 yards on the day. Turnovers were again a problem for the Broncos, as they turned the ball over three times compared to the Patriots’ one.

The Broncos looked like they were going to get off to a fast start when Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for a 43 yard pass play, but the ball was jarred loose by Sterling Moore, who recovered the ball and got the Patriots out of early trouble. After the teams traded punts, the Patriots then drove 84 yards on 12 plays, with Brady eventually connecting with Wes Welker for the first points of the day. The Broncos struck back on the next possession, scoring early in the second quarter when Manning found Joel Dressen for a one yard touchdown pass. The Patriots then began to force their will on the Broncos, taking 14 plays and 6:08 off the clock before Shane Vereen scampered in the last yard for a 14-7 Patriots lead. It was a lead that the Pats would not relinquish.

After the Broncos downed a punt on the Patriots’ two yard line, Brady engineered a 16 play drive to close out the scoring in the first half. Branden Bolden broke off a big 24 yard run and Ridley added a 14 yard run, and the Pats appeared primed to end the half with another touchdown. But a brilliant tackle by Von Miller stopped Bolden for a four yard loss and the Pats were forced to settle for a field goal, going into the half up 17-7.

The defenses asserted themselves at the outset of the second half, forcing each team to punt. But then the Patriots seized control of the game with yet another long, 16 play drive that took over six minutes, and ended with Brady taking the ball the final yard for a 24-7 lead. On the very next offensive play, Rob Ninkovich sacked Manning and forced a fumble, which was recovered by Vince Wilfork. Three plays later Ridley ran for an 8 yard touchdown and a 31-7 lead, and it looked like the rout was on.

Of course playing against Peyton Manning means the rout is rarely if ever on, and Manning began leading the Broncos with some urgency, putting together a 10 yard drive in three and a half minutes that resulted in a beautiful two yard touchdown reception by Eric Decker, and the lead was cut to 31-14. After the Patriots were forced to punt, the Broncos moved the ball to the Patriots’ 47, where they faced a critical fourth and one. Manning hit McGahee for an easy first down play, but McGahee lost concentration and dropped the ball, giving in back to the Patriots with 10:54 remaining. The Patriots then drove to the Broncos’ 37 and faced a 4th and 5. Rather than punting for a short net gain, the Patriots decided to seal the win. Instead, Brady was sacked by Elvis Dumervil and Wesley Woodyard that resulted in a Patriots fumble and a 20 yard loss in the resulting scramble. The Patriots recovered, but it was Denver’s ball on downs. Manning then needed just 6 plays to connect to Brandon Stokely and cut the lead to 31-21.

The Broncos then decided on an ill-advised squib kick instead of kicking away, giving the Patriots great field position at their own 39 yard line. The Patriots then drove to the Broncos 37 after a big 20 yard run by Ridley, who then fumbled on the next play after Mike Adams jarred the ball loose and recovered it for the Broncos. The Broncos needed two scores and Manning completed three of his next six passes to get the Broncos to the Patriots’ 14 yard line, but then Rob Ninkovich came up with his second big impact play of the game, knocking the ball out of McGahee’s hands on the next play, which Jermaine Cunningham pounced on to seal the Patriots’ win.

The victory was Brady’s ninth in 13 games against Manning, but it was the running game and timely defense that propelled the Patriots to victory. Wes Welker caught 13 passes on the day for 104 yards and one touchdown, showing that the rumors of his demise were definitely premature. Rob Gronkowski caught four passes and Brandon Lloyd three as the Patriots’ balanced attack kept the Broncos guessing throughout the game.

Here’s how the game broke down –

When the Patriots ran:

The Patriots rushing attack dominated the Broncos all afternoon,  with Ridley averaging 5.4 yards per carry on his way to 151 yards, and Bolden and Woodhead combining for another 101 yards. Patriots’ blockers were able to seal the edge all day to get outside, and inside runs routinely turned up positive yardage. The Broncos had no answers for the Patriots’ ground game today. Advantage: Patriots

When the Patriots passed:

While it was not a performance for the ages, Brady was generally sharp, connecting on 23 of 31 passes for 223 yards and one touchdown pass. Brady was sacked four times on the day, as the Pats had difficulty with the Broncos’ edge rushers. But time and again when Brady needed a play, he found Wes Welker, who seemed to torch the Broncos at will. Advantage: Patriots

When the Broncos ran:

Willis McGahee was held to 51 yards, and the Broncos overall only managed to rush for 70 yards, and only 3.0 yards per carry. McGahee had one run of 11 yards and Manning scrambled for another 10, but otherwise the Patriots’ snuffed the Broncos rushing attack.. Once the Patriots secured the lead, the Broncos abandoned the run for the remainder of the game, until a key fumble by McGahee sealed the Broncos’ fate. The Patriots knew that shutting down McGahee early would be a key to victory, and they got the job done. Advantage: Patriots

When the Broncos passed:

What I said in my preview turned out to be true. Manning started out sluggishly, figured things out as the game progressed, put up huge stats and still lost the game comfortably. Manning threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns, and was sacked only twice but one of those was a turnover that led to Patriots’ points. Demaryius Thomas had a solid day, catching 9 passes for 188 yards. Jacob Tamme added six catches and McGahee five, but it was Eric Decker’s pretty grab of a two yard Manning touchdown pass despite excellent coverage from Devin McCourty that should see time on the highlight reels. Advantage: Broncos

Special Teams:

Both kicking units had good days, as both Britton Colquitt and Zoltan Mesko were able to turn advantages on field position for their respective teams. Neither return unit made any major errors. Advantage: Tie

Key Moment: Danny Woodhead’s 19 yard run on a 3rd and 17 that helped the Patriots open the game up to a 17 point lead in the third quarter

Game Ball: Stevan Ridley’s 151 yard performance has established him as a bona fide lead back in the Patriots offense and one of the top ten backs in the NFL in this early part of the season

Game Note: Rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was active for the first time this season, and was involved in breaking up a few passes, including a key third down play to Brandon Stokely that forced a Broncos punt. The highly talented player dropped to the seventh round based on character issues, and the Patriots may have found themselves a diamond in the rough.

Oct 052012
 

Not all 2-2 records are equal.

The Denver Broncos are 2-2 after winning in their opener over the Pittsburgh Steelers before dropping the next two games against the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, both of whom are undefeated. Then in Week Four the Broncos thrashed the Raiders 37-6. In the two games they lost the Broncos were down big but rallied back to make the scores respectable, but they didn’t deserve to win either of those games. The Broncos offensive attack is looking good under the direction of a healthy Peyton Manning, but the defense seems to have picked up where it left off last season, giving up 77 points in three games before hammering the Raiders. The Broncos defense is ranked 8th in yards allowed, but 21st in points allowed. The Broncos made some changes in the secondary after their defense wilted at the end of last season, but those changes don’t seem to have significantly improved their defense.

The New England Patriots are 2-2 after winning their opener against the Titans in dominating fashion and crushing the Bills with a huge second half surge, after losing close contests against the Cardinals and the Ravens. A phantom holding call against Rob Gronkowski and a missed field goal doomed the Patriots in Week Two against Arizona, while awful officiating and a squeaky field goal by the Ravens added to defensive lapses and led to their Week Three loss in Baltimore. But despite being off to a shaky start this season, the Patriots are only two plays away from having gotten off to 4-0 start to the season. The offense is beginning to click despite the temporary absence of Aaron Hernandez, and the defense has shown glimpses of being much improved over 2011. The defensive line can bring heavy pressure at times and the front seven is difficult to run against, but the secondary has been spotty to say the least. The problems in coverage are correctable, but it will take some time and the Patriots are unlikely to be able to stop Peyton Manning from having a productive day. The question is, can they slow him down enough to allow their offense to dictate the conditions of the game?

Although the game is being billed as a renewal of the clash of the titans in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, any football fan knows the game is far more contextual than that, and there are matchups all over the field that will determine the course of the game.  Let’s take a look at some of the key areas that will likely decide this contest.

Three keys for the Patriots:

1. Protect Brady

It’s already an old theme, but it holds true. Sebastian Vollmer made Mario Williams pull a vanishing act last Sunday, and the Patriots offense line will again be called on to stop a solid group of pass-rushers. The Broncos have tallied ten sacks to date, led by Von Miller with three sacks and Elvis Dumervil with two and a half. The Patriots scheme their pass protection well and Nate Solder has steadily improved. Donald Thomas filled in admirably last week for Logan Mankins but did allow several big defensive plays and is a poor substitute for the stud left guard. The Broncos occasionally play with a defensive muddle with no down lineman to seek to confuse the offensive linemen and disguise the “mike” linebacker, but this is unlikely to disrupt the Patriots attack.

2. Continue the balanced offensive attack

Part of the success of the Patriots offensive attack last week centered around keeping the safeties off balance, and using the run up the middle to set up passing plays over the middle later. That trend is likely to continue this week because, while the Broncos’ have outstanding defensive ends, they are weak in the middle of the line. Look for Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden to pound the middle in order to set up Gronk and Welker for big plays. If the Patriots’ backs can even come close to replicating last week’s rushing numbers, the Broncos will be in for a long day.

3. Shut down McGahee and the Broncos running game

While the Patriots have always been able to devise coverages that give Peyton Manning fits, Manning eventually figures them out and does his damage. And you can expect him to do so again this Sunday. What becomes critical for the Patriots is to turn the Broncos offense into a one-dimensional unit by shutting down Willis McGahee and Lance Ball. The Broncos are rushing at a rate of 109 yards per game (14th in the league), but the Patriots run defense is already one of the league’s best, giving up 85 yards per game (7th in NFL). Stuffing the run could well be the difference between a close contest and a comfortable Patriots win.

Three keys for the Broncos:

1. Safety play is key

It is essential that Rahim Moore and Mike Adams make good reads and not fall into the same trap that the Bills’ safeties did last weekend. The Patriots are masters at play action passes, and the safeties and the linebackers must be able to quickly diagnose the plays and know their assignments. The Patriots’ offensive scheme is designed to take advantage of match-ups and confusion, and the Broncos could find themselves giving up big chunks of running room, as well as easy completions to Gronk, Welker, and Fells. Beyond safety play, cornerback Champ Bailey is capable of matching up against any type of receiver and could force Brady to look elsewhere throughout the day.

2. Exploit the Patriots’ secondary

After a strong showing against the Titans, the Patriots have proven vulnerable to the passing attack. The Patriots are currently ranked 25th in the NFL, giving up 281.5 yards a game. As long as Manning has protection, he will have a choice of talented receivers in Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Jacob Tamme, and Brandon Stokley. Safety Steve Gregory is likely out, meaning rookie Tavon Wilson is likely to get the start.

3. Hold on to the ball.

The Broncos are currently -4 in the turnover department, a key statistic in winning any football game. Conversely, after four games the Patriots are already a +8 in this category, having a knack for forcing turnovers and for holding on to the ball. The Patriots already have six fumble recoveries and six interceptions in opposition to their own one interception thrown and three lost fumbles. The Broncos have only forced three turnovers in four games, while throwing three interceptions and losing four fumbles. If the Broncos give the Patriots extra possessions and a short field, Peyton can throw for 400 yards and still lose by 21 points.

Prediction

Like many, I am anticipating a fairly high scoring game on Sunday. Having watched all of the Patriots games and a fair amount of the Broncos’ action, I am convinced that the Patriots’ defense has a better chance against Peyton Manning and company than the Broncos’ defense has against Tom Brady and the boys. I expect the teams to trade touchdowns early before the Patriots begin taking control of the ball, conducting long scoring drives and keeping Manning off the field. Manning will be forced to keep up with Brady by the second half, and I expect the Patriots’ pass rush will eventually force key turnovers that will result in a Patriots’ win. Patriots 34 Broncos 24.

Jun 042012
 

So, my Broncos won the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. Yaay!

But what does that mean?

Denver has been in a state of flux at quarterback for over a decade now. Most recently, Tim Tebow was exciting, and he was probably responsible for winning three or four games last season the Broncos would otherwise have lost. It’s also probable that he was responsible for losing two or three games the team would have won with Kyle Orton under center.

Predicting what Peyton’s presence will do for the Broncos this year is a bit complicated — for one, while most observers seem to think he’s back to his pre-injury form, we won’t know for sure until Manning gets hit for the first time. Secondly, Denver has made some other moves in the offseason, the impact of which is yet to be determined.

Instead, I thought it would be fun to speculate what (pre-injury) Peyton’s presence might have done for the Broncos in 2011.

First, a quick recap of the team’s quarterback journey:

  • 1999: John Elway retires. There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth all along the front range. Brian Griese is designated as the heir apparent.
  • 2003: Griese is released for the twin transgressions of (1) failing to prevent Terrell Davis’ ACL injury four years earlier, and (2) not being John Elway. Jake Plummer is brought in to save the team.
  • 2006: Plummer is benched after 11 games in favor of Jay Cutler. Plummer’s benching, which would lead directly to his retirement in 2007, was the result of his heinous crimes of (1) failing to be single-handedly better than the entire Pittsburgh Steelers team in the 2005 AFC Championship, and (2) not being John Elway.
  • 2009: Cutler is abruptly traded to the Chicago Bears in a straight-up swap for Kyle Orton. This trade was instigated by ex-Patriot offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who blames Cutler for not being Tom Brady. The rest of the city goes along with the move, because they can’t forgive Cutler for not being John Elway.
  • 2011: To the surprise of exactly no one, Orton turns out not to be John Elway, either. In despair, the team turns to Tim Tebow, whom many suspect of being Jesus, which is almost as good as being Elway, so why not?
  • 2012: The team signs Peyton Manning, shipping Tebow off to New York without so much as a fruit basket for his efforts. As of press time, some (heretics) are wondering if maybe, just maybe, Manning might be better than Elway was.

And here we are. In some ways, the situation in Denver is not unlike the one in 2003, where a highly-regarded college player is given a shot, only to fall short of expectations, and an established quarterback is brought in from elsewhere to push the team over the top. Of course, Tebow was not Griese, and Plummer was certainly not Manning, but the parallels are interesting.

Okay, enough background. Let’s get to the breakdown of last season. Below is a list of all the regular-season game results, and my predictions (postdictions?) of what would have happened with Manning instead of Orton/Tebow:

Week 1 vs. Raiders (L, 20-23): Manning is certainly worth more than 3 points against the third-worst scoring defense in the league. BRONCOS WIN (1-0)

Week 2 vs. Bengals (W, 24-22): There’s no reason to think Manning’s presence would have done anything but increase the margin of victory. BRONCOS WIN (2-0)

Week 3 at Titans (L, 14-17): Again, a 3-point loss to a middle-of-the-pack team, although this time the defense was ranked 9th in the league. Still, you have to think Manning is worth more than a field goal. BRONCOS WIN (3-0)

Week 4 at Packers (L, 23-49): An ugly, ugly game which set the stage for the eventual switch to Tebow. Manning would have made the game much closer, but the Pack at home are a tough nut to crack. BRONCOS LOSE (3-1)

Week 5 vs. Chargers (L, 24-29): This is one I’m looking forward to in Real Life™; Manning vs. Rivers. Phil isn’t what he used to be, but neither is Manning, and I think the two games they play in 2012 are going to be closely fought and entertaining. In this case, I think Peyton would have turned defeat into victory. BRONCOS WIN (4-1)

Week 6 (BYE)

Week 7 at Dolphins (W, 18-15): Tebow’s first start, and his first “miracle”. A Manning-led team wouldn’t have been down 15-0 in the first place. BRONCOS WIN (5-1)

Week 8 vs. Lions (L, 10-45): A soul-crushing game, one to which people should have paid more attention as the Tebow Train rolled on over the next six weeks. The 2011 Detroit Lions were no juggernaut, but they were clearly better that day. Manning would have made the final score more respectable, and maybe even had a chance to win, but it’s reasonable to assume the outcome would not have changed. BRONCOS LOSE (5-2)

Week 9 at Raiders (W, 38-24): If Tebow can throw up 38 points on the Raiders’ defense, what could Manning have done? BRONCOS WIN (6-2)

Week 10 at Chiefs (W, 17-10): Manning turns a close game into a laugher. BRONCOS WIN (7-2)

Week 11 vs. Jets (W, 17-13): The one benefit Tebow had over his first several games was just how unique his style of play was in the NFL. Given enough time, defensive coordinators can usually come up with a solution for most anything — and they most certainly did for Tebow. However, the Jets game (specifically, the last drive) was one in which it was clear the opponent was expecting something completely different than what they got. Had they been able to prepare for a more traditional passer, they might have had enough to win. At home, I’d have given them the benefit of the doubt. BRONCOS WIN (8-2)

Week 12 at Chargers (W, 16-13): Another game in which I think Tebow’s presence helped more than it hurt. In San Diego, the Broncos always seem to struggle. With Manning under center, it’s entirely possible the Chargers would have come out on top. BRONCOS LOSE (8-3)

Week 13 at Vikings (W, 35-32): This was the game in which Tebow’s fate was sealed. Although it was easily his best passing performance of the year (149.3 rating) and he came out with the victory, he passed nearly four times as often as he ran (15 to 4). The team yardage was more balanced (150 rushing to 202 passing), but the implications were clear: the Broncos knew full well it was only a matter of time before Tebow had to prove himself as a traditional passer. He did well against the Vikings, but the Patriots were looming two weeks down the road… In any event, with Manning, this is still a win. BRONCOS WIN (9-3)

Week 14 vs. Bears (W, 13-10): Tebow extends his streak to six wins, but only with a lot of luck, and some help from Marion Barber. Nevertheless, scoring only 10 points, the Bears are no match for Manning. BRONCOS WIN (10-3)

Week 15 vs. Patriots (L, 23-41): Tebowmania meets Belichick. Belichick wins. Manning has struggled against the Patriots, but I look to the 2009 AFC Championship, and Belichick’s history at Mile High, for guidance on this one. BRONCOS WIN (11-3)

Week 16 at Bills (L, 14-40): The Tebow “magic” is well and truly dead at this point. While the Bills soundly crushed the Broncos in reality, a lot of it may have been a hangover from the previous week. Nevertheless, there’s reason to think that, on the road, the Broncos would have had a similar let-down after Manning led them to what would have been a huge win against New England. BRONCOS LOSE (11-4)

Week 17 vs. Chiefs (L, 3-7): Seriously? BRONCOS WIN (12-4)

The Broncos finish four games better than in reality, but their position in the division remains the same, winning the AFC West. What about the other playoff teams?

The Patriots, due to their loss to the Broncos in week 15, drop to 12-4, tied with the Broncos and Ravens. The Texans are still 10-6, having not played the Broncos. The Steelers are also 12-4, but finish second to the Ravens, while the Bengals remain at 9-7, since they lost to the Broncos both in reality and under Manning.

Had Baltimore not been 12-4, the Broncos would have gotten the top seed due to their head-to-head victory over New England. Because of the three-way tie, however, conference records are used for playoff seeding. Luckily, this also gives the Broncos the top spot (10-2 vs. 9-3 for New England and Baltimore). Playoff seeds are as follows:

  1. Broncos
  2. Ravens[1]
  3. Patriots[1]
  4. Texans
  5. Steelers
  6. Bengals

So, the Broncos and Ravens get a bye week, while the Patriots host the Bengals and the Texans host the Steelers.

AFC WILDCARD 1: I think it’s obvious. PATRIOTS WIN
AFC WILDCARD 2: Houston did beat the Steelers in week 4. TEXANS WIN

The divisional playoffs feature the Broncos hosting the Texans and the Ravens hosting the Patriots.

DIVISIONAL 1: Manning is too much for a team coming off its first ever playoff victory. BRONCOS WIN
DIVISIONAL 2: In reality, the Patriots only managed a 3-point win at home. RAVENS WIN

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Ravens at Broncos. Although Manning is thankful the Ravens eliminated a constant thorn from his side, they are not exactly a pushover. Nevertheless, Baltimore’s strength is its defense, and they never did contain Manning (7-2 record vs. the Ravens). BRONCOS WIN

And, at this point, the NFL giggles like a schoolgirl at the thought of a Manning-vs-Manning Super Bowl…

Okay, clearly, this is hypothetical. Just as clearly, I’m biased. Nevertheless, while others might get different answers, I don’t think my results are unreasonable. I think we can safely say that a fully-recovered (or even mostly recovered) Manning, if he stays healthy, means the difference between yet another slog through the AFC West followed by (if we’re lucky) a summary bounce from the early rounds of the playoffs, and being a serious contender for another Super Bowl ring.

Bring it on!


[1] Based on strength of victory (.484 to .423), since both teams were 3-1 in games against common opponents.

May 222012
 

 

Denver Broncos

Head Coach: John Fox

Projected Starting Quarterback: Peyton Manning

2011 Record:  8 wins, 8 losses (1st in AFC West)

1-1 in postseason (lost in Divisional round)

23rd in Total Offense, 20th in Total Defense

2002-2011 10 year record: 86 wins, 74 losses (T-11th in NFL)

2 wins, 4 loss in postseason

No Super Bowl appearances

2-4 All-time in Super Bowl