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

Jan 042013
 

Ravens-ColtsThe disintegration of the already tenuous relationship between Joe Flacco and the Baltimore fans has continued its downward trajectory along with the Ravens record after Baltimore’s 9-2 start gave way to a 1-4 finish. Nevermind Flacco’s 54-26 record in Baltimore or that since taking over as a rookie in 2008 he has become the only QB in history to lead his team to at least one post season victory in each of his first four seasons. It has gone virtually unmentioned the Flacco has improved in every single major statistical category from 2011 to 2012; as it’s the drop in wins from last season’s 12 to 10 that has the championship thirsty city on edge. His 309 yard 2 TD performance in Baltimore’s week 16 decimation of the Giants seemingly has gone unnoticed. Perceptions couldn’t have changed more dramatically than they have for Flacco who less than a calendar year ago executed a near perfect 2 minute drive in the AFC Championship only to have the NFL gods strike down and snatch victory at the last moment. Nonetheless, for the fifth time in Flacco’s five years—and second as division champion-the Ravens are heading to the playoffs.

For the opposing side, the Colts Andrew Luck has earned in 16 games a level of adulation from the city of Indianapolis seemingly reserved for the likes of only Peyton Manning. His 7 game winning drives are the most by an NFL QB since 1970 and no rookie in this stellar class has been asked to do more downfield with so little in the backfield (there is no Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris, Trent Richardson, or even Reggie Bush in the Colt lineup). Luck had dropped back nearly 650 times and only 4 QBs have been sacked more, nevertheless, Luck has nearly single-handedly resuscitated and transformed a team that was 2-14 just a year ago into an 11-5 contender.

In the 28 years that have elapsed since Robert Irsay drew the ire of the city of Baltimore by jetting for Indianapolis in a move that made economic sense and Jim Irsay drew equal ire from the city of Indianapolis by jettisoning Peyton Manning (another fiscally prudent move) much has changed. Manning brought a pair of AFC Titles and a Super Bowl to Indianapolis and Art Modell brought a team and title to Baltimore. As playoff opponents this marks the third meeting between the two franchises. The first two acts took place in Indianapolis and left much to be desired as Baltimore has managed only 12 points total. The most recent post season matchup with the two ended in a 20-3 Indy route in 2010 and marked Manning’s final victory in a Colt uniform.

The Keys for Indianapolis
Lining up for their 17th game, don’t expect wholesale differences for the Colt’s or any other team for that matter this late in the season (i.e. the Colts will not suddenly develop the ability to control the line of scrimmage or add a ground game to add balance to their attack). More than a touch of Luck will be required for the Colts to move on and they will need Luck to be every bit the quarterback that passed for more than 4,300 yards, was rivaled by only Flacco for most 20-plus yard completions, and posted 7 game winning drives.

The Colts will have their hands full handling Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs and the only hope to improve on the 104 yards per game they rushed for is if Anthony Castonzo can withstand Ngata’s pressure versus the run. Unfortunately for the Colts, RB Vick Ballard has only one carry of over 25 yards this season and Ngata spent week 17 re-charging his batteries. Factor in the return of Ray Lewis and it is likely the Colts will be at their one dimensional worst.

The Colts will have to do anything they can to factor in as many five-man routes as possible, giving Luck as many options as possible. His ability to get the ball deep has been a revelation considering the lack of a ground threat and while his tendency has been to go deep he will need check down options available. Luck’s ability to dissect the Ravens’ defense will be pertinent, and he has the perfect coaching scenario to help him identify those keys and giveaways. Chuck Pagano—prior to taking the Colts job—took a tour as defensive coordinator in Baltimore and knows their personal better than anyone.

The Colts 28-16 victory last week against Houston marked their first win over a winning team since early October and came despite being outgained by over 100 yards. Yet, Luck was able to do enough to exploit the secondary to notch the win in Pagano’s return. If Luck can continue his third down success that has masked the run deficiencies and the Colts utilize the other subtle qualities they bring into the game—namely returner Deji Karim’s recent explosiveness and Pagano’s knowledge of the opposition—they can find a way. It has been just that, the ability to find a way, which has positioned them at 11-5 despite being the only team in the post-season with a negative scoring differential.

Defensively the Colts will need to do what they can to limit Rice’s effectiveness between the tackles; if they can force him outside they can utilize what is perhaps their only asset against the run—their sideline to sideline speed. Like Luck, Joe Flacco has been victimized by a leaky offensive line. The Colts will hope to touch up Flacco and will need Vontae Davis to build on his two interception performance of last week and match up with speedster Torrey Smith.

The Keys for Baltimore
While defense has been the Baltimore calling and the names Suggs, Reed, Ngata, and Lewis still appear on the marquee a win for the Ravens will likely have to be attributed to the ability to exploit obvious weaknesses in the Colt defense. The Colts defense has allowed 137.5 rushing yards per game. While solid in pursuit, they fail to hold up well versus running backs that do damage between the tackles. Enter Ray Rice: the Ravens have won 23 of the 26 games when Rice has at least 25 carries. The Ravens will look to establish strong play by their tackles to allow Rice to control the pace of the game and effectively approach that 25 carry magic number.

In the passing game, the same group of tackles that will be key to springing Rice to a good game on the ground will have to do a better job than they have this year of protecting Flacco. When protected, Flacco can be accurate and effective and the Baltimore offense more than efficient. The Ravens thrashed the Giants for 533 yards in week 16 and, despite all the late season offensive turmoil, have averaged nearly 32 points per game at home. Baltimore has their own man from the other side in Jim Caldwell who manned the Colts sideline in both a tight Super Bowl loss and last season’s 2-14 debacle. Caldwell has spent the last month calling the plays for Baltimore and though results have been mixed he does have knowledge of Colt personnel.

There is not enough that the Colts can do to gain effectiveness against a Raven’s defense that will look to feed off of the emotional return to the lineup of Ray Lewis. While the Baltimore defense has lost a step or five they still hold enough advantages to boil things down to one focus: the ability of Ed Reed and the secondary to ground the third down passing attack that has been at the crux of Luck’s ability to bail out the Colts offense all season long.

The Outcome
The Pagano story has rightfully captured the hearts of NFL fans everywhere and has made the Colts a post season rooting favorite for fans that don’t have a horse in this race otherwise. If the sentiment of Ray Lewis potentially playing his last game at home can be trumped then it is Pagano’s remarkable return to the sideline after battling leukemia that has deserving done so. Though the luster seems to have faded from Baltimore many weeks ago it will be quite a challenge for the Colts to do what no team has done in the Flacco era and the Ravens to a winless post season.

Is Luck enough to lead a team that takes the field with 28 men playing their first postseason game? Baltimore is better on defensive and their running game foils the Colts direct weakness against the run. Furthermore, Jacoby Jones and the elite return game has the potential to exploit Indianapolis’ struggling coverage unit. This will be Ray Lewis’ last home game, but it won’t be his last game. The Ravens have too many advantages and they are at home. This week being pretty good is better than having ‘Luck’ on one’s side.

Baltimore 30 – Indianapolis 21

Dec 122012
 

This week the New England Patriots reinforced why we moved them into the top spot two weeks ago, with a solid 42-14 thrashing of the Houston Texans. Coupled with the Falcons falling to the Panthers, and there is some shifting at the top of our rankings this week. With three weeks to go, some teams appear to be emerging from the pack, and the AFC is faring surprisingly well, given the dominance of the NFC in inter-conference play this season.

Here are our rankings through Week 14.

1. New England Patriots (10-3, U, W7) – First #2 Houston and now #3 San Francisco; can the Pats hang on to the top spot?

2. Denver Broncos (10-3, +3, W8) – They look ready for the post-season, but face a tough test against the Ravens this week

3. San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1, +1, W1) – The Patriots offer some challenges for the new 49ers phenom

4. Houston Texans (11-2, -2, L1) – So how did those letterman jackets work out?

5. Atlanta Falcons (11-2, -2, L1) – Matt Ryan wasn’t telling anyone to get the $#%$ off the field in Charlotte

6. New York Giants (8-5, U, W1) – Osi thinks they are the best, but had to qualify it with “if we play the way we are capable of playing”; Talk is cheap, Osi… consistency is better

7. Green Bay Packers (9-4, +1, W2) – The Packers have a running game? Who knew?

8. Indianapolis Colts (9-4, +1, W3) – They don’t have to win pretty as long as they keep winning

9. Baltimore Ravens (9-4, -2, L2) – Jim Caldwell has never called plays; is he really the answer for the struggling offense?

10. Seattle Seahawks (8-5, +2, W2) – Let me get this right… the Seahawks ran up the score? The Seahawks?

11. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6, -1, L1) – So they get Ben back and lose? Quarterback controversy! (just kidding)

12. Washington Redskins (7-6, +3, W4) – Now we know why they drafted Kirk Cousins too

13. Cincinnati Bengals (7-6, -2, L1) – That wasted opportunity may come back to bite them in Week 16

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7, -1, L3) – We wanted to believe, but three straight losses has this team on the outside looking in

15. Chicago Bears (8-5, -1, L2) – You knew it was just a matter of time before Jay Cutler stated getting beat like a drum again

16. Dallas Cowboys (7-6, U, W2) – Emotional win doesn’t make up for the Cowboys weaknesses

17. Minnesota Vikings (7-6, +1, W1) – Just when we thought they were done, they find a way to become relevant again

18. St. Louis Rams (6-6-1, +1, W3) – Jeff Fisher has his team believing; if they win out that tie could be the deciding factor

19. New Orleans Saints (5-8, -2, L3) – It took about twenty minutes for Brees to come out with a snarky statement about the bounty decision as he continues to defend the indefensible; just shut up already, Drew

20. New York Jets (6-7, +4, W2) – Beating the Jaguars doesn’t exactly cure their ills, but it gives Rex another week to pretend that they don’t exist

21. Cleveland Browns (5-8, +2, W3) – Any more wins this season, and Fat Jesus is going to have to write a retraction piece about Pat Shurmer

22. Buffalo Bills (5-8, -2, L1) – Remember when some of us thought the Bills might be a playoff contender? Yeah, we’re trying to forget that too…

23. San Diego Chargers (5-8, +2, W1) – If Norv sells that game ball, he might get enough to cover his moving expenses

24. Miami Dolphins (5-8, -2, L2) – The Dolphins find it ‘disrespectful’ when a team successfully runs the same play over and over; this isn’t Madden – if you don’t like it…. stop it

25. Detroit Lions (4-9, -4, L5) – Whether or not Ndamukong Suh is a dirty player, he certainly has exhibited punk behaviors both on and off the field

26. Carolina Panthers (4-9, +1, W1) – Greg Hardy returned the favor to the Falcons this week; this team could close at 7-9

27. Tennessee Titans (4-9, -1, L3) – Remember when some of us thought the Titans might be a playoff contender? Yeah, we’re trying to forget that too…

28. Philadelphia Eagles (4-9, +2, W1) – Is Gruden a possibility for the Eagles? And by Gruden, we mean Jay…

29. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11, U, L2) – So the Jags lost twice in the Timmy Sweepstakes

30. Kansas City Chiefs (2-11, +1, L1) – Anyone else think that Dwayne Bowe is excited to be headed to the IR?

31. Arizona Cardinals (4-9, -3, L9) – And suddenly Brian Hoyer is the best quarterback on the roster

32. Oakland Raiders (3-10, U, L6) – Can a visit from the Chiefs help them escape from our basement?