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Playoff pretenders and contenders
It’s been a transitional season in the NFL. Of the 12 teams in the playoffs, fully half will enter with quarterbacks in their first or second seasons in the league. Yet when you look at quarterbacks of the teams to beat, you see all the usual suspects — Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. So while there are some new faces on the scene, it’s probably not time to announce a changing of the guard just yet.
Here’s an overview of how I rate the playoff teams, from No. 12 to No. 1, going into the postseason:
No. 12 – Minnesota
The much-maligned, second-year quarterback Christian Ponder has been playing his best football recently, but this is still a team that rides on the shoulders of Adrian Peterson. It’s hard to see how that’s going to be enough in Green Bay this weekend. Safety Harrison Smith has been a rock during his rookie season, helping hold together a mostly nondescript, inexperienced secondary. But if anyone is going to take advantage of that lack of experience, it’s Aaron Rodgers. The Vikings can’t afford to play from behind, especially in Lambeau against the Packers. Ponder is athletic, but he still makes too many bad decisions on the run. Looks like one and done for Minnesota.
No. 11 – Indianapolis
The Colts are the feel-good underdog story of the year in the NFL. Last year’s 2-14 corps received a transfusion, especially on offense, where the Colts have used no less than nine rookies for much of the season. The obvious standout has been Andrew Luck, who proved his mettle to his teammates with his humble demeanor and hard-working ways, and has proved himself a fierce competitor on the field. United in their devotion to head coach Chuck Pagano, who spent much of the season fighting leukemia, and sky-high after beating the Houston Texans last Sunday, the Colts will come into the game on an emotional high. But for all his talents, Luck had 18 interceptions (only Drew Brees and Tony Romo surrendered more, at 19 each), and has to limit his mistakes if Indy hopes to advance. This team will be a formidable force for years to come, but they don’t run the ball or stop the run very well, and that figures to be their undoing against the Ravens.
No. 10 – Houston
No team’s stock has fallen further in the past month. They don’t have much confidence after losing three of their last four games. Defensively, J.J. Watt is my player of the year. In last year’s playoff against the Bengals, he had a sack, forced a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown. Cincinnati will have to account for him on every play. For all Watt’s brilliance, the Texans are really missing Brian Cushing. Offensively, Matt Schaub has not looked sharp this past month and the Texans are crying for a viable weapon opposite Andre Johnson, who’s been double-covered since August.
No. 9 – Seattle
Pete Carroll is my coach of the year. Seattle went after the league’s most sought-after free agent other than Peyton Manning in Matt Flynn and then, after rookie QB Russell Wilson outplayed Flynn in the preseason, Carroll had the confidence to start him ahead of Flynn. You can’t argue with the results. Seattle has scored 170 points in its last four games — 30 more than anyone else in the NFL in that span — and Wilson has proved to be a level-headed, charismatic quarterback. But the Seahawks are a different team away from home. They have the best secondary in the NFL, but the front seven will be hard-pressed trying to contain both Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris when they face the Redskins.
No. 8 – Washington
The Redskins have the best play-action passing game I’ve seen in many years — Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris execute the fake perfectly and the receivers are adept at getting open quickly. The Redskins also put major stress on defenses with their zone read and option read variations. If the defensive end comes inside to take Morris, RG3 pulls the ball back and loops outside; if the end stays outside, Griffin hands off to Morris. One mistake by a defensive player, and the Redskins are out of the gate for a big play. RG3, although he’s a little banged up and clearly not 100 percent, is still a proficient passer and a dangerous runner. While the Redskins have been banged up on defense, they’ve made up for it with coordinator Jim Haslett’s ingenious schemes. They use a great zone blitz package that can confound quarterbacks into making bad throws, as witnessed by Tony Romo’s three picks Sunday night.
No. 7 – Cincinnati
The Bengals have won seven out of eight and are entering the postseason on a hot streak, much like the Giants did on their way to winning the Super Bowl last year. Over the second half of the season, Cincinnati leads the NFL in scoring defense, giving up just 12.8 point per game. The Bengals return to Reliant Stadium in Houston, where they were eliminated by the Texans last year. What’s changed is that Andy Dalton has another year of experience, the defense is stronger against the run and the offensive line has matured into one of the most physically dominating lines in the league (they aren’t the best technicians, but they can pound you). Cincinnati also has the most dangerous receiving weapon in the playoffs in A.J. Green, who has been close to uncoverable. He will be used in all three phases of the passing game – short, intermediate and long.
No. 6 – Baltimore
This is a savvy, veteran team with solid leadership on both sides of the ball. Joe Flacco’s taken heat for his game, but they’re playing better under Jim Caldwell, who’s been able to use a more balanced offensive approach. He’ll make sure that Ray Rice gets his touches. We’re not necessarily talking carries, but overall touches, using whatever means are at their disposal — screens, flats “Texas” routes, anything to get him in space. On defense, you have to give the Ravens credit for playing without three of their star defenders — Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb — for much of the year. Webb will be sorely missed in the playoffs, as he was easily the Ravens’ best cornerback. I think they’ll beat the Colts fairly easily, but will have a tough road from there. But this is one of the rare teams that knows how to win on the road in January.
No. 5 – San Francisco
Jim Harbaugh’s gone out on a limb. Instead of sticking with veteran Alex Smith, he’s elevated second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who adds another dimension. But that variety comes with a cost — the 49ers were actually averaging more yards per game and turning the ball over less under Smith. Harbaugh will be second-guessed roundly if the offense goes flat in the playoffs. The 49ers offer the same offensive diversity that the Redskins do — with some of the same zone read and option plays in their arsenal — with the added benefit of Michael Crabtree, who’s finally given them a legit No. 1 receiver. What the 49ers have that Washington doesn’t is the most complete defense in the playoffs, although that does come with an asterisk. Aldon Smith has been a terror on the edge for the 49ers, leading the NFL in sacks. But he’s not the same player without Justin Smith manning the middle; with Justin out the past two-and-half games, Aldon has been a non-factor.
THE TEAMS TO BEAT
No. 4 – Atlanta
No team is under more pressure this postseason than the Falcons, still trying to get the monkey off the backs of Matt Ryan and Mike Smith. (But remember — this is Ryan’s fifth season; it took Peyton Manning five years to win a playoff game.) The Falcons elected to play their starters in Week 17, and both Dunta Robinson and John Abraham left with injuries. It’s yet to be seen whether they’ll be able to play in the first playoff game. The bye week certainly helps. Atlanta had home-field advantage two years ago as well, but watched its secondary get torched by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The defense is better now. It will need to be.
No. 3 – Green Bay
Aaron Rodgers places the ball better than any quarterback in the league. His touchdown throw to Jordy Nelson last weekend was the perfect example of “throwing a guy open.” Green Bay will be playing Minnesota for the third time in six weeks. But great teams make the necessary adjustments and I don’t think they’ll let Adrian Peterson have another huge game. Instead, they’ll find a way to make Christian Ponder try to beat them with his arm. Green Bay isn’t balanced, and going 48 straight games without a 100-yard rusher may come back to bite them, especially if they have to play a game in bad weather. But Rodgers keeps them in every game. He’s the best red-zone quarterback in the NFL because of his ability to break the pocket and run. Two years ago, Green Bay won the Super Bowl with a leaky defense that forced big turnovers when it had to. The Packers will need to do the same this year to get to the Super Bowl.
No. 2 – New England
What makes this Patriots team different from those in the past is a legitimately good run game with Stevan Ridley — they are 12-0 when they get more than 100 yards rushing. (And 0-4 when they don’t.) The Patriots also have a league-leading turnover differential of plus-25 and a defense coming off its first shutout in three seasons. The secondary is still a vulnerability, but with Tom Brady manning the controls, the Patriots can win any shootout.
No. 1 – Denver
The Broncos did it with smoke, mirrors and Tim Tebow last season. John Fox deserves credit for winning consecutive division titles with two vastly different quarterbacks playing entirely different systems. Peyton Manning has Denver — winners of 11 straight — playing the best football of all the teams in the field. They’re not invulnerable; Willis McGahee’s injury may hurt them, as you get a sense the team doesn’t entirely trust Knowshon Moreno just yet. But the Broncos are the most balanced team in football — they have an explosive offense and a stout defense to back it up. Von Miller may be the most complete linebacker in the NFL. He can rush the passer, hold the edge against the run, even drop back into coverage when needed. Anyone who beats Denver will have to play their best game of the season to do it.