Saturday, January 12, 2013

Playoffs?

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

As former Colts coach Jim Mora said back in 2001: "Playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs?!? I just hope we can win a game!".  Well, the playoffs are here.  Joe Flacco and the Ravens roll into frigid Denver to take on Peyton Manning in what should be a cake-walk to a home game for the AFC Championship for the Broncos.  Expect Ray Lewis to go out with his head hung low as Manning is likely salivating thinking about attacking Lewis on the field in man-to-man and zone match-ups, like the Colts did last week. Saturday night marquee has the mighty San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers in an epic battle of the top defense against an explosive offense. For San Francisco, the defense has create turnovers, and take over the clock and keep Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines with Frank Gore because an untested Colin Kaepernick is going to have his hands full in his first playoff game.

Sunday brings the surprising Seattle and rookie Russell Wilson face off in Georgia against the heavily-favored, famously flailing in the playoffs Atlanta Falcons who are already down John Abraham on defense and look like they may forget to show up in the playoffs for the third year in a row.   Then, the rematch! Houston versus New England; One up, one down; or, as Admiral Ackbar shouted in Return of the Jedi: "It's a trap" (game).

One problem in sports is having a team ready to play with confidence versus over-confidence in the playoffs. On the sports talk radio dial, the 2010 season versus the Jets in the AFC Divisional Round has been bandied about, and with good reason. Like the Jets in 2010, the Texans did not look dominant in the Wild Card round, as the Jets barely edged a flawed Colts team and the Texans hung on against a self-destructing Bengals squad last week.  Like in 2010, the Patriots hung 40+ points in a blow-out (45-3 in 2010 versus the Jets, 42-14 just one month ago on Monday night against the Texans).  What the Patriots have to have done these past two weeks (nothing now is going to change it) is to have buried that game in December.  Maybe pull out the old trick from 2001 when he buried the football labeled 1-3 and had players kick dirt on the hole to symbolically bury the past (Rex Ryan actually stole this trick for the 2010 AFC Divisional Round match-up burying a game ball from the 45-3 debacle). 

The Patriots have their biggest problem when they are heavy favorites and an expectation of victory.  In 2010 versus the Jets, remember that was the stupid Wes Welker
foot fetish joke leading to him being benched the first series. They came out and Brady threw that stupid interception to LB David Harris and sacks allowed, bad passes, and non-typical ineptitude on offense.  Typical over-confidence and then inability to recover once they got punched in the mouth.   What the Jets did in that playoff game in 2010 was mixing their blitz looks against Brady.  Just as what the Patriots did to Peyton Manning and the Broncos early in the season this year, they show blitz and then drop back into extra coverage.  Against the Jets, Brady's pre-snap reads were wrong as blitzers backed into coverage and Brady spent too much time holding the ball waiting for someone to try to work open.  


Expect Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and Texas to try to modify that game plan by disguising blitzes and dropping multiple defenders into coverage.  I expect they will blitz, but selectively.  Rather, they will try to get pressure with 3 or 4 rushers and flood the zones to take out Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez.  With Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph healthier than he was last month, that is another weapon for the defense against the Patriots.  No one has been talking about this, but Joseph is a top cornerback, one of the best in the game, and was severely limited when he tried to play last month.  Now much healthier, the Texans have a real weapon in the secondary that was missing in the second half of the season.  Ask Cincinnati, who had problems finding their top weapon A.J. Green last week in the Wild Card round as Joseph had him locked down.

On offense, the Patriots need to do what they do best: Run when the run is there, and take advantage of match-ups in the passing game.  Glover Quin is a good coverage safety for the Texans, but if Pats tight end Rob Gronkowski is healthy enough, Quin is going to learn the difference between Gronk and that joker tight end in Cincy, Jermaine Grisham who couldn't even catch a cold.  Of course, if Quin is on Gronk, who covers the elusive other tight end, Aaron Hernandez?  Having both tight ends back on the field finally allows the Patriots to utilize their best weapons with the two tight ends, Wes Welker inside, and Brandon Lloyd on the edge, likely left one-on-one with Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph with safety help focusing on the middle of the field.

Brady has to continue to be quick with his decisions, and the running backs have to stand out.  Not just rushing the ball, but catching the ball.  Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen can catch the ball and make plays in space, but to really take it to the defense, Steven Ridley has to be able to get open when coming out of the backfield and make plays when given the opportunity.  Scoring early and often is huge against the Texans, as they are built to get a lead, and then work the clock with running back Arian Foster and utilizing their tight ends in the short passing game to convert first downs and eat the clock.  

The Texans are going to take shots deep against the Patriots secondary (they would be stupid not to do so) and run Foster on the stretch play again and again.  If the Patriots defense is playing with a lead, they tend to better settle down and be patient in their rush reads. Gap control and setting the edge is no doubt being hammered into the Patriots front seven in the film room and on the practice field.  The Patriots need to take away the cut-back lanes for Foster, and then attack the football and try to force turnovers when they have the chance.  Turnovers have been the bread-and-butter of the defense all year: That needs to continue to get a short field and easy points for the offense.

Texans quarterback Matt Schaub in one of those "enigmas wrapped in a riddle" quarterbacks.   Does he come out an throw four interceptions? Does he come out and throw four touchdowns? Consistency can be an issue.  He looked uncomfortable against the Bengals last week, and the best way to keep him that way is to get some pressure on him.  Hit him early and often, and get him rattled.  If Schaub gets comfortable and in rhythm, he can put up 400 yards passing.  Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones needs to make plays in the backfield when the opportunity presents itself.

No one should expect the Patriots to win 42-14 again.  It is possible, but not likely.  The Texans have the advantage of seeing everything they did wrong, as well as what they did right (remember those 4 straight three and outs on offense by the Patriots in the middle of the game).  At this point, the 8 best teams are playing, and the games tighten up.  Execution on offense and defense (and solid special teams play) are what wins.  Take advantage of turnovers by the defense and prevent them on offense.  The Patriots have the weapons to win, but they cannot be overconfident coming into the game.  If they focus and execute, they should be ready to pack their bags for Denver next week. 

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