With the 2014 NFL regular season officially in the books, it's time to start talking playoffs. The Patriots have earned the right to sit this weekend out and watch how the AFC field unfolds. Since we'll be doing the same here at PatriotsLife, I've taken the liberty of breaking down each of the two AFC games, with an eye towards what each outcome would mean for the Patriots.
Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
It doesn't get more intense than when hated division rivals like this cross paths in the postseason. These two split their head-to-head matchups in the regular season, with each team scoring a convincing win at home.
Pittsburgh will surely miss Bell's prolific production
Predicting how this one will play out is made more difficult by the uncertainty injuries have created at key spots for both team's offenses. Pittsburgh has already ruled out star running back Le'veon Bell, he of the 2,215 total yard season, thanks to a hyper-extended right knee suffered in Week 17. LeGarrette Blount was Pittsburgh's original plan B in case of an injury to Bell, but the Patriots pounced when the Steelers cut him loose. With Blount out of the picture, the Steelers signed Ben Tate, an undeniably talented runner whose attitude led to his release by both Cleveland and Minnesota this year, to provide some insurance for Bell this week. There's an obvious drop-off talentwise from Bell to Tate, but Tate has always been a tough tackle and is familiar with the types of stretch zone runs that have been a Steeler staple from his time in Houston.
Steeler nation may be hoping that Tate can keep the running game afloat with Bell out, but Bell's absence will certainly be felt in the passing game. Tate doesn't come close to Bell as a pass catcher or pass protector, and quarterback Ben Roethlesberger has taken full advantage of the second-year breakthrough star's excellence in the passing game. Losing a back of Bell's caliber will especially hurt going against a team with pass rushers like Baltimore's Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs, as the screen game would likely be a critical counter to the Ravens pass rush if Bell was fully healthy.
Pass protection is an even bigger concern for Baltimore, who lost both of their starting offensive tackles to injuries during Week 16's blowout loss to the Texans. Right tackle Ricky Wagner landed on season-ending IR with a lisfranc injury, while left tackle Eugene Monroe's ankle injury was severe enough to keep him out last week despite a playoff berth being on the line. This prompted the team to start undrafted rookie James Hurst at left tackle, while moving standout guard Marshall Yanda to right tackle and John Urschel into Yanda's vacated right guard spot for the regular season finale against Cleveland. All three held their own in the win, although Hurst was abused by the Texans for 3 hits and 2 hurries the week prior.
It remains to be seen how the lineup will fall into place for Saturday's night. If Monroe plays, will Hurst swap sides to replace Wagner at right tackle? Or will they opt to keep Yanda out of position at right tackle, with Urschel staying in the lineup at guard?
The answer will likely go a long way towards determining whether Flacco can recover the magic he found last time Baltimore made the postseason. Flacco has gotten into a nice rhythm over the season's second half playing in Gary Kubiak's quarterback friendly offense, throwing 11 touchdowns against only four picks in the last seven weeks. Those numbers are even more impressive when considering three of those picks came in the Houston loss, a game in which Flacco had little chance from the get-go due to poor protection.
However, Flacco has enjoyed great protection for most of the season, and that Houston game served as a reminder of what can happens to Flacco when he gets pressured too much. No quarterback enjoys getting pressured, but few see their performance affected as drastically by pressure as Flacco. When given time in the pocket, Flacco's numbers look like those of a quarterback worthy of his massive contract: 70.6% completions, 7.8 yards per attempt, 22 touchdowns against only 7 picks. Under pressure, that completion dips all the way to 40.6%, with his yards per attempt dropping to 5.6 and his interception percentage skyrocketing.
Pressuring Flacco takes on an added importance for the Steelers given the state of their secondary. The Steelers defense has gotten by this year thanks to good play from front seven standouts like Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Haywood, Jason Worilds and the reborn James Harrison, but age has caught up to many of the veterans in a porous secondary. Baltimore has no superstars in it's passing game, but the solid group of receivers Steve Smith Sr and Torrey Smith, tight end Owen Daniels and sure handed back Justin Forsett are certainly good enough be able to make plays against this Pittsburgh secondary if Flacco is afforded enough time to find them.
Stopping Forsett and the ground game is key against Baltimore
Baltimore running back Justin Forsett's breakthrough season has turned what initially looked like a weak running game into a strength for the Baltimore offense, and he might have to carry an even bigger load this week. Establishing the run would be a great way to help the offensive line get settled in, no matter who winds up in the lineup, and would also help to lessen the burden on Flacco to carry the offense. Many of the staples of Kubiak's passing strategy (play action, bootlegs, etc) are built to play off the effects a successful running game has on a defense. Shut down Baltimore's running game, and their offense tends to crawl to halt; it's no coincidence that Forsett was practically invisible during the first three quarters of Sunday's game, a stretch in which Cleveland was able to hold the Ravens to only three points. For what it's worth, Pittsburgh has looked vulnerable this year against the run, allowing 4.4 yards per carry for the season.
Baltimore, meanwhile, has boasted one of the league's stingiest run defenses, and they could gain a major advantage if they can make a Bell-less Pittsburgh offense one-dimensional. Baltimore has a deep group of run stuffers on the interior of it's defensive line, with excellent nose tackle Brandon Williams joined by Haloti Ngata, rookie Timmy Jernigan and veteran Chris Canty. They're backed up by one of the league's top linebacking duos in underrated veteran Daryl Smith and standout rookie CJ Mosley, both of whom are tacking machines who will clean up just about whatever gets through the defensive line. Running to the outside is difficult as well, as the Ravens boast a number of excellent edge setters in Terrell Suggs, Pernell McPhee and Courtney Upshaw.
As strong as that front seven is, Baltimore's secondary is a glaring weakness that hasn't been present in past incarnations of their ferocious defenses. Few teams in football have been hit with injuries in one positional group as hard as Baltimore's defensive backs, as the Ravens have already placed 6(!) defensive backs on injured reserve this year. They still have star corner Lardarius Webb, who has started to round into form after struggling earlier in the year in his return from a back injury, but the depth behind him is very limited. Starting across from Webb is Rashaan Melvin, a second-year pro who was plucked off of the Dolphins practice squad in November. Melvin has held his own so far, but has also only played against the toothless passing attacks of Jacksonville, Houston and Cleveland. Behind those two are journeyman Anthony Levine and Matt Elam, a 2013 first round pick at safety whose struggles in coverage earned him a spot on the bench.
Brown is a dynamic threat in the open field
Asking those guys to hang in there in coverage against Pittsburgh's explosive passing game could be a tall task. Webb will presumably match up with Antonio Brown, who for my money has been the best receiver in the NFL this season, but that leaves Baltimore with no proven options to deal with solid second receiver Markus Wheaton or explosive rookie big play threat Martavis Bryant. Throw in the steady contributions of seemingly ageless tight end Heath Miller, and it appears that Pittsburgh's best chance in this game will be to spread it out and exploit the mismatches in Baltimore's secondary.
As you can see, both of these AFC North rivals have legitimate flaws that could be exploited come Saturday night. A road win from Baltimore will set up yet another playoff clash between the Ravens and Patriots in Foxborough, with the Pats looking to avoid a repeat of the 2012 and 2009 meetings. However, a win by the Steelers will send Baltimore packing, with Pittsburgh traveling to Denver the following week and the Pats hosting the winner of...
Cincinnati @ Indianapolis
This one is an intriguing matchup between two teams who both have plenty of impressive talent, but also glaring flaws that leave them a step below the true contenders in the NFL. The Pats scored convincing regular season victories over both teams, with a season-turning 43-17 thumping of Cincinnati in Week 5 followed by a 42-20 trampling of the Colts in Week 11.
For the Colts, the biggest question mark is their undermanned defense, particularly their ability to stop the run. Pats fans remember this quite well, as it was the Colts undersized defensive front that briefly turned Jonas Gray into a star overnight. Unfortunately for the Colts, Cincinnati certainly has the horses to attack that weakness. Led by standout tackle Andrew Whitworth, the Bengals have one of the best offensive lines in the game, and they boast arguably the best backfield tandem in the league with the powerful Jeremy Hill complemented by the shifty Giovanni Bernard.
A strong game from Hill will help keep Luck on the sidelines
Simply put, the Bengals are a much better team when they get their running game going, and doing so against the Colts will have the additional benefit of controlling the clock and keeping Luck on the sidelines. Controlling the clock and tempo of the game is a key against any prolific passing offense, and establishing the run will also do wonders as far as taking pressure off of quarterback Andy Dalton.
For Cincinnati, the biggest weakness remains their quarterback/coach combination of Marvin Lewis (still winless in the postseason as a head coach) and Dalton. Dalton has always been a hot and cold quarterback, and that trend has continued this season, as the quarterback has four games with a rating over 115 and four with a rating below 61.
Unfortunately for Bengals fans, "Bad Andy" showed up the last time his team played these Colts. The Colts shut out the Bengals 27-0 in that Week 7 matchup, with Dalton completing just 47.4% of his passes for a measly 3.3 yards per attempt. He (surprisingly) managed to avoid throwing any interceptions that day, which was about the only bright spot in a miserable day for the Bengals.
"Bad Andy" has also showed up every time Dalton has appeared in the postseason. The Bengals have now made the playoffs each of Dalton's four seasons as a starter, but they've gone 0-3 in that span, with their quarterback throwing for only one touchdown against six interceptions.
It will be tough for Dalton to buck that trend if star receiver AJ Green is unable to go. Green is currently in the league's concussion protocol after taking a big hit Sunday against the Steelers and is currently listed as doubtful for Saturday's affair. If Green does go, expect excellent man corner Vontae Davis to take him; if Green is inactive, Davis will likely shadow Mohammad Sanu, who Dalton has targetted like a #1 receiver whenever Green is out of the lineup.
It will also be tough for Dalton if the Colts pass rush can force him into the kind of panicked mistakes that have plagued his previous playoff appearances. Dalton has thrown nearly as many picks (8) in the 131 snaps he's spent under pressure than he has in his 392 unpressured dropbacks (9), and his completion percentage drops from 69.2% to 45.1% when pressured. Fortunately for Cincinnati, the Colts pass rush has missed the disruptive presence of Robert Mathis this year, with only Cory Redding and linebacker Jonathan Newsome showing much of anything as pass rushers this season.
The Colts will only go as far as Luck's right arm can take them
Dalton's counterpart, Andrew Luck, got his first postseason win last year in a memorable comeback against the Chiefs, but Luck still has something to prove himself in January. While the numbers aren't as ugly as Dalton's, Luck has still thrown more picks (8) than touchdowns (6) in his postseason career, with a completion percentage of only 55%. Of course, Luck has never had a group of weapons as good as what he has now, with breakout star TY Hilton joined by an intriguing mix of playmaking veterans (Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks) and promising youngsters (tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwyane Allen, receiver Donte Moncrief).
The Bengals Carlos Dunlap-led pass rush will need to put some heat on Luck to prevent him from throwing all over the field against their secondary. Luck has once again been one of the most hit quarterbacks in football, and the third year star faced pressure on 36.47% of his dropbacks this season. While Luck deals with pressure better than most, pressure is still often the key to forcing him into mistakes, particularly when said pressure comes up the middle and doesn't allow him the chance to step into his throws. That's where Geno Atkins could make a big difference this game, as the pass rushing terror could have his fair share of favorable matchups against a banged up Colts interior offensive line.
The Bengals may boast six former first round picks in their secondary, but they aren't without weakness on the back end. Leon Hall has been solid, but Terrence Newman has begun to show his age. Newman was picked on repeatedly by Peyton Manning last Sunday before getting benched, a move that payed dividends when his replacement, Dre Kirkpatrick, came up with two of Manning's three fourth quarter interceptions.
Kirkpatrick showed well that game, but the 2012 first rounder had done little prior to that point to justify his draft status. Look for Luck to go after Newman if the veteran returns to his starting role, and look for him to test Kirkpatrick early if the youngster gets his opportunity. Adam "Pacman" Jones has had another solid season as the Bengals nickle corner, but Jones is a risk taker who will occasionally get burned deep; something to watch for considering the Colts willingness to take shots downfield.
Considering the Colts inability to run the ball, the play of Cincinnati's cornerbacks will likely determine the game. The Colts run game has been anemic for most of the season, with their best runner Ahmad Bradshaw going down with a season ending injury in their Week 11 tilt with the Pats. The stats suggest Cincinnati can be run on, but closer observation reveals a Cinci defense that has turned things around in the second half. After giving up 143 rushing yards per game during their first nine games, the Bengals have turned around to surrender only 82 yards per game on the ground in their final seven contests.
Best case scenario: Pittsburgh and Indianapolis win
I don't think I'm in the minority when I say the Pats match up far better with the Colts or Bengals than a Ravens team that always plays the Patriots tough. A Pittsburgh win would eliminate Baltimore from the conversation, while sending a dangerous Pittsburgh team to Denver the following week. I think the Pats should be able to beat either Indy or Cinci handily, but chose Indianapolis as the more favorable matchup because their strengths (passing game) align directly with the strength of the Pats defense.
Worst case scenario: Baltimore and Indianapolis win
A Baltimore win sets up a divisional round matchup between the Ravens and Pats in Foxborough next weekend. For my money, it's the toughest matchup in the AFC field for the Patriots, even though the Ravens might not be the best team top-to-bottom in the field.Baltimore clearly has no fear of the Patriots or Gillette Stadium, and their strengths (pass rush, physicality at the line of scrimmage, running game) still coincide with the Patriots weaknesses. I'm not saying the Pats wouldn't be favored in this hypothetical matchup (they would and would deserve to be), but that would be the most "losable" game for this team in the divisional round. A Baltimore win would send the winner of Indy/Cincinnati to Denver to play the Colts, and Cincinnati's improved run defense makes them a tougher matchup for Denver in my mind.