Saturday, January 15, 2011

Divisional Round preview (part 1)

So something has just occurred to me. After waking up and recovering from a night spent celebrating (read: drinking) due to my friends send off party for his old house (his home for some 20+ years now), I've just realised that I didn't do my preview for Saturday's games. If I'm quick, I might just be able to squeeze them in before kick off (4:30pm ET/8:00pm ET). Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers: This is the battle everyone has been talking about. The Ravens and the Steelers, clashing once more for playoff glory and the right to face the winner of the Jets/Patriots game in the AFC Championship. Oh, and there is also the small matter of one of the most intense rivalries in the NFL. Not only do the two teams go back and forth every year for bragging rights in the AFC North, but you get the distinct impression that there's a point of personal pride among two notoriously tough defenses as to who will give up the least ground, who will hit harder and who will weather that punishment the longest. This it would appear, is often just as important as the score. Certainly Baltimore would love nothing more than to pounce on their rivals today. Having won the first clash this season, the Ravens then went down at home in week 13 in probably one of the toughest and most entertaining defensive battles the league has seen in a while. It was a defensive play, Troy Polamalu coming free on a blitz, that forced the big play upon which the game ultimately hinged. Now the trash talk has been flying, especially from the Ravens side, as Baltimore looks to gain any edge it can coming into this game. It appears they've even been so successful that they've convinced a lot of people in the media that they're the favourites for this one now. Baltimore has, if nothing else, become the fashionable pick for this game. And there's a lot of reasons why that might be true. They have a truly excellent running back in Ray Rice. As a ball carrier his cutting ability and vision might just be unparalleled in the NFL right now. As a pass receiver he has a knack for finding space as he works against linebackers with his acceleration. In pass protection.... yeah, we'll leave that. The old axiom "if you're not going to say something nice, say nothing at all" applies here. They also have Joe Flacco, one of the better quarterbacks to enter the NFL in the last few years. Flacco has had his struggles, but he also had his moments. I fear that Flacco holds onto the ball too long for my liking and seems to struggle with his consistency, but he also has those periods where he finds a groove (or a lot of TE Todd Heap) and starts moving the chains. When he does that consistently, the Ravens have a great shot at winning. Every QB however needs an O-line and receivers, to which end the Ravens are so-so. Their O-line is.... "if you're not going to say anything nice." Well it's ok. I think sometimes people give them a little too much credit in the running game. Without the backs they have, I'm not sure Baltimore's rushing attack would be as productive. In pass protection the Ravens are also very up and down. One minute they're solid, then the next they're parting like the red sea. I don't trust them, lets put it that way. I do trust Anquan Boldin and the Ravens receiver corps though. They've managed to subtly avoid investing any youth in that group this season and it's had mixed results. They're usually pretty dependable pass catchers and also crisp route runners. They help Flacco by positioning themselves well in relation to covering defenders and they fight for every pass thrown their way. The trouble is, they're not exactly spring chickens, and of all the things a defense worries about, having the top blown off their coverage is not one of them. But who do I trust the most? The Ravens D. Let me read off some names for you; Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Ed Reed. Those are all players who have a case for being the number one at their position and that's just the tip, the tip, of the Ravens defensive iceberg. This unit has consistently shown it's pedigree throughout the season. Ngata fills holes on the line, breaks double teams and moves laterally down the LOS scrimmage like no other athlete on any NFL field currently. Ray Lewis fills the slots behind him always seeming to pop up in the right place as he reads the flow of the backs. He has a knack in pass coverage, especially when the intended play breaks down, of finding the QB's safety valve and coming up with the big play. Terrell Suggs is Terrell Suggs. Speed, power, great use of the arms, determination and relentless pursuit. These are all things that you don't ever have to hope you'll gte from Suggs, they're things that you know you will get from Suggs. Without question. And what's the best way to compliment a pass rushing beast, a fiend of the backfield? With a center fielder type safety who has range that sometimes defies belief and an instinct for making plays on the ball. Ed Reed is the perfect example of a defensive player whose experience and positioning can make up for the loss of a yard or two in pace. So with all that said, the Ravens are looking pretty good for the win now right? Don't be so sure. There's the small matter of the Steelers to contend with. You know, the Pittsburgh Steelers. That team, black and yellow uniforms, from Pennsylvania. A few Super Bowl rings I think. Maybe one or two. Or was it six? I forget. All I know is this; people are grossly underestimating the Steelers. Baltimore are good, but looking around right now and listening to everyone in collective press giving their opinions, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Ravens had already got this one in the bag and were making enquiries to various hotels ahead of the AFC Championship game. Well let's just remind ourselves who the Steelers are; QB Ben Roethlisberger. Off field indiscretions aside (and don't forget that Roethlisberger has never been charged with anything), Roethlisberger is one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. That's just an irrefutable, inescapable fact. The guy has a cannon arm, he's big, tough and leads the league in highlight reel worthy escapes from the pocket. Like Flacco he has tendency to hold onto the ball far too long, but unlike Flacco he has developed the necessary skill set to counter that. Probably one of the most important of those skills is his ability to understand when even he, the current master of pocket escapology, is beaten. Whether it's throwing the ball away, flipping it away or just eating the sack, these are the skills that guys like Tony Romo and in particular Eli Manning haven't learnt, and probably never will judging by their performances in recent years. This gives the Steelers a huge weapon, as always. It provides them with the ability to make big plays deep down the field, while mitigating some of the risk involved with such "broken" plays. Given that they have Mike Wallace on their side, a deep threat receiver who has the potential to blast the roof off the the Ravens secondary, and you have a serious weapon for the Steelers to exploit. Their rushing attack isn't too shabby either. Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Issac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer. These are all good running backs who can make a difference in this game. Given the expected low scoring nature of the contest and the importance that field position could play, having a corps of solid running backs could be a serious advantage to the Steelers offense. A weakness could be their O-line. For whatever reason, Flozell Adams on the right hand side has been a real weak link. Maybe it's because he's more used to playing on the left, but whatever the problem is, it's a big one. The loss of Willie Colon and Max Starks has been huge for the Steelers. On the bright side, rookie Maurkice Pouncey (watch list) has done very well anchoring the line from the center spot and OG Chris Kemoeatu has played some excellent football too. Overall though, there is a certain vulnerability to this unit that the Ravens pass rush will look to exploit. On defense, things get much, much brighter. I'm not even going to ring off some names because a) you should know them all by now and b) there is too many to get through. The Steelers D is legitmately very, very deep at D-line and linebacker, although certain areas of the secondary give them the odd scare from time to time. But the numbers tell it all. The Steelers lead the entire league through the regular season in almost every single important defensive category. They are simply one of the finest units in the history of the NFL. Not just solid all round, which they are, but also packed with play making potential. This is why I find it so odd that hardly anyone fancies the Steelers, especially given that they're the home side. It'll be a close game, very close, and just like that week 13 meeting it might be that one big play makes all the difference. Given that knowledge you'd have to say that the Steelers have an offense less likely to flinch and give up the big turnover, while their defense is probably better prepared thanks to its depth of talent to force a big turnover out of the Ravens. If I was picking the game, a futile exercise that I've long since given up on, I imagine I would have picked the Steelers. But the Ravens aren't being hotly tipped without reason. As we've seen they do have a lot of talent on board and this one will might well go right down to the last possession. Enjoy it, because it's going to be one hell of a playoff game. Green Bay Packers @ Atlanta Falcons: Last week the Packers played in a game that was touted by some as the NFC Championship game come early. This week the Packers are playing in a game touted by some as the NFC Championship game come early. I'm detecting a running theme here, somewhere. My Spider sense tells me that a lot of people might believe the Packers are destined to play in the NFC Championship game. Or possibly three of them. Which wouldn't come as a surprise. The Packers are very, very good. Up and down that team, they have all kinds of goodness. Offense, defense, even the kicking game. They've soldiered on despite numerous injuries to key players and now here they are, in the divisional game. The problem is really one of potential. The Packers started the season with the potential to win the NFC North and go all the way to the Super Bowl. But unfortunately, potential is not always the most reliable indicator of success. It's the prime reason I've given up making picks, because picking teams is always based on potential. You're always trying to predict what will happen based on the knowledge that certain teams do certain things very well. I expected the Chiefs to come out running the ball from start to finish against the Ravens because of the success they've had doing that this season. They had the potential to dominate the clock and make life very difficult for the Ravens. Instead, they abandoned their running game and were cleaned off the field. This is the worry for the Packers. With that D-line and linebacking corps, they have the potential to cause the Falcons rushing game a lot of problems. They have the potential to put Matt Ryan under a lot of potential and their revamped secondary for 2010 has the potential to shut down Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez et al. But potential is an uncertain thing. Having beat the Eagles and creamed the Bills, the Packers were set for a week 3 pounding of the Bears, who had struggled to beat the Lions and Cowboys in the previous two weeks. Instead the Bears came out on top 20-17. Then Green Bay scraped past Detroit themselves, 28-26. Then somehow, god knows how, the Packers fell to the Redskins in week 5. Thus we've learnt that the Packers are great providing they actually do all the things that we expect them to. When they don't they fall flat on their faces. Despite all that defensive quality, despite Aaron Rodgers being a top QB in the NFL, despite a WR corps that's as good as any in the league, the Packers are more than capable of throwing it all away. Which is handy for the Falcons. They too have an excellent offense, led by Matt Ryan and supported by the able cast of Michael Turner, Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White. Their defense is strong, with LB Curtis Lofton as the center piece. Their pass rush was under rated coming into the season but now the names John Abraham and Kroy Biermann are synonymous with getting into the offensive backfield. Brent Grimes is possibly one of the best (and most highly under rated) corners in the league today. But the Falcons have been beneficiaries this season of some less than stellar play at times. Trust me, as a 49ers fans I watched in horror as we seemed to have the Falcons done and dusted, till a fantastic play combined with some rank stupidity led to a fumble that gave the ball back to the Falcons and set them up for the winning drive. At times they've been lucky, but when lady luck smiles on them, they pounce. In short, if you mess about with the Falcons, it will come back to haunt you. And that's what I think Green Bay fans should be concerned about and Atlanta fans should be highly optimistic about. It might only take one slip. It might only take one pick. It might be a fumble or a sack at an inopportune moment, but the Falcons are more than capable of winning it. If Green Bay can play their "A game", then I fear the Falcons impressive season will come to an end this Saturday night. But if they wince, flinch or slip up in any other way, it could be curtains for the Packers. The Falcons have it in themselves to win this. They just need Green Bay to open the door a little for them, then they can do the rest themselves. So even though the hype has been all focused on Green Bay, don't be surprised if you see the red and black of Atlanta in the NFC Championship game next week.

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