Blueprint for each divisional underdog to pull off an upset this weekend
Upsets come in all shapes and sizes, and for the four underdogs in the NFL's divisional round, there are clear paths to the conference championship games. Here are ways in which each divisional game could see a surprise ending.
There aren't generally a lot of ways in which Tom Brady has proven to be beatable -- part of his greatness is that just when you think you've got him on one thing, he repairs the problem and kills you with something else. But one of the few ways in which Brady has proved vulnerable throughout his career is the extent to which he balks at pressure right in his face as opposed to from either side. In both of New England's losses to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, New York's defensive line (Justin Tuck in particular) pressured Brady right up the middle, and it clearly affected the future Hall of Famer. Brady isn't a runner; he's functionally mobile in the pocket, but he likes to step up in the pocket to throw, and that seems to be why interior pressure is so effective against him.
Throughout the 2014 season, the Pats have allowed a lot of pressure up the middle -- per Pro Football Focus' metrics, center/guard Ryan Wendell has allowed 23 total pressures this season, and center/guard Dan Connolly has allowed 35. Center Bryan Stork has allowed just 13 pressures in 810 snaps this season, but the point remains -- New England's interior line will have to play its very best to overcome a Baltimore front seven that can bring pressure from multiple angles.
"They come at you from everywhere," Brady said Tuesday of Baltimore's defensive line. "They’ve got guys who are interior pass rushers: Haloti [Ngata] and Brandon Williams, who’s a great player. They’ve got the rookie first-round pick [Timmy] Jernigan, he’s a great player. [Chris] Canty, I’ve always had a lot of respect for him. ... They give you a lot of different looks. [Ravens defensive coordinator] Dean [Pees] has always done a great job with the different defensive looks. It’s tough to really nail down where they’re at, but we’re just going to have to adjust to whatever we see and try to block it as best we can."
When these two teams last faced off in the postseason, the Ravens beat the Patriots 28-13 in the 2012 AFC Championship Game. Brady wasn't sacked, but the Ravens logged six quarterback hits and 15 hurries, and Brady threw two picks to just one touchdown. On the first interception, with 6:57 left in the game, Pernell McPhee and Haloti Ngata split the pocket protection, McPhee deflected the pass at the line of scrimmage while taking a double-team from the center and right guard and the ball floated into the hands of linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (who's now with the Dolphins). The second pick came on a desperation throw to Brandon Lloyd with 1:13 left in the game, but it didn't help that McPhee pushed through the protection and got in Brady's line of sight. Cornerback Cary Williams (now on the Eagles) picked off the pass, and the Ravens were off to the Super Bowl.
And it wasn't like Baltimore had to do a lot to get to Brady -- both interceptions came against four-man pressure. This season, Brady is completing 40.4 percent of his passes under pressure, with four touchdowns and two interceptions. He avoids a lot of pressure by getting the ball out quickly, but that might not be enough against a Ravens' defense that has seemed to have his number of late.
The Seahawks' coaching staff characterizes explosive plays as runs of 12 yards or more and passes of 16 yards or more. And by those lines of demarcation, Seattle's offense is the league's most explosive, with 135 such plays -- 61 runs and 74 passes for a total of 135 total. That's one more than the Eagles and the Colts amassed for second place in the NFL this season. Those 61 explosive plays on the ground were by far the league's most, and it's not just Marshawn Lynch who's getting that done. On scrambles and designed runs, quarterback Russell Wilson is bedeviling defenses with the ability to find openings in coverage and rip off huge gains. Wilson has rushed for 849 yards this season, the most by any quarterback since Michael Vick ran for 1,039 yards in 2006. Like Vick, Wilson benefits from a system in which inside and outside zone blocking are combined with option principles to seemingly make defenses guess wrong on every play.
"They are a good offense, a really good offense, and we have nothing but respect for what they do," Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said of the Seahawks this week. "I know [Panthers head coach] Ron [Rivera] was talking about [quarterback Russell Wilson being] a candidate for MVP. I would second that. He's a great player. We have to do one heck of a job on him when go up there."
The Seahawks and Panthers have faced off in each of the last three regular seasons, and it's always been close -- Seattle has had to rely on one third-quarter comeback, and two fourth-quarter comebacks, to win each game. In Week 8, Carolina had a 9-6 lead late in the fourth quarter, and then, Wilson went 4-for-4 on the Seahawks' final drive. The game ended with 47 seconds remaining when Wilson hit tight end Luke Willson for a 23-yard touchdown, but what Wilson did with his feet on that drive was just as important. The Seahawks had 1st-and-15 with 3:54 left, and Wilson came up with this 14-yard run to take the ball from the Seattle 35-yard-line to midfield. The Panthers backed off into deep pass coverage, and Wilson had a clear lane for a big play.
Wilson ran twice for 20 yards on that drive, though he took the ball just six times for 35 yards in the entire game. Lately, the Seahawks are more inclined to let their quarterback roam free in an improvisational way, and their offense is far better for it. The Panthers will have to find a way to clamp down on those rogue elements. Carolina's secondary has played much better of late, which may allow McDermott to spy defenders on Wilson more often.
Though the Packers' offense is known for explosive plays, the emergence of running back Eddie Lacy has helped to add a new element to what Green Bay does on offense -- drive extension and consistency. This season, the Pack rank third in yards per drive (38.39), first in points per drive (2.73), second in touchdowns per drive (.074), fifth in plays per drive (6.28) and fifth in time of possession per drive (2:58). By contrast, the Cowboys' defense ranks 27th in yards per drive allowed (32.45), 16th in points per drive allowed (1.89), 11th in plays per drive allowed (5.69) and seventh in time of possession allowed per drive (2:34). Dallas' defense tends to wear down the longer opponent drives go, but it's buttressed by one key stat -- it's first in the NFL in turnovers forced per drive (.172).
Contrast that with Green Bay's second-ranked .074 turnovers per drive (only the Seahawks have turned the ball over less often per drive), and you have one of those irresistible force/immovable object battles that could go a long way to deciding this game. The Packers rank second behind the Saints in Football Outsiders' Drive Success Rate metric on offense, while Dallas ranks 24th in defensive Drive Success Rate. If Dallas is unable to force turnovers, Green Bay could simply blow their opponents out of Lambeau Field as much with long drives as with big plays.
A little less than half of Green Bay's drives have ended in a score this season, the best in the league, and though just 31.6 percent of drives against Dallas' defenses have ended in points this season (10th-best in the NFL), that's heavily dependent on that turnover rate. Opponents have turned the ball over on 17.6 percent of drives against Dallas' defense (No. 1 in the league), while the Packers have given the ball up on just 7.1 percent of their drives.
No matter how you slice it, and which set of numbers you use, the Cowboys will struggle to stop the Packers without turnovers if history is any indicator -- and it generally is.
Indianapolis Colts (-7 at Denver, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET) -- Make Peyton Manning beat you
Yeah, we know -- it sounds nuts. Throughout his career as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, it's generally been on Manning's shoulders to win in the postseason, and if he doesn't get it done, it doesn't get done. Perhaps the best example was Manning's performance with the Super Bowl-winning 2006 Colts, who had the worst run defense of the modern era. But just as the 2014 Broncos redefined and drastically improved their defense with the additions of Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward, and found a new power back in C.J. Anderson, Manning's arm started to lose optimal velocity and accuracy. Yes, he's still had great games this season, but he's not exactly trending upward as Denver's postseason starts -- in the final eight games of the regular season, Manning threw 15 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, and Denver's passing DVOA fell from first to ninth.
In the season-opener against the Colts, Manning was automatic -- throwing 22 completions in 36 attempts for 269 yards and three touchdowns. And it's possible that the extra week off will bring back the Manning we're used to. But it's just as possible that the Manning we've seen more and more often lately -- the one who's been less accurate on long passes (13-of-34 on throws over 20 yards in the air in the season's last eight games, as opposed to 18-of-36 in the first eight) -- could show up. And with Colts cornerback Vontae Davis regularly shutting down whichever receiver he faces this season, this could also play into any issues Manning may have.
Of course, the Colts will have to do more than manage Manning -- they have an iffy offensive line and run game, Andrew Luck will be tested by Talib and the amazingly underrated Chris Harris, and there's certainly no guarantee that Indy's defense can stop Denver's newly resurgent rushing attack. But one thing's clear: Peyton Manning as an automatic problem for every enemy defense? That may be a thing of the past.