Cover-Two: Buy or sell Patriots, Panthers, other second-tier Super Bowl contenders
The Seahawks and Broncos represent the class of the NFL. But what about the other teams expected to make the playoffs? In the latest Cover-Two, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar examine the title-worthiness of the contenders outside of Seattle and Denver.
New England Patriots
Chris Burke: Buy. Bill Belichick spelled it out pretty clearly with regards to Rob Gronkowski's latest injury: "We played a lot more of this season without him than we have with him." That doesn't diminish the impact of losing Gronk, especially now, but the Patriots are not exactly in uncharted waters here.
Holding onto the No. 2 seed in the AFC may be the real key. New England could go on the road and win a playoff game in Cincinnati, if need be, but that path would add on a wild-card round matchup with a Baltimore, Miami or San Diego. Win or lose, that would be a tough extra game to deal with for a shorthanded team.
Doug Farrar: Sell. Clearly, the Patriots offense will struggle with Rob Gronkowski out for the season. That's no news flash, but the extent to which Tom Brady will have to swim upstream in the playoffs is to be determined. In-season so far, the Pats drop from second to 22nd in the NFL in points scored without Gronk in the lineup, from fourth to 30th in red zone efficiency, from third to 19th in passing yards per game, and from second to 16th in first downs per game. Since 2010, Brady has 5.1 touchdowns per interception with Gronk in the game, and 2.2 without. The difference is graphic, and Gronk's production is irreplaceable.
At 10-3, the Pats would have to do a serious nosedive to lose the division -- they'll most likely get a first-round bye, but I don't think Brady's other targets can make up the difference, and I'm not sure New England's defense is good enough to turn the field in the other direction -- especially if Aqib Talib continues to struggle with injuries.
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Burke: Sell. This was a really tough one for me -- Carolina was No. 2 in last week's Power Rankings, after all. And the Panthers have the makeup of a team that could get hot for a postseason run: dynamic quarterback, solid ground game, dominant front seven. But that secondary ...
New Orleans passed all over the Panthers last week, while keeping Carolina's pass rush at bay. And while that could be just one bad outing in the tough Superdome environment, the Panthers' current playoff path would take them to Detroit and then New Orleans, where the teams boast the No. 3 and No. 2 passing attacks in the league, respectively. Carolina appears to be a worthy playoff team and could win a game or two there. But four in a row against elite aerial attacks? Doubtful.
Farrar: Buy. The Panthers' Sunday night loss to the New Orleans Saints shouldn't dissuade anybody from seeing this team as a possible Super Bowl entrant. What it proved, however, is that Carolina isn't built to come back from huge deficits with explosive plays. Ron Rivera runs an old-school team with a (usually) great defense, a multi-faceted rushing attack and enough shot plays to keep them in the games. They won eight straight games with that formula before the New Orleans' loss, and they could take at least two of three in their remaining schedule (Jets at home, Saints at home, at Atlanta) to finish with at least 10 wins. The Saints rematch on Dec. 22 will tell us a lot.
Burke: Sell. The loss of Reggie Wayne has hurt the Colts more than Gronkowski's absence will damage the Patriots, and that's even if Da'Rick Rogers turns into a late-season gem. But pinning all of the Colts' recent efforts on Wayne's injury would be simplifying things. The Colts are only average on defense and they're downright porous along the offensive line. Teams that are not able to consistently win matchups up front do not have much of a positive track record in the postseason.
Farrar: Sell. The Colts were supposed to follow up last season's surprise 11-5 record with a similar formula to Carolina's, but it hasn't worked out so well of late in Indy. They've gone 3-3 after a 5-2 start, they've had serious troubles with slow starts on offense, Andrew Luck is clearly far less effective without Reggie Wayne and the formerly stout defense has been a bit vulnerable down the stretch. They've clinched the AFC South, but it's hard to like this team in any road playoff game. Their receivers drop too many key passes, and Luck has been the team's leading rusher in two of their last five games. Seems like a recipe for a one-and-done in the postseason.
San Francisco 49ers
Burke: Buy. Pretty hard to sell on the 49ers after watching them come within a few yards of a Super Bowl victory last season. When this team gets going, as it did during a five-game win streak and again Sunday versus Seattle, it's extremely hard to deal with on both sides of the football. We've only really seen Colin Kaepernick's A-game a couple of times this season, but we know he's capable of hitting a groove.
The biggest hurdle is that, one way or another, San Francisco probably will have to win in Seattle. It's lost its last two trips there by an average of 27.5 points.
Farrar: Buy. The 49ers appear to be peaking at exactly the right time. The depth players who had to step up when Colin Kaepernick's primary targets were hurt and Aldon Smith was going through all sorts of off-field drama are still in the mix, and with Michael Crabtree back in the lineup, Kaepernick has started to right the ship after a rocky start to his 2013 season. They still went on a five-game winning streak when things were more tumultuous, and that's a testament to an outstanding coaching staff. Recent impressive wins over the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks make it clear -- the team that lost last season's Super Bowl by a couple of plays is very much in the mix for the next one. Anyone would be foolish to discount them.
Burke: Sell. Chip Kelly, Nick Foles and the Eagles are one of the great stories of this 2013 season -- cue the Sports Illustrated cover. It certainly looks like they'll close out the NFC East. Sunday's win over Detroit in the snow was impressive, too, with the run game absolutely dominating over the final 25 minutes. There's little to no question that the offense is dangerous enough to strike fear in opponents' hearts come the playoffs.
Is there enough defense to do the job though? The Eagles have been much better on that side of the ball over the past few weeks, ascending to 13th in points allowed. They're still 31st against the pass, however, and have had an up-and-down experience defending the run. For all that Foles has accomplished this season, there is no evidence as of yet that he could outduel a Drew Brees or Russell Wilson in a postseason shootout.
Farrar: Buy. The good news for the Eagles is that quarterback Nick Foles is playing about as well as anyone at his position over the last month. The better news is that Billy Davis' defense is starting to turn things around, and Davis is putting his personnel in more optimal positions to succeed. Don't be fooled by the hype surrounding Chip Kelly's alleged air attack -- as the Eagles showed in Sunday's snowy win over the Detroit Lions, they can bully people off the line with the best of them, and there are few more dangerous players than running back LeSean McCoy. I'm not sure if their defense is quite at a Super Bowl level yet, but under the right circumstances, that might not matter. In any case, this is one of those teams no higher seed wants to see on the wrong day.
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Burke: Buy. There are no secrets here. When Andy Dalton plays well, the Bengals are one of the NFL's best teams -- Bleacher Report's Andrea Hangst pointed out that they're 14-1 in his career when he posts a QB rating of 100.0 or better. On the flip side, they're only average (if that) when he struggles.
Narrowing the focus for a team down to the quarterback is not always a fair approach, as we've seen with the criticism of Tony Romo while playing alongside a horrid defense. Here, however, it fits the bill, because the Bengals have the defense, run game and superstar (A.J. Green) necessary to dive deep into the postseason.
Farrar: Buy with caution. Quarterback Andy Dalton won the Week 14 AFC Offensive Player of the Week award, and though Peyton Manning would probably like a recount, Dalton does have the ability to get on a hot streak, as he showed through October. However, he can also stay cold for weeks at a time, which is fairly typical of young quarterbacks who are still learning to read defenses. Dalton is the key to Cincinnati's playoff hopes -- he's been scalded in two career postseason games, and it's clear that the rest of the roster is playoff caliber, even without All-World defensive tackle Geno Atkins. I'm not sure Dalton will ever be the kind of quarterback who can lead his team to a Super Bowl, but he can stay at a level pace -- he won't be a Rex Grossman or Trent Dilfer, dragged kicking and screaming into the biggest game of his life by a great defense and nothing else. In other words, get Dalton on a tear, and the Bengals could indeed go very far in the posteason.
Kansas City Chiefs
Burke: Buy. Despite their torrid 9-0 start, I view the Chiefs in much the same way that I do the Bengals. This team could get hot in the postseason, if its defense shows up and Alex Smith plays well. It also could bow out rather meekly in Round 1 and no one would bat an eye.
The Chiefs' chances will come down to which of their 2013 defenses is the real thing -- the one that held its first nine opponents to 17 points or fewer; or the one that Denver lit up twice and San Diego hung 41 against. If it's the former, Kansas City might be able to follow in Baltimore's footsteps to the Vince Lombardi trophy. Farrar: Sell. Now here's a confounding team. It's hard to take anything away from Kansas City's 45-10 win over the Redskins last Sunday, because the Redskins are self-destructing in ways that are original even for them. In their three games before the Washington win, a Chiefs defense that led the NFL in sacks by a prohibitive margin had just one quarterback takedown and lost three straight games. Bob Sutton has done a wonderful job in his first year as the team's defensive coordinator, but the simple fact is that Kansas City has not been able to hold quality offenses down, and that's obviously going to be a problem in the playoffs. The problem is compounded by the fact that Alex Smith is the kind of quarterback who needs a sound running game and great defense to win in the postseason -- and even then, it's certainly no guarantee. Unless their defense finds a way forward, the Chiefs could be a paper tiger in the postseason.