Friday, January 10, 2014

AFC Divisional Weekend Preview

Will we see a passing of the torch in the AFC Saturday night? Or, will the elder No.12 add another notch to his playoff belt?
 By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe), featuring Bob Lobel (@boblobel)

Yesterday, we previewed the NFC matchups this weekend, featuring the Saints, Seahawks, 49ers, and Panthers. Today, we tackle the AFC side of the coin, with a special guest appearance from Bob Lobel (you can find his pick for the Patriots game about halfway down, right before we transition to the Sunday AFC game).

For the first time in a long time, Jeremy is going to be forced to write at length about the Patriots (which is something he has avoided doing for most of the season, because of the rage-fits it drives him into), so enjoy that. It may be your last opportunity to experience it this season.

Indianapolis at New England (8:15 p.m. Saturday, CBS)

The Line: Patriots by 7

By The Numbers:

Record: 11-5 (9-6-1 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 24.4 (14th) - 21.0 (9th)
Average Scoring Margin: +3.4 (10th) - 9.4 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +4.2% Offense (13th); +0.8% Defense (16th); -0.1% Special Teams (17th); +3.4% Total (13th)

New England:
Record: 12-4 (8-8 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 27.8 (3rd) - 21.1 (10th)
Average Scoring Margin: +6.6 (8th) - 10.5 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +16.4% Offense (4th); +4.1% Defense (21st); +6.7% Special Teams (2nd); +19.0% Total (5th)

Player(s) To Watch: T.Y. Hilton

Since becoming a consistent starter for the Colts in week nine, Hilton has been remarkably consistent from the slot. In nine  regular season games since he entered the starting lineup following Indy's bye, Hilton has 55 catches for 671 yards and three touchdowns, good for around six catches and 75 yards a game.

He's been slightly better than that lately. In a game Indy sorta needed to play against Jacksonville, Hilton went off for 155 yards on 11 catches, but he was even more impressive against Kansas City in the Wild Card round.

Last week he grabbed 13 balls for an astonishing 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns (Including the game winner) to help Indy climb out of a 28-point hole against the Chiefs.

Now, many of those yards came after Kansas City's top corner Brandon Flowers left the game with an injury, but it was a hell of a day any way you slice it. Hilton's quickness in and out of breaks make him an ideal slot receiver, but he also has the straight-line speed to break away down the field once he's created separation.

Bigger, stronger corners like New England's Aqib Talib have struggled against Hilton this year, so it will be interesting to see if the Patriots still put Talib, their top cover guy, on him, or if they opt for somebody a little quicker, like Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan or even (Dum, dum dum) Kyle Arrington.


Player(s) To Watch: Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen

The Patriots have a pretty effective and relatively diverse stable of running backs at their disposal. Ridley and Blount, the bruising downhill runners, are the 1st- and 2nd-down backs, while Vereen, the shifty back with great hands, is the 3rd-down receiving back.

While it can be nice to have that diversity, it can also create a bit of a drawback if the players are too specialized, which is certainly a worry for the Patriots.

Ridley and Blount combined for 1545 yards on 331 carries (a 4.7 yards per carry average), but combined to catch just 12 passes this season, 10 of which went to Ridley. Meanwhile, Vereen was very effective out of the backfield, or even split wide as a receiver, catching 47 balls in just eight games. But as a runner, he was handed the ball just 44 times - he had more receptions than rush attempts.

In this specific matchup, that level of specialization could be a problem. With Marcus Cannon lined up opposite Robert Mathis (more on this later), the Patriots will need to shade their protections to that side on passing downs. Usually, this means sending a running back to chip. The problem is, the two backs physical enough to pull that off are Ridley and Blount, which means the Patriots will have a back who isn't a receiving threat on clear passing downs. The mis-match Mathis presents on Cannon means New England will be forced to choose between chipping against Mathis and offering a tacit admission that they won't throw to their back, or playing Vereen and praying that Cannon can handle Mathis long enough to get the pass away.

It will be up to the Patriots to rotate their backs in such a way that it doesn't telegraph their playcalls. With Mathis on the other side of the line of scrimmage, that may be harder than it seems.


Hidden Points: Branch-Gate

When the Colts signed former Patriots receiver, and Super Bowl XXXIX MVP, Deion Branch, they didn't do it for his game-changing abilities on the field. No, it's been a while since Branch scared defensive coordinators, but the hope in Indianapolis is that the former Patriot wide out, and still buddy of Tom Brady, can help them with the subtleties of the complex New England offense.

Whether or not he can (I doubt it) remains to be seen, but I did love this gem of a quote from Bill Belichick, a man who, you may remember, attempted to gain a competitive advantage by taping opposing teams' hand signals and (Allegedly) practices.

"Honestly, I think now we have enough trouble doing all the things that we do, and getting them right," he said. "To be able to not only know everything that you're doing, then also figure out everything that they're doing, it's pretty overrated."

I'll let that last sentence, coming from the mastermind behind Spygate, sink in for a second. Yeah, I guess it is overrated. On an unrelated note, the Patriots signed back former Colts receiver Austin Collie, who has only six catches all year, in time for this game against Indianapolis.


Hidden Points: Health

As has been mentioned in just about every preview of this game that you've read or will read this week, the Patriots defense has been absolutely decimated by injuries. Four impact players on defense - Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly, and now Brandon Spikes, are all on injured reserve. The only opening-day starters still playing the same position Saturday as they did in Week 1 are defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, cornerback Aqib Talib, and safety Devin McCourty. Everyone else has either gotten injured, gotten benched, or switched positions. Starting at middle linebacker will be Dane Fletcher, who has made a grand total of 26 tackles this season.

This Patriots defense wasn't particularly good to begin with, but they've gotten substantially worse as the season has progressed, mostly due to attrition. The more snaps you give to inexperienced players, the worse off you are. They're woefully incapable of stopping the run without Wilfork in the middle, and that should get even worse without Brandon Spikes in the lineup, one of the better run-support linebackers in football.

They still have a semi-respectable pass defense, anchored by Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty, and Logan Ryan, who has been effective playing a hybrid nickel corner/safety role, and collectively they should present an interesting matchup opposite T.Y. Hilton and the rest of the Indianapolis receiving corps.

The Colts have a deceptively good rushing offense (so long as the ball is being carried by someone not named "Trent"), and you have to imagine that they'll trust it enough against a barren Patriot defense for it to be a major factor.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, the Patriots will turn to Marcus Cannon at right tackle with Sebastian Vollmer on injured reserve. Opposite Cannon will be Robert Mathis, only the most dangerous pass-rusher in the NFL this season. Cannon is roughly the size of an Oldsmobile, and can be absolutely devastating in run blocking, but against a speed rusher like Mathis he's rather hopeless unless he's getting help from a running back or tight end.


The Picks:

Patriots 31, Colts 27 (Colts Cover)

For the life of me, I don't understand why the Patriots are touchdown favorites over the Colts, the same team that beat San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, and Kansas City (twice). With the Patriots as banged up as they are, they shouldn't be giving a touchdown over any playoff team.

I'm taking the Patriots to win, however, because if we assume that Aqib Talib can effectively hamper T.Y. Hilton, which is not a bad assumption based on the type of season he's had, compounded by the great lengths to which Bill Belichick often goes to take away his opponent's most dynamic offensive player, then the Patriots defense (even with all their injuries), matches up reasonably well with the Colts' offense. The only worry would be is if Indianapolis does a complete 180-degree change from their normal philosophy and play a ball-control offense featuring Donald Brown, but that doesn't seem likely.

When the Patriots are on offense, they still have the firepower to score points in bunches, and the Colts haven't really displayed a proclivity to shut offenses down unless they can force a handful of turnovers, which doesn't seem likely against this Patriots team. The Patriots win, but it'll be close.


Patriots 34, Colts 30 (Colts Cover)

The Colts have themselves another once-in-a-generation quarterback, and thus, another perennially competitive team. This one should be close, as I expect Indy to make big plays on both sides of the ball. But, at the end of the day, I just don't see Tom Brady and the boys losing one in Foxboro to an up-and-down team.

New England puts up a few early scores, the Colts fight furiously back, as they did last week, but it's not enough this time around.


Guest Pick By Bob Lobel: New England by 13 (Patriots Cover)

Talking about Saturday night is a pretty simple task if you believe, as I do, that the Patriots are on the verge of wining their fourth and final Super Bowl under the Brady/Belichick era. Or better yet, the Belichick/Brady dynasty.  

We can quibble all we want about the choice of the “dynasty” word, since it’s so subjective but suffice to say, it’s been a remarkable run, and it is closing faster than we would care to admit.   

Indianapolis coming here stirs memories full of Peyton Manning angst. This may be Andrew Luck’s party in the future, but that future doesn’t start for him Saturday night.  

It’s a little unsettling when you realize that if you offered Brady to Indy for Luck straight up, the Colts would say “no!” That should tell you something, however, that something will not come into Foxboro this weekend. 

The Denver/ San Diego game is where the action is. Let’s stop there because, we have our own business to take care of. I can’t stand San Diego and their quarterback. Never could and, just for the sake of personal vengeance, I hope they beat Denver and come here a week from Sunday to get their butt kicked. 

My disdain for San Diego is very simple to understand. Yeah, it’s based on jealousy, envy and all those egregious 7 deadly sins.

Roll that all up in a ball to explain it in one sentence and you have the following: If the Chargers lose, they get up the next morning and are in San Diego. If the Patriots lose, we get up in New England for three more months of winter. 

Enough said.

San Diego at Denver (4:40 p.m. Saturday, CBS)

The Line: Broncos by 9.5

By The Numbers:

San Diego:
Record: 9-7 (9-6-1 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 24.8 (12th) - 21.8 (11th)
Average Scoring Margin: +3.0 (12th) - 9.2 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +22.5% Offense (3rd); +17.5% Defense (32nd); +0.8% Special Teams (15th); +5.8% Total (12th)

Record: 13-3 (10-6 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 37.9 (1st) - 24.9 (22nd)
Average Scoring Margin: +12.9 (1st) - 11.7 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +33.7% Offense (1st); -0.2% Defense (15th); -1.1% Special Teams (21st); 32.8% Total (2nd)

Player(s) To Watch: Melvin Ingram

Ingram's numbers certainly don't jump out at you, but his mere presence has increased the productivity of the Chargers' pass rush when they don't blitz. San Diego's sack numbers have remained steady, while coordinator John Pagano has been able to drop seven or more into coverage with far greater regularity.

Peyton Manning has been at his best against the blitz, and at his worst against seven and eight man drops with speedy linebackers. If the Chargers are able to generate early pressure by only rushing three or four, we may see the bad Peyton Manning rear his ugly head again.


Player(s) To Watch: Knowshon Moreno, Wes Welker

It's Peyton Manning and the four great receivers that get most of the publicity, but it's Moreno who led the team in yards from scrimmage and was second in touchdowns behind Demaryius Thomas.

The last time these two teams met, Moreno was a non-factor on the ground, rushing just eight times for 19 yards while the Chargers gained 177 yards on 44 rushes. Welker was also absent for that game, which had a lot to do with Denver finishing just 2-for-9 on 3rd Down.

The Chargers finished the season ranked 31st in run defense according to Football Outsiders' DVOA, so the likelihood of them holding Moreno to such a pitiful performance again seems far-fetched, especially after Cincinnati was able to gain 113 yards on just 25 carries last week in a losing effort. In fact, the Bengals out-gained San Diego by over 100 yards, but Cincinnati's four turnovers led to their undoing. A bounce-back game from Moreno and the return of Welker (and an improvement on third down) should put Denver back on the right track.

Hidden Points: San Diego's Running Attack

When people think about San Diego's offense, Phil Rivers is obviously the first name that comes to mind. He's the quarterback, he had an exemplary season, and he's one of the better quarterbacks in the league.

But it's actually been San Diego's ground game that has them on a five-game win streak.

For the first twelve weeks of the season, the Chargers averaged 109.1 yards per game rushing, which would rank 20th in the league over a full season. Over their last five games, however, that average has surged to 170.2 yards per game, which would be 10 yards per game better than the league-leading Eagles.

The result on the team has been two-fold. First, an improved running game obviously reduces stress on the passing game - the offense is no longer relying on Rivers to whip the ball all over the field to score points. He's able to pick his spots and be efficient. This is clearly evident in San Diego's high-profile recent wins - Rivers attempted just 20 passes (to 44 rushing attempts) in their win over Denver, and he attempted just 16 passes (to 40 rushing attempts) last week in Cincinnati.

The other result is that the offense is able to bleed the clock, and keep their defense off the field. Make no mistake about it, San Diego's defense is terrible - it's one of the five worst in the league by any measurement, and DVOA ranks it dead last overall. But when they're able to dominate time of possession like they have during this win streak (36:56 to 23:04 vs. the Giants; 38:49 to 21:11 at Denver; 34:42 to 25:18 vs. Oakland), there just aren't as many opportunities to take advantage of that abysmal defense.


Hidden Points: Third Down and Rush Efficiency

The Broncos were shell-shocked at home by San Diego December 12th, partially because their world class offense couldn't stay on the field.

The Broncos have earned 435 first downs this season, most in the league by about four first downs a game (Over New England and San Diego), and the Broncos also convert over 46 percent of their third downs (Second in the league to, you guessed it, San Diego).

But on that fateful night in Denver, the Broncos were only able to pick up 19 first downs (Two from penalty), and only one of those came on the ground. That's over eight first downs less than the Broncos averaged all season, and the key was third down, where the Denver was an abysmal 2-9, good for 22 percent.

The Chargers, meanwhile, were their usually fantastic selves on third down, converting half of them at 6-12. Jeremy mentioned Moreno above, and he will be key if the Broncos are to avoid third and long, something they didn't do the first time around against San Diego. The Broncos were only able to muster 1.6 yards per carry on 11 rush attempts, as Moreno accumulated just 19 yards on the ground.

If the Broncos want to turn the tables, they'll have to commit to the run game and convert their third downs, or we may end up with another game where San Diego possesses the ball nearly twice as long as Denver (Roughly 39 min to 21 in favor of SD).


The Picks: 

Broncos 28, Chargers 24 (Chargers Cover)

Like the Patriots-Colts line, this just seems too high. The general rule of betting underdogs in the playoffs is that you don't take the points unless you think they have a legitimate chance of winning outright, and I feel that way with both of these games. The Chargers have clearly found a groove with their running game that just wasn't there for the first two-thirds of the regular season, and they've started to force turnovers at timely moments as well.

I expect them to be able to continue to run the ball, but I don't think the turnover trend will continue against Denver. And their domination of time of possession won't continue either, if we assume Denver will find their own rushing offense again, and Welker's return improves their performance on third down.

I expect the game to feature a lot of long drives - it won't quite be a shootout, there won't be enough quick scoring drives to send the score north of 30, but it will be a game dominated by the offenses, and Denver's offense is just better.


Broncos 35, Chargers 27 (Chargers Cover)

As well as San Diego has been playing, I still think Denver is simply the better team. I actually disagree with Jeremy in that I could see this turning into a shootout, and in said shootout, I'll take Manning over Rivers every time.

The Chargers are more balanced, but the Broncos' explosive passing attack gets the job done, with a minor assist from Moreno and the ground game.


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