Friday, January 2, 2015

AFC Wild Card Weekend Preview

The Ravens and Steelers rekindle one of the league's most physical rivalries Saturday night in Pittsburgh.

 By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Jeremy already provided you with an intro and all that good stuff in our NFC Wild Card preview, so let's skip the pleasantries and get right to previewing an AFC Wild Card weekend that includes a Steelers-Ravens rubber match and a shot at redemption for both Cincinnati and Indianapolis. 

Baltimore at Pittsburgh (8:15 p.m. Saturday, NBC)

The Line: Steelers by 3.5

By The Numbers:

Record: 10-6 (7-8-1 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 25.6 (8th) - 18.9 (6th)
Average Scoring Margin: +6.7 (6th) - 10.8 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +9.7% Offense (9th); -4.6% Defense (8th); +8.0% Special Teams (2nd); +22.2% Total (5th)

Record: 11-5 (9-7 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 27.2 (7th) - 23.0 (18th)
Average Scoring Margin: +4.2 (10th) - 9.6 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +22.5% Offense (2nd); +11.3% Defense (30th), +0.9% Special Teams (12th); +12.1% Total (8th)

Player(s) to Watch: Brice McCain

Pittsburgh's secondary has become a collection of has beens (Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor) and never weres (William Gay, Antwon Blake), but they've been scrappily good during the Steelers' 4-0 finish to the season.

The scrappiest of the bunch has been corner Brice McCain, who grabbed a pair of picks against Cincinnati in the de facto AFC North title game Sunday night, and has a game-winning pick-6 to his name from earlier this year in Jacksonville.

The Steelers likely don't have anybody that can match up with Torrey Smith and with Flacco entering gunslinger mode, they'll need somebody in that aged and beaten secondary to step up and make a play. The undersized, but blazing quick McCain is as good a candidate as any.


Player(s) to Watch: Baltimore's Secondary

The strength of Baltimore's defense is their front seven. Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs can rush the quarterback. Haloti Ngata and C.J. Mosely shed blocks and stuff the run game in the middle of the field. Pernell McPhee, Timmy Jernigan and Courtney Upshaw are all versatile front seven players who move around and contribute in various ways. But the back end of their defense has problems.

They've been torched their fair share of games this year. They've given up over 300 yards passing five times this year, only the Bears and Falcons surrendered that many yards more often. Their pass rush kept their pass defense afloat (49 sacks was tied for 2nd-most in the league), but when they've gone up against elite passing offenses, they've been exposed.

Their season numbers don't seem too bad, but they've been fortunate enough to go up against some cupcake pass offenses. They played Cleveland twice, Jacksonville, Tennessee, a Houston offense orchestrated by Case Keenum, plus Tampa Bay and Carolina. But Drew Brees and the Saints threw for 420 yards. Phil Rivers and the Chargers put up 383. Roethlisberger and the Steelers threw for 340 and six touchdowns. The days of Ed Reed patrolling the deep middle of the field are long gone. If Pittsburgh's offensive line can give Roethlisberger time to throw, his receivers will get open.


Hidden Points: Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore's Blitzes

The Steelers have been remarkably effective against the blitz this year due to a few factors. The most obvious is Ben Roethlisberger, who is having a career year across the board, but the increase in both wide receiver and running back screen passes from Pittsburgh has slowed down opponents' pass rush as well.

But perhaps the biggest reason has been running back Le'Veon Bell, a remarkable receiver out of the backfield and pass protector in blitz pickup.

With Bell's status questionable (at best), the Steelers will look to undrafted rookie Josh Harris and recently signed veteran Ben Tate to handle the between the tackles running and blitz pick up, while speedy rookie Dri Archer will likely take up Bell's role as a receiver out of the backfield.

Combined, they can do all the things Bell does, though not as well. The only problem is, Pittsburgh probably can't get a waiver from the league to play 13 guys instead of 11 on offense. Unfair, I know.

With Bell likely out, it will be on an improved but still flawed Steelers offensive line and Roethlisberger to identify pressure and adjust accordingly.


The Picks:

Baltimore 27, Pittsburgh 20 (Baltimore Covers)

 If Le'Veon Bell is out (which he seems likely to be), I'm not sure what Pittsburgh does. Baltimore already has a pretty good run defense. It's unlikely that the Steelers were going to be able to bleed them on the ground anyway, but if we assume Bell doesn't play, then Pittsburgh will just have no hope of moving the ball with their running game.

If Pittsburgh can't run, they're going to become one-dimensional, and that plays right into Baltimore's hands. They want Dumervil and Suggs and McPhee to be able to pin their ears back and go after Roethlisberger. And if Pittsburgh is using backup running backs who aren't well-versed in blitz pickups, expect the Ravens to send a lot of diverse and creative blitz packages to try to confuse whoever is back there.


Baltimore 21, Pittsburgh 17 (Baltimore Covers)

I wish I could just say I'm continuing my reverse-jinx on my Steeers, but I  just don't see how Pittsburgh wins this without Le'Veon Bell or an experienced replacement in the backfield.

While Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger have been great this year, it's hard to see either one of them having the kind of seasons they've had without Bell tying the entire offense together as a runner, receiver and pass protector.

That, and the fact that Joe Flacco seems poised for a big game against a Pittsburgh secondary that simply doesn't have the horses to run against decent receiving groups any more.


Cincinnati at Indianapolis (1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

The Line: Colts by 3.5

By The Numbers:

Record: 10-5-1 (8-7-1 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 22.8 (15th) - 21.5 (12th)
Average Scoring Margin: +1.3 (14th) - 8.6 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -1.8% Offense (18th); -2.2% Defense (14th); +4.2% Special Teams (6th); +4.6% Total (13th)

Record: 11-5 (10-5-1 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 28.6 (6th) - 23.1 (19th)
Average Scoring Margin: +5.6 (7th) - 10.0 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -0.9% Offense (17th); -2.3% Defense (13th); +3.3% Special Teams (8th); +4.7% Total (12th)

Player(s) to Watch: Dan Herron, Trent Richardson

Cincinnati doesn't do anything on a truly elite level, but at the same time, they don't have any glaring weaknesses, either (although their pass rush did unexpectedly dry up this year - they finished dead last in the league in sacks). You can't say the same thing about Indianapolis. They have an elite quarterback, a very good stable of receivers, and a head-scratching running game.

The Colts finished 1st in passing yards and passing touchdowns, 5th in yards per pass attempt. They finished 22nd in rushing yards, 24th in touchdowns, 25th in yards per attempt. And those numbers include Ahmad Bradshaw, who averaged 4.7 yards per carry this year before being sent to Injured Reserve with a broken ankle. The Colts' ground game will fall onto the shoulders of Trent Richardson (an ongoing trainwreck) and Dan Herron (who has been surprisingly good in short stretches).

Cincinnati doesn't have many holes on defense, but teams have shown that you can run on them. The Patriots gashed them for 220 yards in their Week 5 beatdown, and these Colts found seams in Cincinatti's front to the tune of 171 rushing yards in their Week 7 shutout of the Bengals. In both of their playoff games last year, the Colts had to abandon the run game early because they fell behind. But if they can come out establishing the run right away, they can take some pressure off Andrew Luck.


Player(s) to Watch: Carlos Dunlap

As Jeremy said, the Bengals are dead last in the league in sacks this year, and the run defense has come apart at the seams at the most inopportune of times.

Indianapolis isn't exactly a juggernaut running the ball, but they do have this quarterback named Andrew Luck who is pretty good.

If the Bengals have any hope of slowing the Colts down, it will be on Dunlap to overcome the double teams he's likely to face and put some pressure on Luck. If not, it could be a long day for a Cincinnati secondary that has struggled against speedy receivers, meaning a potentially big day for Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton.


Hidden Points: Health

A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham have both yet to practice this week. A.J. Green still hasn't been cleared from a concussion, and Gresham is listed as questionable with ailments to both his back and leg. If neither is able to go, that's Cincinnati's first- and third-leading receivers that are out of the lineup. And we've already seen what happens to Cincinnati's offense when Green is out of the lineup or limited. The aforementioned shutout at the hands of Indianapolis occurred with Green sidelined.

It's not even remotely a coincidence that the Bengals' two worst offensive performances of the season came with Green either out of the lineup (Week 7 against the Colts - 135 total yards) or with him limited due to injuries (Week 10 against Cleveland - 165 total yards).


The Picks:

Indianapolis 31, Cincinnati 17 (Indianapolis Covers)

I'm not the type of guy that buys into the narrative of Cincinnati losing in the Wild Card round in each of the last three years and/or Andrew Luck being a clutch God that wills his team to victory in the playoffs. For one thing, the Clutch Luck thing doesn't even have much basis in fact - his teams are 1-2 in three playoff games. For another, it's a lot more meaningful that Cincinnati has made the playoffs four years in a row than they haven't been able to pick up a playoff win yet.

But I don't think Cincinnati is as good this year as they have been in the past. Andy Dalton has regressed. They have a lot of injuries on defense. Their pass rush has completely disappeared. Meanwhile, the Colts are better. They've improved on defense. They have a full complement of wide receivers (remember, Reggie Wayne missed half the season plus the playoffs last year). Plus, they're playing at home against a Cincinnati team that might not have their best player.

Cincinnati losing in the first round of the playoffs yet again won't be a referendum on their entire organization, but I do think they're going to come up short once again.


Indianapolis 27, Cincinnati 20 (Indianapolis Covers)

As a Steelers fan I can say that I wish Pittsburgh was playing either of these teams instead of Baltimore, but hey, what can you do.

Back to the game at hand, I just don't see how a beaten up (and just not that good) Cincinnati front gets any pressure on Andrew Luck, and on the other side of the ball I doubt they can match the Colts score-for-score with A.J. Green playing hurt or out entirely.

Gimme the Colts in a win that isn't as close as the score indicates.



L. W. said...

Both games will be tight, that's for sure. Predicting a 14 points win by the Colts is silly.

My predictions:
Steelers by 7
Colts by 4

Joe Parello said...

Colts by 14? That's just silly. They won by 16.