Sport: The GridIron – It’s All On 12
The NFL playoffs kicked off last weekend with somewhat of damp squib Wildcard Round. We were treated to three blowout wins by each of the home sides (yes, the Texans blew out the Bengals in all but score and quarterback play) before a knee injury robbed us of what was shaping up to be a modern classic between the Redskins and the Seahawks. As an appetiser for the next three rounds, it tasted of day-old cabbage. The good news is that things should pick up significantly this weekend in the Divisional Round where every game has the potential to go down to the wire, except perhaps Baltimore @ Denver (sorry, Ray Lewis and Joe Flacco fans).
That this can be said about the Green Bay/San Francisco match-up is entirely down to the play of Aaron Rodgers. Having dispatched Adrian Peterson and the Vikings last week, Rodgers now stands alone in these playoffs as the man whose team’s fortunes fall heaviest upon his shoulders. This isn’t to say that Rodgers is necessarily the best player of quarterback left in the playoffs; strong arguments can be made for both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in these regards. However, Manning and Brady have help in terms of running games, defences and offensive lines that Rodgers does not.
On paper, the Packers match up terribly against this 49ers team who already easily beat them this season, in Green Bay on opening weekend. The Packers should afford the 49ers with everything you need to beat an elite quarterback in the NFL, namely pressuring the passer and controlling the time of possession.
Green Bay allowed 51 sacks during the regular season this year, 2nd worst in the league putting them in the company of teams such as Arizona, Jacksonville, San Diego and Philadelphia. When you consider that Rodgers is one of the most mobile passers in the league and boasts one of the quickest releases it makes this statistic all the more incredible. Meanwhile, the front seven of the San Francisco defence are one of the most physical units in the league who, although down slightly on their production compared to last year, still recorded 38 sacks during the regular season which was just outside the top 10 in the league.
Another area of significant weakness for the Packers has been defending the run, something they will need to do to be competitive against the 49ers. The Packers defence has allowed an average of 4.5 yards per carry which is the 6th worst of all teams in the league. Such generosity will be especially damaging against the 49ers who boast the league’s 4th best running game. San Francisco’s game plan will look to run the ball early with Frank Gore enabling them to set up the play-action option game for Colin Kaepernick, who has the ability to make plays with both his feet and his arm against a suspect Packers back-end. If they can establish this platform, the 49ers can control the clock and possession, thus keeping the ball out of Rodger’s hands.
The above mis-matches should ordinarily equate to a blowout win for the 49ers; however, the points spread for the game in Vegas is a mere 2.5 and most analysts have it close. The reason is Rodgers, whose play throughout the year has been remarkable by all standards except those he set for himself last year. Consider that, despite running for his life all year and conceding 51 sacks, Rodgers recorded the league’s highest passer rating of 108.0, had a completion rate of 67.2% and threw 39 touchdowns with only 8 interceptions. Compare those numbers with Peyton Manning’s, the MVP frontrunner, whose offensive line conceded 30 less sacks and ask yourself how Peyton is in the conversation.
Of course, for any team to get to this stage of the season requires more than just one man, and Rodgers does have significant help in the set of receivers he has to work with. Recently bolstered by the return of Greg Jennings, this group is stuffed with talent and the San Francisco back end has been fragile at times throughout the year, most notably in the second half of their match-up against the Patriots when another elite quarterback and set of receivers scored 28 points in 14 minutes against them!
That game will give Green Bay a blueprint for victory and the Packers will be motivated to avenge their loss from earlier in the season. However, the Packers are simply not as rounded as the Patriots and could struggle massively with San Francisco. As of writing, I think it’s too big of a task for Rodgers and Green Bay as there are simply too many holes in this year’s side that San Francisco are well equipped to torpedo.
- Yes, Baltimore and Denver has all the hallmarks of a one-sided affair. To start, Denver went into Baltimore a few short weeks ago and had their way with the Ravens on their home-field. Secondly, this is an ageing Baltimore defence that played 88 snaps against the Colts last weekend and now have to travel cross country to play at altitude. They will be gassed by the 3rd quarter and Peyton will have his way with them. Their only hope is that Manning repeats his habit of turning into Tony Romo as soon as the playoffs starts that was evident throughout his Indy career.
- I like the Falcons to beat the Seahawks, although this is the closest game of all four this weekend. Although Seattle are hot this weekend, they have had to travel from Washington to Seattle and now from Seattle back to Atlanta for this game. That’s a lot of mileage to put up in one week and I think that could be decisive against this Falcons side.
- I like the Patriots to beat the Texans but this one has upset written all over it. Matt Schaub will surely relax now that he has a playoff win after been visibly petrified of losing last week. The Texans will go in with everybody reminding them of the Week 14 game when they were blown out by the Patriots. This will serve as motivation and allow them to play with nothing to lose. Don’t forget that the Patriots had a few fortuitous bounces on fumbles in that game that allowed them to get up big early. This one will be close.
- The only thing more sickening than the Ray Lewis love in last weekend was the sight of RG3’s knee buckling under him after that fumbled snap. The Redskins kept Griffin in the game despite him being hurt in the first quarter just before the Redskins went up 14-0. This provided one of the week’s biggest talking point, however I think this whole episode has once again highlighted the folly of quarterbacks who rush a lot. Yes, if your quarterback is a Mark Sanchez type, sure have him run around a lot, but if you have a stone cold stud like Griffin, you surely need to protect him more!
Wildcard Round Results
Houston 19 Cincinnati 13
Green Bay 24 Minnesota 10
Baltimore 24 Indianapolis 9
Seattle 24 Washington 14