Thursday, January 13, 2011

NFC Divisonal Preview

NFC Divisional Round Preview

Packers @ Falcons

The NFC matchups might not have the deep-rooted bitterness of the AFC games, but that doesn’t make them any less compelling. Falcons v. Packers will see the two best young quarterbacks in the league face off, in what is a preview of a rivalry we could be watching for years to come. Aaron Rodgers won his first ever playoff game in Philadelphia last week and Matt Ryan will try to emulate the feat in the Georgia Dome, where he is 18-2 in his career.

This is such a tough game to call because both of these teams are so good and so complete. There are two aspects of the game that really set the two apart. It’s a wash at quarterback and receiver, but the Falcons have the advantage in the running game with Michael Turner. Turner is so consistent, game to game and play to play. He may not get too many spectacular runs, but he will take whatever you give him and an extra yard or two as well. For Matt Ryan, having a running back that can be counted on to keep the offense on schedule is a huge advantage and it means that Atlanta’s offense can get in a rhythm and become really hard to stop.

Green Bay has an offense that is pretty hard to stop in its own right, but they haven’t had the balance that the Falcons have enjoyed. Playing in a dome means the running game is not as crucial as it could be, but it’s an old cliché, and a true one, that running the ball is so important in the playoffs. The Packers have struggled to get anything going on the ground after losing starter Ryan Grant in the first game of the season, but they have a new hope in the shape of rookie running back James Starks, who ran for 123 yards against the Eagles, averaging 5.3 yards-per-carry.

So the guy has one good game and all of a sudden he’s the answer? Well…yes, he very well could be. A closer look at James Starks’ recent history paints a picture of a guy that could have just needed the chance to perform. First, take a look at his body of work this season. Apart from last weekend, Starks only appeared in two games. In week 12, he ran for 73 yards, averaging 4.1 yards-per-carry in his debut against the Niners. A week later he had a bit of a dud, only gaining eight yards on six carries. He didn’t play again until last week. So he’s 2 for 3 so far, which isn’t too bad, especially when one of the two is in the playoffs. In college, Starks was a standout runner in the MAC, but missed his senior season with injury, something that hurt him in the draft, where he was taken in the sixth round. Speaking of the draft, go find the top performers from the combine. Starks is listed as a top performer, not the top performer but a top performer, among running backs in five of the seven drills. He wasn’t spectacular in any one, but very solid across the board, outperforming the more highly touted Ryan Matthews, for one. Now, I’m not one to place a ton of meaning on the combine, but when you couple those numbers with a pair of promising performances, you get a picture of a running back who could be something. The Packers don’t need a spectacular runner, just someone to hit the holes hard and take some of the pressure off of Aaron Rodgers…I think James Starks can be that guy.

The second factor that sets these teams apart is on defense. The Falcons have a solid but decidedly unspectacular unit, averaging in the middle of the pack in most categories. The Packers, on the other hand, have a truly elite unit. The Packers are really versatile on defense and can put pressure on the quarterback from so many different places. Unlike the running game, there’s no white knight on the horizon for the Falcons and they give up a decided edge, on paper, to the Packers.

Tough to call, but I’m going to go with the Packers to go into Atlanta and beat the Falcons. I just think they have something a little extra and are more capable of doing something unexpected and explosive, on both sides of the ball. I know that Matt Ryan has been great at home, but I’m not going to get carried away with his record at home. 18-2 is a very impressive number, but if you look at each game that was played…I mean, the Falcons are a good team, they expected to win a lot of those games at home. It’s still impressive, but it doesn’t make the Falcons invincible in Atlanta.

Seahawks @ Bears

I began my preview of the Seahawks first playoff game by asking whether I should even bother writing about the game. Such was the overwhelming feeling of futility that surrounding the Seahawks. We all know how that turned out and there can’t have been many people that went 4-0 with their playoff picks last weekend.

I should learn from that performance last week, that these guys are all professionals, that they are only men and on any given day anything can happen. What happened on that day is the Saints defence was completely exposed. The Lynch run stands out as a celebration of terrible tackling, but that wasn’t the only let down from the Saints. When you go back and watch the highlights, every Seahawks touchdown came from a glaring breakdown in the Saints secondary. Yes, the Seahawks were gutsy, yes, Hasselbeck was great and yes, the Saints were epically bad on defense.

The Seahawks are heading into a completely different situation this weekend. That Bears defense is truly elite and there won’t be any gimmes. Add to that the Soldier Field turf, which is much slower than the fake stuff and the Seahawks are going to have to win a hard-hitting game where every yard is tough one. I don’t think they can. There’s no reason to expect the Seahawks to improve on a defensive performance which saw them give up 36 points, but it would be a shock if they score 41 against the Bears in Chicago.

From the Bears side, this is a game that they have to win. They can’t have any excuses against a 7-9 team that is so much better at home than on the road. The Seahawks snuck up on a complacent Saints team, I would be shocked if the Bears come out flat in this one. On a personal level, Jay Cutler has not yet been accepted fully into the brotherhood of the elite quarterback. A nice playoff run would go some way to remedying that, a loss to the Seahawks? Unthinkable.

I know, I know. I didn’t want to write about the Seahawks last week and I barely wrote anything this week. I have no analysis or numbers to point to. I just don’t think the Seahawks are that good. I have no faith. I’m taking the Bears to break the slipper at home.

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