Divisional Round Preview — Sunday

Posted: 01/17/2016 by levcohen in Football

Well, I don’t know how today’s games are going to follow that up. Last night’s game between the Cardinals and Packers should go down as an all-time great. From Aaron Rodgers’s second Hail Mary of the season to Jeff Janis’s ridiculous 101 yards on one drive (that has to be a record, right?) to the coin not flipping (how is that even possible?) to Larry Fitzgerald’s amazing 75-yard catch and run in overtime, the game was incredible. Remember, the announcers were calling this a great and weird game before the Packers made that conversion on fourth and 10 and then completed the Hail Mary. So yeah, today’s games probably won’t be as good. But they’re just as important, as we’ll learn who will join the Patriots (who, by the way, have to be Super Bowl favorites at this point) and Cardinals in the next round. Will all four home teams win? Or will the Seahawks or Steelers pull off an upset? No matter what happens, I think we’re looking at a great NFC Championship Game matchup and a fairly heavily favored Patriots team in the AFC.

Seattle Seahawks (11-6, 8-8-1) at Carolina Panthers (15-1, 11-5):
Spread: Panthers favored by 2.5
Over/under: 42.5
My prediction: We know the Panthers are good. Sure, they had an easy schedule, but you don’t go 15-1 because of luck. It’s easy to fall into the trap of calling the Panthers a defense-first team, because based on how the roster looks, it would make sense if they were a grind-it-out, first-team-to-20-points-wins type team. But despite the lack of talent at the receiver and offensive line positions, the Panthers were the highest-scoring team in the NFL, scoring 31.25 points per game and 35 per game over their last seven games, with 38+ in five of those games. How have they been so good offensively even with the glaring issues on the line and at the receiver position? Well, because in Cam Newton, they have the MVP. Newton’s as deserving of an MVP as I can remember; he’s the rare quarterback who really can transcend a lack of talent around him. Working with only Greg Olsen as a legitimate threat, he threw for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions while running for 636 yards and 10 more scores. More importantly, though, he excelled in the fourth quarter, averaging 8.54 yards per attempt and 5.3 yards per carry while accounting for five touchdowns and zero turnovers in the fourth quarter of one-score games. So, because of Newton and Jonathan Stewart, who ran for nearly 1,000 yards despite missing a few games, the Panthers posted the second most rushing yards in the league while passing for the third most touchdowns in the NFL. But they’re playing the Seahawks this week, and the Seahawks’ defense is far from normal. Including their lucky 10-9 win over the Vikings last week, Seattle has given up just 10.67 points per game in their last six. That can be attributed in part to the return of Jeremy Lane at cornerback. With Lane back on the opposite side of Richard Sherman, the Seahawks can play more of their standard, attacking-style defense without having to worry as much about receivers uncovering from their cornerbacks. It’s no coincidence that this defensive run coincided exactly with Lane’s return to the lineup. I don’t expect Carolina’s receivers to be able to do much against this defense, and I don’t think Jonathan Stewart will approach 100 yards, which means it’s all going to be up to Newton and Olsen. Remember, there is a template for the Panthers to use here, because they beat Seattle in Seattle 27-23 in week six. I know a lot of time has passed since then, but the Panthers won that game despite no receiver reaching even the 25 yard mark. How? Well, Olsen. The tight end caught seven passes for 137 yards including the game-winning 26 yard touchdown with 32 seconds left in the game. That game was actually odd in that the Panthers lost the turnover battle, with Newton’s two interceptions serving as the only two turnovers in the game. For the season, the Panthers posted what was easily the best turnover margin in the NFL at +20, as they forced 39 turnovers and gave the ball up just 19 times. They can’t turn the ball over today, because they’re going to need as many drives as possible to attempt to break down this stout Seattle defense and because I don’t think they’re going to have much success turning the Seahawks over, given that Seattle turned the ball over just 16 times this season. So when the Panthers have the ball, they’re just going to have to grind it out with Newton and Olsen while taking a few shots deep to Ginn if only to keep the defense honest.

On the other side of the ball, how can we have much confidence in Seattle’s offense? Well, that was meant to be a rhetorical question (“We can’t”), but, now that I think about it, that depends on how much you believe in Marshawn Lynch. Lynch will return to action this week, and if he’s Beast Mode, he’ll obviously make a huge difference for a Seattle team that loves running the football. But he hasn’t really been Beast Mode all season, and that was before he got injured. I expect this to come down to Russell Wilson and whether he can make plays against a great defense, just like it will come down to Newton on the other side of the ball. And he’s going to have to do it with his arm, because Carolina’s linebackers are too good to let Wilson beat them consistently on the ground. Last time these teams played, Jimmy Graham caught eight passes for 140 yards. Graham, of course, isn’t an option today after he tore his patellar tendon against the Steelers. Unfortunately, Doug Baldwin, who has been so great recently, might not be much of an option either given that he will be blanketed by Josh Norman, the best cornerback in the league this season. Baldwin will still get his chances, but he’s not going to be the guy who breaks down the defense. That means Wilson is going to have to rely on guys like Tyler Lockett and Jermaine Kearse to pick up key yardage against a great defense. I don’t like their chances.

This is going to be a low-scoring game. I just don’t think either team will consistently be able to beat the opposing defense. The Seahawks probably have the special teams edge, but the Panthers are home and have the MVP, so I’m going to take them in a 20-17 squeaker.
Panthers cover
Under

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6, 9-6-2) at Denver Broncos (12-4, 8-8):
Spread: Broncos favored by 8
Over/under: 41
My prediction: It’s going to have to take a Herculean effort from Ben Roethlisberger to defeat the team with the best defense in the NFL without his top two running backs and more importantly without the best receiver in the NFL, Antonio Brown. And remember, Roethlisberger himself is nursing an injured shoulder, and he’ll be far from full strength and could well be knocked out of the game at any time. I just don’t think he’s going to have the time or arm strength to move the ball against the Broncos, which means the defense is going to have to have its best game of the season. Look, the Broncos don’t have a very good offense, but they’ll have at least a little bit of success against a mediocre Pittsburgh defense, and that’s all it should take against a super banged-up Steelers offense. The game could stay close, but the Broncos would have to do a lot wrong to lose this game. Broncos win 20-14.
Steelers cover
Under

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