By Rick Morris
These are the top three factors in play for each of the teams in this year’s playoff field. Teams are listed in order of their standing in the current FDH Power Rankings.
1 New England
^ Keep the secondary from melting down. The Pats haven’t been lit up as severely over the past month, but this has to be an area of concern with 258.5 YPG surrendered in the air this year. The only scenario where they go down involves losing a mega-shootout.
^ Don’t get battered on time of possession. Surprisingly, for a team with a good running game and a decent run defense, they only average 29:00 minutes per game of possession. If they face a team that can accomplish the goal of keeping Brady & Company on the sidelines for long stretches, that could disrupt their rhythm.
^ Get “postseason-level Deion Branch” in the mix. With his injury history, most of Branch’s pro reputation has been carved out in January. His reemergence in New England has kept the loss of Randy Moss from crippling the downfield aspect of the offense. He needs to keep playing that vital role.
^ Keep Ben Roethlisberger healthy enough. He’s getting the old “shoot him up like a racehorse” treatment right now for that foot, but all it takes is having a lineman land the wrong way and the Yinzers are done for the season.
^ Make the most of the run/run defense differential. Thanks to a super-stout run D and a breakout year for Rashard Mendenhall, no team has a better run vs. run defense differential in their favor.
^ Deep to Mike Wallace! The latest deep threat in the Pittsburgh lineage has become one of the most dangerous in the league and he is the key to fully exploiting defensive concern with containing the run.
^ Prove their killer instinct. The flip side to their incredible resilience is the fact that, notwithstanding 13 victories, they rarely if ever blew out a non-doormat. Can they get all the way through the postseason having every win come down to the fourth quarter? The law of averages argues against that chance.
^ Utilize one of the league’s best 1-2 punches at RB to chew up the clock and keep the D fresh. At 32:15, their average time of possession was stellar. Burner Turner and Jason Snelling hold the keys to extending this level of performance into February.
^ Try to fill in the smoking crater at WR2 somehow. Michael Jenkins is one of the weakest second options at wide receiver in the league. It’s a credit to Matt Ryan’s excellent growth curve that this has not hindered him significantly. Given the way the Falcons will be defended in the postseason, it’s hard to see the team making the Super Bowl without somebody supplementing Roddy White in the wide receiver corps to some degree.
^ Maintain the progress with Joe Flacco. He’s got plenty of good receiving options, including arguably the best pass-catching back in the league in Ray Rice. His decision-making improved markedly, with a ratio of five TDs to every two INTs. The Ravens need this growth curve to be maintained.
^ Make the most of their two good options at RB. Rice may not have scored enough TDs this year to be a true fantasy stud, but Baltimore is happy that his carries were below 300. Willis McGahee proved yet again that he can come off the bench and help keep the chains moving – and put the ball in the end zone. The Ravens will need them both by the time they are done.
^ Keep the INTs coming from centerfield. Eight picks from Ed Reed in an abbreviated campaign? Just what the doctor ordered for a defense that is stout, but not at the level of some of the best Baltimore units of the past decade.
5 New Orleans
^ Make sure Reggie Bush can at least remain the greatest decoy in NFL history. Bush has not been 100% for much of the year, but his real value has always come from the fact that he must be accounted for every minute he is on the field. For the Saints to win, he need not have the career game that he managed in the NFC playoffs last year, but he has to be effective enough to help keep the defense on their heels for Drew Brees.
^ Keep the turnover balance in their favor. A year ago, Brees was slicing and dicing defenses with few consequences and Gregg Williams’ D was gaining takeaways left and right. This year, Brees chucked it to the other team 22 times and the defense only racked up nine picks. More than any other team in the postseason field, New Orleans depends on winning the turnover battle.
^ Survive the depth chart rise of Julius Jones. At least initially in the playoffs, Jones will be the back augmenting Bush the most. That is not promising in light of his disappointing pro career.
^ Make the most of the single-coverage in the passing game that the running game dictates. Defenses would like to cheat a bit on the Jackson/Maclin pairing (and their combined 2000+ yards), but they dare not, thanks to a robust 145.4 YPG averaged on the ground. The Eagles must keep defenses on their heels, as they manifestly failed to do against Minnesota.
^ Keep Michael Vick error-free. Heretofore in his career, Vick would always overreach at just the worst time. The key to his breakout to megastardom in 2010 was his willingness to take what defenses were giving him. The ratio of seven TDs for every three INTs during the regular season must at least be approximated.
^ Get some plays made in the secondary. The opposition tallied 24 or more points in seven of the nine games Philly played since the bye week. They cannot count on winning a shootout in every playoff game.
^ Continue to reap the rewards of the Mike Martz offense, while avoiding the pitfalls. Jay Cutler’s 23-to-16 TD-to-INT ratio was about as good as could have been expected. Johnny Knox’s 18.8 YPC was about as good as could have been expected. Given the number of hits he took without a ton of max protection, Cutler’s health was about as good as could have been expected. Are you noticing a theme? The Bears need to continue their progress in the passing game if they are to get back to the Super Bowl for the second time in four years.
^ Reap the benefits of fresh Forte. Although he had 51 receptions, Matt Forte had a productive year with only 237 carries – thanks to the team’s willingness to award Chester Taylor 112 totes despite a 2.4 YPC average. They will have one of the less-abused lead backs of the playoff season.
^ Get the secondary to show a pulse. With 34 points yielded to the Jets and 36 to the Pats in December – both times on their home turf – Chicago needs to avoid shootouts against NFC teams capable of outlasting them.
^ Keep from being eliminated by a run/run defense picture that is the opposite of Pittsburgh’s. It’s well-known that without Bob Sanders, as they so frequently are, the Colts struggle to stop the run. And while their team average of 3.8 YPC represented a bit of an overachievement given the constant run of injuries, Indy can never take establishing the run for granted. They cannot be widely outclassed on the ground and advance far in the postseason.
^ Avoid Peyton Manning errors. Rarely if ever have the Colts had to worry about their franchise QB making mistakes at inopportune times, but with 17 INTs and a receiving corps riddled by injuries, it wasn’t a typical year. It goes without saying that Manning must play at his highest level for the team to shake off the shadows of this difficult year and advance.
^ Resemble the team they were in December rather than the one that got off to a 6-6 start. When their backs were to the wall, the Colts rallied strong down the stretch. The momentum is going to need to carry them forward very strongly.
9 New York Jets
^ Get the most out of Mark Sanchez and Braylon Edwards. Sanchez is a very talented QB, but only in his second professional season with but one year starting for USC before that. Edwards is one of the most skilled WRs in the league, but also one of the most erratic. Both of them need to perform at a very high level for the team to make a serious run.
^ Exploit the run/run defense advantage they have that is similar to Pittsburgh’s. The two-headed monster at RB allows the team to pound the ball with impunity against most teams, while the D line has kept opposing units in check. This must continue for the Jets.
^ No “Queer as Folk” from the kicking spot. Nick Folk’s deficiencies in the kicking game can single-handedly end the season of the J-E-T-S.
10 Green Bay
^ Overcome a weak running game. Unsurprisingly, the Packers never overcame the loss of Ryan Grant. Due almost entirely to Aaron Rodgers’ completion percentage of 65.7%, Green Bay did actually manage an average time of possession of 31:36. Their smoke-and-mirrors operation must continue.
^ Tighten up against the run. With 114.9 YPG surrendered to opposing backs, the Pack is not as stout as they will need to be the rest of the way.
^ Restore Donald Driver’s pulse. That should need no elaboration.
11 Kansas City
^ Like Atlanta, they must keep pounding the 1-2 punch on the ground. Jamaal Charles is still pretty fresh after only 230 carries and a 6.4 YPC average. He and Thomas Jones are absolutely vital to Kansas City’s chances for a long run.
^ Like Atlanta, they must overcome the lack of a credible WR2. But unlike Atlanta, they no longer have Tony Gonzalez to help compensate. In his swan song – which could continue to be distracting – Charlie Weis must cover for this.
^ Keep the Matt Cassel resurgence going. With 27 TDs to only seven INTs, Weis was able to work his magic on yet another QB. Cassel must keep it going very strong.
^ Overcome the inability to stop the run and pass. The Seahawks face New Orleans in the first round – perhaps the best team in the league at keeping a defense on its heels. RUH-ROH!
^ Pick a QB for the playoff run. They don’t have a QB yet that they trust? RUH-ROH!
^ Survive a horrid running game. Marshawn Lynch, the focal point of the running game, averages only 3.5 YPC. RUH-ROH!