NFL - The 2012 Post-Season preview

4 January, 2013 at 20:52 (GMT)

By Will Davies

After what feels like a long regular season is in the books and ahead of the Playoffs starting on the 5th / 6th of January, this is how the playoff-picture has shaped up, the 12 teams who made the cut, and how they might vie to play in and win Super Bowl XLVII.

AFC

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Denver Broncos 13-3, Number 1 Seed

After a stumbling start by his standards, while Peyton Manning was still familiarising himself with his new surroundings and re-honing his throwing motion, the Broncos have found their feet, and the form that goes with it. After a come-back for the ages against the Chargers in week 6 (being 0-24 down at the half, and finishing up 35-24), they settled into a rhythm on offense and have won their last 11 games on the bounce and are certainly the on-form team in the AFC. With others stumbling at the last, they gained the top seed and the right to play all their games at home.

After spending the 2011 season on the Colts’ sidelines, while also having multiple neck-surgeries, Manning’s fitness was an unknown quantity, so he was released to the Free Agent market. He was snapped up by the Broncos, who needed a replacement for Tim Tebow, who they were looking to replace (offload). He may not have come back stronger, but he has definitely come back smarter. His reads of the defence have stepped up a level, he has a better core of receivers than some of his years as a Colt, and having a solid running game in the form of Willis McGahee in the backfield, only goes to support his play-action passing game.

Verdict: Super Bowl bound

New England Patriots 12-4, 2 Seed

Tom Brady has had another one of his outstanding seasons, having dragged his offence into shape at times, or led them to blowouts at others. His receiving core, with names like Julian Edelman, Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker, has been strong despite being plagued by niggling injuries. One of his favourite targets TE Rob Gronkowski broke one of the bones in his forearm in their week 11 game and has been sidelined ever since. He should be close to being back to full fitness again (he did play in week 17, but with a large amount of strapping on his arm) and will prove invaluable to the team’s cause as they make another push for the 2012 crown.

One of the Pats’ main strengths on offence is Brady’s use of the no-huddle – it keeps the base-defence on the field (by not allowing the substitution of players) and stops them from exploring different packages. When the pressure is on and the clock is against him, Brady is one of, if not the best at the 2-minute drill. They average a two-touchdown win, which includes 6 matchups against playoff opponents.

New England’s last championship win came in Super Bowl XXXIX (in 2004), and came so close to winning it in 2007 as well as last year. For such a dominant franchise over this period this is quite a wait for another crown, and the Brady-Belichick-Dynasty are going all out to win their forth.

Verdict: Championship contender

Houston Texans 12-4, 3 Seed

If there is one word that sums up the start to the Texans’ season it is solid. Matt Schaub has led the team well on offense and with MVP candidate JJ Watt doing a sterling job on defence; they had taken them to the top spot in the AFC.

Throughout the first part of the season they were the class of the conference, with efficient and effective performances that sent them streaking to the top. But by no means has their journey been free from bumps along the way; a loss to the Minnesota Vikings, as well the offense slowing down, are not signs of concern per say, but ideally will need to be addressed if the team wants the best chance of going all the way. They seemingly backed off recently; have missed opportunities to seal Home-Field Advantage and their loss to the Colts on the final day slid them out of what had looked like a certain bye-week.

They have a lot of the pieces of the puzzle, but as so much in this game goes on momentum, the Texans will need a strong start in order to kick their performances back up into the higher gear. Perhaps losing out on the bye won’t be the worst thing to befall Houston, as this might allow them to establish some against the Bengals, before they face an even tougher opponent.

Verdict: Honourable mention – Divisional Round

Baltimore Ravens 10-6, 4 Seed

So much was banded around during the pre-season about the Ravens stepping up to the next level, and running the AFC, but in the latter part of the season they’ve taken their foot off the gas, and virtually backed into the playoffs. Big things were said also about Joe Flacco, along the lines of him joining the list of elite QBs, but this season so far, it has just not meant to be. That is unless he leads his team to the conference championship…

Baltimore’s main problem on offense is that their Coordinator does not seem to realise the value of continuing to run Ray Rice. He is a weapon on the ground, having shown this on the occasions he’s had the ball handed off to him. However, Rice is not being given enough carries to support the play-action pass, so the opposing defences have learnt to apply the pressure to the Ravens by forgoing stopping-the-run, and instead concentrating on blitzing Flacco at the same time as dropping back into coverage.

Baltimore’s ageing defence haven’t performed as strongly as they have been capable of in the past, and look vulnerable. They were unable to contain a weakened Steelers team that were at the time without Ben Roethlisberger, and can count themselves lucky on a variety of other occasions over the course of the season.

Verdict: 1-&-done – Wild Card Round

Indianapolis Colts 11-5, 5 Seed

The Number 1 pick in the 2012 Draft, Andrew Luck, has turned the fortunes of this franchise around. The Colts had a make-do-&-mend season in 2011 and fell to a 2-14 record, and after selecting Luck in April have surprised many critics by getting this far. It is considered a tough ask for rookie QBs to join the league and then lead their team to the playoffs in the same season, and this year, it looks like we have 3 who have succeeded in this feat!

This has been far from a straightforward season for the organisation. Their Head Coach, Chuck Pagano, was diagnosed with leukaemia on September 26th, and since then has set his work with the team to one side, to undergo chemotherapy. Deputising in his place, Bruce Arians has done more than a sterling job in guiding the team in his absence. There was a noticeable pulling together as the team wanted to play for their ill coach. Pagano has been back in remission since November 5th and has returned to the sidelines. I’d expect this to galvanise the Colts even more and could spark a strong playoff run – just as it seemingly did most recently against the also playoff-bound Texans.

Verdict: Honourable mention – Divisional Round

Cincinnati Bengals 10-6, 6 Seed

The AFC North was always going to be a tough division to get out of, as there were 3 teams that were in contention to make the playoffs. After the Ravens took the title, it was the Bengals who made it also through a Wild-Card spot, and it was the Bengals defence that was the proved key – over the last 8 weeks they have allowed an average of 12 points (only), and have one of the highest sack totals in the league.

QB Andy Dalton has progressed well in his 2nd year in the league. He has become a proficient pocket-passer and also is a threat with his legs. He has top-quality help through the air in the form of Pro Bowl WR A.J. Green and on the ground with ‘The Law Firm’, Benjarvus Green-Ellis.

This is the Cincinnati’s first time in the playoffs on consecutive years since 1981/82, one of them getting as far as the Super Bowl, and have only got that far once since, they will be looking to replicate and surpass that achievement this time around.

Verdict: 1-&-done – Wild Card Round

So close but…

The Steelers came within a whisker, despite being with Ben Roethlisberger for 3 crucial weeks. The Dolphins have done well to be in contention towards the end, with it being Ryan Tannehill’s first season in the league. Further back, the Jets and Chargers have bumbled their way through, but were never destined to make it, especially considering how they’ve been playing at times.

NFC

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Atlanta Falcons 13-3, Number 1 Seed

Ever since their 8-0 start to the season, the Falcons have looked like shoe-ins for the #1-seed in their conference, and in week 16 clinched Home-Field advantage; meaning that the road to Super Bowl 47 in the NFC goes through the Georgia Dome. This is vital for their chances because they are a different team inside, at home, as they are this season 7-1. They have been a force on the field, rolling some teams, and even when their play has faltered, have still been able to grind out results. For a time they had their eyes on an unbeaten season, but that was stopped in week 10 by the New Orleans Saints. They have shown themselves to be a force worth reckoning with.

However, the Falcons have their critics. Under Matt Ryan, they’ve not performed at all well in January, having not won in the playoffs in the only three years they made it that far. The Falcons’ saving grace is that Ryan, or Matty Ice to his fans, has been having a career year so far and has found himself selected for the Pro Bowl in late January. His work, together with that of a decent set of receivers, as well as TE Tony Gonzalez, have helped the Falcons to the tied-best finishing record in the league, and with that they’ll be a scalp to take down.

Verdict: Honourable mention – Divisional Round

San Francisco 49ers 11-4-1, 2 Seed

There has been nothing ‘regular’ about the ‘9ers’ season. A strong start under one QB turned into a strong continuation by another. Alex Smith played well during his spell under centre, and when he was knocked out of a game with a concussion, was replaced by back-up, and sometimes runner of the Wildcat, Colin Kaepernick.

Head Coach Jim Harbaugh has never looked comfortable with Smith, he’s found that sophomore Kaepernick can step up to the big-time, and will not be going back. Kaep was known as a threat with his legs but has revealed a deadly deep-ball – he possesses a lot of the skills that are so common with the new bread of NFL-Quarterbacks. However, having only half a season as a starter under his belt could prove to be too little experience as Kaep attempts to lead the team to glory.

The ‘9ers have looked like the real deal, and have been widely touted as a team to watch out for. Their play on both sides of the ball, as well as on special teams, has had them projected as one of the favourites. However, recently their defence has not been performing up to scratch – during the last few weeks of the season they failed to stop New England or Seattle from scoring at will.

Either they are weak against play-off calibre offences or the lack of defensive Justin Smith has made all the difference. The statistics show his presence on the field is vital, so either he has to be healthy or the rest of the D has to step up if they want to stick it out through till February.

Verdict: Honourable mention – Divisional Round

Green Bay Packers 11-5, 3 Seed

The injury ravaged Packers will be pleased to have gotten themselves this deep into the seeding, despite missing out on the bye-week, especially when they consider simultaneous-possession-gate. They have lost key pieces from across most areas of the starting line-up and have found parts of the season hard at times. However, it seems that these pieces are regaining fitness and should be back to bolster the team in time for the sharp end of the season.

Their QB Aaron Rodgers will go down as probably the best in history – his place in the Hall of Fame is virtually assured. He is a unique blend of pocket-presence, precision-passing, playmaker-abilities, not to mention skills as a game manager. He may not have as many good pieces around him, like having to play behind a weaker than average O-Line, and with no real running game to speak of, but this does not affect his production. He has thrown 39 TDs this season and completed almost 4300 passing yards – another strong performance.

Despite having had their weaknesses at this season, and having blown situations down the stretch, any team who underestimated them will do so at their own risk.

Verdict: Championship contender

Washington Redskins 10-6, 4 Seed

Before the season started, the task of getting to the playoffs was thought to be too much for the Redskins – a tough division and a rookie QB at the helm. In their defence Robert Griffin the 3rd was the second pick in the Draft, was projected to be a stud, and has since done nothing but impress. He runs his read-option offence with extreme control.

Essentially this allows him to call a play, line up in the pistol formation, make pre-snap reads, and then still decide whether he’s going to hand the ball off to the running back during the play (depending on what he’s seen until that point) – i.e. the RB is never 100% sure whether he’s getting the ball until it’s in his hands, and the defence have even less chance of differentiating a play-fake from a run-play from an RG3 keep-n-go from a regular pass-play. Maybe the opposition will have enough film on him by now but that doesn’t seem to be slowing the ‘Skins down.

On the couple of occasions that Griffin has been knocked out of the game, or left out on the sidelines with an injury this hasn’t stopped Washington. Their backup-QB, who is another rookie from this year’s class, has stepped up and been able to lead the line well. Kurt Cousins is better than some of the other starting-QBs in the league (mentioning no names) and is likely to become someone else’s starter when he becomes a free agent ~3 years down the line.

The Redskins’ weakness looks to be their defence. It is susceptible against the pass and does not apply the pressure on the opposing QB that is vital against high-flying teams. It’s a fantastic achievement to get this far, but I can’t see them going much further this year.

Verdict: 1-&-done – Wild Card Round

Seattle Seahawks 11-5, 5 Seed

With all the talk of rookie QB performances this season, Luck vs RG3, the fact that Russell Wilson is also new to the league is often forgotten. Wilson was taken in the third round of the Draft and has been playing like a first-rounder

Luck has had his team sculpted to fit his image, Griffin has had his read-offense brought over from his college days, but it is Wilson who, I think, has been the best rookie QB of the year. At the start of the season he was in a QB-battle with ex-Packer Matt Flynn, won out, was named the starter, and has never looked back. He has filed performances beyond his years, despite not having an offence tailored in his favour.

The Seahawks can count themselves lucky a couple of times, with referees’ decisions going their way, when perhaps they shouldn’t. In particular, the replacement officials’ verdict on the simultaneous possession Fail Mary against the Packers, which all but forced the hands of the owners and ended the lockout of the regular refs.

Another factor the Seahawks’ favour is their strong defensive unit. They have a good chance of making it deep into the playoffs this season, and even if they don’t, watch out in the future, Seattle look like they will become contenders.

Verdict: Super Bowl bound

Minnesota Vikings 10-6, 6 Seed

The surprise package to make the post-season is Minnesota, who before the season had been written off with an average QB and a still recovering RB. The second-year Christian Ponder under centre had nothing special predicted of him, and that has transpired (although in week 17 he did post a career-best QB-rating of 120.2, with 3 TDs and no INTs). The saving grace of the Vikings came in the form of Adrian Peterson. Despite having blown his knee out in week 16 of last season he’s managed to have surgery, rehab and get back to full fitness; he came with 9 yards (only) from setting the all-time rushing record (he finished with 2097 yards on the season). There are a range of stats that illustrate how much more of an influence Peterson is on the play of the Vikings:

PetersonPonder
Average Rush / Pass yards on season6.06.1
Longest Rush / Pass on season8265
Total Rush / Pass yards in last 9 games13991267

Thing are looking up for the Vikes, and as their first game will be against the Packers, the team that they beat to ensure their place, then they have a chance, but unfortunately I don’t see it.

Verdict: 1-&-done – Wild Card Round

So close but…

Last year’s Champions, the New York Giants, are out!! They have had an off-and-on season and were still in contention going into week 17, but had to rely on too many games going their way, and in the NFL that is a tough ask. The Cowboys also came close in the tight NFC East; Tony Romo put up some huge numbers this season but again mistakes by himself and others has cost his team. The Bears started well at 7-1 and were in the mix going into the final game, but it wasn’t to be. They’ll lament the games that Jay Culter missed due to a concussion.

If you thought that the recent weeks were exciting, just wait until every game is win or go home; the heat is up, the pressure’s on, and I’m sure there will be a Sidepod-audience here for the road to Super Bowl XLVII.

Fantasy Playoff Challenge

If the excitement of the NFL playoffs isn’t enough for you, then there is a treat in store. The Fantasy-Football season has been extended so that you can now create your own mini-team that will run up until the Super Bowl. This is great if, like me, you didn’t get round to setting up a proper Fantasy team for the regular season, but fancy some action before the season closes. (I suggest setting up a proper fantasy league for the 2013 season – but that’s a conversation for a different time.)

It works as most other fantasy games do so; in essence you choose your selection of offensive players and a team’s defence, then points are allocated when those players hit different targets during the games in the playoffs. E.g. a rushing/receiving TD counts for 6 points, throwing a TD pass counts for 4 points, losing a fumble or an interception is worth -2 points, etc. (The full point-scoring system as well as the full Ts-&-Cs are available via the NFL website.)

You need to select: 1× Quarterback, 2× Running Backs, 2× Wide Receivers, 1× Tight End, 1× Kicker, and a Defence. After each week you get the chance to change your team, however if you chose a player and then keep him in your line-up for more weeks, his total receives a multiplier (2×, 3×,…) that increases the longer they stay in the hunt. Each week the teams must be finalised before the first game of that weekend kicks off, but it doesn’t necessarily matter if you miss the Wild Card Weekend. So long as you then choose players from teams with byes, then they are automatically granted a 2× bonus in the Divisional Round.

It’s a toss-up between picking players who’ll score big points but might get knocked out early vs. players that’ll receive large multiplier-bonuses – I’m sure I don’t need to say that, and that’s enough of me giving away tactics. Until the contest begins you’ll not be able to see you friends’ picks, but if you’ve not got a brilliant idea of who might be a good pick there are a set of stats next to each player to give you a helping hand – just in case you’ve not been following the season so far in minute detail.

Once you’ve created a login and chosen your team via the Fantasy Playoff Challenge portion of the NFL website you can join various groups so that you can ‘play’ against your friends or fans of your favourite team (etc); and of course there is a Sidepodcast group. At the time of going to press there are only 5 rosters entered, so please join.

Not only will having a selection of players from across the conferences to cheer for make the playoffs even more interesting, but having our own mini-league will keep things nice and competitive. Then come the Super Bowl, we’ll all have our own selection of players and will need different things from each in order to make a challenge for the mini-title, again if the game itself isn’t going to be exiting enough already!!

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