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Friday, 9 January 2015

The Must See NFL Matchups In The Divisional Playoffs

Matchup No. 4 – Marshawn Lynch vs. the Carolina Panthers’ defense.

Every game in the NFL has a different personality. Last week the Panthers won behind a dominating defense and running game. The Panthers defense allowed only 78 yards to the Arizona Cardinals. The 78 yards is the fewest allowed in a postseason contest. The Panthers run game also took center stage behind 41 carries and 188 rushing yards. The Panthers are now on a surprising five game winning streak. The Seahawks have to feel comfortable playing a contest centered around a dominant defense and running game. The Seahawks defense ranked 1st in the NFL in passing yards, total yards allowed and points allowed. The Seahawks also led the NFL in rushing yards per game averaging 172.6 yards a contest. The Seahawks are the NFC #1 seed and current Super Bowl Champions so the expectations couldn’t be any higher for them. Let’s breakdown the difference makers in this matchup.

Marshawn Lynch is a punishing runner who seeks out contact instead of avoiding it. His ability to crank out 1st down after 1st down, can wear down even the best defenses. The Seahawks are at their best when they play in front and lean on the running game. It would be a major surprise if Seattle doesn’t come out early and establish their dominance in the running game. The great part of the Seahawks running game is their versatility. Lynch is a dominant inside rusher but combined with Russell Wilson’s athleticism they can dominate on outside runs. Their bread and butter run is the read option. Wilson takes the ball and can handoff to Lynch, or Wilson can keep it and run it himself. When Lynch gets the handoff he is great at hitting the hole, or taking the play to the perimeter and then cutting back against the defense. When Wilson keeps the ball he excels at running outside the tackles, and breaking big chunks of yards.

The Panthers run a very similar scheme with their quarterback Cam Newton. In the past the Panthers defense has performed very well against the Seahawks. In their last three matchups, the Panthers have allowed only three touchdowns. The Panthers have allowed only 16, 12, and 13 points in those contests. The Panthers, even behind that great defense, are 0-3 in those matchups. The Panthers defense will take center stage against the Seahawks and the 12th man. They need to control the game and the crowd by dominating the line of scrimmage. They have to get penetration against the offensive line and tackle extremely well. Lynch and Wilson are very skilled at breaking tackles and juking defenders. Just being in good position will not be enough for the Panthers defense. Two other keys for the Panthers are turnovers and field position. If the defense can force three and outs, that will allow their offense good field position. Better yet, if the defense can force turnovers they will give the Panthers offense a potential jump start. The Panthers defense feeds off two outstanding linebackers, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Kuechly is an excellent run defender. He has led the team in tackles in each of his 1st three seasons. He is also a great pass defender. He made a critical interception in the red zone in last week’s playoff game. He also made a great deflection that led to the game clinching interception. Davis also excels in the run game, he forced 100 tackles this season. He seems to play well in space as he can cover tight ends and screen plays effectively. 

Matchup No. 3- New England Patriots Tom Brady vs. the Baltimore Ravens’ defense.

The Magic number for this game is 17. During the regular season the Ravens are 8-0 when the allow 17 points or fewer against the opposition. In all other games they are only 2-6. Last week in the Wild Card round the Ravens only allowed 17 points to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They won that matchup 30-17. The Patriots offense only scored 17 points or less four times during the season. Interestingly, the last two games the offense was held to 17 and 9 points. The Ravens are the AFC #6 seed and go on the road to the #1 seed Patriots where they are 7-1 at home.  This is not your typical 1 vs 6 matchup. The Ravens will come into this matchup with a ton of confidence. Quarterback Joe Flacco is lifetime 2-1 against the Patriots in the playoffs. Flacco is also on a five game playoff winning streak.

Tom Brady is going to go down as one of the best quarterbacks of all time. He will go down as the best sixth round draft pick in NFL history. The most important attribute of a NFL quarterback is availability. Except for one freak injury, Brady has been the guy leading the team for the last 14 years. Few players in any sport are as competitive as Brady is. This guy absolutely hates to lose; he will not give up or give an inch when he steps out on the football field. This season Brady passed for over 4000 yards and 33 passing touchdowns. His accuracy is one of Brady’s best attributes. This season he completed over 64% of his passes and only threw 9 interceptions. Tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman will be Brady’s go to guys. Edelman is a great route runner and sure handed receiver. Edelman has led the Patriots in receptions the last two seasons. Gronkowski showcased why he is still the top tight end in the NFL. Coming off a torn ACL he had another dominating season. He caught 82 passes for 1124 yards and 12 touchdowns. His 13.7 yards per reception led all Patriots receivers that caught at least five passes. He is the teams big play receiver who also happens to be a red zone matchup nightmare. Since his rookie year he is 2nd among all wide receivers and tight ends with 52 receiving touchdowns.

Statistically, the Ravens defense could have their hands full with the Patriots offense. The Ravens defense is 4th best against the run but only 23rd is passing yards allowed. The Ravens allowed over 248 passing yards per game on average. During the month of December the secondary started to come together. No opponent topped over 227 passing yards in December. During the streak the Ravens allowed opposing quarterback only 1 passing touchdown, 3 interceptions and forced 18 sacks. The best way to contain the Patriots passing game is with a dominant pass rush. Brady is not as effective when he faces heavy pressure, especially up in the middle of the line of scrimmage. The Ravens inside linebackers are C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith. They are 1st and 2nd on the team in tackles. Haloti Ngata is a force to be reckoned with at defensive tackle. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs/ T-Sizzle is a distributive force as an edge rusher. This defense has several playmakers that will make the Patriots work for every inch. It’s imperative the Ravens hold the Patriots to 17 points or fewer. If they can’t, then the Brady to Gronkowski connection will be too much to handle.

Matchup No. 2 - Denver Broncos Peyton Manning vs. the Indianapolis Colts’ defense.

Here’s a quick prelude just in case you have been living under a rock since 1998. Manning was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 1998 as the #1 overall pick. For his first 13 years he started every single game for the Colts. He won one Super Bowl and also lost one. He was released in 2012 and the Colts drafted Andrew Luck 1st overall to replace Manning. At the time Manning was recovering from multiple neck surgeries and the Colts were banking on Luck’s ability to lead the franchise for the long term. Manning will likely break most records for a quarterback. This season could be Manning’s best chance to create a new NFL record. No starting quarterback has won a Super Bowl on two different teams. Manning can become the 1st if he can lead the Broncos to a Super Bowl Championship. The Indianapolis Colts come into the contest with a lot on the line. Andrew Luck has had a great start to his three year career. He has led the team to the playoffs in each of his 1st three years. Luck has a great opportunity to put the Colts only one game from a Super Bowl berth.

Peyton Manning by his own standards had a down year. He “only” threw for 4727 passing yards and 39 touchdowns. He also threw 15 interceptions, “it’s clear the end is near”. But seriously, objectively, he has lost some arm strength. He doesn’t throw down the field as often and can struggle on long passes down the sidelines. Manning has never relied on athletic ability to dominate the opposition. His ability to read the defense and audible into the best play is the stuff of legends. His mental understanding of the game is top notch. He rarely forces the ball in coverage and can beat the defense in so many ways. Manning is fully capable of taking what the defense gives him. He can pick a defense apart with short precision passes. He can pick a defense apart by audbling and keeping the defense off their game. He can dominate by running the no huddle and wearing a defense down. Manning can also dominate with some elite offensive weapons. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are big time playmakers. These two players combined this season for… 212 catches, 3023 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns! Thomas has tremendous athletic ability; he has great size, speed and agility. He is a big play receiver who is a dominant force in the red zone. Sanders had a breakout season for the Broncos. His new contract was worth every cent. He ranked top five among all receivers in receptions and receiving yards.

In many areas the Colts defense is fairly pedestrian. They rank 12th in run defense and 18th in pass defense. They are 19th in points allowed per game. But the Colts defense has several strengths that can turn the tide in their favor. They have a very good pass rush forcing 41 sacks during the regular season. They also rank in the top 10 in turnovers forced. This team gives up a lot of yards but is very opportunistic. They rank in the top five in 3rd down and 4th down conversions allowed. It may be very difficult for the Broncos to methodically move the ball down the field against this defense. The Colts ability to force sacks and turnovers will be critical in this Sunday showdown. The x factor for the defense will be linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. This offseason pickup was a major addition for the defense. He led the team with 141 tackles. He also forced four sacks and four fumble recoveries. He has a relentless motor. He will need a standout performance to help contain the Broncos. If he can force 12 tackles and force a turnover then watch out for the Colts upset.

Matchup No. 1 - Dallas Cowboys Demarco Murray vs. the Green Bay Packers’ defense.

The Cowboys vs the Packers is the matchup with the most star power. The Cowboys are fresh off a 24-20 comeback victory over the Detroit Lions. After a 12-4 regular season most would say they exceeded even the most optimistic predictions. The Cowboys after many years of pass happy offense have converted to a run heavy team. The Green Bay Packers also finished the regular season with a 12-4 record. The Packers were 8-0 at home and coming off one of the most dominant home field advantages in recent history. The Packers scored at least 26 points in every home game. For the regular season the Packers averaged a ridiculous 39.75 points per game at home.

We know that the Packers are dominant at home, but the Cowboys on the road are no slouch either. They finished the regular season going 8-0 in road games. Their best road victory was against the Seattle Seahawks. Much of the Cowboys success was due in large part to their dominant run game. They ranked 2nd overall in total rushing yards. For the season, the Cowboys had more rushing than passing attempts. DeMarco Murray was 1st in carries and yards, he was tied for 1st in rushing touchdowns. He broke Emmitt Smith’s Cowboys all time season high in rushing yards. By any measure Murray is playing the running back position the way it was meant to be played. In my humble opinion his athleticism is overlooked. At 6’ 0” and 217 lbs, he is very well built for a running back. He has the power to run over defenders, he also uses a powerful stiff arm to break tackles. He has very good speed to break long runs. He is also a very patient runner. He is excellent at starting the run going to the outside and cutting back against the defense. Many of his biggest runs come from cutback runs. He also is a very good receiver out of the backfield. Murray is a true three down back, as he can run, catch and pass protect when needed. Murray’s ability to control the game is even more important against the Packers. The Packers will have a hard time scoring 40 points if Murray can run the ball effectively. A big game from Murray will allow the Cowboys to control the clock and keep the Packers offense on the sidelines.

The Green Bay Packers defense will have their hands full with Murray. The Packers run defense is 23rd in run yards allowed. Even with the Packers offensive brilliance and big leads I found it telling to note that… opponents have more rushing attempts than the Packers. In three of the Packers four losses their opponent has more carries than passing attempts. In the other loss the opponent had 31 carries and 32 passes. The stats show that the Packers will struggle with a balanced offense. Frankly, I have a hard time believing the Packers have what it takes to shut down the NFL’s rushing leader. Their ability or inability to stop the run will be the deciding factor in this game. I found it interesting that Packers top two tacklers are their two safeties. The Packers free safety is Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and strong safety is Morgan Burnett. If the safeties lead the team in tackles this week it’s a recipe for a disaster. If Murray can break through the Packers front seven the Cowboys run game will overwhelm the Packers run defense. Murray is too good in the open field to be brought down by one defender. The Packers have two play making linebackers that must take center stage. Clay Matthews is one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. Against Dallas they will need him to dominate in the middle of the field. Outside linebacker Julius Peppers is still a force to be reckoned with. His versatility and play making ability will be critical. This season he forced seven sacks along with 2 interceptions, 2 defensive touchdowns, 4 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries. If the Packers can force a turnover or two, the Packers could score another 40 points. If they can’t, the Cowboys will be a very dangerous opponent. The Packers play their best when they play in a wide open, high scoring affair. If the Cowboys can keep it close, then Murray would put the Cowboys in position to upset the Packers.


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