View Full Version : NEWS: Playoff Primer

Iron Shiek
12-30-2008, 11:20 AM
Well the Steelers section was pretty bland and we all know what they need to do to win. But this is good scouting report for the other playoff teams...


Playoff primer

By PFW staff
Dec. 30, 2008

The field has been whittled down. Of the 32 clubs that sweated out the rigors of training camp followed by the weekly brutality of the regular season, only 12 have the opportunity to make it to Tampa, the site of Super Bowl XLIII. Although all aim toward the ultimate goal of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 1, the process by which each attempts to translate its ambition into reality is anything but a uniform blueprint.

For some, including the upstart Falcons and resurgent Ravens, it entails neophytes at the most critical posts in football — quarterback and head coach — continuing their stunningly successful maiden voyages that captured the imagination of a league where the phrase “anything is possible” proves more axiom than ideal. For others, such as the Vikings and Chargers, it requires their renewed life to propel them forward after sweating out their postseason berths more than many believed they’d have to. For some in the saddle, like Chad Pennington, it’s about triumphant redemption from football follies, while for others, like Kerry Collins, it’s about exorcising demons of a more personal nature.
What follows are our postseason team reports, which are listed in the order of PFW’s playoff power rankings.

1. Tennessee Titans
13-3, first place in AFC South

Keys to offense: When the Titans can establish the run, they are tough to beat. RB Chris Johnson has rare speed and has held up after a busy rookie campaign. LenDale White is an ideal complement to Johnson, a powerful thumper who can wear down defenses. QB Kerry Collins doesn’t make many mistakes and gets wonderful protection from one of the league’s best O-lines, but he must avoid the slow starts that have plagued him at times this season.

Keys to defense: The Titans have one of the NFL’s deepest and most talented defensive lines. DT Albert Haynesworth (knee) and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (groin) are expected to be back for Tennessee’s first playoff game. Haynesworth is a Defensive MVP candidate; Vanden Bosch is a Pro Bowler when at full strength. The Titans can generate a strong pass rush without a blitz; that does wonders for their pass defense, which features star CB Cortland Finnegan and safeties Chris Hope and Michael Griffin.

Player to watch: Unquestionably, it’s Collins. We’ve all waited for this moment. Can a 36-year-old quarterback who was expected to be Vince Young’ s backup lead the Titans to the Super Bowl? He’s had games where he threw the ball as well as he did in his prime in New York, but he’s also had moments where his accuracy has deserted him. Opponents are likely to stack the line to stop the run and put the game in Collins’ hands. Can he deliver?

They win the Super Bowl if ... the offense is balanced, the defense is stout vs. the run and doesn’t surrender big plays in the passing game (a growing problem late in the season) and the special-teams units don’t make any big mistakes. The Titans are very good, but they do not have the margin for error that, say, the 2007 Patriots had. But if they continue to execute, they will be tough to beat.

2. New York Giants
12-4, first place in NFC East

Keys to offense: The Giants re-established their will a bit with the Week 16 win over the Panthers, going back to their run-to-win formula that has worked so well for most of the season. Brandon Jacobs should be well enough to run with his power and anger, and Derrick Ward is a great change-up. The offensive line is better when asked to run-block most of the time; good pass-rushing teams have had some success when the Giants are forced to throw a lot. That’s not to say that QB Eli Manning can’t win games, but he’s much better when the run game is drawing an eighth defender into the box. WR Plaxico Burress’ absence hurts the passing game.

Keys to defense: Steve Spagnuolo again has done a fine job, working with a strong defensive line, instinctive linebackers and tough DBs who can man-cover and hit with authority. But there are quiet concerns. The pass rush has tailed off, and a team that can’t get to the QB will have trouble in the playoffs. Also, the linebackers are not great blitzers, and other than CB Corey Webster, there might not be a true difference maker in the secondary. Still, this group is seasoned and strong and knows the scheme inside and out. If DE Justin Tuck rediscovers his form and plays the way he did in last year’s playoffs, this can be an elite unit again.

Player to watch: MLB Antonio Pierce’s play has fallen off a bit since he was involved in the Burress shooting, but he stepped up in the second half in Week 16 and is the spiritual leader of the defense. If he’s at his best, teams will have trouble running on the Giants, and that could be a huge difference against some of the NFC’s stronger rushing teams.

They win the Super Bowl if ... the pass rush emerges, the running game continues wearing down opponents and Manning plays with the same poise, focus and leadership as he did during last year’s playoff run.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers
12-4, first place in AFC North

Keys to offense: The Steelers need to revive their flagging running game, which has been undone by injuries to RB Willie Parker and the struggles of the offensive line. The extra week of rest figures to help Parker, who will get most of the carries, with Mewelde Moore playing a complementary role. The passing game can be powerful, but it can also be sloppy. QB Ben Roethlisberger has taken a beating this season, and his miscues doomed the Steelers in losses to Indianapolis and at Tennessee.

Keys to defense: The Steelers didn’t allow an opponent to gain more than 300 yards until Week 16; that’s a testament to the excellent play they have received from the defense. The Steelers are great at stuffing the run and putting offenses in the second-and-long and third-and-long situations tailor-made for blitzes. The Steelers have stars at every position group, and ROLB James Harrison and SS Troy Polamalu are having tremendous all-around seasons. As long as everyone stays healthy — and FS Ryan Clark (shoulder) is expected to be back for the divisional round — this is the NFL’s best defense.

Player to watch: Roethlisberger suffered a concussion in the season finale, but he is expected to be ready for the divisional round. If he’s on top of his game, the Steelers will be a tough out. Roethlisberger has played brilliantly in some postseason games, but he’s thrown multiple interceptions in four of his seven career playoff starts.

They win the Super Bowl if ... the defense keeps rolling, Roethlisberger makes good decisions (and the occasional big play) and Parker looks like the back who started this season on a roll. Also keep a close eye on the special teams, which have had a strong season but need to sustain that effort in the postseason.

4. Carolina Panthers
12-4, first place in NFC South

Keys to offense: It starts up front with a bulky front five that tends to knock defensive lines back a step, creating holes for the Panthers’ 1-2 backfield punch of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Carolina is 13-2 all-time when Williams runs for 80 yards or more and 12-2 this season when he and Stewart combine for at least 100 yards. The running game is the base of the Panthers’ attack, but WR Steve Smith is still the club’s No. 1 playmaker. Jake Delhomme has struggled with accuracy at times this season, but he has to get the ball in Smith’s hands.

Keys to defense: The defense was sound for most of the season, but it broke down when DT Maake Kemoeatu missed a Week 16 matchup with the Giants and allowed 301 rushing yards. A healthy Kemoeatu will be an essential piece to Carolina’s push. He plugs gaps up front and clears things out for MLB Jon Beason to make plays. Of equal importance is DE Julius Peppers’ performance. When Peppers is driving tackles backward, he has a transformative effect on games.

Player to watch: Delhomme’s play dropped off in the second half of the season. After compiling a 9-5 TD-to-interception ratio through the first eight games, he had just a 6-7 ratio in the final eight. Back in 2003, when Carolina made its first and only run to the Super Bowl, Delhomme had a 6-1 ratio in the postseason. That kind of play will make the Panthers a formidable contender.

They win the Super Bowl if ... the defense holds up its end of the bargain. Carolina lost twice in the second half of the season — to the Falcons and then to the Giants. The offense did its job in those two games, putting up 28 points each time, but the Panthers gave up 45 points to Atlanta and 34 points to the Giants. Carolina is likely to meet one of them again, and the “D” will have to be more aggressive.

5. Indianapolis Colts
12-4, second place in AFC South

Keys to offense: Peyton Manning’s brilliance has been of even greater importance to the team’s success this season than in years prior because the running game has been almost non-existent. Manning is in complete control of the spread offense, going through his progressions and astutely locating the open man in the frequent four-receiver sets. TE Dallas Clark has kicked his game into overdrive of late.

Keys to defense: DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis both deserved their Pro Bowl berths, accounting for 22 sacks. The problem is that Indy gets little QB pressure from anyone else. It has weathered the storm of losing star CB Marlin Jackson fairly well, largely because CB Kelvin Hayden can effectively lock down one side of the field himself. Bob Sanders ranks among the league’s elite safeties when healthy, but he’s played in just six games this season.

Player to watch: The defense is a completely different animal with Sanders in the lineup. With top-flight speed and an astute awareness, he flies around the field with little regard for his personal well-being. At just 5-8, 206 pounds, that also means he frequents the trainer’s room as much as the field. He hopes to be at full strength, but it bears monitoring. If able to go full bore, he acts as an extra linebacker in the box, able to close on ballcarriers to the outside and sift through traffic inside. He can play the pass, too, but make no mistake, he’s first looking to make the knockout blow.

They win the Super Bowl if ... Indy can muster some semblance of a ground game. Indy’s rolling into the postseason with as much momentum as anybody, but because it will be taking their show on the road and possibly playing through some less-than-favorable weather conditions, expecting to make it through the AFC gauntlet without an effective ground game is indulging in false optimism.

6. Baltimore Ravens
11-5, second place in AFC North

Keys to offense: The Ravens can successfully employ a number of different offensive styles. They can let Le’Ron McClain (listed as a fullback, but primarily a ball carrier in the Ravens’ offense) and RB Willis McGahee pound away at defenses. The Ravens’ passing game is no slouch, either; QB Joe Flacco can make all of the throws and keyed the playoff-clinching win vs. Jacksonville by completing 14-of-17 passes for 246 yards in the first half alone. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, such a key hire by first-year head coach John Harbaugh, has made all the right moves this season.

Keys to defense: This is a difficult defense to attack. The Ravens are stout against the run and do not surrender many big plays in the passing game. What’s more, they can generate a formidable pass rush by either just rushing four players or bringing the blitz. The Ravens can be vulnerable against strong passing attacks; their most lopsided loss of the season came at Indianapolis. But teams with aggressive passing games must be wary of Rex Ryan’s blitzes and the instincts and range of FS Ed Reed.

Player to watch: Flacco has displayed a veteran passer’s poise for much of the season, but if he’s going to lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl, he’s going to have to orchestrate three consecutive road wins, a la Ben Roethlisberger or Eli Manning. When Flacco is in rhythm, he throws with precision, and the Ravens become a dangerous offense. But when he struggles, the Ravens have to play the grind-it-out game they have played so many times.

They win the Super Bowl if ... Flacco rises to the occasion, the defense continues to play at an elite level and opponents find themselves a step behind the schemes of Cameron and Ryan. As wild-card teams go, this is a formidable one.

7. Atlanta Falcons
11-5, second place in NFC South

Keys to offense: QB Matt Ryan has received a great deal of well-earned praise this season for his maturity and smart decision making as a rookie. It’s RB Michael Turner, however, who is the foundation of the offense. When Turner runs for 96 yards or more, the Falcons are 9-0. Turner must get the ball rolling behind a tough, physical offensive line to soften up defenses before Ryan can go to work, connecting with his favorite target, WR Roddy White. The Falcons are at their best when they establish a solid balance between the air and ground games.

Keys to defense: Atlanta’s top playmaker on defense doesn’t play every snap, but he’s as disruptive as anyone in the league. When DE John Abraham is on the field, he changes the game for the Falcons’ defense. Atlanta is 9-1 in games in which he has at least half a sack, compared to 2-4 when he has no sacks. The Falcons’ run defense will struggle unless DT Grady Jackson is able to clog up the middle, freeing MLB Curtis Lofton to flow to the ball. It’s not a particularly quick defense, so defensive backs have to maintain discipline and keep the receivers from getting behind them.

Player to watch: Harry Douglas, the Falcons’ punt returner and No. 3 receiver, is a dangerous weapon. The rookie has shown flashes, returning a punt 61 yards for a TD to go along with 92 receiving yards, including a 69-yard grab, in his Week 12 breakout performance vs. the Panthers. While defenses focus on Ryan, Turner and White, it could be Douglas who comes through in a crucial moment.

They win the Super Bowl if ... Ryan doesn’t falter on a larger stage. He seems to have handled the pressure just fine thus far, but the further he goes, the greater it will be. Only two rookie quarterbacks — Dan Marino and Ben Roethlisberger — have led their teams to the Super Bowl.

8. Miami Dolphins
11-5, first place in AFC East

Keys to offense: Dan Henning masterfully calls for creativity within a ball-control system, which is no easy task. But his players have thrived in the scheme. The RB tandem of Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown have formed a kinship in the backfield in which they each get ample touches, particularly out of the Wildcat. Success on the ground is critical in sucking defenses in so that Chad Pennington can pick apart secondaries with his pinpoint accuracy, as he has neither the arm strength nor the receivers for the passing game to move the ball consistently in a vacuum.

Keys to defense: A secondary that had been relinquishing big plays through the air most of the season buckled down during the final stretch, particularly CB André Goodman. If he can continue to improve, the Fins can feel more comfortable unleashing the numerous pressure packages they need to generate a legitimate pass rush. Because the D-linemen are mostly space-eaters in the 3-4, more linebackers need to kick their games up a notch when offenses devote extra attention to sack-happy OLB Joey Porter.

Player to watch: Ted Ginn Jr. has shown glimpses of the game-breaking ability the Fins’ ousted regime believed he’d bring to the table when they made him the ninth pick of the 2007 draft — such as a pair of nifty grabs for 71 yards that called for mid-air body adjustments in the Week 17 victory at the Meadowlands — but they’ve been too infrequent. The only deep threat on the team, he has the skill set that could pay huge dividends for the entire offense if he can convince defenses he’s worthy of respect on the back end.

They win the Super Bowl if ... they can continue creating turnovers defensively and hit on some timely long balls in the passing attack. Their depth isn’t great, but if they capitalize on a few potential turning points, anything’s possible.

9. Philadelphia Eagles
9-6-1, second place in NFC East

Keys to offense: The Eagles love to throw but win when they run the ball effectively. RB Brian Westbrook is the team’s most dynamic player and a tough matchup in space. So not only will QB Donovan McNabb be handing the ball to him, he’ll look to hit Westbrook in the passing game. Mc*Nabb doesn’t have a ton of playmakers in the passing game, but WR DeSean Jackson has explosive ability and WR Kevin Curtis is reliable. The offensive line has taken its lumps but has the talent and power to beat average defensive fronts.

Keys to defense: The name of the game is pressure, and the Eagles love to bring it from all different angles and looks. They are 5-1 when they force more than two turnovers in a game, and their pressure typically causes problems for less experienced QBs. The line gets great penetration, the linebackers fill holes and pursue well, and the secondary also supports the run well. In pass coverage, CB Asante Samuel can shut down very good receivers, and the rest of the secondary handles man coverage well. The Eagles are excellent in third-down situations, so you have to have success running the ball against them to get into manageable situations.

Player to watch: If Westbrook is healthy and running like an elite back, the Eagles are as good as any NFC team in the field. He has suffered numerous injuries this season but has responded with some big performances down the stretch. Defensive coordinators have tried just about everything to slow a healthy Westbrook down, and accounting for him in the backfield, in motion or split wide as a receiver poses serious problems.

They win the Super Bowl if ... McNabb plays to his highest level, the Eagles run the ball and the defense remains a top-five unit. Four of the Eagles’ wins have come against playoff teams, so they’re capable of a big run.

10. Minnesota Vikings
10-6, first place in NFC North

Keys to offense: QB Tarvaris Jackson has limited his turnovers since returning to the starting lineup and has done a nice job of improving his accuracy, playing under control and using his strong arm. WR Bernard Berrian has had a fine season as the only true deep threat, and TE Visanthe Shiancoe has become a good seam buster. Jackson also is a scrambling threat, and with the RB combo of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor and a powerful O-line, most opponents will sneak an extra defender up into the box. Peterson, the 2008 rushing champ, has had a problem hanging on to the ball of late, but when he has the ball, he’s as dangerous a home-run threat as there is in the game.

Keys to defense: The Vikings have been outstanding against the run but will have to wait to see if NT Pat Williams (scapula) can return; he’s a huge cog that frees up DT Kevin Williams and DE Jared Allen, both outstanding pass rushers with high motors. The active linebackers are led by Chad Greenway, who has emerged as a playmaker with a nose for the ball in the absence of E.J. Henderson. The pass coverage has improved, especially since FS Madieu Williams entered the lineup, but CB Antoine Winfield is the only true shutdown cover guy. The Vikings play a lot of cover-2 and Tampa-2 zones, trying to keep most plays in front of them.

Player to watch: Most teams choose to pick on CB Cedric Griffin, preferring to avoid Winfield, and Griffin struggled early. But he has played better of late, showing better instincts and making big plays. If Griffin plays well, the Vikings can have success against better passing teams.

They win the Super Bowl if ... Peterson creates his patented big plays and doesn’t cough it up, Jackson keeps playing smart football and the defense can pressure passers, stop the run and help win the turnover battle.

11. San Diego Chargers
8-8, first place in AFC West

Keys to offense: The Chargers’ offense is at its best when the running game is humming, which it often has struggled to do this season. However, Sunday night’s 52-point explosion against the Broncos was a perfect example of how effective the unit can be when RB LaDainian Tomlinson is on his game. Compensating for an inconsistent ground attack, QB Philip Rivers stepped up this year to finally become an offensive leader, throwing for 4,009 yards and finishing tied for the league lead with 34 TD passes. He has developed a terrific rapport with WR Vincent Jackson, who had seven scores and nearly 1,200 yards.

Keys to defense: Ever since Ron Rivera took over as defensive coordinator at midseason, the Bolts have placed an added emphasis on pressuring the QB. Not coincidentally, this strategy has led to a second-half turnaround and a four-game winning streak to close out 2008. For San Diego to make up for its AFC-worst pass defense, it needs to force opposing QBs to get rid of the ball quickly, not allowing them time to survey the field. That means effective blitzing from LBs Stephen Cooper and Jyles Tucker. Obviously, NT Jamal Williams has to continue stuffing the run up front.

Player to watch: Tomlinson took a lot of heat for not playing hurt during last season’s playoffs; ironically, he enters this postseason with an abdominal strain that was clearly causing him discomfort last week. If L.T. is able to gut it out and perform to his full capacity, the Chargers are a dangerous group. However, without their workhorse back, San Diego’s offense would become very one-dimensional.

They win the Super Bowl if ... they create turnovers by pressuring the passer and don’t get gashed through the air. On offense, they’ll need Rivers to limit his mistakes and someone besides Jackson to emerge in the passing game.

12. Arizona Cardinals
9-7, first place in NFC West

Keys to offense: Having been unable to sustain any real semblance of a ground game this season, the key will be for the Cardinals’ offensive line to give QB Kurt Warner enough time to get comfortable in the pocket. They stress a fast-paced rhythm with a stellar receiving corps featuring Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston, as well as frisky RB J.J. Arrington, who has become a consistently productive weapon in spread formations.

Keys to defense: The Cardinals must find a way to generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and reduce the pressure on their cornerbacks, who have been victimized with regularity. They also must do a much better job tackling and stopping opponents in third-down situations. Look for coordinator Clancy Pendergast to creatively employ his unit’s top playmakers — safeties Adrian Wilson and Antrel Rolle and ILB Karlos Dansby.

Player to watch: When Boldin’s been at his best, the Cardinals have usually won this season. But Boldin had some uncharacteristically bad performances (Eagles in Week 13, Vikings in Week 15) down the stretch, perhaps still feeling the effects of his violent collision near the end of the loss to the Jets in Week Four. His postseason performance could very well serve as an audition for suitors interested in trading for him this offseason.

They win the Super Bowl if ... they somehow become capable of performing much better away from the friendly confines of University of Phoenix Stadium. The first step is a dominant performance at home this weekend against the Falcons that would give them sorely needed momentum moving forward. It also wouldn’t hurt if veteran RB Edgerrin James picks up where he left off in the regular-season finale and provides a boost to the ground game.

12-30-2008, 01:34 PM
I like D.J. Gallo's assessment of Arizona's chances better:

There are three things we know about winning in the postseason.

One, you have to have a good defense. (The Cardinals do not.)

Two, you have to be able to run the ball. (The Cardinals cannot.)

Three, you can't be the Cardinals. (The Cardinals are the Cardinals.)