Here is everything you need to know about Saturday's NFL playoff games. Tune in on Friday for predictions on Sunday's slate.
Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at Denver Broncos (13-3)
The Broncos and Ravens will face off in Denver just 27 days after their last matchup against one another, a tilt that the Ravens would just as soon forget. Then, the Broncos traveled to Baltimore and ran the score all the way up to 31-3 before eventually settling in with a 34-17 victory. It was the third consecutive loss for the Ravens, a streak they've snapped with wins over the Giants in Week 16 and the Colts last Sunday. Unlike the Packers-49ers late game on Saturday, a rematch that seems like it occurred decades ago and not in Week 1, the relative freshness of the Baltimore-Denver game means that we can probably draw a fair number of conclusions about how this game might go. Of course, there are some noticeable differences that are also essential to mention, too. I went back and watched the game on tape and compared it to what I saw in the press box with Colts-Ravens from Sunday, and I found seven key takeaways worth mentioning with regard to that first game (and how it affects Saturday's matchup):
1. Baltimore was beat up with injuries. That hasn't changed, really, since the Ravens are still a team that's been ravaged by injuries, but Baltimore is a much more complete team now than they were against the Broncos four weeks ago. Obviously, Ray Lewis was out, but he wasn't the only one. The Ravens were also missing defensive starters Bernard Pollard and Dannell Ellerbe, as well as offensive starters Marshal Yanda and Ed Dickson.
Take linebacker Josh Bynes, who spent virtually all of the 2011 season as an undrafted free agent on the Baltimore practice squad. Nominally a third-stringer heading into the year, Bynes played on each and every one of the 77 defensive snaps against the Broncos in Week 15. Bynes looked to do passable work at linebacker against Denver, but he got caught up in plenty of trash and undoubtedly struggled to match wits with Manning across from him. With Ellerbe and Lewis back for the playoffs, Bynes didn't play even a single defensive snap against the Colts last Sunday. The gap in experience between Bynes and Lewis, obviously, is about as large as you can imagine. Other backups, like James Ihedigbo and Brendon Ayanbadejo, also saw steady action in Week 15 that is unlikely to recur this week.
Contrast that with the Broncos, who have been among the healthiest defenses in football this year. The only regular on the Denver defense to miss significant action has been linebacker Joe Mays, and while he was regarded as a superior run defender, the Denver run defense has actually improved without him in the lineup.
2. Peyton Manning was spoilt for targets in the secondary. One of Manning's greatest strengths, historically, has been his ability to build and execute entire game plans around attacking one notable weakness in a secondary. (See: Alexander, Roc.) Manning didn't do that in Week 15 as much as he simply went after whoever he wanted with impunity. At first, he attacked Chris Johnson, who was lining up on the outside when the Ravens started the game in a Nickel alignment. When the Ravens lined up in their base 3-4, he started to pick on cornerback Cary Williams, who is — scarily — supposed to be Baltimore's top cornerback. Intermittently during the first half, he took shots at Eric Decker with former first-round pick Jimmy Smith in coverage, producing completions that a gimpy Smith had no shot of defending. Manning even took advantage of Ed Reed's aggressiveness on a long touchdown pass to Decker off of a double-move, one that Reed jumped while exposing Williams to the bomb.
And while the linebackers will undoubtedly be better than they were during the first game between these two teams, there's no guarantee about the secondary. Replacing Ihedigbo with Pollard will be an upgrade, but there's not much doing at cornerback. Williams is still out on an island on one side of the defense, with longtime Bears special-teamer Corey Graham starting on the other. He moves inside and plays in the slot, usually at linebacker depth, when the Ravens bring on five defensive backs. By keeping him there, the Ravens do their best to try to mask their declarations of how they'll cover Jacob Tamme, a point that came up as critical to the act of Manning reading defenses in Chris Brown's excellent piece on the Denver offense from yesterday. Smith was supposed to be healthy by now, but he played just two defensive snaps against the Colts, with 2011 fifth-rounder Chykie Brown moving ahead of him. In any case, the secondary will need to hold on for dear life.
3. The Broncos dominated the Ravens at the line of scrimmage on offense. Outside of one series, in which Terrell Suggs actually produced a pass pressure through Ryan Clady before a third-down sack, the Ravens struggled to touch Manning. I mentioned on Tuesday that Paul Kruger was in the middle of a hot streak, but this was one of the two games in the second half where he went sack-less, as he was a total non-factor. Baltimore only sacked Manning twice and knocked him down five times across 30 dropbacks, which left Manning plenty of time to find open receivers. In fact, both of the sacks would likely qualify as coverage sacks. Kruger took over the Colts game at times; he'll need to do the same thing on Saturday. Baltimore will also hope for better games from Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody, who weren't able to occupy the middle of Denver's offensive line and keep their inexperienced linebackers free to make plays. The one notable player Denver can expect to get back who didn't play the first time around is guard Chris Kuper, who has missed most of the year with a broken forearm and nagging pain from a gruesome ankle injury last season; a healthy Kuper would make Denver even better up front, but there's no guarantee that Kuper will be his usual self.
4. The Broncos also dominated the Ravens at the line of scrimmage on defense. In fact, they were even more dominant once their defense got on the field. It's hard to find tape where Von Miller doesn't look phenomenal, but he spent the entirety of Week 15 living in the Baltimore backfield. Rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele probably needed a box of tissues to make it through film study after this game, because the Broncos got past him and in Joe Flacco's face on close to a dozen dropbacks during this game. When Osemele finally thought he had a break from Miller duty, the Broncos put Elvis Dumervil over Osemele, moved Miller into the middle of the field on a twist, and had a contest to see who could get to the quarterback first. Osemele needs help; some of that can be Marshal Yanda. Considering the sort of splits Miller takes, the more likely partner is Ed Dickson, Baltimore's best blocking tight end, who missed the first game.
Baltimore didn't run the ball particularly well, and the problems controlling the pass rush led to some unimaginative calls from debuting offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell (including, by my count, three different instances of the same screen pass on second-and-long in the first half alone). They did run the ball well in one situation, though
5. Baltimore had success running out of passing formations. Whether the run calls were designed plays from the sideline or changes Flacco made at the line of scrimmage, Baltimore enjoyed repeated success running out of three-wide sets without a fullback in the way of Bernard Pierce or Ray Rice. I don't think that holds up on a seasonal level, and it was only a handful of plays before the game got out of hand, but the Ravens might enjoy some success if they can stretch the Broncos across the field before running it up the gut.
6. Denver benefited in the game from a rare case of fumble luck. Denver has been horribly unlucky when free balls have hit the turf in their games this year, having recovered just 16 of 45 fumbles (35.6 percent). They only recovered two of the four fumbles in the Week 15 game, but those fumbles ended up being extremely meaningful. First, on the opening drive of the game for the Ravens, Joe Flacco sneaked across the line on a third-and-1 conversion, only to lose the ball after he settled on top of a pile of linemen. Denver recovered that fumble, stopping a Baltimore drive at midfield while giving the Broncos excellent field position. Later on, with the Ravens down 17-3 in the third quarter, Broncos returner Trindon Holliday fumbled at the end of his kickoff return, but before any Ravens players could successfully gain possession of the fumble, it squirted around at the bottom of the pile and eventually moved out of bounds. A Baltimore recovery would have given them the ball on the 17-yard line, and a touchdown would have pushed the Ravens right back into the game. Instead, Denver held on to the football and scored five plays later to go up 24-3, putting the game out of reach for Baltimore.
7. The entire game changed on the 98-yard pick-six at the end of the first half. Finally, it's worth pointing out that the second half of this game could have looked very different had Joe Flacco not committed the worst play in football. The pick-six inside the opposition's 5-yard line is really more like a pick-11, considering that your offense is likely to score at least a field goal, if not a touchdown. Flacco's pick came on a lazy throw in a curious situation; the Ravens had just set up first-and-goal from inside the 5-yard line, but decided not to call a timeout despite holding three of them with 30 seconds left to go in the first half. His quick out almost felt like a fake spike, but it was easily jumped by Chris Harris and returned 98 yards for a touchdown.
That pick comes in a 10-0 game with 30 seconds to go in the first half. If the Ravens manage to score a touchdown, they're down three points while getting the ball to receive the second half. Instead, they're down 17-0 and can't even bring the game within one possession when they get the ball to start the third quarter. That's a bummer. Advancednflstats.com suggests that Flacco decreased his team's chances of winning from 34 percent to 9 percent with the pick-six; he didn't get a ton of time to throw that week, but this was one pass that Flacco undoubtedly wishes he'd never thrown.
Cakewalk the Line
Before the season, when I suggested that the Broncos would fail to live up to expectations this season, the deciding factor between the numbers (which predicted regression) and the impact of Peyton Manning (which suggested number-defying improvement) was the schedule the Broncos were likely to face. Denver's out-of-division schedule included the Patriots and Texans, as well as the AFC North and the NFC South, which looked to be two of the best divisions in football. More disconcertingly, the bulk of those tough matchups was focused during the first half of the season.
As it turned out, Denver's schedule wasn't very difficult at all.1 It's true that the truly difficult matchups for the Broncos took place during the first half, with Denver starting 2-3 via losses against teams that each won 12 or more games, including losses to both the Patriots and Texans. The AFC North and the NFC South? They didn't turn out to be so tough. Pittsburgh, Carolina, and New Orleans ended up serving as three of the league's most disappointing teams, Cleveland was about as bad as expected, and Baltimore and Tampa Bay were little match for the Denver onslaught. The AFC West was also worse than most people's wildest expectations.
The result was a schedule that was actually well below average. Projected to have the league's most difficult schedule before the season by Football Outsiders, the Broncos instead had the NFL's second-easiest schedule in 2012. And as you might expect, with those 12-win teams out of the way after the first few weeks, the schedule really got easy in the second half.
How easy? Well, consider this: The eight matchups Denver played in the second half were against teams who went a combined 44-84 this year. That's like the Broncos getting to play a bunch of 5-11 and 6-10 teams for an entire half-season. Since 1990, that's tied with another team for the easiest second-half slate enjoyed by a playoff participant across the entire era. Even if we adjust for the Broncos going 8-0 and take those losses off of those teams' records, Denver's strength of schedule in the second half was tied for the second-lowest in 23 years.
As with anything related to winning and losing in the playoffs, you can craft a narrative based off of that information after the fact. If the Broncos win on Saturday, you'll hear about how they were well rested and how the Ravens emptied their emotional bank at home last week winning one for Ray Lewis. If the Ravens win, it'll be because they don't want to let their fearless leader retire and because the Broncos were rusty, at which point somebody will probably point out that the Broncos spent the final two months of the year mostly playing creampuffs and weren't properly prepared for the pressure of the playoffs. Let's just test that idea out right now.
The other team that faced a 44-84 schedule during the second half of the season went 7-1 during the final eight games of the year, losing in Week 17 with nothing to play for. It didn't seem to bother them as they headed into the playoffs, as that team — the 1999 St. Louis Rams — went on to win the Super Bowl. There are 15 other teams since 1990 with a second-half strength of schedule under .400, and three of them (the 1992 Cowboys, 2000 Ravens, and 2009 Saints) managed to win the Super Bowl. The 2011 Patriots made it to the Super Bowl and lost. Just four of the 16 teams were dumped from the postseason without winning a game, and in each case, they were underdogs in the game in question by three points or more. There's virtually no evidence suggesting that teams grow complacent after a friendly second-half slate, so don't expect the Broncos to do the same.
The Broncos couldn't have looked much better on defense against the Ravens than they did last time out, when the Ravens started with five three-and-outs and finished going 1-for-14 on third and fourth downs. The offense started off slow, but by the time halftime rolled around, the Ravens seemed to have no prayer of keeping up. Baltimore's healthier defense might slow down the Denver offense some, but the Broncos blew out the Ravens, and that was in Baltimore. This one is in Denver.
Denver 27, Baltimore 14
Green Bay Packers (11-5) vs. San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)
That Week 1 contest between the 49ers and Packers seems to hold little in terms of meaningful reps to watch for the Saturday-night game by the Bay. The 49ers have the most obvious change, having swapped out Alex Smith for Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, but the Packers have made a far larger variety of changes. If injured 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith can go on Saturday, the only change for the Niners between the Week 1 starting lineup and the group that goes up against the Packers might be Kaepernick. Meanwhile, Green Bay will likely make as many as seven changes between the starters who lost at home to San Francisco and the lineup that hopes to avenge that loss in San Francisco two nights from now.
In many cases, that would be a huge advantage for the more consistent team, but I wonder if that's the case here. While Green Bay has been beset by injuries in some places, other changes they've made have produced a better football team. Their abandoned dalliance with Jeff Saturday has helped a running game desperate to improve inside the trenches. Jarrett Bush has gone from starting in Week 1 to playing two defensive snaps last week, with the far superior duo of Casey Hayward and Sam Shields taking over his reps. Hayward is an impressive rookie and and second-year M.D. Jennings have enough experience to work with. And the Niners were a different team under Smith, one that might be better with Kaepernick at the helm in a vacuum, but one that might not necessarily be a superior team in terms of beating the Packers. I have a document from the past that even tells me so.
When the 13-0 Packers saw their undefeated season slain by the Chiefs in Week 15 last year, I wrote up a quick blueprint on how to beat the Packers. It's not the most mind-blowing thing in the world, as its advice would be sound to beat many teams, but there are some specifically notable things about Green Bay and their style of play that seem extraordinarily important. Let's go through these three rules and see how the Niners stack up.
1. Avoid turnovers. I cannot overstate how incredibly important it is to avoid turnovers against the Packers, but let me put it into context for you. The Packers were 11-5 this year. They failed to produce at least one takeaway in five of those 16 games, which is a pretty high figure for them. They were 1-4 in those games, and their lone win was a one-point victory over the Saints at Lambeau. When they forced at least one turnover, they went 10-1. That's pretty good.
Let's look back a little further. What about the entirety of the Mike McCarthy era? The Packers are a staggering 1-13 when they fail to force at least one takeaway in a game under McCarthy, including a 1-10 record with Rodgers at the helm. When he has at least one turnover on his side, McCarthy and his Packers are otherwise a combined 73-25 over that same time frame. How simple can that be?
Of course, you're probably saying right about now that most teams will have a terrible record when they don't produce at least one takeaway, and you're not wrong; on average, they win about 23 percent of the time. McCarthy's teams have been significantly better than the average team and their win rate with no turnovers is higher. Playoff teams from 2006 to 2012 have gone 80-119 in games in which they haven't forced a takeaway, a winning percentage of just over 40 percent. Clearly, Green Bay is more dependent upon the turnover than most teams, something that's backed up by their defensive style of play and the devastating things their offense can do with a short field.
When I was handicapping the Kaepernick-Smith move, one of the disadvantages I mentioned with regard to Kaepernick was the likelihood that he would turn the ball over more frequently than Smith, who rates out as one of the most conservative and safe ball handlers of his generation. So far, the Niners have avoided that fate; they turned the ball over nine times in nine Smith starts, and have done so seven times in seven Kaepernick starts. There are reasons to believe that the Kaepernick figure will rise. His interception rate is at just 1.4 percent, a figure that's impossible to sustain, let alone for a quarterback who throws downfield as frequently as Kaepernick. In addition, Kaepernick already has nine fumbles across his seven starts, three times as many as Smith had across nine starts. While several of those have been aborted snaps that the offense is more likely to recover, there's certainly no guarantee that Kaepernick's fumbles will continue to be picked up by the right team. And after all, against Green Bay, all it takes is one takeaway.
2. Attack the weak links up the middle of the field. Although this was more likely to be the case in 2011 than it is in 2012, especially at safety, the weak links on Green Bay's defense tend to be up the middle. Who would you rather attack: Clay Matthews or A.J. Hawk? Right. During the first game, San Francisco enjoyed a lot of success throwing short passes over the middle that toyed with Green Bay's coverage, as Smith went 7-for-8 for 89 yards with a score on short passes between the hashes.
San Francisco also had success running the ball between the tackles during the first contest, but I'm not so sure that their running game is up to that task these days. The biggest difference between the 49ers who looked like the league's best team at times this year and the team I projected to go 9-7 this offseason came on the ground, where the 49ers were downright brutal at times. The 49ers were a ground-based team in 2011, but their rushing attack primarily served to keep Smith in manageable downs and distances while avoiding turnovers. In 2012, the running game actually produced. San Francisco's offensive line seemed to coalesce from Opening Day onward, and after seven weeks, the Niners were averaging 5.9 yards per carry, the best rate in football history through a team's opening seven games. They put 5.8 yards per pop on the Packers in Week 1, preventing Green Bay from getting back into the game after the Niners got out to an early 10-0 lead.
That running game hasn't been quite as effective over the second half of the season, and the first player you notice declining is lead back Frank Gore. Gore was transcendent through those first seven weeks, combining his trademark patience with a burst of speed that seemed to have vanished in previous years. Gore was averaging 5.8 yards per carry through the first seven games and finished with 4.7 yards per carry, so you know he dropped off, but the real collapse came once backup Kendall Hunter went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 11. Over the final five games of the year, Gore averaged just 3.6 yards per rushing attempt. His workload stayed exactly the same, but his production just fell off a cliff. Niners fans will hope that the week off will get him some rest, but it seems unlikely that the Niners will run with quite the authority they did in Week 1.
San Francisco might hope to run the ball with Kaepernick, but even he hasn't done enough to improve their rushing efficiency. After producing the league's best rushing DVOA during Weeks 1-9 with mostly Smith at the helm, the 49ers are down to 11th in Weeks 10-17. That's still good, but it's not overwhelming. Don't be surprised if the Packers try to spy on Kaepernick with Clay Matthews during the game, a move that worked well for them in the Super Bowl, where Matthews was assigned to Ben Roethlisberger.
3. Pressure Aaron Rodgers around the edges and keep him in the pocket. There are a variety of ways the Niners can get pressure on Rodgers while keeping him in the pocket, but the best way is through no. 99. Aldon Smith led the 49ers in sacks with 13 to spare, as he finished with a whopping 19.5 quarterback takedowns this year. Smith was responsible for more than half of San Francisco's team total of 38, and while he only sacked Rodgers once in Week 1, it was his pressure that helped create a big day for Ahmad Brooks, who sacked Rodgers once and knocked him down three times.
Aldon Smith's partner in crime is unrelated teammate Justin Smith, a brilliant defensive end whose elite level of play has been a key factor in San Francisco's defensive success. After Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride complained about Smith holding offensive linemen (often on twists with Aldon) earlier this year, Justin has attracted some attention as the wily old veteran who uses some illegal tricks to play well. He's much more of a player than that, of course, but well, something interesting has happened over the past few weeks.
In the dramatic Week 15 victory over the Patriots, Justin Smith went down with a triceps injury that cost him most of the second half of that game and each of the contests in Week 16 and Week 17. You may also remember that the Patriots came back from a 31-3 deficit to tie that game up in a matter of minutes, something that happened while Smith was being checked out for his injury. The 49ers then followed that with a stinker against the Seahawks offense before slowing down a Cardinals offense led by street free agent Brian Hoyer in Week 17. Put it this way: Before Justin Smith got hurt, the 49ers hadn't allowed more than 26 points in any one game all year. Immediately after Justin Smith got hurt, the 49ers allowed more than 26 points in consecutive halves to the Patriots (31) and Seahawks (28). It could be coincidence, of course (the Seahawks did score seven of those points on a return), but it's enough to make you wonder.
Then you start thinking about Aldon Smith. The guy who had the sack record in his headlights with two games to go. Smith had 19.5 sacks at the end of the third quarter of the Patriots game in Week 15. He finished the year with 19.5 sacks. Not only has Aldon Smith not recorded a sack since Justin Smith suffered his triceps injury, Aldon Smith hasn't even knocked down a quarterback once. Not even for evil, illegal fun, the way the Seahawks knocked down Robert Griffin after the second touchdown pass last week. I doubt that Aldon Smith needs Justin Smith to be a great pass rusher, but he might need Justin Smith to be a truly transcendent one. And if the 49ers don't have Aldon Smith playing at that level, they don't have even an average pass rusher to step up alongside him. Suffice it to say that the 49ers really want to hope that Justin Smith can come back this weekend, and it would be even better if he were healthy. If he really does have a torn triceps, the Packers are in much better shape than it might seem.
Green Bay 24, San Francisco 17