2012 NFL Playoffs: Five Questions for the Divisional Round

Every Tuesday throughout the NFL season I’ll discuss five of the biggest questions surrounding that week’s slate of action. This week the NFL moves into the Divisional Round, where the Saints will hit the road (where they haven’t been as explosive), the Giants will try to slay the dragon known as the Green Bay Packers, and Tim Tebow’s Broncos are still walking on water. (Dah! Get it? Do you get it? Yeah, you get it…)

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees kneels on the ground after being sacked by the Atlanta Falcons in the first half of their NFL football game in Atlanta, Georgia December 27, 2010. REUTERS/Tami Chappell (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

1. Can the Saints overcome their issues on the road?
Thanks to their dominating play in the second half of the season, there are many people who feel as though the Saints are now the team to beat this season. But there’s no question that New Orleans is a different team on the road than at home and while that statement is true of most franchises, it really applies to the Saints when you dig into the numbers. Sean Payton’s crew outscored opponents 329 to 143 at home this year and only 218 to 196 on the road. At home the Saints were literally and figuratively unbeatable and unstoppable, scoring at least 30 points in seven of their eight games inside the Superdome. But on the road they were more conservative, more cautious, and certainly less aggressive. Two of their three losses this year came at 4-12 Tampa Bay and at 2-14 St. Louis, and they could have easily lost to Tennessee on the road had Jake Locker not inexcusably taken a sack on the final play of the game (when the Titans were at the New Orleans’ 5-yard-line, no less). When you factor in San Francisco’s stingy defense and the fact that New Orleans has to travel cross-country this week, it’s going to be interesting to see if the Saints can survive this weekend…

2. …that said, do the Niners have enough offense to take the Saints down?
The 49ers’ defense ranked fourth in yards allowed this season, first in rushing yards allowed, and second in points per game. But they’re not exactly a Rubik’s Cube on offense. They win by successfully getting Frank Gore in space, by not turning the ball over and by not beating themselves with penalties. While he isn’t the second coming of Trent Dilfer (who had a more limited skill set), Alex Smith has developed into a solid game-manager that is capable of beating defenses vertically when they stack the box hoping to slow Gore. Vernon Davis hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire this season but he’s still a mismatch on linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field and Michael Crabtree gives the Niners some semblance of a vertical threat. But while ‘Frisco did finish 11th in points per game this season, this isn’t a team built for shootouts. So if for some reason the Niners’ defense falters, Smith could be pressed into a situation where he has to match wits with Brees. And while Smith has had a good season, that’s a matchup that Jim Harbaugh and Co. don’t want to see play out this weekend.

3. Can the Giants pull off one of the classic upsets?
This is where the New York Giants are most dangerous. When they’re on the road, when the consensus believes that they’ll lose, and when their backs are up against the proverbial wall. While many people are buying into Big Blue’s revival over the past couple of weeks, there’s no question that they get to play the underdog role this Sunday in Green Bay. It’s a role that suits them just fine, as they proved in Super Bowl XLII, as well as in Philadelphia (where they were 9-point underdogs) and in New England (when they were once again 9-point dogs) earlier this season. That said, the Giants won’t be as fortunate this week as they were with their matchup last weekend. They got to face a predictable, conservative, inconsistent Falcons team that played right into their hands and weren’t intelligent enough to have a Plan B when Plan A blew up in their faces. If the Giants stop the Packers early on, Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers will adjust. If the Giants want to get into a shootout (and they’re certainly capable with that offense), the Packers can match. If the Giants want to go ground and pound with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, the Packers will then attempt to outscore them. The bottom line is that the G-Men do have what it takes to bring down the Pack. But the Falcons didn’t do them any favors last weekend by rolling over and playing dead because now you have to wonder if Tom Coughlin’s team is a little overconfident.

4. The Broncos can’t do that again, right? I mean, right? Right?!
Okay, so the Denver Broncos took down the Pittsburgh Steelers. Big whoop. The Steelers were contending with a bunch of injuries on both sides of the ball, most notably at quarterback where Ben Roethlisberger was clearly affected by a high ankle sprain he suffered late in the year. In other words, Pittsburgh was ripe for the taking and with a lot of help from Ike Taylor, Denver was able to pull off the upset. The Broncos won’t be able to march into Foxboro this weekend and take down Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. That would be ludicrous. Preposterous, even. Notgonnahappen. Of course…the Patriots don’t have the strongest pass defense. And they don’t always rush the passer very well. It’s not inconceivable that Tim Tebow and Demaryius Thomas could beat Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty in pass coverage. And certainly James Ihedigbo and Patrick Chung. Sure, Denver’s running game will find it challenging to run against Vince Wilfork, Rob Ninkovich and Jerod Mayo Andre Carter, but the Broncos could certainly overcome that hurdle with their newfound passing game. Of course, Tebow will have to go toe-to-toe with Brady and the Patriots’ offense. That could be a challenge. And it’s not like Denver will be able to sneak up on New England like it did Pittsburgh last weekend so…yeah, the Broncos won’t make it two-for-two with huge upsets. Right?

5. Can Yates step up against Baltimore’s defense?
The Texans won’t be able to win this weekend with the same formula they used last Saturday against the Bengals. Baltimore’s run defense is too good to allow Arian Foster to take over the game like he did versus Cincinnati and thus, T.J. Yates will need to step up. As expected, the rookie fifth-rounder was shaky in his first career postseason start. He took shots deep to covered receivers when he had people open in the flats and he nearly threw a game-changing pick-six in the second half that Cincinnati safety Chris Crocker dropped. Given the circumstances, Yates has done a phenomenal job stepping in for Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart over the past month. But he’s also been fortunate on numerous occasions that defenses haven’t made him pay for his mistakes. The Ravens, who are built for the postseason and who are a nasty bunch at home, won’t be as gracious as Cincinnati and other teams (Atlanta, for example) have been to Yates this season. It would behoove Houston to rely on Foster and its defense this weekend. But that doesn’t mean that Yates will be able to sit back and enjoy the ride this time around. He’ll need to make plays.

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Great partnerships between head coaches and quarterbacks

The quarterback has always been the most important position in pro football, even in the days when the running game was dominant. Many fans don’t realize that quarterbacks called all the plays as late as the 1970s and into the early 1980s. So even if offenses weren’t quite as complex back then and great teams had excellent running games, having a field general like Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw or Roger Staubach was critical. As the NFL evolved into a more pass-happy league, an evolution that has accelerated in the last ten years with rules protecting the quarterbacks and defenseless receivers, the importance of the quarterback has only been magnified.

This reality makes the relationship between the head coach and the quarterback the most important in pro football. Look at the great teams over the years, and you see great partnerships between coach and quarterback leading to success on the field. It’s interesting to take a look back and see how these relationships took shape and see how they varied based on the situations and the personalities involved. Here are several interesting examples:

1-Bill Belichick and Tom Brady

Bill Belichick was known as a defensive genius when he took over the New England Patriots, but he was also known as a rigid coach who had a complete lack of imagination on offense as a result of his years as head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Belichick wanted the quarterback to be just another position on the field as he didn’t seem to acknowledge the leadership qualities of the position. Tom Brady was a sixth round pick sitting on the bench behind Drew Bledsoe.

When Bledsoe got hurt, Belichick turned to Brady and immediately saw Brady’s talent, decision-making and leadership ability. When Bledsoe came back, Belichick decided to stay with Brady, which at the time was a controversial decision. They made it to the Super Bowl, and by then Belichick has so much confidence in Brady that he made the aggressive decision to drive down the field with little time left in the fourth quarter in a tie game against the Rams. John Madden famously said on television that the Patriots should have just run out the clock and took their chances in overtime. Instead, Brady drove the Pats down to the game-winning field goal.

Two more Super Bowls and one undefeated regular season later, this partnership between Belichick and Brady is one of the most successful in NFL history. Belichick and his offensive coaches let Brady achieve his full potential by becoming just as imaginative on offense as Belichick had been his whole career on defense. From year to year the Patriots would beat you in many different ways, and then they grabbed Randy Moss they were almost unbeatable.

2-Mike Shanahan and John Elway

John Elway is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Yet despite his heroics with “The Drive” and countless other games that he won on sheer athletic ability, Elway had never managed to win a Super Bowl. He never had a real running game, and the Denver defenses were routinely embarrassed in Super Bowls. Then Mike Shanahan arrived. Shanahan is a stubborn system guy, and since the John Elway days he’s not had nearly as much success with his arrogant attitude. But Shanahan’s system was exactly what Elway needed. Elway bought into the changes which placed more emphasis on a running game and a disciplined approach to the passing game, and the result was two Super Bowl titles.

3-Bill Walsh and Joe Montana

Bill Walsh was a system guy. He was an offensive genius who dominated the NFL with his West Coast offense, and he happened to find the perfect quarterback for his system in third-round draft pick Joe Montana. Montana was very accurate and incredibly smart, and he played the quarterback position flawlessly in this system. Of course the 49ers were loaded with talent on offense, but the natural relationship between Walsh and Montana set a standard that would be copied over and over again in the NFL. Look at Aaron Rodgers today, and you see flashes on what Walsh and Montana created thirty years ago. Rodgers and Mike McCarthy have forged a great relationship following the Brett Favre drama in Green Bay.

Of course there are exceptions that help prove the rule. Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw never got along, but they managed to ride one of the best defenses in history plus a great running game to four Super Bowls, and Bradshaw thrived under pressure despite his frosty relationship with Noll. Bill Parcells was notorious for riding Phil Simms, and they had great success as well.

But there’s no doubt that the relationship between the head coach and the quarterback is usually a critical component to sustained success in the NFL. It will be interesting to see how young quarterbacks like Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford grow with their head coaches.

Kenny Mayne visits Mike McCarthy’s hometown [video]

Wait for the cameo at the end…

How will Driver’s quad injury affect the Steelers’ coverage units?

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings (L) and wide receiver Donald Driver play with a video camera prior to Media Day for Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas on February 1, 2011. The Pittsburgh Steelers will take on the Green Bay Packers on February 6, 2011. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg

Donald Driver was added to the Packers’ injury report on Thursday due to a problem with his quad, but Mike McCarthy says he would be shocked if his starting receiver doesn’t play in the Super Bowl.

I’d also be shocked if Driver doesn’t play, as the injury doesn’t sound serious enough to hold him out. That said, how effective will he be? If he’s being held out of practice (even for precautionary measures), then it stands to reason that he’s not at full strength. Will his injury have an effect on the Packers’ passing game?

It’ll be interesting to see what coverages Dick LeBeau uses on Sunday. The Steelers run mostly a cover-2 like the Bears, although LeBeau knows that his corners will also have to man-up in certain situations, which may be a problem seeing as how Bryant McFadden is dealing with an abdominal injury.

With Driver hurt, will LeBeau use Ike Taylor on Greg Jennings and take his chances with McFadden on Driver? Or will he want Taylor to take away Driver and have McFadden cover Jennings with safety help over the top?

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pittsburgh go to their nickel or even dime package plenty of times throughout the night. But LeBeau wants to avoid the dime as much as possible because that means Lawrence Timmons, a good cover linebacker, comes off the field in favor of Anthony Madison. That’s an advantage for the Packers, just as it was when the Patriots crushed Pittsburgh 39-26 back in November when the Steelers used a lot of dime.

Assuming Driver’s injury isn’t a major concern, the Packers must get the Steelers out of their base defense as much as possible. Again, it’s a major advantage to them to face Pittsburgh’s nickel and dime units because it limits what LeBeau can do with his front seven.

Four questions surrounding Super Bowl XLV

This series is brought to you by T.G.I. Fridays®, encouraging you to Rush in and Tackle their new Game Time Menu!

In our final sponsored post for T.G.I. Friday’s, here are five questions surrounding the Packers and Steelers as they prepare for Super Bowl XLV.

1. Can the Steelers’ O-line hold up?
While the team hasn’t officially ruled him out, it appears as though center Maurkice Pouncey won’t play on Sunday. That means Doug Legursky will once again take his place, just as he did in the AFC title game when Pouncey first suffered the high ankle sprain. Legursky could probably start for many teams around the league, but he’s not the same player Pouncey is. He’s not as strong at the point of attack and he isn’t the mauler Pouncey is in the running game. There’s no doubt Legursky will have his hands full against Packers’ NT B.J. Raji, who has had quite the postseason so far. Of course, Legursky might not be the Steelers’ biggest problem along their offensive line. People forget that they’re starting two backup offensive tackles in Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott, and the latter could have a ton of problems with Clay Matthews. Granted, the Steelers have averaged nearly four touchdowns thus far in the postseason, so clearly they’ve been able to mask their weaknesses. That said, whether or not their O-line can hold up against the Packers’ stout pass-rush is arguably the biggest question surrounding their chances of winning.

2. Will the Packers be able to slow Mendenhall?
When Rashard Mendenhall rushed for over 80 yards this season (including in the playoffs), the Steelers were 6-1. The Packers had trouble this year with power rushing attacks. When teams were patient with the running game and kept pounding the edges of Green Bay’s defense, they had a fair amount of success. The Packers yielded 4.5 yards per carry this season, which was among the worst in the NFL in that category. If the Steelers can get Mendenhall going early, they’ll accomplish a couple of things in the process. For starters, they’ll leave Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay’s high-powered passing game on the sidelines. The Steelers will also be able to control the tempo of the game and if Green Bay’s safeties have to come up and play run support, then Pittsburgh could open up the play action pass. The Packers must stop Mendenhall.

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