The NFL postseason kicks into serious mode this weekend, when all the best teams take the field. Here’s a breakdown of the four AFC playoff teams remaining, looking at their strengths and weaknesses, as reflected by the film grades handed out at Pro Football Focus. We then measure each team against their betting odds to win the Super Bowl.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (#1 SEED): This Patriot team is a throwback to the early ‘00s, in that they rely much more on a stout defense. Darrelle Revis has been everything New England could have asked for as a lockdown corner, and the presence of Revis has lifted the play of Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung in the secondary. The Pats also have an excellent linebacking group, with Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, while Chandler Jones excels at rushing the passer and Vince Wolfork remains outstanding in tying up the middle.
I lead with the defense, because as good as Tom Brady continues to be, it doesn’t begin and end with him, as it has with this team since around 2005. The offensive line is leaky in pass protection, and if their season ends prematurely this will be the reason. At least the good news is that Brady can get rid of the football quickly and there’s no one better to do that with than Rob Gronkowski. And the line is better at run-blocking, helping Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount provide a big lift down the stretch.
Odds To Win Super Bowl: 13-5—I like this New England team a lot and with their defense finally resembling that of the Tedy Bruschi/Ty Law/Rodney Harrison era, they can finally get the same kind of postseason results—i.e., winning the Super Bowl. But as we’ll see when we look at other teams, New England is a substantial favorite, at least within the AFC, and I’m not sure they are that much better.
I would steer clear of this price, and I would never lay (-7) against the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday. New England, unfortunately, is a bad bet in Las Vegas even if they are awfully good on the football field.
DENVER BRONCOS (#2 SEED): Whether or not Peyton Manning is fully healthy is the question overshadowing Denver. Problems with Peyton’s thigh have definitely slowed him down the stretch, but the Broncos may be better for it in the long run.
A limited Manning forced Denver to further develop its running game and C.J. Anderson emerged. The offensive line has some of the same problems of New England when it comes to pass protection, but Orlando Franklin has had a strong year on the interior to open up some holes. And though center Manny Ramirez and left tackle Ryan Clady have not had vintage seasons, they both have the talent and track record to raise their games significantly in the playoffs.
This is also a good spot to point out that the PFF grades that are relied on do not factor in strength of schedule. The AFC West is a good division, and they had to play the NFC West in inter-conference play. A weaker grade for a Denver player might be a product of the kind of teams they were playing all season. We’ll certainly find out on Sunday afternoon when they play the Indianapolis Colts, who coasted all year against an easy schedule.
Strong schedule or not, Denver’s defensive personnel is great. Von Miller was dominant at outside linebacker and if we lived in a world that did not have J.J. Watt, Miller would be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Brandon Marshall is another solid linebacker, while Demarcus Ware and Terrance Knighton hold down the fort up front, both against the run and pressuring the quarterback. Denver has a pair of lockdown corners in Chris Harris and Aqib Talib.
Odds To Win The Super Bowl: 7-1—These aren’t bad odds, but I don’t know that there’s any real value there. Denver is a solid (-7) favorite at home against Indy, but then would presumably go to New England then presumably have to face Seattle in the Super Bowl, both matchups that haven’t gone well for them in the recent past. If you’ve got money and want to bet Peyton, it’s probably best to just see if they survive this week, and then take the points on a game-by-game basis, since Denver would be an underdog if form holds.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (#4 SEED): A productive quarterback behind a leaky line is already a theme in New England and Denver, and it continues in Indianapolis. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo is one of the best in the game, but every other spot on the Colt front has been a disaster area in front of Andrew Luck. This paragraph is the last time I will insert Luck in a sentence that brackets him with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. I’ll leave Luck’s continued canonization to the mainstream media.
But while Luck-Mania may drive me crazy, I’m not unfair, as the young quarterback has had to shoulder an exceptionally heavy load this season. Indianapolis throws the ball so often that they make a flag football team look like three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust by comparison. And that has happened with T.Y. Hilton as the only real big play threat in the receiving corps.
Defensively, Indy’s 3-4 scheme has a good pass rusher in Cory Redding and a run-stopper in Josh Chapman, but problems at linebacker make this a very soft front seven. They were able to stack the box against the run in last week’s playoff win over the Cincinnati Bengals to compensate for that.
Some of that can happen because Vontae Davis is a good enough corner to be left on an island in coverage. But some of it is strategy that will work a lot better against Andy Dalton, with his two best targets injured then it will against Peyton Manning with all his weapons in tow.
A key player to watch going forward is strong safety Mike Adams, who will have a lot of responsibility for containing Denver’s big tight end Julius Thomas. And if the Colts survive that, then Rob Gronkowski probably awaits next. Adams is an excellent player, but it’s time to batten down the hatches.
Odds To Win The Super Bowl: 18-1—Indianapolis opened the postseason at 30-1, and I opined at the time that I liked the Colts a lot at that price. I’m surprised to see it drop this far, because I would have thought the bulk of that price came from the long odds of going through Denver and New England on the road and then beating either Seattle or Green Bay. Is one win over the Bengals at home really worth dropping from 30-1 to 18-1? I don’t think so.
Therefore, I would lay off the Colts at this point. I probably wouldn’t even take the (+7) in Denver on Sunday. If you do have complete confidence in Luck to play big, a better way to express that might be on the totals line. The Over/Under is 54. These teams played a 31-24 game at this same venue in Week 1, and if weather permits, a high 50s total isn’t hard to imagine.
BALTIMORE RAVENS (#6 SEED): The only road team to win in the wild-card round, beating the #3 seed Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens have a strong recent track record of road success in the playoffs. And this team is physical in the trenches.
Guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele key an offensive line that is pretty good in the run-blocking phase of the game, opening up holes for Justin Forsett. On the defensive side of the ball, Haloti Ngata and Brandon Williams combine to make Baltimore a very difficult team to run the football against.
Where Baltimore really separates itself as a contender is with the linebackers. Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, C.J. Moseley, and Daryl Smith comprise a group that can do it all. They stuff the run and they pressure the quarterback and if the Ravens continue to advance in the playoffs, it’s going to start here.
If the Ravens go home on Saturday in New England it will because of the passing game, either their own or the opposition. Joe Flacco is up and down, in part because pass protection is often less than stellar. Steve Smith is reliable at receiver, but Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Owen Daniels all come and go. If they all come, this attack is potent. But that hasn’t always been the case.
The secondary was terrific in Pittsburgh last Saturday night, but this is a group that has been mostly subpar throughout the season. A lot of weaknesses get covered up because the front seven is so good at getting to the quarterback, but with a game against Tom Brady ahead and then presumably Peyton Manning after that, there’s no room for error.
Odds To Win The Super Bowl: 17-1—This is another team that, if you missed last week at 40-1, it’s probably best to just eat it on the Super Bowl futures. I do think they’re a good bet with the points in Foxboro, particularly if you find a shop offering 7 ½ or more. This is a line that opened as high as (-8.5) before dog money quickly pushed it down.
And if you’re a true believer that Baltimore will win a playoff game in New England for the third time since 2009 then the moneyline of (+250) makes more sense than going for the fences on winning the Super Bowl.
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