How do the offenses stack up for the rest of the NFL playoffs? Today the Notebook takes a look at the eight remaining teams and focuses strictly on the offensive side of the ball, with a look at the regular season performance and how their strengths and weaknesses compare to the other playoff contenders. The teams are listed in order of their rank in points scored…
Green Bay (1st): I’m going to open this analysis with a ground-breaking piece of information and it’s that the Green Bay offense is built around Aaron Rodgers. The Packers running game has been almost non-existent this year. It was the same last year until head coach Mike McCarthy found a way to piece together a ground attack with James Starks in the playoffs. Neither Starks nor Ryan Grant has been effective this year. With pass protection also a serious problem, we can safely pinpoint the culprit as the offensive line. Left tackle Chad Clifton is in the lineup after missing most of the season and everyone in Packerland is hoping that’s the answer.
Wide receiver Greg Jennings will also be back from an injury incurred in Week 13, his first playing time since then, which allows Jordy Nelson to settle into his more natural role as a secondary receiver. Tight end Jermichael Finley, a tremendous physical specimen who can take over games, or frustrate you with drops, is a big X-factor in the playoffs. A hidden factor working in Green Bay’s favor—they stay from penalties, ranking second in the league in avoiding offensive flags. The bottom line? There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on Rodgers, both literally and figuratively. Without a running game and likely to be under constant heat, he has to continue to be picture-perfect.
New Orleans (2nd): Sean Payton’s offense has the balance that McCarthy’s lacks. While media focus is on Drew Brees’ record-setting campaign, they’ve overlooked that the New Orleans running game ranks 4th in the NFL in yards-per-carry. Besides the long shadow of Brees, another reason for that is the Saints don’t have a signature running back. They split duty among Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Darren Sproles, the latter who’s a game-changer when he catches a screen out of the backfield.
New Orleans does a very good job taking care of Brees and keeping him upright in the pocket and they also take very good care of the ball. The penalties are a problem, as the Saints rank in the middle of the league in costing themselves hidden yardage. They also don’t have a really deep corps of receivers. Marques Colston is on the outside, but the team does not always get consistency from Robert Meachem and Lance Moore. Like Green Bay, the tight end is a big part of the offense, with Jimmy Graham enjoying a huge season.
New England (3rd): If the tight end plays a key role in New Orleans and Green Bay, the tight ends are nothing short of enormous in Foxboro. Rob Gronkowski is Tom Brady’s favorite target, and Angel Hernandez isn’t far behind. The Patriots have the same problems on the offensive front that the Packers do—they don’t protect the quarterback very well and the running game is an issue, a circumstance that forces you into a lot of quick drop and throws and allows defenses to come up a little bit, knowing the receivers don’t have a lot of time to get deep. And New England lacks deep threats, with Deion Branch being a veteran possession guy at this point in his career and Wes Welker being a de facto tight end in terms of how they use him in the slot.
Any offense led by Brady is going to take care of the football, and New England does that. What they don’t do is run the ball and there’s not of reason to think that BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead or Stevan Ridley is suddenly going to morph into Adrian Peterson—or even Craig James, who carried the 1985 Patriots to the AFC title. The message to Tom Brady is the same one Terry Benedict gave to Linus Caldwell in Oceans 12—“it’s all on you.”
NY Giants (9th): I don’t know where that running game the Giants found on Sunday against Atlanta has been, because we sure haven’t seen it on the football field all year. New York ranks dead last in the NFL in yards-per-carry, as Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs looked like they’d finally reached the end of their shelf life as one of the league’s better finesse-and-power combos. Eli Manning has taken the responsibility for the offense and gotten to the ball to the outside consistently, targeting Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Without a great option at tight end, Manning needs the running game to help keep things open on the edge and to keep third downs manageable. New York ranks 14th in the NFL in third-down conversions—not bad, but not championship-caliber either, when you have the three teams already covered all ranking in the top five.
Houston (10th): This ranking comes with an asterisk because a lot of the numbers were compiled when Matt Schaub was at quarterback. Still, the Texans scored 31 on a good Bengals defense in Saturday’s first-round win and it’s because they have the best running game left in the playoffs. The yards-per-carry doesn’t rank as high as New Orleans, but if you had a lead with less than five minutes left and needed to grind clock is there anyone you’d rather be giving the ball to then Arian Foster or Ben Tate? With Andre Johnson back in the fold at wideout, Houston has a legitimate stretch-the-field option back and tight end Owen Daniels is a consistent threat. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Houston lacks depth in their receivers’ corps and at some point when Johnson is being double-teamed, Gary Kubiak is going to need Kevin Walters or Jacoby Jones to stand up and be counted. One big point in Yates’ favor—Houston still has thrown the fewest interceptions of any AFC team (not just any AFC playoff team, but any team period).
San Francisco (11th): Surprised that the 49ers rank this high in points scored? 11th in the NFL won’t win you trophies without a great defense, but this is a far cry from an SEC team. The Niners do it by first and foremost taking care of the football, as they’re the best in the NFC in both avoiding fumbles and not throwing interceptions. This would be a reason that a 19th-place rush game and 16th-place pass game can move up to 11th in points scored. Frisco maximizes their chances, and with Frank Gore running the ball and a good tight end in Vernon Davis, they have the personnel to operate in tight situations inside the red zone. Still, the Niners are horrible when it comes to moving the chains and surprisingly poor at staying away from penalties. Tomorrow the Notebook will talk about the defenses, so we can some nice things about this team. By the standards of playoff competition, it’s difficult to say too many good words for the offense.
Baltimore (12th): It wasn’t a great statistical year for quarterback Joe Flacco, but that’s not a bad thing for the Baltimore offense. This unit functions best when Ray Rice is at the center, both running the ball between the tackles and catching it out of the backfield. With the division on the line in Cincinnati in Week 17, the Ravens put it in Rice’s hands and he delivered. Baltimore plays clean penalty-free football, Flacco doesn’t make mistakes and he can take it over the top to Torrey Smith or over the middle to Anquan Boldin. This is not an offense that will dazzle you, but when you run the ball, don’t beat yourself and can hit a big play, that’s an ideal formula for playoff success.
Denver (25th): What to make of the Broncos? The easy answer to deal with an offense that ran the ball with Willis McGahee and Tim Tebow was to stack the box and keep the quarterback in the pocket. Pittsburgh tried it and Tebow suddenly was going over the top for big plays throughout the game, not just on the overtime touchdown to Demaryius Thomas. Still, stopping the run has to be the priority for any opponent, as it’s the only thing Denver does consistently well. Other than left tackle Ryan Clady, there are no signature players on this unit.