An Outsider's View of the AFC Playoff Field (and Threats to Pats)

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lillloyd

Third String But Playing on Special Teams
Holiday greetings and congrats from a Steelers fan...

I was thinking last night about the AFC and who might have a chance of going into Foxboro and winning. Needless to say, it's not a pretty picture (well for us anyway ;) -- your Pats will be the prohibitive favorite to advance to SB XLIX, and rightfully so given your performance against the AFC's best this year.

The best arguments against the Pats advancing really have little to do with NE per se, and more to do with recent NFL playoff history. Recall that:

  • Last season -- when both #1 seeds advanced to play in the Super Bowl -- was actually a huge anomaly. Between 1990 and 2013, the two #1 seeds only advanced to the SB together only 3 times (!) and there have been several years where the #1 seed has had an early exit. (See http://www.nbcsports.com/football/nfl/being-no-1-seed-often-means-1-and-done)
  • Over that time span, there have been numerous examples of seemingly fatally flawed teams advancing and winning the SB. The Ravens' 2012 team (which lost 4 of 5 down the regular season stretch as was not viewed as a legit contender by anyone) is just the most recent example. But the '05 Steelers (who won from the #6 slot), the '06 Colts (with a *historically* bad run defense) and the two Giants teams show that it's actually not uncommon for a team that no one took seriously to win it.
So it's *not* a given that the Pats will advance, in theory anyway. The problem is, practically speaking it's just very hard to imagine any one of the other AFC teams beating NE in their house.

Here are the best-case scenarios as I see it for the other AFC squads, if they're to knock off NE:

  • Denver. Shaking off their brutal loss to Cincy last night, Denver circles the wagons and secures the #2 seed despite another shaky performance from Peyton in week 17. But Denver uses the bye week to heal and get Peyton 'right'. After a solid performance at home in the divisional round, Denver arrives at Foxboro resembling the early-season Broncos. Denver reminds the league that it still has arguably the most talented roster in the league, and outlasts NE in a game for the ages.
  • Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh continues to ride a hot streak into the playoffs by beating Cincy week 17 and securing a home playoff game. Their resurgent D continues to gel at just the right time. They advance easily in the wild card round, and then outscore a struggling Denver team to move onto Foxboro. In a season full of violent ups and downs, the 'good' Pittsburgh team shows up, and Pitt's explosive offense is simply able to outscore New England's.
  • Cincy. Cincy rides the momentum of their Denver win into Pittsburgh, where they upend the Steelers and claim the #3 seed. Despite the well-documented struggles of the 'red rifle' in the playoffs, Cincy advances to Foxboro largely on the strength of their suddenly dominant ground game and the emergence of Jeramy Hill. Cincy stuns the Patriots in Foxboro with a "good Andy", plus a ball control, run-focused game plan that resembles the formula of the Ravens in recent years.
  • Indy. (This is getting harder lol). Indy shakes off its horrific loss at Dallas and advances from the WC round, in a game where both Andrew Luck and the Colts' defense look more like its early-season form. In the divisional round, Indy goes to Foxboro, where Luck puts up a game for the ages to advance.
  • Baltimore. Having gotten their last, terrible road game out of their system, the Ravens hunker down and secure the #6 slot after SD loses at KC. Joe Flacco goes into 2012 playoff mode, and the Ravens are suddenly extremely dangerous with solid QB play, a solid running game, and a front seven that will give any of the AFC's top QBs fits. Baltimore exacts revenge on Pitt in the WC round, and then returns to Foxboro where its front 7 dominates, harassing Brady into a losing effort.

While that was all fun to write, here's the problem -- I have a very tough time believing in any of the above scenarios. I'd probably put the Denver scenario and maybe the Baltimore scenario at the highest chances of happening (20%, maybe?) I'd put the rest of the scenarios at around 5%.

Denver looks eminently beatable with Manning looking so ordinary. While it's really not out of the question that they right the ship (and Manning along with it)--and let's face it, Denver does have a hugely talented roster--Manning in NE (and in January!) is just not a combination I have a lot of confidence in.

I'd group Pitt and Indy (and SD, if they even make it) as teams with offenses that have a puncher's chance of beating New England....again, maybe 5%. The problem with these scenarios is that Pitt and Indy have had plenty of stinkers offensively on the road. On top of that, you have BB with two weeks to prep and a NE defense that is decidedly better than what it has been in the recent past. The notion that certain teams could match NE score-for-score ignores the fact that New England's defense will be far better than Pitt's or Indy's. (And as far as SD goes -- they just seem like a limited team to me, and Rivers still doesn't look right despite his 2nd half explosion last week).

That leaves the AFCN 'sluggers', Cincy and Baltimore. I refuse to endorse Cincy so long as Andy Dalton is at the helm (although if you get "good Andy" they are arguably a very tough out).

Of all the teams in the field, I think Baltimore may match up the best with New England simply due to their front 7. As we saw in the Meadowlands Sunday, a front 7 can conver for a talentless secondary. If Flacco plays well, Baltimore can be a tough out, and obviously the Ravens wouldn't go into Foxboro scared given their recent success there. The problem here is that Baltimore may not even make the playoffs...and if they do, they'll have to win two tough road games just to get to Foxboro, against teams they may not match up against nearly as well.


********
Bottom line -- don't be shy about booking your Arizona flights, this is looking like a NE Super Bowl.

Happy holidays everyone -- lillloyd
 

Oswlek

Veteran Starter w/Big Long Term Deal
Nice post. You might be the first reasonable Steelers fan I've ever stumbler across! :)

I pretty much agree with everything you say, particularly this:

Pitt's explosive offense is simply able to outscore New England's.

What is somewhat scary about Pitt is that they are one of the few teams that could take withstand a good offensive effort and still walk off a winner. The problem is, Pitt has only broken 30 once on the road and have only surpassed 20 three times. It could be encouraging that all three happened in their last three road games, or it could just be that they faced TN, Cincy and Atlanta's awful defenses.
 

Rob0729

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Good write up. I don't know if there is a team I would give more than a puncher's chance of beating the Pats. Anything can happen in the playoffs and we have seen teams left for dead going into the playoffs become Super Bowl champs (Baltimore, Giants).

I would give the Steelers the best shot to beat the Pats, but Dick LeBeau has never been able to stop Brady and the Pats offense. He has only done it once and that is when he totally scrapped his typical zone based defense and went to almost exclusive man-to-man throwing the Pats off kilter. But LeBeau doesn't have the secondary to do it this year. On offense, they have a better chance because the Pats struggle against mobile QBs because they play contain pass rushing to keep them in the pocket giving them time to throw.
 

luuked

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What is somewhat scary about Pitt is that they are one of the few teams that could take withstand a good offensive effort and still walk off a winner. The problem is, Pitt has only broken 30 once on the road and have only surpassed 20 three times. It could be encouraging that all three happened in their last three road games, or it could just be that they faced TN, Cincy and Atlanta's awful defenses.

I don't think that the Steelers would be able to sustain a high scoring fight with us. With Big Ben there is no reason at all to play hard contain and we can play pretty aggressive at the line and put the game in the hand of our secondary. It is very similar to playing the Packers minus Rodgers' mobility.

I am not saying that it is impossible for them to win but over the course of a full game I would take our secondary over the Steelers offense.
 

luuked

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On offense, they have a better chance because the Pats struggle against mobile QBs because they play contain pass rushing to keep them in the pocket giving them time to throw.

Except Rothlisberger is not mobile in the same sense as Rodgers, Wilson, Dalton. He is hard to bring down and can extend plays but he is not really a danger in terms of QB runs. I think we would play considerably more aggressive against Rothlisberger than any of the other "mobile" QBs.
 

lillloyd

Third String But Playing on Special Teams
Thanks for the comments guys -- yes there are plenty of reasonable Steelers fans out there. There probably just aren't many who post on opponents message boards.

I think you guys may have missed the second part of my (admittedly longwinded) post. I think there is a very, very low probability that Pitt would 'outscore' NE:

I'd group Pitt and Indy (and SD, if they even make it) as teams with offenses that have a puncher's chance of beating New England....again, maybe 5%. The problem with these scenarios is that Pitt and Indy have had plenty of stinkers offensively on the road. On top of that, you have BB with two weeks to prep and a NE defense that is decidedly better than what it has been in the recent past. The notion that certain teams could match NE score-for-score ignores the fact that New England's defense will be far better than Pitt's or Indy's. (And as far as SD goes -- they just seem like a limited team to me, and Rivers still doesn't look right despite his 2nd half explosion last week).
 

MassPats38

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Great post.

Cincy won last night despite Dalton (I believe Talib could have had 3 picks and came up with one). Special teams, defense and the running game saved him. He tried to fold, but the team wouldn't let him. That won't happen in the playoffs, so I see the run ending quickly.

Indy has not looked good of late. It was said when the Pats beat them, but they just don't seem ready to move into the AFC elite. Too many mistakes. They have talent, but not enough on D.

I just don't want Baltimore in the playoffs because they are my least favorite team out there. It would make me happy to see Flacco and his bloated contract watching the playoffs. They are not the threat they once were, and are more offense than defense these days. When they were at their best, they were ground and pound with the ability to shut down passing teams. Now their pass defense is bad. Not worried about them, just don't like them.

The Bolts - not assuming KC beats them, and they hold the 6th seed. Just don't see them as having the horses to go anywhere this year. Last year they beat the Donkeys and surprised everyone. They just cannot string those games together, so I expect they would be one and done.

I would be most concerned with the Steelers and Donkeys. Donkeys have talent, but Manning seems banged up right now. There is talent on offense and defense. An off game by the Pats can still end with a Broncos win. History does not dictate results. 2006 in Indy with that lost is proof of that point.

Your team concerns me because it has talent on both sides of the ball and is very Jekyll and Hyde. Horrible games against bad teams and beatdowns of good teams. The offense reminds me of the 2004 Steelers with the numbers. Big Ben has looked as good as I have ever seen him play, and Bell can ball.. It would be a mistake to count them out with the way they have been playing.
 

livinginthe past

2nd Team Getting Their First Start
I think the point about the Patriots D is a valid one - the Patriots offence probably isn't the best in the NFL - maybe not even top 3 (despite points scored) but the D can help us hang with teams while they work something out.

I'd love to not see anymore super passive defence that regularly gives QB's 6-8 seconds to scan the secondary - eventually someone (like Chung or our 3rd DB) is going to commit a penalty or be shaken by their receiver.

The Steelers seem pretty hot right now - but their D is below average and their offence can pile it on against poor teams.
 

lillloyd

Third String But Playing on Special Teams
Except Rothlisberger is not mobile in the same sense as Rodgers, Wilson, Dalton. He is hard to bring down and can extend plays but he is not really a danger in terms of QB runs. I think we would play considerably more aggressive against Rothlisberger than any of the other "mobile" QBs.

Roethlisberger consistently has one of the best passer ratings against the blitz, and it has been doubly true this year. I would push for the opposite -- rush 3 or 4, drop 7 or 8, and let him sort out confusing defensive looks. A couple of teams have done this with surprising success this year. This sort of strategy is right in BB's wheelhouse...just one more reason I have a tough time seeing Pitt winning in NE.

FWIW Roethlisberger has made the majority of his plays this year from the pocket -- the narrative about him just running around extending plays has been overblown, particularly this year. In fact they keep statistics on how quickly QBs get the ball out -- I don't know if this has changed, but earlier in the year he was something like 5th or 6th in quickness/time to release. Weird but true.
 

lillloyd

Third String But Playing on Special Teams
Great post.

Cincy won last night despite Dalton (I believe Talib could have had 3 picks and came up with one). Special teams, defense and the running game saved him. He tried to fold, but the team wouldn't let him. That won't happen in the playoffs, so I see the run ending quickly.

Indy has not looked good of late. It was said when the Pats beat them, but they just don't seem ready to move into the AFC elite. Too many mistakes. They have talent, but not enough on D.

I just don't want Baltimore in the playoffs because they are my least favorite team out there. It would make me happy to see Flacco and his bloated contract watching the playoffs. They are not the threat they once were, and are more offense than defense these days. When they were at their best, they were ground and pound with the ability to shut down passing teams. Now their pass defense is bad. Not worried about them, just don't like them.

The Bolts - not assuming KC beats them, and they hold the 6th seed. Just don't see them as having the horses to go anywhere this year. Last year they beat the Donkeys and surprised everyone. They just cannot string those games together, so I expect they would be one and done.

I would be most concerned with the Steelers and Donkeys. Donkeys have talent, but Manning seems banged up right now. There is talent on offense and defense. An off game by the Pats can still end with a Broncos win. History does not dictate results. 2006 in Indy with that lost is proof of that point.

Your team concerns me because it has talent on both sides of the ball and is very Jekyll and Hyde. Horrible games against bad teams and beatdowns of good teams. The offense reminds me of the 2004 Steelers with the numbers. Big Ben has looked as good as I have ever seen him play, and Bell can ball.. It would be a mistake to count them out with the way they have been playing.

Doesn't it just seem like all of the other contenders have fatal flaws?

In Denver, Manning isn't right. Both Pitt and Indy seem like they're a year or two away from being heavyweight contenders -- they have too many talent deficiencies on defense to be taken too seriously. Cincy has Andy Dalton which IMHO puts a ceiling on how far they'll ever go in the playoffs (although I guess the same was said about Flacco, pre 2012).

Even Baltimore, which may be the most balanced team outside of NE and a functional Manning-led Denver team, has major issues on its defensive back end (although it could be argued that this isn't the worst of weaknesses against the AFC's top two seeds, given Baltimore's front 7 and the fact that Manning and Brady no longer have howitzers to just flick the ball 60 yards under duress).
 

mosi

Experienced Starter w/First Big Contract
Nice post lillloyd. The steelers are a strange team. They have those two stinkers at the Jets and at the Bucs, and their schedule looks pretty easy. But, If not for those two losses, they would be right up there with the Pats!

But as people have stated, Brady always plays well against the Steelers -just as he generally plays poorly against Rex Ryan lead defenses.

As a fan, I am still nervous about everyone. Lately the Pats offense just seems to crap the bed in the playoffs . I always blamed it on the lack of Gronk so this year hopefully will be different (and not like 2010!).
 

Mike the Brit

Minuteman Target
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Of course, Pittsburgh is a team to worry about, not least because the Pats have already beaten pretty much every other team in the AFC that might end up coming to Foxboro (Chargers, Colts, Bengals, Donkeys).

Their obvious weakness is their secondary, but it might not matter, given that the Patriots aren't currently much of a deep threat offense.

I'm very impressed with Brown, Bryant and Leveon Bell. But if (God forbid) I were a Steelers fan, I'd be very worried about how much they rely on Bell as their single running back. What happens if he gets injured or simply worn down? Stop him and I suspect that you stop the Steelers.
 

MassPats38

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Doesn't it just seem like all of the other contenders have fatal flaws?

In Denver, Manning isn't right. Both Pitt and Indy seem like they're a year or two away from being heavyweight contenders -- they have too many talent deficiencies on defense to be taken too seriously. Cincy has Andy Dalton which IMHO puts a ceiling on how far they'll ever go in the playoffs (although I guess the same was said about Flacco, pre 2012).

Even Baltimore, which may be the most balanced team outside of NE and a functional Manning-led Denver team, has major issues on its defensive back end (although it could be argued that this isn't the worst of weaknesses against the AFC's top two seeds, given Baltimore's front 7 and the fact that Manning and Brady no longer have howitzers to just flick the ball 60 yards under duress).

All teams, Pats included, have flaws. The offensive line is more in flux for the Pats than it has been in any season I can remember since 2000. Whether it's coaching or personnel, I still see that as the root of all offensive woes. Last year it was drops. This year it's line play. When the line issues appear, Brady throws too quickly and the offense sputters. The streaky play has been the line. That cannot happen in the playoffs.

Brady has actually been throwing with more success downfield. If he has the time, then he loves to launch to Tyms (the only reason he is on the team it seems) and Gronk. He still has the arm.

Since week 8, Baltimore has lost to every good team it has faced. It has beaten chumps. In past years, the Ravens turned it on down the stretch. This year, it has lost its way out of the playoff group and is hoping for a miracle from some other team. Falling into the playoffs does not instill fear.
 

lillloyd

Third String But Playing on Special Teams
All teams, Pats included, have flaws. The offensive line is more in flux for the Pats than it has been in any season I can remember since 2000. Whether it's coaching or personnel, I still see that as the root of all offensive woes. Last year it was drops. This year it's line play. When the line issues appear, Brady throws too quickly and the offense sputters. The streaky play has been the line. That cannot happen in the playoffs.

Brady has actually been throwing with more success downfield. If he has the time, then he loves to launch to Tyms (the only reason he is on the team it seems) and Gronk. He still has the arm.

Since week 8, Baltimore has lost to every good team it has faced. It has beaten chumps. In past years, the Ravens turned it on down the stretch. This year, it has lost its way out of the playoff group and is hoping for a miracle from some other team. Falling into the playoffs does not instill fear.

Yeah I would think that the greatest threats to the Pats will be teams with fearsome front 7s...so probably prospective NFC opponents will present a greater challenge.

I hear you on the Ravens....But I would point out that they did lose 4 of its last 5 during their SB year. If any year was an example of 'falling into the playoffs' that was it. But in any event IMO it's less about records in the playoffs than matchups...the Ravens have all kinds of problems, but the *type* of team they are I think can be challenging to a team like the Pats (or really, any high-powered offense with a less mobile QB, that has off and on issues with its OL play) Still it would be a shocker for the Ravens to even reach Foxboro, let alone win :)
 

luuked

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Roethlisberger consistently has one of the best passer ratings against the blitz, and it has been doubly true this year. I would push for the opposite -- rush 3 or 4, drop 7 or 8, and let him sort out confusing defensive looks. A couple of teams have done this with surprising success this year. This sort of strategy is right in BB's wheelhouse...just one more reason I have a tough time seeing Pitt winning in NE.

I guess I should have been clearer. I don't adovate to blitz him (4+ rushers) at all, only to play with an aggressive 4 man rush (i.e. actually try to collapse pocket).

When you see the Pats playing against a team with a mobile QB what happens is that the top priority is keep containment even if this means less pressure and a pretty clean pocket (i.e. "OMG RODGERS has 9 seconds to throw"). In this case we don't need to be as careful in terms of containment.
 

Halifax_Pats_Fan

In the Starting Line-Up
Nice post OP.

Out of the rest of the AFC teams that scare, at least me, it is the Steelers. Their QB has been there 3 times and done that twice. If next week I see them continuing to run the rock in a dominant fashion AND that pass defense improves at least against Cincy, then that confidence and production should not be ignored by anyone going into the playoffs...
 

Oswlek

Veteran Starter w/Big Long Term Deal
I don't think that the Steelers would be able to sustain a high scoring fight with us. With Big Ben there is no reason at all to play hard contain and we can play pretty aggressive at the line and put the game in the hand of our secondary. It is very similar to playing the Packers minus Rodgers' mobility.

I am not saying that it is impossible for them to win but over the course of a full game I would take our secondary over the Steelers offense.

It isn't very likely, it is still true that Pitt is the most likely non-Denver team to put 30 points on NE. All the other teams would need to hold the Patriots to around 20 points to have a reasonable chance of winning.

FWIW, I'm not afraid of Pitt in he least. I'd happily welcome them into the Razor because a team with no defense just isn't a genuine threat unless NE plays a crap game. It amazes me when people say they are worried about facing them.
 

kennyb

In the Starting Line-Up
Steelers are the team to watch. They've put up stinkers but when it counts they're very good. Big Ben is very accurate tough to blitz and hard to bring down. Best wr great qb great rb...improved line. Weak dbs but with our ol that won't matter.
 
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