4 In, 4 Out

   With the first round of the NFL playoffs in the books, it is clear that we know very little.  I went 2-2 in my predictions, with the Boys and Jets holding strong defensively and the Pack and Pats doing exactly the opposite.  Regardless we are through the terrible first round of the playoffs and into the meet of the post-season, the divisional round.  Here’s where the stars shine, the big gamers have the big games and the favorites come out.  But with one round behind us, we have some room to reflect on the teams who are walking home.

 

Cincinnati Bengals (10-6, WC Loss to NYJ 24-14)

  The Bungles bungled again.  Despite having a great defense all year and a big time run game, the Bengals couldn’t get it done when it mattered most, and the blustering Rex Ryan gets to make headlines with his bravado. Cedric Benson had an amazing game and capped a comeback of some note.  Against the best defense in the post-season, Benson ran for 169 yards, 1 touchdown and 8.0 yards per carry, those are some significant numbers.  In fact, Benson’s performance was the best by a single runner against the Jets all year, with only Maurice Jones-Drew’s 24 for 123 and a touchdown being the only comparable performance.  And while Cincinnati’s injury plagued defense let up a lot of yardage to Dustin Keller on two big pass plays, they performed as can be expected elsewhere.  Against that Offensive line, holding Green to just over 120 yards was a victory.  Unfortunately, all of that was undone.

 I have watched Carson Palmer for years, and this was the worst single game by the former Trojan I have ever seen.  Palmer was jumpy in the pocket, and was sacked 3 times.  When he did get time, which happened more often then New York wanted, Palmer overthrew his receivers. Almost every throw he made against New York went high.  And high passes are dangerous passes.  Eventually Revis made a play on one of them and got the pick.  Meanwhile Chad Ochocinco was unimpressive, and the other receivers were either injured or doing their best Braylon Edwards impressions.  Oh, and Shayne Graham has been banned from the Queen’s City.

What Does it Mean?

  The Bengals put together a solid defense despite injuries.  It looked like the hiring of Marv Lewis finally paid dividends.  If DC Mike Zimmer and HC Marvin Lewis are able to recreate that defense, and have Baltimore and Pittsburgh stumble down the stretch, they could be back.  More likely the Bengals will take a step back and until they improve the receiving corp, and build up youth on the offensive line, Ciny will be the Jacksonville of the AFC North.

New England Patriots (10-6, WC Loss to Bal 33-14)

  It may be the loss of Wes Welker which put them in a funk, but it was the poor performance of the offensive line and defensive mid-field that cost the Patriots their chance at another title this decade.  Ray Rice and Willis McGahee combined for 42 rushes and over 200 yards.  The usually studly combo of Mayo and Wilfork were unable to hold the Ravens in check.  The Pats rush defense ranked about as well as it did in 2008, midranked and unimpressive. On the other side, the Patriots ranked 12th in rush offense.  But how much of that was true run power and how much of it was fear of Wes Welker and Randy Moss is difficult to tell.  Kevin Faulk, Laurence Marony and the lot make for a solid group, but its not Chris Johnson.  Add in the consistent pressure that Tom Brady and Matt Cassel have faced since the Super Bowl (although the Pats allowed only 18 sacks all season) against top opponents and you have an offensive line with some question marks.

  At the end of the day, what matters to Belichick is defense.  Despite having a very good defense (top 15 in yards on the ground, air and in scoring) the Patriots never seemed to gel, and completely fell apart in the playoffs, the exact opposite of the usually situation. Why this happened, how this happened and what it means is the real question facing the Patriots today.  Outside of the loss to New Orleans, the Patriots never really lost big, until the playoffs.

What Does it Mean?

 What it means is that in New England, there are some concerned faces.  Fact is, the Patriots are loaded with draft picks going into the off-season, including 3 2nd round picks.  They have a lot of young talent on defense, outside of the defensive line, and have a probably top 5 pick.  With improving teams in New York and Miami, the Pats will need it.  Regardless, the Pats have shown a chink in the armor and Tom Terrific is no longer unbeatable.

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5, WC Loss to Dal 34-14)

  The Iggles came crashing down with back to back big losses to the Dallas Cowboys.  At this point Phily fans should be a little concerned.  Although Kevin Kolb has shown his skills this season, McNabb is getting old and Michael Vick (despite the big play) is not the future.  The run game was non existent, with a total of 13 total rushes, compared to 35 for the Cowboys.  Meanwhile the Eagles O-line let McNabb get sacked 4 times and hit another 9 on top of that.  Yes, a lot of that came down to injuries, but overall the Eagles offense was absolutely controlled by the Dallas front 7.  And when the Cowboys turned the gas off, the Eagles offense still flustered about and was unable to make any sort of headway.  For a team who had a record breaking offensive performance to come out and score a total of 14 points in two games against a well known divisional rival is a pathetic finish to a disappointing season.  And that doesn’t even bring up the defense.

  The Eagles defense, individually, is full of very good players.  The rotating door at MLB hurt, as did the loss of Jim Johnson and Brian Dawkins. The unit as a whole was 12th in yardage, but 19th in points allowed. It was 17th against the pass, but the 9th ranked defense against the run.  This defense wasn’t bad, but at times inept.  It couldn’t seem to find its stride, despite having loads of sacks and run stuffs.  Something just did not click, and that loss of a click cost the Eagles any shot at a post-season run.  Perhaps it was injuries, perhaps it was playcalling, it was certainly something that allowed the Cowboys to take control of the line of scrimmage and dominate the Eagles in back to back games.

What Does it Mean?

  At the moment the Eagles are at a crossroads.  Their have a lot of age in some positions, but a lot of youth in others.  It appears that the skill position players have finally been found in Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek and DeSean Jackson.  The offensive line is loaded with talent thanks to free agents and the acquisition of Jason Peters from Buffalo, but McNabb is getting up there in age, and if Kevin Kolb bolts for a starting gig elsewhere, the Eagles could be in some serious trouble in the near future.

Green Bay Packers (11-6 WC Loss to Ari 51-45)

  When you lose one of the greatest games in post-season history, you don’t have a lot to be sorry for.  But the fact is, I called it.  I never thought the Green Bay defense was as good as it statistically said, and with the mediocre offenses they faced for most of the season I had a feeling it was going to come crashing down.  Now, I picked Green Bay because I thought they would outperform the Arizona offense, and I was wrong.  But defensively, the Packers only faced 4 top 20 offensive units (by yards) all year, Minnesota, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Dallas (I am not counting Arizona due to the lack of effort by the Cardinals in the regular season finale) and they went a combined 3-2 against the four.  Fact is, that defense suffered the same thing every 4-3 to 3-4 swap does, it’s just not as good as it looks. 

  Meanwhile on the offensive side of the ball, the Packers were nearly flawless.  Aaron Rodgers moved the ball amazingly well, despite being under the gun.  When a team jumps out to a 17 point lead, the trailing team tends to become one sided.  The Pack ran decently, with only 7 fewer rushes than their season average of 27 per game.  But when push came to shove, the Packers O-line fell down on the job.  The Cardinals averaged 2 and a half sacks per game all year, the Packers allowed 5 in the game. It was fitting that the Packers O-line failed when it mattered most, given that the Green Bay O-line had been doing that all year. 

What Does it Mean?

  The Packers are set up to be the best team in the NFC North next season.  With Favre’s age, Cutler’s inadequate play and Detroit being, well, Detroit, the Packers are standing at the top of the pile.  But they seriously need defensive help, youth in the corner position and a lot of O-line help.  If Aaron Rodgers is going to survive to have three 4,000 yard seasons, he’s going to need something up front to stay on his feet.

~~~

Playoff Predictions

Dallas 24-20 Minnesota- The Cowboys defense holds the Vikings on the final drive for a big win

Arizona 31-34 New Orleans- Shootout in the Super Dome comes out for the home team.

New York 13-27 San Diego- Philip Rivers goes off on a Jets defense that underperformed against Cincy

Baltimore 17-20 Indianapolis- Last second missed field goal by the Ravens lets Indy walk out a winner.

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