Scramble for the Ball: The Final Four
by Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie
Andrew: So we've got Brady-Manning XVII. Or Brady-Manning Diecisiete in SAP. Or Brady-Manning 10001 in binary. All the chatter is how this is nothing like the earlier matchups, with Peyton Manning now portraying Trent Dilfer from the 2000 Ravens, a marginally competent quarterback just trying to keep a great defense afloat. Those Ravens won their divisional round game on defense and special teams, despite averaging just over three yards per offensive play. These Broncos won their divisional round game on defense and special teams, despite averaging about 4.6 yards per offensive play. Take away the play where Manning attempted to surrender but the officials wouldn't allow him to and that would be down to just a shade above four yards per play.
Not many teams win with that kind of offensive output -- but three Tom Brady-led teams have: Brady's first two playoff wins in 2001 versus Oakland (4.3 yards per play) and Pittsburgh (3.8), along with the win over the Titans in 2003 (4.4).
So here's where I'm going with this. Sunday's game isn't like any recent Brady-Manning encounter. But it's kind of awesome how we actually get kind of the reverse of their first playoff meeting. Contrary to perception, the Patriots' offense was already great by 2004. But in 2003, the defense carried the water. 2003 Brady obviously trumps 2015 Manning, but it seems like poetic justice for Manning to get his shot to have a defense (and seemingly never-ending luck, which Brady also had early on) carry him.
Sterling: There are definitely similarities between the 2003 Patriots defense and the current Broncos defense. Both were excellent against the pass, with the Broncos ranking first (-28.0%) and the Pats ranking second (-26.4%). Denver's unit was better by overall DVOA (-25.3% to -18.7%) because of a superior run defense, though the Patriots were actually better by weighted defensive DVOA (-24.2% to -22.1%). Maybe that was a result of New England integrating veteran free agents like Rodney Harrison, Tyrone Poole, and Ted Washington at the beginning of the year, whereas the Broncos had a lot of continuity from 2014. Nine of the 11 defenders who played at least 500 snaps for Denver last season returned to the Broncos (Rahim Moore and Terrance Knighton being the defections). And all nine of those returnees have been similarly strong, durable starters this season.
But as you alluded to, the big difference is in the quarterbacks and passing game in general. 2003 Brady was at least adequate, finishing 13th in passing DVOA (8.1%), which was far better than the -3.3% DVOA Manning and Brock Osweiler combined to post in 2015. As such, it's no surprise that bookmakers and the general public view these games differently. The Patriots were 3.5-point favorites in Foxboro then, suggesting a near toss-up, while New England is an early 3-point road favorite this week.
Of course, those season-long trends don't necessarily matter for Sunday. The Patriots won in 2003 because their defense picked off and sacked Manning four times apiece. Brady was rather pedestrian in that game, going 22-of-37 for 237 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. That sounds similar to the bare minimum Peyton will need to put up for Denver to win on Sunday.
Andrew: It also sounds very similar to what Manning put up against the Steelers (21-for-37 for 222 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions). I'm pretty sure Brady didn't make his biggest play after turtling with a full 2 yards of wide-open pocket in front of him, but maybe I should check the tape. It is almost incredible how the breaks are falling into place over and over for Denver. They get home field on a series of breaks including a sequence of propitious calls to buoy them to a win against the Patriots. Against the Steelers, they didn't have to face a healthy Ben Roethlisberger or arguably the league's best receiver and got some more help from special teams randomness going their way.
This Sunday, not only will they have home field and the officiating edge that brings (there may never have been a game more ripe for officiating conspiracy theories than sentimental favorite Manning against the team battling the league in court, though for the record, I buy none of it should some call go against the Pats), but there's little danger in the weather forecast. It won't be as favorable as two years ago when it was 63 degrees with little wind in Denver, but 47 degrees shouldn't cause Manning much trouble.
What might cause him trouble is the Patriots' pass rush. I remember being there in Denver two years ago and feeling there was no hope the Patriots could stop Manning once Aqib Talib got taken out by Wes Welker. The degree of difficulty became so easy for Manning once it became Alfonzo Dennard on Demaryius Thomas and all the other matchups getting correspondingly easier. But the biggest problem was a pass rush that seemingly never got within two body lengths of Manning. That Patriots pass rush actually ranked ninth in adjusted sack rate, but the 2013 Broncos offense was far and away the best in the league at sack avoidance, with just a 3.6 percent ASR. This year, the Patriots defense ranks second in ASR and the Broncos were 13th on offense.
Sterling: But a lot of that middling ranking for Denver stemmed from Osweiler, who took a 7.7 percent sack rate (27th among qualified passers) in comparison to Manning's 4.6 percent rate (eighth). The Broncos' offensive line is wholly beatable, but Peyton's mind is the one thing that still operates at an elite level. With Chandler Jones dinged up, I think the Patriots could actually struggle to rush consistently unless they shut down the run and force long down-and-distance situations.
And I actually kind of like New England's chances of doing that. Denver's ground game may have shredded the Patriots in the regular-season contest, as the Broncos posted their best rushing DVOA of the season that night (27.5%). But the Pats were missing Jamie Collins, and Dont'a Hightower hurt his knee in the first half and never returned. Stopping the run was the strength of New England's defense, as they finished 10th overall despite that Broncos game and a couple rough patches at the start of the year.
So Denver's running game might be inconsistent like it was against Pittsburgh, and we sure as hell know the Patriots aren't running the ball. Ultimately, that brings us back to the narrative of the week and the reason why New England is favored: if this turns into an arms race between Brady and Manning, the Patriots hold a distinct upper hand, even considering the strength of the Broncos defense. Barring injuries or a big special teams advantage, I don't see how Denver wins this game without dominating the trenches on both sides of the ball.
Andrew: Well, injuries are coming on defense for the Pats. Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins missed practice on Tuesday. If those guys aren't right, the matchup swings even more towards the Broncos on the line. And, as you said, the season-long numbers already overstate somewhat the Patriots' advantage there. If I'm Matt Patricia, I'm blitzing Hightower or Collins more than usual. I want to create even just the feeling of pressure that now causes Manning to sometimes sack himself. And I may get Jabaal Sheard in for more downs than usual. If that means a few more yards for C.J. Anderson -- and Sheard is actually pretty good against the run, anyway -- I'm fine with that.
OK, prediction time. Sunday will be the third time since 2011 that I'm going to a Patriots playoff game to watch from the stands. Four years ago, I took a red-eye to Chicago on the Saturday before the Super Bowl and drove four hours to Indy to watch the Patriots from about the 10-yard line to the right on your viewing screen. I saw Wes Welker come open before Brady threw the pass that might have sealed the game. And Rob Gronkowski blocked my view enough that I thought he caught that Hail Mary until I heard the Giants fans go crazy.
Two years ago, I remember feeling hopeless once Aqib Talib got hurt, feeling that the Patriots' pass rush seemed utterly stuck in quicksand, watching Brady airmail a wide-open Julian Edelman who was open downfield for maybe six.
I'm going again Sunday. I'll get there no problem flying from Los Angeles, but the bad sign is that my uncle might be stuck in a snowstorm on the east coast. My gut feeling is that if he makes it the Patriots win, and if he doesn't the Pats lose. Yes, we're that important. I say he makes it and that Edelman again approaches double-digit catches with Chris Harris not 100 percent. The pick: Patriots 24, Broncos 17.
Sterling: I have to say I'm feeling much more optimistic now than I did back in 2013. The Patriots posted a 34.3% offensive DVOA against Denver without Edelman or Amendola, which ended up being their third-best showing of the regular season and best after the month of September. I expect a rinse-and-repeat game plan from last week, with Josh McDaniels trusting that his receivers can win quickly off the line against a Broncos secondary which might be missing Harris, thereby protecting the offensive line against Denver's league-leading pass rush.
I think Manning might play better than many national pundits are expecting, especially if Collins and Jones are genuinely limited. His accuracy against Pittsburgh was better than I expected, as it was astoundingly the first game all year he started without throwing an interception. Assuming the Patriots game plan to stop the run first, I think Manning could have some success downfield.
So while this doesn't look like a classic Brady-Manning duel, I think it could bear a closer resemblance to some past duels than most people are anticipating. If Peyton is an asset to Denver rather than a hindrance, I think the Broncos defense is likelier to generate a game-changing play to give their offense the edge. I'll go with the home upset and say Broncos 28, Patriots 27.
Andrew: I think we've both been much higher on Manning's chances of finding some morsels of his old self, but I'm surprised you saw much in Sunday's performance. He was 2-for-8 for 50 yards on deep throws against one of the worst deep pass defenses in football. Take away plays where Manning attempted to sack himself and it's 1-for-7 for 19 yards on plays as they should have been called. So I guess Sunday was one more data point that it probably just isn't happening. Definitely alarming as a Pats fan that we're just two weeks away from the movie ending for Manning, where he wins a Super Bowl MVP in a temperate climate and then rides off into the sunset to feather his nest egg with Papa John and the rest.
On the NFC side, we have the potential for a movie ending either way. It's just more hidden with all the mountains of attention that go to the AFC quarterbacks. For the Panthers, it's Cam Newton, who has made the leap in every dimension and is also, in my opinion, very easy to root for. Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, and Ron Rivera all also fit that description. Same with Bruce Arians, Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, and more for the Cardinals. But only one player has actually starred in a major motion picture with Sandra Bullock. No, The Blind Side wasn't faithful to the book, and Michael Oher didn't play himself, but the Panthers getting to the big game seems like the right ending. If it comes down to actual left tackles, I'm going with Jared Veldheer over Oher. But I'll take a steady-looking Newton over the often-shaky Palmer, who I could see being under siege from the Panthers' pass rush. Sandra Bullock beats Rod Tidwell: Panthers 24, Cardinals 20.
Sterling: To be clear, I don't really expect Manning's deep ball to revert to anything useful. At the same time, I think the Manning who showed up against the Chargers and Steelers could be good enough to lead the Broncos to victory. Granted, the Patriots are certainly a step up in competition from those two wretched secondaries, so it's certainly no guarantee that Manning performs at that level again. He's playing back-to-back games for the first time in two months, and the wheezing trajectory of his passes hardly inspires confidence. It could just be my residual paranoia towards a man who has terrorized me for almost literally my entire conscious life.
I've gone back and forth on the NFC game for a while. I thought the Cardinals were the best team in the NFC for most of the season, but Tyrann Mathieu's injury has been an understated killer. It's just so easy to go after Justin Bethel now, as the Packers did with their JV receiving corps, and I wonder how the Cards will fare against Greg Olsen, by far the best tight end they've faced since Mathieu went down. And since his crazy breakout in the same game when Mathieu got hurt, David Johnson has been quietly pedestrian, reaching the end zone once and never eclipsing more than 40 rushing yards.
I do think the Arizona offense is well constructed to attack Carolina's secondary. Josh Norman doesn't really play the slot, and even if the Panthers break character to have him cover Larry Fitzgerald (which seems doubtful), the balance in the rest of Arizona's receiving corps should provide juicy matchups for John Brown, Michael Floyd, and J.J. Nelson. Carolina was a top-five defense against deep balls during the regular season, but since Bene Benwikere went down in Week 14 and forced the Panthers to sign Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan off the street, the Panthers have allowed a 118.2% DVOA over a sample of 27 deep passes since then.
I'm much less sure about how this game is going to play out, but with Carolina at home and facing fewer questions about its quarterback's efficacy, I'll also go with them and say Panthers 26, Cardinals 23.
FO Staff Playoffs Update
Andrew: Being in hiring meetings all day two weeks ago and then drafting without checking the injury report in the first couple rounds of our draft… well, it's about as clear a sign of fantasy incompetence as you'll ever get. Instead of Larry Fitzgerald getting me 23 points with more to come, I have the entirely predictable non-contribution of DeAngelo Williams. You might call me the favorite at this point if I had Fitz, Floyd, and the Cardinals D to go with my Patriots stack of Brady-Edelman-Jackson. As it is, it's pretty wide open. Vince can go no further and is probably the only one we can cross off the list right now. You got shockingly little fantasy value out of a big Carolina day, with Newton getting a career-low three rushing yards. But you have the most players left and a ton of upside. I'm trying to think of a clear favorite, but in the most wide-open playoffs maybe ever, our league is similarly there for the taking.
Sterling: Vulture, thy name is Jonathan Stewart. If you would have told me that Carolina would have jumped out to a 31-0 lead in the divisional round, I might have just started polishing off my trophy and ordering custom championship T-shirts. I got 46 points out of my five Panthers players; a similar rate over two more games would put me right around where Vince is. Clearly I need a lot more than that, with Tom and Aaron adding on.
This is how I see things unfolding based on the four possible Super Bowl matchups:
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- Patriots-Panthers: Aaron is the favorite, while I hope for a Cam-fueled Panthers win and you and Tom hope for lots of Patriots passing touchdowns.
- Patriots-Cardinals: Scott is probably the favorite over you and Aaron, but it depends on how well the Pats perform for you two against Denver.
- Broncos-Panthers: Most likely Tom or myself; Aaron and Scott may have outside shots if their eliminated players fared well.
- Broncos-Cardinals: Scott is the strong favorite, you and Tom may have chances if your eliminated Patriots had strong games in defeat.
So the "likeliest" Super Bowl matchup would put Aaron in the driver's seat, but I'm guessing Scott is probably the overall favorite, given that any scenario with the Cardinals in the Super Bowl (and especially an Arizona-Denver game) puts him in pretty firm control.
Andrew: First, you're the fantasy expert in this duo, but it seems like a teensy bit of a stretch to say that Jonathan Stewart vultured his first touchdown given that he had a 59-yard run on the drive, or the second given that it was his sixth carry of the drive. This is not exactly John Kuhn scoring on a dive from the 1. (Side note that a team that travels well could think about signing big guys with easy-to-chant names like "Heath" and "Kuhn" just so they could have easy displays of strength on the road.)
Better case for Scott as the favorite. Very nice breakdown there. I think Tom did a great job constructing a roster in the toughest spot to do it, by the way.
Sterling: Yeah I should've clarified that by "vulture" I more meant that Stewart ended up having the best fantasy day of any Panthers player, and he just happens to be the only one I didn't get. But bottom line: unless it's a Broncos-Panthers matchup, we'll probably have a clear favorite headed into the Super Bowl.
|QB||Carson Palmer||Russell Wilson||Tom Brady||Alex Smith||Cam Newton||Ben Roethlisberger|
|RB||Marshawn Lynch||Jeremy Hill||DeAngelo Williams||Jonathan Stewart||David Johnson||C.J. Anderson|
|RB||Ronnie Hillman||Charcandrick West||Steven Jackson||Spencer Ware||James White||Eddie Lacy|
|WR||Larry Fitzgerald||Jeremy Maclin||Julian Edelman||Antonio Brown||DeAndre Hopkins||Demaryius Thomas|
|WR||John Brown||A.J. Green||Michael Floyd||Doug Baldwin||Ted Ginn Jr.||Randall Cobb|
|WR||Emmanuel Sanders||Jermaine Kearse||Markus Wheaton||Tyler Lockett||DeSean Jackson||Martavis Bryant|
|TE||Heath Miller||Tyler Eifert||Jordan Reed||Travis Kelce||Greg Olsen||Rob Gronkowski|
|K||Chandler Catanzaro||Cairo Santos||Steven Hauschka||Stephen Gostkowski||Graham Gano||Mason Crosby|
Best of the Rest
A Packers-heavy approach has idembsky in the lead after the divisional round with 106 points. In a week with tons of duds, he benefited from having the two highest scorers in Aaron Rodgers and Brandon McManus, who each put up 21 points. However, he only has McManus and the Broncos defense remaining, a pairing that most of the top scorers also have. Sid is currently in second place with 95 points, but in addition to McManus and the Denver defense, he still has Danny Amendola and Devin Funchess remaining. Ditto for Ryan D, who is tied for third with 89 points. Last week's leader, Alec B, is the other entry with 89 points, but he doesn't have either leg of the Broncos tandem, and will instead hope for touchdown catches for Amendola, J.J. Nelson, or Darren Fells.
You can see the full results here.
Jim Tomsula Award
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Bruce Arians won and he's a great coach. Love his call on the last play of the game. What a beautiful play. And reading Peter King's description of the long pass on the first play of overtime makes you want to split the credit evenly three ways between Arians, Palmer, and Fitzgerald (also three supremely easy-to-root-for guys, most of all Fitzgerald, who's just a good model for how to live) for those plays.
But. Throwing a deep pass down the sideline makes me want to bring Mr. Keating out from Dead Poets Society and tell Arians that "Sucking the marrow out of life doesn't mean choking on the bone." Being aggressive has helped increase the Cardinals' chances again and again, but throwing that pass was a huge mistake. A screen there or a quick hitch, no problem. But not a deep throw to the outside. Carson Palmer's completion percentage on such throws in 2015: 41 percent. Just a terrible decision that could have cost them the game.
Keep Choppin' Wood
Thank goodness Gisele isn't married to Peyton Manning, because she likely would have reacted rather poorly to Denver's butterfingered receiving corps. As Scott noted in Clutch Encounters this week, various outlets have the Broncos dropping somewhere between six and nine of Manning's 37 passes on Sunday. If we accept the more generous count and only mark them down for six drops, that would still equate to a 16.2 percent drop rate. Using drop data from Sporting Charts, no player with at least 50 targets this season dropped more than 11 percent of his targets, and only DeMarco Murray and Ted Ginn Jr. crossed the 10 percent threshold.