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To make their second straight NFL Super Bowl trip, Richard Sherman and Seattle’s top-flight defense will look to continue their ball-hawking ways against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Plus, in an old lion vs. young lion quarterback duel, Tom Brady and the Patriots will host Andrew Luck and the Colts at Foxboro in the AFC/NFC Championships.
Conference Championship Playoff Round
Sunday, January 18
NFC Championship Playoff 3:05 PM ET – TV: FOX
(2) Green Bay Packers 13-4 @ (1) Seattle Seahawks 13-4
Examining both title games this weekend, we get to take a glimpse of their head-to-head battles during the regular-season. Green Bay and Seattle jump-started the season at CenturyLink Field on Sep. 4 in a game the defending champs won punch-for-punch, dominating at the line of scrimmage, dismantling Green Bay 36-16. Marshawn Lynch ran for 110 of Seattle’s 207 team-rushing-yards while their star-defensive-cast kept Aaron Rodgers under duress throughout the night, holding Green Bay’s prolific passing game to under 200 yards. Both squads have overcome slow starts and a few setbacks, but as far as winning games are concerned, not much has changed even with some new wrinkles within their philosophical approaches on both sides of the ball. Green Bay’s elite-quarterback is still making pass-defenses look silly, Russell Wilson is making plays with his feet and taking care of the football, and the “Legion of Boom” defense is suffocating opposing offenses on a weekly basis. To be the man, you have to beat the man, and though head coach Mike McCarthy’s team has found lots of positive results exploiting the weaknesses of the oppositions coverage-schemes, Green Bay’s game plan will need to take a more physical route to come out on top against the best defense in the NFL.
Rodgers didn’t find much open passing lanes until the second half against the Cowboys where receivers Randall Cobb and Davante Adams came up big on critical passing downs. A calf-injury has slowed Rodgers’ ability to extend plays outside the hash-marks, but with balance and good protection, Rodgers has been able to stay poised and scan coverage’s before getting the football downfield. Power back Eddie Lacy (knee) is dealing with an injury of his own and has been limited in practice, but that won’t limit his role against Seattle’s ambushing front. The Carolina Panthers were able to run the ball effectively to set their passing game up to move the chains in the divisional round against Seattle, but the difference was mistakes, and Seattle was able to pounce off of three Carolina turnovers — highlighted by a 90 yard interception return for a touchdown by strong safety Kam Chancellor late in the fourth quarter to put the nail in coffin. Rodgers rarely gives the football away, but for him and the Packers to neutralize Seattle’s relentless-pass-rush to stay out of long distance passing downs, Lacy will need to run the football with authority on early downs.
Even with the departures of Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, Seattle’s defensive line has remained strong, but the true tone-setters and playmakers of their defensive front comes from their linebackers (Bobby Wagner, Bruce Irvin and K.J. Wright) and Chancellor playing down in the box in his linebacker/defensive end role. It’s imperative for Green Bay’s offensive coordinator Tom Clements to use his 11 personnel to their best advantages to negate Seattle’s front from taking over the game. Using power-based sets will only draw the meat of Seattle’s defense to crowd the box, favoring defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s unit to do what they do best. To spread Seattle’s defense out, look for Clements to use more three-receiver, two running back sets with fullback John Kuhn as a lead-blocker for Lacy on draw-runs, and as an extra blocker to pick up the blitz. In these wide-formations with Rodgers operating in shotgun, Clements deploys receivers Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams from split outside to the slot, and tight ends Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers are used on some formations on the perimeter to force better matchups inside the numbers.
The different combination sets the Packers use are always part of the plan, but if the passing game is going to be efficient, Lacy will need to get into the second level of Seattle’s defense. And if Kuhn can be the same factor as he was against the Cowboys last Sunday, plugging the way for Lacy, potential to mitigate Wagner and Chancellor from making negative run-play-tackles can only help Rodgers get the play-action pass going. The most difficult challenge for Green Bay’s aerial attack will be getting free safety Earl Thomas (the best center fielder in the game) out of position to stretch Seattle’s dynamite secondary. On some play-selections, Clements has utilized Cobb out of the backfield on wheel-routes, and with the Packers likely to keep Seattle in nickel packages, they can keep Adams and Nelson out wide and have Cobb work away from Seattle’s best corners (Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell). This will get Cobb matched up on nickel corner Jeremy Lane in the slot, and if Nelson and Adams are running inside-routes (whether on slants, crosses, digs, or Nelson on the deep middle post) – Cobb can find himself singled up on Lane. And if Thomas stays in the middle to bracket Nelson – Rodgers can find the homerun ball to Cobb on an outside-wheel. Or it can go vise-versa with Thomas rolling over to Cobb, leaving Nelson singled up in the deep-middle of the field. Getting separation on Seattle’s defensive backs is a tall mountain to climb, because it’s very rare that you’ll see Thomas or anyone in their secondary bite the dust. But with proper formations, creativity and getting Rodgers to get rid of the football on quick passes, the concepts of Green Bay’s passing attack will be better suited against Seattle’s vaunted defense.
When the Seahawks have the ball, their predications come from their read-option rushing attack in offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s system, and to combat what Seattle has executed magnificently, Green Bay’s defensive coordinator Dom Capers won’t be able to line his unit up in their base 3-4 scheme. Deploying strong safety Morgan Burnett in the box will give Capers’ defense an eight-man loaded box to try to contain Lynch and Wilson from getting out to the edges on the option. If Seattle jumps out of the gate with Lynch gashing Green Bay’s front on the ground, it’ll take out the strong-points of Capers’ defense where his versatile linebackers (Clay Matthews, Sam Barrington, Julius Peppers, A.J. Hawk, Mike Neal and Nike Perry) are the essentials that make his scheme function on getting after the quarterback. Matthews and Barrington will need to be the run stuffers on early downs, but on third down, Matthews will move out to the edges as a pass-rusher on the opposite side of Peppers. The two will not only need to get after the elusive Wilson, but holding him from making plays with feet will be vital. Capers should have trust in his corners Tramon Williams and Sam Shields in man-coverage against Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, and with that in mind, I’d expect to see some blitzes off the edges sent towards Wilson. The keys for Seattle to keep Green Bay’s rush to a minimum will be staying the course to get the play-fakes working effectively. That will create the naked-boot-leg and roll-out-passing attempts for Wilson, and getting Green Bay’s safeties to cheat up near the line and isolating their linebackers will get tight end Luke Willson behind them in open spaces. Don’t leave out Bevell spreading Green Bay’s defense out on empty-backfield alignments, running vertical routes with their receivers to get Green Bay’s back seven with their backs turned. And when your eyes aren’t on Wilson, he’ll make you pay with his blazing speed to take off from the pocket. Keeping a spy on Wilson is a must, but even with pressure, Wilson can still find his way out of traffic. And though Seattle doesn’t sport a bona fide receiving-core, they all have enough speed to get open over the top.
My Verdict: Green Bay’s physicality is one of the under minded elements of their team. Their offensive line is ruder than many think, and their receivers are actually good blockers. To beat a stone cold team full of heavy hitters roaming all over the place, you need to come ready with a Heavyweight-Boxers mindset to go punch-for-punch for four quarters of football. Green Bay is a better team than they were in Week 1, and I like their chances, but my gut feeling tells me that at some point, late in the game, somebody from Seattle’s defense is going to make the biggest play of the game in crunch time.
Pick: Seahawks 24, Packers 20
AFC Championship Playoff 6:40 PM ET – TV: CBS
(4) Indianapolis Colts 13-5 @ (1) New England Patriots 13-4
Since Andrew Luck took over the reins at quarterback in the post Peyton Manning era for the Indianapolis Colts, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have gotten the best of Luck and Chuck Pagano, winning all three of their bouts against each other – including a 43-22 thumping in last year’s divisional playoff and a 42-20 blowout win at Lucas Oil Stadium during the regular-season on Nov. 14. In that Week 11 convincing New England win, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dialed up 37 run-plays for Jonas Gray, who ran for 201 yards, scoring 4 of the teams 6 touchdowns. McDaniels deployed a variation of big-sets, utilizing extra tight ends and running backs in a smash-mouth strategy against Indianapolis’ blitzing fronts that defensive coordinator Greg Manuskly has relied on to better situate the personnel of his defensive unit. The pedigree for success against Baltimore’s defense came from New England’s aerial attack, having Brady throw the ball 50 times, mostly in spread formations, along with a 51 yard gadget-play touchdown pass from receiver Julian Edelman to Danny Amendola to minimize Baltimore’s heavy pass rush — helping New England advance to their fourth straight AFC conference title game. The game plan for Belichick and his assistants has mostly fit the strengths of their football team when it comes to scheming and matchups. And with a less-talented defensive front on their plate at Foxboro, going back to the ground – mixing and matching between the run and pass at the point of attack would be an ideal approach for McDaniels.
Other than Shane Vereen’s role as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, there’s no definitive telling on who’ll get the bulk of work on rushing attempts, whether it’s LeGarrette Blount, Gray or Brandon Bolden. But when it comes to getting the football downfield on passing attempts, mitigating tight end Rob Gronkowski from taking over the game will be Indianapolis’ biggest challenge. Gronkowski isn’t just arguably the best receiving tight end in the game, but his blocking purposes have also been a viable element of McDaniels’ system. The catch here is – New England’s balanced attack being able to get Manusky’s safeties out of position off the play-action pass working to its maximum ways. Manusky has deployed safeties Mike Adams and Sergio Brown on tight ends when in their man-based scheme, but if forced down in the box to stop the run, LaRon Landry, who’s replaced Brown will be vital as an enforcer to slow down New England’s power-sets on running downs. Lining up in 6-man lineman formations isn’t a necessity for New England, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they start out in their 3-receiver-single-back alignments with Gronkowski in the slot running seam routes.
These formations will have Manusky’s defense roll in quarters or nickel coverage, and when backed off the line of scrimmage — the Patriots can also run the ball on draws when Brady is in shotgun. Regardless of how the Patriots’ play-selection varies, it’s going to be up to Josh Capman on the interior of Indianapolis’ D-line to be a factor on getting Arthur Jones, Cory Redding and the rest of Manusky’s front to pressure Brady off his spots, and keep New England’s ground attack from wearing them down. There’s a mixture of zone and man concepts cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler play on the perimeter. Davis will play more man lined up against Brady’s physical receiver Brandon LaFell while Toler stays with Julian Edelman, but how well the double-teaming fares in coverage with a safety shadowing Gronkowsi will come down to Manusky’s outside linebackers (Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner) — or the safety Landry’s assignment of keeping Gronkowski from stretching the field. Biting the dust on play-action will be a killer to Indianapolis’ defense, and to limit New England from finding comfort — play from Indianapolis’ front seven has to keep Brady behind in the down and distance. Simply put, if New England’s offense gets in rhythm on their first few possessions, it will be a long night for Manusky’s defense to get off the field on third down.
In both of their playoff wins over Cincinnati and Denver, an offensive line that’s been no better than a subpar and often porous group has elevated their play. In offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton’s system, the Colts have been predicated on taking shots downfield, but against Denver’s top-level run defense, Hamilton made running back Daniel Herron the center piece of Indianapolis’ offense, touching the football 31 times (23 carries and 8 receptions). Herron’s combined 95 yards between the ground and air diminished Denver’s pass-rush, as Luck never was brought to the ground. Strategically, a committed effort to establish the run guided the Colts to win the battle in time of possession, and to keep their suspect defense from getting exposed by Brady, look for Hamilton to make Herron a good part of the playbook once again. New England’s pass-rush has been ineffective, but the playmakers still roam in the secondary. Having cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner locking up the oppositions best receiving options gives defensive coordinators the green light to keep a lone safety deep in coverage.
Luck has a healthy range of passing options, and to create open spaces against New England’s D-coordinator Matt Patricia’s single-high safety alignments, look for Hamilton to run some rub, deep and shallow crossing routes with slot receiver T.Y. Hilton to get Revis moving horizontally while Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks and Donte Moncrief on the opposite side do the same to form meshes and traffic to get deep safety Devin McCourty to roll to one side — formulating a favorable singled up target for Luck to strike New England’s secondary. If New England’s four man rush doesn’t win their trench play battles, the next route to take would be manufacturing pressure on luck with blitzes on the interior from linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower. However, if not executed and timed right, the check down options for Luck could find lots of room in space after the catch. New England’s linebackers and strong safety Patrick Chung will be responsible on the defending tight ends (Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen), who are both able to get vertical. And when in the red zone, Luck will look their way, whether or not they’re in tight windows. Also, don’t be surprised if Patricia switches things up between Browner and Chung to cover Fleener and Allen between the numbers.
My Verdict: I’m astounded by the turnaround of Indianapolis’ blockers on the offensive line, and if they can keep it up, an upright from the pocket Luck heaving the football will place New England’s defense in danger to get dissected. But, the playmakers in a matchup like this that will likely come down to Brady and Luck’s third down efficiency are on New England’s defensive side of the ball. New England’s defense has the athleticism and players with instincts to mitigate Indianapolis’ weapons, and make plays on the ball to generate turnovers. Offensively, there’s more in the fold for New England to stay balanced and uptick Indianapolis when in striking distance.
Pick: Patriots 37, Colts 27
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt