Ray Lewis is ready to say goodbye to the NFL, but are the playoffs ready to say goodbye to Lewis? And if so, who are they ready to say hello to? A rookie quarterback, perhaps: At least one will survive the wild-card round, but Andrew Luck must survive Lewis, and neither Robert Griffin nor Russell Wilson can expect his opponent to be surprised by an option-based offense. The Bengals would like to introduce themselves to the second round, but the Texans are looking for a way out of a late-season slump and a comfortable rut. Adrian Peterson is never ready to say goodbye, and he never gets tired of running, even if we sometimes get tired of watching. Enjoy a good thing like the wild-card Lowdown while it lasts; as with Ray Lewis’ career, it may be long, but it isn’t permanent.   

Colts at Ravens

1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Ravens by 7

No one believed Ray Lewis.

Lewis told his teammates, “This will be my last ride,” on Wednesday, and the world treated news of his impending retirement the way we treat the New Year’s reveler who crawls out of the bathroom and swears off tequila forever. “Sure, buddy. Just get some rest and you will forget all about this in a few days.”

By Thursday, Lewis had signed on to the ESPN Monday Night Football crew for 2013, replacing (probably) Jon Gruden as the crazy guy in the booth likely to snap if someone pops a balloon behind him. Instead of growling and staring intently at his teammates on the Ravens sideline next season, Lewis will be growling into a microphone and staring at a replay monitor. Poor microphone and monitor. Poor Ravens teammates, if Lewis’ final game turns out to be a home loss to a team full of rookies.

Chuck Pagano, a former Ravens assistant, gave Lewis kudos for providing inspiration to his team with a determined comeback; Pagano knows his stuff in that category. "He'll probably introduce the defense and probably be the last one out, and he'll ignite and incite a riot, so to speak," Pagano said. You see, it’s the so to speak we are worried about: Lewis seems like the kind of guy who would cast about for a hobby to fill the time after retirement and choose insurrection. If Lewis intends to ignite and incite at ESPN, we have a few studios to steer him toward. If the Ravens can win four more games, however, Lewis could get all of that out of his system.

Trading Places. Pagano is one of the few familiar faces that the Ravens, who lost to the Peyton Manning Colts in the playoffs after the 2007 and 2010 seasons, will see on Sunday. Andrew Luck leads a rookie-laden offense, while Pagano’s staff installed a 3-4 defense in place of the reliably-bland Tony Dungy Cover-2, just as former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell is in the process of trying to Peytonize the reliably-bland Ravens offense on the fly. It’s the kind of "Freaky Friday" role reversal that only makes sense when an Indianapolis team formerly from Baltimore faces a Baltimore team formerly from Cleveland.

The results of the personality transplant have been mixed. The Colts ranked 31st in the NFL in defense, according to Football Outsiders. They finished 25th in the league in yards allowed, but this is a defense that faced the Titans and Jaguars twice, plus the Chiefs, Jets and Browns, so their raw totals are skewed. The Colts allow 5.1 yards per rush and recorded just 15 defensive takeaways. None of this is Pagano’s fault -- he had other things to worry about -- nor can much blame be placed on his staff or the scheme. The Colts are an avowed rebuilding team whose talent pool only got weaker when projected starters like Jerraud Powers and Pat Angerer got hurt in training camp. It’s unfair to say that the Colts don’t belong in the playoffs, but it is true that they didn’t expect to be here, and their defense is not built to withstand a quality offense.

Caldwell’s job is to prove that he has jerry-rigged a quality offense in the three weeks since he replaced Cam Cameron. The Ravens looked terrible in Caldwell’s first game as a play-caller: the Ravens executed seven three-and-out drives and had two drives end in turnovers while the Broncos mounted a 31-3 lead in Week 15, then gussied up their stats in the garbage time of a 31-17 loss. The Ravens looked like a whole new team the following week, producing 533 rushing yards against the Giants in a 33-14 win. In a nigh-meaningless Week 17 game, Caldwell inserted Tyrod Taylor at quarterback and ran the option, which only tells us that he has a sense of humor.

Caldwell re-instituted the stop-and-go no huddle that Cameron installed in the offseason but scrapped in mid-year. Sometimes the Ravens go no-huddle, sometimes they don’t, but when they do, they aren’t necessarily hurrying up or burying opponents in short passes. Caldwell also re-instituted another important feature of Ravens offense that Cameron misplaced: Ray Freakin’ Rice. Rice got 13 handoffs before halftime of the Giants game, often from the no-huddle. That is a good idea, offensively: force the defense to the line, make a read, and give the ball to Rice if there are only six or seven defenders in the box. Bernard Pierce also got into the fun with a 78-yard run, and the Ravens’ duo combined for 38 carries and 230 yards, some of it during end-of-rout smile time.

Age Before Beauty. That brings us back to Ray Lewis’ glory years. Back in the day, the Ravens had a two-pronged rushing attack (Jamal Lewis and Priest Holmes) and a passing game full of guesswork. The Colts had a rookie superstar quarterback at the core of a dynamic new roster. The Colts eventually outstripped the Ravens, but it took a few seasons or empire building, and it will take a year or two for the Andrew Luck Colts to be more than schedule-assisted gate crashers. Because for at least one more game, the road to the playoffs passes through a Ray Lewis riot.

Prediction: Ravens 30, Colts 23.

* * *

Seahawks at Redskins

4:30 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Seahawks by 3

Someone is about to get a taste of their own medicine. A team whose rookie quarterback has surprised opponents throughout a late-season hot streak with read-option offensive concepts is going to win this game. But which one? To answer that, we should take a detailed look at what defenses are up against when defending a read-option play in the NFL. We will focus on the Redskins, whose system is more sophisticated and superficially baffling.

Tanier_wildcard_picks

Figure 1 is taken from early in the Redskins-Cowboys game. The Redskins are in a pistol formation, with Evan Royster (22) subbing for Alfred Morris behind Griffin (the wide receivers and cornerbacks on each side of the formation are omitted; they are not significantly involved in the play). Logan Paulsen (82) has motioned into position as a blocking back behind the guard and tackle. The Redskins use Paulsen as a solution to the old NFL option problem: if you leave an end/linebacker as fast as DeMarcus Ware unblocked (a core option tactic), then your quarterback will get killed. Paulsen slows down elite defenders like Ware (94) by either blocking them or causing general congestion by thumping some other defender or running a short pass route.

At the snap, Redskins blockers double-team Cowboys linemen, Griffin and Royster form a “mesh,” and Griffin watches Ware. This is the engine of the read-option. If Ware crashes down the line of scrimmage in pursuit of Royster, Griffin snatches the ball back and loops around left tackle. If Ware stays at home and waits for Griffin, the quarterback hands off. During Griffin and Royster’s handoff conspiracy, and for a split-second afterward, no one on defense knows where the ball is going, which stinks for them.

In this example, Ware hesitates because of Paulsen’s presence (Paulsen blocked Ware on earlier, similar plays), then chooses to crash down the line. Griffin pulls the ball away and finds daylight. Paulsen has the inside linebacker busy in pass coverage. Safety Charlie Peprah (26), meanwhile, aggressively bites on the fake and plunges into the line in pursuit of Royster. That leaves no one to stop Griffin, who gains nine easy yards on third-and-four before Paulsen’s defender arrives.

The Cowboys major problem on this play, and on many plays in their Week 17 loss, is that they were not disciplined in their assignments. Both Ware and Peprah pursued the running back, which is just bad decision making when facing an option-heavy team in an option formation. Someone has to be accountable for the quarterback, and safeties are usually responsible for the outside “alleys” to their sides of the field, which is why Peprah appears to have made such a critical mistake on this play. Peprah should not be singled out, however: the game film shows plenty of examples of other Cowboys defenders overreacting and chasing Griffin to the other side of the field, even as Morris or Royster plunge into their assigned gaps.

So how can a play like Figure 1 be stopped? First, be mindful that there are two plays in Figure 1: the handoff and the fake handoff, with Ware making Griffin’s choice for him. Figure 2 below cleans up the Cowboys defense by having Ware immediately, aggressively crash down the line to stop the running back. Ware’s move will force Griffin to pull the ball away, perhaps faster than he would like (limiting the value of the fake). If Paulsen stops to block Ware, good for the defense: they are taking an eligible receiver out of the equation and disrupting blocking schemes.

PetersonPlay_Fig1

Second, Peprah goes straight to the alley in anticipation of Griffin. Griffin may still get the first down if he only needs four yards, but he also runs the risk of taking a licking by a safety, plus perhaps the linebacker covering Paulsen. Defenses should want to turn Griffin and Russell Wilson into running backs: they are fast and athletic, but they are also small and rookies. They will gain yardage, but they could fumble, get hurt, or come close enough to doing either to make their coaches reluctant to call a bunch of read-option plays. (Griffin is nursing an ankle injury that had him in a brace this week, which is both a reason to run him and a reminder of what happens when a quarterback runs too often).

There are other approaches to stopping the read-option. By mixing up Griffin or Wilson’s reads (moving linemen around, keeping the end at home but crashing another defender, etc.) the defense can make the quarterback default to a handoff: Morris and Marshawn Lynch can hurt you, but you can start to dictate terms. By sending a player like Ware to pressure the mesh itself, the defense can make the quarterback antsy to get rid of the ball. Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan and Seattle’s Bruce Irvin are fast enough to make Wilson or Griffin leery of coming out of the mesh with the ball; the Redskins’ Paulsen strategies compensate for this, but again the defense forces the offense to do what is has to do instead of what it wants to do.

None of these defensive concepts are top secret; Chris Brown has written about them at Smart Football, and I cribbed some ideas for this article from decade-old AFCA coaching guides. None of the strategies are foolproof, and all require sound assignment football and excellent tackling to work. The offense uses the option to break the defense into segments and find the weak spots in each segment. It’s the defense’s job to make sure each segment is as fundamentally-sound as possible, then force the offense to make decisions it does not want to make. A sound defense will force the option offense to read and execute perfectly for every positive play: make the opponent run nine plays to go 40 yards, and on the tenth play you might get a turnover from all the tricky ball-handling, or at least a chance to make the rookie sit in the pocket and throw downfield on third-and-long.

Beyond the Option. Now, about third-and-long: Griffin is not very good at it. The Redskins rank 16th in the NFL in third-and-long efficiency according to Football Outsiders. They rank 18th in second-and-long efficiency. Their pistol version of the read-option is more sophisticated than the scheme the Seahawks use, but their offense is not nearly as effective once you get them out of it. The Seahawks, on the other hand, rank eighth in the NFL in third-and-long efficiency. That’s one major reason to favor the Seahawks.

Here’s another: Those read-option principles only work in the NFL when the threat of a downfield pass is legitimate. Look at where the safeties are in Figure 1: deep coverage. They have to be deep because Griffin and Wilson are effective downfield passers. If Tim Tebow were at quarterback, those safeties could start lurking in alleys, and linebackers could concentrate on inside gaps. (Cornerbacks could even start cheating toward the run). If the defense can add a safety to the read-option equation, everything gets easier.

The Seahawks have the best secondary in the NFL, and their cornerbacks will be able to handle Redskins receivers in man coverage. That will allow Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor (two rangy safeties who can wallop) to get more acquainted with Griffin and Morris. The Redskins secondary is much weaker, and because the Seahawks downfield passing threat is stronger, they will be forced to make the compromises they forced teams like the Cowboys to make all year. Hoisted by their own petard, as it were.

Therefore, the Seahawks will win. That does not mean Wilson is better than Griffin, or one flavor of the option is better than the other, or that the read-option itself is about to either swallow the NFL whole or get thrown in the bottom of a file cabinet the first time Griffin cracks a rib. It just means that winning in the playoffs often comes down to having multiple tools, not just a Swiss Army knife offense, and the Seahawks have a defense that knows the drill, and can also drill you.

Prediction: Seahawks 24, Redskins 17.

* * *

Vikings at Packers

8 p.m. Saturday, NBC
Line: Packers by 7½

Excellence Fatigue is the phenomenon where a population comes to expect such a high caliber of quality from a product or service that it takes that quality for granted, growing dissatisfied with something highly satisfatory. When the Dowager Countess throws a tantrum because her pearl-handled hairbrush was not placed directly beside her silver mirror -- that is Excellence Fatigue. When Patriots fans act like a meteor crashed into Boston Common because the Patriots lose by one point on the road in Week 6, that is Excellence Fatigue.

Patriots-fan baiting aside, NFL fans often come down with a bad case of excellence fatigue. We have come to expect quarterbacks with 65% completion rates, offensive systems that treat each turnover like an isolated catastrophe, and now, rookie quarterbacks who instantaneously make their teams interesting and playoff-worthy. Watch too much beautiful high-def coverage of outstanding football, and next thing you know you are hollering at anyone who listens that Aaron Rodgers is a terrible quarterback, who cannot hold a candle to Tom Brady, because he just threw a few incompletions.

But enough about Greg Jennings’ sister. The point here is that excellence fatigue is an illness, and the Vikings are the cure.

What’s fun and energizing about watching the Vikings is that they make everything look difficult. Adrian Peterson’s brilliance is bruised and sweaty, and just about everyone else on the roster plays each game as though he is thankful and mildly surprised to still be in the business. Watching some of the top playoff contenders is like watching "American Idol;" watching the Vikings is like watching "Swamp Loggers." They don’t play football. They work football.

Opposites Attract. The Packers are the Vikings’ opposite in many ways, which is one of many things that made last week’s 37-34 battle so compelling. The Vikings have a great running back and little else at the skill positions; the Packers have everything but the running back. The Packers are coming off a Super Bowl victory in 2011 and a 15-1 season last year. The Vikings are coming off a year that ended with the stadium roof collapsing and a 3-13 season. The Packers are box office: They played five prime-time games this season, the Vikings zero.

The Rocky versus Apollo angle can be taken too far, however: The Packers have persevered through an incredible number of injuries thisyear. Beneath Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews (who missed four games) in the credits are a bunch of role players and rookie free agents who came through in critical situations.

This rematch is more likely to hinge on the play of Don Barclay than the exploits of Rodgers or Peterson. Barclay is an undrafted rookie right tackle. He is the third player to start at that position on the battered Packers offensive line. Bob McGinn profiled Barclay in-depth this week at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and McGinn detailed exactly what happened on Sunday evening. Barclay has been playing well in recent weeks, and he held his own against Vikings defensive end Brian Robison. Then, the Vikings shuffled their defensive line, and Everson Griffen spent the fourth quarter munching on Barclay McNuggets. "Obviously, I didn't have a good game last week," Barclay said. "You've got to take stuff away from that, and the previous games, too, and see what your weaknesses are and work on them."  

The Vikings team with no skill position talent has been strong and healthy on both offensive lines. The team with the marquee talent has been patching its infrastructure all season long. Luckily for the Packers, few general managers are as good at patching infrastructure as Ted Thompson, who combs the waiver wire like no other executive. And few coaches can compensate for talent limitations and adjust like Mike McCarthy.

There is good reason to believe a player like Barclay can help the Packers reach the Super Bowl in 2012: Players like Barclay helped the Packers reach the Super Bowl in 2010. If Barclay and his fellow linemen can give Rodgers two more tenths of a second, Rodgers can do the rest.

You Never Run For 2,000 Yards Alone. The Vikings gave fans a thrilling run this season, or more accurately, Adrian Peterson and his blockers gave fans dozens of them. Last Sunday’s win also gave NFL fans treatment for Excellence Fatigue. If that upset did not get you jazzed for a rematch, then your jazz has been blunted. But the Packers keep getting healthier, with Charles Woodson expected back on Sunday and Randall Cobb likely to return to Rodgers’ ever-expanding arsenal. Peterson, meanwhile, is contemplating some reps with the special teams before focusing on the Olympics. One player can only be stretched so far, even if he is amazing, and even if he is not quite as alone on the field as he sometimes appears.

Prediction: Packers 28, Vikings 24.

* * *

Bengals at Texans

4:30 p.m. Saturday, NBC
Line: Texans by 4½

Finally, the rematch no one clamored for. The Bengals and Texans faced off in the opening game of last year’s playoffs, which might as well have been marketed as “the undercard.” Sure, the game marked a meeting of two rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs, but no matter how often you told yourself, “I am not watching T.J. Yates; I am watching history,” the reality eventually crept in that you were watching T.J. Yates.

You were also watching J.J. Watt, though you did not know it at the time. Watt leapt into the air to bat down an Andy Dalton pass and it stuck to him. Watt ran the pass back 29 yards for a touchdown in what looked like a once-in-a-lifetime play but actually cemented Watt as the NFL’s Dikembe Mutombo. The 31-14 victory established the template for successful Texans football: one big Watt play, one big Andre Johnson play (a 40-yard touchdown catch in one of Yates’ rare downfield attempts), one big Arian Foster play (a 42-yard touchdown to seal the game), and keep cut-blocking until the final gun.

That is, unfortunately, also the template for unsuccessful Texans football. The Texans got 12 receptions from Johnson and a 39-yard touchdown from Foster last week. Watt had four tackles that resulted in 11 lost yards for the Colts, plus a strip-sack that became an incomplete pass on further review. The Texans lost 28-16, which is why we are writing about them and not the Patriots this week. If the Texans want to escape the comfortable rut that lies between “good enough to dominate a bad division” and “good enough to challenge teams with Brady or Manning at quarterback” then some other guys need to step up more often. That starts with special teams coverage units that have allowed four return touchdowns this year, and continues to a group of third-fourth wide receivers who go weeks between meaningful receptions.

Ruts Redux. The Bengals are in their own comfortable rut, though they are happy to be there because they are like the Zagats of ruts and know a good one when they see it. This is only the second time in history that the Bengals have reached the postseason in back-to-back years. The first time, back in 1981-82, is detailed in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s romantic epic Love in the Time of Collinsworth. Set against the backdrop of a player’s strike and Ken Anderson’s already out-of-style moustache, those Bengals rose to prominence on the strength of an innovative new offense, only to be beaten in the Super Bowl by Bill Walsh, their former assistant who innovated the new offense.

This Bengals team is nothing like that Bengals team, but they are sturdy to a fault. Other than Andy Dalton’s bombs to A.J. Green, everything is meat-and-potatoes: BenJarvus Green-Ellis takes what the run defense offers, a deep pass rush rotation keeps opposing quarterbacks from getting comfortable and quality youth on both sides of the ball offers encouragement that the Bengals will be more than playoff fodder in the years to come. What you see is what you get with Bengals football, though you probably don’t see it, because no one watches Bengals games.

March in Place. So both these teams are exactly where they were last year, yet both have reason to consider this progress. Paradoxically, both are right. The phenomenon of consolidation of gain is at work here. The Texans and Bengals each took a step forward last year, and they needed to take a steadying step sideways this season before moving forward.

In the long term, the Bengals have more reason to be optimistic, because they have a younger overall roster. In the short term, the Texans have Watt, home field advantage and the healthy starting quarterback that they did not have or need last year. Everything is in its place. Next year, both of these teams must move on to new challenges.

Prediction: Texans 31, Bengals 14.