How far can Andy Dalton take the Bengals? Why have the Colts looked like two different teams this season? Will the Packers ever stop falling for the 49ers' trickery? Why does this Eagles season seem so familiar? Can the Saints win on the road? Will Anquan Boldin keel over from sheer exhaustion before the 49ers are eliminated? Wild-Card weekend offers many questions. Only Game Riffs offer answers.
Chargers at Bengals
1:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Bengals by 7
Andy Dalton is an easy quarterback to like but a difficult quarterback to watch. Dedicated, clear-minded, resourceful and moderately talented, Dalton is the first young applicant you promote to shift manager at Office Depot, the young man you invite to escort your daughter on a chaste date when the tattoo artist/hotrod detailer/aspiring MMA referee of her dreams stands her up. Dalton is Richie Cunningham with his gumption aroused, standing up to Fonzie and calling everyone "Bucko." Richie Cunningham slowly became a supporting character in his own television show, and Dalton is becoming a sidekick in his own offense. Such is the fate of a quarterback who does not throw a football particularly well.
Each week, Dalton steps to the line play after play, reads the defense accurately, often makes adjustments or calls an audible, and typically makes an excellent decision. When it comes to executing that decision, however, it's best to keep your fingers crossed. Dalton hot streaks (11 touchdowns and two interceptions in the Bills-Lions-Jets midseason series) and cold snaps (five touchdowns, eight interceptions, and one 93-yard passing effort in the following three games) have more to do with the number of easy-reader defensive schemes opponents use, and the amount of wide-open receivers left downfield, than Dalton finding, losing, or rediscovering pinpoint accuracy. Overload blitz on play after play, as the Lions did, and Dalton will toss soft passes in the general direction of A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, or whoever else is "covered" by a dropping defensive lineman. Assign Ashlee Palmer to cover Green on a seam route -- the Lions actually did this -- and Dalton will get the ball close enough to Green for a reception. Choke off some of the easier decisions and passes, however, and Dalton will try to throw into tight windows, thudding passes off the aluminum siding instead.
The Chargers do not have a defense good enough to choke off much of anything. When the Chargers faced the Bengals in Week 13, defensive coordinator John Pagano knew cornerbacks Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall had no chance of blanketing Green and Jones. The corners gave the receivers huge cushions, and the Bengals responded with the staples of their offense: quick "smoke" passes and receiver screens. The Bengals are the best screen passing team in the NFL, and while that is a little like being the best trigonometry student in the beauty pageant, it often gets the job done.
Even the Bengals cannot live on screens alone, however, and whenever Dalton tried to throw over the middle against the Chargers, each pass was either five yards too high or 30 mph too fast. Dalton overthrew Green by ten yards for an interception, which is quite a feat, and wild pitches marked the ends of several drives once the Chargers got fed up with allowing eight yards per glorified long handoff. The Bengals and Chargers played to a 7-7 halftime draw until the inevitable Chargers defensive mental lapse and Dalton exploitation: rookie linebackers Manti Te'o and Tourek Williams could not figure out who was supposed to cover Green, reasoned that it could not possibly be either of them, and let the superstar receiver race between them for a 21-yard touchdown while safety Marcus Gilchrist tried to stay out of the television frame.
The Bengals should not have to squeak out 17-10 wins against the Chargers. When one of the most talent-rich offenses in the NFL faces a defense that allows 393 yards per game, the result should be at least 28 points. The Chargers defense produced no pass rusher with more than six sacks and no defender with more than two interceptions this season. Opponents averaged 4.6 yards per rush and eight yards per pass attempt, and Peyton Manning cannot be cited for stat inflation: the Broncos had one of their weaker offensive games against the Chargers, while the Raiders, Redskins, Texans and last week's cavalcade of Chiefs backups all had solid efforts. A 2013/2014 Chargers-Bengals game should have a final score like a 1981/1982 Chargers-Bengals game: 40-17 in warm weather, 27-7 in a liquid nitrogen bath, the dangerous Chargers offense stymied by a solid Bengals defense.
There won't be Freezer Bowl conditions on Sunday: Cincinnati's Friday chill is supposed to subside, with temperatures in the seasonal 40s. The only force that can chill the Bengals playoff hopes is the quarterback. Dalton enters the final year of his contract next year, so his future is on the line. A gift-wrapped opportunity to provide the Bengals' first playoff win since he was a toddler could mean the difference between a lucrative new deal and a "prove it" year for a quarterback who keeps proving that a critical component of his game is missing.
It is easy to root for Dalton to use his brains and determination to compensate for imprecision, and to get past an opponent that reached the playoffs through default and technicality. It will be difficult, however, to watch him try to do it.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Chargers 21
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49ers at Packers
4:40 PM Sunday, Fox
Line: 49ers by 3
Mike McCarthy will have played Jim Harbaugh's patsy for 358 days by kickoff on Sunday. McCarthy has been Charlie Brown; Harbaugh has been Lucy holding for a PAT. McCarthy and his staff have been the suckers at the poker table with a flashing billboard of a tell, always one move behind Harbaugh, the sharpie with a visor. The Packers have fallen for every feint, and their success on Sunday does not rest on stopping Colin Kaepernick, but on stopping the long con.
The Packers were not ready for the Colin Kaepernick option when they faced the 49ers in last year's playoffs. How that happened remains a mystery. Kaepernick and the other option-rushing quarterbacks were the talk of the sports world; it seemed like you could find segments about executing and stopping the read-option on every channel from ESPN to PBS Sprout. Harbaugh gave the option tactics a rest during some late, easily-won games, and the Packers somehow took that as a sign that Kaepernick's knees had been permanently taped together.
The 49ers ran for 323 yards in that playoff game, but it could have been 646: the only force that stopped Kaepernick and Frank Gore on many runs was the end zone itself. Packers defenders behaved on many plays like video game sprites with a malfunctioning AI, running laterally at right angles away from the charging ball carrier. It was one of the most glaring examples of poor preparation in modern NFL history, and it led to an easy 38-24 49ers win.
Embarrassed and in need of remediation, Dom Capers and his defensive staff went back to college, traveling to Texas A&M for a much-publicized three-credit audit on stopping modern option offenses. They arrived in San Francisco for this season's opener ready for all the ball fakes, bootlegs, and misdirection that Harbaugh or any other coach could throw at them. Little did the Packers know that the whole NFL planned to scrap the read-option simultaneously this year: the Redskins would run screaming from Robert Griffin's success, Chip Kelly would discover a quarterback who runs like he is stop-motion animated and Cam Newton would discover forward-passing consistency. The talk of the NFL became something Andy Reid and Alex Smith fooled around with for kicks.
As for Kaepernick, he was destined for a year of grinding attrition: 127-yard passing days with a receiving corps of Giants and Chiefs castoffs, rare rushing highlights and 32-20 wins powered by field goals and 80-yard drives on 79 plays. But first, Kaepernick had to snooker the Packers again, throwing for 412 yards and three touchdowns in a game that looks like it was imported from another quarterback's stat sheet. Kaepernick's two bootleg keepers netted minus-10 yards against the Packers (he gained 32 back on scrambles), but the big losses helped Anquan Boldin get wide open for pass after pass. Boldin slipped past Tramon Williams and other defenders for 208 yards and 13 catches while the Packers peered into the backfield and tried to remember which of them was the alley defender.
McCarthy and Capers were fooled by a read-option that should have fooled no one a year ago, then got conned by a legendarily canny wide receiver four months ago. So you have to wonder if Harbaugh is setting them up again. Consider this four-play sequence that started last Sunday's 49ers-Cardinals game:
Screen pass right to Boldin, gain of eight yards.
Screen pass left to Boldin, gain of eight yards.
End-around handoff to Boldin, 11 yards.
End-around handoff to Quinton Patton, with Boldin blocking like a madman downfield so he did not feel left out, 26 yards.
Boldin finished the game with nine receptions and 149 yards. At first glance, it looks like the 49ers are not only featuring Boldin heavily in the passing game, but using end-arounds as their misdirection plays in an attempt to limit the need for Kaepernick options. The 49ers offense on Sunday looked a lot like the one they used against the Packers in the season opener, so Capers, McCarthy, and the staff should now have a handle on how to stop it.
THIS IS JUST WHAT JIM HARBAUGH WANTS US AND THE PACKERS TO BELIEVE. BE READY FOR LOTS AND LOTS OF OPTIONS.
The Packers run defense allowed exactly 2000 rushing yards and 4.6 yards per rush this year. Even with Clay Matthews healthy it's a bad run defense, but the Packers will be without Matthews this week. Youngsters Andy Mulumba and Jamari Lattimore get a lot of playing time in Matthews' absence, and both are slow reactors. The Bears executed basic counter runs to great effect against the Packers last week: the Packers line got washed out, the linebackers overreacted to the flow of the play, and Matt Forte enjoyed a string of 15-20 yard runs. Bears counters and misdirection plays are basic arithmetic compared to 49ers counters and misdirection calculus, and that's before Kaepernick pulls the ball away and scampers around left end.
The 49ers are playing a year-long game of rope-a-dope with the Packers, and there is nothing Aaron Rodgers can do about it. He has thrown for 893 yards, seven touchdowns, and three interceptions in his last three meetings with the 49ers, all losses. Rodgers can put up 28 points against the 49ers defense, but he cannot help his defense keep the 49ers under 30. He can only hope that his teammates and coaches stop reacting to what the 49ers did last time and start acting on what they are doing now.
The Packers need to get their classic rock albums out and play "Won't Get Fooled Again" on high rotation before kickoff. Otherwise, the 49ers will simply get to ask "Who's Next?"
Prediction: 49ers 30, Packers 27
* * *
Chiefs at Colts
4:35 p.m. Saturday, NBC
Line: Colts by 2 ½
Five of the following people did not play for the Colts offense this year. Can you spot the imposters?
Griff Whalen, Weslye Saunders, Dan Herron, James Mungro, LaVon Brazill, Sam Havarti, Jordi Crusher, Da'Rick Rodgers, Joe Reitz, Jack Doyle, Jake Brunt, Mike McGlynn, Roger McGuinn, Xavier Nixon.
Perhaps the imposters were easy to spot, but they certainly had a crowd of unknowns to hide within. The Colts used 36 different offensive players this season, the most in the NFL. They also used 32 defensive players, tied for second most in the NFL. (The Cowboys used 42 different defensive players, all of them at once in some formations against the Saints.) Total it up, and the Colts used more players (73, counting specialists) than any other NFL team. They also used 16 different offensive lineups, which of course is the most lineups possible without extending the schedule.
Finally: a simple explanation why the Colts play like a different team each week. The Colts are a different team each week! The Colts that beat the Seahawks had five different offensive starters and three different defensive starters than the Colts that lost to the Bengals. The Colts have juggled running backs, receivers, guards, inside linebackers and defensive backs. Reggie Wayne's injury made headlines, but it was just the tip of an iceberg that cracked the bow of the team's depth.
Andrew Luck is one of the few constants, and he has been marvelous in recent weeks: a 66% completion rate, eight touchdowns and just one interception in his last four games, with 73 rushing yards and only three sacks. He has done it without Wayne, without Darrius Heyward-Bey (the sprinter who started the season as the #2 receiver but has played his way down to kick gunner), and without Dwayne Allen, the multi-purpose H-back who caught a 20-yard touchdown in the opener and was promptly lost for the season. Luck has done it with a running game that's good for a dozen two-yard carries per game. And while the Colts caught a break with their AFC South schedule this year, Luck has put up respectable stats -- 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions, and six sacks -- against the 49ers, Seahawks, Broncos, Chiefs and Bengals, his team's toughest opponents.
Luck spent the last few weeks completing passes to Jake Doyle, a lumbering backup tight end who catches screen passes and thuds straight into the nearest defender. He completes passes to Griff Whalen, a college chum with nifty moves but no size or speed, and to Da'Rick Rodgers, a size-speed rookie who wasn't even with the Colts in training camp. He dumps passes to Trent Richardson and watches the rolling ball of disappointments turn into a somewhat useful player in the open field. Everything in the Colts passing game is short and manufactured until T.Y. Hilton catches a cornerback napping and Luck suckers the safety with a shoulder fake. The Colts use almost as many screens as the Bengals, but for different reasons: the Bengals know their receivers can produce but must keep throws simple for their quarterback; the Colts know their quarterback can deliver the ball downfield but aren't sure anyone but Hilton will arrive to catch it.
While Luck stabilized the Colts offense, a pair of familiar faces from the Dungy Days reasserted themselves on defense. Both Robert Mathis and safety Antoine Bethea played important roles in the Colts 23-7 victory over the Chiefs two weeks ago. Mathis performed all sorts of deviltry against rookie right tackle Eric Fisher, registering a sack and forcing an interception by wrenching Alex Smith's arm. Almost as importantly, Mathis chased Jamaal Charles on runs to the opposite side of the field and hustled to stop wide receivers for minimal gains on short passes. Bethea, the ultimate cleanup specialist, stopped several receivers short of the sticks on the Chiefs' favorite third-down play: the glorified middle screen where Donnie Avery (or another receiver) catches a micro-slant and two or three others block downfield for him. The Chiefs are beatable when you make sure their short third-and-nine passes gain seven yards instead of 11.
Mathis and Bethea make up for the fact that defensive end Erik Walden remains in denial about options or misdirection plays from his Packers days (the Chiefs run more sneaky Reid options than you would expect, but you are not an outside linebacker) and LaRon Landry is a lunge-and-dive open field tackler. The effort to replace Pat Angerer at inside linebacker also continues, with Kavell Conner, Josh McNary, and Kelvin Sheppard splitting the duty according to Chuck Pagano's tolerance for errors. On the other hand, fellow inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman has been solid, and he had both a sack and an interception against the Chiefs. The Colts defense has one good player at every position which requires two players, including cornerback, though that position is less of a problem now that Greg Toler (groin) has rejoined Vontae Davis. The half-and-half, ever-changing personnel makes them simultaneously formidable and vulnerable, depending on how well opponents scheme to avoid one mismatch but exploit the other.
We devoted all of this time to understanding the Colts because we completely understand the Chiefs: Jamaal Charles, Alex Smith's scramblin' veteran moxie routine, lousy receivers, great secondary, blitz happy scheme, can crush bad opponents, doomed in a shootout with top-tier quarterback because they won't score enough to keep up. Understanding a team can result in underestimating a team, but judging the Colts based on some weird midseason losses and a regrettable trade can also lead to misjudgments. The Colts and Chiefs have both drubbed their share of weak opponents == the whole "Colts lose to bad teams" storyline flies out the window when you realize that one of those "bad" teams was the Cardinals -- but have also beaten the best teams in the NFL. Their ever-shifting cast of characters has proven resourceful and adaptable.
The Colts showed two weeks ago that they can win a mucky Chiefs game by sacking Smith, shutting down the catch-and-run, and getting just enough running back production on draws and screens to neutralize the Chiefs' lunatic blitzes. It's a formula that will work again on Saturday, and the story of the 2013 Colts won't be one of inconsistency, but of overcoming instability.
Prediction: Colts 26, Chiefs 17
* * *
Saints at Eagles
8:10 p.m. Saturday, NBC
Line: Eagles by 2 ½
Did you have a feeling of déjà vu while watching the Eagles' surprising, fascinating regular season? That's because it was an exact replay of the Redskins' 2012 surprising, fascinating regular season.
The 2012 Redskins rebounded from a 5-11 season to win the NFC East. The 2013 Eagles rebounded from a 4-12 season to win the NFC East.
The 2012 Redskins used quirky, state-of-the-art offensive wrinkles and read-option principles to make themselves the talk of the NFL. The 2013 Eagles used quirky, state-of-the-art offensive wrinkles and read-option principles to make themselves the talk of the NFL.
The 2012 Redskins got a heroic quarterback performance by a 2012 rookie who assembled statistics unlike anything we had ever seen before. The 2013 Eagles got a heroic quarterback performance by a 2012 rookie who assembled statistics unlike anything we had ever seen before.
The 2012 Redskins were 3-6 and ready to go into build-for-next-year mode before finishing the season 7-0. The 2013 Eagles were 3-5 and ready to go into build-for-next-year mode before finishing the season 7-1.
The 2012 Redskins beat the Cowboys to clinch the division, drop the Cowboys to 8-8, and prompt an offseason of questions about Jason Garrett's fate which ultimately amounted to nothing. The 2013 Eagles beat the Cowboys to clinch the division and drop the Cowboys to 8-8, prompting an offseason of questions about Jason Garrett's fate which will ultimately amount to nothing.
Chip Kelly has a nutritional smoothie barista named "Shanahan." Mike Shanahan has an invisible friend named "Kelly."
Spooky, isn't it? The Eagles certainly hope the trend does not continue. There are many reasons to feel confident that they will escape the fate of the 2013 Redskins. The Eagles got the whole "dangerous playing surface" drama out of their system 13 years ago, so Nick Foles will not fall into any gullies while being chased by defenders on Saturday night. Unlike the Redskins, the Eagles did not save money by installing Caligulite Brand Lead-Lined Water Fountains outside the coaches' offices. With no signs of paranoid fantasies or organizational discontent, the Eagles have a lot to be excited about in 2014, starting with a home game against the dome-dependent Saints.
The Saints, as everyone knows by now, are a weak road team: 3-5 on the road this year, 8-0 at home. They have also never won a road playoff game, ever, unless you count the Super Bowl. But while they may not have won on the road in the postseason, Drew Brees and company usually put up points. The Saints average 36.7 points and 429.9 yards per game in their last six playoff games, going back to 2009. Recent playoff losses include 41-38 and 36-32 thrillers to the Seahawks and 49ers. The Saints have a habit of travelling to greet playoff newcomers with up-and-coming coaches, taking them to the wall, and falling short.
That trend could continue into Saturday. The Saints were very wobbly in December until they faced a Buccaneers team too busy toppling the 75-foot tall Greg Schiano statue in the team cafeteria to play a competitive football game. Sean Payton benched left tackle Charles Brown in favor of rookie Terron Armstead two weeks ago, and the small-school youngster got destroyed by Panthers pass rusher Greg Hardy in Week 16 before settling down to surrender just one sack against the Buccaneers. The Saints rushing game has also been going sideways, averaging just 79.6 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry in five December games (against some exceptional run defenses, to be fair). The Saints are more Drew Brees-centric than they have ever been, in much the same way that the Patriots now count upon Tom Brady more than ever. One key difference: the Patriots are doing a better job protecting Brady.
Defensively, Rob Ryan's multi-faceted defense is missing many of its facets. The losses of cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Kenny Vaccaro limit Ryan's creativity. Ryan loves to use dime personnel packages (he used them on 16% of snaps last year with the Cowboys, 7th in the league), then mix eight-man coverage concepts with Black-Friday-at-Walmart blitzes to dictate to the offense. His dime package now includes untested players like Trevin Wade and Rod Sweeting, and there is no Vaccaro-caliber blitzer in the secondary. The lack of depth may be a disguised blessing -- Ryan got too exotic against the Seahawks, who ran the football down his throat -- but no one wants to face Kelly with depleted defensive depth. Those up-tempo fourth quarters can be a cardio nightmare.
Brees will find open receivers against the erratic Eagles secondary when he has time to throw, and if coordinator Billy Davis thinks linebacker Mychal Kendricks can cover Jimmy Graham, he partied too hard at the Mummers Parade*. But Brees will be pressured, icy weather will be a likely factor, and the Eagles running-and-play-action game will either find holes in the Saints offense or make their own. Another 36-32 playoff shootout is possible, with the Saints once again on the losing end due to injuries, late-season lineup juggling and a defensive that's a little too boom-or-bust for its own good.
Everything went wrong for the Redskins the moment they rang in the 2013 New Year. The Eagles will escape that fate. Even if they lose to the Saints, they won't tear up the ground beneath their own feet in the process).
Prediction (weather affected): Eagles 28, Saints 21
*The Mummers Parade, for non-Philadelphians, is what would happen if event organizers made the final scenes from Animal House their actual goal, or if someone set fire to all of the Tournament of Roses floats and gave the marching bands mescaline, then held the event anyway. It's like someone took Rio's Carnivale or New Orleans Mardi Gras, slowed them down, added more beer, and took away the good weather and sex appeal. It starts at dawn on New Years Day and will probably end around halftime on Saturday night. Chip Kelly should be next year's Grand Marshal: he could at least speed the darn thing up.