Having a hard time getting excited about this weekend's underdogs? You are not alone. The 9-7, playoffs-by-fate Chargers do not appear to be worthy Peyton Manning challengers, though Xeroxing their Week 15 and wild-card blueprints could give them an upset opportunity. The Patriots are poised to call Andrew Luck's Comeback Magic and raise him one Tom Brady Playoff Talisman. The Saints have learned how to win on the road, but winning in Seattle is the road less traveled, and it makes a difference. That leaves the Panthers, playoff newcomers, against the grueling, surging, Super Bowl-tested 49ers. Before you pencil in a 49ers win, Game Riffs must remind you that one Panthers superstar was battling Hall of Fame-caliber playoff foes back when Colin Kaepernick was battling acne.
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49ers at Panthers
1:05 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Panthers by 1
Steve Smith made playoff magic exactly one decade ago Friday. He caught six passes for 163 yards in a playoff upset of the Rams, including a 69-yard touchdown pass in double overtime -- the greatest play in the greatest game in Panthers history, and one of the greatest playoff games in NFL history.
Yes, that was the same Steve Smith, not his father or some other receiver with the same name. He was the star of a playoff game that featured Marshall Faulk and Orlando Pace, Stephen Davis and Jake Delhomme, Aeneas Williams and Dan Morgan and … believe it … JASON SEHORN. He has been in Carolina the whole time. He has changed, as Pearl Jam would say, by not changing much at all.
Smith followed his double overtime heroics with four catches and a touchdown in the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. He was back two years later to catch 10 passes and score two touchdowns in a playoff shutout of the Giants, 12 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns (58 and 39-yarders) in a victory over the Bears and return a punt for a touchdown in an NFC championship loss to the Seahawks.
Smith has 10 career playoff touchdowns. The Panthers have scored 219 playoff points in franchise history. John Kasay, their kicker for a generation, scored 81. Smith scored 60. Everyone else -- Davis, Muhsin Muhammad, Wesley Walls, DeShaun Foster, Ricky Proehl, DeAngelo Williams, Nick Goings -- have combined for 78 points. Only Tom Brady has had as big an impact on his current franchise's playoff fortunes as Steve Smith has had on the Panthers.
Smith sprained a PCL early in the Week 16 Saints game. The Panthers offense immediately suffered, gutting through 17-13 and 21-20 wins with the aid of defensive touchdowns, Greg Hardy's sack spree, and the production Smith provided pre-injury, plus some illuminating find-a-way efforts by Cam Newton. Step-up performances aside, it was clear from the moment Smith got hurt that the Panthers' playoff hopes hinged on his return.
Smith would not have been available in the wild-card round. Next time you are having the water-cooler conversation about playoff bye week "momentum" and the wisdom of earning a week off instead of reaping the incalculable benefits of playing an extra game, getting more guys banged up and enjoying Wisconsin-to-California-to-Carolinas air travel/time zone shifts/weather changes, bring this week up. "Remember when Steve Smith got hurt and would not have been available for the wild-card game for the Panthers? I think a healthy Steve Smith was more important to his team than your wizard-riding-a-unicorn-through-a-rainbow 'momentum' theory."
Of course, if the Panthers lose this week, even with Smith, momentum will be cited. Other factors are more likely causes for any upset: The 49ers have the best front seven in the NFL, for example, and they now have a full complement of receivers, as opposed to the Boldin-and-ballboys scenario of their midseason loss to the Panthers. The most likely factor may be a less-than-full-speed Smith. Here's Smith on Tuesday, from the Charlotte Observer: "It's not about can I go? It's about how confident do I feel when I am going? I will play Sunday. But it's how much of that I don't worry about the knee. That's when the confidence increases."
Smith, confident or otherwise, is not the downfield rocket he was in 2004, though defenders would be foolish to let him sneak behind them. He averages just 11.6 yards per catch, but he has become a critical third-down target (21 receptions, 18 first downs on third downs) and the designated dirty-work receiver, a role that suits his pint-sized orneriness.
The Panthers passing game flows through Smith. He occupies defensive attention so speedster Ted Ginn can draw single coverage and Brandon LaFell can work against nickel corners. When a scrambling Newton looks downfield, there's one receiver he clearly hopes to see: the wily veteran who gave the young quarterback as much in-your-face tough love as any coach, the one who can slip away from a cornerback, haul in a 10-yard pass under duress, take a big hit, then pop up and pick a fight to get under his defender's skin.
With Smith, the Panthers are better than the 49ers. Without him, they are too much like 49ers of mid-September or mid-November, erecting scarecrows at split end and hoping opponents are two busy trying to manufacture a double-digit point total to notice.
Smith is also the chronicler of Panthers history. He was there for double overtime, for Jake Delhomme's Arizona meltdown and Janet Jackson's nipple. He was there for 2-14, catching passes from Jimmy Clausen and Brian St. Pierre. He broke an arm scoring a touchdown that did nothing but edge the Panthers closer to .500. He welcomed Newton and challenged Newton, and the current Panthers have absorbed Smith's personality in a way that recent Ravens teams became extensions of Ray Lewis. The Panthers are dangerous, daring and scrappy, and they are not quite as new to the playoff picture as they appear.
Smith must show up, with confidence, to one more Panthers milestone. History tells us that he will make a difference.
Prediction: Panthers 23, 49ers 17
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Chargers at Broncos
4:40 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Broncos by 9 ½
To stop Peyton Manning, you have to run the ball and stop the run.
So it's come to this, the final tectonic crash between two of football journalism's most seismic clichés: the Quarterback = Team fallacy and a chestnut of wisdom that went obsolete 17 minutes into the 1978 season.
The old saws do not fit together well at first glance. You stop passing games with pass defense, and you fight 55 touchdown seasons with an offense peppy enough to keep pace. But the key to stopping Manning's Broncos may indeed be a Paleo diet of outmoded football concepts. Broncos coach John Fox, commenting on the Chargers' win over the Bengals, sounds like he agrees. "They did it rushing the ball effectively and taking it away on defense, and that formula works," Fox said on Monday. "I think it's been proven over time, and they did a tremendous job."
OK, Fox is a Sumerian when it comes to strategy. When we last saw him coaching a playoff game, he had devised the ultimate stop-Peyton strategy: become his head coach, then order him to kneel in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. This is a coach just a few years removed from trying to build an offense around Jake Delhomme, Steve Smith and nine fullbacks named Brad Hoover. When it comes to outdated wisdom, Fox is like an Internet for Dummies book with a 1993 copyright.
Still, Fox is on to something. The Chargers did an outstanding job plowing out 196 rushing yards behind Chuck Muncie, James Brooks and John Cappelletti on Sunday. Oops, I mean Marion Butts, Rod Bernstine and Ronnie Harmon. Oops, I mean Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown, the best three-headed backfield you never thought of. But the run-and-stop-run philosophy had an even bigger impact when the Chargers upset the Broncos 27-20 in Week 15. Mathews rushed 29 times for 127 yards, with the Chargers gaining 177 total rushing yards. The Broncos rushed 11 times for 18 yards. Philip Rivers had to complete only 12 passes for 166 yards in Week 15, just as he completed just 12 passes for 128 yards to lead the Chargers to 27 points on Saturday. Spooky.
Chargers scoring drives in Week 15 included a 13-play, 80-yard, 6:43 monster; an 11-play 60-yard field goal drive; an eight-play, 80-yarder; and a seven-play, 3:26 pre-halftime drive that left Manning with less than a minute to work with. Conventional wisdom is screaming to be heard again: You have to limit Peyton Manning's opportunities. The Chargers did that, controlling the ball for 38 minutes, but a half-court offense would not do them a lick of good if they gave up fast-break points the other way. That's where stopping the run comes in.
Manning loves the running game. He loves calling little inside-zone runs or delays at the line of scrimmage when he sees the safeties backup up into the field goal netting or linebackers salivating to blitz off the edge. Speaking of the edge, Manning loved Edge, and Joseph Addai, and Willis McGahee last year and Knowshon Moreno/Montee Ball this year. He makes the backs look good by handing them the football in ideal conditions. They make him look good by supplementing seven-yard passes with four-yard runs. Some quarterbacks are masters of third-and-long. Ben Roethlisberger springs to mind. Manning is a 20th-level black belt at avoiding third-and-long. Simple, perfectly applied running plays are his secret weapons.
In the first quarter of the Week 15 game, after Manning led an easy touchdown drive in his first possession, the Chargers stopped a second drive by stuffing Ball for a six-yard loss on first down. An 11-yard pass on third down came up five yards short, and the Broncos settled for a field goal. The next Broncos drive started with a one-yard loss by Moreno; Manning threw deep down the right sideline two plays later on third-and-11, and anyone who has watched Manning this year knows that if you have to let him pass, you want to make him pass deep along a sideline. Moreno churned out three first-down yards to start the next drive, followed by a five-yard pass. Manning was sacked on third down. Weak running and sure tackling after receptions had taken the Broncos off schedule offensively, and by the time the Chargers took a 24-10 lead, Manning and the Broncos abandoned the ineffective run.
So running and stopping the run may be the best anti-Manning strategy, particular for the Chargers, who have a great running game but a pass defense that is going to give up more than its share of completions. Making sure Manning needs two short completions for a first down instead of one plays to their few defensive strengths: Corey Liuget's talents as a run-stuffer and pass rusher, Pagano's creativity with safety blitzes, the slow emergence of Melvin Ingram as an all-purpose outside linebacker.
Fox's foxhole fears have substance. Running and run defense give the Chargers a shot. They do not make the Chargers favorites. Wes Welker was not available for that Week 15 game. Welker will be back, and he challenges Pagano's preferred tactics (man coverage on outside receivers, single safety deep, rolling zones in the middle) the way Andre Caldwell could not. Welker has made a career of serving as a de facto outside running game, his slot screens and short slants like extra-long handoffs from Hall of Fame quarterbacks. The Chargers secondary can barely match up two-deep at wide receiver, let alone three-deep.
Also, here we go again, the weather. Denver somehow emerged as one of the warmest places in America this week, and if I counted the brown eggs in my backyard henhouse correctly, temperatures will hover in the low 50s this weekend. The PEYTON HATES COLD storyline is as stale as RUN AND STOP THE RUN, but no quarterback who throws 41 passes per game wants to deal with freezing temperatures. Bad weather favors infantry tactics. Decent weather brings us back to modern football.
All of the smashmouth tactical talk boils down to a simple fact: The Chargers are the least talented team in the postseason, so they have no choice but to keep things close, use their handful of blue-chip assets to maximum advantage and hope their opponent gets in its own way a little bit. That's what happened last week in Cincinnati, before the rain started, Andy Dalton melted and Bengals anxieties snowballed. It can happen to Peyton Manning, it can happen to John Fox and it may be more likely to happen to them in combination than it would to each of them individually.
Still, it is just not really likely, and all the running and run defense in the world may amount to little more for the Chargers than a closer-than-you-thought loss.
Prediction: Broncos 31, Chargers 24.
(Note: all I have to say to nitpickers ready to inform me that Mister Microphone played over FM radios, not amplifiers, is, "Hey good lookin', I'll be back to pick you up later!")
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Saints at Seahawks
4:35 p.m. Saturday, Fox
Line: Seahawks by 7 ½
The Saints are up against something big. Bigger than fans who each bring a Fender Twin Reverb amplifier and an old Mister Microphone to games. Bigger than the airport fatigue that comes from a Sunday morning Philadelphia to New Orleans redeye, followed by a few hectic work days, then a cross-country-diagonally journey into their third time zone in eight days.
It's bigger than the weather. Gosh, after last week, I promised I would not write about the weather: Predicting forecasts three-to-four days ahead is like summoning Pete Axthelm's ghost on a Ouija board. Anyway, Weather.com shows nothing but raindrops all weekend, with high winds on Saturday. That probably means Seattle will actually look like Bikini Beach. It does not matter. The Saints are up against something bigger.
The Saints are up against one of the toughest NFL teams of the last two decades.
Football Outsiders now has a database of play-by-play information and advanced metrics that goes back over 20 years. Their DVOA metric -- a measure of how each play a team runs in a season stacks up against other plays run in similar down/distance/field position/score/margin/opponent strength situations -- allows comparisons of team quality that go beyond records, points and yards. DVOA allows for comparisons across decades, and DVOA ranked the 2013 Seahawks as the fifth-strongest team of (let's give it a name) the Free Agency Era. Here's the list, and a link to lots of other analysis:
1. 1991 Redskins
2. 2007 Patriots
3. 2010 Patriots
4. 1996 Packers
5. 2013 Seahawks
You probably remember the two Patriots teams well enough. The 1991 Redskins went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl. Listing their personnel is a waste of time, because the glamour-position guys don't blow you away (Mark Rypien, Earnest Byner), and the team's secret was a starting lineup of 22 good-to-excellent players, plus depth. They were like the 2013 Seahawks in this regard. The 1996 Packers went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl with Brett Favre, Reggie White and more.
That's great company: two Super Bowl winners, two Patriots teams that combined for two regular-season losses. But things get harder for the Saints: They are facing the seventh best defense of the Free Agency Era as well. Instead of listing all the defenses above them -- the 1991 Eagles rank first, the Super Bowl 2002 Buccaneers second -- here is one defense that ranks below them: the 2000 Ravens, winners of Trent Dilfer's Super Bowl ring.
The Saints, fresh off their first playoff road win in franchise history, traveled this week from frigid Philadelphia to New Orleans, then off to Seattle, to face the 2000 Ravens with an offense, or the 2007 Patriots with more balance, or the 1996 Packers with fewer marquee names but more depth. In the rain. In the noise.
The Saints are more prepared for the challenge than they were in Week 13, when the Seahawks beat them physically and mentally in a 34-7 rout. The Saints have leftover noise-cancelling earplugs from that game to go with their spiffy new travel wear: comfortable all-weather gear from the Ignore-the-Elephant line by the Placebo fashion company. Sean Payton even had a Seahawks logo painted onto the practice field at the team's facility, though making them hang around Louis Armstrong Airport for two hours before practice was pushing it.
More importantly, the Saints have rediscovered respect for football simplicity. Payton was still replacing five skill positions per play in the Eagles game, and Rob Ryan still over-strategized a few times, but the story of the Saints victory was a win in the trenches: up-the-middle runs, sound tackling and gap responsibility on defense, mistake-free special teams.
Simpler tactics and a familiarity with what they are facing will close the gap between the Saints and Seahawks, but it is an awfully big gap. The Seahawks front seven is significantly better than the Eagles front seven. Their secondary might as well be playing a different sport. The Seahawks offensive line is exploitable, but despite last week's cloud-of-dust-and-snow performance, it is hard to imagine the high-scoring Saints suddenly downshifting all the way to architects of 13-10 slugfest victories, on the road, in the rain, with the noise. The Seahawks are masters of the slow-motion avalanche, their offense sputtering early but using field-position tilt and attrition to bury opponents. That's a likely Saturday scenario, even after the Saints have learned to shovel snow.
There is one more reason for the Saints to hope: the 2013 Seahawks may rank fifth on the all-time advanced-analysis list, but the 2012 Seahawks ranked seventh, and that team lost to the Falcons in the divisional round of the playoffs a year ago. The Falcons showed last year that great receivers and a great tight end have a distinct edge on a great secondary, though the Falcons defense worked hard to obliterate that edge.
Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham and others could do what Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez did last year. Only they will have to do it on the road, in the rain, with the noise. It is just too much to ask.
Prediction: Seahawks 26, Saints 20
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Colts at Patriots
8:15 p.m. Saturday, CBS
Line: Patriots by 7
Andrew Luck may be the quarterback we have been talking about for the last 20 years. He is not one of the quarterbacks we have been watching -- hundreds of talented-yet-mortal beings, brilliant but fallible, capable of both success and failure in varying degrees -- but the one we have been longing for in our never-ending national conversation about leadership, heart, "it," special qualities, elite qualities, magical qualities, courage, determination, passion and applewood-smoked winner sauce.
Perhaps Luck is that combination big brother/field marshal/ultimate broheim we not-so-secretly yearn for: Alexander the Great, Y.A. Tittle and Frank Sinatra, all wrapped up in a big-yet-unassuming frame with Baby New Year ears and the beard of a man who complains about the gauge of his mandolin strings. Maybe our collective desire to watch a quarterback who Leads Daring Comebacks in the Face of Unprecedented Adversity created radiation which mutated the ultimate "storyline" quarterback out of the genetic material of an old, failed Oilers prospect. Luck is not the perfect quarterback, but he is perfect for our needs: He succeeds when the chips are down, and he plays for a team that starts each game by chucking the chips into a well.
Tom Brady filled that Quarterback as Father-Brother-Forbidden Lover-shaped hole in our hearts for a dozen years, but he is spent plutonium these days. Oh, the last-second heroics arrive on schedule as often as not, but they are perfunctory, with minimal foreplay, the Rolling Stones playing "Satisfaction" for the 50,000th time and providing little.
We had to crush Brady into shape to fit the hole, anyway. He was an ensemble player in his championship years, then cashed in on his Super Bowl cachet in his lengthening years as a stat-gobbling soloist. Brady was something of a comeback kid early in his career, but by 2004 it was all methodical 24-3 wins, which ballooned into 52-7 wins by 2007. Now it's three quarters of nostalgia, one quarter of magnificence, 45 final seconds of watching the referees after every throw. Brady and Luck may have the same number of fourth-quarter comebacks this year -- Saturday was Luck's fifth -- but Brady's Patriots draft on their opponent's bumpers all afternoon. Luck's Colts throw it into reverse, tumble down a culvert, wait for a tow truck, then still come back in the fourth quarter. Sorry, Brady, you have been upstaged.
What's remarkable is that Luck has been doing this for two years. He led the league with seven fourth-quarter comebacks last year. We remember the ChuckStrong game against the Packers, but what about the comeback from a 26-14 halftime deficit against the Lions? The Titans held a 20-7 halftime lead against the Colts last year, but the Colts came back, albeit with help from a pick-six and other non-Luck factors. Luck is the young emperor of comebacks, making him more endearing than the king of taking care of business for all four quarters. It's not his physical gifts that matter, nor how he uses them, but how we react to them that matters.
Yes, we are completely around the bend and down the dark alley when it comes to meaningful analysis of Colts-Patriots. Consider this: What happens if the Patriots take a 20-point lead, then Luck throws three touchdowns, but Brady gets the ball back with 45 seconds left, one timeout and an officiating crew open to suggestion? And what happens if a winter storm blows in? And it's Winter Storm Ditka?
Have fun scaling the sheer cliff face of objective analysis as Commander Cardiac Comeback and his beat up cast of irregulars takes on Spotless Glitterlord and his ragtag true believers. I will hide here in the realm of magical thinking. These teams do not follow trends from week to week anyway. There is no "best defense in the league" or "got their receivers back" or "upsetting opponents with ball control" logic to cling to. The Colts and Patriots lurch from identity to identity based on which combination of players is healthy in a given week, but they stick to their central narratives, which happen to be on a collision course.
Brady has been the most surprising superlative talent in sports for the first 13 years of the millennium. Luck will be one of the least surprising of the next 13 years: Blessed with an arm, legs and a brain that were on full display throughout his college career, we (not the Colts, but the writers of quarterback gobbledygook sagas) overlooked him in search of someone more glamorous. Now that Luck has done some of the most glamorous things possible, we overlook the arm, legs and brain in our quest to reaffirm our faith in intangibles. Maybe Luck is destined to be all the things we crave: supremely talented yet unassuming, well-publicized yet underrated, successful but always overlooked, a champion who starts every season or game with a Rocky-Rambo reboot. All hope is lost, the enemies are swarming, but all it takes are some knocks on the monastery door. Obi-Wan Luck: Now there's a name I haven't heard in a long, long time.
Or, perhaps Luck is just a very good quarterback, like Brady, and no guards will be changed or paradigms shifted on Saturday. Whenever one team falls behind, you will be reminded (as if you need reminding) that the other is highly qualified to comeback. You may start to believe that both teams are trying to fall behind in an effort to preserve their preferred victory style. Don't believe it: The fourth quarter will end, the most talented-prepared-experienced-lucky team will prevail, and the narrative will triumph regardless of which quarterback is the designated hero.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Colts 20.