2013 NFL Playoffs, the road to New Orleans
Image: Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
By: Dustin Dietz
Every January the NFL season culminates with an exciting five week tournament between the 12 best teams left standing after a grueling 16 game regular season. Unfortunately, for the third consecutive season the Dallas Cowboys will not be participating in the postseason tournament after losing the NFC East championship in Week 17 and finishing 8-8 for the second consecutive season.
The Cowboys lack of depth and talent in the trenches was on full display this past Sunday night as the Washington Redskins number one ranked rushing offense ran for 277 yards against a Dallas defense decimated by injury. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was under constant duress the entire evening as the Washington defense used several elaborate blitz packages which were too much for the Dallas offensive line to handle. Romo threw three costly interceptions, including one with 3:06 remaining in the fourth quarter with Dallas trailing 21-18 which sealed the Cowboys fate.
If the Cowboys are to ever become legitimate Super Bowl contenders and climb out of this miserable purgatory of mediocrity they are stuck in, they must begin to build the team from the inside out, which means they must bolster their offensive and defensive lines. In today’s NFL, if teams want to compete for championships, they must have a productive quarterback, protect their productive quarterback, and rush the opposing quarterback. I believe Dallas has the productive quarterback in Tony Romo. While Romo has yielded his worst games in the most crucial of times, his above average play in the majority of the games proves he is capable of winning of a championship with help around him.
Dallas allowed 36 sacks in 16 games this season (16th in the NFL), and sacked the quarterback only 34 times (20th in the NFL). If the Cowboys did not have a quarterback with the ability to escape the rush like Romo, the sack total allowed would have been much higher because the offensive line play in 2012 was abysmal.
Four of the last five Super Bowl champions have finished in the top 3 in the league in sacks, with the only exception being the 2009 New Orleans Saints, who led the league in forcing turnovers. Dallas finished 29th in 2012 in forcing turnovers with 16 and was a -13 overall in turnover differential. With an improved pass rush, Dallas would sack the quarterback more often and force more turnovers.
Despite the Cowboys absence in the playoffs, the league will continue to play games. Amazing, I know. Here are the keys to winning Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans for the remaining teams in the NFL playoffs.
Atlanta Falcons, 13-3, won NFC South
The Falcons earned the NFC’s number one seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs because Matt Ryan and the offense averaged 26.2 points per game, and their defense forced the seventh most turnovers. If Atlanta wants to head to New Orleans, they have to figure out a way to improve their 29th ranked rushing offense, and pressure the passer with more efficiency as their 29 sacks was 28th in the league. Atlanta went 2-2 in their final four games, including an ugly loss to Tampa Bay in Week 17. Matt Ryan has yet to win a playoff game, and the last time the Falcons were the number one seed in the playoffs, they lost their first game.
San Francisco 49ers, 11-4-1, won NFC West
San Francisco is in the same position heading into the 2012 playoffs as they were in the 2011 playoffs, except they are led on offense by a different quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick was given the opportunity to start with seven games remaining in the season, and he never relinquished the gig. Kap’s 98.3 QB rating was still lower than previous starter Alex Smith’s 104.1 rating, but Kaepernick rejuvenated the 49ers offense by adding the big play capability in the passing game Smith could never produce. The Niners averaged 26.3 points per game with Kap at the helm and wide receiver Michael Crabtree’s numbers improved exponentially. Defense is not the Niners problem as the unit was ranked 3rd in the league, but if they want to win, the inexperienced Kaepernick must avoid making mistakes and continue his stellar play. Linebacker Aldon Smith was second in the league in sacks with 19.5. San Francisco is hoping defensive tackle Justin Smith is able to play in the divisional round after missing the final two games of the regular season.
Green Bay Packers, 11-5, won NFC Central
A Week 17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings is the reason Green Bay is having to play on Wild Card weekend. The Packers scored the fifth most points in the NFL and recorded the fourth most sacks. Aaron Rodgers had another superb season passing for 4,295 yards and 39 touchdowns, and wide receiver James Jones filled in nicely for the injured Greg Jennings as he caught 14 touchdown passes. If Green Bay is going to advance to the Super Bowl, they most run the football better than they did in regular season where they had the league’s 20th ranked run game, and keep Rodgers upright as the pitiful offensive line allowed the second most sacks in the NFL (51).
Washington Redskins, 10-6, won NFC East
Washington surprised all the experts by winning the division with a rookie quarterback and rookie running back. The Redskins were rightfully questioned last March when they traded away four draft picks for the right to draft Robert Griffin III, but after one season, head coach Mike Shanahan and owner Daniel Snyder appear to be geniuses as the Skins won the NFC East for the first time since 1999. The Redskins have an outstanding running game led by rookie 2012 6th round selection Alfred Morris who rushed for a Redskins franchise record 1,613 yards. If the Redskins are to have a deep run in the playoffs, they must continue to run the football successfully, and must improve on defense as it was ranked 28th in the league.
Seattle Seahawks, 11-5, 2nd in NFC West
Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson won the starting quarterback job in training camp and proved to everyone during the regular season why head coach Pete Carroll made the right decision to go with Wilson over Matt Flynn. Wilson threw a NFL rookie record 26 touchdown passes, rushed for 4 TDs, and had a QB rating of 100.0. The Seahawks have a formidable defense which is ranked is 4th in the league, and allowed the fewest points overall. If Seattle is too have an extended run in the playoffs, they need Wilson to continue his excellent play and rely on their 3rd ranked running game led by ‘Beastmode’ Marshawn Lynch to punish opponents into submission late in games.
Minnesota Vikings, 10-6, 2nd in NFC North
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson tore up his knee on December 24th 2011 in the Vikings 15th game of the year, and was not expected to return to action until the following October. Peterson defied the odds and was able to return in Week 1 and became an even more indomitable, tenacious beast than he was before his injury. Peterson became the seventh player in league history to rush for over 2,000 yards and missed breaking the league’s rushing record by nine yards. Peterson has carried Minnesota on his back the entire season and they are still playing simply because of him. The Vikings will go as far as Peterson takes them. Minnesota is the number six seed and must win three straight road games to advance to the Super Bowl, and it would take a heroic, King Leonidas like effort by Peterson for the Vikings to be playing in February. But, with Peterson leading them, anything is possible.
Denver Broncos, 13-3, won AFC West
Adrian Peterson came back from insurmountable odds to play in 2012, but at least he played the majority of 2011. After Peyton Manning missed all of 2011 after suffering a neck injury which required three surgeries, many thought he would never be able to play again. The Broncos signed Manning in March after he was released by his former team, the Indianapolis Colts. Manning not only returned to action, he returned to elite quarterback status as he threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns. Denver won their final 11 games of the season and earned the number one seed by becoming a completely balanced football team. Denver had the 4th ranked offense and 2nd ranked defense in the league, and led the league in sacks with 52. The Broncos will be tough to beat with home-field advantage and the fact their offensive line allowed the second fewest sacks in the league.
New England Patriots, 12-4, won AFC East
New England scored the most points in the NFL (557) by a considerably wide margin (76 points). Their prolific offense is led by the brilliant signal caller Tom Brady, who finished the year by throwing for 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns. The Patriots were not totally one dimensional as their running game was seventh in the league thanks to Stevan Ridley who rushed for 1,263 yards. The defending AFC champions are still bitter after losing two Super Bowls in the last five years to the Giants, and want another ring to further prove their franchise dominance. The Patriots were the last team to beat Denver, but if they want to be playing Super Bowl Sunday, they must defend the pass better as they were ranked 29th in the league.
Houston Texans, 12-4, won AFC South
Houston lost three of their final four games after beginning the season 11-1, and does not have the luxury of having a first round bye after last week’s loss to Indianapolis. All of Houston’s defeats have come to playoff teams by double digits with the combined score of 135-60 in the four games. The Texans running game was ranked eighth in the league, and if they want to have a chance, they have to feed the rock to superstar running back Arian Foster. Defensive player of the year candidate J.J. Watt led the league in sacks with 20.5, and he must continue to be a huge disruption to quarterbacks because the Texans pass defense was suspect as they allowed the sixth most passing touchdowns.
Baltimore Ravens, 10-6, won AFC North
The Ravens are playing for a little extra this week as inspirational leader Ray Lewis has informed the team he will be retiring after the season concludes. Baltimore does not want their first draft pick and hall of fame linebacker to lose his final home game to, of all teams, the Indianapolis Colts. If the Ravens want to go deep into the playoffs, they must do a better job of protecting quarterback Joe Flacco and must ensure their 20th ranked run defense stops the run. Also, the team might want to give the rock to Ray Rice as often as possible. When wide receiver Torrey Smith caught a touchdown pass, the Ravens were 6-0.
Indianapolis Colts, 11-5, 2nd in AFC South
After winning two games in 2011, and releasing Peyton Manning last March, many did not expect the Colts to be in the playoffs this quickly. However, in today’s NFL, teams can rebuild promptly. The Colts are one of the feel good stories of 2012, especially with head coach Chuck Pagano battling back from and defeating cancer. The team is led by the first pick in the draft last April, Andrew Luck. Luck was superb in his rookie season as he threw 23 touchdowns, but he did have 18 passes intercepted. If the Colts are to have a chance in the playoffs, Luck must minimize his mistakes, and the team has to protect their signal caller as Luck was sacked 41 times during the regular season. Veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne had a bounce back 2012 by catching 106 passes for 1,355 yards. The Colts chances are rather bleak, but you cannot count out a team led by Chuck Pagano.
Cincinnati Bengals, 10-6, 2nd in AFC North
For the second consecutive season, the Cincinnati Bengals will play a wild card game in Houston against the Texans. The club hopes the result in 2012 will be much different than the 31-10 loss to the Texans last year. Former TCU quarterback Andy Dalton had a solid 2012 for the Bengals by throwing for 27 touchdowns, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a career high 1,094 yards rushing. Cincinnati had the league’s sixth ranked defense and only six teams defended the pass with more efficiency. In the Bengals final four road games, the defense allowed only 10.5 points per game, and caused 11 turnovers. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins finished tied for sixth in the league with 12.5 sacks, and if the Bengals are going to win three straight games on the road, Atkins must cause all kinds of chaos in the backfield on defense. Dalton must also make sure wide receiver A.J. Green has plenty of touches as Green was fourth in the NFL in touchdown receptions with 11, but only had one touchdown in the team’s final six games.
-NFC Wild Card round
Green Bay over Minnesota
Seattle over Washington
-AFC Wild Card round
Baltimore over Indianapolis
Houston over Cincinnati
-NFC Divisional round
Seattle over Atlanta
San Francisco over Green Bay
-AFC Divisional round
Denver over Baltimore
New England over Houston
San Francisco over Seattle
Denver over New England
-Super Bowl XLVII
Denver over San Francisco
The Denver Broncos are a complete football team. They have two wide receivers who each had 1,000 yards receiving (Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker), Von Miller was third in the NFL in sacks, and Peyton Manning finished third in TD passes. Remember the three keys to being a championship contender I mentioned earlier in the article, the Broncos possess all three of them. Denver will win Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
Follow Dustin Dietz on Twitter @DustinDietz18