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NFL Divisional Preview, Part 1

Everything you need to know (and more) about Saints-Seahawks and Colts-Patriots

Today we take on Saturday’s NFL divisional playoff games. Part 2 comes on Friday, when we’ll tackle (no pun intended) 49ers-Panthers and Chargers-Broncos.

New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks

By Week 16, the NFC playoff bracket was basically being presented as Seattle’s coronation to the Super Bowl, by virtue of its status atop the conference and its unspeakably terrifying performances at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks were 6-0 at home, having won their average home encounter by an average of nearly 19 points per contest, and they had saved their best showings for the conference’s toughest teams and the national eye. The Seahawks had blown out the 49ers in September on Sunday Night Football, 29-3, before dismantling the Saints in December on Monday Night Football, 34-7. It wasn’t enough to say that they looked good at home. They looked untouchable.

Then, the Cardinals rolled into town. Arizona put together one of the most impressive performances of the season in Week 16, beating the Seahawks and overcoming its own quarterback, Carson Palmer, in a 17-10 upset. Seattle still claimed the top seed in the NFC by beating the Rams at home the following week, and it has still exhibited the best home-field advantage in football since opening its stadium, but the possibility of Seattle losing a home playoff game seems slightly more plausible than it did before that loss to the Cardinals.

After (unnecessarily) proving they can win on the road in the playoffs last week by beating the Eagles, the Saints will now need to show they can overcome their Week 13 blowout road loss to the Seahawks. That 34-7 game fell apart quickly for New Orleans; its win expectancy fell below 10 percent just 11 minutes into the game and never rose above 17 percent the rest of the way.

It was a beatdown, but in rewatching the game, I was surprised at how much came down to Seattle catching several key breaks early. Seattle was the better team on the day and deserved to win, and the Saints had no hope of catching up once the Seahawks got out to a 27-7 halftime lead, but New Orleans showed a lot more during the first half than I remembered. It made me believe that the Saints might have a better shot of making Saturday’s game a contest than my memory — and the final score of that encounter in Week 13 — suggested.

The Saints had a number of big plays that were ruined by a last-ditch Seattle effort or a momentary lapse of concentration. A bomb to Robert Meachem was broken up at the last second by a trailing Richard Sherman. A surefire Russell Wilson interception was dropped by cornerback Corey White, who even injured himself on the play. On a play-action pass down the field, a wide-open Jimmy Graham had to stretch for an overthrown pass and exposed his ribs in the process, and the resulting hit to those ribs knocked the pass out of his hands. A later play-action pass found an open Josh Hill, but the Saints tight end couldn’t hang on to a borderline-catchable pass.

In addition, the Saints were waylaid by a number of wildly blown coverages. A third-and-1 play-action pass by the Seahawks saw tight end Zach Miller sneak out of the backfield entirely uncovered for a 60-yard completion that set up a Miller touchdown catch. On a later touchdown pass, White would simply stop covering Doug Baldwin in mid-route for an easy score.

Where I really felt like the Saints were unlucky was in dealing with the game’s two early fumbles, which had a tremendously important role in putting them behind in this contest. They both popped up in high-leverage spots, too. The first saw Marshawn Lynch catch a checkdown on third down inside the red zone, only to fumble after making the catch. Seattle’s Max Unger recovered the fumble, and the Seahawks kicked a field goal on the next play. Then, on the subsequent series, Seahawks end Cliff Avril hit Drew Brees in the pocket, with the ball flying out of Brees’s hands and into those of end Michael Bennett, who ran through the pocket and into space to score a return touchdown. That’s a 10-point swing right there. There’s no reason that the Saints should have recovered both fumbles, but Seattle was lucky to recover both. Chase Stuart’s historical fumble model suggests that the Seahawks had just a 37.9 percent shot at recovering the Lynch fumble and a 50.1 percent chance at picking up the fumble forced by Avril, meaning that they would only be expected to recover both fumbles about 19 percent of the time. That they managed to do so got them off to a dream start from which the Saints really never recovered.

That doesn’t mean the Seahawks didn’t play well; it’s no accident that Sherman was able to get his fingertips on that bomb to Meachem or that Avril managed to blow past Saints right tackle Zach Strief. But the first half of that game was a stretch when just about everything that could have gone wrong for the Saints did go wrong. The Seahawks will still be good, but the Saints probably won’t drop as many passes or blow coverages on what basically amounted to two touchdown passes or fail to come up with all the key fumbles in the red zone. The Saints might still be vanquished, but they’ll probably make it to halftime with a win expectancy greater than 6 percent.

Richard Sherman

The Seattle Stomp

Everybody knows that the Seahawks are a great football team, especially at home. But what, specifically, are they truly great at? What are those tools by which they beat opposing teams into submission? And are the Saints particularly equipped to fight back against those weapons? Well, let’s run through what makes Seattle best:

Pass defense: Seattle’s biggest strength is its secondary, and as you might expect, that translates into a dominant defense against the pass. Seattle has the best pass defense DVOA in all of football by a comfortable margin. At minus-34.3 percent, the Seahawks have the best pass defense DVOA since the 2009 Jets. Chase Stuart goes even further and suggests that the numbers peg Seattle as the second-best pass defense since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.1 The discussion about how good they are is academic; the point is that this is a transcendent, otherworldly pass defense.

Are the Saints particularly well equipped to deal with that strength? I’m not sure; I guess it depends on what you consider to be the best way of combating that pass defense. New Orleans, obviously, is a team that’s built around its passing attack, as the Saints ranked third in pass offense DVOA and are perennially among the most frequent and efficient passers in football. If you think the best way to weaken a great passing defense is a great passing offense, then that’s not a huge hindrance for the Saints. On the other hand, you can also argue that teams aren’t going to be able to pass on the Seahawks regardless, and that the best opponent for the Seahawks might be a team that can run the ball effectively and doesn’t need to pass very frequently. That’s not the Saints, despite what they did against the Eagles last weekend. New Orleans was 19th in rushing offense DVOA this year, and the only reason they ever rate high in rushing DVOA is because their passing attack sets up rushing opportunities, often against outnumbered fronts or on teams in pass-leaning alignments.

In looking over how the Seahawks have played this season, the quarterbacks who have had the most success against them are … well, weird. It’s mostly passers who have been capable of creating big plays over the top of the defense. Mike Glennon had a 123.1 passer rating in a near-win in Seattle. Andrew Luck posted a 104.0 rating in Indy’s comeback win over the Seahawks. Cam Newton was at 97.2 when his Panthers lost a defensive battle to Seattle in Week 1. Oh, and nobody’s thrown for more than 258 yards against Seattle this season except for, um, Matt Schaub, who threw for 355 yards on 49 attempts in Houston’s season-shifting loss to Seattle in Week 4. Brees can certainly throw a deep ball when he needs to, but New Orleans’s best work seems to come when it is completing short and intermediate routes for endless first downs. It’s possible that the Saints might have more success trying to go with deeper routes downfield. Of course, that also requires time, which leads us to Seattle’s next huge strength …

Pass rush: Seattle’s the deepest team in the league in terms of pass-rushers, as it can roll out any combination of Avril, Bennett, Chris Clemons, and Bruce Irvin on the edges in passing situations. It’ll often even get three of them on the field by kicking Bennett inside, similar to how the Giants would turn Justin Tuck into a defensive tackle during his glory days. (See: Logan Mankins’s nightmares.) With Clemons returning from a torn ACL and Irvin coming off of both a suspension and a conversion to linebacker, you would have expected Seattle’s pass rush to get better as the season went along, but that wasn’t the case. It had the fifth-best pass rush in the league during the first half of the season, but over the second half, that figure fell to 12th. If you want to beat the Seahawks, it really, really helps if you can keep your quarterback clean.

The good news is that the Saints have been pretty good at that; Brees was sacked on just 5.4 percent of his dropbacks this year, the seventh-best rate in the league. Like the Seahawks, the Saints have had trouble keeping Brees upright recently. Their issues against the Rams led Sean Payton to bench left tackle Charles Brown for rookie third-round pick Terron Armstead, a raw project who has had to face the Panthers and Eagles in two of his first three starts. Expect the Seahawks to do whatever they can to unsettle Armstead, both in terms of putting their best pass-rusher on the field against him on every snap and by designing blitzes (or feigned blitzes) that attack his lack of experience. Armstead already has a holding call and two false starts against him in three weeks; don’t be surprised if his penalty count rises this weekend.

Turnovers: Seattle would be a great defense if it forced a league-average rate of turnovers, but it goes well beyond that mark. The figure I’m about to share with you is downright terrifying: Seattle’s defense creates takeaways on 20.1 percent of opposing possessions. That’s ridiculous. One drive out of five, the Seattle defense is coming off the field celebrating with the football in its hands. Nobody else is above 16.9 percent.

Just by avoiding turnovers, a team can avoid giving Seattle’s offense excellent field position and force the Seattle D to stay on the field for longer stretches of time. The Saints, fortunately for New Orleans fans, are particularly great at avoiding giveaways. They turned the ball over on just 8.7 percent of possessions this year, the second-best rate in football behind the Colts. Seattle forced that fumble in the first contest, but New Orleans otherwise went the rest of the way without turning the football over. There aren’t many positives to take away from that first game, but if the Saints can make it out of Seattle this weekend with just one giveaway, that would be a solid performance.

Arizona also proved that you don’t necessarily need to avoid turnovers to beat the Seahawks in Seattle, although it certainly can’t hurt. Palmer threw four interceptions in that game — including two interceptions in the end zone — and Arizona’s defense was so stifling that the Cardinals were able to pull out a W. That came about after a late touchdown, which leads to another Seattle strength the Saints will try to overcome …

Red zone defense: Seattle had the league’s best defense inside its own 20 this year, and again, it wasn’t all that close. The Seahawks allowed teams to score an average of 3.7 points per red zone trip this year. The only other team under four points per red zone opportunity was Detroit.

This is an area in which the Seahawks will have a definite advantage, as the Saints were 18th in red zone offense, producing 4.8 points per trip. New Orleans’s red zone offense is built around having bigger, faster players than the opposition, but the Seahawks are one of the few teams that have athletes capable of matching up with Graham and Marques Colston. The Saints have had success in the past employing Darren Sproles on option routes in the red zone; that’s one way they might try to attack Seattle if they get near the goal line, especially if Seattle is brave enough to challenge the Saints with one-on-one man coverage.

The overall defensive game plan for Seattle will be interesting; at the very least, we know it will look different from how the Seahawks tried to stop the Saints the first time out. That defense was without Walter Thurmond, who was serving a four-game suspension. Thurmond came back for Week 17, but the team chose to leave Byron Maxwell in as the starter, with Thurmond playing just 18 defensive snaps. I’m not sure how the Seahawks will split things up on Saturday. This week’s key absentee is linebacker K.J. Wright, who probably won’t make it back in time from his broken foot to suit up this weekend. Wright’s a key part of Seattle’s pass defense when healthy, especially on the interior, where the Saints love to attack with Graham up the seam. Graham’s success last time out mostly came on the outside, where he could attack Seattle’s defensive backs and beat zone coverage. I don’t think Seattle will go back to its 49ers playbook and stick Sherman on Graham full-time, but I do wonder how it’ll handle Graham during those times when he’s used as a traditional tight end.

Junior Galette

Calculating Infinity

Seattle also hopes to get a versatile weapon of its own back for good against the Saints. Percy Harvin is expected to play for just the second time since arriving in Seattle, with his regular season having amounted to 19 offensive snaps. Harvin’s an incredible player when healthy, and it appears he’ll be at his healthiest all season on Saturday, but it’s difficult to imagine that Harvin will be at his typical level of performance. He hasn’t had the reps to develop any sort of chemistry with Wilson, he’s not in game shape, and it’s unlikely that the Seahawks have spent much practice time running through the assorted plays where Harvin might show off his versatility, since Harvin has barely been healthy enough to practice this year. He should have a limited role, but he still represents a mismatch as a traditional wideout for 15 to 20 snaps against New Orleans’s cornerbacks. The Seahawks undoubtedly hoped that New Orleans would be without no. 1 corner Keenan Lewis, who suffered a concussion while hitting Jason Avant during the win over Philadelphia, but Lewis practiced this week and is likely to go.

In my opinion, Wilson’s game against the Saints was the best performance he put on all season. If football was like the Emmy Awards and you had to submit one game for consideration, this is the game the Seahawks would have sent. Wilson was brilliant. When the Saints dropped back into coverage, Wilson cycled through his reads and made the smart, accurate throw to an open receiver. When they blitzed him, Wilson eluded the pressure and made the right pass at the right time. When he knew he wouldn’t be able to get past the pressure, Wilson read his options appropriately and made the right pass immediately.

Take this eight-man blitz by the Saints, a rare Rob Ryan look where he’s in Cover 0, without any safety help across the field. Most quarterbacks — even good ones — would freak out about this blitz and get the ball out as quickly as possible, or try to scramble outside the blitz to make a play on the run. Wilson doesn’t do either of those things. He calmly takes a three-step drop and gets the ball out as his back foot hits the dirt, identifying correctly that his best matchup is Doug Baldwin up the seam against a safety, Malcolm Jenkins. All that’s for naught if Wilson’s throw is off, but it’s right on the money. If you blitzed and the opposing quarterback did that, would you ever blitz again?

The Saints aren’t going to be able to stop Wilson. What they need to do to win is contain him. Wilson’s at his most dangerous when he scrambles out of the pocket and creates new passing lanes on the fly. The Saints’ secondary, to be frank, can’t hold up long enough in coverage to shut down the opposing receivers when Wilson is free on the edge. That means the New Orleans pass rush needs to do a better job both of containing Wilson within the pocket and then chasing him down once he’s beginning to exit said pocket. They did an awful job of this in the first matchup. Arizona, to the contrary, did an incredible job of hampering Wilson’s desire to create space for himself. It was disciplined in its rush lanes, and when Wilson did escape its clutches, its front seven had the athleticism to hunt him down and get Wilson before he could set and make a play. That’s going to come down to Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, who each finished with double-digit sacks this season. Even if they don’t sack Wilson on Saturday, squeezing his scrambling space will be key.

Galette figures to be a key player in this game for the Saints. He was a situational pass-rusher in the 4-3 who wasn’t expected to start this year as New Orleans transitioned to the 3-4, but injuries pushed him into a starting role, where he showed surprising ability as an every-down linebacker. At the same time, because of his inexperience, teams will do their best to exploit his aggressiveness with passes and runs in his direction. In the first matchup, while the Seahawks only got 79 rushing yards on the 27 carries by halfbacks Lynch and Robert Turbin, Wilson ate the Saints up on the read-option. Seattle repeatedly went after Galette early with the zone-read, and with Galette crashing down the line to try to take out Lynch, Wilson ran right by him for easy gains. Whether it was a lack of discipline or specific instructions from Ryan to attack Lynch and worry about the consequences later, the Seahawks took advantage of an inexperienced defender.

You know what? The Saints are getting better against the read-option. They did a sound job against Philadelphia’s league-best rushing attack last week, holding them to 80 rushing yards across 22 carries, and that’s facing the team that uses the zone-read more than anybody else in the league. I noticed that the Saints were significantly more disciplined against Philly’s zone-read than they were against Seattle’s, perhaps to the point of detriment; the Eagles’ touchdown run on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line came on a read-option play in which linebacker Will Herring stood his ground on the edge and didn’t allow anybody to loop around him, with Shady McCoy instead taking the handoff and running into an open gap for the easy touchdown. With Parys Haralson suffering a season-ending injury in the Eagles game, Herring’s role should expand; I wonder if the Seahawks will move away from Galette and run at the career special-teamer, himself formerly a Seattle player, on Saturday.

It All Comes Down To …

Star power. For the Seahawks to lose in Seattle, I really think it requires a Herculean effort from the best unit on the opposing team to win and win and win on just about every possession. That’s what the Arizona defense did in Week 16, and while their offense scuffled, the Cardinals did an incredible enough job against Wilson on defense that they were able to win the game with one long pass play to Michael Floyd. I don’t think the New Orleans defense is capable of doing that, so this one comes down to Brees. With the weather report calling for 100 percent precipitation and winds of up to 21 miles per hour, the Saints probably need to get an MVP-caliber day from Brees to win a shootout. Anything is possible, but it’s difficult to see them winning any sort of low-scoring contest, given Seattle’s advantages on defense and special teams.

Andrew Luck

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots

Seemingly the only marquee matchup the Colts didn’t get to this season was against the Patriots, courtesy of Indy’s second-place finish in the AFC South last year. This is a rivalry that — thanks to the scheduling gods, these two quarterbacks, and their awful divisions — we’ll see a lot more of in the coming years. These two teams played last year, with a 59-24 Patriots blowout featuring a dozen players who will watch this game on crutches or in slings. It feels about as relevant to Saturday’s Colts-Pats game as the first half of the Chiefs-Colts game was to its second half. Same teams, same location, different universe.

Most analysis of this game will rightly pay heed to the two quarterbacks, and while I don’t want to obsess over them, it’s interesting to think about the different myths being built around these quarterbacks at disparate points in their careers. Tom Brady was so good in the playoffs at the beginning of his career that he established an unflappable reputation as a clutch king of the playoffs, even after he stopped winning all of his playoff games. The collective football discourse hasn’t decided what Andrew Luck’s myth is going to be yet. He’s got a relatively quiet loss against the Ravens and an incredible comeback victory over the Chiefs on his playoff résumé; Saturday’s game, even as a massive underdog, will go a long way in determining how he’ll (perhaps unfairly) be perceived for years to come. I’m not sure whether it’s exciting or depressing to see that narrative forming, but I am excited to see if Luck can carry five stars and a whole bunch of misfits through New England on the way to the AFC Championship Game. The truth, quietly, is that Brady has to do the same thing.

Vince Wilfork

Oh, There Is Pain Inside

It’s fair to say the Patriots aren’t exactly fielding the lineup that Patriots fans might have counted on as they looked at their roster in June. When you hear about those absences, you’re often hearing about the offense — Stevan Ridley has been benched, Danny Amendola has been alternately injured and disappointing, Sebastian Vollmer is done for the year, Rob Gronkowski has torn up his knee, and Aaron Hernandez is in jail — but it’s the defense that’s been harder-hit by injuries. Those woes went to a new level this past week when the Patriots surprisingly announced that middle linebacker Brandon Spikes had been placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. Spikes was known to be dealing with a knee problem, but it was expected that he would be able to make it through the playoffs before having the knee operated on after the season.

His injury leaves the Patriots without their best linebackers against the run (Spikes) and the pass (Jerod Mayo). It’s the latest in a series of injuries to the defense, and when you put New England’s losses into perspective, it’s truly staggering. Look at the enormous gap in career games started (through the end of the 2013 season) for the players whom the Patriots expected in training camp to start this season as compared to my best guess for the 11 guys who will start Saturday:

That’s staggering. Kelly, Wilfork, Spikes, Mayo, and Wilson are all on injured reserve. Hightower’s playing woefully out of position as the weakside linebacker, having absorbed Mayo’s role. Dennard has been in and out of the lineup with injuries; he might start ahead of Ryan on Saturday, but he’s not exactly a grizzled veteran. Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are the only two defenders in the Patriots lineup to start all 16 games this year.

Even scarier, very few of these replacements have the sort of pedigree that makes you think they could be viable subs. Siliga is a former Broncos practice squad member who had played four career snaps before joining the Patriots practice squad on October 23; six weeks later, he was starting at defensive tackle. Chris Jones was released by the Buccaneers in early September; the Patriots picked him up before their game against the Bucs, likely to snag any information2 they could on Tampa’s defensive game plan, but they kept him on the roster afterward and moved him into the starting lineup in early October. He’s started 11 games and finished second among rookies this year in sacks with six, trailing only first-round pick Ezekiel Ansah. Fletcher, the most likely fill-in for Spikes, is an undrafted free agent who normally does his work on special teams. Collins (second-rounder) and Ryan (third-rounder) are rookies. All hands are on deck.

Of course, this is what Bill Belichick does; he can beat you with his, or he can take yours, convince them that the world is out to get them and that nobody respects them, and then beat you with yours. Nobody gets more out of journeymen and rookie free agents than Belichick, who nearly won a Super Bowl two years ago with a bunch of guys who are either out of football or on their way out starting alongside Wilfork, Mayo, Spikes, and McCourty.3

Doing that stuff without your stars is another story altogether. Belichick might be the greatest defensive mind of his generation, but even he needs a few players to piece together some sort of competent defense. New England’s defense has fallen apart as the season has gone along, and there’s little reason to think it will get better. The Patriots ranked 10th in defensive DVOA during the first half of the season, but after their Week 10 bye, they had the league’s fifth-worst defensive DVOA. Their run defense was already bad and stayed that way, but their pass defense really fell off, dropping from eighth in the first half to 24th in the second half.

The reasons why are staring you in the face within that table above, but one of the manifestations of this subpar defense was a lack of turnovers. The Patriots forced a takeaway in each of their games before the bye, eventually accruing 19 in nine games, an average of 2.1 per contest. After the bye, they struggled to force turnovers at the same rate. Although they finished with 10 in seven contests, that included two games with four takeaways each against the Broncos and Ravens. They had three games without forcing a single turnover, games that resulted in a loss to Carolina, a miraculous comeback victory over Cleveland, and a Week 17 win over Buffalo. The Patriots finished 13th in takeaway rate after finishing in the top three each of the last three seasons. The Patriots were 24th in forcing three-and-outs and were a league-average defense in the red zone; if they don’t force takeaways, they struggle to get off the field.

It’s going to be a little odd saying this about the Colts given what happened to them last week, but Indianapolis isn’t a team prone to giving the football away. As I mentioned in my preview of the Chiefs-Colts game last week, the Colts turned the ball over just 14 times during the 2013 campaign, the lowest total in football. After giving the ball away on 14.2 percent of their offensive possessions in 2012, they cut that figure in half this season, with giveaways occurring on just 7.3 percent of their meaningful drives in 2013.

Now, you saw what happened to them against the Chiefs last week. Luck threw three picks and Donald Brown, apparently suffering from some unholy jinx, fumbled for the first time since his rookie season on the goal line. The Colts managed to overcome it, of course, by having a half-dozen players on the opposing team suffer injuries while Indianapolis launched the second-largest comeback in playoff history. You can decide yourself whether the 16 regular-season games in which they were safe with the football mean more than the playoff game in which the Colts coughed up the ball four times, in terms of predicting how they’ll do against the Patriots this weekend. If they continue to give the ball away, it seems unlikely they’ll be able to launch a once-in-a-lifetime comeback for the second consecutive week. I mean, who are they, Auburn?

If the Patriots have something to hang their hat on defensively, it’s that they’ll match up well with the Colts in terms of weaponry. Indy is a team built around one very good receiver (T.Y. Hilton), one competent possession receiver (Coby Fleener), and a bunch of flotsam. The Patriots are a team with one very good cornerback (Talib), one very good safety (McCourty), and a bunch of flotsam. Talib has spent most of the season covering the opposing team’s top receiver, but he did much better work before suffering a hip injury in Week 6. He wasn’t the same player when he came back, with a string of no. 1 receivers having big games against the Patriots. Steve Smith, Andre Johnson, Josh Gordon, and Mike Wallace all had above-average games against New England before the star wideout spigot was closed over the final two weeks of the year. Only Demaryius Thomas and Torrey Smith failed to reach their seasonal averages, and they each came close. Having the bye week off to rest could make a huge difference for Talib, who will be playing in the national spotlight during the final weeks of his one-year contract. He’s probably New England’s only hope of stopping Hilton, who absolutely torched a better secondary than this last week. Given how intently Belichick tries to take away the opposing team’s biggest weapon, expect the Patriots to do everything in their power to force the Colts to go away from Hilton on Saturday night.

Robert Mathis

Cannon Fodder

On offense, meanwhile, the Patriots will need to concern themselves with Robert Mathis, who was having a quiet game against the Chiefs … until he strip-sacked Alex Smith and helped change the complexion of the contest. Because Mathis is so good at creating takeaways in the blink of an eye, the Patriots can’t afford to lose their focus and let Mathis slink away for a single moment. And given that the left side of the New England line will feature an excellent duo in tackle Nate Solder and guard Logan Mankins, my suspicion is that Mathis will spend a good amount of time on Saturday lining up on the opposite side of the line, where he’ll go up against tackle Marcus Cannon. Cannon, in for the injured Vollmer, is a work in progress. He had been playing guard for the Patriots as a utility lineman, but was restored to his college position of right tackle after the Vollmer injury. At 6-foot-5 and nearly 360 pounds, Cannon is a mammoth run-blocker who can simply engulf smaller ends/linebackers like Mathis if he gets his leverage and footwork right. Cannon’s scouting report from before the 2011 draft notes his susceptibility to faster edge rushes and his inability to diagnose stunts and blitzes. Just as the Seahawks will go after Terron Armstead with blitzes to try to get him to guess wrong, the Colts will go after Cannon with twists and blitz packages. They each get the help of having a great quarterback behind them, but Cannon at least has the advantage of playing at home, where he’s far more likely to hear Brady change the protection than Armstead is in Seattle.

Stylistically, the Patriots will have a good matchup with the Colts’ defense. New England is very strong rushing between the tackles, which is where the Colts really struggle. The Colts are thin at cornerback, especially after Greg Toler left the Chiefs game with a season-ending reoccurrence of his groin injury, and the Patriots’ receiving group is more about quantity than quality. It’ll be interesting to see how the Patriots attack Darius Butler, a former New England second-round pick who left the team as a laughingstock before revitalizing his career in Indy. If they line up Butler in the slot on Amendola, the Colts will likely try to stick Vontae Davis on Julian Edelman, regardless of where Edelman lines up. Given that Smith gave this pass defense fits a week ago, you would expect Brady to do OK.

It All Comes Down To …

Turnovers. This time, for real. The Colts and Patriots each thrive on winning the turnover battle, and these are two quarterbacks to whom you don’t want to hand a short field. If the Patriots blow out the Colts, people will say it’s because Indy was emotionally spent from its win last week and didn’t have anything left in the tank. If the Colts win, people will say it’s because they were riding their wave of emotion from last week and just had too much momentum for the Patriots to handle. You try figuring out Indy’s true emotional state before the game starts. I’m going to stick with the turnover thing.

Filed Under: NFL, Bill Barnwell, NFL Playoffs, New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell