Divisional Saturday

One-Trick Pony

Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty Images Tom Brady

Divisional Sunday

Here are all the facts and trends you need to know to figure out who will book the final two tickets to conference championship weekend

We covered Divisional Saturday on Thursday. Now we move on to Divisional Sunday on Friday. As always, try to keep up.

Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at Atlanta Falcons (13-3)

First, if you’re looking for some sort of insight suggesting that the Falcons are cursed and don’t have what it takes to win in the playoffs, you’re going to find these next few paragraphs very disappointing. I wrote at length about this at the end of November, but to summate, Matt Ryan is in good company when it comes to losing his first three playoff games or series … think Peyton Manning and Michael Jordan company. They turned out OK. Other quarterbacks have lost three playoff games in a row, including guys like Joe Montana and John Elway. There’s no difference between losing your first three playoff games and three random playoff games, and there’s no historical evidence for the idea that the Falcons simply don’t have the stomach to win in the postseason.

Past that idea, Seahawks-Falcons evokes many of the same questions that came up in my analysis of Seahawks-Redskins last week. The Seahawks are arguably the best team in football, depending upon which advanced metric you prefer, but they’ve exhibited a dramatic difference between their performance at home and on the road, both this year and in previous seasons. Atlanta is the superior seed, but they don’t have the underlying metrics that truly support their record and have question marks surrounding the health of some key players. What’s particularly notable here is how neatly each team’s respective weakness lines up with the other’s. There is one aspect of the game-within-the-game that stands out as the obvious battleground. It could be enough to determine the outcome on its own.

Run Interference

Will the Falcons be able to run the ball against the Seahawks? It’s a bizarre question to ask of a team that was built around its running game as recently as two years ago, but Atlanta’s rushing attack, once a pillar of strength, is now a notable weakness. The biggest challenge in pointing out how terrible the Falcons’ run game is involves picking a metric, because they all say such similar things. Atlanta is 29th in yards per carry and 29th in total rushing yards. They ran for just 70 first downs this year, which was tied for 29th in the league. They finished 29th in rushing DVOA, and it wasn’t because they stopped trying; they were 30th in the first half of the season and actually improved to 28th during the second half.

My favorite simple stat, of course, is looking at how a team did on first-and-10 on plays where the score was within 14 points. That’s the core of your running game with regard to the impact it has in keeping your team on schedule for a new set of downs while creating opportunities for play action and bombs in the passing game. In this split, Atlanta was also gruesomely bad. The Falcons only mustered 3.6 yards per carry on those plays, which placed them 30th among the league’s 32 teams. The league average is 4.4 yards per pop. The good news? It’s actually a step up from 2011, when they were 31st of 32.

As you might suspect, much of the decline can be traced to the tired legs of one Michael Turner. The guy who once earned the nickname “The Burner” is closer to being burnt up. This year, Turner averaged just 3.5 yards per carry when the Falcons handed him the ball in those first-and-10 two-score situations, which was the worst rate in the league for any running back with 50 opportunities or more in that situation. Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling averaged 4.2 yards per attempt across their 40 carries in the same split, which isn’t enough to be statistically meaningful, but it does jibe with what shows up on tape. Turner labors to hit the hole, shows little burst through said hole, and rarely ever breaks a big gain. He holds up better than Rodgers in pass protection because of Rodgers’s small stature, but Turner is close to a non-entity in the passing game and it’s basically a victory for defensive coordinators every time the Falcons hand him the ball.

The problem for the Seahawks, unfortunately, is that they haven’t been much better at stopping the run. I covered the DVOA split for the Seahawks run defense and its second-half collapse last week, but let’s put it in perspective in terms of my favorite split. On first-and-10 carries in two-score situations during the first half of the season, the Seahawks allowed just 3.8 yards per carry, which was good enough for 11th in the league, and 9.6 percent of the opposition’s carries went for 10 or more yards and a new first down. During the second half, the Seahawks have allowed opponents to average a whopping 5.6 yards per rush attempt, a figure that puts them 30th of 32 teams, and 18.1 percent of opposition carries have resulted in a first down. In short, teams are running for 10 or more yards on the Seahawks in their most basic situation nearly twice as frequently during the second half of the season. Furthermore, this isn’t a stat influenced by one big play: The Seahawks haven’t allowed a carry of more than 28 yards in this situation all year. Instead, Seattle has been getting sliced and diced by opposition running games all second half. The Redskins started off last weekend’s game doing well against the Seattle run defense, producing 61 yards on 11 carries across their first two drives, but the injury suffered by Robert Griffin was enough to change the gameplan and force the Redskins into a different style of play.

Irvin’s Magic

There’s another reason to believe that the Seahawks might struggle against the run. Lost amid the national debate regarding Griffin was last Sunday’s other knee injury. Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons, who made my unofficial Pro Bowl ballot as a starter, suffered a torn ACL and will obviously be out for the remainder of the postseason. The injury deprives Seattle of arguably their best defensive player, a two-way end who was on the field for 87 percent of Seattle’s defensive snaps during the regular season. No other Seattle defensive lineman saw the field on more than 62 percent of their snaps this past year.

The workload will likely fall on rookie first-rounder Bruce Irvin, who has played 43 percent of the defensive snaps this year while serving as a situational pass-rusher. The idea in drafting Irvin was to get the Seahawks their own Aldon Smith, a vicious quarterback attacker who still had some work to do before becoming an every-down player at the pro level. The 49ers used Smith exclusively as a situational pass-rusher last year, where he produced 14 sacks before moving into the starting lineup this season. Irvin only had eight sacks during his rookie campaign, but he’s shown flashes of brilliance and should trouble Matt Ryan at times on Sunday.

The problem comes in Irvin’s expanded workload. It’s not easy to ramp up from 30 snaps a game to 60, let alone to do so in the matter of one week. Irvin might end up being a great run defender, but at the moment, he’s strictly a pass rusher. Sometimes these guys turn out to be competent run defenders once they get into the lineup, like Smith; other times, they follow the Mark Anderson route and fail to develop into much beyond the situational pass-rush guy they were as rookies. Irvin has a lot of time to mature, but very little time to do so before Sunday. Expect the Falcons to run at him and see if he can hold up at the point of attack. In addition, the increased workload for Irvin should tucker him out and prevent him from having his usual impact on obvious passing downs. Clemons, an accomplished pass rusher in his own right, will also obviously be unavailable on those passing downs. That could give the Falcons the space they need to get their talented core of receivers open downfield.

Injury Watch

After a year of remarkable health, the injuries are beginning to show up at precisely the wrong time for the Seahawks. Of Seattle’s starters, 16 of 22 made it through the season without missing a game due to injury, with three others missing one game each. The Clemons injury is enormous, as he’s one of the most underrated players in football. Another injury that has popped up during the week is Marshawn Lynch’s foot complaint, a problem that has now kept him out of two straight midweek practices. You might normally ignore a team resting a veteran player for a practice or two during the playoffs, but after the Christian Ponder fiasco last week, missing a pair of practices with what appears to be a “minor” injury might mean something. Seattle doesn’t have a back who can replace what Lynch does, both with and without the ball in his hands, so it’s an injury worth close attention heading toward Sunday.

The Falcons aren’t particularly healthy, either. Their week off should help heal a team full of sore players, but Atlanta has more notable injuries that need to be monitored. Both of Atlanta’s cornerbacks were dinged up at the end of the regular season, with Dunta Robinson suffering from a concussion while Asante Samuel deals with a nagging shoulder injury, but they should be ready to go Sunday, even if there’s a decent chance of reoccurrence in their respective cases. Atlanta is also dealing with a sprained ankle suffered by John Abraham in Week 17, one that was serious enough to force him out of the game. After cutting Ray Edwards up front and losing Brent Grimes to the IR, the defense is very dependent upon the health of their starters. Their replacements for the likes of Robinson and Abraham are not even in the same ballpark. Atlanta will want to give them directions to make sure they even show up in the right place on Sunday.

The Prediction

Seattle remains arguably the league’s most talented team, but the injury to Clemons is just enough to keep Atlanta running the ball effectively with a second-half lead. I don’t think it’s a blowout, but instead a game where the Falcons get an early lead and narrowly hold it the remainder of the way.

Atlanta 24, Seattle 20

Houston Texans (12-4) at New England Patriots (12-4)

Like our other AFC matchup, this game is a rematch of a blowout from the middle of December. In fact, New England’s cruise to victory over Houston is why this game is in Foxborough; New England’s head-to-head victory over Houston was enough to secure them the tiebreaker for the second spot in the AFC. The Texans were forced to suit up during the wild-card round and beat the Bengals, who required some exertion to dispatch in a 19-13 battle.

If you read Thursday’s piece on the Ravens-Broncos game and the issues affecting Baltimore’s blowout loss from Week 15 in the regular season, you could probably put together a case for revenge if you were a Ravens fan expecting better things in the second contest. The Ravens were without Ray Lewis and starting special-teamers at multiple spots on defense. The Ravens were a pick-111 away from being within three points at halftime with the ball to come at the beginning of the second half, and Baltimore failed to recover the two most important fumbles of the game. You can’t turn the numbers into a situation where the Broncos shouldn’t be favored, but you can create some doubt.

That’s not really the case with Patriots-Texans. Sure, you can point out that the game might have changed if the Texans had recovered Stevan Ridley’s fumble on the 4-yard line during New England’s opening drive, but the Patriots scored on that drive and each of their next two drives without much difficulty. Even if you turn a very questionable Matt Schaub pass that was picked off and returned for a touchdown, you’re still leaving the Patriots ahead by a touchdown after their 20-minute onslaught to start the game.

And while that was a Texans team missing the likes of Brooks Reed, Garrett Graham, and Derek Newton, each of whom could see significant action on Sunday, the Patriots were without tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Texans ranked fourth in the league in DVOA on throws to tight ends, but even if Gronkowski doesn’t catch a single pass, his considerable blocking ability should give the Patriots another weapon to try to slow down J.J. Watt. His presence should also help create mismatches for Aaron Hernandez. This is the first time the Patriots have had their top four receivers healthy at the same time since the opening week of the season, and since the Patriots were committed to leaving Wes Welker on the bench back then, it’s really the first time all four guys have been featured all year. With the Texans giving significant reps to the likes of Brandon Harris and Shiloh Keo in the secondary last week, expect the Patriots to try to pick off weak matchups at the line of scrimmage before creating easy throwing lanes for Tom Brady.

Mesh Gear Foxborough

The Patriots are far from foolproof in the playoffs,and there are ways that these Texans could emulate the upset victories of Patriot slayers from the past in creating a victory on Sunday. The Giants managed to slow down the New England offense in the 2007 and 2011 playoffs by dominating at the line of scrimmage and getting consistent pressure on Brady, especially up the middle against Brady’s guards.2 Logan Mankins might be a Hall of Fame guard when it’s all said and done, but two of the worst games of his career are his two Super Bowl performances (admittedly with one coming on a torn ACL). The Texans could do that, theoretically, but it will take a performance from Watt that might even go beyond his lofty heights from this past season. He’ll need help from Antonio Smith, and a big game from Connor Barwin on the outside wouldn’t hurt either.

During the 2009 playoffs, the Patriots were blown out by a Ravens team that got off to an early lead and never let New England get back on track. Ray Rice ran for an 83-yard touchdown on the opening play from scrimmage, the Ravens stripped Tom Brady on a third-down sack on the ensuing drive and scored a touchdown a few plays later, and then turned a pair of Brady picks into 10 points. That’s 24-0 before the first beer of the game’s even finished. The Texans might be able to run the ball on the Patriots, but an 80-plus yard touchdown run seems unlikely, let alone following it with three takeaways in a row.

The most similar upset — the one on which Texans fans might want to try to hang their hats — came in the Belichick Derby. In the 2010 playoffs, the Jets managed to upset a white-hot Patriots team after losing to them by 42 points on Monday Night Football in early December by totally reimagining their defensive game plan in the course of one week. The Patriots were favored by 9.5 points, as they are here, but they had the game get away from them after Tom Brady threw a sloppy interception on a screen pass that killed his opening drive inside Jets territory. The Jets even missed a 30-yard field goal before the Patriots were able to get one to go up 3-0, but the Jets came back and scored two touchdowns in the half, the latter of which came after they stopped a Patriots fake punt inside the two-minute warning. During the game, the Jets shifted their scheme from a man-based approach to almost exclusively zone coverage, showing Brady looks that he hadn’t seen on tape. You would expect Brady to adjust in time, but he never did. The Jets did a brilliant job downfield, with several of their five sacks easily qualified as coverage sacks, and pieced together a few big plays from Mark Sanchez to his receivers on drives that created touchdowns and produced a meaningful margin of victory for the Jets.

Try to Win Like You Mean It

That distinction is important for the Texans to note: Touchdowns, not field goals. Specifically, that means you, Gary Kubiak. It was infuriating last week to see the Texans come up short on drive after drive and see Matt Schaub already halfway to the sidelines as the “fourth-and-2” graphic came up. Houston’s running game sliced and diced the Bengals all afternoon, and while all running situations aren’t created equal, you would think that the Houston rushing attack might have been called into play to try to turn at least one long field goal or short punt into a touchdown-producing drive.

In a way, Kubiak might have been right for that one game. Our own Chris Brown has written in the past about “David” and “Goliath” strategies and how coaches might choose to dictate their decision making and play calling based upon their expected likelihood of winning the game. In a matchup where your team is the favorite and expected to win a fair amount of the time, as the Texans were last week, it made sense for the Texans to try to remain relatively conservative while trusting that their superior overall level of performance would be enough to overcome Cincinnati.

This week, as a huge underdog, Kubiak would be smart to pursue “David” strategies, opportunities that involve taking on some risk to increase the slim likelihood of actually winning the game. Because the Texans are unlikely to beat the Patriots in a straight-up game without catching a break or two or optimizing their red zone performance or winning the turnover battle by a couple of takeaways, it might make sense for Houston to pursue riskier decisions that would create opportunities for those breaks to occur, even if it increases their chances of getting blown out. Trying a 49-yard field goal to get a six-point lead makes some sense against the Bengals, who couldn’t move the ball against Houston for most of the day. It makes no sense against the Patriots, who can score as quickly and reliably as anybody in the league and who will beat you, more often than not, if you try to keep it close. The Texans are better off, in this situation, passing on the 49-yarder and trying to convert a fourth-and-2, even if failing gives the Patriots good field position.

Then again, this might not be the week to go for it, either. The Patriots are the second-best team in the league in terms of stopping opposing offenses in “Power” situations, runs in short yardage either on third or fourth down or near the goal line. The Texans have been a league-average team on those plays this year. Perhaps throwing the ball on fourth-and-2 would make more sense. In either case, it’s up to Kubiak to try to manufacture opportunities on the margins for his team to win as a huge underdog.

The Prediction

I don’t think the game will be the blowout that the Patriots put on the Texans a few weeks ago, but I don’t think the Texans match up very well against the New England passing attack. The Texans are a great match against a team with one star receiver, like last week’s Bengals team, but they aren’t very deep in cover corners or linebackers. That should mean big days for Hernandez, Gronkowski, and Danny Woodhead. On a positively balmy January evening in Massachusetts, the points should come, but the Patriots will comfortably have more of them.

New England 31, Houston 20

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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