The Geek's Guide to the NFL Playoffs
Sure, there was a time that Steve Smith was useful. It was right up until Jake Delhomme went down with the injury. Oh, wait, that's the wrong Steve Smith! But seriously ... I agree with you about small sample sizes, but it was Week 15 before the Giants started using their Steve Smith. What's that old saying about rookies not being rookies by the end of the first year? Mr. Smith has been asked to step up, and he hasn't. That's the entire point.
Regarding Jason Witten and his lack of use: The Dallas tight end had eight passes thrown to him in the first Cowboys-Giants game (two of these were nullified by penalties) and only three in the teams' second contest. The big difference here is that he had four medium-length passes (11 to 19 yards downfield) in the first game. In the second, all three of the passes were short. If the Cowboys are able to contain the New York pass rush without keeping extra blockers in, they should try to get the ball to Witten vertically. The Giants safeties haven't proved that they have the ability to stop such a talented receiving tight end.
As far as Jacksonville's cornerback play goes, my numbers show that Rashean Mathis is a bit down this year, but he's still far superior to Brian Williams. The odd thing is that the Jaguars did not move Mathis over to cover Reggie Wayne in the team's rematch with the Colts. Williams had proved by then that he couldn't come close to covering Wayne effectively, yet that's what Jacksonville asked him to do the second time around. When Mathis has been on his game this year, he has proved quite capable of slowing down good receivers—back when he was healthy, Marvin Harrison was only 2 for 5 for eight yards against him in Week 7—so he would seem to be the Jags' best bet to stop Randy Moss. In not moving their corners around, it seems that the Jaguars are saying that Mathis and Williams are interchangeable coverage-wise. I won't be the least bit surprised if we see Moss facing Williams more than a few times. On account of that, I won't be surprised to see Moss reach the end zone multiple times.
If the Patriots are able to exploit the Moss-Williams matchup, the Jaguars' only hope will be to do the same thing against New England corner Ellis Hobbs. Hobbs may be busy telling the media that they don't know his job so they can't judge him, but his pitiful YPA of more than nine yards says plenty about his level of play. He has been a coverage liability for the Patriots all year and, unlike New England teams of previous years, this squad hasn't been able to do much to plug this coverage hole. I still don't think the Jaguars have anywhere near enough firepower to beat Belichick's crew. The next week against the Colts, especially if Marvin Harrison comes back, might be a different story.
Receiver and secondary should also be the key to the Green Bay-Seattle game. I'm thinking that the game will come down to the health of Packers corner Charles Woodson and Seahawks wideout Deion Branch. Branch is currently listed as probable, while Woodson's official status is questionable. If Branch starts and Woodson doesn't, it gives the Seahawks a huge personnel advantage. When healthy, Al Harris and Woodson are one of the best starting cornerback duos in the league, but Green Bay has very little proven depth behind them. Tramon Williams, Will Blackmon, and Frank Walker would all see a lot of time on the field if Woodson is out, and every one of them would be easy pickings for Matt Hasselbeck and the Seattle offense.
I think the Chargers-Colts game is going to be an exact reversal of the teams' previous matchup in one way. In the regular season game, Indianapolis did not have the services of Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark, and Anthony Gonzalez. As I point out in my ESPN article this week (subscriber only), the Indianapolis backup receiving corps of Aaron Moorehead, Bryan Fletcher, and Craphonso Thorpe all posted an average YPA of 5.1 yards or less this season. Peyton Manning proved just how great he is by guiding that group of scrubs to two offensive touchdowns and four drives of more than 50 yards against a very good Chargers defense.
Having said that, I'm not so sold on what looks like the recent resurgence of the San Diego defenders. They had allowed 30 or more points in four of their first eight games, but none of their last six foes topped the 17-point mark. As impressive as that performance looks, the Chargers foes in that time were Baltimore, Kansas City, Tennessee, Detroit, Denver, and Oakland. None of those offenses (except maybe Detroit's) placed much fear in their competition this year. Do the Football Outsiders numbers say this is a case of San Diego's defense improving, or is this just a mirage?
Speaking of San Diego mirages, that brings me to the case of Philip Rivers. In an ESPN.com article this past offseason (also subrscriber only), I called Rivers the most overrated quarterback in football because of his lack of consistency and his inability to keep his poise when facing the blitz. His consistency has not improved, as he posted a quarterback rating of less than 75 in nine games this year. Rivers' numbers against the blitz are better this season, but he still seems far too jittery when a pass rush starts to collapse the pocket. On a positive note, Rivers has topped the 90 passer rating mark in each of his last four games (including the playoff start). But I would ask the same question about him that I asked for the Chargers D: Is he playing that well or is his opposition really weak? What do your numbers say?