The Playoffs are finally here. I have a question for you Jerks. What are the playoffs all about? No Silverfox, not value. No NTMVW, not efficiency, although you are close. No Trombone, put your hand down, you don’t get to talk until you finish the NBA Draft Grades you promised. Alright, I have had enough; the playoffs are all about MATCHUPS. The Lion is here to tell you which matchups you should pay extra attention to this weekend. These matchups will determine the outcome of their respective games.
Before I delve any further, I have to recognize that I am not the first person to take this matchup evaluating approach. Does anybody remember Jimmy the Greek? If you don’t you should google him. He is one of the most fascinating characters in NFL history for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is controversial racial statements on the air. There is even an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on him. The whole saga is really nuts. I digress. During his segment on CBS’s NFL Today show, Jimmy would breakdown each matchup between the teams according to the tail of the tape, QB to QB, WR to WR, etc. In honor of Mr. the Greek, I am going to do something similar in this column. Of course, I am going to improve on it, and instead of comparing Andrew Luck to Alex Smith, I am going to look at the key matchups in each game, such as Andrew Luck vs. KC’s Defense, KC’s OL v. Indy’s DL. You get the idea. Without further ado, let’s get to the matchups. I will discuss the 5 most important in each game and the key players to watch.
KANSAS CITY at INDIANAPOLIS: This is a unique matchup because the two teams played a few weeks ago, when Indy went to Arrowhead and beat KC handily. The Lion had bet Indy that week and watched the game closely, so we have actual evidence to look at here.
Indy DL v. KC OL: I lead with this matchup because it is by far the most important factor in this game. The last time these two teams played, KC was missing its pro bowl LT Brandon Albert. Instead of moving first overall pick Eric Fisher over to LT from the right side, it plugged in backup Donald Stephenson. This did not go well for KC. Indy was in Alex Smith’s grill all day long causing him to turn the ball over three times. The pass rush was led by rookie Bjoern Warner and veteran Robert Mathis. Mathis is an elite pass rusher and is the player to watch here. He has devastating speed around the edge and a great spin move like his predecessor in Indy, Dwight Feeney. Here is the kicker, LT Brandon Albert is back this week, but now Fisher is out. Expect the Colts to move Mathis around so he can continue to abuse Stephenson like he did two weeks ago. ADVANTAGE INDY
Jamal Charles v. Indy Front 7: Indy’s front 7 are built for getting after the passer, and are not particularly good against the run. They are ranked only 22nd against the run this year, and are even worse when you look at averages they give up per game and per carry. The last time they played, Charles ran for 106 on 13 carries, but since the Chiefs were behind from turning the ball over for easy Colt TD’s, it was largely a non-factor in the game. For KC to win this game, it needs to establish the run with both Charles and the change of pace big back, Knile Davis. Doing so effectively will slow down the pass rush, saving Smith from having to run for his life. Here is a quick suggestion. If I were the OC, I would call some read option plays with Smith and Charles. Smith is fairly mobile, and has run those plays with Urban Meyer back at Utah. I would have Smith have the read player in the read option be Mathis, since they can’t block him anyway. By causing Mathis to think and make a decision, it frees up the KC OL to try block guys they may be able to actually contain. In my mind, there is no question that Charles could go for a huge day against Indy; the question is if they will call his number more than 13 times. Advantage KC.
KC Secondary v. Colts WRs. The Chiefs secondary is big and talented and more than capable of covering the Colts average group of receivers. Eric Berry, Quentin Demps and Brandon Flowers certainly can cover TY Hilton and a bunch of replacement level guys. The whole passing offense has not been the same since Reggie Wayne went down. Since all things in football are related, the better the pass rush, the better the secondary. The first ten games or so of the season, the Chiefs had the best Defense in football. The last few weeks they have fallen back to the pack, and it’s almost certainly because of the injuries to the pass rushing threats and OLBs Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. They are still banged up here, but both are playing. Advantage KC.
Vontae Davis v. Dwayne Bowe. Davis is often very inconsistent, but he is one of the tallest and biggest CB’s in the league and he matches up extremely well size and strength wise with Bowe. Dwayne is coming off an injury and while Davis is also a little banged up, he negates Bowe’s size advantage in the passing game. Last time they played, Davis held Bowe to 5 catches for 46 yards. Advantage Indy.
Andy Reid v. Chuck Pagano. Reid is way more experienced, but he has shown me too many times throughout his career the inability to win close games with poor clock management, unwillingness to make adjustments, and abandonment of the run. Andy has the more talented team here, but if he repeats his prior playoff mistakes, the Chiefs will lose. Pagano on the other hand, always seems to win close games, because he is a great motivator, and he has a smart QB in Andy Luck who he doesn’t have to micromanage. Smith on the other hand, screams “tell me what to do.” Advantage Indy.
PREDICTION: Although KC has the better team and could very easily win this game, the key matchups go in Indy’s favor here, and considering they are home, where they beat San Fran and Seattle this year, I have to take INDY -1.
NEW ORLEANS AT PHILADELPHIA: If you listen to the talk radio in the Philadelphia Metro Area, you would think there is no reason this game should even be played, because the Saints will get blown out since they are away from the dome and up in snowy Philly. Since they are going to play the game anyway, I think I should look at the key matchups for fun at least.
Patrick Chung v. Saints WRs: Even though the Cowboys lost to the Eagles last week, they showed where the weakness of the Eagles defense lies. FS Patrick Chung is terrible. Forced into the lineup due to an injury to impressive rookie Earl Wolfe, every time the Cowboys spread out their offense and forced Chung to cover somebody man to man, it resulted in bad things for the Birds. Dez Bryant’s touchdown was against Chung, and Jason Witten picked on Chung all game. This was not an isolated incident. Eagle’s fans may have repressed the memories of Week 15 against the Vikings, but the same thing happened in that game. While the secondary’s focus was on Corderrelle Patterson, Chung was picked on that game by Matt Cassell throwing to Greg Jennings. He was actually benched due to his poor play. Sean Payton, who we will get to later, is exceptionally skilled at finding the weak link in a defense and exploiting it. While the Eagles will probably take away Marquees Colston, look for Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills to find one on one coverage with Chung and count on Brees to exploit the mismatch. Jimmy Graham and Drew Brees need no introduction; we can all agree they are significantly better than Cassell and Jennings. The only team to shut down Graham was New England. They had Aqib Talib follow Graham wherever he went. I guess the Eagles could have Cary Williams do the same, but Williams is not on Talib’s level. While we are discussing the secondary here, let’s give a nod to Eagles CB Brandon Boykin. He has had a great season, but he is very small and does not match up well against the tall Colston, Graham, and Stills. The most important question in this game is, “will the Saints take advantage of Chung?” I think they will. Advantage NOLA
LeSean McCoy v. Curtis Lofton. My selection of Lofton is because he is the Saint’s leading tackler by a wide margin and is the Saint’s best and most well-known linebacker. It’s no secret that I am a fan of Shady McCoy. I think he is a dynamic weapon and has the potential to be the greatest offensive Eagle of all time. The Eagles offense leads the league in total yards rushing, yards per carry, and yards per game. Conversely, the Saints are a middle of the road defense against the run. They are 16th in those three statistics. It’s worth noting here that last year the Saints were the worst defense in the league. Their huge jump can be attributed to two fellows, Rob Ryan and rookie Safety Kenny Vaccaro. Ryan utilizes disguised blitz packages to get the most out of his limited talent on the defensive front. Vaccaro was selected in the first round, and was used by Ryan similar to the way the Steelers use All-Universe safety Troy Polumalu. They asked him to be everywhere and throw his body around the field like the long haired alien safety that plays in Pittsburgh. While Vaccaro filled the assignment admirably, similar to what often happens to Polumalu, his body broke down. Vaccaro broke his ankle in week 16 and is out for this game. Lofton will not have his help against the run. His replacement to watch is old man Roman Harper. The second most important question in this game is how Harper will fill the role of Vaccaro. Despite the loss of Kenny V., the biggest problem with Lofton in particular and the Saints run defense in general is their susceptibility to big plays. This comes from largely from over pursuit, which Lofton tends to do. They also come from having an undersized front and the schematic problem of relying on blitzes. They leave you open to a cutback by the running back to a wide open field with no backside pursuit. McCoy may be the best in the league at doing his jump cut to the backside of the play. Jacquizz Rodgers, who is nowhere near as good as Shady, torched the Saints by his ability to cut back in a Monday Night Game that knocked me out of my suicide pool. This does not bode well for NOLA. Advantage Philly.
Eagles OL v. Saints DL: When I watched the Dallas game last week I noticed something. The Eagles are not particularly good in pass protection. The Cowboys seemed to be able to get to Foles and sack him to kill drives on more than one occasion. They were able knock him down even more times. A quick look at the stats confirmed my suspicion. The Eagles have given up more sacks than all but 7 teams. The Saints happen to have recorded the 4th most sacks of any team in the NFL. The clear individual matchup to watch here is rookie RT Lane Johnson against Saints DE Cameron Jordan and OLB Junior Gallette. Lane often lunges in pass protection due to his eagerness to be physical. This is a no-no. Jordan and Gallette have more than 12 sacks each. Rex will try to confuse Lane and all of the Eagles with disguised blitz packages. The other person that will determine who wins this matchup is Nick Foles. It’s clear that Chip Kelly preaches taking care of the ball. Vick got benched because he is a turnover machine. Foles has been outstanding in taking care of the ball. One of the negative side effects of this mind set has been that Foles sometimes is unwilling to throw the ball away. Some of this is probably attributable to being essentially a rookie. If he learns to throw the ball out of bounds instead of taking a sack, look out. Until then, in this matchup, I have to go with the Saints pass rush. Advantage NOLA.
Weather v. Players. Much has been made about the Saints being terrible outside of the Dome this year. I think that is a little over blown and quite frankly is lazy journalism. Look at who the Saints lost to on the road this year. They lost at Seattle, Carolina, and New England. I don’t think any team played particularly well in those locales this year. That still doesn’t explain the beating NOLA took at St. Louis, or the loss at the Jets. One of those losses came in comfortable weather and the other came in the familiar confines of a dome, so while I am not saying the weather won’t affect the Saints, I don’t think you can just jump to the conclusion the national media did and say the Saints suck in the outdoors and in cold weather. Also, whether you look at it statistically on win-loss records, or just basing it on atmosphere, the Eagles have one of the worst home field advantages in the NFL. The Linc is not that loud because of the way it is built. The sound escapes. While this is the perfect opportunity to take a shot at Eagles fans for not being as intense and crazy and wild as they think they are, I won’t do that, because it’s not their fault the team hasn’t played well at home in the last 5 years. Having said that, the Saints rely on passing much more than the Eagles, and a cold windy night on the east coast will affect the passing game more than the running game. The weather is supposed to be clear and in the 20’s at game time. Also, as mentioned above, the key to Saint’s defense is their pass rush. Pass rush is one of the things that is most affected by a home field advantage lead wide. In NOLA, the very loud Super Dome (sound has nowhere to go) makes it near impossible for visiting offenses to hear the snap count, negating the largest advantage an OL has over a DL. Want proof of what I am saying? Gallette has 10 sacks at home, just 2 on the road. Therefore, considering the fact that the Eagles will be able to hear Foles bark the count, and the fact that the expected sub-freezing weather more greatly impacts the gun slinging offensive game of the Saints than the ground based track meet run by the Eagles, I have to side with the national media here and agree that the Saints will be at a disadvantage outdoors despite the fact that I disagree with the “they can’t play outside” generalizations and magnitude of the disadvantage the Saints face. ADVANTAGE PHILLY
Chip Kelly v. Sean Payton: These are two of the best young coaches in the game. Chip’s use of the latest sport science has his team in better shape and healthier than most heading into this postseason. Sean Payton has playoff experience and a Super Bowl Ring. Both coaches turned around teams that were awful without them last year. Both the Eagles and Saints had virtually the same rosters as the year prior, the major difference is their coaches. What Chip brings in innovation is cancelled out by Payton’s experience. ADVANTAGE EVEN. We have a tie. We move to a bonus matchup.
Fletcher Cox v. Jahari Evans. For those of you who only follow skill players, Cox is the Eagle’s DL and Jahari Evans is the Saint’s RG. Fletcher was a first round pick and was a supremely talented and productive DL out of Miss St. While he had a slow start to his NFL career, he has really come on this year, prompting pieces like this one about his improved game. The key to Cox’s success is that he is strong enough to bully not only Tackles but also interior lineman, but also quick enough to beat them with his speed. He has flashed pro bowl potential this year. He has had his most success when the Eagles have used him in the 3 technique; which for those who don’t know is the outside shoulder of a guard. The example used in the above article shows him dominating the Buc’s RG. Against the Saints, Evans will be that man. Jahari Evans is a Pro Bowl guard, and is one of my personal favorite players. He made the NFL out of DII Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. He is amazingly athletic for being such a huge guy. He is one of the best at pulling and lead blocking on run plays and getting downfield and blocking quicker guys on screens. It is imperative for the Saints to be able to run the ball in this game at least as effectively as the Cowboys ran it last week. They need to balance their offense in the bad weather and give their defense a breather against the up temp Eagles offense. This will be an epic matchup in the trenches, but I think Cox’s physical gifts are not enough to overshadow Evans’ talent. Their talent being equal, experience wins. Advantage NOLA.
PREDICTION: In what is obviously a very close matchup, I have to take the points. Vegas seems to agree because this line says the big money is taking NOLA. SAINTS + 2.5 (Editor’s Note: Go to Hell C-Lion… Eagles by 7 touchdowns)
COMING SOON: SUNDAY’S GAMES.