This is my absolute favorite weekend of the NFL season. The league’s best teams are playing games with real stakes on the line. There is no question that this weekend is must watch football. Due to positive feedback from last week, I will again attempt to tell you which matchups will have the greatest impact on this weekend’s games. When you sit down on the couch or at the bar to turn on the games, look for these battles. Since the Lion does not rest on his laurels, I am giving you extra depth this week. (Ok, it’s possible I went a little overboard with depth. I am not saying I did, just that it is possible).
NEW ORLEANS at SEATTLE -8: We saw this game back on December 2nd. The Seahawks tore the Saints a new one 34-7. The game happened to be on a Monday Night, so the Lion watched a good part of it. I made some observations during this game (much like I did with the Chiefs v. Colts game last week), so I can use my mental notes to help my evaluation of the key matchups.
Jimmy Graham v. Earl Thomas: Back in December, the Saints held Graham to 3 catches for 43 yards and a TD. Besides New England’s use of Aqib Talib, (which I discussed last week), Seattle’s game plan was the most successful of any team in shutting down Jimmy. Believe it or not, OLB KJ Wright was the guy primarily responsible for coverage. Normally a linebacker has no chance to run with Graham, so I don’t know if that was a fluke, or if KJ Wright could take chances and be extra aggressive in coverage because Earl Thomas was there to help over the top. Thomas is one of the best safeties in the league. I honestly think he could cover Graham by himself if need be. One of the other reasons why Thomas was able to help so much on Graham is that he does not need to help out Seattle’s CBs, because they are excellent. I will get to them later. Here is what makes this week interesting. KJ Wright probably is out this weekend. I imagine Thomas will get the task of covering Graham. Based on my review of Graham last week, I have no reason to think that he will be more successful this time around if covered by Thomas. Honestly, Graham isn’t really a great route runner. He has most of his success when he kills LB down the seam. What normally happens is Drew Brees sees that the defense is playing one safety deep, or that the two safeties are cheating up to help underneath, and Graham just beats a LB deep down the middle of the field with his supreme athleticism. If it’s a safety tasked with guarding him, Graham usually uses his size to position his body where he can jump over them for the catch. He won’t be able to do either here very easily. If I was coach Payton, I would use different formations and schemes to get Graham matched up differently. I suggest maybe lining him up as like an H back, or even in the backfield like the Pats used Hernandez last year. On the other hand, if the Saints don’t use Thomas to cover Graham, and instead use Wright’s back up, Jimmy could be in for a big day. Since I have no reason to know if either will happen, I have to look at probabilities to determine which way this matchup will go. Slight Advantage SEA
Saints WR v. Seattle CBs: I said last week that all of football is related. It’s what makes it the ultimate team game. Baseball is really a collective individual sport. In Basketball one player can dominate a game. In Hockey, a goalie can win a game by himself. Soccer sucks. In football, while QB is the most important position, everything hinges on your teammates. Following that logic, it makes sense that this matchup is directly related to the previous one. Seattle can cover Graham because its CB’s can cover without safety help. Seattle is number one in the NFL in total defense by any metric you want to look at. They have given up the fewest points, yards, points per game, and yards per game. While they have a top ten run defense, their strength is pass defense. They are number one against the pass by a wide margin. Take a look at these numbers. Seattle has allowed only 2,752 yards through the air this season. The next best team has allowed over 3,000. (It happens to be the Saints). According to the Football Outsider’s geek metrics, the Seahawks pass defense is the best since the 2009 Jets. That’s impressive. The Seahawks are in the top ten in sacks, and have a good pass rushing DL, (more later), but the real reason for the great numbers is the secondary. I already mentioned Earl Thomas but the best player on the team is RICHARD SHERMAN. He is the prototype that Dazzle refers to as the CB of the future playing at 6’3 205. While I don’t know how many Shermans are coming down the pike, I will say that he plays CB the way I want my corners to. He punishes WRs off the line to throw off their timing and exhaust them, and in the rare chance they get by him, he still can run with them step for step. The best compliment I can give Sherman is that he is the player in the league I would be least surprised to find out he was on PED’s. He is that dominant. Speaking of PED’s, the bookend CB Walter Thurmond was suspended for four games during the season for violating the substance abuse policy, (Byron Maxwell filled in brilliantly in the interim) but is now back. Thurmond isn’t alone. Whatever fellow DB Brandon Browner did to violate the league’s substance abuse policy must have been egregious, because he is suspended INDEFINIETLY. I actually can’t believe this isn’t a bigger story. The NFL’s best secondary known for being huge, aggressive and physical has multiple members fail drug tests. Hmmm, nothing to see here, let’s move on. NOLA’s WRs are nothing to scoff at. Marquees Colston, Kenny Stills, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore are among the best collective groups in the league. They were open a lot more often against the Eagles last week then the stats would show, Brees just had a terrible game throwing the ball. The x factor for the Saints is Darren Sproles out of the backfield. In the December game, Sproles was the leading receiver with 7 catches. I think he is in decline overall, but still has the ability to affect the game. He showed his ability last week when he got behind the Eagles Defense on a wheel route in the first quarter. Brees underthrew what would have been a sure touchdown. Payton needs to milk Sproles for all he’s got because he doesn’t have many years left in the tank at this point. Overall, the single most important matchup affecting this game is the Saints pass catchers vs. Seahawks secondary. While I think this is a close call, I have to give the nod to a good defensive unit that has Thurmond, Sherman, Thomas, and huge hitter Kam Chancellor, over a good offense. Advantage SEA
Saints OL v. Seattle DL: I don’t want to regurgitate too much of what I said last week on Jahari Evans. I will say this though. Evans won the battle with Cox no matter how you look at it. The Eagles did not get adequate pressure on Brees to affect his game. This week, Seattle has a more formidable pass rush, especially when they do something similar to the Giants “Nascar” package when they roll out 4 Defensive Ends to get after the passer. If Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin get to Brees like they did in December, this game will end up the same way. If you remember, early on in the game, Avirl managed to hit Brees forcing a fumble that flew right into Bennett’s hands which was returned for a TD. This gave momentum to Seahawks; and of course they never relinquished it that night. During that time the Saints were having problems at the LT position. In that loss and a loss to the Rams, LT Charles Brown played so poorly he was benched in favor of rookie Terron Armstead. Armstead played admirably against Trent Cole last week and while he will get his share of holding penalties, I think the problem at that spot is mostly fixed. Expect Coach Carroll to send blitzes to that side of the line to pick on Armstead’s lack of experience. Good luck to Armstead hearing changes in pass protection on the road in the NFL’s loudest stadium. While you would think I would give the edge to Seattle here, I am not done, because pass blocking is only half of why this matchup is essential. One of the biggest reasons the Saints won last week is that they were able to control the clock by running the ball. They did so with mediocre running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. This kept the Eagles offense off the field and put pressure on them to convert every time they got the ball. The Saints primarily ran to the right side, which happens to be the side of my man Evans. This success on the ground consistently put the Saints in a second and short situation. It allowed them to take chances down the field, knowing they would be able to convert a third and short play. Drew Brees ran the QB silent sneak over Evans no less than four times to extend a drive. The Eagles knew it was coming and couldn’t stop it. This week, the Saints go up against a better rush defense. As I said above, the real strength of Seattle is the secondary, not the front seven. Once again, it is imperative for the Saints to be able to establish the run this week, but for a different reason then keeping Seattle’s offense off the field. The only way the Saint WRs will win against a big physical secondary like the one they will face is for the DBs to have to worry about the run. As I keep saying, everything in football is related. A WR’s best friend is the PLAY-ACTION PASS. If the Saints can run the ball, and I think they can, especially if Pierre Thomas returns this week, it will open up the play action pass and keep them in this game. Slight Advantage NOLA
Marshawn Lynch v. Curtis Lofton: Out of all my predictions for last Saturday’s games, the only guy who proved me completely wrong was Lofton. He and the run defense had a great day against Shady McCoy. They held the league’s best rushing attack to 80 rushing yards on 22 carries. Not too shabby. I don’t know anybody who will argue with me that Lynch is better than McCoy, or even that Seattle’s OL is a better run blocking unit than Philly’s. Kudos to the underrated Russell Okung at left tackle for Seattle though. He is a stud. Still, even with Okung, there is no way Seattle is better at running the ball than Philly is. Want further proof? Back in December, even in a blow out where they would run the ball to kill the clock, the Seahawk RB’s only amassed 79 rushing yards on the 27 carries. The one thing Seattle does have that Philly doesn’t is Wilson running the read option. The last time they played, Wilson killed the Saints, particularly by reading Junior Gallete and keeping the ball. Wilson is way, way, more mobile than Foles, (more on this later), but statistically the Eagles use the read option as often as any team in the league, and the Saints were pretty disciplined against it last week. The Saints absolutely need to stop Lynch and Wilson on the ground and force the Seahawks to beat them through the air with their below average receivers if they want to have a chance to win this game. I think it’s possible. If the Saints repeat that disciplined effort from last week they will win this matchup. Advantage NOLA
Percy Harvin’s injury v. Keenan Lewis’ Injury: It is possible that Seattle gains one of the most versatile weapons in the NFL, Harvin, back this week. We all know Harvin is incredible when healthy, and it appears he will play on Saturday. I have a hard time believing that Harvin is 100% though. He hasn’t had the reps to develop any sort of timing with Wilson, he’s not in game shape, and I doubt the Seahawks have devoted much practice time running through the assorted plays where Harvin might show off his versatility. He should have a limited role, but he still represents a mismatch for 15 to 20 snaps against New Orleans’s Defense. On the other side of the ball, we have Keenan Lewis. He played lockdown coverage last week against Desean Jackson, a similarly quick/versatile/elusive dude. Unfortunately for the Saints, he had to leave the game with a concussion after laying the wood on Jason Avant. Lewis was not allowed to return even though he was caught by cameras pacing the sidelines pleading to play. The Eagles immediately picked on his replacement and went right to Jackson. Lewis is expected to be back this week, although as of the time of writing this I am still uncertain. Weighing the likelihood of Harvin coming back at 100% vs. his value at even 70% vs. the likelihood of Lewis coming back at 100% makes my head hurt, so I will just call this one Even.
BONUS MATHCUP (sorta) Russell Wilson v. Cameron Jordan and Junior Gallete: I went on and on last week about Jordan and Gallete and the Saint’s pass rush. They absolutely got to Foles a couple of times and forced drive killing sacks or even more devastating intentional grounding penalties. Wilson is a different animal. Unlike Foles, he can avoid the pass rush and extend plays. With all due respect to this website’s QB evaluator Dazzle, Wilson is better than Foles right now. In fact, during the December match up, Wilson played the best I have seen him play yet. When the Saints dropped back into coverage, Wilson progressed through his reads and made the smart, accurate throw to an open receiver. Lots of QBs can do that, but here is what makes Wilson special. When NOLA blitzed him or got pressure with a 4 man rush, Wilson eluded the pressure and made the right pass at the right time. Russell’s strength as an athletic QB is that similar to Elway and Steve Young before him, and potentially Johnny Football after him (I doubt it). Wilson, while running, has the ability to keep his eyes downfield and read his options appropriately and made the right pass immediately. This does not bode well for the Saints. Advantage SEA
Prediction: Based on the above matchups this game should obviously be a lot closer than the 34-7 blowout that took place in December. Looking back over my breakdown, I keep finding things where I say the Saints NEED to do something to have a chance to win. Sure it’s possible the Saints could do all of those things but it’s clear to me they have a smaller margin of error due to the talent advantage on Seattle. The talent advantage isn’t so great that the Saints can’t win this game though. A closer look at the last game shows that the Saints had two fumbles that the Seahawks took advantage of to jump out to an early lead and force the Saints to play from behind. This is a common theme for Seattle; their defense is number one in takeaways. They force them on 20.1 percent of opposing possessions. Nobody else is above 16.9 percent. Drew Brees was uncharacteristically off last week throwing two picks. Also the Saints turned the ball over on just 8.7 percent of possessions this year, the second-best rate in football. In light of everything above, I don’t expect a blowout. With the weather report calling for 100 percent chance of precipitation and winds of up to 21 miles per hour, I can’t pick the Saints to win outright, either. Against the spread, I am taking the points. NOLA +8. I think the final score will be 24-20 SEATTLE.
INDIANAPOLIS at NEW ENGLAND -7.5: The media coverage in this game is going to be almost entirely focused on the Quarterback Matchup for a lot of reasons. It is true that the more I look at each teams rosters, Luck and Brady have basically carried otherwise mediocre teams (due to injuries) to division titles and the playoffs. However, this game is going to be billed as the up and coming clutch QB Luck vs. the reigning clutch QB Brady. The Lion is not a fan of the overemphasis on QB play, especially “clutch” QB play. (Yes, I am about to go into a rant here) I find that once you get a reputation for being clutch, when your team loses its not your fault it’s your team let you down. Conversely when you win, it’s only because you are a “clutch” QB. Consider this, both of these “clutch” QBs were technically outplayed by Joe Flacco last year in playoff losses. Is Flacco more “clutch” then either guy? Would you rather have Flacco as your QB than either of these two? Even in a “clutch” situation? No, probably not. My point is that while the media is going to unfairly give the credit and blame to Brady and Luck, it doesn’t change the fact that both QBs are pretty good and will probably play pretty well. The game will come down to the other matchups. Don’t worry, that is exactly what I am here to do for you, to look at these very matchups.
Nate Solder v. Robert Mathis: I gushed about Robert Mathis last week and suspected that the Colts would recognize that Mathis could take advantage of Donald Stephenson starting at RT and have Mathis line up on that side. Stephenson did do a much better job this time of using his inside (left) hand to push Robert Mathis by the hip deeper into the pocket as opposed to getting a sharp edge. This had the effect of rounding off his route to Alex Smith, creating more distance and more time for him to get the ball off. Smith also did an above average job stepping up in the pocket as Mathis blew harmlessly by him. Still, Mathis clearly was a handful for Stephenson, and his strip sack of Smith caused a turnover which changed the whole momentum of the game. The Pats are so aware of Mathis that Brady announced to the press this week that stopping him should be the Pats number 1 priority in preparation this week. New England has an outstanding left side in tackle Nate Solder and guard Logan Mankins. Solder is a former TE, and has the foot speed and technique to prevent Mathis from getting the edge on him. At LG, Logan Mankins is a perennial pro bowler, and the enforcer of the team. He will provide help whenever needed, especially if Mathis tries the spin move back inside. So you may be guessing that I am going to give the advantage to the Pats. Well, much like Vizzini in Princess Bride, I am just getting warmed up.
Since Coach Pagano obviously read this column last week and listened to me, I suppose that he will again move Mathis to the right side to pick on Marcus Cannon. Cannon was playing guard for the Pats throughout the season, but got moved over to RT when Sebastian Vollmer went down. This shouldn’t be surprising from a guy moving from guard to tackle, but Cannon is an aggressive run blocker, susceptible to faster edge rushes from guys just like Mathis. The book on him also is that he lacks ability to diagnose stunts and blitzes. Just as I suggested the Seahawks will go after Terron Armstead with blitzes to challenge him, I can see the Colts moving over Mathis and going after Cannon with twists and blitz packages. So advantage Mathis right? Wait, I’m not finished yet. Cannon has two things going for him that Stevenson did not have. One is that he is at home. He will be able to hear the snap count and any protection changes made by Brady (I discussed the importance of the snap count to OL last week). The other is Brady himself. If Mathis has to move to the right side, Brady can see him coming if he beats Cannon and step up in the pocket. I don’t know how else to say this, Brady is really freaking slow. However Brady’s most underrated quality is the ability to sense pressure and quickly step out of the way at the last second. He can sense it in an uncanny manor from the blind side, and has no problem eluding a rusher from the right side. This is absolutely infuriating to pass rushers, and those, like me, who wish Brady harm. Therefore, since Solder and Mankins are good enough to prompt Mathis to likely be moved to Cannon’s side, where he will most likely beat Cannon, he will be seen by Brady. So I have to give the nod to Solder here. You see what people mean when they say football is like a chess match? Slight Advantage NE
Aqib Talib v. TY Hilton: This matchup, while epic, is a little bit easier to breakdown. Hilton was basically the whole offense last week against KC. As I said last week, the rest of the Colts receivers are pedestrian at best, with the lone exception being maybe that Colby Fleener is a slightly above average possession receiving TE. The one thing Belichek defenses can do well is take away the best player on an offense. Talib is normally who he uses to stop a top receiver. I mentioned last week how he shut down Jimmy Graham. Talib is always generally affective, but much more so 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. Andre Johnson, Josh Gordon, and Mike Wallace all had above-average games against him. He healed up down the stretch and completely shut down Torrey Smith and Stevie Johnson to close out the season. Hilton is better than Torrey and Stevie, and torched a better secondary then New England’s last week. Hilton put up video game numbers catching 12 passes for a whopping 224 yards to go along with 2 Tds. While this is a tough one, I think the bye week helps Talib here. Especially considering the game will be outdoors at night in January. Slight Advantage NE
Colts OL v. Pats DL: The Colts OL didn’t give me a lot to work with last week as far as running the ball. Because the Chiefs jumped ahead so early, the Colts only ran the ball 19 times compared to 45 passes. That is a very limited sample against a defense that was not worried about stopping the run. Still, replacement level RB Donald Brown ran for 5.0 yards per carry. KC’s front seven is a lot better than the decimated front NE has. Instead of looking at who is playing, I think it’s more effective if I say who ISN’T playing for the Pats. They are missing both starting DTs in Tommy Kelly and pro bowler Vince Wilfork, their best run stopping LB in Brandon Spikes, their best coverage and blitzing LB in Jerod Mayo, and their strong safety Adrian Wilson. All are on injured reserve. A good run defense needs to be strong up the middle. The Pats just don’t have the bodies. As the season has progressed and the injuries piled up, the defense just fell apart. Consider this, according to the football outsider geeks, the Patriots ranked 10th in defensive during the first half of the season, but after their Week 10 bye, they had the league’s fifth-worst defense. They Pats also have nobody to rush the passer. Against a much better pass rush last week, (although you have to wonder how healthy Hali and Houston were) the Colts kept Luck upright the whole game. Luck is another guy who has no fear stepping up in the pocket to avoid an edge rush. (More on Luck later). I don’t expect the Pats D to get to Luck very much. If they want to have any chance of shutting down the run, Dont’a Hightower, who is being forced to play out of position at weakside linebacker, also known as the WILL in a 4-3, has to have a great game. (Hightower normally plays the SAM). Considering all the above, this matchup might be the most one sided in this article. Advantage Colts
Pats WR v. Colts DBs: Just like on defense, the story on the offensive side of the ball for the Pats is who is missing. They have an injured Gronk, a banged up Danny Amendola, and a jailed Hernandez. They should have Amendola for this game, to go along with Edelman, Dobson and Thompson. While this group is not particularly scary, it’s not much better than KC’s group of WRs after Dwayne Bowe last week. Alex Smith and that same mediocre group torched the Colts last week. While watching the game the Lion’s eyes saw the weak link. Darius Butler came in last week at DB for an injured Greg Toler. Whoever he covered caught the ball. Bowe beat him for every one of his big catches. You better believe Belichek and Brady saw this. It gets better, Darius Butler, a former New England second-round pick who left the team as a failure before catching on in Indy. Conversely, Vonate Davis did a bang up job last week as I predicted him to. I expect him to shut down whoever he guards Saturday Night. If I were to make a suggestion to Pagano here, I would put Davis on Edelman more so than Amendola. While it’s a tough call, Butler’s awfulness means the slight edge has to go to the Pats. Slight Edge Pats.
Deon Branch v. Bill Belichek: I think this is a fascinating factor in the game. We all know the history of espionage that the Pats use to gain an advantage in games. They have won exactly ZERO Super Bowls after Spygate happened. Being a Patriots hater, one of my fondest memories of NFL fandom in the past ten years is when Lawyer Malloy was released by the Pats in the last round of cuts and picked up by the Bills just before the two teams’ week one matchup on September 7, 2003. Brady threw 4 interceptions and no touchdowns in the game. Malloy had a sack and pick in a 31-0 Bills victory. Deon Branch hasn’t played for the Pats in a while, but you know he knows secrets. Belichek of course scoffs at the idea. This week to the media, he called the practice of picking up released players to shake them down for intel about their old team way overrated. This leads me to believe that Bill is lying, because, you know, he is speaking to the media. This would mean that Belichek is in fact concerned. Then again, if I wanted to go Vizzini again, I would consider the possibility that Belichek is using Deon as a double agent, either with his consent or by planting a recording device on his body. You can’t eliminate that as a possibility, so I will just say this. Slight Edge Colts.
Even though its 3-2, it’s very close, the only true edge I see is Colts OL v. Pats DL, so let’s do one more, real quick.
Brady and Belichek v. Luck and Pagano: Ok I have to go here even though I told myself I wouldn’t. Pagano is a master motivator, but he cannot beat the dark lord Bill Belichek in this matchup. That is a no brainer. The QB battle is way closer. I hate to say it, but this may be Brady’s best year yet as a leader. He has not had a great year statistically of course, but the fact that he won this many games with no good skill players. You know Brady is a dick at heart, and it is killing him not to just flip out on his WR’s for being so mediocre. However, as I have said before, one of the qualities of being a good NFL QB is to be likeable and make your players want to play for you. Brady is a winner, so he is holding on to that locker room one way or another. I don’t know if Petyon Manning could do what Brady did this year in the same circumstances, but let’s save that one for another day. Stupid Brady, oh how I hate him. Andrew Luck however, I love. I was slow to come around on him, but last week he showed me not only that he was unflappable, (I already kind of knew that), but that he has real athleticism. He is sneaky fast. The longest Colts’ run of the day from scrimmage was when he took off on a QB Keeper on 4th down. His fumble recovery turned propulsion dive into the end zone showed that he is just an athlete plain and simple. He has the edge on Brady there. Luck also has that insane ability to sense pressure and avoid it like Brady. Luck isn’t quite as skilled as Brady there, but he is so big and strong that guys can’t arm tackle him. Basically he has a little Big Ben going on. Big Ben happens to be my favorite QB in the league to watch for reasons I will explain another time. An on the rise Luck right now in my mind is even with a Brady on the decline. (I may be biased). Since it’s a combined coach v. qb category though, there is a clear winner. Advantage Pats
Prediction: This matchup is a lot closer than I initially thought. It will most likely come down to who will turn the ball over less, home field advantage, coaching, and special teams. For all of the above reasons, if I had to bet this game I would take the PATRIOTS -7.5. I of course won’t because I hate them. Go Colts.