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Divisional Deductions
Authored by Jeff Risdon - 18th January, 2011 - 8:37 pm

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Normally, I write my weekly recap column in the form of individual cents, but that just didn?t seem to fit the bill for the Divisional Round. I mean, both NFC games were one-sided routs that unfolded the way most people expected, and I?ve already beaten the ?Joe Flacco is simply and quite clearly not a good clutch QB? horse to death. The Jets upset win over New England is certainly compelling on many levels, but what really hasn?t been said by the Jets themselves? Sometimes the team making itself the story is the actual story, and that?s my story on the Jets.

So I decided to look for something broader, something wider in scope. What do the final four teams have that other teams lack? The most obvious place to look is quarterback, which is interesting in that none of the four remaining starting QBs were deemed worthy of earning a Pro Bowl bid. Obviously, Aaron Rodgers is an egregious snub, but Mark Sanchez was the AFC?s lowest-rated qualifying passer and Ben Roethlisberger missed four games?in which the Steelers went 3-1. Plus, a couple of the losing QBs this past weekend (Tom Brady and especially Matt Hasselbeck) were better than their teammates and arguably better than the vanquishing victor.

But there is something to these quarterbacks that are left. One of the things that stands out about all these guys is their willingness to take chances. Part of it is a function of schematic style; the offenses are geared to take shots down the field as part of a higher risk/higher reward philosophy. Part of it is that all four remaining teams have multiple receiving threats that can have a great impact on the game even by making just two receptions. With the exception of the Jets, the other offensive lines left are among the worst in the league, which means it is incumbent upon the QBs to make big plays in the name of self-preservation.

That leads to all these teams having big-play receivers, plural.

New York probably wouldn?t have even made the playoffs without the big contributions from Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes, even though they?re just as likely to drop the big play as they are to make it.

Chicago has a cadre of receivers that aren?t overwhelming individually, but have speed to burn and blend well together.

Pittsburgh uses Mike Wallace, the best deep threat in the game today, just often enough to keep him effective but also hungry.

Green Bay has largely interchangeable parts that all can turn a little play into a big one.

When Baltimore and Seattle needed their good receivers to make big plays, they couldn?t do it (Mike Williams wound up having great numbers, almost entirely after the fact).

There probably isn?t a true #1 receiver left but that?s for the better for these teams, and it?s a trend I think the league is heading towards.

Taking a look at the upset victims, New England and Atlanta, I found a commonality. Both teams thrived all year on the prevention of turnovers. Their offenses simply didn?t cough up the ball, and that was their primary advantage in racking up wins and earning playoff spots. This goes back a week too; Kansas City and Philadelphia also finished with the Patriots and Falcons in the top-five in fewest turnovers committed during the regular season (the rankings: NE and KC tied for 1st, ATL was 3rd, Houston 4th, PHI 5th). What does that say? Obviously they take good care of the ball, but there?s an inherent overcautious tone to their play that leaves them vulnerable. Risk aversion is fine, except when you need to take one to win a game.

Look at Tom Brady down the stretch of the Jets game; constantly checking down quickly and eating up clock with short gains, not even trying to hit a big one or draw pass interference. The Jets coverage was excellent but not flawless, and Brady?s reluctance to risk the turnover really cost them in this one. The same was true of Matt Cassel in Kansas City a week earlier, and of Matt Ryan to a lesser extent in the Atlanta humiliation.

Contrast that with Roethlisberger lobbying on the sidelines to take a deep shot with a rookie wideout, Antonio Brown. No dinking and dunking his way down the field for Roethlisberger, no sir; he was confident enough to take a risky shot and it won them the football game. Jay Cutler took his big shot early, throwing a risky tight end seam route, a play that is entirely dependent on the safety making a slow read. On the third play of the game, that?s exactly what happened and the Bears never looked back. If Lawyer Milloy isn?t flat-footed in coverage, he has a great chance to pick that throw off unless it?s absolutely perfect. Risk taken, reward earned. The passiveness and inability to challenge the Chicago defense despite having a QB playing relatively well cost Jeremy Bates his job as Seattle?s offensive coordinator.

The remaining defenses are all built to handle that kind of timidity. The Jets and Packers both played with their safeties almost completely ignoring their deep-field responsibilities, which means quicker tackles and smaller passing windows on all those underneath, shorter throws.

Chicago masterfully blended Charles Tillman?s great jamming skills with well-conceived blitzes and safeties jumping routes.

Pittsburgh very nearly picked off Joe Flacco?s first pass of the day on his bread-and-butter play, the out pattern to Derrick Mason. Flacco put that play in the bag for the rest of the game, a great and correct assumption by Dick Lebeau and his defense that allowed Troy Polamalu to not even have to think about helping in coverage against Mason.

The Jets, Steelers, and Packers all play a scheme that often requires their corners to handle downfield receivers by themselves, and the only way to beat it is to challenge it. It might not work very often, but it doesn?t need to. The gamble they all took that the opposition wouldn?t take those risks paid off. It makes this coming weekend?s games fascinating because now those risks will be taken, and the Super Bowl combatants are likely to be decided not by which team is better but rather which team cashes in their shots more effectively.