Who’d You Rather?: Division Round Edition
OH! Sincere apologies to my most esteemed Pocket Doppler readers. I didn’t realize that we were not talking about a potential rendezvous with a choice Dame of Daybreak Doppler. Instead, the question refers to “Who’d you rather face in the Divisional Round of the playoffs?” That is an interesting question and it is one that I have been pondering since the end of Week 16. I’d like to take the time to tip my hat to Chad Toporski of AllGreenBayPackers.com who had an excellent writeup on the opposing NFC playoff contenders and breaks down their previous matchups against the Packers during the 2011 regular season. In the Divisional Round of the playoffs, the Green Bay Packers (Number 1 seed) can play the New York Giants (Number 4 seed), the Atlanta Falcons (Number 5 seed) or the Detroit Lions (Number 6 seed) depending on who wins during the preceding wild card weekend. Remember, that the lowest remaining seed during the Divisional Round will be coming to Lambeau Field on January 15th. That would increase the odds of a team like Detroit or Atlanta coming to Green Bay before a team like the Giants. Conversely, Detroit could easily lose to a team like the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome and New York could easily handle an Atlanta team on the road at MetLife Stadium. That would lead the New York Giants back into Lambeau Field….
Before I state my Green Bay Packers opponent preferences for the Divisional Round, I’d like to provide the following caveat. The Green Bay Packers need not worry about whatever team arrives in Green Bay on January 15th. No matter the opponent, no matter their respective strengths and weaknesses, the Green Bay Packers need to play their trademarked style of football. Every team is going to have pored over the Green Bay Packers game tape looking for weaknesses, but you can’t remedy talent disparity.
The Green Bay Packers have more top-to-bottom talent than any team in the playoffs. Furthermore, the Green Bay Packers have more “blue-chip” talent than any team that will remain in the playoffs. As long as the Green Bay Packers play to their strengths and efficiently minimize their weaknesses, all of the discussions regarding remaining opponents are essentially moot points. I plan on listing the teams the Green Bay Packers can draw for the Divisional Round in order from my most to least desirable matchup. Essentially, the team I list first will be the team I would most like to play. I will state what they will need to do to get to Lambeau Field on January 15th, reasons I would like the Packers to play them, reasons I would prefer not to play them and an ‘X-Factor’ that the Green Bay Packers need to account for.
“How’d you get here?”: In order for the Atlanta Falcons to get to Lambeau Field during the Divisional Round, they will first need to go on the road and beat the New York Giants in the Wild Card round. They would also need New Orleans to beat the Lions in the Superdome. This is not too difficult a scenario to imagine. The Falcons offense can pound many defenses into submission and Matt Ryan can use Tony Gonzalez for back breaking big gains at the most inopportune time. The Falcons and the Giants are fairly even in talent so it wouldn’t be an upset if either team won. Considering that Matt Flynn threw for close to 500 yards and 6 touchdowns against the Lions secondary, it would be hard not to imagine Brees carrying the Saints past the Lions.
“All in Favor”: The reason why the Atlanta Falcons are the team I would most like the Packers to face in the Divisional Round is that the Packers match up very well against them on both sides of the ball. Yes, the Falcons have Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. Fortunately, if an opposing team can get a lead on the Falcons, Michael Turner goes to the bench and Matt Ryan is forced to throw all the time. Ryan is best when he can work off of play action and get open looks to Gonzalez and Jones. However, even if the Falcons could put up 30 points on the Packers defense, the Packers offense could put over 40 points on the Falcons defense on any given day. While the Falcons don’t have a terrible defense, their defense isn’t good or average against elite quarterbacks. The Falcons do not have the ammunition to get into a shootout with the Packers. Both teams could land some shots, but in the end, the Packers would always land more.
“All Opposed”: In my previous paragraph, I stated “if an opposing team can get a lead on the Falcons, Michael Turner goes to the bench…”. This is not guaranteed and I would imagine that the Falcons gameplan would involve keeping the Packers offense on the sideline. Heavy doses of Michael Turner against a somewhat suspect Packers run defense could mean a long day for the defense and less time for the offense. A gassed Packers defense in the second half could lead to big plays via the arm of Matt Ryan and could lead to a disappointing end to the Packers season.
X-Factor: Michael Turner. If Turner can be productive early, the Falcons are allowed to keep their playbook wide open and keep the Packers defense guessing. The best defense the Falcons have against the Packers offense is their own offense. The Falcons need to win the turnover battle and the time of possession battle in order to win the game at Lambeau. Michael Turner can help in both regards. Keeping the clock running and minimizing the opportunity for Ryan to throw fewer interceptions would be assets for the Falcons. Unfortunately, I think the Falcons offense would have to be perfect to pull off a win and it’s pretty tough to be a visiting team in the playoffs and be perfect. Furthermore, these teams have played each other three times in the past year so there are very few surprises either team can pull. The teams are what they are and the Packers are better.
“How’d you get here?”: This is the least likely scenario, yet it could be very exciting for the Packers. In order for the Lions to get to Lambeau Field and continue their playoff run, the Lions need to stifle the Saints inside the Superdome. That is a tall order and it is probably the hardest assignment of the wild card round. The Lions need to stop the second most prolific offense in the league in order to play the most prolific in the subsequent week. A win by Detroit would also knock out the only offense that has the most similar firepower to keep close to the Packers’. Detroit’s playoff journey isn’t easy, but the playoffs never are.
“All in Favor”: I don’t like playing Divisional opponents, ever. No matter the talent disparity, the games are always more competitive than they probably should be. These teams play two times a year, have a higher percentage of former players and each team has an innate dislike for the other. In short, divisional opponents give me the willies. So why would Detroit be a good matchup? The absolute biggest reason is because Detroit’s secondary is terrible. Seeing Matt Flynn carve up a Detroit defense that was highly motivated to get the number 5 seed for 6 touchdowns as well as seeing Grant make some big plays out in space gives me a bit of comfort for any potential game we may play against the Lions. If the Lions were to somehow survive a shootout down in New Orleans, I am not sure they would have the stamina to withstand another shootout against the Packers. Finally, Coach Schwartz is an irrational hot-head. He’s embarrassed for losing to the Packers twice. I think he abandons his cover packages and tries to hit Aaron Rodgers as often as possible. Rodgers may take a few extra hits, but Rodgers will make the Lions pay.
“All Opposed”: Please don’t sleep on this Detroit Lions team. This is a young, hungry, sixth seeded team that most people believe can’t make it four games, with some talent in leadership positions and a few grizzled veterans that are looking for the recognition that they have never received. Does this sound familiar? Like 2010 Packers familiar? And that’s not even the “best” part. On offense, the Lions have a freak at wide receiver in Calvin Johnson. He can catch everything that is thrown up his way and normally commands two defenders. This opens up the other routes to Burleson and Scheffler as well as Titus Young. The Lions offense is sneaky good. They can outscore most teams such as the 49ers, Giants and Falcons. Their defense is also liable to hit you in the face both literally and in a football sense. With the state of the Packers offensive line, the relative lack of cohesion as well as a two week break, the last thing the Packers need is a top flight defensive line wrecking havoc to the Packers offensive plans. If the Lions defensive line controls the game, the Lions are hard to beat. And if the Lions find a way to beat the Saints at home, they will have a bunch of extra confidence to try their hand at Lambeau Field. A Green Bay Packers – Detroit Lions Divisional Playoff will be a bare knuckled brawl.
X-Factor: It would be easy to provide a rote answer and say Calvin Johnson or Ndamukong Suh or even Matthew Stafford. I could even be contrarian and pick Scheffler or VanDen Bosch. But I think the real X-Factor for this Lions team will be Coach Jim Schwartz. This team will live and die by his actions. Should the Detroit Lions find themselves back at Lambeau Field, Coach Schwartz will need to have prepared as objectively as possible for the Green Bay Packers. His hatred for the Packers is readily apparent, but he has to put his blind emotions aside and have his team ready and focused to play the game. This applies during the game too. Hysterics, ill advised challenges and reckless timeout usage will be the death knell for Coach Schwartz if his actions continue. If Coach Schwartz can keep a cool head and can keep his team adapting to the changes in the game, the Lions have a good chance of continuing their playoff hunt. Yet I keep thinking about the Lions secondary. I cannot see them keeping up with either of the top two offenses in the league on consecutive weeks. The Lions may put up a good fight, but I do not see them continuing as playoff contenders after Lambeau Field.
New York Giants
“How’d You Get Here?”: Nothing would make the New York City sports pages happier than to see the New York Giants return to Lambeau Field in the playoffs. Countless stories would be printed about the 2007 NFC Championship game and how the underdog New York Giants prevailed over the favored Green Bay Packers. While the Giants could potentially meet the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship, they could also meet the Packers in the Divisional Round. A win by the Giants over the Falcons and a win by the Saints over the Lions would send the Giants to Lambeau Field.
“All in Favor”: It seems as if the Packers have played the Giants a disproportionate amount of times over the past four years. Only last year’s Week 16 game was a blowout and even that game started out tight. The Giants just match up well against the Green Bay Packers. The New York Giants are the one potential Divisional Round foe that would require the Green Bay Packers to play well on all cylinders. The Giants would push the Packers to the edge in order to grasp at victory. However, the Green Bay Packers have a strategic advantage. The coaching staff of the Packers have pretty much outcoached the Giants coaching staff in the majority of the previous meetings by the two teams. McCarthy and Co know how to pick at the Giants to figure out strategies and tactics. If the Green Bay Packers players can play disciplined team football, the desired results will come into place. Additionally, the Giants biggest weakness is at the linebacking spots. If Jermichael Finley can catch a few passes in the middle of the field, the linebackers will step back allowing Starks, Grant and Saine to find a little extra running room to set up Aaron Rodgers’ play action. Patience by both the Packers players and coaching staff is the key to victory against the Giants.
“All Opposed”: Please excuse any bias I may hold, but living in New York City “affords” me the privilege of being inundated with Giants talk and analysis. I know more about the Giants than I do any other team in the league (that I don’t own, of course!). I’d like to think my fear of playing the Giants stems from knowing a lot about their players and strengths. For instance, the rushing attack of Jacobs and Bradshaw scares me. Can the Packers contain them both? It won’t be sufficient to contain only one of them. Is the secondary going to have the same communication problems that plagued them the last time they played Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks? Finally, if I thought Detroit’s defensive line was scary, what about the Giants’? Will Rodgers find enough time to pick his spots against an above average secondary with a hellacious front line? I mentioned that the Giants match up well against the Packers and their familiarity with the Packers and Lambeau Field will minimize any intimidation that playing at Lambeau Field may cause. This is a Giants team that will be motivated to play and the Giants know that if they knock out the Packers, that the rest of the competition is nowhere near as difficult to compete with. The Giants are the last team I want to play in the playoffs period, which includes the New England Patriots with Tom Brady, Wes Welker and their stud tight ends.
X-Factor: Should the Giants come to Lambeau Field for the Divisional Round, I would expect a close tightly fought game that could come down to the final possession. The Giants will depend heavily on its vaunted defensive line to disrupt the Packers offense. The Giants defensive line will be the key to their victory. If they are able to stifle the Packers on running plays and get sufficient 4-man pressure on passing plays, they can potentially force Aaron Rodgers into holding on to the ball for sacks or minimizing the damage he can do through the air. Unlike Detroit, New York has a capable secondary that isn’t as forgiving as the Lions secondary. While the Giants secondary can be exploited, it is only after their defensive line has been neutralized. I look for the Packers to try to implement some screen plays into the game to help stagnate the pass rush. Once again, I believe the Green Bay Packers coaching staff can outwit the Giants’ staff. With a screen/draw game on offense and maybe a bit more pressure on defense, the Packers may catch the Giants off guard which may afford the Packers a few extra points for their margin of victory.
While long overdue, I’d really like to know: “Who’d You Rather…?” and why?
P.S.: I had to link this!