Wildcard weekend features several important matchups, though some wide disparity in teams: In the same weekend that the 13-3 and record setting Saints must play, so too much the 9-7 Bengals, 9-7 Giants and even the 8-8 Denver Broncos. At different times I’ve written about most of these teams; the weekend provides a good chance to review some of the concepts that these teams hope to ride to victory.
Cincinnati Bengals at the Houston Texans. My pick is Houston by seven or so. Make sure to read my recent exploration of their outside “wide” zone, which they learned from the master himself: Alex Gibbs.
Detroit Lions at the New Orleans Saints. This is far and away the best game of the weekend, and, though I have to go with the Saints, I think it’s a tough one to call. The Saints are particularly devastating at home, so I’ll pick them by three, but I would not at all be shocked to see Detroit pull off the victory.
In a year of dynamic offenses, New Orleans may well have the best one in all of football. A key part of that success is all-purpose “space player” Darren Sproles, who frequently serves as the fulcrum player in the Saints’ multifarious attack by lining up all-around the field and being both a rushing and receiving threat. I wrote all about those varied skills earlier this season here, for Grantland. Of course, Drew Brees is pretty good too; I’ve previously written about his favorite play, four verticals (isn’t it everyone’s favorite play?), for the NY Times.
Finally, while head coach Jim Schwartz might be best known for a messy post-game handshake, I predicted that Schwartz was likely to have some success with the once moribund Lions — and 10 wins and the playoffs is certainly success for a team that went winless a few years ago — because of his thoughtful approach to preparing for games. There is method to the madness.
Atlants Falcons at the New York Giants. The Falcons don’t do much that is of concept interest — they do a nice job with the play-action passing game but that’s about it. But they’ve slowly built a solid team with some dynamic players on offense and defense, and that’s why they are a formidable team. I like the Giants to win this game at home, however, as I think they’ll rise to the occasion. A big question mark for the Giants will be what kind of production they get from their offense; they have a tendency to get very conservative and stagnant, and their run game is simply not good enough to consistently run over people when the defense has numbers in the box. Their breakout star is receiver Victor Cruz, and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride — a former run-and-shoot guru from his days at Houston — has done a good job using the old run and shoot “switch” concept with Cruz in the slot. On the play the outside receiver and the inside receiver, usually Cruz, “switch” at off the line and essentially run four verticals after the switched release. But what makes the play go is that the receivers have freedom on whether to keep running vertical or to settle; Cruz has done an excellent job finding the open space — very run and shoot like — all year.
Pittsburgh Steelers at the Denver Broncos. Two very confusing teams. Pittsburgh won 12 games this season and is clearly the favorite against Denver, but I am not a big believer that this team can make a long playoff run. But of course they can: They have an excellent, experienced quarterback, dangerous receivers and, most importantly, Dick LeBeau coaching the defense. Over the last decade, no defensive coach — Bill Belichick included — has had better defensive gameplans in the playoffs than LeBeau. His masterpiece was the 2005 season/February 2006 Super Bowl: That team had no business winning a Super Bowl, and yet LeBeau zone blitzed teams like the Colts and Seahawks into oblivion, carefully targeting their protections. I honestly think that Super Bowl run just about killed off teams’ attempt to have their offensive guards “dual read” in pass protection: it was simply too difficult. Read all about LeBeau’s defense here.
And what is there to say about the Broncos that hasn’t already been said? I want to emphasize that if they win it will be because of their defense, particularly explosive rookie Von Miller, but let’s say a word about the offense. What was the toast of the NFL a few weeks back has devolved into literally the worst of all worlds, much as I predicted: With Tebow’s unique strengths and limitations, they had a chance to try to build a run-first offense, including a heavy dose of quarterback reads to make it go, and then sprinkle in the downfield passing game as Tebow became more comfortable. Instead, John Fox and Mike McCoy never felt comfortable with the option stuff they put in — which, let’s be clear, was just a grab bag of random concepts (a pitch here, a read there) — and was not anything coherent, and when defenses began reacting to it they had no counters: All they had was to ask Tebow to start trying to make difficult throws from no-backs on 3rd and long. It must be said that I have long registered my disappointment with Tim’s development as a passer from about his junior year (I even discussed the way NFL vet Monte Kiffin confused Tebow when the former was at Tennessee and the latter still at Florida).
The good news is that, with an offseason and some direction, I think the Broncos staff can go back to the drawing board, figure out a way to coherently include options and read-plays that complement their existing run game, rather than slapping plays together and then throwing up your hands when they don’t work. And I hope Tim can recognize that he needs to seriously develop as a quarterback going through his reads; I’ve never cared as much about his wind-up delivery as I have the slowness with which he cycles through receivers. The bad news is that the Broncos and Tebow offseason will likely start on Monday.