EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 4, 2013

A dozen sights to behold come playoff time

Key things to be on lookout for from NFL's contenders

Bill Burt
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — 1. Falcons home cooking

I have never seen a team more under the radar than the 13-3 Atlanta Falcons. I understand the sentiment — their schedule was semi-weak and they are the Falcons — but they do well in a few key categories. They rank fifth in the NFL allowing only 18.7 points per game. They have a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan, fifth in QB rating (99.1), just ahead of Tom Brady (98.7). They have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. And if they make the Super Bowl, they will play in another dome (New Orleans Super Dome) which they play in every season ... I’m just sayin’.

2. Robert Griffin’s leg

He is a legitimate MVP candidate, right there with Peyton Manning, Adrian Peterson and our very own Tommy Brady. But the key to his success is his mobility, particularly his passing outside the pocket. Without this weapon, the Redskins are probably doomed this weekend against a pursuit-based Seattle defense. I love this guy. But I believe his injured knee will catch up with him. One lesson he will have learned this season is that the bye week can be a precious commodity.

3. Carroll’s decision-making

Pete Carroll can’t control his emotions sometimes. He literally hyperventilates on the sidelines. That’s semi-acceptable on Sundays, September through December. It will be the death of the Seahawks probably the week after this one. Carroll has a lot to prove, that he is a “great” coach and not just a great college recruiter/coach. I have doubted his ability to lead a contender and he has proven me wrong thus far. I believe he will eventually blow it when a Green Bay or Atlanta team are on the January agenda. Just my opinion.

4. Gronk’s arm

The New England Patriots are like a machine and they need all systems working together. And a key component of that system is Rob Gronkowski. When he is 100 percent, the Patriots’ offense is nearly impossible to slow down. He can’t be covered by one person, which means everybody else enjoys 20 percent more success. While Gronk played the last regular season game, he did everything he could to avoid having his “healed” arm go near contact. If that arm is still not healed or he is fearful of injury, beating Denver in Denver or an NFC power in New Orleans might be too much to ask.

5. Sacks on Rodgers

Among the incredible record-breaking statistics we witnessed this season, one stat really caught my eye: 51. It’s the number of time Aaron Rodgers was sacked in 2012. That’s three per game. In cause you were wondering, Peyton Manning was sacked 21 times and Tom Brady was brought down 27 times. And guess how many times he was thrown the turf on Week 17 against the Vikings? Five times. Well, guess who they are meeting again on Sunday? If the Packers beat the Vikings, which we expect, they faceoff against the 49ers, another sack happy team. Here’s my guess: Rodgers doesn’t survive past next week.

6. Ravens defense

The Baltimore Ravens are officially a franchise in turmoil. They’ve tried selling America that they have an elite quarterback. We almost bought it. But then 2012 happened. Now their staple, their defense, has fallen hard from “elite” status. This team has lost its identity. I guess you could say it’s their MVP running back, Ray Rice. But he will not be able to carry this team to four wins in January and February. This is a decent team that used to be great because of its defense. But they are in the middle of the road in everything (offense, 16th overall; defense, 17th overall). The Ray Lewis Factor might work one week. But it won’t work two weeks.

7. Broncos running game

While all eyes will be focused on Peyton Manning when the Broncos play this postseason, we probably should be more focused on Knowshon Moreno. The Broncos were 2-3 against “playoff teams” this season, but more importantly struggled running the ball against a few of the “iron” teams (Patriots, 70 yards; Texans, 59; and Bengals, 68). While they traipsed all over the Ravens defense (see No. 6) for 168 yards, Manning will need more balance in January. His problems in Indianapolis this time of year were more related to the Colts inability to run the football (the defense wasn’t too good either). If Moreno is semi-successful, the Broncos will be a 50-50 to get to the Super Bowl.

8. Colts emotion

It can’t last. First off, they are a decent team, not a great one. Their quarterback, Andrew Luck, might end up being the best pure passer since the guy he replaced, Peyton Manning. But this run on adrenaline has gone on too long. I would like to see the Colts put the Ravens out of their misery, but I don’t think they have it in them this year. The playoffs are a different animal. Everybody is amped up. No sexy or heartwarming stories are needed. Reputations are at stake. If the Colts can focus on football and not everything else surrounding their coach, they have a chance of winning one game. But my guess is the tears will be flowing like a river, from many Colts employees, and it will end up costing them.

9. Vikings QB

Let’s be honest. If there is one QB that doesn’t appear to be ready for prime time (the playoffs), it’s Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder. His 81.2 QB rating has him ranked 21st overall among starters. Unfortunately, times have changed in the NFL and teams that have Grade A defenses and/or Grade A running games don’t have enough to win a Super Bowl. My guess is the Vikings aren’t thinking that far ahead. They have the best running back, maybe ever, in Adrian Peterson. But he will be corralled for something like 20 carries and 70 yards this weekend or next. And when that happens, the Vikings have no chance. If Ponder shows any signs of not fearing the moment, the Vikings will make it to next week. But this game versus the Packers has blowout written all over it if Ponder isn’t every good — 20 for 27, 250 yards and 2 TDs and zero interceptions.

10. Bengals nerves

You have to give this franchise some credit. They stuck with their plan, letting the Browns pick and sign players and they stuck with Marvin Lewis as head coach when many people figured he was more Mr. Nice Guy than Mr. NFL Leader. This team is dangerous because they can do a little of everything with some success — throw the ball, run the ball, catch the ball, sack the QB, defend the run, defend the pass, etc. But they have not put it together when needed most. While the Texans have struggled, they might take advantage of these playoff neophytes. This team could be dangerous, maybe two rounds. But they could lose by four touchdowns against the bullies from Houston, too, if they blow it.

11. Texans ground and pound

While the focus on the Texans struggles the last month centered on their quarterback Matt Schaub, legitimately so, the Houston running game (Arian Foster) will be the real barometer of success and failure in January. He is the key Pro Bowl player on offense for the Texans and quite frankly, he has appeared disinterested in some of disappointing losses. The Texans have been exposed, including Schaub, but Foster is probably the second most talented running back not named Adrian Peterson. He will have to be dominant in every win the Texans have. The importance of his performance has grown exponentially this January. If he doesn’t run for 100 yards, the Texans will lose. Mark it down.

12. 49ers identity

Like the Baltimore Ravens, the 49ers are losing their identity, which is running the ball and playing defense like gangbusters. Well, that has changed with new quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and we’re not sure for the better. While we understand that adding balance and a more “offensive” passing game — Alex Smith adored his safety valve three yards away — it has affected the 49ers not for the better just yet. Over the past few seasons, the 49ers lived on their defense. Now they are living on their quarterback. While most people agree that’s a better long-term goal, for the short-term it has reaped the benefits just yet.

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.