The Spotter’s View: Wildcard Weekend

wildcardmainElimination games. Drama. Big plays and even bigger atmospheres. The NFL Playoffs are set to kickoff this afternoon and like the rest of America, I honestly can’t wait to spend the next two days glued to my 60″ LED TV. These four wildcard games are full of great matchups and storylines that are sure to make this a memorable weekend.

We have three rookie QBs playing, a retiring Hall of Famer set to play in his last home game and one very unique historical matchup. I am completely fired up. Here is The Spotter’s View on Wildcard Weekend and what we can expect to see:

Cincinnati Bengals vs Houston Texans

Something happened to the Texans as the NFL season rounded the final turn and headed for the home stretch. They lost track of their identity. RB Arian Foster wasn’t the same back, the offensive line started to struggle and – as a result, QB Matt Schaub became a liability. How is this even possible for a team that we all had pegged for a Super Bowl run just 4 or 5 short weeks ago?

From what I’ve seen and through some of the conversations I’ve had, it appears as those opponents are utilizing a different defensive front against the Texans which has negated their best play – the stretch zone. So, what’s this defense and why is it so damaging to Houston’s attack?

It’s called a “Bear Front” – which simply means the interior three offensive linemen are covered up by the interior line of the defense (Both guards and the center have a D-linemen directly over their head). In the Texan’s zone blocking scheme, the guards and center are usually responsible for climbing to the second level to cutoff scraping linebackers. This creates lanes for Foster to exploit and gives him multiple paths to choose from as he stretches the defense horizontally. What the “Bear Front” does is eliminate the ability for the two guards and center to make that climb as they are stuck at the first level battling against the big interior linemen that lined up directly over their heads at the snap. Make sense? Due to this particular alignment, Foster’s options have been limited and opposing linebackers have been free to scrape – making the stretch zone a far less productive play.

This is more than just a problem for the run game though. The Texans run more play-action than anyone in the entire league and Schaub is terrific at it. He’s a great ball-handler and an even better downfield passer. But without Foster churning out those 4, 5 and 6 yard gains on the stretch play, the opportunity for Schaub to strike deep has been limited. You can see it on the field over these last four games. The “Bear Front” has taken away Houston’s bread and butter. I would expect the Bengals to line up in the bear defense on traditional downs (1st and 10, 2nd and 8-6) in the hopes of keeping the Texans one-dimensional and predictable on those crucial 3rd down plays.

To me – this is where the Bengals and Texans game will be decided. The good news for Bengals fans is that their front seven is as talented as any in the league. They have great size upfront, play-making LBs at the second level and they’ve done a great job of tackling – particularly over the last month of the season.

The onus will be on QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green to grab an early lead and force the Texans even deeper into a one-dimensional game plan. The Bengal defense will do its’ part through the first quarter – maybe two – but they’ll need a lead to help them keep Houston at bay for all 60 minutes. I think they’ll get one.

Bengals 24 Texans 20

Minnesota Vikings vs Green Bay Packers

Last weekend’s game between these two teams was arguably the most entertaining of the entire 2012 regular season. Back and forth scoring between division rivals, a remarkable individual performance by AP and the incredible aerial assault of the Packers led by ARod – culminating in a last-minute deciding play. It was awesome drama and potentially a great appetizer for what we’re going to see tonight under the bright lights at Lambeau Field.

Unfortunately, I don’t see a repeat. The Vikings were playing with desperation last weekend that is hard to duplicate. And they beat a QB that is really hard to defeat twice in one season. Oh….and this game will not be within the friendly confines of the Metrodome. All things are pointing to a Packer victory this evening.

The one reason for hope if you’re a Vikings fan is Adrian Peterson – who is coming off the best regular season for a running back in league history. Yes…he missed Eric Dickerson’s single-season yardage mark by less than a first down….BUT he had less carries than ED did in his record-breaking season AND did it with Christian Ponder as his QB! AMAZING. All within one year of shredding all three of his knee ligaments. This guy is simply from another planet/DNA strand. If I were Lezlie Frazier, AP would have 40 carries tonight. I’d run, run, run….take the air out of the ball, limit ARod’s chances and hope for a big special teams play to swing momentum.

One mistake by Ponder or one short field for ARod could ultimately be enough for the Packers to pull away. I think we’ll see one or the other (or both). The home team moves on.

Packers 31 Vikings 21

Indianapolis Colts vs Baltimore Ravens

This is THE matchup of the weekend that I’m most looking forward to. We have the best rookie QB of all-time taking on a Hall of Fame LB in his final home game. We have Indianapolis and Baltimore – two cities forever linked by Art Modell’s decision to move the Colts. And we have historical dislike felt by the residents of BMore for this Colt franchise….hatred even. I expect this to be the best atmosphere of any game this weekend which will only be more intense now that Ray Lewis’ final Super Bowl chance is here. This could be his last game ever and will be his last game in front of these fans. M&T Bank will be rocking by kickoff.

Here’s the deal though….and it’s a big picture thing. If QB Andrew Luck is the all-time best rookie to ever play the position. If he is a transcendent talent capable of unseating Elway and Montana and Brady and Manning. If he is THAT good and is on his way to Canton in 16 or 17 seasons….doesn’t he HAVE to win this game? Isn’t it ordained? Doesn’t it make sense that the greatest QB prospect/rookie of all-time would win this game and deny Ray Lewis his last chance at a title?

Looking back in a decade and a half, I think we’ll remember this game for that reason. Luck wins his first playoff start, Lewis loses his last. It’s more of a gut feeling, big picture way of looking at this matchup – but that’s what struck me when I started evaluating these two teams. There’s too much history here to ignore it. Luck establishing himself as the new “great one”, Lewis leaving the field for the final time and the two cities shared legacy with the Colts.

I could be talked into an emotional-driven win by the Ravens playing for Lewis and his legacy. But I like my story-line better….Colts and Luck send the Ravens and Lewis packing.

Colts 27 Ravens 24

Seattle Seahawks vs Washington Redskins

The big storyline here is the two rookie QBs set to duel it out in front of a national TV audience in an elimination game. Other than Luck, RGIII and Russell Wilson have been the two most talked about players in the league this season. They have been phenomenal. Great athleticism, big wins and a playoff berth delivered to two playoff hungry cities.

The question is: who will walk away with the “w”? To me, the answer is found on the defensive side of the ball. The Seahawks really have a big advantage in that regard and are uniquely built to defend RGIII’s favorite play – the read option. Here’s why….

RGIII uses the read option to freeze DEs getting out on the perimeter where he can option either a CB or a S. Typically, once a DE is frozen by the mesh point of RGIII and his RB – the DE is too slow to catch either from behind. Seattle’s DEs and particularly Chris Clemons are not. They have elite speed and athleticism and can close the gap after being frozen much faster than a typical defensive end. That’s part one. Speed upfront by Seattle’s defensive front.

But once RGIII does break contain – which he will from time to time – it’s imperative to have force defenders in the secondary to limit his effectiveness as a runner. That means having CBs and Safeties that love to tackle, that are big enough to shed blocks and physical enough to make RGIII pay when he does get on the edge. By all accounts, the Seahawks have the biggest, most physical defensive backfield in the entire league. They have two great tackling CBs, one explosive hitter at the safety position and one very instinctive player at the other safety spot. To me, this group of aggressive DBs added to Seattle’s fast front seven means that RGIII won’t be very effective as a runner in this game.

If he isn’t, it will eliminate the Redskins very dangerous play-action game off of the read-option and will force RGIII to operate out of the pocket. This represents the best way to defeat him and I expect Seattle to do so.

Wilson wins the rookie dual in a close one.

Seahawks 21 Redskins 20

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