Rich Levine: Handicapping the AFC playoff field

Rich Levine: Handicapping the AFC playoff field
January 6, 2012, 5:59 pm
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As you know, this month marks four years since the New England Patriots last won a playoff game. And as you know, next month marks seven years since the Pats third and most recent Super Bowl victory.

Lastly, youre well aware that over this time whether its since the AFC Championship against San Diego, or the Super Bowl win over Donovan McHuddleBarf and the Eagles a whole lot has changed in New England. (Although not so much in Philly, where Andy Reids still thinks he has time left on that fourth quarter drive)

And not in the regular season.

For the first 17 weeks, the Pats have been about as dominant as they were during the early-aught glory days. Theyve been about as dominant as you could ever want or wish a team to be.

In the four regular seasons since David Tyrees deal with the devil, the Pats have won 48 games, which ranks first in the NFL (Saints and Steelers are tied for second with 45; the Rams are last with 12). On top of that, New Englands now earned a home playoff game for three straight years, and the No. 1 seed in two straight. Theyve lost back-to-back games only twice. These are all ridiculous facts. The kind of stuff reserved for rookie-level Madden, not a league that prides itself on having more parity than a kindergarten t-ball league.

But in the face of typical regular season realities, the Pats have persevered.

Maybe the roads a little choppier and the executions not quite as precise, but at the end of day (or season) the Pats just win and do so more than anyone else in the league.

Which makes what happens in the playoffs that much harder to swallow.

In the playoffs, the Pats have become a different team. I wont bore (or torture) you with the details, but in the postseason the Patriots have changed, and as a result so have our expectations.

After six straight years of coming up short, weve sadly regained touch with reality and learned to better cope with possibility of not winning every single season. Unlike in years past, when in our minds the Super Bowl was the Patriots to lose, this year theres far more margin for error. Naturally, no one ruling out the possibility or will be absolutely shocked if they win. But if they ultimately fall short, youll hear many more I told you sos than What the hell just happened?s. Like I said, things have changed. There are only five guys on the Pats active roster with a ring. How crazy is that?

But lets be honest, we cant offer a fair assessment of the Patriots chances of reaching Indianapolis until we know whom theyll have to play to get there. As we learned last year, match ups matter clearly the story changes whether they're playing Cincinnati or Pittsburgh.

So Ill be back with big picture predictions before next weeks Final Four.

For now, lets take a look at the AFC playoffs by way of three major factors.

1. The turnover battle: Which has always been the key to the Patriots postseason success

2. Success against quality teams: The biggest knock on this Pats' squad.

3. Injuries: Always a wild card (sometimes even more than the Wild Card)

Ill also post my picks for this weekends games a little later this afternoon.

Hold onto the Ball
I believe it was the great Ben Franklin who once said: If you want to win in the NFL playoffs, you damn better hold onto the ball.

And no team over this last decade (and change) has better exemplified Franklins sage advice than the New England Patriots. Heres your proof:

In 19 playoffs games since the start of BelichickBrady era, the Pats are 2-3 when losing the turnover battle, 2-2 when turnovers are tied and a perfect 10-0 when finishing with fewer turnovers than their opponent.

But the question is: How will turnovers play out in these AFC playoffs? Hell if I know, but if the regular seasons any indication, the Pats are Michael Phelps swimming in a pool of drunken donkeys.

Heres a quick break down on how each team finished.
New England (17):The Pats were the only team in the AFC to finish with a turnover differential in (positive) double figures. This, thanks to their AFC-leading 23 interceptions and NFL-low five lost fumbles, and also the fact thats just what the Patriots do. Since Tom Brady took over, New Englands finished with a negative turnover differential only once. That was in 2005, when they finished -5 and, not coincidentally, committed five turnovers in their season-ending loss to the Broncos. But hey, that game wasnt all bad. Remember Ben Watson chasing down Champ Bailey?! Man, that was almost as awesome as what was completely meaningless.

Houston (7): For the 10 weeks they played with Matt Schaub, Houston was 3. In the six games after his injury, the Texans were 4. So hey, theres something! One spot where the Texans especially excelled was in the interception game: Their smorgasbord of Schaub, Matt Leinart, TJ Yates and Jake Delhomme combined to toss an AFC-low nine picks. Granted, the total would have been much higher had Leinart not gotten hurt before he could throw one (or 17).

Baltimore 4:This ones a little deceiving, and Ill explain why when I get to Pittsburgh, but for now lets just say this: It doesnt matter if Baltimore finishes the season at 4, 10 or -75. When it comes to the playoffs, you fear the Ravens D like your girlfriends PMS and just pray that Joe Flacco remembers who he is.

Cincinnati (0):In general, theres something horribly unsatisfying about breaking even, but in this case, the Bengals will take it especially when you consider they started a rookie QB and played four games against the Steelers and Ravens (plus one against the 49ers). If anything, the Bengals low total is more a product of the defense not forcing enough turnovers than it is the young offense surrendering too many. (The Bengals 22 giveaways tied for fourth best in the AFC).

If theres one worrisome stat for Cincy, its that they finished the season committing a turnover in eight straight games, and in the playoffs as in shark wrestling sometimes it only takes that one to kill you.
Denver (-12):Its probably a little more accurate to quantify this one in Tebow terms, in which case the Broncos were -6. Not quite so bad, but certainly not great for a team thats not built to comeback from any significant deficit (although if its a one-score game, hold onto your helmet). As you can imagine, the turnover situation has been especially ugly over this current three game losing streak, where the only thing sadder the Broncos eight turnovers is that the defense the same one no would shut up about a few weeks back has only forced one. And even that one wasnt as much forced as it was served up on big fat platter by punt-muff extraordinaire Javier Arenas.

Pittsburgh (-13):This is one of the biggest knocks youll hear on the Steelers heading into the playoffs (aside from the old their starting running back just tore his ACL and their quarterback can barely walk jazz), but Pittsburghs crazy turnover differential may be a little deceiving. Why? Because people forget that Steelers committed seven turnovers (and forced zero) in their Week 1 match-up in Baltimore. Obviously, we cant just ignore that game, especially when it happened against a team that the Steelers will likely play again if they have any Super Bowl aspirations. But considering that was now more than four months ago, its probably most prudent and logical to cut the Steelers some slack. Some.

Because even if you take away those seven turnovers, Pittsburghs -6 still ranks them 12 out of 16 in the AFC.

Stiff competition
When the sun officially set on the 2011 regular season, Pats fans were faced with a startling realization: The Patriots were two wins from the Super Bowl
Also, this: New England went the entire year without beating a team that finished with a winning record.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Pats became just the ninth team since the 1970 AFLNFL merger to do so and also make the playoffs. But the good news is that historys been relatively kind to those who blaze this ridiculous trail.
According to the Journal, four of the eight teams that preceded the Pats won at least one game in the playoffs, and two teams most recently the 1999 Rams won the Super Bowl. So, while youd obviously feel better about the playoffs if the Pats had delivered a few more quality in-season wins, it doesnt mean all is lost.
(We now conclude the portion of the preview where I regurgitate research from the Wall Street Journal)
With all that being said, lets take a closer look at how the Pats and the rest of their AFC playoff brethren fared against the leagues tougher competition.
In this case, against fellow 2011 playoff teams:
Baltimore: The Ravens went 6-0 against 2011 playoff teams, thanks to two wins over the Steelers, two wins over the Bengals and individual victories over the Texans and 49ers. That puts them in a class by themselves among the AFC contenders, but what brings them back to Earth (aside from a QB prone to sudden drunkenness and debilitating brain lapses) are a few pretty bad road losses. Maybe we can give them a pass on that Week 10 loss in Seattle (the 12th Man always puts up a fight, plus the Ravens were coming off a big win over the Steelers) and the Week 2 loss at Tennessee (it was early, the Titans are solid and, again, Baltimore was coming off a big win over the Steelers). But losses in Jacksonville and already-sinking San Diego are worth noting. As is the overall fact that for all their success against the better teams in the league, Baltimore was a very average 4-4 on the road where theyll have to win assuming all goes as planned for the Patriots. (Actually, if all goes as planned, the Ravens lose before they even get to Foxboro, but you know what I mean)
Houston: The Texans went 3-2 vs. 2011 playoff teams, and a solid 2-0 (Atlanta, at Cincinnati) with TJ Yates under center. Their best win of the season came against Pittsburgh in Week 4, but those were happier, healthier times. For now, their most significant win was Week 14 at Cincinnati. But their more significant reality is that theyre one hard hit away from their season riding on Jake Delhommes arm.
Pittsburgh: The Steelers went 3-4 against 2011 playoff teams, but more importantly (given their current situation), they were 1-3 on the road. The win came in Cincinnati (a common theme among AFC playoff teams); the three losses came in Baltimore, San Francisco and Houston.
One interesting note about the Steelers: Unlike the Ravens, who dominated good teams and choked against some of the bad ones, Pittsburghs only four losses came against teams with a winning record (Baltimore x2, healthy Texans, and 49ers). That says a lot about the Steelers' focus and mental toughness and their chances this week in Denver. But not so much about how theyll fare once the competition kicks up a notch, and Ben Roethlisbergers resorted to a pregame meal of four cortisone shots and a Percocet sandwich.
New England: Just as ridiculous as the stat about not beating any teams with a winning record, is the fact the Patriots only played against one the Steelers, to whom they lost in a fashion far more convincing than 25-17 final score.
The Pats faced two other playoff teams: The 8-8 Giants (loss) and the 8-8 Broncos (win). Not so impressive, I know. But to that I say.
1999 Rams! 1999 Rams!
Denver: Denver went 1-3 against 2011 playoff teams, but theyre 0-2 since Tebow took over. Those two losses were by 35 points to Detroit and 18 points to the Pats, and did very little to disprove the theory that the Broncos are out of their league in this years playoff field. On the other hand, they very much helped proved the theory that Tebow sucks.
Cincinnati: Cincinnati is the ant-Baltimore here, an ugly 0-7 against eventual playoff teams. Thats two losses each to the Steelers and Ravens, and individual losses to Houston, Denver and San Francisco.
But before you go assuming that the Bengals dont have a shot, consider the point differentials in those seven losses: 2, 5, 7, 7, 28, 1, 8. They were in almost every game!OK, youre free to assume.
Getting (and staying) Healthy
Injuries play a role in every sport, especially sports where the whole point is to chase down the competition and inflict a level of pain that will be felt by their grandchildrens grandchildren.

So, whether we like it (Ben Roethlisberger) or not (everyone else), injuries old, new and lingering will have a serious effect on these NFL playoffs.

Here are some of the major injury-related AFC story lines.

Baltimore:Anquan Boldin, had knee surgery on December 20, and hasnt played since. But even before he went under the knife, ABs knee had him in a serious funk he only averaged 2.7 catches and 43.3 yards (with one total touchdown) in six previous games.

By all accounts, Boldin will be ready to roll on January 15 he practiced last week (but didnt play), has practiced in full this week and considering he once played a regular season game with a broken face, Im guessing hes ready to tough it out with a recovered knee. But by then it will have been almost month since he last played and two months since he was a serious part of the offense. Will he have trouble getting back into the groove? Might his presence mess with Joe Flaccos already fragile psyche? Lets hope so.

In other Ravens injury news: LB Jameel McClain (knee), guard Ben Grubbs (toe), guard Marshal Yanda (ribs) and superstar DT Haloti Ngata (thigh) have all missed practice this week. As has Ray Lewis, whos still clearly struggling with the toe injury that kept out earlier in the season, but Ray would eat a schoolhouse full of children before missing a playoff game.

Pittsburgh:Rashard Mendenhall is this years 2009 Wes Welker, the key offensive ingredient to a potential contender who goes down in the relatively meaningless Week 17 match-up. Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger is this years 2004-2010 Ben Roethlisberger, the overdramatic attention-whore whos probably really injured but we dont know how badly because hell go to any lengths to stir up a story and paint himself as supernatural superhero.

It goes without saying that with Conspiracy Theory Mendenhall out, Roethlisberger needs to play big, and Im guessing hell have enough in the tank to do so against the Broncos. But then, the question is: How will that ankle respond on a short week in New England, or even a normal week in Baltimore? You know, assuming hes actually hurt.

Speaking of ankles, Steelers starting center Maurkice Pouncey is battling a sprain of his own and might not play against Denver. James Harrison (toe) and Troy Polamalu (calf) both missed Thursdays practice but are both expected to play, and in Harrisons case, be heavily fined.

New England:Theres Bradys left shoulder and Wes Welkers entire body, but both those guys will play and succeed through whatever pain theyre in. Sebastian Vollmer and Logan Mankins (who had the first injury-related absence of his career last week) are also major concerns especially given New Englands protection problems in their last three playoff losses. But the injury Im most interested in seeing play out is Brandon Spikes and his MCL.

When the Pats take the field, it will have been a full 10 weeks since Spikes hurt himself against the Giants. And now that Jerod Mayos fully heeled from his own MCL issues, the long-awaited pairing of he and Spikes will give this defense a dimension its lacked all season. A healthy Spikes is the perfect compliment to a healthy Mayo, and they may finally have a chance to prove it.

Spikes got his feet wet in Week 17, by next week he should be ready to dive in.

Houston:Good news, Houston. Your teams healthier than its been all year, with only one player (relatively irrelevant rookie DE Bryan Braman) missing from practice this week. The bad news? You know, all that other stuff.

But while the injury report looks pretty clean, the Texans biggest and baddest weapon still has something to prove. Andre Johnson (whos somehow now 30 years old) is set to play his second straight game after missing nine of Houstons previous 11 with dueling hamstring injuries. Johnson hasnt caught a touchdown since Week 2 and hasnt had a 100-yard receiving game since Week 3, but might have to do both if Houston is to advance to Baltimore.

Denver:It wasnt as significant as Mendenhalls injury, but last week the Broncos lost starting RGChris Kuper whos started every game since Week 6 of the 2007 season for the year with an elbow injury. (If this were last month, Id make a joke about divine healing powers)

Other than that, the Broncos are in pretty good shape with the only major question mark hanging over the head of future Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins, whos classified as day-today with a neck injury but hasnt practiced all week and has missed two of the last three games. At 38, Dawkins obviously isnt the same eight-time Pro Bowl, six-time All-Pro we watched in Philly, but in the playoffs, his experience and leadership is more precious than Tebows virginity.

Cincinnati:Now that Andy Dalton survived the flu, and hopefully didnt infect any of his teammates, the Bengals are in pretty good shape heading into the playoffs, with their only major concern being second-year defensive tackle Geno Atkins who lead al DTs in sacks this season with eight, but has been limited in practice by a sore Achilles.

I know youre supposed to eat a lot of carbs before a big game, but believe me, the Bengals will be far better off leaning on Atkins.

God, that was bad. As punishment, Ill be moving my entire family to Cincinnati for 2012.

Also, Ill be back later this afternoon with first round NFL picks!

Rich can be reached atrlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter athttp:twitter.comrich_levine