Road to Miami: breaking down the AFC

With wild card weekend kicking off on Saturday, let’s break down the AFC line-up: what I like and what I question about each team heading into the post season.

Indianapolis Colts

What I like: Peyton Manning and the offensive scheme. As I have written before here at the NFP, Indy isn’t complex as an offense. They use two personnel groupings and a lot of window dressing to disguise their various route combinations. But, with Manning, there is no one better at moving the ball down the field with the short to intermediate passing game or using the vertical game to score quickly. The most dangerous offense in the playoffs.

What I question: Their cornerback play. If opposing offenses can use their protection schemes to contain DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, you can expose the Colts outside of the numbers. Indianapolis is a Tampa 2 team, but when they bring the strong safety down to create an eighth defender in the box, they go to their Cover 3 and Cover 1 schemes on the outside. We saw what Brandon Marshall could do against press and off-man coverage, and expect to see more teams go at the cornerback position when they match up with Indy.

San Diego Chargers

What I like: The offensive scheme under Norv Turner. We have to remember that despite the numbers that Philip Rivers has put up at QB, this is an offense predicated on the power running game—which translates into those big plays down the field. RB LaDainian Tomlinson has been productive on the ground in the red zone, and when Rivers can use the play action to get the ball down the field to Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson, this offense is tough to contain. They are very impressive and post the toughest match up from a game plan perspective for Indy.

What I question: I am not sold on the Chargers defense. They are a middle of the road front seven when it comes to stopping the run, giving up over 117-yards a game on the ground, and for the amount of playmakers you would expect them to have in the secondary, they aren’t a ball hawking defense. OLB Shawne Merriman has not been a regular playmaker and if this team can’t get to the QB, they can be exposed in the backend.

New England Patriots

What I like: The multiple ways this offense can beat teams—despite the loss of WR Wes Welker. The Patriots are tough to game plan for from an offensive perspective. They use a variety of personnel groupings and multiple formations until they find what works best at taking advantage of a defense. Don’t be surprised to see the Pats switch personnel from series to series, and never bet against Brady in the post season. He will find a way to score points—even if he has to grind it out.

What I question: The secondary. The Patriots will not go into the post season with a championship defense. That is just the facts, but I am more concerned about their secondary giving up big plays. Throughout the course of the season, the Patriots have played with poor fundamentals in the backend, and giving up a big play in January can send you home early. Veteran corner Shawn Springs will have to play big, and FS Brandon Meriweather has to play with accountability in the Pats coverage schemes and tackle well in the open field. There are some holes on this side of the football for New England.

Cincinnati Bengals

What I like: Mike Zimmer’s defense. This unit has been underrated all season long, and despite the name power on the offensive side of the football, is the reason that the Bengals were able to sweep the entire AFC North. I am not putting too much stock into Sunday night’s loss to the Jets—since the game plan was simplified for Cincy—but don’t look past this defense in the post season. Their front seven can put pressure on the QB and stop the run, while the combo of Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph might be the best tandem of corners in the playoffs.

What I question: Do the Bengals have enough weapons outside of Chad Ochocinco to produce points? Yes, this offense has taken on a much different shape this season with the production of running back Cedric Benson, but can they establish a threat down the field—especially with Jets corner Darrelle Revis likely to take Ocho out of the game? This offense is built to play with a lead.

Baltimore Ravens

What I like: The running game of Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. Baltimore can get into their Tank personnel (2TE, 2RB,1 WR) and control the clock with the downhill power game—and the emergence of McGahee gives them fresh legs if they are to make a playoff run. Add in the versatility of TE Todd Heap, and the Ravens can present a solid offensive game plan that can cover up for their lack of weapons at WR.

What I question: The defense is not the same. Ray Lewis is not a playmaker anymore and too much responsibility will be put on Ed Reed to make plays in the secondary. I like the front seven of the Ravens against the run, but the corner play is average—at best—and their will be opportunities for opposing offenses to take shots on this defense outside of the numbers. Expect a lot of pressure from Baltimore to make up for their lack of talent at corner.

New York Jets

What I like: The defense and the running game. A team that can protect a lead by sending pressure in Rex Ryan’s scheme and running the football with Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene. They aren’t flashy on offense and they predicate their game plan on setting up manageable third down situations. Plus, they have the opportunities of working with a short field thanks to a defense that can cause turnovers and force punts. A good combination to have heading into the post season.

What I question: Playing a rookie quarterback in the post season. As solid as the Jets game plan was on Sunday night against Cincy, this team cannot afford to put the game in Mark Sanchez’s hands—especially on third downs. If the Jets find themselves playing from behind or having to convert on third and long situations, their playoff run will dry up. They have to protect Sanchez and develop a game plan that takes pressure off of the rookie.

Friday: the NFC playoff teams

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