Divisional-round game previews are a little different, because divisional-round games are different. Four clear favorites are facing four road underdogs in critical games. By definition, the storylines are preordained.
I could make lots of jokes about Chris Christie's Cowboys fandom or Rob Gronkowski erotica (or Chris Christie erotica OH GOD I WILL NEVER CLOSE MY EYES OR IMAGINE AGAIN), but all any of us want to know is what the Ravens, Panthers, Cowboys and Colts must do to pull off the four upsets that lead to the Ravens-Panthers Super Bowl of our dreams.
So the theme of this week's previews is "Paths to Victory." I am playing devil's advocate, criticizing the favorites and devising game plans that can lead to upsets. If you are looking for heaping praise-piles laid at the feet of Tom Brady or Russell Wilson, try the rest of the Internet. These previews unashamedly root for four underdogs.
Ravens at Patriots
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET
Line: Patriots -6.5
Let's Get Actually Deep
On passes that travel 20 or more yards in the air, Tom Brady is 16-of-62 for 509 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions this season, according to the Football Outsiders internal database.
The NFL average on these 20-plus-yard passes—let's call them Actual Deep passes, because the cutoff of 15 yards used for deep passes in the official play-by-play is ridiculously low—20-of-56 for 644 yards, 4.6 touchdowns and 3.9 interceptions. Brady throws downfield more than the average quarterback (surprising, though the 20-yard cutoff still allows for many mid-range passes) but enjoys it less, with a low interception rate as a mitigating factor.
When you think of some of the NFL's passing-challenged teams (Jets, Titans, Buccaneers, post-Carson Palmer Cardinals) and teams capable of throwing short but completely ineffective when going deep (Dolphins, Chiefs), you realize just how troubling a category Actual Deep passing is to be below average in when the second round of the playoffs arrive.
Yes, there are situational factors to consider—the Titans completed 23 Actual Deep passes, but six came in the fourth quarters of blowout losses—but Brady has a 26 percent completion rate in a category where the league average is 36 percent. That's a real thing.
Brady is 5-of-17 for 150 yards when throwing Actual Deep to Rob Gronkowski. That makes him 11-of-45 for 359 when throwing Actual Deep passes to his receivers, other tight ends and running backs on the wheel routes New England likes to use to break tendencies. The Patriots, quite bluntly, don't have a deep passing game to their wide receivers.
Criticizing Brady on the Internet is a thankless business. I fully expect to end my career bunking with Salman Rushdie in a safe house somewhere in Europe. There's a tendency to rationalize away Brady's few weaknesses as humble-brag strengths. Brady does not have to complete long passes because of his majestic awesomeness at completing short ones. Yes, against the Dolphins and Jets. Yes, when the running game is confounding the Colts or the defense has conjured up another anti-Peyton Mannning warding spell.
But sometimes, you face a defense with people like Rashaan Melvin, Antoine Cason and Anthony Levine playing regular roles at cornerback. Sometimes, that defense is so loaded on the front seven that it is difficult to run against, even harder to fool with screens and can use its pass rush to put many offensive series out of reach of a carefully constructed 3rd-and-3 double-crossing route. Sometimes, you face a defense best beaten by dropping back and uncorking some honest-to-goodness bombs to wide receivers along the sidelines.
The Patriots cannot do that, even though they would like to this week. That can put this game within reach of the Ravens. And you never want to put anything within reach of the Ravens.
Five Nights at Flacco's
You probably did not find Brady's Actual Deep passing statistics particularly shocking. Well, get ready to have your face melted.
Here are Joe Flacco's Actual Deep passing numbers: 15-of-40, 548 yards, six touchdowns and one interception. That's right, Flacco throws deep less frequently than Brady and less frequently than the NFL average. Gary Kubiak has shaved some of the 60-yard heaves off the Ravens offense this year, replacing them with his signature play-action rollouts to tight ends or receivers on crossing routes.
It has been a good trade: Flacco's completion rate is up over three points from last season, his yards per attempt were higher than his career average (7.2 to 7.0), and he set career highs in yards and touchdowns.
There are still just enough satellite-trajectory bombs to generate both big plays and pass interference: Torrey Smith has drawn 11 pass interference flags for 229 yards, so if he matches up against Brandon Browner (15 penalties, 118 yards), the results could scramble the NFL's Omega Level Interference Explanation-Rationalization Protocols.
That's Regular-Season Flacco we are talking about, the guy who sometimes goes into 45-minute fugues against the Browns or Titans. Playoff Flacco, as Mike Freeman pointed out last week, plays like the tortoise at the end of the hare race.
Flacco now has 21 career playoff touchdowns, tied with Ben Roethlisberger and Jim Kelly for 13th of all time and more than Steve Young, Aaron Rodgers, Ken Stabler, Eli Manning, Fran Tarkenton, Bart Starr, Bob Griese and a host of other Hall of Famers and Super Bowl heroes. His career postseason passing efficiency rating of 88.2 is higher than Tom Brady's 87.5.
To reiterate in all caps, JOE FLACCO HAS A HIGHER PLAYOFF EFFICIENCY RATING THAN TOM BRADY.
Efficiency rating is a bogus stat made extra bogus by small playoff sample sizes. Bart Starr is the all-time leader, so we can at least get behind that...but then Mark Sanchez ranks sixth all time. Still, the one thing Flacco can never be accused of is choking. (Also, he will probably never write a New Yorker cartoon.)
He's like the Reverse Andy Dalton, hiding his ugliest performances in ordinary 1 p.m. games, then using his arm and even keel to keep the Ravens in big games. And you never want to keep the Ravens in big games.
Ghosts and Misperceptions
There are two conflicting misconceptions at work in this game. The first is that the overpowering Patriots are facing a skin-of-the-teeth playoff interloper. A quick look at the Football Outsiders DVOA rankings shows two teams that are not very far apart at all after high-tech analysis:
These are good, balanced teams. The Patriots are better and faced a tougher schedule, but there is not a wide gulf between the Ravens and Patriots.
The second misconception at work is the Ghost of 2012. The Ravens beat the Patriots 28-13 on their way to the Super Bowl two years ago, and while that win will take much of the sting out of the Foxborough mystique (the Foxborough mystique sting causes anaphylaxis in the Bengals), it is hard to draw any conclusions or parallels between that game and this one.
Cary Williams and Dannell Ellerbe intercepted passes for the Ravens in that AFC Championship Game. They are gone. Anquan Boldin caught two touchdown passes. He's gone. Bernard Pollard forced a fumble that Arthur Jones recovered. Both are gone. Dennis Pitta caught a touchdown pass. He's on injured reserve. Also, Ray Rice, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. On the other side of the ball, Brady's leading receivers were Wes Welker and…Aaron Hernandez.
That playoff game was 24 months and a lifetime ago. Both teams have changed, but the Ravens have changed much more. They won't win by throwing bombs. They cannot count on many turnovers from their patchwork secondary.
They must run effectively and set up play-action on offense, eliminate yards after catch on every screen, dink, dunk and don't-call-it-a-pick crisscross pattern. They need big plays from Justin Tucker, Jacoby Jones and the rest of their playoff-tested special teams. In short, they must out-"small ball" the Patriots and hope Brady doesn't still have a few special-occasion bombs left in his arsenal.
The resulting game could be sloppy and a little boring. But you never want to face the Ravens in a sloppy, boring game.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Ravens 26
Panthers at Seahawks
Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
Line: Seahawks -10.5
The Seahawks gained just 70 rushing yards on 26 carries in their 12-7 victory over the Panthers at the start of the 2013 season. They gained 119 yards on 26 carries in their 13-9 victory over the Panthers in October, though their rushing yards are padded by two Russell Wilson scrambles in the second half. The Seahawks rushed just six times for 22 yards in the first half of that game.
Wilson rushed six times for 35 yards in the October meeting, with most of his yardage coming on scrambles, not options. He rushed five times for seven yards in the 2013 meeting.
Other option quarterbacks have also been stymied by the Panthers in recent years: Colin Kaepernick rushed four times for 16 yards in a 10-9 regular-season loss to the Panthers in 2013 and eight times for 15 yards in a closer-than-the-score-indicates 23-10 49ers playoff victory.
The Panthers are a difficult team to attack laterally with options, screens and other plays to the short edges. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis both have outstanding sideline-to-sideline range, and both anticipate and react to misdirection extremely well.
According to Football Outsiders, the Panthers are the toughest defense in the NFL to run outside against to the right (allowing an adjusted 2.06 yards per rush) and rank eighth in the NFL at stopping outside runs to the left (3.16 yards per rush). The team excels at stopping many of the things the Seahawks like to do on offense, from Wilson keepers to screens of all kinds.
The Panthers' pass rush can cause further trouble for the Seahawks. Carolina recorded 17 sacks in its final five games and four more against the Cardinals after spending the first half of the season trying to figure out how to live without Greg Hardy.
Rookie Kony Ealy, who looked lost early in the year, contributed three sacks down the stretch to take pressure off Charles Johnson. The Kawann Short-Dwan Edwards-Star Lotulelei tackle rotation was playing at 2013 levels, though Lotulelei's foot injury will weaken the interior defense at the worst possible time. Some bad offensive lines contributed to the Panthers' sack uptick, but those aren't exactly the Hogs protecting Wilson.
The Panthers defense is built to stop what the Seahawks do best, and the Seattle passing game, with its shortage of playmakers, is not designed to exploit the inexperience and lack of depth in the Carolina secondary. Hence, a pair of games where the first team to double digits won. It's up to the Panthers offense to make sure that the Seahawks cannot win with exactly one offensive highlight, like they did in the last two meetings.
That is a daunting task.
Where Have You Gone, Muhsin Muhammad?
The Panthers dressed just four wide receivers for last week's Cardinals game: Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Philly Brown and Brenton Bersin.
Cotchery has not caught a pass longer than 20 yards since November 16. With 13 receptions all season, Bersin (whose muffed punt made him the Cardinals co-MVP with Antonio Cromartie) has not caught a pass longer than 20 yards since October 5. The speedy, pesky Brown suffered a nasty-looking shoulder injury while trying to catch a touchdown pass Saturday; his status for the Seahawks game is uncertain.
That leaves Benjamin—with his 11 drops (courtesy of Pro Football Focus) and complete incomprehension of route adjustments—as Cam Newton's only wide receiver with the talent needed to pose even a minor threat to the Seahawks secondary.
The Panthers' fifth receiver (fourth if Brown is unavailable) is former Vikings quarterback Joe Webb, who has rebranded himself as a gutsy special-teamer. Stephen Hill, an outstanding tape measure-and-stopwatch prospect who cannot move laterally or catch footballs, leads the practice squad receiving corps.
There's a reason Newton threw several sideline wheel-route passes to Ed Dickson last week: The second-string tight end is the third-best receiving threat on the roster, after Greg Olsen and Benjamin. Relying on Dickson to beat the Seahawks deep is a great way to lose by a 12-9 final score.
The Seahawks stop lateral outside plays as well or better than the Panthers do, and Newton has a sore ankle. That takes away the option package as a consistent threat. So what can the Panthers do to crack the 14-point barrier and give themselves a small chance at an upset?
Two friends from 2013 must return. No, not Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell; they are both busy. The Panthers need the return of Riverboat Ron Rivera and Graham Gano.
The Gambler, He Broke Even
The Panthers were just 6-of-10 on fourth-down conversions this year. They were 10-of-13 when Ron Rivera earned the "Riverboat Ron" nickname last year, which is not that significant a difference: Raw conversion rates can paint a distorted picture of how aggressive a coach really is on fourth downs.
A few blowout losses, full of 4th-and-10 prayers, can make a conservative coach look like a swashbuckler. To get a better sense of fourth-down boldness, we must sift through the play-by-play a bit, with the help of the Football Outsiders internal database.
On 4th-and-short (fewer than two) between the 40-yard lines, Rivera attempted three conversions and punted nine times this season. That's not very aggressive. Rivera punted when trailing by three in the fourth quarter against the Bears on 4th-and-2 from the Panthers' 47-yard line.
Granted, when punting to the Bears, there is a great chance that Jay Cutler will toss you the ball right back (that's roughly what happened in an eventual Panthers victory), but punting the ball back to the Seahawks in the fourth quarter will result in a Marshawn Lynch thumpin'.
Rivera also folded his hand on 4th-and-goal, opting for two Gano field goals inside the 10-yard line and attempting zero 4th-and-goal conversions this year. Rivera did have Newton sneak for a first down on 4th-and-1 from the 9-yard line against the Seahawks, then settled for a field goal after Seattle executed some rugged goal-line stops.
Jonathan Stewart got knocked back seven yards on 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line on that series, so Rivera had good reason to get cold feet. But the Panthers need touchdowns at all costs when they get rare goal-to-go opportunities. If that means a crazy full-house backfield from the 1-yard line or a Newton-Webb Single Wing formation with Kuechly at wide receiver from the 8-yard line, it's better than losing by four points again.
As for Gano, he was 6-of-6 from 50-plus yards last year but is just 1-of-3 this year, and he missed a makeable kick against the Cardinals. Long field-goal rates fluctuate wildly, and Gano's true accuracy lies between the heroics of 2013 and the inconsistency of this season. If the Panthers drive inside the Seahawks 40, and a 4th-and-1 opportunity for daring does not present itself, Gano has to get his team every available point.
Great placekicking, some bold conversions and every trick up Newton's sleeve can earn the Panthers somewhere between 13 and 17 points, enough to prevent their defense from having to achieve absolute assignment perfection on every snap.
That puts the game within the reach of unpredictability, where a blocked punt or fluke penalty could change the outcome. Even on the "unpredictability" front, the Panthers face the 12th Man, which possesses the power to rattle special-teamers like Bersin, cause false starts and (hypothetically) steer the officiating on a borderline foul.
But this is the best chance the depleted Panthers have of winning. And considering how slim their chances were of even being in the January conversation six weeks ago, it's as good a chance as they could ask for.
Prediction: Seahawks 19, Panthers 13
Cowboys at Packers
Sunday, 1:05 p.m.
Line: Packers -6
(Note: This was written under the assumption that Aaron Rodgers will not be significantly limited by his calf injury.)
The two most difficult things a sportswriter must do on a regular basis are:
- Criticize players, coaches or teams.
- Praise players, coaches or teams.
Since 98 percent of what we do involves criticizing or praising someone, our sportswriting jobs are very difficult indeed. (He writes, after dipping chocolate biscotti into hazelnut coffee while draped in a Snuggie in his home office on a Wednesday morning.)
The problem with criticizing or praising anyone publicly these days is that we live in the world of the one-counterexample proof. If I say Richard Sherman is a great cornerback, he will allow one 30-yard reception, and that counterexample will be used as proof that my statement was wrong.
There are only a handful of people on earth who can currently be safely praised (J.J. Watt, Odell Beckham Jr., Joss Whedon) or criticized (Ryan Lindley, Trent Richardson, whoever edited that Ant-Man trailer) without confronting a heavy, automatic backlash. It's a tough, tough life. (He writes, stroking his beloved dog's head and turning the Vivaldi on Pandora down ever so slightly.)
The Cowboys' offensive line, praised as the best line in football by many of us for most of the year, played terribly against the Lions. The line also played poorly against the Redskins and Eagles in their first meetings with each opponent, allowing nine total sacks.
Because we all know great offensive lines allow zero sacks per season, even when facing Ndamukong Suh on a one-game quest to simultaneously validate his past and financially secure his future, we were obviously wrong about Dallas' offensive line, which must be horrendous.
The third most difficult thing about this sportswriter business is establishing some balance and nuance in a field where the most extreme talking point gets the most career-enhancing attention. (The fourth hardest thing is not coming off like a whiny prat who cannot handle disagreement or criticism; the fifth is knowing when to stop a list.)
The Cowboys' offensive line is excellent, not perfect. Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick are great. Zack Martin is nasty but inexperienced. Ronald Leary and Jermey Parnell are just guys. Opponents can get to Tony Romo by varying blitzes, mixing the inexperienced Martin up on stunts, rushing off the wide edges or just using someone like Suh to flat-out win matchups, in the unlikely event that the opponent has someone like Suh.
All of those strategies have weaknesses except "unleash an All Pro defensive tackle." Too much stunting, blitzing and edge-rushing leaves opposing defenses vulnerable to DeMarco Murray and Romo's hot-read telepathy with Jason Witten.
The Packers will generate pass rush with Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and reading from Dom Capers' ancient zone-blitz scrolls. Dallas has gotten this far not by stone-walling every blitz, but by adjusting and counterpunching.
The Cowboys want the Packers sending edge-rushers and safeties while dropping big bodies into coverage. That sets up the Murray delay, quick Witten hitter, Cole Beasley shallow cross and other wrinkles that are well worth the risk of a little Romo harassment. The Cowboys are nearly impossible to beat in the trenches with vanilla, and they have ways of making you pay extra for cookies 'n' cream.
The Nelson-Cobb Umbrella
The Dallas defense is well-suited to beat a team that funnels most of its passing offense through its top two wide receivers. That's what the Cowboys did last week, and it's what they must do this week.
Game-film study reveals that the Cowboys, true to their Tampa-2 roots, kept two safeties about 17 yards deep whenever it was prudent and almost always had a deep safety on Calvin Johnson's side of the ball. They mixed Cover-2 with Man-2 with Cover-4, but the philosophy was simple: contain Megatron and don't allow any silly deep stuff.
Golden Tate's long touchdown, the only Lions long gain of the day, was a catch-and-run set up by a scramble. Unseen and unnoticed during the Brandon Pettigrew-Anthony Hitchens-Grassy Knoll incident: Matthew Stafford wanted Megatron on a deep cross, but the Cowboys double-covered him, even though that forced J.J. Wilcox to play 15 yards off the ball on 3rd-and-1.
The Cowboys allowed just 45 pass plays of 20-plus yards this season, tied for the eighth lowest figure in the NFL. The bend-don't-break, deep-safety-umbrella tactics can work against the Packers, who win a lot of games by getting Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb isolated on deep routes.
In the last four games, receivers not named Nelson or Cobb have combined for just 36 receptions, only one of which was longer than 20 yards. The days when Aaron Rodgers checked down to Greg Jennings or Jermichael Finley are long gone. By keeping the safeties deep, the Cowboys can force Rodgers to manufacture passing yardage out of throws to Andrew Quarless, Eddie Lacy, Richard Rodgers and Davante Adams.
Of all this week's road dogs, the Cowboys have the clearest path to victory.
Their great offensive line can force the Packers to be too creative on defense. Their risk-averse defense takes away what Green Bay does best on offense. The Cowboys are capable of beating the Packers by playing their usual brand of football, and their 8-0 road record this season proves that they are more resilient than they have been in years past. Then again, the "Choko Romo" narrative may be the best decade-long example of the one-counterexample proof.
The Cowboys are smart, balanced, fundamentally sound underdogs? What madness is this? Perhaps that Texas earthquake was the sign of a fundamental shift. Or perhaps powerful forces are still angry about the pass interference no-call. Or maybe it was just plate tectonics. The Cowboys have outstanding upset potential, and the logic that they cannot win because of hubris is not really logic at all.
Jerry Jones' ego gets in the way of the Cowboys' success, and his unwillingness to professionalize the front office can result in a team that underachieves for years on end. One counterexample does not prove those points wrong, but this year's Cowboys have been one doozy of a counterexample.
Prediction: Cowboys 31, Packers 28
Colts at Broncos
Sunday, 4:40 p.m.
Line: Broncos -7
Kickoff temperature in Denver is expected to hover right around 40 degrees. That's on the borderline between Peyton Manning Unstoppable Hall of Famer and Peyton Manning Alpine Ice Cadaver, so the Colts are hoping for the mercury to remain just below 40.
The Manning-era Broncos are 5-4 when the temperature is below 40 degrees, counting postseason games. Since they are 35-8 in warmer games, this split appears significant. The problem is finding a trend within the data, like Peyton cannot throw with frostbitten fingers.
Manning threw for 398 yards and four touchdowns against the Titans last year on a 13-degree day; yes, they were the Titans, but it was 13 degrees. The infamous 38-35 overtime loss to the Ravens two years ago—the game that ranks second on the Broncos All-Time First-Round Playoff Nightmare list to the "over-rested starters" game against the Jaguars in the 1996 playoffs—did include two Manning interceptions to go with three touchdowns, but the Broncos defense and special teams appeared much more hypothermic than the quarterback on that 13-degree evening.
The fact that two of the four cold-weather losses came to the Patriots may explain both the losses themselves and the can't handle the cold like a hearty New Englander narrative that followed Manning from a roofed stadium to the wintry mountains. For the record, the Patriots are an impressive 19-6 in games with kickoff temperatures at or below 40 degrees since Tom Brady returned from an ACL injury in 2009. The modern Patriots are probably 19-6 in many, many splits.
A great way to determine if a trend is real or a statistical figment is to slide the cutoff around a bit: Nothing special happens to the human body at 40 degrees. Go down to the freezing point, and the Broncos are 2-2, with two overtime losses to championship-caliber opponents. Go up to 45 degrees, and the Broncos rise to 7-4, with a 24-17 playoff win over the Chargers last season and a not-really-that-close 27-17 win over the playoff-bound Chiefs late last regular season.
In other words, when the weather hovers in the "winter seasonal" range, Manning and the Broncos are perfectly capable of beating AFC middleweights. Both this week's temperature and opponent fall within those parameters.
The 24-17 and 27-17 final scores, plus common sense, do remind us that chilly weather can be an offensive dampener. Manning and the Broncos are not defeated by the cold, but precision passing offenses are bound to have more trouble outdoors in January than in a dome. The Colts need something to take the edge off the Broncos. Frankly, they need all the help they can get.
The Run Is Abandoned; Leave It There
Let's not harp on the Colts for their inability to run the football. It's a dead horse, and they are not going to try to reanimate it Sunday. Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson combined for 35 yards on nine carries in the Week 1 matchup, and the Colts' running game has only gotten worse (and the Broncos' run defense perhaps slightly better) since then.
The Colts should instead focus on getting the ball to some of the deep targets in their passing game. Football Outsiders ranks Denver fifth in the NFL at stopping opponents' No. 1 receivers and second at stopping their No. 2 receivers, but the Broncos rank just 22nd at stopping other wide receivers and are only average (13th and 15th) at stopping tight ends and running backs in the receiving game.
The Broncos have two great cornerbacks in Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib and a serviceable one in rookie Bradley Roby, but they are very reluctant to use four cornerbacks in their "dime" package, inserting veteran backup safety David Bruton as their sixth defensive back whenever possible.
There are exploitable matchups here—speedy Donte Moncrief against Bruton, veteran Hakeem Nicks against the young Roby—that make much more sense for the Colts than pretending they are serious about the Dan "Boom" Herron rushing threat.
Players like Moncrief and Nicks will also have to pick up some slack for tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, who will be forced to help block Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware on passing downs, which are all downs for the Colts.
Allen will do most of the blocking, because he is actually good at it, but the Colts cannot afford to be obvious in their tendencies. The Incredible Vanishing Richardson may make a return this week, because he's at least a serviceable pass protector, while Herron is a mess. Keep Richardson in to block, and the Colts can get three receivers and a tight end into the pass pattern.
Andrew Luck will find someone if Miller and Ware don't get to him first.
Defensively, the Colts must get to Manning, and they must do it with minimal blitzing. For Indianapolis, that's a put all the groceries in one bag, but don't make it heavy situation.
The Colts recorded just 10 sacks in six games against playoff-bound opponents this season, eight of those in October meetings with the Ravens and Bengals. They are incapable of sacking quarterbacks who excel at avoiding sacks, primarily because they lack a pass-rusher who can consistently win one-on-one matchups, and heavy blitzing comes with a heavy price when facing the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady-Ben Roethlisberger class of quarterback.
When their pass rush is neutralized, the Colts can be picked apart by short passes. Their defense ranks 30th in the NFL in stopping short passes, according to Football Outsiders. A bad short-pass defense plays into Manning's hands, nullifying the effect of his clearly declining deep passing skills: Tom Brady may be forced to reach back for some heaters against the Ravens, but Manning can productively throw short junk balls against this opponent.
The Colts' raw pass defensive statistics generally look good—they rank 12th in the NFL in passing yards allowed and held opponents to a respectable 58.9 percent completion rate—but those defensive stats come with a hefty Jaguars-Titans illusion built in. They have a handful of great defensive players, like Vontae Davis and Mike Adams, who look better because their offense pulls away from so many weakling opponents.
If Chuck Pagano can play enough defensive chess to force a stalemate, with perhaps a tiny frosty edge, the Colts can hold the Broncos under 28 points. That could bring their special teams edge into play.
Adam Vinatieri, Pat McAfee and Josh Cribbs give the Colts three veteran specialists who are not going to leave any opportunities on the table; the Broncos are happier with their kicker and returners now than they were early in the season, but special teams are not their strength. Back-and-forth special teams fiascos contributed heavily to the Ravens upset two seasons ago, and the Colts want that kind of semi-random element to come into play Sunday.
Combine great play by the secondary pass targets, creative low-risk pass rushing, great special teams and any available weather mojo, and the Colts can finally gate-crash the Brady-Manning coronation. Things would be far easier if they could just run the ball consistently and create havoc with their front four. Luck has been a worthy successor to Manning, but there is no successor to Edgerrin James or Joseph Addai, or to Dwight Freeney, or a true heir apparent for Robert Mathis.
Without key pieces of his supporting cast, Luck will remain saddled with a "can't win the big one" rep unless many things go his way Sunday. The guy in the other huddle knows exactly what that's like. Luck will probably even get a "bad cold-weather passer" rap thrown in as a bonus.
Prediction: Broncos 28, Colts 21
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.