NFL Playoff Predictions: Analyzing Each Head Coach Ahead of This Weekend
The glitz and glamour of the NFL's Divisional Round is normally enough to instill a whisper of fear into each head coach. Somehow, New York Jets front man Rex Ryan continues to bring the smack talk ahead of this weekend.
While Ryan may be no Chad Ochocinco when it comes to verbal assault, the rest of the league's coaching powerhouses are preparing for a tumultuous weekend ahead that looks likely to bring yet another upset or two on the back of a surprising Wild Card Round.
However, in the midst of it all, whichever teams somehow see it through this week's storm can thank their head coaches.
Thank Vince Lombardi or thank Tom Landry, it doesn't matter—the head coaching position will be vital from here on out. The New Orleans Saints of 2009 are a perfect example of well balanced play-calling, and if you think the black and gold would have made it to the big dance without Sean Payton, guess again.
It will be a weekend full of close games, along with a Divisional Round like no other. Rivalries are set to explode in the AFC, while the NFC prepares for an offensive explosion from the likes of Green Bay, Atlanta, Chicago and Seattle.
Here's a look at each head coach ahead of the Divisional Round, along with what they must focus on in order for their team to post a victory and move one step closer to the Super Bowl.
Divisional Round Opponent: New York Jets
Keys to the Game:
This isn't Bill Belichick's first Divisional Game, nor will it likely be his last.
Heading into a tough affair against rivals the New York Jets this Sunday, Belichick is looking to gain the upper hand on the always brash Rex Ryan, who is already bombarding the New England Patriots with some clever catch phrases.
Like the old warhorse that he is, though, Belichick isn't interested in playing mind games. This weekend is all about adding the dot on the exclamation point of the Patriots' impressive season—a feat that will easily be accomplished if the dangerous Jets are out of the picture.
The keys to the game for Belichick are simple. Spread the ball and ultimately test safety Antonio Cromartie, who was burned last weekend against the Indianapolis Colts. Cromartie gave up an early touchdown when wide receiver Pierre Garcon blew right past him, making the Jets secondary a serious suspect this weekend.
Lastly, the Patriots also need to blitz Mark Sanchez whenever possible. It may not be in New England's repertoire to do such a thing, but rookie cornerback Devin McCourty will be the key impact player against Sanchez should the Jets' wobbly quarterback get off to a shaky start.
New York escaped Indianapolis last week due to some poor defensive play by the Colts that resulted in a last-minute Jets field goal. This time, don't expect the Patriots' eighth-ranked scoring defense to become accustomed to that trend.
Divisional Round Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers
Keys to the Game:
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh undoubtedly has a huge task on his hands heading into Heinz Field. To make matters more intense, the Ravens face their bitter rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So how can Harbaugh pull off the upset victory this weekend?
If creating turnovers against the Kansas City Chiefs last week resulted in a win, then the Ravens must do the very same this week against Mike Tomlin's team.
At Arrowhead Stadium during the Wild Card Round, the Ravens forced three total turnovers against Matt Cassel. Finally, after weeks of questioning and wondering, Baltimore's typical defense emerged from the woodwork, pressuring Cassel into not only three interceptions but just 70 yards on the day.
In the end, Arrowhead Stadium resembled a regular season Kansas City Royals game, much to the delight of Raven faithfuls.
But is this realistic matching up with Ben Roethlisberger?
If there's anything we have learned from this season, it is Big Ben is easily rattled when the blitz is applied from all areas on defense. Against New York in Week 15, Roethlisberger struggled, passing for just one touchdown, resulting in a 22-17 loss at home.
Harbaugh does have other priorities to iron out, such as Joe Flacco's confidence and the wide receiver game that could potentially fall flat against Pittsburgh's 12th-ranked pass defense.
Still, to unlock a win, the Ravens must get in the face of Roethlisberger, and all of that starts from Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs on defense.
Divisional Round Opponent: Seattle Seahawks
Keys to the Game:
Lovie Smith finds himself back in the postseason following a tremendous year at the helm that saw the Chicago Bears clinch the NFC North over the Green Bay Packers this season.
In a rare turn of events following the Wild Card Round, Smith now prepares his team for the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in a game that is sure to pack a punch if Pete Carroll can rally his team once again.
Last week against New Orleans, Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch won the game for Seattle. Lynch's stellar run has made highlights all week, making him a serious threat toward the Bears' second-ranked regular season rush defense.
Unfortunately, Lynch isn't the only guy the Bears must contain. No, Chicago must also keep an eye on quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who exploded for 272 yards and four touchdowns last week, along with Mike Williams and Leon Washington on the kick return.
If Chicago can implement all of these factors and combine for a stand against Seattle's top-tier talent, the Bears should be able to pull out a win and potentially head to the NFC Championship Game.
Divisional Round Opponent: Atlanta Falcons.
Keys to the Game:
Green Bay is on a high right now following their enormous victory over the Philadelphia Eagles this past Sunday night. If the Packers coaching staff can calm down for one moment however, Green Bay do still have outstanding problems to attend to ahead of this weekend.
One of the biggest problems head coach Mike McCarthy encountered when facing the Atlanta Falcons back in Week 12 was special teams. Green Bay successfully fought back in the forth quarter thanks to an Aaron Rodgers moment of specialty, only to allow a big kick return and grant Matt Ryan solid field position to set up the game-winning field goal.
Mind you, things have changed since then.
In the past two weeks, first-year punter Tim Masthay has been an underrated star in green and gold, following his shutout performances against both Devin Hester and DeSean Jackson in two consecutive weeks.
Heading into Atlanta, the Falcons are without a huge kick return threat. With that in mind, Mike Smith did manage to bring this factor in six weeks ago.
McCarthy needn't rely on Masthay to make clutch kicks all the time, but he does need to stress the importance of accurate field goal kicking, tackling, penalties and above all else, yards, on special teams this weekend.
Green Bay's run game and turnover ratio are equally as important, yes. But one gets the feeling that Atlanta vs. Green Bay will be an extremely close affair. Therefore, every point matters, much like it did in Week 12.
Divisional Round Opponent: Atlanta Falcons
Keys to the Game:
The Atlanta Falcons have faced the Green Bay Packers once before this season. Much to the dismay of the loyal Georgia Dome faithful, though, this is a totally different Mike McCarthy side six weeks down the track.
As far as keys to the game go for the Falcons, they must avoid Green Bay's devastating blitz that wreaked havoc on the Philadelphia Eagles last week. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers loves bringing pressure up the middle, so expect head coach Mike Smith to be wary of Clay Matthews all game long.
To stand in front of Matthews and the rest of the Packer defense this week will be right tackle Tyson Clabo—one of the main offensive lineman that needs to make a serious impact if Matt Ryan is to start his postseason campaign off on the right foot.
Clabo has played in all 16 games this season and was one of the main reasons Matthews failed to record a single sack back in Week 12. Nevertheless, Clabo will also have his hands full with BJ Raji, Desmond Bishop and Cullen Jenkins all game long.
The Falcons narrowly escaped defeat last time these teams met, but Smith maintained a firm head throughout the game. This weekend isn't likely to feature a strong running presence, as Michael Turner and James Starks will struggle against the precise rush defense that each team features.
Six weeks ago, this was a strong defensive game resulting in just 37 total points. It's hard to see it going any other way on Saturday night.
Divisional Round Opponent: Baltimore Ravens.
Keys to the Game:
Pittsburgh and Baltimore have met twice this season. That much we know. What we don't know, however, is how Steelers safety Troy Polamalu will perform after a lengthy layoff thanks to an injury sustained earlier in the year.
For the recent record, January 1 saw a report by team doctors that stated Polamalu was "feeling better" and had been practicing with the team at the time. Eleven days down the track mind you, Polamalu still remains a huge question.
Perhaps the most concerning part of Polamalu's status is that without him, the Steelers have a tendency to fall in a heap. Baltimore was brilliant last week against Kansas City as Joe Flacco threw for 265 yards and two touchdowns, so now one has to wonder how Pittsburgh's defense will match up against John Harbaugh's team.
In due time, we will find out whether or not Polamalu will be at his very best this Saturday. Keep in mind if the Steelers are without him, Pittsburgh will see much of their physical attitude fade against Baltimore.
Other keys to the game include containing Ray Rice, avoiding Ray Lewis, and of course, limiting Anquan Boldin. Still, without a full-strength Polamalu, this task becomes that much tougher.
Divisional Round Opponent: Chicago Bears
Keys to the Game:
As previously mentioned, the Seattle Seahawks were fortunate enough to experience some Marshawn Lynch brilliance last week to see themselves advance past the Wild Card Round.
However, now a tougher task stands in front of them, as a trip to Soldier Field awaits for head coach Pete Carroll.
Aside from any keys on the field, the Seahawks must take the energy out of the Chicago crowd. No longer are the Seahawks at home in front of a cozy Qwest Field, and instead, Seattle must be prepared for a highly hostile atmosphere.
Now to the important parts.
If Seattle are to pull off this victory, they need another solid performance out of Matt Hasselbeck. The cushion of wide receiver Mike Williams proved to be both explosive and challenging for the Saints last week, so don't be surprised if the Seahawks lob up a few deep balls to test Lovie Smith's corners.
In an ideal world, the Seahawks would also love to see kick returner Leon Washington break one this weekend. Opposite Seattle, though, will be Devin Hester, so expect very hesitant Seahawks special teams.
There is nothing funny about Seattle right now, and by all means, please don't underestimate them. Chicago have struggled in many winnable situations this year, making this game much tougher to decipher.
Divisional Round Opponent: New England Patriots.
Keys to the Game:
Rex Ryan is never shy in the media—hence his continual stabs at the New England Patriots as the days progress towards Sunday's blockbuster affair.
Seeing as both the Patriots and Jets have already split two games this season, New York's trip to Foxboro this weekend becomes all that more detrimental to the Jets' confidence and overall progress going forward.
The keys to the game?
New York simply must make Mark Sanchez a factor. A lackadaisical approach was once again seen from the Jets' franchise player against Indianapolis this past Saturday, resulting in a lousy 189 yards and one interception.
This kind of performance won't cut it against New England.
Last year, Sanchez found himself in a similar position with his team more or less carrying most of the weight, resulting in an abundance of offseason criticism all year long. Still, Sunday is Sanchez's chance to redeem himself before that situation can repeat itself.
When the Jets defeated New England back in Week 2, Sanchez was fresh off a poor performance against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1. As a result, No. 6 threw for 220 yards and three touchdowns gifting his team a 28-14 victory.
Sure, things have changed since then, and of course, this is a much different Patriots defense. Nevertheless, Sanchez has Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Dustin Keller to rely on, making Sanchez a mild threat to Bill Belichick's defense.