Patriots Fantasy Report: Division Playoffs

In this week's installment of Fantasy Insider Online's Football Report, we continue the trend of looking at the playoffs… now turning our attention to the Divisional round. In the past, we've all come to realize that in the playoffs, it's really anybody's game. Yet, to advance to the next round, there are certain keys to victory that each team must take advantage of in their respective match-ups.

The following clues you in on some of these defining factors, as well as a few "busts", for this weekend's Super Bowl hopefuls.

Indianapolis Colts vs. Baltimore Ravens

Ravens Running Back Jamal Lewis

COLTS KEY TO VICTORY: Get the Ball to Playmaking Receivers
Anchored by S Ed Reed and CB Chris McAlister, the Baltimore Ravens have a pretty stellar defense against the pass… however, they are even more dominating against the run (ranked 2nd overall in the NFL). So, Indy running backs Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai will have to take a backseat to QB Peyton Manning's air attack this weekend in Baltimore. And even though the Ravens are typically known for their shutdown style of defense, Manning has posted some pretty respectable career numbers against Baltimore... in five career starts against the Ravens, Manning has a 93.7 QB Rating and has thrown for an average of 290.8 yards with 9 total touchdowns (3 INT's).

A big role in Manning and the Colts success this week will be the result of how well Indianapolis' receiving corps can stack up against the Ravens secondary. The Colts two standouts, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, are arguably one of the best receiving tandems in the NFL. Both finished the regular season ranking in the Top 5 in receiving yards, and in the Top 10 for touchdown receptions. Obviously, the passing game is what Indy is best known for, and rightfully so with all the weapons they have.

RAVENS KEY TO VICTORY: Continue Winning with Defense
Here's an analogy for you… Indianapolis:offense as Baltimore:_______? The answer - defense. Finishing the season as the top-rated defense in the NFL, the Ravens have held opponents to an astounding 75.9 rushing yards per game and 188.2 passing yards per game. Add that up and Baltimore led the league in total yards allowed per game in 2006 (264.1). As a team, they have posted one less sack than the Chargers, who sit atop the NFL with 61.0. Interceptions? Baltimore has them covered too... tallying 28 on the year (most in the NFL). The list of exceptional defensive stats can go on and on…

But the real reason for why the Ravens defense will have to continue their trend of excellence is because of the sub-par Baltimore offense. Though they have a decent passing game, Baltimore's rushing attack is fairly suspect. Overall, coach Brian Billick's offense ranked in the lower-half of the league this year. In a shootout, there would be no way that the Ravens could keep up with the offensive juggernaut of the Colts, especially if Indy's defense steps it up once again. So, Baltimore must continue to be stingy on defense against the Colts this Saturday.

BEWARE OF: Jamal Lewis
Wow… after two dismal seasons, Lewis actually put together a pretty decent 2006 campaign (1,132 yards rushing and nine touchdowns). But (and that's a big "but"), he is nowhere near the mark he set in 2003, when he tallied 2,066 rushing yards and 14 TD's. Who knows if he'll ever return to that form… and besides, Lewis rushed for 100+ yards in only two games this year and was held out of the endzone in nine contests. Those are not the numbers of a premier NFL running back by today's standards.

Last week, the Colts defense absolutely shutdown RB Larry Johnson (KC)… holding him to only 32 yards on 13 carries. Lewis is no Larry Johnson. So, if Indianapolis maintains their trend of good defensive play, Lewis may not be able to get anything going on the ground. Throw in the possibility that QB Steve McNair may need to start airing it out at any time to keep up with the Colts, and Lewis will be lucky to see 15 touches.

Philadelphia Eagles vs. New Orleans Saints

Eagles defensive back Brian Dawkins#20 will have to be accounted for by the New Orleans offense

EAGLES KEY TO VICTORY: The Many Faces of Brian Westbrook
Probably one of the most underrated backs in football, Westbrook has put together his best season to date in 2006… racking up 1,217 rushing yards, 699 receiving yards and 11 total touchdowns. He is a solid rusher and a definite threat out of the backfield on passes (ranking third among NFL running backs in receiving yards this year). Coach Andy Reid has begun to balance the Eagles offense a little more this season, shying away from airing the ball out play after play. A good part of this most likely comes due to QB Donovan McNabb's season-ending injury suffered in Week 11, but since Philly's bye in Week 9, Westbrook has seen 20+ carries on average in the latter half of the season. In last week's Wild Card game against the Giants, he posted his best rushing performance of the year, gaining 141 yards on 20 carries with a touchdown.

It's going to be tough for Philadelphia when they head down to New Orleans this Saturday. However, the Saints allowed 126.8 rushing yards per game in 2006, which ranked 23rd overall during the regular season. So, Westbrook should see his trend of 20+ carries continue this weekend, as Reid tries to control the game clock and keep the ball out of the hands of the 1st ranked NFL offense of the Saints. Yet, when the Eagles do go to the air, look for most of QB Jeff Garcia's passes to be quick dumpoffs to Westbrook and TE L.J. Smith. The New Orleans secondary is legit (holding opponents to only 178.4 passing yards per game this year), and although Garcia has been winning ballgames, Reid probably won't put the game in his hands. Instead, the Eagles should look to Westbrook to carry them into the NFC Conference Championship.

SAINTS KEY TO VICTORY: Brees Targets Hood
Last week, the Eagles took a huge blow on defense when CB Lito Sheppard dislocated his right elbow in the fourth quarter against the Giants. During the regular season, the ball-hawking defensive back led the Eagles with six interceptions, and was later selected to the Pro Bowl for the second time in his five-year career. After Sheppard went down, CB Roderick Hood stepped in last week to take his place, and was beaten by WR Plaxico Burress on an 11-yard touchdown catch… tying the game. Now, Hood is no slouch, but against the playmakers that New Orleans has on offense, Philly needs its best on the field at all times.

Most likely, QB Drew Brees will zero-in on the banged-up part of the Eagles secondary this week… and he should cash in. Undoubtedly one this year's top quarterbacks, Brees led the NFL in passing yards (4,418), and ranked in the Top 3 in QB Rating and touchdown passes. Brees' outstanding numbers in 2006 come as a result of smart play and a great corps of receivers. Let's not forget about the additional facet that RB Reggie Bush has brought to the Saints passing game this year… ranking 2nd among NFL running backs with 742 receiving yards. All in all, the Saints arsenal of weapons has put them atop the NFL in passing offense. And against a secondary with a new starting CB, Brees will take full advantage of the inexperience on the other side of the ball and should put together another top-level performance.

BEWARE OF: The Eagles Defense
Yes, the Eagles won last week. However, you can't really look at that performance to forecast this week's Divisional playoff game. The differences between the G-Men and the Saints are like night and day: Coughlin vs. Payton… Eli vs. Brees… relying on Barber vs. the solid 1-2 combo of McAllister and Bush. Nevertheless, you can look at the Week 6 contest between New Orleans and Philly, in which the Saints won on the last play of the game by way of a K John Carney field goal. In that game, Brees threw for 275 yards and three touchdowns. As was mentioned before, with the Eagles depleted secondary, Brees could put up even better numbers this week.

And though Philadelphia's rush defense has been improving, they're still allowing big yards… Giants RB Tiki Barber put up 137 yards against them last week. The Saints duo of running backs has been more than effective in 2006. So, while Philly is trying to defend New Orleans air attack, a lot of holes should open up for McAllister and Bush in the running game.

Seattle Seahawks vs. Chicago Bears

Chicago Bears QB Rex Grossman throws against the New England Patriots Nov 26, 2006. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

SEAHAWKS KEY TO VICTORY: Get After Grossman Early
The Seahawks finished the 2006 regular season ranking in the Top 10 in sacks (tied for sixth with 41.0). This week, they need to prove that their pass rush is for real and not just a hoax. Led by LB Julian Peterson (10.0 sacks), the Seattle front-seven must incessantly put pressure on Bears QB Rex Grossman in order to keep the Chicago offense out of a rhythm. The story in Chicago this year has been Grossman's up-and-down performances throughout the season. One week, he'll throw for 250+ yards and multiple TD's... the next, he'll post a 36.8 QB Rating with three INT's. The reason: when teams get after Grossman, it leads to big opportunities to make plays for opposing defenses. If you look at those teams that really have pressured the fourth-year quarterback in 2006 (Miami, New England and Green Bay), Grossman has put the ball up for grabs every time, resulting in multiple turnovers.

If Seattle can shutdown the Bears rushing attack this Sunday, forcing Chicago to put the game in the hands of Grossman, tons of opportunities can present themselves for the Seahawks secondary. Grossman ranks third in interceptions this season (20) and has coughed the ball up five additional times. Couple that with one of the worst QB Ratings among quarterbacks who have played a full 16-game schedule (73.9), and Seattle should look to cash in on Grossman's inconsistency.

BEARS KEY TO VICTORY: Score with Special Teams
Two words: Devin Hester. You can't argue that this first-year player out of "The U" isn't a playmaker. A kick return specialist, Hester posted a league-leading five touchdowns on special teams this year. In the 2006 regular season, he ranked second in average punt return yards (12.8) and sits among the league's Top 5 in average kickoff return yards (26.4). When Hester touches the ball, good things happen. No wonder why coach Lovie Smith began to implement the rookie on defense in the latter half of the season.

Chicago's offense has been so inconsistent this year, that it's tough to rely on them for a win... you never know which offensive unit will be on the field in any given game. Yet, the constants this year for the Bears have definitely come on the defensive side of the ball and on special teams. The defense should be on point as usual, but Chicago must look to Hester and the special teams for some big plays. And this doesn't necessarily mean putting points on the board. A big return by Hester could really electrify the crowd at the new Soldier Field, helping take Seattle's "12th man" and bring it to Chicago.

BEWARE OF: Matt Hasselbeck
Last week, the Seahawks key to victory against Dallas was QB Matt Hasselbeck's return to 2005 form. Well, though Seattle barely edged out the Cowboys and notched a win, Hasselbeck still posted another sub-par performance (66.9 QB Rating with only 240 yards passing and two INT's). In 2006, Hasselbeck has posted a 100+ QB Rating in only two games, and thrown for 250+ yards just once. Seven times this season he has thrown for multiple interceptions, as opposed to passing for multiple touchdowns in only five contests. And matching-up against a Bears defense that has picked off opposing quarterbacks 24 times this year (2nd in the NFL), things don't look too good for Hasselbeck in this week's Divisional playoff game.

Let's not forget to mention that in his career, Hasselbeck hasn't performed too well when facing the Bears. In three career games against Chicago, Hasselbeck has a QB Rating of 62.0 and has thrown for 102.8 yards per game with only one touchdown and three interceptions (all while being sacked eight times). This year, in Chicago's Week 4 routing of the Seahawks, Hasselbeck finished the game with a 39.7 QB Rating, 196 yards passing, two interceptions (no TD's), and was sacked five times. Where'd that game take place? In Chicago. Where is this Sunday's game being held? In Chicago.

New England Patriots vs. San Diego Chargers

Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson

PATRIOTS KEY TO VICTORY: Let Brady Win Another Playoff Game
It's no secret that QB Tom Brady has a career record of 11-1 in the playoffs, and along with that, three Super Bowl rings. Simply put… Brady knows how to win ballgames. And if the Patriots want to keep their Super Bowl dreams alive this week, Brady will be the one to do it for them. Of course, that near flawless playoff record has come due to consistently performing at a top-notch level. In his playoff career, Brady boasts a 90.7 QB Rating and has averaged 225.4 passing yards per game with 17 touchdowns and only five picks in those 12 games.

Nevertheless, the key this week will be for the New England offensive line to keep Shawne Merriman & Co. off of Brady's back. The Patriots have only had a single back go for 100+ rushing yards in one game this year, though the duo of Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney have put together some solid performances as a joint unit. Yet, this week, against the 7th ranked rush defense in the NFL, coach Bill Belichick won't be able to grind the ball out and play a ball-control game. Instead, the Patriots will most likely look for Brady to lead them to another playoff win. And there's a good chance that Brady will look to prove something this week against the team whose quarterback stole his well-deserved Pro Bowl spot.

CHARGERS KEY TO VICTORY: Utilize L.T. in the Passing Game
Just as the Patriots will need to rely on their passing game this week to advance in the playoffs, the same goes for the Chargers… since, in the regular season, New England ranked 5th overall against the run (allowing 94.2 rushing yards per game). However, coach Marty Schottenheimer won't look for QB Phillip Rivers to air it out in his first playoff appearance. Instead, Schottenheimer will build the first-year starter's confidence by limiting him to short 5-15 yard passes and quick dumps to backs out of the backfield. We all saw what happened on Sunday night in Week 15 against Kansas City when Rivers struggled getting the ball downfield.

So, this week, Rivers' prime targets will be TE Antonio Gates and RB LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson, who led the league this year in a number of offensive categories, is an obvious receiving threat… as he finished the 2006 regular season with 508 receiving yards (5th most among NFL RB's) and three touchdown receptions (tied for 2nd). We all know that the defensive-minded Belichick will key on shutting down the Chargers potent rushing attack, which may lead to a lot of passes off of play-action for San Diego. And that should, in turn, result in some solid receiving numbers for this year's NFL MVP.

BEWARE OF: The Patriots Running Game
As previously stated, the Patriots haven't seen a 100-yard rusher but once in 2006. In last week's Wild Card game against the Jets, New England only posted 70 total rushing yards. And going up against the Chargers stout run defense in the Divisional round of the playoffs won't be any different. This is a team that held the NFL's second leading rusher, RB Larry Johnson (KC), to 84 yards on the ground a month ago. San Diego's defensive line, anchored by the behemoth 6'3"/348 lbs. DT Jamal Williams, should keep the Patriots offensive line out of the second level… allowing the Chargers solid LB corps to roam freely and make plays.


This week's Patriots Fantasy Football report is brought to you by Matt Hinzpeter at FantasyInsiderOnline.com. If you have any questions for Matt, you can reach him, or any of the other FIO experts, at TheTeam@FantasyInsiderOnline.com.

If you are interested in becoming a contributor to Patriots Insider's group of independent experts, contact us at feedback (at): patriotsinsiders (dot) com

 


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