Posted December 11, 2013

Cover-Two: Buy or sell Patriots, Panthers, other second-tier Super Bowl contenders

AFC East, AFC North, AFC South, AFC West, NFC East, NFC South, NFC West, Super Bowl XLVIII
Do the Patriots and Panthers have what it takes to make a run at Super Bowl XLVIII?

Do the Patriots and Panthers have what it takes to make a run at Super Bowl XLVIII? (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

The Seahawks and Broncos represent the class of the NFL. But what about the other teams expected to make the playoffs? In the latest Cover-Two, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar examine the title-worthiness of the contenders outside of Seattle and Denver.

New England Patriots

Chris Burke: Buy. Bill Belichick spelled it out pretty clearly with regards to Rob Gronkowski’s latest injury: “We played a lot more of this season without him than we have with him.” That doesn’t diminish the impact of losing Gronk, especially now, but the Patriots are not exactly in uncharted waters here.

Holding onto the No. 2 seed in the AFC may be the real key. New England could go on the road and win a playoff game in Cincinnati, if need be, but that path would add on a wild-card round matchup with a Baltimore, Miami or San Diego. Win or lose, that would be a tough extra game to deal with for a shorthanded team.

Doug Farrar: Sell. Clearly, the Patriots offense will struggle with Rob Gronkowski out for the season. That’s no news flash, but the extent to which Tom Brady will have to swim upstream in the playoffs is to be determined. In-season so far, the Pats drop from second to 22nd in the NFL in points scored without Gronk in the lineup, from fourth to 30th in red zone efficiency, from third to 19th in passing yards per game, and from second to 16th in first downs per game. Since 2010, Brady has 5.1 touchdowns per interception with Gronk in the game, and 2.2 without. The difference is graphic, and Gronk’s production is irreplaceable.

At 10-3, the Pats would have to do a serious nosedive to lose the division — they’ll most likely get a first-round bye, but I don’t think Brady’s other targets can make up the difference, and I’m not sure New England’s defense is good enough to turn the field in the other direction — especially if Aqib Talib continues to struggle with injuries.

Carolina Panthers

Burke: Sell. This was a really tough one for me — Carolina was No. 2 in last week’s Power Rankings, after all. And the Panthers have the makeup of a team that could get hot for a postseason run: dynamic quarterback, solid ground game, dominant front seven. But that secondary …

New Orleans passed all over the Panthers last week, while keeping Carolina’s pass rush at bay. And while that could be just one bad outing in the tough Superdome environment, the Panthers’ current playoff path would take them to Detroit and then New Orleans, where the teams boast the No. 3 and No. 2 passing attacks in the league, respectively. Carolina appears to be a worthy playoff team and could win a game or two there. But four in a row against elite aerial attacks? Doubtful.

Farrar: Buy. The Panthers’ Sunday night loss to the New Orleans Saints shouldn’t dissuade anybody from seeing this team as a possible Super Bowl entrant. What it proved, however, is that Carolina isn’t built to come back from huge deficits with explosive plays. Ron Rivera runs an old-school team with a (usually) great defense, a multi-faceted rushing attack and enough shot plays to keep them in the games. They won eight straight games with that formula before the New Orleans’ loss, and they could take at least two of three in their remaining schedule (Jets at home, Saints at home, at Atlanta) to finish with at least 10 wins. The Saints rematch on Dec. 22 will tell us a lot.

Indianapolis Colts

Burke: Sell. The loss of Reggie Wayne has hurt the Colts more than Gronkowski’s absence will damage the Patriots, and that’s even if Da’Rick Rogers turns into a late-season gem. But pinning all of the Colts’ recent efforts on Wayne’s injury would be simplifying things. The Colts are only average on defense and they’re downright porous along the offensive line. Teams that are not able to consistently win matchups up front do not have much of a positive track record in the postseason.

Farrar: Sell. The Colts were supposed to follow up last season’s surprise 11-5 record with a similar formula to Carolina’s, but it hasn’t worked out so well of late in Indy. They’ve gone 3-3 after a 5-2 start, they’ve had serious troubles with slow starts on offense, Andrew Luck is clearly far less effective without Reggie Wayne and the formerly stout defense has been a bit vulnerable down the stretch. They’ve clinched the AFC South, but it’s hard to like this team in any road playoff game. Their receivers drop too many key passes, and Luck has been the team’s leading rusher in two of their last five games. Seems like a recipe for a one-and-done in the postseason.

San Francisco 49ers

Burke: Buy. Pretty hard to sell on the 49ers after watching them come within a few yards of a Super Bowl victory last season. When this team gets going, as it did during a five-game win streak and again Sunday versus Seattle, it’s extremely hard to deal with on both sides of the football. We’ve only really seen Colin Kaepernick’s A-game a couple of times this season, but we know he’s capable of hitting a groove.

The biggest hurdle is that, one way or another, San Francisco probably will have to win in Seattle. It’s lost its last two trips there by an average of 27.5 points.

Farrar: Buy. The 49ers appear to be peaking at exactly the right time. The depth players who had to step up when Colin Kaepernick’s primary targets were hurt and Aldon Smith was going through all sorts of off-field drama are still in the mix, and with Michael Crabtree back in the lineup, Kaepernick has started to right the ship after a rocky start to his 2013 season. They still went on a five-game winning streak when things were more tumultuous, and that’s a testament to an outstanding coaching staff. Recent impressive wins over the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks make it clear — the team that lost last season’s Super Bowl by a couple of plays is very much in the mix for the next one. Anyone would be foolish to discount them.

Philadelphia Eagles

Burke: Sell. Chip Kelly, Nick Foles and the Eagles are one of the great stories of this 2013 season — cue the Sports Illustrated cover. It certainly looks like they’ll close out the NFC East. Sunday’s win over Detroit in the snow was impressive, too, with the run game absolutely dominating over the final 25 minutes. There’s little to no question that the offense is dangerous enough to strike fear in opponents’ hearts come the playoffs.

Is there enough defense to do the job though? The Eagles have been much better on that side of the ball over the past few weeks, ascending to 13th in points allowed. They’re still 31st against the pass, however, and have had an up-and-down experience defending the run. For all that Foles has accomplished this season, there is no evidence as of yet that he could outduel a Drew Brees or Russell Wilson in a postseason shootout.

Farrar: Buy. The good news for the Eagles is that quarterback Nick Foles is playing about as well as anyone at his position over the last month. The better news is that Billy Davis’ defense is starting to turn things around, and Davis is putting his personnel in more optimal positions to succeed. Don’t be fooled by the hype surrounding Chip Kelly’s alleged air attack — as the Eagles showed in Sunday’s snowy win over the Detroit Lions, they can bully people off the line with the best of them, and there are few more dangerous players than running back LeSean McCoy. I’m not sure if their defense is quite at a Super Bowl level yet, but under the right circumstances, that might not matter. In any case, this is one of those teams no higher seed wants to see on the wrong day.

Cincinnati Bengals

Burke: Buy. There are no secrets here. When Andy Dalton plays well, the Bengals are one of the NFL’s best teams — Bleacher Report’s Andrea Hangst pointed out that they’re 14-1 in his career when he posts a QB rating of 100.0 or better. On the flip side, they’re only average (if that) when he struggles.

Narrowing the focus for a team down to the quarterback is not always a fair approach, as we’ve seen with the criticism of Tony Romo while playing alongside a horrid defense. Here, however, it fits the bill, because the Bengals have the defense, run game and superstar (A.J. Green) necessary to dive deep into the postseason.

Farrar: Buy with caution. Quarterback Andy Dalton won the Week 14 AFC Offensive Player of the Week award, and though Peyton Manning would probably like a recount, Dalton does have the ability to get on a hot streak, as he showed through October. However, he can also stay cold for weeks at a time, which is fairly typical of young quarterbacks who are still learning to read defenses. Dalton is the key to Cincinnati’s playoff hopes — he’s been scalded in two career postseason games, and it’s clear that the rest of the roster is playoff caliber, even without All-World defensive tackle Geno Atkins. I’m not sure Dalton will ever be the kind of quarterback who can lead his team to a Super Bowl, but he can stay at a level pace — he won’t be a Rex Grossman or Trent Dilfer, dragged kicking and screaming into the biggest game of his life by a great defense and nothing else. In other words, get Dalton on a tear, and the Bengals could indeed go very far in the posteason.

Kansas City Chiefs

Burke: Buy. Despite their torrid 9-0 start, I view the Chiefs in much the same way that I do the Bengals. This team could get hot in the postseason, if its defense shows up and Alex Smith plays well. It also could bow out rather meekly in Round 1 and no one would bat an eye.

The Chiefs’ chances will come down to which of their 2013 defenses is the real thing — the one that held its first nine opponents to 17 points or fewer; or the one that Denver lit up twice and San Diego hung 41 against. If it’s the former, Kansas City might be able to follow in Baltimore’s footsteps to the Vince Lombardi trophy.

Farrar: Sell. Now here’s a confounding team. It’s hard to take anything away from Kansas City’s 45-10 win over the Redskins last Sunday, because the Redskins are self-destructing in ways that are original even for them. In their three games before the Washington win, a Chiefs defense that led the NFL in sacks by a prohibitive margin had just one quarterback takedown and lost three straight games. Bob Sutton has done a wonderful job in his first year as the team’s defensive coordinator, but the simple fact is that Kansas City has not been able to hold quality offenses down, and that’s obviously going to be a problem in the playoffs. The problem is compounded by the fact that Alex Smith is the kind of quarterback who needs a sound running game and great defense to win in the postseason — and even then, it’s certainly no guarantee. Unless their defense finds a way forward, the Chiefs could be a paper tiger in the postseason.

23 comments
Paulo_S
Paulo_S

Chip Kelly and the Eagles are getting it done on the ground. The running game is exactly what made the Oregon Ducks great under Kelly and the lack of a running game this year is why the Ducks aren't playing in the Title game. I'm surprised anyone would still believe that Kelly's offense depends too much on the pass. Somehow, he's managed to give that impression while running the ball down the opponents throat.

SandHills
SandHills

The "buy" on SanFran has one big caveat - must beat Seattle IN Seattle.


Kind of like buying into the Titanic knowing about those icebergs in it's path....

E Money1
E Money1

Can we stop the love for the Pats already? They are a good team but they haven't won a Super Bowl in 10 yrs. Didn't they just get aided with a call against the Browns?

WHO*IS*ESPN
WHO*IS*ESPN

Not with their DB's.as EVERY year. Maybe kraft can spend some money on these guys as he flaunts his great owners box instead. College DB's turn their head and see the ball better. Stevie Wonder could do better

josebier
josebier

look at Tom Brady's QBR with and without Gronkowski. Need I say more?

Matthew W
Matthew W

Geez, cut it out. 


No one in their right mind would consider the Pats a Super Bowl contender. They've limped their way to half of their wins needed end of the game drives (or OT) to win it. The other half were against their ineptly poor division or with Gronk in the lineup. 


They'll win their division, make the playoffs, and that's all she wrote. Barring some monumental collapse of every other playoff team, the Pats won't even come close to sniffing the SB. 


Reliable receivers? Not so much

Reliable running game? Not so much

Star NT? On IR

Star LB? On IR

Star CB? Can't stay healthy


What says SB contender more than that?

Namtih
Namtih

So, I guess the Saints don't make the playoffs?  "Chris Burke and Doug Farrar examine the title-worthiness of the contenders outside of Seattle and Denver."


Kind of an oversight, eh?

carnage_2012
carnage_2012

Isn't Doug Farararrararaararaarr that assmonkey from Yahoo? Where is his butt buddy Chris Chase?

JDT
JDT

@SandHills: No one said the 49ers must beat Seattle in Seattle. They said "The biggest hurdle is that, one way or another, San Francisco probably will have to win in Seattle". Big difference between must and probably. Yes another game between Seahawks and 49ers could very well happen in the playoff this year. Nothing is set in stone. Playoffs are different than the regular season. There is going to be more on the line and the games will be tougher. Seahawks seem to be the popular pick to win the NFC, lets see how they handle expectation and tougher teams in the playoffs. The past 2 times Seattle has been in the playoffs they have not made it past round 2. Plus #1 seeds have not been doing to well as of late in the playoffs. 

SweetLightCrude
SweetLightCrude

@E Money1 You're so right. Why would anyone consider a team with a 10-3 record, who more years than not make it at least to the AFC championship game. And my god. There was a dubious call that helped them win a game! That should disqualify them from any sort of respect. 


If we are picking favorites on the basis of recent SuperBowl victories, who are we talking about? The Giants? The Ravens? The Packers? The Saints? One, maybe two of those teams may be in the conversation. Three of them may not even make the playoffs. The criteria you use is dumb (and smells of some fan of one of the many AFC teams that has repeatedly lost to the Patriots and hasn't gotten over it). 


The Patriots probably aren't going to win this year, and that is true of all teams in most years. But the idea that they haven't earned the right to be in the conversation is just stupid.





jopomp2
jopomp2

.....actually it's been 9 yrs....not 10.....with two additional SB appearances when  the Pats came within a whisker of winning 2 additional titles in the final seconds .  Yes they did get aided with a bad call against the Browns...the point being that only a fool would suggest that even depleted by injuries, the Pats could not find a way to win....which they have down with more consistency than any other NFL team over the past 12 years.....

SweetLightCrude
SweetLightCrude

@josebier Need you say more? Uh, maybe ask what Brady's record is without Gronkowski? (This year it's 5-1; with him it's 5-2.)


They may well lose, and there's no question they're worse without 87. But numbers don't support the idea they can't win without him. Especially when you realize that none of the offense has ever been all together. Many of the games without Gronkowski were without Amendola, Vereen . . . It's a complicated mix. They'll be worse, but not as much as people think.


Their issue is defense, not offense. 


jcmass
jcmass

@josebier Having watched the Patriots all season, I can, after the last few weeks, never write them off entirely -- and I think it is the defense that has more holes than the offense. 


While there is no discounting the loss of Gronkowski, bear in mind that the rookie receivers that looked really raw at the beginning of the season now have many more reps under their belt, and having Shane Vereen back makes a huge difference (They lost him for several weeks during the first game.) So the offense should not struggle as much as it did during the first 6 weeks of the season. 


But so much lass been lost on the defensive side of the ball, that it will be tough to stop opponents. 


Of course, they do somehow find a way to win -- often in the most improbable circumstances. 


Of course, that is why they play these games. 


As a Boston fan, I am still very much aware of how NO ONE thought the Red Sox had any chance of winning even their division (including me -- given what had happened the year before). 


So much for prognostication. We'll see what happens. Either way, it should be interesting. 

SweetLightCrude
SweetLightCrude

@Matthew W  And yet they beat the Saints and the Broncos, and fluky as those victories were, they happened. (How did Baltimore ever get passed Denver last year?) And check it—the Saints game had no Gronk.


The only AFC team that is head-and-shoulders better is the Broncos, and for various reasons (and notwithstanding Manning beating up the TItans in the cold), I don't think the outcome of such a game is a slam dunk. Yeah, the Broncos should win. Manning should have won lots of playoff games.


The NFC has probably 3-4 teams better than the Pats, but only one will play. In NY, in winter.


Prediction? No way. You are correct about their many flaws. But it is nowhere near as far-fetched as you think.    

jcmass
jcmass

@Matthew W I happen to be a Pats fan, and in general I agree with you. However, if I have learned anything from watching them, it is to never count them out of any game. Despite the numbers, they somehow find a way to win. They CERTAINLY will not quit. If they get there and win, then we'll take it. If not, all those rookies will be a LOT better next season, and they will get some key players back. 


BUT, they CANNOT afford miscues in the playoffs. They cannot play the first half as they have the last few weeks. Their opponents will be just too good (though one of those teams was Denver). (And there are TWO Defensive Tackles on IR -- Tommy Kelly is there as well as Vince Wilfork). 


I probably would have seen this as a lost year -- and rebuilding for next year. Yet, they somehow find a way to win. 

jcmass
jcmass

@SweetLightCrude @josebier Agreed SweetLight. The strange thing about the Patriots is that their record defies their statistics, on both sides of the ball. When you look at their offensive and defensive numbers, you would never guess that they were 10-3. Their record should be (according to the stats) much worse. 


Which just goes to show that one should be very careful in ranking teams according to statistics. 


How far will they go? Who knows? I know I sure don't. 

Matthew W
Matthew W

Forgot about that one. 


Had the Pats kept Welker (still can't believe that one) and Hernandez hadn't killed anyone, then their offense could have overcome the numerous major injuries to their defense. A WR corps of Amendola, Edelman, and a couple of rookies isn't scaring anyone.


The long neglected running game (or lack thereof) will continue to haunt them this season. They haven't had a ground game to control the clock since Corey Dillon. True you don't need a star at RB, but the Pats have been below par for years and its cost them every playoff since he left.

jcmass
jcmass

@Matthew W I would argue that it was their DEFENSE, which cost them in the playoffs for all those years. (though it's not like they have been a bad team). They lost the heart of their defense this season, yet continue to win. One could say that the Browns were not a good team, but they also came roaring back to beat Denver, in what was the franchise's greatest comeback in their history. 


They are far more resilient than they appear, and any team that forgets this during the playoffs is going to regret it. 


Edelman is turning into what some were saying before Welker left -- a Welker clone (they even have the same build). 


And those rookie receivers now have almost a full year under their belt, to learn the offense, and to get their timing down with Brady. 


And they WILL NOT let the loss of players (whether through free agency, injury, or circumstances like the Hernandez case) become an excuse for losing. 


You haven't seen much of their ground game recently (it is better than you think, when they hold onto the ball) because they have had to play catch-up the last three weeks. But their running game is better than it looks. 


Don't forget they also lost their right tackle for the year also -- and much of the running game depends on that O-line. As that line goes, so goes their offense. And they have struggled at times this year.