These flaws could kill wild card contenders - NBC Sports

These flaws could kill wild card contenders
Some teams on the edge of playoff race have weaknesses that could be costly
December 13, 2011, 8:12 pm

That's right, parity fans: the 6-7 Cardinals are still in the hunt, as are the 6-7 Chargers and, by mathematical fiat, the 5-8 Eagles. Some of the win-loss combinations needed to keep these teams alive are as unlikely as a meteor striking Tom Brady on Sunday, but the Patriots are facing the Broncos, so you cannot rule anything out.

This article is not about those long shots, though. It's about real wild card contenders such as the Falcons and Giants, and about division leaders such as the Ravens who are hanging by their knuckles. A handful of minor issues could have a major impact on how the wild card race shapes up.

The following five teams have flaws that their upcoming opponents will be able to exploit, and with a playoff picture this crowded, even a small problem can develop into a major issue:

The Falcons: Open the Screen
The Falcons' offense has always been a little bit predictable: Michael Turner runs up the gut, Roddy White catches deep passes (with help this year from rookie Julio Jones), tight end Tony Gonzalez polishes his Hall of Fame bust while working the middle, rinse and repeat. In recent weeks, the Falcons have grown a little too predictable. An important component has been missing from their offense for most of the season: the screen passing game.

On passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage this season - including running back and receiver screens, dump-offs, and other short tosses - Matt Ryan and the Falcons are 38-of-54 for 205 yards: just 3.7 yards per pass attempt. The average team gains about 4.7 yards per attempt on passes these passes and attempts about 6.2 of them per game. The Falcons average one less yard per play and two fewer attempts per game: they aren't good at screens, and they don't use them much.

The Falcons lack an ideal screen pass threat at running back. Rookie Jacquizz Rodgers is best suited for the role, but he has had trouble holding on to the ball. Workhorse Michael Turner has just 45 receptions in eight seasons. Jason Snelling has good hands but no moves, making him the perfect receiver if you only hope to gain 3.7 yards per attempt. Snelling is responsible for the Falcons' only "big gain" by a running back on a pass behind the line of scrimmage: a 17-yard reception against the Packers. Roddy White took a receiver screen 32 yards, but tossing the ball to the fast guys on the edge hasn't helped: the Falcons average just 3.7 yards per pass on wide receiver and Gonzalez screens.

A great deep passing team needs to also be a good screen team: when the secondary is deep and the linebacker is blitzing, the screen pass is an ideal counterpunch. The Texans beat the Falcons by intercepting some deep passes and forcing the Falcons to search for Plan B. Future Falcons opponents certainly took notice.

Image: San Diego Chargers v New York Jets
Chris Trotman / Getty Images

Jets: Stop that Tight End
The Jets have solved the run defense problem that plagued them in a few early season losses. Now they have only one defensive weakness: they have trouble stopping tight ends.

At Football Outsiders, we break down each pass defense by how it performs against No. 1 receivers, No. 2 receivers, tight ends, running backs and slot receivers. You may have heard of a place called Revis Island, and sure enough the Jets have the best defense in the league against No. 1 receivers. They rank fourth against No. 2 receivers and fourth against running backs, but the Jets rank just 27th against tight ends and 22nd against "other" receivers. Chalk their ranking against the others as the residue of design: slot receivers get a lot of work as opponents try to avoid the Jets starting cornerbacks. But the tight end problem is real.

If you looked at those rankings and said "Ah, Gronkowski" you are only partially right. Patriots star Rob Gronkowski caught 12 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns in two games against the Jets, and teammate Aaron Hernandez pitched in another nine catches. But these statistics are adjusted to account for the fact that the Jets face the league's most tight end-happy passing game twice per season. The Jets also allowed a six-game, 110-yard effort by Jason Witten early in the season and a combined eight-catch, 99-yard, one-touchdown game against Antonio Gates and Randy McMichael of the Chargers. Opponents know the Jets have trouble with tight ends, so even teams that don't have a Gronkowski or Witten try their luck over the middle: the Ravens threw 12 passes to Ed Dickson in their meeting with the Jets, though Dickson came away with just four receptions.

The tight end problem will only get worse with safety Jim Leonhard injured: he often drew man coverage in the middle of the field. Upcoming opponents will test Leonhard's backups. The Eagles like to use screens to Brett Celek to punish over-aggressive defenses. Jake Ballard of the Giants may not look like a deep threat when he is waddling down the field, but he averages 15.9 yards per catch. The Jets have not given themselves much wild card breathing room, so one long rumble buy a guy like Celek or Ballard could have major consequences.

Image: Brent Celek, Spencer Paysinger, Dave Tollefson
Julio Cortez / AP

Giants: Riding of the Reserves
Watching a Giants game inspires numerous questions, but the biggest one may be, "Who the heck are these guys?"

The Giants started eight players on Sunday against the Cowboys who were not in their opening-day lineup. Every team has had to cope with injuries, but the Giants have been playing mix-and-match since the start of camp, and the setbacks just keep on coming.

Some of the changes have helped. Victor Cruz has developed into one of the best young receivers in the NFL, supplanting Mario Manningham in the starting lineup. Cruz has become Manning's go-to target on third down, catching 23 of the 34 passes thrown to him for 457 yards, three touchdowns and 15 first downs. Without Cruz, the Giants would not even be close to the playoff picture.

But most of the new starters are emergency replacements. Kevin Boothe has stepped in for David Baas at center, making shotgun snaps an occasional adventure. Mitch Petrus is a stopgap at guard, replacing David Diehl, who is now a stopgap at left tackle in place of Will Beatty. With four sacks, Dave Tollefson has held his own on the defensive line, but he is no substitute for Osi Umenyiora. And the linebacking crew is a duct tape masterpiece: starters Michael Boley and Greg Jones were replaced by rookies Jacquain Williams and Mark Herzlich, with special teams ace Chase Blackburn then subbing for the injured Herzlich. The Giants compensated by using backup safety Deon Grant as a hybrid linebacker in midseason (a look they used often in 2010), but Grant is now needed at free safety in relief of Kenny Phillips.

The Giants survived their injury rash because of veteran depth: the team made a point of re-signing Boothe, Grant and Tollefson early in training camp as insurance policies. But with Justin Tuck dealing with yet another injury (his toe this time), the Giants are running out of bodies. After this week's Redskins game, they face the Jets and Cowboys, two rivals with serious playoff aspirations of their own. The reserves have held their own, but three weeks can feel like forever when you've dug this deep into the bench.

Image: Cedric Benson, James Farrior
Don Wright / AP

Bengals: Goal Line Woes
If the Bengals fade from the playoff picture, they can blame their red zone offense. In the last three games, they have scored just three touchdowns in nine trips inside the 20-yard line and are 0-for-5 on touchdown conversions in goal-to-go situations.

A drive against the Steelers that reached the four-yard line ended with a blocked field goal. Maybe that play didn't make much of a difference in a 35-7 game (though it would have given the Bengals a 3-0 lead and changed the complexion of the game), but red zone woes were a huge problem in the last-second loss to the Texans. By settling for six points when they should have scored 14, the Bengals let the Texans stay in the game and pull off a last-second miracle.

The two failed goal-to-go drives against the Texans were very similar. On both drives, the Bengals started with a power run that went nowhere. Then, Andy Dalton rolled out and completed a pass well short of the end zone. On third down, Dalton fired incomplete into the end zone. The failed Steelers drive was similar: a short power run by Cedric Benson, a pass that did not reach the end zone by Dalton, and an incomplete pass, plus a few penalties. Maybe opponents have figured out what is coming.

A little quality control can keep the Bengals from being too predictable in the red zone. They have the tools to score in short yardage situation: Benson can push the pile, A.J. Green could outjump Spider-Man, and Jermaine Gresham adds a post-up option in the middle of the end zone. The Bengals catch a break this week against the Rams, but they end the season with the suddenly-tough Cardinals and the Ravens. If they leave touchdowns on the table against those opponents, they may also be leaving behind a Wild Card berth.

Image: Baltimore Ravens v Seattle Seahawks
Stephen Brashear / Getty Images

Ravens: Road Worriers
The Ravens are on a four-game winning streak and hold the AFC North lead thanks to their season sweep of the Steelers. But no division leader is in a more precarious position than the Ravens. The Steelers' late-season schedule is very easy: after facing a 49ers team that has clinched its division, they get two easy games against the Rams and Browns. The Ravens also play the Browns once more, but they must face Chargers and Bengals teams fighting for their playoff lives. And they must play both of those teams on the road, where the Ravens are 3-3 this season.

The Ravens have had a pronounced home-field advantage since the start of the John Harbaugh era. Last year, they were 7-1 at home and 5-3 on the road. In 2009, they were 6-2 at home, 3-5 on the road. Since 2008, they are 26-5 in Baltimore and 17-13 on the road. Every team has a home field advantage, but the Ravens go from a Super Bowl caliber team to a wild card also-ran the moment they board a plane.

There is no easy explanation for the Ravens' road difficulties. In past seasons, they had tough road schedules, facing the Patriots in Foxboro in 2009 and 2010 for example. Both of their "trip and fall" losses this year - against the Seahawks and Jaguars - came on the road. We all know that Seattle can be a tough place to play because of the noise and the long plane ride. But Jacksonville?

If the Ravens lose the AFC North to the Steelers, it could set off an AFC chain reaction. First of all, Ravens losses would give the Bengals, and possibly the Chargers, new playoff life. It could also complicate matters for the Jets, because the Ravens hold a tiebreaker advantage over them. In the unlikely event that the Ravens lose three straight games and the Titans win out, guess what? The Titans would hold the tiebreaker advantage thanks to a head-to-head win: in Tennessee, of course.

The Ravens and Steelers are most likely to each finish in the neighborhood of 12-4, then face each other at some point in the playoffs. It's what they do. But put the Ravens on a cross-country flight to a city like San Diego, and you'll never know what might happen.

Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.



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