Here comes the NFL postseason. Time for the script to be flipped.
Every year we see it. “This team” or “these teams” are going to the Super Bowl. Look how good they were during the regular season. Totally dominated.
Yet that rarely happens. Only twice in 11 years (22 different chances) have the top seed in either conference won the Super Bowl. It hasn’t even been easy to win a playoff game: top seeds are only 7-9 in the divisional round after the bye. The past three seasons, No. 1 seeds have gone 2-5 in the divisional round—the Falcons barely escaped, 30-28, against the Seahawks; and the Patriots pasted Tim Tebow and his Broncos 45-10, in the last game Tebow ever started at quarterback.
Why is success in the postseason so fickle for the strongest regular-season teams?
You’ll hear many theories: that teams coming off the bye are rusty; that while offense wins in the regular season, defense wins in the postseason; that top seeds had easier schedules while lower seeds are more battle tested; that the winning team had better matchups.
Probably a little bit of all of that is true. For me, postseason games come down to one thing: how many elite or near-elite level players—a blend of blue- and red-chip players we’ll refer to as “purple” chip players—each team has, and how many of them play at that level on game day. Having good depth and coaxing solid performances out of emergency fill-ins is helpful against the also-rans during the regular season, but at some point the best players have to make a difference.
Take last year, when the Ravens upset the Broncos 38-35 in overtime, as an example..
Going into the game, the Broncos had—and this is obviously subjective—seven purple chips: QB Peyton Manning, WR Demaryius Thomas, LT Ryan Clady, LG Zane Beadles, DE Elvis Dumervil, LB Von Villmer and CB Champ Bailey. The Ravens had eight: QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, TE Dennis Pitta, RG Marshall Yanda, WR Anquan Boldin, DT Haloti Ngata, OLB Terrell Suggs, FS Ed Reed.
As far as performance, you could make the argument that only Beadles and Miller played well for Denver, relative to their level. For the Ravens, it was Suggs, Flacco, Pitta and Boldin.
The Ravens had more top players, and they played better. That equals a victory, or a darn good shot at one.
So when the games start this weekend, I’ll be looking at the purple chips on each team to see whether they are measuring up under pressure. Here’s how those top players break down:
Chiefs vs. Colts
Chiefs (6): RB Jamaal Charles, NT Dontari Poe, OLB Justin Houston, ILB Derrick Johnson, OLB Tamba Hali, S Eric Berry
Colts (5): QB Andrew Luck, OLB Robert Mathis, CB Vontae Davis, DT Cory Redding, WR T.Y. Hilton.
How things are trending: There’s no question the Chiefs have a better roster than the Colts, who were hit hard by injuries on the offensive side the ball by losing WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dwayne Allen. The problem is, the Chiefs’ defense—the backbone of the team—has completely fallen off in the second half of the season. Unless they find a way to start executing better, the Chiefs are going to have a hard time winning this game. The Colts have been trending the other way. Offensively they’ve figured out how to play without Wayne, and defensively they are getting healthy and executing.
Saints at Eagles
Saints (5): QB Drew Brees, TE Jimmy Graham, DE Cameron Jordan, OT Zach Strief, third-down back Darren Sproles.
Eagles (6): RB LeSean McCoy, LG Evan Mathis, LT Jason Peters, WR DeSean Jackson, OLB Trent Cole, C Jason Kelce.
How things are trending: You can make a very convincing argument that no team is executing better on either side of the ball better than the Eagles. And execution overcomes talent you may lack, which the Eagles do on defense. The Saints play well at home, and terribly on the road. If they don’t figure out how to solve that, the Saints will lose in Philadelphia.
Chargers at Bengals
Chargers (5): QB Philip Rivers, TE Antonio Gates, S Eric Weddle, OT King Dunlap, third-down RB Danny Woodhead.
Bengals (6): WR A.J. Green, OT Andrew Whitworth, DE Michael Johnson, LB Vontaze Burfict, OT Andre Smith, third-down back Giovanni Bernard.
How things are trending: No team exemplifies the talent/execution conundrum more than the Bengals, who despite a good roster have lost playoff games the last two years because of poor performances. Two years ago, the Texans were more talented and won big. Last year, a rematch was there for the Bengals to win, but they couldn’t do anything on offense. This one again is about the offense, and QB Andy Dalton. Cincinnati has a decided mismatch on offense against the San Diego defense. But if the Bengals don’t play well on that side of the ball, the Chargers will win.
49ers at Packers
49ers (8): LT Joe Staley, OLB Aldon Smith, ILB NaVorro Bowman, ILB Patrick Willis, DE Justin Smith, RB Frank Gore, WR Anquan Boldin, S Eric Reid.
Packers (6): QB Aaron Rodgers, LG Josh Sitton, WR Jordy Nelson, RB Eddie Lacy, WR Randall Cobb, DE Mike Daniels.
How things are trending: With the Packers’ usual injury problems, the 49ers enter this game with a distinct advantage in terms of talent—and I didn’t even include WR Michael Crabtree, who is elite when healthy but not quite there. He’s still extremely valuable to the offense. The 49ers should win this game if their best players play well, but the big question is how will they execute in the brutal cold at Lambeau Field.