Why They Should Worry
In New England, Seattle, Denver and Green Bay, fans will wake up this morning thinking about how great the bye week will be, a chance for their teams to rest up and then be one victory—a home victory—away from the conference championship, with the Super Bowl to follow. They can almost taste the dry air of Glendale, Ariz., home of Super Bowl XLIX.
But those fans should remember one inescapable fact: The odds are very strong that at least one of those easy-living teams will lose its first game in the playoffs. The 2004 season was the last time the postseason played to chalk, with the two top seeds in each conference holding serve at home. Two teams that earned bye weeks went one-and-done after the 2005, ’07 and ’10 seasons. Three teams kicked rocks in the massacre of ’08.
Good luck trying to find a Seahawks, Patriots, Broncos or Packers fan who thinks his team will be the one bounced early from the dance. In some cases, that involves temporary amnesia.
The 2012 Broncos rolled into the postseason at 13-3 with 11 straight victories. They were facing a Ravens team that they had just hammered less than a month prior—on the road, no less—by a score of 34-17. The result? Broncos fell 38-35 in overtime thanks to safety Rahim Moore’s coverage gaffe near the end of regulation. Moore still starts for Denver.
What about the Packers? In 2011, Green Bay was 15-1. They had league MVP Aaron Rodgers steering the ship. And in their first playoff game, the Packers were dumped 37-20 by the Giants at Lambeau Field.
And who could forget about the 2010 Patriots, who finished 14-2, with eight straight victories, including four by 29 points or more? They welcomed the Jets to Gillette Stadium, the same field where New England tattooed Gang Green 45-3 just six weeks earlier. Result? The Jets dominated the Patriots 28-21 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates.
The Seahawks have never choked after a bye (they hadn’t had many before last season), so their fans might not be sure what we’re talking about. They will continue on in their (elite) neophyte bliss (ah, newbies).
The Seahawks are the team least likely to go one-and-done after a bye. Unless Detroit upsets Dallas, Seattle will host either the Panthers (7-8-1) or the Cardinals (who could still be on their third-string quarterback). Hard to see Seattle losing at home to Ryan Lindley, and it’s even more difficult to project a Panthers win at CenturyLink Field.
The Patriots would be heavy favorites against the Colts and Bengals, two teams New England already beat this season by a combined 85-37. And while, yes, a Ravens victory over the Steelers would stir up some nauseating nightmares about Playoff Exits Past among the New England faithful, Baltimore doesn’t have near the defense needed to halt Tom Brady and company.
But the other two teams—Green Bay and Denver, in that order—are prime candidates to taste quick defeat.
All things being equal, Denver is the ripest for an upset. Peyton Manning hasn’t played consistently well since before the loss to the Patriots in Week 9, and that could be due to a tired arm, if not an outright injury. The bye week should help get him ready for the divisional round, but all bets are off after that. The formula for beating this version of the Broncos is to stop the run and force Manning to throw the ball more than 40 times. Denver is 2-4 in those games, including the four-interception performance against the Bengals on Dec. 22. Also, the Broncos are 2-3 against other playoff teams (the worst mark among the league’s top four seeds) and haven’t beaten one since Oct. 5, against the Drew Stanton-led Cardinals. Denver is, however, 9-3 against teams that finished .500 or better.
And while a potential matchup against the high-scoring Steelers would be difficult, like the Ravens, this version of the Steelers defense doesn’t approach its predecessors (30th in FootballOutsiders.com DVOA—defense-adjusted value over average—heading into Week 17) and would have difficulty holding serve against Manning. An upset is certainly a possibility, but less so than the chances of a Packers loss.
Since the Thanksgiving blowout loss against the Eagles, the Cowboys are scoring an average of 41.3 points and allowing 19.8, and a lot of the games haven’t been that close. Dallas’ defense (22nd in DVOA) would certainly have problems stopping Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ high-octane offense, but the ultimate antidote is a ball-control offense. Few teams can control the clock like the Cowboys, thanks to an outstanding offensive line and running back DeMarco Murray. And Green Bay is still unproven against the better rushing offenses. The Packers have faced four teams ranked in the top 10 for run DVOA (Seattle, New Orleans, Minnesota twice and Miami) and gone 3-2, with two of those victories being squeakers over the Dolphins and Vikings.
Add in the Dallas passing game (Tony Romo finished with a higher passer rating and completion percentage than Rodgers) and the fact that the Cowboys were a perfect 8-0 on the road this season, including a victory at Seattle, and the setup is there for a tremendous matchup, if not an outright upset, if the two teams meet at Lambeau Field.
All four teams that earned postseason byes also earned the confidence that goes along with an excellent regular season. But if the past decade has taught us anything, it’s there are no free rides to the conference title games. Fans in Green Bay and Denver should be bracing themselves for the worst.