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NFL Playoffs 2014, Conference Championship Round: The X-factor matchups for each game

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The NFL's Final Four. The Conference Championship Weekend. We're there, ladies and gentlemen. Danny Kelly breaks down the matchups that matter.



The quarterback chess match: Audibles at the line

The Patriots/Broncos matchup is a football nerd's dream. Two teams led by great quarterbacks, whose offenses can get things done in both the pass game and the run game, consistently changing tactics and stratagems from week to week. Two teams with excellent versatility in their personnel, formations, playbook, scheme and a somewhat variable identity mixing the air attack and ground game.

Both quarterbacks are Bobby Fischer-level chess masters at the line of scrimmage, diagnosing defenses and taking advantage of weak spots mercilessly, confusing opponents, making dummy calls, frivolously fussing with line splits, moving guys around ... essentially screwing with opposing defenses. Both are shrewd and cunning.

Somewhat ironically, while both teams are led by these future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, we're likely to see heavy doses of running by each side as the two teams look to exploit six- and seven-man boxes brought on out of reverence for their respective passing games. It's an obvious pick, but that's where the key chess match, not just matchup, between quarterback and defense comes into play for both sides.

"I think [Bill] Belichick is going to play defenses that almost force Peyton into run audibles," Tony Dungy theorized in a Don Banks article at SI, "to see if the Broncos can run, and if their runners can hold up and won't fumble the ball. It's going to be an on-the-ground game, a tight game, and we know New England has won a lot of those tight games."

So what does Dungy mean when he says that Belichick is going to force Manning into run audibles? Essentially, assuming Belichick believes he's giving his team the best shot at winning by manipulating Peyton Manning into handing the ball off rather than throwing it (not a given), he'll show light six- and seven-man fronts or defensive looks that would be advantageous to run on. When, not if, Peyton sees these looks, he'll check (or audible) to a run play. This is what Manning has done for years, and he's not so obstinate as to continually throw when conditions for running look better.

That said, I think we can expect Manning to throw some in this game, and the real beauty of watching this game will be observing some of the nuanced things he does at the line while the process for potentially changing a play goes down. Quarterbacks like Manning and Brady are so advanced in their understanding of their playbook, of coverages and of defensive principles, that these guys typically go into the huddle with at least three plays. That's where all the cockamamy shenanigans prior to the snap begin.

As Tom Brady said this week:

"We have the flexibility as an offense to do a lot of things [at the line of scrimmage]. I mean, we can change protections, we can change from run play to run play, we can change a run play to pass, a pass to a run, we can change a pass play to a screen play -- we can do anything. Our team has been really great at being really smart, understanding what we're trying to accomplish, and ultimately you're trying to attack the weak part of the defense. When you were watching Denver (this past week), that's what they do a great job of. They run the ball a lot when they get those good looks to run it, and they're able to get those guys into the right play. It just helps the team a lot when you get a fair number and go after it."

Brady, in that interview, also talked about Peyton Manning's incessant "Omaha" calls at the line. Brady noted that on one play, Omaha can mean one thing and on another it can mean something else. Or nothing. It's something that Manning communicates to his team so the defense really has no idea what the hell is going on. The real kicker with all this is that you can get Manning coming to the line and pretending to change the call two or three times before just going ahead with the call from the huddle (if there is a huddle).

Brady, no slouch himself at pre-snap gamesmanship, gushed about how Manning got the Chargers to jump offsides five times last week just by using a varied and dynamic cadence.

Here's Peyton's explanation of it.

Manning is obviously doing his best deadpan there, but he's actually not lying, per se.

Here's a more specific explanation of the process, as told by a trio of former NFL signal callers. As I said above, it's a savvy quarterback's way of screwing with the defense.

Because Manning's Omaha calls and line exploits have been pretty well covered this week in the run-up to the AFC Championship Game, I thought I'd look at Tom Brady and some of the great things he does at the line as well.

For examples, we needn't go any further than the Week 13 matchup between the two teams -- an overtime comeback victory by Tom Brady.

Exhibit A

The Patriots come out in a heavy run look with two tight ends and tight splits by each receiver. The Broncos respond as you may expect, with an eight-man front, tight alignment and one man deep. Brady decides this is a look he likes, so he gets up out of his stance and changes the play. In a little bit of gamesmanship, he turns to his real intended target first, then barely acknowledges the receiver on the other side. One of those "this is too obvious so it can't be real" type of things.

Brady takes the snap, swings a pass to Julian Edelman on the wing, and Edelman, in space, makes his defender miss, uses a nice block by his tight end in the area, and beats one man to the end zone. This was Brady seeing the defense bunched up into a small area then changing the call to get the ball out into space, expeditiously.

The Pats ran essentially the exact same audible later in the game to gain a quick and easy 6 yards. It's easier than a run up the gut, where with a loaded box, you're more likely to get stuffed. My favorite part of this snap was all the superfluous hand signals and alignment tinkering Brady does on the left side of the line before just simply swinging it to the right.

Later in the game, while mounting a furious comeback from a huge halftime deficit, Brady makes this throw to Edelman downfield.

So, what was so special about this play?

First, listen in to Tom making his audible(s) at the line.

Brady, after hollering for a while, eventually lands on "426 Power," which, if I'm a defender, sounds a lot like a run play (power denotes a pulling guard, generally speaking). Well, the Pats then run "power" up front by pulling a lineman, but it's a play-action pass, not a run.

The clever line call, even if it only fools one or two guys, does enough to get the Broncos loading up to stop a power run to the right, and incidentally -- nay, importantly -- when you're expecting a run, you don't really rush the passer that hard.

The Broncos come with a light pass rush in response to what they believe is a run play, and Brady ends up with all day to let this slow-developing route get deep.

Edelman is bracketed by the cornerback and safety in the deep middle, but when he fakes a sluggo route up the seam, the safety gets turned around. The sneaky wide receiver is by now wide open, and with the extra time afforded to him by a well-sold play-action fake, Brady hits him in stride.

You gotta love this game. Brady vs. Manning -- it can't get much better.


"Staying on schedule": Third downs

These are two complete teams. Offense, defense and special teams. Super evenly matched. Closely comparable in many statistical categories. If I'm painting in broad strokes though, the Niners' offense is peaking and the Seahawks' is struggling. That's the story of this game, in my mind, and could make the difference in who gets the win.

The Seahawks' passing offense in particular has been anemic, and going back the last six weeks, the most yardage that QB Russell Wilson has thrown for in a game is 206. In that time, Seattle is 3-2, including a loss to the team it faces this week. After a strong start to his sophomore campaign, followed by a torrid three-game streak from Weeks 10-13 in which he passed for 827 yards, threw seven touchdowns without a pick and averaged over 11 YPA, Wilson's last five games, including last week against New Orleans, have looked like this:

68 of 120, 56.7% passing, 788 yards, four touchdowns, three interceptions, 6.57 YPA and a rating of 77.4.

That's underwhelming, particularly for a player who has hovered around a 63 percent completion rate, 8.2 YPA and a 100 rating on his career with Seattle. Pete Carroll obviously remains in Wilson's corner though, and to be honest, seems pleased as punch with how Wilson has acquitted himself for the team in that time frame.

"I think he's doing great," said Carroll this past week. "I think he's doing what we need him to do in these games. One can always do better. He's very concerned about leading us in a way that keeps our philosophy intact -- i.e., taking care of the football, and he's done a great job of that, and he's done that all year long."

The key number that most fans and media members seem to ignore for Wilson, particularly when you look at Seattle's NFC West/home-field-clinching win against the Rams in Week 17 and its Divisional round victory over the Saints last week, is zero. That's the amount of turnovers that Wilson has committed in these two key games.

To understand Carroll's point of view, you have to understand his philosophy on football. When asked this week about the sluggishness and conservative nature of the offense of late, he replied:

"We're trying to play really, really good ball. And that means you take care of the football and don't give it up. You don't give them field position situations and you get to hang on to it. You run the thing, and you get to play with the attitude you want. It adds to the overall makeup of our team. That's what's coming through. When we played San Francisco last time at our place, we beat them 29-3. We had 290 yards of offense that day. We threw the ball about 20 times."

It was actually 19 times. And Wilson completed only eight of them.

"To me, that's great football. That's us playing great football. We took it off ‘em, we took care of it. We played the field position game. We kicked it really well, and beat a really good football team with a good score with that amount of production. That's fitting it all together."

Well, I certainly will not argue with the results.

Now, in that game, it was 5-0 at the half and the Hawks led 12-3 going into the final frame, so the 29-3 score is somewhat misleading for how close it was for the majority of the time. Still, the Hawks forced five Niners turnovers and grabbed a safety, and those things were the major difference in the game.

So, while I definitely can dig Carroll's philosophy and believe it's certainly possible that the Seahawks could win this weekend against a tough, hot San Francisco team by playing suffocating defense, forcing turnovers and playing the field position game (as they did against the Niners in Week 2 and the Saints in the Divisional round game last week), the offensive side of the equation still worries me for Seattle's sake.

I know Carroll believes that the Seahawks way -- stressing all these things -- is, in his words, "the most consistent, proven championship formula in the history of the game," but this week, against this opponent in this situation, Russell Wilson will have to play at least marginally better than he has of late (I know, strong take), and I think that starts on third downs.

Third down percentage is a stat that I've monitored for Russell Wilson this season. The Seahawks' brand of football is centered around ball control, running, clock management, wearing down and physically brutalizing your opponent, and one tenet of the system is what you'll hear Wilson and his teammates refer to as "staying on schedule." In other words, making sure your first and second down set you up for a manageable third down.

Because the Hawks run more on first and second down than just about any other team in the NFL, it seems that they're constantly in third-down situations. Grinding. Their total number of third downs as compared to most teams is low, but the Seahawks ran fewer plays than all but three teams, so their total number of possessions is very low as well. Fewer possessions means fewer chances at scoring drives. This means converting on third down is pretty damn important so as to maximize those few chances you get at putting the ball in the end zone or through the uprights.

On the other side of the ball, the Niners allowed opponents to convert on 34 percent of their third-down opportunities throughout the 2013 season. This is very good -- essentially tied for third-best in the NFL with three other teams. Conversely, the Seahawks converted on 37 percent of their third down attempts -- 17th in the NFL. Over the last few games though, Wilson and the Hawks' offense hasn't been sharp in that area:

They were 5-for-14 vs. New Orleans in the Divisional round, 4-for-13 vs. St. Louis in Week 17, a putrid 2-for-13 vs. Arizona in Week 16 and 3-for-13 vs. New York Giants in Week 15. To give you an idea of the importance of converting on third down, for the Seahawks in particular, consider that in that Cardinals loss, the Hawks only ran 51 plays. The Denver Broncos ran an average of 72 plays a game throughout the year.

Now, going back one more week to the Seahawks-Niners tilt at Candlestick Park, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks' offense finished 5-for-12 on third down. This game is an interesting study for obvious reasons, and while it was five weeks ago, both teams had most of the same players going for them as they'll have this week, so it's still somewhat applicable.

Watching the San Francisco defense closely is impressive. In this game in particular, it mixed base and nickel looks regularly but showed no fear in utilizing either versus all different types of Seahawks personnel. The Niners' linebacker corps is so ... damn ... good -- between NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis on the inside and Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks on the outside, this is a defense that can operate in base almost all the time if it really felt like it. It's that versatile.

Complicating things for the offense, it disguises coverages and pressure concepts very well, and plays extremely disciplined and sound football. To combat all this, Seattle used a number of methods on third downs.

The rub route

The rub route is a third down staple for many teams and while I won't get into the actual legalese that surrounds the controversial strategy, it's pretty widely used by offenses around the league. Essentially, two receivers cross paths with a close enough trajectory that a natural pick is set on a defender, and as long as you're not egregiously initiating contact, it mostly goes uncalled, thus freeing the second receiver of his man. This works best against man coverage for obvious reasons.

Here, on the bottom side of your screen, you can see TE Zach Miller in line left, flanked by WR Jermaine Kearse. The Seahawks are in a short-yardage third-down situation and these two are meant to run a closely crossing rub route (or if you're a defender, a pick route). As it turns out, the timing is slightly off and the Niners do a great job of avoiding it.

Patrick Willis chests Miller at the 5-yard mark then runs with him in close coverage, and Tramaine Brock does a good job of sticking with Kearse as he runs a dig route. After the crossing route fails to open anything up, Wilson moves from the pocket, rightly sensing pressure from the left, and Bowman tracks him down.

Four verts

On Seattle's second third-down situation of the game, a third-and-12, it got aggressive. Perhaps banking on the thought that the Niners would expect a screen or draw play, the Hawks dial up a four verticals look, and it probably should have worked.

The three routes to the right side are meant to attack the three deep defenders. The running back leaking out of the backfield is meant to occupy the backside safety, leaving only the playside safety for Wilson to read. As it's drawn up, if the safety takes the routes that are running up the numbers, Wilson's go-to is the middle route. If that safety takes the route that's going up the hashes, Wilson's read is to the seam or outside route.

Wilson makes the correct read, but his pass is just slightly behind Doug Baldwin, who turns a half-second too late to make the adjustment on the ball. A game of inches in this case.

The man-killer

The route concepts below seem to be clearly targeting man coverage. With Aldon Smith on the weakside (left), there's a reasonable statistical chance that the Niners will want him to rush the passer on third down (Smith does drop, but his core competency is chasing quarterbacks, not receivers). That means that Wilson can surmise the corner and safety to that side are most likely responsible for Golden Tate and Baldwin. Whether they're in man or zone is the main question, but it's answered pretty quickly.

In this case, Tate runs a shallow crossing route underneath two slightly deeper routes. With Eric Reid in coverage on Tate, he has no choice but to go over the top. This gives Tate a ton of cushion and he makes the catch, securing the first down.

The Hawks actually tried to go back to the well with this concept later in the game but did not get the look they wanted. Here, the Niners drop back in a zone and defend each route well. Late in the play, Jermaine Kearse ends up free and clear down the middle of the field, but with Aldon Smith closing in on his right, Wilson scrambles.

At the end of the play, Wilson actually has Tate open as Willis closes to tackle the quarterback, but the throw is low and Tate can't come up with it. Bad throw at an inopportune time.

I'm certain he wanted that one back. Said Wilson recently:

"I think, in terms of having pride and fixing things, I think that in a game of sports, especially in the National Football League, you have to be able to adjust, you have to be able to make things happen sometimes. So I think for me, just trying to study and being extremely critical of myself and I watch everything I do every little detail and just try to criticize myself as much as I can. You know positive, but just try to really understand what I'm doing well."

"If it's timing, if its certain throws or whatever it is, certain coverage, whatever it is, I try to understand the best way possible and then I start to look at other things and try to see if there's anything else out there that we can do better and I think at the end of the day, it just really comes down to making the play and me throwing the great ball and us running it and staying on schedule."

"That's been our biggest thing for the most part of the season - when we're on schedule and we're keeping those third down and shorts, we're pretty good. So I think that's the biggest thing for us and I'm not worried about it at all honestly. I'm focused on the positives, I'm focused on what we can do extremely well and I know we can be great on third downs."


Of course, there are route concepts and combinations that can work against zone. Below, the Seahawks identify what they believe is a zone look from the Niners (generally when you get nobody following a receiver across the formation with pre-snap motion, that can mean it's a zone coverage look).

Based on this pre-snap look, in general terms, Wilson can identify the single-high safety, the deep third cornerback and the flats corner.

The route combo between Baldwin and Kearse allows just enough space for Kearse to get some separation. The dual routes right up the numbers also draw that nickel cornerback downfield for long enough to avoid a possible pick-six type of play. Kearse makes a great play on it for the first down.

Speaking of pick-sixes ... later in the game, Seattle tries a similar two-man combination against forward-looking zone coverage. Wilson's throw comes out a tick too late and it's broken up, hitting Tate in the chest as it's deflected. If that pass comes out a tick earlier, maybe six for Seattle if Tate can beat the safety down the sideline. Another tick later? It's probably six points for San Francisco. Timing in these things is absurdly precise.

Regardless, great play by the defensive back, Tramaine Brock. That's "click and close" right there.

The double move

Later in the game, cognizant that the Niners are playing quick passes tight and jumping routes as you saw above, the Hawks go for a double move on the outside from a red-zone third-down play.

CB Eric Wright doesn't bite on the slant because he's got inside help in the form of Bowman, so the primary target goes out the window for Wilson. With the secondary target bracketed up the middle, Wilson scrambles, eventually throwing it away.

For me, the bottom line? If Wilson goes 2-for-13 or 3-for-14 in this game, the Niners are going to have a good shot at coming away with a road victory. Wilson, for his part, knows that third downs are of paramount importance. As he said in late December, following that terrible outing vs. the Cardinals:

"We've just got to execute and I just got to be better. That's what it really comes down to. We'll get it right. I know at one point, we were the best in the National Football League for seven-eight weeks on third downs. So it's not like we haven't done it before. The biggest thing for me is just continue to do what I've done all year, continue to try to be consistent and be clutch when we need it, and be the calm in the storm."

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