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Video: The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Mark Kaboly and CineSport’s Brian Clark discuss the Steelers’ Pro Bowlers, and the importance of winning the AFC North against the Bengals.
The holiday season is upon us and while Santa Claus delivers presents to kids all over the world, he sometimes neglects to give NFL teams what they truly need.
Because it’s almost playoff time, allow me to step in for Santa. We know 10 of the 12 playoff teams already, so it’s time to give to those teams. Here are nine Christmas wishes for the 10 current NFL playoff teams, and here’s to hoping they’ll make the most of these gifts come the postseason:
1. A healthy Manning
Something has been ailing Peyton Manning of late, and it showed up in the Broncos’ Monday night loss to the Bengals when the future Hall of Fame quarterback threw four interceptions, his highest single-game total since 2010, which included a pick-six.
Arm strength has been a legitimate concern for Manning since he came to Denver following his surgery, but now the thigh he’s needed to receive treatment on is making us nervous. With Manning off his game, the Broncos still managed to win the AFC West and four of their past five games.
But with the offense moving in the direction that is — with Manning not being a key cog — the playoff version of the Broncos will be much different than what it was early this year and during the 2013 run to the Super Bowl. Manning at 100 percent is the only way Denver has a realistic chance to return to the championship.
2. Home-field advantage
What gift would better suit the Packers than the gift of home-field advantage. Green Bay is simply just a different team at home. They’re dominant, evident by a 7-0 mark in their building and a 20-point average margin of victory.
There’s no beating the Packers at Lambeau; just ask any of the teams that were on the wrong end of a lopsided loss there this season. On the road, however, the team has showed signs of weakness at times.
Green Bay needed late-game heroics to get past Miami, lost to the Saints who are shockingly atrocious at home, struggled momentarily against the Vikings and just fell victim to Buffalo in Orchard Park in Week 15. This team won’t be able to play in Seattle and has already lost in Detroit; it needs to be in Lambeau when the games count more.
3. The return of Stanton
I’m almost already regretting giving this gift to the Cardinals, but what this team needs is a healthy Drew Stanton. No, he doesn’t come close to being the dynamic passer that Carson Palmer is for this team, but at least he gives the team a solid enough chance to move the ball and win games, and is a superior option to the woeful Ryan Lindley and fourth-stringer Logan Thomas.
The good news for Arizona is Stanton is expected to return for the playoffs, according to coach Bruce Arians, who gave the No. 2 quarterback an 85 percent chance to be ready for the team’s first postseason game since 2009.
When Stanton starts under center, the offense averages 293 yards of total offense and the team is 6-4. In the short sample size with Lindley, the offense totaled 216 yards and is 0-1.
4. Road-field advantage
There are teams like Green Bay which are dominant at home, and then there’s the other end of the spectrum with teams like Dallas, which simply plays better when it’s on the road.
The Cowboys are the NFL’s road warriors of 2014 with a perfect 7-0 record away from Jerry’s World. Not to mention, they’re 3-0 in the month of December with two of those wins on the road, and a chance to end the year on a four-game win streak as the team travels to Washington, D.C. in Week 17.
Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and Jerry Jones must have been nice this year, because in order for the NFC East champs to earn home-field advantage, they’ll need a Cardinals loss and a Lions-Packers tie. We’ve seen one tie in the NFL already this year, so let’s hope that was the outlier. After the first round, Dallas could again be on the road for the rest of the playoffs.
5. Much-needed confidence
Indianapolis has been a shockingly bad team since its Week 10 bye, and for a plethora of reasons. Andrew Luck has been a turnover machine, the offense is lacking without Ahmad Bradshaw and injuries along the offensive line are taking its toll.
Luck had four interceptions and lost five fumbles entering Week 16, then put forth a career-worst performance with a stat line that read 15-of-22, 109 yards and increased his turnover total to 22 for the year. In addition, an injury to tackle Gosder Cherilus forced the team to trot out a ninth different offensive line combination. Adding insult to injury, the tandem of Daniel Herron and Trent Richardson combined for 4 yards, and the team finished with 1 total rushing yard in the 42-7 loss to Dallas.
The Colts have lost to all of the AFC heavyweights, including Denver, Pittsburgh and New England, and they’re destined to run into one of those squads in the second round of the playoffs or sooner. In order to show up in those re-matches, Indy needs to gain some confidence. Otherwise, it could be as disastrous as it wound up being last weekend against Dallas.
6. A blast from the past
Detroit began the year as one of the league’s best surprises. First-year Lions coach Jim Caldwell found a way to preach discipline to this wildly talented team, and the defense lifted them all the way to a winner-take-all NFC North battle on Sunday.
However, offense has always been the forte of the Lions since the arrival of Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. And a team known for its big-play ability now ranks 19th in offensive DVOA with just 49 pass plays longer than 20 yards.
Defense wins championships, sure, but not if the offense can’t score. It’s especially frustrating with the Lions, who have a wealth of weapons at their disposal. Defense might key the Lions in the postseason, but they’ll be even more formidable if Stafford can find a way to make big plays down the field to Johnson.
7. Continued health
Last year, the Patriots caught the injury bug late in the season which forced Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork to be MIA for the playoffs. Then the team had to thrust backups into starting roles and adjust on the fly.
This year, it’s been the opposite. They’ve struggled with injuries early on, but now have a healthy Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Rob Gronkowski, and that alone has been the difference as the team marched toward a No. 1 seed in the AFC.
It’s been a similar story for the defending champions, who were very vulnerable on the defensive side of the ball early on. But the return of Byron Maxwell, Kam Chancellor and Bobby Wagner have completely reshaped the identity of the defense, which has actually benefited Russell Wilson and the offense, making them less accountable to have “win games” on that side of the ball.
The health of such key players has been the difference for both New England and Seattle as they begin their march toward a Super Bowl this season. Health and health alone will dictate how far these two teams can go, because they’ve each proven to be the class of their respective conferences when they’re at or close to 100 percent.
8. Semblance of a secondary
The days of the Steel Curtain are long gone, and now the Steelers are an offense-dependent team. The trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are what has driven this team this far in 2014, while the defense has been a weakness.
According to NumberFire, Pittsburgh’s defense allowed Zach Mettenberger, Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton and Drew Brees to post top-10 passing net expected points against them from Weeks 12-15. So it shouldn’t come a surprise that the team ranks 30th in defense DVOA with the 31st-ranked secondary.
William Gay, Ike Taylor, this message is directed to you. The Steelers can trade touchdowns with the best of the NFL, but when it comes to getting a stop, it seems like a near-impossibility. In order to make a run this postseason, the secondary will need to make an adjustment, because Tom Brady or Manning will exploit it.
9. A Hill-centric offense
Quietly, Jeremy Hill has been the driving force of Cincinnati’s offense, racking up nearly 300 yards in each of the past two games and ripping off his fourth consecutive 100-yard effort to take over the team lead in rushing from Giovani Bernard.
Hill keyed the Bengals offense in the win over Denver, which helps mask the deficiencies of Andy Dalton. Hill ranks first among NFL rookies in rushing with 1,024 yards, the first time a Bengals rookie has eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark since 1997.
Dalton is Dalton. A.J. Green has been plagued by injury all season long, and it looks like that trend will continue into January. So if the Bengals offense is going to do anything Week 17 against Pittsburgh and again in the playoffs, it has to be Hill who carries it.
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