Commentary

Playoffs have been all about offense

Will scoring continue at the blistering pace we saw in the divisional matchups?

Originally Published: January 18, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

No wonder all but one of the NFL teams looking for new leadership went for offensive coaches.

Last week, 276 points -- an average of 69 a game -- were scored in the divisional round of the playoffs. Will the trend continue in the championship games? You have to think it will.

The storylines for Sunday's games are strong. Will the Harbaugh brothers advance to the Super Bowl? Will Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan -- quarterbacks from the 2008 draft -- face off? Is Colin Kaepernick ready to graduate to Super Bowl quarterback? Can Tom Brady get to his sixth Super Bowl?

Nevertheless, the story of these playoffs and the regular season has been offense. Young, mobile quarterbacks have burned defenses with read-option plays, although pocket passers such as Brady and Flacco are still in vogue. Running offenses in San Francisco and Baltimore are hard to stop. The Patriots brought Oregon's fast-paced running scheme into the NFL.

It should result in some exciting football and exciting games.

Here are the top 10 trends heading into the championship games:

1. Expect at least one closely officiated game: Terry McAulay is the referee for the Atlanta-San Francisco game, and Bill Leavy will be handling the New England-Baltimore game. Don't be surprised to see a few extra penalties. The debate is always whether the officials will call a tight game or let the players play. McAulay's games tend to see more penalties than average. His 16.3 penalties per game is tied for the second most among the NFL crews. Cornerbacks need to be cautious, because his crews watch pass interference closely. His crews ranked second with seven illegal contact calls, but only 11 pass interferences were called during his games. The Falcons were the least penalized team in the NFL -- 55 penalties called against them for 415 yards. The 49ers need to be on guard because they had 109 penalties, seventh most in the league. Offensive linemen also need to be careful because his crews watch blockers closely. McAulay's 52 holding calls tied with Ron Winter for the most among the officials. As a result, McAulay's games average 44 points a game, 1.7 below the league average. Leavy tends to let the players play. His 13.9 penalties a game is the ninth fewest. His 22 holding penalties tied for the second fewest. But cornerbacks need to watch out. Leavy led the NFL with 20 pass interference penalties. His games tend to be higher scoring at 48.7 points, fifth highest among officials.

2. Is it graduation time for the quarterback class of 2008? After three failures in four years, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan finally won his first playoff game. Critics debate whether Joe Flacco is an elite quarterback even though he has won a playoff game in each of his five seasons. Clearly, Ryan and Flacco don't get the respect they have earned. It's hard to believe, but both quarterbacks are still on their rookie contracts. Flacco is a free agent after the season, but the Ravens will either franchise him or pay him as one of the top quarterbacks in the league. Ryan's rookie contract put him among the highest paid once he signed it in 2008, and there isn't any question owner Arthur Blank will take care of him in proper time. Since entering the league, Ryan is 56-22 in the regular season as a starter. Flacco is 54-26 in the regular season and 7-4 in the postseason. Despite getting that first playoff victory, Ryan has taken a backseat to Kaepernick, who beat Aaron Rodgers last week to win his first playoff game. The 49ers are favored even though the Falcons were the No. 1 seed and are at home. Flacco has played two excellent playoff games and came close to beating Tom Brady last year in New England. In the 1980s and 1990s, coaches used to say it takes five years to develop a top quarterback. This is their fifth seasons. Is it their time?

[+] EnlargeNiners D
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images49ers defensive starters have played a lot of snaps. Could fatigue become a factor?

3. Fatigue factor: Rob Gronkowski is out for the rest of the playoffs after breaking his forearm again. Tom Brady may stay in two-tight-end sets, but he probably will rely a lot on the fast-paced Oregon-style offense. That tempo usually allows Brady to get the play off with about 24 seconds left on the 40-second clock, which increases the number of plays run. Do the Ravens have enough in the tank to handle it? Their defense has been on the field for 90 and 94 plays in its first two postseason games, including Saturday's double-overtime win over the Denver Broncos. No team consolidates their defensive lineup more than the San Francisco 49ers. Nine 49ers defensive starters played between 982 and 1,083 plays. Defensive end Justin Smith would have been the 10th had he not torn his triceps. Everyone knows the 49ers have the best defense among the championship teams, but is it the same late in the playoffs? The 49ers gave up 31 points last week against the Packers. Last year, they gave up 52 in two playoff games.

4. Firing the pistol: The biggest problem facing the Falcons defense is containing Kaepernick and the pistol offense. Cam Newton ran for 202 yards in two regular-season games against Atlanta, but the Falcons did a good job of holding down the Seahawks' running attack last week. The Falcons' entire postseason has involved working on the pistol and preparing for running quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson and Kaepernick, so they should be better schooled. Last week, the Falcons had a second-half problem against the pass. They played a lot of Cover 3 zone and blitzed one player. Wilson picked up on that tendency and threw to an uncovered Zach Miller. The Falcons will tighten up that problem. But at least the Falcons played zone. The Packers tried to stop Kaepernick with man-to-man coverage, which is the worst thing to do against the pistol. Kaepernick had open lanes to run. The 49ers used the pistol on 45 percent of their snaps against the Packers and gained 233 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

5. No one knows the 49ers better: The sleeper story in the NFC Championship Game is the 49ers going against Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, a former 49ers head coach. Nolan built much of the roster that Jim Harbaugh inherited, and the 49ers are loaded thanks to Nolan. The 49ers have nine Pro Bowlers and eight alternates. Nolan drafted or signed 12 of them. Nolan's specialty was building the defense, but his challenge will be keeping his Atlanta defense from being overpowered by San Francisco's offensive line, which is perhaps the best in football.

[+] EnlargeVernon Davis
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsIf Michael Crabtree doesn't burn the Atlanta defense, Vernon Davis might.

6. Pick your poison: Since Kaepernick took over as quarterback, he has formed a bond with wide receiver Michael Crabtree. At his current pace, Crabtree would have been a 100-catch receiver if he had played 16 games with Kaepernick as the starter. The Falcons also have to worry about Vernon Davis. Kaepernick hasn't developed the same chemistry with Davis, who remains one of the most gifted tight ends in football. Tight ends have given the Falcons problems all season. Nolan doesn't want a repeat of last week when Seattle's Miller ran free through the Atlanta secondary. If the Falcons concentrate too much coverage on Crabtree, Davis could burn them.

7. Brady shouldn't bunch too many long throws: Ray Lewis is playing in his final NFL season, and Ed Reed possibly is playing his too. They want to finish with a bang. They know this Ravens defense isn't as good as it has been in the past, but it is opportunistic. The Ravens defense has been a problem for Brady. This is the third time in recent years these two teams have met in the playoffs and the second straight year they have met in the championship game. Brady has had trouble going downfield against Baltimore, according to ESPN Stats & Information. On pass attempts in the air of at least 10 yards, Brady is 6-for-22 against the Ravens and has thrown four interceptions. Against other playoff teams, Brady completes 46.2 percent of those passes and has four touchdowns. The Patriots don't have a lot of speed among their pass-catchers, so Brady will work the short passes and the running game against the Ravens.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
David Butler II/US PresswireRob Gronkowski opens up big plays for the Patriots. How will they adjust with him on the sideline?

8. Life without Gronk: Last week, the Patriots stayed in two-tight-end sets after Gronkowski broke his forearm for the second time this season. But they are a different team without him. He opens more big plays and improved play in the red zone. With Gronk, Brady completes 65.6 percent of his passes and averages 7.8 yards an attempt, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is 23 to 3. Gronkowski has missed five games this season. Without him, Brady completes 59.4 percent of his passes, and his average per attempt drops to 6.8. His touchdown-to-interception rate falls to 14 to 5.

9. Timing is everything: Brady seems to thrive in his new quick-pass offense. When Brady gets rid of the ball within three seconds of the snap, his numbers are strong, according to Stats & Info. He completed 71.4 percent of his throws in that tempo and averaged 8.1 yards a throw. He has 29 touchdown passes when he gets rid of the ball in three seconds or less. Against the Ravens earlier this season, he completed 23 of 33 passes for 266 yards in quick-passing sets. When Brady holds onto ball longer than three seconds, his numbers drop. He completes 41 percent of his throws when he takes more than three seconds to throw, and his yards per attempt drops to 6.4.

10. Is this Tony Gonzalez's final game? Tony Gonzalez continues to insist he is going to retire, and that would be a big blow to the Falcons. The future Hall of Fame tight end has been a vital part of the Matt Ryan offense. When he lines up in the slot, the ball often comes to him. Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham led the league during the regular season with 55 catches by tight ends when they line up in the slot, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Gonzo caught three passes in the slot last week against Seattle. Ryan uses Gonzalez to make the tough catches over the middle and get the tough first downs. Like Ryan, he enjoyed the first playoff win of his career last week in the victory over Seattle.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer