When the Steelers and Ravens face off for the third time this year, it's expected to be a defensive struggle, and a game that comes down to the final possession.
By Saturday afternoon's kickoff, you'll undoubtedly hear plenty about how ball control and avoiding turnovers will largely determine the winner. There is some truth to that, but it's just as likely that the triumphant team will be the one that goes for broke.
It's not a new idea. It's actually Bill Walsh's. He wrote in his book "Finding The Winning Edge" that explosive plays (plays of 20-plus yards) are one of the aspects of a winning game plan. According to his stats, a team that has two more explosive plays than its opponent wins 80-85 percent of the time. As Walsh points out, even good teams can sustain a 10-plus play drive only 15-20 percent of the time, so explosive plays are a key to winning football.
Walsh's book is obviously not a new release -- he wrote it back in 1997. It's old enough that Bill Belichick cites it as one of his key influences as he coped with losing his job in Cleveland, before he got the gig in New England. It's considered the bible of how to build an NFL franchise.
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It's been nearly 15 years since Walsh put together his stats for the book, but his point seems to still make plenty of sense. To get a better idea, I compiled the stats for the eight remaining playoff teams -- when any of these teams gets a surplus of big plays, as you would expect, they are usually going to win.
When the eight remaining playoff teams recorded two or more explosive plays than their opponent in a game, they have won 88.1 percent of the time. When they recorded an explosive-play margin in the plus-1 to minus-1 range, the playoff teams have won 71.48 percent of their games, right in line with their overall 90-38 record (70.3 percent).
And when they gave up two more explosive plays than they got themselves, the best teams in the NFL this year are reduced to below .500 (14-15)
So teams do need to control the ball and avoid turnovers this weekend, but not at the expense of taking some chances. With that in mind, here is a look at each player's biggest threat to break open the game this weekend.
Atlanta Falcons: Roddy White is the Falcons' main (and sometimes only) target in the passing game, and he's also the team's best deep threat. But Michael Turner earned his "Turner the Burner" nickname in college by being surprisingly fast. His nine 20-plus-yard runs this season ranked in a tie for ninth best in the league.
Baltimore Ravens: This year's Ravens don't have many big-play threats. They do have an excellent set of veteran wide receivers, but Anquan Boldin leads all Ravens wide receivers with a pedestrian 10 catches of 20-plus yards. Donte' Stallworth is the Ravens' best deep threat, but he had only two catches during the regular season as he battled injuries. Baltimore's 50 explosive plays in 2010 ranks worst among the remaining eight teams. Since 2007, the Ravens have faced Pittsburgh 10 times -- the Ravens have not had more explosive plays than the Steelers in any of those games.
Chicago Bears: Devin Hester may be the best returner of all time, but when it comes to generating big plays on offense, Johnny Knox has proven to be a better threat. Knox has averaged 18.8 yards per catch and has converted a first down on 84.3 percent of his catches.
Green Bay Packers: Greg Jennings is one of the best receivers in the league, whether he's running short slants or fly routes. And the Packers did a good job of getting him the ball in all kind of situations -- his 21 20-plus-yard catches was tied for third-best in the league.. Don't expect Packers' running backs to break off too many long runs, though -- the Pack's backs had only three 20-plus-yard runs this year and Aaron Rodgers accounted for one of those.
New England Patriots: When the Patriots traded away Randy Moss, there was plenty of speculation that their offense would suffer without its main deep threat. It's true that the Patriots don't have any receiver with more than nine explosive plays, but the Patriots did spread the ball around nicely, and the emergence of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as legitimate deep threats gives defenses a tricky problem to try to handle. The two tight ends have combined for 20 explosive plays this season.
New York Jets: Santonio Holmes missed the first four games of the season and still has more explosive plays than any receiver on the Ravens' roster. The combination of Holmes and Braylon Edwards gives Mark Sanchez a tough pair of matchups downfield. Holmes has the speed to try to outrun cornerbacks, while Edwards' size allows him to out-muscle defensive backs for the ball.
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Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks' biggest worry has to be preventing big plays themselves. Seattle allowed 15 more 20-plus-yard plays than any other team remaining in the playoffs. Offensively, Seattle has to rely on some luck -- their talent at wide receiver and running back pales in comparison to the rest of the remaining playoff teams. Marshawn Lynch may have had a Hall of Fame-worthy run last Saturday, but those outbursts have been few and far between during his career. Receivers Ben Obomanu and Ruvell Martin aren't targeted by Matt Hasselbeck all that often, but when they do get the ball, they have the speed to sneak behind some secondaries.