Sports Nut

Playoff Permutations

Josh Levin and Nate Jackson take your questions about the NFL postseason.

Tim Tebow.

Just how far can Tim Tebow take the Denver Broncos in the NFL playoffs?

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.

Slate executive editor and Hang Up and Listen co-host Josh Levin joined former Broncos tight end Nate Jackson on our Facebook page to chat with readers about the NFL playoffs. The following transcript of the discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

Josh Levin: Hey everyone, looking forward to the chat. Here’s a link to this week’s Slate/Deadspin NFL dialogue if you want to catch up on what Nate and I are writing about this week.

Nate Jackson: Hi everybody. Let’s talk football things.

Max Stewart: Are my Steelers too banged up to go past the first round, just to let the Purple Browns beat them up further?

Josh Levin: I think the Steelers match up better against the Patriots than the Ravens. (In order to play the Patriots, they’d need to beat the Broncos and have the Texans beat the Bengals.) The Pats have a really shaky pass defense that Roethlisberger and co. could take advantage of even if they don’t have a strong running game with Mendenhall out. Against the Ravens, that lack of balance on offense could lead to Terrell Suggs killing Roethlisberger.

Nate Jackson: The Steelers can surely come to Denver and win. But let me tell you, I’m in Denver now, and the Bronco love is palpable.

Nate Jackson: It’s Tebow Time!

Preston Parsons: Really Nate?? Tebow Time?? I thought I knew you better than that!! He’s such a joke.

Nate Jackson: I was kidding, Preston. It was tongue in cheek … but why is it that all ex-quarterbacks hate him so badly?

Preston Parsons: Because he’s not a QB. It would be like saying Stefen Fatsis is a kicker. :)

Nate Jackson: Ha! Stefan was the greatest kicker the Broncos have ever seen! But you’re right, Tebow can’t throw. That’s his main problem. It would suck being a receiver in that offense.

Pätrick Russell: Nate, we love our Broncos but I’m skeptical. I just don’t see how they pull off a win. Steelers D is just too good and defenses have figured out how to shut Tebow and crew down.

Nate Jackson: Patrick: a home playoff game is always winnable, especially here in Denver.


Danny Stamp: American football should be called Hand Egg. Much more accurate label.

Josh Levin: Danny: I will never refer to football as anything but Hand Egg ever again.


Eric Aaron Deutsch: ‎1) Which team is best built to beat the Packers at Lambeau? (I suppose the options are NYG, ATL, NO, SF, and DET.)

Josh Levin: On their best day, I’d say the Giants have the best combo of offense and defense to beat the Packers in Lambeau. But the Giants don’t often have their best day. For the Saints to win, they’d have to get some turnovers, which they haven’t done all that much this year. The Packers have 31 interceptions on the year and the Saints have 9. Nine, people!

Nate Jackson: I think several teams can beat the Packers at Lambeau. But not the Saints. Lions, Giants, and Niners.

Bennett Schwartz: Why don’t you think the Niners can beat the Packers in Green Bay? Seems like optimal conditions for them besides field goal kicking.

Nate Jackson: I do think the Niners can win there. In fact they might be the team who is best built for it. Their defense is awesome. They force turnovers. They protect the ball. They have a great running game. And they’re very confident. That goes a long way when going into a hostile environment like Green Bay.

Nate Jackson: Although it’s not so hostile. Loud, but genteel.

Nate Jackson: Unlike Oakland. If they had won on Sunday, Oakland would be the definition of a hostile environment.

Josh Levin: Following up on that, Nate: All else being equal, is it harder to play on the road in a dome when the home crowd is fired up? I went to the Saints-Falcons game in the Superdome a couple of weeks ago and came away thinking that it’s amazing that a road team EVER wins in that kind of environment.

Nate Jackson: Domes are very loud! Indianapolis was the loudest stadium I’ve ever been in. But Kansas City, not domed, was the second loudest, back when Dante Hall was returning kicks in 2003. The road game difficulties are manifold. Weather, noise, time zone differential, food, travel, etc.

Bill Jones: Don’t the stats show that home teams make just as many false start penalties as the road teams? I assume that would be the most obvious consequence of the loud road environment.

Nate Jackson: On a Friday practice before a road game, coach Shanahan had speakers brought out to the field that blasted brain-piercing white noise so we could work on our silent count. You have to expected to not be able to hear anything.


Jeff Webb: Is it cut and dry that the Patriots and Ravens will meet in the AFC Championship game? Broncos and Bengals backed into the playoffs, Big Ben is beat up, and Texans either have an inexperience QB or one that likes to give up the ball.

Josh Levin: The Pats and Ravens are the rightful favorites in the AFC, but I do think the Steelers would have a good chance to take out New England. Pittsburgh beat New England earlier this year, you might recall.

Jeff Webb: That is true, but I don’t see the Steelers beating the Patriots with Charlie Batch, but the way that Big Ben toughs it out, I expect him to play on one leg. The run game, that’s another story. Can Isaac Redman do a serviceable job?

Pat Stack: I think Redman can get the job done. I also thought John Clay had a pretty good game against Cleveland.

Josh Levin: The Steelers are more of a passing team than a running team, so as long as a) Roethlisberger is reasonably healthy, and b) they can present at least a minimal threat in the running game then they’ll be OK. Well, at least they’ll be OK against any team except the Ravens.

Nate Jackson: Make it into the playoffs and anything can happen. I think the Pats are vulnerable. And so are the Ravens for that matter. We could see a Bengals/Broncos AFC championship game.

Nate Jackson: Although very unlikely.

Nate Jackson: I think the Ravens are lined up to lose their divisional round game. Their defense is teetering at the wrong time and their offense is a bit disheveled.


Joel Barker: Why do Tebow’s religious demonstrations get so much attention in a league filled with guys dropping to a knee after scoring a TD, or pointing to the sky after a FG?

Josh Levin: Tebow’s religious demonstrations get so much attention because Tebow wants them to get attention and the media/public obliges. No other player has made a pro-life Super Bowl ad.

Nate Jackson: It’s just lazy journalism if you ask me.


Pat Stack: Josh, who I know in real life, and Nate, who I don’t: Why is there so much debate over whether Eli Manning is an elite QB? My theory is that it’s based entirely on his appearance: he’s a dorky-looking guy who’s personally and professionally in a “little brother” role, so even with a Super Bowl and numerous high-pressure wins, there’s still this vibe of questionable success around him. Is there some way he can finally shake this? If he retires tomorrow, does he go to the Hall of Fame?

Nate Jackson: What is an “elite” quarterback anyway? We hear it so much and it’s kind of crazy to me. All NFL quarterbacks are elite in my book, but we feel we need to create a special list of the most specialist of them all. And it’s up to the experts to decide. But the experts have a vested interest in who they decide is elite. It’s all very strange.

Josh Levin: Hey there, Pat Stack. I think you’re on to something with Eli’s appearance. And it works the other way, too—I feel like at least some of the idea that Mark Sanchez is a solid NFL QB comes from the fact that he’s so damn handsome. But back to Eli: I don’t think there’s much doubt any more that he’s elite. He’s pretty much vanquished that over the last few seasons. Don’t think he’s a Hall of Famer yet, though. In this pass-happy era, you’re going to have to put up some pretty huge numbers to stand out from the pack.

Pat Stack: Perhaps I’m still hung up on this image because my non-NFL-fan wife always refers to him as “little Manning,” and when he gets a win, she reacts in much the same way as when a puppy completes a new trick.


Brook Corwin: If the Lions pull off the upset, will we have to endure a week’s worth of puff pieces on how they’re lifting up the spirits of a depressed city? Have we moved on from that cliche by now?

Josh Levin: You won’t see those Lions-uplifting-a-depressed-city storylines until Detroit makes the Super Bowl. At that point, with two weeks between games, the puff pieces would roll out like crazy.


Jeff Sobieck: If Scheffler scores a TD this week, which silly ass dance will he pull out of the bag?

Nate Jackson: Ha! Your guess is as good as mine, Jeff! Hopefully something New Orleans themed. It’s pretty awesome that he’s doing it though.


Bill Jones: Why is the Saints D not better? They have a lot of high draft picks and relatively high profile free agents on that side, so it isn’t like they haven’t invested in it. Is their talent-evaluation skill only working for offensive players?

Josh Levin: My theory on that—and I’d be interested in Nate’s take—is that the Saints don’t have playmakers on defense. They have a bunch of really solid guys (Will Smith, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins, JoNate Vilma) but nobody that an offense really has to fear or has a knack for creating turnovers, someone like Ed Reed or Terrell Suggs or Troy Polamalu. They had that during the Super Bowl year with Darren Sharper, but they haven’t had it since. And since Gregg Williams loves to blitz, they’re susceptible to giving up big plays. If you blitz and don’t force turnovers, that’s a bad combo.

Nate Jackson: I think you’re right. It always helps to have ball-hawks on defense. But it’s rare to have defensive players who attack the ball in the air with skill and timing. If they developed that skill early on, their coach usually put them on offense. That’s why having one on defense is so valuable to a team.


Bennett Schwartz: Josh, do you think it’s a valid argument to say that Aaron Rodgers should be MVP because he played a significant number more games outside than Brees?

Josh Levin: Haven’t heard that one before! And no, I don’t think that’s a valid argument. There are plenty of other pro-Rodgers cases to be made, though. He threw a lot fewer interceptions, they beat the Saints head to head, and Brees had (relatively) bad games when the Saints lost to the 2-14 Rams and 4-12 Bucs.


Jason Goldsmith: Is the Patriots D really as bad as advertised? Is bouncing between 4-3 and 3-4 and always trying different things with the linebackers a good call? Does that variability give them an edge over time and in the playoffs, even if they lose a few playoff games because of it?

Nate Jackson: No, they’re not as bad as people say they are. They get a bad rap, in my opinion, for a combination of reasons. First off, they are 13-3. They can’t be that bad. But they may suffer a bit from knowing that they have one of the greatest QBs ever playing for them, and not saddling up. In Denver, they know their offense isn’t going to score, so they have to prevent points from being scored at all costs.

Josh Levin: My theory about the Patriots D is that Belichick (rightly) believes that he’s a defensive mastermind and that he can plug anybody into his scheme and get great results. He cut a bunch of corners and safeties this year and replaced them with wide receivers who’d never even practiced in the defensive backfield! That’s ballsy. And it didn’t really work, considering that the Pats gave up the most passing yards in NFL history.

Nate Jackson: Belichick’s genius doesn’t travel much further than Tom Brady.

Nate Jackson: I don’t think football strategy is for geniuses.

Nate Jackson: Maybe a bit vague, but I think we make too much out of schematic geniuses.

Pätrick Russell: A little vague :). So the Pats D is suspect and gave up the most passing yards, but the Packers D has given up more yards than their O gained … that is just crazy to me. Teams get a high powered passing game and bend, bend and bend some more on defense. Pats and Packers will set the record for highest scoring Super Bowl should they both get there.

Nate Jackson: I think that their defenses get so used to getting ripped in practice by their awesome offenses that it carries over to the games and they almost expect it to happen on game day.


Ryan Miksch: Nate, if you are the 49ers (which I hear you were once) how and who do you prepare for the divisional playoff game on the 14th?

Nate Jackson: Well Mister M-i-k-s-c-h Coach. I’d say that you watch film on all of your potential opponents, but look hard at the Saints because they present the most problems for the Niners. Other than that, rest the body a bit. Eat well. Get some sleep, and stay hungry. The Niners will benefit from continuing to view themselves as underdogs. Harbaugh has it dialed in.


Josh Levin: Do players get more nervous before playoff games? Here’s an equation: If five players throw up on account of nerves before a regular season, then X players throw up before a playoff game.

Nate Jackson: Pre-game puking is a rarity. I saw it maybe twice in my career. But the nervous feelings in general increase with the hype and the intensity of the crowd. But that feeling makes it more exciting, and after the first few plays, after you get popped a couple of time, there are no nerves. It’s back to survival mode.

Nate Jackson: And after you take a look around and take in the spectacle of it, you sink into your own little football world in your head and everything else fades away. I never really noticed the crowd after the first few minutes of the game.


Josh Levin: I’m going to sign off now. Thanks everyone for all the questions, and thanks to Nate for letting me know that pre-game puking is not a regular thing. The more you know! Enjoy the games, everybody.

Nate Jackson: All right guys, this was fun. Thanks for the questions. See you next time!