NFL Playoffs Preview: Sunday (Late Game)

New Orleans at Minnesota (-4)

Every post-season, I decide which NFC team I’m rooting for, and which AFC team I’d like to see win. The decision is always based on my idiosyncratic notions about which team has made the smartest moves, plays the most sound football, has overcome the most obstacles, conducted itself more admirably, which coaches or players I like (or hate) more… or whose fans have had to endure the most crap.

The AFC rep is usually the Steelers (never New England). The NFC team varies.

This year it was easy. I knew, more than a month ago, that I wanted to see the Vikings win it all. The Vikings are the team that proves something I keep saying: There is always enough talent available if you look carefully and you coach well.

Here is the what Pro Football Reference considers the Vikings starters for 2017. They’re the players who started the most games at each position– with a minimum of nine starts (there are only ten offensive starters because the Vikings sometimes used two backs, sometimes three receivers and sometimes two tight ends. All six of the column headings are self-explanatory– but I want you to focus on the last one, which shows (a) by which team, (b) in which round and and (c) in what year player was drafted. Pay attention to the number of players drafted by the Vikings– and the number not drafted at all:Vikings Lineup

Eight of the 23 starters didn’t get drafted by any NFL team. That’s an astonishingly high number. Of the remaining 15, four were drafted by other teams– then obtained by the Vikings,

This incarnation of the Vikings began in 2014, when GM Rick Spielman hired head coach Mike Zimmer. Spielman has been the GM since 2006, but his record between 2006-13 was 60-67-1 (a .473 winning percentage), so I am pretty comfortable crediting this team substantially to Zimmer (who has gone 39-25, or .609, since being hired).

Of the 11 players drafted by Minnesota, Zimmer inherited four. To go down the list in the order they appear:

TE Kyle Rudolph (round two, 2011). Rudolph is a good player– he made the Pro Bowl in 2012. But, based on his stats in the 39 games he played before Zimmer arrived in 2014 (109 catches, 1,153 yards and 15 TDs), I doubt anyone (except Jon Gruden, during a game) would call him a “Star.”

DE Everson Griffen. (round four, 2010). Not even Gruden– who has been known to call ballboys “one of the best ever”– would have referred to Griffen as a star, He played 59 games in the four seasons before Zimmer arrived, starting once. He had 17.5 sacks in those four years. He was a one-dimensional edge rusher– not even a good one.

CB Xavier Rhodes (pick 25 in round one, 2013). As a rookie– his only season before Zimmer arrived– Rhodes played in 13 games, starting six. His stats (no interceptions, 10 pass knockdowns, no sacks, 1 fumble forced, 41 tackles) weren’t bad. That said, Rhodes didn’t make any all-rookie teams; nobody suggested he was better than WR DeAndre Hopkins or C Andy Frederick, both of whom Minnesota passed up to take him.

SS Harrison Smith (pick 29, round one, 2012). Smith, you could have said was a rising star. He’d started all 16 games as a rookie, made five interceptions (returning two for scores), forced a fumble, gotten a sack and knocked down 14 balls. His stats would have been even better if he hadn’t missed the last eight games of the 2013 season with an injury.

To recap, that’s one guy who made a Pro Bowl trip (Rudolph), one guy who looked like he might (Smith) one player who seemed decent (Rhodea) and one guy who was hanging on by a thread (Griffen). Here’s what happened:

  • Rudolph hasn’t improved much. He went to the Pro Bowl for a 53-catch season with 9 TDs; he’s had 49, 83 and 57 since. You could say he’s consolidated his ability, but that’s all.
  • Griffen became a monster. He’s missed only two games in four years, started every single one, had 43.5 sacks and has made three Pro Bowls. Someone– either coordinator George Edwards, DL Coach Andre Patterson, strength coach Mark Uyeyama or the Good Lord– has done a remarkable job.
  • Rhodes became the player Minnesota hoped he would be. He’s missed only two games, started them all and made the last two Pro Bowls. I’d credit DB coach Jerry Gray– a former coordinator and Pro Bowl safety
  • Smith has made two Pro Bowls– and this year, All-Pro. He’s missed only three games, started the rest, and has 12 picks and 26 knockdowns. Again, I’d assume that is Gray– he does that wherever he goes.

Now let’s walk through the seven picks they made


Zimmer (who was hired, by the way, the same year the Browns hired Mike Pettine) showed up and the Vikings chose LB Anthony Barr with the ninth pick in the first round. He’s not an edge rusher (only 10.5 sacks in four years)– he’s a strongside backer who covers tight ends and backs and is a nightmare on running plays. Barr is going to this third consecutive Pro Bowl this year.

The Browns chose Justin Gilbert with the eighth pick. In fact, they wanted Gilbert so much– and had so little interest in Barr– that they traded a #5 pick to Minnesota to move up one spot to be sure they got him


Minnesota added four starters in the draft:

  • CB Trae Waynes (pick 11, round 1): It took him a while to catch on (one start as a rookie, nine last year and then all 16 this year), but he has five interceptions, 26 knockdowns and 116 tackles– for a corner, that’s a lot.
  • MLB Eric Kendricks (pick 12, round 2): The Browns could not have taken Waynes– they went 7-9 and their first pick was the twelfth. But they had two chances (Danny Shelton and Cam Erving) to pick Kendricks. He’s a small, quick linebacker– imagine a Chris Kirksey who can cover, doesn’t get out of position on run plays and is as good as the Cleveland media thinks Kirksey is. He hasn’t been to the Pro Bowl, but has gotten All-Pro votes.
  • DE Danielle Hunter (pick 24, round 3): His first two seasons, he served as the designated rusher– got six sacks in 2015 and 12.5 in 2016. This year he started every game on the strong side. He still managed 7.0 sacks . That is significantly better than either Nate Orchard or Duke Johnson (whom the Browns took before him).
  • WR Stefon Diggs (pick 10, round 5): He hasn’t made any Pro Bowls, but he has 200 catches for 2,472 yards and 15 TDs in three years, Not bad for someone taken after Xavier Cooper, Ibraheim Campbell and Vince Mayle (who was a receiver).

The Vikings didn’t add any current starters in the draft in 2016 but they added two in 2017– neither by choice:

  • C Pat Elflein (round 3) had to step in when Nick Easton ended up on IR. He made 14 starts and handled anything the Browns tried in this season’s game
  • WLB Ben Gedeon (round 4) wasn’t supposed to play, but when Chad Greenway retired and nobody else worked out, he made 9 starts. He’s more of a kicking teams start than a polished regular– but it’s year one.

Lest this sound like a finely-tuned machine where everything has gone right, let me remind you of a few things:

  • Minnesota traded up to select RB Dalwin Cook in round two– he had four great games then went on IR, leaving Minnesota with Latavious Murray and Jerick McKinnon, both of whom averaged below 4.0 yards a carry.
  • At tackle, Jake Long retired after last year; after the nth injury Minnesota gave up on former #1 (and Pro Bowl pick) Matt Kalil. The Vikings had to sign Riley Rieff from Detroit.
  • They hoped WR Michael Floyd (if he were here, I’d call him “Chug Gordon”), but he couldn’t stop drinking

Oh, and Minnesota had some issues at quarterback. They drafted Teddy Bridgewater in 2014, and he made the Pro Bowl– until injuries wiped him out.

They traded a #1 to Philly to get Sam Bradford (like RG3, more evidence that you don’t mortgage a draft for a quarterback). He had a good year in 2016– but played only two games this year.

The “Next Man Up” was Case Keenum— an undrafted free agent groomed by the brilliant offensive minds of Bill O’Brien and Jeff Fisher. He was below average with both the Rams and Texans: 9-15 as a starter, 78.4 rating, 6.7 yards per pass and a 24-20 Judgement Index.

The Browns– or any of the other 20 teams with quarterback issues– could have signed him. Minnesota got him for $2 million, with $750 K guaranteed and $250,000 in incentive bonuses, He turned into one of the best bargains in NFL history: 98.3 rating, 7.4 yards per pass and a 22-7 JI.

Keenum didn’t do as well with the rush. He was sacked 22 times for 136 yards lost and gained only 16 yards on four rushes. But if used in place of DeShone “Tire Fire” Kizer, the Browns might have gone 6-10.

Assuming, of course, that anyone in Cleveland had known what to do with him. Someone in Minnesota– Zimmer, QB coach Kevin Stefanski or offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur– shined him up like a new penny. Keenum helped WR Adam Thielen— an undrafted free agent from Minnesota State– improve from 69-967-5 last year to 91-1,276-4 (and the Pro Bowl) this year. Diggs has a better year with Keenum than he did with Bradford.

It might be because those are young receivers and they matured. It might be the receivers coached they’ve had (the Vikings have had several). But they got good with Keenum throwing. And someone deserves a lot of credit,

Last but not least, both Minnesota coordinators– Shurmur and Edwards– coached in Cleveland (Edwards was her in 2004). Offensive line coach Tony Sparano was here in 2000.

And Zimmer coached 14 years in Dallas (seven as coordinator), one in Atlanta (he ran the defense in 2007 when some guy named Hue ran the offense) and then six seasons under Marvin Lewis. He was 58, hadn’t had a lot of exciting playoff wins and was rarely interviewed because he didn’t have a mystique.

He sure looks good now, doesn’t he?

Given all I have written, I would love to say that Minnesota will stomp New Orleans and proceed to the NFC Championship, beat the Eagles in the “Battle of Quarterbacks Nobody Wanted” and get to the Super Bowl.

I hesitate to do that because (a) they’re being quarterbacked by Case Keenum, (b) most of this team has little (one game two years ago) and (c) the game is in a dome. In an open-air stadium in Minnesota, I would have absolutely no doubt that the Saints would wilt in the cold weather (much as the Falcons did) and that the Vikings would be able to bite, scractch and claw enough points.

I’m not sure I can convince myself they will be able to beat the Saints on a fast track. I definitely don’t believe they will cover the spread.

On the other hand, I was mightily unimpressed by the New Orleans defense against a very ordinary Carolina team. They had to grab too often and they had trouble stopping an ordinary running game.

Bulletin: Cam Newton is now explaining that loss by saying he was playing hurt but didn’t tell anyone. Lotta class, guy.

If the Vikings had Cook, no problem. If they had more experience, sure. If Shurmur (whom I was unimpressed by in Cleveland and last year, after Norv Turner quit) weren’t guiding the offense, I’d have an easier time.

But I can’t see the Vikings winning a shootout– not unless they force a slew of turnovers. At best, what will have to happen is they crash through a battered Saints line and force Drew Brees into errors.

Prediction: Vikings 17, Saints 13


NFL Playoffs Preview: Week 2 (Sunday, early game)

I’m a little wrapped up in the late game, so let me post the first game preview (such as it is).

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh (-7.5)
17 degrees, clear, 3-MPH wind

Yesterday’s NFC Divisional game demonstrated why I refer to the Atlanta quarterback as “Matty Tank.” My analytical background has taught me that the quarterback isn’t even close to being the reason a team wins.

Offense and defense are each 40% of the outcome, with kicking teams being about 20%.

The five players on the offensive line– who comprise 44% of the lineup–are more important than the quarterback.

A quarterback is useless if the receivers drop his passes– as “Hands”Coleman proved in the finale against Pittsburgh and Julio Jones showed yesterday.

And if the defense knows he’s going to pass– because the running game iserratic or useless– they can go after the quarterback and beat him tohell.

But when you get into the playoffs– and everyone else does their job–then the result of the game is on the quarterback.

The Falcon defense did its job– they held the Eagles to 15 points (the number I predicted, by the way). They forced four fumbles– and recovered two.

The running game contributed 86 yards on 20 carries. That’s 4.3 yards a carry– and it didn’t fumble. It also went 6-6 for 40 yards, with two first downs and the only score.

But who got outplayed by Nick Foles? Who got 39 plays to score points–but got sacked three times, and couldn’t get a single yard with his ownlegs? Who got only 5.8 yards per pass?

Matty Tank– that’s who..

I don’t want to hear about the weather. It wasn’t that bad.

I don’t want to hear about the Eagles defense. It isn’t that good.

Games like the ones Atlanta played yesterday are the ones where you need the quarterback to get the job done. Matty Tank is now 4-6 in playoff games.

Ben Roethlisberger will play agame today in basically the same weather– against a team with an equally good defense and a quarterback about as good as Nick Foles. He has one running back, one receiver and a decent line.

You figure Roethlisberger will get it done? Me too.

Prediction: Steelers 27, Jaguars 10

NFL Playoffs Preview: Week 2 (Saturday)

Last week was pretty successful; I went 3-1 on picks and 2-2 versus the spread. Try as I might, I can’t be upset with those results. I knew Andy Reid turns into a collossal putz in the playoffs, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe he could lose to a Tennessee team that was so much weaker than Kansas City.

The Saints-Panthers game was a surprise. Part of it, I think, was the result of New Orleans losing LG Andrus Peat early in the second quarter– they had more trouble protecting afterwards. But mostly their defense looked a lot worse. OK, Greg Olsen didn’t play in the first two games– he isn’t worth 14 points of offense. The rookies got out of position a lot– and they kept grabbing receivers.

The big factor in three of these games will be the weather– the temperature, amount of rain/snow/sleet and the wind. All four road teams are from the Southern division; three can be expected to struggle.

As can I. When the weather is crappy, players slip, passes flutter and nobody can hang onto the ball. The best team doesn’t always win– and they might or might not cover.  But here goes.

Atlanta (-3) at Philadelphia
(35 degrees, clear, wind 14 MPH)

Atlanta is favored, even though the Eagles are the #1 seed, because QB Carson Wentz tore his ACL in game 13 and will miss the playoffs.

This is, let me note, the reason why it is stupid to give up a ton of picks for any player. The Eagles got Wentz (pick #2) and pick #139 for:

    • Pick #8, pick #77 and pick #100 in 2016
    • Pick #12 in 2017
    • A #2 pick (slot TBD) in this draft
That’s five high picks for a player who might ot might not be able to come back and play.

The Eagles finished 2-1 because they were fortunate enough to be playing the Giants (a 34-29 win; New York had just fired their coach and were limping to the end of the season), the Raiders (a 19-10 win; Oakland was getting their coach fired by limping to the end of the season) and the Cowboys (a 6-0 loss; Dallas had already checked out).

In those three games Nick Foles had a 79.4 rating. His Judgement Index (5-2) was great; his yards per pass (5.3) was not. It’s been four years since Foles made the Pro Bowl; he’s looked below-average ever since.

It’s difficult to imagine the receiving corps picking him up much. His WRs are Alshon Jeffery (a Corey Colemanesque 57-120 for 789 yards and 9 TDs) and Nelson Agholor (62-95 for 768 yards and 8 TDs), with TEs Zach Ertz (who made the Pro Bowl for going 74-110 for 824 yards and 8 TDs) and Trey Burton (23-31 for 248  yards– but 5 TDs).

Before you get too impressed by all the TD passes, remember that the running game scored only 9 TDs. It consists of LeGarrette Blount (768 yards; 4.4 per carry), Jay Ajayi (408 yards; 5.8 per carry) and Corey Clement (321 yards; 4.3 per carry). They shouldn’t be difficult to shut down.

The defense will need to carry the Eagles; I don’t believe it can. Only two starters– CB Jalen Mills (23) and DT Timmy Jernigan (25) are under 27. Four starters were holdovers from previous regimes; the rest were brought in from other teams.

Coordinator Jim Schwartz (the former Detroit coach) learned all of his tricks from Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams. They blitz a lot and hope to force errors. It’s been easy to do that with the offense (which averaged 28.6 points a game; second in the NFL) handing them an early lead.

Yes they allowed only 18.4 points (third) and collected 31 turnovers (fourth). DE Brandon Graham had 9.5 sacks; S Malcolm Jenkins and DT Fletcher Cox made the Pro Bowl. Still not impressed much.

Atlanta played sort of a ragged game against Los Angeles. They benefited a great deal from (a) weather good enough to let them kick two 50+ yard field goals and (b) a Rams team that didn’t seem to believe it belonged in the playoffs. But they won– which is more than many people expected, and what a veteran team looking to avenge a Super Bowl loss ought to do.

Playing outdoors isn’t what QB Matty Tank is good at; the backs are a little light in the loafers for a wet field and the receivers drop passes in cold weather. But I’d expect them to win. The Eagles were built around Wentz; he won’t play.

Prediction: Falcons 21, Eagles 15

Tennessee at New England (-13.5)
26 degrees, night game, 11 MPH wind

The other say, when Boston was in the midst of a blizzard, the Patriots held a practice. Coach Bill Belicheat told the players it would be outdoors– and told them that anyone who arrived late would be quartered and drawn.

“Drawn” means cutting the head off; “quartering” means chopping up the body. Belicheat correctly realizes that a beheaded body can’t feel nearly as much pain as one being cut apart while still alive.

The idiots discussing the story on NFL Network behaved as it this were the most irrational notion ever. Why not just practice inside?

The reason, obviously, was that practicing in a blizzard with visibility near zero makes a night game in cold, windy weather seem like a picnic by comparison.

Belicheat isn’t my favorite coach (as you can tell from the nickname– it’s actually how Don Shula refers to him), but pretty much everything he does has a clear purpose. I respect him more than many of the people who cover him– who are constantly looking for stories showing that he is slipping and the Patriots are falling apart.

I don’t see it. As I explained last year in my preview of their first game, Belicheat is a genius at perceiving the realities under which teams play, and devising strategies to address them. A year ago, he realized he needed to do something about a receiving corps consisting of:

  • 30-year-old Julian Edelman
  • 31-year-old (coming off a major injury) Danny Amendola
  • 28-year-old Chris Hogan
  • 27-year-old– but oft-injured– TE Rob Gronkowski
  • 29-year-old– but contract-expiring– TE Martellus Bennett

Even though New England’s system values receiving (a high catch percentage) more than speed, you don’t want the guys going out for balls to be near 30– much less over it. That’s when they begin to get hurt often.

Pete Carroll would have said “Oh, we can get by. We also have RBs Malcolm Mitchell (23) and James White (24). We’ll draft someone and look for a free agent.”

Which is why Carroll missed the playoffs– and just whacked his offensive coordinator, his offensive line coach and might let his DC go.

Belicheat doesn’t hope everyone will syat healthy and play well (lookin’ at you Chris Antonetti). So when New Orleans wanted his #1 pick last year, Belicheat asked for 24-year-old WR Brandin Cooks (24), instead of a draft pick. He also signed RB Rex Burkhead for depth.

At the end of training camp, Edelman (who went 98-159 for 1,16 yards and 3 TDs in 2016) went down for the season. Mitchell went down for the year as well (he might be activated at some point in the playoffs).

But Gronkowski (who missed 8 games last year) stayed healthy enough to play 14 games. He went 69-105 for 1,084 yards and 8 TDs. Cooks fit in beautifully– 65-114 for 1,082 yards and 7 scores.

Amendola came back strongly enough to make 8 starts and go 61-86 for 659 yards. White (56-72; 429 yards and 3 TDs) and Hogan (34-59; 439 yards and 5 TDs) added depth. Burkhead went 30-36 for 254 yards and 3 TDs.

Things don’t always work out. When Indianapolis wanted to acquire QB Jacoby Brissett early in the season, he demanded 24-year-old Philip Dorsett. He drew only 18 throws. When the Browns cut Kenny Britt, he signed Britt (2-5 for 23 yards).

Belicheat let Green Bay sign Bennett to a three-year, $20.2M deal. When Mike McCarthy realized he didn’t fit their scheme, didn’t address their problems on defense and didn’t get along well, McCarthy cut him. Belicheat nabbed him on waivers. (Bennett got hurt and will miss the playoffs.)

Watching this sort of thing– especially when contrasted with the monkeyshines I see in Berea– makes you marvel. Belichick spends a #2 pick on Jamie Collins, develops him into a Pro Bowl player and wins two Super Bowls with him in the lineup.

Then, correctly guessing that Collins will want too much money– and also be a disruptive force in the locker room– he trades his player to Cleveland, The Browns send back a #3 pick (which Belichick packages to get OT Antonio Garcia). The Browns give Collins a huge contract, watch him get hurt– and bitch (via his agent, Bus Cook, to Mike Florio) about not being the edge rusher.

New England was second in points scored (28. 6 a game) and fifth in points allowed (18.5). They have only two offensive starters (Amendola and 40-year-old QB Tom Deflatey) and two defenders (safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty— both 30) who are old. Their best defensive player last year (LB Dont’a Hightower) missed the year, but his absence was rarely noticeable.

They’ve managed to win two of the last three Super Bowls– granted, in both cases, with considerable assistance from the opposing offense, bu they still won. If, as I expect, Belichick retires at the end of this season, he might do it with ring #6.

The opponents– the Tennessee Titans– have a significant edge in one respect. Other than the coach, the Patriots have only one player (substitute defensive back Jonathan Jones) whose name is alliterative.

Tennessee has the franchise name, their coach (Mike Mularkey) and three starters– quarterback Marcus Mariota, receiver Taywan Taylor and linebacker Wesley Woodard. The also have substitutes Beau Brinkley and Karl Klug,

Other than that, I got nuthin’. Belicheat has been lost some playoff games he’s been favored to win– but always to coaches a lot better than Mularkey.

I almost felt sorry for Mularkey when he was asked (in effect) “So, do you think you’ll still be fired? After all, beating Andy Reid isn’t much of an achievement.” I almost felt sorry for the guy– when he admitted that the front office had said nothing to him in the week prior to the game

Although, honestly, what could they say? “Don’t remodel your home?”

The news that Mularky was disappointed that DeMarco Murray (29, averaged 3.6 yards per carry) would miss this game, forcing Tennessee to struggle along with Derrick Henry (23, got 4.2 yards– and 156 yards on 26 carries against KC) kinda wiped that away. How do you feel sorry for someone who wants to keep alternating a declining veteran with his second-year player?

I don’t know if conditions will permit New England to cover the spread. It’s the only element of the result I’m not certain about.

Prediction: Patriots 41, Titans 6

NFL Playoffs Preview: Week 1 (game D)

Carolina at New Orleans (-7)

Here’s another game where the spread makes no sense to me. Yes, I understand the points are used to even out the amount of money bet on either side. The sports books subtract a percentage of the amount bet; their ideal situation is that total bets on the winner and loser cancel each other out.

So why is New Orleans favored by only seven points?

  • The Saints beat Carolina in both meetings: 34-13 in game 3 and 31-21 in week 12.
  • Four of the Saints’ losses are to playoff teams (New England, Minnesota, the Rams and Atlanta). The obly scrub team to beat them was Tampa in week 16, when the Saints couldn’t have gotten a week 1 bye.
  • In addition to two losses to New Orleans, Carolina lost to Philly, Atlanta and Chicago.
  • New Orleans scored more points (448-363) and allowed fewer (326-327), giving them a point differential of +122, as opposed to Carolina’s +33.
  • Carolina was 7-1 in close games and 3-2 in blowouts. New Orleans was 1-3 in close games and 4-1 in blowouts.

Also, while I don’t like storylines– usually they’re invented to make teams look better than they are– New Orleans has a good one. In the 12 seasons since head coach Sean Payton was hired, they have never ranked lower than #12 in points scored. But they had had only three seasons (2006, 2010, 2011 and 2013) where their defense ranked in the top half (that is, sixteenth or better) of the NFL in points.

Last year, they had their third consecutive 7-9 season, finishing 31st in points allowed. This season, they:

  • Added Mike Nolan as linebackers coach (to help beleaguered coordinator Dennis Allen)
  • Drafted CB Marshon Lattimore (who made the Pro Bowl) and FS Marcus Williams (who could have) in rounds one and two.
  • Signed LBs Manti Te’o and A.J. Klein, and DE Alex Okafor all of whom started and played well (only Te’o avoided going on IR and will play today). With less attention paid to him, DE Cameron Jordan made his third Pro Bowl trip.

They also drafted RB Alvin Kamara (also going to the Pro Bowl) as a change of pace for Melvin Ingram; WR Michael Thomas (who had a good rookie year) became a star this year. It is not difficult for me to understand how and why the Saints improved by four wins. The point differential jumped from +15 to +122.

Carolina… hey, I dunno. Since the franchise added head coach Ron Rivera and drafted QB Cam Newton with the first overall pick in 2011, they’ve yo-yoed over and under .500:

  • 6-10 and 7-9 in his first two years
  • 12-4 in year three
  • 7-8-1 in year four
  • 15-1 and a Super Bowl beating in year five
  • 6-10 in 2016
  • 11-5 this year

If the Panthers had gone 10-6 last season– or there had been some catastrophic injuries where you could say “No wonder they lost ten games”, I would think more highly of Carolina. That not being the case– and their record in close games being what it has been– my feeling is “It’s an odd year so got lucky and won. In 2018 they’ll be down to 7-9.”

Some of my opinion is due to my distaste for Cam Newton, He behaves like a putz so frequently (this year belittling a women reporter who asked a technical question) that I have him in the “Jay Cutler frontrunner PITA” category. Partly it’s because Rivera insists on using Mike Shula (whom I know to be a putz) as his offensive coordinator.

Carolina never has one good running back– it’s always a coupla guys that you’re never sure who to rely on. Jonathan Stewart (680 yards; 3.4 a carry) and rookie Christian McCaffrey (435 yards; 3.7) continue that tradition.

McCaffrey led in catches (80 for 8.1 a catch), which tells you how strong the passing game is. WR Devin Funchess had 63 catches, and I might say he developed… but he had 54 catches total in his first two seasons– and he caught only 56.8% of his 111 throws.

The defense is a reason the Panthers’ record fluctuates. It’s been 18th, 21st and 26th in the even years; #2, #6 and #11 in the odd years. LB Luke Kuechly is the only guy you can count on. They re-signed 36-year-old Julius Peppers this year. He had 11 sacks, but it’s a stopgap. 36-year-old (and former Brown) Mike Adams is the strong safety.

Carolina’s offensive line (other than C Ryan Kalil) is less distinguished than New Orleans– it’s also more banged up (three guys on the injury list).

I simply can’t imagine this game being within a TD. New Orleans beat them 65-34 in two tries, so let’s go with the average on this. Could be a little closer because some of the Saints defenders in those games won’t be playing. But also Can Newton will play

Prediction: New Orleans 33, Panthers 17

NFL Playoffs Preview: Week 1 (game C)

Buffalo at Jacksonville (-10)

Yesterday went exceptionally well. By my tally, I went 2-0. That is to say that:

  • I correctly predicted the outcome of the Falcons-Rams game, and
  • Correctly predicted what would happen in both the first and second half of the Titans-Chiefs game

t didn’t get the final score right… but now you know why I spent so much of that preview ragging on Andy Reid. He blew a 31-10 halftime lead against the Colts in 2013, to name a few.

To be fair, the Chiefs would have forced another turnover if anyone but Jeff Triplette had been the referee. He rules a sack and fumble is not a completed catch because the defender didn”t complete the action. Or something.

Tennessee runs into the punter on the first drive of the second quarter– Triplette detects a phantom unnecessary roughness call and says they offset (even a friend in Tennessee couldn’t find it.)

At the end of the first half, Travis Kelce takes a deliberate head shot. Not only does Triplette not eject the opponent or call a penalty– he tells Kansas City that, because the player is injured with less than two minutes left, the rules require them to either call a timeout or face a ten-second runoff.

You put incompetents like Triplette on a game– who just makes up calls– or Ed Hochuli (on the night game) or Terry McAulay… well, you’re just asking for trouble.

That said, only Andy Reid could respond to the injury of his tight end by shutting down the running game, Kareem Hunt leads the league in rushing yards (1,327) and ties for second in average (4.9; I use a minimum of 10 carries a game, so Alvin Kamara’s 6.1 doesn’t count).

At the end of the half, the Chiefs are up 21-3. Alex Smith has thrown 23 times (granted for a rating of 137.1, with 10 yards a pass and a perfect 2-0 Judgment Index); Hunt has 6 carries for 25 yards (4.2 a carry).

So in the second half, needing to protect the lead, Hunt gets 5 carries and gains 18 yards. Smith throws 10 times and scrambles on three other occasions.

Yes, the Titans were fourth in run defense (rushing average). The Chiefs were first.

That’s a decision that makes anything Hue Jackson did with Isaiah Crowell look rational. If you’re not able or willing to run the ball down their throats, you deserve to be roasted.

Thanks to Reid, not only is KC not in the playoffs anymore, they go into an off-season without the General Manager who helped get them there.

But I digress.

The second AFC game features another team that wouldn’t be here if the people running Baltimore, Cincinnati or Oakland were more ept.

Buffalo shouldn’t be a Wild Card– coach Sean McDermott tried to flush his season down the tubes by benching QB Tyrod Taylor after nine games. The move didn’t make any sense for myriad reasons:

  • Buffalo was 5-4 at the time.
  • The offense was ranked 20th (20.4 points per game) and the defense was ranked 15th (21.8), so it wasn’t like one unit was dragging the club down.
  • After 9 games, Taylor was playing great: 91.4 rating, and a 10-3 Judgement Index. The only thing below average was his 6.6 yards per pass– but he was offsetting that with 53 rushes for a 4.47 average.
  • The replacement, rookie Nathan Peterman was a bum– a fifth-round pick from Pitt who’d washed out of Tennessee.

Buffalo lost 54-24 to the Chargers; Peterman played so badly (6-14 for 66 yards, with a Kizeresque five interceptions) that there wasn’t any question that Taylor had to play. He went 3-2 in his five remaining starts, losing twice to New England, but beating the Chiefs and Kansas City.

Taylor is the type of quarterback– likes to scramble and improvise; lots of highlight film moments (either for his team or the opponent)– that McDermott (who served as Carolina’s defensive coordinator) hates. That’s why a lot of people expected Taylor to be let go– and were shocked that Buffalo traded the tenth pick in 2017 to Kansas City, rather than take QB Patrick Mahomes with that pick.

McDermott proved to be the type of coach that many defensive coordinators (John Fox, Lovie Smith) become. RB LeSean McCoy let the team in both rushing (1,138 yards, 4.0 average) and receiving (59-77 for 448 yards; 7.6 per pass). The #2 receiver was TE Charles Clay (49-74 for 11.4 yards). The #3 man in catches (WRs DeOnte Thomas and Zay Joees) had 27.

Boring the other team to death works really well, as long as you have a great defense. McDermott inherited the #16 team from Rex Ryan (23.6 points) and made it a little better (22.4, although that ranked 18). Predictably, Ryan’s defense blitzed too much and took too many chances for McDermott. He dialed things way back.

I might be significantly underrating McDermott’s skill… but he inherited a 7-9 team that went 2-6 in close games. He went 9-7, thanks to a 5-2 record.

Good teams don’t win close games, because good teams don’t play close games. Pretty much everyone goes within a game of .500 in close games; the ones that don’t are either lucky or unlucky. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Buffalo back at 7-9 next year– worse if Buffalo decides to move on.

Their opponents, the Jacksonville Jaguars, have been hit by what I consider to be an enormous amount of stupid commentary. They started the season 2-1, routing both Houston and Baltimore. People wondered if the Jaguars might be the NFL’s big surprise team. (Entirely fair, since they’d gone 3-13, 5-11, 4-12 and 3-13 in the previous years.)

They got to 7-3, and people were either calling them “the next great team” or “incredibly overrated”. The notion that this might simply be a rebuilding team playing an enormously easy schedule (Pittsburgh was the only good team they beat) never crossed anyone’s minds.

Clearly they were making progress and beating the only teams they were allowed to play. Just as clearly, they weren’t as good as they looked.

Jacksonville is fifth in points scored (26.1 per game) and second in points allowed (16.8). Neither of those marks is entirely legitimate, because they had so many patsies (the other three AFC South teams, the AFC North, the NFC West).

The defense does look strong: DE Calais Campbell, DT Malik Jackson, and CBs Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye all made the Pro Bowl. It has LBs Paul Poluszny and Myles Jack; FS Tashaun Gipson stayed healthy and played well.

The offense let rookie RB Leonard Fournette run a lot with QB Blake Bortles flinging the ball around and hoping it found the guys wearing the right uniforms. Bortles is something like DeShone Kizer, in that he looks like a quarterback, college didn’t prepare him properly for the NFL, he started immediately and shouldn’t have– so things have been pretty ugly.

His 84.7 rating, 7.0 yards per pass and 21-13 Judgement Index don’t come close to explaining how he played. His gamelogs for the season do a better job: five games with a rating over 119, six games with a rating under 64.

The honest answer for this game is that either team could win. One of the quarterbacks is likely to have a game that makes people cringe. It’s more likely to be Bortles… but Taylor might not be able to figure out the Jacksonville pass rush (they led the league in sacks).

Fournette is 100%; McCoy is hurt and probably wouldn’t be playing under normal circumstances.

Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone is not my favorite coach… but I like him more than McDermott.

Yeah, I think the Jaguars will win. But I wouldn’t give 10 points. The risk of Bortles stinking out the joint is simply too high.

Prediction: Jacksonville 21, Bills 16

NFL Playoffs Preview: Week 1 (game B)

Atlanta at Rams (-6)

What a difference a year makes. In 2016, the Rams went 4-12, thanks to the great coaching of Jeff Fisher. Fisher, who knows nearly as much about scoring touchdowns as he does Etruscan Art, had the worst offense in the league.

Coordinator Rob Boras— a rummy who had spent his career as tight ends coach for those noted offensive wizards Lovie Smith, Jack Del Rio and Fisher until being promoted to coordinator after the firing of Frank Cignetti (who?)– made QB Case Keenum (who took Minnesota into the playoffs this year) look grossly substandard, and #1 overall pick Jared Goff look like a bust.

To compensate, defensive coordinator “Gregg the Bounty Hunter” Williams was blitzing on just about every play, requiring everyone in coverage to play a perfect game to survive, The Rams dropped from 13th in points allowed to 23rd.

I do not really believe that Fisher’s replacement (Sean McVay) is Great Shakes. At least, I find it difficult to believe that the greatest young coach of our time was molded by Jon (2008) and Jay (2014-16) Gruden, with four years as offensive assistant and tight ends coach under Mike Shanahan (2010-13).

What is more likely is that Fisher is such a terrible coach– that he does so many things wrong– that any competent coach who who succeeds him can make things better. McVay:

  • Replaced three members of the offensive line, taking it from bad to good. Replacing LT Greg Robinson with former Bengal Andrew Whitworth was the big gain.
  • Replaced WR Kenny Britt and TE Lance Kendricks with ex-Bill Sammy Watkins and Tyler Higbee.
  • Taking WR Tavon Austin (a dead ringer for Corey Coleman) from 106 targets in 2016 to 22, giving his opportunities to former Robert Woods (also an import from Buffalo) and #3 pick Cooper Kupp.

It’s amazing how that works. Replace people who can’t catch with people who can, and suddenly Goff looks like he can play. He went from 5.3 yards per pass, and a 5-TD / 7-INT Judgment Index to 8.0 yards per pass and 28 TDs and 7 INTs.

Similarly, if RB Todd Gurley isn’t doing “Metcalf Up The Middle”– with runs on every single first down to boot– he goes from 3.2 yards per rush to 4.7.

No doubt a year of experience helped. But the Rams went from 224 points to 478. That’s not simply maturity. Under Fisher, the Rams had only two games where they scored more than 21 points. Under McVay, they scored more than 21 points twelve times.

As a result, the defense was not required to hold opponents to zero points– and score a few defensive TDs. It was given leads to protect, making it possible to do things like “play off the ball” or “drop into coverage.” This produced 18 interceptions (sixth). Because the offense put opponents behind by several scores– forcing opponents to throw– the Rams still got to rush the passer. They finished fourth ins scks (48), with DT Aaron Donald (11 sacks) and LB Robert Quinn (8.5) seeming every bit as effective.

Life in Atlanta, on the other hand, has gone the opposite way.

A year ago, the Falcons were what the Rams are now. They led the league in points (540) and seemed unstoppable. QB “Matty Tank” posted a 117.1 rating, getting 9.3 yards per pass and 38 TDs and 7 INTs,  RB Devonta Freeman  and Tavis Coleman provided speed and power; WRs Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel seemed to get open on every play. It got Kyle Shanahan a head coaching job, and put the Falcons in a position to lose the SUper Bowl.

The defense was quite awful (406 points; 27th), but it only had to protect leads. Which, until the last game, it managed to do.

This year, things have been much less exciting– but more sustainable. The offense scored 353 points– down nearly 200 from last year. But the defense allowed 91 points less, putting it in the top 10 (8th, to be precise).

Gone are the veteran stopgaps (36-year-old Dwight Freeney, 35-year-old Jonathan Babineaux, 32-year-old A.J Hawk).  The four linemen– ends Brooks Reed (30) and Derrick Shelby (28), tackles Dontari Poe (27) and Grady Jarrett (24)– could be in place for several years.

At linebacker, former Pro Bowler Vic Beasley (who is 25) is the oldest.. The secondary is still a work in progress (the four starters are 29. 27, 26 and 22), but I’m guessing that will be fixed shortly. Head Coach Dan Quinn ran the Seahawks’ defense, and you can see the unit morphing into that mold.

Atlanta has been perceived to be much worse– because fantasy league owners haven’t been as successful playing Falcons. But they went 11-5 last year; they’re 10-6 this year, playing a much tougher schedule.

The ‘problems’ on offense consist of three things:

1. The offensive line is older. Center Alex Mack is 32; he went back to the Pro Bowl, but he didn’t look as good. LG Andy Levitre turned 31, slipping a notch. He’s on IR with a torn tricep. Last year’s RG Chris Chester was 33; he got replaced by rookie Wes Schweitzer, who played like a rookie.

2. Steve Sarkisian was not as effective at juggling the component parts as Shanahan. Instead of spreading the passes around, he threw a lot more to Jones and Sanu and less to the backs. Also, opponents had a year to figure out how to stop the offense– which they were more able to do.

3. Matty Tank is 32 and struggling to put the Super Bowl behind him. The five sacks and the fumble– the failure to put the game away– seemed to eat at his confidence. He threw only 20 TDs– and 12 interceptions.

The trendy pick would be to assume this year’s Falcons (meaning the Rams) beat last year’s model. Since teams making their first trip to the playoffs almost always stumble in the spotlight, there is absolutely no way I’m going to do that without some other reason.

I don’t see one. The Rams lost to Washington, Seattle, Minnesota, Philly and San Francisco. Letting the Vikings and Eagles beat you is acceptable; the others not so much.

Atlanta lost to Buffalo, Miami, New England. Carolina, Minnesota and New Orleans. Five of those teams (Miami the exception) made the playoffs.

Atlanta started 4-4, then finished 6-2. The Rams started 6-2 and then went 5-3.

The one reason to pick Los Angeles is injuries. Levitre won’t play; Mack, Jones, Gabriel and Freeman are all hurting. The Rans have more people hurt– but other than LB Alec Ogletree and LG Rodger Saffold, not to significant players. (K Greg Zuerlein is out for the year, but Sam Ficken has had two games to get comfortable.)

But the Falcon defense is healthy– and the Ram offense is likely to stumble, since so many people are new. It probably won’t be by much, but I’ll go with the upset.

Prediction: Atlanta 31, Rams 13

NFL Playoffs Preview: Week 1 (game A)

Well, it’s playoff time again– and two things remain true:

  • Cleveland didn’t make it again. Since Buffalo finally reached post-season (for the first time since 1999), the Browns (who reached the Wild Card in 2002) now have the longest playoff drought.
  • I don’t really want to go through the hassle of making predictions. It’s a lot of work– and I go insane when I get a pick wrong. But I do a pretty solid job– and I also enjoy getting them right.

I went 8-3 last year– with all three misses coming in week two. The year before, I went 6-5; the year before that 9-2. The goal here is to break the even-year slump. Lines are coming from this site, which showed up first in the rankings.

Tennessee at Kansas City (-8.5)

On paper, this should be easy:

  • Kansas City (415 points, sixth) is a substantially better offensive team than Tennessee (334; 15th).
  • The Chiefs (339 points allowed) are superior to the Titans (356) defensively.
  • Kansas City played a tougher schedule than Tennessee
  • The Chiefs have made the playoffs in three of the last four years; Tennessee hasn’t appeared since 2008 (when Jeff Fisher was coach).
  • Kansas City won its last four games. Tennessee lost three of their last four– and won game 16 only because Jacksonville (which was already in, and had locked up the #3 seed) didn’t try hard.

But then you come up against these two issues:

  • Kansas City has injuries. FS Eric Berry is on injured reserve; Pro Bowl WR-KR Tyreek Hill has been dealing with a “personal issue.” Other supporting players are banged up.
  • The Chiefs’ coach is Andy Reid.

I’m not kidding about that second one. Reid is 11-12 in the playoffs. Since reaching the conference championship in 2008, he’s 1-5 in playoff games.

The one win came in 2015, when Bill O’Brien’s Texans played so badly that even Reid couldn’t lose. On the opening kickoff of their 30-0 loss, the Texans let the Chiefs run it back all the way. Brian Hoyer did a world-class choke: 15-34 for 136 yards, with 4 interceptions and two fumbles (one lost).

Titans coach Mike Mularkey is a clown— he’s 36-53 lifetime, and he has losing records with all three teams he’s coached at:

  • 14-18 in Buffalo
  • 2-14 in Jacksonville
  • 20-21 in Tennessee

It’s pretty obvious that Tennessee has finished 9-7 only because they have veteran coordinators. 63-year-old Terry Robiskie (who has been adequate in Oakland, Washington, Cleveland, Miami and Atlanta) runs the offense; 80-year-old Dick LeBeau (pensioned off by the Steelers) handles the defense.

Tennessee’s roster is equally decrepit. 24-year-old QB Marcus Mariota gets to throw to 33-year-old TE Delanie Walker, 30-year-old WR Eric Decker, 29-year-old RB DeMarco Murray (who’s been worn down through years of overuse and will ll miss the game with a knee injury) and 28-year-old journeyman WR Rishard Matthews. Last year they all had good years– they year they fell off.

Mariota, who had looked like he might make the Pro Bowl in 2017 after two good years, threw more INTs (15) than TDs (13) this year. There is some young talent– RB Derrick Henry (23), WRs Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor (both 22) and TE Jonnu Smith (23)– but it hasn’t been worked in well.

Other than FS Kevin Byard (24) and Pro Bowl DT Jurell Casey (28), it’s the same story on defense.The other playmakers are LBs Brian Orakpo (31) and Derrick Morgan (28). The #1 pick (CB Adoree’ Jackson) was supposed to be their Jabrill Peppers (defensive playmaker and explosive return man). He turned out to be about as good a player as Peppers was– not very.

Had Tennessee not won the last game– finishing over .500 again; making the playoffs when other teams tanked– a lot of folks expected Mularky to get fired. (It still might happen, since several better-qualified coaches got whacked).

This ought to be easy for Kansas City. RB Kareem Hunt and TE Travis Kelce (both of whom were drafted by John Dorsey, by the way) both made the Pro Bowl. Both Hill and QB Alex Smith should have.

On defense, none of the Chiefs were voted in– but LB Justin Houston (9.5 sacks) and CB Marcus Peters (5 INTs) have gone, and DE Chris Jones looks like he will next year. The Chiefs have veterans Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson and Derrelle Revis (a couple of whom might retire).

But I’ve written “There is no way that even Reid can lose to these guys”  before– and been wrong.

I’m going to pick Kansas City, simply because there have been no signs of life on Tennessee for a month, and the veteran team usually does beat the playoff newbies. I’ll guess the Chiefs get off to a quick start and the Titans crack.

But I’ll hold my breath until the Chiefs pile up a lead.

Prediction: Kansas City 27, Tennessee 3