NFL Playoff Preview: Super Bowl

Going into the last pick of the year, I stand at 7-3 in winners and 6-4 against the spread. Not what I’d like– but the Steelers, Falcons and Andy Reid have more explaining to do than me.

There isn’t a lot I can say about this game, but I’ll bear those three losses in mind and not shortchange this.

New England (-4) at Philadelphia
Dome

I have no idea why the spread is where it is. Obviously New England is favored to win by only four points because t’s the point that evened out the bets. But why does anyone in his right mind imagine the Eagles are on roughly even footing?

Because they won 38-7 last week? Meaning no disrespect to Philadelphia– they put up a lot more points than I expected they would– but that looked much more like Minnesota running out of pixie dust. Case Keenum finally played the sort of game that everyone expected him to play (28-48, 5.6 yards per pass, two interceptions and a fumble).

And let’s give Pat Shurmur props for his part in that performance, He called the the sort of game (48 passes, 18 runs) that got him into trouble in Cleveland. Doing that against a defense run by Jim Schwartz (who learned defense from working under Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams) just encourages him to come after you,

And talk about making your life difficult. Shurmur could have had a lot of jobs, but he takes the Giants’ jobs (a team whose talent isn’t nearly as good as people think it is) and he’s going to call his own plays. This stint as head coach should be over pretty soon.

Or is the confidence based on Nick Foles having the kind of day (26-33, 352 yards, 3 TDs no picks) that he used to have every week in 2013– but has rarely had since? That’s pretty optimistic.

Foles is the anti-Deshone Kizer. Never in his career has he thrown interceptions; if he had thrown 114 more passes (he has 1,386) he’s 2.% percentage would be seventh-best. Early in his career, he’d take too many sacks (7.0% and 8.1% in his first two seasons)– now he just throws the ball away or checks down if the play isn’t there.

That approach has hurt Foles’s stats. In three of the last four years, his completion percentage has been below 60%– and he has thrown for 6.3 yards per pass or less (it should be over 7.0). On the other hand, he doesn’t make the sort of game-killing miscalculations the Browns have been plagued with over the last two years.

In the NFC Championship, the Vikings didn’t get any pressure on Foles (some of that was the performance of his line), they didn’t cover his receivers very well and there was no adverse weather holding his passes up in the air. He got to stand back and pick their defense apart.

It also helped to have RB Jay Ajayi (who was nearly as inconsistent as Isaiah Crowell this year) have one of his occasional good games.


Of course part of the spread is due to the underwhelming showing New England had against Jacksonville in their 24-20 win.

Having picked New England to win– but not cover– I’m less shocked about that result than most people. Jacksonville could run the ball– New England allowed opponents a 4.7-yard rushing average in 2017 (31st) and gave up more than 100 yards rushing in 10 of the 16 regular-season games. Four of those games were decided by less than seven points.

New England stopped Fournette (76 yards on 24 carries)– but they had to keep 8-9 men in the box. That let Jacksonville throw a ton of dink passes– about 10 of which turned into long gainers.

Jacksonville has a hell of a pass rush; the Patriots are missing a couple of starters. The Patriots have no power running game to speak of; Tom Brady had his hand jacked up. Rob Gronkowski missed much of the game.

New England had to figure out what they could and could not do– it took them a while to get he game under control. But they didn’t panic and they got it done.


The question that will determine the result of this Super Bowl is “To what extent is this game’s opponent comparable to the team they played against in the AFC Championship?”

The answer, to my mind, is “Not a lot.” The Eagles are a poor doppleganger for Jacksonville; New England doesn’t resemble the Vikings much. Let’s look at the Eagles first.

Philadelphia v the Jaguars

Running the ball

The Eagles’ top back is LeGarrette Blount— who, at this time last season, was with New England. They know him and won’t be afraid of him. Good back? Yeah. Not as good as Fournette (when healthy). He averaged 4.3 yards a carry with the Patriots (not in 2016, but for his career there) and 4.4 this year (at age 31).

Ajayi gives Philly a speedy back– but he was playing for the Dolphins until they cut him and he landed in Philly. New England knows him; in three career games,  he gained 75 yards on 28 carries (2.68 a crack). Philly has a better line than Miami, but there’s no reason to think it’s that great.

Phill used Corey Clement and Wendell Smallwood in spots (121 total carries; 495 yards). Are they gonna use them in the championship game? Usually teams don’t.

Pass defense

The Patriots won’t be able to run the ball, so they’ll need to throw. Jacksonville had six Pro Bowl players– three linemen, a linebacker and two pass defenders. They had 55 sacks and two players with more than 10, so that was difficult.

Philadelphia allowed only 18.4 points per game (fourth best), but that happened mostly because the offense would score early and often– taking the opponent’s running game out of the picture and letting Schwartz call a bunch of blitzes.

Philadelphia has two Pro Bowl players and got only 38 sacks; their top threats are DE Brandon Graham (9.5 sacks) and DT Fletecher Cox (5.5; one of the Pro Bowl players), with Chris Long and Derek Barnett tied at 5.0 each.

The game will probably turn on how well the Eagles can stop Gronkowski. We don’t know how healthy he is, but two of the four backfield defenders are over 30. S Malcom Jenkins made the Pro Bowl for the second time in three seasons, but he’s one of the old guys. The other is CB Patrick Robinson. CB Jalen Mills is 23, but he’s a #7 pick who has exceeded expectations, more than a good player.

Differences

Foles is a more consistent quarterback than Blake Bortles, but that isn’t a complement. Bortles is erratic. When he’s off, you’re lucky if he contributes nothing– if he doesn’t flush the game away, But when he’s having a good day, he can look like an All-World player.

You can’t work out a defense for an opponent who might run the ball, or might drop bombs right and left or might pick you apart. Foles always looks to do the same things. That makes him easier to predict.

None of the Jacksonville receivers are significantly better than ordinary. TE Zach Ertz is a Pro Bowler; WR Alshon Jeffery used to be (when the Bears had a quarterback). They both hurt the Vikings– who have a better secondary than the Patriots.

The Jacksonville line is good, but it’s designed to run-block. Philly’s line is better– it is designed for a passing game. New England will find it harder to get after Foles.

New England v the Vikings

Pass offense

I doubt I need to belabor this. Adam Thielen is an excellent receiver– superior to either Danny Amendola or Brandin Cooks. But there are two of them. And Gronkowski. RB James White caught 56 balls; Kevin Hogan and Rex Burkhead can catch. New England will have people open.

It’s a difficult decision at quarterback. But my intuition is that Brady is a better quarterback than Keenum.

Defense

Minnesota plays a fairly predictable scheme based on Pittsburgh’s zone blitz. The line supplies most of the pressure, the backers make most of the tackles and the secondary keeps opponents in front of them and away from the sidelines. It is a very aggressive unit, always looking to force turnovers and make big plays. It can take control of a game– but if it misses, it can give up big plays.

New England doesn’t gamble– they play percentages, figuring that if they keep you from scoring as many points as their offense, they win. They don’t have a “style” of defense. They don’t look to win with sacks; sometimes they get pressure from the line, sometimes the linebackers. The secondary usually doesn’t blitz– it rarely plays man-to-man.

The goal on pass defense is to knock receivers off-stride at the line and then cover the quarterback’s favorite routes, using the scheme most suited to that. The run defense simply tries to cover all the holes and swarm the ball.

Differences

The biggest gap between New England and Minnesota is that New England is smaller. They can’t play smashmouth– on either side of the ball– and have to win with technique and discipline. If the Eagles can force the Patriots into a game of “Who can hit harder?” they win.

Also, while the Vikings wanted to win, the Patriots have an additional incentive, Both their offensive and defensive coordinators will be leaving to become head coaches after this game. I also continue to hear a small voice in my head saying that head coach Bill Belicheat (who can be spiteful and petty) might want to stick it to owner Bob Kraft by announcing “Oh, I’m going to leave too.”


I’m not going to say the Eagles have no chance. Of course they have a chance. Bill Belicheat has lost two Super Bowls. In both cases, he was favored by wide margins, and his opponent was weaker.

If the Eagles had Carson Wentz, they’d be capable of scoring a lot more. I’d still wonder how well they would do in the pressure of the Super Bowl, but I might think they could beat New England on sheer ability.

I don’t know how Nick Foles puts enough points on the board to win– unless the Patriots make a lot of mistakes. Historically that has not happened. And since the spread is so small, I’d give the points, so….

Prediction: Patriots 31, Eagles 16

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NFL Playoffs Preview: Conference Championships

Well, I went 2-2 last week, but there wasn’t a lot I could have done to improve that. There’s no way I would have picked Jacksonville to win. Yes, they did win 30-9 in Pittsburgh in week 5. But (a) it was a regular season game and (b) it happened because Ben Roethlisberger threw five interceptions– two of which were run back for scores.

I decided that it was a regular season game where the Steelers didn’t take the Jaguars that seriously– and Roethlisberger (33-55 for 312 yards, 0 TDs and 5 INTS) wouldn’t have that bad a game again.

He didn’t– he went 37-58 for 469 yards, with five touchdowns and one INT this time. He did fumble– but he was carrying the team. But the defense decided to give up a touchdown more than it had all year.

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been fired, and that is probably a smart move. In the regular-season game, Le’Veon Bell had 15 carries for 47 yards; in this one he has 16 carries for 67 yards. You cant have playcalling that unbalanced– especially since Bell wasn’t doing that badly this time.

The defense needs fixing too. Leonard Fournette had 181 yards on 28 carries in the regular season– then 25-109 in the playoffs. Yes, Ryan Shazier was out– but he isn’t Superman.


In my other miss… well, I assumed Matty Tank could beat a backup. The Atlanta defense held Phildelphia to 15 points and 338 yards. It forced four fumbles, recovering two.

Matty Tank produced 10 points. His only scoring drive began after a fumble put the ball on the Eagle 18.

I have friends who blame the Falcon defense, claiming that they couldn’t get the Eagles off the field (they won time of possession 32:06-27.54), or that they were weak on third downs (the Eagles went 6-13) or that they gon only one sack and no picks.

There are people who blame offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, claimed he called a poor game. There are people who blame the line, claiming it got knocked backwards. Or the receivers for dropping passes.

I look back to something that a veteran GM told me. He took a lot of heat for trading a highly-touted prospect and a bunch of picks) away to get another QB– being forced out for it– then seeing the QB he acquired win at least one Super Bowl.

(Maybe more– matybe not. I don’t want to blow a confidence.)

I asked him if he would still make the trade.“Absolutely,” he replied. “That guy [the one he gave up] is a loser. I knew it– it’s why I got him out.”

The quarterback he sent away has a losing record in the playoffs. (Matty Tank does too– he’s 4-6.) He threw for a lot of yards and his Judgement Index was in the black (Mattr Tank’s is 20-7) — but his team often struggled to score points.

I made two comments about the teammates accompanying the GM’s whipping boy, and he waved his hand at me.

“If you’re talking about the quarterback’s teammates in the playoffs,” he scoffed, “then he’s not a guy who can win. You’re talking about his statistics– tell me about the plays he made.  You might talk about a teammate who makes a great play [I’m condensing his lecture, but he mentioned Dwight Clark in 1980 and David Tyree in 2007], but you always come back to the guy who threw him the ball.” 

The Falcons had a goal for this season. They were going to prove that the loss in the Super Bowl was a fluke.

What they did was prove they are a team who has trouble winning. And happenstance– most the guys I have issues with are at the end of their contracts, and Atlanta wants to re-sign them– means they’re likely to lock in those players.

If I am right, the upcoming extensions will simply lock in  their problems. That won’t be a good thing for Falcon fans.

Jacksonville at New England (-9)
46 degrees, clear, 3-MPH wind

There are two things about this game that are keeping me from taking New England and giving the points. The first is that QB Tom Brady’s hand got jacked up. They say he;s going to be fine– but New England always says that. If he’s have trouble, Brian Hoyer is the backup.

Second, Jacksonville can run the ball– and New England has had trouble stopping the run. They allowed opponents a 4.7-yard rushing average inh 2017 (31st) and allowed more than 100 yards rushing in 10 of the 16 regular-season games. They went 7-3 in those ganes– but four of the ten were decided by less than seven points.

Until Marcus Mariota got jacked up, it looked like they were going to give up 100 yards rushing against the Titans.

I could point to the list of injuries– but that’s an explanation. It doesn’t fix the problem. If Jacksonville can steamroller the Patriots– and Brady can’t put up his usual ton of points– this game could be very close.

The Jaguars aren’t a very good team– New England looks vastly superior. But the Patriots also looked vastly superior in the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowls. They lost both games– and the New York Giants didn’t look like they could stay with the Patriots either. But they won.

And the coach of those two Giants teams was Tom Coughlin– who is now running football operations for Jacksonville.

This New England team isn’t that good– it’s just the best of all the sucky AFC teams. They usually can figure out ways to camoflage their flaws with baling wire and duct tape

And I have a feeling they might have a special incentive. Rumor has it that owner Bob Kraft and Bill Belicheat aren’t getting along. Belicheat is a good coach– but he’s also a prick.

Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is rumored to be heading to Detroit. (That might work out OK.) Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is apparently going to Indianapolis (that probably won’t). The team in 13-3, but it has a lot of holes that have been disguised.

Mostly it relies on Brady. He’s 41; his backup quarterbacks (Jacoby Brissett and Jimmy Garoppolo) are in Indy and San Francisco, respectively, with Hoyer (not a viable starter) as the only backup.

I might be nuts, but I’m guessing Belicheat (like Vince Lombardi in 1967) realized how narrow the edge between his team and everyone else is. It occurs to me that the coach-GM repeating as Super Bowl champ– then deciding to retire– would leave Kraft in an awful fix. Go ahead– make my day. Try to threepeat– good luck staying above .500, boss.

I think New England can win– but I wouldn’t assume they will cover.

Prediction: Patriots 21, Jaguars 13

Minnesota at Philadelphia (-3)
43 degrees, clear, 2-MPH wind

The battle of the backup QBs should be an exciting game, if not well-played. The teams are about equal at quarterback. The defenses are roughly equal.

Where the teams are not equal is at running back– Philadelphia ia a lot better. Minnesota has better receivers– WR Adam Thielen is better than anyone the Eagles have. But one needs a quarterback to exploit that edge. (Also, Thielen is banged up.)

Add the fact that a dome team is playing on the road– in the open air– and that all suggests Philly wins.

I will say this for Minnesota and QB Case Keenum. They showed a lot more grit in their 29-24 win than I expected. I didn’t thik they could outscore Drew Brees and the Saints in a dome. I assumed they would have to win by getting off to a fast start– making plays on defense or kicking teams, getting an early lead and then harassing Drew Brees and forcing the Saints into errors.

That’s how the game started. But after Minnesota missed a field goal to end the half, Keenum got sacked on the first drive of the third quarter (taking the Vikings out of field goal range), then got intercepted. New Orleans scored on their first two possessions-. Suddenly Keenum couldn’t manage the game anymore– he had to try to win it.

He did.

Granted he had a lucky break. Stephon Diggs caught a pass intended to get the Vikings n position to try a long field goal. But when he came down with the ball, there was no defender in front of him. Instead of getting out of bounds, he was able to run into the end zone.

But Keenum completed the same number of passes as Brees (both guys went 25-40). He threw for more yards (318-294), turned the ball over less (one IT, compared to two and a fumble– which was recovered). It wasn’t a great game– he was decent the whole game. Brees, meanwhile, looked bad in the first half and astonishing in the second.  And he didn’t freak out and fold.

If Keenum does what he did again– and the Vikings make life as miserable for Foles as they did Brees– Minnesota will win. Nick Foles doesn’t make many mistakes when he’s on. He doesn’t make many good plays, either… but if he avoids sacks (and the resulting fumbles) and throws no bad passes, Philly will win.

Foles is terrific at not making mistakes. He’s intercepted on only 2.1% of his career passes. If he had 1,500 career attempts (he has 1,386), he’d be tied for seventh-best is that stat.

Avoiding interceptions doesn’t guarantee greatness– Foles would be tied with Alex Smith and Neil O’Donnell— but if you’re trying to reach a Super Bowl, it’s a big help. O’Donnell took the Steelers there in 1995 by not shooting the team in the foot as often as Mike Tomczak or Kordell Stewart. (Talk about a low bar…)

I could very easily be dead wrong on this call, but I’m guessing the Eagles out-manage the Vikings.

Prediction: Eagles 17, Vikings 10.

NFL Playoffs Preview: Sunday (Late Game)

New Orleans at Minnesota (-4)
Dome

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

2014

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

2015

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