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

Browns Preview: Game 16 (@Pittsburgh)

Opponent Preview

Since the final game of this potentially historic season features a team that might or might not try to win– and one that hasn’t been able to do it– there’s no point to my profiling strengths and weaknesses. What I will do is to point to some contrasts between the two combatants.

My game one preview was not complimentary towards Pittsburgh, I said they would play badly (which they did) and said the games would hinge on the number of mistakes the two teams made (it did). My prediction (Steelers 27-12) presumed that the Browns would make two more mistakes than Pittsburgh; the result (21-18, with Pittsburgh just outside the red zone but declining to score) was off by one error.

But the Steelers should finish the season 13-3. Why?

A key reason is the spectacularly weak AFC of 2017– and some very fortunate scheduling. There are years where Pittsburgh would be flirting with 8-8 if they played as well as they did, because they’d have gone 0-4 against Baltimore and Cincinnati. They got to face Green Bay with Brett Hundley and Minnesota in in week two, before the Vikings pulled themselves together. They played Houston last week; the Texans laid down and died in an effort to remove coach Bill O’Brien.

This isn’t a good team, but few of its opponents have been able to play better,

A significant portion of the Steelers’ results (as I mentioned in week one) is purely luck. Some players can’t stay healthy. The best players are durable. But a few players are lucky enough to sail through a career avoiding the mandatory trip to IR that even players as great as Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson and Jerry Rice get.

But a major reason is that Pittsburgh never has to search for an identity– the Steelers always know what they’re trying to do and how they expect to achieve it. The franchise has the same objectives every season. Every unit understands what tasks it is expected to perform; each player understands what his role is.

Because the Steelers have a plan, they know how to draft players who fit their style of play, they know how to teach that style, and they coach technique exceptionally well. Most importantly, everyone knows what the standards for success are– and failure is not tolerated long.

The biggest gap between the Browns and Steelers is the running back unit. For the second season in a row, coach Hue Jackson has admitted that he didn’t run the ball enough and promised to try to do better. Part of the price Jackson will pay for keeping his job is hiring an offensive coordinator who will call plays– and presumably not get overruled.

The Steelers throw more than they run– but not a lot more. They try to keep it 60-40.

Pittsburgh has had periods where it didn’t have a frontline back. They’ve had seasons– sometimes a string of them– where they kept alternating players, trying to find someone to could rely on. But their goal has always been the same: Find a player who can carry the ball 15-20 times a game, average at least 4.0 yards per rush and do enough receiving and blocking to keep opposing defenses from guessing “run or pass” depending on who the back is.

Running backs who perform like Isaiah Crowell, for example– some weeks getting stuffed every play, some weeks adding one long run to the string of stuffs, some weeks looking like the back back in the NFL.. but never consistently productive from game to game, much less snap to snap– would never be allowed to hold a starting job for four years.

If the Steelers had Crowell– and they were getting the same results the Browns had– they would have said “If this is the best you can do, you’ll need to go somewhere else.”

Cleveland is still trying to decide, three years into his career, how often to run Duke Johnson and which runs suit him– or whether to just use him as a receiver. The Steelers would have known what they wanted Johnson to be able to do before they drafted him. He’d either be doing it successfully or be off the team.

But the Steelers wouldn’t be where they are if they’d had injuries to any of their Big Three on offense. That none of them will play Sunday is the thing that gives the Browns what little hope they have.

QB Ben Roethlisberger is 35; he took 21 more sacks (and at least as many hits), but stayed healthy. As noted in the last section, the three best indicators of how a quarterback is doing is rating (93.4), Yards per Pass (7.6) and the Judgement Index (28 TDs, 14 INTs). The first two are fine; the JI right on the border of being acceptable (it should be 2-0 or better)

That said, seven of Roethlisberger’s picks came in two games (5 against Jacksonville, 2 against Green Bay). He had six games with no picks and seven with only one.

RB Le’Veon Bell showed that the Steelers were smart to franchise him. He reported to camp just before game one and wasn’t in shape. He started slow in games one and two (although averaging 3.2 yards a carry is a good week for Crowell) and added six more games with a rushing average below 4.0.

Bell’s struggles running mostly reflect the lack of depth and diversity in Pittsburgh;s offense. Ten players got carries. Nine combined for 88 touches; Bell got 321. They drafted James Conner in round three; before he went down for the year in game 14, he had only 32 carries.

To make sure Bell stayed whipped, Pittsburgh also threw 106 times to Bell (second most targets on the team). He had 85 catches (also second) and 665 yards (third). Without him, nearly half their offense (he had 427 of their 966 plays) would vanish,

At receiver, Pittsburgh is only a tad better. Their goal for 2016 was to find someone– either Martavis Bryant (their #4 pick in 2014, who missed all of 2016 with Puff Gordon Syndrome) or Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster (their #2 pick in 2017) to take as least some of the coverage off Antonio Brown (only 29, but in the 40’s in both receptions and yards). They sort of succeeded:

  • Brown caught 44 of 77 targets for 538 yards (12.2 a catch) and three scores
  • Giving hope to everyone who likes odd names, Schuster caught 49 of 69 balls for 774 yards (15.8 yards) and 6 scores.

Presumably this due will start Sunday, since Brown is out with a calf injury.

Game one’s stats (6 catches on 8 targets for 41 yards and 2 TDs) proved to be the highlight of TE Jesse James‘s year. He lapsed back into mediocrity after the game.

The best thing about the Steelers is that their line is as good as anyone’s. RT Marcus Gilbert, who has been banged up in five of his seven seasons, appears to have been replaced (due to injury) by undrafted free agent Chris Hubbard, who is playing surprisingly well in his first season as a starter. G David DeCastro and C Maurkice Pouncey returned to the Pro Bowl. Thanks to Joe Thomas’s injury, a spot opened up on the AFC Pro Bowl roster. Undrafted free agent LT Alejandro Villaneuva took it.

LG Ramon Foster had a good year, but he’s 31 and one presumes his days are numbered.

Line coach Mike Munchak has done a phenomenal job with these players, since joining the team in 2014. One could argue that he deserves a second look as a head coach (Tennessee’s front office gave him very little help).


On defense, the Steelers released James Harrison this week. My guess is that head coach Mike Tomlin intended it to send a message: “Yes, our Pro Bowl linebacker (Ryan Shazier) is out for the season with an injury, but you guys are the future.”

While I’m not impressed by the Steeler offense, I am very high on the defense. They finished 10th a year ago in points (20.4 per game). It improved to 5th (18.9), despite giving up 14 points on interception returns. It just doesn’t look impressive either objectively or subjectively.

The run defense stats illustrate why you don’t look at yardage, Pittsburgh has allowed only 1,591 yards rushing (tenth-lowest)– but it has allowed 4.4 yards per rush (28th). That occurs because the offense gets an early lead, forcing the opponent to throw. Teams that stay with the run (or don’t fall behind quickly) run the ball well.

Pittsburgh’s pass defense is a Gregg Williams porno film. They’re second in sacks (50) and tied for the lead in sack percentage (9.6%). Because opposing quarterbacks are always under pressure, they’ve thrown only 18 passing TDs (seventh-lowest) and 15 interceptions (ninth best).

Unless the Judgement Ratio (TD-INT) is 2-1 (twice as many TD throws as picks), the offense isn’t productive. Thanks to Pittsburgh’s pass rush, it’s barely positive.

The big threat is DE Cameron Heyward (10 sacks), but LB Vince Williams has 7.0 and two other LBs (Rookie T.J Watt and third-year man Bud Dupree) both have 6.0.

Here’s the thing I find remarkable: Heyward (2011), Dupree (2015) and Watt (2017) are all #1 picks. So is Pro Bowl player Shazier (2014).

CB Art Burns, SS Sean Davis and NT Javon Hargreave were their #1, #2 and #3 picks in 2016. The other starting DE (Stephon Tuitt) was a #3 in 2014.

The oldest player on the defense is FS Mike Mitchell (30), with Willams, Haden and Dupree next (all 28). In 2015, coordinator Keith Butler took over from Dick LeBeau. They’re one draft away from being fully rebuilt.

If the Steelers could get some help at wide receiver, tight end and running back (they’ve blown  pick after pick), they’d be ferocious. If they could find a young player to step in for Roethlisberger, they could roll for years.

Browns Preview

There’s no shortage of posturing and talking big. But there is no reason to believe that the Browns will be more capable of avoiding loss #16 than they were at avoiding loss #1 (or the 14 that followed). The 20-3 beating by a weak Bears team showed how poorly the team has been playing.

It’s obvious– thanks to Jackson making fun of his big run–  that the Browns will be moving on from Crowell. Probably (at least as a running back) Johnson too. The odds of them picking Saquon Barkley with their second #1 (or someone with one of their three #2s) seem certain.

The elation of having Puff Gordon back have evaporated as Gordon has done precisely what he did upon returning in 2014– make one or two big plays and loaf through the rest of the schedule. hoping to be traded. Puff has been targeted 35 times, has caught 14 (for 220 yards and 1 TD). He’s rarely run full-speed.

Hands Coleman (22-52 for 287 yards and 2 TDs) had a big game against Jacksonville (6-11 for 80 yards) in loss 10. Since then he’s been 10-25 for 145 yards and a score. If you multiply those totals by 31/3, the the results (33 catches, 480 yards, 3 TDs) scream “part-time slot receiver.”

The Pro Bowl selections came and went. G Joel Bitonio and MLB Joe Schobert are subs who will get to play once the players ahead of them beg off. In a development that surprised nobody (except employees of, neither center J.C. Tretter nor RG Kevin Zeitler were chosen.

It’s highly likely that Dorsey will pick a lineman to replace RT Shon Coleman.

Defensively, it’s DE Myles Garrett (when healthy), Schobert and not much else. Yes, the defense misses LB Jamie Collins and 1DPR Emmanuel Ogbah. But the other seven positions could have stepped up.

The nicest surprises of the season have been DT Trevon Coley (who looks like he could become a solid run-stuffing lineman) and LB James Burgess (who’s looked a lot better than a 23-year-old undrafted free agent ought to). I’ve seen rasps smoother than FS Kai Nacua but he seems to have a lot of ability.

The saddest surprises are DT Danny Shelton (31 tackles and rarely a big play) and Thingamabob Jabrill Peppers (who looks confused and is usually step late) with DE Carl Nassib (far too many mistakes and too little production) and LB Nate Orchard (not bad, but rarely much good) in hot pursuit.

Game Preview

The strongest argument for thinking the Browns can win is that the Steelers needed overtime to beat Cleveland last season— and the Browns (who had won the previous week) were trying hard to win a second game, but not desperate to avoid immortality.

Thanks to Jacksonville (which got bombed by the 49ers last week) the Steelers have nothing to play for. New England (who beat the Steelers) has the tiebreaker in hand; they won’t lose to a Jets team starting Bryce Petty at quarterback.

The question of honor– “Do you want to be the team that loses to Cleveland?”—  is the sort of thing that fans and writers care about more than Mike Tomlin or most of Pittsburgh players. They’re worried about beating the Patriots in the AFC Championship. Making sure game 16 doesn’t leave them shorthanded is their goal.

Pittsburgh can’t play Brown; they would be insane not to rest Bell. They intend to give Roethlisberger the day off (he does not always accept rest days).

So it’s Landry Jones (24-37 for 277 yards and 3 TDs against Ray Horton’s defense, but an incompletion on his only attempt of 2017), with journeyman (seven teams in seven years) Stevan Ridley at running back, throwing to Bryant, Smith-Schuster and James. Pouncey won’t be playing; Foster (concussion) might or might not be available for depth. No one knows how much the defense will play, or how hard.

The major differebce between the 2016 and 2017 Browns is that last year’s team had two players going full steam. Crowell gained 152 yards on 19 carries. Actually it was 85 yards in 18 carries and one 67-yard run… but Crowell was still over 4.5 wit the big run removed. If he’s pouting, he might not come near that.

The Browns also had Robert Griffin playing to save his career– and doing about as well as he was capable at that point. He went 29-40 for 232 yards, with 2 TDs and an INT. Kizer had a decent game in week one; 20-30 for 22 yards, two passing TDs and a rushing one.

But he also took seven sacks– and that was with Joe Thomas at left tackle, and the belief that 2017 the start of a great career. At this point, Kizer is shellshocked.

The temperature was also 63 degrees in game One– and a balmy 41 (with a 1-MPH wind) last year. This year it will be well below zero, counting wind chill.

The Browns could whip the scrubs. But the recipe for winning needs to be followed carefully:

  • Lots of running. If they don’t get a better game from Crowell (17-33 in week one), they need to bench him for someone else. It can be Johnson, Matt Dayes, Kizer, Danny Vitale– hey, even Hue Jackson and the four sportswriters who could run 59 yards. Crowell is leaving; who cares how unhappy he is?
  • Short, quick passes. The Steelers sacked DeShone Kizer seven times in week one– and that was with Joe Thomas. They can’t have that happen again.
  • No mistakes on kicks. Chris Tabor got a punt blocked in game one; they’ve missed kicks, fumbled their returns and let opponents break long ones. None of that can happen.
  • Ironclad run defense. Ridley hasn’t made his way through 7 of the 32 teams because he’s so good that everyone wants to share him. The graph of his career rushing average looks like a ski slope: 5.1 as a rookie, then 4.4 and 4.3, then down to 3.6 and then two years at 2.5. Last week he ran 9 times for 28 yards– they simply can’t allow it.
  • Better pass defense.  Opposing quarterbacks have posted a 102.0 rating against the Browns, getting 7.3 yards per pass and a superlative Judgment Ratio (passing TDs to interceptions) of 27-6. If Jones does anything like that, they lose. It isn’t reasonable to expect the pass rush to get to Jones (the line is too good). But he can’t be allowed to stand back there all game.

It’s not that the Browns (as their media enablers keep moaning) need to play a perfect game in every facet. They just can’t play a losing one.

Assuming the wind is below 10 MPH, it is not unreasonable to ask Zane Gonzalez to hit kicks of 40 yards or less. Other teams manage to avoid allowing 50-yard kick returns for seasons at a time.

Kizer has 9 passing TDs and 5 rushing ones. He also 21 interceptions 9 fumbles and 6 lost fumbles. It is not unreasonable to ask him to go 1-1, and not have that turnover be either a strip-sack or a pick in the end zone, because he threw into double coverage across his body and off his back foot. Could the journeyman running back who believes he is a superstar maybe play like a decent player?

Can the Browns not drop passes that hit them in the hands or chest? If they can’t make a catch, can they at least prevent an interception?

Nobody else seems to have trouble stopping Ridley and James. Could this defense not be the exception?

Could the Browns not commit penalties that wipe out good plays? Not make foolish mental errors?

“Don’t line up offsides– or jump off” does not require enormous feats of skill. It simply require not being stupid.

That might be past the capabilities of this team– which is 0-15, after all. However, these are not unachievable goals.

Game Prediction

Without knowing which Steelers will play– or how hard– any prediction anyone makes is simply their projection of how good they feel about the team.

How well anyone can play in truly awful weather is another asterisk.

Honestly, I would like to see the Browns lose, because going 0-16 would be a black mark for ownership– and a clear symbol of how completely the front office failed.

I’m going to guess– for only the second time this year– that the Browns will win. It’s not because I like the team. I just think they can even screw up a screwed-up season.

Final Score: Cleveland 7, Pittsburgh 6

Browns Preview: Game 15 (@Chicago)

Opponent Preview

The biggest advantage the Browns have going into the game is the state of chaos that their opponents are in. With two games left in the season, most people expect head coach John Fox to be fired. Some people also expect GM Ryan Pace to be let go.

I can’t make a very credible case for Fox. With two games left in year three, he’s 13-33. The have a chance to beat the Browns, but zero chance of beating the Vikings in Minnesota. Fox took over a declining team– a struggling offense and a defense that was falling apart. Here was their record and ranks in points for the three seasons before he arrived:

10-6 16th 3rd
8-8 2nd 30th
5-11 23rd 31st

He’s had three seasons to fix things and not done much:

6-10 23rd 20th
3-13 28th 24th
4-10 28th 12th

Here’s the best face you can put on 2017. Assuming you believe the defense is really as good as it seems(fluke seasons happen), Fox seems to have rebuilt the defense:

  • None of the starters are over 30– seven are under 27 (Or, to be precise, were under 27. They’ve has a bunch of injuries in recent weeks and had to shut several players down.)
  • Five starters were drafted by Chicago since 2014; a sixth is an undrafted free agent.
  • The Bears are tied for fifth in sacks and are 14th in takeaways

It could be a fluke,  or it might be a foundation.

On offense, Fox has been living and dying– mostly dying– with his quarterbacks. In the off-season, GM Ryan Pace signed retread Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million contract.

That was a ridiculous contract; Glennon is a journeyman.

Then the Bears traded four draft picks– three of them premium picks– to move up from the third pick to the second. They gave up their #1, a #3 (who became RB Alvin Kamara), a #4 and a #3 next year.

They spent the pick on quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who has been wildly erratic:

  • In 10 starts, he’s 3-7
  • His rating is 77.8, which breaks down as five games over 90 and four under 67.
  • He has a Judgement Ratio (TD-INT) of 7-7. A good player would be 14-7 or 7-3. He was 2-2 over his first four games and 3-5 in his last four, so you can’t say he’s developing.
  • He’s completing only 59.8% of his passes and averaging only 6.7 yards per pass.
  • He’s been sacked 25 times (on 8,4% of his attempts), fumbled 9 times and lost three.

About all you can say for Trubisky is “He’s played better than DeShone Kizer.”

A lot of the problem can be traced to Fox taking tips on handling quarterbacks from the media. Glennon was supposed to hold the fort until Trubisky got the hang of the NFL. But when the team started 1-3 and Glennon looked awful (76.9 rating, 6.0 yards per pass, JR of 4-5), everyone wrote “Why not just play Trubisky?”

The reason, as people from Cleveland know, is (1) the rookie can– and often will– play a lot worse than the veteran and (2) he can get hurt– maybe even a career-ending injury. And should that happen, people blame the coach for rushing the player.

When I look at Trubisky, I see a Tim Couch in the making. The Bears do have Pro Bowl RB Jordan Howard running the ball. They also have a patchwork line. LG Josh Sitton went to four Pro Bowls in Green Bay, but he’s 31 and starting to slip. C Cody Whitehair has started in his first two seasons– he isn’t great, but he is improving. The third best player (G Kyle Long) made three Pro Bowls in his first three years, but hasn’t been able to stay healthy in the last two years.  and has just been shut down.

Their best receiver is Baylor receiver Kendall Wright, who has had the sort of career Corey “Hands” Coleman is likely to have, The second-best receiver is RB Tank Cohen. Trubisky doesn’t have anyone who can go deep and catch; it probably would have better to let Glennon get beat up, rather than the prize #1.

To be honest, I’d fire GM Ryan Pace– he signed Glennon for a fortune and then gave away picks to get a quarterback who hasn’t played better than Glennon.

But because Fox has never had a good offense (except for the three seasons after Denver acquired Peyton Manning)– and he has often had messes at quarterback–  people blame him when the offense is struggling. He’s likely to be the one who gets fired, and Pace will look to hire an “offensive guru” to develop Trubisky–

As opposed to hiring a good defensive coach who hires a good QB coach or coordinator.

Frankly, Fox’s weak offensive staff is a reason why Chicago struggles to score. As coordinator, the Bears are using Dowell Loggains, who ran a dreadful offense in Tennessee and then urged the Browns to draft Johnny Manziel when he was in Cleveland.

Fox also made the mistake of trying to rebuild in 2015 and 2016 while continuing to play QB Jay Cutler (past 30 and losing the ability to do anything except complain) until this season.

If it were my team, I’d fire Pace and retain Fox. Pace has made bad signings (costly players and also busts), terrible deals, has drafted poorly– and has dumped a lot of veterans without getting replacements.

But Pace looks like he’ll stay, which means the Bears are likely to be walking through the game.

Browns Preview

I like the hiring of GM John Dorsey on paper, but I had hoped he would help make the team run more professionally. So far, his attempts to bond with Hue Jackson have done the opposite.

1. The “Real Players” kerfluffle. The reaction to Dorsey’s correct statement— that Sashi Brown didn’t get any real players– has been 90% bizarre and deliberately hostile. If you look at the Browns 2016 and 2017 drafts they have maybe three real players– people who could start for any NFL team using the same scheme.

Jabrill Peppers had a terrible rookie season– no sacks, no interceptions, two passes tipped– for a safety. Derrick Kindred (no sacks, one INT, 11 passes tipped) has been nearly as bad.

David Njoku makes one bad play (penalties, busted patterns, missed blocks) for every good one Seth Devalve can’t block and isn’t a great receiver. Cody Kessler is a bust; DeShone Kizer has cost the team wins.

Carl Nassib looks like a decent blue-collar linemen; either Yannick Ngakoue or  Maliek Collins (defensive linemen taken immediately after him). Shon Coleman has been barely adequate at right tackle; Max Thuney and Le’Raven Clark look like better players

The best value pick in either draft looks like Spencer Drango,  a #5 pick who turned into a fair emergency tackle and a credible guard.

Bringing up J.C. Tretter and Jason McCourty– veteran free agents– overlooks an obvious fact: Dorsey was clearly talking about his predecessor’s drafting methodology.

Still it could have been nice if Dorsey had made that explicit, and not needed to clarify it,

2. Announcing the upcoming housecleaning. Everyone except Doug Lesmerises realizes that a 1-29 team doesn’t have good players– that most will have to be replaced. But if the front office says it, the players immediately begin to jockey for position on the depth chart or free agency.

In this story, for example, let me translate this phrase:

There are also rumblings about friction between defensive players and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and his son, Blake, the team’s linebackers coach.

It means “Bus Cook (Jamie Collins’s agent) has told Mike Florio that his client is pissed off that he had to play strongside linebacker this year.” Williams used Collins as the strongside linebacker because Collins was the only player in  the unit who could cover tight ends and running backs. Doing that meant Collins didn’t get to rush the passer and get sacks– and because he was always fighting off blocks by the tight end, he got beat up a lot.

Isaiah Crowell, who’s had another substandard year, is furious that he isn’t getting a volume volume of carries, so he can come close to 1,000 yards again and seem attractive to a team that needs a running back.  screaming about not getting enough carries

Hue Jackson saying “Anyone could have run through that hole” was correct. But it also made it clear that the Browns intend to get a new back (very possible Saquan Barkley) because Jackson no longer feels compelled to cater to the player’s feelings.

Telling the world that he no longer thinks Kizer can play isn’t news (nobody thinks that at this point). Since we all expect the Browns to spend their top pick on a QB– and they’ll have the first overall– it doesn’t give any secrets away. It does make it harder to deal Kizer.

3. Hue Jackson’s status. All he had to do was keep saying “I’m looking forward to working with Hue both in 2018 and in years to come.” until people stopped asking. By saying “ownership has spoken on that question”, Dorsey made it sound like it wasn’t his decision.

We all know it wasn’t. Jimmy Haslam made the guarantee because he wants to try to have stability. But the less that has to be explained, the better.

4. The unconditional embrace of Puff Gordon. Recovering addicts need discipline and external control. It’s best to give rewards judiciously– and always with next steps clearly indicated.

Saying, as Dorsey did,  “As long as he’s committed to the Cleveland Browns, I’ll tell you that the Cleveland Browns are committed to him, to help him not only be a good football player but a good man off the field.” is dangerous, You don’t want the addict to feel that he’s won his battle and can relax and do as he likes. It increases the chances of a relapse.

Perhaps Dorsey is just pumping out boilerplate– maybe he intends to trade Puff the first chance he gets. But he hasn’t been smooth enough to pull off any ploys yet. I’m assuming this is for real.

Bottom line is that it took a while for it to happen, but it appears that Chris Palmer’s “Runaway Train” has finally left the station. (And the rumors the Bengals want Jackson aren’t helping.

Game Preview

This is the last game that the Browns have a chance to win, Pittsburgh is tied with New England at 11-3 (they lost to the Pats last week, so they lose a tie), and are only a game ahead of Jacksonville (who beat them).

If Jacksonville loses to San Francisco on Sunday and Pittsburgh beats Houston on Monday (highly probable), that would create a situation where Pittsburgh would have nothing to gain from game 16:

  • New England (who should beat both Buffalo and the Jets) will finish 13-3, with the tiebreaker.
  • Jacksonville would be 10-5. and unable to catch the 12-3 Steelers.

I don’t expect that, however. At the end of this week, Jacksonville will be 11-4 with the tiebreaker in hand– and a very wionnable game against Tennessee. Pittsburgh will be 12-3, and (a) unable to catch New England (also 12-3) but (b) able to lose the second seed if the Browns and Jacksonville win.

So this is it. They win today, or they go into the books with the Lions.

The Bears plan to run the ball, throw high-percentage dink passes to avoid turnovers– and gamble only when they believe they’ve found a flaw in Cleveland’s scheme, On defense, they want to stop the run, rush the passer aggressively and look to force turnovers.

I know this because it is always John Fox’s game plan. I’m not sure he has any other ones.

Chicago’s chances of making this work are fairly high:

The Browns haven’t been gutted on the ground since the Cincinnati and Jacksonville outings, but they have allowed 94, 85 and 97 yards in the last three weeks. Howard gets 75% of the carries, and he averages 4.4 yards a carry. Cohen averages 4.2 and takes the rest (Trubisky almost never runs).

if Chicago carries 23 times, it will get 100, even with Long being unable to play.

Trubisky struggled against Detroit, Philly and the 49ers; he had big games against Green Bay, Cincinnati and in the second game against the Lions last week. When he has a bad game, it isn’t because he gets sacked a lot, or turns the ball over. Some days he just completed 40-odd percent and dinks everything.

Since the Browns don’t play tight coverage, he should have no problems completing a lot of passes. He doesn’t have any receivers who frighten anyone– but the Browns never play right coverage.

The Bears aren’t likely to score more than 17 points.. unless they get a kick return (they had one) a fumble return( they had one) or an interception return (they had two).

I’d guess someone from Cleveland will make a mistake– my guess would be Crowell, trying to gain 200 yards on one play– and give the Bears a score.  That score to get Chicago to 21 or 24 (depending on whether they convert in the red zone.)

The Browns have scored more than 21 points only twice this year (Indy and Detroit, both of whom played flat). They turn the ball over a lot and have given up sacks about once every 13 passes. Chicago averages nearly three sacks a game. Only DE Akiem Hicks (8.0), LB Leonard Floyd (5.5) and edge rushers Pernell McPhee and Lamarr Hoiuston (tied at 4.0 each) get many… but 12 other guys get sacks.

Coordinator Vic Fangio seems to be able to find matchups where he has someone open.Not a good sign against a team that’s had enormous trouble picking up on switches and stunts.

The real weakness is that the secondary knocks the ball down– but virtually never (six times) picks off a pass. If your quarterback doesn’t throw bad passes– and your receivers don’t drop balls– you can complete passes all day and inch down the field.

There have been days when Kizer is like that– and many when he is not. I can see him escaping the rush and throwing some dart for fast downs– maybe to Puff for a score. I can see him running for the first downs.

I can’t see him helping the team to score more their career average. I can see the Browns scoring a lot less than 20, unless they pull trick plays. If the Bears get turnovers. I can see the margin being wider

Game Prediction: Chicago 22, Browns 10