Divisional Playoff Primer & Picks

Christmas in January.  That’s what the Divisional Playoffs are each season.  The best football weekend feast of the year.  This year’s smorgasbord of games is loaded with fantastic match-ups that should keep any football fan glued to their couch with a bottomless bowl of Doritos.  The remaining eight teams are unequivocally the league’s top eight teams (though an argument could be made for Minnesota), which only adds to the luster of the weekend.

Kansas City Chiefs (+5) at New England Patriots (Saturday, 1:35 p.m. PT on CBS)

This may be the most intriguing game of the weekend.  These two teams don’t play each other very often, and when they have, there always seems to be some sort of drama attached to it.  In 2008, the Chiefs ended Tom Brady’s season with a knee injury in Week 1.  Then they smashed the Patriots on Monday Night Football in Week 4 last season 41-14, prompting Bill Belichick’s memorable proclamation, “We’re on to Cincinnati.”  In recent meetings, the home team has had the upper hand.

Kansas City is coming off a 30-0 throttling of an over-matched Texans team.  Having won 11 games in a row, this team is riding a powerful wave of momentum into Foxboro.  During the Chiefs’ 11 game win streak, they lead the league in sacks and turnover margin, including a league best 22 interceptions.  This is the not-so-secret of their success.  The Chiefs are prospering by harassing opposing quarterbacks, forcing them into feeding the defense with errant throws.  On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs offense nurses the football, not scoring a lot of points, but also not turning the ball over.  It’s been a winning recipe.  However, one of the Chiefs’ key ingredients, Jeremy Maclin, is likely out of the lineup with a high ankle sprain.  This will likely mean the Travis Kelce show if the Chiefs are going to generate any offense.

The Patriots sputtered out to end the regular season, losing road games at the Jets and Dolphins, while ceding home field advantage to the Denver Broncos.  In their season finale, this looked like anything but a team primed for a deep playoff run.  Tom Brady was nearly beaten to death by the Dolphins defensive line, which terrorized the Patriots’ mishmash offensive line all afternoon.  The Patriots have been absolutely decimated by injuries, and the injuries up front on the offensive line have brought the offense to a standstill.  Bill Belichick’s concise assessment of the situation after the loss to Miami: “We have a lot of work to do.”  Fortunately, the Patriots have had an extra week to prepare, and are getting reinforcements with Julian Edelman returning to butter Brady’s bread in the passing game.  This should open things up for Rob Gronkowski downfield.  Sebastian Vollmer is returning to the offensive line, and key defensive players will be back in the lineup.  The question is can the Patriots simply just turn it on in the playoffs after weeks of a lot of guys not playing together?

Keys to a Chiefs victory:  Win the turnover battle, keep constant pressure on Tom Brady, forcing him into a couple of key mistakes, and converting opportunities into points.  It’s that simple for Kansas City.  With Maclin out, they’ll need to find other contributors in the passing game.  Belichick will likely scheme to take Travis Kelce out of the game, so the next man up needs to step in and make plays.  That means rookie wide receiver Chris Conley will be put to the test.  It’s hero time for some unsung player if the Chiefs are going to pull this off.

Keys to a Patriots victory:  Don’t feed the beast, meaning don’t turn the ball over.  Tom Brady has by far the lowest interception rate in the league, throwing interceptions on 1.1% of his throws.  If anyone can avoid falling victim to the Kansas City defensive onslaught, it’s Tom Brady.  The Chiefs defense is not immune to giving up points if they’re not getting turnovers.  The Patriots also need key guys coming off injury to shake off any rust and contribute immediately.  The offensive line woes are foreboding, but having Sebastian Vollmer back at left tackle should help.  Also, with the Chiefs hampered on offense without Maclin, keeping Kelce from beating them in the pass game, as well as getting pressure on Alex Smith, who was sacked 45 times this season, the third most in the league.

PREDICTION:  They’re on to Kansas City!  The Patriots are 8-1 at home in Divisional round playoff games in the Belichick-Brady era.  They typically don’t lose when they’ve had an extra week to prepare.  New England bounces back, rested and ready, and the Chiefs offense struggles to put points on the board.   Patriots 27, Chiefs 13


 

Green Bay Packers (+7.5) at Arizona Cardinals (Saturday, 5:15 p.m. PT on NBC)

The Packers return to the crime scene of their own gruesome murder just three short weeks ago.  The Cardinals left Aaron Rodgers used and abused, and kicked the Packers around like a game of hacky sack.  Then Green Bay wilted at home in the season finale with the NFC North title on the line against the Vikings.  No team looked more ready for their season to be over.  But something happened last Sunday in Washington.  Aaron Rodgers found his vintage self, the running game was dominant again, and the Packers sacked Kirk Cousins six times.  Where has this team been all year?

Despite its successes in Washington, the Packers have their work cut out for them in the desert if they’re going to pull off another vintage performance.  They could very well be walking back into the hornets nest for another swarming.  The Redskins are horrible on defense, and the Packers ripped them apart like a Lion on a Gazelle.  Arizona is a completely different animal, more of the rabid foaming-at-the-mouth kind with a lethal bite that will shred you to pieces.  Even with key players out, they’re shutting teams down. Aaron Rodgers needs to hope his receivers can generate the separation they did last week, and the ground game can continue to dominate.

The Cardinals boast a passing attack of receivers that are virtually uncoverable.  Fitzgerald, Brown and and Floyd have proven an impossible task for even the best secondaries, as Carson Palmer’s precision has eaten defenses alive.  However, perhaps the most dangerous element of the Cardinals offense is the emergence of rookie David Johnson, who has a bruising power burst reminiscent of another beastly back, Marshawn Lynch.  If he gets on a roll, there’s simply nothing an opposing defense will be able to do to contain them.

Keys to a Packers win:  Pretty much anything that happened three weeks ago cannot happen this time.  This means the offensive line keeping Aaron Rodgers protected, dominating on the ground, and not turning the ball over.  This really is a huge mountain for the Packers to climb.  But they’ve been here before an know what it takes to win in the playoffs.  That bodes well for them.  Defensively, it’s difficult to see the Packers being able to contain the Arizona attack.  They simply must stop David Johnson.  If he gets going, this game will get out of control for them.  If they can rattle Carson Palmer early, force a couple of turnovers and get out to an early lead, they may have a chance.

Keys to a Cardinals win:  Keeping the heat on Aaron Rodgers will likely mean the Packers offense goes back into the shell it’s been in most of the season.  They also must stymie the Packer run game.  Arizona will likely bring a balanced attack and look to keep the Packers spread out, then hammering the Packers late with the running game to seal the deal.  Most importantly, the Cardinals cannot go into this game believing they can do to the Packers again what they did in Week 16.  Overconfidence is a killer this time of year.  They need to be focused on playing their best football.  They’re a team that can only beat themselves.  As long as they stay on the positive side of the turnover battle, and execute on offense and special teams, they’ll be moving on to the NFC Championship.

PREDICTION:  This game may be more competitive than the first game, but the Cardinals will blow it open late.  It’s difficult to imagine this Packers team being able to hang with this explosive Cardinals team for four quarters.  Bruce Arians has this team on a mission, and they make a loud playoff statement.  Cardinals 34, Packers 24


 

Seattle Seahawks (+2.5) at Carolina Panthers 

Will be posted on Friday


 

Pittsburgh Steelers (+4) at Denver Broncos

Will be posted on Friday

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Welcome Back to L.A., Rams

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On January 12, 1946, the Cleveland Rams announced they were moving to Los Angeles.  A certain sense of sweet nostalgia is in the air as the Rams head west for California once again 70 years later to the day.  Rams owner Stan Kroenke got the green light to U-turn back to Los Angeles from St. Louis, where it enjoyed its only Super Bowl championship in 1999.  Even though 22 years has past since Los Angeles was last home to the Rams, there will be a homecoming, as many football fans in Southern California have remained loyal to the franchise.

The Rams were my childhood.  Jim Everett, Flipper Anderson, Henry Ellard, Cleveland Gary, Jackie Slater, Tony Zendajas.  Those guys were my youth.  I didn’t grow up in Southern California, and the only time I’ve ever even been there was a family trip to Disneyland when I was 8 years-old.  But my football birth in 1989 was as a Los Angeles Rams fan.  All of the kids in my neighborhood were 49ers fans, so it seemed rational enough to be a fan of their bitter division rival.  And I was smitten with the cute gold colored horns on their helmets.

Those first magical memories were of Jim Everett dropping bombs to Flipper Anderson. Beating the 49ers in Candlestick in Week 4 in 1989, Flipper Anderson’s record breaking 336 yard performance in the Superdome, and then two dramatic playoff wins.  Everett to Flipper in the 1989 divisional playoffs, where Flipper kept running up the tunnel to the locker room after catching the game winning touchdown in overtime in the Meadowlands against the Giants is still epic in my mind.  Those were the impressionable moments.

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Willie “Flipper” Anderson is still running to the locker room after his catch in overtime stunned the favored Giants and sent the Rams to the NFC Championship in 1989

As exhilarating as those moments were, the crushing low I felt after the Rams were hammered into the ropes at Candlestick 30-3 in the 1989 NFC Championship was as low as I’ve ever been as a sports fan.  Not only had I watched my beloved team suffer one of the most brutal beatings in playoff history, I had to endure the ridicule from all of my 49er-loving friends.  Yes, I cried, for the first and only time as a sports fan.

01dd2a7f28aebef420c6e6be9b87f57aAnd then came the deep dark abyss of the 1990s.  The hangover from getting burnt at the Candlestick the year before sent the Rams into a decade-long funk that was the impetus for their relocation to St. Louis.   Never before or since have I seen one loss completely defeat a team like the one the Rams suffered in San Francisco.  The Rams would go on to lose 17 straight to their 49er daddies from 1990-98.  Jim Everett, my favorite player, was never the same caliber player after taking the “phantom sack” in the NFC Championship. His confidence shaken to the core, the next three years would be a nightmare for what was once one of the league’s most promising players.  “The Future Belongs to Jim Everett,” read the cover of GQ magazine for its NFL 1990 NFL issue.  A post-apocalyptic one sure did.

The downward spiral of Everett’s career continued, as did the Rams.  Sadly, Everett will be remembered more for his meltdown on the Jim Rome Show in 1993 than anything he ever did on the field.  Don’t call him “Chris,” ok?  hqdefault

When the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1994, and Jim Everett’s career came undone, I lost interest.  Even though I was happy to see the Rams catch lightning in a bottle with Kurt Warner and win it all in 1999, it wasn’t the same.  That should have happened in Los Angeles.  And here we are, 26 years later, welcome back to my childhood.  This time with a sparkly new stadium set to open up in Inglewood in 2019.  Waxing nostalgic for Watermelon Heads, I’m happy this day has come. Sorry St. Louis, but you were always a baseball town, and the Rams were merely on hiatus until the NFL got its L.A. act back together.  Now if Kroenke would just bring back the old team colors, I may just find my first football love again.

 

Wildcard Weekend…the Aftermath

Wildcard weekend, for those that were hibernating in their caves this weekend, had a mix of wild finishes that won’t soon be forgotten, as well as some duds that fans are already trying to forget.  Here are some key takeaways from each game:

Kansas City Chiefs 30, Houston Texans 0:  

  • The Chiefs and their famished fan base are celebrating the franchise’s first playoff win in 22 years, with their last victory in January 1994 also in Houston over a team wearing a lighter shade of blue.
  • It’s clear that Brian Hoyer is not the answer at QB for the Texans.  He melted down like Chernobyl under the onslaught of the Chiefs pass rush.  His five turnovers in one game was the most by any player this season, and one of the worst playoff performances in NFL history.
  • The KC defense is no laughing matter for opposing offenses.  This is an elite defense capable of wreaking havoc on any playoff opponent still alive with a relentless pass rush, and generating turnovers in bulk.  The return of Justin Houston was uplifting to this already potent unit.
  • The huge concern if you’re a Chiefs fan is the offense’s inability to convert turnovers and field position into TDs.  They must convert these opportunities into points if they’re going to advance deep into the playoffs.  The Texans committed four turnovers in the first half and the Chiefs were only able to turn that into six points.  Field goals aren’t going to cut it against the likes of New England, Denver or Pittsburgh.
  • The Texans have a dominant young core of defensive talent led by JJ Watt, Jonathan Joseph and Brian Cushing.  The focus of the offseason will clearly be on the offensive side of the ball.

What’s Next?  For Kansas City, they travel to New England on Saturday sans Jeremy Maclin to take on a banged-up, but rested Patriots team.  The Chiefs demolished the Patriots in their last meeting 41-17 in Week 4 of last season.  The Patriots surely have not forgotten this.

The Texans enter the offseason needing to find a starting QB for next season, either through the draft or a trade.  The Texans have a lot to be proud of in turning around their season after a 2-5 start and winning the AFC South.  Bill O’Brien took them as far as they could go with the personnel they currently have.


 

Pittsburgh Steelers 18, Cincinnati Bengals 16

  • This game was almost like watching Looney Tunes, with the Bengals being Wile E. Coyote getting Road Runner-ed by the Steelers yet again.  The Steelers are the bully that’s in the heads of the Bengals, tormenting them over and over, year after year, and fanning the flames of hatred between these two rivals.  Beep-Beep.
  • In fairness to the Bengals, Joey Porter should have been flagged for his confrontation with Pacman Jones during that fateful sequence.  At the very least, they’re should have been offsetting penalties.  Joey Porter, a position coach, had no business on the field and Pacman Jones has a legitimate gripe.
  • Vontaze Burflict, who’s a serial cheap-shot artist, should and likely will be suspended for his antics.  First, it appeared on his sack of Roethlisburger that there was intent to injure, pile driving Big Ben into the wet turf and then sitting on his shoulder.  Then a flagrant hit to the head on Antonio Brown knocked him out of the game.  After going from hero with what appeared to be the game-winning interception, Burflict became one of the all-time playoff goats.
  • This was an ugly game that escalated when Ryan Shazier KO’d Giovani Bernard on a helmet to helmet collision.  This game quickly became a head-hunting match, with the Bengals ultimately losing their composure when it mattered most.
  • Yes, there was actually a football game played.  When Big Ben left the game, the momentum swung to the Bengals and A.J. McCarron came alive, leading the Bengals back to the lead at 16-15 after trailing 15-0 going into the 4th quarter.  After the Burflict interception of Landry Jones, the game appeared over.  But Jeremy Hill, who’s battled fumbling issues all season, fumbled the ball right back to Pittsburgh, setting the table for the final meltdown for the Bengals.
  • The Bengals are 0-7 in the playoffs under Marvin Lewis, and have lost eight straight playoff games dating back to the 1990 season.  The 25 year drought without a playoff win is the longest in the NFL.

What’s Next?  This is a devastating loss to stomach for the Bengals, and they may never recover.  There appears to be no accountability for the players actions in Cincinnati, and that falls on Marvin Lewis.  Ultimately it cost them their season.  This team faces a lot of uncertainty with several key players becoming free agents, and one or both coordinators possibly leaving to coach elsewhere.  As Michael Silver of NFL.com so eloquently put it, “It’s the Meltdown at Paul Brown — and it left a coach, a franchise and an entire football community smoldering in its ashes.”

The Steelers go to Denver next Sunday with the availability and health of both Big Ben and Antonio Brown in question.  With both of them healthy, this team is a legitimate Super Bowl threat.  If one or both of them are out next week, it’s difficult to see them leaving the Mile High City with a win.


 

Seattle Seahawks 10, Minnesota Vikings 9

  • Every Seahawks fan and player sacrificed his first born child to get out of Minnesota with that win.  Michael Bennett and Richard Sherman were kissing the ground after Blair Walsh shanked a 27 yard field goal attempt to preserve the Seahawks’ 10-9 win.  The Seahawks almost seem to plan it this way each postseason.
  • The beauty of the playoffs is that crazy things happen in crucial moments.  Blair Walsh’s miss of an “easy” field goal exorcised the ghost of Gary Anderson in what will go down as another infamous playoff loss in Vikings history.  Walsh had made every field goal 30 yards or shorter all season, but missed the one that mattered most.
  • The Seahawks took advantage of opportunities, but they also put themselves in position to lose this game.  Using a critical timeout early in the 3rd quarter was almost fatal for the Seahawks, as they couldn’t stop the clock at the end to leave time for a final drive if Walsh’s field goal was successful.  Cam Chancellor got owned by Kyle Rudolph on the Vikings’ final drive, getting called for a critical pass interference penalty and getting burned on the next play for a 24 yard pass that put the Vikings in field goal range.
  • Adrian Peterson may go down in history as the greatest running back of all time.  But his fumbles in big games are going to dog his legacy.  His fumble in the 4th quarter set up the deciding field goal for the Seahawks.
  • The Vikings defense dominated this game, and the cold was an obvious factor in the Seahawks’ offensive woes.  Down 9-0 entering the 4th quarter, it looked like the Seahawks were going to succumb to the Siberian conditions and a hungry Viking defense that was reminiscent of the Purple People Eaters.
  • Christine Michael has been admirable in the run game, but he lacks tackle-busting power of Beast Mode and the dynamism of Thomas Rawls.  The Seahawks need Lynch back to make a Super Bowl run.
  • This was a classic black and blue bruiser in arctic conditions, coming down to special teams and defense.  Both teams made critical mistakes, but the Vikings mistakes proved more costly.  The other deciding factor was that what Russell Wilson can do, Teddy Bridgewater cannot.  Wilson’s huge pass to Lockett after the snap going over his shoulder was Houdini-like.

What’s Next?  The Seahawks travel to Carolina to face the top-seeded Panthers in a rematch of their Week 6 clash where the Panthers stormed back to win in the 4th quarter in Seattle.  It will be interesting to see if Marshawn Lynch suits up after “pulling himself out” of this week’s game on Friday.

The Vikings have had a fantastic season that exceeded a lot of expectations, and Mike Zimmer has this team in position to be a force for seasons to come.  Winning the NFC North with their clutch performance in Green Bay was a breakthrough victory, and they were just a missed field goal from advancing in the playoffs.  The defense is imposing and loaded with young talent with players like Sharif Floyd, Anthony Barr, Everson Griffin and Xavier Rhodes, and the offense will only get better. Teddy Bridgewater will eventually need to make more plays downfield than he currently is, but the arrow is clearly pointing up.  The Vikings will be a trendy Super Bowl pick entering next season.


 

Green Bay Packers 35, Washington Redskins 18

  • After being dormant for the second half of the season and the first half of today’s game, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense came alive.  Now the question is if the Packers offense is really back, or is the Redskin defense just this bad?
  • Aaron Rodgers had his best performance in weeks, but the key to the Packers’ offensive revival was the Redskins inability to generate any pass rush.  The Packers offensive line, which has been woeful this season, gave Rodgers clean pockets all afternoon after he was sacked in the first quarter for a safety.
  • For the first time in months, Rodgers had open receivers to throw to, and Eddie Lacy and James Starks tearing through gaping holes in the Redskins defense in the second half.  Washington’s defense could not get off the field in the 4th quarter.
  • Jordan Reed is a man among boys on the football field.  He’s a special talent, and a one-armed catch he made was just sick.
  • DeSean Jackson’s critical mistake in the first quarter when he didn’t reach the ball across the plane of the goal line before stepping out of bounds cost the Redskins a touchdown would come back to haunt them.  Jackson is a tremendous playmaker, but his football smarts do not precede his talent.
  • Kirk Cousins looked more like Matt Cassel after the first quarter, but Green Bay’s defense delivered perhaps its best performance of the season.  Micah Hyde, who was one of a handful of Green Bay defenders that were familiar with Cousins from their college days in the Big Ten, seemed like they had an answer for everything the Redskins were doing offensively.

What’s Next?  The Packers are returning to Glendale, Arizona for a playoff rematch with a Cardinals team that blitz-krieged them 38-8 in Week 16.  Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense will need a repeat of today if they hope to stand a chance of survival.

For the Redskins, there’s a lot to build on.  Cousins was not his best today, but he has showed marked improvement and the ability to be the franchise in Washington.  All indications are that the Redskins intend to give Cousins an extension.  Jay Gruden has done a tremendous job developing him and putting the RGIII drama to bed to keep it from being a distraction.  For the Redskins to take the next step, they’re going to need to build up their talent on defense and get better on the offensive line.  This is a team that looks primed to compete in the NFC East next season and beyond.

Ideal Playoff Paths

Winning in the playoffs, especially in a season like this one where there is so much parity among the teams in the playoff field, may depend on who and where you play as much as how you play.  Below is my rankings of teams ranked in order of chance to win the Super Bowl, and I analyze the most ideal path of least resistance that has the greatest chance of happening for a team to win their conference Championship.

  1. Arizona Cardinals:
    • Divisional Round: vs. Washington
    • NFC Championship: vs. Seattle
  2. Cincinnati Bengals:
    • Wildcard: vs. Pittsburgh (in progress)
    • Divisional Round: at New England
    • AFC Championship: vs Kansas City
  3. Carolina Panthers
    • Divisional Round: vs. Washington
    • NFC Championship: vs. Minnesota
  4. Seattle Seahawks
    • Wildcard: at Minnesota
    • Divisional Round: at Carolina
    • NFC Championship: at Washington
  5. New England Patriots
    • Divisional round: vs Kansas City
    • AFC Championship: vs Pittsburgh
  6. Pittsburgh Steelers
    • Wildcard: at Cincinnati (in progress)
    • Divisional Round: at Denver
    • AFC Championship: at Kansas City
  7. Denver Broncos
    • Division Round: vs. Kansas City
    • AFC Championship: vs Cincinnati
  8. Kansas City Chiefs
    • Divisional Round: at New England
    • AFC Championship: vs Pittsburgh
  9. Minnesota Vikings
    • Wildcard: vs Seattle
    • Divisional Round: at Arizona
    • NFC Championship: vs Washington
  10. Washington Redskins
    • Wildcard: vs Green Bay
    • Divisional Round: at Arizona
    • NFC Championship: vs Seattle
  11. Green Bay Packers
    • Wildcard: at Washington
    • Divisional Round: at Arizona
    • NFC Championship: vs Seattle
  12. Houston Texans  ELIMINATED by Kansas City

The ideal path may not be easy, as for some teams, there just isn’t the ideal path.  Washington and Green Bay, for instance, are going to have a difficult path no matter who they play since they are the weakest teams in the playoff field.  However, any path that ensures them a home game in subsequent rounds of the playoffs is “ideal.”  Arizona would probably prefer not to see the Seahawks again in the playoffs, however they would certainly prefer that home game in the NFC Championship than a trip to Charlotte to play the Panthers.

Kansas City, even with their win today, slips slightly in the rankings due to the loss of Jeremy Maclin.  That loss is going to make it difficult for the Chiefs to stretch the field offensively and will inhibit what they can do offensively.  This will make it more difficult for them to win at Denver or New England in the divisional round.

NFL Playoffs: Rankings and Outlook

Now that it’s playoff time, the cream will rise to the top.  These are the top five ranked teams entering the playoffs, ranked in order of most likely to win the Super Bowl.  These rankings are not factoring in regular season records, but analyzing which teams have the best chance to win the Super Bowl based on path to the Super Bowl (potential opponents), weighted analytics based on late season performance, talent, team balance, injuries, observable strengths and weaknesses, and gut feeling.  For the sake of brevity, I have only included the top five teams in this article, while omitting teams that are very good, yet that have inherent flaws that will preclude them from advancing to the Super Bowl.

1. Arizona Cardinals:

This Cardinals team is frightening. Carson Palmer is playing the best football of his career, his receivers are uncoverable, and rookie phenom David Johnson harkens visions of Marshawn Lynch circa 2010.  They are loaded and ready to go.  Defensively, the Cardinals are a vicious juggernaut and will feed on any mistakes. While the loss of Tyrone Mathieu is significant, there is talent enough to overcome his loss.  The weakness of this team is that they can be scored on, and Carson Palmer can have those uh-oh moments that give you pause.  It’s also concerning that the Cardinals have the highest variance in performance statistically of any team in the playoffs (23.6% according to Football Outsider’s DVOA analysis).  Yet, when this team is on, they’re the most lethal team in football.  Bruce Arians is able to get this team playing it’s “A Game” when it matters most, and when he says the Cardinals are the “new sheriff in town,” he means he’s saving his bullets for the top guns, Carolina or Seattle, that he’ll need to vanquish to get to the Super Bowl.

David Johnson is going to profoundly impact the offense down the stretch, giving it an imposing dimension on the ground that is going to make this team unstoppable.  And with perhaps the easiest path to the Super Bowl of any NFC team, the odds are favorable.  The two other elite teams in the NFC, Carolina and Seattle, would face each other in the second round, which means the Cardinals would only have to face one of them.  Meanwhile, they’ll have it “easy” in the second round, facing a less formidable opponent at home in the second round (Green Bay, Minnesota, or Washington).  Given their odds and clearer path in the NFC, and the arsenal of elite and explosive weaponry this team is bringing to the coming wars in the playoffs, it’s easy to envision this team holding up the hardware in Santa Clara in February.

PREDICTION:  SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS

2. Cincinnati Bengals:

This is my pick out of the AFC. “But, but Andy Dalton’s broken thumb…” Craziness?  Perhaps.  But looking at this team holistically, this is the most balanced, most talented team in the AFC going into the playoffs.  And the gauntlet in front of them to advance is not imposing.  This team potent on both sides of the ball, ranking tops in the AFC in Football Outsider’s Weighted DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) efficiency (weighted efficiency adjusts so that games earlier become gradually less important).  Also, the Bengals are the most consistently efficient team in the playoff field, with the lowest variance percentage (8.2%) of team performance.  That will bode well for them in an AFC field filled with teams that have struggled with consistency issues.  Healthy and playing at a high level, the Bengals defense is capable of dominating opponents and can carry this team on a Super Bowl run.   There may not be a defensive unit with more depth and talent on a position-by-by position basis in the league.

Offensively, Hue Jackson is has been orchestrating a symphony of efficiency all season.  Dalton went down, yet Jackson has been able to adapt to the strengths of this offense with A.J. McCarron at the helm.  It’s a more methodical, conservative offensive approach that is protecting McCarron from having to carry the offense, but the Bengals can run the ball very effectively with Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill, and McCarron has been successful getting the ball to their greatest playmaker A.J. Green.  A bonus will be having tight end Tyler Eifert back for the playoffs.  McCarron has been an effective caretaker of this offense, and they can advance in the playoffs with him.  If they manage to overcome the Steelers in the first round, they may have Dalton back for the subsequent round(s).

There are many reasons to discount the Bengals as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.  Past history suggests it will be one-and-done for the Bengals yet again, as their 0-6 record in the postseason since 2005 under Marvin Lewis doesn’t inspire confidence, and their last playoff win was 25 years ago.  They’ve got to win at some point, right?  The table is set for them, a home playoff game against their bitter rival (Steelers) that is missing a key player on offense (DeAngelo Williams).  This is a team that really doesn’t have any weaknesses, has a lot of depth, and have elite talent at almost every position.  It’s just a matter of being able to shake the hex of not being able to win in the postseason.  If they can exorcise their demons and defeat the Steelers, their most bitter rival and a team that has owned them over the last decade, this is a team that can go on a roll, much like the Baltimore Ravens did in the playoffs three years ago.  It’s now or never for this Bengals team, with a mass defection of coaching and player talent looming in the offseason.  I believe if they knock out the Steelers, they’ll be brimming with confidence, surging forward through a lackluster AFC field to make their first Super Bowl appearance since Icky Woods was doing his shuffle in 1988.

PREDICTION:  AFC CHAMPIONS

3. Carolina Panthers:

What a magical season it has been for the Panthers. Cam Newton has been Superman and will win the league MVP running away.  No one predicted this for the Panthers at the start of the season, yet things seemed to break their way, and Cam Newton’s rise has been meteoric.  He’s become a truly elite player that can completely dominate a game.  Statistically, the Panthers are no fluke.  They are ranked 3rd in weighted DVOA team efficiency, ranking 5th on defense and 6th on offense.  They’ve dominated their schedule.  They flirted with an undefeated season, settling for a measly 15-1.  They’ve been balanced all year, knocking teams out with punishing defense, and Cam Newton has been nothing short of special.  The road to the Super Bowl goes through Charlotte, and it will surprise few if this team holds serve at home and takes the NFC bacon.

Despite all of these accolades, suspicions run high that their dominance has been a product of playing one of the least challenging schedules in the league.  Their schedule is the weakest in the NFL, as rated by the 2015 Schedule DVOA at -8.6% (the second weakest was the Washington Redksins at -5.0%; the New England Patriots were the only other playoff team with a negative 2015 Schedule DVOA at -4.1% by comparison).  Panthers opponents averaged a 7-9 record this season, and they beat up on the two worst divisions in football, the AFC South and the NFC East.  Their own division is putrid as well, with all division opponents hovering below .500.  In three games against the Saints (twice) and the Giants, the Panthers offense feasted on historically bad defenses.  However, offense is not the concern.

As remarkable as the Panthers have been defensively, they have struggled to put teams away.  They blew a 35-0 lead against the Giants in Week 15 and needed overtime to survive the furious rally by the Giants.  They also gave up a large 4th quarter lead to the Colts on Monday Night football earlier this season, and have had difficulty stopping teams with potent offenses.  Ironically, with home field advantage, the Panthers have conceivably the toughest draw to make it to the Super Bowl, with probably matchups versus Seattle in the 2nd round and Arizona in the NFC Championship (if they advance).

There are many reasons to believe that the Panthers will continue their magical run deep into the playoffs.  However, this will also be the first time this team has truly been tested all year.  Will the Panthers be able to continue their playoff domination versus the top offenses in the NFC?  Will Cam Newton stay Superman against the mighty pass rushes of playoff defenses, or will he turn back to Clark Kent and the Panthers make a quick exit from the postseason?  If the Panthers survive the NFC minefield, they will have earned their mettle and be the favorites to hoist the Lombardi.

PREDICTION: Lose NFC Championship to Arizona

4.  Seattle Seahawks:

The two-time defending NFC Champions are playing like the hungry beast that got them to two previous Super Bowls. It just took them longer this season to get going.  Once the strength of this team, the Seahawks’ running game is battling consistency issues with Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls out.  Now the offense runs through Russell Wilson and his recently found passing prowess, with a committee backfield as a complement.  After early season defensive lapses and a weekly habit of coughing up 4th quarter leads, the defense figured out how to finish.  However, this is a unit that has been torched by good offenses all season despite having the third ranked defense in weighted DVOA.

Statistically, based on Football Outsider’s metrics, the Seahawks are the best team in the NFL, ranking first overall in the NFL in weighted team efficiency and offensive efficiency.  This is a team that has found its groove, and would surprise no one if it ran the table en route to a second Super Bowl title in three years.  Russell Wilson seems to have a mojo that is carrying this team, and the offense has been totally in sync since Jimmy Graham left with a season ending injury.  Most importantly, the Seahawks’ offensive line play has improved, which was a major problem early in the season.  Despite the moment, there are reasons for concern, and these reasons may be poison pills to their playoff lives.  As mentioned before, the Seahawks’ have been lit up by upper echelon QBs all season.  Cam Newton, Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton feasted on the Seahawks secondary, and more than likely they’ll be seeing these familiar faces again in the playoffs.  Also, the Seahawks have struggled mightily to defend tight ends.  Greg Olsen devoured them in Week 6, and Heath Miller had his lunch in a Week 12 shootout with the Steelers.

Secondly, the Seahawks’ running game is not going to be able to sustain this team offensively.  Christine Michael has rediscovered himself in his second chance with the Seahawks, but he’s not Beast Mode, nor is he dynamic and explosive like Thomas Rawls.  Perhaps most disturbing is Marshawn Lynch pulling himself from the Seahawks’ lineup this week for the wildcard matchup in frozen Minnesota after a full week of healthy practice.  This Percy Harvin-esque diva behavior is an unwelcome distraction with the playoffs getting underway.  The Seahawks realized peak efficiency on offense when Thomas Rawls was playing.

While still generating offensive efficiency, the offensive domination has waned.  It’s hard to make just how significant the Seahawks’ win at Arizona was in the season finale.  On one hand, it put everyone on notice, but this was a game that was largely meaningless for the Cardinals.  And just the week before, the Seahawks were dominated at home by the Rams in what was a meaningful game for them.  The loss to the Rams could be portentous on different levels.  It showed that the Seahawks offense can be dominated by defenses with strong pass rushes and line play, and it exposed the Seahawks’ offensive line issues.  If they continue to advance, the Seahawks will likely see three consecutive weeks of smothering, physically dominant defenses on the road in the NFC playoffs.

Offensively, it’s difficult to see the offense being able to carry this team sans Lynch or Rawls, and offensive line issues.  Without a running game that can control the game, it’s going to be more difficult for the defense to grind it out and take over the game, putting the fate of the teams playoff chances on the arm of Russell Wilson.  With road battles at Minnesota, at Carolina and at Arizona on the horizon, that is daunting.  As fantastic as he’s been this season, this team seems more likely to sputter out in the playoff trenches.

PREDICTION:  Lose in 2nd round to Carolina

New England: The defending Super Bowl champions tore through the first half of the season with a vengeance, raining down rage and furious anger from the tumultuous offseason on the heads of opponents. However, the attrition of the injury bug has taken its toll on the Patriots, losing key player after key player to multi-week or season ending injuries.  Even the great Tom Brady has looked mortal with the talent around him eroding away.  Bill Belichick has been masterful in finding ways to adjust to diminished personnel, mask deficiencies, and find different ways to win.  Soon enough, it became a grind just to finish games, and then the Patriots sputtered out with two division losses on the road to finish the season.

Tom Brady has taken a pounding behind a decimated offensive line that has struggled all season since left tackle Nate Solder was lost for the season.  He sprained his ankle on a nasty hit by Ndomokung Suh in the season finale in Miami.  There are reasons for optimism.  The Patriots have a BYE week to get healthy and sort out some of their depth issues, which is remarkable considering their injury issues.  Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Sebastian Vollmer, Dant’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, and Devin McCourty will all likely be ready to go.  The question is will the Patriots be able to just turn it on after so many players have missed several weeks with injuries?  This is a team that knows what it takes to win in the playoffs, and Tom Brady is still playing at his peak.  However, this team is still really banged up, and just how effective will each of these players be?

While the Patriots have been good all season, and shown flashes of dominance, this is not the same team that won the Super Bowl last season.  They don’t have that “shut down factor” that they had last season with Revis.  And while this may be the most balanced team in the league, and Tom Brady will always give this team a chance, the Patriots lack that lethal edged.  This is a team that is going to win in the playoffs by grinding on defense and precision and ball control on offense.  Keep the game close and hope Tom Terrific has a chance to win the game in the last two minutes.  It’s easy to see this team digging deep and doing it again because that’s the type of character this team has.  Should the Patriots advance, a potential return to Denver for the AFC Championship is less threatening than it was two years ago, as Denver has struggled to 12-4 behind an anemic Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler.  This is a team capable of winning every game or losing every game it plays going forward.  Reality is going to be a bitch and the Patriots are going to struggle to put it together in the playoffs against healthier, deeper teams.

PREDICTION:  Lose in the 2nd round  to Cincinnati

Coaching Speculations: Part I

Two shocking twists to the coaching merry-go-round have made it more of a merry-go-obtuse triangle.

We’ll start up north in Indianapolis. Chuck Pagano managed to parlay a disastrous and dysfunctional season, and feuding with micromanaging overlord Ryan Grigson, into a contract extension by ever-imbibing Colts owner Robert Irsay.  I’ll speculate that Irsay has Manning-regret, and didn’t want to let go of someone else whom he thinks highly and come to regret it.  Or perhaps he didn’t want to see Pagano back in Indy as the coach of an AFC South rival, beating the snot out of his Colts.  A fly on the wall says there was an all-out come-to-Jesus Bloody Christ airing of grievances between Pagano and Grigson that would re-inflate the Hindenberg before the ink was dry on that extension and Kumbaya was sung by all.

It’s been hard living in the Big Easy over the last two seasons for Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints.  Drew Brees on the downslope of his career, and the defense has encroached on futility that is historic.  This team is primed for rebuilding. Yet Payton is going to try and squeeze one more year out of Brees and make a playoff push.  Reloading the roster won’t be easy, as existing contracts–including Brees’s whale of a cap number in 2016 at $19.75 million–are eating up almost all the cap space that could be used to rebuild the defense.  This team is an ideal purge-and-rebuild project, which makes Sean Payton staying in New Orleans somewhat surprising. The Saints roster is an over-ripe apple that is stinking up the Superdome, and rather than trying to make pies from rotten fruit, this a franchise should be looking to clear-cut the apple orchard and plant a fresh crop.

Saints coach Payton celebrates after a replay awarded the Saints a touchdown against the Vikings in the NFL NFC Championship football game in New Orleans

“I’m still coaching! YEAH!”

With Pagano and Payton, two coaching commodities that would gain plenty of interest, now off the market, let’s take a look at who is available, and where they might end up.  There are currently coaching vacancies in Cleveland, Miami, Philadelphia, New York (Giants), San Francisco, Tennessee, and, as I write this, Tampa Bay, with Lovie Smith being shown the door.

There’s several quality candidates in a deep pool of names.  In no particular order, Adam Gase, Hue Jackson, Matt Patricia, Josh McDaniels, Todd Haley, Bob McAdoo, Doug Pederson, Sean McDermott are assistant coach names being thrown around, with Gase seeming to be the prize acquisition.  Mike Shanahan is always in the mix this time of year, and Chip Kelly, Tom Coughlin, and, now, Lovie Smith are all seeking employment.  And surely there will be some surprise names enter the fold before the coach hiring frenzie is over.

Cleveland Browns: This is a franchise lost at sea.  Browns owner and CEO Jimmy Haslam isn’t sure what he wants this team to be, and is outsourcing the team’s identity by hiring unorthodox idea-man Paul DePodesta, the New York Baseball Mets’ executive as “Chief Strategy Officer.”  The first strategy should be establishing a culture of winning in Cleveland, and I can’t think of a better candidate to get this team on solid footing and lay the foundation than Tom Coughlin.  Coughlin may not be the long term fixture at coach given his age, but, like the Parcells did in New England, turning around a dismal franchise in the 1990s, this could be Coughlin’s last hurrah to add a feather in the cap to a likely Hall of Fame legacy.

Miami Dolphins: Stephen Ross may be the most delusional owner in the NFL.  Somehow this franchise resembles bad reality TV more than it does a functional football organization.  Mike Tannenbaum, of failed New York Jets GM lore, has politicked his way from consultant last season to being the most powerful voice in the front office.  He has Stephen Ross’s ear, which ended up being the end of general manager Dennis Hickey.  It may not matter who this team hires as coach, as the likely expectation will be a commitment to Ryan Tannehill at QB, who the Dolphins “rewarded” with a grotesque extension last season.  As Miko Grimes so eloquently tweeted, “How many people does Ryan Tannehill have to get fired before you realize he’s the problem.”  Ideally, this situation is for a yes-boy coach that’s compliant to the boomings of Tannenbaum and that management knows won’t be hired anywhere else.  Jim Tomsula’s available.  However, this team needs someone that will instill discipline and fire in this team, and has worked with a intractable quarterback before.  The weapons are there for Tannehill to succeed if he was coached up.  The ideal fit is Todd Haley.  He’s a good coach that has learned from his failures in Kansas City and build a powder keg offense in Pittsburgh.  There’s talent in Miami to work with to mold that same kind of consistency.  However, the Dolphins are always chasing the hottest name on the market, so Ross will throw enough money at Adam Gase to make him the man.

Philadelphia Eagles:  Jeff Lurie may try to hire the un-Chip Kelly with his next coach.  He may be on tilt after the disaster that’s transpired in Philly the last couple of seasons, and be reaching for someone that’s too close to home.  Current Eagles running backs coach and beloved former player Duce Staley, as well as Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson have been interviewed, two former players and current coaches with Eagles roots that make it seem like Lurie is looking to swerve back to the Andy Reid years. Adam Gase is yet again the hot name Lurie is taken with at the moment.  Gase would be a good fit in Philadelphia, and may also mean the Sam Bradford era continues.  One thing that we can probably count on is Lurie is not going to reach far for this hire.  He’s going to play tight and attempt to restore this franchise to the consistency it knew under Andy Reid.  Ideal fit:  Doug Pederson.

To be continued in Coaching Speculations: Part II

 

Gridiron Ghost

I am haunted by football memories pass-t.  My passion for the NFL will ravage your mind and haunt your pigskin soul with weekly cogitations, speculations, bold ideas and predictions, some fantasy blotter, favorites and all-time lists, and random ideas about the NFL (and a scattering of college football if something strikes me).

What you won’t find: rumor milling and rag journalism, hyperlinks to stale corporate media, or bloviating on a soap box.

Stay tuned for further hauntings and a breakdown of this week’s wildcard matchups…

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