NFL: Wild Card 2016

By: S. Davis

Happy New Years to you all.

You cannot fire coaches after a year or two and complain about lacking “enough to win” or cry that the team isn’t “headed in the right direction.” Hey Cleveland, pick up the phone! As a matter of fact, put the phone on hold and call the San Francisco 49ers. The Browns change coaches every two years. Look at how patient the Jacksonville Jaguars are being with Gus Bradley. Chuck Pagano has a winning record of 40-23 over the last four seasons, led the Colts to the AFC TITLE game just a year ago…and had his contract extended (barely) when he was about to be shown the door. Jim Caldwell stands at the mercy of an incoming general manager in Detroit after, I don’t know, leading them to the playoffs last year while turning the team around this year after an uninspiring start in the first eight games.

My bad, I forgot to mention that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired Lovie Smith after just two seasons. I swear if someone didn’t tell me differently, I’m convinced there are teams that don’t really want to win games. So the Buccaneers won two games a year ago – which enabled them to draft their franchise quarterback, Jameis Winston, in the first place – and tallied six victories for this year and Smith’s gone? Isn’t four extra wins progress? Why is Jeff Fisher still employed? Ok. You often hear that draft classes cannot be properly judged for 3-5 years so why doesn’t that parameter apply to coaches?

Moving on…

Back to the games where all slates are wiped clean – and a bad day on the field this weekend automatically books a sunny vacation. This is the beginning of the knockout rounds and this is why football is my favorite sport. In the NBA, MLB and even NHL, talent alone usually wins out in their respective postseasons because of the series effect – best of five games; best of seven, etc. – whereas professional football is too taxing physically to have several games deciding who gets to progress.

In the NFL playoffs you want to be peaking this time of year, have an overwhelming defense, a quarterback that’s throwing lasers (without turnovers), the ability to create turnovers where there are none, i.e., forced fumbles, tipped passes that lead to interceptions, etc. Even having a traditional, run-based, clock draining approach can work but it’s imperative to score touchdowns when you can as opposed to kicking a ton of field-goals. Highlighting that philosophy though can backfire if the score is close because all it takes is one defensive lapse…and it’s time to have the wife plan the trip overseas for the rest of the winter.

Oh yeah, I wish Tom Coughlin was my uncle. What a press conference to end his Giants tenure; did you see the emotion he spoke with while Eli Manning fought back tears for his (departing) coach? Personally, I think they should have kept him for another year.

Saturday:

Kansas City @ Houston

The Texans have been putting on a show on defense this year, well, lately. Considering their musical chairs act at quarterback over the last three seasons, if they didn’t field a good defense they wouldn’t even compete. Upon closer examination they’ve been better than most people think – although playing in the AFC South helps – and enter the postseason victorious in six of their last eight contests.

In those eight games the defense has held opponents to 13.5 points. (If you want to highlight the six wins only, then that number is 8.5 points per game. Yeah. For the season they’re at 19.6 for points allowed by the way.)  I cater to what a defense surrenders in points – over what they may give up in yards. Yardage is arbitrary unless actual points light the scoreboard in my opinion. This team is in tune with their identity: defense first.

When they play at their highest level, they make offenses look elementary but they have games where if they’re just a tad off on defense, the game gets ugly. (The Atlanta Falcons hit them for 48, the Miami Dolphins, yes, that’s correct, put 44 on their ledger – and the Buffalo Bills gave them 30.) They excel when keeping opposing wide receivers from getting behind the cornerbacks which in turn gives their defensive linemen – and J.J. Watt – enough time to cause havoc upfront (or vice versa; it’s a chicken or egg type of equation).

With all their issues at quarterback, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins posted a line of 111 receptions, 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns. Insane numbers and truly indicative of the type of player he happens to be. I thought that keeping Andre Johnson around for one more season would have been better for the Texans, long-term, but it’s clear that Hopkins was ready to lead the offense, especially in the absence of Arian Foster. I mentioned Johnson because the second leading pass-catcher for the Texans is Nate Washington with 47 catches, 658 yards and four touchdowns. Is the offense geared too heavily around their star receiver?

You play the teams that are on your schedule so it doesn’t matter to me who the Chiefs defeated on their way to a 10 game winning streak. Ten in a row in the NFL is damn special. The strength of the Chiefs lies in their balance. Offensively they’re able to move the ball through the air and ground – which is remarkable considering their all-world back, Jamaal Charles, is out for the year with a knee injury. Jeremy Maclin proved to the league that he’s a true lead receiver by posting a solid season with 1,088 yards on 87 receptions and eight touchdowns. As the calendar hit late-October you were able to see his connection with Alex Smith grow stronger.

Smith leads an offense that scores 25.3 points per game while surrendering 17.9ppg. The Texans’ offense averages 21.2ppg (allowing 19.6 on the other side of the ball) with all their changes under center; not bad. However in this case the numbers prove that the Texans have a thin margin for error. While not as dominant defensively, the Chiefs are just as formidable. Also Justin Houston will be in uniform this weekend; watch for that.

The key battle will be on the edges between Hopkins and stellar rookie cornerback Marcus Peters. With the (over) reliance on Hopkins, I bet the Chiefs are planning to limit him, forcing Brian Hoyer to make plays to the rest of his receiving unit, who haven’t seen a ton of targets over the season. Tamba Hali will be ready to chat with Hoyer in the backfield this week as well.

Pick: Chiefs over Texans, 24-16. I like the Chiefs to limit the Texans in the passing game, putting too much pressure on the group led by J.J. Watt to play perfectly.

Pittsburgh @ Cincinnati

Ok Bengals, it’s time to prove what you’re really worth. The regular season matters just as much as coaching stability – and this is the measuring stick for which they will be judged. The last four years have ended in playoff failures, all in one game as well. Considering that, these Bengals are a different squad.

How healthy is Andy Dalton? His right thumb, on his throwing hand, is being removed from a cast. In 13 games this season he’s produced 25 touchdowns (versus seven interceptions) while completing 66.1% of his passes. Nice…but AJ McCarron will start. In a year or three he may be a starter for another team, I think his future is bright.

Sounds like it should be an easy pick for the visitors, right? Slow down. I can’t forget that the Steelers got carved up by Ryan Mallet in a confounding loss to the Baltimore Ravens two weeks ago. Additionally, the reinvigorated DeAngelo Williams will be in street clothes so the passing attack is going to be featured exclusively; possibly making them easier to cover as they may be one-dimensional. However that single dimension can be explosive with Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Heath Miller.

Pick: Steelers over Bengals, 23-21. Had Andy Dalton been healthy I would have switched the pick. I like McCarron to play well but he might have to duel with Ben Roethlisberger – and that’s a tall order.

Sunday:

Seattle @ Minnesota

I understand all the chatter about it being a balmy six-degree high over in Minnesota but it’s not like the Seahawks play in 75 degrees every week. There’s no advantage to anyone to play in that type of cold. It’s going to be tough, two defenses will be looking to make plays and Beast Mode is suiting up, boss.

Inclement weather is sure to play a factor but it’s still going to come down to this: Will the Vikings be able to play from behind? They’re a team that needs to keep the score within reach in order to keep rushing champion Adrian Peterson fully involved in the offense. Once they fall behind, the rushing attack gets abandoned and they don’t have the receiving threats to alarm the Legion of Boom over the course of 60 minutes.

The Vikings are a great running team yet the Seahawks excel in defending the run so what’s going to give?

Pick: Seahawks over Vikings, 24-16.  

Green Bay @ Washington

Do I use logic in this case? Should I be honest and trust what my eyes are telling me?

Logic dictates that I should pick the Packers because of Aaron Rodgers whereas my eyes are obviously telling me that Washington is just a better team that happens to be entering this contest playing great, complete, football in all facets.

The Packers have been pedestrian everywhere and I’m still not sure as to what I’m watching when they’re on offense. It all starts upfront with an offensive line being held together by scotch tape and thread. Losing a weapon the caliber of Jordy Nelson was going to prove cumbersome but why are the Packers’ other receivers struggling so much? It’s clear that the deep threat element that Nelson provided is missing so opposing defensive backs have been shrinking the field, challenging them in aggressive man coverage and forcing Rodgers to scan the field without a clear read. Personally I think Rodgers has been holding the ball too long when he isn’t under siege. Mike McCarthy should diagram more crossing routes and quick slants to move the ball and put the tight-ends to work over the middle. This is the only way to put the defense in situations where they can be compromised.

Also, I think it’s time to release Clay Matthews from the inside linebacker responsibility and put him on the edges again. I’m interested in how often he’ll be lined up on the outside as the dynamic pass rusher that he’s been; it would be wise to have him there around 70% of the snaps.

Since the “You like that!?” game – late October, I think – Kirk Cousins has 23 touchdowns (against 3 interceptions) and has taken control of the team. After being a turnover machine he’s settled into a great rhythm with Jordan Reed, DeSean Jackson, and Pierre Garcon. He is their franchise quarterback and his confidence in the pocket is great to witness.

The Packers’ offensive line cannot keep Rodgers clean at all – and that means something. This is the hardest pick for me, ugh.

Pick: Packers 23-20. I feel dumb already.

Regular Season: 154-101

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