NFL Divisional Playoffs 2017 Preview: Down Go The Heavyweights?

By | January 13, 2017
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Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After an absolutely ghastly weekend of football to start the NFL postseason, we can finally revel in some real “playoff football.”

Including the reprehensibly forgettable game between Houston and Oakland, all four wild card games last weekend went “chalk” (with the favorites winning), making for two days of some of the most anti-climactic football we’ve seen since the preseason.

But this week, things get interesting. Might we (finally) even see some upsets over the next two days?

There’s plenty to read here, so enough with the pleasantries. Get yourself situated comfortably, and clear off your schedule for the remainder of the day; it shouldn’t take all that long to read this preview, but it’s Friday… might as well check out for the long weekend a bit early, right?

Away we go…

Seattle at Atlanta

I get that the NFL pre-determined, before the playoffs even started, that the Falcons would host their opponent in the opening Saturday afternoon game. But that doesn’t make me feel any better about the fact that the league placed what could be the best game of the weekend at a time slot where most people are out and about doing the usual family and weekend stuff. Would it really have been that hard to move this game into the 8:15pm prime time slot, and flip the current primetime match-up — which looks like it’s going to be a total hatchet job — into the matinée spot?

Before the season started, I respected the Seahawks enough to where I wagered a small chunk of money on the 7-to-1 odds I was receiving on Seattle winning the Super Bowl (in case you were wondering: I hedged said bet by placing a wager on New England to win the Super Bowl as well). In my opinion, they had the four elements a Super Bowl-caliber team truly needs: 1) a commitment to running the football; 2) a quarterback who plays his best when the pressure is on him; 3) an elite defense; and 4) the right mix of coaches, veterans, and team leaders.

Seattle still has plenty of #1 and #2. Thomas Rawls battered the defense of the Detroit Lions last Sunday, to the tune of 161 yards on 27 carries. Russell Wilson is like one of those old-school horror movie villains: every time you think he’s no longer a threat, he does something to come back and haunt you.

But in an ironic twist for Seattle, their problem might be #3 and #4 on said list, coming as a result of losing safety Earl Thomas to a season-ending broken leg.

Thomas’ loss simply can’t be overstated. If I was building a defense from scratch — like I did with my 2016 Independence Day Team! — Thomas would be one of the first five defensive players on my list. He was not only the leader of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary — if not the entire defense — but he was also their best player. It’s hard to fully realize just how much his absence from the lineup costs this team from an intangibles standpoint, but we can definitively point to what his absence means from a tangibles standpoint. With Thomas on the field, the Seahawks allowed seven passing touchdowns this season, intercepting 10 passes and allowing a passer rating of 77.8, which would be the third-best mark in football. With Thomas off the field, Seattle allowed nine passing touchdowns and intercepted just one pass; the 99.5 passer rating it has allowed would be the third-worst rate in football, just between the Jets and Browns (hat tip to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell for this eye-opening fact).

Seattle finished the season ranked 13th in passing defense DVOA, which is a mark below their usual standards; over the last three years, they’ve finished 1st, 3rd, and 3rd in the same category. It’s not very often for them to be playing against a team whose offense ranks so much better than their secondary, as is the case when they face the passing offense of the Atlanta Falcons, which ranked #1 in passing offense DVOA this season.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is a shoo-in for this year’s MVP award, after finishing among the top three quarterbacks in completion % (#3), passing yards (#2), yards per attempt (#1), touchdown passes (#2), and passer rating (#1). But just as importantly, he orchestrated a masterfully-crafted Falcons offense led by Kyle Shanahan, who used every single “ingredient” he had at his disposal in a way that would make even the snootiest Top Chef judge proud. Atlanta was one of only two teams in the NFL that had two running backs score eight or more touchdowns this season (Buffalo was the other). They had thirteen different players catch a touchdown pass this year. Five different tight ends caught a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan at some point this season, including guys like Levine Toilolo and D.J. Tialavea, who sound more like Hawaiian night club owners than NFL pass catchers. Taylor Gabriel, a previously forgettable draft pick by the Cleveland Browns, caught as many touchdown passes this year as Larry Fitzgerald, TY Hilton, and yes, even Julio Jones. Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy had more touchdown catches than Julian Edelman or Greg Olsen. And, yes, Jones caught another 80+ passes for 1,400+ yards, which is getting to be as predictably inevitable as Donald Trump turning any media event into a certified shitshow.

These two teams don’t play each other often, but they do have history. The heavily-favored Falcons blew a 20-point lead against the upstart Seahawks, but still won on a late-game field goal in the 2012-2013 Divisional Playoffs. Atlanta blew another fourth-quarter lead when these two teams played each other in Seattle this past October, and got absolutely jobbed when the refs refused to call the obvious pass interference by Richard Sherman on 4th down during Atlanta’s comeback attempt.

As much I believe in the “pick the teams that can run the ball and play great defense” theory in the playoffs, there are plenty of reasons to believe the Falcons will win this rubber match. The Seahawks were built for this part of the season, but they’re still shorthanded on defense, and there’s some question as to whether we’re overhyping them after they beat the chutney out of a Detroit team that had no business being in the playoffs. Even though the Falcons still have to deal with the “can this team win in the playoffs” elephant in the room, this Atlanta team is more balanced — and a bit tougher — than their early-exit versions of years past. Over the last five years, the home teams in the NFC divisional playoffs are 8-2. Over the last 10 years, the #3 seed is 2-8 in the divisional playoffs, and the road team with the better defensive DVOA is 7-11 in the divisional playoffs.

And yet, it all comes down to one thing for me: if I had to wager my next mortgage on this game, who would I take? Like I said: i’ve already got one wager placed. Might as well (theoretically) double-down. I’m sticking with my Super Bowl prediction of Seattle vs. New England.

Pick: Seattle

Houston at New England

If you’ve owed your wife, your husband, your parents, your homewrecker, or your cat some quality time together, and you haven’t found an evening to do so as of yet, then the football gods have done you an enormous favor by giving you this Saturday evening to go ahead and make other plans.

This shouldn’t even be considered a game. A game, in theory, implies there’s some probability where either participant could win. No, this “game” is just a three-and-a-half-hour time-waster, delaying the inevitable end of the Houston Texans’ season.

I mean, where should we start?

Should we begin with the fact that the last time these two teams played, New England was starting rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett on three days of practice? The Patriots still went on to beat the Texas by a 27-0 score.

How about the fact, in the last two times Houston has played New England, the Patriots have outscored the Texans by a 54-6 margin? Or better yet, what about the fact that the Patriots have won five straight games against the Texans (including the playoffs), outscoring them by a grand total of 171-79?

There’s a reason that the line for this game sits at a comical 16 points right now, which is the highest spread ever for a playoff game. This game takes place in Foxborough; the Patriots are 5-0 in their last five home games taking place in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. During this past regular season, the Patriots were 6-2 at home, with their only “real” loss coming at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks. The other loss was that clunker of a game where the Buffalo Bills beat Brissett-led Patriots after a week in which they were basically awaiting the imminent return of Tom Brady. Anyway, in said six home wins, the average margin of victory was 18.8 points.

Again, the football gods did us a grave injustice by simply putting Houston in place for this slaughter. This game should have been the Patriots hosting the precocious Oakland Raiders, led by Derek Carr, with the latter team coming into Foxborough with the not-totally-unfathomable hope of upsetting New England.

Instead, we’re getting the polar opposite. If you wanted to compare this game to a (fictional) boxing match, this game wouldn’t be like Ivan Drago facing Rocky Balboa. This game would be like Ivan Drago facing Adrian Balboa.

In football you have to score more points than your opponent to beat them (what a profound notion!). Are you really banking on Brock Osweiler and the Texans scoring more points than Tom Brady and the Patriots?

Through the course of this season, I started following a bunch of the beat writers who cover the Houston Texans on Twitter, because i’ve never seen a bunch of sports journalists absolutely ridicule the team they’re covering — week after week — like those guys did in regards to the Houston offense. It was misanthropic comedy of the highest order, and it was well deserved.

There isn’t a quarterback who has the combination of “every physical gift you’d want from a starting quarterback” and “absolutely zero understanding of how to play the quarterback position” that Osweiler does. The way he murdered DeAndre Hopkins statistics (and a whole bunch of fantasy football teams) this season should be sufficient enough to bring up actual criminal charges. His four-year, $64 million contract may not usurp the mantle of “worst free agent deal ever signed” away from the immortal Albert Haynesworth, but it damn sure comes close at this point.

And before you say “what about Lamar Miller?”: I had Miller on my fantasy football team, so I subjected myself to watching the Texans play football a lot more than I should have this year. I honestly lost count at how many times I would excitedly see Miller take the hand-off, run towards the offensive line, and not find a single sliver of daylight to run through. He might as well have charged head-first into a brick wall on his 268 carries this season. Plus, the Patriots are 4th in rushing defense DVOA anyway, so banking on Miller doing anything noteworthy is a pretty flawed strategy.

If you want to try and talk yourself into this being a game because of things like Houston finishing seventh in overall defensive DVOA, Jadeveon Clowney having a breakout season and making his first Pro Bowl, or Whitney Mercilus having five sacks and 15 tackles in his last two playoff games, have at it.

It’s not my time you’re wasting. Just remember: they’re playing against Tom Brady, who threw 28 touchdown passes in only 12 games this year, and averaged almost 300 yards passing per game. He’s the Hannibal Lecter of the quarterback position.

Unless you’re a Patriots fan, or you really like watching one team kick the shit out of another, this is one of the only times i’ll tell you to find a better use of your time, other than watching football.

Pick: New England (duh).

Pittsburgh at Kansas City

As inevitably one-sided as the Patriots-Texans game is going to be, that’s how much of a coin toss this Chiefs-Steelers game feels like.

When it comes to playoff football, you bank on the team with the better defense versus the team with the better offense; just ask Tom Brady in last year’s playoffs. Over the last 10 years, home teams with the better overall defensive DVOA are 16-7. So, naturally, that favors Kansas City in this game, right?

Not really.

The Chiefs have this perception of being a “run the ball and play good defense”-type of team that’s built to win games in January. Except, that’s not really the case. Chiefs running back Spencer Ware might’ve replaced Jamaal Charles on the depth chart, but he hasn’t exactly done much to replace him from a “productive rushing attack” standpoint. Ware hasn’t had more than 80 yards rushing in a game since mid-October. In the last eight games he played in, he’s carried the ball 119 times for 423 yards and one touchdown, recording a grand total of one run for more than 15 yards. His tag-team partner, the immortal Charcandrick West, ran for less than 300 yards this season — meaning he basically averaged less than 20 yards rushing per game — at a whopping 3.3 yards per carry  (side note: “Charcandrick West” still sounds like a restaurant where I could purchase some excellent barbecue… at least in my head, anyway).

On defense, Kansas City finished ranked 14th in overall defensive DVOA — meaning they were actually ranked lower than the Steelers, for those of you keeping score — which included their 26th-ranked rushing defense DVOA. In Kansas City’s regular season finale, they allowed the breathtakingly pitiful Andre Williams — who was a colossal bust for the New York Giants, even as a 6th round pick — to rack up 87 yards rushing. The week before that, Devontae Booker and Kapri Bibbs piled up 33 carries for 101 yards (second and similar side note: doesn’t “Kapri Bibbs” sound like a clothing line for babies that urban hipsters would spend ungodly amounts of money for?). The week before that, DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry combined for 147 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, when Tennessee went into Kansas City and pulled off the upset. Latavius Murray had 22 carries for 103 yards and a touchdown one week prior to that. And the week before that, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman racked up 27 carries for 107 yards and two touchdowns rushing as well.

This week, Kansas City gets to face Le’Veon Bell. While everyone was busy gushing over the rushing exploits of Ezekiel Elliott, Bell spent the second half of the season racking up a ridiculous 1,295 yards combined yards from scrimmage, including 924 rushing yards in his last eight games (compared to the 832 yards that Ezekiel compiled in that same time frame). Against the Dolphins last week, Bell had 17 carries for 99 yards and a touchdown … at halftime. When he’s actually on the field, Bell has evolved into the best dual-threat running back the NFL has seen since Marshall Faulk.

Then there’s that Antonio Brown guy. You know, the one who caught 102 passes for 1,284 yards, and considered that a “down year” in comparison to his usual standards. Last week, Brown had four catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns…. yup, you guessed it: at halftime. I don’t care how many Pro Bowl players the Chiefs have in the secondary — two, for the record — because Brown has proven to be absolutely uncoverable for opposing defenses.

So if the Steelers have the two best players on the field (Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown), the better quarterback (is Ben Roethlisberger vs. Alex Smith even a question?), and the better defense, why is Kansas City still favored to win this game?

As stupidly rudimentary as this might seem: it’s because the Steelers — and especially Roethlisberger — have been a Jekyll-and-Hyde team this year, when playing at home versus playing at home. Take a look at the difference when Big Ben is playing inside and outside of the friendly confines of Heinz Field:

At home: 70.8% completions, 20 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 7 sacks, 116.7 passer rating
On the road: 59.4% completions, 9 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, 10 sacks, 78.4 passer rating

Roethlisberger’s QBR differential between home and road games is 30 points, which is the biggest gap for any starting QB in the NFL. The Steelers might have gone 4-0 in the month of December, but in those four wins plus the Wild Card win over Miami, Roethlisberger has thrown eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. Neither of those numbers are anything to be proud of.

It wouldn’t really be all that surprising to see the Chiefs capitalize on a mistake or two from the Steelers offense — they were #1 in the NFL with a +16 turnover margin — and then try to play “keep away” with their plodding offense that isn’t nearly as boring to watch, thanks to the emergence of rookie Tyreek Hill. Sure, Jeremy Maclin is capable of doing “things” (when he’s actually healthy), and tight end Travis Kelce was a bonafide top five tight end this season (topping both 80 catches and 1,100 yards), but it’s been some time since we’ve seen a guy with the electrifying, score-from-anywhere-on-the-field-type of outbursts that Hill has put up recently. He’s the first guy in five years to score five touchdowns spanning 60 yards in a single season. When Hill is able to hit his fifth gear when the ball is in his hands, opposing defenders look like Wile E. Coyote trying to catch The Road Runner.

Strange things happen in the NFL playoffs. We think the Steelers are the better team, but the better team isn’t always the better team in a given postseason game. Kansas City is still the #2 seed in the AFC, and the #2 seed has won four of the last five Divisional Playoff games. In front of what’s undoubtedly going to be a raucuous crowd at Arrowhead Stadium, I think Kansas City wins this in classic “cold weather football”-fashion.

Pick: Kansas City

Green Bay at Dallas

Here’s a comically understated fact for you: I don’t like the Dallas Cowboys.

I don’t like the fact that Dallas led the league with a 13-3 record this season, and in those 13 wins, they had three or four games, at most, that could’ve maybe gone in either direction. I don’t like the fact that the Cowboys have really only had two he’s only had two “off” games this year… and they were both against the New York Giants, who are (gleefully) no longer in the playoffs.

I don’t like the fact that, while everyone spent the season focused on Dallas’ offense, the Cowboys finished the year ranked 17th in overall defensive DVOA, 18th in passing defense DVOA, and eight in rushing defense DVOA; by comparison, Green Bay was 20th in overall defensive DVOA, 22nd against the pass, and 14th against the run. More specifically: I don’t like the fact that the Cowboys defense is ranked higher than the Packers defense in all three categories.

I don’t like the fact that Dallas actually had the top ranked secondary this season, according to ProFootballFocus, though I do feel better that Aaron Rodgers is one week removed from carving up the secondary ranked second on that same list. I also don’t like the fact Dallas will likely have the services of cornerback Morris Claiborne, and defensive linemen DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, and Terrell McClain on Sunday, potentially making their defense even more capable.

I don’t like the fact that the Packers defense is allowing 27.8 points per game on the road this year, and that their injury-depeleted secondary will have to go up against the ultra-pesky Cole Beasley — who turned into a not-so-poor-man’s Julian Edelman this year — and the quietly-resurgent Dez Bryant.

Speaking of Bryant: I don’t like the fact that, since Bryant returned from an early-season injury in which he missed three of the Cowboys first nine games, he caught 40 passes for 646 yards, and seven touchdowns, including the Week 17 game against the Eagles when he sat for most of the game. Project those stats over the course of a season, and that’s 64 catches for 1033 yards and 11 touchdowns.

I don’t like the fact that, in the month of December, right when nearly every single rookie starts to hit “the rookie wall” and see their stats visibly decline, Ezekiel Elliott ran for 432 yards and four touchdowns, averaging an absurd 5.6 yards per carry.

I don’t like the fact that fellow rookie Dak Prescott didn’t throw an interception in 12 of the 15 meaningful games he played in this season (minus Week 17), and recorded a passer rating of over 100 in 11 of those 15 games (third side note: am I the only one who thinks “Dak Prescott” sounds just as much like a potential name for one of Bradley Cooper’s super-douche character’s friends in Wedding Crashers, as it does for an NFL quarterback?).

I don’t like the fact that the sports media world spent all week gushing about the greatness of Aaron Rodgers, overcompensating for the fact that so many of those talking heads wrote off Rodgers and the Packers before Thanksgiving; those public ball-washings tend to swing violently the other way in the subsequent game. I don’t like the fact that the Packers will be without Jordy Nelson, who became the most dangerous red zone weapon in the NFL this year; it’s no coincidence that Rodgers’ stats improved as Nelson got closer and closer to his pre-injury form.

It should go without saying, then, that I don’t like the fact that all the numbers point to the fact that Dallas should win this game. So when I make this pick, I don’t claim to have the slightest bit of objectivity in the process.

Because, again: I (REALLY) don’t like the Dallas Cowboys.

Pick: Green Bay.

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