My latest column for Sportsnaut is about why the NBA's lack of parity is a good thing. Here's the link. Enjoy!
Serge Ibaka is in Toronto, Mason Plumlee is in Denver and Carmelo Anthony is still in New York. That means trade season is officially open in the NBA, so what better way to celebrate than looking at six fits that make too much sense not to happen.
Lou Williams to Oklahoma City
Williams’ deal—with 2-years, $14 million left on it—is an absolute bargain in this market. He’s a bad defender, but a volume scorer off the bench who shoots 38.2 percent from 3 with a 23.4 PER has value.
However, the Lakers desperately need to tank. Not only is their pick for this season only top-3 protected, but if it conveys then Orlando gets their 2019 unprotected first rounder. If they tank and keep the pick, they only owe Orlando their 2017 and ’18 second rounders. They have to trade Williams and the Thunder needs his scoring.
Russell Westbrook is their only player averaging more than 20 per game—his 41.8 percent usage is as alarming as it is astounding. Someone has to carry the load when Westbrook sits—a time during which OKC has a 97.3 offensive rating and -10.9 net rating. Throw in the fact that Williams’ salary fits right into Ersan Ilyasova’s trade exception and the bevy of OKC young guys the Lakers would be interested in—Jerami Grant, Cameron Payne, Domantas Sabonis—and this makes perfect sense for both sides.
Jahlil Okafor to Dallas
With the Mavericks’ season having turned into a dumpster fire and Dirk Nowitzki’s retirement looming, the team needs to get younger. I’m no fan of Okafor, but he’s only 21 and has immense skill as a post player. He may have to come off the bench for the rest of the year if the Mavericks can’t unload Andrew Bogut, but Okafor could be a long-term solution at center.
If Philly isn’t interested in any of Dallas’ point guards then this deal could hit a road bump, but the Mavericks have all of their first rounders. A top-5 protected 2018 first and a veteran point guard like Deron Williams or Devin Harris could get the job done.
Jrue Holiday to Philadelphia
Come on, who doesn’t want to see this? The Sixers’ trade of Holiday to New Orleans for Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first rounder (which became Elfrid Payton, whom the Sixers immediately traded for Dario Saric, a 2015 second rounder which became Wily Hernangomez and a 2017 first rounder) kickstarted The Process.
Now that the end of The Process is in sight—especially if the Lakers relinquish that pick to the Sixers—bringing Holiday back to the Wells Fargo Center is only fitting. New Orleans could get back one of the Sixers’ bigs—Okafor, Noel or Saric—to play alongside Anthony Davis for the long term. If the right pieces are involved, maybe they could even persuade Bryan Colangelo to take on Omer Asik’s disastrous contract. The Sixers have the cap room and could use the stretch provision immediately, providing cap relief to New Orleans to help sweeten the deal for themselves.
Ricky Rubio to Milwaukee
With Minnesota’s season lost and Kris Dunn waiting in the wings for a starting job, trading Ricky Rubio is only logical for the Timberwolves. Milwaukee is one of few teams that aren’t set at point guard—they’re currently starting Matthew Dellavedova and, after Jabari Parker’s devastating injury, need a spark to keep them in the playoff race. Rubio won’t help the Bucks’ already-cramped spacing, but he’ll make the players around him better just as he has for his entire career. He’ll help young players like Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker develop, be a creator the Bucks haven’t had at point guard and play respectable defense.
This gets interesting when you consider what Milwaukee may send back. Could Tom Thibodeau decide he can remake Greg Monroe into a respectable defender and take his contract? Does he want Tony Snell back? Can he redeem Rashad Vaughn? What if a third team gets involved? There are an endless number of permutations to this, which is what makes it so fascinating.
Goran Dragic to Chicago
This made more sense before the Heat ripped off an improbable win-streak that vaulted them back into the playoff conversation, but hear me out. The 2017 Draft is stacked and the Heat still don’t have much talent on their roster. If they somehow make the playoffs, they’re getting swept in the first round anyway and they’re not too far out of the #4 lottery spot.
The Bulls need to save face on this awful season and if they swap Rajon Rondo, Doug McDermott and the better of Sacramento’s top-10 protected first rounder and their first rounder for Dragic, they could compete in the playoffs. Dragic has gone scorched earth the past month with a 67.6 true shooting percentage—including 59.3 percent from 3—and an absurd +7.8 net rating. That’s unsustainable, but he would add spacing to Chicago, which they desperately need.
Trading for Rondo, on the other hand, is the perfect stealth-tanking move for Miami. There are only two years on his contract—Miami could release him over the summer with a relatively small hit—and putting Rondo on the floor with Dion Waiters would be must-see on League Pass for all the wrong reasons. This would reverse all of the damage the win streak has done to Miami’s long-term outlook and allow the Bulls to put a happy face on their front office failures.
Brook Lopez to Portland
The Nets are in desperate need of assets. They don’t have first round picks and they don’t have good players, which is a bad combination. Lopez may be their only trade asset with Jeremy Lin injured and the Blazers need a big man. New acquisition Jusuf Nurkic won’t carry the load, Meyers Leonard can’t defend, Festus Ezeli is injured and Ed Davis can’t play center. Flip Leonard and Memphis’ first round pick—maybe even throw in Evan Turner’s contract if Brooklyn will take it—for Lopez and Portland’s playoff chances improve dramatically.
Because he plays for Brooklyn, Lopez has become massively underrated. He averages 1.01 points per possession on post-ups—more than Marc Gasol, Joel Embiid, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. He’s shooting 33.3 percent from 3—respectable for a 7-footer—ranks 10th in blocks per game and plays respectable defense at the rim. If the Nets get Leonard and—for the sake of conversation—Turner in return, those are two more assets they can flip in a year or two for picks. Throw in the first rounder—which probably turns into another Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Caris LeVert—and this is an easy decision for both teams.
All stats are from basketball-reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted
Yesterday afternoon the Denver Nuggets traded Jusuf Nurkic and their 2017 first round pick to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Mason Plumlee and a 2018-second round pick, a move that hurts their long-term interest in favor of short-term mediocrity. The Nuggets last made the playoffs in 2013, when they lost in the first round against the then-burgeoning Golden State Warriors. Since then, the national spotlight has looked at the team and shrugged its shoulders as the Nuggets languished not just in record but in attendance, where they’ve finished 19th, 27th, and 30th in the past three years—an embarrassment which the Kroenke family evidently wants to fix before getting to the team’s long-term success.
At 24-30, the Nuggets sit at eighth in the Western Conference and Mason Plumlee will undoubtedly help them stay there. A significantly better passer and overall better player than Nurkic, whose -10.3 net rating was disastrous for a player averaging 18 minutes per game, Plumlee can slide right into bench units. Denver hopes his passing will spark the offense when Nikola Jokic sits—the Nuggets are top-10 in assist percentage this year, but when Nurkic played without Jokic that changed dramatically. Their most-played lineup this season with Nurkic and without Jokic has a lowly 35.8 assist percentage, which would rank dead last in the league by a longshot. If you only look at lineups without Jokic, the shift is less drastic, but the on/off numbers still show a difference of nearly 10 percent. Denver, rightfully, is optimistic that will change with Plumlee, whose 21.4 assist percentage blows away Nurkic’s 11.0 percent. With Plumlee on the court, Portland assists 58.4 percent of their baskets—better than with any other individual. Switch him out with Nurkic and Denver can breathe easy with Jokic off the court, knowing the ball will keep whizzing around the interior without the flashy Serbian out there. Mike Malone can even feel comfortable putting the two together—in 108 minutes, this year; Jokic and Nurkic have a -15.6 net rating. Spacing will still be an issue with Jokic and Plumlee—though Jokic is at a cool 36.3 percent from 3 and getting better by the month—but Plumlee is more developed than Nurkic. Even at age 26, he’s an old man in some of Denver’s lineups. In the short-term, this helps Denver makes the playoffs—especially given that a competitor is on the other end of the deal.
But in the long-term? Both players are on rookie deals, but Plumlee is a restricted free agent after this season. After recent cap spikes, he could easily command $18 million a year, in the same range as Greg Monroe, Joakim Noah and Ian Mahinmi. Nurkic is 22, has an extra year on his deal and won’t command as much in the open market without a big improvement over the next year. Moreover, Denver also gave a first rounder from Memphis. Even if they make the playoffs as the #8 seed, that pick is probably around #20 in a stacked draft. Harry Giles, Ike Anigbogu and OG Anuoby on rookie deals are all worth more than Mason Plumlee is in the long term. Portland gets that—they now have three picks in this draft: their own, Memphis’ and Cleveland’s, a good way to start making up for the slew of horrific deals they signed this offseason. If they make the playoffs, Denver will get two games of ticket revenue and some national exposure, but it won’t move them any closer to winning a championship. The Nuggets have the pieces to be a title contender in a few years—Jokic is every bit as good as Kristaps Porzingis but fails to get the same attention because he plays for Denver, Jamal Murray has flashed this year despite tailing off recently and there’s still hope for Mudiay. However, their core is still raw—there’s a lot of building left to do and a lot of questions to be answered—namely those surrounding Mudiay. I’m not against trading Nurkic—there probably wasn’t room for him long-term anyway—but a first rounder is a lot to pay when you consider the cap space Denver will have to devote to Plumlee. Even if they manage to offload Kenneth Faried’s 4-year, $50 million deal, which sporadically pops up in trade rumors every few months, there’s no point in handicapping themselves in free agency for players who, ultimately, won’t be a deciding factor in whether or not they eventually compete for a title. Yet, the Nuggets continue to chase short-term mediocrity at the expense of long-term gain. We saw it this summer when they tried to sign Dwyane Wade and we’re seeing it again now.
All stats are from NBA.com or basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted
 Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Emmanuel Mudiay and Nurkic
Two weeks ago tonight, Tom Brady’s 384 yards and three touchdowns guided the New England Patriots past the Pittsburgh Steelers in a decisive 36-17 victory, sending New England to its seventh Super Bowl since 2001. As the New England lead went from an early 3-0, to a healthy 17-9 margin to a 33-9 blowout by the end of the third quarter, the Gillette Stadium crowd transformed into a rip-roaring, rollicking picture of vengeance, gleefully belting out the words to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” before descending into an umpteenth spiteful chant of “Where is Roger?,” a dig at the man who dared to slight New England and will hear about it as long as he lives.
Every story about the Patriots of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick begins and ends with Deflategate: a textbook example of the Ideal Gas Law used against a football team for dubious reasons, resulting in a suspension leveled against a star quarterback, causing righteous outrage among an entire region of the country. Two summers ago, Deflategate captivated a nation split between hatred for a football team and the knowledge that, upon examining the evidence, the football team was railroaded by Roger Goodell. In New England, Goodell’s accusation that the Patriots of deflating footballs in a game they had won 45-7, based on shoddy and circumstantial evidence—the ball boy brought the bag of balls into the bathroom for 90 seconds and Tom Brady destroyed his phone!—sparked immediate outrage from owner Robert Kraft on down. When the initial judge ruled in favor of Brady, and the Patriots started 10-0 behind an MVP-caliber season from the quarterback, the entire region was vindicated. Then came the AFC title game, where Brady was made to look like a rag doll and the Patriots fell to the eventual-champion Broncos. Then came the ensuing summer, where NFL appealed the initial Deflategate ruling and won—not on the grounds that New England had deflated the footballs but on the grounds that it didn’t matter, that because of the CBA, Goodell could suspend players with or without evidence that they had done anything wrong. Instead of feeling vindicated, Patriots fans felt like Andy Dufresne. For the next season, they did the football version of funneling money into bank accounts under the name Randall Stephens while simultaneously using a rock hammer to chip away at the cement wall of a prison cell. Their Super Bowl LI victory—cementing Brady as the greatest quarterback of all-time, Belichick as the greatest coach and New England as the greatest dynasty—was the metaphorical crawl through 500 yards of shit, ending in freedom.
Their comeback, from 25 points down with 8:31 to go in the third quarter, was the greatest in Super Bowl history. Julian Edelman’s 23-yard catch with 2:28 to go in the fourth, initially off the hand of Atlanta cornerback Robert Alford, then hit back into the air by a diving Edelman and bouncing off the foot of Alford, suspending itself into the air for an agonizing split-second that will live forever before settling into the receiver’s hands, was the greatest in the history of the sport. All that happened in between—and all that happened after—will go down in history as well. The drive commandeered by Brady at 28-3 that brought back some of New England’s hope. The doinked extra point that took it all away again. The ensuing Atlanta 3 and out. The 25-yard catch and run by Martellus Bennett on third down to put New England in field goal range and the 33-yarder by Stephen Gostkowski that snaked through the right upright—when everyone in America turned to the person beside them, saying that, just maybe, the Patriots had it in them.
From then on, the Falcons were on death row, waiting for the executioner to come and come he did, in the form of a disastrous Matt Ryan fumble that accelerated the inevitable. Once New England capitalized on the turnover and scored, the Super Bowl became a game of chess that Dan Quinn couldn’t win. On their first 2-point conversion, the Patriots snapped the ball directly to James White—sugaring the fake by having Brady act like the snap was over his head. It was the same play they ran in Super Bowl XXXVIII—another 2-point conversion to put New England ahead of the Carolina Panthers 29-22, 13 years ago in the same stadium. The play was on tape, but not recently enough for Quinn and the Falcons to be ready for it and White coasted in to make it a one-score game. When they got the ball back, Quinn bungled the clock in a manner that would make Andy Reid smug, throwing the ball on 2nd and 11 with 3:56 to go in the game with Atlanta well within field goal range. Trey Flowers sacked Matt Ryan; ultimately forcing a punt when the MVP’s third down pass went for only nine yards. Then came a 91-yard drive to tie it, a drive where New England got to third down just once, where Edelman’s catch was entered into the scrapbook of history, where Tom Brady proved the last holdouts wrong, tying the game with a 2-point conversion pass to Danny Amendola.
The Falcons had a chance to score again in regulation, but the game was over. Even with the overtime coin toss still to come, along with another Brady drive that will go down in history, it was over.
New England’s 17-year dynasty is one of improbabilities. It started with a hit that injured their quarterback, whose backup ended up being the greatest ever. Its first playoff victory happened because of a little-known rule and an impossible kick through a foot of snow without which Tom Brady would have likely returned to the bench the following season. Cemented by an improbable interception in Arizona and an impossible catch in Houston, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady exited NRG Stadium the undisputed greatest player in football’s history, William Stephen Belichick as its greatest coach and the New England Patriots as its greatest dynasty.
All stats are from pro-football-reference.com, footballoutsiders.com or profootballfocus.com unless otherwise noted
 Brady also offered the NFL printouts of any relevant text messages, which they refused and which they had anyway because the “co-conspirators” turned over their phones.
Back in August, I started my New England Patriots' season preview by saying “On February 5, 2017, the Patriots are going to win their fifth Super Bowl.” A little more than five months later, I stand by that statement.
They were practically dead even with the Falcons by weighted offensive DVOA this season—New England finished first by 0.2 percent, but there is a massive difference between the two defenses. Atlanta finished 27th in defensive DVOA and 22nd in weighted DVOA; New England finished 16th in regular and 11th in weighted. There’s no doubt that both teams can move the ball—the over/under is 59—but this game is going to come down to which defense can step up when it matters and that defense is New England’s.
The Falcons will almost certainly come out aggressively. As good as New England’s secondary is, it’s easier to attack the Patriots via the passing game thanks to their 5.1 percent adjusted sack rate—a number good for 26th in the league. Couple that with an Atlanta offense that already ranks ninth in first-half passing plays and the Falcons will almost certainly start the game throwing. For New England, the challenge is finding a way to contain Julio Jones without giving too much space to other receivers or letting Atlanta run it. That’s a two-pronged challenge, but it’s not dissimilar to the one the Patriots faced—and met—against Pittsburgh. In the AFC title game, the Patriots constantly showed five-man fronts to goad the Steelers into passing and plug up the gaps when they handed the ball to Le’Veon Bell. They had Malcolm Butler shadow Antonio Brown, rarely giving off coverage, but frequently helping the corner by having a safety bracket Brown or, in single-high, shade over to his side of the field. And in the red zone, they straight-up doubled the receiver on practically every play.
I doubt their plan against Jones will mirror that strategy exactly—expect less nickel early in the game and fewer five-man fronts. However, the job Butler did against Brown is was impressive. I think we’ll see a similar strategy there—though whether or not Butler will shadow Jones when he goes into the slot remains to be seen, New England will likely give their corners help from over the top, even out of single-high safety packages. In the red zone, I’d be surprised if we don’t see double teams again.
Of course, the Falcons have had success when teams managed to keep Jones quiet this year and Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel present a challenge to a New England defense that could be preoccupied with Jones. I expect Belichick to take his chances with Sanu and leave him 1-on-1 with Logan Ryan, or Eric Rowe if Sanu ventures outside. Things are more complicated for Gabriel, who, per NFL GSIS, averages 8.11 YAC per reception. No doubt New England will be on high alert for screens and they’ve done a nice job limiting YAC this season—ranking first in the league with just 4.1 YAC per opposing reception this season—but Gabriel is volatile. More than anyone, he can swing this game by turning a screen into an electric 70something-yard catch and run. If the Falcons pull off the upset, there will be at least one of those plays.
With Matt Ryan under center, the Falcons will throw the ball with success even if New England executes perfectly. Ryan’s brilliance this season is the biggest reason they are playing on Sunday. The quarterback will probably win the MVP Award this week, deservedly so, and I don’t doubt that he’ll keep playing at this level on Sunday. However, the Patriots don’t need to stop Ryan; they just need to slow him down.
In the trenches, the only area where New England may be able to get pressure is with Trey Flowers going up against Jake Matthews. Flowers has often been New England’s lone productive pass rusher, leading the team with seven sacks and 14 hits, per NFL GSIS. Matthews put up a solid 75.3 PFF grade this season, but looks shaky at times. If Flowers is isolated against him or New England can force him to block Alan Branch on a stunt, it could be enough to end an Atlanta drive.
When Atlanta turns to the run, New England has to win inside. Branch and Malcom Brown anchored New England’s run defense—which finished fourth in DVOA—but Atlanta’s run blocking is one of its strongest attributes. Chris Chester may be vulnerable at right guard, but Andy Levitre and Alex Mack have handled duos better than Branch and Brown all season. When running to the middle, Atlanta averaged 4.26 adjusted line yards, which ranked 4th in the league. Defending those runs, New England allowed 3.76 ALY, good for 13th. However, when Atlanta goes to outside zone, one of their signatures, expect less success. New England was top-5 defending runs to the left end and finished sixth against runs inside the right tackle. They were vulnerable when opponents went inside the left tackle, but Atlanta struggled when they ran there as well. Expect the Falcons to play to their strengths and run it to other areas, instead of leaning on Matthews and his 49.2 PFF run blocking grade to open up holes.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are also dangerous in the screen game. The Falcons are aggressive in putting either running back--or both--outside and picking on a defense scrambling to match up. New England will be ready for that, but both Freeman and Coleman will get their fair share of balls thrown their way. It’s one of the ways Kyle Shanahan can exploit a New England linebacking corps that, outside of Dont’a Hightower, is beatable. If Kyle Van Noy or Shea McClellin lines up against a running back—a likely scenario since New England usually plays man—Atlanta should be aggressive in getting the ball there.
No doubt, Atlanta will move the ball, but the Patriots can slow them down just enough to win. It won’t take much from the New England defense—I’m betting that the Patriots win if they hold the Falcons to under 30 points, something they’re capable of doing. With Belichick at the helm, a capable secondary and just enough matchup advantages, the Patriots can hold Atlanta.
On the other side of the ball, it comes down to whether or not Atlanta can pressure Tom Brady. Throughout Brady’s career, that’s been the way to beat him. But unlike last season, New England’s offensive line is strength, not a weakness. Marcus Cannon and Nate Solder have PFF grades of 88.1 and 88.0, both inside the top-10 among tackles. Shaq Mason played a huge role in the success of the Patriots’ rushing attack and David Andrews is a stalwart at center. The one place Atlanta can attack them is at left guard, where Joe Thuney’s been shaky at times. The problem for the Falcons is that their pass rush just isn’t that good. They finished 24th in adjusted sack rate at 5.4 percent. Vic Beasley, responsible for much of that 5.4 percent, has to go up against Cannon—one of the tougher matchups he’s faced this season. Grady Jarrett will be a key component in run defense, but the defensive tackle has been largely invisible as a pass rusher throughout his career.
Maybe Dan Quinn gets creative with blitzes—Atlanta has found success blitzing this postseason—but New England’s offense is practically built to beat blitzes. They design quick-developing routes and get the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands ASAP. If you’re blitzing against New England, you have to hit home fast and I don’t think Atlanta can.
Atlanta’s secondary has impressed this season—especially after Desmond Trufant’s injury—but they’ll struggle to match up against the Patriots. When Julian Edelman is in the slot, he can eat Brian Poole for lunch. Poole isn’t terrible, but he’s clearly the weak link in Atlanta’s secondary. The Patriots will pick on him like they picked on Tharold Simon two years ago—constantly throwing it his way and forcing Dan Quinn to consider putting Jalen Collins in the slot to match up with Edelman instead. Chris Hogan stealthily finished the year 11th in DVOA among receivers; he could be an issue for Atlanta, especially if Robert Alford ends up in coverage against him. Collins is the lone corner I trust in a game like this, but New England has enough depth to get around any matchup advantage he holds. If he shuts down Hogan and the Patriots need Malcolm Mitchell or Danny Amendola to play a big role, it’s no issue (just ask Shane Vereen). Brady and Belichick make everyone better.
I do like Keanu Neal’s chances against Martellus Bennett. The Falcons were 11th in pass defense DVOA against tight ends this season and Neal has the physical prowess to keep up with Bennett. There are worse things for Atlanta than Deion Jones ending up in man against Dion Lewis or James White as well. However, Bennett was third among tight ends in DYAR and DVOA. White was third among running backs in passing DYAR. (Lewis didn’t have enough targets to qualify.) However, all it takes is a small crack in Atlanta’s defense for New England to exploit and eventually, the Patriots will find that crack.
New England will also find success running the ball. The Falcons were 29th in run defense DVOA and 25th in adjusted line yards. When the Patriots run power with LeGarrette Blount, Atlanta may not be able to stop it. It was 27th in adjusted line yards when opponents ran to the middle. And as good as Vic Beasley was as a pass rusher, his 43.8 PFF run defense grade underscores a major hole for Atlanta, which was dead last in adjusted line yards when opponents ran to the right tackle at 4.99. Against a truck like Blount, the magnitude of that problem will multiply.
In the red zone, Atlanta’s defense has been horrific. Per Football Outsiders’ premium database, the Falcons are 29th in red zone defense DVOA, ranking 27th in run defense and 31st in pass defense. Against New England, that might as well be a death sentence.
Tom Brady is the best QB of all-time and Bill Belichick is the best football coach of all-time. New England doesn’t have many weaknesses in this game, but those two can cover them up better than anyone else in the history of the game can. Belichick, coaching against Dan Quinn, represents the biggest advantage New England has in this Super Bowl. Quinn’s done a nice job this season, but he’s no match for Belichick as we saw in Super Bowl XLIX, when he helped Brady engineer two scoring drives in eight minutes to put New England ahead. The talent on this Atlanta defense isn’t comparable to Seattle’s two years ago. The Patriots will move the ball easily against them and slow the Falcons on the other side. New England should win this game and they will win this game.
Pick: Patriots -3 over Falcons
Last Week: 2-0-0
All stats are from pro-football-reference.com, footballoutsiders.com or profootballfocus.com unless otherwise noted
 I haven’t forgotten Quinn kicking a field goal down 4 points with 2 minutes left in San Francisco last season. I don’t care if he goes on to win 12 Super Bowls, that decision will always cast doubt in my mind when it comes to the coaching ability of Dan Quinn.
We’ve made it through the hell that is Pro Bowl week. The most interesting thing in football this week was Jon Gruden analyzing a dodgeball game, which makes it a great time to look at awards. For clarification, these are regular season awards—, which means, for example, that Andy Reid’s meltdown against the Steelers in Round 2 doesn’t count against his Coach of the Year case. Let’s get right to it.
MVP: Matt Ryan
I advocated for Tom Brady back in November, but since then, Ryan has lapped the field. He led the league in touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, yards per completion, passer rating, QBR, net yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt, approximate value, DYAR, and DVOA. He also completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and tossed 38 touchdowns compared to just seven picks. In other words, it’s almost impossible to make a case against Ryan becoming the first Atlanta player to win the MVP.
Coach of the Year: Bill Belichick
I don’t want to hear about your Jason Garrett, Adam Gase or Dan Quinn cases. Bill Belichick is the best coach in football. He piloted the Patriots through a 4-game stretch without the best quarterback of all-time, three of them on the road, and New England came out 3-1 with a serious asset in Jimmy Garoppolo. Then, with Tom Brady back in the lineup, New England won 11 of 12. Moreover, when New England sent Jamie Collins to Cleveland for a conditional draft pick, their linebacking corps barely suffered. Belichick made useful players out of Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy! He helped New England’s offense get past Rob Gronkowski’s injury like it was nothing, turned up useful players like Malcolm Mitchell out of nowhere and helped turn New England’s offensive line around with, largely, the same personnel that melted down in Denver last season. This year is as impressive as any for Belichick, the greatest football coach of all-time.
Assistant Coach of the Year: Kyle Shanahan
Shanahan’s offense propelled Matt Ryan from an above-average QB to the league MVP. It turned Julio Jones from a mere star into a weapon of mass destruction, Taylor Gabriel into one of the most volatile weapons in football, Tevin Coleman into one of the better and more versatile running backs in the league and affirmed Devonta Freeman’s place as a star. With Shanahan at the helm, Atlanta ranked first in offensive DVOA, second in weighted offensive DVOA, first in passing offense DVOA and seventh in rushing DVOA. Left guard Andy Levitre, acquired from Tennessee in September 2015 for a 6th rounder and conditional pick, had an 84.4 PFF grade, ranking 14th among guards. Ryan Schraeder, once Just Another Guy, has turned into a borderline top-10 tackle and Jake Matthews’ career, off to a disastrous start in 2014, is on an upward trend. In two years, Shanahan was the catalyst in Atlanta’s offense reaching its full potential this season. He’ll likely be coaching the 49ers next year, but he deserves better.
Offensive Player of the Year: Julio Jones
This was a tough pick with Jones, Antonio Brown, David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell all in the mix. Jones had a drop-off from 2015, but his 2015 season was one of the best ever by a wide receiver. When you put that into perspective, it’s easier to realize that an 83-catch, 1,409-yard season is still astounding. In addition to those numbers, Jones led all receivers in PFF grading and DYAR, coming second in DVOA. Put those numbers up against Brown, who had 23 more catches for over 100 less yards, finished seventh in DYAR and a relatively paltry 26th in DVOA and Jones wins every time. The stretch from Weeks 5-10 during which Bell averaged just 3.52 yards per carry was the nail in the coffin for him. As good as he was for the last month; this is a full-season award. Johnson was the closest to Jones—gaining 2,118 yards from scrimmage and scoring 20 times on a team without many other weapons is damn impressive. However, Johnson averaged just 4.2 yards per carry, barely made the top-10 running backs in DYAR and ranked 16th among running backs in DVOA. No doubt, that had as much to do with the demise of Arizona’s passing game as any flaws with Johnson, but even so, it’s the lone flaw in his case. Jones had none.
Defensive Player of the Year: Landon Collins
I wrote about this expansively at Giants Wire about two weeks ago. See that piece for reference.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ezekiel Elliott
There are a lot of easy calls for awards this year, but this is by far the easiest. Elliott led the league in rushing yards, averaging 5.1 per carry and scoring 15 times. He led all running backs in DYAR, finishing sixth in DVOA. His 1,994 yards from scrimmage didn’t just lead all rookies; it was over 300 yards more than the player in second, Jordan Howard. In all-purpose yards, he led by over 100 with Tyreek Hill in second. Dak Prescott has a case, but his season would have been much tougher if not for Elliott, who prevented defenses from focusing in on the rookie quarterback by allowing the run to be the focal point of the Cowboys’ offense.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Joey Bosa
Bosa only played 12 games, but the difference he made to San Diego’s defense was too big to ignore. Through four weeks, the Chargers were 15th in defensive DVOA. They finished the season eighth, ranking sixth in adjusted line yards and finishing 16th in adjusted sack rate with Bosa’s 10.5 sacks making up 30 percent of the team’s overall sack production. Despite playing just 12 games, Bosa’s 21 QB hits led all rookies, per NFL GSIS, as did his 10.5 sacks. His 89.9 PFF grade was fifth among all edge rushers and led all defensive rookies. The immediate impact he had on the Chargers’ defense was massive. As soon as he started playing, San Diego started pressuring quarterbacks and causing trouble on opposing offensive lines. I am confident he will be a star for years to come and can say the same about no other defensive rookie.
Comeback Player of the Year: Jordy Nelson
This should be a slam dunk for Nelson, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, then came back this year with 97 receptions, 1,257 receiving yards and a league-leading 14 receiving TDs. I don’t like the existence of this award—rewarding the best player who was injured the year before is sort of bizarre—but as long as we have it, Nelson is the runaway winner.
All stats are from pro-football-reference.com, footballoutsiders.com or profootballfocus.com unless otherwise noted
It’s not easy to have an underwhelming blowout win in the second round on the playoffs, but the New England Patriots did just that on Saturday night. The Patriots were supposed to blow the Houston Texans away, but as the clock struck halftime, Houston was within four points and there was real worry within the stands at Gillette Stadium. The game was never in real danger—Brock Osweiler made sure of that—but even Bill Belichick acknowledged, “We have to play better, we have to coach better than we did tonight, or there won’t be much left in our season.”
In victory, the Patriots were sloppy. Tom Brady completed just 18 of 38 passes and threw two interceptions. Even some of the passes he completed—a 45-yarder to Chris Hogan and one for 26 to Julian Edelman among them—were less than tight spirals and needed receivers to make tough adjustments with the ball in the air. It was Brady’s worst game in a while and it came at the worst possible time. Moreover, it came against one of the few tough defenses New England has faced all year. Their schedule was the easiest in football according to Football Outsiders.
So, is all of this real reason for worry? Probably not. Football analysis is often rooted in overreaction, so let’s not cede to that here. The Patriots are still the team that ranked first in DVOA during the regular season, Tom Brady is still the best quarterback of all-time and Bill Belichick is still the best coach of all-time. Their run game is as good as ever—not only did LeGarrette Blount rush for 1,161 yards, but Dion Lewis is also starting to make plays after a previously quiet return from injury. Despite a special teams error on Saturday, Lewis looks more and more like the guy who terrorized opponents out of the backfield last season.
Houston was also the best defense remaining. Given the history of New England’s offensive line, it’s worrisome that the Texans hit Brady eight times, per NFL GSIS, and sacked him twice, but five of those hits were between Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. As good as James Harrison was on Sunday, the Steelers don’t have anyone on the level of either of those two players rushing the passer. In fact, Vic Beasley is probably the only player on any of the remaining teams who can reasonably claim to be on that level and the Patriots don’t have to worry about him. Pittsburgh is the best defense left (other than the Patriots themselves) and they have some issues of their own. No team can challenge New England’s offense in the same way Houston did.
Defensively, it’s a different story. Every mistake that Houston couldn’t take advantage of will be taken advantage of by Pittsburgh and, if they move on, Atlanta or Green Bay. Their margin for error is much smaller—a scary thought for Patriot fans given that New England was 26th in adjusted sack rate, 20th in DVOA against #1 receivers and 20th in pass defense DVOA against running backs.
All that being said, it doesn’t make much sense for the Patriots to worry beyond what would normally be warranted in the week leading up to the AFC title game. It’s telling that, as bad as they played, they covered a 16-point spread and the Texans still never really had a chance. Saturday simply served to remind us that the Patriots are mortal.
On to the games.
Championship Weekend Picks
Vegas Insider’s consensus lines are used. Home teams listed in CAPS.
FALCONS -4.5 over Packers: After last week, it’s fair to say that Aaron Rodgers is impossible—every time I’ve tried to talk about that throw this week, I’ve been reduced to a blubbering mess, stammering like King George VI, trying and failing to articulate just how incredible it was. The run that he’s on right now—six straight weeks of Green Bay scoring over 30 points, four straight with over 300 passing yards (the last two being over 350), 14 touchdown passes in his last four games and over eight yards per attempt in five of his last six games—is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The interception he threw on Sunday was his first since November 13. It’s just unbelievable and it probably won’t stop this week.
Atlanta finished 27th in regular season defensive DVOA; in weighted defensive DVOA they’re 21st after last week. The Falcons will get a boost with Jordy Nelson’s (presumed) absence, but the fact of the matter is that they don’t have much of an answer for Rodgers. Even with Vic Beasley’s league-leading 15.5 sacks, Atlanta still ranks just 24th in adjusted sack rate at 5.4 percent. Compare that to a Green Bay line that ranks 11th in adjusted sack rate and can match up Bryan Bulaga—whose 90.4 PFF pass blocking grade is fourth among tackles—with Beasley, and it looks like Rodgers is going to have the time he needs in the pocket. Left tackle David Bakhtiari, center Corey Linsley and right guard T.J. Lang are also strong pass blockers, though Bakhtiari and Lang may still be dealing with injuries suffered during Sunday’s game.
In the secondary, I think Atlanta some individual matchup advantages if Nelson is out. Despite overall defensive struggles, the Falcons were 9th and 10th in pass defense DVOA against #1 and 2 wideouts this year. We saw Randall Cobb struggle in a bigger role last season when Nelson was out for an extended period of time and Jalen Collins is a tough matchup on the outside. His 83.9 PFF grade is 17th among corners this season. Robert Alford and Brian Poole aren’t exactly easy pickings either. Jared Cook led the team in receiving yards last week, but if the Falcons are in man coverage, he’ll be going up against Deion Jones, a frontrunner for defensive rookie of the year. None of these edges are immense, but they add up. Rodgers can still tip the scales in Green Bay’s favor—especially with time in the pocket—but in a high-scoring game, every minor defensive advantage matters.
Atlanta’s run defense has been horrific all year, but relying on Ty Montgomery is antithetical to the Packers have done all year. Only once has Montgomery had over 11 carries in a game. The Packers’ margin for error would also be thinner in this situation. If the Falcons build up a 10-point lead, it’s hard to justify running the ball over giving it to Rodgers.
On the other side of the ball, Atlanta is well equipped to take advantage of Green Bay’s cornerback troubles. The Packers are 28th in DVOA against #1 wideouts and 29th against #2 wideouts and those numbers include games from before their entire secondary got hurt. Green Bay may not be able to survive on the inevitable snaps where Julio Jones is matched up against Damarious Randall—or Micah Hyde if Atlanta decides to put him in the slot. Toss Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu into that mix and things could get downright ugly. Ladarius Gunter is the only reliable cornerback in Green Bay’s secondary right now and even he’s on thin ice with a middling 71.9 PFF coverage grade. The Packers can lean on their safeties if the Falcons go deep, but Atlanta has thrived on screens to Gabriel and the dual-threat running back combination of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Jones will also find enough space on relatively short slant or comeback routes to wreak havoc.
Rodgers has outplayed Matt Ryan over the past 10 weeks or so, but don’t underestimate Ryan. Deserving or not, he’ll probably be the MVP and Dallas nearly beat Green Bay last week with Dak Prescott—a markedly worse quarterback than Ryan. Even with Rodgers playing as impossibly well as he’s playing, Ryan is good enough that this game will come down to factors other than the Packers’ advantage at quarterback. And Atlanta’s wide receivers have significantly better matchups than Green Bay’s.
Moreover, Ryan will likely have time to work in the pocket as well. Chris Chester is a concern at right guard, but Alex Mack and Ryan Schraeder, both of whom have strong All-Pro cases, flank him and Green Bay’s best pass rushers—Nick Perry, Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews—all play on the outside. I’d bet on Perry picking up one or two pressures against Jake Matthews, who allowed a sack to Michael Bennett last week, but it’s a longshot to suggest that there will be any sort of constant pressure on Matt Ryan.
The Falcons also have a better chance at running the ball than Green Bay. Mike Daniels is a scary-good run defender, but Mack and Andy Levitre are both strong run blockers. Couple that with the fact that Atlanta runs the ball to the middle just 42 percent of the time. Ironically, the only team that goes there less is the Packers. If Green Bay succeeds in shutting off the middle—a tough proposition given that the Falcons are 4th in adjusted line yards in that area—Atlanta can just go to the left or right tackle, where they rank 10th and 4th in adjusted line yards, respectively.
Aaron Rodgers is the best player in this game—both the game on Sunday and the entire game of football. But one player can only take a team so far. Atlanta has advantages everywhere else and at a certain point, there’s only so much Rodgers can do.
PATRIOTS -6 over Steelers: As far as I’m concerned, this has been New England’s title to win from Day 1. The Patriots are the best team in football by DVOA and weighted DVOA, Tom Brady should win the MVP, their offense is among the best in football—even without Rob Gronkowski—and their defense is arguably the best remaining.
Brady didn’t look himself last week, but let’s not get carried away. He posted the highest ever PFF QB grade, 99.3 during the regular season and 98.6 including the playoffs. He was fifth in DYAR, second in DVOA and QBR, led the league in interception percentage and so on. With Patriots-Texans being the least interesting game of last weekend and Aaron Rodgers (rightfully) receiving all the hype possible, it’s easy to forget that Brady is still there. It’s also easy to forget just how lopsided this quarterback matchup is. Take a look at these numbers.
QB 1 on the road: 8 games, 1904 yds, 9 TDs, 8 INTs, 78.4 passer rating, 59.36 completion percentage, 6.73 yds/attempt
QB 2 on the road: 8 games, 1910 yds, 13 TDs, 7 INTs, 81.2 passer rating, 58.17 completion percentage, 6.24 yds/attempt
QB 1 is Roethlisberger. QB 2 is Blake Bortles. This week, on the road again, Roethlisberger didn’t exactly inspire confidence that the split was just an aberration either. He couldn’t seem to complete a pass inside Kansas City’s 30-yard line and the two biggest throws of the game—a 52-yarder to Antonio Brown and the 3rd & 3 conversion that sealed the game (also to Brown) came because linebacker Justin Houston was somehow covering the star wideout. The fact of the matter is that we can’t trust Ben Roethlisberger right now.
The Steelers also can’t trust any receiver whose first name isn’t Antonio and whose last name isn’t Brown. During the playoffs, Eli Rogers has just six catches for 46 yards. Cobi Hamilton has two for 14, Darrius Heyward-Bey has one for 10, Sammie Coates has none and tight end Jesse James has six for 89. It’s worth noting, however, that the bulk of James’ production was against Kansas City, a team that struggles to cover tight ends. Against New England, this lack of depth is a death sentence. Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia will be content to key in on Brown and the run game, leaving Logan Ryan and Eric Rowe, both good corners, to cover the other two receivers one-on-one. With Malcolm Butler, recipient of a 90.2 PFF grade, matched up against Brown, things are already tougher than usual for the star wideout. Remember, when the Chiefs didn’t mess up their coverage last week, Brown was relatively quiet. Take away that 52-yarder—a mistake that, if New England made it, would cause Bill Belichick to spontaneously combust on the sideline—and Brown had just five catches for 56 yards. If the Patriots can even limit Brown to 100 yards—nearly double that—the only place the Steelers will have a real advantage offensively is in the run game.
Make no mistake; the Steelers will be able to run the ball down New England’s throat. Even if Belichick throws eight-man boxes at Pittsburgh with regularity, the Steelers’ advantage up front may be insurmountable. The Patriots were good at run defense during the season—they finished fourth in run defense DVOA—but every place you look along the line, the Steelers have the edge. Not only did the Steelers rank inside the top-5 in virtually every run-blocking category, they were immaculate in PFF grading. The lowest graded player on their line, Alejandro Villanueva, finished with an 82.3, good enough for 24th among tackles. Not to mention the fact that what Le’Veon Bell is doing in the running game is roughly equivalent to what Aaron Rodgers is doing in the passing game. Bell’s patience, the way he practically teleports through holes that don’t seem to exist, is unprecedented. The Patriots can hope to slow him down—with Jabaal Sheard, Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and Chris Long, their four-man front isn’t half-bad at this whole run defense thing—but they can’t hope to stop him.
Perhaps New England’s best antidote to Bell is to be aggressive on offense early on and force Pittsburgh to move away from the run. It’s certainly not out of the question that the Patriots can find themselves up 10-0 by the end of the first quarter and dictate things from there. The Steelers’ defense has played well during the playoffs, but this has been an inconsistent group all year and facing Tom Brady is a hell of a lot tougher than facing Alex Smith or Matt Moore.
The Steelers, despite playing well at times, still finished 32nd in DVOA against #1 wideouts. In this particular matchup, the fact that Julian Edelman normally lines up in the slot muddies that stat a bit—slot corner William Gay was a bright spot for the Steelers—but the Patriots are going to be aggressive on the outside. Chris Hogan can beat up on the likes of Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns. If Michael Floyd gets on the same page as Brady—far from a guarantee—so can he. There’s also the issue of Martellus Bennett—every team struggles to match up with the tight end and the Steelers may not do much better.
Unless James Harrison can duplicate his effort last week, it’s tough to see Pittsburgh’s pass rush doing much either. Nate Solder will be a much tougher matchup for the 38-year old than Eric Fisher was last week—he’s a key part of a New England line that finished sixth in adjusted sack rate. The Steelers’ pass rush lagged this season, ranking a mediocre 19th in adjusted sack rate. Bud Dupree and Stephon Tuitt are among the Steelers’ most productive rushers, but Marcus Cannon has an 87.2 PFF grade at right tackle and while Tuitt may have an advantage over Joe Thuney, it’s marginal at best.
New England can run the ball as well, especially with Dion Lewis taking a bigger role. Lewis averaged 4.4 yards per carry during the regular season and the Patriots can win up front in the run game. More importantly, he’s a threat in the receiving game. The Steelers were 19th in pass defense DVOA against running backs and none of their linebackers are trustworthy in coverage. Expect Lewis—or James White—get free on a wheel route at some point.
It’s also worth remembering that as sloppy as Pittsburgh’s defense has been at times, the red zone has always been their calling card. Per Football Outsiders’ premium stats, they’re fourth in red zone defense DVOA. New England is eighth in red zone offense DVOA, but when you look at the splits further, their advantage becomes clear. The reason the Patriots don’t rank higher in the category is an abysmal red zone rushing DVOA. When you just look at passing — New England threw 356 times in the red zone compared to 104 rushing attempts—the Patriots have a dominant 60.9 percent DVOA. If the Steelers’ defense can’t win in the red zone, the Steelers cannot win this game.
Put simply, the Patriots are a significantly better football team than the Steelers. Pittsburgh may keep it competitive, but I expect a New England victory of 10 points or more.
Last Week: 3-1-0
 Is James Harrison’s (probable) PED use going to be the elephant in the room as long as he’s still playing? Has there been a more obvious usage of PEDs in the post-Mitchell Report era? It’s like he put no effort into hiding it, almost as if the NFL’s drug testing program is antiquated and practically invites players to use PEDs to compensate for the immense wear-and-tear football puts on their bodies. This is a massive scandal waiting to happen.
Over the last six weeks of the regular season, Aaron Rodgers threw exactly 200 passes, completing 142 of them, or 71 percent. Over the same period, Sam Bradford finished off a record-setting season in completion percentage, finishing with 71.6. The difference? Bradford averaged seven yards per attempt for the season; Rodgers averaged 8.34 for those games, a number he bested in the wild card round, when he averaged 9.05 per attempt in bitterly cold weather against a secondary considered by many to be among the league’s best.
When Rodgers is going—as he is now—he doesn’t just give the Green Bay Packers a chance to win against any opponent, he gives them a chance to curb-stomp the entire league. Green Bay lacks a running game and its defense ranks 23rd in weighted DVOA, yet no team in its right mind wants to see the Packers walking through their doors. No matter how good your pass rush, Rodgers can evade it by performing Fred Astaire’s tap dancing routine, stepping up, then back, then wheeling around to a side, then resetting to find the inevitably open receiver. No matter how good your secondary, Rodgers will beat it by finding the smallest hole and exploiting it until the rest of the defense gushes like Niagara Falls. What is a Hail Mary to the other 31 starting quarterbacks in the league is as simple as a 3-yard slant to Rodgers. His game is so elegant that it almost feels out-of-place for Troy Aikman or Cris Collinsworth to broadcast Packers games. Perhaps FOX should consider putting Clyde Frazier in the booth instead.
So, how do you stop—or even fathom stopping—the unstoppable force? Well, opposing defenses have been handed a gift in Jordy Nelson’s injury. Nelson isn’t just Rodgers’ most-trusted target; he’s also the only Packer receiver to have success consistently over the past few years. Though Green Bay managed fine without him in the second half last week, Nelson’s absence was a key factor in the offense’s stagnation for much of last season. Mike McCarthy has built the offense in such a way that things only get creative if necessary. The offense itself isn’t tough to prepare for, and without Nelson, Randall Cobb has to carry the load. Despite that, opposing defenses still have to play at a near-perfect level to best Rodgers. This week, the key for Dallas is its pass rush. If they can’t frequently pressure Rodgers with 4-man rushes and keep a strong contain, preventing him from moving around in the pocket, the secondary’s going to break down eventually.
There’s also the necessity to play at that high level for all 60 minutes. The Giants played as well as you could ask them to play for 29 minutes on Sunday. Then, they gave up a Hail Mary, went into the locker room demoralized, and came out looking half-dead. Make any mistake, let up for just a second, and Rodgers will make you pay.
On to the games.
Divisional Round Picks
Vegas Insider’s consensus lines are used. Home teams listed in CAPS.
FALCONS -5 over Seahawks: The Seahawks are a flawed football team and it’s going to show in this game. They adjusted some parts of their running game last round to compensate, but the fact of the matter is that the success of those adjustments has more to do with Detroit’s defensive line than any sudden improvements on Seattle’s end. If they keep those adjustments—and there’s no reason not to—there’s still going to be a lot of dependence on Thomas Rawls to create space for himself in the run game. Grady Jarrett has played good run defense up the middle all year for Atlanta, though the rest of their line has to play better than usual. That being said, for everything Vic Beasley or Brooks Reed lacks in run defense, George Fant and Garry Gilliam lack in run blocking ability.
Seattle has a chance to win in run blocking, but in pass blocking, the field is tilted against them. If the rest of the season is any indication, Vic Beasley is going to eat Gilliam’s lunch and I don’t love George Fant and Germain Ifedi’s chances against Dwight Freeney and Jarrett either. The Seahawks do have advantages over Atlanta’s secondary, but those advantages are narrow. The Falcons are 9th and 10th in DVOA against #1 and #2 receivers, but Doug Baldwin has to like his chances in the slot against Brian Poole. And despite Deion Jones’ success in coverage—Atlanta is 11th in DVOA against tight ends—Jimmy Graham may be too much for the rookie to handle.
However, the offensive line is going to be such an issue in pass protection that Russell Wilson may not have enough time to find any of these receivers with consistency. Sure, Wilson is capable of extending plays and creating things with his feet, but he’s been much more of a pocket passer this year, with just 72 rush attempts (down from 103 last year) and an ankle injury that has slowed his movement. Wilson got rid of his brace last week, but I wouldn’t expect a ton of zone reads or scrambling given that, over the past two weeks, Wilson has just five rushes for one yard.
On the other side of the ball, the Falcons can expose Seattle’s post-Earl Thomas defense in a way Detroit just couldn’t. Matthew Stafford’s finger had a much larger effect on his play than I realized, but no such impediment exists for Matt Ryan, who is currently the favorite to win the MVP. Their pass defense has been leaky at best since Thomas’ injury and now they have to stop Julio Jones. Seattle is an average team against #1 receivers according to DVOA, and Jones went for 139 yards the first time these two teams played (before Thomas’ injury). Presuming Richard Sherman follows Jones—something he’s done more over the past two years—Seattle will constantly be struggling to match up with Taylor Gabriel. Gabriel ranks first among receivers in DVOA and 24th in DYAR—DeShawn Shead is going to struggle against him.
I suspect the Seahawks will do a nice job combating Atlanta’s run game as they’ve been among the top teams in run defense all year, but I don’t see them getting much pressure on Matt Ryan. Ryan Schraeder’s 87.2 PFF grade is 12th among tackles, which represents one of the toughest matchups Cliff Avril has had all year. It’s going to be most interesting to see what Atlanta does against Michael Bennett, but I suspect we’ll see Alex Mack and Andy Levitre double him on most plays. This would leave Jake Matthews alone on the edge against Frank Clark, but that prospect is likely better than having Bennett work against just one lineman on the bulk of his snaps. If that plan holds up—and I think it will—Ryan will have all the time he needs to work the ball downfield.
I don’t have a ton of faith in Atlanta’s defense, but it should be good enough to hold up here—especially if the offense is giving it a lead to work with. This could stay close, but I expect the Falcons to set the pace and keep it throughout.
PATRIOTS -16 over Texans: The silver lining of this game is that we don’t have to watch Connor Cook again. The downside is that the Texans don’t have much better of a chance than Oakland would have. Houston wins games with dominant defensive performances and an offense that does just enough, but neither of those things are feasible against the Patriots. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, their two best players against Oakland, face infinitely tougher matchups this week. Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon are both top-10 tackles by PFF grading and the Patriots are sixth in adjusted sack rate.
Perhaps the only matchup that looks good for Houston’s defense is A.J. Bouye against either of New England’s outside receivers, but even that comes with the caveat that Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett aren’t playing from the outside. Neither is Dion Lewis, and the Texans are 29th in pass defense DVOA against running backs.
Moreover, the Patriots are seventh in special teams DVOA; Houston is 32nd. Special teams was a key factor in New England’s beat down of Houston back in Week 3, when the Jacoby Brissett embarrassed the Texans in primetime. Now, the Texans won’t be ceding field position to Jacoby Brissett, they’ll be seeding field position to a white-hot Tom Brady.
With Brock Osweiler under center, I don’t see how they can compete with Brady and co. Houston’s run game has struggled all year—it ranks 27th in DVOA—and the Texans may have to abandon the run early on anyway. Force Osweiler to make plays—especially against a tough secondary featuring Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Devin McCourty—and he turns into a blubbering mess of interceptions and inaccurate passes. Throw in an underrated pass rush—Trey Flowers has seven sacks and 14 hits this year, per NFL GSIS, and Chris Long hasn’t been half-bad either—and I just can’t see how Houston can even fathom moving the ball with any kind of consistency. If the Patriots are the Super Bowl contender they’ve looked like all year, this game is going to be over by halftime.
CHIEFS -1.5 over Steelers: The Chiefs remain the only team in the AFC that can challenge New England for supremacy and I love them against Pittsburgh this week. Their biggest obstacle on Sunday is going to be Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers’ running back has been immaculate at times this year—every time you think he’s being tackled for a loss, he practically teleports forward. Kansas City’s run defense is their biggest issue defensively—they rank 26th in run defense DVOA—and Bell will get his keep on Sunday. However, Justin Houston’s presence will at least make things tougher for the running back and ultimately, the Steelers still need to throw the ball and the Chiefs are more than capable on that front.
Kansas City ranks seventh in pass defense DVOA and their secondary presents problems for a Steelers’ receiving corps without much depth beyond Antonio Brown. Of course, Brown himself has to be covered as well, but Marcus Peters has proven himself able to match up against the league’s best. Even so, the Chiefs will need their safeties and linebackers to act as impenetrable safety nets when Brown inevitably finds space. Eric Berry, Ron Parker, Ramik Wilson and Daniel Sorensen are arguably the most important players in the game for this reason, but there’s reason to believe they’re up to the task. Berry and Parker form one of the best safety tandems in the league, Wilson has filled the Chiefs’ inside linebacker gap as well as anyone could have hoped—his 82.2 PFF grade ranks 20th at the position—and Sorensen has turned into a playmaker at the dime back position.
There’s also the elephant in the room: Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been playing all that well of late. It’s not just the interceptions, though he’s thrown seven in his last four games, it’s also plays the defense isn’t making. The Dolphins dropped more than one pick on Sunday early enough in the game that things may have changed as a result. Even as the Steelers romped to a 14-0 lead, it had more to do with Brown’s yardage after the catch then the relatively easy throws Roethlisberger was making. Kansas City’s defense isn’t going to wilt in the pathetic manner Miami’s did—it’s going to be a lot tougher to get big plays against them. Even if they can run the ball, the Steelers are going to have trouble in the passing game.
Couple this with a disadvantage in special teams and there’s major trouble on the horizon for Pittsburgh. The Chiefs rank second in special teams DVOA and the Steelers are exactly league average. That spells a field position disadvantage that becomes all too important if Pittsburgh can’t make their trademark big plays in the passing game.
On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s defense may be outmatched. No team has had an answer for Tyreek Hill yet and I don’t suspect the Steelers—whose slot corner, William Gay, is 32 years old—will be the first to keep up with Hill’s blazing speed. There’s also the issue of Travis Kelce. The Chiefs have been more aggressive (though still not to the degree I’d like) in letting Kelce run free over the seam this year. Pittsburgh has matched up fine against tight ends this year, but they don’t have anyone with the physical ability to keep pace with Kelce—especially in the red zone, where their defense has thrived.
The Chiefs’ offensive line, while not star-studded or awe-inspiring like, say, Dallas, has been a consistent, steady presence all year, not unlike Alex Smith. Pittsburgh’s defensive line ranks 19th in adjusted sack rate and a middling 14th in adjusted line yards. Don’t expect them to win up front either. In fact, those matchups could spell a good game for Spencer Ware, whose inconsistency has been one of the most frustrating parts of Kansas City’s year. Throw in Alex Smith’s heightened aggressiveness—his ALEX is 0.4 this year!—and the Chiefs are able to attack Pittsburgh all over the field. That defense has weak spots—Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns aren’t particularly reliable on the outside and Lawrence Timmons is a flat-out liability in coverage at this point in his career.
Don’t be fooled by Pittsburgh’s victory last week over a backup quarterback and a Miami team that felt lucky to be playing January football. There are cracks in the façade—and the Chiefs are going to bring the whole thing down.
Packers +4.5 over COWBOYS: The Cowboys’ defense has been the biggest question surrounding the team all year, but no one has been able to expose it. Despite Dallas ranking a middling 17th in defensive DVOA, just one team—the Steelers—has scored 30 points on them all year. That is going to change on Sunday.
The simple fact of the matter is that no team is slowing down Aaron Rodgers right now. Whether Jordy Nelson plays or not—and I don’t think he will—Rodgers is just too good. The Giants threw different looks at him, played airtight coverage and stopped the run. It worked for 29 minutes before the floodgates opened and Rodgers nearly hung 40 on the league’s second-best defense by DVOA. Dallas’ secondary is the best part of its defense not named Sean Lee. With Nelson likely out, there isn’t a matchup they shouldn’t win in the secondary. But Rodgers is just too good.
He’s going to have time in the pocket—Green Bay has matchup advantages across the board on the offensive line, most consequentially at right guard where T.J. Lang should be able to handle David Irving—which means he’s going to create. If Green Bay can win at the line of scrimmage, it’s going to open up their run game as well, forcing Dallas to play a dangerous game with its linebackers. One mistake from Anthony Hitchens or Damien Wilson and Rodgers is going to pounce.
Dallas is going to move the ball as well, just as they have all year—including against the Packers. Green Bay’s injury problem at cornerback isn’t going away anytime soon and they just cannot slow down players like Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley. Damarious Randall has struggled all year—his PFF grade is a miserable 43.9—and Micah Hyde is ill equipped to play in the slot. Don’t expect a pass rush either. Green Bay ranks sixth in adjusted sack rate, but you can count the times Dallas allows pressure on one hand. The Packers’ best chance is to have Julius Peppers rushing off the defensive left—against Doug Free—on the occasional third down, but any sort of regular pressure isn’t happening with a 4-man rush. I doubt the Packers blitz much either given their cornerback situation.
Ezekiel Elliott is going to have his usual holes to run through as well. Mike Daniels may be able to get inside against Ronald Leary, but Dallas can run in any direction with great success. They rank sixth in adjusted line yards running to the left end, second running to the middle, sixth running to the right tackle and 10th to the right end. To stop the run against them, you need to be able to plug every gap—not just one or two—and the Packers cannot do that.
I think this is going to be the closest game of the weekend. Both teams are going to move the ball and either one of them could end up winning. I’m not sure who that’s going to be, but I am sure that this is going to be close.
Last Week: 2-2-0
All stats are from pro-football-reference.com, footballoutsiders.com or profootballfocus.com unless otherwise noted.
I decided to forego an intro in favor of going deep on each of the games. I don’t know whether I’ll keep doing it for the rest of the playoffs or not, but I felt it made sense to try it in wild card round.
Wild Card Picks
Vegas Insider’s consensus lines used. Home teams listed in CAPS.
TEXANS -3.5 over Raiders: I won’t claim to have gone through every playoff game in NFL history, but this has to be the worst quarterback matchup of them all. Connor Cook, making his first career start after a discouraging relief appearance in Denver, versus Brock Osweiler, benched in Week 15 for being generally terrible. Somehow, Osweiler—who has featured in a Ringer article last month about the best playoff QBs to bet against of all-time—is the favorite, and the pick.
Here’s my logic in this. When the quarterback matchup is that bad, you might as well throw it out the window and pick the game based on everything else. Neither team is going to do much in throwing the ball, but it’s easier to judge what little passing game each team will have by their offensive lines, receivers, coaches and opposing defenses.
With the latter category in mind, I just don’t see how the Raiders can move the ball. Not that Houston will have an easy time doing so, but Oakland is throwing a rookie into his first ever NFL start against a defense that ranks seventh in DVOA and eighth in weighted DVOA. Moreover, the Raiders have been dependent on the passing game this year to win. Derek Carr was in the MVP conversation before getting hurt and their two most dynamic skill players are receivers. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree can still make plays, but one of them has to match up with A.J. Bouye, recipient of a 90.9 PFF grade this season, the fourth-best mark in the league at the position. Robert Nelson may be an issue for Houston on the other side, but whether or not Oakland can take advantage is another question entirely. If they go with a healthy dose of screens—which they likely will given that Connor Cook has never started an NFL game—the Texans will be ready. As bad as Bill O’Brien has been as their head coach, Romeo Crennel has done a nice job as defensive coordinator and it doesn’t take a genius to know that the Texans will be loading the box throughout, daring the rookie to throw more than two or three yards downfield. Cook will have an advantage in his offensive line, which leads the league in adjusted sack rate, but it won’t come as a surprise if he gets jittery at the first signs of pressure. And even with that offensive line, it won’t be easy to stop Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney, who have 13.5 sacks and 39 QB hits combined this season, per NFL GSIS—especially if the Texans move around chess pieces to match one of them up with Austin Howard, whose 70.0 PFF grade is significantly lower than his compatriots’.
If Oakland decides to lean on the run, they’ll be depending on that offensive line to win them the game. Even behind Donald Penn, Kelechi Osemele and Rodney Hudson, running the ball into an eight-man box for an entire game probably isn’t the best way to win. Houston has also done a nice job defending runs to the left side—they rank 13th in adjusted line yards against runs to the left end and fifth on runs to the left tackle.
On the other side of the ball, Brock Osweiler will handicap Houston, but we already know that they can compete with the NFL’s version of Josh Smith. Sure, their schedule wasn’t tough and they feasted on the godawful AFC South, but is Oakland much better than the Indianapolis Colts right now? Without Carr under center, probably not. The Raiders finished 21st in weighted defensive DVOA—which seems high given how bad they were for the first part of the season—and ranked a putrid 25th in pass defense DVOA. It’ll likely be Sean Smith matching up against DeAndre Hopkins; a matchup that may not go as well as it did the first time these two teams met. Though Oakland’s sole strength in the secondary has come against #1 receivers, Osweiler (and Tom Savage before him) went out of his way to target Hopkins in Week 17. For all their mishaps, the Texans seem to have finally recognized that they should be utilizing one of the best receivers in football with more consistency. Oakland also has to deal with C.J. Fiedorowicz at tight end, a position they have struggled to cover, and Houston’s Bag of Talented Receivers that Still Need to Figure Stuff Out. Khalil Mack can pressure Osweiler, but subtract his eleven sacks and the Raiders have just 14 total. Without a Von Miller-esque performance from Mack (which isn’t out of the question), he won’t make the difference in this game.
Houston also has a decidedly better chance of running the ball. Oakland may stack the box as well, but they will do so with less consistency against a quarterback who, at the very least, has played a couple seasons in the NFL. Lamar Miller is expected to return from an ankle injury as well and despite being an overall disappointment, cam contribute. The first time around against the Raiders, Miller ran for 104 yards, his fourth-best game of the year.
Perhaps the only areas where Oakland can claim advantages are special teams and coaching. Oakland is 11th in special teams; Houston is 32nd, so field position may favor the silver and black if Houston proves unsuccessful in moving the ball. On the sidelines, I don’t think anyone other than Bill O’Brien’s parents will dispute that Jack Del Rio has been a decidedly better coach this season.
Those two factors, however, are nowhere near enough to win the Raiders a playoff game on the road. Before Connor Cook was forced into the starting job, they were dependent on the passing game to win. Now, without it, they don’t have a chance.
Lions +8 over SEAHAWKS: This pick came down to one stat for me. Per Sheil Kapadia, the Seahawks pass defense is 30th in DVOA since Earl Thomas broke his leg. The thing about playoff football is that the smallest hole in your team is going to be exposed. The team that can expose the opposition’s weakness better is probably going to win. In Super Bowl 50, the Broncos won because they exposed Mike Remmers and the Panthers couldn’t expose Peyton Manning. In Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots mercilessly went after Tharold Simon after Jeremy Lane broke his leg early in the game. If those little flaws made big differences, then glaring flaws decide games and without Earl Thomas, the Seahawks have two glaring, ugly flaws.
The first, obviously, is their pass defense. They just haven’t figured out how to compensate for everything Thomas does—the Lions can attack them deep without fear of the repercussions that come with throwing at the best safety in the league. Matthew Stafford hasn’t been as aggressive, or generally good at football, since hurting his middle finger, but Detroit has a deep cast of receivers. Golden Tate, Anquan Boldin and Marvin Jones are going to get open against this defense and Stafford is going to find them eventually.
Seattle will likely pressure Stafford to some extent, but to what extent depends a lot on Travis Swanson’s status. If the center can return from a concussion, he and Taylor Decker can help out Laken Tomlinson enough to at least slow down Michael Bennett. Riley Reiff makes you nervous at right tackle, but it’s more likely he makes one or two errors than being a liability throughout the game. The Lions probably won’t find much success running the ball, but neither will their counterparts. As long as Stafford’s finger isn’t the same crippling issue as Carson Palmer’s a year ago, Detroit will be able to move the ball.
Seattle’s second major issue their offensive line, which has been unbelievably bad. Only one of their five starters has a PFF grade over 50, they rank 26th in adjusted line yards, 27th in power success, 30th in stuff rate and 25th in adjusted sack rate. The line has singlehandedly neutered their run game, which has dropped to 23rd in DVOA, and handicapped their passing attack. Detroit’s defensive line is an issue of its own, but even they can likely find success at the line of scrimmage. Ziggy Ansah’s play has picked up in recent weeks with both of his two sacks coming in the last three games, and Kerry Hyder has been a consistent presence on the edge this year.
However, Detroit’s defense is the most convincing argument against them. It ranks dead last in DVOA and pass defense, a bad sign when they have to go into Seattle and face Russell Wilson. They don’t have an answer to Doug Baldwin—even with Darius Slay healthy, he hasn’t been the same player this year—never mind Jimmy Graham. Detroit has allowed a 23.1 percent DVOA to opposing tight ends this season and that number won’t improve against the player ranked second in DYAR at the position.
The Seahawks also have a clear advantage at quarterback in Wilson. He’s thrown for over 4,200 yards and 21 touchdowns and has capabilities in the pocket that allow him to stand a chance with such a disastrous offensive line. Stafford has had a great season, but the finger injury looms over every throw he makes. It’s also worth noting that the Lions have been extremely dependent on winning close games, something that typically regresses.
Seattle’s offensive line and pass defense will allow Detroit to stay in it—and cover—but the Seahawks should still win the game.
Dolphins +10 over STEELERS: Matt Moore is not a good quarterback. In three starts, he has yet to throw for over 240 yards or make any plays of note, which doesn’t inspire confidence in a playoff game on the road. However, he has been adequate.
The Dolphins don’t depend on their quarterback to make tough throws downfield. Much of their passing game comes from screens and short throws designed to get Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker in space for yardage after the catch and Matt Moore can perform that relatively simple duty. Miami doesn’t need a big game from him; if they keep this game close, it will be because they run the ball and play good defense and both of those things are doable here.
Jay Ajayi finished the year seventh in DYAR and yards per attempt, fourth in rushing yards and first in PFF grading among running backs. The man is an absolute monster—he sheds tacklers in a way reminiscent of Marshawn Lynch. The first time these teams played, he was arguably the deciding factor, rushing for 204 yards and 8.16 per carry. He may not be the deciding factor in the game—I don’t think Miami is winning this one—but he will be the deciding factor against the spread.
While I generally believe in numbers, they have overrated Pittsburgh’s defense. They’ve been overly dependent on red zone defense—an area where they rank fourth in DVOA, per Football Outsiders’ premium data—which has compensated for the rest of their defense. That evens out over a long period and furthermore, Miami has been equally immaculate in the red zone on offense.
Other than Moore—who I don’t consider a liability so much as a neutral piece of their offense—the only area of concern for Miami’s offense is the line. Brandon Albert has struggled all year at left tackle and the team is 22nd in adjusted sack rate. With Moore under center, the Dolphins need to get the ball out quickly, but they’ve done that all year. They can do it here as well—Adam Gase has adjusted well in the wake of Ryan Tannehill’s injury and much of that was already in the scheme.
Defensively, Miami has a challenge on its hands, but they are capable of slowing down the Steelers enough to eke out a cover. Part of that formula is going to be running the ball well on offense and keeping the defense off the field, but while Vance Joseph’s unit is on the field, they need to win at the line of scrimmage.
Miami’s pass defense needs to play well because things are not looking up for their run defense—they rank 22nd in run defense DVOA—but Suh has a solid 85.9 run defense grade from PFF. There are some tough matchups as well—Pittsburgh’s entire offensive line has PFF grades above 80. In short, Le’Veon Bell is going to have a nice day on Sunday. However, good pass defense is something we’ve seen out of Miami all year.
Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake are going to wreak havoc no matter how good the offensive line is. Wake has a clear advantage against Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle while Suh will have a tougher game going up against David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey in the middle of the line, but both have done it against tough opposition before. Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge for Miami’s defense is containing Antonio Brown.
There’s no way to completely stop Brown, but the Dolphins did a nice job throwing blitzes at Pittsburgh and Byron Maxwell played just well enough in coverage to contain him back in Week 6. Maxwell is questionable this week; it would be a big boost to the Dolphins if he plays and does a similar job. With a slowed-down version of Brown, the Steelers’ passing game isn’t much. Ben Roethlisberger can conjure up a few deep balls, but Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates don’t make for an intimidating group of receivers.
The Steelers will almost certainly win this game outright—the difference in quarterbacks alone is likely too much for Miami to compensate for—but the Dolphins can keep it interesting. If they can play ball-control, string together a few drives and cover Brown adequately, they’re going to cover.
PACKERS -4.5 over Giants: This is not the 2007 or 2011 Giants. Going into a chilly Lambeau Field and beating one of the best quarterbacks this game has ever seen is not something they are capable of doing.
New York’s defense is very good, but it is decidedly not great. Much of their strength comes in run defense—where Damon Harrison has arguably been the best in football this year—but stopping the run doesn’t get you far against the Packers. Ty Montgomery has been productive since being given the running back job, but his success is more a luxury than a necessity for the Packers. During Green Bay’s winning streak, dating back to Week 12, Montgomery only has one game of over 100 yards. That game, Week 15 against the Bears, is also the only game in which he received 10 or more carries.
The Giants may be able to muster a pass rush, but it won’t be as easy as in other games. Olivier Vernon has to go up against David Bakhtiari, whose 90.8 PFF grade is third among tackles, while Jason Pierre-Paul hasn’t played since Week 13 and is questionable to play on Sunday. Even if he does, his success is far from a guarantee—he’ll be returning from a hernia in a tough environment and going up against Bryan Bulaga. Harrison has been much more of a run stopper than pass rushing presence—understandable given his position—while Johnathan Hankins has struggled as a three-tech this year. Romeo Okwara has had some nice moments in Pierre-Paul’s absence, but overall his rookie season is inconsistent at best.
Janoris Jenkins needs to have the best game of what is arguably an All-Pro season as well and shut down Jordy Nelson if the Giants are going to cover, or win. Both players are coming into Sunday red-hot—Nelson has been as pivotal as any player sans-Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay’s turnaround while Jenkins is a pivotal cog in New York’s revamped defense—but Nelson has the insurmountable advantage of Rodgers throwing the football. Beyond Nelson, it’s unlikely that Geronimo Allison sees as much action as the past few weeks in a significantly tougher matchup, but Eli Apple has been shaky at times. I like Davante Adams’ chances of getting free against him once or twice and I think Rodgers will take advantage.
When Rodgers is under center and the offense is clicking, it’s near impossible to doubt Green Bay. #12 is like a magician—not a David Blaine who entombed himself in a 3-ton water-filled tank for seven days as an illusion, but a literal magician who walks through walls and levitates off the ground. There’s no player in the history of football that does the things that Rodgers can do at his best—and he’s there right now. It doesn’t matter if Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Landon Collins—three arguable All-Pros—are patrolling the secondary. The Giants may be able to slow Rodgers down, but they sure as hell can’t stop him.
To keep this game interesting, the Giants need to provide some semblance of offense, which they have not done all season. Not once did they reach 30 points in a game—for reference, the Jets and Jaguars both did so more than once. The run game looks better with Paul Perkins than Rashad Jennings, but the fact of the matter is that the Giants are 26th in rushing DVOA—they aren’t going to be successful doing it in the playoffs no matter who’s carrying the ball. It doesn’t help that Mike Daniels has anchored the Packers to a top-10 finish in adjusted line yards either.
If the Giants are going to move the ball, it has to be on the initiative of Eli Manning and the passing game, a proposition that has become almost laughable in recent weeks, as the quarterback has descended into a preview of what Giants fans have feared the team will become post-Eli. The one potential saving grace for New York is Green Bay’s stunning lack of cornerback depth. Sam Shields and Demetri Goodson are long gone, having been placed on IR; Quinten Rollins suffered a concussion last week and is doubtful for Sunday while Damarious Randall and Makinton Dorleant are both questionable with knee injuries. If Randall is out, Green Bay will be depending on Lardarius Gunter and Dorleant—who has played a grand total of five snaps this season—to cover the outside and a Player to Be Named Later (probably Micah Hyde) to cover the slot.
For Odell Beckham Jr., it’s as if Christmas came for the second time in three weeks. The star wideout will be swimming in open space on Sunday—and Sterling Shepard won’t be too far behind in the proverbial Olympic-sized pool. Whether or not the Giants can take advantage with enough regularity to keep up with Rodgers is another matter altogether.
Eli Manning needs to play his best game of the year—by far—if the Giants are to compete. I don’t think he’ll be under much pressure—Nick Perry and Julius Peppers will likely get inside a few times against Ereck Flowers, but the rest of the line has held up well in pass protection this season and Green Bay’s pass rush isn’t notable.
The Giants will keep it interesting—it may be close or tied going into the fourth quarter—but I expect Green Bay to pull away, into the next round. There’s a certain point Aaron Rodgers reaches sometimes where betting against him is like tossing money in the garbage and we’re at that point.
Last Week: 9-7-0
Regular Season: 131-118-7 (.526)
 The over/under for this game has been 36.5 and I don’t know how anybody in their right mind bets on it in either direction.
 I’m trying out this nickname for Will Fuller, Jaelen Strong and Braxton Miller.
 Somehow, Tom Cable’s name is coming up yet again as a potential head coach. Let me make clear that it isn’t a hot take in any sense of the word to say that he has been horrible as Seattle’s offensive line coach. His reckless experimenting in trying to turn non-offensive linemen into offensive linemen has gone just as badly as one might expect. Giving him a head coaching job is like letting Charles Manson do police work.
 Recent reports indicate that Tannehill may, in fact, play. I doubt that he will, but my pick will stay the same regardless.
 There are still some issues with Adams’ game, but his improvement from last year to this year has been downright incredible. He went from 86th out of 87 qualified receivers in DYAR to 16th while improving practically every facet of his game
With the season winding down, I thought it appropriate to look at some topics I haven’t had a chance to discuss, so without further ado, here are 10.
Michaels and Collinsworth have ditched the normal suit-and-tie announcer garb for quarter-zips during the second half of this year and power to them. It’s refreshing to see something different twice a week and if any crew can spit on the (presumably) unspoken dress code, it’s these guys. They’re the best announcing duo in the league, they get the best matchups every week and Sunday Night Football has the highest production value of any game in a given week. Here’s to that setup continuing for as long as possible.
As the Jets have rapidly crumbled over the past three weeks, Powell has been the lone bright spot. In those three games, he has 289 rushing yards—4.82 per carry—and 126 receiving yards—7.00 per reception. The Louisville product has half the rushing attempts as Matt Forte and only 213 less rushing yards. He’s performed well enough over the past two years to earn the Jets’ starting spot in the backfield next year
Michael Thomas, Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks have PFF grades of 84.3, 81.5 and 80.1 (fourth option Brandon Coleman lags behind at 68.9. None have lived up to individual fantasy hype (particularly Cooks), but together they’ve formed one of the most impressive threesomes in the league. Thomas needs just 19 more yards to hit 1,000 for the season—if he does, the Saints will be just the second team this year to field such a duo (the first is Denver with Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas). Did I mention that Thomas and Cooks also rank second and 10th in DYAR, with Snead close behind at 24th? If Drew Brees can keep playing at a high level for a couple years, this group could be the catalyst for a Saints’ resurgence.
Remember when Will Fuller was destroying teams in September? The first-year player out of Notre Dame was an early Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate, a constant deep threat and great after the catch, but he fell off the map entirely after Week 5. I had to double-check to make sure he didn’t miss more than a few games with injury during that time because he’s become so irrelevant. Fuller has just 288 receiving yards from Week 5 on after picking up 323 over the first four weeks. There’s still talent there—hopefully Houston can salvage it in spite of a quarterback who made the football world say, “You know what, Tom Savage isn’t that bad.”
The Patterson hype was off the charts two years ago. He was supposed to be a downfield threat with dynamism after the catch, but instead he became Tavon Austin 2.0—a receiver who can’t run a route or catch a pass, resulting in a bucketload of screens being thrown his way so the team can take advantage of his elusiveness in the open field. Well, Minnesota fans can rejoice because Adam Thielen is here to fulfill that role. Despite having just 31 receptions in his first two years combined, Thielen is just 40 yards away from 1,000 after a 12-reception, 202-yard performance at Lambeau Field last week. Thielen isn’t quite as jittery as Patterson in the open field, but 4.17 YAC per reception, per NFL GSIS, isn’t too shabby. More importantly, Thielen fulfills the “get open” and “catch the ball” requirements of being a wide receiver in the NFL. If Minnesota can figure out its offensive line, it becomes one of the best offenses in the league thanks in part to Thielen.
Toub, the special teams coordinator for the Chiefs, has finally started to receive widespread recognition this season. Despite having been a special teams coordinator for the Bears, and later the Chiefs, since 2004, Toub does not have a Pro Football Reference page. This will change soon—outside of a 2-year lull between 2004 and 2005, Toub’s special teams units have never ranked below ninth in DVOA. Given that special teams are generally considered to be random, that’s incredible and Toub should finally reap the rewards this offseason.
Free hasn’t been all that bad—his 74.6 PFF grade is respectable at worst—but put him next to Tyron Smith, Ron Leary, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin and he becomes noticeable in a bad way. Each time the Cowboys give up a sack, Free seems to be at fault and it kills the unimpeachable aura around Dallas’ line. They’re still the best in the league, but every once in a while, Doug Free reminds you that they aren’t immortal, which makes things a little less fun.
A lot has been made of Ramsey’s frequent (and unabashed) trash talking—he’s insulted everyone from Steve Smith to Aaron Rodgers, a habit the rookie should probably consider breaking. However, Ramsey does have an 83.1 PFF grade—an impressive mark for his first year. Though his comments and the obscurity of Jacksonville have taken him out of the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation, he should be there. Ramsey has been everything draftniks thought he’d be and could easily grow into a perennial All-Pro.
Here are Vontae Davis’ PFF grades from 2013 to now: 85.5, 94.6, 82.2, 42.9. That is a steep fall for someone who was arguably the best corner in the league two seasons ago and one that’s come before Davis’ time as well—he’s just 28 years old. Davis should be in his prime right now, but instead he looks lost on a weekly basis—the guy has become helpless against the players he used to shut down routinely. Who knows whether it’s because the Colts have changed coordinators from Greg Manusky to Ted Monachino or because Davis has just lost something, but the difference is massive.
Mike McCarthy is the Jeff Fisher of his generation. Early on this year, it looked like his job may be in danger—rightfully so—but, once again, Aaron Rodgers bailed him out with one of the most impressive five-game runs in recent memory. The Packers will probably win on Sunday and end up in the playoffs again—resulting in yet another year of praise for a coach who has consistently failed to live up to the talent on his team. The moral of the story: one Super Bowl win gets you a long way in the NFL.
On to the picks.
Week 17 Picks
Vegas Insider’s consensus lines used. Home teams listed in CAPS. Because it’s Week 17, I won’t be writing about the games that hold no playoff implications.
Texans +3 over TITANS: The Texans are 11th in defensive DVOA and the Titans are starting Matt Cassel at quarterback. I rest my case.
JETS +3.5 over Bills
Ravens +2.5 over BENGALS
COLTS -4.5 over Jaguars
Cowboys +4 over EAGLES: Even if Dallas rests everyone (and based on Monday, I don’t think they will), Tony Romo’s presence alone makes this line inflated.
Bears +5 over VIKINGS
Panthers +6 over BUCCANEERS
Browns +6 over STEELERS: The Steelers are locked into the #3 seed and have already announced that they’re resting everyone. And since the Browns are destined to mess everything up, it’s only appropriate that they lose the #1 pick by winning their last two games.
Patriots -9.5 over DOLPHINS: New England learned the value of home-field advantage the hard way last season. I don’t think they let this game slip through their hands—especially with Matt Moore still under center for Miami. Expect the Patriots to go into the playoffs with momentum—their biggest obstacle in the AFC is complacency and I expect Bill Belichick wants to put any of that feeling to rest.
FALCONS -6.5 over Saints: This game quietly means a lot—a win guarantees a first-round bye for the Falcons—and this is Matt Ryan’s last chance to cement his MVP case. At home, against a bad defense, the Falcons should move the ball easily and walk away with a win.
Cardinals -6 over RAMS
Chiefs -5.5 over CHARGERS: The Chargers are just falling apart. Philip Rivers is having the worst year of his career, they can’t catch a break in crunch time and their home games have turned into depressing reminders that the team will probably move to Los Angeles in the offseason. I can’t imagine that they’re motivated in any way after losing to the Browns next week—the only thing left is to play out the string and to hop on Zillow to look for homes in the L.A. area. Kansas City is playing for a bye, which means a probable AFC title game berth in a playoff field stacked with back-up quarterbacks. This is the only team that can beat New England before the Super Bowl—winning this week gets them a lot closer to doing so.
Seahawks -9.5 over 49ERS: The Seahawks still haven’t figured out the offensive line or their post-Earl Thomas secondary, but the 49ers aren’t well equipped to take on either of those flaws. Their defensive line is a middling 16th in adjusted sack rate and a horrific 30th in adjusted line yards. On the other side of the ball, they just aren’t capable of attacking the defense via deep balls without succumbing to turnovers.
BRONCOS -1.5 over Raiders: Count me as pessimistic about Matt McGloin. He hasn’t started a game since 2013 and his only extended appearance in the last two seasons came in Week 1 of 2015, when he threw for just 142 yards in 31 attempts as the catalyst in a 33-13 Oakland loss. Even with the Broncos playing for pride, I can’t see McGloin doing anything against their defense.
Giants +7.5 over REDSKINS: Washington should win this game, but this is too many points. Ben McAdoo has indicated that the Giants are playing all of their starters and defensively, they present a formidable challenge for Kirk Cousins. I doubt New York has its foot all the way down on the pedal, but they’ll keep it close enough to cover.
Packers -3.5 over LIONS: Betting against Aaron Rodgers in scorched-earth mode is like hitting on 20 at a blackjack table. You might as well be tossing money into a fire. The Lions are dead last in defensive DVOA and Darius Slay—their best corner—will either miss the game or play hurt. If you think that’s enough to slow down Rodgers, Nelson and co right now, there's a Nigerian prince who wants to meet you.
Last Week: 5-11-0
 The only game Fuller missed was Week 10.
 With the notable exception of a Ziggy Ansah sack on Monday where Smith was the culprit.