Archive for January, 2017

In today’s NBA, it’s all about how you match up with the Golden State Warriors (if you’re in the West) or the Cleveland Cavaliers (if you’re in the East). That’s kind of a shame, because it’s really hard to match up well with those two teams, but that’s how it is when two teams meet in back-to-back Finals and seem set on a collision course to meeting #3. Actually, I don’t even think it’s fair to group the Warriors and Cavs together this year. It’s really Golden State, a big gap, and then everyone else. But while nobody is going to be favored to knock off the Warriors in a series, there are teams that are better and worse suited to make things interesting. I said earlier that a full-strength L.A. Clippers team would be tough for the Warriors. Today, I’m going to talk about why the Houston Rockets, while a serious threat to win 60 games and make the Western Conference Finals, are unlikely to win more than a couple of games against Golden State.

The people who brought up the Rockets as darkhorse WCF candidates before the season were generally ridiculed. They’ve been validated (and then some) by a 34-15 start that has Houston on track for the West’s third seed. The Rockets have a +6.3 point differential, third in the NBA behind the Warriors (+12.7!) and Spurs (+8.9), and they’re averaging 114.3 points per game. A lot of the credit has to go to Houston’s front office, led by GM Daryl Morey. The decision to let Dwight Howard go has paid off and then some, and their two under-the-radar signings (Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson) have fit in perfectly and are the team’s second and third leading scorers. More importantly, Morey hired Mike D’Antoni, the perfect coach for James Harden and this roster. D’Antoni has never won a championship, but he has to be considered one of the two or three most influential coaches of this century. When he was in Phoenix, he invented the “Seven Seconds or Less” offense, which was basically just the “Give the Ball to Steve Nash and Let Him Do Stuff” offense. He moved Amare Stoudemire to center (which seemed crazy at the time) and emphasized three pointers and layups while generally playing smaller lineups. In other words, his teams around a decade ago played the way that most of the league plays today. Gregg Popovich readily admits that he’s taken a lot of D’Antoni’s offensive ideas. The guy’s an offensive mastermind.

It’s certainly made a difference for Harden, who’s probably the MVP favorite. He has a chance to be the first player to lead the league in points and assists per game since Tiny Archibald, and he’s putting up 29 points, eight rebounds, and 12 assists per game. More importantly, he’s doing it efficiently. Harden’s shooting 45% from the floor and 35% from three point range, and he leads the NBA in free throw makes per game (9.1, 86% clip). He scores almost all of his points at the rim, from beyond the arc, or at the line. He’s doing all of this as the de facto point guard. Harden says he was blindsided by D’Antoni’s decision to push him from shooting guard to point guard, because he’s been a shooting guard for his entire career. But he listened to his coach (offensive talent respects offensive talent, I guess), and it’s more than paid off. Harden’s a genius with the ball, finding ways to get to the rim and the line at will and — crucially — getting his talented teammates open (hence the 11.6 assists per game). When he’s on the floor, Houston’s offense is pretty tough to stop. They score 114.1 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, a number that would rank first in the NBA (overall, the Rockets are third at 111.8). Predictably, the offense is a lot better under D’Antoni than it was last season. In fact, their improved offensive efficiency (up from 105.5 last year) is the only reason that Houston is much better than the team that went 41-41 last year, because their defense is actually slightly worse.

That’s why this is such an interesting experiment. Most teams try to beat the Warriors by slowing them down, tightening up defensively, and crashing the offensive glass. The Thunder almost beat GSW last year because they were stifling defensively due to their length (having Russ and KD didn’t hurt), while Cleveland did defeat the Warriors because they gained so many extra possessions thanks to Tristan Thompson’s rebounding work. Golden State’s chief competitor this year looks likely to be the Spurs, who deserve (and will get) a post of their own. San Antonio is going to try to take Golden State out of its element, make Steph and KD feel uncomfortable, and win with their depth. But Houston? They are going to play fast (fourth-fastest team in the NBA behind Brooklyn, Golden State, and Phoenix). They’ll turn the ball over a lot (sixth-highest turnover rate in the NBA at 15.2%). Their defense won’t slow anyone down. In other words, they’re going to play right into Golden State’s hands.

If anyone’s going to beat the Warriors at their own game this year, it’ll be the Rockets. But I don’t think anyone’s going to beat the Warriors at their own game. They lead the league in fastbreak points, and it isn’t even close. They have the best offense in the NBA and the best defense in the NBA. They easily lead the league in assist percentage (although the Sixers are closing fast!). They turn the ball over, but not as often as the Rockets. And when they win the turnover battle, they won’t often lose. It’s worth noting that the Rockets did knock off the Warriors once this year. In the Bay Area. In a game in which they turned it over more than Golden State. But that was pretty much the perfect storm for Houston, at least defensively. The Warriors hit only 12 of 44 from beyond the arc. Klay Thompson shot 4-20, Kevin Durant shot 12-28 (doesn’t seem bad.. until you learn that he’s shooting 54% on the season), and Steph Curry shot 9-22. Golden State only ended up scoring 127 points in a double overtime game. They had 113 at the end of regulation, and that was with everything going right for Houston. Was that performance more luck or skill? If there was any doubt about that, it was erased last week in Houston. The Warriors came in and won 125-108. They shot 53% from the field and 40% from three. Durant scored 32 points on 19 shots, Curry added 24 on 18, and Draymond Green had a near-triple-double. Harden had a bad game, but they would have lost if he had played out of his mind, too.

Houston’s reliance on offensive firepower (and the heroics of Harden) is both a blessing and a curse. A less explosive team is going to have a tough time playing at their pace or stopping a lineup with at least three knockdown shooters on the court. The Rockets are going to shatter records for three point attempts and makes, and their dedication to advanced metrics have clearly paid off. But you need more than Harden and a bunch of shooters to beat the Warriors, because Golden State doesn’t need to stop the shooters. Last year, the Warriors were great but beatable in fast-paced games. This year, the first question every opponent has to ask is: who’s going to guard Durant? For the Spurs, the answer is obvious: Kawhi Leonard. Likewise for the Cavs (LeBron, in what will be an amazing matchup if it happens) and Clippers (Luuuuuc Richard Mbah a Moute). What’s the answer for the Rockets? Is it a past-his-prime Corey Brewer, who’s playing 15.8 minutes per game? Is it Ariza? It’s definitely not going to be pretty. The thing is that the Rockets don’t have any illusions about stopping Durant. They’ve been all in on their offense ever since the offseason, when they signed Gordon and Anderson (known to be two of the worst defensive players in the NBA) and hired D’Antoni. It’s paid huge dividends so far, but things tighten up in the playoffs, and you need to be able to get a stop in a key situation in order to be considered a real threat to Golden State. Houston won’t be able to get that stop, which is why I think they’re ultimately a pretender. It’s not a popular opinion right now, but I think it’s much more likely that the Clippers will knock off the Warriors (although admittedly still unlikely).


NFC and AFC Championship Picks

Posted: 01/22/2017 by levcohen in Football

It’s time for the last two real football games of the year. We have the Pro Bowl next week, but not even the players care about the Pro Bowl. Then, of course, there’s the Super Bowl, but that’s as much of a production — the halftime show, etc. — as it is a football game. Yes, football fans enjoy the Super Bowl (it’s supposed to be a game between the two best teams in football, after all), but this weekend is generally far more enjoyable for hardcore fans who care primarily about the quality of the games. Good news: today’s matchups promise intrigue, close games, and, best of all, points. The top storyline of the week has been the fact that four of the best quarterbacks in the NFL are still alive. If it isn’t the most talented QB quartet playing on Championship Game Sunday ever, it’s pretty darn close. That, along with the lack of defensive talent, is why the projected point totals are so high.

Green Bay Packers (12-6, 11-6-1 against the spread) at Atlanta Falcons (12-5, 12-5):
Spread: Falcons favored by 5.5
Over/under: 61
My prediction: This is the highest over/under in playoff history, and I still can’t imagine ever picking the under. All of the ingredients are here for a total shootout. It’s the two hottest QBs in the NFL, both of whom have relatively healthy offenses (assuming that Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, and Geronimo Allison are close to full strength). It’s also two of the worst defenses in football, although Atlanta’s defense has improved a lot recently even without the services of top cornerback Desmond Trufant. Given that both defenses are especially soft in the red zone, it’s safe to expect a lot of touchdowns.

For my money, Aaron Rodgers is easily the most talented quarterback in the NFL. I haven’t been watching for long enough to definitively call him the most gifted quarterback ever, but it’s hard for me to imagine anyone challenging him for that title. Rodgers has a strong arm and he’s accurate, but the magic really happens when he is chased out of the pocket. All you need to do is watch the throw Rodgers made to Jared Cook last week and listen to what people say about him. There are very few players in any sport who are as universally feared/revered as Rodgers now is. LeBron, Brady, Kershaw, Trout, Crosby, McDavid… it’s not a long list. That’s why I’m so surprised that the Falcons are favored by more than a field goal. Rodgers threw a pick last week to end his stretch of eight games without one, but he still looked downright unstoppable. The Packers have scored 30+ points six straight times. I wouldn’t expect that streak to end against Atlanta, especially with top targets Nelson and Adams active (if not 100%). Atlanta’s pass defense is improving, but it’s nowhere near good enough to stop Rodgers if he has time. And he’s going to have time against a pass rush that was made look good by Seattle’s porous offensive line but has been very weak all season. Simply put, the Falcons don’t have the talent or experience to slow Rodgers down. Conventional wisdom says this is going to be a shootout, and conventional wisdom is going to be correct unless Rodgers falls into an unexpected rut.

I have even more confidence in Atlanta’s offense. Because while Rodgers is the better quarterback than Matt Ryan, Ryan’s Falcons have the superior overall offense. Kyle Shanahan, the offensive coordinator, has done such a good job that he’s heading to San Francisco next season to be the 49ers’ head coach. The Falcons have terrific schemes, and they also have great talent. Their running back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman had a field day against the Seahawks, and more of the same should be on tap against a Green Bay defense that’s had its run defense fall apart over the last few months. And if the Packers manage to stop the rushing attack, Ryan has a lot of options to throw to. In addition to Freeman and Coleman, both of whom are good receiving backs, there’s a healthy Julio Jones, maybe the best receiver in the NFL. Then there’s Taylor Gabriel, a speedster who is well suited to burn Green Bay’s porous secondary deep. And Mohamed Sanu has become a tremendous third down and red zone option. The Falcons had the best offense in football this season, as Ryan averaged an incredible 9.3 yards per attempt. He had a 125.7 passer rating last week, throwing for three touchdowns without an interception and passing for 9.1 yards per attempt. He’s home in a plush matchup against a weak defense. Clay Matthews is a good player, and the Packers are going to try to get after Ryan with blitzes and different looks, but it’ll be nothing that Matty Ice hasn’t already seen and defeated this year.

The spread seems high, but it’s not going to change my pick in this one. While Rodgers is the better quarterback and has carried the Packers to this point, he’s not meaningfully better than Ryan, and Ryan’s surrounding pieces and scheme are vastly superior. And if field goals come into play, Matt Bryant is better than Mason Crosby, two 50+ yard field goals last week aside. The Falcons have been better all season and are playing at home. Of course, I could have said the same thing about the Cowboys last week, and the Packers still managed to knock off Dallas. But I’m counting on Green Bay’s luck to run out this week. Falcons win 38-31.
Falcons cover

Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5, 11-7) at New England Patriots (15-2, 14-3):*
Spread: Patriots favored by 6
Over/under: 50.5
My prediction: I said above that the top storyline of the week has been about how good the four quarterbacks are. I think that might be giving one of the QBs a little too much credit. As you read above, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers are certainly as advertised. And Tom Brady is an all-timer who had one of the best seasons of his career. At this point, though, I don’t think that Ben Roethlisberger belongs in that conversation, especially on the road. I mentioned Big Ben’s home-road splits last week. After a game that the Steelers won without a touchdown, those splits don’t look any better this week. He improved to 18-15 in road games since 2013 thanks to the Chiefs’ stagnant offense and six field goals from kicker Chris Boswell, but he now has a 38:30 TD:INT ratio on the road since then and is still averaging 7.3 yards per attempt — he had a pick and averaged 7.2 yards per attempt last week. He’s now thrown at least a pick in three straight games and five of six, so I think it’s fair to expect a turnover or two from the quarterback in New England. That puts the Steelers in a huge hole right off the bat.

The main reason that most people haven’t really noticed Roethlisberger’s struggles is that the Steelers keep winning. They’ve now won eight games in a row. Most of that credit should go to an improved defense and Le’Veon Bell. Bell racked up 170 more yards last week and has the whole country raving about his unique running style (which is basically just to stand at the line of scrimmage until a hole opens up for him). It’s hard to win against a team whose running back is averaging 146.5 yards per game on the ground, as Bell has over the past eight games. But guess who has made a career out of taking away the other team’s most dangerous weapon? That’s right: Bill Belichick. I find it very unlikely that Bell has the same joy on the ground against a team that almost never gets beaten in the playoffs by a running back. Not to mention that the Patriots are fourth in DVOA against the run this season. Bell’s running style is indeed unique, but it also seems stoppable. Last week, a linebacker I had never heard of (Ramik Wilson) had some success when he stayed back, waited for the blocks to developed, and then attacked Bell before he decided which hole to accelerate through. Think of it kind of as a spy against the running back. Most defenses teach aggression against running backs, because most running backs jump through the first hole they see. Bell is a lot more patient, so the defense should be too. Expect the Patriots to figure that out and slow down the running back, which leaves us back where we started: with Roethlisberger. If he can figure things out this week, the game will be close. The Patriots have been relatively weak against the pass, and they have barely been challenged. Look at the list of quarterbacks they’ve faced since their BYE, starting last week against Houston and going backward: Brock Osweiler, Matt Moore, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Trevor Siemian, Joe Flacco, Jared Goff, Bryce Petty, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson. Guess who the one loss came against? Wilson’s Seahawks, in New England. Wilson tore up the Pats for 348 yards and three touchdowns. Heck, the Patriots didn’t even have to face Roethlisberger when they played the Steelers earlier this season. The signal caller was injured, so they got to play against Landry Jones. The point is that the Patriots have been vulnerable against good quarterbacks. If Roethlisberger plays well, the Steelers will score touchdowns as well as field goals this week. One other thing: with Bell likely to find little success on the ground, look for him to get involved in the passing game. He’s totaled just 18 receiving yards in the last three games, but that’s because he’s gotten everything he’s wanted on the ground. There was a six game span earlier this year during which Bell averaged eight receptions per game, and that’s along the lines of what I think will happen today. The Steelers need to get the ball in his (and Antonio Brown’s) hands.

If New England’s offense plays like it did against Houston, they’re going to lose this game. Tom Brady didn’t look like himself last week against a ferocious pass rush. He got hit a lot and completed just 18-38 passes while throwing as many interceptions as he threw all season (2). I normally would chalk this up as a total fluke, but remember that Brady also struggled in his last playoff game, a loss to the Broncos in last year’s AFC Championship Game. He went 27-56 in that game and had two more picks. Those are the only two games in the past two years that Brady has completed under 50% of his passes, and two of only three games with a pair of picks. It’s something to keep in mind. In both games, the opponent harassed Brady with a ferocious pass rush. That’s what the Steelers have to do today. But they can’t commit too many rushers, because then Brady will tear them up. They have to get pressure with three or four rushers, something they’ve been unable to do much this season. The Patriots aren’t as explosive offensively as they usually are at this time of year, largely because they’re without Rob Gronkowski. But they still have plenty of weapons who can tear up the Steelers if Brady has the time to find them. Dion Lewis exploded last week, and Julian Edelman had eight catches for at least 130 yards for the second straight week. Brady needs some more consistency from Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan, and Michael Floyd. I expect at least one of those guys to have a big game this week. And this might be a week of redemption for LeGarrette Blount after he was held to 31 yards on eight carries last week. I think we know what we’re going to get from the Patriots’ offense against a solid but unspectacular Pittsburgh defense: very few mistakes and a lot of sustained drives. I don’t expect many big plays, though, which should keep the Steelers in shouting distance.

This game really rests on Big Ben’s shoulders. The Patriots are vulnerable. I don’t think they’re as good as their record indicates, largely because they’ve had such a soft schedule. Can Roethlisberger make them pay? Recent history seems to suggest that the answer is no. But my gut says that he can come up big, so I’m going to go against recent history and say that the Steelers will win a close one. Steelers win 27-23.
Steelers cover

Divisional Round Preview — Sunday Games

Posted: 01/15/2017 by levcohen in Football

The Falcons and Patriots both won handily yesterday, albeit in different fashions. Atlanta was efficient and impressive against the Seahawks. They didn’t turn the ball over, they forced two Russell Wilson picks, and they got good play out of Matt Ryan (26-37 for 338 yards and three touchdowns). Their offense was as advertised, and their defense held up after getting torn apart on the game’s opening drive (which took almost nine minutes). New England was sloppy and lucky to be playing against Brock Osweiler’s Texans. I mentioned yesterday that the Brockening had a horrific yards-per-attempt number on the road. It didn’t get better after it took him 40 attempts to throw for 198 yards. Brock threw three picks, Lamar Miller ran for just 3.8 yards per carry, and Houston had three drives of more than 25 yards (those three drives yielded three points). But it was only 17-13 at halftime, and the Texans got the ball in the fourth quarter down just 24-16. Why? Because the Patriots played really poorly. Tom Brady threw two picks, Dion Lewis fumbled a kick return (he did return another for a touchdown), and the offensive line allowed a lot of hits on Brady. They ended up winning by 18 points, but that’s almost entirely because they were playing the Texans. The best thing that came out of the game for the Patriots was Lewis’s return to stardom (KRTD, receiving TD, rushing TD).

Green Bay Packers (11-6, 10-6-1) at Dallas Cowboys (13-3, 11-5):
Spread: Cowboys favored by 5.5
Over/under: 53
My prediction: Neither defense is going to have much success in this game. That’s not a bold statement, but I think it’s the only place to start. Jordy Nelson’s out for the Packers, but Aaron Rodgers is still going to pretty much have his way against Dallas’s pass defense. I made the mistake of picking against Rodgers last week, and it actually looked good for most of the first half. But then Rodgers threw a Hail Mary (his third successful one in the last 13 months) to end the first half, putting the Packers, who were clearly outplayed by the Giants in the first two quarters, up 14-6. The rest is history. Rodgers got hot in the third quarter, and the Packers won 38-13 despite being without Nelson, who broke a rib in the first half. Nelson’s a great player, but the Packers have other weapons. Randall Cobb and Davante Adams combined for 241 yards and four touchdowns last week against New York’s vaunted secondary, Geronimo Allison is good enough to make an impact as Nelson’s replacement, and Rodgers has an explosive tight end to throw to in Jared Cook. Throw in Ty Montgomery, a wide receiver-turned-running back who remains dangerous out of the backfield, and Rodgers should have plenty of targets to throw to. People think that Green Bay’s running game is pretty much a non-factor, and the Packers are the fourth most pass-happy team in the NFL. But they have had some success when they have decided to run the ball, largely because opposing defenses are so focused on Rodgers. This is where Sean Lee and Dallas’s linebackers are so important. No offense puts more strain on opposing linebackers than Green Bay’s, both because they run a lot of short and intermediate routes and because Rodgers is a threat to run. Lee is one of the best linebackers in the NFL, and he’ll be key to limiting GB’s success on the ground. The Packers are pretty darn good when they’re one-dimensional, but they’re impossible to stop when they have their running game going. I expect Green Bay to try to establish Montgomery and/or Christine Michael on the ground. The Giants did a good job of stopping them early last week, and the Cowboys have to do the same today. One largely unreported plus for Dallas’s defense: Morris Claiborne, who’s missed the last nine games with a groin injury, is back. Claiborne was their best corner before he got injured, allowing just 4.9 yards per target. His return allows the rest of the secondary to return to more comfortable positions. He will likely match up frequently against Adams, and slot corner Orlando Scandrick will see a lot of Cobb. Corner/safety hybrid Byron Jones, who’s covered tight ends well, will be tasked with slowing down Jared Cook. I think those are the three matchups which will define Green Bay’s offensive success. If Dallas can come close to holding the Cobb/Adams/Cook group to a draw, I think they’ll win this game handily. The problem is that Rodgers is so good at buying time that those three will likely find ways to eventually get open, even if the coverage on them is good.

The Cowboys’ offense is also pretty darn good. They’re the most balanced team in the NFL, throwing the ball just 50.6% of the time (the Packers are at 63.7%). That’s because they have Ezekiel Elliott and the best offensive line in the NFL. When these teams played in Week 6, the Packers were considered to be a top run defense, and for good reason. They had only given up 2.2 yards per carry in the first five weeks. Then Zeke burned them for 157 yards, and the Packers’ run defense was never the same. In a game in which time of possession figures to be so important, Dallas is going to be able to run the ball. I just can’t see Green Bay slowing Zeke down. That’ll take pressure off of Dak Prescott, the rookie phenom who’s been so consistent this season. Dak will probably have a few rookie moments in this game, but it might not matter. That’s how good the o-line and the skill-position talent surrounding Prescott are. We saw in the first half of last week’s game that the Giants’ receivers were able to consistently get open. They weren’t able to capitalize, both due to drops and bad passes. Dallas will capitalize.

If the Packers have another first half like they had last week, they’re toast. The 38-13 score is a completely inaccurate representation of how that game went. The Packers are playing well right now, especially offensively, but the Giants left a lot of points on the table and the Packers scored seven on a Hail Mary and seven more on a garbage-time touchdown. The Cowboys are clearly the better team, and they should be able to control the time of possession battle at home. Still, I can’t lay 5.5 points against Aaron Rodgers. Cowboys win 31-27.
Packers cover

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5, 10-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4, 9-7):
Spread: Chiefs favored by 2
Over/under: 44.5
My prediction: This game was originally supposed to be at 1:00, but it was pushed back to 8:25 due to a massive ice storm. That also explains why the over/under seems a little low — it opened at 46.5 and probably would have moved up rather than down if not for the weather. Luckily, both of these teams seem well-equipped to play in the cold. Ben Roethlisberger is 22-7 in games played in freezing weather and 6-1 in the playoffs after beating the Dolphins in the cold last week. He’s big, and he has big hands and a big arm. That generally leads to more success (or rather less of a drop-off) in cold weather. And the Chiefs have played well in bad weather this year, notably beating up on the healthy Raiders in the rain early in the season.

The Steelers’ biggest advantage in this game is Le’Veon Bell. He’s quite a weapon to have, and he’s going to get the ball a lot. He carried it 29 times for 167 yards and two touchdowns last week, and I’ll be surprised if he isn’t force-fed 25+ touches again. Bell’s first game this season was against the Chiefs in a game the Steelers won 43-14 in Pittsburgh. He carried the ball 18 times for 144 yards in that one. About that previous encounter: what does it mean for this game? Probably not that much. It happened in Week 4, which is a looong time ago. These teams are both totally different now than they were three and a half months ago. That’s not to say that the Steelers’ offense won’t be able to move the ball tonight. They probably will have some success, and Bell will certainly move the chains early and often. But I wouldn’t expect another 22-27 with 300 yards and five TDs (good for a 152.5 passer rating) game from Roethlisberger.

Bell’s amazingness is a bad sign for Kansas City’s #26 run defense. But there are elements of this matchup that play to KC’s defense’s strength. They’re healthy now, with Justin Houston and Eric Berry both set to suit up. Houston has played four full games this year and has four sacks. If he’s healthy and can get after Roethlisberger, the Chiefs have a huge weapon. Another good sign for the Chiefs: Roethlisberger’s been turning the ball over. He’s now thrown seven picks in his last four games and also leads the league with 13 dropped interceptions (per Football Outsiders). The Chiefs tied for the NFL lead with 18 picks this year and generated a league-high 33 takeaways. Marcus Peters and Eric Berry are difference-makers who take the ball away and give the Chiefs easy points. That’s how they’ve won games all year, and it’s something Roethlisberger has struggled with of late. That’s why I expect Pittsburgh to be even more run-heavy than usual. Ben only attempted 18 passes last week, and two were picked. Bell carried the ball 1.6 times per Roesthlisberger attempt. That’s a ratio that was possible last week because the Steelers led for the entire game. The key for Kansas City is to jump out to an early lead and force Roethlisberger to throw it. By the way, I haven’t mentioned Antonio Brown yet. He’s really good. But for this particular matchup, I think he’s the least important of Pittsburgh’s three Bs. He’ll make a few big plays, but he’s seen the ball a lot less this year than in the last few, leading to a four year low in catches and targets.

Much like the Steelers, the Chiefs have two offensive difference-makers. Tyreke Hill and Travis Kelce aren’t as heralded (or, frankly, good) as Bell and Brown, but they’ve had a similar impact over the last couple of months. Kelce’s put up five 100+ yard games in the last seven, and he’s catching an absurd 73% of his targets. Then there’s Hill, who’s got to be the fastest player in the NFL and who can change the game with a single rush, reception, or return. Alex Smith has played in five playoff games, and he’s been really good in those five, with 11 TDs, one pick, and a 99.1 passer rating. So Smith is unlikely to turn over the football, and he’s also been a threat on the ground in the playoffs (39.6 yards per game). The Chiefs should be good for 20-26 points and very few mistakes. But the game will really be determined by what the Steelers do when they get the ball.

A few more things before I make my prediction. Andy Reid is 19-2 in his career after a BYE and 13-1 at home. I’m not saying this matters that much, but do you really want to best against that? And Ben Roethlisberger has some serious home/road splits. Since 2013, he’s averaging just 7.3 yards per attempt and has thrown 38 touchdowns against 29 interceptions in 32 road games (the Steelers are 17-15 in those games). At home, he’s averaging 8.4 yards per attempt and has thrown 76 touchdowns against 27 interceptions in 30 games (Steelers are 22-8). A few sloppy plays from Roethlisberger, who’s made his fair share of errors over the last few games, could be the difference in this game against a very fundamentally sound and healthy Chiefs team. Chiefs win 23-20.
Chiefs cover

Divisional Round Preview — Saturday Games

Posted: 01/13/2017 by levcohen in Football

There are seven football games left this season. That’s pretty sad. But I think the weekend of the divisional round games is arguably the best football weekend of the year. There are still four games, which is plenty of football to watch, and the four games are always much higher-quality than the first round’s four games, when the two best teams in each conference have the week off. The Raiders, Lions, Dolphins, and Giants are all out after losing by an average of 19 points. There’s just one bad team left (the Texans), so I’m expecting (and praying for) much better games this week. With the exception of the Texans-Patriots game, I could see every game going down to the wire. Weirdly enough, the public is betting heavily on the underdogs. That’s because Green Bay, Seattle, and Pittsburgh, three very popular and successful teams, are on the road against Dallas, Atlanta, and Kansas City, who have had less success in the past. Home teams have romped in this round in the past, going 16-4 in the last five years. After a week in which all four home teams won, though, it feels like it won’t happen again. I’m pretty confident that at least one upset is going to happen. It just might not be tomorrow.

Seattle Seahawks (11-5-1, 8-9) at Atlanta Falcons (11-5, 11-5):
Spread: Falcons favored by 4.5
Over/under: 51.5
My prediction: If this game is anywhere near as good as the first one between these two teams, we’re in for a treat. Back on October 17th, the Seahawks edged the Falcons in Seattle 26-24 on Steven Hauschka’s go-ahead field goal with 1:57 left. That game was a blowout in the first half — the Seahawks led 17-3 at halftime, with the Falcons gaining just 91 yards and (MVP favorite) Matt Ryan getting sacked four times. But then Atlanta’s dangerous offense woke up, and the Falcons scored 21 straight points in the third quarter. Ryan threw for 225 yards and three touchdowns in the third quarter. Then came what was almost certainly the worst and most consequential missed pass interference call of the season, and the Falcons lost the game. If I were a Falcons fan, that game would give me confidence about Atlanta’s chances in this one. The fact that they were so competitive (and arguably were the better team) in Seattle is very encouraging. The Seahawks also had Earl Thomas that game. They don’t now, and Atlanta might be the worst possible opponent for a team missing Earl Thomas. The Seahawks have been historically great at limiting deep passes with Thomas at free safety. Ryan burned them for two 35+ yard touchdowns, but that was simply a testament to how great Ryan and the Falcons offense have been at connecting on deep passes. Consider this: In ten games with Thomas, the Seahawks allowed 7.0 yards per pass with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. In six games without him, they allowed 7.8 yards per pass with eight touchdowns and two interceptions. They were third in DVOA against the pass with Thomas and 30th without him. That didn’t really matter against the Lions, largely because Matthew Stafford was playing hurt and was under pressure for the entire game. It will matter against an Atlanta offense that was the best in football this year. The Seahawks are going to put Richard Sherman on Julio Jones. Sherman’s a great corner, but Jones is unstoppable. In the first matchup between these teams (again, that was with Thomas’s help over the top), Jones caught seven balls for 139 yards and a touchdown. The reason Atlanta’s offense is so dangerous, though, is that they have so many weapons outside of Jones. Julio missed two games this year, but it didn’t seem to matter that much. They have Mohamed Sanu, a solid possession receiver, and Taylor Gabriel, a dynamic deep threat. They also have two tremendous pass-catching backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who are the offense’s second and third most explosive offensive weapons. I expect the Falcons to test the Seahawks deep, and I also think they’ll be able to consistently move the ball through the air as long as Ryan is protected. That really is the key. Can the Seahawks pressure Ryan like they did in the first half of that first game? Or will he have as much time to throw as he has for most of the season? Seattle has a legitimate chance to slow down Atlanta’s run game, especially since Kam Chancellor is healthy (he didn’t play in the first matchup between these teams). But as long as Freeman and Coleman can remain factors (either running the ball or catching screen passes), Ryan should have enough options to put up big numbers for a team that’s put up 28+ points in nine of the last 10 games.

On the other side of the ball, I think it’s fair to be worried about Seattle’s offense on the road. They’re averaging just 15.9 points per game away from home and are just 3-4-1 outside of Seattle. Luckily, they have as good of a matchup as they could have hoped for in the playoffs. Atlanta has one of the worst defenses in the NFL. They’re especially weak against the run, which is bad news against a running back (Thomas Rawls) who seemed to find his mojo last week against the Lions. Russell Wilson will make things happen, but he’ll only be able to keep up with the Falcons if the offensive line, which has been so bad all season, blocks as well as it did against the Lions. It’s true that Atlanta’s defense is soft, but unlike the Lions they also have a defensive difference-maker. That’s Vic Beasley, who paced the NFL with 15.5 sacks this season. Beasley has an ideal matchup against right tackle Garry Gilliam, and I expect him to wreak havoc on Wilson and Rawls.

Both teams should be able to score in this game, but I’m picking Atlanta to win. Earl Thomas’s absence will be huge in this one, as will Matt Ryan’s ability to spread the ball around. I’m not that confident in the Falcons’ inexperienced defense against Russell Wilson, but they don’t have to do that much to win this game. Falcons win 30-23.

Falcons cover

Houston Texans (10-7, 8-8-1) at New England Patriots (14-2, 13-3):
Spread: Patriots favored by 16
Over/under: 44.5
My prediction: The Texans are a bad football team. I’ve been saying this all season, and I’m going to keep saying it. Ok, so they beat a team starting a rookie third string quarterback by 13 points. So what? It still took Lamar Miller 31 carries to pick up 73 yards against the #18 DVOA run defense. The Patriots are the #4 DVOA run defense. In order to win this game, the Texans are going to need Brock Osweiler to go into Foxborough and carry them to victory. Now, Osweiler was fine last week against the Raiders. He made a few really nice throws and didn’t turn the ball over. He even managed to get DeAndre Hopkins the ball five times (still not enough, but oh well). But that was at home against an Oakland defense that’s struggled all season. This is in the New England cold (24 degrees) in a hostile environment. In Week 3, the Texans travelled to New England to take on a Patriots team led by third string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. The Texans were even briefly favored before the game. They lost 27-0, as Osweiler went 24-41 for 196 yards and an interception. The Brockening is averaging 5.04 yards per attempt away from home. To put that in perspective, Matt Ryan averaged 9.26 yards per attempt this year and Brady averaged 8.88 at home. Osweiler’s 5.80 yards per attempt overall easily ranked last among qualified quarterbacks, so 5.04 is really, really, really bad.

And yet… 16 points is a lot, especially against a defense that’s been pretty hot. Bill Belichick will gameplan to stop Jadeveon Clowney, and he’ll probably succeed, but Houston has other defensive weapons and could make things at least a little difficult for the Patriots. I don’t think Tom Brady is going to have 300 yards and four touchdowns by halftime. But that’s about as far as I’m willing to go, because Brady is so good and has so many weapons. Rob Gronkowski is still out (that might come back to hurt them later in the playoffs), but Martellus Bennett is healthier, and Julian Edelman, James White, and Dion Lewis are still around (I’m predicting a big game from Lewis, by the way). The Patriots also now have Michael Floyd, a redzone target who can make big plays. And they can get four yards and a cloud of dust whenever they want with a LeGarrette Blount run.

Can the Texans win? Don’t be silly. Can they keep things close-ish? I guess, if they can string together a few successful drives (get the ball in Hopkins’ hands!) and if they can make Brady feel uncomfortable. I was going to pick the Texans to cover, but then I realized that the worst possible feeling would be picking Brock Osweiler to keep things close against Tom Brady and then looking up in the fourth quarter to see a 34-3 score. Patriots win 34-9.
Patriots cover

Wild Card Picks: Sunday

Posted: 01/08/2017 by levcohen in Football

Yesterday was technically the start of the playoffs, but it wasn’t really the start of the playoffs. Houston-Oakland was, as advertised, an ugly play-in game between a team that had no business making the playoffs and one that lost its quarterback two weeks ago. And the result of Seattle-Detroit was never in doubt, with the Seahawks taking advantage of the horrific Lions defense to get their run game going (161 yards for Thomas Rawls). They only scored 26 points, but they could have racked up 46 if they needed to. Today is the day the playoffs really start. All four teams have at least 10 wins and deserve to be in the playoffs. The temperatures in Pittsburgh and Green Bay are both in the single digits, with wind chills below zero. Three of the four teams playing today are legitimate Super Bowl contenders — two more than yesterday.

Miami Dolphins (10-6, 9-6-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5, 9-7):
Spread: Steelers favored by 12
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: On paper, this looks lopsided. The Steelers have won seven consecutive games and come into this one with three healthy and rested superstars in Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. The Dolphins are coming off a 21 point home loss against the Patriots and are starting backup quarterback Matt Moore with Ryan Tannehill still nursing a knee injury. To make matters worse for the Dolphins, they’re also without both of the starting safeties that led them to a win against Pittsburgh the last time these teams played. Reshad Jones was arguably the best defensive player on the team, and Isa Abdul-Quddus also graded as a good-to-great safety. Now, Miami is going to have to limit the deep ball with Bacarri Rambo and Michael Thomas at safety. Their first game without both safeties was last week, when they were shredded by the Patriots. Not a good sign. Cornerback Byron Maxwell is also out. I happen to think Maxwell is not that great, but this is worth noting because the Dolphins put Maxwell on Brown earlier this season… and he shut the future Hall-of-Famer down. I don’t think that would have happened again anyway, but now Miami’s secondary is even thinner. (Side note: Maxwell actually graded as PFF’s 12th best cornerback this year, so maybe he’s good again). It seems like the Dolphins are going to have to rely on their pass rush even more than they have been recently. This is the time to bring up Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake, who, after slow starts, have surpassed even the most bullish of expectations and formed a dominant 1-2 punch. They rank as two of the 10 best defensive linemen in the NFL, and they’re going to have to make Roethlisberger feel uncomfortable while also slowing Bell down. It’s a lot to ask of them, especially since Pittsburgh’s offensive line is one of the best in the NFL, with all five starters grading above 80 (per PFF) and limiting the amount of pressure placed on Roethlisberger. The Dolphins are going to need as much help in the secondary as possible, so I think it’s fair to say that Suh, Wake, and the rest of Miami’s pass rushers are going to have to put pressure on Roethlisberger with a four man rush.

Miami’s offense might be limited by the loss of Tannehill, but I still think they’ll be able to make some plays. Moore is a good backup quarterback (miles better, I think, than both Connor Cook and Brock Osweiler). He’s 2-1 as the starter and I think he’s actually looked better than Tannehill. He’s completing 63% of his passes, has eight touchdowns and just three interceptions, and is averaging 8.3 yards per attempt. He has some weapons to throw to. Jarvis Landry is the team’s top target and can always turn a five yard catch into a long touchdown. Kenny Stills has been a dangerous deep threat (17.3 yards per catch) and has quietly scored nine touchdowns. And DeVante Parker always seems to be good for about 50 yards and a few big catches. They should be able to throw the ball down the field. Then there’s Jay Ajayi, the running back who came out of nowhere to run for 204 yards against the Steelers. Unbelievably, that was one of three 200+ yard games for Ajayi this season. The Steelers will be prepared to stop the run this time, but maybe that will just help open up the passing game.

The Steelers should win this game by three touchdowns. But they’ve been inconsistent throughout the season, and Roethlisberger has at times been very sloppy. I just don’t trust them to cover such a large spread against a scrappy Dolphins team that knows its identity and has a few difference makers on both sides of the ball. They’ll win the game, but it’ll be closer than it should be. Steelers win 27-21.
Dolphins cover

New York Giants (11-5, 9-6-1) at Green Bay Packers (10-6, 9-6-1):*
Spread: Packers favored by 5.5
Over/under: 45
My prediction: This is the headliner, because it’s the only game this weekend between teams that both have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. It’s a classic strength vs. strength matchup, with Green Bay’s hot offense facing off against New York’s stifling defense. I’m going to start with the other side of the ball, though, because I think this game will hinge on how much success Eli Manning and the Giants’ offense has against a very beatable Packers secondary. I don’t expect the Giants to have much success on the ground. Their running game has been flat all season, with Rashad Jennings and Paul Perkins forming an uninspiring two-headed monster. To be fair, Perkins has actually been better of late, with the five best performances of his career coming in his last five games. His yardage total has increased every week since Week 13, so maybe he can put up over 100 yards like he did against the Redskins last week. I just don’t think that’s very likely against a decent Green Bay run defense. More likely is that Manning will be forced to make plays on passing downs with a revitalized Packers pass rush chasing him down. Green Bay ranks sixth in the NFL in sacks and will look to get after Manning, especially since they’re home. Manning has been very mediocre this season, and it’s hard to imagine the Giants winning without a big improvement from their quarterback. That improvement is possible, especially against a thin secondary that’s going to be without Quinten Rollins. The Packers are probably going to put Demarious Randall (PFF rating: 39.3) on Odell Beckham. Something tells me that Beckham might be able to make a few big plays. The Giants offense should be good for a few touchdowns and time-consuming drives, which is especially important against an Aaron Rodgers-led offense.

We all know how good Rodgers and the Packers have been recently. Rodgers has 18 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in the last seven games and has averaged 288 yards and 8.4 yards per attempt in that span. Randall Cobb is back from injury, which means the offense is going to be operating at full strength. There are just so many weapons: Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Jared Cook, Ty Montgomery, Geronimo Allison (he’s been making plays sine Cobb went down), etc. It’s hard to imagine any team stifling even most of those weapons. If anyone can though, it’s likely this New York defense. The Packers have the #1 offensive DVOA over the course of their six game winning streak, but the Giants have the #1 defensive DVOA since Week 9. Olivier Vernon is an elite pass rusher and run stopper — he’s the reason that we’ve barely noticed the absence of Jason Pierre-Paul. Damon “Snacks” Harrison is a key reason that nobody can run on the Giants, but he  can also get after opposing quarterbacks. And the secondary is probably the best in football. Landon Collins has made as many big plays as any defensive back in football (excluding maybe the Chiefs’ Eric Berry and Marcus Peters) and grades as the second best safety in the NFL (92.1). Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins both grade inside the top-10 among all cornerbacks, and Eli Apple gives the Giants another capable corner. You need a lot of good defensive backs to defend the Packers. The Giants have a lot of good defensive backs.

I learned a lot from New York’s win in Washington last week. The Giants had nothing to play for, but they still completely shut down one of the best offenses in football. Kirk Cousins is no Aaron Rodgers, but the Redskins had the fifth best offensive DVOA this year and managed just 10 points against the Giants. The Packers should have more success than that, but the Giants will get just enough out of their mediocre offense to sneak past Green Bay. Giants win 21-20.
Giants cover

Wild Card Weekend Picks: Saturday

Posted: 01/06/2017 by levcohen in Football

I advertised Week 17 as one that would lack intrigue, and it lived up to that billing. The one game that really mattered, Detroit-Green Bay, no longer mattered as much after the Redskins lost to the Giants, clinching playoff spots for both teams. The Lions led by four points at halftime, but the Packers always seemed more likely to win and led by 14 until Detroit tacked on a meaningless touchdown inside the last 30 seconds. In the AFC, the battle for the BYEs was also anticlimactic. The Patriots obliterated the Dolphins early and clinched the #1 seed. Then the Raiders looked abysmal without quarterback Derek Carr and lost to the Broncos, while the Chiefs cruised past the Chargers. We’re left with an AFC playoff group that’s as shallow as I can remember. It’s really a three team race: New England will likely play the winner of Pittsburgh-Kansas City in the AFC Championship game. The NFC is more intriguing. I would argue that five of the six teams — the Lions are the exception — have legitimate chances to make the Super Bowl. Could we be gearing up for Brady vs. Eli Chapter 3?? Probably not (Football Outsiders gives it a 3.1% chance). But there’s a darn good chance that we’ll be gearing up for Brady vs. someone. FO gives the Patriots a 60.1% chance to make the Super Bowl.

Of course, the least meaningful game of the season was also my best against the spread. Hey, at least I finished the season strong. If you bet against the spread on every single NFL game this season based on my predictions, you would have made money, even when deducting the vig!

11-5 straight up… 154-100-2 for the season
12-4 against the spread… 134-114-8
12-4 over/under… 135-116-5

1-3 on upset picks… 24-35-1
1-0 on lock… 12-5

Best picks of the week:
Falcons 38, Saints 31… Actual result: Falcons 38, Saints 32
Packers 31, Lions 23… Actual result: Packers 31, Lions 24
Browns 23, Steelers 21… Actual result: Steelers 26, Browns 23 (because the Browns should have won)
Eagles 23, Cowboys 14… Actual result: Eagles 27, Cowboys 13
Colts 28, Jaguars 24… Actual result: Colts 24, Jaguars 20 (it was a good week)

Worst picks:
Raiders 21, Broncos 16… Actual result: Broncos 24, Raiders 6
Seahawks 31, Niners 14… Actual result: Seahawks 25, Niners 23
Redskins 24, Giants 20… Actual result: Giants 19, Redskins 10

Let’s get to tomorrow’s games.

Oakland Raiders (12-4, 10-6 against the spread) at Houston Texans (9-7, 7-8-1):
Spread: Texans favored by 3.5
Over/under: 36.5
My prediction: I’m far from the first person who has said this, but I think it’s the best way to describe this game: this is the NFL’s version of a play-in game between 16-seeds in the NCAA tournament for the right to get demolished in the next round. It didn’t have to be this way. The Raiders were exciting and dangerous with Derek Carr, a real threat to knock off the Patriots in a shootout. They have a very talented offense, with an offensive line they’ve invested heavily in (it shows), running backs who racked up the sixth most yards in the NFL, and two explosive receivers (Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree). But they don’t have Carr, and they don’t even have his backup, Matt McGloin (limited in practice, not starting). They have Connor Cook, a rookie quarterback who I know best for being inaccurate when he played for Michigan State. I held out hope that they could have a functional run-first offense without Carr, but that was pretty clearly not the case in Denver. It’s also probably not going to be the case in Houston. Left tackle Donald Penn is out this week, and the Texans have a strong defense and an especially scary pass rush. Oakland’s defense against the pass would also be a problem, but less so given that they’re playing Houston.

I would say that the Raiders have no chance… except for the fact that Houston’s starting quarterback is (again) Brock Osweiler. Seriously. We’re going to see Cook-Osweiler IN THE PLAYOFFS. There’s a reason that this game has the lowest over/under of the season. The Texans will at least have the benefit of playing at home, where they’re 7-1. They gave up just 16.6 points per game at home this year. They also have a rested Lamar Miller. But let’s not kid ourselves here. Osweiler is atrocious, and this offense has no chance of having a big game, even against the Raiders’ bad defense.

Both teams are going to have a lot of trouble scoring. The difference will be that Houston is used to having trouble scoring, while Oakland isn’t. The Raiders were shell-shocked last week, and it has to be tough to get over the loss of your franchise quarterback. Texans win 20-14.
Texans cover

Detroit Lions (9-7, 8-7-1) at Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1, 7-9):
Spread: Seahawks favored by 8
Over/under: 44
My prediction: I was not impressed by the Seahawks this season and especially over the last month. But they’re a heck of a lot better than the Lions. Detroit’s lost three games in a row and won one game this season by more than a touchdown. They also have a banged-up quarterback, as Matthew Stafford has been clearly hampered by his finger injury. They don’t have a run game, and they’re not going to be able to put up a lot of points in Seattle. I see this going the way Detroit’s games against Dallas and Green Bay went. The Lions will hang around for a while, and then it will become apparent that their offense is nowhere near good enough to keep up with an opposing offense that has the benefit of playing their defense.

The Lions are dead-last in defensive DVOA this year, and it isn’t even close. They have the second-worst defense against the pass of the 21st century — only last year’s Saints were worse. That will be music to Russell Wilson’s ears. I know the Seahawks have lost some playmakers, but it won’t matter against Detroit. They still have Wilson, Jimmy Graham, and Doug Baldwin. They always perform well in the playoffs, getting great performances out of bench players. I don’t think their offense is all that good, but it’ll look like Atlanta’s offense this week.

I expect the Seahawks to win this game easily. It might be like the Detroit-Green Bay game, with the Lions scoring a late touchdown to make it a one score game, but the outcome will never be in doubt. This isn’t to say that I think Seattle will make a run in the playoffs; in fact, I believe they’re very likely to lose to the Falcons in the second round. The losses of Tyler Lockett, C.J. Prosise, and especially Earl Thomas will be evident against more talented teams. They’ll be hardly noticeable against the Lions, who have had a nice season but who just don’t have the talent on either side of the ball to challenge the Seahawks in Seattle. Seahawks win 31-17.
Seahawks cover

The Huge Game Tonight… Is No Longer As Huge

Posted: 01/01/2017 by levcohen in Football

The NFL has to be cursing out Kirk Cousins and the Washington Redskins right now. With its 19-10 loss to the Giants, who had absolutely nothing to play for, Washington just cost the league its one chance of playoff intrigue in Week 17. The Redskins are eliminated, which means that both Green Bay and Detroit have clinched playoff spots. The game tonight just lost a lot of oomph, didn’t it? Sure, the teams would both like to win the NFC North and earn a home playoff game. But there’s no way it’ll be as intense as it would have been, especially since the loser might get the better first round matchup. I think I’d probably rather play the Giants at home in round one than the Seahawks on the road, but it’s close, especially since Seattle has really struggled of late. Regardless, the game lost a lot of luster when Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie intercepted his second pass of the game to seal New York’s win.

Green Bay Packers (9-6, 8-6-1) at Detroit Lions (9-6, 8-6-1):
Spread: Packers favored by 3.5
Over/under: 50.5
My prediction: This feels too easy. The Packers have been rolling, with five consecutive wins since Aaron Rodgers proclaimed that the 4-6 Packers would win out. The Lions have backed into the playoffs with double-digit losses in Dallas and New York. I bet you can guess who the public is betting on in this game (about 80% of the money is on the Packers).

I have to say a few things before I inevitably pick the Packers to win the game. The Lions are 6-1 at home. Not sure what that’s worth, but it’s something. Top cornerback Darius Slay, one of the best CBs in the NFL, is back this week, and just in the nick of time. He can shadow Jordy Nelson and should limit the receiver, who’s seemed pretty unstoppable of late against inferior cornerbacks. The Lions won’t have to worry about Randall Cobb, who’s out with a left ankle injury. Unfortunately, Aaron Rodgers will probably still be able to pick the #32 ranked DVOA defense apart. The Lions won’t get much pressure on Rodgers, and we all know what that means. And on the other side of the ball, the Lions will be without center Travis Swanson and right tackle Riley Reiff. Mike Daniels and Green Bay’s hot pass rush are going to make Matthew Stafford feel uncomfortable. Recently, that’s led to pretty bad results for the Lions’ offense.

This line is probably on the wrong side of three points, but I don’t want to pick against the Packers here, especially since Stafford is a little banged up. I think the Lions’ defense got exposed last week after they’d gotten away with a lot against bad offenses the previous few months. They could well get exposed again tonight. Packers win 31-23.
Packers cover