Archive for January, 2018

Most years, the week leading up to the Super Bowl isn’t particularly exciting. There are a lot of silly storylines and not much else. The week comes during the dog days of the basketball season, not quite close enough to the trade deadline to expect a ton of trades. It’s around the NHL All-Star break. So I wasn’t expecting many fireworks this week. I was wrong. Blake Griffin was traded in a move I wrote about on Monday. And since then, three more major things have happened. John Wall and Kevin Love became the second and third All-Stars to suffer significant injuries in the weeks leading up to the All-Star break. Neither injury is as bad or heartbreaking as DeMarcus Cousins’s torn Achilles’, but both Love and Wall are set to miss around two months. The Wall injury is more concerning, both because of the nature of the injury and because the Wizards rely on him more than the Cavs do Love. Wall’s undergoing a knee scope, which is significant because he’s been hampered by knee injuries for most of his career. He had surgeries performed on both of his knees in May of 2016, and he missed 11 games earlier this year due to knee problems. He hasn’t been as good this year as he was in his career year last season, but he’s still averaging 19.4 points and 9.3 assists per game. The Wizards are +5.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court and -2.0 when he’s off it (as usual, I’m using Cleaning the Glass for these stats because they filter out garbage time). Without Wall, Bradley Beal will naturally take on a bigger role, much like he did earlier in the season. It’s not Beal I’m worried about, although the huge minutes he’s getting does make me feel a bit queasy given his injury history. It’s the fact that the Wizards are a shallow team that now have to rely more heavily upon below average players like Tomas Satoransky, Jodie Meeks, and Mike Scott. The only healthy point guard on their roster is Tim Frazier, a 6’1″ player who’s well below average at just about everything. To make matters worse, the Wizards’ upcoming schedule is very tough. Just four of their next 21 games come against non-playoff teams (going by the current standings), and three of those four games are on the road. Washington isn’t going to be favored very often over the next few months. The Wizards currently sit at 28-22, in a cluster of teams sitting between fourth and seventh in the Eastern Conference. But they’re just three games up on the eight seed and 4.5 up on the Pistons, who are on the outside looking in and just acquired Blake Griffin. I think it’s possible that Washington could fall out of the playoffs entirely, especially if Wall’s return from injury is delayed.

As for the Cavs, there’s no doubt that the Love injury, a broken hand, hurts. He’s their second leading scorer and easily the best rebounder on a team that doesn’t have many bigs. But I have a feeling that they’ll be able to figure things out. They currently sit at 30-20, third in the East, and they still have LeBron James. Love’s a good offensive player, but Cleveland has a pretty seamless offensive replacement in Channing Frye, who has scored 36 points in 42 minutes over two games since Love went down after putting up 34 points in the first 12 January games. And maybe this injury will allow Isaiah Thomas to assert himself on offense and allow Cleveland to fortify things a little bit on the defensive end. This injury certainly doesn’t make them better, but it’s not the gut punch that the loss of Wall is for Washington.

Over in the NFL, the Redskins and Chiefs mercifully hijacked Super Bowl week by making a trade that certainly surprised me (granted, any NFL trade in January would have surprised me). Kansas City sent Alex Smith, who had one year left on his contract, to Washington for cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third round pick. For the Chiefs, it’s a trade that makes complete sense. Smith became a near lock to be dealt this offseason as soon as Kansas City traded up to draft Pat Mahomes in the first round of last year’s draft. When Mahomes showed his potential in his lone start, the likelihood of a trade increased even further. That’s not to take anything away from Smith; he’s a good quarterback who is coming off of a career season (4,042 yards and a 26/5 TD/INT ratio). But the Chiefs put all of the eggs in the Mahomes basket, so this is a move they had to make. The fact that they’re coming off of a major choke against the Titans in the playoff certainly makes moving Smith easier to stomach. The return of Fuller and a third isn’t overwhelming in a league with a handful of teams desperate for competent quarterback play, but it’s good enough. Fuller was terrible in his rookie year in Washington but excellent last season; as the Redskins’ slot corner, he had a PFF grade of 90.0, sixth among all cornerbacks in football. I expect the Chiefs to try to move him back outside to take care of the side of the field not covered by Marcus Peters. That side has been a problem for Kansas City, as evidenced by their late-season signing of Darrelle Revis, a move that did not pay off for the Chiefs. If Fuller can play anywhere near as well in KC as he did last year in Washington, he’ll end up being the far bigger coup than the third round pick that’s accompanying him to Kansas City. Even if he ends up just being a decent corner, it’s a fine trade for the Chiefs to make. Everything comes down to Mahomes, and that would have been true no matter what the Chiefs got in return for Smith.

As for the Redskins, this is a head-scratcher. They’ve handled their quarterback situation terribly ever since selecting Robert Griffin and Kirk Cousins in the same draft. In Cousins, they had a quarterback who is at least as good as Smith (I’d argue better) and four years younger. But they’ve failed on multiple occasions to lock Cousins up to a long-term deal, instead franchising him not once but twice. Last summer, the Redskins not only gave him a laughably bad offer but also publicly threw him under the bus, culminating in a press conference during with their executives repeatedly called him “Curt.” The four year extension the Redskins are giving Smith is worth $23.5 million per year and will net the QB $71 million in guaranteed money. Cousins will undoubtedly get more, but that’s because he’s younger and better. The Redskins could have locked him up at any time over the past few years. The fact that they’re letting a franchise quarterback walk in free agency and instead traded for a quarterback who’s known for being about average and who will start his new contract at 34-years-old is bad. The fact that they also had to sacrifice a young cornerback who was arguably their best defensive player this year and a third round pick to do so is worse.

I’ll tell you this much: the Kirk Cousins free agency experience is going to be fun. He’s going to have a lot of suitors, and he’s going to make a lot of money. The Broncos, Vikings, Jets, Cardinals, Browns, and Bills come to mind as teams that would be willing to spend an absurd amount of money for Cousins. Good for him!


Breaking Down the Blake Griffin Trade

Posted: 01/29/2018 by levcohen in Basketball

There have been rumors swirling about the Clippers shopping their two star big men for years now, but I must say that this Blake Griffin trade shocked me. Recently, it had been DeAndre Jordan, not Griffin, dominating most of the trade buzz. And the Clippers, winners of 14 of 20, are surging and have closed to within a game of a playoff spot, with one team ahead of them (New Orleans) recently losing a star player to a season-ending injury. It thus would have made sense for the Clippers, a team that has rarely had star, marketable players who are perfect for LA, to hold onto at least Griffin and perhaps both of their big men. Instead, news broke tonight that they had traded Griffin to the Pistons for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick that will likely convey this year (it’s just top-4 protected), and a second round pick. It’s a stunning trade (you can see how much it surprised Griffin), one made between two teams lingering in their respective playoff races. I’m going to break down the trade from both angles, starting with the Clippers.

For the Clippers, this looks like an attempt to jumpstart a rebuild while remaining competitive in the short-term. It can be dangerous to try to thread that needle. The first round pick is valuable, especially since the Pistons are probably unlikely to make the playoffs even after this trade. It’s likely to end up in the 10-14 range in a draft that seems about average after the top few picks. That’s a good start. But there are first round picks involved in most trades for star players. The interesting part of the trade is that the Clippers are also getting two of Detroit’s starters in this trade. Harris is having a career season, averaging 18 points per game on 45/41/85 shooting. But when I wrote about the Pistons on January 11th (more on that soon), he was shooting 44% from the beyond the arc and I said that I expected some regression given that he was a career 33% shooter from three before this season. In eight games since, he’s 12-46 from beyond the arc (26.1%). For the season, he’s used his strong iso game and his shooting to make a huge positive impact to Detroit’s offense — they’re +8.2 points per 100 possessions offensively with him on the floor. But he’s given most of that back on defense (they’re giving up 7.8 more points per 100 possessions defensively with him on the floor), meaning that he’s been about a net average player. Harris is certainly a solid starter, and he’s making a reasonable $16 million this year and $14.8 million next year before he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

The other starter that the Clippers are getting is Avery Bradley. I’ve always been a fan of Bradley’s, but his defensive reputation is not backed up by the stats (as I touched on when I wrote about the Pistons). For the third straight year, Bradley’s team has been significantly worse defensively when he’s been on the floor. As good as he is in terms of on-ball defense, he can’t always compensate for his lack of height (he’s a 6’2″ shooting guard) and thus becomes a liability on the glass and on switches. And he’s a pretty inefficient offensive player, providing solid three point numbers but not much else. He’s not much of a playmaker, and he’s shooting just 55% at the rim, putting him in the 18th percentile of wings. He’s also an unrestricted free agent after this year, so it remains to be seen whether the Clippers are making this move in order to keep Bradley or to open up cap space for free agency.

Then there’s Boban, the 7’3″ Serb with great touch around the basket. Marjanovic is averaging 24.8 points and 12 rebounds per 36 minutes this year, and that’s not a fluke; in his career, he’s putting up 22.4 and 14.1 per 36. The problem, of course, is that he’s so immobile and such a defensive liability that he plays just nine minutes per game, right in line with his career average. The real reason he’s in the trade is to match contracts, as he’s making $7 million per year both this season and next season.

So the Clippers got those three and a fairly valuable first round pick for their star player. It’s pretty hard to believe that they made this trade thinking that they’d improve this season. Griffin is far better than anyone they’re getting back, and they’re also still looking to trade Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan, with a plan to “focus on young players and draft picks while competing for a playoff spot this season,” according to ESPN sources. I can see one other reason that the Clippers made this trade: they wanted to clear cap space before this year’s free agency. Bradley’s coming off the books, and they no longer have Griffin’s $30 million + contract to worry about, making it more plausible that they can clear max cap space for a top tier free agent. The problem is: what top tier free agent would want to come to a Clippers team without Griffin, who was far and away the team’s top recruiting tool? I suspect the answer will be nobody, which means that the Clippers will likely be in purgatory after this season if they continue to try to straddle contention and a full rebuild. That’s why I’m not all that fond of this trade from LA’s point of view. I don’t hate it, because Griffin has a huge contract and this Clippers team was going nowhere this season. And the pick, which will likely end up in the late lottery, is a boon for the Clippers. But I don’t like the Harris/Bradley/Marjanovic piece of the trade, and I wonder if the Clips may put Harris and Bradley back on the blog in order to see if they can retain more young players and picks. The bottom line is that I don’t like the strategy of trying to contend and rebuild at the same time, but this could end up being a good trade for the Clippers if they continue to jettison establish players for future assets.

It was clear that the Pistons were going nowhere fast. In the eight games between when I wrote that I was confused by Detroit’s success and this trade, Detroit went 0-8. They slipped out of the playoffs and are now three games out of the eight seed. The season was slipping away, and they acted. Pairing Griffin with Andre Drummond makes a lot of sense, because the Pistons already know that Griffin can work next to a springy big who is most comfortable around the basket. Drummond is a much better passer than DeAndre Jordan is, and Griffin and Drummond will form one of the best passing big men duos in the NBA. Griffin ranks in the 99th percentile of bigs in terms of assist percentage, while Drummond’s in the 91st percentile. I definitely think those two will be good together. The problem is that the rest of the Pistons’ roster is pretty barren. With Reggie Jackson still out indefinitely, Ish Smith will remain the starting point guard. And without Bradley, the already thin corps of wings gets even thinner. The Pistons are going to need at least two of Reggie Bullock, Stanley Johnson, Luke Kennard, and Langston Galloway to provide consistent, solid minutes. Bullock’s had a few nice games, but none of those four players have been better than replacement level throughout their careers. That’s a very bad sign. Another bad sign is the fact that the Pistons will have very little cap space over the next few years. Even in 2019-20, they’re committed to paying Griffin $34.5 million, Drummond $27 million, and Jackson $18 million. That’s Detroit’s Big Three for the foreseeable, and I’m not sure it’s going to be good enough to compete with other teams’ nuclei (in fact, I’m sure it won’t be good enough). Griffin is a great player, but he’s under contract for at least three more years at massive cap hits and then has a player option for $39 million going into the 2021-22 season. He’s a 6’10” player who has missed 16 games already this season, 21 last year, 47 the year before, and 15 the year before that. It’s very dangerous to put all your eggs in that basket. And yet, I don’t mind that the Pistons are doing it. Griffin’s averaging 22.4/7.9/5.4. He’s not the leaper he once was, but he’s still a great offensive player, and the advanced stats back that up. It would have been tough for the Pistons to get a player that good in free agency, so they saw their chance now and took it. I think the odds are pretty high that this move won’t pan out, but I still think it’s a nice roll of the dice. I’m intrigued to see how well Drummond and Griffin can play together.

Here’s hoping we see more big deals get completed before the February 8th trade deadline.

Every year at about this time, there’s a rush to panic about the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are inevitably struggling through the dog days of the NBA season. The panic is almost welcomed by the Cavs’ players, who (cough cough LeBron James cough cough) rather than trying to squelch it instead intentionally stoke the fire. This year is slightly different because it is the second Cavs freakout of the season; the first came after a 5-7 start, which was immediately followed by an 18-1 stretch. Since then, though, the Cavs are 4-11, which has brought about Freakout #2. In the past week, multiple Cavs stars (we can all guess who those stars are, especially since the Cavs don’t have that many stars) have vented to the media about the roster’s problems, expressing doubt that the problems — among them a lack of defense and an aging roster — could be solved simply through patience and an eventual flip of a switch. When asked about whether coach Ty Lue should be fired, LeBron voiced his support, albeit unconvincingly. After an embarrassing home loss to the Thunder (OKC put up 148), the Cavs held a players-only meeting, during which everyone yelled at Kevin Love for leaving the previous game due to illness. Then, the team looked lost against a shorthanded San Antonio team, losing its sixth game in seven (and the only win was a one point victory over the Magic in a game that the Cavs led by 20 at halftime). Everyone is angry at everyone else. LeBron is being passive aggressive. Lue is on the hot seat and is about to change the starting lineup (but he won’t tell us how). The team is too old. Pretty scary stuff, right? Well, that’s why a lot of people are already writing this team off barring a big move at the trade deadline. But then there’s the fact that we’ve seen all of this before. The Cavs have struggled during the regular season in past years, particularly defensively. They’ve been old for years. LeBron has been passive aggressive for years. Other players have blamed Kevin Love for stuff before. Ty Lue has been on the hot seat before. The defense has been pretty bad in past regular seasons, too. And yet, the Cavs have made the Finals three straight times, and LeBron has made the Finals seven straight times (that’s ridiculous, by the way). That’s why a lot of people are writing off this stretch as just another short Cleveland swoon and saying that this team is still a legitimate title contender. The truth is somewhere in between. This team has problems that are more severe and less fixable than in past years, but they’re still the odds-on favorites to win the Eastern Conference.

I said above that the Cavs have had defensive issues in the past. But those issues have generally led to Cleveland being a mediocre defense rather than a terrible one. They’ve ranked between 10th and 22nd in regular season defensive net rating over the last three years and have always improved markedly in the playoffs, thanks largely to more effort from LeBron. This year, they’re giving up 109.9 points per 100 possessions, which makes them the second-worst defense in the league. Per Cleaning the Glass, which removes garbage time stats (and is therefore preferable), the Cavs are giving up 112 points per 100 possessions, putting them in a tie for last with the Sacramento Kings. That’s not good, and it’s not something that can be fully corrected without major personnel changes. Can the Cavs improve defensively? Sure. The hole is so big that, even if the defense improves about as much as it did the last few years, it will still be a liability. And it makes sense. Somehow, the Cavs traded Kyrie Irving this offseason and still managed to get worse defensively. Isaiah Thomas, bless his soul, was a poor defender before being hampered by a hip injury. The Cavs are giving up 120.9 points per 100 possessions (per Cleaning the Glass) when he’s been on the floor, and it’s no coincidence that their swoon has come since he returned from injury. Dwyane Wade was once a good defender but is no longer one. Neither is Derrick Rose. Jae Crowder has been a massive disappointment on both sides of the ball for the Cavs. Those were the four big additions Cleveland made this offseason in order to replace the void left by Irving. Apparently, the Cavs had the chance to get both Paul George and Eric Bledsoe in a three-team trade for Irving. If that offer was really on the table, I can’t believe they didn’t take it. Those two are exactly what Cleveland needs right now — very good two-way players.

I think it’s safe to say now that the Kyrie trade the Cavs ended up making was not a good move, especially in the short-term. It remains to be seen what the Brooklyn first round pick they got in that trade turns into, but Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder is a pitiful return for a dominant scorer like Irving. Cleveland’s still good offensively — it’s hard not to be when you surround LeBron with shooting — but they’re not as good, and they certainly don’t have the same ceiling. Kevin Love was expected to become a bigger part of the offense, but his numbers have stayed stagnant — they’re very good but not star-level (18.4 points per game, 40% shooting from three). Thomas has looked rusty-at-best since returning, and he’s shooting 39% from the floor and 28% from three. Aside from that, the Cavs have a bunch of role players. And it’s hard to get too excited about a terrible defensive team whose main offensive playmakers are LeBron James and a sub-100% Isaiah Thomas. There’s a reason the Cavs have a negative net rating. Bizarrely, Cleveland has actually been worse with James on the court than without him. In his first three seasons of his second stint with the Cavs, James placed in the 99th, 98th, and 98th percentile in terms of on/off difference. This year, he’s in the 37th percentile, which is yet another data point that hints that something more serious is wrong this year.

All of this means that the Cavs are probably less of a threat to Golden State than they were last year, when they lost in five games. But I still think they should be considered the odds-on favorites to win the Eastern Conference for two simple reasons. The first is that they have LeBron James. And as long as LeBron James is healthy (he never gets hurt) and effective (he always is), his team will be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. LeBron is quietly having one of his better statistical seasons. He’s shooting 55% from the floor (highest since his last Miami season) and 36% from three. He’s averaging 26.8 points (most since his last Miami season), 7.9 rebounds, and 8.6 assists per game. He’s chipped in with 1.1 blocks (most since 08-09) and 1.6 steals (most since 14-15). It hasn’t led to as much winning as in the past, but LeBron gets the benefit of the doubt at this point. The second reason that they’re still clear East favorites is that they don’t have much competition. Despite all their troubles, they sit in third in the East, and nobody below them has more than a slim chance to make a run deep in the playoffs. Only two teams in the East have point differentials of greater than +1.3, and that’s the two teams ahead of the Cavs in the standings. And I just don’t trust the Celtics or Raptors, at least not yet. I don’t think Boston is good enough offensively (they rank 17th in offensive net rating and fall off a cliff when Kyrie Irving is out). And while the Raptors have been by far the most dominant team in the East this year, they have a history of playing rather poorly in the playoffs against the Cavs. They’ve played in each of the last two postseasons, and the Cavs are 8-2 and have a point differential of +15.4. This Toronto roster is very similar to last season’s, so at the very least the Cavs have a very good chance to beat the Raptors. Does Cleveland have a great team? No. But they have LeBron and a roster that’s likely to improve going forward, and that’s enough to make them the favorites in the East.

The Cavs are rumored to be interested in trading for Kings’ guard George Hill, which makes sense. Hill would help the defense and is also shooting 45% from three this year. Cleveland will be in the market for players who get bought out by other teams and are looking to play for a contender. And the Cavs still have two first round picks, including the valuable Brooklyn pick. The elephant in the room, of course, is LeBron James’s status as a free agent after this year. According to Brian Windhorst, the main reason the Bledsoe+George for Irving trade fell through was that Dan Gilbert sought (and didn’t get) a promise from LeBron that he’d stay in Cleveland beyond this season. At the very least, James is keeping his options open, which means that Cleveland may be less than eager to trade future assets for veteran players. That may mean no major trades, but the Cavs will still surely improve their roster, starting with the likely trade for Hill. So is it time for Cavs’ fans to panic? Yes and no. The struggles are real and probably permanent, but they may not be enough to derail the Cavs’ Finals chances.

Championship Game Previews

Posted: 01/21/2018 by levcohen in Football

These are not the four teams I imagined making it to the Conference Championship games before the season started. Sure, I was higher on the Vikings and Eagles than most, but I didn’t think either team would finish near the top of the NFC. It’s also shocking to me that the Blake Bortles-led Jaguars have made it this far. The Patriots, of course, are the obvious exception. So can the upstart Jags knock off the closest thing to NFL royalty? And which backup quarterback will have the chance to win a Super Bowl? Here are my best guesses.

Jacksonville Jaguars (12-6, 10-8) at New England Patriots (14-3, 12-5):
Spread: Patriots favored by 7.5
Over/under: 45.5
My prediction: Tom Brady apparently cut his thumb during practice this week. People immediately freaked out about it, for obvious reasons, but I, knowing the Patriots’ penchant for putting Brady on the injury report almost every week, immediately thought of it as a non-factor. But most times the Patriots list Brady on the injury report, nobody takes it seriously. This time, a lot of people are. The line, which opened up at 9.5 points, has dropped by two points. There are whispers that the injury is worse than people are reporting, and that there’s a good chance it’ll have a big impact on Brady today. This is especially notable given the fact that New England’s opponent is perhaps the defense most likely to make him pay for any slip-up. During the Brady era, there have been two clear recipes for a playoff upset of the Patriots: have Tom Coughlin, and have a defense that can put pressure on Brady without blitzing. The Jaguars have both. In Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue, they have two versatile pass-rushers who can wreck a game. Malik Jackson is another consistent pass-rusher. If Jacksonville can get pressure on Brady, they have a chance to force some mistakes, because it’s unlikely that the Patriots’ receivers are going to get instant separation from Jalen Ramsey or A.J. Bouye, two of the best corners in the NFL. I know Antonio Brown scored two touchdowns on Bouye last week (the first two TDs Bouye has given up all season), but even those came against super tight coverage and necessitated other-worldly catches by an outstanding player. There’s a reason the Jags picked off opposing QBs 21 times this season (second in the NFL) and three times in two playoff games. Of course, the Patriots know all of this, and will surely have a plan that stunts the effectiveness of Jacksonville’s defense. First of all, they have Rob Gronkowski, who’s near impossible for anyone to cover, let alone a defense that finished 20th in DVOA against tight ends. The Jaguars apparently may put Jalen Ramsey on Gronk, and while I love Jalen Ramsey, he gives up five inches and roughly 70 pounds to Gronk. The Patriots also have a run game that’s been quietly good this season (third in DVOA). Dion Lewis has been excellent as both a runner and a receiver, and the Pats also have playoff killer James White. I can envision them going big and trying to pound the rock on a Jacksonville team that sometimes struggles against the run. They’ll likely go no-huddle in an effort to tire the Jags’ defensive line. And then they’ll get their usual chunk plays from Gronk over the middle of the field. The key for Jacksonville is to limit the number of long drives the Patriots have. There’s no doubt in my mind that Gronkowski will make some plays or that the RBs will have some effectiveness. But can the Jags pressure Brady and get off the field on third down?

On the other side of the ball, it’s nearly impossible to predict what we’re going to see from Jacksonville’s offense. It’s the most inconsistent unit in the NFL, an offense that went from playing anemically against the Bills to putting up 45 points in Pittsburgh. I tend to believe that the former is more likely for an offense playing in Foxborough against a Bill Belichick defense. But I’ve also maintained all season long that the Patriots’ defense is very beatable. Secondary aside, I just don’t think it’s a very talented defense. It has improved massively throughout the season, but it can still be exploited, especially by a strong running game. And if Leonard Fournette is healthy, the Jaguars should have a strong running game. Fournette looked dominant against the Steelers last week, and Jacksonville couldn’t be stopped. Could the same thing happen this week? I guess, but it seems just as likely that it won’t, even against a mediocre defense. I don’t want to talk that much about this side, because I think it simply comes down to which Jacksonville offense shows up. If it’s the one that couldn’t move the ball against Buffalo, the Jags have no chance. But if it’s the one that blew past the Steelers last week, we could be in for a super fun, close game.

I can’t pick against the Patriots, not when they’re playing at home against a Blake Bortles-led team. The Jags will do everything they can to protect Bortles, but in the end I think it’s likely that he’ll make a few mistakes. No team capitalizes on mistakes like the Patriots. Brady’s hand injury and the Jags’ variance are two factors that give the Jaguars a real chance of winning, but I’m going to pick New England to win 27-17.
Patriots cover

Minnesota Vikings (14-3, 12-4-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (14-3, 11-5-1):
Spread: Vikings favored by 3
Over/under: 39
My prediction: The Stefon Diggs play was the craziest ending to a game I can remember. I’ve watched the replay a billion times, and the play has seemed more unbelievable each time I watch it. Does that play make the Vikings the team of destiny, or does it mean that they peaked too early? The answer, of course, is that it means nothing going forward, but that won’t stop people from pointing to it regardless of what happens today.

This game will likely be decided by which quarterback makes fewer mistakes. Case Keenum has had a really good season, and Nick Foles is a solid-ish quarterback, but both can be prone to mistakes, and both are facing excellent defenses. The Eagles had a tough time punching the ball into the end zone against the Falcons last week, masking what I thought was a pretty solid performance by Foles and Philly’s offense. They’ll need to be even better against Minnesota, because while the Falcons are a decent all-around defense, the Vikings are elite. Not only do they have difference-makers on defense, but they also have a brilliant defensive play-caller in Mike Zimmer. The Falcons’ defensive plan is to allow short completions before converging and making a tackle. The Vikings’ defensive plan is to allow nothing, ever. And they have the personnel and the play-calling to be successful more often than not. The Eagles just aren’t going to score a lot of points against this defense, so the goal must be to play conservatively, avoid turnovers, and capitalize on any defensive mistakes the Vikings make. This can be a successful game-plan for the Eagles, especially when they’re playing at home. Just look at last week, when the Eagles won in spite of an offensive performance that was far from dominant and in spite of losing the turnover battle.

The Vikings have had more offensive success than the Foles-led Eagles, but I’m not convinced that they’ll be able to do all that much in Philadelphia. If they do, they’ll likely win the game easily, because Philly’s offense isn’t explosive enough to keep up. Minnesota certainly has dynamic weapons in Diggs, Adam Thielen (who has been hampered with a back injury this week but will play), and Jerick McKinnon out of the backfield. But they, too, will likely play conservatively on offense, as most teams do in Philadelphia. Because when the Eagles’ pass-rush starts rolling, it wrecks quarterbacks and games. No defense recorded more pressures this season than the Eagles, who have a number of excellent pass-rushers. Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox are the two headliners, but the Eagles also have the depth to send out dangerous fresh pass-rushers on passing downs. Like the Jaguars, they should be able to get pressure with just four rushers, which could force Keenum into making some ill-advised throws. Because when pressured, Keenum tends to throw the ball up for grabs rather than throwing it away. It’ll be interesting to see if Philadelphia can take advantage of that.

Both offenses will likely look to establish the run early, but I’m skeptical about how much success either team will have on the ground. The Eagles rank third in DVOA against the run and the Vikings are fifth, and I’m sure both Zimmer and Jim Schwartz will try to make the opposing offense one-dimensional early on. But if the game is decided by a few big plays on the ground, I think those plays will more likely come from Philly’s Jay Ajayi than Minnesota’s Latavius Murray. Ajayi looked dynamic and spry against the Falcons last week and is always a threat to break a big play. It’s more likely that he’ll be shut down by Minnesota’s front, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

Close, low-scoring games often come down to special teams. The Eagles probably have a slight advantage there, as their kicker has proven to be excellent in high-pressure situations and on long field goals. Jake Elliott is 6/7 from 50+ yards this season, including a huge 53-yarder to end the first half last week. His long this season is 61 yards. Meanwhile, Kai Forbath is solid, but he’s been known to miss some kicks this season (he’s 35/42), and his season-long is 53 yards. He missed one last week against the Saints, but did redeem himself by hitting three others, including a 53-yarder. I’m not sure either team has a huge special teams edge, but a special teams mistake could well decide the outcome of a game in which field goals and field position will be vital.

Last week, the Eagles were three point home underdogs against a better team, and I picked them to win, citing their defense and homefield advantage. They did, despite losing the turnover battle 2-0. The Vikings are much better than the Falcons, so the Eagles can’t afford to give the ball away cheaply this week. But I’m going to pick Philadelphia to win again this week. I expect it to be a tight game throughout, and I think the fact that Philly is playing at home and is so good defensively will be the difference. A higher-scoring game probably isn’t good news for the Eagles. Eagles win 19-17.
Eagles cover

About this time every year (give or take a few weeks), the dominant questions in college basketball become: who can we pencil in to the Final Four? Who’s this year’s dominant team? Can anyone go undefeated? You may remember the 2014-15 Kentucky team that was absolutely stacked, good enough to allow coach John Calipari to play two completely different lineups, both of which were dominant. That team had Devin Booker, Aaron Harrison, Tyler Ulis, Andrew Harrison, Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Trey Lyles, Dakari Johnson, and Marcus Lee, among others. They were the main focus of attention in college basketball all season long, and for good reason: they rolled through the season, going 38-0 before losing a shocker to Wisconsin in the Final Four. That Kentucky team was an outlier, but it wasn’t the only one to be deemed *dominant* early in a season. Almost every year, some team (generally Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, or Kansas) is supposed to be by far the best team, and that becomes a central storyline of that season. Duke was touted as the dominant team early this year, and probably will be against next season after they became the first school ever to nab the top three players (R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cameron Reddish) in a recruiting class. And that need to seek out dominance — whether it’s really there or not — makes sense, because for the most part people want to see exceptional performances. For all the talk about whether the Golden State Warriors are hurting the NBA, ratings have never been higher, because people are fascinated by the Warriors and by the intrigue of whether they can keep winning. People want to find a team to hate, which is why the NFL probably doesn’t mind that the Patriots keep winning. But I think men’s college basketball is best when it’s wide open, as it seems to be this year. There’s a reason March Madness is called March Madness. It’s the reason that it’s one of the most anticipated sporting events every year and that people are sorely disappointed when things go as expected. The people that want complete dominance should simply watch the women’s NCAA Tournament. This year, there’s already been a lot of madness, and there’s a lot more to come.

It became clear that this was going to be a good year when Duke lost games at Boston College (ranked 73rd in Kenpom) and NC State (67th) in a span of four games. Whatever you think of court-stormings, it’s really fun when unranked teams knock off powerhouses at home. There wasn’t a single undefeated team heading into the new year, the first time that’s happened since the 1948-49 season. North Carolina lost a home game to Wofford. Arizona lost on three consecutive days in the same tournament that now-#3 Purdue lost to Tennessee and Western Kentucky. The last-place game in that tournament was Arizona-Purdue. Kansas has lost three times at home, which is unheard of. Wichita State, the #7 team in the country, lost at home to unranked SMU this week before losing at Houston (they won’t be #7 after this week). Florida went from being a top-five team to losing back-to-back home games to Florida State and Loyola-Chicago. Across all of the top conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12, Big East), just three teams are undefeated in conference play: Purdue, Ohio State, and Virginia. For a while, it even looked likely that the craziest possible thing in college basketball — Kansas failing to win at least a share of its conference title — might happen this year. But that may be asking too much. They’ve won five straight games, including a big comeback win at West Virginia, and now lead the conference at 6-1.

I really like the way things are shaping up. So far, both the rankings and advanced stats websites like Kenpom agree that Villanova, Purdue, and Virginia have been the three best teams in college basketball in some order. I’ve already mentioned that Purdue’s only two losses came on back-to-back days in an early season tournament. They’ve rattled off 15 straight wins since, against largely mediocre competition. Advanced metrics are in love with the Boilermakers, but I must say that I’m a bit skeptical about their Final Four potential, largely because I’m not sure their guard play is good enough (so far, it definitely has been). Virginia and Villanova have both managed to do what has in this crazy season been improbable: avoid bad losses (the fact that they only have one loss apiece certainly helps). Virginia’s lone loss came by seven points at West Virginia, while Villanova lost at Butler by eight points in a game during which the Bulldogs could not miss from three (15-23). If anyone can be penciled into the Final Four this year, it’s one of those two teams. But nobody’s saying that Villanova or Virginia is dominant and likely to run away from the pack, largely because neither school has the individual talent that other programs have. Indeed, the most talented teams in the nation (actually, Villanova is probably one of the most talented, but other than Villanova) are lurking behind the three frontrunners. Nobody will be sleeping on Michigan State, Duke, or Arizona (the top three teams in the preseason) come tournament time. Then there are bluebloods like North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky, all of whom seem to be in the midst of off years but have enough talent to be extremely dangerous if they put it all (or even most of it) together. Of course, I haven’t yet mentioned Trae Young, the top story in college basketball this season, or his fourth-ranked (but set to tumble after consecutive losses) Oklahoma team. I haven’t mentioned a ton of other teams that could also conceivably make a run deep into the NCAA Tournament. There may not be a single dominant team this year, but that makes this college basketball season that much more interesting and exciting.

Divisional Round Picks — Sunday Games

Posted: 01/14/2018 by levcohen in Football

I went into this weekend thinking that the NFC games were both likely to be competitive while the AFC ones were, well, less likely to be in doubt down the stretch. The first two games supported that belief. Philly-Atlanta ended on a goal-line stand, while the Patriots absolutely steamrolled the overmatched Titans. The Falcons reminded everyone of their flaws today, showing that it’s very rare for a team that didn’t play to its potential for most of the season to suddenly turn it on and look like a #1 seed. All 10 of their points came off of Philadelphia’s two turnovers, and they never got anything going offensively. Lead running back Devonta Freeman gained only seven yards on his 10 carries, and the Eagles were surprisingly good against Julio Jones (nine catches for 101 yards, but on 16 targets). Atlanta’s one touchdown came on a miraculous throw by Matt Ryan on third down after the Falcons had started the drive from the Eagles’ 18 yard line, which tells you all you need to know about their offense. The Eagles should be excited about the fact that they won despite playing a sloppy football game. They overcame a missed extra point, a muffed punt, three other fumbles (one lost), a few dropped interceptions, and some very questionable clock management. I’m not surprised that they won the game (I picked them to win, after all), but I am surprised that they won despite losing the turnover battle 2-0. Nick Foles wasn’t great (his 76.7% completion rate and 8.2 yards per attempt numbers are both very flattering), but he was good enough, especially in the second half. The Eagles will again be home underdogs next week, but they have a chance to win with a similar performance (hopefully minus the silly turnovers). Before we get there, though, there are two more games tomorrow.

Jacksonville Jaguars (11-6, 9-8 against the spread) at Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3, 7-9):
Spread: Steelers favored by 7
Over/under: 41
My prediction: Remember when the Jags came into Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers 30-9 back in Week 5? I do, if only hazily. Jacksonville forced five Ben Roethlisberger interceptions, including two pick-sixes, and made the score more lopsided than it should have been with a meaningless 90-yard touchdown jaunt by Leonard Fournette when the game had already been won. Blake Bortles threw the ball 14 times that day, completing eight of those passes for 95 yards and a pick. The Jaguars held Le’Veon Bell to 47 rushing yards, and Roethlisberger threw the ball 55 times. They’ll look to replicate that gameplan (shut down Bell, establish the running game, protect Bortles) tomorrow. There are a few reasons that they’re unlikely to be as successful this time around. The first is that Fournette is not the force he was when these teams first met. Since a 130 yard performance in the game following the Jags-Steelers matchup (that one, against the Rams, was fueled by a 75-yard touchdown run on Jacksonville’s first play from scrimmage), Fournette has carried the ball 159 times for 501 yards. That’s 3.15 yards per carry, which is not very good. Some of that was glossed over when Bortles had his weird hot streak, but now Bortles is back to being Bortles and Fournette still can’t run effectively against an eight man box (few runners have been able to do it since Adrian Peterson’s prime). Jacksonville’s offensive flaws were magnified in the first round of the playoffs, as despite the fact that they were playing at home against a mediocre defense, they managed just 10 points and 3.9 yards per play. The main reason they won the game was that the Bills weren’t ready for Bortles’s legs! Blake threw for 87 yards and ran for 88. I’m pretty sure he won’t have as much room to run against Pittsburgh. That leaves Jacksonville’s offense in a tough spot. Sure, they’d like to give the ball to Fournette 30 times and hope he can bust one or two of those carries for big gains, but it’s unlikely that they’ll stay in the game by going three-and-out time after time. Like it or not (and the Jags most certainly do not), Bortles is going to have to make some plays with his arm. It’s certainly doable against a Pittsburgh defense that was good for most of the year but slumped down the stretch (this is where I remind you of the Ryan Shazier injury, which was probably the catalyst for the decline). The Steelers have a beatable secondary, and the Jags do have some receivers who can make big plays. But their quarterback is Blake Bortles.

The Steelers are also much better offensively now than they were the first time these teams meet. Roethlisberger, who wondered to the media if he had lost his touch after the Jacksonville game (exact quote: “Maybe I don’t have it anymore”), surged down the stretch. Juju Smith-Schuster emerged as an electrifying weapon, and Martavis Bryant reemerged as a big-bodied terror for defensive backs. Now, with Antonio Brown returning from a calf injury and joining a very well-rested Le’Veon Bell (he sat out Week 17, meaning he’s had three weeks off), the Steelers should play as well offensively as they have all season. To assume that, though, would be disrespectful to a Jacksonville defense that may be the best unit in the NFL. Early in the year, they couldn’t stop the run. So they traded for Marcell Dareus and plugged him in at defensive tackle, and now they’re much better at stopping the run. It’s still their weak link as a defense, but the improvement has been noteworthy. I’ve written about this at length, but the Jaguars have pretty much the perfect personnel for a dominant pass defense. They have two elite cornerbacks and a great pass rush. They can get away with blitzing, because they trust their corners in single coverage. They can get away with dropping seven or eight into coverage, because they know Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, and Malik Jackson can get pressure on quarterbacks by themselves. This defense isn’t going to roll over.

As long as the Jags don’t turn the ball over multiple times, this game shouldn’t be a blowout. Jacksonville’s defense is just too good to allow a ton of long drives that lead to points. In the first meeting between these teams, Brown caught 10 passes for 157 yards. It was the most success anyone’s had against Jalen Ramsey all year, but that makes sense, because Brown is the best receiver in the NFL. It still took him 19 targets to put up those numbers, and that came when he was full strength. The latest reports are that, while he’s likely to play, AB is nowhere near 100%, and the Steelers are worried that his calf may not hold up in the cold weather (I don’t know why, but I’m not a doctor). That’s a big deal, because Brown’s going to get more single coverage in this game than he does in most games. The Jags are going to look first to shut down Bell, as they did in the first game between these two. If they do that and Brown isn’t healthy enough to capitalize on single coverage, the Jaguars have a real chance of winning this game in Pittsburgh. In the end, though, I just think that the gap between these two offenses will be too big for Jacksonville to overcome. I’m trying not to overthink this one. Steelers win 23-13.
Steelers cover

New Orleans Saints (12-5, 8-9) at Minnesota Vikings (13-3, 12-3-1):
Spread: Vikings favored by 5
Over/under: 47
My prediction: It seems like a lot of people have forgotten how good the Vikings, and particularly their defense, are. The public is all over the Saints, who put up 31 points against the Panthers last week but were still close to coughing up a double-digit lead. Drew Brees was exceptional in that game, but that was a home game against a good defense but one he had already beaten twice this season. Tomorrow, he’s going to have to knock off what’s probably the second best defense in football on the road. The fact that the Vikings now play in a dome hurts Minnesota’s chances, but it’s still a much tougher spot for the Saints’ offense than most bettors seem to think it is. Despite the fact that the majority of bets have come on the Saints, the spread has edged up from an opening of 3.5 to 5 points. That tells me that the professional bettors (the sharps) are still backing the Vikings.

The best matchup in this game, of course, is between New Orleans’s offense and Minnesota’s defense. It’s strength against strength, and I think the two units could cancel each other out. The Vikings are a very well coached team. They don’t miss many tackles, and they don’t allow a lot of big plays, especially on the ground. It’s unlikely that Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara will be as quiet as they were last week, but I don’t expect them to reel off a ton of big plays, either. And Michael Thomas has a much tougher matchup this week than he did last week, when he predictably burned Carolina. Xavier Rhodes is an all-pro and one of the best cover corners in the league. It’ll be up to Ted Ginn and the rest of New Orleans’s receivers to step up against the Minnesota defense.

My biggest takeaway from the New Orleans-Carolina game wasn’t that the Saints have an awesome offense and an awesome quarterback, because I already knew that. It was that the defense played an alarmingly bad game against a Carolina offense that had been struggling for months. This is a defense that has outperformed expectations all season long, so an off week can be excused. But it’s worth keeping in mind that the defense has probably been playing above its talent level this season, and any slip-up will probably be fatal against Minnesota. The beauty of the Vikings’ offense is that it doesn’t rely on a bunch of brilliant plays from quarterback Case Keenum to allow it to be effective. Keenum’s been very good this year, but a lot of that is the fact that he has a really good unit around him. There are more heralded skill position groups than Minnesota’s, but Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and Jerick McKinnon are all scary, explosive weapons. New Orleans’s defense is going to have its hands full. It looked vulnerable against receiving backs (see: McCaffery, Christian) last week, and very few teams have been able to stop both Thielen and Diggs. When these teams played in Week 1, the two combined for 250 yards and two scores. Throw in Latavius Murray, who isn’t flashy but gets the job done between the tackles, and you have an offense that’s going to be very tough to stop, especially at home.

This game won’t be a blowout by any means, but I think the Vikings are pretty clear favorites. I wish the spread were still close to a field goal, because I do believe it’ll be a one score game, but I’m going to take the Vikings to win and cover anyway. Vikings win 24-17.
Vikings cover

Divisional Round Picks — Saturday Games

Posted: 01/12/2018 by levcohen in Football

In recent seasons, the NFL playoffs have gone pretty much by the book. With a couple of small exceptions, the favorites have won, and won pretty easily. If the first round of this year’s playoffs is a harbinger of things to come, that’s going to change in a big way this season. All four underdogs covered the spread, and Saturday ‘dogs Tennessee and Atlanta won outright. I went just 1-3 against the spread, as I picked the Falcons to beat the Rams but chose the favorites in the other three games. The Tennessee-Kansas City game was by far the most surprising to me. The Chiefs led 21-3 at halftime, and then promptly forgot how to move the ball. I know they lost Travis Kelce to a concussion (his second of the season), and that clearly had a big impact on their offense. But KC’s offense still should have been able to put up at least a few points in the second half given that they were at home against an average defense. If they had scored at all in the second half, they probably would have won the game. In any case, it doesn’t matter much, because the winner of that game was likely (and now certainly) headed to New England the next week. Now the Patriots have an even easier matchup, but it’s the difference between, say, a nine point spread and a 13.5 point spread, which is to say that the Pats were going to win either way. I know this is a dangerous thing to say after this week, but I’d be pretty surprised if either AFC game ended in an upset. Pittsburgh and New England have seem destined to meet in the AFC Championship Game for months, and that became even more likely after the Chiefs were upset and the Jaguars looked bad last week. The NFC games, on the other hand, probably have more variance, and I think any of the four potential NFC Championship Games are plausible. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on tomorrow’s games, starting with the first underdog #1 seed in Divisional round history.

Atlanta Falcons (11-6, 8-9) at Philadelphia Eagles (13-3, 10-5-1):
Spread: Falcons favored by 3
Over/under: 40.5
My prediction: I understand why this line is what it is. The oddsmakers kind of have to put it there given the quarterback matchup and given the recent performances from Philadelphia’s offense. But I think it’s worth noting that, before last week’s games, oddsmakers were forecasting a potential Falcons-Eagles spread to be set at a pick’em. So the spread has moved three points in the direction of Atlanta, which must be because people are impressed by their performance against the Rams. I’m not that impressed with the performance against the Rams. Perhaps this is because I expected the Falcons to win the game, but I don’t think I saw anything from Atlanta’s offense that would scare me much if I were an Eagles coach. They scored 10 points off of two brutal turnovers, and were still held to 26 total points. Matt Ryan played a great game but was under pressure throughout, limiting the number of shots he could take down the field. The running game was used heavily but was generally held in check. Julio Jones was his normal, efficient, incredible self, but the Falcons certainly didn’t move the ball with ease against the Rams and their stout pass rush. This is all super important because the Eagles also have a very good pass rush, one that will all but certainly put semi-consistent pressure on Ryan. And unlike the Rams, Philadelphia also has a very good run defense, which makes it unlikely that Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman will find much success on the ground. Atlanta’s best bet is to spread the field and connect on short, high-percentage throws before taking a few shots on the Eagles’ burnable secondary. I just don’t think Ryan’s going to have enough time in the pocket to get into a rhythm. I actually expect a similar offensive performance from Atlanta this week. They’ll have a few nice drives, but also a bunch of three-and-outs. And they’ve been forced to kick a lot of field goals recently, something that may continue on the road against a good red zone defense.

On the other side of the ball, goal #1 for the Eagles is to avoid shooting themselves in the foot like the Rams did last week. While Philly might take a few shots early on to open up the field, expect them to go run-heavy. Jay Ajayi’s never carried the ball more than 15 times for the Eagles, but I think that has a good chance of changing this week. He, more than any other Eagles’ running back, can bust big plays. And even last week, when the Falcons played pretty well against the run, they gave up a few big runs to Todd Gurley, who carried the ball 14 times for 101 yards. I’m not sure the running game will have consistent success against a fast Atlanta defense that’s played really well recently, but there will be some holes to exploit. The main story, of course, is Foles. I’m by no means a Nick Foles fan, but I think it’s important to remember that Foles is not nearly as bad as he played in the final two regular season games. Foles isn’t a good starting quarterback, but he’s a capable backup who’s had success as a starter (and had it as recently as Week 15 against the Giants). I’ve made the mistake before of leaning too heavily on the results of the last few weeks. I’m not going to do that again here. In Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffrey, Nelson Agholor, and Ajayi and Co. out of the backfield, Foles has weapons to throw to. Carson Wentz was the main reason that the offense was so dominant, but he wasn’t the only reason. And while Atlanta’s defense is playing pretty well, the Rams were very close to making some big plays last week. That game was a lot closer than the final score indicated. If the Eagles’ generally solid offensive line can give Foles time to throw, I think he can make some plays.

It’s also important to mention the weather. The Falcons are a dome team playing on the road in Philadelphia. It’s not going to be as cold as it would have been, say, last week, but it will be below freezing with a wind chill below 20 degrees. Matt Ryan’s used to the cold weather — he grew up near Philadelphia and went to Boston College — but dome teams usually struggle in the cold. It’s a factor. Combine that with the Eagles’ stellar run defense and pass rush and an offense that should exceed expectations and you get a game that, well, could really go either way. Eagles win 20-17.
Eagles cover

Tennessee Titans (10-7, 8-9) at New England Patriots (13-3, 11-5):
Spread: Patriots favored by 13.5
Over/under: 48
My prediction: It seems like the Patriots always get a super easy Divisional round game. This certainly should be an easy victory for New England. I was very impressed by Tennessee’s comeback against the Chiefs last week, but the Titans’ first half performance was telling, and I don’t think the Patriots will be as easy to come back against. I do like Derrick Henry’s chances against the small Patriots’ defense. Henry looked awesome last week and is the type of strong runner who improves as the game goes. But I fear that the Titans won’t be able to use Henry much late in the game simply because they’ll be losing by too much. In theory, a team that runs the ball like the Titans can against a shoddy defense could keep a playoff game close. But in reality, it’s Mike Mularkey and the Titans going up against Bill Belichick and the Patriots (and with two weeks to prepare). It’s Rob Gronkowski against a defense that has struggled against tight ends (including last week before Kelce got hurt). It’s a mediocre all-around team with a quarterback whose only touchdown pass last week was to himself facing the best offense in the league in Foxborough. Patriots win 35-17.
Patriots cover