Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

Three NFL Teams Who Will Beat Expectations

Posted: 08/15/2018 by levcohen in Football

We’re deep into the dog days of August, which means the NFL season is quickly approaching. It’s time to get into football projection mode, and I’m starting with my list of the teams most likely to outperform their preseason over/under win totals (courtesy of Bovada). I generally remind myself of a few things in preseason, and those help inform my predictions. Here’re a few of the guidelines I use:

  • Discount free agency-related hype: Remember the 2011 Eagles, who Vince Young labelled the “Dream Team”? That team signed Young (just a backup quarterback) along with big names like Nnamdi Asmougha, Jason Babin, Evan Mathis, and Cullen Jenkins. They also traded for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. They were supposed to be a leading Super Bowl contender, with flashy names like the ones just mentioned joining the star-studded offense (Vick, McCoy, Jackson, Maclin, etc.). Instead, they finished just 8-8, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007. And that was far from the only time that a team made a bunch of big free agent signings only to fall way short of expectations. Generally speaking, it’s not a great idea to expect free agents to fill a bunch of holes.
  • Don’t look at last season’s records: It’s tempting to use last year’s standings as a starting point for projections. If a team went 10-6 and improved their roster, after all, how could one expect them to win fewer than 10 games? But while that’s a decent strategy in, say, basketball, in football the sample sizes are far too small to base projections that way. Point differential is a more predictive tool, as it is in every sport.
  • Don’t pay so much attention to preseason strength of schedule: Things change quickly in football. Lots of teams who we expect to be good turn out not to be, and vice versa. There’s no doubt that SOS is a factor — it’s a big reason that teams playing last-place schedules make the jump into the playoffs relatively frequently — but it’s hard to know exactly how before the season. I consider SOS when making projections but less than I used to.

Vegas knows all of this too, but a lot of people betting probably don’t, especially when it comes to the public favorites (Dallas, New England, Pittsburgh, etc.). Without further ado, here are the three teams most likely to outperform expectations:

Indianapolis Colts (Over 6.5): This is obviously a bet on Andrew Luck’s health, because the Colts were brutal last season without their quarterback. They went 4-12 and finished 31st in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (29th in offense and 27th in defense), ahead of only Cleveland. But they finally have their quarterback healthy this year. Luck’s back after battling through a nagging shoulder injury for about a year and a half, and his health held up in the first preseason game. I think this 6.5 number probably bakes in a few missed games for Luck, as it probably should. But I’m relatively bullish on Luck’s health. The offensive line, notoriously horrible throughout Luck’s career (and again last year with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback), is much improved. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo is one of the best and most consistent tackles in the league and will continue to anchor the line. Center Ryan Kelly, a first round pick in 2016, struggled through injury last year but is healthy now and should be in for a much improved season. The rest of the line? All new. The Colts clearly recognized that guard was their biggest weakness, because they spent their first two picks on guards Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith, both of whom were dominant college players (for Notre Dame and Auburn respectively). Nelson, I think, could be a Pro-Bowl caliber player immediately. And the new right tackle is ex-Bear Austin Howard, who doesn’t fill me with confidence but should be an upgrade over the revolving door the Colts have had at the position in recent years. The fact that there has been so much turnover and that the line will include two rookies and a guy (Howard) signed in May does concern me, but it should be improved over the injury-plagued o-line that had 10 players play more than 140 snaps last season.

The offense as a whole should take a big step forward with Luck back, the line improved, and ex-Eagles’ offensive coordinator Frank Reich stepping in as the head coach. T.Y. Hilton is in for a big season after he suffered through poor quarterback play last season, and I always thought that Ryan Grant was an underrated receiver in Washington, so I like him as the second receiver. The recent ACL tear to receiver Deon Cain, a sixth round draft pick who had been generating buzz, hurts, but I trust that Luck will make so-so weapons look better than they are.

Defensively, the improvement has to come from all the young talent. The Colts’ returning starting corners, Quincy Wilson, Kenny Moore II, and Nate Hairston, were all rookies last season, and it showed: they ranked 51st, 70th, and 107th among the 120 corners that played enough snaps to receive a full PFF grade. But corners often make a big jump between years one and two, which is clearly what the Colts are banking on. The team’s highest-potential defensive player is safety Malik Hooker, who flashed his potential in an injury-marred rookie season and should be in for a big year. The Colts were actually pretty good against the run last year, so the fact that the front seven is largely unchanged should give fans confidence. But they were dead last against the pass and will be relying upon big steps forward from all of their young secondary pieces. The Colts aren’t likely to rack up a ton of sacks or put much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, so the onus will be on the secondary.

It’s worth noting that Indy plays in what’s rapidly moved from being the easiest division in football to perhaps the toughest. Jacksonville made the AFC Championship game last year and could improve this year. Houston gets Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, and Whitney Mercilus back from injury. And Tennessee was a playoff team last year. All three of those teams are projected to win 8-9 games, per Bovada. So Indianapolis seems like the odd man out. But with a healthy Luck, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them catapult straight into the playoff race, especially with a seemingly forgiving schedule that sees them playing the AFC East and NFC East. I think we could easily get three playoff teams from the AFC South.

New Orleans Saints (Over 9.5): I think the Saints are really, really good. Everything indicates that they should be an elite team. They went 11-5 last year without getting good luck in close games (they were 1-3 in one-score games). Drew Brees is still one of the best quarterbacks in football, and he has a ton of weapons. Mark Ingram is suspended for the first four games, which could allow Alvin Kamara to make an even bigger impact out of the backfield. Kamara was famously effective last season (6.1 yards per carry, 10.2 yards per catch, 1554 total yards), and while those numbers are surely unsustainable, he’ll continue to be a game-changing threat in 2018. Michael Thomas is one of the most consistent receivers in football, and he and field-stretcher Ted Ginn are joined by some new receiving options in 2018, including ex-Bear Cameron Meredith and third round draft pick Tre’Quan Smith. Brees loves to spread the ball around and will have every chance in the world to do so this season. Then there’s the offensive line, which is both good and, crucially, the same as last year. At a position where continuity is so important, the Saints are returning all five starters, including healthy (for now) left tackle Terron Armstead. This offense finished second in offensive DVOA last year, and that was without a huge year from Brees. I expect the Saints to shift a little from the run-heavy unit they were last season to a more pass-heavy gameplan, which should help minimize the impact of the Kamara regression that coming. And while Brees is now 39, there’s no indication that he’s in any sort of decline.

The defense was the real story last year, the reason that the Saints, who had wasted year after year of stellar offensive performances, surged to 11-5. They jumped from 31st in defensive DVOA in 2016 to eighth last season. If the only play you watched last year was the Minnesota Miracle, the play that sent the Vikings past the Saints and embarrassed rookie safety Marcus Williams, you’d probably be surprised to hear that it was the rookies in the secondary — Williams and DROY Marshon Lattimore — who were the catalysts. Williams had the sixth best PFF rating among safeties, while Lattimore graded out as the seventh best corner. The Saints added ex-Eagle (and, actually, ex-Saint) Patrick Robinson, who’ll likely play slot cornerback and who was the sixth best cornerback in football last season. The secondary, once a weakness, is now a true strength. But New Orleans’s real defensive star is Cameron Jordan, a first-team All-Pro defensive end who was long the one good defensive player on the team. Jordan helped the Saints become a really good pass-rushing team, and they could be even better this year with first round pick Marcus Davenport (who many considered a reach at #14 overall) playing opposite Jordan. The Saints should continue to have one of the best pass defenses in the league. And in a pass-heavy league, that should overshadow the issues they have against the run. The Saints signed DeMario Davis from the Jets to play linebacker and help correct the weakness against the run, but I’m sure teams will continue to target what was the 23rd ranked DVOA run defense in 2017. But guess what? You’re probably not going to keep up with the Saints’ offense if you can’t move the ball through the air. I think the Saints are the best team in the NFC South and will cruise to double-digit wins again.

Cleveland Browns (Over 5.5): I picked the Browns in this space last year after they went 1-15 in 2016. Their over/under was 4.5 wins. They won zero. And yet… Here I am picking them again. Some of my rationale is the same as last year’s. Yet again, they got extremely unlucky, both in close games and in the turnover battle. Thanks largely to a lot of interceptions and fumbles from now-departed quarterback DeShone Kizer, they posted a -28 turnover margin last year. That was worst in the league by a mile. It’s hard to keep games close when you’re turning the ball over that much, and even when they did keep games close, they suffered bad luck (0-6 in one-score games). Last year, the main reasons I picked the Browns to beat the 4.5 win number were that I thought they couldn’t possibly be so unlucky again, that they had an incredibly easy schedule, and that I thought Hue Jackson would be a much better coach in his second season than he was in his first. It obviously didn’t work out. This year, though, there are other reasons to be (relatively) bullish on the Browns. The biggest one is the quarterback position. Gone is the dumpster fire that was Kizer last season. The new starter is Tyrod Taylor, one of the most underrated quarterbacks in football. Taylor somehow managed to drag a bad Bills team into the playoffs last year despite actually getting benched for no apparent reason for a game in the middle of the season. The Bills lost that game 54-24 to the Chargers, with Nathan Peterman throwing five interceptions on 14 passes. Back came Tyrod, and more wins soon followed. One thing Taylor doesn’t do is turn the football over. He through four interceptions last season and has never thrown more than six in a season. He has 33 combined fumbles and interceptions in his three-year run as a starting quarterback (44 games). Kizer had 31 in 15 games last season. So the quarterback play is going to be a lot better, and that’s before even considering that #1 overall pick Baker Mayfield may well take the job over in the middle of the season and run with it. I believe that Taylor will start the year at QB and play well enough to hold onto the job, so it’ll take good performances from Mayfield to take it away from him.

Taylor (and maybe eventually Mayfield) also has a whole lot of offensive pieces to work with. It seems nearly impossible for the 32nd ranked DVOA offense to have a solid offensive line, but the Browns do. They have a glaring weakness on the line with Joe Thomas now retired, but they have enough returning proven veterans — Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter, and Kevin Zeitler — to provide stability to a line that should at least be above-average. And they’ve completely made over their running back and receiving units. They have a lot of weapons now. Duke Johnson, one of the few guys who was actually there last season, might be the best pass-catching back in football. He easily led the Browns with 74 receptions and 693 yards last season. Carlos Hyde will likely replace Isaiah Crowell as the main rusher, although rookie Nick Chubb may give him a run for his money. That’s probably a lateral move. Tight end David Njoku was a first round pick in 2017 who had a quiet rookie season, but tight ends are notoriously slow to adapt to the NFL. He could be in for a big jump in his second year. And at wide receiver, the Browns could be adding not one but two Pro-Bowl caliber players. That’s if you count Josh Gordon, the unbelievably talented receiver who’s played 10 games since his stupendous 2013 season but who should (?) be fully available this season. He hasn’t showed up for camp yet this season, which is definitely concerning, but all reports indicate that there isn’t another suspension looming and that Gordon will be back on the field this season. The other addition is ex-Dolphin Jarvis Landry, who’s the perfect yang to Gordon’s yin. He’s more of a possession receiver than a deep threat, but he’s a darn good one: he led the NFL with 112 catches last season. I’m not personally a big fan of Jarvis and think that Gordon is the far bigger piece if healthy, but there’s no doubt that Landry’s an improvement. The offense won’t break any records, but it’s going to be much better than it was last season.

The defense may not improve as much, but it doesn’t have to. Cleveland actually had the 16th ranked DVOA defense last season, although it wasn’t always easy to see because the offense put them in such horrible situations. Myles Garrett, the #1 overall pick last year, is already a stud and clearly the key to the defense. But he’s not alone. Because the Browns have been bad for so long, they’ve been able to add a lot of highly touted, talented defenders to their roster. The latest is cornerback Denzel Ward, the #4 overall pick in this year’s draft. Ward will likely join free agents T.J. Carrie and E.J. Gaines in Cleveland’s revamped secondary, and both Carrie and Gaines are solid (and in the case of Gaines, maybe very good) players who should improve the pass defense (26th last year). Run defense is Cleveland’s strength. Defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and Trevon Coley are big boys and good run defenders. The linebacker core was solid last year and should be better this year with the addition of Mychal Kendricks, who’s had a lot of injury problems but who’s a good run stopper when healthy. Do I love the defense? No. But again, it finished 16th in DVOA last year. If that’s where it ends up this year, I’ll like the Browns’ chances at more than 5.5 wins.

I don’t expect all the new pieces to send the Browns to the playoffs, but I’m a lot more comfortable with the idea that they should win at least six games than I thought I would be after last season. I understand why people would be hesitant about backing the Browns after the last two seasons, but I think this is the year it starts to turn around.


NFL Draft Analysis is Ruled by Clichés

Posted: 04/25/2018 by levcohen in Football

I like to believe that I watch enough college basketball – and understand the sport well enough – to form real, significant opinions about NBA draft prospects. Well enough, in fact, to compile a ranking of the best draft prospects every year. There are hits and misses: last year, I was relatively high on Donovan Mitchell (9th) and Josh Hart (16th), two of the biggest steals in the draft, but low on Jayson Tatum (7th) and OG Anunoby (21st), both of whom look pretty darn good. But the bottom line is that I know the prospects well enough to come up with a relatively informed top-30 ranking. That’s not at all true of college football. I don’t watch as much college football, and I certainly don’t feel as much exposure to the top draft prospects. Whereas with basketball I’m comfortable with my knowledge of what may or may not translate to the NBA (hence not taking an awesome college player like Caleb Swanigan high in the draft), with football I fear that my rankings would end up just being a list of who I thought looked best in college. So with the draft tomorrow night, instead of struggling through that difficult and useless process, I’m going to focus on the players to whom I’ve been most exposed. And that, of course, is the quarterbacks. A staple of NFL draft coverage is that every year it evolves (devolves?) into a series of clichés and weird scouting terms. That’s never been more apparent than with this year’s quarterback coverage. There’s been a rush to label each of the consensus top-five QB prospects, with draft analysts shepherding them into broad categories that they’ve used to describe draft prospects for years. With the exception of the “Sure Thing” (a la Andrew Luck), all of the major categories are represented. In fact, it almost seems as if the quarterback prospects are being used as a means to check off the use of each cliché. What are said categories, and where does each QB prospect fit in?

Note: This is less an evaluation of the quarterbacks than a compilation of the analyses I’ve seen about them. It’s my attempt to show just how cliché-dominant pre-draft scouting reports are.

The Raw, Projectable QB With a Big Arm: Josh Allen 

Of all of these categories, this is the one that is most assured to be covered. This is the quarterback who has a huge arm and endless potential. It’s easy to fall in love with arm strength, as many teams have showed over the years. It’s a pretty important physical attribute (although it can be argued just how important) and not one that can really be taught. So if a team can convince itself that it is the one who can develop this guy into a star – and most teams probably think they can – they’ll fall in love with this guy. That’s why this guy always goes relatively high in the draft. Sometimes it works out, but more often the guy flames out. This year, that guy is Josh Allen. He checks all the physical boxes. He’s tall, has big hands, and has the awesome arm strength. But he also has all the issues that keeps him from being a “Sure Thing.” He went to Wyoming and thus didn’t play much against top college defenses. And when he did face better defenses, the results weren’t good. Wyoming was just 15-9 against FBS teams when he started, and in his three starts against Power Five teams (all losses) he struggled mightily: 48-of-96, 437 yards, 1 TD, 8 INT. There are also times when it seems like Allen wouldn’t be able to hit the side of a barn. This category has found its perfect match yet again.                                                                                            

The Electric, Dynamic College QB With “Leadership” Issues: Baker Mayfield

This category is similar to the next one in its focus on personalities, but it’s clearly distinct because of its focus on legitimate actions and transgressions rather than characters and opinions. Since these category names are all made up anyway, this one may as well be renamed the “Johnny Manziel” because Manziel is the posterchild. With his on-field antics and off-field partying, there were concerns about Manziel leading into the draft, which caused him to fall to the back half of the first round. In Manziel’s case, those concerns turned out to be legitimate. The partying and smallness (not physically, although Manziel and Mayfield are both relatively short) on the field continued, and Manziel flamed out. This year’s version of Manziel is Baker Mayfield. Mayfield is not a prototypical leader and also has red flags (one oft-mentioned example). I could see him flaming out quickly, especially if he goes to a big market. But the category name didn’t lie: Mayfield was really electric in college. Like Manziel, he led his team to great success. He won the Heisman five years after Manziel did. The advanced stats sites love him. He’s not a traditional drop-back passer, but he can make all the throws and knows how to read a defense. He’s proven himself at the highest level of college football. And just because Manziel couldn’t mature and make it doesn’t mean that Mayfield can’t. Mayfield’s tantalizing in a different way than Allen but tantalizing nonetheless.

The Guy Who’s “Too Smart” and has too many “Off-the-field interests”: Josh Rosen

Of these five categories, this is the only one that also applies to different positions. If NFL people hate anything, they hate players who are outspoken when it comes to anything other than family, (Christian) faith, and football. The NFL isn’t, er, particularly socially progressive. And we’ve seen what happens when players try to use their influence to advance issues that are important to them – Colin Kaepernick is still not on an NFL roster. Josh Rosen is obviously that guy this year. He’s liberal, and has been outspoken in his disapproval of Donald Trump. In the NBA, that would be a nonfactor. In the NFL, it may be a nonstarter for some conservative owners. It’s accentuated by the fact that the quarterback is supposed to be a leader, so of course there has to be a discussion about whether someone with Rosen’s views can be a leader of a locker room. Nothing in Rosen’s history as a football player has indicated that he can’t be, and in fact I think he can be a good leader. But there’s no doubt that Rosen thinks differently than most NFL players in that he’s an outspoken liberal Jew. That makes him a nice fit for the “too smart” category. I really want Rosen to end up in New York, by the way, and the New York teams draft second and third and both could take a quarterback.

The Prototypical Quarterback Prospect: Sam Darnold

After he led USC to a 2017 Rose Bowl victory over Penn State in what was an unbelievable game, Darnold had the look of a “Sure Thing.” Unfortunately, he was a year away from draft eligibility, and in that year he showed enough flaws to fall back a rung. Darnold is the prototypical quarterback prospect because he has the look of a great, traditional quarterback and yet has flaws that make it evident he remains a work in progress. He has good accuracy but made a few too many bad decisions last year, leading to 13 interceptions. His team also regressed, which serves as a red flag for a lot of NFL analysts. And unlike Rosen and Allen, whose college offenses were more similar to the NFL, Darnold played in what was very much a college spread offense. I think others who fell under this category – good tools, potential to be a prototypical good quarterback, clear question marks, unsure fit – included Jared Goff and Ryan Tannehill. Fit is very important for all quarterback prospects, of course, but I think it’s especially true for QBs in this category, because they have all the tools but have for whatever reason failed to put it all together and are thus not clear #1 picks. Whether that’s more or less of a red flag than quarterbacks with more clearly identifiable issues (like Allen’s accuracy) is up for debate.

The Black Guy Who May Have to Switch Positions Because He’s “Athletic”: Lamar Jackson

Draft coverage wouldn’t be draft coverage without at least a little adherence to the institutional prejudice that still is a dominant strain throughout the league. It seems to be a relatively common appearance that a black quarterback enters the draft with rumors that he’ll be moved to running back or wide receiver because he’s so “athletic.” This year, that’s Lamar Jackson. Never mind the fact that Lamar Jackson was the most dominant quarterback in college football over the last two years, winning a Heisman and remaining in competition for a second. And let’s throw away the truth that being “athletic” can actually be a big advantage for a quarterback, too. Lamar Jackson is still black and athletic, so there have to be rumors that he’ll switch positions. Sometimes, players placed in this category do actually end up needing to switch positions simply because they’re not good enough to stay at quarterback. Terrelle Pryor is a good example of that. And Lamar Jackson has serious accuracy issues that could conceivably necessitate a position change. At the very least, his problems will – and, I begrudgingly admit, probably should – keep him largely out of the running for a top-five pick. But Jackson was the best quarterback in college football, and while I’m no scout, I think it would be ludicrous to make him switch positions without even trying him at quarterback, a position that now has plenty of non-traditional passers. That’s why he’s a good fit for this ludicrous category.


These clichés are so widely used for good reason. They’re a good way for people like me to gain some familiarity with the prospects without having to do much work. But they can also be dangerous. I am generally not a fan of the projectable big-armed guy, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t like Josh Allen. It’s useful to use precedent to group players like this while also recognizing that these clichés aren’t the be all and end all of what these prospects are. 

How many times have you heard the phrase “It’s a copycat league?” Probably a lot, because if all professional sports have one thing in common, it’s that people try to replicate the formulae of the winners. It’s the most natural response to seeing someone else win something, and it happens all the time. Barcelona revolutionized European soccer with their tiki-taka style of play because it was aesthetically pleasing but mainly because it was effective. We all know the effect the Warriors have had on the NBA (remember just a few years ago when jump shooting teams couldn’t win the NBA title?? Now the only ones with a real chance to win it are jump shooting teams). The same is true in baseball (an example is that relievers became much more valuable in the years after the Royals won the World Series thanks to their strong bullpen) and hockey (the success of the Blackhawks helped move the NHL away from big brutes to speed and finesse). Now, sometimes it takes a few years for us to realize how a champion has impacted its sport, but it’s usually possible to connect the dots. And in the aftermath of the Eagles’ run to the Super Bowl, I think there are a handful of aspects of their roster-building methods and game management that will show up in other places in the NFL.

More trades: The NFL isn’t known for having big trades with good players involved. The trade deadline exists, but it’s nowhere near the spectacle the NBA, NHL, and MLB trade deadlines are. Players get released and sign somewhere else far more often than they get traded. But Eagles’ GM Howie Roseman likes to trade. Three of his starters — defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, cornerback Ronald Darby, and running back Jay Ajayi — were acquired via trade between the 2017 draft and the trade deadline. None of them cost all that much, but all were crucial pieces on the Super Bowl champs. And the trades have continued for the Eagles, as they netted Michael Bennett and Daryl Worley in trades to kick off their offseason. Roseman clearly isn’t afraid to trade away a little draft capital to get good players at affordable prices — it’s really the Eagles’ way around free agency. They pinpoint the players they want at the positions of need and decide that giving up a late round pick or an expendable player is better than paying sticker price in free agency. The difference this offseason has been that other teams are getting into the act, too. Suddenly, there are trades galore throughout the NFL. On one day, the Browns acquired a new quarterback (Tyrod Taylor), a new star receiver (Jarvis Landry), and a promising defensive back (Demarious Randall) in three different trades. They also traded away a recent first round pick to the Patriots in another totally unrelated deal. The Rams traded for both Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, giving them a mercurial and uber-talented cornerback duo. They also traded away longtime defensive stalwarts Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree. And this has all happened before the 2018 NFL league year officially starts on March 14th. There are definitely still more trades to come. I hope this is not just a blip on the radar, because trades are fun! And as Roseman and the Eagles proved this year, they can be effective, too.

Paying backup QBs: The Eagles signed Nick Foles, who had contemplated retirement before his short stint with the Chiefs, to a two-year, $11 million contract with $7 million guaranteed. Foles had already had an up-and-down stint with the Eagles and had attempted just 55 passes in his year with the Chiefs, so fans were predictably perturbed with the deal. Indeed, it never seems smart to give a backup player — especially one who will ideally never take a meaningful snap — so much money. Of course, it ended up being worth it and then some. Carson Wentz got injured, and Foles took the most meaningful snaps of all and won the Eagles the Super Bowl. We’ve long passed the point when teams have recognized how important quarterback play is, but I’m not sure we’re quite there with backup quarterbacks. Until now, that is. Look for other teams to begin to pay premiums to get their ideal backup signal callers.

Depth on the D-line: Throughout the year, a running theme with the Eagles was that their best defensive players — Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham — were getting a lot of plays off. It was a luxury the Eagles could afford because of their depth at defensive line — in addition to Graham and Cox, they had Jernigan, Vinny Curry, first round pick Derek Barnett, Chris Long, and Beau Allen, among others (notice that three of those guys were new additions to the roster last year. Now, of course, they also have Bennett, although Curry and Allen will almost certainly be gone). And it allowed the studs to be fresher late in games and to make game-winning plays down the stretch. That was never more evident than in the Super Bowl, when Graham stripped Brady with a shade over two minutes left on what was probably the most pivotal play of the game (it’s only “probably” because the whole game was just insane). Pass-rushing play after play is tough and tiring and often noticeably less effective in the fourth quarter. That wasn’t true this year for the Eagles because of the depth they had. I’d expect other teams to start putting more of an onus on getting more pass-rushers who can spell the stars.

GO FOR IT: Doug Pederson became known for his propensity to go for it on fourth down this year. So it was fitting that what’ll go down as the most famous play of Super Bowl LII (the Philly Special) came on a fourth-and-goal. This makes me so happy, because I’ve always thought that the vast majority of NFL teams are far too conservative on fourth down. I’m hoping that the Philly Special and, more importantly, the Eagles’ overall success on fourth down this year will help nudge other teams in the right direction. I hate the “it’s important to get points on the board” argument, because sure, but it should be noted that getting SEVEN points on the board is a lot more valuable than getting three on the board. In a perfect world, it’d be a crime to punt on fourth and two or shorter past midfield. This isn’t a perfect world, though, so the best I can hope for is some copying of the Eagles.

Super Bowl Preview

Posted: 02/04/2018 by levcohen in Football

It’s time. After two weeks of largely repetitive talk, the Eagles and Patriots will actually play in the game that will decide this season’s champion. I’ve thought about how I would approach this, because there are so many angles and matchups and stats that may or may not be important, all of which are connected by the common thread of having been discussed at some point over the last two weeks (as is the nature of pre-Super Bowl media festivities). There’s no way I’m going to hit on every individual matchup or stat, and I’m not going to worry about doing a comprehensive preview. Instead, I’ll try to cover what I think are the most important parts of this battle of 13-3 teams. Before I do that, I want to express how annoyed I am that in almost every expert preview I’ve read, the conclusion has been: The Patriots will win, but not by as much as (insert: MANY or SOME) people think. Who are these mythical “many people” who are predicting a Patriots’ blowout?? Sure, there are some people who think New England will win handily, but you can say the same thing about Philadelphia! The spread is 4.5 points, not the touchdown + margin that these experts seem to be hinting to when they talk about wide belief in a Patriots’ blowout. I don’t have a problem with people picking the Patriots to win by a field goal — in fact, it’s probably the most likely outcome. I just think that the people picking that result should recognize that it’s by no means a bold prediction. Those people, not the ones picking New England blowouts, are the ones on the side of conventional wisdom. Anyway, it’s now time to see whether I reach the same conclusion as these experts.

When tasked with trying to find a way to beat Tom Brady, most people quickly reach the conclusion that you have to get pressure on him without blitzing. To that I say: duh. Getting pressure without blitzing is always the best thing a defense can do. And it is a key for the Eagles, because they won’t be blitzing often against Brady. Their secondary is good, but not that good. They definitely have the talent up front to dominate the line of scrimmage against New England, at least early on. I expect them to get some pressure on Brady in the first half. The real key, though, is for the stars of the defensive line — Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox in particular — to be fresh enough to make an impact in the fourth quarter. Because while Brady often feels some heat early on in games, the Patriots usually manage to protect their quarterback later on, largely because they’ve played at a fast enough pace to tire out their opponents. The Eagles have a lot of depth up front, and they’ve been great this year at rotating their defensive line. In Timmy Jernigan, Vinny Curry, Chris Long, and Derek Barnett, they have a supporting cast that can make a difference. The Patriots will try to mitigate this depth advantage by keeping the Eagles from substituting. They’ll go no-huddle and without substitutions, keeping Philly’s defense on the field for long periods of time. The Eagles’ defense isn’t used to being on the field that much, as Philadelphia led the league in time of possession. It’s easy to imagine a situation in which Brady and the Patriots are driving in the fourth quarter and the Eagles are just too exhausted to stop them. Instead of substituting between plays, Doug Pederson may opt to rest his key defenders for an entire drive. He has that luxury, because his backups are good enough to be able to hold down the fort. I’m actually optimistic about Philly’s ability to maintain a pass-rush for four quarters. The Patriots allow some pressure on Brady, and guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney in particular may be overpowered by Cox. The Eagles have shown all year that they have the depth to keep their starters fresh, and I don’t expect that to change in the Super Bowl.

I think it’s unlikely that the Patriots will run the ball consistently against the Eagles’ front, which means that we should expect a lot of short timing routes from Brady to his running backs and wide receivers. James White and Dion Lewis will be busy, and the Eagles have sometimes struggled against receiving backs. But I think the most crucial wide receiver-cornerback matchup is Danny Amendola against Patrick Robinson. When Rob Gronkowski got hurt against the Jaguars and the Patriots needed to move the ball, Brady looked almost exclusively for Amendola, and the receiver delivered to the tune of seven catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns. The Eagles’ slot corner is Patrick Robinson, who’s PFF rating of 90.6 ranks him fourth among all NFL cornerbacks. Amendola has caught 76.3% of his targets this year and Brady’s passer rating is 103.1 on those targets, but Robinson allows a catch rate of just 55.6% and a passer rating of 70.1. The Eagles will mix up their coverages, so Robinson won’t be exclusively guarding Amendola, but I’d guess that those two will see a lot of each other, and it’ll be interesting to see if Robinson can help neutralize Amendola, who’s turned into Brady’s safety blanket.

The last big component of New England’s offense to touch on, of course, is Gronkowski. He’s back two weeks after suffering a concussion against the Jaguars, and we should assume that he’ll be playing at 100%. It’s near impossible to guard Gronk, and the Eagles have struggled against tight ends this year. They rank 17th in DVOA against the position, and they allowed Travis Kelce (probably the tight end most similar to Gronk) to gain 103 yards and score a touchdown when the played in Week 2. Playing man coverage against Gronkowski is a no-go, so the Eagles probably shouldn’t go with their normal strategy of placing Malcolm Jenkins against opposing tight ends. Instead, I expect them to show Brady a ton of different coverages. They’ll double Gronk, they’ll bracket him with a defender on each side, they’ll give him room underneath… they’ll do anything they can to try to get Brady out of his rhythm and dissuade him from passing to Gronk. Because when they pass to Gronk, good things usually happen. I don’t think he’s going to have a huge (150+ yard, multiple touchdowns) game, but he’ll make some plays. He always does.

It’s also worth noting that the Eagles have been a much different defense when they’re away from home, making a dominant defensive performance less likely. The overall key for the Eagles’ defense is to limit the number of long drives they allow the Patriots to have. They can’t let Brady dictate the game. They should be aggressive, even if that means allowing a big play or two. They need to trust the defensive schemes that got them here and not try to simplify everything before facing Brady. And guess what? Even though Jim Schwartz has a bad track record against Brady and the Patriots, I think he’ll do a good job of keeping Brady off-balance, if only temporarily. That’s all you can reasonably hope for.

On the other side of the ball, everything else will be moot if Nick Foles becomes the guy who looked helpless against the Raiders. It may also be moot if he remains the guy who destroyed the Vikings. The safe bet is that he’ll be somewhere in between horrendously terrible and Carson Wentz-level awesome. Bold statement, right? I don’t think people have talked enough about the fact that the Patriots are pretty bad defensively. The raw numbers (18.5 points per game) are good, but that’s largely because the offense rarely puts the defense in a bad situation. They rarely turn the ball over, and they’re masters of field position. And when you’re defending long fields (the Patriots faced just three non-kneeldown drives starting from beyond the 50, while the average defense faced 15.5), it’s a lot easier to overcome a 31st ranked DVOA defense that simply doesn’t have much talent in the front seven. Two weeks ago, Blake Bortles averaged 8.1 yards per attempt and tore apart New England’s defense for three quarters. And that was despite playing with a vanilla gameplan because the Jags didn’t trust Bortles to throw the ball down the field. Jacksonville slowed down in the fourth quarter because they simply ran out of plays that they trusted Bortles to run, so the Patriots knew what was coming. I guarantee you that the Eagles aren’t coming to Minnesota with a bland or conservative gameplan. They’re going to try to keep the Patriots’ defense on its heels, and based on personnel they’ll probably succeed. The Eagles don’t have a single dominant offensive weapon, but they have a lot of dynamic skill-position players who can make a defense pay. Jay Ajayi can be a threat on the ground and through the air and is part of the reason that Nick Foles and the Eagles have been so good at run-pass options. Corey Clement is a good pass-catcher out of the backfield, and LeGarrette Blount is a nice short-yardage back to have (I don’t expect him to play much in this game, largely because it will alert the Patriots that a run is coming). Tight end Zach Ertz is probably Foles’s favorite weapon, and I’d bet that he’s the one the Patriots will focus most heavily upon stopping. But that could open up the middle of the field for Alshon Jeffrey and Nelson Agholor and the seams for Torrey Smith. The Patriots have done a good job of getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks recently, but they haven’t faced an offensive line this good in a while. The right side of the line, in particular, is dominant, as Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks, and Jason Kelce have all been elite players this year. Halapoulivaati Vaitai has had his fair share of issues at left tackle, but he’s usually been just good enough to keep Nick Foles upright. And Foles is a big guy who can be hard to bring down. The Patriots will probably line Trey Flowers, their best defensive lineman, up against Vaitai in order to try to force a tight end to stay in and block. And this may be a game in which Brent Celek, Philadelphia’s blocking tight end, plays a decent number of snaps. It’s vital for the Eagles to be able to keep a clean pocket for Foles, because he’s not the type of quarterback who can make a lot of stuff happen after a play breaks down (in other words, he’s not Wentz). The Patriots have a good secondary, and they’re going to play a lot of man against the Eagles in order to try to force Foles to fit the ball into tight windows. But the Eagles will have plenty of chances for big plays both on the ground and through the air, simply because they have a considerable talent edge on that side of the ball.

Neither team turns the ball over much. Foles hasn’t thrown an interception in any of his three playoff starts, and the Patriots have forced just one turnover in the last six games. And Brady is Brady, so you can’t really expect the Eagles to force any takeaways in this game, either. As for special teams, the Patriots have an edge there. They’re better across the board, from kicking off to punting to returning kicks. Their kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, is more reliable than Philly’s, Jake Elliott, although Elliott has a strong leg and can hit from 60+ yards. Overall, the Patriots rank third in special teams DVOA while the Eagles rank 16th. It’ll be a huge bonus for the Eagles if they can play the Pats to a draw when it comes to special teams. A major field position disadvantage and a special teams mistake or two will be tough to overcome.

The Eagles have a stronger all-around roster than the Patriots. I don’t think that’s much of a debate. The question, then, becomes whether Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are enough to make up for that difference and bring New England a sixth championship. You’d be forgiven for thinking the answer to that question is yes. It usually has been enough. But I think people are only just starting to realize how good of a coach and play-caller Doug Pederson is, and he’s going to continue to show why in this game. We’ll see a lot of the same RPOs from Philly, but we’re also going to see some new wrinkles. Belichick adjusts in-game better than anyone, and it’s almost impossible to stop Brady with the game on the line. I have no doubt that the Patriots are going to move the ball and score some points. But I also have enough faith in Pederson, Foles, and the Eagles’ offense to expect them to expose the 31st ranked DVOA defense. This may really be a game in which the team that gets the ball last wins, because I don’t trust anybody to stop Brady in the fourth quarter and I don’t trust this Patriots’ defense to make a stop, either. I’m going to take the Eagles to win 27-24. Here’s hoping we’ll get good Nick Foles!

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!

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

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