Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

Highlights from Day 1 of NFL Free Agency

Posted: 03/09/2017 by levcohen in Football

The first day of NFL free agency has come and gone, and it didn’t go quietly. As usually, there was a flurry of activity. Here are some highlights, and my takeaways of some other rumors that have been circling around the league:

Jags open the checkbook: The Jaguars splashed $127.5 million (with $56 million fully guaranteed) on two players today. Those two players, of course, are studs. Ex-Cardinal Calais Campbell is a ferocious defensive lineman who is as well-rounded as any interior rusher in the NFL, while ex-Texan A.J. Bouye broke out to become one of the best cornerbacks in football last year. And Jacksonville also added ex-Cowboy Barry Church, giving the Jags a huge boost at safety. On paper, their defense now looks like one of the best in football. The Bouye-Jalen Ramsey cornerback combination is elite, and Campbell joins a front that includes the explosive Dante Fowler Jr. and all-rookie team member Yannick Ngakoue. But the Jaguars have made huge investments before, and they haven’t always panned out. Malik Jackson is an example, as is Jared Odrick. And the Jags didn’t go out of their way to find safe options. Bouye has had one good year, so even though he looks like a locked-in shutdown cornerback, there’s more risk than would normally be associated with a 25 year old star cornerback. And Campbell will be 31 when the season starts, making Jacksonville’s longterm commitment to him a scary prospect. He’s a consistent player who’s only missed six games in his nine year career, but there’s got to be some drop-off soon. With that being said, you have to like the moves that Jacksonville made today to bolster a defense that has a lot of young talent but needed some oomph to become a real asset. The Jaguars still look shaky (at best) offensively, so they’re going to need a huge performance from the defense to become relevant next season. That’s much more likely to happen now that they have Bouye, Church, and Campbell.

Eagles recognize their WR need: Goodbye, Dorial Green-Beckham. Hello, Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. It’s difficult to completely and successfully revamp at a position through free agency, but the Eagles are trying to do just that. They signed both talented receivers to very low-risk deals, with Smith getting $15 million over three years and Jeffery signing for a single year and $14 million. Both guys had really bad seasons last year, which makes both of them intriguing buy-low options. Of course, Jeffery is injury prone and Smith is drop-prone, but with career yard-per-catch averages of 15.0 and 17.0, they both add a lot of explosiveness to a receiving core that had almost none. Wentz has to be smiling right now, because a core of Jeffery, Smith, and Jordan Matthews coming out of the slot with receiving threat Zach Ertz at tight end looks a whole lot better than what Wentz had to work with last season. This is also a sign that the Eagles want to look elsewhere in the first round of the draft. Mock drafts often had them picking a wide receiver in the first, but now it’s much more likely they’ll look for a pass-rusher or cornerback.

Panthers reunite the Kalil brothers: The Panthers shelled out $55.5 million (with $25 million guaranteed) to left tackle Matt Kalil, who will join his brother Ryan on the Carolina offensive line. The Panthers were right to focus on left tackle help given how important it is to protect Cam Newton. But did they get the right guy? To me, this seems like a massive overpay for a guy who largely underperformed with the Vikings after an excellent first couple of seasons. Remember: Kalil also missed 14 games last season following hip surgery. This is a puzzling signing, especially when considering that the Panthers refused to give this kind of money to Josh Norman last spring.

Buccaneers going all-in on deep passing game: I can tell you one thing: Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson make for a terrifying 1-2 combo down the field. Jameis Winston threw the ball deep a lot last season, and he should do so even more often in the 2017 campaign. The Bucs had to invest at wide receiver after Vincent Jackson’s production fell off a cliff, and they got one of the most explosive ones available. One thing DeSean Jackson won’t do is improve the consistency of the boom-or-bust Buccaneers. He’s been known to disappear from time to time, so it’ll be on Winston to become a more consistent quarterback in order to unlock the true potential of an Evans-DeSean combination.

Browns make bold trade: The Cleveland Browns just essentially bought a 2018 second round pick from the Texans for the $16 million attached to Brock Osweiler this season. For the win-now Texans, the trade makes obvious sense, putting them in position to become a favored destination for Tony Romo. And it reaffirms Cleveland’s desire to pile up as many draft picks as possible. They’ll cut Osweiler, but they had a lot of cap space that they weren’t otherwise going to use, and they’re not going to win a lot next year. Why not go out and get a second round pick?

I also wanted to talk about the two major players who are likely to be traded in the upcoming days…

Brandin Cooks for Malcolm Butler trade makes perfect sense: The Saints and Patriots both made moves that increased the likelihood of a Cooks for Butler trade. New England signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore (the top CB on the market not named Bouye), while the Saints added receiver Ted Ginn (a suitable Cooks replacement). Trades involving the Patriots are usually lopsided, but this is a trade that I think would, if anything, favor New Orleans. The Saints have three great young receivers in Cooks, Michael Thomas, and Willie Snead. They’re all 23 or 24 years old, and it makes sense for them to trade Cooks, the guy who was unhappy about his role down the stretch last season. They’ve been offered a first round pick from the Patriots in return, but Butler would be a better return. He’s one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, and I can’t imagine that they could get more for Cooks. If Butler’s paired with a healthy Delvin Breaux, the Saints might finally be able to stop an offense or two. Of course, Cooks is a perfect fit in New England and would make the Patriots’ scary offense even harder to stop. One-for-one trades like this are rare in the NFL, which makes me skeptical, but it’s one that makes sense for both teams.

Houston and Denver are perfect Tony Romo landing spots: Dallas is going to trade Tony Romo very soon. The Texans and Broncos are being mentioned as the top competitor for Romo, and that’s the case for good reason. Both teams are playoff-ready teams that were a quarterback away from challenging for a Super Bowl last year. Whichever team gets Romo is the clear #2 team in the AFC with the clear chance to challenge the Patriots for supremacy. New England has to be feeling nervous, because these are the only two teams in the AFC whose defenses have given and will continue to give Tom Brady fits. Remember last year’s playoffs, when the Texans were in within a score of the Patriots until the fourth quarter? That’s a game they win with Tony Romo, and that’s even though J.J. Watt was out of the game. If Watt comes back, the Texans are probably a better all-around team than the Broncos at this point. Their defense was dominant last year even without J.J. and will be even better if and when they get him back. But the Broncos, too, have a devastating pass rush and a top notch secondary, one that didn’t just lose its most important player (as the Texans did with A.J. Bouye). Both defenses are good enough to carry bad offenses to the playoffs. The sky is the limit with Romo — I still believe he can play at a near-elite level — at the helm. Of course, expecting Romo to be healthy is almost like expecting Brock Osweiler to win a Super Bowl… but it’s definitely worth a shot, and it’s definitely something to keep an eye on over the next few days.

The Pick

Posted: 02/05/2017 by levcohen in Football

The Super Bowl line has remained steady at Patriots -3, with the majority of bets being placed on the Patriots but the biggest bets being laid on the Falcons. Meanwhile, the over/under has dropped from 59 to 57, with people expecting a slightly slower game than they originally were. I have faith in both offenses, so I’m still fine with taking the over.

I was genuinely torn about who I was going to pick until the latest Alex Mack news came out. The Falcons’ center is going to play… but with a fracture in his fibula. I’m no doctor, but that doesn’t sound good. It’s enough to sway me to New England’s side, because I think it will ensure that the Patriots have the better run game today as well as the better defense. Matt Ryan will have a big game, but he’ll come up just short.

Patriots win 37-31.

When the Patriots Have the Ball

Posted: 02/05/2017 by levcohen in Football

Throughout Tom Brady’s career, there’s generally only been one way to slow him down in the playoffs: by getting a lot of pressure on him, especially up the middle. That’s how the Patriots lost two Super Bowls to the Giants, it’s how they bowed out to the Broncos last year after Brady was hit a bazillion times, and it’s how the Texans kept things close against New England for a long time even though Brock Osweiler was their quarterback. So the key question for the Falcons’ defense is: can they make Brady feel uncomfortable? Can they hit him a few times early on?

Atlanta’s defense has certainly gotten better, at least against the pass. They were 24th in DVOA against the pass through 13 weeks. Including the playoffs, they’re ninth since then. Shockingly, the improvement has come since the Falcons lost their best cornerback, Desmond Trufant, in the middle of the season. Trufant wasn’t having his best year, but still. The reason they were able to slow Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers down in the playoffs is a seemingly transformed pass rush. Vic Beasley, the NFL’s regular season sack leader, has zero sacks and only a couple pressures through two playoff games. It hasn’t mattered. The Falcons had a pressure rate of 24.9% in the regular season, 27th in the NFL. In the playoffs, that rate is 44.9%, easily first. They’ve started to blitz a lot more, jumping up from 16.9% of the time (30th) to 36% (second). If you think this change is for real, and that the Falcons will pressure Brady almost every other time he drops back, you must pick the Falcons to win the game. I just don’t think the change is for real. Or rather, the ways in which the Falcons got pressure on Wilson and Rodgers simply won’t work often against Brady.

I said earlier that Brady struggles most when he faces consistent pressure from up the middle. Atlanta’s pass rush is predicated on guys — like Beasley — using their speed to get around linemen and pressure the QB from the outside. That worked well against Wilson and Rodgers, both of whom love to hold the ball for a long time in order to make a big play. It likely won’t get home quickly enough to bother Brady, who gets the ball out of his hands faster than anyone. Brady’s pocket presence is incredible, which is why one so often sees a pass rusher flying by him as he calmly steps up and throws a strike. New England’s offense also happens to be really, really good against blitzes. Brady can usually see them coming and throw to his hot route, and the Pats run a lot of short routes that are hard to defend when the defense is blitzing. Brady averages 9.6 yards per attempt against blitzes. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the Falcons should ever blitz. In fact, I believe they must. But unlike the Giants in those two Super Bowls and the Texans this year, they’re not going to be successful if Brady knows what’s coming. This is easier said than done, but they have to find a way to confuse Brady even a few times. In Dan Quinn, they have a defensive-minded head coach who’s been here before (he was the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks). Two years ago, he was doing a great job of making Brady feel uneasy in the first half. Then, Jeremy Lane and Cliff Avril got injured, and everything fell apart. We all know how that game ended. Quinn doesn’t have nearly the same defensive talent he had in Seattle, but hopefully he’s learned something about confusing Brady. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long, long day for Atlanta’s young, aggressive defense.

If Brady has time to throw, he’ll tear Atlanta’s defense apart, regardless of whether they’re playing their preferred Cover 3 Zone (which certainly won’t work) or (more likely) some Cover 1 Man (which almost certainly won’t work). The guy is amazing at finding the holes in a defense, and that’s true whether the defense is elite or, like Atlanta’s, average-at-best. Of all the individual matchups, I’m most worried about Brian Poole in the slot against Julian Edelman or whomever New England puts in the slot. To put it frankly, Poole just isn’t very good. While he mostly covers short routes, he’s still managed to give up 9.3 yards per pass since Week 14. That’s a really bad sign against an offense whose goal is to isolate the opponent’s weaknesses and exploit them time after time. Without Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots don’t have a dominant weapon, but it hasn’t seemed to matter. Edelman’s a constant threat, and others have had huge games. Chris Hogan stepped up in the AFC Championship Game, and it seems likely that someone else will do the same today, whether it’s tight end Martellus Bennett or another receiver. New England’s weapons aren’t anything special without Gronk, but Brady sure makes them look special. Atlanta just doesn’t have the talent in the secondary to slow New England’s methodical and devastatingly effective offense. Robert Alford and Jalen Collins are fine corners, but Brady has made much better CBs look silly.

The Patriots’ running backs should also have their way, both in the run game and the pass game. The Falcons have been horrendous against passes to running backs, ranking 26th in DVOA. Neither the Seahawks nor the Packers were able to capitalize on that, but New England, with Dion Lewis and James White, will. Remember two years ago, when Shane Vereen served as Brady’s biggest weapon in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks? Vereen caught 11 passes. Something similar may be in store today for Lewis and/or White.

The Falcons have been surprisingly good against the run in the playoffs. But that’s largely because they haven’t faced many runs, as they jumped out to big leads against Seattle and Green Bay. Unless they can take a similar lead against the Patriots (which is unlikely), they’ll have trouble stopping New England’s runs up the middle. LeGarrette Blount hasn’t done much in the playoffs, but he should be a big part of the Patriots’ game plan today. Dion Lewis will also likely have his fair share of success on the ground. This is why the Falcons can’t get in a big early hole. The Patriots will just be able to salt away the game.

Tom Brady is playing arguably the best football of his life. He looked completely unstoppable against the Steelers two weeks ago, and Pittsburgh’s defense is better than Atlanta’s. The only hope for the Falcons’ defense is to force a turnover or two and/or sack Brady a couple of times. That’s why rookie linebacker Deion Jones is so important. Jones has been GREAT of late, and he’s Atlanta’s best playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him blitz a couple of times up the middle, and if they do manage to turn the Patriots over, Jones could well be the reason why.

 

As you can probably gather from what I’ve written so far, I expect the Patriots to score a lot of points. The Falcons need a lot to go right — fortuitous bounces, maybe a few drops, blown assignments from the offensive line — in order to keep the Patriots from moving the ball every drive. They are unlikely to beat Brady the way the Giants and Broncos did. Luckily, they might not have to, because their offense is unlike any the Brady-Belichick Patriots have faced in the playoffs. But they must take advantage of every opportunity given to them and force at least a couple of field goals, because otherwise the game might get out of hand early, and it will be difficult for even this Atlanta offense to make up a big deficit against a Belichick defense.

When the Falcons Have the Ball

Posted: 02/05/2017 by levcohen in Football

It’s the league’s #1 scoring offense vs. its #1 scoring defense. Strength vs. strength, just like it’s supposed to be in the Super Bowl, right? Well, not exactly. Atlanta’s offense is scary-good. That much is for sure. They have talent at every position, and they have the best receiver in the NFL along with the MVP. They were one of the highest-scoring teams in NFL history, and then they scored a combined 80 points against the Seahawks and Packers. But while the Patriots do indeed have the #1 scoring defense (by far), that’s largely because they’ve left their opponents with horrendous field position and have had a very plush schedule. They should meet their match in the Falcons, who are incredible at generating long touchdown drives. Let’s get to the particulars of this matchup.

If I got a nickel every time someone mentioned: “Bill Belichick takes away the opponent’s best player,” I’d surely be a millionaire by now. And I think it’s wayy overblown. Of course Belichick is going to try to take away the opponent’s top weapon (usually receiver). But is he really that successful? Check this out:

This is a list of every first-team All-Pro receiver who’s faced the Patriots since 2000, courtesy of Bill Barnwell. The average (rounded) numbers for each receiver are on the left, and the numbers against the Patriots are on the right. Playoff games are asterisked. Guess what? Great receivers are great receivers, even when playing against the vaunted schemer that is Bill Belichick. All this means that the people who are taking for granted that the Patriots are going to shut down Julio Jones are misguided-at-best. Julio Jones is relatively healthy, and a relatively healthy Julio Jones is the league’s most unstoppable receiver since Terrell Owens. That’s right: I’d put him ahead of Antonio Brown (he can do everything Brown can and is half a foot taller). I’d put him ahead of Calvin Johnson (his route tree is much more expansive than Megatron’s. Calvin ran a lot of fly routes and deep crosses. Julio does everything). The Patriots will not shut him down.

The good thing for the Patriots is that I don’t think Belichick expects to shut him down. He’s going to put a safety over the top every play, and he’s going to try to eliminate the explosive plays, but he’s not going to panic when Jones makes a few big plays. There’s been a lot of talk about how the Pats will defend Julio. I think they’ll mix and match between Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe, and Logan Ryan (again, always with safety help over the top. Devin McCourty’s going to see a lot of action). But the Patriots won’t get spooked by a bunch of eight yard receptions by Jones. I guarantee you that Belichick would love to see Julio end up with 12 catches for 100 yards. His goal is to eliminate the big plays.

After last week’s destruction of Green Bay’s secondary, Jones has had eight 100+ yard games this season. Four of them have come in losses — and the Falcons have only lost five games all season. They lose when Matt Ryan relies too heavily upon Julio — in the regular season, he had a 35% target share in their losses and a 25% target share in their wins. It makes a lot of sense, because the reason that Ryan has made a huge leap this year is because he’s had to rely less on Julio. He’s had Jones for years, but the offense has never been great, let alone all-time awesome. Kyle Shanahan, who really does seem to be an incredible offensive coordinator, makes it easy for Ryan to find other open options. Belichick’s real challenge is to slow down those weapons.

The most important facet of this game — on either side of the ball — is Atlanta’s dynamic run game against New England’s stingy run defense. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman form a scary 1-2 punch, as both have the ability to catch the ball, to run through the trenches, and to break a big gain off the edge. They’ve been best running up the middle, thanks in large part to the tremendous play of center Alex Mack. Unfortunately, Mack has an ankle injury. He’ll likely play in the Super Bowl but it’s worth keeping an eye on that ankle. If he’s slowed and his pass and/or run blocking is hampered, Atlanta’s offense gets a lot less explosive. The Patriots ranked fourth in defensive DVOA this season, and they’ve completely throttled Houston’s and Pittsburgh’s run games. They held Lamar Miller to 74 yards on 19 carries before limiting Le’Veon Bell to 20 yards on six totes (before Bell injured his groin) and DeAngelo Williams to 34 yards on 14 carries. It would be nice if Freeman and Coleman could consistently break off big chunks, because it would allow the Falcons to really take control of the time of possession battle, which could prove vital for their young defense. More importantly, though, they need to establish the run game in order to open up their favorite plays: play-action ones.

In the regular season, Atlanta used play-action on 26% of its plays (tops in the NFL) and averaged 10.4 yards per play (second to the Redskins). And the Patriots gave up eight yards per play-action pass, compared to just six yards per pass otherwise. So it seems very likely that the Falcons will be able to generate a couple of big plays off the play-action, especially since the Patriots don’t have a particularly strong pass rush. Ryan has been otherworldly against three and four man rushes, so it would make sense for the Patriots to bring some blitzes in this game, even though they’re a team that doesn’t usually blitz a lot. Expect to see a few big blitzes, but the Patriots won’t likely get too crazy, because their number one goal is, again, to limit the big plays, and Ryan has the ability to find open receivers downfield if he’s given even a little time.

One other reason the run game is so important: the Falcons will need at least the threat of Freeman or Coleman running the ball in the redzone, because otherwise they’re going to have a tough time punching the ball in. Atlanta is just average in the redzone, while New England has been great at forcing teams to kick field goals. Field goals won’t cut it in this game, and I expect Dan Quinn to be aggressive with his play-calling near the goal line, including on fourth downs. Coleman and Freeman have a rushing touchdown apiece this postseason, and they’ve also each scored on a reception in the redzone. If Jones is Plan A in the redzone and Mohamed Sanu is Plan B, whichever running back is in is a very strong Plan C.

While Freeman and Coleman are very talented players, Atlanta will undoubtedly rely on Ryan and the high-octane passing game. I’ve already talked about Jones, but I think it’s worth repeating that I find it hard to believe that the Patriots will shut him down. Regardless, Ryan has other receivers to throw to, and it’s imperative that he doesn’t start relying too heavily upon Julio in a close game. As I wrote before, the Falcons have run into trouble when they’ve force-fed the ball to Jones. The reason the offense is so much better this year than any Ryan-led offense has ever been is largely the play-calling by Shanahan but also the team’s other receivers. Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel are fantastic second and third options in the passing game. Sanu is a possession receiver who is capable of making tough catches, is a go-to target on third down, and has a touchdown in each playoff game (I was surprised to see that he only had four touchdowns in the regular season). One catch against the Seahawks stands out. The Falcons were at their own 14. They were ahead 12-10 with time running out in the first half. It seemed likely that Seattle would get the ball back with a chance to take the lead. Then Sanu made a really difficult 22 yard catch on second and 10, and the Falcons ended up scoring a touchdown at the end of the half. The catch really showcases how strong his hands are. Here it is. The Patriots will likely defend Sanu with one of their bigger corners, namely Logan Ryan or Eric Rowe.

Gabriel will likely be the one the Patriots key on stopping, because he’s the guy (other than Julio, of course) who can take the top off of a defense. He averaged 16.5 yards per catch in the regular season and is at 15.8 through two playoff games. He has six games with a 30+ yard reception, and he only played 13 regular season games. He may see a lot of Malcolm Butler, since Butler will be able to keep up with him. Of all of the Falcons’ offensive threats, he’s the one I think is least likely to burn the Patriots. But that’s only because New England is well aware of what he can do. When he’s on the field, he can open things up for crossing routes and the 10-20 yard passes that made Ryan the MVP.

I haven’t yet mentioned the tight ends, who rank first and third in DVOA among tight ends (Gronk is second). Of course, Levine Toilolo and Austin Hooper aren’t the first and third best tight ends in the NFL (they rank 11th and 17th in DYAR, which is usage-dependent), but those DVOA numbers show how efficient they have been. In the regular season, Toilolo had 13 catches on 19 targets for 264 yards and two touchdowns. He’s become more involved of late, totaling nine targets in his last three games (including the two playoff games). Hooper caught 19 of 27 targets for 271 yards and three scores. I’m not predicting a big game for either of these two, but they’re worth mentioning, both because they’ve made some big plays this season (not many tight ends average as many yards per catch as they do) and because they are part of the reason that Atlanta’s offense is so tough to beat. Two weeks ago, fullback Patrick DiMarco rumbled for a 31 yard catch. This offense really can beat you with anyone.

The biggest reason they’re so dominant, of course, is the quarterback. Matt Ryan has had an exceptional season. There’s a reason that he ranks first in pretty much every all-encompassing stat there is (quarterback rating, QBR, DVOA, DYAR, etc). In the regular season, he threw for 4,944 yards, averaging 9.26 yards per attempt. He had 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. In the playoffs, he’s been even better, with 730 yards (9.73 yards per attempt), seven touchdowns, and zero picks. He even had his first rushing touchdown since 2012. His decision-making has been sublime, he’s super accurate, and he’s been a great downfield passer. In other words, he’s been nearly perfect this season.

New England’s game plan is going to be to keep the ball in front of them, as they’ve done all season. They rarely allow big plays and have held opposing receivers to an average of just 4.1 yards after catch, the lowest in the NFL. They’re going to let Ryan complete some underneath throws, because they understand that they won’t be able to shut down this offense… they just hope to contain it. They’ll try to tighten up in the redzone, forcing some Matt Bryant field goals. They’ll try to take out the run game, forcing Atlanta out of the driver’s seat. And on obvious passing situations, they’ll send a few blitzes in order to make Ryan feel uncomfortable. Will any of this work? Well, it depends what you mean by “work.” The Falcons will still score plenty of points, but they won’t find it as easy to consistently score touchdowns as they have the last couple of games. And given that their defense is unlikely to slow down Tom Brady all that much, the offense will be under tremendous pressure to control the game. Only seven NFL teams have ever scored more than Atlanta did this season, and none of them went on to win the Super Bowl. If the Falcons are to become the first, they’ll need to be nearly perfect offensively. The odds are against it (which is why they’re three point underdogs), but I think they can do it.

NFC and AFC Championship Picks

Posted: 01/22/2017 by levcohen in Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divisional Round Preview — Sunday Games

Posted: 01/15/2017 by levcohen in Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divisional Round Preview — Saturday Games

Posted: 01/13/2017 by levcohen in Football

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

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

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

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

Falcons cover
Over

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

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

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