Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

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!

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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.
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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
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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
Under

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
Under

Divisional Round Picks — Saturday Games

Posted: 01/12/2018 by levcohen in Football

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

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

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

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

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

Wild Card Round Picks — Sunday

Posted: 01/07/2018 by levcohen in Football

Over the last few years, the playoffs have gone pretty much all chalk. The favored teams have generally won. If yesterday is a sign of things to come, we’re in for a wild ride this year. Atlanta and Tennessee, both of whom were 6+ point road dogs, not only covered but won outright. Neither of these upsets seem that meaningful (because neither the Chiefs nor the Rams were Super Bowl favorites) in the grand scheme of things, but our view on that may change if the Titans (ha) or the Falcons (more likely) make a run. Let’s see if we get a few more upsets today.

Buffalo Bills (9-7, 10-6) at Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6, 9-7):
Spread: Jaguars favored by 8.5
Over/under: 39.5
My prediction: I thought that yesterday’s Chiefs-Titans game would be an ugly blowout. Through a half, it looked like I was going to be right, as the Chiefs led 21-3. But then the Titans made it a game, and the Chiefs let them, and it became a fun (if not well played) game. This is another game with a big chance to get ugly quick. The Jaguars are a scary team when they get an early lead, and the Bills are not a team that has the weapons to come from behind. That’s especially true with LeSean McCoy banged up. Buffalo’s star running back will play on an injured ankle, but it remains to be seen whether he has his usual explosiveness. Although Jacksonville’s pass defense has started to show some cracks (courtesy of Jimmy Garoppolo), the best way to beat them remains on the ground, especially in Jacksonville. And while the Bills are still a decent run team, they’re nowhere near as effective as the team that rolled its way to the #1 rushing DVOA last season. Their yards per carry number is down from 5.3 to 4.1, with both McCoy and Tyrod Taylor struggling to break big plays (McCoy’s season long is 48, while Taylor has just two 20+ yard rushes, down from seven last season). And that’s often a death knell for a passing game that has struggled. I don’t think it’s Taylor’s fault. He just doesn’t have much to work with around him. Kelvin Benjamin has been banged up and relatively quiet, and Buffalo’s leading wide receiver is Deonte Thompson, who has 27 catches for 430 yards (next up: Zay Jones, with 27 catches on 74 targets for 316 yards). Even more concerning is the fact that Buffalo’s line — and especially the right side of it — has struggled. Right tackle Jordan Mills and right guard Vladimir Ducasse have consistently allowed pressure this year. They’re about to go up against Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, Yannick Ngakoue, and Dante Fowler Jr. The good news is that Taylor is really good at dealing with pressure. In fact, I think he’s been really good in general this year given the pieces that are around him. He’s not going to turn the ball over much, and he’ll try to make as much happen as he can. But in Jacksonville, how much will he really be able to do?

On the other side of the ball, I wonder if the Jaguars will be gun-shy after Blake Bortles’s return to earth over the last few games. This team went from being a run-first offense (remember, Bortles threw just 14 passes in a win over Pittsburgh) to asking Bortles to throw the ball 30+ times a game (and 50+ twice). And for a while, he did it well. He had a near-perfect three game stretch in home wins over Indianapolis, Seattle, and Houston. But then he struggled in Jacksonville’s final two games, both of which were losses. Will the Jags play conservatively and give the ball to Leonard Fournette 30 times? Against a Buffalo defense that ranks 31st in DVOA against the run, that might not be a bad idea. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if they open it up a little bit now that they’re back home, where Bortles has been much better (7.65 yards per attempt, 15 TDs, five picks at home; 6.35 yards per attempt, six TDs, eight picks on the road, although that includes the London game as a home game). Either way, I think the Jags have enough to have a little success against a Buffalo defense that has a really strong secondary (third and 17th ranked CBs, 14th and 16th ranked safeties per PFF). And if the defense returns to form, a little success is all they’ll need. Jaguars win 24-13.
Jaguars cover
Under

Carolina Panthers (11-5, 9-7) at New Orleans Saints (11-5, 8-8):
Spread: Saints favored by 6.5
Over/under: 47.5
My prediction: The Saints have already beaten the Panthers twice this year. There’s always been a theory that it’s hard to beat a team three times in a year, because division rivals know each other too well to have the same result happen three times. In practice, that hasn’t exactly been borne out. Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, teams that have swept the regular season series have gone 13-7 in the playoff meeting. That should put to rest any argument that the Panthers are more likely to win simply because they haven’t beaten the Saints yet. Both wins were pretty resounding. The Saints beat the Panthers in Carolina 34-13, then won at home 31-21 after a garbage time Panthers touchdown. And both of those results made sense, because the Saints are the better team. They finished the year #1 in DVOA, as they sport their usual efficient offense and the NFL’s most improved defense. They have Drew Brees at quarterback, their vaunted two-headed monster at running back, and receiver Michael Thomas, who has flown under the radar but caught 104 balls on 149 targets for 1,245 yards. Thomas has roasted Carolina to the tune of 22 catches for 303 yards and three touchdowns in four career games. The Panthers have one of the worst cornerback duos (or, if you’d like, trios with slot corner Captain Munnerlyn) in the NFL. If anyone can slow down Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, it’s probably the Panthers, who are a great run defense when Luke Kuechly is healthy. And I think the Panthers will do a pretty good job defensively. But it may be impossible to render either of those guys (let alone both) ineffective. Kamara had two carries for 37 yards and a TD against the Panthers in Week 3, before he was really a part of New Orleans’s offense. Later on, he turned 14 touches into 126 yards and two scores against Carolina in the same game that Ingram accounted for 122 total yards and another score. Ingram averages 5.6 yards per carry at home, where the Saints are 6-1 (they played a home game in London, which they also won). I just think it’s going to be hard for the Panthers to neutralize Ingram and Kamara on the ground AND in the passing game, let alone the rest of Drew Brees’s weapons.

So Carolina’s offense is going to need to play well, which means that Cam Newton is going to have to have a brilliant game. Over the last 11 games of the season, Newton threw for more than 200 yards just four times and 2,065 total. He averaged just 5.95 yards per attempt in that stretch (for reference, Brett Hundley and Joe Flacco were the only qualified quarterbacks who averaged under six yards per attempt this season), and threw 14 touchdowns and 11 picks. He and the Panthers were able to mask some of that with his resurgent running ability and a 7-4 record down the stretch, but the shaky passing was easier to overcome at home (5-1 down the stretch) than on the road (2-3). He and the passing game have to break through the slump this week, because while the Saints rank 23rd in DVOA against the run, the Panthers’ running game isn’t anywhere near explosive enough to keep up with New Orleans’s offense, especially in New Orleans. He’ll have to do it against the #5 DVOA pass defense, which is led by stud rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore and first team All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan. He’ll also have to do it with a depleted receiving corps that, besides Devin Funchess, has no wide receiver who had more than 202 yards this season and never recovered from the loss of Kelvin Benjamin (who, when he was traded, led the team with 475 receiving yards). To make matters worse, Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd, two of Cam’s deep threats, are out for the season. So Newton’s going to lean heavily on Christian McCaffery, but the problem is that, pedigree and all, McCaffery hasn’t been that effective this season. He’s averaging 3.7 yards per carry and 8.1 yards per reception (5.76 yards per target). He’ll still be used to test Saints’ linebackers Manti Te’o and Craig Robertson, but they should be up to the task. All of this means that Greg Olsen is the key. Olsen hasn’t been healthy all year, but the word coming out of Panthers’ camp is that he’s fully healthy for this game. He has just 191 receiving yards in six games this season, but his nine catch, 116 yard performance against Green Bay proves that he can still have huge games. I wouldn’t be surprised if he racks up 10+ targets against the Saints. The problem is that the Saints won’t be surprised if that happens, either. Even with a healthy Olsen, I just don’t think the Panthers have enough offensive weapons to cause the Saints that many problems.

Here’s the script for a Panthers win: they keep it close early, forcing New Orleans’s dink-and-dunk offense into a few three-and-outs. Newton connects on a few bombs, and Jonathan Stewart and the running game chews some clock. Then, late in the game, Newton makes a few otherworldly plays, with his arm or his legs or both. This is all possible, but pretty much any other scenario results in a New Orleans win. I’m going to pick the league’s most accurate quarterback, who’s equipped with two amazing running backs, a star receiver, and a game-changing deep threat (that’s Ted Ginn). Saints win 30-16.
Saints cover
Under

Wild Card Picks — Saturday Games

Posted: 01/05/2018 by levcohen in Football

Just when it seemed like Week 17 was going to end with a whimper, the Bengals, playing a meaningless game, scored a touchdown on a fourth and long to knock the Ravens out of the playoffs. Instead, Buffalo has made the playoffs for the first time this century, and the first round of the playoffs on the AFC side is going to be painful to watch. Before I get to my picks for tomorrow’s games, here’s a recap on how I did last week (and for the season):

11-5 straight up… 164-92 on the season
12-4 against the spread… 137-109-10
8-8 on over/unders… 130-121-5

1-1 on upset picks… 24-36 on the season

Tennessee Titans (9-7, 7-9 against the spread) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-6, 10-6):
Spread: Chiefs favored by 8.5
Over/under: 44.5
My prediction: I was going to say that I’m a bit surprised that this game, rather than Bills-Jags, is the first game of the weekend (also known as the worst game and a game that won’t make you feel like the playoffs have started). Then I remembered that the Titans are very bad. I can’t remember the last time Tennessee had a good all-around performance. Sure, they knocked off the Jags last week to make the playoffs, but that was a 15-10 game that their offense tried to lose. Derrick Henry carried the ball 28 times for 51 yards (!), while Marcus Mariota threw for 134 yards (66 of which came on a fluky touchdown pass to Henry). The Titans won the turnover battle 4-1 and still barely won the game. Tennessee is also a 3-5 road team with a defense that I think is more smoke and mirrors than anything else. They played a ridiculously easy schedule (as far as opposing offenses is concerned) down the stretch, with games against Houston, Indianapolis, Arizona, and Jacksonville in their final seven. The other three games? Against Pittsburgh (gave up 40 points in a loss), San Francisco (gave up 25 points in a loss), and the Rams (gave up 27 points in a loss). Now, Tennessee faces a Kansas City offense that has regained the form that made the Chiefs the team to beat early on this season. The Chiefs have scored 26+ points five times in a row, including last week in a game played by most of their backups. Quarterback Alex Smith and, crucially, rookie running back Kareem Hunt have found their form, and the Chiefs should have no trouble putting up points at home against the Titans. I’m still very concerned by the Chiefs’ defense, and think it’ll probably come back to bite them later on in the playoffs, but it isn’t much of a concern against the Titans. Mariota has had by far the worst season of his career, with more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (13) and a career low 7.1 yards per attempt. His road splits are even worse: five touchdowns, 11 picks. With DeMarco Murray still out, I just don’t think the Titans are explosive enough offensively to hang with the Chiefs. They’ll have a few nice drives but will be overwhelmed by Kansas City. Chiefs win 31-17.
Chiefs cover
Over

Atlanta Falcons (10-6, 7-9) at Los Angeles Rams (11-5, 9-7):
Spread: Rams favored by 6
Over/under: 48.5
My prediction: I’m really excited for this game and think it’s the best matchup of the first round. Based on play this year, the Rams should win this game walking away. They, not the Falcons, are the team with the explosive, quick-hitting offense and the opportunistic (and at times dominant) defense. It took me a long time to realize it, because my expectations for Jared Goff and Co. were so low going in, but I’m now well aware that their offense is hard to scheme against. Meanwhile, the Falcons have played below their talent level all season long, playing close game after close game against inferior opposition. There are two ways to look at this: you can believe that there’s still something for this team to unlock and that they’ll do it now that they’re in the playoffs, or you can think that, at this point, the Falcons are who they are. I’m inclined to believe that the Falcons will at least keep this game competitive. Atlanta has been quietly good defensively. They rank just 22nd in defensive DVOA, but I think that underrates them. They allow the ninth fewest yards and eighth fewest points in football and have a number of quality-to-elite players on all three levels (Adrian Clayborn and Grady Jarrett; Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell; Desmond Trufant and Keanu Neal). The one missing piece has been takeaways. The Falcons have forced just 16, tied with Houston for 27th in the NFL. They aren’t going to shut the Rams’ offense down. There’s a reason LA is the NFL’s highest scoring offense. Todd Gurley will get his, and Jared Goff will probably make a few big plays. But the Falcons have only given up more than 23 points twice this season (and both of those games, ironically, ended up in Atlanta wins). The Falcons’ defense will give the team a chance to win the game.

The real question, then, is: can the offense finally play to its potential and show some of the explosiveness that sent the Falcons to the Super Bowl last season? The Rams are a good defensive team, especially against the pass (third in DVOA, versus 22nd against the run). Aaron Donald is the most dominant defensive player in the NFL, and LA also has a strong secondary. But the Falcons should, in theory, have the offense to exploit LA’s weaknesses. Their offensive line is strong, especially inside (Alex Mack is a great center). They have Julio Jones, who can tear apart any secondary, and Devonta Freeman, who can capitalize on the Rams’ struggles against the run. They also have Mohamed Sanu, a go-to option on third down and a player who can make contested catches. Matt Ryan, fluky interceptions aside, can make plays while under pressure. The Rams have forced 28 turnovers this season, fifth most in the NFL, but I don’t think Atlanta’s going to turn the ball over a bunch tomorrow. Based on personnel alone, I’d expect the Falcons to have a nice offensive game. The complicating factor, of course, is the coaching. The Rams have Wade Phillips, one of the best defensive coordinators of all-time. The Falcons have Steve Sarkisian, who has disappointed in his first season as offensive coordinator. I was skeptical that going from Kyle Shanahan to Sarkisian would have a major impact on Atlanta’s offensive production, but I was clearly wrong. Almost everything that was in place last year is still there now, but the Falcons have been a different team offensively. That has to change now.

I think this is going to be a close game. The Falcons have lost two games by more than a touchdown but actually out-gained their opponents on a per-play basis in both games. This is not a team that gets blown out, and I don’t think that will change. And in a close game, it’s important to remember special teams. Normally, that would give the Rams a big edge. They rank second in ST DVOA, and until recently had one of the best kicker-punter duos in the NFL. They still have Johnny Hekker, a top punter, and they also still have Pharoh Cooper, one of the best return men in the game. But with Greg Zuerlein (38-40 on field goals, 18-19 from 40+) injured, the Rams will turn to unproven kicker Sam Ficken, who missed his only 30+ yard field goal attempt and an extra point in his first game. The Falcons, meanwhile, are generally mediocre when it comes to special teams, with one big exception: ageless kicker Matt Bryant, who is “just” 34-39 on the season but hasn’t missed an extra point, is 17-19 from 40+, and has a season long of 57 yards. This is just something to keep an eye on, because I think it could make a difference.

I’m picking the Falcons to win this game, both because I think they have some matchup advantages and because I just have a gut feeling that they’re going to play well. The Rams are a really good team, and I don’t put any stock into the “playoff experience” thing, but I’m not particularly confident in Goff. I know he and the offense do well when the pocket is clean and there’s no pressure (literally or otherwise) on them, but I’ve also seen the offense wilt down the stretch in some big games (vs. Philly, vs. Seattle early in the season, at Minnesota). The Falcons will run the ball well and control the game, and the Rams won’t be able to win it late. Falcons win 23-21.
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