Championship Game Previews

Posted: 01/21/2018 by levcohen in Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Divisional Round Picks — Sunday Games

Posted: 01/14/2018 by levcohen in Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divisional Round Picks — Saturday Games

Posted: 01/12/2018 by levcohen in Football

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

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

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

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

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

I am Confused by the Detroit Pistons

Posted: 01/11/2018 by levcohen in Basketball

The Detroit Pistons have been a decent — good, even — basketball team so far this season. They’re 22-18 and have a +.9 point differential. Their net rating ranks them 14th in the NBA. Yes, they’ve cooled off considerably in their last 20 games (8-12 after a 14-6 start), but they’re gradually turning that around (5-4 in their last nine, including wins over Houston and San Antonio). By all appearances, they are good enough to make the playoffs. And yet… I still have a lingering feeling that this is a fluke, that the Pistons will struggle down the stretch and fall out of the playoff hunt.

The main reason I feel this way is simple: I just don’t think the team has that much talent. The best player on the team is probably Andre Drummond. And I actually recognize that Andre Drummond has made huge improvements to his game this year. He’s always been an excellent rebounder (15 boards per game this year, 25.8% rebound rate) and rim-runner. He’s also been an active, solid (albeit overrated) defender, partly because of his defensive rebounding. But this year he’s improved a lot in two important areas: playmaking and free throw shooting. Before this season, Drummond’s career high in assists per game came last year, at 1.1 per game. His 5.9% assist rate put him in the 30th percentile of all bigs (per Cleaning the Glass). This year, as his ball-handling responsibilities have increased, so have his assists. He’s averaging 3.8 assists per game, good for a 17.9% assist rate that puts him in the 91st percentile of big men. He’s also turning the ball over more, but this has been easily his best season in terms of assist-to-turnover ratio. As for free throws, Drummond was ridiculed (rightfully) for being a sub-40% free throw shooter in his career prior to this season. This year, though, he’s up to a whopping 62%. It’s still not great, but it’s not awful, which is a huge improvement. But Drummond’s still a very flawed offensive player, a guy who can’t really be counted on to be the best player on a good team. He has the shot selection of a 60+% shooter from the field, but he’s shooting under 54%. He’s in the 29th percentile among bigs in terms of accuracy at the rim, and he’s shooting 27% from midrange (where about a quarter of his shots come from).

Then there’s Tobias Harris, the team’s leading scorer at 18.5 points per game. Harris has always been a decent but streaky shooter. He’s taking more shots than ever this year, but not by much. The big difference in his game have been the three pointers. Before this year, Harris was a career 33% three point shooter, and a guy who relied much more on his midrange game than on threes. This season, he’s transformed into an elite (44%) shooter who takes 37% of his shots from beyond the arc (28% last year). The change in focus may be real, and I have no doubt that Harris is better than a 33% three point shooter. He has a nice looking stroke and has always been a good free throw shooter, so it makes sense that there’s been some improvement from beyond the arc. But is he really an elite shooter? I don’t buy it. And if he isn’t, he’ll remain a perfectly useful offensive player, but one who doesn’t get to the line enough or make enough plays for others to be considered a real difference-maker offensively.

So some of the improvement has come thanks to improvement (the sustainability of which is debatable) from Drummond and Harris. Most of the Pistons — including Drummond, Harris, and the always-overrated Reggie Jackson — are holdovers from the team that went 37-45 last year. For those trying to explain the improved record (as I am right now, I guess), it makes sense to point to the one major move the Pistons made last off-season. No, I don’t mean letting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope walk in free agency, because while KCP is a perfectly fine player, I don’t think he’s important enough to change much record-wise. I’m talking about the trade of Marcus Morris (who started 79 games and averaged 14 points per game last season) for Avery Bradley (14.6 points per game this year). Bradley’s always been an interesting player, because his defensive reputation is backed up by the eye test but not by the stats. Bradley ranks 87th among 105 shooting guards in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus, and he’s just 75th in terms of Defensive Real Plus Minus. His dRPM is eerily similar to what it was last season and the year before. The Pistons have been significantly better defensively when he’s not on the court, and his net rating is -4.7, second-worst on the team behind the immobile (to say the least) Boban Marjanovic. If that’s not damning enough, think about the fact that the Celtics have improved defensively without Bradley. To be fair, that probably can be attributed to any number of changes the Celts made this offseason, but at the very least Boston hasn’t really missed Bradley’s supposedly stellar defense. In past years, it’s been easy to point to Bradley’s rebounding deficiencies as the main reason that his defensive numbers were so bad. The Celtics were understandably much worse at preventing offensive rebounds when their undersized two guard was on the court. But this year, the Pistons have actually been about as good at defensive rebounding with Bradley on the floor as they have been without him. Unlike in past years, Bradley’s team has actually allowed a higher effective field goal % with him on the court than with him off it. And his backups are Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway, who aren’t exactly defensive stalwarts themselves. Perhaps Avery Bradley is not that great of a basketball player. He’s a solid three point shooter, but he’s a poor playmaker and rebounder and probably not as great defensively as we thought. I don’t think he’s helping this team very much.

Sometimes, lineups that seem like they shouldn’t work just do. After 40 games of those lineups working, I’m generally willing to accept that, while they may be playing over their heads, the five players may be greater together than the sum of their parts. None of this is the case for the Pistons, because their starting lineup DOESN’T WORK. This will be a moot point for a while because Reggie Jackson is out for at least another month due to injury, but it was important before and will be again once Jackson comes back. The lineup of Jackson, Bradley, Stanley Johnson (who’s being shopped in trades), Harris, and Drummond is being outscored by 7.4 points per 100 possessions in the 396 minutes it has been together on the court. The only other lineup in basketball that has played as many minutes this season and has been as bad is Kris Dunn, Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine, Lauri Markkanen, and Robin Lopez in Chicago. This lineup, which has played four times more minutes than any other Detroit lineup, is in the fourth percentile defensively. And the Pistons actually have pretty solid overall defensive numbers! By the way, the lineup with backup point guard Ish Smith in place of Jackson has been far, far worse in limited time. And sub in Reggie Bullock for Stanley Johnson (the Pistons made this change a while back) and you get the same results. All four lineups (Bradley, Harris, and Drummond with all combinations of Jackson, Smith, Bullock, and Johnson) have been train wrecks, to the point that the first lineup’s -7.4 points per 100 possessions mark is actually the best.

The fact that the starting lineup is ineffective is obviously not good. It’s also not new for the Pistons. Last year, the starting lineup was the reason the Pistons finished well outside of the playoff picture. The starting lineup Reggie, KCP, Harris, Marcus Morris, and Drummond finished with a -12.3 points per 100 possessions mark. Sub in Smith for Jackson (who got injured last season, too) and you get Detroit’s most-used lineup last season, owner of a stellar -7.1 points per 100 possessions mark. This is not a fluke. It’s a case where five players who probably shouldn’t be that great together aren’t, and are actually even worse than they should be.

Detroit’s net rating has been carried by the bench players. There’s no single bench lineup that has played many lineups, but leading the team in net rating are noted superstars Dwight Buycks (+11.8, albeit in only eight games), Langston Galloway (+9.3), Henry Ellenson (+6.9), and Luke Kennard (+6.6). Seven Pistons average 20+ minutes per game, and those seven are all among the eight players with negative net ratings (poor Boban is the eighth). I would say this is probably bad news for the Pistons, because I am of the opinion that Buycks, Galloway, Ellenson, and Kennard are not actually good enough players to keep carrying the team.

The bottom line is that the Detroit Pistons are a team that doesn’t do that much well. They’re a below-average offensive team without any star players. Their defense has been solid but isn’t good enough to carry the team. The value added from the bench has been found money, but I fear that it’s unsustainable. I’ll grant that Drummond is a better player now than he was last season, but I just don’t think there’s enough here to sustain a 45 win pace.

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

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

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

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.
Falcons cover