Super Bowl LI Preview

Before the playoffs started, I picked Atlanta to beat New England in Super Bowl LI. I’m 9-1 this postseason, and have found the games to not be very enjoyable for the most part. This is the first time since 2002 Raiders-Buccaneers when both teams entered the Super Bowl after winning each of their playoff games by 16+ points. Yeah, that 2002 postseason was a bit of a bore too outside of wild-card Sunday, and the Super Bowl was a joke.

Super Bowl LI should be a competitive game, because I see two great offenses that are never out of a game, and two vulnerable defenses. In fact, this is probably the most offensive-oriented in Super Bowl history, so the record-setting O/U makes sense. I don’t think the score will be really high, but we could see long drives and a high points per drive average in this game. The Patriots deserve to be 3-point favorites, but don’t play that “Atlanta has no shot” noise. This game is a pretty strong step up in competition for both teams, and both teams belong in this year’s Super Bowl.

Supplemental reading:

Film Room: Receiving Backs in Super Bowl LI – a look at every pass thrown to a RB in games with NE and ATL this year

Sneaky stats that could swing SB LI – ESPN Insider article that basically serves as a mini-preview from me on things like the scoring defenses, blitzing the QBs, YAC and comeback ability/holding leads.

Super Bowl LI Preview – Aaron Schatz’s game preview at FO

Super Bowl LI in a Nutshell

The wrong framing for this game is to call it the No. 1 offense (ATL) vs. the No. 1 defense (NE). We had that in Super Bowl XLVIII, and Dan Quinn’s defense (Seattle) prevailed in a big way over Denver. We had the same thing last year, but I thought Carolina’s offense was a fraudulent No. 1 scoring offense, and Denver’s defense was very legit. I see the same thing this year, but flipped around. The Falcons are a strong No. 1 offense, but the Patriots might be the biggest frauds to ever claim a scoring defense title. That matchup is likely going to determine who wins this game, which is really a meeting of the top two offenses. However, while the Patriots may not be a great D, they are clearly better than the Falcons on that side of the ball, and that is why you should trust the Patriots more to win this game. Well, that and the better head coach. While both offenses can be great, there’s just an easier path (of less resistance) to success for the Patriots, who can get big games from a variety of players depending on how they choose to attack a young defense. With the Falcons, guys like Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu and Tevin Coleman are going to have to deliver, because I don’t think it can just be a big Julio Jones and/or Devonta Freeman evening. When both teams should score a good amount, it’s a game that comes down to turnovers (both very good here), red zone (advantage: NE) and third down (advantage: NE).

It will be very difficult for Atlanta to win this game without a stellar offensive performance, and while the offense has been so good this year, we have seen so many top offenses crash and burn on this exact stage through decades of NFL history. I don’t think that will happen, but I think you’ll be hearing at the end of the night how “defense wins championships” even if there was no such thing as a truly great D in this postseason. It’s just going to come down to being the best on Sunday night, and that should be New England again.

That’s really my summary of the game, but continue on reading if you want to see the statistical support and research, as well as some ranting about legacies, weapons and such bullshit. If not, then scroll down to the bottom to see my final score.

New England’s Misleading Defense

The Patriots allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season. Fewest per drive too, though this was nowhere close to the caliber of your usual No. 1 scoring D. The Patriots only ranked 16th in DVOA, which is a far cry from where No. 1 scoring Ds have ranked in the previous 19 seasons.

neno1

Since 1997, a total of 60 teams have ranked in the top 3 in Points per Drive allowed. Only the 2007 Patriots (11th) and 2016 Patriots (16th) ranked out of the top 10 in DVOA. This is Bill Belichick’s bend-but-don’t-break shining through. Fundamentally, it’s a flawed, if not illogical style of playing defense, but the Patriots tend to make it work. It’s even easier to pull off when you play the easiest schedule of offenses in the league, and then you draw the worst offense in the playoffs (Houston), and then you get a team that’s been leaning heavily on Le’Veon Bell, only to see him go down after six carries in the first quarter. The Patriots also lucked out in the postseason when Brock Osweiler finally threw a great pass, only to see Will Fuller drop a touchdown in the end zone. Ben Roethlisberger’s best throws down the field in the AFC-CG were also not caught by Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton. If the Falcons can get their skill guys to make the big plays that Matt Ryan should find down the field, then the offense is going to continue scoring as it has all season.

Credit to Denmark NFL writer Soren Hygum Hansen for sharing with me weeks ago that the Patriots are the first team since the 1970 merger to make the Super Bowl without playing a QB that finished the season ranked in the top 10 in passer rating. They’ll get the best QB in 2016 in Ryan, so if they want to make their mark defensively, they’re certainly going to get a shot with the Falcons coming in hot. The Falcons do have some banged up players in Julio Jones and Alex Mack, but neither injury appears to be a serious one in the vein of what Dwight Freeney (2009), Rob Gronkowski (2011), or the whole Legion of Boom (2014) went into past Super Bowls with, limiting their effectiveness. All of those teams lost by the way, because an injured star isn’t much help.

Matt Ryan’s 2016 vs. “Curse” of MVP/500-Pt Club

Matt Ryan has been playing the best football of his career, and you could see it from an early point in the season.

Well, three months later, here we are. Ryan has been phenomenal and consistent. His YPA has been at least 7.91 in all 18 games — the previous benchmark for every game in a season was 6.87 by Kurt Warner in 2001. It’s that consistency that makes Ryan’s season one of the best in NFL history by a quarterback. Yes, it’s been that good. He does have the benefit of using the most play-action passing in the league, but he has been great in almost every situation this season, and has done so against a schedule that ranked as the second toughest in the league defensively. In the playoffs, the Seahawks were missing Earl Thomas and the Packers were really banged up in the secondary too, but again, Atlanta has been more battle tested than NE this season. The game is a step up in competition for both sides though.

Ryan is trying to become the first MVP winner since Kurt Warner in 1999 to win the Super Bowl in the same season. The Falcons are also trying to become the highest-scoring team to ever win a Super Bowl with 540 points. Only four of the NFL’s 500-point club has won a Super Bowl. The losers averaged 16.7 PPG in their playoff loss. “We’re only going to score 17 points?” indeed. Big-time offenses tend to fall apart in the playoffs.

500club

Now these MVPs and high-scoring teams aren’t cursed. It’s actually a simple explanation for why they keep losing in the playoffs. The team is not balanced enough, and too much reliance is put on the quarterback to play great. In the playoffs, you usually can never get a quarterback and offense that play at a high level in each game. There’s usually that one off game, and these teams tend to not have the defense or running game or special teams to save their bacon when those off-days occur.

Atlanta is a perfect example of imbalance. The 11 wins were the most ever for a team that allowed 400 points in a season. The six wins in games where the Falcons allowed at least 28 points are another single-season record. These reflect well on the offense Ryan was able to lead this season, but it’s not a good sign for him to pull out a high-scoring win over the Patriots, a defense that rarely ever allows a 30-point game, especially without return scores involved. In fact, just look at the MVP race this year where Brady was the runner-up. NE did allow the fewest points and still went 3-1 without Brady. Do you see Atlanta going 3-1 without Ryan? Of course not. The Patriots could still beat Houston by 18 points with a subpar Brady performance, but if Ryan has a game where he throws two picks and completes fewer than 50 percent of his passes, then you can bet the Falcons are getting their ass kicked. OK, maybe it wouldn’t happen against Houston, but if Ryan is just “alright” on Sunday night, the Falcons will not win this game. He has to be great; one of the best games of his career.

Yet, in keeping with my 2006 Peyton Manning = 2016 Matt Ryan comparison, I think Ryan is going to have to probably lead a high-scoring comeback win to knock off these Patriots, much like Manning did in the 2006 AFC-CG and the 2009 “4th-and-2” game. In fact, in his last game against NE in 2013, Ryan nearly led a Manning-like 17-point comeback in the final 6:18. He trimmed a 30-13 deficit to a 30-23 game, and the Falcons reached the 10-yard line in the final minute. Belichick had his defense double team Tony Gonzalez, basically holding him out of the play, and the Falcons failed in the red zone again (shades of 2012 NFC-CG loss vs. 49ers). That game is ultimately meaningless to Sunday night, but I just think Ryan is going to have to throw for at least 350 yards in this game and be on point.

New England’s defense ranked 28th in DVOA in Late & Close situations, so if he can get the opportunity, then we know he’s good at delivering in these moments. We also know the Patriots are the best at preventing comebacks, though not quite as good at it away from home.

The Falcons had more than one turnover in just one game this season (at Seattle), though technically Ryan did throw two picks to Eric Berry, including a pick-two that provided the winning score for Kansas City, the last time the Falcons lost. Still, I always get nervous with these low-turnover teams imploding in the playoffs. 11 giveaways in 18 games is crazy low. The Falcons will have to win the turnover battle here to win this game. The Patriots probably capitalize on mistakes better than any team.

Atlanta’s Defense

Simply put, the Falcons are in the conversation for the worst defense to reach a Super Bowl.

Before the season, I did a three-part study on building a Super Bowl winner, looking at balance since 1989.

The conclusion was that balance is a little overrated, and it doesn’t hurt to have one really dominant unit (offense or defense). Well, the Falcons would be the most imbalanced SB winner yet with the No. 1 offense and No. 27 defense. Yes, that’s DVOA, but the Atlanta defense also ranked 27th in points per drive allowed. They were dead last in red zone TD%, and 29th in red zone DVOA. They were 27th on third down, while the NE O was No. 1. This is a huge problem.

Even without Rob Gronkowski, the NE offense is still scoring at a high level. They can beat the Falcons in a variety of ways. Brady has eaten up the blitz this season, but I don’t think Quinn will blitz him much at all. Seattle didn’t, and was able to get decent pressure in the only win over the Pats with Brady this season. Quinn likely studied the heck out of that tape, and the only issue is that his D just isn’t as good as Seattle’s. Vic Beasley had a lot of sacks, but overall it’s not that strong of a pass rush. The Falcons will have to tackle well, which has not been a strength for them, and mix things up against Brady.

In a game like this, it’s about getting timely pressure. We can reasonably predict that the Pats will hold up pretty well against Atlanta’s rush, but it’s going to come down to when the Falcons can get pressure. They got Aaron Rodgers on some key third downs last time out, but that was also their most aggressive (read: blitz happiest) game of the season. They can’t afford to do that against Brady, but they have to pick some spots. Atlanta was 7-1 when getting a pass pressure rate of at least 30 percent.

Let’s say the Atlanta defense registers five pressures all game. Not a good number by any means, but what if one produces a takeaway, one produces a drive-killing sack, one forces a field goal attempt, one brings out the punting unit on fourth down, and one makes it third-and-10? That’s all extremely helpful to a defense that will need a lot of help in this game. So it’s about timely pressure.

Also, the Atlanta defense has improved in the second half of the season. In starting four rookies, gains in experience should matter. After allowing 26+ points in eight of the first nine games, the D has only done so in one of the last nine games, and that needed a late Drew Brees TD drive to happen in Week 17. Kansas City scored 29 points, but that was 9 points by Eric Berry on pick returns. Now you can choose to look at the whole season as being more telling, but the Atlanta defense has gotten better.

#QBWeaponz Rant

I’ve tried to avoid a lot of the pre-game coverage for the last two weeks. Namely, I don’t leave NFL Network on as much as I usually do, because I’m sick of hearing about the underdog Falcons against the planned coronation ceremony for the Patriots. Yes, we get it, the Patriots have a lot more experience at this sort of thing than Atlanta.

But I still had the TV on enough to hear Deion Sanders talk about how Ryan has the Julio’s and “the Gabriel’s” while Brady has the “Edelman’s, the Hogan’s, the Amendola’s.” Yes, Deion is the kind of guy who wants you to think Brady still doesn’t know who Hogan is, while at the same time praising Brady’s leadership and work ethic. Well, if he was that hard of a worker, wouldn’t he be getting on the same page with his new teammates in the offseason? It’s a contradiction, as well as a lazy narrative that “Brady makes his receivers better.” As if he’s the only QB capable of doing this.

Meanwhile, apparently the Falcons signed two mega stars this offseason known as Tyler Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu. The state of Ohio wasn’t interested in keeping them around, and while neither has ever cracked an 800-yard receiving season, apparently they give Ryan a cast better than when he had Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White.

Huh? Since when is Taylor f’n Gabriel a gem to have?

Oh, but what this really is is nothing more than the way quarterbacks get perceived differently based on playoff success. If you win a ring early as a starter, like Brady did, you get a pass for failures and extra credit for your team’s success. If you take too long to win a ring, like Ryan in his ninth season and first Super Bowl, then you have years of blame being placed on your shoulders for not getting that done. Without question, Ryan’s career season is fueling this offense more than the supporting cast, which I wouldn’t rank that high at all among QB MVP seasons.

Sure, Julio is great, but he also was the target of more than half of Ryan’s picks this year, including some pretty big drops in key moments.

This is really old hat. Star receivers are put on this pedestal, and it’s as if they can do no wrong, and people refuse to credit the QB when playing with one of these guys. Meanwhile, Ryan had better stats when throwing to players not named Quintorris in 2016. He had two awesome games, albeit against weak competition, when Julio was out entirely. Sure, then it turns to “oh, but Kyle Shanahan!” but we can save that for another day. Yes, Shanahan has done a great job for his career this season, but Ryan is the one driving this offense at a historic level. He has a lot of good guys along for the ride this time, but he is still the driver.

We know if Gabriel was in NE, Brady would get all the credit for his season. Same with Sanu. It’s basically the David Givens and Deion Branch thing there, yet Ryan won’t dare get that kind of credit just because his team hasn’t won a Super Bowl yet. It’s nonsense, and we need to stop acting like one great receiver dictates everything in this game. Matthew Stafford, as I predicted, just had arguably his best season without Calvin Johnson. There’s an advantage to playing with several good receivers that the defense can’t key on versus that mega-star who runs the deeper routes down the field, draws the toughest assignments and faces the most complex coverages to beat. Try forcing that guy the ball when you need to versus throwing to a guy that’s so wide open just because the defense doesn’t understand he should be respected.

And the Patriots make a killing out of those types (the Edelman’s, the Hogan’s, the Amendola’s). They take talented players inferior franchises discard, and use them properly to maximize their talent. You can add LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis to that list too. Hogan had Julio-esque stats in the game against Pittsburgh, because it looked as if the Steelers had no clue how to defend the guy. He was wide open all night, and it was all about scheme and defensive breakdowns more than the talent of the passer and the receiver himself. Without Gronkowksi, the Patriots don’t have great weapons right now, but they have a lot of very good ones who can do a variety of things.

Sunday night is an opportunity for the non-Julio players on Atlanta to step up and prove that they can be as good as advertised. I’m not of the belief that Belichick will be able to take Jones away. The Patriots were just 20th in DVOA against No. 1 WRs this year. Jones can do a lot of things from different spots on the field to have an impact. Still, even if he is contained, the Falcons were 4-0 this season when Jones was held to 35 yards or fewer (6-0 counting the games he missed entirely). In fact, domination by Jones might be a bad thing for Atlanta if it means his teammates aren’t stepping up. Atlanta was 2-4 in Jones’ top six receiving games this season.

X-Factor: The Running Backs

The running backs could be huge in this game for both teams, and that’s why I spent time doing a Film Room study of them in the passing game in particular. With the Patriots, it could be LeGarrette Blount on the ground AND Dion Lewis/James White through the air. You never know with NE, but the Falcons need to tackle much better than they have this season. Still, Atlanta is 8-2 when allowing 100+ rushing yards this season, which is a very good record in that situation. Obviously they have the firepower on the other side to counter.

If Tevin Coleman, who led all NFL backs with 3 catches of 40+ yards, doesn’t go deep against these linebackers at least once, then I don’t know what Kyle Shanahan was watching the last two weeks. 49ers lowlights? The LBs are a weakness in this defense, and I would be using Freeman and Coleman together (only played 5 pass snaps together in 2016) to exploit that. I really do like that matchup more than one of the non-Julio wideouts against an Eric Rowe or Logan Ryan. Freeman could be good on the ground too, but I really think this game is about Ryan and the passing game, and I would be making sure the backs are a huge part of that.

The Forgotten Tight Ends

Without Rob Gronkowski, this position is a bit of a dead zone in this matchup. The Falcons’ best tight end is whichever one is open, and there’s not much attention drawn to Levine Toilolo or rookie Austin Hooper. Now Hooper might turn into a good player down the road, but he’s not really established yet. I feel like Kyle Shanahan does a really good job of scheming these guys open more than their own skills, but they have to get them involved at some point here. I still think it’s asinine that the Seahawks did not throw a single pass to a TE in SB XLIX even though the NE D was 32nd in DVOA against tight ends. Can’t ignore the position even if most of American can’t even guess a name of a TE on Atlanta. No, Jacob Tamme is on IR.

As for Martellus Bennett, he’s only surpassed 35 receiving yards once in his last nine games since Gronk got hurt. That’s surprising, though it seems like he has to scrape himself off the field once a week, so health is an issue. Is this the game where he explodes for 100 yards? Doubtful, and the Falcons were a solid 11th in DVOA against TE, but you never know with the Patriots.

Protection, Blitzing and YAC

Talked about NE O/ATL D earlier on this, but the Patriots might want to consider blitzing Ryan, who had the third-highest pressure rate when blitzed this season. Of course, he still killed it with 9.5 YPA, but he took 15 sacks vs. blitz compared to two for Brady. Performance under pressure is a tricky thing. We know guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson are usually good each season in a messy pocket, but a lot of performance under pressure is inconsistent. After all, pass pressure leads to chaos on the field with QBs scrambling, receivers making new routes on the fly, improv plays, backyard football.

Ryan has been great this year when pressured, and it’s the highest pressure rate of his career. Yes, the OL is quite good for Atlanta, but that’s moreso in the run blocking department. Ryan has seen his share of pressure even though the Falcons still have him get rid of the ball quickly as he always has. So if the Patriots can get some timely pressures of their own, they might get a game-changing turnover out of it. Sometimes, it just takes one of those to decide a game. So it’s a fascinating chess match with how these defensive coaches will approach these varied offenses, but aggression is going to have to come into play at some point. You can’t just sit back the whole game, though the Patriots were far and away the leaders in 3-man rushes this season. It just so happens that Ryan was below league-average against such rushes, so maybe that’s the strategy again to maximize the defenders in coverage against these receivers. You know Belichick likes to have his defenders get grabby with great passing offenses, and I’d expect that again on Sunday.

Ryan and Brady led all QBs in YAC per completion, though Ryan did throw deeper passes. Both offenses have a lot of skill with the ball in their hands, so tackling is crucial. This is just another area where I see an advantage for the Patriots. Including the playoffs, Atlanta was 10-0 when allowing less than 4.2 YAC per completion, but only 3-5 when quarterbacks surpassed that mark. Brady has surpassed that YAC mark in 12 of his 14 games this season, and in 83.0 percent of his games since 2011.

Brady Legacy Rant

My thoughts on this are really the same exact thing they were two years ago. There’s really nothing that Brady could do on Sunday evening to change my opinion on his place in history. He can’t go up or down with this one game. Why should he, or any player be judged so strongly by one game’s outcome? You already should have known going into Sunday night where you had Brady ranked all time, and I still think I’d have to put him fifth all time behind Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Peyton Manning. I can definitely see myself putting him ahead of Marino after some offseason reflection, but I doubt I’d go any higher than that unless he really does continue playing at a high level into his mid-40’s. That would be a first.

Now there are definitely degrees of how impressive a win here could be. I don’t think 5 SBs free of context proves anything. After all, Bart Starr won 5 championships as a starter, yet we don’t hear about that just because three weren’t called Super Bowl. It was still the same decade though. But obviously playing a huge game and winning a high-scoring game will reflect better on Brady than slumping to a 21-14 win just because the D’s were unexpectedly great, and Brady’s D was again the best on the field. Maybe he does get the Montana treatment here. Montana twice played against MVP QBs on the No.1  offense in the league, but Marino’s 84 Dolphins and Boomer Esiason’s 1988 Bengals failed to crack 17 points in the Super Bowl. Montana, dropped pick in the red zone aside, was great, but didn’t even need to score many points to get those wins. If the Patriots shut down Ryan and this prolific offense, then I think that’s a much stronger statement for Belichick more than anyone here.

After all, Belichick is constant that has been there for every game during this run for the Patriots, not Brady. If anyone should be cemented with GOAT status from one game, it could be him on Sunday night. Of course, you should already have strong feelings about this either way and one game against Atlanta shouldn’t be your last needed piece of evidence.

Special Teams

Both units are pretty solid here, and not spectacular on returns. I trust both kickers, though I like Matt Bryant a tad more with the game on the line. He is 35-of-40 on clutch field goals in his career. He just has to hope that Belichick doesn’t have a voodoo doll prepared for him to add to the collection with Scott Norwood and Billy Cundiff.

Comeback?

Atlanta has scored an opening-drive touchdown in eight straight games, which is a very impressive streak. If the Falcons can do it again to get an early lead, it would be New England’s first deficit since Week 12 against the Jets, the longest span in the NFL without trailing by a team since the 2005 Colts. Of course, the Patriots haven’t been challenged much in that stretch, but it’s an impressive streak since even a 3-0 deficit would count for ending it. The Falcons need a good start here, and New England has historically had very slow starts in Super Bowls under Brady and Belichick. Of course, even a 10-0 start by Atlanta would be far from game over like it technically was for Carolina against Denver last season.

I post this table in every SB preview, because no team has won a Super Bowl after trailing by more than 10 points.

sbcbw

This could be the matchup for it to happen, and you can see several New England games already on this list. Twelve of the last 13 Super Bowls have had a 4QC opportunity. The Falcons have also blown four 4Q leads this season, so keep that in mind.Brady has the best active 4QC/GWD record at 50-37 (.575), but Ryan is fourth at 34-37 (.479), and Ryan has the most one-minute drills (5) to win a game in NFL history. This is the kind of game where you definitely want the ball last.

And you want to run the f’n ball from the 1-yard line, four times in a row if you have to. Hopefully Dan Quinn has learned that the hard way.

FINAL SCORE

I see another precarious New England lead hanging in the balance in the final minute, and while no Malcolm Butler interception this time, a stop in the red zone happens again. Because you know who willed it to happen.

Final: Patriots 28, Falcons 24

2016 NFL Conference Championship Predictions

An offensive-driven team is going to win the Super Bowl this year, but the defense that plays the best over the next two games is still going to be the one holding the trophy. I would expect a game-changing turnover to highlight this weekend.

Green Bay at Atlanta

Both games are rematches, but I think this one is more likely to resemble the first matchup, a 33-32 shootout won by the Falcons in Week 8. I think both offenses and quarterbacks are going to be very good, but I do have some concerns with the health of Green Bay’s receivers; Jordy Nelson in particular. I also think in a game with two bad defenses, Atlanta should be able to run the ball better with the duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman compared to Green Bay with Ty Montgomery. This isn’t going to be a game where one defense surprises everyone with a dominant performance. Both offenses are going to move the ball and score frequently. It’s just a matter of situational stops, like on third down, forcing a field goal attempt or coming up with an unexpected fumble recovery. If the Packers get the hot start they so need like in Dallas last week, Matt Ryan can’t afford to press and throw a terrible pick like he did to Tramon Williams before halftime in his last playoff meeting with the Packers. But that was a long time ago, and Ryan is playing the best ball of his career. He’s been the MVP this season. Aaron Rodgers has been on an incredible hot streak, but this is the time of year where I start looking at how teams have done against good teams. With Green Bay, you’re talking about a team that’s 9-18 on the road against teams with a winning record since 2011. There was a 2-15 stretch going there before these last two wins in Detroit (31-24 in Week 17) and Dallas last week (34-31). Last week was the first time Rodgers won a game in his career as an underdog when Green Bay allowed more than 26 points. He was 0-17 before that. The Falcons are favored at home and have scored at least 24 in every single home game this year. Similar research also led me to this crazy stat.

Packers are 0-35 with Aaron Rodgers at QB when trailing by more than one point in the fourth quarter against a team with a winning record.

ar035

We knew Rodgers had the 10-34 record at 4QC opportunities, but I was reminded this week that only two of the 10 wins came against teams with a winning record (2014 Cowboys in Dez Caught It game, 2015 Seahawks), and both of those were 1-point deficits erased early in the quarter. Throw out a 2008 Minnesota game where he only trailed by 1 late (28-27 loss after long FG missed by Mason Crosby) and a 2008 loss in OT to the Bears in which he only had the ball in a tied game, and that’s how you end up with 0-35. Matt Flynn led GB’s only win in this situation against the Lions in 2011 (his 6 TD game).

It’s very important for Atlanta to start hot. You might recall Ryan had the Falcons up 17-0 in his last NFC Championship Game (2012 against the 49ers), but that lead was blown and the Falcons came up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl, or maybe Harry Douglas keeping his feet away from the big game. This time is the last game in the Georgia Dome. I think the crowd will understand the magnitude of this one and help the home team to victory in another high-scoring game.

Final: Packers 28, Falcons 34

Pittsburgh at New England

I already cranked out over 4200 words on this one at FO, so please read that. I rarely read my own articles, but I read this one on Friday evening and thought it came together very well. If you know me well, you know that I am sometimes not truthful in my game predictions in big games involving the Patriots. I always pick them anyway, but it’s hard to tell when I honestly believe them to win or I’m just conjuring up a reverse jinx. I think the first paragraph in my outlook for this game subtly hints at my real feelings about this one on Sunday night. But as I wrote back in Week 7, Tomlin vs. Belichick is like checkers vs. chess. If Tomlin wants to win this game as an underdog, he’s going to have to make some ballsy calls, whether it’s a fourth-down attempt at midfield or a two-point conversion try to win the game. And when Antonio Brown drops the game-winning 2PC in the final 20 seconds, maybe I start looking for work in a different field on Monday. But I think Brown will play well, Bell will play well, and Roethlisberger usually plays well against the Patriots, but not good enough to overcome the defense. Still, the loss of Gronk should be felt in this one, and I still believe the Patriots defense is vastly overrated and can be exposed by a top quarterback. We just need to see top QB play from Pittsburgh again, and it’s rarely been there even during this winning streak.

Go figure, I like the home teams, both of which I picked to get to the Super Bowl a few weeks ago.

Final: Steelers 21, Patriots 28

Season recap

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 7-7
  • Week 11: 12-2
  • Week 12: 12-4
  • Week 13: 10-5
  • Week 14: 9-7
  • Week 15: 12-4
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 11-5
  • Wild Card: 4-0
  • Divisional: 3-1
  • Season: 166-98

2016 NFL Divisional Round Predictions

I always say the divisional round is my favorite weekend of the NFL year. My past reasoning was that we get four playoff games matching the (typically) best teams of the season against four teams coming off a playoff win. However, it is a round where home-field advantage is the strongest, with the home team winning over 71 percent of the time compared to 63 percent in the Wild Card and 66 percent in the Conference Championship Game.

This week I figured out the real reason I think I love this weekend: the despair. While 2017 has gotten off to a pretty incredible start for me personally, I am a pessimistic person. So the cynic in me just loves to focus on the games where the home team choked in the divisional round. The dream seasons that died in an instant. While the other rounds have so many notable classic playoff moments, the divisional round is probably best known for epic home chokejobs. Think of Red-Right 88, 1996 Jaguars-Broncos, 2005 Steelers-Colts, 2007 Giants-Cowboys, 2010 Jets shocking New England, Rahim Moore on Jacoby Jones, etc. You remember the moments when the home team did not come through.

You can pretty much count on one home team to lose this weekend, but I think we have three fantastic games that could go either way, and one piece of shit to endure.

Seattle at Atlanta

Maybe he’s not dominating the headlines just because he is Matt Ryan, but I don’t think any other player is under more pressure to perform well this week. Ryan’s 1-4 in the playoffs, and the lone win was a home game against the Seahawks in 2012. That came on a late game-winning drive after Atlanta blew a 27-7 4Q lead. The Seahawks are tough, and #AllRussellWilsonGamesEndUpCloseEventually. Of course, you don’t know which Seattle team will show up anymore, and the offense has really struggled on the road. I still think Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin, combined with Wilson’s scrambling and playmaking are enough to give this Atlanta D some fits. I also think C.J. Prosise could be a big boost if he makes his return from injury, because receiving backs have been very productive against the Falcons’ young defense this season. But this game is really about Ryan continuing his MVP season — at least 7.91 YPA in every game — against a defense that dearly misses Earl Thomas. It’s also a scheme that Dan Quinn knows well, and it’s a defense that Ryan has had some of the best success against over the last six years.

I really wanted a rematch of this one after the Week 6 game ended, a game where I think DPI was clearly missed on Seattle that could have led to a Matt Bryant game-winning field goal. The fact that Atlanta hit big plays and got Julio Jones heavily involved in Seattle with Earl Thomas active is a good sign that the Falcons can have success again on offense. They’ll have to I think, because I see Wilson putting up at least 24 on this D in what could be the highest-scoring game this weekend. The Seahawks will be thankful for the start time not being 10:00 A.M. PST, but I think Atlanta gets off to a good start and puts the pressure on Seattle to play from behind, which can help Vic Beasley and the pass rush get through Seattle’s known weakness: the OL.

Final: Seahawks 24, Falcons 30

Houston at New England

Usually when you watch a playoff game, you can at least think of a feasible way for the underdog to win. In this one, I can’t think of any way Houston wins this game that wouldn’t involve a total fluke or some massive chokejob by the Patriots. Bill Belichick is not going to have his team put up a no-show performance either. This isn’t so much about New England’s greatness, because I don’t think this team is better than the 2014 and 2015 versions, especially without Rob Gronkowski available, but this is about how bad Houston is.

9-7? DOESN’T MATTER, BRIAN. YOU PLAYED IN THE AFC SOUTH

PLAYOFF WIN? DOESN’T MATTER BRIAN, YOU GOT THE OVERRATED RAIDERS WITH CONNOR COOK PISSING HIS PANTS

But you can see how this would satisfy the requirements to be the biggest NFL upset since the 1970 merger if Houston did win.

HOW DO YOU LOSE TO A TEAM THAT JACOBY BRISSETT BEAT 27-0 IN HIS FIRST START?

Oh, it would be hilarious to see Brock Osweiler move to 2-0 against Tom Brady, knocking him out at home before he turns 40 in what looks like a cakewalk Super Bowl year for this team. But how the hell does it happen? Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus would have to completely dominate this game and get multiple turnovers from Brady much the way the Ravens did in the 2009 AFC Wild Card game. I doubt that happens. I also don’t see how Houston scores more than 14 points, and that might be kind. They were already shutout in this building once this year.

I expect the Patriots to lead by 17+ points at some point in this game, but I’m not sure they cover. Garbage-time scores count too, folks.

Final: Texans 16, Patriots 31

Green Bay at Dallas

Reminder: the Dallas Cowboys, America’s Team, has not been to the NFC Championship Game since the 1995 season.

I don’t think that changes this year either. I’ve been picking nothing but home teams this postseason, but this is where I go with the road team. Out of all the matchups, this is the one where I worry most about momentum vs. rust. Some might view it as early mediocrity vs. rest, and Dallas already beat GB convincingly on the road this season. But the Packers have been in playoff mode since starting 4-6, and Aaron Rodgers is back to playing high-caliber football that few QBs could ever match. The Cowboys haven’t tried to win a game since the day after Christmas, and this is the first playoff start for rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. I don’t think the situation will be too big for them, but you never know how a player will respond to that pressure. Odell Beckham Jr. didn’t fare too well a week ago in a matchup he should have been able to dominate against Green Bay’s battered secondary.

The loss of Jordy Nelson is significant, but you should know I don’t put too much credit on star wideouts. The Cowboys were able to score 30 in Green Bay without Dez Bryant, and I would have said Bryant was more valuable to Dallas than Nelson was to GB due to the presence of Randall Cobb (great last week) and Davante Adams (Cowboys fans remember him well from two years ago). This is also a good matchup for Jared Cook, and someone like Geronimo Allison can be the Jeff Janis this year for the PAckers and step up in Nelson’s absence. The Packers still have weapons, and they still have an OL that can allow Rodgers to move around forever before finding an open receiver. The Cowboys are healthy on D, but simply have not been a SB-caliber unit at any time this season. They give up too many completions and don’t get enough pressure or takeaways. I was surprised at just how many bad plays Rodgers made in Week 6 in watching the game again Friday afternoon, but he has been playing much better since that point. I also noticed some DB’s falling for Green Bay on Dallas completions. It was a sloppy game.

I think the game will be lower scoring than expected, and I do see some struggles coming for Prescott in his playoff debut. Leaning on Elliott will be crucial, and I’m sure Bryant would love some revenge for the catch call two years ago, but I like Green Bay here.

Final: Packers 27, Cowboys 21

Pittsburgh at Kansas City

I wrote about 4300 words on this game at FO, so please check that out. Basically, if the Le’Veon Bell has a big game and Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t turn the ball over, Pittsburgh should be in good shape to win. However, I just think the Chiefs are going to get those takeaways to win a close one, and that Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are way more involved with the offense than they were in that Week 4 disaster at Pittsburgh. The change of venue will matter, and I think moving the start time to night because of weather will rile up the crowd even more under the lights, putting more pressure on Pittsburgh to communicate effectively in the no-huddle offense. This should be a great game.

Final: Steelers 17, Chiefs 20

Season recap

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 7-7
  • Week 11: 12-2
  • Week 12: 12-4
  • Week 13: 10-5
  • Week 14: 9-7
  • Week 15: 12-4
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 11-5
  • Wild Card: 4-0
  • Season: 163-97

2016 NFL Wild Card Predictions

It’s playoff time, so let’s start crushing bad narratives and picking winners.

Oakland at Houston

Okay, so maybe the playoffs don’t actually start until Saturday evening. We have to spend three hours watching one of these teams line up to be slaughtered in New England next week. Seriously, this is not the caliber of playoff game we have come to expect, and it’s certainly the worst on paper that I can ever recall. Of course, injuries to three different quarterbacks in the last two weeks is how we’ve gotten to Connor Cook (first start!) against Brock Osweiler. I’d like to think we’ll see a lot of DeAndre Hopkins and Amari Cooper bailing out bad throws, but I frankly doubt either quarterback hits 250 passing yards. This needs to be a Lamar Miller game if you’re Houston, and a Khalil Mack game if you’re Oakland. Mack sacked Osweiler five times in Denver last year and had a big strip-sack in the end zone. He needs to create a splash play like that again to get some points for his team in what should be a low-scoring game. Frankly, I thought Houston should have won the matchup in Mexico City, but Bill O’Brien coached a horrible game and the referees didn’t help either. So I already think Houston, one of the worst playoff teams since 1989, had a decent shot in this matchup to begin with, but should be able to get the home win by relying on its defense against a complete unknown in Cook. Oakland’s offensive line and running backs are certainly good enough to carry Cook to a 13-10 win should that be the case, but I just feel like Oakland’s defense is not reliable enough to keep the score that low. Osweiler might also be surprisingly not horrific, and hell, he can’t be any worse than what Brian Hoyer did in this spot a year ago, right? Fuck, why are we always starting the playoffs with the Texans?

This is all Indianapolis’ fault.

Final: Raiders 13, Texans 20

Detroit at Seattle

Most of us have been trained to expect the Lions to lose this game. They already have the longest playoff losing streak in NFL history, and Seattle has clearly been one of the premiere teams in recent seasons, especially at home. However, I give Matthew Stafford a fighting chance after seeing him have a few successful moments against the Legion of Boom, which is just not the same without Earl Thomas. What do I tend to say beats Seattle? Short, quick throws combined with a willingness to make the big play down the field. That about sums up Stafford to a tee in Jim Bob Cooter’s offense. Yeah, he’s gone to a more dink-and-dunk attack, and Calvin Johnson is no longer there for the spectacular catch, but Stafford has done well to get more receivers involved and he’ll still make the occasional side-arm throw or risk that most passers won’t take. So he’s the right quarterback against Seattle without Thomas, and Eric Ebron needs to really step up since you figure Golden Tate will against his former team, and Anquan Boldin usually seizes these opportunities well. The white running back may not make much traction, but the Seahawks will respect him, including Michael Bennett.

Meanwhile, it’s really a matter of the Seahawks being able to flip the switch or not. The DVOA dynasty is dead. Seattle finished 9th in DVOA after leading the league four years in a row. Russell Wilson’s early injuries hampered his play, but the offense has still continued to sputter on the ground all year, and the recent loss of Tyler Lockett hurts. The defense has gone without Michael Bennett at times, and now Thomas is done. It’s just not going to be the same team when the superstars are not healthy. That’s just a fact of the game. So while I think Seattle should win at home, an upset wouldn’t shock me one bit. The competitive streak died at 98 games this year. The Packers completely blew this team out already. And yeah, Detroit likes to hang around in the fourth quarter, though the eight comeback wins are a little misleading. Seven of Detroit’s comebacks have been from a 1-4 point deficit, and only one was a 7-point deficit (Rams). If Seattle can get up double digits, it’s likely over, but can you really count on this offense to do that right now? Sure, the Detroit pass defense just allowed the worst completion percentage in NFL history, but you can always get Wilson to go off script and hold onto the ball, opening up the potential for sacks to stall drives. I see a pretty competitive game here, and I know the illegal bat penalty that was missed a year ago is going to be on some Lions’ minds, but I’m still going Seattle.

Final: Lions 16, Seahawks 24

Miami at Pittsburgh

I already put 3700 words down on this game for my FO preview, so please check that out. Basically, I think Pittsburgh has too many weapons for Miami to shut the offense down (unless they injure Roethlisberger again). It does sound like Ladarius Green might not play again, but the point still stands that the Steelers are at home and they’re finally healthy, so the pressure is on them to perform. As for Miami, I wouldn’t count out Matt Moore playing well, but I think Adam Gase needs to show trust in him. If the Dolphins come out trying to establish Ajayi early and often, then I think that plays into the strength of the Pittsburgh defense, and if the offense is doing its part, then the Dolphins could see things snowball quickly on the scoreboard. They have to start well and stay balanced. Pittsburgh just needs to protect the ball better and should get this win, but I sure as hell wouldn’t bet them with the 10-point spread. After all, this is a Mike Tomlin team in a game it’s expected to win comfortably. No thanks.

Final: Dolphins 17, Steelers 24

New York Giants at Green Bay

This is the most interesting game of the weekend. One that can go many different ways, and I honestly believe this could be the most pivotal game of the 2016 postseason. The winner here just might go all the way. Lambeau Field lost its postseason mystique years ago, and the Giants are a big reason for that. You know damn well Eli Manning won’t be bothered by the situation, but we have no idea how someone like Odell Beckham Jr. will handle his first playoff game. Does he go off like a Steve Smith or turtle up like a Marvin Harrison? The matchup is certainly good with Green Bay’s damaged secondary, but all year we have wondered why the Giants aren’t scoring more despite the talent on offense. This team brings the best defense to the playoffs, and the Giants’ DVOA variance is the smallest of any team since 1989. It’s basically always a close, low-scoring game where the defense has to hold on at the end. The Giants are 11-2 in close games this year. If you’re just a football fan, you’d love nothing more than to see Aaron Rodgers with the ball late in a 4-6 point game against this defense. But the Giants have to get to that lead first, and it’s certainly doable with the standouts in the secondary (Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie). These guys can cover Green Bay’s receivers, and they already forced Rodgers into one of his worst games of the season, at home nonetheless. Of course, Rodgers can still buy time and no matter how good your secondary is, receivers will get open. This pass rush is not on the 2007 or 2011 Giants level when they had guys like Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. This is more of a coverage defense, so Eli better bring some points to the table.

My line on Eli has been that he’s only able to make the playoffs when his team is good, and only able to win there when his team is playing great. The Giants are 0-3 in the playoffs when they haven’t gone on their two miracle SB runs. This is also Ben McAdoo rather than Tom Coughlin putting the team in position to go on a run, and I think that’s a negative. Not that Mike McCarthy is great, but you have to give a coaching edge to Green Bay here for experience. But hopefully this is a good game that comes down to the final possession. I really have wanted to pick the Giants, but I just don’t see the points coming in this one.

Final: Giants 16, Packers 20

Full Playoff Predictions

I figured I’ll go through my whole playoff predictions before things get started.

Wild Card:

  • Raiders at Texans
  • Lions at Seahawks
  • Dolphins at Steelers
  • Giants at Packers

Divisional:

  • Texans at Patriots
  • Steelers at Chiefs
  • Seahawks at Falcons
  • Packers at Cowboys

Conference Championship:

  • Chiefs at Patriots
  • Packers at Falcons

Super Bowl 51:

Patriots vs. Falcons

Super Bowl MVP: Matt Ryan

I regret picking almost all home teams, but this is an unusually crappy playoff field this year, and no regrets on this final pick. I think Matt Ryan is having his 2006 Peyton Manning season.

Do I think the Steelers can win in KC and NE? Absolutely, but I sure wouldn’t bet on it. Just like how I think the Giants could rip through all of these top offenses to get back to another SB, but that’s just not going to be my pick. My preseason pick was Seahawks over Patriots, and while it wouldn’t shock me if we ended up there again, I don’t have enough trust in this incarnation of the Seahawks. Finally, after such a shaky regular season, I hope we do see a great postseason filled with exciting finishes and upsets. If so many of these teams are unusually flawed, then it’s safe to say the top teams are flawed too. No one is that much of a juggernaut that they can’t go down in any given week.

Season recap

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 7-7
  • Week 11: 12-2
  • Week 12: 12-4
  • Week 13: 10-5
  • Week 14: 9-7
  • Week 15: 12-4
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 11-5
  • Season: 159-97

NFL Week 17 Predictions: One More Try Edition

Earlier this week I did a deep dive into the MVP race heading into Week 17. The only logical conclusion is for Matt Ryan to run away with the award, but some want to make it a career achievement thing and dismiss Ryan for a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, or a flashy new thing out of Dallas. The absurd part is that should Ryan lose on Sunday in a 38-35 game after some typical Drew Brees masterclass performance against his bad defense, while someone like Brady or Rodgers has a nice week to close the season against an opponent clearly worse than its record suggests, then you can almost guarantee that Ryan will finish with no more than a handful of the 50 votes. That’s crazy, because the race has simply not been that close if you actually value the whole season like you should. It’s almost impossible for a player who was suspended for a quarter of the season to be considered the most valuable player in the league. That’s 25% of the season where he’s given no value, and we know the Patriots are more likely to succeed without Brady than most teams would be without their top quarterback. Or in the case of Aaron Rodgers, why is the 4-6 start and spotty play just getting ignored here when someone like Ryan has carried a worse defense further in the NFC while turning in one of the most consistent QB seasons on record? It’s nuts. We’re going into 2017. Let’s do better, people. Then again, an NFL Network ad that glorified “analysis from guys with rings” is clearly a step in the wrong direction, but we’ll have all of January and the start of February to talk about ring fluff.

The drama in Week 17 really centers on clearing up the AFC West, and whether or not the Patriots will lay another bizarre egg in Miami like they did a year ago. I doubt the latter happens, and I think Matt McGloin is going to struggle in Denver for Oakland. However, the Raiders might just be able to lean on that run offense again, and Denver’s poor offense won’t be able to take advantage in a 8-8 finish for the year. Oakland gets the two seed, though that’s probably the best possible outcome for this AFC playoffs. Let’s see Kansas City at New England early, and then maybe Pittsburgh gets there too.

NFC North Title Match: Green Bay at Detroit

There’s only one other game worth highlighting, and that is the finale in Detroit between the Lions and Packers. My gut says Detroit finds a way to avenge the Hail Mary last year and win this game, though I’m just not sure I trust Matthew Stafford to come through in the biggest game of his career. Yes, he’s started two playoff games, but those were on the road. This is to get a home playoff game for the Lions. That’s huge. He played well in Green Bay in Week 3, but that was before Marvin Jones ended up on milk cartons and a lot of it came after a 28-point lead for the Packers. Rodgers has already shredded this No. 32 defense, and the health of Darius Slay is a big thing to monitor against Jordy Nelson and company. The Lions are allowing a 72.9 completion percentage this season, the worst in NFL history. Oddly enough, the 2011 Colts, also coached by Jim Caldwell, hold the record at 71.2%. Five of the 12 worst rates ever belong to Detroit teams. I don’t expect either running game to take off in a huge way, so it really comes down to the passing games. I just think Rodgers has the experience, superior talent and more weapons to deal with than Stafford here, and we know the Lions have been in a scoring rut lately. I’m going to take Green Bay, which seems to be in one of these seed-determining Week 17 games each year, though a Detroit win wouldn’t shock me. Ideally, you’d want to see this game come down to the final drive given the eight comebacks for the Lions this year and GB’s history in that department under Mike McCarthy. Six of Detroit’s comebacks have been at home, and seven of the eight have been from just a 1-4 point deficit. It’s a myth that this team waits to turn it on until the fourth. It’s a fact that they’re just not a very good team that gets involved in a ton of close games and usually trails each week. This one shouldn’t be any different, but a blowout sure would be disappointing to end this regular season on Sunday night.

Final: Packers 27, Lions 23

2016 Week 17 Predictions

Man, I knew I should have picked San Diego to lose to Cleveland last week.  Here’s one more try at a 16-0 week (yeah right).

Winners in bold:

  • Ravens at Bengals
  • Browns at Steelers
  • Patriots at Dolphins
  • Bills at Jets
  • Texans at Titans
  • Cowboys at Eagles
  • Jaguars at Colts
  • Bears at Vikings
  • Panthers at Buccaneers
  • Giants at Redskins
  • Seahawks at 49ers
  • Saints at Falcons
  • Cardinals at Rams
  • Raiders at Broncos
  • Chiefs at Chargers
  • Packers at Lions

Season recap

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 7-7
  • Week 11: 12-2
  • Week 12: 12-4
  • Week 13: 10-5
  • Week 14: 9-7
  • Week 15: 12-4
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Season: 148-92

NFL Week 16 Predictions: Christmas Edition

For family reasons, I’m not too much into the Christmas spirit this year, so I welcome a weekend of important NFL action as a distraction.

San Diego at Cleveland

No one wants to lose to an 0-14 team on Christmas Eve, but I’d put an upset alert on San Diego here. Traveling across the country for an early game against a team trying to finally win a game at home in its last opportunity this season. We’ve seen Philip Rivers and the Chargers lose an ugly 7-6 game in Cleveland in 2012. A pick parade is never out of the question, and it’s a tough game to not have Melvin Gordon for, because he would have had a huge fantasy day most likely. I’m still going to pick San Diego, but this game is a little more interesting to me than the last few Cleveland massacres. I’m saying there’s a chance…

It’s not like Jets at New England where the Jets really have no chance.

Atlanta at Carolina

I think the “Ron Rivera and Cam Newton know how to finish strong in December” thing is overblown, and it begs the question why their Sept-Nov. seasons are usually poor. But this is going to be a tough game for Atlanta, which lost 38-0 in Carolina a season ago. In Week 4, Matt Ryan kind of put a stamp on the 2016 Panthers in showing it was going to be a long year with a 500-yard passing game, including 300 yards for Julio Jones, who should be back from injury this week. The Falcons have the No. 1 offense, Luke Kuechly is still out with a concussion, but I think you’ll see the Falcons struggle on the road here. Hopefully one so-so or even bad game from Ryan doesn’t detract away from the outstanding MVP season he’s had to this point, but you know how moronic voters can be with this stuff. The Panthers are the last real challenge from Ryan finishing strong and leading the Falcons to a division title. This is my top game for the 1 p.m. slot. MIN/GB isn’t bad, but not really that interested in seeing those teams again.

Indianapolis at Oakland

I’m probably going to jinx them, but you know what hasn’t been happening this year? The Colts haven’t been getting blown out early and losing games by huge margins like they usually do several times a season under Chuck Pagano. In fact, the Colts have won four road games in a row, two blowouts, and scored 31+ points each time. They’ve even won in Green Bay and Minnesota in impressive fashion. So can Andrew Luck outduel Derek Carr in Oakland? I don’t see why not. You could argue that Luck has been better overall than Carr this season, but the Colts have still lost to the Jaguars and swept by the Texans to be at 7-7 instead of in first place. Meanwhile, just about every fourth-down decision (and penalty call) has gone Oakland’s way late in games this year, and the Raiders are the only team in 2016 not to have blown a fourth-quarter lead. From Twitter, I’m a bit scared that multiple people have thought that an 11-3 team hasn’t had many fourth-quarter leads to blow, but common sense should tell you they have. They just make the necessary plays to end games, and have seven 4QC wins now (one shy of Detroit’s new record). This should be a fun, high-scoring game, but I’ll take Oakland just because of Khalil Mack’s potential to wreck damage against the offensive line whereas Carr should have better protection. But an Indy win would come as no surprise, obviously.

Baltimore at Pittsburgh

The AFC North is basically going to be decided on Christmas afternoon in Pittsburgh, making this low-key one of the biggest games of Mike Tomlin’s career. Because if the Steelers lose this one at home to drop a fifth straight game to Baltimore, then the playoffs are likely not happening. And this is a season where just about anything could happen in the playoffs due to the down year in competition. So I’m a little surprised that the Steelers are a 6-point favorite. Baltimore usually plays them tough, and it’s going to come down to if the offensive line for Pittsburgh can play at a high level. The Ravens tend to contain Le’Veon Bell, and do a good job on Antonio Brown. They also seem to get a deflected pick from Ben Roethlisberger every contest now, and Terrell Suggs has a long history of sacking him in this rivalry. On the other side, the Pittsburgh defense has not allowed more than 20 points during this five-game winning streak, but check the offensive competition: Browns, Colts (no Andrew Luck), Giants, Bills and Bengals (no A.J. Green). Not exactly a bunch of juggernauts, or even average offenses there. Of course, you could say Baltimore fits right into that this year, but I wouldn’t discount Joe Flacco from playing well in this one. I’m going to pick the Steelers, obviously, but I don’t feel confident about it. If they look flat early, look for Baltimore to win and go on to take the division.

2016 Week 16 Predictions

I even knew I should have picked the Eagles on TNF, but still trusted the Giants defense. Well, the Giants did allow fewer points (17) than the Eagles (19), but that early pick-six was a killer, as was the final interception of the night for Eli Manning.

Winners in bold:

  • Jets at Patriots
  • Titans at Jaguars
  • Chargers at Browns
  • Falcons at Panthers
  • Redskins at Bears
  • Dolphins at Bills
  • Vikings at Packers
  • Colts at Raiders
  • 49ers at Rams
  • Buccaneers at Saints
  • Cardinals at Seahawks
  • Bengals at Texans
  • Ravens at Steelers
  • Broncos at Chiefs
  • Lions at Cowboys

Looks like another big week for the home teams, or a very wrong week for me coming up.

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 7-7
  • Week 11: 12-2
  • Week 12: 12-4
  • Week 13: 10-5
  • Week 14: 9-7
  • Week 15: 12-4
  • Season: 139-85

NFL Week 15 Predictions: Saturday Night Edition

Technically, it’s almost always a Saturday night edition here since that’s usually when I post, but we have an actual Saturday night game in Week 15. It’s a polished turd of course between the Jets and Dolphins, but it’s an NFL game nonetheless.

Here are a few better games to think about.

Tennessee at Kansas City

I want to see if Marcus Mariota rebounds after his Tim Tebow day against the Broncos. The Chiefs aren’t as good on defense, but they have playmakers at multiple levels even after losing Derrick Johnson (Achilles). I might like the Titans here at home, but Arrowhead should be a tough spot for this team. Oddly, I think Alex Smith has a good game (dink-and-dunk vs. Dick LeBeau scheme) in what should be the Chiefs’ 11th win of the season.

Detroit at NY Giants

The 2016 Giants are on pace for the lowest DVOA variance of any team since 1989. Basically, you get the same should-be-better offense and solid defense having to salt the game away every week. So it would make sense to see the Lions trying to pick up a ninth 4QC win in a low-scoring game here, but I would really not expect much from Matthew Stafford with the finger injury on the road against this defense. Look for Eli Manning to perk up against that defense and get this win.

Indianapolis at Minnesota

This could be an ugly game for Andrew Luck. Think what Carson Palmer faced earlier in the season in this building. The pass rush should be huge, but I also think the Vikings still struggle to score enough to put the game too out of reach. Luck will have his chance late, and I don’t see Adrian Peterson doing much in his return to action. Remember, there are some serious blocking issues that the Vikings can’t possibly fix this season that have stalled their running game. The talent level of the backs is a secondary concern.

New England at Denver

The Patriots never really do what you expect, but on paper this is a game where the Pats should look to run Blount, and the Broncos should lean heavily on Trevor Siemian’s passing. The latter sounds more unrealistic, but that has been the case the last few weeks with a disappearing running game. This is basically Denver’s last stand for the playoffs and title defense. We know Brady has struggled in Denver, but we also know Bill Belichick can easily limit the scoring of a one-dimensional offense that already has scoring issues. So I think Von Miller and company will show up well enough to win, but the offense won’t do its share this time.

Tampa Bay at Dallas

Feels like a Dallas blowout or a really good game. Let’s hope for the latter. Tampa Bay’s defense has really stepped up on this five-game winning streak. Dallas has obviously struggled on offense in its last two games. I think Dak Prescott, perhaps feeling a little heat to keep Tony Romo on the bench, will rebound with a solid game and the Cowboys take this one at home. Jameis Winston will hold the ball too long in looking for big plays instead of taking the readily available ones against a Dallas defense that simply isn’t very good, but will be good enough in this one. And wow, do we really need another Dallas prime-time game/national game? I know the alternatives weren’t great, but this is overkill.

2016 Week 15 Predictions

I had the Seahawks on TNF, minus a few concussions from that fourth quarter.

Winners in bold:

  • Dolphins at Jets
  • Titans at Chiefs
  • Lions at Giants
  • Colts at Vikings
  • Eagles at Ravens
  • Packers at Bears
  • Steelers at Bengals
  • Jaguars at Texans
  • Browns at Bills
  • Saints at Cardinals
  • 49ers at Falcons
  • Raiders at Chargers
  • Patriots at Broncos
  • Buccaneers at Cowboys
  • Panthers at Redskins

Season summary

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 7-7
  • Week 11: 12-2
  • Week 12: 12-4
  • Week 13: 10-5
  • Week 14: 9-7
  • Season: 127-81