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

NFL Week 13 Predictions: Life Without Gronk Edition

There was a point earlier this season where the Patriots looked capable, if not likely, of running the table to finish 18-1 (the good kind of 18-1, not the embarrassing type). But seasons change quickly, and a big pop by Earl Thomas on Rob Gronkowski in Week 10 has seemingly turned this season in a much different, much more open direction. Gronk is now on injured reserve after undergoing back surgery, and Seattle showed that the Patriots are beatable in that game. In fact, I expect the Patriots to lose a couple of more times this season now. The health of Gronk has often been a huge determining factor in just how successful their seasons are. Last year, I thought Gronk leaving the Denver game with an injury (and the Patriots subsequently falling in overtime) was a huge turning point for the 2015 season. New England also lost its next game (Week 13 against the Eagles), and Denver was eventually able to secure the No. 1 seed and keep that AFC Championship Game in Denver.

This year, there are still good reasons to keep the Patriots as the favorites in the AFC, but now not likely the Super Bowl with no possibility of a Gronk return. For one, Martellus Bennett is a very capable backup, and would be the TE1 on more than half of the teams in the NFL. The other big part is that the AFC lacks contenders. This injury news is great for Oakland and Pittsburgh, two teams who would really have to outscore the Pats in January. That gets a little easier if Gronk isn’t there. Oakland especially could get a boost here with the No. 1 seed in sight, and the fact that Khalil Mack is starting to play at an All-Pro level again. Pittsburgh lacks that type of dominant pass rusher, but at least the defense wouldn’t get killed by Gronk again. Meanwhile, Denver and Kansas City were always going to try beating the Pats by holding Brady to 21 or fewer points. That gets easier with Gronk gone, but they’ll still have to find a way to manufacture points in Foxboro. Or maybe not. While the Patriots get a third weak opponent in a row (Rams) this week, those road games in Denver (Week 15) and Miami (Week 17), two places Brady-Belichick have had their share of struggles, look more daunting now, making a 12-4 finish probable. That may only be good enough for the No. 2 seed this year.

Gronk probably should go down as the best TE ever, but his back was an issue in the draft, and his physical style does take its toll on his body each season. We may have already seen him at the best he’s ever going to be, and the Patriots can only wish they would have gotten to see more of him over the years.

Giants at Steelers

This is the highlight game of Week 13, and I’m not just saying that because it involves the Steelers and I usually cover their games here. This is a nice matchup on paper between one of the best offenses (PIT) and one of the best defenses (NYG). However, much like how I felt about DAL-PIT a few weeks back, I don’t think the Giants have been tested by anything like they’ll see from Pittsburgh here. When you have Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell on the field together, especially at home, it’s usually dynamic stuff. The Giants haven’t seen an offense to this level since maybe the Saints in Week 2, and we know New Orleans isn’t the same on the road. So I expect to see the Steelers play up to the competition here and put on a good offensive performance. The key matchup is really on the other side. Eli Manning has not had a great season, but he hasn’t been bad either. Odell Beckham Jr. seems poised for a monster day against this secondary, so that could help this one reach a shootout level or at least a very competitive game into the fourth quarter, which has been the case in all three career meetings between Ben and Eli (a 4QC in each with Ben getting two). The Giants have been squeaking by opponents all season. Records be damned, I think Pittsburgh is a more dangerous team and will get the home win.

Final: Giants 22, Steelers 28

2016 Week 13 Predictions

I had the Cowboys on TNF, and that was a little close for comfort, but an 11th straight win nonetheless.

Winners in bold: 

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

Might be warming up down the stretch (Finally). And something is totally fvcked if Lions-Saints isn’t a very high-scoring game.

  • 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
  • Season: 108-69

NFL Week 7 Predictions: And All That Could Have Been

 

In writing about the Steelers, Cardinals and Seahawks for FOA 2016 this past summer, I had a lot of expectations for Week 7 as a crucial day in determining home-field advantage for several of the top Super Bowl favorites. Now that the time has come, we are left with two games that are nowhere near the level of interest that I thought we’d get. In fact, Sunday evening has me looking more forward to which character bites the dust on The Walking Dead (and it better not be Glenn after all this lame buildup).

Patriots at Steelers

So much for that AFC Game of the Year, right? The Steelers host the Patriots in a battle of Super Bowl favorites, but unfortunately there is no Ben Roethlisberger in this one. Instead of perhaps the top quarterback duel of the season, we get to watch Landry Jones, who threw four interceptions in limited action in a preseason game this year. This is a huge disappointment. Roethlisberger always seems to miss some time each season, but it is possible this is the only game he misses. ESPN did report a potential 4-6 week absence, but I would guess that Roethlisberger misses Sunday and the Baltimore game in Week 9 (obligatory missed Ravens game) at worst.

But go figure, it’s the biggest game of the year for the Steelers and Roethlisberger cannot go. I spent a large chunk of my FOA essay talking about how the Steelers’ season was going to be determined by how well they play the Patriots, and now we get an expected blowout. Oh, the Patriots should be 10-point favorites if we’re being honest here. We already know that Tom Brady shreds this defense, and this is a unit that recorded the lowest pressure rate on Ryan Tannehill in his 70-game career last week. When you take Cameron Heyward, the best overall player on this defense, out of the game, there are going to be issues. While LeGarrette Blount could have a solid game, we know this is going to be about Brady throwing at will and throwing quickly to Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, James White and Martellus Bennett. Chris Hogan might even get a 50-plus yard play before this one’s over. Pittsburgh’s only real hope was for Roethlisberger to lead his own offensive charge at home, which was certainly possible against the 25th-ranked pass defense.

Now with Jones at quarterback, the Steelers are very limited in preparing a winning game plan. It basically consists of the Patriots crapping their pants with turnovers (at least a minus-two differential), which is unlikely to happen against a defense that is struggling to do anything destructive right now. On the other side, yes, Jones has Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown at his disposal. He has a solid offensive line. But he is also a mistake prone quarterback, or exactly the kind that Bill Belichick loves to exploit.

I’m not sure if the Steelers can impose their will with a ground-heavy attack that features Bell (DeAngelo Williams is out). There are plenty of plays to be had against this New England defense, but as always, it tightens up in the red zone and keeps the points down. Jones will have to make some big plays on crucial downs, and Mike Tomlin needs to understand that a surprise onside kick or going for it repeatedly on fourth down can be helpful in this game. Remember when Matt Flynn nearly led an upset of the Patriots in 2010? Mike McCarthy had a brilliant surprise onside kick in the first half. Tricks like that may have to be used here. Because I just don’t see how they defend this Brady offense with the weakest defense they have yet to put on the field against it.

Frankly, I don’t expect the Steelers to put up much of a fight, but maybe that’s not a terrible thing. While I dread the thought of this team trying to win in Foxboro in January, it would certainly be a much different game when your best player on both sides of the ball returns. Don’t show the Patriots a whole lot in this one, and learn from what they show you for next time.  We know every Belichick playoff loss has been a rematch from the regular season.

Final: Patriots 36, Steelers 21

Seahawks at Cardinals

Seattle is starting to shape into the team we have come to expect, thanks to some improved health along the offensive side of the ball. The defense hasn’t blown a fourth-quarter lead yet, and actually broke some major tendencies by aggressively blitzing Matt Ryan on four straight plays last week in the 26-24 win. Meanwhile, Arizona is hard to figure out so far. The Cardinals have already blown two fourth-quarter leads, but still have the No. 1 pass defense. David Johnson has been very consistent, but Carson Palmer has not been. He’s not hitting the vertical passes at anywhere near the MVP-caliber rate he was last season, and we’re not seeing as much production from John Brown and Michael Floyd.

The Seahawks have actually blown the doors off Arizona in the three years that Bruce Arians has been the head coach, so there is no fear of performing in this building. Russell Wilson has eight touchdowns to zero interceptions since 2013 in three Arizona starts. I think both defenses are solid, but right now, there are more ways for the Seahawks to attack the Cardinals with Wilson’s mobility, the emergence of Christine Michael, the versatility of the wide receivers and better play from Jimmy Graham. The Seattle defense has been shutting down running backs cold, and while Johnson has broken 100 yards from scrimmage in each game this season, I think that stops in this one. Palmer will have to be pinpoint and great, and I just don’t see that happening in this one.

Final: Seahawks 27, Cardinals 19

2016 Week 7 Predictions

I finally had a strong week last week (12-3), and kept it going with the Packers winning on Thursday night against a putrid Chicago team that just will not kindly piss off from these prime-time games.

Winners in bold:

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

I fully expect the Denver defense to make Brock Osweiler look silly on Monday night. In a similar fashion, I think Minnesota’s defense will travel well to Philadelphia, and even if Sam Bradford doesn’t do a whole lot, he’ll have a better day than Carson Wentz as the Vikings continue their undefeated season. Finally, even though I think DeMarco Murray should go nuts and the Titans should beat Indy at home, we are talking about the Titans here. Somehow (say a GWD), some way (Andrew Luck to T.Y. Hilton), the Colts get a win in this one.

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Season: 52-40

NFL Week 12 Predictions: Super Bowl Rematch, Super Matchup Spoiled

Most of the country will be watching the next two games, both of which I have plenty to say about.

Steelers at Seahawks

This is only the second time in 20 years the Steelers will play in Seattle, so it’s a rare matchup. Over the last three meetings, the Steelers have all but silenced the Seahawks. There was the 21-10 win in Super Bowl XL where despite all the bitching and moaning, the Seahawks were clearly outplayed and allowed three of the biggest plays in Super Bowl history. The last two meetings have taken place at Heinz Field at 1:00 p.m. and the Steelers won 21-0 in 2007 and 24-0 in 2011. That 24-0 win is significant because it marks the last time Seattle was unable to stay at least within 8 points of its opponent in the fourth quarter. The Seahawks trailed 17-0 at halftime, 24-0 late in the third quarter and there was no score by either team in the fourth quarter. No one else has thoroughly beaten the Seahawks since that point, a streak that spans an NFL-record 80 games:

SEA80

Arizona opened up a 19-0 lead a few weeks ago, and I would imagine the Steelers studied that film to prepare for this matchup. Antonio Brown can get his against any defense, but I think Richard Sherman will have a good day. Martavis Bryant is the weapon that Ben Roethlisberger needs to utilize best against Seattle’s lesser corners, and Heath Miller needs to have one of his big days as the tight ends have been killing this defense down the seam all year. You can’t abandon the run against the Seahawks, and I don’t think Pittsburgh will, but this is a game where Roethlisberger has to play big just like Carson Palmer did a few weeks ago. The Seattle defense is not as good as it was in 2012-14, but it’s still a talented group that can take over this game if the offensive line struggles to protect Roethlisberger.

Defensively, the Steelers continue to exceed expectations, but they still give up plenty of plays and yards. They just have done a better job of getting takeaways and limiting points. This is a pretty unfamiliar opponent and Russell Wilson is coming off of his best game of the season. I like Doug Baldwin in this matchup and Jimmy Graham may even show up for this one too. Marshawn Lynch is out, but that hasn’t meant the running game has slowed down one bit with Thomas Rawls this year. Seattle’s offense has underachieved for most of the year, but I feel like this game can be more high scoring than expected. I shudder at the thought of predicting the Steelers to score much on the road, but they also tend to play up to the competition. Despite the 5-5 record, at Seattle is still a marquee matchup. You could argue the Seahawks have looked better in their five losses than their five wins this year, especially factoring in the competition. The team that pressures the quarterback better should get this win, and I still think the home team is capable of doing that here.

Final score: Seahawks 27, Steelers 23

Patriots at Broncos

A few weeks ago this looked to have the potential of the most hyped regular-season game in NFL history. The Patriots were rolling. The Broncos had just embarrassed the Packers — not as impressive now as it looked then — and a battle of 10-0 teams seemed like a real possibility. Then the Patriots suffered some injuries at the skill positions and have not been as dominant. The Broncos lost two in a row and Peyton Manning accumulated a few more injuries. Now the legendary offensive showdown looks like a low-scoring slog between arguably the league’s two best defenses.

Oddly enough, the Patriots have allowed one fewer point (182) than the Broncos coming into the week, just like the Packers allowed one fewer point than Denver heading into their 6-0 vs. 6-0 matchup on SNF. Carolina actually leads all defense ins Pts/Dr, but Denver is second and the Patriots are fifth. New England is also really stingy at allowing points early in games, allowing many of their points with the game practically out of reach while the Broncos have played in almost nothing but close games all season.

Ultimately, I think the New England defense wins this game by confusing a young quarterback into mistakes, but it sure has the potential to be an ugly 60-minute affair.

I’m not sure where New England’s offense is going to get its yards from. They can try going big with 2 TEs (get Scott Chandler invovled) and pounding LeGarrette Blount, letting Tom Brady use play-action to his advantage. Denver is still pretty strong against the run however.

For the first time since the 2006 season, Brady won’t have his little (white) security blanket since Danny Amendola is out with a knee injury. Julian Edelman is still out. Wes Welker is in St. Louis. Bill Belichick better fire up the cloning device or try to get Cole Beasley from Dallas in the offseason. It’s not like the Patriots can’t find another shifty player to run 5-yard routes, but it’s been interesting to see how they’ve created such a specific role in their offense since 2007 for players who just so happen to look the same. Brady was using Troy Brown in similar ways a long time ago, but this has been one of the more interesting things about the NE offense over the years.

If you’re Denver, I don’t see how you don’t just use Chris Harris and Bradley Roby to defend Brandon LaFell and Chris Harper man to man. Not even Aaron Dobson (IR) is active, so it’s really those guys at WR. I would use a lot of Aqib Talib on Rob Gronkowski, just like the Pats did with Talib against Jimmy Graham in 2013. I would consistently double Gronk with Talib and a LB, or a safety (throw some T.J. Ward memories at him). With Dion Lewis out and no real receiving threat at RB available, this is really a limited offense. I don’t believe Buffalo showed a blueprint for Gronk. I just think they got first dibs on a depleted NE offense, and if this is how things are going to look with Amendola out, then Denver’s defense should have a good night. The only way the Pats should break 20 points is if they get short fields from turnovers. It would really help to have DeMarcus Ware (out) for this matchup as another player who can get quick pressure on Brady, because I don’t think the coverage is going to be too much of an issue. However, Brady should still get sacked a few times behind a revolving OL, and I expect at least one interception. He’s really going to have to keep his patience and remember that punting is okay in this one.

On the other side of the ball, Denver has Brock Osweiler in his second start, which sounds like a bad formula against Bill Belichick, but Gary Kubiak has used his system in the past to elevate lesser QBs (Brian Griese and Jake Plummer) to successful outings and wins against the Patriots. The tight ends got more involved last week, which could be big here since I think Malcolm Butler will press Demaryius Thomas, who does not handle press coverage well. Emmanuel Sanders will hopefully be healthy for this matchup, but the wild card is Osweiler. Despite claims of mobility, he looks like a major sack machine, already taking 8 sacks in not even six quarters. It took him one start to match Peyton Manning’s career high in sacks for a game (5). Only a facemask penalty negated a sixth sack against a Chicago defense that hardly gets sacks this year. He’ll catch a break with Jamie Collins out, but I think NE’s front seven can get good pressure and stall multiple drives with sacks against this battered OL.

It’s a joke that Osweiler won AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his first start. What I saw there was a true game manager performance. He didn’t have turnovers, but he also wasn’t making any plays in terms of escaping pressure or throwing to guys who weren’t first or second reads. He just found the primary receiver, who was open more often than not. And that’s a smart way to coach a young kid in his first start on the road. It just wasn’t that great of an individual performance. His first touchdown pass was a total blown coverage with Thomas getting a ton of YAC to complete the score. Where was that the first 9 weeks in Denver? Just a fluke TD. The Patriots rarely ever beat themselves like that and Belichick will show Osweiler plenty of things he hasn’t seen yet.

But with the career luck of one Peyton Manning, I can see Denver winning a 20-17 game with Osweiler doing very little, prompting the simpletons to “see, Brock beat Brady in the regular season, Peyton couldn’t for Denver. He’s done, this is Brock’s team.” Yep, in the last three years, in games all played in Foxboro, the Patriots went 3-0 against Manning’s Broncos with an average final score of 36 to 24.3. This could be just like Manning’s college career at Tennessee where he went 0-3 vs. Florida in games that had an average final score of 43.3 to 28.7. In 1998, with Manning at Indy and Florida QB Danny Wuerffel also in the NFL, Tennessee did beat Florida with Manning’s successor, Tee Martin. What did Martin do in that game? He went 7-of-20 for 64 yards and I believe had negative rushing yardage (sacks). Tennessee won 20-17 in overtime after Florida missed a 32-yard field goal. But yep, “Tee Martin did what Peyton couldn’t.”

Then with games coming up against SD-OAK, it’s not unexpected to think Osweiler can get on a roll here. Ultimately, I think Denver should aim to get Manning back for Week 16, a MNF home game with the Bengals that could be for a first-round bye. Yeah, tough matchup, but I think you’d want to bring him back at home rather than in Pittsburgh the week before. And if he can’t physically cut it in that type of setting, then maybe you go back to Osweiler for the playoffs, but that would be my target date of bringing back Manning healthy.

I just know that bringing him back at all will be very hard if Denver wins this game, which is the case regardless of how Osweiler plays. That’s the totally wrong way to look at things, but people do it.

And I also know better than to go against the Patriots, so there.

Final score: Patriots 19, Broncos 16

2015 Week 12 Predictions

I thought I was going to have a perfect 3-0 start on Thanksgiving, but the Bears really surprised me. I thought GB was the most sure thing on that slate too. It’s just not their year.

Winners in bold:

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

Season Results

  • Week 1: 10-6
  • Week 2: 6-10
  • Week 3: 14-2
  • Week 4: 11-4
  • Week 5: 9-5
  • Week 6: 8-6
  • Week 7: 10-4
  • Week 8: 10-4
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 4-10
  • Week 11: 9-5
  • Season: 99-61 (.619)

NFL Week 6 Predictions: So the Usual Colts-Patriots Game?

There are three games this week between teams with winning records, but Bengals-Bills and Cardinals-Steelers lose some bite when you sub in EJ Manuel and Michael Vick for Tyrod Taylor and Ben Roethlisberger. That leaves SNF between two familiar AFC contenders.

Patriots at Colts

Hey, did you hear Tom Brady is pissed off and wants to throw for 600 yards and six touchdowns, and the Patriots want to drop 60 points? I guess all the sixes are natural when you’re talking about the devils of the NFL, but that’s been a heavy part of the lead-in to this game. The Patriots are looking to unleash hell over Deflategate.

So uh, remind me which of these teams was fined an NFL-record one million dollars and lost a first-round pick?

Remind me which of these teams was embarrassed 45-7 in the AFC Championship Game last January?

The Colts are the team with the right to be pissed and seeking revenge in this one, yet it hasn’t been written that way at all. I think that’s because no one expects them to do anything but get their ass kicked on Sunday night at home. The Colts have started this season poorly, especially on offense, and Andrew Luck has missed the last two games due to a shoulder injury. He is questionable again, but should start. He has struggled in all four games against the Patriots, which have all been blowout losses in the end.

I don’t think anyone ever second-guessed the outcome in January over deflated balls. The Colts would have been blown out if they played with medicine balls or beach balls. Give LeGarrette Blount anything he can handle without smoking, and he was going to shred that defense. It was always about protecting the integrity of the game.

Before the season, I really did think the Colts would close the gap like they did in 2005 against New England, but that hasn’t happened one bit. The additions have not panned out, leading to an even worse offense and the defense is still as unreliable as they come. Keep in mind the Colts haven’t even played a top-12 QB yet this season. The Patriots are playing much better than I expected from them so far. You knew the offense would be good as long as Rob Gronkowski was healthy, but they’ve been even better than expected while still attacking teams in an unconventional way from the inside, and now even more from the backfield with Dion Lewis looking like a deluxe Shane Vereen. The front seven was expected to be good, and the revamped secondary is more than getting by. It’s not at a 2005 Duane Starks level, and you only expect Bill Belichick to get better play from that unit by season’s end. The same can be said for the offensive line, which had some struggles in Dallas and just lost LT Nate Solder for the year, but the Patriots usually get stronger as the season goes on. Do I see an undefeated team? Not really, but few road challenges exist on the schedule thanks to the Dallas injuries last week and the overall stank (not a typo) of the 2015 Colts to this point.

It would certainly be very amusing for the Patriots to lose this game since they’ve been hyped up like a 21-point road favorite (actual line: 10 points), but I don’t see how that happens here. Luck would have to play one of the best games of his career, and the defense would actually have to keep flustering Brady for a full game unlike the half-game efforts last season.

BradyINDTweet

Even if they slow down Brady, what’s going to stop Lewis and Blount from running all over this defense again? Lewis could gain 9 yards every touch in this matchup. Hell, they can probably trot out Kevin Faulk for 8 yards per draw like he used to do against this defense.

The Patriots have had at least a 17-point lead in seven consecutive games against the Colts, going back to 2009. Peyton Manning made two of those games close, even winning the fourth-and-2 game. Dan Orlovsky lit it up in garbage time to a 31-24 final in 2011. But the Pagano/Grigson/Luck-era Colts have lost by 21+ every time. The gap has only widened between these teams since January.

Final score: Patriots 48, Colts 20

2015 Week 6 Predictions

I fumbled away the TNF pick the way Atlanta threw the game away. The quest for a perfect week of picks continues.

Winners in bold

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

I’m trusting the Jags/Jets/Bengals and also Jay Cutler on the road. This probably isn’t going to end well.

Season Results

  • Week 1: 10-6
  • Week 2: 6-10
  • Week 3: 14-2
  • Week 4: 11-4
  • Week 5: 9-5
  • Season: 50-27 (.649)