Super Bowl LII Preview

To say another Super Bowl between the Patriots and Eagles is less than ideal for me would be an understatement. I didn’t think I could swing a dead cat without hitting angry tweets from both fan bases the last two weeks, but I think my Mute and Block lists have done a good job there.

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My SB LII feelings.

This idea that I want the Eagles so badly to lose is an odd one. You guys realize the Patriots are the other team in this game, right? No matter how much I disagree with Eagles fans*, you’re the anti-hero we non-NE people need this week. You let us down 13 years ago in what was really the least dramatic finish in the last seven Patriots Super Bowls. It was also the last time the NFL had a repeat champion, so this is the longest span in NFL history without one, and here are the Eagles with another chance to stop the Patriots from doing so. Sure, I think jokes about the Eagles having an empty trophy case are fun, but who the hell wants to live in a world where the Patriots have won three out of four two times? Philly, you’re losing your shot to become the most insufferable fan base in this country if your team doesn’t win this game. They’ll have it on lockdown if they win.

*And let’s face it, this stems from the Carson Wentz stuff going back to September 2016. I didn’t think he was all that at 3-0, and I still didn’t think he was MVP caliber this year. The fact that the Eagles are here in the Super Bowl without him supports the idea that this is a quality team with a talented offense and a system that is very beneficial to the quarterback. The Eagles winning the Super Bowl behind game MVP Nick Foles would be the best possible outcome for me, so let’s get that part straight on what I’d prefer to see happen.

I’m not going to do a super long preview of the game here like I usually have in past years. It’s not that I don’t care, but it’s because I’ve already shared my research and talking points elsewhere for this one.

Supplemental reading:

How the Patriots are 15-0 in the playoffs against new opponents, and how the Eagles can end that streak that’s been built on some of NE’s luckiest playoff moments. Statistically, they don’t actually play better against new opponents.

Sneaky stats that could decide Super Bowl LII – a look at weighted DVOA (Patriots are No. 1, Eagles are No. 7), another unique New England defense, how these offenses handle pass pressure, and the all-too-familiar Super Bowl script for the Patriots.

Football Outsiders Big Super Bowl II Preview – I co-authored this with Aaron Schatz this year, and it’s probably not that hard to tell which paragraphs each of us wrote. But it is a long read and I think we covered everything we possibly could between two teams who only meet every other four years.

Like last year with Atlanta, I think this is a game where the Eagles could win, but I’m not going to predict it to happen. It’s just way easier to trust the Patriots’ big-game experience and track record of finding ways to win. I thought the Eagles were outstanding against Minnesota, but this is a whole different beast.

To summarize why I think the Patriots win

It starts with the offensive matchup for New England. I think running backs, slot receivers and tight ends are where the Eagles are most vulnerable, so look for Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, and Dion Lewis/James White to combine for a big game. The secondary is not as good as Jacksonville’s was, and the Patriots even broke some tendencies by challenging the outside corners with Brandin Cooks, yet another big weapon in their arsenal. Even if the Patriots fall behind, we know they can come back, and the Eagles have struggled against the no-huddle offense. The Patriots just wear you out (ask Atlanta), and we always hear about the second-half fatigue in a Super Bowl after a long halftime. The Patriots are used to this environment while the Eagles simply are not. I strongly believe in success against New England requires experience and success against them (learn to beat Belichick) — look at Gary Kubiak’s Denver teams (both as OC and HC), teams led by a Manning, John Harbaugh’s Ravens, and even Rex Ryan took 3-of-5 games with the Jets in 2009-2010. I don’t trust defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to back off and effectively pressure Brady with four pass rushers, and I think Foles is going to be asked to do more than he’s comfortable with the biggest game of his life. I also think there’s some possible turnover regression there since Foles has never thrown a pick in the playoffs and the Patriots have one takeaway in the last six games. Maybe James Harrison makes his mark on another Super Bowl with a strip-sack, making the entire state of Pennsylvania groan in disgust.

When it’s all said and done, I think there will be a moment in this game where we’ll look back and say “boy, if the Eagles just did that, they would have had them.” But that’s how the Patriots win Super Bowls. They either make the big plays in the big moments, or they take advantage when you pass those opportunities up.

To summarize why I think the Eagles have a shot

This game could very well be about Doug Pederson and Nick Foles rather than Belichick and Brady. They have an opportunity to do something memorable here. The plan behind beating the Patriots is not a complex one. You generally have to score a fair amount and can’t keep settling for field goals. You have to limit Brady’s possessions and get pressure without blitzing much. You have to win the turnover battle and play from ahead. It’s not rocket science, but few teams in the NFL are talented and prepared enough to pull off that type of team effort.

The Patriots make you play your A game to beat them, but any team that lost to Jay Cutler and the Dolphins can surely be beat. It will just take quite an effort from Pederson in mixing up his gameplans on both sides of the ball to deal with the inevitable Belichick adjustments. Foles can’t play hero, but he has to avoid the big mistakes and continue his success in moving the chains on third down and possessing the ball. The Falcons and Vikings only had nine possessions in the playoff games. When the Giants beat NE twice in the Super Bowl, Brady only had nine possessions in each game. You have to shorten the game by sticking with the run, even if you’re averaging 3.0 YPC, and making plays on third down with smart passes. Remember, the Patriots were awful on defense for the first four games of the season. Things have really improved since then, but they don’t have Dont’a Hightower, they have gotten away with several overturned touchdowns, kickers have been bad against them, and they haven’t been tested by many great offenses since Week 5. Remember, the Steelers lost Antonio Brown in the second quarter of the Week 15 matchup. Even with Foles, the Eagles are clearly a better offense than what the Titans and Jaguars brought with them to Foxboro. This defense held up very well against Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs last time out. The Eagles have the talent and stats on defense to be a Super Bowl-caliber defense — certainly moreso than with the Patriots.

But when that opportunity comes to put the Patriots away, will Pederson come through with the right call that the Seahawks and Falcons failed to make? It’s Saturday night and I hate to keep looking up stats on this matchup, but the Eagles were only a mediocre 16th at power runs. LeGarrette Blount has had issues in the past with that, so maybe running him (or Jay Ajayi) up the gut isn’t the smartest move, but that doesn’t mean a play-action pass with a moving pocket for Foles that shrinks the field on third-and-1 is the right call either. It’s that balance between smart and aggressive that so many teams fail to make work against the Patriots.

I debated whether or not to write about the Patriots’ legacy at the end here. I’m talking more about the run as a whole rather than Brady or Belichick specifically. Like I’ve said before, where you rank those guys should have been decided before this game or the Atlanta game or maybe even the Seattle game. Ultimately, I decided to just let the game play out. Maybe if they win easily for the first time in a Super Bowl, I’ll swap my usual Clutch Encounters recap for a commentary piece on their run’s place in history.

If not, then I’m sure I’ll still have plenty to write about tomorrow night after another close New England Super Bowl.

FINAL: PATRIOTS 29, EAGLES 23

Remember, eat Arby’s.

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2017 NFL Conference Championship Predictions

Going back to September’s preview, this 2017 season was my pessimistic “Eat Arby’s” and “Patriots vs. the NFL” season. Here we are for Championship Sunday and…it’s the Patriots again, and the Three Stooges/Sacrificial Lambs.

OK, that’s not fair to some really good defensive teams, and we should respect that Case Keenum had a career year for the Vikings, and that the Eagles essentially earned a bye before the Carson Wentz injury. Blake Bortles also can’t help that he’s Blake Bortles, but I still think this is one of the weaker simulations that the 2017 season could have spit out for us. Hopefully the games will actually be good, and I think at least one of them will be.

Jaguars at Patriots

You might say I saw this one coming a few months ago.

I’m not going to actually predict 20-9 as the final, but I think we have our story for how this one will be perceived. Tom Brady has a right hand injury. It was feared to be serious at one point, but now it’s sounding more like a cut that caused him to miss Thursday’s practice (he practiced Friday), and maybe he’ll wear a glove. A big deal? Doubtful, because we’re talking about a cut rather than some actual ligament damage or something that would impact his strength. It basically comes down to pain tolerance, and Brady often gets irritated on the field no matter how healthy he is. I’m chalking this up as a non-story, but that won’t stop Jim Nantz and Tony Romo from giving every throw and close-up replay the Zapruder analysis.

This also offers Brady a “he gutted it out against the No. 1 defense with a bad hand” storyline. Great. I will stick to my prediction that Brady won’t have a great game against this defense, which plays a Seattle style of defense and can rush the passer and cover without needing to blitz. I think Brady has seen several better defenses than this one, including the 2015 Broncos and 2009 Jets, but it’s a pretty talented unit.

Brady generally doesn’t impress in the AFC Championship Game, unless he’s playing the Steelers. I definitely like the under in this one, because I think the Jacksonville offense is going to struggle to score. This isn’t Pittsburgh. The Patriots actually figured out how to improve on defense this season after a bad four-week start. They’ve done everything they could to change the perception of how the season started, but those perceptions are hard to shake. This defense has caught some lucky breaks with dropped or overturned touchdowns, missed field goals, and the schedule easing up, but Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia have figured out how to keep the score (and yards even) down without the services of Dont’a Hightower. If you’re going to blame the Steelers’ defensive collapse on Ryan Shazier’s injury, then how do you explain the Patriots doing what they’ve done without Hightower? It’s just better coaching, simple as that.

Jacksonville’s running game isn’t efficient. Leonard Fournette is not that big of a difference maker as some think, and I expect the Patriots to contain him on the ground while taking away the play-action options for Bortles and forcing him into third-and-long situations. Bortles should try to scramble in this one as much as he can, but I just don’t think he has the receiving weapons to make plays against this defense that does still allow a good number of successful plays in some weeks. You absolutely have to finish drives for touchdowns instead of field goals and that’s really hard to do in Foxboro.

I think Bortles will flop in the biggest game of his career and those mistakes (setting up short fields) will be capitalized on by Brady and the offense. I’d be alarmed with how Jacksonville’s defense has given up a lot of big plays down the stretch of the season. They also haven’t played NE yet, and the Patriots are 14-0 in the playoffs since 2001 against new opponents. Jalen Ramsey might cover Gronkowski, but that’s not something the Jaguars are used to doing. I’d do it though, putting my best player on their best. Gronk is the player who can make some jaw-dropping catches like the Steelers did last week in their effort to hang 42 points on this defense. The 49ers also scored a lot on the Jags with Jimmy Garoppolo, but there was a return touchdown and some short fields involved in that output. Still, the Patriots can do the same thing, and they can do it by using their running backs and Gronk. If Brady tries to win this game by going bombs away to Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan, then I like the Jaguars in an upset, but we know the Patriots understand matchups too well for that to happen. It will be getting rid of the ball quickly and this is probably the deepest backfield in the NFL.

For Jacksonville to pull off the upset, it needs to control the game early with a turnover or two, don’t fall behind, and make sure Brady is getting hit repeatedly. Doug Marrone may even need to get brave with a big fourth down or fake punt or surprise onside kick. It’s all just asking too much from this team if you ask me. At least when the 2010 Jets won in New England with Mark Sanchez, they had the experience of the 2009 AFC Championship Game and already beat the Patriots earlier that year. When the 2012 Ravens won in New England, that completed a season sweep and we know they should have won the 2011 AFC Championship Game too (Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff had other plans). This is all still new for Jacksonville, who matched up well with Pittsburgh this year, but we’re talking about the Patriots here. That’s going from checkers to chess.

Final: Patriots 23, Jaguars 16

Vikings at Eagles

I previewed this game at FO, so definitely check that out for the stats and my thoughts. Basically, I think it comes down to which unlikely QB1 screws things up the most. I don’t think there’s enough of an advantage with special teams or the running games for it to be about that. It’s going to be about whether Nick Foles or Case Keenum throws a pick parade or takes some dreadful sacks or just has that one big giveaway in the fourth quarter that so often highlights a team’s run to the Super Bowl. I also think the Eagles’ front seven can be a tough matchup for Minnesota’s OL, so Keenum especially can’t panic and throw a terrible pick like he did last week at home.

While I lean towards Minnesota having the better team, I do think home-field advantage matters here. Not just playing outdoors with the rowdy crowd, but the Vikings also had a huge emotional win against the Saints thanks to the miracle play by Stefon Diggs. They need to come off of that with a good start on the road instead of playing flat. This should be low scoring with two strong defenses, but look for the turnover battle to be extra decisive.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t come down to a kicker, but I could definitely see that too.

Final: Vikings 20, Eagles 17

2017 NFL Divisional Round Predictions

It’s my favorite weekend of the NFL year, but I fear we might not get a really good game to watch until Sunday this time.

Falcons at Eagles

It’s the first time a No. 1 seed is an underdog in the divisional round in this format. Obviously there are some unusual circumstances here with the Eagles losing their quarterback while they were leading the conference. The Falcons also have some clout after what they did in the playoffs a year ago and last week in Los Angeles. Atlanta was my only road dog I liked to win last week, but even I didn’t see a wire-to-wire 26-13 win where the defense was pretty impressive. The Falcons have flipped the script from last year when they were an offensive juggernaut and one of the worst defenses to reach a Super Bowl. The defense has improved in the second half of this season and the offense is still talented, but not nearly as productive. Still, the Falcons have grinned out 22-10 and 26-13 wins over Carolina and LA, two teams thought to be better than Atlanta this year.

But I can’t help but think this is going to be an ugly, low-scoring game. Maybe not as ugly as Eagles-Raiders from Christmas night, but nothing pretty about the offenses. I do take notice of the indoor team going to frigid Philly, which also features a pretty good defense in case we forgot. In 2016, the Falcons scored a season-low 15 points and really struggled that day. The Eagles will have to rely on defense to win this one, but at least Nick Foles has a playoff start in his past, and he did throw four touchdowns against the Giants. He didn’t screw up the LA game in the fourth quarter. Oakland game was awful, and he barely played in Week 17, so there’s a lot of doubt in Foles, which I can understand. He hasn’t been good on third down. The thoughts of him forcing 50/50 balls against this secondary is a scary thought. But if the Eagles can get Jay Ajayi and the RB stable going against a defense that is vulnerable to that position, then Foles may not have to do a ton in this game.

Again, it comes down to defense in this one. Matt Ryan’s had some bad luck with tipped interceptions this year, so if that were to continue today, I can easily see that being the difference. The Eagles are likely going to need a break like that. I think Vegas did another outstanding job with the spread, because this easily could be the closest game of the weekend, with an ugly 1-3 point win by the road team. That’s right, the team who barely made the tournament is the team I’m going to pick to go to the NFC Championship Game. Things have just broken the right way for Atlanta down the stretch here.

Final: Falcons 19, Eagles 17

Titans at Patriots

I don’t want to make it sound like the 2017 Patriots are a juggernaut (best of a weak bunch), but this would be a top 5 upset in NFL history if the Titans won. Tennessee was already so fortunate to get the comeback win in Kansas City., and yes, I’m still pissed we’re not watching Chiefs-Patriots tonight. The botched call (forward progress on a sack/fumble) went their way. The big injury (Travis Kelce) went their way. The lucky bounce (Mariota’s tipped TD pass to himself) went their way. The missed FG (KC) went their way. Good luck repeating that strategy in New England where you’re more likely to get screwed on a call, see your star get injured, suffer a bad bounce, and miss an important FG.

Somehow the Patriots have drawn a “double bye” so often since 2011. I think the 2014 Ravens and 2015 Chiefs were respectable divisional round opponents, but the other years were a joke. Some of the worst teams to advance in the playoffs have drawn New England. Think about the 2011 Broncos (Tebow), who won in overtime against a Pittsburgh team that was missing its RB (Rashard Mendenhall), center (Maurkice Pouncey), and Ben Roethlisberger was playing on a high ankle sprain. Safety Ryan Clark couldn’t play in that game in Denver’s altitude because of his rare sickle cell trait. The 2012 Texans slumped hard to end the year, but since everyone beats Cincinnati in January, they ended up going to New England first instead of Denver. Meanwhile, the Ravens knocked out New England a week later. The 2013 Colts were always a heavily flawed team led by the one-man show known as Andrew Luck. They were lucky to get past the Chiefs after trailing 38-10 in the third quarter. Then you have the awful 2016 Texans, who only got past Oakland thanks to a late injury to Derek Carr. Even in a game where Tom Brady played poorly, the Patriots still covered a 16-point spread last year.

Now the Patriots get the 2017 Titans, who were outscored by 22 points this season. This is a Dick LeBeau defense that ranked 32nd in DVOA against short passes and struggled with tight ends, and that’s what Brady and Rob Gronkowski get to feast on today. The recipe for a Tennessee upset is difficult to make. Derrick Henry would need to have the game of his life after arguably doing so a week ago. Running backs usually don’t dominate against the Patriots. You need a quarterback to step up, and Marcus Mariota has not been trustworthy enough this season. While the Titans keep every game pretty close, they lost 40-17 in Pittsburgh in that stretch, and this is the most similar caliber opponent to that game.

Reminder: since 2001, the Patriots are 13-0 in the playoffs against new opponents and 12-9 in rematches.

Final: Patriots 30, Titans 17

Jaguars at Steelers

This was my big preview at FO, so check that out. Simply put, the Steelers can’t play hero ball against the best defense in the league. Just take a conservative approach, shake off the rust from the stars who haven’t played since Christmas, and hope that Blake Bortles will screw up enough. I don’t think you can just dismiss Bortles in this one. Brett Hundley, Joe Flacco, and DeShone Kizer averaged 30 PPG with their offenses at Heinz Field late in the season. The Steelers might actually have the worst defense of the eight remaining teams in the playoffs. Still, I think the Steelers prove Week 5 was a fluke and win this game with a big second half that puts the clamps on Bortles.

Final: Steelers 24, Jaguars 16

Saints at Vikings

Perhaps the most interesting game this weekend. The closest thing we have to a quarterback duel without one major liability, though I’m still stunned that we’re talking about Case Keenum in these terms. Maybe he completely flops in the biggest game of his career, but he was No. 1 in passing DVOA this year. That’s not a six-game hot streak either. He had over 500 pass plays and still finished No. 1. Can he be as great as Sam Bradford was in Week 1 against this defense? Probably not, but the Saints were also playing worse than they are now on that side of the ball. The offense is obviously still dangerous too with Drew Brees, who is statistically the best active playoff quarterback in the NFL. He’s always up for games like this, but he’ll have to be great against a top defense.

The Vikings quietly recorded the best third-down defense since 1991, only allowing conversions just under 26% of the time. The Saints were able to score a lot last week without rarely getting to third down, but it’s also a down where Brees wasn’t as good as usual this season. He only ranked 14th in conversion rate on third-down passes, the first time he ranked out of the top eight in any season with the Saints. The Saints have been a much more conservative passing offense this season, and Brees had his first completion of more than 55 yards last week to Ted Ginn for an 80-yard touchdown. The great running back duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram was really shut down against the Panthers, and I think the Vikings can also do a good job against them this week.

It basically comes down to Keenum (or perhaps a Minnesota kicker) not shitting his pants, if we’re being honest. He has the skill players around him, he had the bye week to prepare, he has a great defense, and Mike Zimmer is one of the better head coaches in the league. I think Keenum can avoid some of the sacks that got Cam Newton in trouble last week, and he’ll make enough plays to get the Vikings this win and likely host the NFC Championship Game.

Final: Vikings 27, Saints 20

(My spread picks are PHI, TEN, PIT, MIN)

  • Week 1: 8-7
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 9-7
  • Week 4: 8-8
  • Week 5: 6-8
  • Week 6: 6-8
  • Week 7: 11-4
  • Week 8: 12-1
  • Week 9: 6-7
  • Week 10: 12-2 (Spread: 6-8)
  • Week 11: 8-6 (Spread: 8-5-1)
  • Week 12: 12-4 (Spread: 7-9)
  • Week 13: 11-5 (Spread: 10-6)
  • Week 14: 6-10 (Spread: 7-9)
  • Week 15: 14-2 (Spread: 7-6-3)
  • Week 16: 12-4 (Spread: 7-8-1)
  • Week 17: 10-6 (Spread: 8-8)
  • Wild Card: 3-1 (Spread: 2-2)
  • Season: 165-95 (Spread: 62-61-5)

NFL Week 7 Predictions: Island Game Gold

Making an NFL schedule months in advance isn’t easy, but things really lucked out for the schedule makers this week. TNF was a great choice between the Raiders and Chiefs, and SNF (ATL-NE) and MNF (WAS-PHI) are really the other highlight matches of Week 7. Will the games actually be worth a damn to watch? We’ll see, but it’s a perfect prime-time lineup.

Cardinals vs. Rams

I thought this might have also been an island game (London), but it’s actually being played at 1 p.m. EST. Figures, they finally get a somewhat decent London game and it’s lumped together with the other early-afternoon slate. The fact that this is a division game is pretty wild, and definitely not fair to the Rams who will have to go to Arizona for the rematch in Week 13. Maybe that game should have been scheduled for Mexico City just to make things even and not rob one team (Rams) of a true home game.

Adrian Peterson balled out last week in his Arizona debut, but I think the defenses will stiffen in this one and he won’t have nearly the same success. Ditto for Carson Palmer through the air. Aaron Donald should feast on that line. I think some of the shine has come off Jared Goff again, but he did play the Seattle and Jacksonville pass defenses. Still, throwing a lot of off-target passes and relying on superior field position and YAC this year. Not a long-term formula for success. Still, I cautiously side with the Rams to pull this one out due to protecting the QB better than I expect Arizona will. Rams have also been playing well on special teams while Arizona remains one of the worst.

Saints at Packers

Very interesting one after the Aaron Rodgers injury. Yes, Saints defense has played better after the first two weeks, but still not a good unit by any means. I want to give Brett Hundley and Mike McCarthy a good shot here at home before I bury the Packers for 2017. Back in 2010, Rodgers left a game in Detroit with a concussion and Matt Flynn came off the bench in a 7-3 loss. With a week to prepare as a first-time starter, Flynn came out in New England and tossed three touchdowns in a competitive 31-27 loss. Hundley was a better college prospect than Flynn, and he’s had a few years in the system and got a lot of preseason experience (similar to Tony Romo in 2006). I like to think McCarthy can prepare Hundley to play well in an offense that still has good receiving talent. I think I’m actually going to back the Packers in this one, because the Saints haven’t been as explosive on offense this season as usual, and I think they’ll rally behind Hundley to play a strong team game without Rodgers.

Falcons at Patriots

Ah yes, the Super Bowl LI rematch. I wasn’t fooling around when I said the other day that these could easily be 1-win teams right now.

Falcons beat GB comfortably, but the Bears were inches away from a game-winning touchdown pass in the final seconds in Week 1. The Lions were inches away from a touchdown (Golden Tate) on the final play in Week 3 that would have won the game. Atlanta just blew two home games to the Bills and Dolphins, including another 17+ point lead. So there’s your inches away from a 1-4 start.

As for the Patriots, their only comfortable win was in New Orleans. They really should have been 1-3 after Tom Brady had a fumble and dropped interception on what became the game-winning drive against Houston. Stop and think about that one for a second. Deshaun Watson might be the MVP front-runner right now if his safety held onto a Brady pick and the Texans would be 4-2. Something not even in his control. Ugh. But that’s 1-3, then we’ve seen the Patriots skate by the Buccaneers (two Nick Folk missed FGs and Jameis Winston’s last pass was terrible to win the game) and Jets (blew a 14-0 lead, awful calls went against NY, and yes the ASJ fumble was weak).

The point is these teams aren’t playing very good football this season, records be damned. They were both on hot runs going into SB LI, but I’m not impressed with what we’ve seen this year. The Patriots give up a 300-yard passer every week, but have still kept the points down on defense in the four wins (20, 26, 14 and 17). Yards don’t really matter if you’re not turning them into points, and with Atlanta, we see the offense No. 1 in yards per drive, but third in points. Last year it was 1 and 1 for the Falcons. Matt Ryan’s had some pretty awful luck with tipped INTs (4 of his 6 picks hit his receiver). Julio Jones has been very quiet, but I think he’ll come alive in this one. Still, I can’t possibly trust the Falcons to go on the road and win this one even if the Patriots look vulnerable enough to drop several home games this season. The Atlanta defense still isn’t good enough at getting stops, and the Patriots are still doing a fine job offensively this season.

Redskins at Eagles

In a season without any real great teams, these two are quietly in the top 6 in DVOA right now. This is a rematch from Week 1, won 30-17 by the Eagles, but that final score is a bit misleading. There was a late fumble-six that really should have been ruled an incomplete pass with Washington still having time to win the game with a touchdown. Earlier in that quarter, Kirk Cousins threw one of the worst interceptions of anyone this season when he panicked against a blitz and missed a wide-open receiver in the red zone in a 2-point game. Cousins has only tossed one INT since then, and that was a bomb on third-and-long that served as a punt. He’s played well, but he has to be sharper against the Eagles. I think the injuries on defense (Josh Norman and Jonathan Allen) leave the Redskins too short handed to deal with all of Philadelphia’s weapons, and the Eagles also are one of the best special teams this year. I’ll take Philadelphia at home.

2017 Week 7 Predictions

I actually had the Chiefs by 6 points on TNF, so I would have been fuming if I went through with that bet after the 31-30 loss on the final play(s).

Winners in bold.

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

I think you could put Seattle and Pittsburgh on upset alerts. Long travel for the Seahawks against a good secondary when the passing offense hasn’t been too hot yet. Bengals play the Steelers tougher in Pittsburgh than they do at home. Also point out how close the 49ers have been to a win, and they gave Dallas about all it could handle last year too. Not a lot of games I feel confident in here, but it’s just been that kind of season. I mean, look at this awful track record I’m putting up in 2017:

  • Week 1: 8-7
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 9-7
  • Week 4: 8-8
  • Week 5: 6-8
  • Week 6: 6-8
  • Season: 48-43

NFL Week 6 Predictions: B-B-B-Bunny and the Jets

It’s Week 6 and I’m already reusing title ideas, but the fact that the 2017 Jets are still relevant at this point is incredible.

Patriots at Jets

A battle for first place in Week 6? Really? This is the Jets’ Super Bowl this year. A home game with their hated rival for first place, and a chance to extend to a four-game winning streak. Sure the Jets haven’t beaten a good team, but the Patriots haven’t been playing very good football this year, so it’s still interesting. I’m still going to take the Patriots, because I can’t trust Josh McCown with a limited cast and the defense against a multi-faceted NE offense, but if Todd Bowles can win this game, put him at the top of the list for Coach of the Year race.  And for the record, the Jets almost beat the Patriots at home a year ago when New England was better than this current version.

Packers at Vikings

I’m a bit stunned that Case Keenum ranks so high in DVOA and QBR right now, and he should have been the starter on Monday night against Chicago. The Vikings really botched that quarterback situation with Sam Bradford’s health, and now Stefon Diggs is out as well, a big loss. I think with Diggs (and Dalvin Cook), the Vikings have enough offense at home to outscore the Packers, but it’s just too much of a loss now. Aaron Rodgers seems to be in one of those zones again, and while Mike Zimmer’s defense has fared adequately in the past against him, I think he’ll do enough on the road to get this win and take some early control of the division.

Giants at Broncos

Christ, where is that flex scheduling when you need it? The Giants are one of the worst rushing offenses in the league, and now Eli Manning is down to Sterling Shepard and some nobodies against the best secondary in the league. He should get double yardage credit for any completion to a wideout to make this one interesting. Trevor Siemian turning the ball over for points is the only way the Broncos are losing this one at home. And seriously, how did Denver get four home games out of five to start the year?

Steelers at Chiefs

This is still a very interesting one. The Chiefs can take out some revenge after losing twice to the Steelers a year ago. They’ve really beaten every other contender in recent years. Beat the Patriots in 2014 and Week 1. Beat the last three NFC Super Bowl teams (Carolina game was in 2016, but still). Beat the Colts with Luck last year. Swept the 12-4 Raiders last season. Swept the defending champion Broncos, and gave Peyton Manning the worst game of his career in 2015. This team has done great things the last few years, except in the playoffs. The only contender they really haven’t beaten is Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger (not Landry Jones like in 2015) at quarterback.

And of course, Roethlisberger is coming off one of the worst games of his career. I think the “maybe I don’t have it” quote is troubling, but he also said something smart in that if you play QB long enough in this league, you’ll have a day like this (5 INT). It’s true. And when two of those picks are tipped for touchdown returns, and a receiver falls down on another one, you’re bound to have some bad stats against what’s become a very strong pass defense in Jacksonville. The Chiefs look a bit vulnerable on defense post-Eric Berry, and we’ve seen quarterbacks make some big plays against them. It’s just that the Chiefs have the No. 1 offense with Alex Smith and Kareem Hunt having huge years so far, and that’s going to be a problem for the Steelers, particularly at stopping Hunt, who has gone over 100 yards every week. Pittsburgh’s run defense has looked very shaky at times this year. They haven’t been tested much by a passing game, but this will be the most efficient one they see yet.

I think Roethlisberger redeems himself and plays his best game of 2017, and the Steelers do have a tendency to show up for big games. Only the Patriots have a better record against winning teams since 2014. I don’t think I’d pick the Steelers to flat out win this one, but I do expect a competitive effort.

2017 Week 6 Predictions

I had the Panthers on Thursday night, so 0-1 already. Maybe I just don’t have it anymore.

Winners in bold.

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

I’m assuming Marcus Mariota is good to go this week.

  • Week 1: 8-7
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 9-7
  • Week 4: 8-8
  • Week 5: 6-8
  • Season: 42-35

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