Zach Orr expected to retire at 24

In a surprising and heartbreaking development it is being reported that Zachary Orr, the Ravens’ inside linebacker that was named a second team All-Pro in his first season as a starter, will retire due to injury (reportedly to the neck).

Details are still scarce but this is an incredible blow, most of all to the player, who was going to get paid this offseason and was looking to have a phenomenal career ahead of him based on his performance this season. Long term health seems to be his top priority which has to be respected and supported especially given his contributions to the Ravens’ organization.

For the team this constitutes an huge blow as well, seeing as, in my opinion, Orr’s improvement along with Weddle’s signing were the two most important events that led to the improvement of the Ravens’ defense this season.

I don’t think the draft priorities should change (edge rusher and cornerback) but this is a need that needs to be addressed either in free agency or in the draft itself because I don’t feel the Ravens’ have on their squad a quality replacement for Orr (Correa, McLellan? I don’t think so). Even if it is almost a certainty that the Ravens’ will lose quality at inside linebacker next season given Orr’s retirement, we should hope the team tries to fill his void with another quality NFL player again, either through free agency or the draft.

Heartbreaking development. My sincere hope is that no long term damage has been done to Orr’s health. That’s the most important thing as we await further details on this unfortunate situation.

NFL Conference Championships Preview

Steelers @ Patriots

The Pittsburgh Steelers and especially their quarterbacks have been two vastly different teams playing at home or on the road. His completion percentage drops more than 10 percentage points (70.8% vs 59.4%), he throws less than half the number of touchdown passes (20 vs 9) and more interceptions (5 vs 8) on the road than at home.

This is why I believe Ben Roethlisberger will be the x-factor in this game because in order for the Steelers to win they need not only a great performance from LeVeon Bell (which they will get) but also one from Big Ben because I believe Brady will put up some points against the Steelers defense. I’ve read plenty of articles suggesting that the Patriots might have trouble facing a vastly improved Steelers defense and I just don’t see it.

Granted, the Steelers defense is vastly improved from the beginning of the season. But that doesn’t mean it has reached the caliber of a defense that can cause Tom Brady and the Patriots a lot of problems especially in New England. It just means that their defense in the beginning of the season was that bad. It is also useful to point out that this often called vast defensive improvement has coincided with the improvement (to phenomenal status) in LeVeon Bell’s game.

The bottom line is that the Steelers defense is far from being the Texans’ defense that did cause Brady some problems last week in a game that I suspect the Patriots approached with a much different mindset due to their confidence that they wouldn’t have to be at their best to beat one of the worst offenses in the NFL (not calling it the worst because the Rams still exist and it’s debatable).

The Steelers linebacker corps has been playing lights out these past few games but I wouldn’t say they possess the same kind of versatility that you saw from the Texans defensive line, for example. I also expect the Patriots offensive line to step up their game compared to last week’s showing giving Brady more time to exploit what still is a beatable secondary.

This puts everything in Ben Roethlisberger’s hands. He has the best offensive group of the two quarterbacks in play in this game. The best receiver, the best run game and the best offensive line. Will he be able to match Tom Brady throw for throw this Sunday? If the answer is yes I pick the Steelers.

I don’t, however, think he will be capable of doing that because even though this season he has made the plays he needed to make to get his team the AFC Championship game, Matt Patricia is not Dean Pees and Gillette Stadium is not Heinz field which is why I’m going with Tom Brady and the Patriots to win this game despite a monstrous showing from LeVeon Bell. Patriots win.

Packers @ Falcons

As I wrote in the last article I published analyzing the Packers win over the Cowboys I just can’t pick the Packers again, for this game. As I said the defense is just that bad and Matt Ryan is not Dak Prescott. Matt Ryan will not fall behind 21-3 at home against the Packers’ defense. Matt Ryan threw for 338 yards (26-37) for 3 touchdowns without interceptions last week against what still was a (very) good Seattle defense. The is no area in which this Packers’ defense is as a whole or individually more skilled than that Seahawks’ defense from last week which makes me think that even a perfect defensive scheme will suffer from lack of talent on Green Bay’s defense.

Anyway, this game is far from lost for Green Bay and there are some things that can be done in my estimation to at least try and slow down the Falcons’ offense. Number 1, while last week you need to force Dak to throw this week you need to take the ball out of Matt Ryan’s hands. This can done either by hitting him early and often or by taking his receivers out of the game. Both are extremely difficult to accomplish given the Packers’ talent on defense and given the quality of Atlanta’s receiving and offensive line options.

It seems to me that primarily Green Bay’s focus should be taking Ryan’s receiving options out of the game either through double teams or simply just dropping more players in coverage in zone packages. Atlanta’s offensive line is good enough to give Ryan a few seconds to throw the ball even against a good or numerous pass rush and if that happens it means that the Packers’ have less people in coverage which, together with their lack of quality in the secondary, will make Ryan’s job very quick and easy throughout the game. He’ll constantly find targets before the pass rush can get to him.

This isn’t to say that this is not a valid strategy. I’m advocating one where Ryan would have more time to throw the ball which could be disastrous in itself. In this particular scenario I do believe though that by taking away space in their secondary Green Bay can get more easily to Matt Ryan because he’ll have to hold the ball longer and, if well executed, this gameplan can take the Falcons’ game-breaking plays out of the game.

The big disadvantage of this gameplan is that it makes the Packers more vulnerable to Atlanta’s running game. I, however, think this is a risk worth taking: making Freeman and Coleman beat you instead of Ryan and Jones. Number 1 because Freeman and Coleman are much, much easier to stop than Ryan and Jones and number 2 because the Packers’ personnel (accounting for current injuries) is more suited to stopping the run than the pass right now.

On the other side of the ball I expect the all-time great Aaron Rodgers to put up a lot of points on a defense that despite ranking 28th in total passing yards allowed during the regular season actually ranked 11th in average yards allowed per passing play. Actually the Falcons’ seem to have more difficulty defending against the run surrendering the 6th most average yards per rushing play at (4.5). Fortunately for them Green Bay’s running game is almost non-existent (even though I actually liked what Ty Montgomery brought to the team especially given the fact that he was a wide receiver converted to running back) so even this factor provides a favorable matchup for Atlanta.

I expect Rodgers to nevertheless put up a lot of points on this defense despite the lack of receiving options (Devante Adams and Geronimo Allison were on the injury report this week and Jordy Nelson is expected to be out for Sunday’s game) because he is just that good. I don’t, however, see how a defense that gave up 31 points to Dallas last weekend will be able to hold up against a much more talented offense this Sunday. And by this I don’t mean that I’m sure the Falcons’ will score more points than the Cowboys did (even though I think they will). This has to do with gameplan, the weight of the running game in this game, the effectiveness of individual performances, etc. I just mean that I feel like Ryan & Co. will score enough points to win the game, be it 25 or 50. Falcons win.

Aaron Rodgers just crushed the Cowboys’ universe

This Packers @ Cowboys will be mentioned among Aaron Rodgers’ Hall of Fame accomplishments. I never thought the Dallas Cowboys were that good to be honest. But the sheer amount of motivation of the players and fans due to the 13 regular season wins, the fact that they were playing at home and the objective quality of some of the pieces in that team (mainly on offense) made this an incredibly difficult atmosphere to play under. Especially when your number 1 receiver is out due to injury, your defense has been struggling with injuries and your running game is close to non-existent.

This was Aaron Rodgers vs the Cowboys’ universe and Rodgers won.

Dak Prescott and the Cowboys ultimately put themselves behind too much too early and as I wrote in my pregame analysis, I didn’t think the Cowboys would be able to come back if they spent most of the time trailing. They managed to tie the game (which surprised me at that point, I must admit) but their defense could not hold Rodgers scoreless in the final 35 seconds of the fourth quarter. That’s the unit that let Cowboy fans down on Sunday.

However, let’s not absolve the offense (or the coaching) from their fair share of responsibility. First of all, there is no reason for Dak Prescott to pass the 5 times on the first drive while only giving it to Elliot twice on that same drive. No reason to pass on third and 2 on that same drive when Elliot gives you strong guarantees of a first down with that distance.

I’m sorry but I don’t see how we can say that Dak Prescott had a great game despite losing when he puts up 13 points in 45 minutes against a horrible Green Bay secondary with all the weapons around him: Dez, Witten, Elliot, Beasley and that monstrous offensive line. Dak turned it on in the fourth quarter but there’s a difference between playing badly during 45 minutes but turning it on when it matters and winning and playing badly during 45 minutes but turning it on when it matters and still losing. In the latter case it just means that your play during the game cost your team the chance of winning.

And I know that when a 4th round rookie quarterback of the most hyped up franchise in the NFL throws for 300+ yards on 60+ completion percentage and 3 touchdowns in a playoff game he is immune to all criticism and whoever dares break that sacred rule shall be excoriated.

I don’t care about that stuff because as I wrote earlier in the season I believe Tony Romo gave the Cowboys the best chance of winning in the playoffs and, after watching the game last night, I believe Tony Romo would have won that game with the weapons Dak had at his disposal. I don’t think Romo would have scored just 13 points in the first three quarters against that putrid defense, the Cowboys wouldn’t have fallen behind as much as they did and as a consequence Elliot could have seen more touches which would in turn keep Rodgers on the sidelines for more minutes thus increasing Dallas’ chance to win the game.

I should stress again that I don’t believe the Cowboys offense or Dak was responsible for the loss (I think that blame falls on the defense; not even Dean Pees would have allowed a 35 yard completion at that point in the game; 20 yards, sure, but not 35). However, when you throw the ball 38 times (plus 2 rushes) versus 22 carries by Elliot, the performance of the offense falls mainly on you. And while Dak’s fourth quarter was phenomenal, it was not enough to compensate for the dreadful scoring display of the remaining three quarters.

Moving on to the Packers side of the ball. After what I saw from this defense I cannot pick them to beat the Falcons next week. Matt Ryan is much better than Prescott, Julio Jones is better than Dez and Devonta Freeman, Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu are very good complimentary pieces that I don’t think Green Bay has an answer with this defense.

I don’t think it is a question of scheming against the Falcons’ defense as it was against the Cowboys because the Falcons offense is just too complete in terms of positional talent and Green Bay’s defense is too depleted in terms of the same thing for defensive scheming to play a part. For example, even if you double team Julio Jones, Ryan has shown that he will use a variety of weapons to the fullest and now that Julio is double covered you just opened up the field for one of those weapons.

Anyway, going back to the game, Rodgers was on fire. He picked apart the Cowboys’ zone defense (including on the last pass to Jared Cook) and took full advantage of the Cowboys’ defensive backs not being good enough to play man to man coverage consistently (they got better at this as the game progressed, though, also being aided by the fact that Jordy Nelson was out). Even though he was without his main target he seemed to always be cool and confident, continuously giving his remaining receiving options the opportunity to make the plays necessary to move the chains (I remember at least three phenomenal passing third down conversions in the first half).

Despite his offensive line not performing to the level it did against the Giants (especially considering the difference in quality between the Giants’ and the Cowboys’ front 7) and the absence of Nelson, Rodgers was still able to consistently find his targets with some great throws.

I thought in the beginning he looked a bit off on his long throws, often overthrowing his receivers but he ended up compensating for it on third down, keeping the drives alive.

In the end, Rodgers completed probably the most amazing pass of the year (considering the moment) to Jared Cook, who, by the way, made an incredible catch along with his great footwork to stay inbounds and gave Mason Crosby the chance to win the game for the Packers. Which he did. Because of the great Aaron Rodgers.

NFL Playoffs – Divisional Round Preview

Seahawks @ Falcons

Despite Earl Thomas’ absence the Seahawks defense is still very good, being able to get after the quarterback and is still able to field a solid secondary. The Falcons’ offensive line can be exploited especially in pass blocking situation and they must keep Matt Ryan upright in order to win the game.

On defense the Falcons are beatable. They can get after the quarterback and their pass defense is actually not that bad (despite surrendering the 5th most passing yards in the NFL this arose mainly from opposing teams throwing a lot seeing as the Falcons actually rank 11th in average yards allowed per pass attempt with 6.9). Their run defense is much poorer though, allowing an average of 4.5 yards per rushing attempt, good for 26th in the NFL during the regular season.

All in all, this is actually not bad news to the Falcons. As stated above Seattle offensive line is not good which means that the Falcons should actually be able to stop or limit Seattle’s run game. I don’t believe last week’s rushing output against the Lions (at home) will be repeated on the road against a Falcons’ team led by a former Seahawks’ defensive coordinator in Dan Quinn.

This puts the game in Wilson’s hands who has spent most of the season running for his life from opposing pass rushers, an evidence that will certainly be exploited by NFL regular season sack leader Vic Beasley Jr. (15.5 sacks) and the rest of the Falcons’ pass rush (Clayborn, Freeney, Garrett, among others).. On the road I don’t suppose this will be any different. He will have to be near perfect for Seattle to have a shot of putting enough points on the board to win the game.

Defensively, though, is where the Seahawks have a chance to win the game. The Falcons look to me like a prototypical great offensive regular season team that can fold in the playoffs. The Falcons’ offense can be stopped if you can get to Matt Ryan whose 1-4 record in the postseason will raise questions about his legacy (despite him being a great regular season quarterback) especially if he drops to 1-5.

The Falcons’ receiving corps and running game is tough to stop if they get the ball on their hands but Seattle’s defensive front is stout and the receivers can’t make plays if Ryan can’t get them the ball. I am not, however, going to suggest that the Seahawks stack the box and force Ryan to throw the ball because he certainly is one of the quarterbacks that I won’t want throwing against my team, even if his playoff record is abysmal.

And this, in essence, is why I’m picking the Falcons’ to win this game. They had probably the best pass offense in the NFL (1st in average yards per pass [by a lot] and 3rd in total passing yards) while also having one of the best running games in the league (ranking 5th in average yards per rushing attempt and total rushing yards). Matt Ryan also copes well when Julio Jones underperforms which adds even another dimension to the Falcons offensive gameplan with the multitude of receivers that can contribute.

The loss of Earl Thomas, on the other, takes away a weapon from Seattle’s defensive scheme and opens up the field even more for Atlanta.

As I said before Seattle still has a great defense and they’re able to get to the quarterback and stop the run which will be key in this game. I just think Seattle will not be able to limit a multifaceted Falcons’ offense enough to give Wilson (playing behind that awful offensive line) a chance to win the game.

Finally, Seattle has been very poor on the road this season which also plays heavily in my decision. Had this game been in Seattle I would have picked the Seahawks because I wouldn’t trust Matt Ryan to go up against a very good Seahawks’ defense in Seattle and win that game. In Atlanta, though, I think he will. Falcons win.

Packers @ Cowboys

Again this week the NFC games are those I am most looking forward too. I really like Aaron Rodgers and believe the Cowboys have been grossly overrated during the whole year which makes me slightly invested in this game.

This is a very interesting matchup because the only way to stop Aaron Rodgers right now behind that offensive line is keeping him off the field (the Cowboys do not have the defensive front to get to Rodgers often). And the Cowboys have the personnel to do that with the best offensive line in the league and the rookie of the year (he will be) running behind it.

Time of possession will be crucial. If the Cowboys are able to keep Rodgers off the field for 35-40 minutes then they have a chance. This means that Green Bay’s 3rd down defense will have to be on point. During the regular season they rank 22nd in the NFL which is not a good sign. However, Rodgers also didn’t play like he is playing right now during the entire season (he was always pretty good but now is playing all-time great).

I think the first half will have a great impact on the decision of the outcome of the game. If the Cowboys go to the second half with a 10+ point lead, I don’t know if the Packers’ defense is good enough to make all the stops they need to make to get Aaron Rodgers the ball, especially during a second half where defensive players get progressively more tired. 6-10 minute drives against your team in the second half when you’re playing from behind are killers and the Cowboys are more than capable to pull it off.

If the score is close by the end of the first half especially if the Packers manage to keep time of possession balanced to get Rodgers the ball and keep their defense rested I believe the Packers will win the game. Rodgers is just too good and if the Cowboys aren’t able to chew up clock they will lose.

If the Packers are in front by halftime I don’t think the Cowboys have a shot, particularly if Green Bay’s defense is fresh. The Cowboys will be forced to throw more and even against a subpar Packers’ defense (that interestingly held up acceptably albeit against a Giants’ offense that was basically Eli Manning doing what he could with little to no help both from his receivers and his running game) and I don’t believe Dak Prescott has what it takes to put the team on his shoulders and carry them to a playoff win. As I said before, I see him as a game manager (which is not a knock on him, he was one of best quarterbacks in the league this year) whose stats were inflated from playing with an incredible supporting cast.

The Packers’ main strength defensively is stopping the run which is a good matchup against this Cowboys team. They ranked 14th in average yards per attempt allowed, 10th in rushing touchdowns allowed and 8th in rushing yards allowed per game.

All the Packers defense has to do is not lose the game. And I believe they will do it. Then Rodgers will do the rest. Packers win.

Texans @ Patriots

The Texans have a mean pass rush. The Patriots have a good offensive line.

The Texans can run the ball. The Patriots can stop the run.

It would probably take 5+ sacks and 15+ QB hits plus 200 rushing yards and 300 passing yards without interceptions or fumbles for the Texans to win this game. I think Brock Osweiler will surprise a lot of people in this game (at least until he has to throw all the time because the Texans are behind) but those stats will not happen.

The Texans have a very good defense. The Patriots have Tom Brady. In a game like this that’s all it’s going to take, in my opinion. Patriots win.

Steelers @ Chiefs

The Chiefs currently seem to have weird aura of being underrated and overrated at the same time. They don’t get talked about as much as they should because they are a very good team but what’s with all this talk that they might beat the Patriots at New England? I don’t even think they will beat the Steelers.

The Chiefs are the Atlanta Hawks of the NFL. A very solid team that will always make the playoffs but that has zero chance to actually win anything (the only teams I see being able to win the Super Bowl are the Seahawks, Packers and Patriots, by the way). They are missing a game changer on offense, in my opinion.

I like Alex Smith, and if I was the GM for a quarterback needy and knew there was a quarterback in the draft that would play like Alex Smith does I would absolutely take him number 1 overall maybe even trade up to get him, if such was necessary. He won’t get you there alone, though (none or very few do, though). I think the Chiefs are missing a Gronkowski type threat on offense. Kelce is one of the best tight ends in the league but this is exactly what I’m talking about: very good but not that next level threat you need to compliment a quarterback like Smith.

Secondly what’s with all the hype given to the Chiefs defense? Sure, they have the main requisite that the media cares about which is highlight reel plays regardless of your actual quality as a player. But when you look at it it’s a good, but beatable defense. Their run defense is nothing to brag about ranking 24th in the league in average rushing yards allowed per attempt and their pass defense and their pass defense ranks 12th in the league in terms of average passing yards allowed per attempt. They’re a good scoring defense (7th at 19.4 points allowed per game) because they know how to stop teams in the endzone (5th in red zone TD% allowed) and they are very prolific at creating turnovers (1st in turnover differential).

This makes for a good, not great defense, in my opinion. How is their defense going to stop LeVeon Bell from running all over them? If they do, is Ben Roethlisberger the quarterback they want throwing against them with the targets he has at his disposal especially one named Antonio Brown?

Big Ben has had a few problems these past games but the common denominator to all of them is that he never cost his team the win (writing this hurt so much). He’s tough, he will certainly play through his injury and even if he’s slightly limited he can rely on Bell running behind that offensive line to carry the load offensively in this game. I genuinely don’t see how the Chiefs (or anybody for that matter) will be able to stop Bell, and even if they invest heavily in doing so, I don’t see Big Ben in that bad of physical state that he won’t pick the Chiefs defense apart.

On the flipside, the Steelers defense will definitely surrender some points against a balanced Kansas City offense that does most things well but nothing superbly. I just don’t think it will be enough given that I genuinely don’t see how the Chiefs can stop Bell without being torched by Roethlisberger. Steelers win.

Will the Ravens keep Brandon Williams?

Williams is the biggest free agent the Ravens have this season and I don’t know if it’d be wise to keep him. He is a great run-stopper and one of the reasons the Ravens’ defense performed so well against the run for most of the season. However he provides zero pass rush (the weakest area of the whole team in terms of player talent, in my opinion), will probably end up being overpaid in free agency and we shouldn’t forget that the Ravens run defense was horrible in the last weeks of the season which should raise legitimate questions about his quality as a player (not is he good or bad? but rather is he that good?) especially since this is not 2015 (when his season was phenomenal) and his 2016 season was good, not great.

Fletcher Cox, a defensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles, got was signed to a six year deal worth $102,600,000 in this past off-season. There is no way Williams is worth that kind of money (and, to be honest, probably neither is Cox). Suh also signed a massive 6-year, 114 million dollar deal with Miami two off-seasons ago. Both these players were probably wildly overpaid but they are clearly much better than Williams. They’re both excellent run-stoppers like Williams but, unlike him, they actually had a track-record of rushing the passer before signing their deals. Cox accumulated 22 sacks over 4 season with the Eagles and Suh 35.5 in 5 season with the Lions. Williams has 4.5 in 4 season with the Ravens. Therefore a payday like the ones Cox or Suh got is 100% out of the question for Williams.

Vince Wilfork, who, like Williams, is a great run stopping nose tackle that does not rush the passer signed, albeit in 2010, a 5-year, 40 million dollar contract. At the time this contract made him the highest paid nose tackle in the NFL and clearly had a premium because of Wilfork’s influence in the locker room. The Patriots would eventually let Wilfork due to his cap hit for the 2015 season, when he eventually moved to the Texans.

Three years ago Linval Joseph signed a five-year, 31.5 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings after playing for the well Giants for 3 seasons (where he accumulated 9 sacks).

This past offseason Damon Harrison signed a five year, 46.2 million contract with the New York Giants. Harrison is a player similar to Williams and, in truth greatly helped the Giants improve their run defense this season. Given the Giants defensive needs this offseason I believe management was willing to overpay to get the defensive unit back on track and, although I think Harrison’s contract came at a premium, I do think this issue is too significant because it really was what the Giants needed.

There is also another important thing to point out which is that in the 3-4 defense the Ravens run the pass rush doesn’t come from the nose tackle. While this is true this shouldn’t be used to increase Williams’ value or excuse his performance in the pass rushing department. It just means that the role he plays is more unidimensional than his tackle peers playing in 4-3 defenses and his value should thus be adjusted given the role he plays on the team.

Additionally, Baltimore has competent players on the roster that can move to the starting 11 (Michael Pierce, Carl Davis, Willie Henry) and while I’m not insinuating that they can be as good as Williams (because they won’t be, not at first at least) they will come at a much cheaper price. And this is what it boils down to for me. A team with as many needs as the Ravens do right now cannot afford to overpay for a nose tackle especially when it drafts defensive linemen (not pass rushers) well on a regular basis and already has three other options on the roster that can take over for Williams.

This being said if the price is one that reflect Williams’ value for the Ravens in the future, I, as a fan, would love to keep him a Raven. I think this price would be in the ballpark of 30-35 million for 5 years. On a per year basis this would place him as the 9th best paid defensive tackle in the league, and the 2nd best paid 3-4 defensive tackle in the NFL (behind the Bills’ Marcell Dareus who has proven to be a quality pass rusher as well as a run stuffing defensive tackle) which I believe is pretty fair.

I’m pretty sure someone will offer him more than that, though, in which case I think, based on confronting his quality as a player with the importance of the role he plays on the defense, the alternatives the Ravens’ have on the roster and the remaining roster needs the Ravens need to fill, the organization should part ways with Williams.

Verdict: it would be great if the Ravens could keep Brandon Williams but he will probably be offered a deal the Ravens shouldn’t match, even if they could.

NFL Playoffs: Wilcard Weekend takeaways

Lions @ Seahawks

From the moment Seattle’s run game clicked the Lions’ fate was sealed.

Detroit’s hope was getting to Russell Wilson while stopping the run. I’ve read some talk about this improvement in Seattle running game being a consequence of a switch from zone to man blocking but I really don’t think that was the main reason for that. Seattle’s offensive line is better at run blocking than pass blocking (although that’s really not saying much) and Detroit run defense ranks 20th in the league in average yards allowed per rushing attempt.

Thomas Rawls ended up rushing for 161 yards on 27 carries (6 yards per carry) keeping a subpar Lions’ defense on the field for a long period of time and the ball out of Stafford’s hands. The Seahawks won the time of possession 37/23 and didn’t commit any turnovers. It is near impossible to win a game when you have the ball 14 less minutes than your opponent and can’t force a turnover.

In the end, I think the run game was the difference here. It gave Wilson more time and space and gave the Seahawks a massive advantage in time of possession. Additionally, I never thought the Lions were a playoff team. Or to put it in a better way, I never thought they were a team that could do anything significant in the playoffs. I thought they had a chance to win this game by exploring the Seahawks’ putrid offensive line (a chance I would give to most non-terrible teams in the league based on how bad Seattle’s line really is). They didn’t and were crushed.

Detroit just feels like a very average team right now with a very good quarterback. These teams will occasionally get to the playoffs usually by exploiting the weakest matchups in their schedule but everyone knows they have no chance to win anything. Like the Texans in the AFC (had they faced Derek Carr in the Wild Card game).

Giants @ Packers

This was the only game that featured two real playoff teams, in my opinion.

First of all, the way I saw it, this game was far closer than the score suggests. Actually, it can be argued that the more likely outcome based on the flow of the game was the Giants being up 17-7 with 3 minutes left in the 3rd quarter. If you run Odell Beckham’s and Sterling Shepard’s touchdown drops on the same play and Rodgers’ hail mary pass the likely outcome is that the Giants have 4 more points on the board by that time in the game and the Packers minus 7.

After the Giants’ touchdown to make it 14-13 in the third quarter the defense just seemed out of it. They allowed two easy completions on the ensuing Packers’ drive on simple routes right in the middle of the field (including Cobb’s TD reception) and afterwards never were the same. They were still able to hold the Packers to a field goal on their next possession but then came what I think was the nail on the coffin for the Giants’ aspiration.

A horrible drop by Beckham on 3rd and 11 near the 50 yard line when the score was 24-13 was a fatal blow to the Giants’ team as a whole that they couldn’t recover from. I don’t want to hear that the ball was overthrown because if Beckham is the receiver he says he is he has to make that catch especially in a situation where your team desperately needed it. Beckham couldn’t make the catch and from that point forward the Giants just folded. Nothing to do with X’s and O’s. The team simply shut down psychologically which explains the difference in the score.

Finally, I think Rodgers deserves a special mention. I really like both quarterbacks that played in this game so it was tough predicting who would come out on top. I ended up picking Eli because this just seemed like the kind of game he wins (and he seemed to have the personnel to do it) despite knowing full well Rodgers was going to put on a show. I didn’t think the Packers defense would hold up as well as they did but then again I also didn’t think the Giants’ receivers would be so bad. Rodgers, though, ended up throwing for 362 yards on 25/40 with 4 touchdowns and no interceptions against what was a fantastic Giants’ defense during the regular season (and for the first 40 minutes of this game). This is an all-time great performance by one of the top quarterbacks ever.

Raiders @ Texans

As predicted this game didn’t have too much story. The Texans held the Raiders scoreless for two quarters and when the Raiders did score it came from a great return by Jalen Richard that gave Connor Cook great field position and from a touchdown scored in garbage time.

The Texans offense didn’t impress at all, though. The running game was used in a smart way to take the pressure of Osweiler but was largely unable to produce any significant outputs (overall the Texans rushed 44 times for 123 yards for an average of 2.8 yards per carry). The running was effective in taking the pressure off Osweiler though: he threw the ball 25 times, completing 14 of those passes for 168 yards and 1 touchdown without interceptions + 1 rushing touchdown.

Still, the Texans managed just 291 yards of offense against a bad Raiders defense which should worry Bill O’Brien for the upcoming game against New England. I don’t think anyone gives the Texans any chance of winning that game but to at least be competitive and avoid another 27 (or worse) to 0 the Texans must find a way to be more dynamic on offense, especially through their running game to keep the ball out of Brady’s hands.

Dolphins @ Steelers

This was another game without much history. I never thought the Steelers’ win was in jeopardy nor did I think James Harrison’s strip sack on the Steelers endzone in the end of the first half when the score was 20-6 was a decisive play in the game.

The Steelers had everything on their side: home crowd, better quarterback, better running back, Antonio Brown and maybe even a better defense (at this point in the season). Big Ben is prone to some bad decisions at times but he usually comes (very) good when you really need him.

LeVeon Bell is the best running back in the league and he just solidified this status with another incredible performance: 29 carries, 167 yards, 5.8 yards per carry, 2 touchdowns.

Antonio Brown added 124 yards through the air, on 5 receptions, and also 2 touchdowns.

The Dolphins just had too many things against them to be able to pull this one off and not enough player talent to do it (although what Adam Gase did on his first season is just amazing; strong coach of the year candidate). The offensive line continues to lack talent despite the obvious improvements and the defense is still far the level that can it can win you a playoff game, especially away from Miami.

Finally, I’d like to stress the great job Matt Moore did filling in for Ryan Tannehill, not just in this game but during the final games of the regular season too. I don’t know if any back-up quarterback would have walked into Heinz field in the playoffs and completed 29-36 passes for 289 yards and a touchdown (with 1 interception) while being sacked 5 times. The fact that ESPN’s QBR gives Moore a 40.3 for this game is an absolute disgrace and I still don’t know why any living soul takes it serious. Good job, Matt!

NFL Playoffs Wildcard Previews

Lions @ Seahawks

The Seahawks should win this game although it’s not as much of a throwaway as it would have been in previous seasons.

Seattle’s offensive line is truly atrocious and they’re missing Early Thomas in the secondary. These are the main hopes for the Lions.

The Seahawks are vulnerable to deep passes in a way they haven’t been for some time. If Stafford can take advantage of this with either Golden Tate (who will be very motivated playing against his former team) or Marvin Jones the Lions might cause some problems to the Seahawks defense.

On the other hand, Detroit does not have a lot other than Stafford (who may be dealing with a hand injury) and this one dimensional can be annulled by the Seahawks especially given their strength in the front-7. The Lions’ struggles in the running game also mean that the Seahawks will be able to drop more people in coverage making it even more difficult for Stafford to throw the ball.

Seattle’s pass rush will also pose a problem for Detroit offensive line but seeing as it is not bad in pass protection I anticipate that Stafford’s problems will stem more from the absence of open receivers than from lack of time in the pocket.

On defense the Lions aren’t a great team stopping the pass or the run. They rank 25th with an average of 7.5 yards surrendered per passing attempt against and 20th with an average 4.4 yards allowed per rushing attempt. The Seahawks running game is not good at all either (unsurprising behind that offensive line) so the Lions should not have problems in this department.

Despite their inability to adequately protect Wilson, he is who I believe tips the scale in this game. The Seahawks defense even without Earl Thomas will be able to slow down Stafford way more than the Lions’ defense will be able to slow down Wilson. Even with Darius Slay on Doug Baldwin the Seahawks still have Jimmy Graham, a pass catching tight end which is the sort of player that has given Detroit such trouble in the past.

The hope for the Lions on defense would be getting to Wilson early and often but their pass rush is also way below average ranking 30th in sacks (26) and 31th in quarterback hurries (71). Still, taking advantage of the Seahawks horrible offensive line is Detroit’s best hope to win this game so their offensive coordinator must figure out a way to do that even if that means being more vulnerable in the secondary.

In the end, I don’t believe the Lions’ defense is good enough for them to win this playoff game. Stafford won’t go off on the Seahawks defense so he will need all the help he can get from his defense which I just don’t think it is going to happen. Seahawks win.

Giants @ Packers

This game is incredibly difficult to predict but very easy to preview. We have one of the best quarterbacks of all time on one of the best stretches of his career playing one of the best defenses in the league vs a guy who during the playoffs can turn into the best quarterback of all time playing against a questionable defense.

By this description you might think I’ll pick the Giants to win this game but I really don’t know. They are very proficient at stopping the run and while that’s always a problem for an opposing team that should be mostly fine with Green Bay because everybody always knew this game would be put on Rodgers’ shoulders.

The Packers’ offensive line is stout and should give Rodgers plenty of time to throw the ball to a corps of receivers of Jordy Nelson, Devante Adams, Randall Cobb and Jared Cook. It’s pretty hard to bet against Aaron Rodgers with time to throw to a healthy receiving corps even if the Giants defensive backs are very good in coverage and already proven they can pick off Rodgers (Jenkins did it twice already this season). The Giants’ front-7 excels at stopping the run more than getting to the quarterback which is a matchup Green Bay certainly likes.

On the other hand the Packers pass defense is atrocious. Their secondary has been plagued by injuries and ranks dead last in the league surrendering on average 8.1 yards per passing attempt. This is a problem when on the other of line of scrimmage we see a quarterback that is 7-1 on road playoff games in his career throwing to Odell Beckham, Victor Cruz and Sterling Shepard. The Giants’ running game is non-existent which also “negates” the Packers biggest defensive strength which is stopping the run.

Both teams are going to want to throw the ball regardless of temperature because their running games aren’t good and their opponents’ defensive weakness is the secondary. I think Green Bay may get to Manning more than the Giants will be able to get to Rodgers but with the Packers secondary I don’t know if Manning will need that much time to throw.

The Giants’ offense has clearly underperformed this season especially given the quality of its weapons mainly on the passing game but the lack of a running game won’t be as much of factor in this game as it was during the season I believe. Green Bay needs to exploit Ereck Flowers, who’s been playing poorly all season, to get to Manning and prevent him from picking their secondary apart.

I like Eli Manning, though. If you told me that I would draft a quarterback that would win me two Super Bowls I would get him 10/10 times even if I never made the playoffs during the remaining years of his career. He is 7-1 on away playoff games which is just absurd. I’ve learned not to count him out especially given the weapons he has at his disposal and the deficiencies of the Packers’ secondary. I love Rodgers but I think his secondary is too bad for him to have a chance. Giants win.

Raiders @ Texans

Another incredibly tough pick (from the moment Derek Carr got injured). I believe the betting sites are giving too much credit to the Texans: bwin’s money line has the Texans at 1.48 (a 100 dollar bet would give you a 48 dollar profit) and the Raiders at 2.7 (a 100 dollar bet would give you a 170 dollar profit).

I don’t like the Texans’ offense or the Raiders’ defense. The flip side to it is that I do like the Texans defense and don’t like the Raiders offense without Carr.

I don’t know Connor Cook. Nobody does. He has never started an NFL game so up until this points he’s a mystery regardless of what he did in college. The Texans defense though is no mystery allowing the second fewest average yards per passing attempt in the NFL at 6.6 and ranking 13th in average yards allowed per rushing attempt. The overwhelming majority of quarterbacks getting their first NFL start against this defense in a playoff game would not score a lot of points which is why I predict Cook won’t either.

Unlike the Texans’, the Raiders’ defense is not very good at all. It ranks 30th against the pass surrendering 7.9 average yards per passing attempt and 25th against the run allowing an average of 4.5 yards per rushing attempt. I don’t like the Texans offense at all but I like Lamar Miller and what he has been doing. He should get a lot of touches in this predictable Texans’ offense but the Raiders should still not be able to stop him.

I don’t think Osweiler is as bad as people are trying to make him out to be which makes me like this offense even less. Paying 72 million dollars to a quarterback and not tailoring the offense to his strengths doesn’t make sense to me. He clearly underperformed this season and may never reach franchise quarterback status but he’s not 72 quarterback rating and 5.8 yards per passing attempt bad.

This being sad I don’t think the Texans’ offense will improve in this game and actually think that even the Raiders’ defense will manage to keep this game close. In the end though, I think Lamar Miller and the Texans’ defense will do just enough to win this game. This is probably the only matchup the Texans and the Raiders (without Carr) had a chance of winning: a matchup among what are, in my opinion, two non-playoff teams right now. Texans win.

Dolphins @ Steelers

In a playoff matchup at Heinz field the Dolphins have zero chance of winning. I wrote before that I don’t know how the Dolphins got to this point but the fact is that they’re here. Gase and Joseph built a surprisingly very good defense out of the pieces they had at their disposal (which is why Joseph is currently being considered for a plethora of head coaching vacancies) and the team was finally able to mitigate some of its offensive line woes that have been holding them back for so long (at least since Tannehill has been in the league).

The receiving corps and running back are good to very good (Landry, Stills, Parker and Ajayi) and the backup quarterback is one of the best in the league and it’s certainly not because of him that I’m picking the Steelers (although Tannehill is obviously better).

The Dolphins just feel to me like an average team that find themselves in the playoffs. 7 of their wins came against the Bills, Jets, Browns, Rams and 49ers. The others are two fluky wins @ San Diego and vs Arizona and one admittedly impressive victory against, interestingly, the Steelers.

In my mind though, it is 100% impossible that the same circumstances that gave the Dolphins the victory in that game will repeat themselves. Ben Roethlisberger will not complete just 56% of his passes throwing 2 picks and just 1 TD, LeVeon Bell will be given more than 10 rushing opportunities and Ajayi will not rush for 204 yards on just 25 carries. Moore will also not complete 24/32 passes for 252 yards with zero interceptions.

If those numbers happen again they will likely be in favor of the Steelers. I don’t believe they will, but I do see Bell rushing for more than 120 yards on 25 carries and Ben passing for 2 or 3 TDs with at most one interception.

It’s playoff time. The Steelers have a HoF QB, 2 time SuperBowl champion, the best running back in the game, one of the best receivers in the game and a defense that will go up against an offense that can be stopped. Plus they’re playing at home. The Dolphins have no shot. Steelers win.