Tag Archives: Dallas Cowboys

Eagles More Than Wentz

Last Sunday in the NFL the Detroit Lions survived against a three-win Chicago team when a last-second, 46-yard field goal sailed wide.  Last Sunday, the winless Cleveland Browns went into the fourth quarter against the division-leading Jacksonville Jaguars trailing by only a 10-7 score before the Jags pushed their way on to a 19-7 win.  Baltimore also struggled through three quarters against the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers before pulling away in the fourth.  The six-win Chiefs succumbed to the two-win Giants.  New Orleans stretched its winning streak to eight games, but they needed a nearly miraculous comeback against Washington.  Across the NFL, Week 11 saw many contenders struggle to push aside lesser teams.

And then there was Philadelphia.

In what was billed two weeks ago as a titanic showdown for the soul of the NFC East, the untouchable Eagles swept aside the suddenly hapless Dallas Cowboys, 37-9 (gamebook).  This even though the Cowboys made things as tough for Philadelphia as imaginable for the game’s first 30 minutes.  That first half featured 18:29 of ball control by the Dallas offense, and the Dallas defense stopping the Eagle offense on all six of their third-down opportunities.  Coming into the game with the league’s fourth-ranked running attack, Philadelphia went into the locker room with just 35 rushing yards.  None of their 10 runs had gained more than 7 yards.  In addition, quarterback sensation Carson Wentz finished the first half just 7 of 18 for 80 yards.

For all of this, Dallas went into the half leading just 9-7.  As it turns out, they never would make it into the end zone.

But in the dominant second half that would see Philadelphia outgain Dallas 268-99 and outscore them 30-0, the heroes went well beyond Wentz.  Carson made his contributions with 2 touchdown passes, but threw only 9 times in the second half.  If the point hadn’t been sufficiently made before, this game demonstrated how much more the Eagles are than just a star quarterback.

In fact, the more you watch the Eagles play, the harder and harder it is to ignore the outstanding work of both the Philadelphia offensive and defensive lines.

The Lost Art of Pulling

A generation ago, the Miami Dolphins stitched together the only un-defeated un-tied season in the Super Bowl era.  In 14 regular season games, they threw the ball only 259 times.  An average team playing in 2017 would hit that mark at about halftime of their eighth game of the season.  Those Dolphins ran the ball 613 time in 14 games – an average of 43.8 rushing attempts per game.  They never ran for fewer than 120 yards in any of their games, rushed for at least 200 yards 8 times in the regular season and almost two more times in the playoffs (they reached 198 against Cleveland and 193 against Pittsburgh), and topped 300 yards once (in Week 12 they amassed 304 rushing yards against New England).  They averaged 211.4 rushing yards a game.

The offensive line that powered this running game consisted of Wayne Moore (265 pounds), Bob Kuechenberg (253 pounds), Jim Langer (250 pounds), Larry Little (265 pounds) and Norm Evans (250 pounds).  The life of an offensive lineman back in 1972 was much different than it is today.  Back then, zone blocking didn’t exist.  A 300 pound offensive lineman would have been considered a liability.  Back then, offensive linemen moved all of the time.  Guards were nearly always pulling – it was the era of the great Lombardi sweep.

In 2017 most offensive linemen tilt the scales at over 300 pounds.  Sunday’s Eagle lineup featured Halapoulivaati Vaitai (315 pounds), Stefen Wisniewski (295), Jason Kelce (282), Brandon Brooks (343) and Lane Johnson (303).  The lightest member of this year’s Eagle offensive line is roughly 17 pounds heavier than the heaviest member of the Dolphin line of yesteryear.

As it turns out, offensive linemen in 2017 mostly pass protect.  They do still pull – or try to pull – but this relic of football’s offensive past is starting to fade for lack of effectiveness.

At 300-plus pounds, few of the modern offensive linemen possess the quickness to get away from the line of scrimmage before being caught up in the congestion, and the speed to make it to the designated spot while the play is still going on.  There is another key component necessary to allowing one of your linemen to pull successfully that is also mostly lacking – the art of the downblock.

Frequently, as a guard takes his place at the line of scrimmage, there is a defensive tackle lining up across from him.  If this guard is supposed to pull on this particular play, that would render him unable to block the tackle – allowing him to disrupt the play.  To compensate, another near-by lineman – in this case, usually the center – would slide over at the snap and block the tackle.

This agility and athleticism was the trademark of those Dolphins and many other teams of that era.  Today – since defensive linemen are getting smaller and much quicker – it is difficult for offensive linemen to cut them off before they can penetrate.  Much of the time these days, when linemen pull, it ends up as a scrum in the offensive backfield.

But Not the Eagles

All of which makes watching the Philadelphia Eagles such a singular experience.  These Eagles pull like no team I’ve witnessed in many years.  There were probably more cleanly executed pulls, traps and downblocks executed in Sunday’s game than most teams will manage in a season.

While there may well have been a dozen or so perfectly executed run plays, perhaps the best came on the second play of the fourth quarter.  The Eagles faced first-and-10 on their own 48, and lined up with tight end Zach Ertz tight to the right side.  At the snap, left guard Wisniewski bolted around center, heading toward the right side of the formation, while center Kelce executed his perfect downblock on Cowboy nose tackle Maliek Collins.  Meanwhile, the right guard and tackle (Brooks and Johnson) double-teamed Dallas’ other tackle – David Irving, and Ertz flew past end Demarcus Lawrence.

After the initial double-team staggered Irving, both Brooks and Johnson quickly disengaged and hurtled into the defensive secondary, where they effortlessly cleared out linebackers Jaylon Smith and Justin Durant.  As to Lawrence – who was unblocked to this point – he had to hesitate to see whether Wentz was going to keep the ball and roll to his side.  This caused him to pause just long enough to allow Wisniewski to plow through him. Ertz hunted up cornerback Byron Jones and drove him up the field.

By the time running back LeGarrette Blount reached the line of scrimmage, the entire Dallas defense had been picked off and pushed out of the way – exactly as it had been drawn up.  Blount would finally be caught from behind on the Cowboy 22 – after a 30 yards gain.

On that play, left tackle Vaitai had the easiest assignment – turning Cowboy end Taco Charlton to the outside.  But on this evening every Eagle lineman would have their moment – even Vaitai who is filling in for injured legend Jason Peters.  On Philadelphia’s longest offensive play of the game – Jay Ajayi’s 71-yard run – it would be Vaitai, pulling from left tackle – who would throw the key block.

Ghosts of Cowboys Past

The entire second half would be eerily reminiscent of the Cowboy teams of the mid-1990s that would pound teams into submission in the second half of their games.  Philadelphia ran the ball 23 times in the second half for 180 yards – sending them to 215 rushing yards on the game.

A total even the 1972 Dolphins wouldn’t have been embarrassed to own.

And Then There Was the Defensive Line

Almost as dominant was the Eagle defensive line.  They kept the pressure on quarterback Dak Prescott the entire night, while rarely letting him escape the pocket.  Watching the game, it seemed like the Eagles blitzed constantly.  In reality, Prescott saw only 10 blitzes in his 35 drop-backs (29%).  But those blitzes were effective enough.  Dak was only 3 for 8 for 19 yards, 2 sacks, and 1 interception when facing the Eagle blitz.

The rest of the time Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan and Chris Long constricted the pocket.  Right defensive end Derek Barnett had the opportunity to exploit Dallas’ weakness at left tackle.  With starting tackle Tyron Smith missing his second straight game, Dallas turned to Byron Bell.  While his effort was decidedly better than Chaz Green’s the game before, the Cowboys still struggled all night trying to keep Barnett out of the backfield.

The pressure from Barnett, the blitzes and the false blitzes all took their toll on Prescott.  Dak played fast most of the night, and his accuracy suffered noticeably.  What a change for Dak from last year.

Last year at this time, Prescott was playing easy behind what was then regarded as football’s best offensive line.  But left guard Ronald Leary is in Denver now, and right tackle Doug Free retired.  With Smith sitting out with his injury, the Cowboys are down to just two of last year’s five starting offensive linemen.

And it makes quite a difference.

Last year, Dallas streaked to a 13-3 record and the top seed in their conference.  This year they are unlikely to make the playoffs.  That’s how quickly life can change in the NFL.  The Eagles and the other teams currently riding on top of the football world should take notice.

Second Half Quarterbacks

In their last game in New England, the Los Angeles Chargers looked like they finally had found their running game.  They lost, but rung up 157 rushing yards, with feature back Melvin Gordon accounting for 132 of them on just 14 carries (9.4 per carry).  Gordon had gained 997 yards the previous year, in spite of playing in only 13 games (starting 11).  The re-discovered running game would be important going forward.

On the other sideline, the Jacksonville Jaguars were welcoming back rookie running sensation Leonard Fournette after a one-game suspension.  Leonard had amassed 596 rushing yards in six games, including 311 in his previous two games.  With the running game being the foundation of the Jaguars’ offense, his return was welcomed.

At the half of last Sunday’s game between the Chargers and the Jaguars, Los Angeles held a 7-6 lead.  Gordon had managed just 16 yards on 8 carries.  Fournette was held to 21 on 9 carries.  By game’s end – after more than 71 minutes of football – these two premier backs had accounted for 60 combined yards on 33 combined rushes – less than two yards a carry.

With the running games unable to get untracked, the contest hinged on the two passing games.

Rivers vs Bortles

For their part, Los Angeles had veteran Philip Rivers.  Going head to head against the number one pass defense in the NFL (and also the defense with the lowest passer rating against – 63.5), Rivers held his own. Philip finished 21 of 37 for 235 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.  Without much of a running game, and with consistent up the middle pressure, Rivers and the Chargers fought their way to 17 points – about as much as could be reasonably expected under the circumstances.

The curiosity in this game was the other quarterback – Jacksonville’s much discussed Blake Bortles.

The quarterback who earlier this year threw only one pass in the second half of the Pittsburgh game, now held Jacksonville’s fate in his hands.

Throughout the first half, Jacksonville maintained admirable balance.  Their 27 plays were 14 runs and 13 mostly safe passes.  Bortles took one downfield shot, overthrowing Keelan Cole.  But Blake was 11-for-11 throwing underneath against the Chargers.  However, the short passes only accounted for 75 yards, and the only time that Jacksonville found the end zone was on a spectacular fake punt.  Other than Corey Grant’s 56-yard explosion, the running game had contributed just 33 yards.

So, the wraps came off Bortles in the games second half (which ended up being almost three full quarters).  And with decidedly mixed results.

After throwing 12 times in the first half, Blake threw 39 times in the second.  But his 11 first half completions were answered by only 17 in the second half.  His completion percentage fell from 91.7% through the first 30 minutes to just 43.6% thereafter.  After managing just 75 passing yards early, Blake threw for 198 thereafter, but for only a 5.08 yard average per pass, after averaging 6.25 in the first half.

As the focus was decidedly more downfield, his average per completion rose sharply from 6.82 to 11.65, and he threw for his only touchdown of the day.  He also threw two bad-decision interceptions that nearly cost Jacksonville the game.

The Jags held on for a 20-17 victory (gamebook), but the questions continue.  If Jacksonville needs Blake to throw the team to victory against a top opponent (perhaps in a playoff situation), could he do it?

Sunday’s second half against Los Angeles casts some doubt.

Second-Half Jared

Facing a team that had rolled up more than fifty point in its previous game, the Houston defense held the Texans in the game for the first 35 minutes or so.  The Los Angeles Rams had gone in at halftime with just 3 field goals and a 9-7 lead.  As in the Jacksonville game, the Rams’ premier running back Todd Gurley was a non-factor (as a runner).  He rushed for 19 first-half yards.  Meanwhile, Jared Goff and the passing attack weren’t re-writing history either.  Jared went into the locker room with only 104 passing yards on 11 of 20 passing.  Of the 131 total yards LA had to show for the first 30 minutes, 43 came on a short catch and run by Gurley.  Had the Houston offense been able to take advantage, the story of the second half might have been much different.

But the Texans let the Rams hang around and then watched as LA pulled away with 24 unanswered second-half points – on their way to a 33-7 victory (gamebook).  There were a couple of quarterbacks who had brilliant second halves last week.  Arguably Jared Goff’s was the best.

A little bit rushed and flustered through the game’s first thirty minutes, Goff returned for the second half on fire.  Beginning with a perfectly-thrown, 94-yard touchdown strike to Robert Woods, Goff went on to complete 14 of his last 17 passes (82.4%) for an astonishing 254 yards (an average of 17.93 yards per completion) with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.  On the receiving end, Woods caught all 6 second-half passes thrown to him for 161 yards and 2 touchdowns. Coming one week after his third-and-33 touchdown catch, Woods is, perhaps, forcing his way into a bigger role on this offense.

And, yes, that is the Rams now 7-2.  The intensity of the stretch drive and of the playoffs may catch up to this young team at some point, but nine games into the season they look like more than just a September illusion.

What to Make of the Atlanta-Dallas Game

If Jared Goff’s second half was better than Atlanta’s Matt Ryan’s, it was only marginally so.  Like Goff, Ryan started out a little average.  He completed 11 of 17 first half passes, but for only 94 yards, with no touchdowns and 1 interception.  But coming out of halftime and holding to just a 10-7 lead, Ryan and the Falcon offense finally found their groove.  Matty finished his game completing 11 of his last 12 for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Perhaps the great awakening in the Atlanta offense was nothing more than patience and a little dose of humility.  Instead of stubbornly trying to throw up the field to Julio Jones against coverages overloaded to stop that very strategy, Ryan and the Falcons spent the second half of last Sunday’s game peppering the Cowboys with underneath routes.  For the game, Ryan completed only one throw of over 20 yards (a 24-yarder to Jones early in the second half).  All of his other completions exploited Dallas’ focus on Jones and the deep passing game.

Equally important, the Atlanta running game emerged in the second half, gaining 91 yards on 21 carries and the Falcons walked away with a 27-7 win (gamebook).  One of the things the first half of the season has taught us is that the more balanced the Falcon offense is, the more explosive it is.

The Zeke Factor

The tempting thing here, of course, is to say “well, Dallas was without premier back Ezekiel Elliott, so . . .” But I’m not sure that effectively accounts for the outcome.

Elliott, famously, has been fighting a suspension for the entire year – a suspension that finally began with this game.  Would he have made a difference?  Of course.  But to say he would have propelled Dallas to victory not only slights the Atlanta Falcons and Alfred Morris (who replaced Elliott), but grossly over-values Elliott’s contributions.

The truth is that running the football was probably the best thing that Dallas did on Sunday. They finished with 107 rushing yards, and Morris had 53 of those on 11 carries (4.8 yards per).  The failure to truly establish the run game had more to do with the defense’s inability to contain the Falcon offense – allowing the score to get out of hand – and the struggles of the Cowboy passing game.

With tackle Tyron Smith nursing injuries, Dallas turned to Chaz Green to man that all-important left tackle spot.  To say that he was overmatched by Falcon rush end Adrian Clayborn would be a sizeable understatement.

Cowboy quarterback Dak Prescott finished the game completing 20 of 30 passes – but for only 176 yards.  Prescott began the game having been sacked only 10 times all season.  In this game alone, he went down 8 times (for 50 yards) – 6 of them credited to Clayborn (a game he will remember for a while).

In general, I’m inclined to think this game was more about the Falcons re-discovering themselves than it was conclusive evidence that the Cowboys are rudderless without Elliott.  Next up for Dallas is a crucial division matchup against Philadelphia.  Atlanta journeys to Seattle to play the damaged but dangerous Seahawks.  We will probably know more about both these teams by this time next week.

Playoff Implications

The game was billed as a must win for the Falcons – and that is true enough.  At 4-4, Atlanta’s position was certainly precarious.  Even with the win, though, the Falcons chances still aren’t great.  They currently sit one game behind the Seahawks for the last spot, so a win Monday night could thrust them momentarily into that playoff spot.  The Falcons also have a very tough closing schedule.  After Seattle in Seattle, they will still have Minnesota and Carolina on their schedule, as well as high-flying New Orleans twice.

If Atlanta is going to fight its way in, they will have to earn it.

In the long run, the loss may hurt Dallas more than the win will help Atlanta.  Considering how much harder Dallas’ remaining schedule is than Carolina’s (the team they will likely be battling for that playoff spot) this loss was very damaging to the Cowboys.  They still have two games against Philadelphia, as well as Washington, Oakland and Seattle on their list.  Carolina will have challenges – they have New Orleans, Minnesota and Atlanta left – but clearly not as many.  With Dallas needing to make up a game and a half on the Panthers, facing a tougher schedule, and now without their best linebacker (Sean Lee) for a while, Dallas’ playoff hopes are suddenly looking pretty bleak.

And the Panthers (who looked ripe for the plucking last week) have seen their playoff conditions notably improved with the Dallas loss.  A Week 14 win against the Vikings (and that game is at home) could easily propel Carolina into the fifth seed, leaving Minnesota as the sixth.

How the Cowboys Can Win Without Zeke

Last Sunday’s marquee matchup brought the Kansas City Chiefs into Dallas to play the Cowboys in what will probably be star running back Ezekiel Elliott’s last football game for a while.

With two prolific offenses going against two spotty defenses, this was expected to be something of a shootout – and, for an 11 minute 44 second window that bridged the second and third quarters – it was.  Beginning with 13 seconds left in the first half, the two teams scored touchdowns on four consecutive possessions.  The most dramatic of these coming on the very last play of the first half.

With two seconds left and Kansas City on their own 44-yard line, Dallas dropped almost its entire defense into the end zone – expecting the Hail Mary.  What they got instead was a short toss over the middle to Tyreek Hill.  Tight ends Travis Kelce and Demetrius Harris had already released into the pattern and were there to provide a convoy as Hill zig-zagged the final few yards for the touchdown.

But, beyond this localized offensive explosion, the rest of the game belonged to the defenses – especially the Dallas defense – as they controlled the Chiefs throughout their 28-17 victory (gamebook).

The Big D is for Defense

Kansas City entered the game ranked sixth in the NFL in passing yards.  They went home with a modest 255.  They entered the game ranked third in total offense, but gained just 323 yards.  Through eight games, the Chiefs had averaged 4.9 yards per rushing play – the third best average in the league.  Against Dallas, they averaged just 3.6.  With 236 points scored already, KC was the league’s third-highest scoring team.  The Cowboys held them to 17 points.

Kansas City’s only two touchdowns came on the last play of the first half and the first drive of the second half.  Of their 323 yards, 125 came on the 11 plays of those two possessions (just a tick under 40%).  Their other 44 offensive plays contributed just 198 total yards (only 4.5 per play).

With Elliott’s suspension about to kick in, there is concern about whether Dallas will be able to hold on to that last playoff spot.  Clearly, no team can lose a player like Zeke and not sag at least a little bit.  But there are a lot of other pieces on this Cowboy team.  They still have one of the best offensive lines in the game, and they have talented running backs to run behind that line.  In 24 carries so far this season, Alfred Morris and Rod Smith have combined for 185 rushing yards.  They still have Dak Prescott.  And they have a defense that is turning the corner.

Dallas entered the bye week having allowed 30 or more points in 3 of their last 4 games.  Through the season’s first five games, they were allowing 26.4 points and 339.8 yards per game – 118 of them rushing yards.  In the three games since their bye, the Cowboys are surrendering just 15.3 points on 299.3 total yards per game – 73.3 of them rushing yards.

It’s not at all inconceivable that the other pieces of the Cowboy’s operation will keep the team in contention until Elliott makes his way back – which would be for the final two games of the regular season against Seattle and Philadelphia.

Things Not Too OK in KC

It is, in fact, possible that Kansas City – though not threatened with the loss of their star running back – should be more concerned than Dallas.  With a 6-3 record, a two-game lead in the division, and a softening schedule ahead, the Chiefs will have only themselves to blame if they don’t make the playoffs.  But the recent trend is concerning. Their 5-0 start did include victories over New England and Philadelphia in the season’s first two weeks, before the Patriots and Eagles started figuring things out.  Their recent steak of three losses in four games includes losses to contending teams in Pittsburgh and now Dallas.  After rushing for at least 112 yards in each of their first five games, KC has managed no more than 94 in any of the last four.  Running back Kareem Hunt still leads the NFL with 800 rushing yards, but most of that yardage was amassed during the 5-0 start.  He gained just 37 yards against Dallas, and over the last four games has totaled 191 yards on 58 carries (3.3 per).

As the season churns through its middle weeks, it’s becoming increasingly clear that what made Kansas City special early in the year was the dynamic running game.  Their defense never has been elite, and while the passing game has still been effective it hasn’t been able to atone for the missing running game.

If the Chiefs want to entertain thoughts of playing deep into January, they will need to re-discover that running attack.

Jacksonville Provides the Model

Some 994 miles to the east of Dallas, the rising Jacksonville Jaguars provided something of a model for how the Cowboys might go about things for the next few weeks.

Faced with playing without their dynamic running back Leonard Fournette (also suspended), the Jags got 110 rushing yards from Leonard’s two backups Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon on their way to 148 rushing yards on the day.  They also notably expanded the role of quarterback Blake Bortles.

Blake, who had never thrown more than 31 passes this season in a Jacksonville win, threw 27 times in the first half alone – on his way to a season-high 38 pass attempts.  It was still a very safe passing attack.  Blake made very sure the throw was there before delivering the ball.  He wasn’t dazzling by any means.  But with 24 completions for 259 yards and a touchdown, he was effective as he commanded an offense that converted on 12 of 18 third downs, and ran the clock for 40:14.

And then there was the defense.

Moving up to number 3 overall and staying the league’s top rated defense against the run, the Jaguar defense dominated in a 23-7 victory (gamebook).  Having allowed, now, just 117 points, they also remain the league’s toughest team to score against.

They were especially dominant in the second half.

During the Bengals first series of the third quarter, running back Joe Mixon squeezed through the middle for a six-yard gain.  On the last play of that quarter, Mixon would gain six more yards up the middle.  Cincinnati’s other 5 running plays in the half lost a total of 7 yards.

The Bengals finished the last 30 minutes with 31 yards and just 3 first downs.  They averaged 1.6 yards per offensive play.

The more they do this, the more this Jacksonville team begins to believe in itself.  They remain one of the more compelling teams at the mid-way point of the season.

Incidentally, the last time that Jacksonville and Cincinnati played was Week Nine of the 2014 season.  The Jags were beaten that day 33-23 as Jeremy Hill ran for 154 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Jacksonville was on its way to a 3-13 season, while the Bengals (who have fallen to 3-5 this season) were then on their way to a 10-5-1 record and a playoff berth.  Life in the NFL can certainly change quickly.

One Game More to Decide Playoff Teams

With surprising victories by Miami and Jacksonville, much of the drama that might have hung over Week 17 has been resolved.  We go into the last week of the season with the playoff teams mostly decided – if not yet seeded.  Here – essentially – is what is still to be decided:

AFC Eastern Division

New England (13-2) has been sitting on top of this conference virtually the entire season – in spite of the fact that All-Everything Quarterback Tom Brady was forced to sit out the season’s first four games.  They are currently the top seed in the conference, but Oakland is only one game behind at 12-3.  Should both teams finish at 13-3, Oakland will get the seed.  In that event, Oakland will be 5-0 against teams that both Oakland and New England have played, while the Patriots will be 4-1 in those games.

Oakland has beaten Baltimore (28-27), Denver twice (30-20 and they will have to beat the Broncos on Sunday to finish at 13-3), Houston (27-20), and Buffalo (38-24).  New England has wins over Houston (27-0), Buffalo (41-25), Baltimore (30-23), and Denver (16-3).  But in Week Four – the last week of Brady’s exile – the Pats were shutout by Buffalo 16-0.  That lonely loss is the only possible lasting impact of the Brady suspension – and for that loss to drop New England into the second seed, Oakland will have to win in Denver without their starting quarterback and Miami will have to beat New England (also without their starting quarterback) on Sunday.

Neither of those outcomes is unthinkable.

The Denver-Oakland game we’ll deal with in a minute.

As for Miami, the Dolphins won a defining game (and punched their playoff ticket) last Sunday when they went into freezing Buffalo and won in overtime with their backup quarterback.  That victory establishes them as one of the wildcard teams (currently the sixth seed).  If they win their last game against the Patriots and Kansas City loses on the road in San Diego, the Dolphins could finish as the fifth seed, pushing KC into the sixth slot.

I don’t know that the difference in seeding is enough for the Dolphins to give maximum effort in their last game.  I do think the fact that they will be playing at home against the hated Patriots is reason enough.  There are other reasons, too.  Matt Moore – the man at the helm in Ryan Tannehill’s absence – needs all of the real-time reps he can get.  Plus, the Dolphins are not so established that they can turn things off and turn them back on.  I don’t think that they think they have the luxury of resting starters.

All of that being said, I don’t believe that they could handle New England’s best game.  I don’t know, though, that they will get New England’s best game.  There is little on the table for the Patriots.  The slide from first to second will only matter if both New England and Oakland win their divisional round matchups – and the Raiders won’t have their starting QB.  I don’t truly expect to see Brady on the field too long – maybe the first half, or maybe just the first drive.  Some other notables (like LeGarrette Blount) may also be done early.  The Patriots may surprise me, but I think that this game is there for the Dolphins to take, if they want it.

AFC North

The 10-5 Pittsburgh Steelers wrapped up their division title with a gritty victory over the game Baltimore Ravens.  They are locked in as the number three seed.  The AFC South champions in Houston could finish at 10-6 if they win in Tennessee on Sunday, but for Pittsburgh to also finish at 10-6, they would have to lose at home against the one-win Cleveland team.  Even if that happens, Pittsburgh’s strength-of-victory index will be better than Houston’s.

AFC West

Oakland (12-3) leads the division, holds the second seed, and has a chance at the number one seed.  But they haven’t locked up the division, yet.  Kansas City sits right behind them at 11-4, holding the tie breaker by virtue of winning both games against the Raiders this season.  They (KC) finishes the season on the road against a fading but dangerous San Diego team, while the Raiders and backup QB Matt McGloin journey into Denver to play last year’s champions.

The disappointed Broncos will certainly give Oakland its best game, but I legitimately wonder if Denver can take Oakland even if they are playing at home against the Raiders’ backup signal caller.  The Bronco offense has creaked to a halt during the season’s final weeks.  During their current three-game losing streak, Denver has failed to score more than ten points in any of them.  However, the Raiders Achilles Heel even before the loss of Derek Carr was its defense (ranked twenty-eighth overall and allowing 24 points per game).  Denver managed 20 points against them in Oakland earlier this season.  If they can manage that many at home on Sunday, they can put the game in McGloin’s hands – and Denver still has football’s best pass defense.

While Denver is flawed, Oakland – minus its QB – is, I think, more flawed.  I expect to see Oakland lose this game (giving New England the number one seed, regardless).  I’m less clear on what to expect from the Chargers and Chiefs.  While the Chargers are always dangerous, they have mostly found ways to lose games this year while KC has mostly found ways to win games this year.  In the final analysis, I just don’t see Kansas City – with so much at stake – losing it all to a 5-10 team, even if they are a division opponent playing at home.  My best guess at the way this plays out has KC pulling off the division title and the second seed on the last day of the season, sending Oakland to the fifth seed and sending them on the road to open the playoffs in:

AFC South

Houston.  The Texans (now 9-6) have yet to lose a division game all season (they are 5-0 so far).  When 3-12 Jacksonville rose up last Sunday to rend the now 8-7 Tennessee Titans, they dropped Tennessee to 1-4 in the division.  So even though Tennessee could tie Houston at 9-7 with a win at home against them Sunday, the Texans own the tie breaker.  They are locked into the fourth seed and likely to draw the Raiders in the wildcard round of the playoffs, while Pittsburgh will most likely match up with Miami.

None of the AFC participants can change.  The only thing Week 17 can alter is the seeding.

NFC South

The Atlanta Falcons (10-5) are two games up on their closest competitor (Tampa Bay is 8-7) with one game left.  They are the division champion.  They are currently sitting in the second seed with its corresponding first-round bye.  A final week victory over New Orleans (at home) will clinch that seeding.  New Orleans is 7-8 and kind of a more dangerous version of the Chargers.  The Saints have averaged 29.1 points a game this year (making them the NFL’s second-highest scoring team this year).  They are also number one in yardage and number one in passing yards. Furthermore, this offensive juggernaut will be working against the Falcons’ twenty-third ranked defense (number 26 against the pass) that is allowing 24.9 points a game (the twenty-fifth ranked scoring defense in the NFL).

On the other hand, Atlanta is scoring 33.5 points a game (making them the NFL’s number one scoring offense) and ranks second in yards (behind New Orleans) with the number 3 passing attack and the number 7 running attack.  New Orleans answers with the number 30 scoring defense (allowing 27.7 points a game) and the number 25 defense by yardage allowed (number 30 against the pass).

To put it lightly, America is expecting a shootout.  The Falcons won the first meeting of these teams in New Orleans 45-32.  This is, by no means, a lock – although you have to think that the home-standing Falcons should prevail.

Behind them are the young and inconsistent Buccaneers.  Tampa Bay finishes at home against the dethroned Carolina Panthers.  If Tampa prevails, they will finish at 9-7, putting them (theoretically) in the mix for that final playoff spot.  The loser of the Detroit-Green Bay tilt will also be 9-7.  Washington currently sits at 8-6-1, and could finish at 9-6-1 with a playoff berth if they finish up their season with a win.

So while Atlanta controls its own fate, Tampa Bay decidedly does not.  My strong expectation is that they will lose to the Panthers on Sunday anyway, obviating any tie-breaking scenarios.

NFC East

As the Dallas Cowboys sliced and diced the Detroit Lions last week, they locked up their division title and the first seed.  Their final game in Philadelphia is meaningless, although the statements coming from the Dallas camp suggest that they will keep the pedal down.

Also locked up is the first wildcard spot (the fifth seed).  That belongs to the 10-5 New York Giants.

Behind them are the 8-6-1 Washington Redskins.  They play at home Sunday afternoon with everything to play for against the Giants whose only real motivation could come from knocking the Redskins out of the playoffs.  And because of the tie on their record, Washington will either be in or out depending on the result.  At 9-6-1 their record would be better than any of the teams that could be 9-7.  At 8-7-1, they would finish behind any 9-7 teams (and there will be at least one of those).

My expectation here is that Washington will take care of business.  I am not all that impressed with the Giants (although their defense can certainly rise to the occasion), and I don’t expect to see them win this game on the road against a desperate (and pretty good) Washington team.  In the world of most-likely-outcomes, Washington should win and complete the playoff field.

NFC West

At 9-5-1, Seattle will be the only team from this division to finish over .500.  They have already won the title, but lost control of the number two seed with a surprising loss at home against Arizona last week.  Should Atlanta fall to New Orleans, then the second seed will be theirs if they can beat the two-win San Francisco team (in San Francisco).  Seattle would fall to the fourth seed should they lose, as the winner of the Packers-Lions game will be 10-6.  Don’t see that happening.  The Seahawks have been wildly inconsistent at the end of the season, but should still be better than the struggling 49ers.

NFC North

The season ends on Sunday night in Detroit where the 9-6 Lions will square off against the 9-6 Green Bay Packers.  At stake will be the division title in a winner-take-all showdown.

The loser will probably be home for the playoffs – assuming Washington takes care of the Giants.  Should New York rise up and knock Washington out of the playoffs then both these teams will go into the playoffs – the winner as the division champion and possible number two seed, and the loser as the number six seed.

If Detroit wins (and Atlanta and Seattle lose), the Lions and Falcons would both finish at 10-6.  The tie-breaker here would fall to Detroit on record against common opponents.  The Lions would have four wins (Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Green Bay) against just one loss (Green Bay).  Atlanta would finish 3-2 against these same opponents, with wins against New Orleans, Green Bay and Los Angeles; and losses to Philadelphia and New Orleans (if they lose that last game).  A Falcons loss to New Orleans could push them down as far as fourth.

If it ends up Green Bay vs Tampa Bay for the last wildcard spot – with both teams at 9-7 – the Packers would get the nod based on strength of victory.

If the Sunday night game tilts the other way, with Green Bay winning the division, they would lose any tie-breaker to Atlanta (by virtue of a 32-33 loss to them in Week Eight).  So the highest the Packers could climb is the third seed (and it would take Seattle losing to San Francisco for that to happen).

If it comes to a tie-breaker between Detroit and Tampa Bay, Detroit would win on record against common opponents.  The Lions would be 3-2 (beating Los Angeles, New Orleans and Chicago; and losing to Chicago and Dallas).  Tampa Bay would be 2-3 against those same opponents (beating Chicago and New Orleans while losing to Los Angeles, Dallas and New Orleans).

So Tampa Bay isn’t really in the mix, regardless.

Under the most likely scenarios, the NFC seeding should end up Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle, NFC North Champion, NY Giants and Washington.

And who wins the NFC North showdown?  Green Bay.  And they’ll be a dangerous team to deal with in the playoffs.

At least that’s how I see it all playing out.

How the Giants Playoff Chances Improved

For most of the season, the New York Giants have been sitting snugly in one of the NFC wildcard spots.  Until now, I have been hesitant to embrace them as a likely playoff contestant.  After an uninspiring 2-3 start, the Giants pushed themselves into contention with a 6-game winning streak that came at the expense of some fairly suspect opponents.  They squeaked past Baltimore at home (27-23) before Baltimore figured things out and started playing well.  They eased past a bad Rams team, 17-10.  They just got past a fading Philadelphia team, 28-23.  They finished the winning streak against three straight sub-.500 teams – Cincinnati (21-20), Chicago (22-16), and winless Cleveland (27-13).

Now 8-3, New York faced a quality opponent – the Pittsburgh Steelers – and fell quietly 24-14.  Still 8-4, the tie-breakers didn’t favor them at 9-7.  To earn their playoff berth, the Giants would have to go at least 2-2 down the stretch.  As the stretch drive included games against Dallas, Detroit and a road game in Washington, this under-performing team seemed unlikely to squeeze two wins out of this schedule.  Somewhere in this stretch, they would have to “find” a win against a better team.

They found that win Sunday night when they fought their way past the Dallas Cowboys 10-7.

Even in this moment of triumph, the Giants managed to be mostly unconvincing.  While scoring only ten points, they left two other touchdowns on the field when Odell Beckham Jr. dropped a sure touchdown pass and when the ball slipped out of Eli Manning’s had as he had a receiver breaking open behind the defense.  Eli also threw at least three other passes right into the hands of would-be interceptors (all dropped) – so the Giant offense continues to invite concern.

Defensively, the Giants dominated the Cowboys.  It’s hard to say that when Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott ran for 107 yards, but make no mistake.  Dallas was dominated on offense.

After a dominating early season, the Cowboys finished their eleven-game winning streak with wins that were 3 parts grit and determination and 2 parts luck.  Since they went into their bye with a 5-1 record, the Cowboys’ defense has been frequently exposed.  Three times in the first five games after their bye, Dallas surrendered 23 points or more.  Even though they held Minnesota to 15 points in a Week 13 win, the Vikings still kept the Cowboy offense on the sideline as they ran 69 offensive plays and controlled the clock for 33:17.  Blessed with better red-zone execution (and, perhaps, a roughing-the-passer call on a two-point conversion attempt) the Vikings would have won that game.

The Giant’s lacked enough offense to take advantage of the Cowboy defense, but they did provide something of a blue-print for dousing the Cowboy offense – if there’s another defense out there that can do what they did.

First and most importantly, they competed with the Cowboy running game for the whole sixty minutes.  Elliott had his moments.  He had four rushes of at least 13 yards.  Those rushes accounted for 55 of Elliott’s yards.  His other 20 rushes accounted for just 52 yards.  In fairness, the Cowboys made it easy on the Giants in this regard.  After Elliott carried 15 times for 86 first-half yards, the Cowboys only gave him 9 second-half carries, only once giving him the ball on consecutive plays.  Thus Dallas never gave the Giants defense a chance to wear down, preferring instead to place their fortunes on the arm of quarterback Dak Prescott – who struggled to a 17-for-37, 165 yard game that featured three sacks and two interceptions.

Conventional wisdom might hold that defenses are adjusting to Dallas’ intriguing rookie quarterback.  That’s not what I saw Sunday night.  What I saw was a Giant defense that blitzed relentlessly – a risky strategy that worked because the New York defensive backs were spectacular in covering the Cowboy receivers.  Whether it was Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley or Jason Witten, none of the Cowboy receivers had any success in gaining any separation.  In the absence of the consistent running game, Prescott was faced with persistent heat in the pocket and covered receivers – conditions that would challenge the best and most experienced quarterbacks.

At 11-2, Dallas is still two games ahead in the chase for the top seed in its conference.  With three games left, it would take an impressive collapse for them to fall out of that position.  But Dallas has been scuffling lately, so it will be interesting to see how they do in the playoffs.

In the meantime, the Giants now need to win just one of their last three to pretty much assure their playoff berth.  This is a disappointing development for Tampa Bay, who had recently fought their way into serious playoff contention.  After surviving New Orleans last week, Tampa Bay is now 8-5.  But 9-7 will probably not be enough to get them in.  At 10-6 they would probably get a tie-breaker in conference record, but their closing schedule is daunting.  They have consecutive road games in Dallas and New Orleans followed by a home game against Carolina.  Finding two wins in those three games will prove a challenge.  They will now have to do what the Giants did – find a way to win a game they probably shouldn’t.

Houston or Tennessee?

Also last Sunday, the Tennessee Titans came up big against the Denver Broncos (a 13-10 win).  This leaves them tied for the lead in their division.  Unfortunately, in spite of the win, their playoff stock diminished as the Houston Texans came through with a surprising 22-17 road victory over Indianapolis.  Both Houston and Tennessee are 7-6.  Tennessee will host Houston on the last game of the season.  Before that game, Houston will have winnable home games against Jacksonville and Cincinnati.  If they win both of those games, they will head into that final showdown with a 9-6 record and a 5-0 division record.  The best the Titans can do in the division is 3-3 if they beat both Jacksonville and Houston.

This means that 9-7 will likely not be good enough.  Tennessee will pretty much need to win out to take the division title – their most realistic path to the playoffs.  That places Tennessee’s real playoff hopes squarely on this Sunday afternoon’s contest against the Chiefs.  In Kansas City.  If the Titans are going to make it, they will certainly earn it.