Tag Archives: Seattle Seahawks

Are the Falcons Really the Falcons Again?

Perhaps your memory of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons is similar to mine.  As they hit their peak last year, they came out of the locker room ready to play.  On their playoff run, they developed a “shock-and-awe” meme that served them very well.

On the final game of the regular season (January 1 of this year), Matt Ryan tossed 4 touchdown passes, and the running game provided 88 yards and another touchdown.  And that was just the first half, as the Falcons jumped to a 35-13 lead (scoring touchdowns on their first five possessions) on their way to a 38-32 conquest of New Orleans.

Against Seattle, in the Divisional Round, it did take them a few possessions to solve the league’s third-ranked scoring defense, but the Falcons punched through with 19 second-quarter points, on their way to a 36-20 win.  In the Championship Game against the Packers, they were ahead 10-0 after the first quarter and 24-0 at the half, scoring touchdowns after both Green Bay turnovers.  They eventually built a 37-7 lead, and went on to win that one 44-21.

And then in the Super Bowl, Atlanta raced out to a 21-3 halftime lead.  Halfway through the third quarter, they led 28-3 – again scoring two touchdowns on turnovers.  In all three phases (as the familiar cliché goes), the Falcons put you on the defensive from the very beginning.  It almost gave them an aura of invincibility.

This Year’s Falcons a Work in Progress

For a variety of reasons, that aspect of the Falcons has been kind of hit and miss this season.  Even during their 3-0 start, they were sometimes that team and sometimes not.  Some of this has been due to stubbornness on offense.

Last year’s passing attack was uncommonly explosive.  Trigger man Matt Ryan tossed 38 touchdown passes and averaged a league-best 13.3 yards per completed pass.  Un-coverable receiver Julio Jones was a huge cog in the machine.  He finished 2016 with 1409 yards on 83 catches even though he missed two games.

For most of the season, the Falcons have been struggling to regain that trademark deep strike attack against defenses geared to prevent just that sort of thing.

Over the last two games, though, Atlanta has started to adjust.  Their last two games (a 27-7 win over Dallas two weeks ago and last week’s 34-31 victory over Seattle in Seattle – gamebook) showed a similar pattern.

Crucial Wins

Both games played closely for a half.  The Falcons led Dallas 10-7 after thirty minutes, and then went into the locker room ahead of Seattle 24-17.

Both games saw a resurgence of the running game in the second half.  In the Dallas game, Atlanta managed 41 first half rushing yards (just 3.2 yards per carry).  The first half running was even worse against Seattle – 12 yards on 14 carries.  But 16 second half carries against the Seahawks produced 77 yards (4.8 per), one week after the Falcons racked up 91 yards on 21 second half carries against the Cowboys (4.3 yards per).  So, over the last two games, Atlanta is a combined 27 rushes for 53 yards in the first halves of those games (1.96 yards per), and a combined 37 rushes for 168 yards (4.5 per) in the two second halves.

Off of that resurgent running game, Ryan and the Falcons have layered a more patient passing attack – one less reliant on big plays and more willing to take what the defense is offering.  Against Dallas, Ryan began 11 of 17 for just 94 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.  After the half, he riddled the Cowboy pass defense to the tune of 11 of 12 for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Similarly, he went into halftime against Seattle just 9 of 15 for 98 yards and 1 touchdown.  Thereafter, he was 10 of 12 for 97 yards and another touchdown.

So – again combining the halves of the two games – Matty is 20 of 32 (62.5%) for 192 yards (6.00 per attempt and 9.60 per completion) with 1 touchdown pass and 1 interception in the two first halves – a very pedestrian 76.6 passer rating.  In his last two second halves, Ryan is 21 for 24 (87.5%) for 218 yards (9.08 yards per pass and 10.4 per completion), with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.  This adds up to a passer rating of 144.1.

Looking Like Last Year’s Falcons

Against the Seahawks, Atlanta took the opening kickoff and marched 52 yards for a touchdown.  The defense contributed a quick interception, setting the offense up again for a short-field touchdown.  It was 14-0 Falcons after just 7 minutes of play.  When the Falcons returned a fumble for a touchdown early in the second quarter, their lead swelled to 21-3 after less than 16 minutes of play – very reminiscent of the shock-and-awe Falcons at the end of the 2016 season.

With these two crucial victories, the Falcons have pushed their way – temporarily – into the playoff picture.  But it will be an almost weekly grind for this Atlanta team.  Now 6-4, their last 6 games will feature two games against the 4-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  The rest of the schedule will be two games against the 8-2 New Orleans Saints, and games against the 9-2 Minnesota Viking and the 7-3 Carolina Panthers.

The up-and-down Falcons cannot afford to take any more weeks off – even against Tampa Bay.  The path before them is very daunting.

Seattle Footnote

The Seahawks have now lost two consecutive home games and barely survived Houston the game before.  None of these teams seemed overly disturbed by the intense noise generated by the crowd.  This was especially true of the Falcons – who have now been exposed to it several times over the last few years.

Don’t Look Now

The Falcon’s opponents in that last Super Bowl have been on a roll of their own.  After losing two of their first four games, the New England Patriot’s secured their sixth straight victory with a 33-8 domination of the Oakland Raiders (gamebook).

Part of this was fairly expected.  Pass defense has been an inviting Raider weakness all season.  They entered the game allowing opposing passer’s a devastating 110.5 rating against them.  Not an encouraging situation when facing Tom Brady and the heralded Patriot passing attack.  Brady flayed them to the tune of 30 of 37 for 339 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Of course, he threw no interceptions – leading to a 131.9 passer rating.  New England started the game 5 of 6 on third down, and then averaged 8 yards per offensive play in the second half.

The Patriots’ Pass Defense is a Thing

But the thing to take strong notice of with the Patriots is the defense – especially the pass defense.  Mostly disorganized and something of a mess early in the season, New England’s first four opponents exploited the Patriots’ re-constructed pass defense.  They completed 69.7% of their passes against them, averaging 13.5 yards per completed pass.  In those first four, New England allowed 11 touchdown passed while intercepting just 3 passes.  It all added up to a distressing 116.5 passer rating against.

Over the next three games, the pass defense started to show improvement.  The completion percentage dropped to 63.5%.  The yards per catch also diminished to 11.5.  Over those next three games, New England allowed just 4 touchdown passes, with their 2 interceptions bringing them to a more normal 89.4 passer rating against.  (NFL averages are currently 62.5% completions, 11.3 yards per completion, and an 88.2 passer rating.)

Over their last three games, Patriot opponents have now completed just 56.3% of their passes, gaining just 10.6 yards per completion.  The touchdowns and interceptions have been equal at 3 each.  The passer rating against them over those games has been just 71.7.  While one of those contests was against Brock Osweiler and the struggling Denver offense, the other two have been against the Chargers and Raiders with dangerous quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Derek Carr.  Rivers entered that game with an 89.9 passer rating.  Carr’s was 91.8.  They combined for a 71.1 rating in their games against New England.

Especially in these last three games, the Chargers, Broncos and Raiders played very well for most of the game.  But every time they had a little lapse, they paid for it.  And every one who plays New England understands that this is how it is when you play the Patriots.  They will make you pay for all of your mistakes.

Just like last year.

The AFC Playoff Picture

With Kansas City’s surprising loss, the Chiefs – once 5-0 on the season – are starting to slip behind the crowd fighting for the number one seed.  The Week 15 contest between New England and Pittsburgh still looks like it will decide the AFC’s top seed.  Jacksonville now pushes ahead of the Chiefs for the number 3 spot.  Tennessee currently leads Baltimore for the fifth wildcard spot, but as the teams come down the stretch, I’m expecting the Ravens to swap places with the Titans.  Baltimore still looks out of sync on offense, but Tennessee has three road games in their next four, and when they finally come home they will have the Rams and the Jaguars to face them – too tough for a team that I don’t really believe in yet.

Speaking of the Rams

In one of the season’s more anticipated games, the Los Angeles Rams (then 7-2) visited the Minnesota Vikings (then also 7-2).  Most anticipated was the clash between the Ram offense – leading the NFL in scoring at 296 points, while ranking third in total offense, fifth in rushing (128.8 yards per game) and sixth in passing (led by hot second-year quarterback Jared Goff and his 101.5 rating) – and the Minnesota defense – ranked third against the run (just 81.3 yards per game), fifth in total yardage, and tenth in allowing fewest points (just 165).  Opposing passers struggled to an 80.8 rating against Minnesota – the eighth lowest rating in the NFL.

For as anticipated as the matchup was, the result was disappointingly one-sided.  The impressive Viking defense smothered the Rams’ running game.  Todd Gurley ended the day with just 37 yards on 15 carries, never gaining more than 8 yards on any run.  They also eliminated the big-play passing attack.  The Rams had no completion over 23 yards.  In the game’s second half, they had no play longer than 15 yards.  Goff completed 12 second half passes for only 107 yards (8.92 per completion).  He finished the game with a very modest 79.2 rating.

Meanwhile, the Vikings capably exploited Los Angeles’ defensive weakness against the run.  The Rams came in allowing 118 rushing yards a game (ranked twenty-fourth).  Minnesota pounded then to the tune of 171 yards – running the clock for 20:06 of the second half – on their way to a convincing 24-7 win (gamebook).

More about Minnesota next week.

Next Up New Orleans

For the Rams, this is a sobering dash of cold water one week before one of the defining games in the NFC this season.  The Rams have some issues to address before facing the New Orleans Saints – currently riding an eight-game winning streak and boasting the top offense (by yards) in the NFL and the third best running attack (144 yards per game).  At 4.8 yards per rushing attempt, the Saints have the most explosive running game in the league.  After last week’s pounding, the Rams are now twenty-seventh in the NFL in yards per rushing attempt (4.5) and twenty-eighth in rushing yards allowed per game (123.3).

In a contest that will significantly impact home field advantage in the playoffs, the Rams have this game at home.  But they will have to find some way of stopping the New Orleans running attack without leaving themselves too vulnerable to Drew Brees and that passing attack.

It will be a tall order.

Some Help for Russell Wilson

Last Sunday afternoon, Duane Brown manned his left tackle spot as his Houston Texans invaded Century Link Field to engage in a wild 41-38 shootout that his team lost to the Seattle Seahawks (gamebook).

Today, he is not back in Houston where the Texans are preparing to face the Indianapolis Colts.  Today, Duane – a former three-time Pro Bowl pick and one-time First-Team All-Pro – is still in Seattle, where his new team – the Seahawks – are preparing to face Washington.

To say that Brown will be a welcomed addition to the Seattle offense would be a profound understatement.  Even though they won the Sunday shootout on the strength of 452 passing yards and 4 touchdowns from the arm of Russell Wilson, the Seahawk running game reached near historic lows that afternoon.

That they finished with 33 yards on 21 rushes is a gross overstatement of the effectiveness of the Seattle ground game.  Those 33 yards were made possible by two late Wilson scrambles that totaled 32 yards.  Beyond that, the Seattle running game was a stunning 1 yard in 19 carries.  This total includes 6 tackles behind the line of scrimmage that totaled 19 yards in losses.  Seattle’s very first running play of the day was their only running play the entire game (not counting the scrambles) to gain more than 3 yards.  It gained 4.  Thereafter, the last 18 running plays lost a total of 3 yards.  Even conceding that two of those were kneel downs, the last 16 handoffs to running backs produced a total of minus 1 yard. Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls – two sometimes star running backs) combined for 12 carries for minus 1 yard.

This is domination that you rarely see anywhere in the NFL – much less against a contending team.  So, they will have a place in the lineup for Duane Brown – most probably left tackle.

The player who started at left tackle for Seattle on Sunday – Rees Odhiambo – was a third round pick in 2016 and made the first seven starts of his career this season.  He was an obvious weak link against the Texans, as Houston’s star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney turned him inside out all night.  Seattle made some attempts to help him with tight-end Jimmy Graham, but Graham wasn’t up to the task of stopping Clowney either.

The problem in Seattle, though, is that left tackle isn’t the only weak spot on the line.  In fact, if you watched the Seattle running plays, it would be hard to say that any of them won even a third of their individual matchups.  Throughout the game, Odhiambo could well have used some help from guard Ethan Pocic.  But when Ethan wasn’t up to his elbows in troubles of his own, he was needed to help center Justin Britt – who may have had the poorest afternoon of any of the Seattle linemen.

Given the low yardage totals, it goes without saying that none of the linemen created much space.  In Britt’s case, though, whoever lined up opposite of him seemed to spend quite a bit of time in the Seattle backfield.  This was mostly either D.J. Reader or Brandon Dunn.  At least once, it was middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney who lined up over center and shot past Britt into the backfield.

Beyond the inability to run to the offensive left (where Clowney was waiting – and the difficulties running up the middle (where Britt and the guards had trouble keeping the Texans out of the backfield) – the Seattle offensive line’s inability to get through the Houston defenders to the second level allowed McKinney and fellow linebacker Zach Cunningham to run mostly unimpeded from sideline to sideline.  So even when the Seahawks tried to turn the right corner, they usually had a couple linebackers waiting for them.

One of the most far-reaching implications of Seattle’s inability to generate anything from the offensive line was its effect on one of the staples of the Seahawk running game – the read option.

The interesting thing about most option plays in football – including the read option – is that the option belongs to the defense.  The defensive front seven chooses whether the quarterback hands off or keeps the ball.  In the several read options they ran on Sunday, Russell Wilson never ran the ball.  His four carries for the game were two scrambles and two kneel downs.  Houston’s defensive ends never bit on the running backs, because they knew they couldn’t be hurt by them.  The only running threat was Wilson, so every single time Houston opted to put the ball in the running back’s hands.

Duane Brown can’t get there fast enough.

Regarding the Crowd Noise

Seattle, of course, is famous for the crowd noise.  As opposed to – say – the Kansas City fans, whose enthusiasm for the game is natural, the Seattle crowd goes out with the intention of affecting every single offensive play run by the opposition.  As this phenomenon has gone on for several years now, I think it’s reaching a point of diminishing returns.

Early in the second quarter, Houston faced a fourth-and-1 on Seattle’s 48-yard line.  The crowd – which had been going full blast for the entire game – tried to find a higher level to try to interfere with the play.  But they didn’t really have a higher level.  They had been on “10” the whole game when their amplifiers didn’t have an “11.”  The noise level did, actually, rise a bit, but not enough to make a difference.  Lamar Miller burst up the middle for 2 yards and the first down, and four plays later Deshaun Watson was tossing another touchdown pass.  By the second half, the Texans were completely comfortable in the midst of all that noise.

It’s kind of like a pitcher who only throws 100-mph fastballs.  At 100-mph, that heater is a lot to deal with.  But if you keep seeing it over and over, it gets to the point where it doesn’t seem as fast as before.  And then, when that pitcher gets in a jam, he doesn’t have anything extra to reach back for.

I wouldn’t, for the world, suggest that the Seahawk fans vary their crowd noise – much less suggest that they just come to enjoy the game.  Some of them, I’m convinced, are more interested in making noise than watching the event.  I’m just suggesting that their fastball might be more effective if they learned to throw a change-up.

Speaking of Houston

I know I have spent the entire post talking about the offensive linemen instead of showering love on the quarterbacks.  They were terrific, and made for some truly great theatre.  I will have more to say about them later in the week.

On this evening, though, I do want to recognize the very first World Championship by the baseball team that resides in Houston – yes the lowly Astros are at long last Champions of the Baseball World.  I fondly remember the great battles we had with them when we were in the same division.  We always had the greatest respect for those Astro teams and for their fans.  And from what I can tell, the respect was mutual.  Congratulations, Houston.

And a Final Note

As the national anthem protests still seem to be making headlines – the Texans staged another protest before this game – I think for the next several posts I will offer a link to my insight on the whole thing.  I encourage everyone who has not read it to take a look.

That Team from Carolina is Relevant Again

After losing a thrilling Super Bowl after the 2015 season, Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers stumbled out of the gate in 2016.  Hitting their bye week at 1-5, they recovered somewhat afterwards, but still ended the season 6-10.  The biggest tumble – statistically – came on the defensive end.  The 2015 team had finished sixth in both points and yards allowed.  They closed 2016 ranked #21 in yards and #26 in points allowed.  Their top ranked scoring offense also fell to #15.

The NFL, it seems, is more than just a week-to-week league.  It’s also a year-to-year league.

Shaking off the memory of last year as though it was a bad dream that never happened, the Carolina Panthers have re-emerged this season.  They sit at 4-1 heading into tonight’s intriguing matchup with the also 4-1 Philadelphia Eagles.  We’ve chatted about the Eagles a few times already this season.  Perhaps we should take a few minutes to get to know the 2017 Carolina Panthers.

The personnel is pretty much the same that took the field for Super Bowl 50.  It’s still Cam Newton at quarterback.  He is coming back from off-season shoulder surgery, and has been particularly sharp his last two times out.  Against the Patriots and Lions he completed 48 of 62 passes (77.4%) for 671 yards, 6 touchdowns and 1 interception.  That should be enough to keep the Eagles concerned.

Behind him is running back Jonathan Stewart (who has been playing through his own little injury – a badish ankle).  His top target in 2015 – tight end Greg Olsen – is still with Carolina, but not on the field these days – he is sidelined temporarily by a broken foot.  In his absence, the offense has gotten more balanced, as Newton has spread the ball around more evenly.

Cam has four receivers who have between 237 and 272 passing yards.  Of the four, only Devin Funchess figured prominently for the 2015 team (he caught 31 passes that year for 473 yards).  He already has 24 this year for 269 yards.  Leading the team in receiving yards so far this season is Kelvin Benjamin with 272 yards.  He was injured for all of 2015.  Behind him at 271 yards is venerable Ed Dickson, who began the year as Olsen’s backup.  His numbers jumped precipitously after his career afternoon in Detroit.

Until Sunday, Dickson’s career best had been only 79 yards – and he hadn’t done that since 2011.  He collected almost that many yards on one play Sunday.  With 6:14 left in the first quarter, Carolina faced a second-and-14 from their own 32.  Newton tossed the ball to Dickson between two defenders about seven yards beyond the line of scrimmage.  The supposed dump off pass turned into a 64-yard dash as several would-be tacklers failed to get the rumbling Dickson to the ground until he had brought the ball to the Detroit 4 yard line.

This was the centerpiece in a dynamic first half for both Newton and Dickson.  Although Carolina went into the locker room ahead just 17-10, Cam had lit up the Detroit defense to the tune of 15 for 17 for 237 yards.  Ed had caught 4 of those passes for 152 yards.  For a little context, in three full seasons in Carolina, Ed had never had more than 134 receiving yards in any of those seasons.

Both players had a bit more pedestrian second half.  Newton was a solid 11 for 16 for 118 yards, with just one of those passes going to Dickson for 23 yards.

Fourth Quarter Detroit

Once again, the fourth quarter belonged to Detroit.  Trailing 27-10 with just 8:58 left in the game, the Lions drove for 122 of the 133 total yards they would gain in the second half on their last two drives – both resulting in touchdowns.

Detroit had used two of its timeouts on defense during the Carolina possession in between the Lion touchdowns.  Holding the one last timeout, and with 3:32 still on the clock, Detroit elected to kickoff and try to hold the Panthers again.  It almost worked.  With 2:30 left in the game, Carolina faced a third-and-9 on its 24.  One more defensive play would give the ball back to Matthew Stafford with nearly two minutes left, needing just a field goal for a tie.  But one final completion from Newton to Benjamin down the left sideline for 17 yards sealed the deal (gamebook).

The Lions now sit at 3-2.  Both losses have been at home, but both have been razor-thin losses to two teams (Atlanta and Carolina) who are a combined 7-2 and look like they will be January heavyweights.  Next for them is a very dangerous New Orleans team.

Early Assessment

Both teams leave this contest with questions to answer.

Detroit has been excellent in almost all considerations, but a persistently non-existent running game threatens to derail their season.  In week two, they racked up 138 rushing yards against the Giants (in a 24-10 win).  In their other 4 games they have totaled 300 yards.  In the second half of Sunday’s game, their running line was 4 attempts for 5 yards.  That’s even more distressing when you realize that those rushes included one 12-yarder from Ameer Abdullah.  Detroit’s other 3 running plays in that half netted a loss of 7 yards.  This is an area that needs to be fixed if Detroit is ever going to compete with the big boys.

Carolina’s running game also ranks in the lower half of the league (they rank nineteenth, averaging 98.6 yards per game), but they haven’t typically struggled here.  In fact, they took the field Sunday having racked up 465 rushing yards through their first 4 games – a fine 116.3 per game.  They had gained 272 rushing yards in their previous two games.

But Detroit’s surprising run defense did an impressive number on them.  Carolina struggled to end the game with 28 yards on 28 rushes.  Even though Newton’s final three kneel-downs surrendered 6 yards, Carolina’s second half rushing totals of 13 yards on 17 carries is more than a little surprising.  In fact the two teams combined for only 18 rushing yards in 21 attempts – uncommonly low, even in this passing era.

More concerning for Carolina is the pass defense.  After a slow start, Stafford became the latest quarterback to enjoy a big afternoon at the Panther’s expense.  Stafford was 14 of 19 (73.7%) after intermission for 158 yards and the 2 closing touchdown passes – a 133.2 rating.  For the season, opposing QBs are completing 69.8% of their passes against the Panthers, tossing 7 touchdowns while Carolina has collected just 1 interception through its first 5 games.  The QB rating against them so far this season is an elevated 98.1.

In their defense, the last three quarterbacks they have lined up against are all pretty good – Stafford follows Drew Brees and Tom Brady.  But they need to come up with some answers.  They face another real good one tonight in Carson Wentz.

September Dandies

The beginning of every new season brings with it a few September dandies.  These are the teams that take the league by surprise.  Usually, they are teams that have been bad recently – Jacksonville, for example.  Sometimes, they are teams that have been pretty good, but are suddenly playing at an other-worldly level – like Kansas City.  It’s usually about this time of the season that these teams start coming back to earth.

Two of these dandies got a little splash of reality last Sunday.  Buffalo – off to a surprising 3-1 start – fell to Cincinnati.  The surprising Rams of Los Angeles (who had also been 3-1) had scored 142 points through their first four games.  But that gaudy offense came to a crashing halt Sunday at home to a still vulnerable Seattle team in a 16-10 loss (gamebook).

Saddled with an offensive line that has yet to come together, the Seahawks have exploited San Francisco and Indianapolis for 325 rushing yards in those two games, and only 221 yards combined rushing yards in the other three.  Against Los Angeles’ leaky run defense (which had surrendered 531 yards over their previous 3 games), Seattle managed just 62 yards on 25 carries.  Quarterback Russell Wilson has also been running for his life entirely too much.

On the defensive side of the ball, Sunday’s game was not dissimilar to most of the other games Seattle has played this year – significant yards given up, but few points. Seattle ranks just seventeenth in yardage allowed, but they are the fifth hardest team to put points on the board against so far this season.  On Sunday, the Rams had several opportunities to spin the scoreboard in what ended up as a frustrating loss.

Los Angeles turned the ball over 5 times, including an uncommon lost opportunity on their first drive.

Beginning on their own 38, the Rams marched smartly to the Seahawk 12 in just 6 plays – facing no third downs on the drive.  Then running back Todd Gurley broke around left end heading for the end zone, where safety Earl Thomas closed quickly on him.  Gurley was in the act of stretching the ball toward the end zone (and, in fact, the play was originally ruled a touchdown), but before it could get there, Thomas batted it lose.  On its way out of bounds, the loose ball struck the pylon and rolled through the end zone.  Ruled a touchback, the Rams couldn’t even get a field goal chance out of their impressive opening drive.

And so it went.  In addition to the turnovers, usually automatic kicker Greg Zuerlein shanked a 36-yard field goal to open the second half.  And, in a final indignity, with 8 seconds left and the Rams facing a fourth-and-10 from the Seahawk 20, quarterback Jared Goff found rookie third-round draft choice Cooper Kupp breaking clean over the middle in the end zone.  But Jared’s potential game-winning toss was agonizingly too high and wide and only grazed off of Kupp’s fingertips.  The Rams finished the game outgaining Seattle 375-241, but only had 10 points to show for it.

In what was, perhaps, the first high-stakes game of his career (first-place in the division was on the line), Goff finished 22 of 47 (46.8%) including just 14 of 32 in the second half (43.8%).  In many of those instances, Jared had receivers as open as you can expect to get against Seattle, but he couldn’t get the ball on target.

Whether this loss signals the beginning of the end for the Rams remains to be seen.  Los Angeles will get its chance to respond Sunday when they line up against Jacksonville in an early-season “Dandy” bowl.  When the schedule came out, not too many would have circled this Week Six game between Jacksonville (3-13 last season) and the Rams (4-12 last season) as a game of interest.  But so it is.

As I mentioned earlier, the NFL is a year-to-year league.

Rawls and the Seattle Running Attack Chew Up Detroit

So what were the surprises of the Wildcard round?

That the Steelers so completely extinguished the Miami running game?  That was unexpected.  That the Packer-Giant game wasn’t closer?  I admit, that surprised me.

But the biggest surprise was the number that the Seattle running attack did on the Detroit run defense.  They racked up 111 rushing yards by halftime (in the second quarter alone they bludgeoned the Lions for 84 rushing yards) – on their way to a 177-yard explosion, paving the way to the 26-6 victory.

Several weeks ago (here) I wrote disparagingly of Seattle’s offensive line.  That was the end of October.  Last Saturday evening, they entirely over-matched the Lions.

Seattle entered the playoffs after finishing twenty-fifth in rushing yardage during the regular season, averaging just 99.4 rushing yards a game and getting just 3.9 yards per carry.  They ended the season looking even worse.  Over the course of their final three regular season games, the Seattle running attack managed 72 yards against the 4-12 Rams, 78 yards in an important loss to the 7-8-1 Cardinals, and 87 yards against the 2-14 49ers.  That’s 237 yards in three games and 82 rushes (2.9 yards per) against three sub-.500 teams.  Thomas Rawls – who racked up 161 yards on 27 carries (6.0 yards per) against Detroit last Saturday – managed only 56 yards on 37 carries (1.5 yards per) combined in those three games.

So this bounty was unexpected to say the least.

In the post-game interview, Pete Carroll said they had done some growing up since the beginning of the season, and they certainly resembled the Dallas Cowboys that night.  First round draft pick Germain Ifedi was an absolute force at right guard.  Center Justin Britt sometimes helped with double-teams on standout defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, but frequently Ifedi handled him alone.  Britt also frequently took him one-on-one.  Left guard Mark Glowinski was singled out for praise many times by ESPN announcer Chris Collinsworth – and rightfully so.  He made short work of A’Shawn Robinson, Devin Taylor, and anyone else Detroit lined up against him.  Even the tackles (George Fant and Garry Gilliam) – heretofore the weakest links on a weak unit – had stellar games.

Repeatedly, Seahawk linemen came bursting unabated into the second level of the Detroit defense and bullied the Lion linebackers.  My favorite of these moments came on a first-and-ten play from Seattle’s 13-yard line.  The game was still scoreless with 8:59 to play in the first quarter when Rawls burst up the middle for 14 yards.  On the play, Seattle pulled their right tackle Gilliam.  It’s very rare in any level of football to see a team pull their tackle.  It’s even rarer to see anything good come out of it.  But on this play, Gilliam pulled to his left, cut back up the middle of the field and collapsed the surprised linebacker.

From beginning to end, it was a dominant performance.  But what do we make of it?  Does this mean that the Seattle running attack is suddenly “fixed?”  Will this patchwork offensive line go out this Saturday and dominate against Atlanta?  It’s a little hard for me to buy into that.

For one thing, this was a vastly different Seattle team all year when it played at home.  They were 7-1 there during the regular season.  In those 8 games, they scored 26 touchdowns – scoring at least three in seven of the eight games; the Seattle running attack accounted for 883 yards (110.8 per game and 4.05 per rush); and they scored 227 points (28.4 per game).  Quarterback Russell Wilson established a 103.4 passer rating in his home games (he was 119.3 last Saturday against the Lions).

On the road – where they will be on Saturday – they managed 10 touchdowns – scoring more than two just twice in the eight games; ran for just 705 yards (an average of only 88.1 per game and 3.8 per rush); and scored 127 points (15.9 per game).  They went 3-4-1 on the road, with Wilson turning in an 81.8 passer rating.  More than in previous years, this edition of the Seahawks is very dependent on their raucous home crowd.

Taking this one step farther, I’m also not entirely sure that the result of this game wasn’t more reflective of the defensive struggles the Detroit team has suffered through of late.  While never a terrific defensive team, the Lions had gone into a pretty total collapse in the last two games of the regular season.  It was one thing when the Cowboys rang up 164 rushing yards against them.  But when Green Bay pinned 153 rushing yards on them the next week (the Pack ranked twentieth out of 32 teams in rushing yards), that has to raise eyebrows.  In surrendering 73 points over those two games, the Lions were sliced for 321 rushing yards on 58 attempts (5.5 yards per carry).  Quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers also combined to complete 44 of 61 passes for 522 yards, 8 touchdowns and no interceptions (a 137.4 passer rating).

In addition to the Lion’s defensive line, their weakness at linebacker was also exposed.  Over the course of the season, only middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead started more than half of the games.  Of Saturday’s other linebackers, DeAndre Levy missed most of the season with a knee injury and Josh Bynes is primarily a backup pushed into regular duty by the season-long turnover at the position.  Many of Rawls’ long runs benefitted from over-pursuit by these linebackers, leaving him clear cut-back lanes.

So the prospects for the Seattle running attack in Atlanta remain a bit murky.  The Falcons closed out the regular season allowing their last five opponents to rush for over 100 yards.

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.

What’s Wrong With the Vikings and the Seahawks?

The Minnesota Vikings carried a 5-0 record into their Week 7 contest against the then 3-2 Philadelphia Eagles.  They were convincingly thumped by Philadelphia, 21-10.

That evening, the Seattle Seahawks carried their 4-1 record into Arizona to play the 3-3 Cardinals.  Seventy-five excruciating minutes later the two teams staggered off the field with a 6-6 tie.

Both the Vikings and the Seahawks have done some very good things through the first half of the season, but last Sunday they shared a common flaw – one that casts a significant shadow over their futures.  Both have offensive lines that are liabilities.

Minnesota Vikings

Offensive tackle wasn’t a position of great strength even as the season began.  It became a pronounced liability when starting left tackle (and one-time Pro Bowl selection) Matt Kalil went on season-ending injured reserve with a torn labrum in his hip after the season’s second game.

The right tackle spot was manned by Andre Smith – a former first-round pick by the Bengals who made 73 starts in Cincinnati before signing with Minnesota.  He lasted six plays into the fourth game of the season before a triceps injury sent him to IR as well.

Now what?

Well, against Philadelphia they tried varying combinations of T.J. Clemmings (a fourth round pick from the 2015 draft who was last year’s starting right tackle – the position they wanted to upgrade), Jeremiah Sirles (an undrafted free agent who made just his third start in three years last week), and Jake Long (signed before last week’s game, the 31-year-old Long was a former Pro-Bowl caliber tackle in Miami before injuries compromised his career).

As you might guess, this didn’t work very well for the Vikings (although it did make for some highlight reel footage for Eagle defensive ends Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham).  As the game progressed, the Eagles also found that they could blitz pretty much at will as Minnesota’s offense could do little to counter it.

Quarterback Sam Bradford ended up taking a beating.  With little running game and less protection, it’s difficult to imagine anything more Bradford could have done to win the game.  That being said, with the Vikings still 5-1 and leading their division it’s time we begin a discussion about Sam Bradford and his ability to lead a team deep into the playoffs.

Bradford

This is my Sam Bradford moment:

It is Week Two of 2015.  Bradford’s Eagles are hosting the Dallas Cowboys.  The Eagles are having significant difficulty with the Dallas defense (they go 2 for 11 on third down and are shutout until the first minute of the fourth quarter).  I don’t remember the precise moment or play, but during one of the failed third down plays, the camera caught Bradford’s reaction (maybe to a dropped pass?).

I don’t remember the play, but Sam’s reaction has stuck with me.  His shoulders slumped, he bowed his head, and crept quietly to his sideline.

Is this a big deal?  It kind of is.  This moment iconifies my lingering feeling about Bradford.  I think Sam is a quality NFL passer.  He reads defenses well, makes good decisions, and throws with plus accuracy.  But if I were to describe him as a leader the adjective that keeps coming to mind is “meek.”  There is a pervasive meekness in Bradford’s game.  In a Biblical sense, this is probably a very good thing as the meek will inherit the earth (and Sam certainly inherited a lot of it last Sunday).  But it’s not a great demeanor for the leader of your football team to have.

By this, I don’t mean that Sam should be yelling at receivers who drop passes or linemen who get penalties.  And I certainly don’t mean to say that he should worship himself the way that Cam Newton does.  But the quarterback of an NFL team can’t retire quietly to the bench and sit and wait for the next time his team gets the ball.  Watch any of the Minnesota games this year that Bradford has started.  When the Vikings don’t have the ball and the camera finds Bradford on the sidelines, he’s never standing and talking to anyone.  He is always sitting, quiet and alone, on the bench – sometimes with his head down.

You never see this with the top quarterbacks.  Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Newton, etc – they are always with somebody – the offensive coordinator, his O-line, some defensive player.  They are always discussing something – or putting their arm around the shoulder of a receiver who dropped the ball.  Quarterbacking a team extends beyond what happens once the ball is in your hands.  There is a leadership imperative that everyone can’t necessarily embrace.  It certainly helps to have a certain amount of charisma going for you.

This doesn’t mean that Bradford can never win a Super Bowl.  But I don’t think of him as that quarterback who can raise the level of the team he plays for.  The Bradys of the world can lift a good team to a great team.  Sam Bradford will need to have a great team around him.

And that will have to include an offensive line that can keep him upright and healthy.

Seattle

As for Seattle, this was the number four offense in the league last year – both for yards and for points.  They were held under 20 points only five times all of last year, and scored 30 or more seven times.  In six games this year, they have been held under 13 points three times already (something that only happened once all of last year) and have managed 30 points just once (they scored 37 against the mostly hapless 49ers).

Marshawn Lynch, of course, is gone and Thomas Rawls – so impressive in his seven starts last year as Lynch’s replacement – is injured.  Also injured is quarterback Russell Wilson, who’s legs accounted for 553 rushing yards last year.  Russell is playing, but staying in the pocket while he nurses knee and ankle injuries.  So the running game isn’t a particular strength at the moment.

Like the Vikings, though, the problem runs deeper than lack of name players to carry the ball.  The Seahawks, too, are less than proficient along the offensive line.

From last year’s offense to the 2016 edition that currently ranks twenty-second in yards and twenty-eighth in points, only one offensive lineman remains in the same place – right tackle Garry GilliamJustin Britt – who started at left tackle last year is also still in the mix, but he has now been moved to center.  The other three who started for this team last year are gone.

Russell Okung, last year’s starting left tackle (a former Pro Bowler) took the money and went to Denver.  Patrick Lewis, last year’s starting center, is now in Buffalo (where he is nursing a knee injury).  And J.R. Sweezy, last year’s right guard, is now in Tampa Bay (and suffering from a back injury that has kept him off the field so far).

In their place, Seattle has stitched together the offensive line with Bradley Sowell (an undrafted free-agent with his third team in his five-year career) at left tackle, Mark Glowinski (a fourth-round pick of the Hawks in 2015 who made one start last year), and this year’s first-round pick, Germain Ifedi at right guard.

They have been pushed around a little bit so far this season, helping in no little degree to hamper the offense.  Some of these players don’t have high pedigrees, but that means less than some people imagine.  Every year the Pro Bowl teams are populated with several players who began their careers as undrafted free agents, cut by more than one team.  This may yet develop into an effective unit.

But they aren’t there yet.