The Atlanta Falcons Soar Into Super Bowl LI

In the moments before their game against the Atlanta Falcons, the Green Bay Packers won the coin toss and elected to defer.  The afternoon was all downhill for them from there.

The Falcons took the opening kickoff and moved 80 yards in 13 plays in a drive that consumed the first 6:36 of the game to take a 7-0 lead.

The next time they got their hands on the ball (starting on their own 31), they moved the ball 59 yards in 12 plays consuming five more minutes (and 21 seconds).  By the time Matt Bryant added the field goal, there were just 14 seconds left in the first quarter, and the Packers already trailed 10-0.

The second quarter would prove similar. Another 80-yard drive on their first possession of that quarter pushed the Falcon lead to 17-0.  They went into the locker room at half-time leading 24-0 after a 5-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones with just three seconds left capped a quick 68 yard drive.

The Packers made a little second half noise, but they were never truly in this one, falling by a final score of 44-21.  The Atlanta Falcons (who only attempted 6 passes in the second half) will now advance to their second ever Super Bowl to face New England on Sunday.

So, How Good is the Falcon’s Offense?

Pretty darn good.

They finished the regular season as one of the top scoring offenses in NFL history, racking up 540 points (an average of 33.8 per game).  They then put up 36 points against Seattle in their first playoff game, before hanging 44 on the Packers.  By yardage they finished second in the league this year (third in passing yards and fifth in rushing yards).  Quarterback Ryan finished completing 69.9% of his passes for almost 5,000 yards.  He averaged 9.26 yards for every pass attempted, and 13.3 for every pass he completed.  His regular season touchdown-to-interception ratio was 38-7.

Prominent on the receiving end is record-setting wide receiver Julio Jones, who stormed through the regular season hauling in 83 passes for 1409 yards.  In the signature moment of the Championship Game, he beat cornerback Ladarious Gunter to the inside for a 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown that pushed the score to 31-0.  Julio would finish the afternoon with 9 catches for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns.

But the game – like the season – belonged to Ryan.  At 27 of 38 for 392 yards and 4 touchdowns, Matt picked the Packer defense clean.  A predominantly man coverage team, the Packers lined up in man coverage against Jones and the Falcon receivers for 26 of the 38 passes (68.4%).  They didn’t come close to slowing them down.  Ryan sliced their man coverages for 16 completions in those 26 attempts (61.5%).  Fifteen of those 16 completions earned first downs as Ryan totaled 269 yards with those passes (10.35 per attempt and 16.8 per completion).  Three of his four TD passes came with the Packers in man coverages.

Gunter was supposed to have help with Jones, but it never materialized.  Slightly more than one third of the time the Packers were in man, Ryan looked for Jones, throwing 9 of the 26 passes in his direction.  Julio finished catching seven of them for 140 yards and both of his touchdowns.  The Packer man coverage schemes clearly didn’t work.

But neither did their zones.  Ryan and the Falcon passing game were equally proficient when Green Bay dropped into zone coverage.  Matty completed 11 of 12 (91.7%) of his passes against the zone defenses for 123 yards and his initial touchdown pass.

In their own evaluation of the execution of their strategy, the Packers will probably concede that they knew they were asking, perhaps, too much of a somewhat banged up secondary.  But they were counting on getting enough pressure on Ryan to give their secondary a chance to compete.  Indeed, when Ryan did face significant pressure (and I grant this is a small sample size), he was a fairly mortal 4 for 7 for 57 yards and no touchdowns.  But the Packer pressure was sporadic and all too often the Green Bay secondary was hung out to dry.  Top pass rusher Clay Matthews was mostly a non-factor.  He finished with one tackle, no sacks and three pressures.  He spent 90% of his evening lining up opposite of Falcon left tackle Jake Matthews.  While Jake effectively eliminated Clay, it should also be pointed out that Clay has been battling a fairly serious shoulder injury all year.  Whether it was the Falcon offensive lineman or the limits of his health – or some combination of the two – the absence of Clay’s outside pressure was a critical blow to the Green Bay defensive scheme.

A couple of numbers that more fully illustrate the dominance of the Falcon passing game:

Ryan threw 15 passes from his own side of the 50-yard line.  He completed 14 of those passes (93.3%) for 231 yards.  His passer rating from his side of the field was 141.0.  For the game, seven of their nine possessions ended in Green Bay territory, and they ran 44 of their 68 plays (64.7%) on the Green Bay side of the field.

Additionally, the more balanced Atlanta offense adds to the effectiveness of Ryan’s play-action passing game – something they should, perhaps, do more of.  Ryan only went play-action seven times, but completed six of those passes for 179 yards and the 73-yard touchdown to Jones.  Jones, in fact, was the target of 4 of those 7 play-action passes, and accounted for 4 completions and 133 yards. Julio is very dangerous all the time – but especially when the Falcons run play-action.

And then, there was third down.  The Falcons finished the game a devastating 10 for 13 in third down situations, including 6 of 9 when the third down was six yards or more.  Ryan was 10 for 11 (90.9%) passing on third down for 101 yards.  Nine of his ten completions went for first downs.  Three of his touchdown passes came on third-down throws.  It all adds up to a 144.5 rating on third down.

But with all the positives of the un-stoppable passing game, there are a few cautionary observations to make.  First, it can’t be forgotten that the Packers finished the season ranked thirty-first out of thirty-two teams in pass defense.  That was by yardage allowed.  But the passer rating against them was a troubling 95.9 (ranking them twenty-sixth in the league).  The New England team that they are set to face on Sunday allowed opposing passers an 84.4 rating (they finished eighth).  In addition, the Patriots allowed the fewest points of any team in the league.  Ryan-to-Jones is a devastating combination, and it’s unlikely that New England will be able to shut them down completely.  But it’s not unreasonable to think that they will be able to slow them more than Green Bay could.

If all Atlanta has on Sunday evening in Houston is Ryan-to-Jones, I don’t think it will be enough.  Which brings me to the Falcon running game.

After a season of accolades, the Atlanta Falcon running game continued a pattern of fading against the league’s better run defenses.  Including their two playoff games, Atlanta has played 5 games against defenses ranked eighth or better at stopping the run.  In those games, the Falcons have averaged 86.4 yards.  The only time in any of those games that they cracked 100 yards was the Championship Game against Green Bay.  They managed 101 yards on 30 carries in that game.  Leading by 24 at the half, the Falcons went into the second half with the goal of establishing their running game. They focused to the extent that 16 of their 22 second half plays were runs.  They managed just 47 yards on those carries (2.9 per).  These struggles continued even after Green Bay lost starting inside linebacker Jake Ryan to injury about midway through the third quarter.  Additionally, 23 of the yards they did get came on scrambles from Ryan and 7 more were the result of a direct snap to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu out of the Wildcat formation.  As far as running backs taking handoffs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman (who combined for 1599 yards this season), combined for only 71 yards on 25 carries during the game.

Much of the yardage that they did get came as a result of Green Bay defenders over-running the play and leaving the talented Falcon running backs open cutback lanes – something the disciplined Patriot linebackers are unlikely to do.

New England finished the season allowing just 88.6 rushing yards per game – the third-best total in the NFL this year.  If Atlanta is unable to run the ball against the Patriots, I expect that Ryan and the passing game will have a much more difficult evening than they did last Sunday.

This, I feel, is all the more likely after getting a close look at the Falcon offensive line.  In the aftermath of a 44-21 blowout, you would expect to see domination on the part of the winning team’s offensive line.  To state it directly, I was unimpressed.  Matthews (as mentioned) did a nice job pass blocking against Matthews. I’m not completely sure if that was due to great blocking or injury on the part of Green Bay’s Matthews.  Left guard Andy Levitre had some very good moments, throwing some excellent blocks, but also had very bad moments where he was beaten quickly both in pass blocking and run blocking.  Center Alex Mack and right guard Chris Chester mostly failed to defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion (Daniels, in particular, had a very strong game against all of Atlanta’s interior linemen), allowing the Packer linebackers to mostly flow freely to the point of attack.  And right tackle Ryan Schraeder – although a four-year veteran and two-year starter seemed to struggle most, seeming slow to react.

I don’t expect this team to run the ball against the Patriots.  Matt Ryan and his passing game will gain yards and put up points, but not as many as they have been wont to score throughout the year.  Which leads to what I consider to be the most important question regarding this year’s Super Bowl.

How Good is the Falcon Defense?

As the Packers began the season, their backfield featured Eddie Lacy as the main running threat.  He lasted five weeks before succumbing to a lingering ankle injury.  Later on James Starks resurfaced for a few games before he also landed on the injured reserve list.  A running back named Don Jackson played in three games, starting one, before his season ended with an undisclosed injury after Week Nine.

By the time the Green Bay offense took the field for the first time in the Championship Game, their running game was reduced to a converted wide receiver (Ty Montgomery), a Seattle castoff (Christine Michael) and fullback Aaron Ripkowski.

The Packers opened the playoffs running just 25 times for 75 yards against the Giants.  They followed that up running just 17 times against Dallas for 87 yards.  Last Sunday, they came into Atlanta with no intention of running at all. After Montgomery gained four yards on Green Bay’s very first play, the Pack threw on their next eight plays.

Midway through the second quarter, when Ripkowski burst over left guard for a 12-yard run, it was only the third Packer running play in their first 13 plays.  And, after Ripkowski fumbled the ball away at the end of that run, it would be the last Packer running play until they trailed 31-0 and there was 13:46 left in the third quarter. (Montgomery would take the Packers’ fourth running play of the day on their twenty-sixth offensive snap.)  Fifty-five offensive plays into their afternoon, Green Bay had all of ten running plays, and two of them were scrambles by their quarterback.

With the game well out of reach late in the fourth quarter, the Packers ended their season running on 7 of the last 9 plays.  They ended the game with 99 yards on 17 rushes.  Subtract the three scrambles from QB Aaron Rodgers and two designed QB runs, and the actual yardage gained by running backs taking handoffs was 39 yards on 12 carries – most of them late.

Sometimes defenses have to work to make teams one dimensional.  The Packers were one dimensional coming off the bus.  Even though the Falcon defense has been vulnerable to the run all year (allowing 104.5 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry) and even though Atlanta had at least five defensive backs on the field for every defensive snap of the game, Green Bay never tried to exploit this opportunity.  So dormant was the Packer running attack, that in 50 called passing plays, Rodgers threw just one play-action pass.

Instead, the Packers attempted to answer the Falcons’ high-efficiency offense with Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball to Jordy Nelson (playing with cracked ribs), Davante Adams (trying to stay on the field after spraining his ankle last week), Jared Cook (who dropped two more passes) and Randall Cobb.  Factor in the loss of three more offensive starters to injury as the game progressed (the Packers lost Montgomery and two offensive linemen: Lane Taylor and T.J. Lang), plus the fact that Atlanta was up 17-0 almost before anyone could blink, and things seemed to tilt decidedly to the advantage of the Atlanta defense.  (In fact, the Packers put the ball into play trailing by twenty or more points on 43 of their 64 offensive snaps).

Yet, by game’s end, this limping, one-dimensional Packer offense had scuffled for 21 points and 367 yards, gaining 5.7 yards per offensive play.  In fact, take back Mason Crosby’s miss of a 41-yard field goal on Atlanta’s first possession and Ripkowski’s fumble at the Falcon 11-yard line on their second possession, and the Packers could easily have put up 31 or so points against this Atlanta defense that finished twenty-fifth in the league in yards allowed and twenty-seventh in points allowed.

The television crew that broadcast this game went to great lengths to praise the Atlanta defense.  I’m not sure I’m convinced.

The Falcons also played decidedly more man coverages than they did zone, and showed weaknesses in both.  Rodgers was 12 for 19 against the Falcon zones (63.2%) for 147 yards (an average of 12.25 yards per completion).  The Falcon linebackers – and specifically middle linebacker Deion Jones – frequently got lost in zone coverages.  Randall Cobb – whose quickness is reminiscent of Patriot receivers like Julian Edelman – caught four of the five passes thrown to him in zone coverage for 78 yards and four first downs.

Even more telling, in the man coverages that the Falcons prefer, they had noted difficulty finding someone who could cover Jared Cook, the Packer tight end.  Cook finished with 7 catches for 78 yards.  He also had the two drops that would have accounted for at least 13 more yards.  Particularly ineffective against the Packer TE was safety Keanu Neal who was completely manhandled in his attempts to cover him.  If covering Cook is a challenge, how much more difficult will an accomplished tight end like the Patriots Martellus Bennett be.

When playing Green Bay, most teams focus on keeping Rodgers in the pocket.  Atlanta managed that for the most part by blitzing him.  On almost 47% of the Packer pass plays (22 of 47), they sent five pass rushers his way.  None of these were exotic, overload blitzes designed to bring a free rusher.  Instead, the purpose of these blitzes was as much to keep Rodgers in the pocket as it was to hurry his process.  And in this, it was largely successful.  The blitz got to Aaron once, and Rodgers scrambled out of pressure three other times.  But he only threw from outside of the pocket 7 times, and completed only 3 of those passes (albeit for 82 yards).  His lone interception was thrown after he rolled out of the pocket and heaved a long pass downfield on third-and-21.

While there were some holes, there were a lot of things the Falcon defense did quite well.

In the wake of the Falcon’s victory, many of the commentators suggested that New England’s defense would be facing a unique challenge in the Atlanta offense.  They neglected to mention that Atlanta’s defense would be similarly challenged.  In New England, they will be facing a more balanced offense with another elite quarterback and receivers who aren’t battling injuries.

The Atlanta Falcons are an impressive team and they have made great strides over the last few years.  They have become an elite offensive team, but their defense still lags behind.  Far enough behind to be a liability against the Patriots.

The NFL Gamebook for this game can be found here.  The Pro Football Reference summary is here.

What Comes Next?

Ideally, I would like to get one more post written before Sunday, taking a closer look at the AFC Championship Game.  I am a little behind and facing a busy week, so I make no promises.

And then, some time after the Super Bowl – hopefully not too long – we will do a little analysis on the last game of the season.

Could the Pittsburgh Running Game Send Them to the Super Bowl?

I’m sure it has happened, but off the top of my head I don’t ever remember seeing it.  In the Bill Belichick era, I don’t remember a team that has consistently run the ball at the New England defense all the way through the game.

This thought ran through my mind yesterday as I was re-watching the Pittsburgh Steelers relentless pounding of the Kansas City Chiefs.  By game’s end, the Steelers had called 34 running plays against 32 passing plays.  Although they never led the game by more than 8 points, 15 of their 24 second half plays were runs – 12 handoffs to Le’Veon Bell and 3 kneel-downs by Ben Roethlisberger.  Bell finished the evening with 170 rushing yards on 30 carries (a 5.7 yard average).

During the regular season, the Steelers featured the fifth-most prolific passing game in the NFL.  Their running game finished in the middle of the pack with a slightly above average 110 rushing yards per game (the league average was 108.9).  There is – as they demonstrated last Sunday night – nothing average about their running game.  While they mostly choose to attack through the air, they effortlessly switched to a ground-oriented game plan to take advantage of Kansas City’s pronounced weakness against the run – the Chiefs finished twenty-sixth out of thirty-two team in stopping the run as they allowed 121.1 rushing yards a game.

In fact, one of the characteristics of the Steelers’ current winning streak – which has now reached nine games – is an increased reliance on the running attack.  In their 4-5 start, Pittsburgh averaged 90.7 rushing yards per game.  During the winning streak, that number had improved to 143.8 yards-per-game.  Over these nine games alone, Bell has amassed 1,172 rushing yards (146.5 per game as Le’Veon has only played in 8 of the 9 games) averaging 5.3 per carry and scoring 8 rushing touchdowns.  Clearly, this is a team that has re-discovered its mojo.

As they prepare to focus that running prowess on the challenge that is the New England Patriots (and I believe that Pittsburgh is the last, best remaining chance to deny the Pats another ring) let’s take a few moments to recognize the interior of that stellar offensive line.

Drafted in the first round (the eighteenth player selected) of the 2010 draft, center Maurkice Pouncey is now the unquestioned leader of the offensive line.  He will be going to his fifth Pro Bowl in seven seasons (missing the 2013 and 2015 seasons when injuries kept him off the field for 31 of the 32 games).  He has twice been named First Team All-Pro.  Savvy, gritty and relentless, his toughness rubs off on the rest of the line.  Pouncey played very well last Sunday, but was overshadowed by the dominant play of the two guards.

Left guard Ramon Foster has never been named to the Pro Bowl and has been mostly unrecognized since Pittsburgh signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee before the 2009 season.  He spent most of Sunday evening looking across the line of scrimmage at Kansas City’s much-decorated defensive tackle Dontari Poe, who has already gone to two Pro Bowls since his first-round selection in 2012.  These matchups were won decisively by the undrafted Foster who enabled Le’Veon Bell’s night by repeatedly pushing Poe off the line of scrimmage.

And then, there is right guard David DeCastro.  Picked in the first round two years after Pouncey, DeCastro was the engine behind the Steeler running attack.  Le’Veon’s 30 rushes included 16 that went for four yards or more.  In 13 of those 16, Bell scooted through a whole personally cleared by DeCastro.  Whoever lined up against DeCastro or Foster that night spent the evening going backwards.  It was as impressive a performance as you are likely to see.

Of course, in New England they will face much greater opposition.  In fact, looking again at the KC defense, I see that it was handicapped from the beginning.

Many of Bell’s explosive runs came with Kansas City having only two defensive linemen on the field.  The Chiefs actually spent considerable time in a 2-3-6 alignment.  For about 90% of the game, Pittsburgh’s offensive tackles didn’t have a defensive lineman to oppose them.

Some of the rationale for these alignments – of course – was to inhibit the Pittsburgh passing game (which it sort of did as Roethlisberger finished with 224 yards passing).  They may have been equally motivated by roster necessity as a rash of injuries forced the Chiefs into a lot of patchwork among the front seven.  In fact, while the 2-3-6 alignment frequently included safety Daniel Sorensen, he played his 30 snaps as an inside linebacker.  Seeing Daniel weighs in at 6-2, 208 pounds he was little match for the talented Steeler offensive line.

So New England will be tougher.  How the Patriots will line up is one of the anticipated mysteries, but you can expect Belichick and his crew to come up will a compelling plan to slow down this passing game.  But could they withstand the Steeler running game for the whole sixty minutes?  It would take an uncommon commitment to the run, since it likely won’t meet with a whole lot of early success.  But if Coach Mike Tomlin did decide to turn this into a line-of-scrimmage game, how would the Patriots hold up?

I don’t know.  As I said, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it tried.

Plaudits for the Houston Pass Defense

As they went into the game as 16-point underdogs, no one was too surprised that Houston was brushed aside (34-16) in New England last Saturday night.  In the aftermath, not too many accolades came Houston’s way – even though they went into the half trailing by only four points and stayed within one score of the mighty Patriots until there were just 12 minutes and 16 seconds left in the game.

In the eye of the storm was Houston quarterback Brock Osweiler, whose predictable struggles hamstrung the offense.  Inside the game, though, was a much more interesting story – the story of the NFL’s number one defense (Houston’s) against the high-powered New England offense.  As Houston surrendered 34 points, one might assume that the New England offense dominated Houston’s top-ranked defensive squad.

That was pretty much the story of their Week 3 matchup.  In an overwhelming 27-0 victory, the Patriots (behind third string QB Jacoby Brissett) bludgeoned the Texans for 185 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns.  Yes, New England only had two drives that went for more than 50 yards – but this was their third string quarterback, after all.  The Patriots were able to run the ball even though Houston knew they wanted to run.  The Patriots also fashioned touchdowns out of two fumbles they recovered deep in Houston territory and added a third TD on a drive that started on the Houston 47 after the Texans were forced to punt from deep within their own territory.  The first game was over early.

Even though the score of the re-match was decisive, the struggle between the Patriot offense and the Texan defense was a lot more even than might be suspected.  Houston’s special teams allowed one touchdown (Dion Lewis’ 98-yard kickoff return).  Houston’s offense gave up another after an Osweiler interception was returned to the Texan’s 6-yard line.  The Texan defense was only scratched for two touchdown drives that started in the New England side of the field, and one of those required a 30-yard pass-interference penalty against rookie cornerback A.J. Bouye on a pass that Chris Hogan might not have caught up to.

At game’s end, New England had been held to 98 rushing yards (and 3.6 yards a carry).  More impressively, Tom Brady and the passing game finished just 18 for 38 (just 47.4%) for 287 yards.  His 2 touchdown passes were off-set by two interceptions (matching the total number of interceptions he had thrown all year).  Tom ended the game with a passer rating of only 68.6.  It was just the second time in 13 games this season that Brady’s passer rating ended below 89 (Denver had held him to a 68.2 figure earlier).

Did the Texans give the NFL a blueprint on how to defend the New England passing game?  Sort of.  But it’s not the kind of game plan that any team can necessarily employ.  Looking at the teams that are left in the playoffs, I’m not sure that there is a whole lot of Houston’s game plan that will translate to either Pittsburgh, Atlanta or Green Bay.  Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel lines his defense up in many confusing looks – causing more than his share of identification problems.  (Brady’s second interception came on a play where ten of the eleven Houston defenders were in man coverage, but outside linebacker Benardrick McKinney sat in a zone in the middle of the field and batted Brady’s pass in the air.) But the principles of the Houston plan were pretty basic.  Pressure up the middle and tight man coverage.

Six years ago in the Divisional Round, Rex Ryan – then the coach of the NY Jets – knocked off Brady and the Patriots 28-21 by pressuring him up the middle.  At that time, it was something of a revelation.  Tom was sacked 5 times that evening and rushed relentlessly.  Brady can usually sidestep pressure that comes from outside his pocket, but when the pocket collapses from the inside and Tom is forced to scramble he becomes much more mortal.

In last Saturday’s game, Brady got plenty of inside heat and threw a great many balls away while scrambling out of trouble.  Houston got significant pressure from budding stars Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, but the unsung star of this game was a lightly regarded backup tackle taken in the sixth round of the 2015 draft – Christian Covington.  Covington had only one sack all year and has just three in his 31-game NFL career.  Listed generously at 295 pounds, he looked something like a Borg cube as he repeatedly menaced New England in this game.  Not someone you would generally think is all that quick, Covington consistently beat rookie left guard Joe Thuney to the inside.  He didn’t register any sacks, but his persistent collapsing of the pocket forced Brady out of his comfort zone.

None of this is a news flash.  Most fans who have followed Brady’s career know about his issues with inside pressures and I’m pretty sure Pittsburgh noted the struggles of the rookie guard.  At this point, I almost expect to see James Harrison frequently line up inside over this guard.  What Houston was able to do, though, that other teams can’t necessarily do is put consistent pressure on Brady without blitzing frequently.  Blitzing Brady carries with it its own set of risks.

But “A-gap” pressure is only half the formula.  What made it work so well for Houston was the coverage in the secondary.  Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph, Bouye, and even Kareem Jackson (who did get picked on a little) did what few secondaries are able to do.  They hung with New England’s super quick receivers both vertically and horizontally the entire game.  Even on those occasions when his offensive line gave him ample time, Brady’s receivers frequently struggled getting separation.  Even linebacker McKinney also held up very well in man coverage against patriot tight end Martellus Bennett (who caught one pass for four yards).

As strategies go, there was some hit-and-miss to this.  When his receivers did get some separation, Brady usually turned it into a big play.  With his 18 completions accounting for 287 yards, Tom averaged an impressive 15.9 yards per completion and finished with six pass plays of at least 20 yards and another 19-yard touchdown pass to James White (beating McKinney, who had less success covering the backs).

But, because they challenged every pass and held the running game mostly in check, Brady had difficulty sustaining the offense.

And this is the part that I don’t see any of the other teams still in the playoffs able to execute.  The Steelers, Falcons and Packers are predominant zone teams and much less skilled at man coverage.  While guys like Julian Edelman can find easy seams in zone schemes, Brady will always have a quick outlet.

With three games left in the NFL season, the Patriots remain the NFL’s most daunting challenge.  In addition to a defense that just does not surrender points and a dangerous running game spearheaded by battering ram LeGarrette Blount, all-everything quarterback Tom Brady has a collection of super-quick receivers who are exceedingly adept at finding the open spaces in most zones.  How Pittsburgh attempts to slow this offense will be one of the most intriguing matchups of the Championship Round.

NFL Profiles as a Quarterback Driven League

And now, there are four left.  This Sunday, the Green Bay Packers will battle the Atlanta Falcons for supremacy in the NFC.  A few hours later, the Pittsburgh Steelers will oppose the New England Patriots for the AFC title.  If these are the final four teams standing – the only ones still eligible to claim the trophy – what does that tell us about the NFL in 2016?  What is the profile of the league?

You have heard many insiders state that the NFL is a quarterback driven league.  Nothing bears that out better than the composition of the final four teams.  All four teams are among the top ten scoring teams in the league, including three of the top four.  In order of points scored, they are Atlanta (first at 540), New England (third with 441), Green Bay (fourth with 432) and Pittsburgh (tenth at 399).

In terms of yardage, all four of these teams rank in the top eight in the NFL – Atlanta (2), New England (4), Pittsburgh (7), and Green Bay (8), and they have done so without overwhelming contributions from the running game.  Only two of the top ten running attacks are still in the mix – Atlanta (which ranked fifth with 120.5 yards a game) and New England (which finished seventh with 117 yards a game); while Green Bay finished twentieth running the ball at 106.3 yards per game.

The passing offenses ranked third (Atlanta behind Matt Ryan), fourth (New England and Tom Brady), fifth (Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger), and seventh (Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers).

Interestingly, defense – which has long been perceived as necessary for winning championships – is under-represented in the final four.  Only one top ten defense – New England finished eighth – is still alive, while the NCF Championship Game will feature two of the poorest defenses (by yards allowed) in the NFL.  Green Bay finished twenty-second in overall defense, and Atlanta finished twenty-fifth.

Compellingly, none of these defenses has been bad at stopping the run.  Of the final four, Atlanta surrenders the most rush yardage at 104.5, which is still below the NFL average of 108.9.  Two other defenses ranked in the top ten against the run.  Green Bay – number 22 overall – finished eighth at stopping the run (94.7 yards per game) and New England finished third, allowing just 88.6 rushing yards per game.  There are no top ten pass defenses (by yards allowed) still playing, but the Falcons (#28) and Green Bay (#31) will square off in the early game.

As far as allowing points, the four finalists are evenly divided.  Two are top ten scoring defenses, and the other two finished in the bottom eleven.  The Patriots (as pointed out in an earlier post) are the NFL’s top scoring defense – allowing 250 points, and Pittsburgh gave up 327 points (good for tenth).  But 388 regular season points were scored against Green Bay (they ranked twenty-first), and 406 points scored against Atlanta (they ranked twenty-seventh).

To be clear about all of this, running the ball and playing good defense doesn’t diminish your chances.  Those are both great assets.  But the testimony of this season’s conference championships is that your competing franchise needs to have that franchise quarterback at its center.  The four that will suit up on Sunday (Rodgers, Ryan, Roethlisberger and Brady) all rank among the very best in the league.

If we accept this as gospel (and I admit that focusing on the final four for just one season may lead to a slanted conclusion), then where does that leave the other eight playoff teams that have already seen their seasons ended?  Do they have the man back there that can take them where they need to go?  Let’s first consider the teams that were bounced out in the Divisional Round:

The Seattle Seahawks (11-6-1, NFC West Champions)

Seattle was hammered pretty convincingly in Atlanta.  The culprits here were an under-performing offensive line (a year-long concern) and a defense that couldn’t compete with the Falcons’ offense without Earl Thomas in the secondary.  I don’t know anyone who isn’t convinced that their QB – Russell Wilson – doesn’t belong among the league’s top signal callers.  In his five seasons leading the Seahawks, he has fashioned a 56-23-1 record and led them to five straight playoff berths, two Super Bowl appearances and one World Championship.  His passer rating has been over 100 in three of those seasons, and for his career stands at 99.6.  But even beyond Wilson’s elite decision making and plus accuracy lie his off-the-chart leadership abilities.  Russell Wilson can quarterback for me any day.  They are in good hands.

Houston Texans (10-8, AFC South Division Champs)

What is there to say about Brock Osweiler?  Thinking back on it, the New England game was a kind of microcosm of his season.  There were some excellent moments – moments that showcased the talent that made him desirable to the Texans.  Brock takes an infectious energy with him onto the field.  Against the Patriots, he made a couple of clutch runs and – at times – threw bullet passes into small windows.  In one of the game’s pivotal moments, he dropped a perfect touchdown pass over the outstretched arms a defender and right into the arms of Will Fuller – who, of course, dropped it.  It’s hard to say how that game progresses if Fuller holds on to that pass.

At the same time, there was a lot of bad Brock on display as well.  Many ill-advised passes, many throws that were wildly inaccurate, many times that Brock played too fast.

Much of this could be just a young player going through his growing pains.  It’s possible that Osweiler may yet develop into the franchise QB that Houston hopes he is.  But for now, Brock has a lot of proving to do.  Houston will have to wait and see if they have their guy.

Kansas City Chiefs (12-5, AFC West Division Champs)

Again, the spotlight falls on Alex Smith.  The Pittsburgh Steelers (his opponents in the Divisional Round) have a good, but not great defense.  Last Sunday night, playing at home and with his defense holding the dynamic Steeler offense to just 18 points (all field goals), Alex finished his evening just 20 of 34 for just 172 yards.  He threw for one touchdown and one interception.  This year he even had more offensive weapons – especially receivers – than he has had in any of his previous seasons in Kansas City.

Yes, he came one two-point conversion short of tying the game, but even at that, KC would have only finished with 18 points.  However you slice it, it was another opportunity for Alex Smith to show that world that he could rise to the moment in the bright lights of the NFL playoffs.  It was another opportunity that passed him by.  As the season’s roll on, I am more and more of the opinion that Smith is not that franchise quarterback.

Dallas Cowboys (13-4, NFC East Division Champs)

Even in a losing effort, the Cowboys’ ability to come from 18 points behind to tie the game twice in the fourth quarter was one of the most impressive efforts I’ve seen in the NFL in a long time.  Everything I’ve seen from rookie Dak Prescott indicates that he is the real deal.  He stood toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers and very nearly sent his team into the conference championship.  My gut feeling is that Dallas has their man.

And the WildCard losers?

Oakland Raiders (12-5)

The Raiders, of course, were down to their third-string QB when they opened the playoffs with a loss in Houston.  I would have loved to see Derek Carr have his first opportunity in the playoffs.  Carr looks like the future in Oakland (or wherever the Raiders end up).  The Raiders look like they’ve got a good one.

Detroit Lions (9-8)

Matthew Stafford isn’t a quarterback that I’ve been overly impressed with in past years, but my opinion may be changing.  As a younger QB, he seemed a little soft.  He was a guy that I wouldn’t have trusted to lead my team from behind in the fourth quarter of a tough game.

Of course, over the last three seasons, Matthew has made that into a kind of specialty.  Stafford has led the Lions to 27 regular season wins over the last three years, with 16 of them coming on fourth-quarter scoring drives.  Matthew has grown up a lot in the last few years.

Is he a franchise quarterback?  Maybe.  His one-game appearance in this year’s playoffs was not – I don’t think – an accurate reflection of his abilities.  He was – as everyone knows – playing with a splint on the middle finger of his throwing hand.  Matthew downplayed it, but there is no question the injury seriously affected his accuracy.  Stafford has suffered through some lean years in Detroit.  He deserves the chance to show his city (and the NFL) that he can be an elite QB.

Miami Dolphins (10-7)

Even though backup QB Matt Moore performed more than admirably in the playoff loss to Pittsburgh, Miami may be the team most damaged by not having its starting quarterback available for the playoffs.  I’m not suggesting that Ryan Tannehill would have led them to victory, or would have them playing this Sunday.  But of all the teams in this year’s playoffs, Miami is the only one that has never seen their quarterback play in a big game.

With Miami mostly a non-factor during Tannehill’s first four seasons, Ryan never really had an opportunity to play in any kind of important game.  After the Dolphins lost four of their first five games this season, it looked like 2016 was going to be a replay of his previous seasons.

Tannehill then brought them into playoff consideration by taking his team on a 6-game winning streak.  That was certainly encouraging, but not quite defining as almost all of those games were played against teams that struggled – to some degree or other.  The best of those wins was the first one against Pittsburgh.  At that point Miami was still 1-4 and still hadn’t taken the wraps off running back Jay Ajayi.  It’s easy to think that Pittsburgh – which hadn’t really found itself yet – was caught by surprise.

The other wins: they won by three points at home against Buffalo (finished the season 7-9); they won by four at home against the NY Jets (5-11); they won by seven in San Diego (5-11); they beat the Rams (4-12) in LA by four points; and they beat San Francisco (2-14) at home by seven.

Hardly the Murderers Row of the NFL.

So, is Ryan Tannehill that franchise quarterback?  I don’t know.  And neither, really, do the Dolphins.  Until he plays in at least one playoff game, there isn’t any way to know.

New York Giants (11-6)

Some day we will have to have the Eli Manning discussion.  There isn’t time for that today.  Yes, I know he has two rings – more than the combined total of the two QBs who will be playing for the NFC title.  But he is still – in my mind – one of football’s most over-rated quarterbacks.

Again – a discussion for another time.  But if I’m the Giants, I would have my eye out for the guy who will eventually take the reins from Eli.

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.

Picking the Playoffs – All Eleven Games

Last week I weighed through all the potential outcomes and picked the teams that I thought would make the playoffs – and did pretty well.  Today, I will be picking the playoffs all the way to the Super Bowl.

But first, let’s take a look back at the playoff-impacting games that I miss-picked last week.  There were only three of them, and only one of those was a matter of any consequence.

I did pick Miami to beat New England – although I only did so because I felt the Patriots would play the game under wraps.  I’m not exactly sure why it was so important to them to bring their A-Game to South Florida, but they did.  This mattered little as the Patriots still ended up #1 and Miami still ended up #6 as I predicted.

I also predicted that Carolina would end its season of discontent with a win over Tampa Bay (at the time clinging to a very remote playoff hope).  Tampa Bay won that game – a gritty 17-16 verdict over last year’s NFC Champions.  There are still some holes to fill in Tampa, but the young Bucs are a team to watch out for next year (they were, of course, eliminated from the playoffs in spite of their victory).

The only miss-pick of mine that made a material difference was the New York-Washington game.  The highly-motivated Redskins (playing at home) fell to a Giants’ team that had virtually nothing to play for.  Before we look ahead to the playoffs, we need to take a closer look at that game and at the Giants.

Washington finished the season as the number three offense (by yardage) in the NFL.  Up until Sunday, their lowest yardage output of the season was a 301-yard effort against the one-win Cleveland team – a game in which they passed a little but ran a lot to keep from running up the score in a 31-20 win.

The Giants dominated Washington’s offensive unit more or less the same way they dominated the Cowboys a few weeks ago.  In holding them to a season-low 284 yards, they inhaled the Redskins running attack (38 yards on 15 attempts), single-covered Washington’s receivers, and put heat on quarterback Kirk Cousins, sacking him 4 times.  Cousins – who finished the season with an excellent 97.2 quarterback rating, was held to just 22 of 35 passing for 287 yards.  Kirk managed a touchdown pass (1 yard to Jordan Reed), but also slung two interceptions.  His rating in that game was a very pedestrian 74.3.

Meanwhile, Washington finished the season with two 1,000-yard receivers.  Pierre Garcon finished with 1,041 receiving yards and DeSean Jackson finished with 1,005.  Last Sunday, Garcon caught 4 passes for 96 yards and Jackson just 2 for 34 yards.

The Giants last three wins of the season were against the 13-3 Cowboys (by a score of 10-7), the 9-7, playoff bound Detroit Lions (a 17-6 victory), and the 8-7-1 Redskins who were battling for a playoff spot (19-10 was that final score).

After 16 regular season games, I confess that I am not terribly impressed with the Giants – especially the offense which finished with just 310 points (twenty-sixth out of thirty-two teams) and finished twenty-fifth in yardage gained.  Nonetheless, when the Giants won their last two Super Bowls they did it in the same fashion that they beat the Cowboys, Lions and Redskins – suffocating defense and just enough offense to win.

The fact that this team has done this before makes it impossible to just dismiss them out of hand.  And it makes their first-round matchup the most compelling of the Wildcard round.  They will conclude the first playoff round Sunday afternoon travelling to Green Bay, Wisconsin to contend with the torrid Packers.

Wildcard Round

NY Giants at Green Bay

If the Giants pull off this upset, they will have to follow the same formula.  The Packer running game shouldn’t be much of a threat.  They finished the regular season ranked twentieth on an average of 106.3 yards per game, but even that is somewhat deceiving.  As other teams have suffered the loss of a starting quarterback, the Packers enter the playoffs minus the two running backs that they thought would balance their attack.  Eddie Lacy lasted 5 games before going on injured reserve with an ankle injury that will require surgery.  James Starks made the field for 9 of the 16 games.  He is listed as doubtful for the Wildcard game (he is in concussion protocol).  Against the Giant’s third-ranked run defense (allowing 88.6 yards per game and 3.6 yards per rush), the Packers will populate their backfield with Ty Montgomery, Aaron Ripkowski and Christine Michael.  Not terribly encouraging options.

But, as long as elite quarterback Aaron Rodgers is standing upright and is throwing to receivers Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb, Green Bay doesn’t need a running attack to score points.  Rodgers stands behind a veteran and effective offensive line which should be able to handle most of New York’s blitzes.

So this matchup will come down to the ability of the Giants’ secondary to smother these Packer receivers.

My feeling, as I contemplate this matchup, is that Rodgers is significantly better than any of the other quarterbacks that the Giants have stuffed.  Especially when playing at home, Rodgers will make throws into narrow windows that are beyond the abilities of most quarterbacks.  And with the Giant offense creaking along in neutral, the margin of error for the defense is razor thin.  If Rodgers hits on just a couple of his downfield shots, it will likely be more than the Giant offense can overcome.

My pick here is Green Bay.

Miami at Pittsburgh

Of all of the games of the first round, this is the easiest to pick.  It’s really hard to see Miami competing with Pittsburgh anywhere – least of all in Pittsburgh.  I should make a point of saying that the loss of quarterback Ryan Tannehill isn’t the decisive factor here.  While not considered a franchise quarterback, Matt Moore has done quite well in Tannehill’s absence.

There are a couple of factors – mostly obvious, I suspect – that separate these two teams.

First is playoff experience and poise.  I do think that more is made of this than should be, but the Dolphins especially seem to have some difficulty keeping their emotions in check.  Much of their disappointing effort in the season’s final game against New England can be traced to the young Dolphins inability to handle the emotion of the big game.  Sunday afternoon, they will play the franchise’s first playoff game in eight years.  Against a playoff-hardened team like Pittsburgh, they absolutely can’t let their passions boil over.  And yet, I don’t really see how they can keep them in check, given the enormity of the situation.

On a more statistical level, the Dolphins have been abysmal this year trying to contain opposing running games.  Thirteen of the sixteen opponents they’ve faced have run for at least 100 yards against them, including all of the last seven.  Six of those opponents have run for at least 150 yards, and twice they have allowed more than 200 rushing yards.  They finished thirtieth in the league in this stat, allowing 140.4 rushing yards per game, and 4.8 yards per rush.

Running the ball has been one of the many strengths of Pittsburgh’s very balanced and potent offense.  Along with the other challenges the Dolphins face, their undersized front seven will have to cope with the Steelers’ excellent offensive line and an elite running back in Le’Veon Bell (who ran for 1268 yards and averaged 4.9 per carry this year).

The pick here has to be Pittsburgh.

Oakland at Houston

Both of the Saturday games are mysteries.  In Oakland, QB Derek Carr exploded onto the scene as the triggerman of an electric offense.  Oakland finished sixth in total offense, scoring 416 points.  While Carr and the passing game garnered much of the attention, the Raiders also averaged 120.1 yards per game running the ball.

Meanwhile, the Houston Texans rained money on free-agent quarterback Brock Osweiler (who had been instrumental as a back-up to last season’s World Champions).  Brock made starts in 14 of Houston’s first 15 games before being benched at halftime in his Week 15 game against Jacksonville.

At that point of the game, Brock was 6 of 11 for 48 yards with no touchdowns and 2 interceptions.  At that point of the season, Osweiler was completing just 59.6% of his passes (280 for 470) for just 2704 yards (5.75 per attempted pass).  His 14 touchdown passes were more than offset by his 16 interceptions.  His QB rating at that point was a disappointing 71.4.  The unheralded Tom Savage took over an offense that limped home with only 279 points (ranking twenty-eighth) and the twenty-ninth ranked offense.

So, an obvious win for Oakland, right?  As Dr. Nick (of The Simpson’s) once said, “Not so fast, Troy.”

Since the 11:07 mark of the fourth quarter of the next-to-last game of the regular season (a Christmas Eve game), Oakland has lost two quarterbacks (including the impressive Mr. Carr) to injury, while Mr. Savage was knocked out of Houston’s last game of the season with a concussion on a quarterback sneak.

So, Sunday’s early game will be a battle of two mystery quarterbacks.  Houston – out of necessity – will return to the disappointing Brock Osweiler, while Oakland’s season will rest on the head and shoulders of one Connor Cook – a 23-year-old rookie fourth-round draft pick who threw the first 21 passes of his NFL career last week in Denver.

So how does this play out?

Defense has been the Raiders Achilles Heel the entire year.  They allow 24.1 points per game.  Thirteen of their sixteen regular season opponents scored at least 20 points against them, and four of those rung up 30 or more.  Even though Osweiler has been disappointing, it’s hard to imagine Texas not scoring at least 20 against the Raiders fairly porous defense.  So, can the rookie Cook conjure up at least 21 points against the number one defense in the league?  I suspect the answer is no.

In all likelihood, Oakland’s magical season ends and Houston advances.

Detroit at Seattle

The Saturday night game features another mystery team.  Who are the Seahawks?  The Seahawks are the team that beat the NFC South Division Champion Atlanta Falcons 26-24 and the 14-2 New England Patriots, 31-24.  But they are also the team that lost 9-3 to the Rams, 14-5 to Tampa Bay, 38-10 to Green Bay, and lost control of the second seed in their conference by losing to a sub-.500 Arizona team at home 34-31.

They still have one of the most formidable defenses in the world (they rank fifth), allowing just 18.3 points per game.  Even here, though, they have slipped since losing safety Earl Thomas for the rest of the year to a broken leg.  In the four games they have played without Thomas, they have given up 23 points or more in three of them – including the only two times all season that they have allowed more than 30 points.  They are 7-1 at home, but just 3-5-1 on the road.

A frequent cause of their offensive inconsistency is a re-built offensive line that has had its ups and downs this year.

In short, this is an enormously talented team that is uncommonly vulnerable as it enters the playoffs.  Is Detroit the team to exploit that vulnerability?

The Lions are a trendy pick for an upset, but this Detroit team is still more style than substance.  Now 28 years old, quarterback Matthew Stafford has led this team to 9 wins this season.  Eight of those wins have been the result of fourth-quarter comebacks.  This has been the signature of this team this season.  Keep the game within one score and put the ball in Stafford’s hands with a minute or so left.  The best thing about this Lions team is that they are very confident late in close games.

What is the worst thing about Detroit?  Take your pick.  It could be that they rank thirtieth in the league in rushing the football.  Even with 69 surprising yards from Zach Zenner last week, Detroit still ended the game against the Packers with just 76 rushing yards.  They have averaged 81.9 rushing yards a game this season, getting just 3.7 yards per attempt.  They have surpassed 100 rushing yards only three times this season.  Two of those were the first two games of the season and the other time was Week 14 against the woeful Bears.  Seattle’s defense may not now be what it once was, but they should certainly be able to make Detroit a one-dimensional offence.

Another problem area in Detroit is pass defense.  Opposing quarterbacks have completed 72.7% of passes thrown against the Detroit defense, which finished the season allowing 33 touchdown passes and a 106.5 passer rating (the league averages were 24.6 TD passes and an 89.3 rating).  This is not an area that has been getting better.  Detroit surrendered 73 points over the course of its last two games, while being flayed by opposing passers.  Dallas’ Dak Prescott scored a 148.3 passer rating against them when he completed 15 of 20 passes for 212 yards and 3 touchdowns with no interceptions.  Green Bay’s Rodgers followed that performance with a 126.0 day against the Lion pass defense as he went 27 for 39 for 300 yards, 4 touchdowns and no interceptions.  (As a matter of fact, Detroit hasn’t come up with any kind of defensive turnover in their last four games).  This is a bad weakness to have facing a talented passer like Russell Wilson.

Also telling is the fact that the Lions – who have not beaten a team all year that one more than 8 games – ended their season with three “showdown” games.  These were opportunities to claim the division title against playoff bound opponents (the Giants, Cowboys and Packers).  Detroit lost all three games.

Nothing indicates to me that this Detroit team is ready to go on the road in a place like Seattle and push its way past the Seahawks – even if the Seahawks have taken a step or two back toward the pack this year.

Look for Seattle to win this game.

Divisional Round

Seattle at Atlanta

If round one plays out this way, the Divisional Round will begin next Saturday with Seattle now on the road in Atlanta.

The Atlanta Falcons ended 2016 as football’s most prolific offense (as measured by points scored), and the second most prolific in yards gained.  Along with Oakland and Green Bay, the Falcons are one of three teams to qualify for this year’s playoffs that both scored and allowed more than 24 points a game.  Seattle’s offense is very hit and miss, but Atlanta is a very bad defensive team.  Seattle scored 26 points against Atlanta when they played earlier this year, and I get the feeling that they will score about that much in the rematch.  But I’m not at all sure that Seattle’s compromised defense can still keep the lid on Atlanta’s offense.  The two competent offenses that they’ve faced since losing Thomas (Green Bay and Arizona) both scored 34 or more points against them, and they finished the year serving up 23 on the road to a challenged San Francisco team.

Also, this is a karma game.  The first match between these teams ended with Falcon QB Matt Ryan launching a fourth-down pass up the field where All-World wide receiver Julio Jones was being covered (inclusively) by All-World cornerback Richard Sherman.  The pass fell incomplete as Sherman held Jones’ arm.  But the penalty wasn’t called, so instead of the Falcons setting up well in field goal range with about 80 seconds left in a game they trailed by 2 points, Atlanta could only watch helplessly from the sidelines as Wilson knelt three times to drain the clock.

Atlanta hasn’t won many playoff games – and their defense will make it difficult for this year’s version to win too many.  But I suspect they will win this one and advance to the NFC Championship Game.

Houston at New England

Somewhere, somebody will pick this upset.  But it won’t be me.  I won’t even discuss the possibility.

New England goes to the AFC Championship Game.

Pittsburgh at Kansas City

Here are the things that stand out when you look at the Kansas City Chiefs:

First, you notice that they ranked only twenty-sixth in the NFL in stopping the run.  They allowed an average of 121.1 yards per game and 4.4 yards per rush.  Shaky run defense was a principle reason why KC finished twenty-fourth overall in defense.  They are serving up 368.5 yards per game.

The second thing you notice is that – for all of the yards the Chiefs give up – they only allow 19.4 points per game.

This is primarily because of the third thing that you notice – they led the NFL in 2016 in taking the football away.  Thirty-three times over the course of the sixteen-game season the Chiefs’ defense provided that much-needed turnover.

This connects to the fourth thing you notice.  Kansas City’s pass defense is one of the league’s best.  The passer rating against of 79.8 is the third lowest in the NFL, sparked by 18 interceptions – tied for most in the league.

So, basically, you can run but not pass against this team, and, at some point during your drive, the defense will jump up and take the ball away.  With this formula, KC has held 10 of their 16 opponents this season to fewer than 20 points.  Interestingly, while they are 7-3 in those games, the Chiefs are 5-1 in the six games where they were stung for more than 20 points.  The only time this plucky (and mostly underrated) offense didn’t come to the rescue of its defense was a Week Four debacle when the Chiefs were pretty much trashed on both sides of the ball, 43-14.  The opponent that day was the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In that game, the Steelers effectively exploited Kansas City’s vulnerable run defense to the tune of 149 yards on just 26 carries (5.7 per), but also sliced and diced KC’s usually elite pass defense.  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 14 of his 17 first half passes for 210 yards and 4 touchdowns on his way to a 22 of 27, 300-yard game that included five touchdown passes and no interceptions (a 152.5 rating day).

That was also one of only 3 games all season where the KC defense did not provide a turnover.

This game was played in Pittsburgh and one week before Kansas City’s bye.  The Chiefs played much better after their bye (10-2).  Still, it underscores the challenges that teams face when lining up against this Steeler offense – especially when they get their running game untracked.

In the nine games that Pittsburgh ran for at least 100 yards, the Steelers averaged 28.2 points per game and won 8 of the 9.  They were just 3-4, scoring just 20.7 points per game when held to less than 100 yards rushing. So Kansas City will probably have to stop the run much better when they face Pittsburgh than they have all year.

Of course, any discussion of Kansas City in the playoffs comes down to quarterback Alex Smith.  The perception persists that Smith isn’t a championship caliber quarterback.  Alex has a 93.3 passer rating and a 30-16 record over the last three years.  He is 41-20 for his career in Kansas City.

Moreover, he holds a 99.1 passer rating in his five career playoff games that feature 11 touchdown passes and just 1 interception.  His record in those games is 2-3.  He has been alternately brilliant and ordinary under the glare of the playoff lights.  He almost single-handedly beat New Orleans in his first ever playoff game following the 2011 season when he threw for 299 yards and 3 touchdowns and ran for another.  In his first playoff game as a Chief, he threw for 378 yards and 4 touchdowns against Indianapolis, but was on the losing end of a 45-44 shootout.

The problem, though, is that both of those games came against defensively challenged clubs.  In his two playoff chances against legitimate defenses (the New York Giants in 2011 and the New England Patriots last year), Smith and his offense was nowhere to be found.  He threw for just 196 yards against the Giants in a 20-17 loss and was just 29 for 50 against the Patriots last year in a 27-20 loss.

Then again, it’s not like the Kansas City teams he’s led into the playoffs (in three of the last five years) have had an over-abundance of targets.  With Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, Alex probably has the most dangerous set of receivers he has been privileged to play with.

The Divisional Round of the 2016 playoffs will present a unique opportunity for Alex.  Whoever he lines up against (since his first-round opponent can’t be New England), this will be his best chance so far to do well against a premium opponent.  Win or lose, Alex needs to play well and put points on the board.

My inclination is that he won’t.  I’m afraid I’m one of those who still has doubts about Alex Smith.  I’m picking the Steelers here.

Green Bay at Dallas

Anyone who takes the field against Dallas has to be prepared for the Cowboy running attack.  When these two teams met for the first time in mid-October, the Packers came into the match with the league’s top rushing defense.  In the four games they had played, no one had dented them for more than 50 rushing yards, and the four opponents combined had only totaled 171 ground yards against them.  The Cowboys punched through for 93 rushing yards.  By halftime.  They finished the afternoon with a crushing 191 rushing yards – 157 of them belonging to rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott.

It bears pointing out that the Packers of mid-October are not the Packers of mid-January.  After being profoundly thrashed by Washington (42-19) the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Green Bay sat at 4-6, looking up in their division at Detroit and Minnesota (who were both 6-4 at the time).  Their playoff chances at the time were less than encouraging.  But Green Bay hasn’t lost since then – and, in fact, has seemed to play better each week.

This is certainly true for Mr. Rodgers.  Over the last six games, Aaron has had possibly the best sustained streak of his career.  He has completed 142 of his last 200 passes (71%) for 1667 yards.  His 15 touchdown passes stand in stark contrast to the 0 interceptions that he has thrown in those games (Rodgers has actually gone seven games, now, without throwing an interception).  He has achieved a glittering 121.0 passer rating during the winning streak.

This is a Green Bay team on a serious roll.  Through the first ten games of the season, Green Bay was averaging 24.7 points per game, but was allowing 27.6.  They turned the ball over 16 times in those first ten games, while taking the ball away only 10 times.  During the last six games, they have averaged 30.8 points per game while allowing just 18.7.  Meanwhile, they have turned the ball over just once while seeing their defense come away with 15 takeaways during those same games.

The Pack will still have to contend with the Cowboy running game, but they don’t need to stop it completely.  They only need to do what the Giants did – compete with them for the whole 60 minutes.  The Cowboy pass defense finished the season with a 94.1 passer rating against.  If Green Bay’s defense can get Dallas off the field at least some of the time, I don’t think Dallas can hold off the Green Bay offense.

It says here that the Packers punch their ticket for the Conference Championship Game.

Conference Championships

Green Bay at Atlanta

If it does get to be Green Bay at Atlanta (and I know this is quite a way away), what a matchup this be.  Atlanta would have the home field in this contest, but they are still a bad defensive team.  The Falcons probably have the most balanced offense in football, but I think – in this situation – they would be very hard pressed to outscore the Packers.

Green Bay is a team that seems to have come together at the right time.  It is not, by any means, a perfect team.  But they are in a good place heading into the playoffs.  I don’t think Atlanta can stop them.

Green Bay’s path to the Super Bowl is an interesting one.  In Dallas and Atlanta, they will play teams whose primary weakness is pass defense (the Falcons’ passer rating against is 92.5).  The most perilous step in the journey will be the first one.  Can they survive the Giants – the one team with enough defense to hold them under 28 points?  If they can get past New York, they have a real good chance of getting to Houston.

Pittsburgh at New England

If the Patriots are going to be stopped, it’s the Steelers who will have to do it.

Pittsburgh’s story is similar to Green Bay’s.  Just 4-5 at one point, the Steelers have run off seven consecutive victories to put them in the playoffs – a road which will inevitably lead through New England.

Every year at this time, the Patriots always look invincible.  There are plenty of reasons to hate on the Patriots.  They are, nonetheless, football’s model franchise.  The offensive firepower has been well documented.  They can run if they want to behind the battering ram known as LeGarrette Blount, or All-Everything quarterback Tom Brady can pick defenses clean.

This year, though, I have been most impressed with New England’s defense.

With the regular season in the books, the Patriots finished eighth in total defense (by yards allowed) and first in fewest points surrendered at just 250.  That’s fewer points allowed than the fabled Giants (284) or Seahawks (292).  Fewer than Denver, Kansas City or Baltimore.

What’s impressive to me is that they achieved this really without any defensive superstars.  Malcolm Butler made the big interception in the Super Bowl two years ago, but his name isn’t bandied about when people talk of the superstar cornerbacks. Patrick Chung is a name familiar to a lot of football fans, but I bet there are a lot who don’t know whether he plays linebacker or defensive back.  Devin McCourty, Alan Branch, Malcolm Brown, Dont’a Hightower, Logan Ryan, Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich – all excellent football players, but no stars.  They are the poster children for (what has become) the Belichick Rule for Football Excellence.  They do their job.  They do it without fanfare and without excessive praise.  And, when the game is on the line, one of them will make a play.

Will the Patriot offense be able to shut down the Steeler defense?  Not entirely.  But they will make the play that will decide the game.  Pittsburgh has been a very hot team.  But you need to be more than hot to beat the Patriots.  You need to be better than they are – and Pittsburgh just isn’t.

Super Bowl LI

So, on February 5 I expect to see the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots assemble in front of the thousands in Houston for the festival that is the Super Bowl.  It’s always satisfying when the game generates more interest than the commercials – and I think this one will.

But the Patriots always look unbeatable this time of year.  If the Steelers can’t get to them, I don’t think the Packers will.  Green Bay can give them a game, and will certainly have their moments, but a hot team can’t beat this Patriots team in the big game.  Green Bay will have to be better than New England.

And I don’t think they are.