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.

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