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.
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.