Tag Archives: Green Bay Packers

A Step Too Late

Right tackle Billy Turner was engaged with his pass block on Chicago’s Bilal Nichols, and probably wasn’t even aware of the corner rush.  Aaron Rodgers – Green Bay’s legendary quarterback – stood alone in an empty backfield.  There was no back hanging with him.  So when Duke Shelley came off the corner, there was no one to pick him up.  He came as a free rusher on the Packer quarterback.

It didn’t matter.

One step before Shelly reached Rodgers, Aaron lofted the football up the field.

Green Bay lined up with three receivers to Aaron’s right and two to his left – the side that Shelley would come from.  The Bears were in cover four, with the two non-rushing cornerbacks and the two safeties each taking a deep fourth of the field.

Davante Adams (who was to the left of Rodgers) and Allen Lazard (to the right) went about ten yards up field and turned around.  As they did, the two defenders responsible for the deep middle of the field stopped with them – Tashaun Gipson hovering over Adams, and Eddie Jackson ready to deny any pass in Lazard’s direction.

This was all well and good, except for one thing.  The most inside receiver on the three-receiver side – Marquez Valdes-Scantling – didn’t stop.  He exploded into the gaping void that the deep middle had now become.  Of course, that was where Aaron had directed the football, and Valdes-Scantling – with linebacker Danny Trevathan in futile chase – gathered the ball in and sprinted the final 42 yards into the end zone.

That touchdown, coming with 8:31 left in the first half, gave the Packers their first lead of the game (14-10), and as such served as a kind of turning point in the contest – an eventual 35-16 Green Bay victory (gamebook) (summary).  It was also a singular occurrence – an aberration, if you will, weighed against the rest of the game – even as it revealed two recurring issues that did much to define the outcome.

First the singularity.

That 72-yard touchdown was the only play of 20 yards or more that Green Bay executed the entire game. (One small caveat here.  Early in the third quarter, Valdes-Scantling found himself behind the defense again – in almost the same area of the field – for what would have been a 53-yard touchdown, but he dropped Rodgers perfectly thrown pass.)

This speaks directly to the defensive game-plan developed by coach Matt Nagy and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.

Playing the Packers twice a year, Chicago is very familiar with Aaron Rodgers.  Over the course of his 16-year career, Rodgers is now 20-5 against the Bears with a 107.2 passer rating against them.  The 4 touchdown passes he tossed against them on Sunday bring him to 55 in 25 career games against Chicago – his most against any team.  Clearly, in this case, familiarity breeds more contempt than success for Chicago.  In his two victories against them this year, Aaron completed 40 of 53 passes (75.5%) for 451 yards and 8 touchdowns with no interceptions.

Defending Rodgers

This time around, the Chicago brain-trust devised a complimentary-football approach that came closer to working than the score indicates.  With the offense controlling the clock and keeping Rodgers on the sidelines, the defense set up with their two deep safeties (Gipson and Jackson).  Chicago rarely blitzes anyway – at 29.5% they have football’s fourth-lowest blitz percentage.  In this game, they blitzed even less – coming after Rodgers just 4 times.

They did a lot of faux-blitzing where a linebacker (like Khalil Mack) would join the rush with a lineman dropping out in coverage.  The corner rush on the touchdown pass was such a ploy, as Akiem Hicks dropped out of the rush into a short middle zone.

It was almost always four rushers, but not necessarily the four down linemen rushing.

The intent of the whole plan was to steal a few possessions of game time and prevent the big play at all cost.  If the Packers were going to score, they were going to have to do it with a series of long drives.

The concept was more successful than not.  The Packers had only 7 possessions for the game.  Apart from the long touchdown pass, Green Bay was only able to put together two touchdown “drives,” one of 80 yards and the other of 76 yards.  In the end, the Pack was held to just 44 offensive plays and 316 total yards.  The difference in what would have been a razor-close 21-16 game and the 35-16 decisive loss was two short field touchdowns Green Bay scored after turnovers by the Chicago offense.  Green Bay recovered a fumble on the Bear 22 about midway through the second quarter, and returned an interception to the Chicago 26 late in the fourth.

Almost always in Chicago these days, it comes back to the offense.

The Offense Giveth and the Offense Taketh Away

As damaging as the turnovers were, it would be a disservice to present them as the offense’s only impact on the game.  The Bears ran the ball with more commitment than most would have expected.  Thirty-one running plays took their toll on a Green Bay defense that endured 74 plays and 35 minutes and 29 seconds of ball possession.  Against that, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky completed 78.6 percent of his passes (33 of 42) – albeit for only 252 yards (7.64 per completion) as the Bears picked at Green Bay’s underneath coverages.

Only 7 of Mitch’s 42 passes were more than 10 yards from scrimmage.  Not very cinematic, but it kept the chains moving.  Chicago backed a solid 6-for-15 showing on third down with a surprising 5-for-6 on fourth down.  They put 356 yards and 21 first downs on the Green Bay defense.

But, the one fourth down they missed came at a critical junction of the game, they finished just 1-for-5 in the Red Zone – and there were the two turnovers.

The main takeaway here is that the gap between the 8-8 Bears (who will go into the playoffs as the seventh seed) and the 13-3 Packers (who will enjoy a bye and the conference’s top seed) lies – for the most part – in Chicago’s inability to limit their mistakes.  That being said, there were two other recurring issues that inform the playoff trajectories of both of these teams.

Secondary Issues

The Valdes-Scantling touchdown was one of several examples of soft play from the Chicago secondary. Here, both safeties dropped coverage on Marquez’ vertical.  In other instances, it was a mental error or a simple failure to adjust the defensive design to the demands of the coverage.

With 4:37 left in a still close (21-16) game, and Green Bay facing a second-and-nine from the Chicago 18-yard line, the Bears deployed in man coverage (after playing mostly zone early, they went more-and-more to man defenses as the game progressed).  Well, everyone was in man except for slot corner Shelley.  As Allen Lazard ran a shallow cross, Shelley – who should have had him in coverage – dropped into a zone, curling away from the receiver that was his responsibility.  Seeing Lazard uncovered, linebacker Josh Woods tried to run with him, and was able to catch him from behind – but not until Allen gained 14 yards on the catch-and-run.  Green Bay scored a touchdown on the next play.

With 5:40 left in the first half, Green Bay faced third-and-four on the Chicago 16.  With Adams in the slot to the right, he was the responsibility of slot-corner Shelley, who played with outside leverage on Davante, knowing he had safety help inside.  But that safety (Gipson) was 15 yards off the line (remember, this was third-and-four), so all Adams had to do was curl to the inside of Shelley and he was sufficiently open to catch the pass for the first down.

Green Bay would go on to score the touchdown that would give them the 21-13 halftime lead.  Every time that the Bears’ secondary mistakes let Green Bay off the hook, the Packers put the ball in the end zone.  Every.  Single.  Time.

Three plays earlier, Chicago came with one of their rare blitzes, bringing Jackson from Aaron’s left and playing man behind it.  Problem was that Green Bay lined up two tight ends (Marcedes Lewis and Dominique Dafney) to the right, where there was only one defender (Shelley, again) to cover both.

At the snap, Dafney ran an inside route and Shelley went with him.  After chipping on end Robert Quinn. Lewis rolled out into the flat where he was all alone.  That would have been an 11-yard pickup, but the gain was nullified when Adams pushed Shelley in the back.

These were the most glaring errors. But the secondary play in general was soft and more than a little tentative.  They successfully limited the big play.  Davante Adams never had a completion over 9 yards, but he caught 6 passes for 46 yards – with four of the six going for first downs (including a touchdown).

For his part, Rodgers had only 4 completions on passes more than 10 yards downfield, but he completed 15 of 16 short passes.  He also worked over the middle of the field – mostly exploiting the safeties.  In passes to the middle of the field, Aaron was 8-for-9 for 148 yards and 2 touchdowns.

This is a potentially critical issue for Chicago.  Against New Orleans (their WildCard opponent) soft play in the secondary will almost certainly prove fatal.  So too, by the way, will turnovers and red zone failures.

A Step Too Late

Referring a final time to the touchdown pass that we began with, the final element to consider is Shelley’s pass rush – just one step too slow.

For a quarterback who was only sacked once, and only blitzed four times, Aaron Rodgers found himself under a substantial amount of pressure.  For all that he only threw 24 passes, there were a good handful of rushers who came free or nearly free.  In nearly all cases, they were a step too late.  With his veteran’s understanding of defenses and his absolute command of all of the pieces of his offense, Aaron’s ability to diagnose where the ball should go and the quickness he displayed in getting it out of his hands was as determining a factor in the victory as any of the other items listed here.

Aaron converted a third-and-eight in the first quarter on a check-down to Aaron Jones just as Robert Quinn was bringing him to the ground.  On the pass to Lewis referred to earlier, Jackson came free on the blitz, but he couldn’t get there in time.  In similar fashion, Hicks came free on a stunt on the third-down throw to Adams noted above.  He converted a second-and-six to Robert Tonyan in the third quarter with Quinn rushing up on him from behind.  Again, not in time.  The 14-yard pass to Lazard with 4:37 left in the game also came with Quinn (who was unblocked on the play) in his face.

For the afternoon, Rodgers was 9 for 10 for 154 yards and 2 touchdowns when the ball was out of his hands in less than 2.5 seconds.

This is the bind that a defense finds itself in against the elite quarterbacks – and right now Mr. Rodgers is playing at as high a level as anyone in the business – a circumstance that bodes well for the Packers in the upcoming tournament.

Green Bay’s Imperfrect Storm

According to the various game reports, the Green Bay Packers were cruising early last Sunday, as they pulled out to a 10-0 lead over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  This lasted right up to the 12:50 mark of the second quarter, when a Tampa Bay cornerback named Jamel Dean stepped in front of Packer receiver Davante Adams and intercepted Aaron Rodgers’ pass – returning it 32 yards for the touchdown.  With that play flipping the momentum, the Bucs came roaring back for the victory.

There is, of course, a strong element of truth there.  Tampa Bay did go on to score the final 38 points on the evening in a convincing 38-10 victory (gamebook) (summary).  The truth, as usual, is more nuanced than that.  Even before this particular tipping point, there were signs that all was not right with the Packers.  Rodgers – beyond the interception – endured what must surely be one of the worst games of his storied career, but the fault extends well beyond Aaron’s struggles as he was widely let down by his teammates – and, for that matter, even the design of the offense contributed to the lopsided loss.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Packers ran into a Tampa Bay team playing its most complete game of the season.  The offense was near flawless as they committed no turnovers, committed no penalties, suffered no sacks, and went 4-for-4 in the red zone.  Defensively, they played much tighter in their zone coverages than they have previously, and, from about the mid-point of the third quarter on, they switched to stifling man coverages that I didn’t know they had in them.

For Green Bay, it all amounted to an imperfect storm.

Starting With Aaron

From the very beginning of the game, Rodgers was playing fast and a little on the frenetic side.  With 11:27 left in a still scoreless first quarter, the Packers dialed up a quick wide receiver screen to Equanimeous St. Brown along the left sideline.  But the moment the ball reached Rodgers hands, he spun and immediately fired the ball, well before St. Brown could possibly turn around and catch it.

Arguably, his most frazzled moment came with 5:24 left in the first – with the Packers up 3-0, facing a first-and-10 on the Buccaneer 41.  His first target on the play was Adams on a quick out.  The window would have been a little tight, but Rodgers has made tighter throws than that.  For whatever reason, though, he decided against it and pulled the ball down.  Just in front of him, he had Aaron Jones wide open underneath the zone.  But Aaron couldn’t pull the trigger.

At this point, although the pocket was still fairly secure, Rodgers bolted, spinning out to his left.  He pumped to throw, but pulled the ball down, and spun again back to his right – all but running right into William Gholston – a Tampa Bay defensive lineman.  Escaping his grasp, Aaron scrambled back to his right where he fired the ball out of bounds in the general direction of Adams.

In spite of this shakiness, Aron recovered enough to finish off the touchdown drive, and finished the first quarter 8 for 12.

His first play of the second quarter found Aaron escaping the pocket again at the first hint of pressure.  After more scrambling, he threw high to Jones in the flat.  On second down, Rodgers rolled right on a naked boot.  No one had blocked Jason Pierre-Paul, who seemed more interested in containing Rodgers than forcing the issue.  As Aaron meandered toward the right sideline, with JPP keeping a watchful eye on him, he had some opportunities.  He had TE Robert Tonyan underneath and he had Malik Taylor at the sticks.  But Rodgers didn’t throw the ball until he threw it away the moment before he went out of bounds.

On the next play, he threw the first of his two game-changing interceptions.

Unsettled by the Blitz

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Rodgers was relentlessly blitzed, but DC Todd Bowles did make that extra rusher a substantial part of his game plan.  Of the 41 times that Aaron dropped back, he saw an extra rusher 18 times (43.9%).  In spite of the fact that 3 of the 4 sacks that Tampa Bay recorded against Aaron came on the blitz, they weren’t generally effective in getting pressure on the Green Bay quarterback.  What it did do, though, was to speed up his clock.  Almost always, as soon as he saw the blitz coming, Rodgers would immediately unload the ball.

This is what happened on both of his interceptions.  On the first one, Sean Murphy-Bunting was coming unblocked from the secondary.  But he was still more than five yards away from Rodgers when Aaron quickly snapped the ball to a covered Adams.  On third down of the subsequent possession, Tampa Bay sent 6 rushers.  In spite of the fact that the blitz was pretty much completely picked up, Aaron rushed the throw to Adams, who hadn’t achieved any kind of separation from CB Carlton Davis.  The ball was batted by Davis (or Adams) and may have been tipped at the line by JPP.  It eventually ended up in the arms of safety Mike Edwards, who returned the pick to the two-yard line.  One play after that, Tampa Bay had a 14-10 lead.

The day didn’t get any worse than that for Rodgers, but it never got much better.  He made other rushed decisions and passes.  Other times, he had open receivers that he just threw poorly to.  It was a day that Aaron could certainly have used some help from his teammates.  He wouldn’t get it.

Little Help from His Friends

For their part, the rest of the offense had a correspondingly bad day.  The offensive line was spotty in protection – especially against the blitz – and running back Jamaal Williams (one of the Packers’ most improved players) was repeatedly unable to pick up blitzing linebackers and defensive backs.

As for the receivers, they were officially charged with 6 dropped passes – although a few of those were a little unfair.  Marcedes Lewis was charged with a drop on a throw that was well beyond him.  His dive for it brought him close enough to have the ball brush off his fingertip.  Nonetheless, there were enough legitimate drops to add to Aaron’s frustrations.

Even the usually reliable Davante Adams contributed to the offensive malaise.  He was charged with two drops of his own, and, with Green Bay facing a third-and-8 with 5:40 left in the third, he uncovered on a deep throw up the right sideline and hauled in one of Aaron’s best and most confident throws of the game.  But the pass was ruled incomplete, as Adams – who caught the ball with his back to the sideline – failed to negotiate the sideline and stepped out of bounds.

At least a half-dozen other times, Rodgers stared into the teeth of Tampa Bay’s zone defenses only to find he had no outlet or underneath route to dump the ball off to.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a game plan that routinely didn’t provide for check-down routes against the zone defenses they knew they would see.

The futility was general – and seemed to effect the entire team.

If I were to speculate on a reason – other than it was just one of those days – I might point to the lack of the running game.

Running the ball against the Bucs has become almost legendarily difficult.  Last year, they allowed an average of just 73.8 rushing yards per game, and only 3.3 yards per carry – both figures were the best in the NFL.  This year so far they have been even better.  They came into the Packer game surrendering just 58.4 rushing yards per game, and only 2.7 yards per carry – again, both numbers were the NFL’s best.

In spite of the fact that the Packers were among football’s best running teams (averaging 150.8 yards per game and 5.1 yards per attempt), Green Bay’s response was to give up on the run before they even took the field.  They ran the ball just 10 times in the first half, and only 21 times on the day – many of those late in the fourth after the contest was decided.

Over the last few seasons, the Packers have become more reliant on the balance their running game provides than, perhaps, even they are aware.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the abandonment of this foundation of their offense wasn’t a contributing factor in the general disorientation that the offense experienced.  I wrote a couple days ago about identity.  Green Bay surrendered an important chunk of its identity before the game even kicked off.

Recognizing the Defense

In caviling the various elements of the Packer offense, I’m afraid some readers might understand this as minimizing the contributions of the Buccaneer defense.  That couldn’t be farther from my intentions.

If anything, last Sunday’s game served as a coming out party for one of the NFL’s most compelling defensive units.  Through their first 5 games, their patented zone defenses were distressingly squishy.  Only four teams in football started Week Six allowing a higher completion percentage than the Bucs –a problematic 70.9%.

There was none of that on Sunday (helped, of course, by the fact that Green Bay frequently didn’t provide for a check down).  Rodgers came in completing 70.5% on the season.  He left town having completed just 16 of 35 – 45.7%.

But as tight as the zone coverages were, the revelation to me from the game was the Tamp Bay Buccaneers in man coverage – especially Carlton Davis, who was generally Adams’ escort for the evening.

Davis didn’t shut out Green Bay’s most dangerous receiver, but he pretty much played him to a draw.  Adams finished with 6 catches, but for just 61 yards, no touchdowns and no plays longer than 18 yards.  And without explosive plays from Davante, the rest of the receiving corps was fairly easily silenced.  Number two receiver – Marquez Valdes-Scantling covered mostly by Murphy-Bunting – found precious little space.  He finished with 3 catches for 32 yards.  Taylor has become Green Bay’s the third receiver – he had no receptions and only one target.

Green Bay’s Persistent Concern

Once again, the question comes down to receiving depth in Green Bay.  It was a worry last year.  It was part of the angst of the recent draft.  And on Sunday, it came back to bite them again.  One of the reasons – I believe – that Tampa Bay was so comfortable in calling man coverages was because after Adams, the Packers didn’t have anyone that would strike fear into them.

In a Week Three win over New Orleans, Allen Lazard erupted with a 146-yard receiving game – and immediately went on IR.  His return might have a sizeable impact on this offense.

But for right now, no one knows when that return will be.  And no one seems to have any other immediate answers.

The Will to Keep Running the Ball

Although they went into the half trailing 14-6, the Baltimore Ravens had sent their rivals in Pittsburgh a clear message.  Repeatedly during that first half, Baltimore’s featured back, Alex Collins slashed the Steeler defense right up the middle.  That the Ravens couldn’t cash in on this production came from the fact that Baltimore had no answer for the Steeler blitz schemes.  Joe Flacco wasn’t sacked, but he finished the first half just 9 of 16, with Baltimore converting just 2 of 7 third downs.

But, with Collins providing the spark, Baltimore had gained 57 yards in 14 rushes – and average of 4.1 yards per.  It would certainly seem to be an advantage to build on.

Baltimore ran the ball exactly twice in the second half.

I could probably write about this every week.  In an NFL that is increasingly passing-centric, the will to keep running the ball is becoming increasingly rare.

In Baltimore’s case – even though they went into the half down by just 8, the Steelers opened the second half with an impressive 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ate up the first 8:14 of the second half.  Six of the plays on the drive were runs (three times as many runs in that drive than Baltimore would attempt for the rest of the game).

Emotionally, that drive was damaging, but the reality of the situation was that the Ravens trailed just 20-6 with still 6:46 left in the third and the entire fourth quarter left.  More than enough time to run their offense.  But the will to keep running the ball failed them.  So, even though they struggled protecting Flacco – and even though their running attack was the most effective aspect of their offense in the first half – the Ravens folded up their running game. 

Flacco threw the ball 21 times in the second half, getting sacked on two other drop backs.  With little time to look downfield, Joe’s tosses became mostly a series of short dump offs.  He completed 14 of those passes, but for just 97 yards.  The Ravens finished the second half with just 99 yards of total offense, on its way to a 23-16 loss (gamebook) (box score).

Playing with the lead, Pittsburgh wasn’t shy about pounding the Baltimore defense.  Although they never gained more than 5 yards on any single second half run, Pittsburgh nonetheless ran 17 times in the second half – earning just 40 yards with those attempts (2.4 per).  Nonetheless, the Steelers converted 6 of 9 third downs and controlled the ball for 20:14 of the second half.

Seattle is Willing

In stark contrast is the game the Seattle Seahawks played at home against the Los Angeles Chargers.  Seattle has re-committed to the run, and even with primary hammer-back Chris Carson nursing hip and thigh injuries – and even though they spent the entire second half trailing by as much as 15 points, the Hawks never stopped running the ball.  Of their 32 running attempts on the day, 15 came in the second half.  They finished with 154 rushing yards, and 35:41 of possession. 

Seattle did lose this game, 25-17 (gamebook) (box score), but were throwing into the end zone from the Charger 6-yard line as the game ended.  As with the Ravens, the Seattle passing game couldn’t take advantage of the production from the running game.  The Chargers denied Seattle’s receivers any down-the-field opportunities, forcing Russell Wilson into an endless string of dump-off passes.  Tyler Lockett finished the game with 3 catches for 22 yards – none longer than 9 yards.

The Chargers – who racked up 160 rushing yards of their own – had just enough to hold them off.  Both of these teams will be in contention down the stretch, and one of the reasons will be their commitment to balance.

Both play defense pretty well, too.  The Chargers and Seahawks combined to go 1-for-13 on third down in the second half. 

A final thought about this game:

Seattle is now 1-2 at home this year.  Every game in Seattle they show the noise decibel graphic (the highest I think I remember seeing was 106 – which is good and loud).  You also get plenty of shots of the crowd cupping their lips with their hands in a desperate attempt to affect the game with sheer volume.  In the first place, of course, just screaming is an artistic achievement of dubious merit.  More than that, though, the effect seems to be negligible.  Some years ago, it was much more effective than it has been recently, as the league seems to have mostly adjusted.  The Chargers didn’t seem overly disturbed by it.  Seattle has also lost at home to the Rams – a division opponent that comes into Seattle every year and seemed not to notice the noise.  But you Seattle fans, you keep on screaming at the top of your lungs – you’re so cute when you’re just senselessly yelling.

Rodgers v Brady

Already this season, there have been several marquee quarterback matchups – many of which have absolutely lived up to the hype. 

Back on September 16, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Pittsburgh Steelers engaged in an entertaining 42-37 contest (won by KC).  In that game, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns, but was out-done by rising star Patrick Mahomes, who threw for 326 yards of his own.  And 6 touchdowns.

Then on September 23, the New Orleans Saints finally subdued the Atlanta Falcons 43-37.  In that matchup, Matt Ryan gave the Saints all they could handle, throwing 5 touchdown passes among his 374 yards.  Not quite enough, as it turns out, as Drew Brees threw 3 touchdowns of his own among 396 passing yards.

The New England Patriots have already been involved in two such free-for-alls.  They had their own encounter with Kansas City, winning 43-40 behind Tom Brady and his 340 passing yards – just barely overcoming 4 more touchdown passes from Mahomes and his 352 passing yards.

They followed that game the next week with an exciting 38-31 conquest of Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears.  Trubisky threw for 333 yards in the defeat.

My favorite so far this year has been the September 27 contest between Jared Goff and the LA Rams and Kirk Cousins and Minnesota.  In this back-and-forth game, both quarterbacks executed at a remarkably high level.  Cousins completed 36 of 50 passes for 422 yards and 3 touchdowns (without an interception).  His passer rating for the evening was an impressive 117.2.  His team lost.

Goff completed 26 of 33 for 465 yards and 5 touchdowns (also without interception), leading the Rams to a 38-31 conquest.  His passer rating that game was a maximum 158.3. 

(You will hear many commentators refer to 158.3 as a “perfect” score.  It is, of course, not perfect.  Jared did miss on 7 passes.  It is more accurate to refer to that number as the maximum rating, as the system will not permit a higher rating.  If Goff’s night had been perfect – if he had completed all 33 of his passes for 619 yards and 7 touchdowns, the passer rating system would not – indeed could not – reward him with a higher rating.)

Brees and Goff also met up in Week 9 in another game that lived up to the hype – that game will be looked at in a bit.

And so, last Sunday night – as two legendary quarterbacks squared off – much of America was hoping for a similar shootout.  Again, the Patriots and Brady would be involved – this time opposite Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

This time, though, the expected shootout never developed.

Both of the legendary throwers did well.  Rodgers finished the night 24 of 43 (55.8%) for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Brady threw for 294 yards on 22 of 35 throwing (62.9%) and 1 touchdown.  Rodgers’ receivers – who seem to be a rather ordinary collection this year- repeatedly had difficulty beating their man coverage assignments.  Rodgers spent much of the evening scrambling around in the backfield waiting for a receiver to come open before checking the ball down.

As for the Patriots, they spent the evening re-discovering their running game.  Even with top running threat Sony Michel on the sidelines, New England still ran the ball 31 times for 123 yards and 3 touchdowns.  James White got a few more carries than usual (12), and the Patriots continued the re-purposing of receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson as a running back.  Patterson finished the day with 11 rushes for 61 yards and a touchdown.

Patterson may have been as impressive as anyone on the field.  Now in his sixth season, the talented Mr. Patterson – who has never quite found his niche as a regular in the offense – may have finally discovered himself at running back.  Cordarrelle is a violent, take-no-prisoners, downhill runner.  In fact, if you kind of squinted as you watched him running with the ball, you might swear you were watching LeGarrette Blount.  He even has a similar weakness.  When the defense could get him going sideways, his impact was much less.  If the Patterson at running back experiment continues, this could have very interesting long-term repercussions.

In the end – as usually happens when the Patriots take the field – New England walked off the victor, 31-17 (gamebook) (box score).  One way or another they almost always figure out a way to beat you.

Deferring a Mistake?

Let me begin by saying that I am a big fan of deferring after winning the coin toss.  Often you will hear coaches and commentators chat about the opportunity to end the first half with a score, and then open the second half with another.  Sound philosophy, but I maintain that even if you don’t end the first half with that score, you still want to begin the second half with the ball in your hands aware of what has to happen in the second half for you to win the game.

Therefore, it came as no real surprise that – after the Los Angeles Rams won the toss against New Orleans – they deferred.  Five minutes and 35 seconds later, the Rams watched as running back Alvin Kamara completed a 10-play, 75-yard drive by skirting left end for an 11-yard touchdown run.

Nothing the Saints could have done could have worked better to engage the home crowd.  From time-to-time throughout the rest of the game, the Rams would momentarily silence the crowd.  But the rest would only be momentary.  The Saints continually re-sparked them.  Perhaps, when you’re on the road against one of the most dynamic offenses in the league, deferring may not be the best option.

As opposed to the Seattle crowd, the fans in the Superdome had just come to watch and enjoy a football game.  Their contribution was less outright noise, and more a contagious energy that the home team clearly feeds off of.

Three minutes and 17 seconds into the game, New Orleans coach Sean Payton upped the anti.  After a third-and-two run came up short, Payton kept his offense on the field.  In fact, he kept backup quarterback Taysom Hill in the shotgun, trusting him to throw the pass in this critical situation.  It looks like he wanted to throw to starting quarterback Drew Brees – who had lined up at receiver.  But when Hill wasn’t completely sure, he pulled the ball down and sprinted 9 yards for the first down, punctuating the run by lowering his shoulder and driving Ram defensive back Lamarcus Joyner backward for the last couple of yards.

In no uncertain terms, the Saints, the Rams, the crowd at the Superdome and all the fans watching on TV understood that Sean Payton was coaching this like a playoff game.  He had no intention of trading field goals for Ram touchdowns.

The Saints went on to score touchdowns on 5 of their 6 first half drives (the other ending with a turnover), going 5-5 in the red zone.  This was all part of a first half, offensive orgy, the likes of which the fans tuned in hoping to see.  Neither team punted, and the first half saw 52 points scored and 557 yards of offense.

To this point, most of the offense favored the Saints, who carried a 35-17 lead into the locker room.  To the Rams’ credit they didn’t let the game end like that.  Rarely behind at all this season, the heretofore undefeated Rams came roaring back.  Trailing 35-14 at one point, Los Angeles evened the game at 35-all with still almost ten minutes left in the game.

After turning around the organization last year, the Rams are back this year intent on proving that they are as good as anyone in the game.  They left that lingering impression, even as New Orleans pulled away late for the 45-35 win (gamebook) (box score).  The game’s clinching play came with about 4 minutes left when Michael Thomas slipped in behind Ram corner Marcus Peters.  Brees (who finished the game with 346 passing yards and 4 touchdowns) lobbed the ball over Peters’ head, and Thomas did the rest on a 72-yard catch-and-run touchdown.

Prominent in this game is an officiating trend that I find quite disappointing.

The game is tied at 14 in the second quarter, with 13:14 left before halftime.  The Rams, facing fourth-and-four, are setting up for a field goal (they are on the Saint 16-yard-line).  But it’s a fake.  Holder Johnny Hekker took off with the snap and raced around right end, stretching the ball toward the first-down marker.  The spot was not generous, and the ball was marked short.  The Rams challenged the call.

Looking at the replay, it looked for all the world that Hekker had extended the ball past the marker, but after review, the call stood. 

Later, the tables seemed to balance a bit.  As Ram running back Malcom Brown weaved down the sideline for an 18-yard touchdown, it appeared – on replay – that he had clearly stepped out at about the eight-yard line.  Again, the call on the field (touchdown) was upheld.

The NFL has made no secret that this year they are making a sustained effort to back the call on the field.  I confess myself perplexed by this.  There are certainly problems with the replay system as it’s now run, but one of the problems is not the replay replacing the official’s correct call with an incorrect one.  The one constant in the system is that the replay (most of the time) gives a clearer view of what actually happened on the play.  Wherever possible, replay gets it right.  The most fallible element in the equation continues to be the human referees.  Why we are now treating them as mostly infallible makes little sense to me.

Pack Not Quite Back

The Sunday before, Packer quarterback Brett Hundley melted down on his home turf, tossing 3 interceptions and taking 6 sacks in a disappointing 23-0 loss to Baltimore.  Now there was about 4:25 left in the game as Hundley and the Packers broke the huddle.  The visiting Pack was facing off against one of the best and hottest teams in the NFL, Green Bay stood first-and-10 on the Pittsburgh 16, trailing just 28-21.

Green Bay is the middle stop on what I have called “back-up quarterback week”. (On Thursday we dropped in on Houston and Tom Savage).  Off to a 4-1 start with Aaron Rodgers behind center, the Packer season tilted suddenly in Week Six when a broken collarbone removed Rodgers from the equation – possibly for the season.

Into the breach stepped Hundley – a fifth-round pick out of UCLA in 2015.  Having thrown just 11 career passes before that fateful game, Brett was tossed into the middle of what has turned out to be a fairly brutal schedule.  After Minnesota (currently 9-2), Hundley’s first two career starts were against New Orleans (8-3) and Detroit (6-5).  After facing the 3-8 Bears in Week Ten, Hundley’s education tour led him against Baltimore (6-5) and now Pittsburgh (who started the day 8-2).

Of the teams he has faced so far, three of the six boast top-five total defenses – and Baltimore and Pittsburgh are numbers two and three in pass defense. But Hundley is a confident kid.  After being a bit overwhelmed by the Vikings and Saints, he rebounded nicely in his next two games.  He completed just 30 of 58 passes in those first two games (51.7%) for just 244 yards – an average of just 4.21 yards per pass and 8.1 per completion.  His 1 touchdown pass in those games was more than offset by 4 early interceptions, and his 39.7 passer rating was a concern.

But in his games against softer defenses in Detroit and Chicago, Brett was 44 of 63 (69.8%).  While this was much better, the down-field attack was still lagging.  He totaled just 457 yards in the two games – an average of just 7.25 yards per attempted pass, and only 10.4 per completion.  He threw no interceptions in those two games, but also threw just 1 touchdown pass.  Still, for someone making just his second and third career starts, his 95.8 passer rating was encouraging.

And then came the Baltimore game.

Understandably, few fans or pundits expected much from Hundley against the elite Steeler defense.

The Game of His Life

The Steelers opened the game with a 59-yard, 12-play, 6:46 touchdown drive to take a 6-0 lead (the extra-point was missed).

Now it was Hundley’s turn to answer.  After two running plays gave Green Bay a first-down on the Steeler 48, Brett threw his first pass of the game – a five-yard out to Davante Adams.

The drive seemed to stall immediately, as a running play gained nothing and Hundley seemed to take his eighteenth sack in just 178 drop-backs.  But Pittsburgh cornerback Artie Burns was flagged for a penalty that gave Green Bay a first down on the Steeler 38.

Two plays later – with the Packers facing a second-and-11 – Pittsburgh dropped into a cover-three zone.  At least 10 of the Steelers dropped into cover-three.  Cornerback Burns trumped his earlier mistake by chasing Adams back over the middle, leaving his deep third of the field uncovered.  Hundley looked up to find receiver Randall Cobb running all alone up the left sideline.  Seconds later, Hundley had tossed a 39-yard touchdown pass, and the Packers had a 7-6 lead.

After an interception gave the Packers the ball back at their own 45, a one-yard run and an incompletion put Green Bay at third-and-9.  The Steelers faked a blitz.  Five defenders started toward the line at the snap, but linebacker Ryan Shazier fell almost immediately back into coverage, looking for the running back he was supposed to cover.  But that first step in would prove fatal.  That running back – rookie Jamaal Williams – already had three or four steps on Shazier.  Shortly after Hundley flipped Williams the ball, center Corey Linsley peeled back and picked off Shazier.  Jamaal then found an alley and bolted the rest of the way for a 54-yard touchdown.  There was 1:22 left in the first quarter and Hundley had already thrown for 98 yards and two touchdowns (on only 3 completions).  The Steelers ended the quarter with 10:41 of possession, but trailing 14-6.

But Brett was not done.

The rest of the first half would pass uneventfully, and Green Bay’s first possession of the second half came down to a third-and-3 at their own 45.  The Packers defeated Pittsburgh’s single-high coverage with outside vertical routes from Jordy Nelson on the left and Adams on the right – the twin vertical routes preventing safety Mike Mitchell from committing to either side.  Adams shed cornerback Coty Sensabaugh with a slick stop-and-go, and Brett hit him in stride up the sideline.  From there, Davante eluded the late-arriving Mitchell and outran the rest of the defense for the 55-yard touchdown.

The game was 32 minutes and 54 seconds old, and the Packers had stunned the Pittsburgh defense for 3 touchdown passes of at least 39 yards – two of them over 50 yards.

To that point of the season, Green Bay had produced no touchdown passes of 35 yards or more, and only 2 over 30 yards.  In Brett’s first 158 passes, he had managed just 2 touchdowns and only 4 completions of more than 30 yards, none longer than 46 yards.  Through his first 12 passes against the Steelers, Brett already had 3 touchdown passes and 170 yards on 9 completions.

Back Come the Steelers

At that point, though, the game turned decisively in the favor of the Steelers – and especially their defense.  Reverting to simple man coverages and basic zones, the Steelers stopped trying to confuse the rookie, opting instead to force him to hold the ball long enough for the Steeler pass rush (second best in the NFL at the start of the night) to get home.  The strategy worked as well as could be hoped.  The next 8 times Brett dropped back he went 0 for 5 with 3 sacks.  Over their next three series, Green Bay ran a total of 13 plays netting 0 yards.  During this stretch, the Steelers never reverted to blitzing, finding ample pressure with simple line stunts that Green Bay struggled to adjust to.

So now, there are just less than nine minutes left in the game.  The Packers are seven points down, and are starting on their own 23.  But now their approach has changed.  Instead of giving the pass rush a shot to disrupt him, Hundley would line up in the pistol and fire at the first receiver that broke open.  This approach would depend on Hundley’s ability to quickly recognize and accurately react to what the Steller defense would present him.

As exciting as the earlier big plays had been, if I were a Packer fan I would be even more excited by Hundley’s performance in this last drive.

On first down, Pittsburgh got cute again.  They brought cornerback Mike Hilton off the corner.  The defense became a zone-blitz, with four rushers coming from Hundley’s left and the presumed rushers on his right dropping into coverage.  But the rushers from his left gave tight end Richard Rodgers a brief opening.  Hundley saw it immediately and had the ball in Rodgers’ hands before Shazier could slide over and close the window.  That play picked up 25 yards and put the ball on the Packer 48.

Now the Steelers dialed up one of their rare blitzes, but wanted to play zone behind it.  With Bud Dupree coming untouched from the edge, Hundley rolled away from the pressure and noted that Hilton – responsible for the right flat – was slow getting into his zone.  He tossed the ball to a wide-open Cobb for 12 more yards. And suddenly Green Bay was on the Steeler 40 with 7:28 left.

A one yard run left Brett with a second-and-9.  From a single-high man look, the Steelers dropped into zone coverage.  Again, Hundley saw it immediately.  With a quick glance to his left, Brett caused Shazier to take a step in that direction, widening the gap between him and Dupree (who had the right flat) just enough open a seam in the zone for Davante Adams to pop through for a 12-yard reception.  First-and-10 Packers on the Pittsburgh 27.

With both corners lined up 12 yards off the receivers, Hundley picked up 7 easy yards on a quick toss to Nelson lined up wide left.  A run and another short pass to Nelson (with Jordy stretching for the chains) picked up the first down at the Steeler 16 with still more than four minutes to go.

But here the Steelers would make their stand.  A running play was buried in the backfield for a 2-yard loss.  Hundley’s second-down pass flew over the head of a well-covered Adams.  On third-and-12, a dump pass to Cobb got half of the yardage.  Now it was fourth-and-6 with the clock spinning under three minutes to play.  The Packers decided to go for it, but spent their second time out when they didn’t like the defense that they saw.

Now down to one time out, still trailing by seven with 2:50 left, The Packers came out with an empty backfield, with Nelson, Geronimo Allison, and Rodgers lined up to the right of the formation, and Adams stacked behind Cobb to the left.  Pittsburgh played man coverage across with two high safeties.  This allowed Adams a one-on-one opportunity against William Gay, who he beat quickly with an inside-outside move.  Hundley delivered the ball perfectly, and the Packers had first and goal at the Pittsburgh 4.  Seconds later, Jamaal Williams soared over the goal line, and the game was tied.

No Joy in Green Bay

The game wouldn’t finish in story-book fashion though.  Green Bay would get one more possession starting on their own 18 with 1:20 left and just the one time out.  After a first-down sack, the Pack went conservative – a short pass and a run – and punted, playing for overtime.  With 17 seconds left, Pittsburgh moved from their own 30 to Green Bay’s 33 on two sideline throws to Antonio Brown (who finished with 169 yards and two touchdowns on 10 catches for the day).  One play later, Chris Boswell ended the evening with a 53-yard field goal.

After controlling the ball for 19:05 of the first half, after going 3-for-4 on third down in the second half, and after Le’Veon Bell racked up 114 yards from scrimmage (53 rushing and 61 receiving) in the second half alone, Pittsburgh still needed a long field goal as time expired to subdue the Packers (gamebook).

Aftermath

For the Steelers, they are now 9-2 and three games ahead in their conference with five to play.  They currently hold the top seed in the conference – getting a strength of victory nod over the Patriots.  Those two will meet in a significant contest in a couple of weeks.

Green Bay is now 5-6 and has four teams ahead of them for the final playoff spot in the NFC.  A 9-7 mark will probably not get you in on the NFC side, so the Pack – as they had to last year – will pretty much have to win out to stand a chance.

For the next two weeks they will face the 4-7 Buccaneers and then the 0-10 Browns.  After that, the schedule gets nasty, again.  They go into Carolina to play the 8-3 Panthers, then face the 9-2 Vikings at home, before ending the season on the road in Detroit (6-5).

The intriguing thing about this concluding schedule is that Aaron Rodgers – who was throwing the football prior to the game – will work out tomorrow (Friday) to see if he could return to the practice field Saturday.  If healthy, Aaron would be eligible to come off IR in time for those last three games.

So, if the improving Brett Hundley can keep this team alive with wins against two lesser opponents, this Green Bay team may well have playoff hope.  It’s still a very long shot, and the Pack has no margin for error anymore.  But the pieces are there, at least, for another fantastic finish.

Life After Mr Rodgers

Week Six became an official week of mourning in Wisconsin when Aaron Rodgers went down and out with a broken collarbone.  The expectation is that Rodgers will miss the rest of the season.

I don’t intend to chronicle every major injury that occurs during the season, but a few weeks ago when Houston lost J.J. Watt for the season, I pointed out that his loss went beyond his on the field contributions.  The same is true for Rodgers.  Like Watt, he was the face of his franchise and one of the marquee faces of the NFL.  Any team that loses its starting quarterback faces a long season.  When that quarterback is, arguably, the best in the game, it casts a pretty long shadow over the rest of your season.

I fully believe everyone in the Green Bay organization completely understands the magnitude of this loss.  To their credit, they are not whining or looking back.  They have saddled up the new man and expect to win games with him.  It was evident in the post-game press conference (after last week’s 26-17 loss to New Orleans[gamebook]) that Head Coach Mike McCarthy truly expected his team to win that game.  One of the best signs to come out of the New Orleans game is the resolve of the coaching staff.  This will not be a lost season.  It was also heart-warming to watch the Green Bay faithful embrace the new guy.  There is another very interesting development to come out of this game.  But first let’s introduce the new guy.

Let the Brett Hundley Era Begin

Drafted in the fifth round (#147 overall) in 2015 out of UCLA, Brett Hundley started for the Bruins in his freshman year.  After three seasons at the Bruin helm, Brett passed on his senior season to enter the draft.  In 1241 college passes, he completed 67.4% of them for almost 10,000 yards (9,966 to be exact), a 75-25 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and a 150.8 passer rating.

He also ran for 30 touchdowns (in 40 games) and caught a touchdown pass – so Brett has some tools.

Before this season, he had only appeared in four games, completing just 2 of 10 passes with an interception.  This season he appeared in the end of the Week Four victory over Chicago, completing his only pass for 0 yards.  Then, a week ago Sunday, he saw his first extended action in the NFL against Minnesota.  The results were less than inspiring (18 of 33 for just 157 yards with 3 interceptions).

Making his first start, Brett led the Packers on touchdown drives in two of his first four possessions last Sunday.  Halfway through the second period, Green Bay led 14-7.

It was downhill after that – and ultimately there wasn’t enough production from Brett and the passing game.  The first half ended without a completed pass to either of Green Bay’s top two receivers (Jordy Nelson or Davante Adams), and Hundley finished the day 12 of 25 for just 87 yards, with no completion longer than 14 yards.

But alongside Hundley’s growing pains was another very interesting development.  The resuscitation of the Packer running game.

Yes, That Was the Packers with 181 Rushing Yards

Last year’s 10-6 team ranked only twentieth in rushing, and didn’t crack the 100-yard mark in any of their playoff games.  They had no runner that managed even 500 yards for the season.  The last Packer team to have any real commitment to the run was the 2014 team, led by their last 1,000-yards rusher, Eddie Lacy (that team went 12-4, losing the NFC Championship Game to Seattle in overtime).  When you have a passer like Rodgers, it’s hard to commit strongly to the run.

But now, with one Aaron on the shelf, the Packers have to run the ball.  And Sunday afternoon a new Aaron emerged.

Hello Aaron Jones

The Packer’s fifth-round draft pick this year was invested in running back Aaron Jones from UTEP.  Like Brett, Aaron skipped his senior year after 35 college games and 4,114 rushing yards (a 6.3 average per carry).  He ran for 33 touchdowns and caught passes for 7 more.  He first came to the nation’s attention when he chalked up 125 yards in a Week Five win in Dallas.  But Sunday was his coming out party as well.  In his first game as the centerpiece of the offense, Jones showed great burst and finished with 131 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.

With 44 yards from Hundley, the Packers piled up 180 rushing yards through the first three quarters.  But the passing game’s inability to convert those yards into points forced Green Bay to shelve the run game in the fourth quarter.

Heroes on the Line

But while Jones was good and Hundley had his moments, the revelation of this game was Green Bay’s offensive line.  Mostly recognized only as the big guys protecting Rodgers, this group has been generally under-appreciated.  Right guard Jahri Evans has been named to 6 Pro Bowls, but the rest of the group has combined for only one such honor (David Bakhtiari last season).

Given, now, the chance to run the ball as the main cog of the offense, the entire line – including the less recognized Brian Bulaga (RT) and Corey Linsley (C) showed that they could possibly be a dominant run-blocking line.  Particularly impressive, I thought, was left guard Justin McCray.  Undrafted out of Central Florida, the rookie lineman opened large holes in the middle of the Saint defense, and pulled with great authority.  In the long run, his emergence might be as important as any on an otherwise disappointing day in Green Bay.

Also worthy of note is tight end Martellus Bennett.  Not the most enthusiastic blocking tight end I’ve ever seen, Bennett is, nonetheless, quite effective.  On most of the productive running plays, it was Bennett who was neutralizing New Orleans’ star defensive lineman Cameron Jordan – including Jones’ two longest runs of the afternoon (his 46-yard touchdown sprint in the first quarter, and his 21-yard run around right end in the third).  On that last run, Bennett was one of three tight-ends on the right side and was pivotal in opening up the sideline for Jones.

Bennett also threw my favorite block of the game.  On the play before the 21-yard run, Martellus lined up on the left side and tossed DE Trey Hendrickson to the ground like he was a stuffed animal.  Bennett is an excellent receiving tight end – and apparently a better blocker than people may realize.

For this to have much meaning, Hundley and the passing game will have to gain enough effectiveness to allow the running game to pound people for the full four quarters.  But if Green Bay can mount a top-ten running game to go with the air attack once Rodgers gets back, this could bode very well, indeed, for the Packer future.

Meanwhile in New Orleans

The flip side of this story isn’t so rosy for the Saints, who won the game but were pushed around in the run game again.  Now allowing 114.2 rush yards a game (dropping them to twentieth in the league), and now allowing 4.9 yards per rush (ranking them thirtieth out of thirty-two teams), run defense remains a persistent shortcoming for this team.  In the six games they’ve played so far, only the Dolphins and the Lions have failed to run for at least 119 yards against them (and neither of those teams tried very hard).

In watching them play, it doesn’t look like a problem that will just go away.  The two inside linebackers, Craig Robertson and A.J. Klein are much better in coverage.  Against the run, neither shows great instinct. Neither distinguished himself as a tackler, either.  Starting right defensive end Alex Okafor is very quick on the pass rush, but is undersized and a liability against the run.  By the second half, Hendrickson was playing in his place on running downs – with only marginal improvements.

As long as the offense can put points on the board and force other teams to keep throwing the ball, the Saint defense should hold up pretty well.  But, eventually, this will rise up and bite them.

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.

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.

One Game More to Decide Playoff Teams

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

AFC Eastern Division

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

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

Neither of those outcomes is unthinkable.

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

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

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

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

AFC North

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

AFC West

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

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

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

AFC South

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

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

NFC South

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

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

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

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

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

NFC East

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

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

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

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

NFC West

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

NFC North

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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