Keys to the NFL Divisional Playoffs

NFL fans and media rarely agree on much. However, I think we can all agree that Wild Card weekend did not produce much excitement or competitive football. While it is a little early in the week to pick the divisional playoff matchups, here is a key to each.

 

Seahawks at Falcons- Are the Falcons ready for the big time?

Seattle should have zero concerns about being ready for a game like this. They have played in dozens of them over the last handful of years. Like always, the defense will limit scoring opportunities and the Seahawks will ask Russell Wilson to make a few key throws to get the win.

Atlanta is a different story. Despite Matt Ryan having an MVP worthy season, the Falcons have flown mostly under the radar and have not been placed in the glamorous national TV windows very often. A scenario where Atlanta’s offense simply scores too much for Seattle to keep up is conceivable. However, a scenario where Atlanta folds under newfound spotlight is just as conceivable. With Earl Thomas out, Seattle’s defense is a tad more vulnerable. Given what the Falcons are capable of on offense and their much improved defense, it is now or never for Atlanta.

Texans at Patriots – Houston needs some kind of early break

The Texans are 15.5 point underdogs for a reason. New England shut them out early in the year with a third-string quarterback. Fast forward a few months and now Tom Brady is back in the fold for New England. As ominous as that may sound for Houston, anything is possible. If that was not the case, games like this would never be played.

There are a few things that work in Houston’s favor. First, the coaching staff has numerous ties to New England. There isn’t much the Patriots can do that would surprise the AFC South champs. Also, much-maligned quarterback Brock Osweiler had the best game of his young career last year in Denver against the Patriots defense.

The Texans are here because of its defense. As atrocious as the quarterback play has been, the top-ranked defense has been that good. It will be up to that unit to force a turnover that leads to easy points early in the game and give the massive underdogs some belief. A big play on special teams would also serve the same purpose. Houston cannot fall in a big hole early if they want any chance at all.

Steelers at Chiefs – Steelers pass protection

No matter how good he is at sandbagging his injuries, there is no way Ben Roethlisberger goes from a walking boot to fully healthy in a week. Thus, those trademark Roethlisberger scrambles under pressure to extend plays are likely off the table. It is up to Pittsburgh’s offensive line to keep Kansas City’s pass rushers away from their franchise quarterback.

Photo Courtesy of steelersdepot.com

This will not be an easy task. The Chiefs have three or four guys that are capable of chasing down any quarterback in this league. Their defense is led by a healthy Justin Houston. Le’Veon Bell will not run wild against the Chiefs like he did against Miami last week, but he will need to run well enough to take some heat off of the offensive line as well. Looking back on it, Pittsburgh’s 43-14 early-season blowout of Kansas City is one of the true oddities of the NFL season. This game will be a lot closer one way or the other.

 

 

Packers at Cowboys – Green Bay’s third-down defense

This may be the toughest game of the weekend to call, but it is the easiest to size up. The only way anyone is going to stop Aaron Rodgers and the Packers right now is by keeping their offense on the sideline. Dallas has been near the top of the league in time of possession and third-down conversions all year long.

Photo Courtesy of thelandryhat.com

The Packers defense has struggled to get off the field on third down, raking just 22nd in that category. Dallas will dance with what brought them here. They need to stay in manageable down and distance scenarios with a heavy dose of Ezekiel Elliott. It is up to Clay Matthews and company to ensure that Rodgers gets enough opportunities to work his magic. Here is to hoping at least one of these games is half as good as Monday’s national championship game I fell asleep during.

 

 

 

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

 

 

Blame for Packers’ Issues is Being Misplaced

Even with their win Monday night, the Green Bay Packers will need to be basically flawless from here on out to make the playoffs. Fans, analysts, and media alike have all chimed in on why the ultra-consistent Packers suddenly find themselves sitting at 5-6. In order to get to the root of the issue in Green Bay, you first have to look at what is not the problem.

I am not sure exactly when the “Aaron Rodgers is no longer any good” campaign got started by fans and media, but it is a joke. In his “off year”, he has thrown for over 3,000 yards, 27 touchdowns, and just seven interceptions through 10 games. He also has a flawed roster (I will get there later) still at least somewhat alive for a playoff spot. My goodness folks, does anyone have any clue how many quarterbacks would take Rodgers’ “off year” as the best of their career?

The Packers have a lot of issues, but Aaron Rodgers certainly is not one of them. With him, they will be playing meaningful games during the last month of the season. Without him, they would be picking in the top five of the 2017 draft.

While Mike McCarthy should not be completely absolved of blame like his quarterback, coaching is also nowhere near the top of the list of problems in Green Bay. Since McCarthy took over as head coach prior to the 2006 season, Green Bay has missed the playoffs only twice. Additionally, McCarthy has an above .500 record in the postseason and has brought home a Super Bowl title. He clearly knows what he is doing.

The whole “he had good players” argument is such a cop out when evaluating any coach. Every good player needs a good coach and vice versa. McCarthy’s record speaks for itself, and if he were let go by the Packers, he would be unemployed for an hour before another team made him their coach.

Also, he did not suddenly become dumb over this past off-season. As Bill Parcells once said, “if they want you to cook the meal, they ought to at least let you buy some of the groceries”. In the NFL, the meal is winning games and the players are the groceries. McCarthy is merely a coach. He has minimal to no control over the composition of the roster.

Packers issues

Photo from rrstar.com

Often times when a team struggles, it is as simple as looking at the head coach and/or quarterback, but this is an exception. In Green Bay, the majority of the blame for the sudden dip in performance should go to one man, General Manager Ted Thompson.

Ever since Thompson took over in 2005, the Packers have been about drafting well and developing their own talent. This approach has and continued to serve them well on offense. Everyone knows about the talent they have at the skill positions, but they are also really good along the offensive line. They have struggled to find a workhorse running back that can stay on the field, but McCarthy gets very creative in order to give the Packers some semblance of a ground game.

However, the same method has failed in grand fashion when building the defense. Prior to Monday night, the Packers had given up 30+ points in four straight games. That had not happened in Green Bay since 1953.

On the Packers website, all but two players on their defensive depth chart were drafted by the Packers. They are 26th in total defense. Quite frankly, I am surprised the ranking is that high after the last month. Their best draft picks like Clay Matthews and Morgan Burnett are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. The players are giving their best effort, but the vast majority of the secondary and linebacker corps does not belong anywhere near an NFL field at the moment.

Yes, I know the Packers had been hit hard by injuries, particularly in the secondary. The fact is every team in the league deals with a ton of injuries by this time of year. All 53 guys on a roster should be ready to play at the drop of a hat. If the reserves cannot play, that is on the person who put the roster together.

Packers issues

Photo from rantsports.com

Thompson’s approach to free agency is also really starting to hurt the Packers. They are almost allergic to bringing in any sort of noteworthy free agent. In the last handful of years, I came up with only three free agent signings that were designed to make an immediate impact. There are teams who sign that many free agents in a week during the offseason.

Those signings were tight end Jared Cook, defensive end/linebacker Julius Peppers, and defensive tackle Letroy Guion. They are all nice players when healthy, but this roster still has a ton of holes. All this year has done is bring them to light.

I have never been one to advocate breaking the bank in free agency, but you have to look outside your own building for answers more often than the Packers do.

Monday night was a step in the right direction for the Packers. If they somehow sneak into the playoffs, no one will want to face that offense. To blame Rodgers and/or McCarthy for their issues is comical. They are both making the best out of what they have to work with. This franchise will go as far as Rodgers and McCarthy take it for a few more years. In fact, they are the only people keeping it competitive.

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