Minnesota Vikings offensive line

Roster breakdown: Assessing the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line

In 2016, the Minnesota Vikings offensive line was historically bad. The Vikings ranked dead last in rushing yards per attempt and yards per game. The Vikings also ranked in the bottom ten in sacks allowed (38) and quarterback hits allowed (104). Inconsistent offensive line play was the main reason why the Vikings fell flat after a 5-0 start two years ago.

Last season, however, the offensive line vastly improved. Under second-year line coach Tony Sporano, Minnesota became one of the best rushing teams in the NFL, ranking seventh. The Vikings also improved in pass protection, allowing only 27 sacks in 2017.

Although improved, the offensive line is still the Minnesota Vikings’ weakest position group and should be one of the team’s main focuses this offseason. Here’s a rundown of the Vikings’ offensive line from last season and how they can continue to improve.

Riley Reiff

Minnesota Vikings offensive line

Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Riley Reiff works out with a coach during Vikings’ minicamp. (Photo by Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

The Vikings signed Reiff to a five-year, $58 million contract last March during free agency. Reiff started all but one game in 2017 and was a solid starter at left tackle. The former Detroit Lion helped improve the Vikings’ run and passing game and is the favorite to be the team’s starting left tackle in 2018.

Although an improvement from 2016 starter Matt Kalil, Reiff was ranked as the 59th best tackle by Pro Football Focus.

Due to his massive contract and six years of NFL experience, the Vikings are very unlikely to move on from Reiff until his contract expires in 2022.

Mike Remmers

Minnesota Vikings offensive line

Vikings right tackle Mike Remmers drops back against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Photo by Carlos Gonzalez/ startribune.com)

Along with Reiff, the Vikings also signed right tackle Mike Remmers to a five-year deal last spring. Reiff was also a solid starter along the offensive line, replacing a struggling T.J. Clemmings. Remmers is a strong run blocker that helped clear running lanes for both Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon, allowing them both to put up career years.

At times, Remmers struggled against elite pass rushers, allowing the most sacks on the team.

Remmers is the favorite to start at tackle again next season, though there will likely be added competition next summer.

Nick Easton

Nick Easton was brought into the Vikings organization in 2015 and has slowly worked himself in as the team’s starting left guard. Easton ended his season early by fracturing his right ankle in a 16-0 win against the Green Bay Packers.

The second-year guard played below average this season, leaving his future in Minnesota in doubt.

Easton will be a restricted free agent in March, meaning that other teams are free to negotiate contracts with him.

Joe Berger

Joe Berger has enjoyed a productive 13-year career in the NFL, playing at both the center and guard positions. Prior to the 2017 season, Berger had announced that this season would be his last before retiring.

This season, Berger was one of the bright spots along the Vikings’ offensive line as an extremely effective run blocker.

Berger has been extremely durable throughout his tenure with Minnesota, only missing two starts in the last three years. Berger’s run blocking and experience will be sorely missed by the Minnesota Vikings, and his replacement will most likely be found in either free agency or in April’s draft.

Pat Elflein

Minnesota Vikings offensive line

Pat Elflein prepares to snap a pass to quarterback Case Keenum. (Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire)

Pat Elflein was also a new face in Minnesota after being selected in the third-round of last year’s draft. The center out of Ohio State started 14 games in 2017 and impressed many with his run and pass-blocking skills.

An ankle injury in the NFC Championship Game ended Elflein’s season, and he is expected to receive surgery this offseason. After a very promising rookie season, Elflein is expected to be the Vikings’ starting center for many years to come.

What to Expect

With the Minnesota Vikings being such a deep team at every other position, it seems very likely that improving the offensive line will be the priority this season (after figuring out their quarterback situation, of course). Finding a replacement for the retiring Joe Berger at right guard will be key, as well as adding depth to the tackle positions.

Although the Vikings’ offensive line improved mightily in 2017, there is still much more work to be done at the guard and tackle positions.

 

Featured image by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

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Minnesota Vikings receivers

Roster Breakdown: Assessing the Minnesota Vikings’ pass catchers

We’re now halfway through the month of February, and the celebration in Philadelphia has finally died down. The 2017 season ended only a few weeks ago, but front offices throughout the league are already preparing for next season.

Organizations are frantically trying to free up cap space and lock down their key players with long-term contracts. An important part of this preparation process is to identify any major weaknesses on the team’s roster.

For the Minnesota Vikings, this means evaluating every single position from top to bottom. So far, we have discussed the Vikings’ needs at the quarterback and running back positions, and now we move on to assess their deep group of pass catchers.

Stefon Diggs

Minnesota Vikings receivers

Stefon Diggs catches a sideline catch that would soon be remembered as the “Minneapolis Miracle.” (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Stefon Diggs quietly enjoyed another productive season despite being outshined by fellow receiver Adam Thielen. Last season, Diggs caught 64 passes for 849 yards and eight touchdowns. Those numbers don’t jump off of the page, but Diggs did just enough to keep the Vikings’ offense clicking. Diggs averaged over 13 yards per catch, displaying impressive speed and quickness.

Diggs ended his season with an exclamation point with the “Minneapolis Miracle” in a playoff matchup against the New Orleans Saints. The former fifth-round pick will only be under contract through the 2018 season. This likely means that Diggs is due for a big payday this time next year.

Adam Thielen

Aside from quarterback Case Keenum, wide receiver Adam Thielen was the talk of the town in Minnesota during the 2017 season. After spending his first two years in Minnesota on special teams, Thielen impressed many in 2016.

To follow up his impressive third season, Thielen caught 91 passes for 1,276 yards, earning himself a Pro Bowl nod. Thielen demonstrated his shifty route running ability, allowing himself to consistently get open, as well as relieving pressure from Diggs.

The Vikings’ front office is extremely fortunate to have re-signed him prior to his career year in 2017. Thielen and the Vikings agreed to a three-year, $27 million deal last March, allowing him to stay in his home state through the 2020 season.

Kyle Rudolph

Minnesota Vikings receivers

Kyle Rudolph runs after a catch in the Pro Bowl. (Photo by AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Along with Thielen, Kyle Rudolph was the Minnesota Vikings’ second Pro Bowler from the offensive side of the ball. Rudolph has consistently been a solid starting tight end for the Vikings throughout his seven years in the league. The tight end out of Notre Dame has started every game in the last three seasons for the Vikings. During that span, Rudolph also has gained over 500 receiving yards twice.

Rudolph is currently under contract through the 2019 season and will earn nearly $8 million throughout those seasons.

Notable backups

If there is one thing that the Vikings’ offense struggled with in 2017, it would be spreading the ball. Diggs, Thielen and Rudolph accounted for 77 percent of the Vikings’ receptions by wide receivers or tight ends.

Minnesota Vikings receivers

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, runs a pattern during rookie minicamp. (Photo by AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Not including these three, the Vikings’ top pass catcher would have been Laquon Treadwell. Treadwell was a first-round pick in the 2016 Draft who has struggled to find playing time so far in his career. In 2017, Treadwell only caught 20 passes for a meager 200 yards and no touchdowns.

Also on the depth chart are wide receivers Jarius Wright and Michael Floyd, as well as tight end David Morgan. These three combined for 38 receptions and 371 yards.

Floyd is the only one of these four players that will not return to the Vikings in 2018, and will be an unrestricted free agent in March.

What to Expect

The Minnesota Vikings have one of the most underrated receiving corps in the NFL. Although they don’t have a true No. 1 wide receiver, it is unlikely that the Vikings will target a wide receiver in either free agency or high in the draft.

The one-two punch of Thielen and Diggs is one of the best duos in the NFL. This, along with Rudolph as a safety blanket, forms a very solid group of pass catchers.

If the Vikings do decide to make a change with this position, they will most likely release Wright. Releasing Wright would save the Minnesota Vikings over $4 million in cap space.

 

Featured image by Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

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Roster breakdown: Assessing the Minnesota Vikings’ running backs

Over the last few years, the running back position has changed drastically. The NFL has transitioned from hard-nosed power backs like Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore to shifty, quick backs with good receiving skills. Although the days of true run-first teams are long gone, a successful running game can make or break a football team’s season. This is very evident with the Seattle Seahawks, who have struggled to make a deep playoff run since the loss of Marshawn Lynch.

This was also the case for the Minnesota Vikings prior to this season. In 2016, the Vikings ranked last in both rushing yards per game and yards per attempt, due to a porous offensive line and inconsistent running back play. The Vikings bounced back this season, thanks to the emergence of rookie running back Dalvin Cook and former offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.

With Shurmur leaving for the New York Giants’ head coaching job, new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo will hope to build from last year’s success. Let’s look at the Minnesota Vikings’ running backs, and how they could continue to improve in 2018.

Dalvin Cook

Dalvin Cook carries the ball in the second half of the game against the New Orleans Saints (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Dalvin Cook impressed many in the beginning of the 2017 season. The rookie from Florida State gained over 400 yards from scrimmage during his first four games. Cook also averaged over five yards per carry in three of those games, with the exception being a 169-yard performance against Tampa Bay. Cook looked like a true three-down back, showing good speed, vision, and ball skills.

Unfortunately, Cook’s promising rookie season was cut short in Week 4 by an ACL tear in his left knee. The injury sidelined Cook for the remainder of the season and may limit his availability during the Vikings’ offseason programs. However, Dalvin Cook and the Vikings are anticipating the knee to be fully healed by the start of training camp next August. Assuming he is fully healthy, Cook will be the starting running back in Minnesota and will be vital to the team’s success in 2018.

Latavius Murray

After Dalvin Cook’s season-ending injury, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon split reps as the Vikings’ starting running back. The Minnesota Vikings signed Murray last offseason to a three-year, $15 million deal. When Murray signed with the Vikings, he was expected to be the starting running back. However, the emergence of Cook forced Murray into a backup role.

After Week 4, Murray was mainly used on first and second down as a true running back, while Jerick McKinnon was utilized on third down passing situations. As the season progressed, however, Murray slowly began to get more snaps, averaging nearly 20 carries a game in the last six games of the regular season.

In total, Murray gained 842 yards and 8 touchdowns, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Murray will be entering his second year on his contract signed last March and is expected to make around $6.3 million, with a base salary of $5.1 million. This means the Vikings could potentially release Murray to clear up cap space, although this is unlikely.

Jerick McKinnon

In 2017, Jerick McKinnon split reps with teammate Latavius Murray as the Vikings’ starting running back after a Week 4 injury to Dalvin Cook. In that time, McKinnon enjoyed one of the most productive seasons of his career, gaining nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage.

Jerick McKinnon runs for a first down in a game against the Green Bay Packers. Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, McKinnon’s production in 2017 also went through several highs and lows. McKinnon followed up 100-yard games with unproductive ones, and was eventually outperformed by Latavius Murray. By the end of the season, McKinnon was mainly used as a receiver out of the backfield on third downs. Since 2017 was the last year on McKinnon’s rookie contract and Dalvin Cook will be returning in 2018, McKinnon will most likely become an unrestricted free agent on March 14th.

C.J Ham, Bishop Sankey & Mack Brown

C.J Ham played every game for the Minnesota Vikings this season as their starting fullback. The converted running back helped pave the way for Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon in 2017, helping the Vikings rank as the NFL’s 7th-best rushing offense. Fullbacks rarely get to carry the football, and Ham only ran seven times in 2017 for 13 yards and a touchdown. Ham is currently under contract through next season and is expected to compete as the team’s starting fullback again during the offseason.

Neither Bishop Sankey or Mack Brown played during the 2017 season, and both players’ contracts expire this offseason. Sankey was a former second-round pick by the Tennessee Titans in the 2014 draft, and has not been able to live up to expectations so far in his career.

Mack Brown is a former undrafted free agent that has played in small stints for the Houston Texans and Washington Redskins. So far in his career, he has rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns, all with the Redskins.

What to Expect

Heading into the 2018 NFL season, the priority for the Minnesota Vikings’ running backs group will be the health of Dalvin Cook. In his limited playing time in 2017, Cook was a dynamic playmaker out of the backfield as a modern three-down running back. Given that he is fully healthy and has returned to his pre-injury form, Cook will be the bona-fide starter in Minnesota.

The Vikings have several possible moves they can make in the running backs room. Releasing Latavius Murray would save the Vikings over $5 million in cap space, but this is very unlikely, since the team already has over $40 million in cap space. The Vikings may also re-sign Mack Brown to a one-year deal to allow him to compete for a backup role with the team.

 

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Minnesota Vikings quarterbacks

Roster breakdown: Assessing the Minnesota Vikings’ quarterbacks

In case you haven’t heard, the NFL is a quarterback league. The quarterback position is by far the most valuable across all 32 teams, and the lack of a franchise quarterback can severely handicap any team, regardless of how much talent is on either side of the ball.

The Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers are very aware of this fact. The losses of Deshaun Watson and Aaron Rodgers sent their respective teams spiraling towards losing seasons.

This is why organizations are willing to dish out big bucks for starting quarterbacks, like the San Francisco 49ers’ recent deal with Jimmy Garoppolo, which was worth a whopping $137.5 million over five years.

The Minnesota Vikings are also aware of the desperate need for a franchise quarterback. In the years after Brett Favre’s (final) retirement, the Vikings have started eight different players at the position, including an aged Donovan McNabb and draft bust Christian Ponder.

This offseason, however, the Vikings have a rather unusual situation. They have three solid quarterbacks that all deserve to be a starter, and their contracts all expire this year. This leaves the Vikings’ front office in an extremely difficult three-way choice.

Should they go with Teddy Bridgewater, the young fan-favorite coming back from a gruesome knee injury? Or should they choose Case Keenum, the underdog that led the Vikings to the NFC championship? Maybe they role with Sam Bradford, the extremely talented gunslinger who has dealt with multiple injuries.

Let’s take a look at all of the Vikings’ quarterbacks and where the team could possibly go heading into the 2018 season.

Case Keenum

Keenum was one of the greatest stories of the 2017 season, going from an unwanted free agent to a franchise hero. He helped lead the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game.

Minnesota Vikings quarterbacks

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum runs between two defenders to earn a first down. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In his 15 regular season games, Case Keenum threw for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and only seven interceptions while posting an impressive 98.3 passer rating. After a knee injury sidelined Bradford in Week 2, Keenum took the starting job and never looked back.

Including the playoffs, Keenum led the Vikings to a 13-4 record. During that time, Keenum showed incredible poise and accuracy from the pocket, taking advantage of speedy wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Despite continued controversy over losing his job to Bradford throughout the regular season, the pressure never bothered Keenum. He consistently silenced any doubts about his playing ability.

What’s possibly more impressive is that Keenum wasn’t even signed by the Vikings until the later part of free agency. Keenum signed a one-year, $2 million deal to be the team’s backup. Keenum’s rags-to-riches story of an underdog fighting his way to the top inspired football fans across the country. Now he has an opportunity to cash in.

Sam Bradford

The Sam Bradford situation is a complicated one to say the least. After an injury-plagued start to his career with the Rams, Bradford was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he played a rather uninspiring single season. He was then traded again to the Minnesota Vikings with only a few weeks before the start of the 2016 season after a gruesome knee injury to former starter Teddy Bridgewater.

Bradford went on to exceed all expectations in 2016, throwing for 3,877 yards and setting a new single-season record for completion percentage at 71.6 percent. He then followed up this campaign with an outstanding season debut against the New Orleans Saints, throwing for 346 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Bradford appeared to be a way-too-early MVP candidate before injuries derailed yet another season, forcing him to miss the remainder of the 2017 season. Bradford’s injuries cast doubt over his ability to play an entire season, and it is uncertain if another team will be willing to give him another opportunity to start.

Teddy Bridgewater

Teddy Bridgewater is one of the biggest wildcards to watch during the 2018 offseason. The 25-year-old has not thrown a meaningful pass in two full years, and many wonder if his catastrophic knee injury before the 2016 season could severely alter his playing style in the future.

Minnesota Vikings quarterbacks

Sam Bradford looks on as Teddy Bridgewater attempts a throw during a Vikings practice. (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

During his first two years as the Vikings’ starting quarterback, Bridgewater slowly improved his play by reducing his interceptions and increasing his completion percentage. Bridgewater did throw two passes this season, although one was intercepted by Cincinnati Bengals safety Shawn Williams.

Although many expect Bridgewater to become an unrestricted free agent this March, there is a scenario in which Bridgewater is retained by the Vikings without negotiating a new contract. Since Bridgewater was placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list until Week 6 of this season, a clause in his rookie contract may allow his rights to be “rolled over” into the 2018 season.

Although unlikely, this process would require a legal battle between the NFL and NFLPA to settle on whether this clause applies to Bridgewater’s situation.

Kyle Sloter

Kyle Sloter went undrafted in the 2017 NFL Draft before being signed by the Denver Broncos. After an impressive preseason outing, he was then signed off the Broncos’ practice squad by the Minnesota Vikings last September.

Sloter did not play at any point during the 2017 season and is expected to compete as the Vikings’ backup quarterback. In his senior year at the University of Northern Colorado, Sloter threw for 2,656 yards, 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

What to Expect

On the surface, it seems that Bradford is the odd man out in Minnesota. Ideally, the Vikings would like to re-sign both Bridgewater and Keenum on short-term contracts and allow them to compete for the starting quarterback position during the 2018 offseason.

However, the Vikings reportedly have interest in soon-to-be free agent Kirk Cousins. The Vikings have plenty of cap space and a solid supporting cast, making it an ideal fit for Cousins should they go that route.

If the team must choose between Keenum and Bridgewater, the best option would most likely be Bridgewater. Despite questions about his surgically-repaired knee, Bridgewater is still very young and has the most potential out of all of the quarterbacks on the Vikings’ roster. If his knee is fully recovered, Bridgewater could have a breakout season in 2018.

 

Featured image by AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King

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Our year of football: 2017-2018 season

NFL Predicated  Standings

2017-2018 Season

1. New England Patriots
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
3. Seattle Seahawks
4. Atlanta Falcons
5. Green Bay Packers
6. New York Giants
7. Dallas Cowboys
8. Kansas City Chiefs
9. Arizona Cardinals
10. Oakland Raiders
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
12. Miami Dolphins
13. Tennessee Titans
14. New Orleans Saints
15. Carolina Panthers
16. Houston Texans
17. Cincinnati Bengals
18. Washington Redskins
19. Detroit Lions
20. Baltimore Ravens
21. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Denver Broncos
23. Minnesota Vikings
24. Los Angeles Chargers
25. Los Angeles Rams
26. Jacksonville Jaguars
27. Indianapolis Colts
28. Buffalo Bills
29. San Francisco 49ers
30. Chicago Bears
31. Cleveland Browns
32. New York Jets

The Season

The 2017-2018 NFL season was anything but ordinary. It shifted from stories permeating of the last season. With those stories that molded political arguments and orchestrated the foundation to likes of humanity. This season touched hearts of survivors of this years unprecedented natural disasters and also filled the Twitter mentions of our beloved president. This year was a year to talk about not only for the sport of football but also the moral fiber of our society.

Politics…?

Simply, sports are not just sports. An argument appeared this year during the season. This year like the last, was highlighted by the many protests started by Colin Kaepernick. During a rally in Alabama, President Trump made some indecent remarks pertaining to the protest of players kneeling during the national anthem and flag. These comments created a dissolution among players and the leagues fans.

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Some backed up the president believing that the protest were disrespectful to our armed forces. Others felt that the players were standing up against injustices in this country that the anthem contradicts and are not true for every citizen. And even others took no position on either side but agreed that the protest were well within the rights of the players. In an attempt to preserve the notion of free speech, across the NFL, teams united in a protest by kneeling  or locking arms in unification before games or not attending the national anthem and flag bearing at all.

The Problem

While some saw the protest as an act of defiance, not only to the president of the United States but to our country as a whole, some even saw the protest as illegitimate and did not stand for what Kaepernick originally kneeled for. While Kaepernick was kneeling to bring awareness to police brutality and racial divisions, the players were kneeling for their right to protest and protection of their First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, the craze did lose its originality as the notion of Kaepernick’s arguments have yet to be discussed.

Many were critical of the NFL’s involvement in political fashions and wanted players to just play citing “football is just a sport”. The problem with that is football is not just a sport. Sports are never just seen as a collection of over sized men and women competing in gladiator like feats for a trophy. Sports have been able to bring people together. Football was never just a sport, not in America. Football itself has embodied the very grit and passion of what it is to be an American.

What football means

In the digital age, football has spread to consumers across the globe and in almost every house in our nation. Players now have platforms and are looked as icons, heroes, and even moral leaders. If you don’t believe it, ask JJ Watt. Ask Benjamin Watson. Or ask Greg Olsen about philanthropy.

Sports are part of the platform to give back, uplift individuals and inspire future generations. You want proof?  Remember when New Orleans natives watched their football time emerge from the ruins of their torn city and bring a title to avenge their will after Katrina. Or how an NBA championship can uplift a city after from a fifty year championship drought to embodied the strength of Cleveland. Or even this year, when Hurricane Harvey ravaged, displaced and destroyed lives in Texas, Houston natives were able to see their beloved baseball team bring home a championship and use the achievement as a beacon of hope.

Sports have been politicized since its very birth. The policies and rights bestowed upon each and everyone of us has given us the ability to watch, appreciate, and participate in sports and should never be questioned.

The Winner

There is no discussion that should over shadow the celebration of champions. The Philadelphia Eagles have now joined the list of 52 teams to have been able to label themselves as world champions. For a long time coming, this achievement gave the franchise its first world title and the city of Philadelphia its first championship since the 2008 World Series where the Phillies were crowned victorious.

The ups and downs in this season did not falter the Super Bowl champions even when starting quarterback Carson Wentz went out with an injury. Orchestrated by a swagger unlike any other team in the NFL, the squad welcomed Nick Foles in the starting lineup as he led them to a historic run in the playoffs. During the Super Bowl, with no surprise, the Eagles were seen as underdogs as they faced the defending Super Bowl champions. The New England Patriots, like many others, saw this matchup as a dynasty solidifying opportunity.

The Crowning

Thirteen years ago, the Patriots took the hearts of many Eagles fans as they beat them 24-21. A win that many saw to be spectacular, taking down a squad lead by Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, and NFL Hall of Famer Terrell Owens. However, this team was not the 2004-2005 Eagles. This team was heralded by a forgotten star in Torrey Smith, a mid season pick up in Jay Ajayi, and a backup quarterback in Nick Foles. Pitted against a team that mirrored the leagues greatest teams assembled of all time, the Eagles never cowered from its opposition. After beating the the Patriots by a score of 41-33, the Eagles brought home their first championship in franchise history.

A team that no one predicted to even compete for a title this year, hoisted the Lombardi trophy on February 4. To spice up the pot even more, at center stage, a player that had been sidelined under the play of an MVP candidate, Nick Foles, held the Lombardi trophy in one hand and the game’s MVP in the other. Of course the Eagles are winners and truly earned it after an incredible season.

NFL Honors

AP Most Valuable Player: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

Coach of the Year: Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams

Comeback Player of the Year: Keenan Allen, WR, Los Angeles Chargers

Offensive Player of the Year: Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams

Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Marshon Lattimore, CB, New Orleans Saints

Assistant Coach of the Year: Pat Shurmur, OC, Minnesota Vikings

Bridgestone Elite Performance Play of the Year: Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs “Minneapolis Miracle,” divisional round, Minnesota Vikings

FedEx Air & Ground Players of the Year: Carson Wentz, QB,

Philadelphia Eagles and Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams

Deacon Jones Award: Chandler Jones, LB, Arizona Cardinals

Courtyard’s Greatness on the Road Award: Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans

Built Ford Tough Offensive Line of the Year: Philadelphia Eagles

Salute To Service Award: Andre Roberts, WR, Atlanta Falcons

Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award: Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers

The Losers

There is no hiding this. For the second year running, to no surprise, the Cleveland Browns are the biggest losers of the year. To be frank, 0-16 is down right deplorable. After a year prior that the team went 1-15, the make up of this season didn’t seem any better. Mid-season reports around the organization had suggested that the franchise was looking forward to upcoming draft and ending the season despite only being five games into the schedule. The Browns have a chance to change a few names and numbers on the jerseys this off season but don’t count on it holding any weight. There is no player that will magically turn the tide for the team. The culture is now stuck in conundrum that leaves their fan base with more questions of doubt than accolades to take pride in.

How the Browns are going down the road in the future, the next generation of Browns fans will be Bengals fans, not like that is any better. Changes have to be made from the top if players are going to rally and motivate themselves. Something is going to have to change in Cleveland if change for the good is to come. For a franchise that has lost so much it has to believe in something first to fight for.

NFL Final Standings

1. Philadelphia Eagles
2. New England
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
4. New Orleans Saints
5. Atlanta Falcons
6. Pittsburgh Steelers
7. Minnesota Vikings
8. Los Angeles Rams
9. Carolina Panthers
10. Green Bay Packers
11. Los Angeles Chargers
12. Houston Texans
13. Seattle Seahawks
14. San Francisco 49ers
15. Tennessee Titans
16. Kansas City Chiefs
17. Baltimore Ravens
18. Detroit Lions
19. Buffalo Bills
20. Dallas Cowboys
21. Oakland Raiders
22. Washington Redskins
23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
24. Chicago Bears
25. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Miami Dolphins
27. New York Giants
28. Arizona Cardinals
29. Denver Broncos
30. New York Jets
31. Indianapolis Colts
32. Cleveland Browns

Class of 2018 Hall of Fame Inductees

Brian Urlacher

NFL

Ray Lewis

Terrell Owens

Randy Moss

Brian Dawkins

Robert Brazile

 

 

This year of football is in the history books. The off-season will guide us to a new year as questions mount for the future. What will come the NFL Draft? Will Colin Kaepernick play on a team next year? Will the NFL and NFLPA come to a solution to keep the league open? Fortunately, 2017 was all the glitz and glamour and also the grit and grime of our world. Despite records showing a drop in viewership for the league, those problems don’t come from the sport specifically. The NFL is a dynamic league that grows each and every year. A few policy changes and rule adjustments should get the NFL back in shape. Above all, for longtime dedicated fans, 2017 was a year to remember but also a foundation for what 2018 has to come.

 

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Super Bowl LII preview

Super Bowl LII preview

After an epic championship weekend, which included a come-from-behind victory from Tom “The GOAT” Brady, as well as a flawless performance from Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, we are set for a Super Bowl XXXIX rematch between New England and Philly.

In that game 13 years ago, the Patriots defeated the Eagles 24-21. With a chance to win the game, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was picked off by Rodney Harrison with less than 20 seconds to play. This was one of three interceptions that McNabb threw. Eagles star wide receiver, Terrell Owens, who was dealing with a severely sprained ankle and fractured fibula, had nine catches for 122 yards.

Super Bowl XXXIX preview

Patriots celebrating during Super Bowl XXXIX (Photo from Patriots Life)

Tom Brady threw for 236 yards with two touchdowns, and no turnovers. Patriots receiver Deion Branch was rewarded Super Bowl XXXIX MVP after an incredible 11-catch, 133-yard performance.

Now, in 2018, Tom Brady remains behind center for New England, and the Eagles are the biggest Super Bowl underdogs since 2009 in Super Bowl XLIII, when the Arizona Cardinals were seven-point underdogs to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Philadelphia opened as a 5.5-point underdog at The Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas. Keep in mind that the betting favorite has won 33 of the previous 51 Super Bowls.

This will be New England’s 10th Super Bowl appearance and the Eagles’ third. The Westgate SuperBook claimed that had Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz not gotten injured, the game would be pick ‘em. Anyways, here are eight statements to get you ready for the big game.

 1. Nick Foles is coming in hot

Even though Wentz was playing at an MVP level, let’s not sleep on Nick Foles. In the NFC Championship game against the Vikings, Foles played the best game of his career. The 29 year old from Arizona, who was recruited by Georgetown, Baylor and Texas to play college basketball, threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns with a passer rating of 141.4. In the second half alone, Foles went 11-for-11 with 159 yards, two touchdowns and a perfect QBR.

On the season, Foles is now 8-1, the one loss coming in a meaningless Week 17 game against the Cowboys. He joined Joe Montana as the only other quarterback to complete 75 percent of their passes in back-to-back playoff games. He is the only quarterback in NFL history with a passer rating of 100 in his first three career playoff games. Let’s see how he stacks up against the other quarterbacks New England has faced in the Super Bowl during the Tom Brady era.

PLAYER YEAR QUARTERBACK RATING DURING PLAYOFF RUN (GOING INTO THE SUPER BOWL)
KURT WARNER 2001 92.5
JAKE DELHOMME 2003 103.5
DONOVAN MCNABB 2004 111.3
ELI MANNING 2007 107.2
ELI MANNING 2011 108.7
RUSSELL WILSON 2014 96.8
MATT RYAN 2016 132.6
NICK FOLES 2017 122.1

2. This is the Patriots second best offensive team during Brady’s eight Super Bowl appearances

It will be hard for any team to match the production of the 2007 Patriots, but this year’s team finished second in points and first in yards. They were also third in red zone scoring percentage (TD), touchdowns per game and points per play, fourth in yards per play and fifth in yards per pass. All this without one of Brady’s top targets, Julian Edelman.

Going into the AFC Championship game, the Jaguars had allowed just 169.9 passing yards per game. Without Rob Gronkowski, Brady had 138 in the fourth quarter. Translation, they can overcome anything.

3. Penalties could be the deciding factor

As seen in the AFC Championship game, the Patriots don’t get too many penalties. Against Jacksonville, New England suffered just one penalty for 10 yards, while the Jags had six for 98 yards. Only one percent of the time is there an 88-yard discrepancy in penalty yards, and of course, it happens for New England in its biggest game.

Also, in the last seven years of the playoffs, only twice has a team been called for one penalty or less. This happened on Sunday, as well as seven years ago, in favor of, you guessed it, the Patriots.

While New England finished with the second fewest penalties per game, the Eagles had the 10th most penalties called against them.

4. If the Patriots are losing in the second half, they will probably come back and win

After being down by 10 with less than nine minutes to play against Jacksonville, Brady proved why he is arguably the most clutch athlete to ever step on Earth. Sunday’s win meant the Patriots are now 3-4 in the last 10 postseasons when they are trailing by 10 or more points in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. During that span, the rest of the NFL is 3-70.

5. This is one of the best defenses New England has faced in a Super Bowl during the Brady/Belichick era

Super Bowl LII preview

Never bet against this man (Photo from Business Insider)

The Eagles allowed the fewest rushing yards in the league this year, as well as the fourth fewest total yards. They also caused the fourth most turnovers. Four appears to be the magic number, as they allowed the fourth fewest points in the league.

The only teams the Patriots have faced in the Super Bowl during the Brady-Belichick era that finished higher in points allowed were the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles and the 2014 Seattle Seahawks.

6. The Eagles can run, and the Patriots might struggle defending it

The combination of Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount, mixed in with a little Corey Clement, was lethal this season. Philadelphia finished with the third most rushing yards per game at 132.2. They also averaged 4.5 yards per carry, which was tied for third in the league.

New England is tied for 30th in opposing yards per rush and 22nd in opposing rushing first downs per game.

7. Both quarterbacks have yet to tHROW AN INTERCEPTION in the playoffs

All be just two games apiece, both Nick Foles and Tom Brady have done an excellent job of taking care of the football. Since 2014, when Nick Foles does not turn the ball over, he is 13-2. During that same span, Brady is 35-7.

8. Jimmy G is getting paid

We know that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will be appearing in their eighth Super Bowl together, which is twice as many as any head coach-quarterback combo. We also know that Brady will be the first 40-year-old QB to start a Super Bowl.

Those facts are cool and all, but what about the fact that Jimmy Garoppolo is getting paid to watch this game? If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, Garappolo will earn $191K. If they lose, he will get $135K. Must be nice.

 

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NFL Conference Championship preview

NFL Conference Championship weekend preview and picks

We can only hope the NFL’s Conference Championship weekend is half as competitive as last weekend was. Three of the four games were nail biters, which made for some strange results in terms of predictions.

As has been the case throughout the postseason, games will be picked both straight up and against the spread. All point spreads are from rtsports.com at the time of my writing. You can see last week’s picks here.

Last week: 1-3, 3-1 against the spread.

Postseason totals: 4-4, 5-3 against the spread.

Jaguars at Patriots

Three teams have gone into New England and won a playoff game in the Brady-Belichick era, two Ravens teams led by John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco and one of Rex Ryan’s Jets teams. All these teams had one thing in common: They ran the ball and were very good on defense.

With the top ranked rushing offense and a sack happy defense that has dominated all year long, Jacksonville certainly fits that bill. This will not be a simple coronation for the Patriots. Just because the Jaguars approach to winning games is fairly bland does not mean they do not deserve to be here.

That defense will keep this interesting for four quarters. However, there are three pieces of insurmountable bad news for the underdogs. First, Blake Bortles is still their quarterback. Second, Tom Brady is the opposing quarterback. Finally, Bill Belichick is not going to run 15-yard pass plays on 4th and 1 or run an onside kick with two timeouts and more than two minutes left like Pittsburgh did last week.

One of the biggest yet simplest reasons New England has been so good for so long is they never make in game strategy calls that leave even casual fans scratching their heads in the moment. As good as they are, the Jaguars needed a lot of help to outscore the Steelers last week. New England will not be so generous this week.

Winner: New England

Good bet: Patriots (-9) NE 31 Jac 20

Vikings at Eagles

Something has to give here. These two teams have mastered the art of the playoff choke job over the years. Now one of them is going to the Super Bowl.

At this point in this season, these teams are going about winning games the same way. They both rely on their great defenses to make up for limitations at quarterback. Make no mistake, Case Keenum and Nick Foles have limitations.

Foles only threw for 246 yards last week against Atlanta. However, he did not make a big mistake that crippled the team. When you have a defense that is capable of holding what was a hot Falcons offense to just 10 points, that formula is good enough.

NFL Conference Championship preview

Photo from espn.com

Keenum tried to make that crippling mistake with his late third quarter interception that sparked the Saints comeback last week. However, he and the Vikings were bailed out by a miracle finish that was more blind luck than anything else. There is no shame in that. Every Super Bowl champion there has ever been has required some degree of luck.

What this game comes down to is both teams will try to run the ball. It is hard to imagine either having much success against two of the best front sevens in football. So which average quarterback will do a better job of getting the ball to their playmaking pass catchers?

Well, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen each caught over 60 balls in the regular season and accounted for several of Minnesota’s 10 third down conversions last week. Meanwhile, the Eagles pass catchers have virtually disappeared since Carson Wentz went out. Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery had seven catches combined last week. They need to have somewhere around seven catches each should Philadelphia struggle on the ground in this one.

Moreover, if there is a weak spot on either defense, it is the Philadelphia secondary. They got torched by the lowly Giants twice this year.  There is no reason Diggs and Thielen should not carry their team to a home Super Bowl.

Winner: Minnesota

Good bet: Vikings (-3) Min 23 Phi 17

 

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NFL divisional playoffs picks

NFL divisional playoffs preview and picks

We were fortunate enough to get four reasonably competitive games to kick off the NFL playoffs last week. You can check out last week’s picks here.

For this week’s divisional playoffs, games will be picked both straight up and against the spread. Outright upsets have an asterisk. All point spreads are from rtsports.com at the time of my writing.

Postseason record- 3-1

Postseason record against the spread- 2-2

Saturday

Falcons at Eagles – For the first time since the NFL adopted its current playoff format, a sixth seed is favorite over a home standing top seed. This is not without merit though. Without Carson Wentz, the Eagles are just another average to below-average football team. In the final two games of the regular season, Philadelphia’s offense accounted for a grand total of 13 points, and the team as a whole was pushed around for long stretches by the non-playoff bound Cowboys and Raiders.

The above paragraph is not a good recipe for taking on the Falcons at the moment. Atlanta needed to win as much as humanly possible late in the regular season to keep its playoff hopes alive. The sudden death nature of the NFL playoffs changed nothing for them last week. They have been in that situation for almost 2 months.

Reigning MVP Matt Ryan and the offense are not quite the juggernaut they were last year, but they are still very good. What has sparked Atlanta’s late-season run as much as anything is defense. The Falcons have not surrendered more than 24 points in a game since Week 11. This includes holding the top-ranked scoring offense to just 13 points last week. If all the offense has to do is score in the high 20s, this team is tough to beat.

Apart from winning a shootout with the lowly Giants, the Eagles offense has not gotten anywhere close to the high 20s with backup quarterbacks since the injury to Wentz. Philadelphia’s defense is pretty good and has stood on its head in recent weeks to keep the Eagles in games. Thus, this will not be a blowout.

However, one of these teams is quarterbacked by Matt Ryan and the other by Nick Foles. Sometimes, it is just that simple.

Winner: Atlanta

Good bet: Falcons (-3) Atl 21 Phi 13

Titans at Patriots – Tennessee did a great job of making a few plays to pull off the big upset in Kansas City last week. However, that result had more to do with Kansas City’s collapse. If New England has a double-digit lead, whoever is playing running back will get the ball a lot more than 11 or 12 times.

NFL divisional playoffs picks

Photo from USA Today

You can’t help but be impressed with the resilience and toughness of Tennessee. That roster is not good enough to get to this point on talent alone. Different guys have stepped up for them all year long. Last week, it was Marcus Mariota playing with his head on a swivel to complete a touchdown pass to himself and Derrick Henry rushing for 156 yards in the absence of backfield mate DeMarco Murray that made the difference.

However, the Titans lack the firepower to really make the Patriots nervous in a playoff game. At this point, nothing more can be said about the greatness of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They are 25-9 in playoff games. Moreover, only three of those nine losses have been at home. Tennessee will keep this close for a while with solid fundamental football, but New England will pull away late.

Winner: New England

Good bet: Patriots (-13) NE 34 Ten 20

Sunday

Jaguars at Steelers – Vegas is showing great restraint by making the Steelers only a seven-point favorite here. With the way the Jacksonville passing offense has looked for the last month, a double-digit spread would have been perfectly reasonable.

However, the Jacksonville defense has shut down some very good offenses this year. The Jaguars went in to Pittsburgh early in the year and intercepted Ben Roethlisberger five times in a route.

Also, there is more than one way to look at the performance of Blake Bortles last week. It is easy to say he threw for just 87 yards and therefore was completely awful, or you can commend him for his 88 rushing yards and ability to make enough plays for his team to win, even though he did not play very well.

Not very many people have subscribed to the second school of thought leading up to this game, but I am one of them. With a great supporting cast around him, Bortles is fine. Other than one or two games, Jacksonville has had no problem scoring points this year. Almost every offense is going to get shut down at least once or twice a year, no matter who the quarterback is.

Jacksonville is too good to get blown out. Any team that leads the league in rushing offense, as well as several defensive categories, is capable of going anywhere and beating anyone. However, Roethlisberger getting Antonio Brown back will be the difference in this one. Even if Brown is not fully healthy, his presence alone gives the vaunted Jacksonville defense another thing to worry about on a loaded Steelers offense.

Winner: Pittsburgh

Good Bet: Jaguars (+7) Pit 27 Jac 24

Saints at Vikings – No team was more impressive than New Orleans last week. All year, the Saints had done most of their damage by running the ball with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Carolina held that duo to under 50 combined rushing yards. The Saints still managed to win. Drew Brees showed us all why he is going to the Hall of Fame someday.

NFL divisional playoffs picks

Photo from si.com

Unless there is a truly dominant team, whoever wins the Super Bowl has to find a way to win a game or two where its best stuff is not working. There is no dominant NFL team this year, and that is exactly what the Saints did last week.

This week, the task is a little bit tougher as New Orleans goes on the road to face another very stout defensive unit in Minnesota. The vast majority of Minnesota’s success this year has come from backups, castoffs and other spare parts. Mike Zimmer and his staff have done an incredible job of getting the most out of Case Keenum. Keenum has nearly doubled his career touchdown passes this season. However, much like the other NFC matchup this weekend, it is foolish not to take the established star quarterback over the journeyman in playoff football.

Winner: New Orleans

Good Bet: *Saints (+ 5.5) NO 27 Min 20

 

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Davante Adams

Week 17 NFL picks against the spread

My run of solid late season weeks continued with an 8-8 mark against the spread. Headed into the final week of the regular season, my record sits at 104-124-11. With several teams resting starters, lines are strange this week. All games will be played on Sunday afternoon. My picks are bolded, outright upsets have an asterisk, and all lines are from rtsports.com at the time of my writing.

Bears at Vikings (-12) – A win is all Minnesota needs to ensure that first-round bye in the playoffs. They will get it, but the Bears have been tough out all year long. This includes playing the Vikings to the gun during Mitchell Trubisky’s starting debut on Monday Night Football.

Chicago has since figured out that Jordan Howard as well as the defense are the best things this team has going for it. While that revelation likely came a little too late to save the employment of John Fox, it has given some good teams like Carolina and Baltimore fits along with the Vikings. Despite this, Minnesota being the team that has something to play for will get him over the line in this one. Min 21 Chi 17

Browns at Steelers (-6) – Both teams have something to play for here. The Browns are trying to avoid joining the 2008 Lions in the 0-16 club. Should New England stumbled against the Jets, Pittsburgh can earn home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, Reports of Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell resting for the playoffs tell you how little faith the Steelers have in that possibility.

Cleveland played a full strength Steelers team to the wire during opening week. With Pittsburgh nowhere near full strength for this one, something similar should be expected here. Unfortunately for Cleveland fans, the only fitting end to their team’s season would be losing yet another close game to make dubious history. Pit 24 Cle 20

Cowboys (-3) at Eagles- Philadelphia has secured home field throughout the NFC playoffs, but they are banged up. After a shaky showing against the Raiders last week, Nick Foles and the offense clearly need work, but what if he gets hurt? How the Eagles approach this one is anyone’s guess. Dallas is playing for pride here, but Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot are a safer bet than anything the Eagles offense has to offer right now. Dal 27 Phi 20

Texans at Colts (-5.5) – This is possibly the worst game of Week 17. Jacoby Brissett has proven to be serviceable at quarterback for the Colts this year despite being thrown in to a bad situation. Chuck Pagano has ran his course in Indy, but the players have pretty much always played hard for him. Expect no different in what is likely his swan song.

The only Houston’s offense had going for it was DeAndre Hopkins who is set to miss his first career game with a calf injury. If the Texans had stayed healthy, what might have been? We will never know. Both defenses are bad here, but the offenses are worse. Brissett has shown flashes of being able to lead an NFL offense. Meanwhile, the Texans have scored 13 points in their last two games combined. They have been forced to go too deep on their quarterback depth chart to truly compete. Ind 20 Hou 10

Jets at Patriots (-15.5)- Do not be fooled by New York’s record, Todd Bowles has gotten more out of this team make anyone expected this year and is very deserving of the contract extension he signed earlier this week.

New England still has to take care of business here to ensure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. So, the Jets have no chance at winning this game. However, they always play New England very tough and the first meeting this year was no exception. To be a good bet here, New York does not even have to keep it all that close. NE 30 Nyj 17

Redskins (-3) at Giants- Both of these team are bad and ready for the offseason. However, at least the Redskins are not calling their teammates “a cancer” and are still playing hard. Expect Kirk Cousins to play well in what could be his last go around as a Redskin. Was 23 Nyg 13

Cardinals at Seahawks (-8.5) – Seattle is the exact opposite of Atlanta. The Seahawks may be loud and dysfunctional at times, but you can always count on Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll to come through when the chips are down. Look no further than last week.

Ever since the Super Bowl collapse, the same leadership is not in Atlanta. Seattle has a much easier opponent this week, but leadership is why Seattle wins here to force Atlanta to have to do the same to reach the playoffs. Sea 31 Ari 14

Bills (-2) at *Dolphins– Buffalo needs a win and some help to end the longest playoff drought in major American pro sports, but there is no reason to trust them here. Miami has been a disappointment this year, but a home game with a chance to bury a division rival should motivate them.

Slumping offense are worrisome this time of year. Buffalo is not the only desperate AFC team with a sagging offense, but the Bills have scored 20+ points just once since late November. That has to catch up with them eventually, this is the last chance for it to do so. Mia 20 Buf 17

*Panthers at Falcons (-4) – The Falcons get in the playoffs with a win here and may still get in with a loss. This line was made as if Carolina has nothing to play for and that is not the case. The Panthers can still get a first round bye and division title depending on other results. Most important, they need to win this one.

The Falcons have struggled all year to find consistency and beat good teams. They lost to Carolina a handful of weeks ago. The Panthers are the better football team and have been really solid for the last month. Meanwhile, the Falcons were manhandled by the Saints last week and had to squeeze by the lowly Bucs the week before. The cream rises to the top. Car 31 Atl 28

Bengals at Ravens (-9.5)- Of the four teams battling for the final two playoff spots in the AFC, Baltimore is the only team you should feel good about. They are not flashy, but they have a quarterback and coach who have been there and done that when it comes to December and January football. They also run the ball well and play defense. Those two things always translate well this time of year.

Joe Flacco

Photo: thebiglead.com

We saw the Bengals last best showing for the apparently soon to be departing head coach Marvin Lewis last week. The Ravens take full advantage of a favorable schedule down the stretch to emphatically punch their ticket to postseason. This is the one team New England should be nervous about in the AFC. Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh have gone in to New England and won twice before in the playoffs. Bal 30 Cin 13

*Packers at Lions (-7)- Neither team is playing for anything here, but the Lions folded against a bad Cincinnati team last week when they still had playoff hopes, it is hard not to expect a carryover even though the Lions have more talent. Combine that with the strange statistical reality that Brett Hundley has been better on the road, and that is good enough for me. GB 21 Det 20      

*Jaguars at Titans (-2.5) – Tennessee is playing for its playoff life and Jacksonville’s playoff position is secure. Even so, the Jaguars have given every indication that they are playing this game at full tilt.

This means the best defense in football will get a crack at Marcus Mariota and the slumping Titans offense. Mariota has averaged just 224 passing yards for last month and has more interceptions than touchdowns on the year. Nothing we have seen from this offense recently is good enough to make the playoffs. Jac 20 Ten 14

Chiefs at Broncos (-3) – Paxton Lynch will get one last chance to effect Denver’s offseason quarterback plans. The playoff bound Chiefs are resting several starters and giving rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes a look see. The Denver defense is a pretty tough first assignment. Despite the team having an awful year, the defense leads the league in yards allowed.

Patrick Mahomes

Photo: Denver Post

Given the quarterback matchup, nobody knows what to expect here, Vegas included. Having the home team favorite by a field goal is the catch all line for NFL games. Denver’s offense is woeful, but it is hard to imagine that throwing a rookie quarterback out there surrounded by several backups against Von Miller and company is going to end well. Den 16 KC 10

Saints (-5) at Bucs- For some reason, the Bucs have reportedly decided to retain Dirk Koetter. Despite a ton of young offensive talent, the losses continue to mount. There no reason to think they can stop the tough, physical, and playoff bound Saints from locking down a division title. NO 31 TB 20

Raiders at Chargers (-7) – The Chargers need a win and help, but a playoff spot is realistic. The Raiders will be pesky as they were last week, so, take the points. In the end, the fiery will of Philip Rivers will be enough. Lac 30 Oak 27  

49ers (-4) at Rams- The Rams are guaranteed to host a playoff game next week no matter what happens here. Thus, Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, and several others will sit this one out. With Jimmy Garoppolo still white hot for the 49ers, backups should not be able to slow him down in the season finale. SF 27 Lar 17  

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Week 16 NFL picks against the spread

The folks in Vegas were on their game last week as I posted a 6-7-3 mark against the spread. 96-116-11 is my record for the season.  My picks are bolded, outright upsets have an asterisk, and all lines are from rtsports.com at the time of my writing. Happy Holidays everyone!

Saturday: 

Colts at Ravens (-13.5) – All Baltimore has to do for a return to the playoffs is beat the Colts and Bengals and have Buffalo lose one of its final two games.

This is a huge amount of points to swallow, but the Colts are just plain bad. Baltimore’s only loss in the span of more than a month was in Pittsburgh as time expired. Other than that, they have ran the ball and played defense to beat teams into submission. Indianapolis certainly isn’t in a position to stop that trend. Despite being pesky all year long, it seemed their last bit of fight went out the window in the second half of last week’s loss. Bal 31 Ind 13

Vikings (-9) at Packers– Now eliminated from playoff contention, the Packers made the wise decision to shut down Aaron Rodgers for the rest of the year. Even so, Brett Hundley had some good moments while Rodgers was out injured.

Minnesota is not a flashy football team, but they are very complete. The Vikings still have everything to play for as they try to secure home field advantage in the NFC playoffs, but the Packers would love to make life difficult by hanging a late-season loss on their division rival. That will not happen, but the Packers as 9.5 point underdogs at Lambeau Field is one of the stronger best of the week. Min 27 GB 24

Sunday:

Falcons at Saints (-5.5) – The three horse NFC South race will likely be down to two after this one. Atlanta’s inconsistency is still concerning. They ran Tampa Bay out of the building for most of the game last Monday night and still had to rely on a missed field goal to escape with a win. This team is good, but not as good as New Orleans or Carolina.

The Saints got a little too cute at the end of the game in Atlanta a few weeks ago. Do not expect Sean Payton and Drew Brees to make the same mistake twice. Mark Ingram and Alvin Karmara will both be healthy for this matchup. This is a key difference from a few weeks ago. The Saints approach to winning football games is safer and more consistent. NO 28 Atl 21

Bills at Patriots (11.5) – The fact that a team like Buffalo is holding down a playoff spot speaks to what a dismal year the entire AFC is having. Buffalo will need to win at least one of its final two games to end the longest ongoing playoff drought in major American pro sports. Ever since Nathan Peterman briefly became the starter, this team has not played well.

To their credit, they have still managed to find ways to win, which is more than most of their counterparts can say. Even so, they do not have the firepower to go on the road to New England and trouble the reigning Super Bowl champions who got a huge but controversial win to take control of the entire conference last week. NE 31 Buf 17

*Browns at Bears (-6.5) – Unless Pittsburgh is in a situation where they can rest starters next week, this is Cleveland’s last best chance to avoid going winless. This pick has nothing to do with scheme or matchups.

It has everything to do with the fact that Chicago is not a good team and that the Cleveland defense is on pace to give up over 100 points less than the 2008 Lions who became the first team in NFL history to go 0-16. The Browns have played too hard and been so close to win so many times this year to go winless. Somehow, they will find a way. Cle 17 Chi 14

*Broncos at Redskins (-3.5) – As the season winds down, the game of quarterback musical chairs continues in Denver. It will be Brock Osweiler or Paxton Lynch this week.

Regardless of who is playing quarterback for the Broncos, their defense has given up just four touchdowns this month at two of them were off short fields created by turnovers. Combine that with the fact that Washington’s offensive line has been held together with duct tape all year long, and the Broncos are well-equipped for a minor upset here. Den 20 Was 17

Lions (-4.5) at Bengals- It has all but been confirmed that this is the last home game for Marvin Lewis as Bengals head coach. Lewis never could get the franchise over the hump, but he made football relevant in Cincinnati again. For that reason, it would be nice to see his players play hard, send him out a winner, and muck up the playoff picture in the process. However, Cincinnati has been outscored 67-14 in their last two weeks. Thus, there is no reason to think that will happen. Det 28 Cin 17

Chargers (-6.5) at Jets– The Chargers laid an egg in a big game last week. A pattern that has become all-too-familiar to that fan base over the last 15 or so years. They still have miniscule playoff hopes and having Philip Rivers under center ensures that this team will continue playing hard.

Bryce Petty and the Jets surprisingly gave New Orleans a fistfight last week. New York has been a good bet as an underdog this year. They have managed to beat Kansas City and Jacksonville while covering against teams like New England and Atlanta. The Los Angeles pass rush will be too much for the Jets to overcome. They will not win, but their season-long trend of playing talented teams tough will continue. Lac 24 Nyj 21

Rams (-6.5) at Titans- Tennessee is still very much a part of the AFC playoff conversation. Thus, this is the worst possible time for them to be playing their worst football of the year.

Ever since about October, Mike Mullarkey has struggled to get his team to play well on both sides of the ball at the same time. Two weeks ago they gave up just 12 points and lost. Last week, they scored 23 points and still came up short. If you are not playing well, the Rams may be the last team you want to face at the moment.

Even if the Titans manage to contain Sean McVay’s high powered offense, there is no indication that the offense can score enough points to win. This means that Tennessee is also in trouble if this game turns into a shootout. Either way, the Rams coast here. Lar 30 Ten 20           

Dolphins at Chiefs (-10)-  After teasing the entire Miami fan base by leading an upset of the mighty Patriots, the grumpy and inconsistent version of Jay Cutler made a return last week in Buffalo. With Miami now needing nothing short of a miracle to reach the playoffs, he is probably wishing he would have kept his broadcasting gig.

Jay Cutler

Photo: abcnews.go.com

Miami’s cause is not helped by the fact that Kansas City is finding some of its early-season form after routing division rivals to reestablish control of the AFC West. The Raiders and Chargers offenses have been held under 20 points in recent weeks by the Chiefs. Miami’s offense is not as good as those offenses. Add in the fact that Kareem Hunt has put up consecutive games of at least 100 yards rushing, and this game could get ugly. KC 34 Mia 17

Bucs at Panthers (-10) – Carolina has scored over 30 points in four of the last five games, but the defense has allowed teams to make things interesting late in the games. The Bucs are still fighting hard despite a season that started with such high hopes turning out to be a disaster. The pattern continues and Tampa Bay gets a garbage time touchdown to cover the spread, but the Panthers clinch a playoff spot. Car 30 TB 23

Jaguars (-4) at *49ers– Jacksonville is a legitimate contender that will cause problems for any opponent in the AFC playoffs. This pick has more to do with San Francisco and Jimmy Garoppolo. The former Tom Brady understudy is still undefeated as a starting quarterback in his career. In his three starts with San Francisco, he has limited turnovers while shredding three solid defenses. This is just a case of a team running into a hot quarterback. As good as it is, the Jacksonville defense has not ran into many of those this year. SF 24 Jac 17

Giants at Cardinals (-3.5) – Two bad teams are doing battle for nothing but pride in this one. For the NFL to have so few meaningless games this late in the season is a great thing. The Giants have looked a little more presentable since Eli Manning got his job back, but not much. They are ready for the offseason.

Meanwhile, Arizona is still plugged in despite not finding the end zone in a little more than two games. They managed to beat Tennessee and nearly knocked off Washington on field goals alone. They will break the touchdown drought and smother the Giants. Ari 21 Nyg 13

*Seahawks at Cowboys (-5)This is the sucker bet of the week. Both teams need a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. The public is down on Seattle. It is understandable after last week’s surprising blowout. Meanwhile, the public is high on Dallas with Ezekiel Elliott returning to the fold this week.

Ezekiel Elliott

Photo: si.com

With Dallas being at home and a relatively small favorite, Vegas is begging you to take Dallas. So, the only logical thing to do is go the other way. If Seattle was not so experienced in situations like this and did not have Russell Wilson at quarterback, I would bail on the Seahawks too, but that is not the case. Sea 24 Dal 20

Monday:

Steelers (-9.5) at Texans- The only thing to worry about here is Pittsburgh’s strange struggles with bad teams on the road this year. They lost outright to Chicago and failed to cover against Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. Also, Antonio Brown is a massive loss in the short term and possibly long term as well. Despite all that, it is difficult to get around the fact that Houston is a four win football team that is likely going to have to start T.J. Yates at quarterback again this week. Pit 34 Hou 17

Raiders at Eagles (-9) – If the Eagles defense plays like they did last week, Nick Foles will be the least of their worries come playoff time. Foles showed last week that he is very capable of keeping the train on the tracks.

The Raiders found another very creative way to lose a football game last week. With their playoff hopes now all but gone, it is hard to imagine Oakland providing much resistance here, even though they have the talent to do so. If Oakland was playing like they did last year, this would be a fun one, but they aren’t. Phi 38 Oak 24

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