Competition Thursday: 2021 Week 3

We’re already gearing up for week three, and Dan managed to claw back two of my early three point lead as I followed up a strong week one with a poor week two. Fingers crossed I get myself setup shortly so I’m back on and even keel.

Gee:Week 2:  6 – 10Overall:  16 – 16
Dan:Week 2:  8 – 8Overall:  15 – 17

Panthers @ Texans (7.5)

The Texans have put up credible efforts so far, but having lost starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor to a hamstring injury, they are giving rookie Davis Mills his first start against a Panthers’ defence who have ten sack through two games. I am interested to see how Mills does, and positively looking forward to seeing Christian McCaffrey play and how Sam Darnold looks with his new team. I don’t think the game will be an embarrassment for the Texans, but it’s a tough ask and whilst the points do concern me more than a little, with a developmental rookie thrust by injury into his first start I have to back the Panthers in this one.

This of course means that Mills will play great and will be a new gem from the last draft, which I will happy take in return for a dropped pick!

Gee’s Pick:      Panthers
Dan’s Pick:      Panthers

Survivor Competition

I thought Dan was mad when he picked the Bengals last week, and my scepticism was proven well founded as the Bears beat them at home whilst I managed a second straight scoring week to take an early lead. I don’t want to worry fans of the Cardinals, but Dan stated he needed to get off the mark this week and is plumping for them travelling to face the Jags. Meanwhile, I’m backing the Broncos at home in the early season to be too much for the Jets, and I’m just hoping that I’m not putting too much faith in a 2-0 team taking on a team without a win even if it is at heigh altitude. I don’t expect Zach Wilson to throw four interceptions again this week, but Denver is a tough place for the rookie quarterback to play early in the season against a Vic Fangio defence.

Current Score

Gee: 2
Dan: 0

Week 3 Selection:

Gee:    Broncos
Dan:    Cardinals

Bold Prediction of the Week

I stress that this is a bold prediction, and it’s possibly one with too much emphasis on a headline about Roethliberger having a pec injury and TJ Watt having a problem with his groin, but this week I’m going for the Bengals to beat the Steelers. Given the history between the two franchises this is one I wasn’t waiting for Dan to confirm was bold enough.

The Season Starts to Take Shape

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After last week’s hubris I won’t be making any claims about schedules so let’s get looking at week two, which had losses for both TWF teams but some cracking contests so let’s see how things are shaping up in the early season.

What I Saw

I’ll start with the Bengals loss against the Bears that finished 20-17 despite a fourth quarter comeback from the Bengals, which had to contend with a hat trick of interceptions for Joe Burrow including a pick-six and another INT that setup one of the Bears’ two fourth quarter field goals. The really frustrating thing is that the Bengals defence looked pretty solid, despite giving up a touchdown to Andy Dalton in the first quarter they held the Bears to field goals the rest of the way. If the Bengals’ defence might be taking some kind of shape (and it really should given the dollars they have invested in it), the familiar story of offensive line problems seems to still be there, as well as a lot of empty formations that doesn’t exactly do a lot to stop Burrow taking hits, although the running game didn’t help give them much balance either.

As for the Bears, you can certainly see the potential of rookie quarterback Justin Fields and at this point you wonder whether Dalton will get the starting job back once he’s recovered from the bone bruise in his knee. The Bears’ defence sneaks into the top ten by DVOA and looked solid against the Bengals, even if the o-line troubles probably helped but I think we’re going to need a couple more weeks to truly get a feel for where the Bears are and there narrative is going to be about the quaterbacks for a while yet.

The other of the early Sunday games I watched was the 49ers taking on the Eagles in Philadelphia. The 49ers stayed out east having visited the Lions in week one and ran out 17-11 winners, but it was an odd contest for them. On defence they mostly controlled the Eagles offence, given up a lot of running yardage but not a lot passing (the Eagles did in fact out gain the 49ers in yards) and only conceded the one touchdown late in the game. However, it was more the 49ers offence that was really puzzling as their commitment to the run was there as always but was not efficient although they did eventually get one hundred yards. However, the passing game struggled early, with Jimmy Garoppolo missing throws early although he settled down over the course of the game, but whilst his completion percentage was good by the end of the game, his twenty-two completions only yielded one hundred and eighty-nine yards. It’s early in a long season and the 49ers are once again dealing with some injuries but whilst I expect them to be competitive, I’m just not sure how good they can be even if they are unbeaten so far.

The Eagles looked to be what I thought they were coming into the game, strong line play on both sides of the ball will keep them in games and I’m looking forward to seeing how they do in prime time against the Cowboys this coming Monday. The questions are again around the offence and like so many teams the Eagles are trying to work out what they have a quarterback. Certainly, second year quarterback Jalen Hurts is a threat on the ground, and all the usual run options plays were present, but he managed the odd combination of a completion percentage in the low fifties, but his twelve competitions yielded one more yards than the Garoppolo’s and the Eagles were a couple of near misses from having some very big plays. The Eagles have plenty of room to develop, and a 1-1 start is a solid beginning, but we’ll know a little bit more about them after week three.

The final game I saw was the Sunday night game that I’m sure enthralled many as the Baltimore Ravens hosted the Kansas City Chiefs and the home fans saw Lamar Jackson convert a fourth down to seal his first win against the Chiefs 36-35. It was a great game to watch as it features two quarterbacks capable of making you question how they did what you just saw, even if it is in different ways. Jackson is not a top level passer, but makes up for it with his legs, racking up another hundred yards on the ground and a pair of touchdowns to make up for the two interceptions he threw. The Ravens defence were focussed on Tyreek Hill, limiting the Chief’s number one receiver to three receptions for fourteen yards, but Patrick Mahomes was more than happy to distribute the ball to his other receivers with eight different players catching passes and Travis Kelce finishing the game with one hundred yards and a touchdown. To be fair, the Ravens had their own one-hundred-yard receiver in Marquise Brown but their shortfall in passing yardage was more than made up by the two hundred and fifty-one total rushing yards. There are still concerns about the Raven’s offence on obvious passing downs, but their offence is built differently and did enough to beat the Chiefs.

There might in fact be cracks showing in this iteration of the Chiefs, they are still terrifying on offence, but the defence is currently ranked thirty-first by DVOA and as good as their offence is, they need to get some stops or turnovers to make them less reliant on Mahomes and the offence. It’s still early in the season so I’m not pushing the panic button yet, but it’s definitely something worth keeping an eye on because to sustainably win, and challenge for the Super Bowl you need a defence that is good enough and through two games that hasn’t looked to be the case for the Chiefs.

For the Raven this win is particularly impressive given the injuries that they are already dealing with, but they are another team where it might be worth keeping an eye on their defensive ranking, but at least they have the history of competence on that side of the ball. The big question is whether they can be good enough on offence in high leverage moments as the days where you could win with stellar defence and competent offence have been replaced by the inverse, but it would be great to see a team win big with a different formula.

What I Heard

It’s been an interesting week for NFL media, a lot of the early coverage is either hot takes, or knowing over-reaction, which makes sense as it generates content whilst we work out how good the various teams are. The NFL is such a fluid league that even with a relatively sure quantity like the Chiefs, there are questions about them and already we have one or two teams slated to be bad play better than expected, even if actual wins are as low as expected. It’s such a short season with so much variance that we should be very careful to read too much into two games.

What I Think

I mentioned this whilst recording the podcast last night, but both West Divisions are looking impressive this year.

In the AFC the Raiders and Broncos are unbeaten, and the Chargers and Chiefs are lurking below them at 1-1 and whilst I’m sure this picture will become clearer in the coming weeks, it’s certainly somewhere between a good to promising start for all four teams and I’m intrigued at how the Broncos and Raiders build on their early success.

Meanwhile, in the NFC West there are three unbeaten teams in the Rams, 49ers, Cardinals with the Seahawks sitting right behind them on 1-1. This has been a tough division for several years, and while I have my concerns about the 49ers right now, the early returns on the addition of Matthew Stafford to the Rams has been impressive, whilst Kyler Murray looks more like himself with the Cardinals this season and their defence is currently ranked sixth by DVOA and I am looking forward to seeing Chandler Jones who had five sacks in the Cardinals’ opening game. When you talk about the Seahawks, you’re expecting tough defence and an offence focussed on running the ball, which was the formula that they tried to revert to during the second half of last season. However, once again their offence ranks higher by DVOA than their defence and whilst I expect them to compete for the playoffs as they always do, I am intrigued to see the new offence and how it evolves over the season.

What I Know

The Bengals have an interesting game coming up against the Steelers, which as much as fans of the Bengals sports-hate the Steelers, it can’t be a true rivalry until the Bengals win a lot more games. There are enough injuries floating round the Steelers for there to be flutters of hope in my fan heart, but I know that it’s unlikely the Bengals will win. Still, strange things can happen so we shall just have to see.

What I Hope

Right now, my hope is that one of the Dolphins or the Bengals will put an offensive line together that enable their young quarterbacks to maximise their potential but I’m not sure we’ll see that any time soon.

2021 Week Two Picks

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It has to be a late and slightly truncated picks post today as I am being treated for my birthday so I will run few a quick bits and get my post up.

This week’s Thursday night game might not have looked like much on paper, but the Giants visiting Washington provided a back and forth game where after a slow start Taylor Heinicke dragged Washington back into the game after the Giants took a lead in the first quarter.

The Giants could and possibly should have wont his game, particularly as Washington kicker Dustin Hopkins missed his first attempt at a game winning field goal, but after a back breaking offsice penaly against Dexter Lawrence, Hopkins got a retry and just about put the winning kick through.

Giants’ quarterback Daniel Jones actually finished the game with the better quarterback rating and had long run for a touchdown called back for an iffy holding penalty, but the Giants fall to 0-2, although the Falcons might offer an easier chance to get back to winning ways, but let’s see how Atlanta look in their second game.

As for Washington, the defence is giving away points given how good people (including myself) have proclaimed them to be, but they have their first win on the board and

Early Games:

The three games I will be watching this week all come from the early games. Of course I will be watching the Bengals, hoping they can build on their opening week win whilst worrying about them having played a full period of overtime in week one and travelling to take on Chicago so I will be very interested to see if they can consolidate their good start.

The game I’m watching out of pure interest is the Bills visit to Miami to face Dan’s Dolphins. I both want to see how the Bills react to their week one loss, but also think this is a cracking game that as an AFC East showdown should provide plenty of entertainment as well as tension given both teams’s aims for the season.

The final game I’ll be watching is Dan’s pick, as he wants me to see how good the Eagles look when facing sterner opposition, although the 49ers are once again struggling with injury, but should be good test for the Eagles who were underestimated by so many of us going into the season.

Bengals @ Bears (-2.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Bengals
Dan’s Pick:      Bengals

Texans @ Browns (-12.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Texans
Dan’s Pick:      Texans

Rams @ Colts (+3.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Rams
Dan’s Pick:      Rams

Bills @ Dolphins (+3.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Dolphins
Dan’s Pick:      Bills

Patriots @ Jets (+5.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Patriots
Dan’s Pick:      Patriots

49ers @ Eagles (+3.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Eagles
Dan’s Pick:      Eagles

Raiders @ Steelers (-5.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Steelers
Dan’s Pick:      Raiders

Saints @ Panthers (+3.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Saints
Dan’s Pick:      Saints

Broncos @ Jaguars (+6.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Broncos
Dan’s Pick:      Broncos

Late Games:

The late games all have their intrigues this week.

The Cardinals are coming off an excellent opening day win butwill they be able to maintain that against a Vikings team who will be looking to recover after the opening week loss against the Bengals in overtime.

The Falcons had a terrible start in week one so new head coach Arthur Smith will be looking for a reaction against the Buccaneers and whilst it might be a bit much to expect them to win, you would expect some kind of reaction and I have backed them to cover the big line.

The Cowboys are already picking up injuries, but after looking good against the Bucs in week one even if they lost, they will be hoping to get a win against the Chargers who’ll be welcoming fans to their new home for the first time.

Finally the Titans will be desperate to bounce back from a horrible start to the season, but on the road against a nasty looking Seahawks team who’ll have notoriously noisy fans back it could very easily be an 0-2 start fro them.

Vikings @ Cardinals (-4.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Vikings
Dan’s Pick:      Cardinals

Falcons @ Buccaneers (-12.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Falcons
Dan’s Pick:      Buccaneers

Cowboys @ Chargers (-2.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Chargers
Dan’s Pick:      Cowboys

Titans @ Seahawks (-5.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Seahawks
Dan’s Pick:      Seahawks

Sunday Night Football:

Chiefs @ Ravens (+3.5)

This should be an absolute cracking game, which is only not on my watch list because of seeing the other three AFC North teams at least twice a year and sometimes more depending on the Thursday night schedule. The stories about Lamar Jackson’s 0-3 record against the Chiefs are certainly prominent in the build up, and the injuries the Ravens have picked up certainly have made the start of the season difficult. I may live to regret this, but this is just enough points to make go with the Ravens to cover, even if I suspect that Patrick Mahomes might win out yet again.

Gee’s Pick:      Ravens
Dan’s Pick:      Chiefs

Monday Night Football

Lions @ Packers (-10.5)

You have to think there will be a reaction from the Packers after their woeful showing against the Saints last week, and the Lions are getting these many points for a reason. The consensus line is actually a little higher, but given how the Lions fought back last week I’m still ready to give them a chance to stick within eleven given this line contains an extra half point through a key number.

Gee’s Pick:      Lions
Dan’s Pick:      Lions

DVOA is Football Outsiders statistic for measure a team’s success on every play versus the league average and you can read more about it and other football topics at https://footballoutsiders.com.

Competition Thursday: 2021 Week 2

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I was incredibly naïve yesterday. Here’s my opening line from what was meant to be my mid-week post:

‘It feels like a long time since I have had a normal blog schedule but having closed out week one we are on our way into the marathon of an eighteen week NFL regular season so let’s if we can establish a routine once more.’

Clearly both the IT and football gods that I don’t believe in as an atheist but like to talk about as a writer because sometimes you just have to anthropomorphise the random fluctuations of probability, chortled to themselves and said to themselves we’ll show him.

So before I get into he picks competition and survivor picks from week two, here’s the games section of my post from yesterday that did get written.

I promise not to do this every week, even though I always watch the Bengals, but that’s where I’m starting as they beat the visiting Vikings 27-24 in overtime. It seemed to take a little while for both teams to get going and the Bengals did their best to give this game away but after getting the game’s only takeaway in overtime rookie kicker Ewan McPherson hit a thirty-four yard field goal with zeros on the clock to seal the victory in a pretty much dream start for a kicker’s career. The Bengals had some high points, Joe Burrow looked good and hit Ja’Marr Chase for a fifty-yard touchdown at the end of the first half as the rookie receiver and LSU teammate of Burrow’s managed to go for one hundred receiving yards in his first NFL regular season start. So much for dropping everything. That said, as good a trio of receiver as Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins look to be, Burrow still took too many hits passing the ball but Joe Mixon ran for one hundred and twenty-nine yards and given the turmoil of recent seasons on the offensive line, I’m inclined to see how this works out over the coming months even if I’m not convinced yet. The defence also looked better, although I wonder about the run defence again and they were blitzing more as well. One of the Vikings’ comeback touchdowns was scored against a cover-0 blitz and call me overly cautious, but I always want at least one deep safety. Still, this could be the start of positive progress in year three for Zac Taylor, but he’s going to have to win consistently to prove the Bengals are moving in the right direction.

As for the Vikings, it feels like a pre-season of turmoil might have had some impact on the field. Despite looking dangerous multiple times running the ball, Dalvin Cook could only finish with sixty-one yards from his twenty carries and it was Kirk Cousins who provided much of the impetus for the offence, even if things did start slowly. It does still seem to be the case that whilst Cousins is clearly a good quarterback, he struggles to elevate at critical moments in the game and whilst you can certainly win with a quarterback like that, a lot has to be right around them for an offence to succeed and things will have to come together for this team if the Vikings want to get back to the playoffs.

Moving on to the second game that I watched from Sunday, the Washington Football Team hosted the LA Chargers and the Football Team put up what was a pretty valiant effort after Ryan Fitzpatrick was lost early in the game suffering a dislocated hip, but ultimately lost the 16 – 20. The LA Chargers looked good on both sides of the ball, which was impressive as the Washington pass rush looked good and I like the look of Football Team’s defence again this season, but it was always going to be hard for Washington to truly compete once Taylor Heinicke took control of the offence in replacement of Fitzpatrick. Not that Heinicke played badly, but his one hundred and twenty-two yards from eleven completions simply couldn’t compete with Justin Herbert’s three-hundred-yard game as the Charger’s second year quarterback looked every bit a player building on his offensive rookie of the year performance from 2020. There was in fact, a lot to like about the Chargers under rookie head coach Brandon Staley and whilst it’s early in his tenure, and the hype might be overdone, there’s genuine promise there. As for Washington, you trust Ron Rivera to keep them competitive, even under difficult circumstances but a lot will depend on how Heinicke responds to being made starter again, having paused his degree to sign and start the Football Team’s playoff game last season he has another opportunity to further cement a place in the league. Heinicke has at least had a pre-season this year, but it’s a quick turnaround to week two as Washington head to New York to fact the Giants tonight.

The final game I watched from Sunday was interesting rather than enthralling as the Chicago Bears confirmed the reasons why Andy Dalton is starting, given their offensive line problems and how quickly Dalton was getting the ball out. Though the Bears didn’t look terrible, the LA Rams looked formidable as they ran out 34 – 14 in front of fans in their new stadium for the first time. The Rams were not messing about on offence either, three plays into the season and out comes the Stafford deep ball for a sixty-seven yard touchdown to Van Jefferson. The Bears did manage to pull within five before half time, but early in second half another deep pass, this time a fifty-six yard play where Cooper Kupp got behind the defence and had empty turf between him and the end zone. There had been plenty of positive noises coming from the Rams about the addition of Stafford and this was clearly a positive start. The lopsided nature of the roster has to be a concern as an injury to one of their mega stars could be a real problem, but that is clearly a bet they are willing to make. For the Bears, as I wrote I do see why they have begun the season with Dalton and I’ve heard enough people I respect say that rookie Justin Fields has talent but not ready yet, but it’s only a mater of time before he gets the opportunity to start, particularly if the Bears keep losing. Maybe we will have a clearer idea after Dalton returns to Cincinnati to face the team who drafted him.

Now with that out the way, let’s turn our attention to the picks competition where I got out to a winning start with a positive score of 10 points in week one taking an early three point lead, but we’re barely past the start line so it’s pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things so let’s get to Competition Thursday proper.

Gee:Week 1:  10 – 6Overall:  10 – 6
Dan:Week 1:  7 – 9Overall:  7 – 9

Giants @ Washington (-3.5)

The Giants got off to a rough start and early short week to a division rival is not an easy follow up. It might help that Washington are starting their backup quarterback as mentioned earlier, but these two teams are right next to each other in the DVOA rankings with with nearly inverse offence and defence rankings. I’m concerned about the direction the Giants have been travelling for the last few years, and whilst I saw some positives in what Joe Judge did last season in his first year as head coach, it’s always hard when you don’t have a quarterback and time is running out for Daniel Jones to prove himself the man. I’m always hoping for success for players, just not wins over the Bengals, but in this case I think that Washington are likely to eek out a win. However, this line is too rich for me given the circumstances and whilst I could be wrong, I’m not confident enough to lay this number of points.

Gee’s Pick:      Giants
Dan’s Pick:      Giants

Survivor Competition

The Lions had a go at making me nervous, but the 49ers held on to get me a point to start our survivor competition, whilst Dan’s plan to pick against the Texans’ backfired and if this was a standard pool he’d be eliminated already. That would make for a pretty poor blog competition though, so I take the point and we roll into week two.

This week Dan promised me this isn’t a jinx as he’s gone for the Bengals in Chicago taking on the Bears, whilst I’m echoing his pick from week one but hoping the Browns go better as they look to recover from a tough opening game in Kansas City that they really could have won if Patrick Mahomes wasn’t so good.

Current Score

Gee: 1
Dan: 0

Week 2 Selection:

Gee:     Browns v Texans
Dan:    Bengals @ Bears

Bold Prediction of the Week

I’m never that confident in these, but Dan likes to put me under pressure and this week I plumped for:

The Falcons will cover against the Buccaneers this week.

So let’s see if they can finish the game within twelve I win, and feel if not proud than not totally ridiculous.

Roll on week two!

2021 Week One Picks

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Well, the opening game of the season between the Cowboys and Buccaneers was an absolute cracker that went down to a last-minute field goal so let’s see how the rest of the week one games live up to it. Making picks in the early couple of weeks is always more of an art than science, even more so with the truncated pre-season and the trend amongst an increasing number of teams to barely play their starters so let’s see what we can do

Early Games:

The standout contest in the early games is the Pittsburgh Steelers taking on the Bills. I am really interested to see how the Steelers offence looks with new coordinator Matt Canada and the addition rookie running back Najee Harris, while the Bills are a team look set to mount a credible push for the Super Bowl. Time will tell if quarterback Josh Allen can maintain the jump in play he achieved last season, but even with some regression this team look set to compete once more. I think this line could be a little high given how well the Steelers’ defence played last season and so whilst I like the Bills to win the game, I’m going to grab the points.

This could be a big third season for Kliff Kingsbury with the Arizona Cardinals and the signing of multiple recognisable free agents in their thirties certainly demonstrates and urgency to push into the playoffs, although a winning season would be a good start. The Titans meanwhile have only had winning seasons under Mike Vrabel and have gone to the playoffs in the last two season. The big questions for them are: can the offence be as good without coordinator Arthur Smith, can Derek Henry sustain his remarkable production given the number of carries over the last two seasons, and can they patch together a defence to truly compete in the playoffs? Obviously, this game won’t answer any of the big questions for either of these teams, but its an intriguing early glimpse of what’s to come.

The other game I wanted to discuss in a little more detail is the Washington Football Team hosting the LA Chargers. I am curious to see what effect new head coach Brandon Staley has on the Chargers, both int terms of their defence, but also how they are developing quarterback Justin Herbert in his second year having torn up the league in his rookie season. Going against the third best defence by DVOA last year should be good a test and while defence ranking seems to be less sticky that offence, I find it hard to think a team coached by Ron Rivera would fall off that much on defence. I am also intrigued to see how the offence looks with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm as the glimpses I saw in pre-season were promising.

Points from the rest:

  • There’s a lot of unknowns in Philadelphia while the Falcons also have a new head coach in Arther Smith. I am definitely looking forward to finally getting a proper look at rookie tight end Kyle Pitts and what Smith has in store for him.
  • I am hoping that the turmoil in Minnesota gives the Bengals a chance in this game, but the Vikings are a team looking to push on again after a difficult 2020 season. However, the Vikings have an established base under Zimmer and I’m looking for Bengals to build something concrete on either side of the ball under Zac Taylor. First target, let’s get Joe Burrow through the season healthy.
  • How can you not be curious about the Detroit Lions given the human quote machine that is Dan Campbell, but the 49ers are not an easy team to face, whoever is playing quarterback for them right now.
  • It looks like Carson Wentz is starting and I’m interested to see if he can recover enough form for the Colts to continue to compete given the commitment in salary that the Colts have made recently. The Seahawks are always competitive under Pete Carroll and I am looking forward to seeing what new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron has planned for Russell Wilson so this should be a great watch and in a less idiosyncratic list would have got more of a write up. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what happens.
  • The Jets at Panthers is the Sam Darnold bowl, but both teams will be hoping they’ve made the right move at quarterback. It’s interesting that the Panthers went for Darnold when they could have drafted one of the five first round QBs selected in this year’s draft who have all looked promising in pre-season. It will be hard to get too much of a read against a rebuilding Jets team who lost their big free agent pass rusher Carl Lawson before the first snap of the season and who really just need to find some things to build around this season.
  • The Jaguars are taking on the Texans in the first test of Urban Myer’s plans in the NFL with proper game planning. It’s a sign of how bad things are in Houston that an unproven in the NFL head coach with a rookie quarterback is laying points on the road, but it feels like it’s going to be a long season for Houston fans.

Eagles @ Falcons (-3.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Eagles
Dan’s Pick:      Eagles

Steelers @ Bills (-6.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Steelers
Dan’s Pick:      Bills

Vikings @ Bengals (+3.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Bengals
Dan’s Pick:      Vikings

49ers @ Lions (+7.5)

Gee’s Pick:      49ers
Dan’s Pick:      49ers

Cardinals @ Titans (-2.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Titans
Dan’s Pick:      Titans

Seahawks @ Colts (-2.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Seahawks
Dan’s Pick:      Seahawks

Chargers @ Washington (+1.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Washington
Dan’s Pick:      Washington

Jets @ Panthers (-4.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Panthers
Dan’s Pick:      Panthers

Jaguars @ Texans (+2.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Jaguars
Dan’s Pick:      Jaguars

Late Games:

The late game that leaps off the page is the Cleveland Browns taking on last year’s defeated Super Bowl team the Kansas City Chiefs. There could be a hangover for the Chiefs in that they have been to two consecutive Super Bowls, but with the combination of head coach Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes it’s hard to see the Chiefs suffering a big fall off this season like so many defeated Super Bowl teams. The Chiefs remade their offensive line in the offseason and once more look like a team gearing up for a Super Bowl run. However, this is no easy game for them as the Browns have one of the stronger rosters in the league these days and Kevin Stefanski worked wonders in his rookie season as head coach in the middle of a pandemic. If he can continue to improve Baker Mayfield’s play, then there’s no reason for them to fear anyone, including the Chiefs. I wouldn’t like to predict who is going to win this game, but this line is too high for me as the Browns should be pushing for the playoffs again.

Points on the Rest:

  • I’m looking forward to seeing what Tua Tagovoila can do now he is running an offence built around his skill set and expect the Dolphins to compete again as that’s all they’ve done under Brian Flores. However, the Patriots have their own young QB in rookie Mac Jones and a defence that is potentially scary good this season with the number of players returning from last season’s opt outs. You don’t win or push the rules as much as Bill Belichick does without being competitive, so I don’t think he needs the extra motivation of proving himself after Brady won the Super Bowl last year as some are suggesting, but I’m sure the Pats are expecting to be competitive this year after a rough 2020.
  • I am curious to see what Sean Payton can do with Jameis Winston as his quarterback, but the Saints salary cap woes means I’m not sure how competitive they can be with this retooled roster missing Michael Thomas, particularly now they are displaced thanks to the hurricane that hit New Orleans. The Packers were making headlines all offseason given the situation with Aaron Rodgers, but having reported at the start of training camp there is no reason not to expect the offence to be good again. The question is, can the change in defensive coordinator push the Packers from thirteen win seasons into the Super Bowl?
  • The Broncos taking on the Giants is an intriguing game given the unknowns for both teams. The Broncos are going with Teddy Bridgewater as their quarterback, but the defence was good last season despite ace pass rusher Von Miller being lost in pre-season. If Bridgewater can be effective with the young skill players of the Broncos they can at least be competitive. I liked a lot of what Joe Judge built in New York in his first season, but too much rests on the question of whether Daniel Jones is a franchise QB or not. The Giants made moves to give him no excuses so it’s a big season for Jones, and I’m not sure on this one at all.

Browns @ Chiefs (-5.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Browns
Dan’s Pick:      Chiefs

Dolphins @ Patriots (-2.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Patriots
Dan’s Pick:      Dolphins

Packers @ Saints (+2.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Packers
Dan’s Pick:      Packers

Broncos @ Giants (+1.5)

Gee’s Pick:      Broncos
Dan’s Pick:      Giants

Sunday Night Football:

Bears @ Rams (-6.5)

The Sunday night game is one that’s fascinating in large part because we get to see Matthew Stafford running Sean McVay’s offence. Their defence will also be an intriguing thing to monitor through the season as the loss of coordinator Staley along side several players around the stars of Jalen Ramsay and Aaron Donald means there’s a lot of questions and an injury to either defensive star could cause real problems. However, the Bears are a curious team in of themselves, with a defence that has fallen off a little under Matt Nagy. They answered one question at quarterback by moving on from Mitchell Trubisky, but how long Andy Dalton can hold off Justin Fields is the new questions alongside whether this team can this team truly compete. The line would seem to indicate not, but the questions surrounding the Bears are going to take weeks to resolve, and they’ve never had a losing season under Nagy so let’s see if he can improve on the last two seasons of 8-8.

Gee’s Pick:      Rams
Dan’s Pick:      Rans

Monday Night Football

Ravens @ Raiders (+4.5)

This is a game that is intriguing rather than one that sets the pulse racing. I think we know to a large degree what we will get out of the Ravens, and the question is still whether Lamar Jackson can become a good enough passer on defined throwing downs to push his team on. Still, Jackson is an electric talent and the Ravens have clearly been attempting to improve his receiving options in the offseason. They travel to face a Raiders team who rebuilt their offensive line in the offseason and invested once again in their defence, but the combination of Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock still doesn’t feel like it is working to a clear enough plan. I don’t doubt Gruden’s footballing brain, but I’m not sure of him as a head coach, although for me a lot rests on whether Gus Bradley can transform a defence that has consistently been in the bottom quarter of the league by DVOA. It will be good to see the Las Vegas stadium full and I wonder how the dynamics of visiting fans vs Raider fans work out, but the Raiders will likely find this a tough way to start the season

Gee’s Pick:      Ravens
Dan’s Pick:      Ravens

DVOA is Football Outsiders statistic for measure a team’s success on every play versus the league average and you can read more about it and other football topics at https://footballoutsiders.com.

Competition Thursday: 2021 Week 1

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I’m not sure when I’m going to feel like I have a proper routine back in my life, yet alone the blog, but after life events overtook writing at the end of last season we have been right through pre-season and whilst podcasting started, writing hasn’t. Until now, so whilst I’m sorting spreadsheets out and trying to get organised suddenly there’s picks to be made and a game tonight.

I mentioned it on the pod, and it is sort of my plan this season to take a leaf out of the Patriots/Rams’ approach and ramp up in September as we prepare for the long haul to the Super Bowl, which now includes an extra week in the regular season. There are other commitments kicking in next month too so I will have to sort out once again where I can find watching and writing time, but I want to keep this fun for me to write and hopefully for you to read. It’s also been far too long since I won a picks competition, so let’s see if I can get the year off to a good start, knowing that as ever, we are in for a marathon and not a sprint.

Cowboys @ Buccaneers (-6.5)

The first game of the season is a humdinger of a contest that as usual sees the Super Bowl champions opening up at home, and once more Tom Brady gets to open the season, this time welcoming the Cowboys to Tampa as Dak Prescott sees his first action since last season’s horrific ankle injury. I’m looking forward to the game, but it’s a strange one to pick because the Cowboys did not sparkle last season after Dak went down and the defence never looked right. All the skill position players are there on offence but will the offensive line be good enough for them to hum and can an awful defence be good enough for the team to be truly competitive. It’s not an easy task to go against a stacked Bucs team that brought all of its starters back and now have Brady well established in the offence after a slow start when he joined the Bucs last season. Interestingly, this is a good number looking at what is available online, but I’m feeling conservative, particularly given how little we’ve seen in the pre-season and I’m not ready to be handing out a touchdown’s worth of points given hope good a quartrback Dak is. The numbers are saying I’m wrong, but I was bitten too often last season and so I’m backing the Cowboys to at least keep it competitive. I just hope this isn’t Hard Knocks having too much of an influence on me.

Gee’s Pick:     Cowboys
Dan’s Pick:     Cowboys

Survivor Competition

Dan beat me in both competitions last season, and with his pick of the Jaguars I can see the starts of a similar tactic to what he had going last season in going against the Texans. I can see his logic, but there’s too many new parts in Jacksonville for my liking and so I’m looking at the 49ers and their experience against a Lions team who are starting a big rebuilding project as what I’m hoping is a solid survivor pick to start the season.

Week 1 Selection:

Gee:    49ers
Dan:    Jaguars

Divisional Sunday

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Two down and two to go so let us look at what matchups this divisional Sunday has in store for us.

Cleveland Browns (6th) @ Kansas City Chiefs (1st)

The team with the best regular season in 2020 finally starts their playoffs tonight with last season’s Super Bowl winners hosting a Browns team who won their first playoff game in twenty-five years last week. I understand why the Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid rested qaurterback Patrick Mahomes amongst several starters in week seventeen, but it does mean that it has been three weeks since any of them have taken a competitive snap. There should be plenty of confidence given that Mahomes when 14-1 as a starter this season, but if there is a slight hesitancy to declare them overwhelming favourites it is because the Chiefs did not beat a team by more than a touchdown after beating the Jets in week eight. The Browns are an interesting matchup in that between Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt they have a running game that is more than qualified to trouble the Chief’s thirty-first ranked rush defence by DVOA, whilst Kevin Stefanski has found enough in the passing game with Baker Mayfield to make him effective playing within his limitations. If the Browns try to just eat up clock then they will be in trouble as Patrick Mahomes will likely find a way to win a close game, but if they can get the game flow in their favour and run the ball then they might stand a chance of making it a competitive game. However, whilst the offensive matchup is workable for the Browns, their twenty-fifth ranked defence by DVOA looks to be outmatched as unless there is an awful lot of rust, the second ranked offence by DVOA should have enough to overcome the Browns. It does seem like running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire has hit something of a rookie wall and Le’Veon Bell looks like a shell of the back who dominated in Pittsburgh only a couple of seasons ago. Still, with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill the Chiefs have game winners enough without the contributions they will likely get from the rest of their receiving options. I’m really happy that both Stefanski and Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio are going to get a taste of the playoffs, and there is a chance the Browns’ great progress continues, but I have to think that ultimately the Chiefs and Mahomes wins out in the one.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5th) @ New Orleans Saints (2nd)

The final game of this weekend has the potential to be a great spectacle as it sees two of the great quarterbacks of the game face off for a third time this season. It is hard to beat a team twice in one season, yet alone three times, which is precisely what the Saints are aiming to do tonight when they host the Buccaneers. The Bucs will be hoping that they can carry the form of the last quarter of the season into this contest as they have now won five straight games, but I have to think that the thirty-five point margin of victory for the Saints when these teams played in week nine will be on the Bucs’ minds as they approach games. Both teams have offences and defences in the top ten by DVOA. The Bucs offence is ranked a bit better but thee Saints’ defence ranks better. The Bucs have a plethora of receiving options whilst Tom Brady has looked good over the last few games as it real feels like things are really coming together for him in his first season in Tampa. For Drew Brees however, it has been another difficult season with receiver Michael Thomas missing for a lot of games not to mention his own problems from breaking eleven ribs. The passing game has never quite fully clicked for the Saints even if both Brees and backup\gadget player Taysom Hill have completion percentages above seventy percent, but Alvin Karama has had another remarkable season as running back. The Saints defence has been strong all season and while the Bucs have looked as good as anyone in the league in stretches, somewhere between their form and blitzes they have had big problems every now and again. I can’t help but feel that given it is the playoffs that the very least Tom Brady will do is keep the Bucs competitive, but I have to wonder if there is something in the way these two teams matchup that gives the Saints an advantage. It’s rare to see a team with Brady as quarterback lose by thirty-five points, but with the Saints at home I wonder whether the advantage they have in continuity having been together for so long, and the matchups gives them an edge. I think this game could be as good as any we’ve seen this year, but if you force me to pick I’m leaning Saints, but what I’m really hoping for is a great game to finish off the divisional round and I think we should at least get that.

DVOA is Football Outsiders statistic for measuring a team’s success on every play versus the league average and you can read more about it and other football topics at https://footballoutsiders.com.

A Divisional Saturday

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It’s the divisional playoff weekend and we have a series of tasty games to look at so let’s take a look at the Saturday night divisional games.

LA Rams (6th) @ Green Bay Packers (1st)

Our weekend starts with the Packers entering the playoff fray as they host the sixth seed Rams and whilst the Packers look like a strong contender with all roads in the NFC going through Green Bay, there are some potential weaknesses although not with the offence. In his second year running Matt LaFleur’s scheme all the questions from last season have been answered by Aaron Rodgers, who has looked masterful as he threw for over four thousand yards and an astonishing forty-eight touchdowns to five interceptions. He has been ably assisted by running back Aaron Jones who rushed for over a thousand yards despite missing two games and Davante Adams who has to be in any discussion of the best receivers in the league. The Packers offence is number one by DVOA for a reason, but it is a little lacking in depth behind these standout skills players and the loss of Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari before the final game of the regular season is a blow to an offensive line that as usual has been a strength of the team. The Packers beat the Bears soundly without Bakhtiari and he has missed other games this season, but the Rams defence is going to prove a sterner test. In fact, right now the Rams defence is the lead unit on their team but they have a big job in this game. In other circumstances with Sean McVay’s offence the Rams might hope to take advantage of an average Packers defence that has had glaring moments of weakness, but Jared Goff has underwhelmed in the last half of the season and has to go into the cold of Green Bay with a pin in his throwing thumb having fractured it only a couple of weeks ago. There is a formula for the Rams to win this game, particularly if Jalen Ramsey can limit Davante Adams and Aaron Donald plays up to his full potential. However, we cannot be totally sure what Donald will do in this game with the destructive defensive tackle having missed a chunk of the second half last week with a rib injury, which the Rams are saying is fine now but seeing will be believing. Ultimately, I have to feel that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have enough advantages to win out in this one, particularly given the situation for the Rams offence, but I am at least hopeful of a good contest to open up the week.

Baltimore Ravens (5th) @ Buffalo Bills (2nd)

I am really excited about the second Saturday game as it pits a surging Ravens team travelling to take on the Bills coming off their first playoff win in twenty-four years. The Ravens have now won six straight games and quarterback Lamar Jackson just won the first playoff game of his career, ending a frustrating narrative but if the Ravens are to win this conest, I think we need to focus on the other side of the ball. The Bills have the fifth best offence in the league by DVOA, which is all the more remarkable given Josh Allen’s completion percentage has jumped over ten points from last season to 69.2% in a second season of development that saw him go from an effective runner with an erratic but powerful arm to a genuine MVP candidate. In fact, the offence has transformed with the addition of Stefon Diggs and the evolution of their pass first offence that has seen offensive coordinator Brian Daboll interviewing for head coach jobs. The Ravens’ offence has been better in the second half of the season, but is still focussed on the run and if they hope to win in this game they need to keep control of the score and not fall too far behind as we still haven’t seen the Ravens succeed if game flow dictates that they have to pass the ball. This is a tough ask of the Ravens’ defence because much like the Chiefs, not only are the Bills a good offensive team but they are explosive and can put up points quickly. If the Ravens are to win this game, I think they must do so in a particular manner or prove that they can win whilst passing in a manner they have never managed before. The Bills defence has looked worse than expected for a lot of the season, but have been a bit better in recent weeks and in the end I like the Bills to win out in this one thanks to the power of their offence, but the Ravens always seem to play tough in the playoffs and I think this matchup has potential to be one of the great games of the season.

DVOA is Football Outsiders statistic for measuring a team’s success on every play versus the league average and you can read more about it and other football topics at https://footballoutsiders.com.

Fallen at the First Hurdle

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The first ‘Super’ Wild Card weekend certainly provided plenty off football to watch, a couple of upsets and plenty to digest. As usual I will be saying goodbye to the losing teams, and for this post in the order they were knocked out so let’s take a look at the six who fell at the first playoff hurdle.

The cap numbers for next season still come from spotrac.com and the ranking/numbers were right at time of posting with an assumed team salary cap of $175 million.

Indianapolis Colts

This season the top of the AFC was so competitive that a ten win team did not make the playoffs and the Colts were seeded seventh despite an 11-5 record and ranking tenth overall by DVOA. It would have been no mean feat to go into Buffalo and beat the number two seed Bills in their own stadium, even if the long suffering but vociferus Buffalo fans were not present to cheer on what they would hope with be the first playoff win since 1995, but sadly for the Colt it was just not to be. There’s an argument that the Colts played better for large parts of this game, they had the ball for longer, outgained the Bills and their defence prevented the Bills from running up the kinds of scores they had over the last quarter of the season but sadly for the Colts, the Bills ability to put up points quickly saw them eek out the 27-24. I have been impressed with the job GM Chirs Ballard has done since he joined the franchise, which has not been easy given the injury status of Andrew Luck when Ballard took the job in 2017 and then had to deal with Luck’s retirement in 2019 just before the season. In that time the team had become competitive and with the addition of Frank Reich the Colts have won double digit games when they have had a true franchise quarterback. This is hardly a surprise but I mention it because the singing of Philip Rivers canonly be short term with him mulling retirement and as good as the Colts were this season, they really need to find a long term solution at quarterback. Their left tackle, the ten year vet Anthony Castonzo is retiring so there are a couple of key decisions coming up on offence this off-season. Rivers may decide to come back for another year, and the good news is that right now the Colts have the third most cap space going into 2021, but whether they can find the right pieces I don’t know. I trust Frank Reich as a head coach to keep this team competitive as he has managed that from the moment he got there, despite taking the job very late in the process and inheriting a stage that was assembled by Josh McDaniels before McDaniels pulled out of the job. However, if the Colts are to truly challenge, they need to sort the two key positions of quarterback and left tackle and whilst I admire Ballard, that is not an easy task in one off-season.

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks under Pete Carroll have gone to the playoffs in all but two of his eleven seasons, but they have not got back to the conference championship game since the 2014 season and their second Super Bowl appearance. It might be considered churlish to be picking at the sustained success of the Seahawks under Carroll, but I am getting a little concerned about their current direction and I think that feeling is shared by their fans. The league has moved on since the 2013/14 and whilst the Seahawks formula is clearly still successful up to a point, this is no longer a team with an era defining defence if it is still even possible to build such a unit with the current rules. These days the clear best player on the Seahawk’s roster is quarterback Russell Wilson and after the fans’ clamour to let Russ cook was met at the start of the season, the Seahawks won their first five game with Wilson an early MPV candidate as things were humming with receiver DK Metcalf absoultely dominating in the deep passing game. However, the defence was struggling to contain offences and as teams started to play more cover two coverage against the Seahawks the offence faltered and stagnated. As the defence improved, the Seahawks fell back to running the ball more and their old familiar formula. Whilst they still won twelve games this way, the Seahawks also just got knocked out by a Rams team who started their backup John Wolford at quarterback and when he was injured early were forced to play Jared Goff who is still recovering from a fractured thumb and cleary was having problem throwing the ball. Even more concerning for me was Carroll’s talk post game of getting better at running the ball and a lot is going to depend on who is selected to be the new offensive coordinator as the franchise parted ways with current OC Brian Shottenheimer citing philosophical differences. I would love to be proved wrong and the Seahawks bring in a fresh coordinator who can diversify the passing offence whilst maintain the running game as a genuine threat as I believe that is the most successful formula in the NFL these days, but the other thing that Wilson could benefit from as a shorter quarterback is for the Seahawks to take a leaf from the Saints’ handling of Drew Brees and fortify the interior of their offensive line. However, the Seahawks have not focussed on the offensive line with the tandem of John Schneider and Pete Caroll in charge so I doubt that will be done in the off-season. Even with only $5 million under the 2021 cap I expect the Seahawks to compete again next season, but I am beginning to wonder if the Seahawks are going to put themselves in a position to maximise Russell Wilson’s prime, or if he is going to end up in a situation similar to the Packers and Aaron Rodgers where they need to refresh the coaching scheme to maximise their investment. Having read his book on coaching I have a lot of respect for Pete Carroll, but I do wonder if he is going to help get the Seahawks offence in the place it needs to be to allow him to return to the Super Bowl and for the Seahawks, that should be focus right now.

Washington Football Team

The Washington Football Team didn’t just make the playoffs but gave a credible performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and whilst they never truly troubled the Bucs, they did a lot better than the Bears who I shall be covering in a bit. Alex Smith steadied the ship and brought Washington back into playoff contention when he was made the starter at quarterback, but the Football team had to work hard to hold on to top spot in the NFC East when Smith picked up a calf strain yet they did managed to slide into the playoffs. If nothing else in the last few weeks, fringe quarterback Taylor Heinicke who had one career start going into Saturday’s game, hadn’t been on a NFL roster since final cuts ahead of the 2019 season, and didn’t even see the field for his XFL team last year moved the ball well enough that someone surely will sign him to take another look in the pre-season. However, Washington’s offence clearly still needs work in Washington as it ranks bottom in the league by DVOA (and let’s not forget that means it was worse than the Jets!), but in his first season Ron Rivera and his coaching staff got special teams up to fifteenth by DVOA and the defence finished third. The defence in no small part flourished with the addition of rookie defensive end Chase Young who looked every bit the top of the draft era defining pass rusher that Washington hoped for when they selected him last year. This was a very credible turnaround in one season, and there were a couple of players who caught the eye on offence, but the clear focus in the off-season is improving their quarterback play and getting their offence to at least league average. Washington have over $27 million in cap space next season and so whilst it is too early to know how far the new regime can take them, having taken a decent first step this season for the first time in a long time it feels like there is some hope that Washington can improve in consecutive seasons. My one concern is that I have said this before and been proven wrong as no regime has managed to take promise into production on the field or been given time to see a long term project through so we shall have to see what does actually happen this time. Even if you can’t bring yourself to hope yet, there is at least reason to monitor Washington’s moves this off-season and that has not been the case for many a year.

Tennessee Titans

The first team that we lost on Sunday was an upset in seeding but was one I predicted before the game although it was hardly a controversial prediction. The Tennessee Titans continued to improve their standings in the AFC South under Mike Vrabel, winning the division for the first time since he took over in 2018 as well as achieving double digit wins for the first time. That said, this season’s iteration of the team differed from last year’s in that the 2019 version were competitive across all three phases of the game whereas this season the defence improved to fourth overall by DVOA whilst both the defence and special teams regressed badly. The short-term future on offence seems secure unless they lose coordinator Arthur Smith, but much like my criticism of the Raiders, it will not matter how good their offence is if the Titans can’t get the defence up to somewhere near the league average in play. The hope would be that as defence tends to be more volatile than offence the Titan’s defence could bounce back next season, but they need to address the pass rush from somewhere and with them $5 million over next season’s cap they will have to be clever or draft well to turn that around. The right draft pick could very well help them turn the corner, but you could say that about plenty of teams in the league. Still, this is now five seasons with at least nine wins so I have no reason not to expect the Titans to compete next season. However, there is a limit to how long running back Derek Henry can maintain his currently volume of production, particularly with his physical running style and five years in the league is a long time for a running back with his kind of usage. There are always cycles for any NFL team and I just hope that the Titans maximise their current situation because it is rare for a team to have their success tied to a running back and it last for long.

Chicago Bears

The Bears were the most comprehensively beaten team of the Wild Card round, and the score would look a lot worse if it were not for a garbage time touchdown from the Bears thanks to a ridiculous one-handed catch by Jimmy Graham. However, for most of the game the Bears offence never really took off and the Saints had full control of the game. This really mirrors the Bears season where despite starting 5-1, the Bears were worried enough that having signed Nick Foles to a three-year $24 million contract in the off-season they made him the starter but as so often has been the case unless pressed into service for a limited period, Foles did not impress. This leaves the Bears in the position where Trubisky played well enough to get them into the playoffs, but not to win in a demonstration of what I call the Andy Dalton paradox. Now Trubisky isn’t as good as Dalton was at his height for the Bengals, but neither of them were able to elevate those around them on their own and with the modern rules I don’t think you can build the kind of defences that allowed the Ravens to win with a Joe Flacco or a Trent Dilfer. In a league that is segueing from Drew Brees and Tom Brady to Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen, Dak Prescott and it seems more good quarterbacks than ever before, I believe you simply must have an offence that performs to a certain standard and I think the Bears by splitting between Foles and Trubisky have ended up with no quarterback and awkward decisions to make this off-season. I do not know what they plan to do with Foles and having declined the fifth-year option for Trubisky, they now have to make decisions having invested draft capital and free-agent money without a clear path forward and who really knows what changes are the front office prepared to make to improve next season. This is particularly prescient as with their defence and special teams both ranked in top ten by DVOA, if they can sort out what is after all head coach Matt Nagy’s side of the ball in the offence, then they might be able to push on and really challenge in the playoffs. However, I am not sure about GM Ryan Pace who not only drafted Mitchell Trubisky, but traded up for the privilege to do so when it did not seem like the 49ers were going to draft a quarterback and passed over both Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in the process. It’s always easy to look back in hindsight so I do want to be careful as Pace will obviously know a lot more about player evaluation than me, but I did not like the process at the time and everyone questioned the choice of player as well as the draft capital given up. I’m not sure anyone knew what Mahomes was going to turn into, but Pace’s evaluation of the three players was clearly wrong and with one winning season in six there is no record of consistent success under the current administration. The Bears are $8 million over the draft cap so I will be following the Bears’ off-season with interest as there are some big decisions to be made, but I’m not sure about the process or the people who are making them.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The last team to finish their season on Sunday was in some ways the most surprising, but the warning signs were there, and things went wrong from the very first snap of the game for the Steelers. They may have started out 11-0, but the end of the season saw the lose five out of six games including Sunday’s Wild Card game to a team who could barely practice and were without several players as well as their play-calling head coach due to a Covid-19 break outs. The Steelers’ first snap saw nine-year veteran centre Maurkice Puncey shotgun a snap over quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s head and the Browns were first to secure the ball in the end zone and score a touchdown. By the end of the first quarter, the Steelers were down 28-0 and despite generating over five hundred yards of passing offence in the game ultimately lost 37-48. You can understand how as the defence accumulated injuries at linebacker the defence struggled late in the season, but the real problem was the balance of the offence where they could not run the ball and were overly reliant on short passing plays that required yards after the catch. Once teams had figured out how to stop this then the Steelers could not seem to adjust. They approach next season with a thirty-nine-year-old quarterback mulling retirement who is an eye watering $41 million cap hit in 2021, with $22 million in dead money if he is cut, but with the Steelers $23 million over the 2021 salary cap and with a number of free-agents there are going to be some difficult decisions. They will certainly have to be careful about who they seek to retain, though at least they have young receivers to take over if they let some of the more experienced players go. I have wondered for years about the Steelers cap management, though they usually find to way remain competitive but they have not had to think about quarterback for a long time. I think you have to be impressed at how they are run but with no obvious successor to Roethlisberger on the roster and a murky cap situation the Steelers are going to have to create a new era and there might well be some pain ahead before they get back to the kind of success we are all used to seeing in Pittsburgh. I would not bet against them coming good again soon though.

DVOA is Football Outsiders statistic for measuring a team’s success on every play versus the league average and you can read more about it and other football topics at https://footballoutsiders.com.

2020 Wildcard Sunday

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Here are my thoughts about the second wave of games this Wildcard weekend.

Baltimore Ravens (5th) @ Tennessee Titans (4th)

The Sunday games start with what will be a bruising encounter that pits Derrek Henry and the Titan’s fourth ranked offence by DVOA against the Ravens’ ninth ranked defence, with the Titans hoping to have enough success to offset their twenty-ninth ranked by DVOA defence and twenty-eighth ranked special teams.

The Tennessee offence is clearly impressive, with Derrek Henry rushing for two thousand yards and Ryan Tannehill throwing for well over three and a half thousand passing yards. They might be a bit conservative in terms of rushing on early downs, but the throwback run/pass ratio works because of Henry and sets up their play-action passing game. I think there could well be more efficiency for the Titans in throwing more on first and second down, but in the Ravens they face a team that have their own run-based offence. After a stretch of season where the Ravens looked out of sync following the Covid-19 outbreak and were still adjusting to personnel changes over the off-season the Ravens started to look dangerous again and finished the season with five straight wins. Their running game starts with the option running game where Lamar Jackson is so dangerous and he ran for one thousand yards from the quarterback position at an average of over six yards per carry for the second straight season. The running back by committee is also working with rookie JK Dobbin looking speedy and particularly dangerous in recent weeks. The Ravens might not have a standout receiver of the quality of the Titans’ AJ Brown but Mark Andrews is one of only five tight-ends to have over seven hundred receiving yards this season and interestingly is only joined by Travis Kelce of the Chiefs in the playoffs. When you couple this offensive production with a Ravens’ defence that may not be as fierce as in recent years but is still top ten by DVOA and effective special teams then I think you have a recipe for success. There will be real concerns in Baltimore if Jackson fails to win a play-off game for a third season in a row, but with the Titans defensive worries I think the Ravens stand a good chance of winning. That said, I’m impressed with how Titans’ head coach Mike Vrabel game management so they definitely should not be written off, but I think the Titans will find it hard to match their play-off run from last season.

Chicago Bears (7th) @ New Orleans Saints (2nd)

The Bears have had an odd season where they started 5-1 without really impressing and eventually Mitchell Trubisky got pulled as the starting quarterback for Nick Foles based on performance, and then injured a shoulder running the ball as an option play while Foles continued to get the start. As the losses continued to mount Trubisky got back the starter job and just about managed to get the Bears into the playoffs, albeit with a loss against the Packers that meant they were reliant on the Rams beating the Cardinals in week seventeen. All this is to say that whilst the Bears are not the worst ranked team by DVOA to make the playoffs, it is hard to see them competing with the Saints in New Orleans. Without their vosiferous fans there won’t be the same kind of home advantage as normal for the Saints, but with all three phases of the game ranked in the top ten by DVOA it looks like the Saints are as well placed as they can be to make a deep run in the playoffs for what could be Drew Brees’ last time. It has been a difficult season for the Saints in that Drew Brees at one point had eleven broken ribs and has had real problems throwing the ball deep, whilst Michael Thomasm, their lead receiver from last season, has only played seven games and has been ineffective for longs stretches of those. Still, the Saints have a way to win, even when their entire running room was held out of their week seventeen game due to close contacts with Alvin Kamara who tested positive for Covid-19. The good news for the Saints is that Kamara and Thomas have both been cleared to play and I think they should have no problems in beating a Bears team who will have to decide if their sneaking into the play-offs is enough to keep faith with the current setup or things need changing. Of course, the Bears could win and that will make for a different decision even if it might be covering some crack from regular season but I really do think this situation is unlikely and that the Saints will go through to the divisional game for the third time in four seasons.

Cleveland Browns (6th) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (3rd)

The final game of the playoff should have been full of drama as the Browns make the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season, but continued Covid-19 positives have disrupted the last couple of weeks and prevent head coach Kevin Stefanski from coaching in this game as well as Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio from taking part in this playoff game. It is particularly rough for Bitonio, who is the longest tenured Browns player on the roster and has been through all the recent rough seasons including the one win and winless seasons. The Browns were not even able to practice until late this week and so to win on the road against the Steelers is going to be a difficult task, although not an impossible one. For much of the seasons the Steelers just kept on winning, going 11-0 despite losing their bye week to the Titans’ Covid-19 outbreak and then losing a mini-bye when their Thanksgiving game against the Ravens was also moved, this time due to the Ravens’ Covid-19 outbreak. However, the Steelers were only able to win one more game during the last five weeks of the regular season as the injuries on defence, particularly amongst the linebackers hindered that side of the ball whilst opposing defences seemed to work out the Steelers short passing game that had been so effective for the majority of the season. The Steelers’ running game has been absent for most of the season and they have not looked to push the ball down field as you might have expected given the talent they have at receiver. However, with the Steelers resting Ben Roethlisberger and other starters in their final game of the season, a game the Browns had to win to ensure they made the playoffs, the Steelers only lost by two points.

I suspect with a rested Roethlisberger and all the disruption in Cleveland that the Browns’ wait for a playoff win will go on another year, but you can’t rule out that they find a way to win somehow. It would certainly cap a remarkable turnaround under Stefanski in his first season as head coach and mean that he does get to coach a playoff game, but I think it is likely that he will have to wait another year before he can lead his team in the playoffs.

DVOA is Football Outsiders statistic for measuring a team’s success on every play versus the league average and you can read more about it and other football topics at https://footballoutsiders.com.