Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith, Atlanta Falcons, Bill O'Brien, Brock Osweiler, Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys, DeAndre Hopkins, Doug Baldwin, Earl Thomas, Ezekiel Elliott, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Jadeveon Clowney, Jared Cook, JJ Watt, Kansas City Chiefs, Le'Veon Bell, New England Patriots, NFL, Paul Richardson, Pete Carroll, Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks, Tony Romo, Tyreek Hill, Whitney Mercilus
We have said goodbye to four more teams, and are only three games that matter away from the end of the season. Of course our thoughts turn towards the conference championship games this weekend, but before we consider them fully let us take a moment to look at the state of the four departed and consider what was a truly spectacular game on Sunday.
The early game saw the Seattle Seahawks finally finish a difficult down year for them that still netted them a division title and a playoff win. They started the game off strongly, moving the ball on their first drive and scoring a touchdown to take an early lead that they held onto until around two thirds of the way through second quarter and were unable to reclaim. The Seahawk’s offence was let down by its structural flaw in the offensive line, and so they were unable to keep up with the Atlanta Falcons superb offence. It is not too often that you see a guard step on his quarterback’s foot and cost his team a safety. The Seahawks managed to run for one hundred yards, but with only twenty-one carries they were not as committed to it as the previous week, and they were unable to do enough through the air to make up for it although both Doug Baldwin and Paul Richardson had respectable days in gaining eighty yards each. However, combine the problems on offence with a defence that was missing Earl Thomas at safety and there were too many problems to overcome.
The Seahawks should have Thomas back next year, but their focus should be improving the offensive line. The problem is that this was the case last season so while they appear to have the cap space to address this, you can’t honestly predict if they will or not address their offensive line this offseason. Still, you would expect the Seahawks to be competitive again next season and I will be curious to see how Pete Caroll approaches next season with chatter already surfacing that he will be addressing some aspect of his player’s behaviour that adversely affected the team this years. I can’t see him changing completely, but as ever I look forward to seeing what happens in Seattle.
The second game on Sunday was unsurprising in its result, and the Patriots still covered the huge line in beating the Houston Texans, but the actual game did not exactly flow how many predicted. The Texans offence struggled, and benefitted from some rare mistakes from the Patriots to take advantage of good field position. However, the problems with Brock Osweiler’s play at quarterback still continued to hamper this team’s efforts and this surely will be a big focus in the offseason. There is some work to do on the defensive side of the ball, but the return of JJ Watt to play alongside Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney could produce a terrifying front seven and a defence that could be as scary as any in the league. Even without Watt they were able to scheme pressure up the middle and rattle Tom Brady, even if Brady was able to find a way to grind out the game as he usually does.
The Texans could be a really good team, but they have to address the quarterback problem. This is something of a surprise given that Bill O’Brien is an offensive minded head coach who has a reputation as a quarterback whisperer, but he can only coach the players he is given. He seemed to learn the lesson of last season and so stuck with Osweiler until he just couldn’t any more, but it is worrying that receiver DeAndre Hopkins had a better season with the rotating cast of quarterbacks that were throwing him the ball last season than with Osweiler and Savage this. If they can get the right balance on offence then this team could take a real step forward, but with their recent history who knows if they will be able to manage it.
The first game on Sunday was one of the best of the season and certainly the highlight of the playoffs to date. What started as a dominating performance by the Green Bay Packers, which saw them gain a 21-3 lead by half way through the second quarter ended in a tight contest that saw three fifty plus yard field goals in the last two minutes.
The Cowboys success this year was based up their two stellar rookies performing behind their excellent offensive line. Thrust from developmental backup to opening day starting quarterback by Tony Romo’s preseason fractured vertebrae, Dak Prescott has been remarkably calm and safe with the ball from the get go and as the season progressed so did his range of passing. Prescott’s ability to run the ball also complements rookie running back sensation Ezekiel Elliott and the pair of them led the Cobwoys to the playoffs. They were slow starters, which could very well be attributed to nerves, but Elliott ran for one hundred and twenty-five yards whilst Prescott threw for over three hundred. There is no shame in falling short against the Packers, particularly as it took some remarkable play for Aaron Rodgers and ridiculously difficult catch by Jared Cook to setup the winning field goal.
The Cowboys defence has struggled to keep up with the performance of the offence, and whilst they were solid enough in overall DVOA ranking at seventeen, they have struggled to rush the passer and they will need to address this side of the ball in the offseason to improve. It will be disappointing to go 13-3 and not get a playoff win, but this team is a very good position to continue its success next year, and if they continue to draft as strongly as they have in recent years then I see no reason bar injury that they won’t do so. Given how well the pick of Elliott has worked out, I will be giving them a bigger benefit of the doubt when draft time rolls round!
The final game of the weekend saw a second team depart the playoffs without a win after a bye week when the Kansas City Chiefs were beaten by the Pittsburgh Steelers despite scoring two touchdowns to the Steelers’ zero.
The Chiefs have been a very good regular season team over the last two years, but have struggled to make this really count with a deep playoff run. This season’s team was a very balanced matchup of offence and defence with very good special teams. However, there were flaws in this team that came back to bite them in this game. The Chiefs defence has been solid this year, but they have been very reliant on turnovers and only managed one in this game. However, despite having a poor rushing defence and giving up one hundred and seventy yards on the ground to Le’Veon Bell, the Chiefs defence limited the Steelers to six field goals and so it was not the defence that cost the Chiefs this game.
The Chiefs have relied on a speed and big plays to supplement their offence, and the Steelers made a point of kicking away from Tyreek Hill to negate his return ability on special teams and their defence was able to limit the Chiefs’ offence for large stretches of the game. Whilst the Steelers racked up nearly four hundred yards of the offence, the Chiefs were only able to amass a little under two hundred and thirty and this was their real problem. Their offence, based as it is on trickery and speed was unable to move the ball consistently enough to win against the Steelers.
Moving into next season, the Chiefs will likely to be just as consistent again, but it seems they will need to find some extra level if they are to take the next step. Shoring up a porous run defence will go a long way to helping that side of the ball, whilst making the offence more consistent will help the other side. A more consistent run game could be found simply from their running backs being healthier, but continuing the improvements to the offensive line would help as well. However, there are already questions being asked about whether Alex Smith is capable of the level of play required to win big in the playoffs. Given some of the names that have graced the Super Bowl that might be a little over the top, but the era defining defences that are needed to carry such quarterbacks far into the playoffs are not easy to come by, and it is not hard to see the Chiefs drafting a quarterback to develop behind a thirty-two year old Smith.