Welcome to the latest edition of the Sunday Recap, a weekly column dedicated to thoughts on the previous day’s NFL action. Here are the big storylines from the final week of the regular season.
Round-by-Round Playoff Predictions: Who Will Win Super Bowl LI?
My favorite time of year is about to begin. Yet, for some reason, this 2016 season feels more unusual than most as we enter the postseason. The field seems to be very top-heavy, particularly in the AFC. Once again, the road to the Super Bowl will run through New England, as the 14-2 Patriots capped off the regular season by winning their final seven games by an average of roughly 16 points. Unfortunately for the rest of the AFC, injuries to the starting quarterbacks of two other contenders–Oakland and Miami–essentially narrows down the list of challengers to two: Kansas City and Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys are the favorite in the NFC after clinching home-field advantage before Week 16. Though Dallas certainly would like to avoid the Giants, who swept them in the regular season, the Cowboys chances are looking pretty good since usual suspects like Seattle and Green Bay haven’t looked quite as formidable as they have in recent years.
With that said, the NFL playoffs rarely play out the way you think they will. Without further ado, here are my predictions for how I think this year’s postseason will unfold.
Wild Card Round
Miami trounced Pittsburgh back when these teams met in October, but I see a completely different result this time around. The Dolphins may rank a respectable 17th in defensive DVOA, but their run defense is tied for last in opponent yards per rush attempt. Le’Veon Bell should have a big day and lead the Steelers to victory.
Can anyone make a confident prediction for this game? I mean, do you take Matt McGloin, if he’s even healthy enough to start, or Tom Savage, if he’s even healthy enough to start? For now, I’ll take the Raiders, who are the better team on paper. Note that this prediction may change based on any injury developments.
Eli Manning has done it to the Packers in Lambeau before. I’m not 100 percent set on this prediction yet, but I don’t trust Green Bay’s secondary (see below), meaning that Odell Beckham could have a big game. Plus, this Giants defense is even better than the units that won their two most recent Super Bowls. I see them containing Aaron Rodgers enough for Manning to come through in the clutch yet again.
I give Detroit a decent chance of pulling off an upset. However, the problem for the Lions is that they really don’t have a defense, specifically a front-seven, capable of exposing Seattle’s offensive line. I trust the Seahawks in front of their home crowd, too. They’re undefeated at home in the Pete Carroll era.
Remember when I said that I have no idea who will win between Oakland and Houston? Just know that I have the winner of that game losing to New England.
Kansas City is a very good team. But as I’ve discussed before, they’re not great in any of the more conventional areas of the game (e.g. passing offense or run defense). They do, however, have a knack for making big plays on special teams and forcing turnovers. I just don’t know if this will be as much of an advantage over a seasoned Pittsburgh team that has a balanced offense built for postseason success. This game really could go either way, though.
I think the Giants are dangerous, but there’s no way things break right for them as a low seed again, right? I bet Dallas pounds Ezekiel Elliott and finds a way to avoid a three-game sweep against one of their biggest rivals.
Seattle will run into trouble if they advance past the Wild Card round. Their defense has not been as stingy ever since they lost Earl Thomas. That will be a problem against an Atlanta team that very nearly beat them earlier in the season in Seattle.
I’m sticking with my preseason pick, because why not? New England and Pittsburgh have the two best quarterbacks in the AFC, so it’s not bold to say that they will meet with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line. The Steelers certainly are the team that is most equipped to go into Foxboro and pull and upset, too. I still don’t see it happening, though. The Patriots’ offense has been virtually unstoppable all season long, and their defense is peaking at the right time. I bet Big Ben and company could keep things close, but New England looks as dominant as ever.
Call it a hunch. Atlanta’s offense leads the league in scoring and yards per drive despite having played the hardest slate of defenses according to Football Outsiders. The Falcons may be mediocre defensively, but I doubt things will go perfectly for rookie Dak Prescott this postseason. Upsets happen in the NFL playoffs, so it really shouldn’t be surprising if the Cowboys–who are no strangers to coming up short–fail to make it to Houston.
Super Bowl LI
Defense does not win championships. Generally speaking, the teams that get to the Super Bowl do so on the strength of their offense and, more specifically, their quarterback. Need evidence? In thirteen of the past fifteen Super Bowls, the AFC representative has been quarterbacked by either Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Ben Roethlisberger. All are future Hall of Famers. Moreover, nine of the past ten Super Bowl representatives finished in the top ten of scoring offense, whereas only six of the last ten representatives finished in the top ten of scoring defense. And just to get more of a gauge of how offense is more important than defense in the NFL, the top ten teams in offensive efficiency averaged a shade under 10.5 wins this season. The top ten defenses finished with an average of just over eight victories.
This isn’t to say that defense isn’t important. However, when in doubt, I like to put my faith in elite offenses. For that reason, I’m banking on the two most prolific offenses in the league playing against each other in Super Bowl LI. For the record, I’m much more confident in New England. The Patriots have their easiest path to the AFC Championship game since 2011, when they faced Tim Tebow’s Denver Broncos. And with the way Tom Brady has played this year, I don’t expect Pittsburgh or Kansas City to be too much trouble, assuming one of those two even makes it that far.
As for Atlanta, again, I just have a hunch. The Falcons are dominant offensively. I don’t think there’s a defense, aside from New York’s, that can hold them under, say, 24 points. However, this doesn’t mean Atlanta is ultimately stronger than, say, the Cowboys. It also doesn’t mean they are a lock to get by a more-than-capable Packers team, either. But since Atlanta has home-field in the divisional round, and then could play in another temperature-controlled environment in Dallas, I bet the Falcons’ offense will thrive this January and play well enough to overcome an average defense to get to Houston.
From there, I’ll put my faith in Brady over Matt Ryan when it matters most. The Patriots’ offense has not slowed down without Rob Gronkowski like it has in past years, and they should be able to exploit weaknesses in Atlanta’s aforementioned defense. New England also is peaking at the right time defensively. All things being equal, I’ll take a Bill Belichick coached team over Dan Quinn’s squad every day of the week. Therefore, my ultimate prediction is that New England will win their fifth Super Bowl since 2000.
Here are the Three Sexiest Super Bowl Matchups
It really doesn’t matter if, hypothetically, Tom Savage and the Texans face off against, say, the Lions: Over 100 million people will watch the Super Bowl no matter the matchup. But who am I kidding. Certain games are much more appealing than others. Looking back on it, last year’s matchup between two dominant defensive teams–Denver and Carolina–didn’t exactly make for the most riveting game. And even though it turned out to be an exciting affair, I could’ve done without Joe Flacco vs Colin Kaepernick in Super Bowl XLVII.
With this in mind, here are three of the more-likely matchups that would make for particularly entertaining Super Bowl’s.
This one’s rather obvious. The Patriots and Cowboys are arguably the league’s two highest profile teams, and a first-ever Super Bowl meeting between these two teams would give New England an opportunity to tie Dallas in Lombardi trophies with five. Of course, the intrigue doesn’t end there. Brady vs Dak would make for one of the most unique quarterback matchups in Super Bowl history. Plus, I’m sure everyone would love to see what Cowboys stars Ezekiel Elliott and Dez Bryant could do on the biggest stage. Let’s not forget about the owner drama, either. Jerry Jones was once the most successful owner back in the nineties, so he has to be dying for an opportunity to see his team beat the man whose team has supplanted his Cowboys this century, Robert Kraft. And if that’s not enough, you always have Tony Romo lingering in the background.
Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers certainly aren’t strangers to the Super Bowl. Nonetheless, it’s been five years since Pittsburgh made its last appearance, which means that we haven’t had the opportunity to see two of the NFL’s most dynamic offensive players, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, in the big game (granted, Brown was a rookie when the Steelers lost in Super Bowl XLV, but was only a marginal contributor). Speaking of dynamic weapons, Atlanta has one of the more explosive offenses in recent memory. Matt Ryan’s in the midst of his best season as a pro, and he has led the Falcons to the league’s highest scoring output since the 2013 Broncos. No offense to the two opposing defenses, but with the likes of Julio Jones and Brown on the field, this could be the highest scoring Super Bowl ever.
I know, I know. Sue me if you have a problem with me putting my Patriots here again. But wouldn’t we all want to see Tom Brady vs Aaron Rodgers in the Super Bowl for the first time? Move over Dan Marino vs Joe Montana in Super Bowl XIX. This would be the greatest matchup of quarterbacks in Super Bowl history.
Honorable Mentions: New England vs New York, Pittsburgh vs Dallas, Kansas City vs Green Bay
Four Players/Units With the Most to Prove This Postseason
Atlanta’s star quarterback has the most to prove out of any other player in this year’s postseason. Ryan’s not exactly in the same league as Andy Dalton, but you could certainly label him as an underachiever when it matters most. He’s just 1-4 as a starter in the playoffs, and his quarterback rating (85.2) and adjusted yards per pass attempt (5.86) are far lower than his career averages (93.3 and 7.4 respectively).
But those struggles seem to be in the rear-view mirror now that Ryan is the leader of one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses. With a more-seasoned Julio Jones and a terrific running back combination of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Atlanta leads the league in practically every major offensive category, including points per game and yards per drive. They’ve accomplished this despite playing the league’s toughest slate of opposing defenses, too.
The Falcons earned the right to play a home game in the divisional round. At the very least, they’ll need to capitalize on that opportunity if Ryan truly wants to be considered one of the league’s very best quarterbacks.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and the Green Bay Secondary
The Packers deserve credit for weathering a midseason storm. Yet despite their strong finish to the regular season, their defensive struggles, in particular, aren’t necessarily behind them. Green Bay has allowed the 4th most passing yards per game this season, and they’ve allowed quarterbacks such as Matt Barkley (362 yards) and Sam Bradford (382 yards, 3 touchdowns) to light them up in recent weeks. Plus, the Packers might have some daunting matchups ahead of them against two teams, Dallas and Atlanta, that put up over 30 points against them earlier this season.
It’s safe to assume that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense will be tough to slow down this January. But what they really need, though, is for Pro Bowler Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and their secondary to step up when it matters most.
Dez Bryant’s been relatively quiet this year, no? Once considered to be one of the league’s very best receivers, Dez has clearly been overshadowed by Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott’s success, which partly explains why his reception and yardage totals have dropped on a per game basis. Moreover, I bet Bryant still hasn’t gotten over not making that “catch” in Green Bay a couple years ago.
Dez may still be one of the league’s better receivers. But if he wants to be placed in the same class as someone like Antonio Brown, or even a Cowboy legend like Michael Irvin, he’ll need to play an integral role in leading Dallas on a deep playoff run.
Ziggy Ansah and the Detroit Front-Four
The Lions are very lucky that Matthew Stafford has been so good in the clutch because their defense has held them back in 2016. Detroit struggles mightily at defending the pass, and it’s mostly been due to their poor pass rush which ranks just 29th in sack rate. The NFC playoff field is loaded with top-tier quarterbacks, so if Detroit wants to go anywhere, they’ll want to rely less on Stafford and more on a stingier defense.
Three Questions for Teams Looking Ahead to 2017
While most of the attention is on the twelve teams in this year’s postseason, I don’t want to overlook the other twenty teams already scheming for next season. As it stands now, here are the three biggest storylines to pay attention to this offseason.
Should the Redskins commit to Cousins?
In case you missed it, here are the highlights from yesterday’s Redskins game. Yeah…not good. The Redskins were held to their lowest scoring output (10) in a must-win game against the Giants that derailed their playoff hopes.
The question for Washington moving forward is whether they should sign Kirk Cousins to a long-term extension. On one hand, Cousins has made significant strides to become one of the leagues better quarterbacks–at least statistically. After three seasons, Cousins, who had not yet secured a job as a full-time starter, had more thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. But he’s turned things around over the past two years. Last year, he ranked sixth in the NFL in Total QBR while leading Washington to a division title. He entered this past week ranked 5th among quarterbacks in that same category, although that’s likely to drop once the latest rankings are assembled. Nonetheless, as a unit, the Redskins’ offense measured as one of the league’s best this year. Though they ranked ninth in points per game, Washington was an impressive second in yards per play and fifth in points per drive.
Is Cousins actually good enough to lead a team to a Super Bowl, though? I’d wager not. Give him credit for cutting down on his turnovers, but he’s still mistake-prone in tight situations. Plus, I’m not impressed at all by how he ended this season. With the Redskins in the thick of the playoff race, Cousins finished the year by throwing eight touchdowns while turning the ball over seven times (five interceptions, two fumbles). More importantly, Washington lost four of their final six.
The Redskins have three options: 1) Let Cousins walk, 2) Use the franchise-tag on him once again, or 3) Sign him to a long-term extension. Options 1 and 3 aren’t practical. There’s no use spending a first-round pick on a quarterback this year given that it’s a relatively weak class, particularly when Washington could use some depth on defense. On the other hand, committing to a quarterback who likely can’t lead you to a Super Bowl title doesn’t make much sense, either.
The Redskins will have to suck it up and pay Cousins upwards of $20 million for at least one more season. As frustrating as it is to stick by a quarterback who came up horribly short when it mattered most this season, Cousins is still a top fifteen quarterback and the best option for Washington in 2017.
Who should Denver hire to replace Kubiak?
Gary Kubiak called it a career yesterday after the Broncos defeated the Raiders to finish 9-7. Kubiak, who was only in his second year in Denver, could’ve went out a winner if he made this same decision last February. Nonetheless, he’ll always be highly regarded in the Mile High city for guiding the Broncos to a Super Bowl title in 2015.
John Elway now must decide who he’ll select to replace Kubiak. If I’m him, I’d look for someone that resembles Kubiak–an experienced, offensive-minded coach. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips already has the defense taken care of. What Denver needs is a more consistent offense that doesn’t put added pressure on their defense to consistently hold opponents to low point totals. So if I’m Elway, I’d reach out to two people in particular.
Elway should first reach out to former Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden. Based on reports, it may be unlikely that anyone will coax Gruden out of his Monday Night announcing duties; but he’s still a Super Bowl winning coach who specializes on the offensive side of the ball, making him a logical fit for the Broncos head coaching job. He also has to be at least mildly intrigued by the idea of returning to coach a team as talented and as relevant as Denver’s.
But if Gruden isn’t interested, Denver should look next to Todd Haley, Pittsburgh’s current offensive coordinator. It’s easier to look good when you’re coaching a future Hall of Famer in Ben Roethlisberger, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Big Ben has put up the best numbers of his career under Haley. Moreover, Haley’s had success in multiple stops, as he was the offensive coordinator on the Arizona team that went to the Super Bowl in 2009. He also coached Matt Cassel and the Kansas City Chiefs to the playoffs in 2010. The 49-year-old coach clearly has a proven track record, as well as more experience than other young offensive coordinators being considered for head coaching jobs such as New England’s Josh McDaniels and Atlanta’s Kyle Shanahan. He’s the most logical person to replace Kubiak.
And with the first overall pick, the Cleveland Browns select…
Mitch Trubisky, quarterback out of North Carolina. It might be a reach, but I was impressed by what I saw from Trubisky late in North Carolina’s bowl game against Stanford, which the Tar Heels ultimately lost 25-23. He reminds me of Carson Wentz: He’s got a great arm, he’s athletic, and he’s big. He’s got the stats too, as he threw 30 touchdowns and only six interceptions against good competition in the ACC this season.
Cleveland is obviously in need of a quarterback, and though they have other glaring needs, they also have the number ten overall pick to use to grab another talented player. Moreover, other options at quarterback don’t appear to be very feasible. The asking price for Jimmy Garoppolo–a first and a fourth round pick–is a bit too steep. It also doesn’t make sense for the rebuilding Browns to sign a 36-year-old Tony Romo.
I’m not sold on Trubisky being worthy of the number one overall pick, but I do think he’ll be the best quarterback in next year’s draft class, assuming he declares. The Browns desperately need a QB, which is why I don’t think they’ll be able to hope that the best one in the draft falls to them at the tenth overall pick.