Monday, January 11, 2016

NFL 2015-16 Wild Card Weekend

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* If I'm a Bengals fan, I'm embarrassed today. Most fans didn't cheer Ben Roethlisberger's injury or throw trash at him when he was carted off, but some did. That's disgraceful, and I'd be embarrassed to be part of that fan base right now.

* Hue Jackson has been linked to the head coaching positions in San Francisco and Cleveland. Don't do it, Hue. Those are bad jobs. If Jackson doesn't get a good offer this offseason, he should stay in Cincinnati for another year, and he just might inherit the Bengals.

* Does anyone else find it off-putting that Papa John's has a commercial with three NFL players, and they're all white guys? The league is majority black.

* Why do the Panthers and Broncos play on Sunday? They have a longer wait, so they can get out of rhythm, and a shorter week to prepare if they advance to the conference championship games. I'd rather be the number two seed.

* I'll have more to say on the Associated Press All-Pro Team below, but the lineup is ridiculous, especially on offense. Three running backs and two wide receivers? What is this, 1945?

Associated Press All-Pro Team

This year's all-pro team mostly makes sense. But there's a problem that gets worse every year: the voters don't know anything about offensive line or defense. Ten players received all-pro votes at more than one defensive position: Deone Buccanon, Calais Campbell, Jamie Collins, Fletcher Cox, Thomas Davis, Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Tyrann Mathieu, Muhammad Wilkerson, and K.J. Wright. Telvin Smith only received votes at one position (inside linebacker), but it was a position he doesn't play.

I get the confusion for Mack, a hybrid DE-OLB who probably fits better at linebacker but who was listed as a defensive end on the Pro Bowl ballot. And I get it for Ty Mathieu, who played both cornerback and safety this season. I also understand the case of Buccanon, a natural safety, listed by the team as a safety, who really played linebacker. Buccanon's votes actually weren't split between LB and S, they were split between ILB and OLB. Still, an unusual case.

But the others are simply wrong. Sure, Jamie Collins sometimes moves inside on passing plays. Many defensive linemen shift around somewhat, and so forth. But the voters who think Aaron Donald is a DE, or Thomas Davis an ILB, clearly don't pay much attention to football. There are so many smart, informed people who care about football. How is it that the A.P. has a voting panel comprised of people who can't be bothered to figure out whether Fletcher Cox plays tackle or end?

That so many unqualified voters are selecting a significant honor is not only shameful, it's disrespectful to players and fans.

My own 2015 All-Pro Team is available here.

Wild Card Roundups

Kansas City Chiefs 30, Houston Texans 0

It was over from the opening kickoff. Brian Hoyer was a disaster, and the Texans' secondary looked averse to tackling. Houston as a team seemed overwhelmed and underprepared.

Some poor tackles notwithstanding, I actually thought the Texans' defense did a pretty great job. Hoyer committed four turnovers in the first half, yet Houston went into the locker room down by a manageable 13-0. The game was close until the fourth quarter, which takes a pretty heroic effort when your offense has almost as many turnovers as first downs.

Hoyer played one of the worst games you could ever think to see. Mike Tirico marveled, "That's three picks in six possessions thrown by Hoyer." Jon Gruden added, "And they're bad interceptions, all 3 interceptions were horrible, bad decisions ... and he fumbled the football. He's turned the ball over four times in the first half." I understand why Bill O'Brien didn't have confidence in Brandon Weeden, but he had to see that Hoyer wasn't going to turn things around. This game was still close in the middle of the third quarter, and sticking with Hoyer throughout may have cost Houston its only chance to win.

Pittsburgh Steelers 18, Cincinnati Bengals 16

By far the most exciting game of the playoffs so far, but defined by Cincinnati's mistakes at the end, especially a pair of personal foul penalties that gave Pittsburgh 30 yards on an incomplete pass.

Cincinnati led 16-15 with :18 left, when Vontaze Burfict knocked out Antonio Brown and was called for a hit on a defenseless receiver, setting the Steelers up for a potential 50-yard field goal. But in a game that got out of control more than once, a scene erupted on the field, and cornerback Adam Jones, who regressed in this game to his Pacman Jones persona, drew an additional 15-yard penalty for shoving Pittsburgh assistant coach Joey Porter. That gave the Steelers an easy 35-yard field goal to win the game.

There are so many parties to blame for what happened. Burfict and Jones are responsible for their own actions. On the CBS post-game show, Tony Gonzalez was blunt: "It's stupid. That's all you can say, it's stupid." Bart Scott clarified, "What it is is selfish. He's letting his personal vendettas get in the way of the team goals." I tend to agree with Scott. "Selfish" is the word that always comes to mind when I see players more interested in trying to show they're tough than they are in what happens to their teams. When somebody calls you a mean name, act like a grownup. Say, "scoreboard," point to the scoreboard, and walk away.

The coaches are responsible, too. These guys are supposed to be in charge, so either Marvin Lewis condones what his players are doing, or he can't control them. And how about Mike Tomlin controlling his assistants? Mike Munchak drew a 15-yard penalty earlier in the game for grabbing a Bengal on the sideline, and Joey Porter had no business on the field at the end of the game. Bill Cowher questioned Lewis in particular: "We saw this with Odell Beckham and Josh Norman, right now, that responsibility — I'd take it away from the officials — that is the head coach. You have to have your players, they get to a line, when they cross it, they should no longer be in the game because they become a detriment to your team; that was Burfict at the end of the game."

The officials who failed to keep tension from escalating share in the responsibility. John Parry's crew handled a tough situation fairly well for most of the game, but took way too long to make decisions. If you make a call and move the game along, it's on to the next play. But it took forever to get anything decided, and the Bengals and Steelers were in each others' faces the whole time between plays. I blame the league, which insists on all-star officiating crews who haven't worked together until the playoffs. Parry's crew did not run smoothly on Saturday. Chris Rose of NFL Network wondered, "What was Joey Porter doing on the field? It wasn't even his positional player that was hurt." LaDainian Tomlinson agreed, "Absolutely ... the referees need to have control of what goes on on the field. And you can't allow a coach to come into a players' huddle like that and talk trash to the players."

The most interesting part of NFL Network's post-game coverage was the perspective of defensive players on Burfict's hit. Deion Sanders said, "From a defensive perspective, I really truly felt like if Burfict wanted to clean him up, he could have cleaned him up. I really felt like he really tried to avoid it, and you can see him — don't know if he caught it or not, and he's coming. He dips down, because if he stands straight up it's definitely a head shot, so he dips down, and keeps the elbow in ... Antonio Brown is one of my dearest friends [but] we're playing the game of football, ladies and gentlemen, and this happens, unfortunately. But I really do feel like if he wanted to clean him up, he could have cleaned him up, and he tried not to give him a head shot." Tomlinson immediately responded, "I disagree."

The show also interviewed Steelers linebacker James Harrison, a former Bengal who is friends with Burfict. Harrison, a scapegoat for the league office who has been fined many times, explained, "By rule ... that is a penalty. Personally, I don't think it is, because I don't feel like you can get out of the way fast enough. But speaking to the league office, it's on the onus of the defender to make sure they get their head, shoulder out of the way of the offensive player no matter where, or what happens."

I've watched the play dozens of times now, and I understand what Sanders and Harrison were saying. I'm sympathetic to the idea that defenseless receiver penalties are unfair to defensive players. If Brown doesn't lower his head, the hit might never happen. A few years ago, I called defenseless receiver rules "a radical reinterpretation of tackle football ... the biggest rule change in more than 30 years." But gun to my head, do I think it was a penalty? Yes, I do. I understand what Deion was saying, but the shoulder to the head looked deliberate to me, and Burfict did not earn the benefit of the doubt. He was instigating conflict throughout the game.

A rule change I think the NFL needs to make is to institute something like the yellow card and red card system in soccer. No NFL team should ever have to play a man short, but a player who gets a yellow card would be fined, and a player who gets a red card is ejected and loses his game check.

Seattle Seahawks 10, Minnesota Vikings 9

A less eventful game than Steelers/Bengals, but with another dramatic ending, as Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard game-winning field goal in the final minute. As with the previous game, there are multiple goats. In Cincinnati, it was Jeremy Hill (who lost a late fumble when the Bengals just needed to run out the clock), Burfict (who drew a 15-yard penalty), and Jones (who drew an incredibly stupid 15-yard penalty).

In Minnesota, it was Adrian Peterson, Walsh, Jeff Locke, and Andrew Sendejo. Peterson, for whom ball security has always been an Achilles heel, lost a critical fumble. Walsh, who made three field goals, missed a chip shot with the game on the line. Locke twice failed to turn the laces away from Walsh, including on the critical kick. And Sendejo dropped an interception that would have saved time and yardage.

Minnesota's defense, finally at full strength, played superbly, holding Seattle — which scored over 30 points in five of its last six games — to a season-low 10 points. It was the only time all season that the Seahawks got shut out in the first half, actually the first time since last year's NFC Championship Game.

Green Bay 32, Washington 18

Washington started strong, with a safety and an apparent touchdown to DeSean Jackson. The TD was overturned to 1st-and-goal from the ½-yard line, yet Washington had to settle for a field goal. A TD in the early second quarter, with a missed extra point — the first unsuccessful XP in the playoffs in a zillion years — made it 11-0. The Packers' first four drives produced 7 yards, 3 punts, 1 first down, and a safety.

But the next five drives all produced scores: 4 TDs and a field goal. Green Bay rushed for 124 yards in the second half, and Washington couldn't stop the Packers' horizontal passing game. On the other side of the ball, Washington's biggest problem was pass protection. Kirk Cousins took six sacks and fumbled three times, losing one. Cousins seemed like he was trying too hard to make big plays and to avoid interceptions, so he ended up ... holding the ball, waiting for something perfect. It wasn't all on Kirk — the line got beat — but it was his worst game in a long time. DeSean Jackson was held to 2 catches for 17 yards.

Washington had scored at least 34 points for three games in a row, so credit Green Bay's defense. But this looked more like a bad game by Washington than a great one by the Packers.

Divisional Forecasts

All four road teams advanced from the wild card round, setting up three rematches from the 2015 regular season.

Kansas City Chiefs @ New England Patriots

The Patriots are notorious for taking away the opponents' top weapon. But on Kansas City, who is that? Jeremy Maclin has a high ankle sprain, so he probably won't play, and he's unlikely to be a difference-maker even if he suits up. Travis Kelce had a big game against Houston, but the Patriots match up well to contain him. The Chiefs run effectively, but neither of their backs really scares you. Alex Smith makes plays with his arm and his feet, but he's still more of a game manager than a playmaker. The KC offense is jack of all trades, master of none.

Where Kansas City appears to have an edge is on defense. Even if Julian Edelman returns, the Patriots are decimated by injuries, and the Chiefs' defense is the strength of their team. They've won 11 in a row, and the Pats have dropped four of their last six. Trends and momentum don't always matter in the postseason, but I'll take Kansas City by 6.

Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals

The Packers finally put some points on the board, but the problems that plagued them for the last two months are still there. Arizona limped into the playoffs, with a half-hearted Week 17 and a first-round bye, but won 9 in a row before that, including victories over the Seahawks, Bengals, and Vikings, and a 38-8 blowout of the Packers in Week 16.

This one won't be 38-8, but the Cardinals have so many more weapons than Green Bay, on both offense and defense. It's a bad matchup for the Packers, and they simply don't have the firepower to hang with Arizona. Washington was an above-average team on a roll, but Arizona is a great team with playoff experience and Super Bowl aspirations. The Cardinals advance with a 10-point victory.

Seattle Seahawks @ Carolina Panthers

These teams met in the divisional round last year, too. The Seahawks had a tough game in Minnesota, but they're on a hot streak and they're not intimidated by the pressure of the playoffs. On the other hand, Carolina was the only team to go undefeated at home this season. The Panthers had the best record in the NFL, and they led the league in both scoring (500) and point differential (+192).

The Panthers also led the NFL in takeaways (36) and turnover differential (+20), and to beat Seattle, I think they'll need to win the turnover battle. Cam Newton threw two critical interceptions in last year's playoff loss, but he needs to take better care of the football than Russell Wilson. Minnesota lost partly because of an Adrian Peterson fumble, and the Panthers can't concede mistakes like that.

These were the top two teams in my year-end power rankings, so I think highly of both, and it's tough to choose between them. Carolina is 1-5 against Seattle during the Pete Carroll era, but the win was their most recent matchup, in Week 6. I think the Seahawks get back on track, winning by just a field goal.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos

Three quarters into Saturday's game, I was already planning to pick the Steelers. But they played a physically and emotionally exhausting game, and now I'm leaning the other direction. Ben Roethlisberger has a sprained shoulder, Antonio Brown is in the concussion protocol, and this will be Pittsburgh's fourth consecutive road game. DeAngelo Williams might be back, but this offense needs Big Ben close to 100%, or it's not going to produce against the Broncos. The Steelers beat Denver in the regular season, but they won't put up 30 points again. The Broncos win by a touchdown.

* * *

2016 Hall of Fame Finalists

The Pro Football Hall of Fame has announced this year's Finalists for induction. My preferences, in order:

1. Marvin Harrison — Third all-time in receptions, fifth in receiving TDs, seventh in receiving yards, and probably the best ever at the toe-tap on the sideline or in the corner of the end zone. The only player in history with four consecutive 1,400-yard seasons, and the all-time leader in single-season receptions, 143.

2. Kevin Greene — Officially ranks third all-time in sacks (160), behind Bruce Smith and Reggie White, but first among linebackers. He had 10 seasons with double-digit sacks.

3. Alan Faneca — A nine-time Pro Bowler, with both the Steelers and Jets, and six times first-team all-pro. This is his first year on the ballot, and he's a strong candidate.

4. Terrell Davis — Only player in history to rush for 2,000 yards and score 20 TDs in the same season, and probably the greatest postseason RB in NFL history. The idea that Davis was just a product of Denver's system doesn't hold up. Davis had three 1,500-yard rushing seasons; neither Olandis Gary nor Mike Anderson ever rushed for 1,500 yards.

5. Don Coryell — Ground-breaking offensive mastermind, the only coach in history whose team has led the NFL in passing offense four consecutive seasons. Although best-known for his success with the San Diego Chargers, Coryell also led the Cardinals to two division titles, and was the last coach in Cardinals history with a winning record (42-29-1). However, Coryell is a Hall of Fame candidate less for his 111 wins and success with two different teams than for his strategic influence on the modern passing game.

6. Joe Jacoby — The King of the Hogs, Jacoby was the brightest star on the most famous offensive line in history, a team that won three Super Bowls with three different starting QBs and three different lead rushers. Jacoby was a Hall of Famer on quality, not quantity. In the mid-1980s, he was the best offensive tackle in football.

7. Brett Favre — Made 11 Pro Bowls, won three NFL MVP Awards, and set career records for passing yards and touchdowns. He led the league in yardage twice and TDs four times. He's one of the best QBs in history, but he ended his career as a manipulative narcissist, and it wouldn't bother me if he didn't get in on the first ballot. No worries, though, Packer fans: he's a lock.

8. Steve Atwater — Eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champion. He's one of only three players to play for Denver in Super Bowl XXIV and nine years later in Super Bowl XXXIII. A hard hitter with a ballhawk's instinct for interceptions.

9. Morten Andersen — Andersen is the NFL's all-time leading scorer, and his record is not likely to fall any time soon. Adam Vinatieri would probably have to play three or four more seasons to catch him. Andersen was the most accurate kicker of his generation, and he set the career record (since broken) for most 50-yard field goals. He played for 26 seasons, into his late 40s, because teams could still count on him.

10. Tony Dungy — A ground-breaking coach with a Super Bowl ring, an impressive coaching tree, and seven consecutive seasons at 12-4 or better. His teams often struggled in the postseason.

11. Orlando Pace — The first overall pick in the 1997 draft, he lived up to the hype and qualified for seven Pro Bowls. He started at left tackle for one of the great offenses of all time, the Greatest Show on Turf. I always felt he was a little overrated, but he was a good player for a decade, and an anchor on a historic offense.

12. Kurt Warner — Won two NFL MVP Awards and a Super Bowl MVP, but also got benched by three different teams from 2003-06. He passed for 4,000 yards three times, threw 200 TD passes, and has one of the best passer ratings in history (93.7). But he was surrounded by great teammates, and he only played four full seasons: 1999, 2001, 2008, and 2009 were the only years Warner started 12 or more games.

13. Edgerrin James — Seven 1,000-yard seasons, including four 1,500-yard seasons, plus he was a good receiver. James gained over 15,000 yards from scrimmage and scored 91 career TDs. But he was never the best RB in the NFL. I would be more likely to support James after Terrell Davis gets in.

14. John Lynch — Hard-hitting strong safety with both the Buccaneers and Broncos. Lynch was well-liked and high-profile, but I prefer fellow strong safety Steve Atwater. I'm also disappointed that Lynch is a Finalist and Rodney Harrison is not. They both deserve HOF consideration, but Harrison was the greater player.

15. Terrell Owens — One of only three Modern-Era wide receivers named to five All-Pro teams as a starter. Owens had nine 1,000-yard seasons, eight years of double-digit TDs, six Pro Bowl selections, and four years gaining at least 1,300 yards. But I'm not convinced Owens made his teams better. He dropped a lot of catchable passes, antagonized every quarterback he ever played with, and made himself unwanted when he was still a capable player. Probably no player in NFL history has disrupted team chemistry like Terrell Owens. You couldn't keep him around for more than a couple years.

Senior and Contributor Candidates

The 15 "modern" finalists are joined by two Senior nominees (quarterback Ken Stabler and offensive lineman Dick Stanfel) and one Contributor (former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo). None of the three are competing directly against the players, so I'm listing them separately. All three are unfortunate choices, undeserving of enshrinement.

At his best, Stabler was brilliant. He was the most accurate passer of his era, and he is one of only 14 players to win a league MVP Award (Associated Press) and win a Super Bowl as starting quarterback. He is also the only player in history to be associated with three plays that have names: the Sea of Hands, Ghost to the Post, and The Holy Roller. But Stabler only had five good seasons — 1973-74, 1976-77, and 1979 — and that's simply not enough for a Hall of Fame QB. Kurt Warner — who directed a record-setting offense, had two MVP seasons, won a Super Bowl MVP, and took two different teams to the Super Bowl — is a more compelling candidate.

Stanfel was first-team all-pro five times, with five Pro Bowls and two NFL championships. However, he played a full season only three times and retired with just 73 career games. This is his third time as a Seniors candidate for Canton, the only three-time Seniors nominee in PFHOF history. The Seniors nominees usually get in, but Stanfel was nominated and rejected in 1993, then re-nominated in 2012, and rejected again. Now, only four years later, he's back on the ballot. Nothing has changed.

DeBartolo was a good team owner, in the days before modern free agency. He spent freely, and he had good relationships with his players. But he didn't make any significant contributions to the game of football or the league as a whole. He signed Bill Walsh and got out of the way. DeBartolo was a good owner, and 49er fans miss his steady hand. But he wasn't a significant figure in the history of the league, and he has no business in the Hall of Fame.

* * *

Finally, a Sports Central tradition, our annual All-Loser Team: an all-star team made up entirely of players whose teams missed the postseason. If this team could actually be assembled, it would beat any and every team in the playoffs.

2015 NFL All-Loser Team

QB Drew Brees, NO
RB Devonta Freeman, ATL
WR Julio Jones, ATL
WR Brandon Marshall, NYJ
WR Odell Beckham, NYG
TE Gary Barnidge, CLE
C Weston Richburg, NYG
G Marshal Yanda, BAL
G Richie Incognito, BUF
OT Tyron Smith, DAL
OT Kyle Long, CHI

DL Aaron Donald, STL
DL Muhammad Wilkerson, NYJ
DL Fletcher Cox, PHI
LB Khalil Mack, OAK
LB Lavonte David, TB
LB Telvin Smith, JAC
LB D'Qwell Jackson, IND
CB Darrelle Revis, NYJ
CB Ronald Darby, BUF
FS Malcolm Jenkins, PHI
SS Reshad Jones, MIA

K Dan Bailey, DAL
P Marquette King, OAK
RS Dwayne Harris, NYG
ST Cody Davis, STL

Offensive Loser of the Year: Julio Jones, ATL
Defensive Loser of the Year: Aaron Donald, STL
Most Valuable Loser: Julio Jones, ATL

Our actual 2015 NFL All-Pro Team was published last week, along with awards including MVP, Coach of the Year, and Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year.

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