Monday, January 9, 2017

NFL 2016-17 Wild Card Weekend

By Brad Oremland

Wild Card Game Balls

Offense — Thomas Rawls, RB, Seattle Seahawks. He rushed for 161 yards, about the same as Le'Veon Bell (167), but with fewer holes and more attention from the defense.

Defense — Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston Texans. Let's consider this a tie among Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and maybe A.J. Bouye. Scoreboards notwithstanding, Houston had the most dominant defensive performance this weekend.

Special Teams — Jacob Schum, P, Green Bay Packers. Playing in 4° wind chill, he pinned two punts inside the 10-yard line, and none of his other four were returned, with a 41.2 net that was two yards above his season average.

Honorable Mentions — WR Randall Cobb, (tie) all four Steeler LBs, K Matt Prater

Prater made 51- and 53-yard field goals, the only points in Detroit's loss to Seattle. Those are tough kicks even without 33° wind chill.

Bud Dupree, James Harrison, Ryan Shazier, and Lawrence Timmons are the strength of Pittsburgh's defense.

Five Quick Hits

* NFL Players of the Month for December: Le'Veon Bell, Quintin Demps, Tyreek Hill (AFC); Aaron Rodgers, Vic Beasley, Johnny Hekker (NFC).

* This year's Associated Press All-Pro Team has the best first-team lineup I've ever seen. There are no really bad choices on the first or second team. My own 2016 All-Pro Team is available here.

* With Eli Manning at quarterback, the Giants have been one-and-done in the playoffs 4 out of 6 times (67%). Peyton Manning's teams were one-and-done 9 times out of 15 (60%). Why does one have a reputation as a brilliant clutch QB and the other as a choker?

* In 12 career postseason games, Eli's teams have averaged 19.3 points per game, and topped 24 just once out of those 12 games (h/t Chase Stuart). Eli has never won a playoff game when the Giants allowed more than 20 points.

* It's crazy that two excessive celebration penalties gets you thrown out of a game, but Anquan Boldin can commit two unnecessary roughness, and that's considered less serious. The NFL still prioritizes image over player safety.

A Phony Scandal

There are people who will want to blame the Giants' loss — on the road, against a team that had won six in a row, a team that beat them earlier in the season, in which the Giants were underdogs — on players who spent their day off enjoying themselves. Those people should be disallowed from publicly expressing opinions about football for the next 365 days. The Giants didn't give up a season-high 38 points because Odell Beckham took his shirt off.

It's obvious that today's players are self-centered and don't take the game seriously. Thank goodness Super Bowl heroes like Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, and John Riggins never partied off the field. This is especially important for receivers. Clutch postseason performers like Max McGee, Michael Irvin, and Plaxico Burress would never spend their day off anywhere but the film room.

Speaking of Irvin, how big a hypocrite is Jimmy Johnson? He repeatedly brought up "the boat crew," but probably no coach in the history of college or pro football is more famous for the latitude he gave his players. Does Johnson not remember that he coached Erik Williams?

Wild Card Roundups

Houston Texans 27, Oakland Raiders 14

Jon Gruden summed up the game before it began: "Mission Impossible for Connor Cook. This is your third-string quarterback, he's a rookie, making his first career start, on the road, in this noise, against the number-one-ranked defense in the NFL." That doesn't even address the absence of Pro Bowl tackle Donald Penn, whose replacement, Menelik Watson, struggled badly against Jadeveon Clowney. Cook finished 18-of-45 for 161 yards (3.6 avg), with 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions, a 30.0 passer rating, and 3 sacks for 22 yards.

Whitney Mercilus and Clowney lived in the Raiders' backfield, while Houston LT Duane Brown largely handled Khalil Mack. I didn't especially care who won, I just wanted one of these teams to show that they belong in the playoffs. The Raiders, minus Derek Carr and Penn, weren't really a playoff team. The Texans looked sharp. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel deserves a game ball.

Seattle Seahawks 26, Detroit Lions 6

"It has been a one-handed catch show tonight for the Seattle Seahawks," marveled Cris Collinsworth. That was after Doug Baldwin's nail-in-the-coffin TD in the fourth quarter, but how about the star turn from Paul Richardson? I don't know if he can get open, but he made some catches that will be on Seahawk highlights until the end of time.

The Lions' defense was a real problem on Saturday night, as Thomas Rawls rushed for 161 yards, and their offense couldn't get anything going. Some of that was a very good Seahawk defense, some of it was the noisy road environment in Seattle, and some of it was probably Matt Stafford's injured finger, but the Lions really need to upgrade their offensive personnel. They ranked 30th in rushing this season and were held to 34 yards this weekend, 49 if you count a few scrambles by Stafford. That one-dimensional offense, at CenturyLink Field, was doomed from the start.

Pittsburgh Steelers 30, Miami Dolphins 12

The Dolphins never demonstrated that they could stop the Pittsburgh offense, but turnovers transformed this game into a blowout.

This one was a postseason cliché, won in the trenches. The Steelers' offensive line outplayed the Dolphins' defensive line, neutralizing stars like Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake. Ben Roethlisberger was rarely under pressure, and Le'Veon Bell rushed for 167 yards. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh's defensive front stifled Miami's blockers, who were unable to create any lanes for Jay Ajayi. In Week 6, Ajayi torched the Steelers for 204 yards and an 8.2 average. This week, he managed just 33 yards with a 2.1 average.

Early in the fourth quarter, Jim Nantz read Matt Moore's passing stats: "Moore is 80%, 16-of-20." The Dolphins trailed 30-6 at that point. Completion percentage is not a meaningful statistic.

Green Bay Packers 38, New York Giants 13

Since 1994, 43 players have thrown a touchdown pass of at least 35 yards in the final :30 of a half. Ten of those 43 players have done it more than once, and Peyton Manning did it three times. And Aaron Rodgers now has four, including two in the playoffs. That doesn't even count his 60-yard completion to Jeff Janis, on 4th-and-20, in last year's playoff loss to Arizona, which was basically a Hail Mary.

The Giants' defense played brilliantly for 27 minutes, then fell apart. Their offense was held below 20 points for the sixth game in a row. I thought the Packers would win a close game, with the Giants' defense keeping it tight but the offense unable to generate enough points to win. Eli Manning didn't play badly — he was victimized by several drops — but he also didn't play well enough for the Giants to win a tough road game in the playoffs. The second-half defensive performance has to be considered a massive letdown. The Giants never generated much of a pass rush — all their sacks were coverage sacks — and they had some fatal breakdowns in the secondary.

Divisional Forecasts

All four home teams advanced from the wild card round, all winning by at least 13 points. Five of the eight remaining teams reached the divisional round last year, as well, including at least one team from each of the four matchups.

All four divisional games are rematches from the 2016 regular season.

Seattle Seahawks @ Atlanta Falcons

These teams met in Seattle in Week 6, with the Seahawks winning 26-24. It was a controversial game, since on the Falcons' final offensive play, Richard Sherman got away with a pretty obvious pass interference against Julio Jones.

I see this game going differently. The Seahawks went 3-4-1 on the road, and Earl Thomas' absence is going to be a bigger problem against Atlanta than it was against Detroit. The Falcons scored at least 28 points in every game since the bye (six in a row), while Seattle averaged 16 in road games.

The Falcons win if they treat this like any other game. They're a good team, they just need to go out there and show us: don't try too hard, or get nervous and play not to lose. Limit turnovers, hit some big plays on offense, don't give up 150 rushing yards. Seattle needs to intimidate the Falcons. The Seahawks have been here before, and the playoffs aren't too big for them: this is right where they're supposed to be. They get pressure on Matt Ryan, make him uncomfortable, force a couple turnovers. They keep the chains moving on offense, Thomas Rawls keeps up the Marshawn Lynch impression, maybe Russell Wilson shows what he can do without that brace.

I don't like betting against the Seahawks, but in Atlanta, I think the Falcons advance, a 3-point win in a high-scoring game.

Houston Texans @ New England Patriots

Against Oakland, the Texans looked like they belong in the playoffs. That may not be the case next weekend in Foxboro. The Patriots are 15½-point favorites, which has to be the record for a divisional playoff game.

I'll take the Patriots to win but the Texans to cover. Their defense won't terrorize New England the way it did an Oakland offense missing arguably its two best players, but if Brock Osweiler limits turnovers and they pick up a few first downs, they should be able to keep it close. The real mismatch is the Patriot defense, which allowed the fewest points in the NFL, against the Houston offense, which scored the 29th-most points out of 32 teams. I don't believe Houston can score enough to keep up with the Patriots, who control throughout and win by 13.

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Kansas City Chiefs

In Week 4, the Steelers beat the Chiefs 43-14 in Pittsburgh. After that game, Kansas City went 10-2, including 3-0 against playoff teams, plus a sweep of Denver. Andy Reid's teams always seem to play their best following a bye, and the Chiefs just had a bye.

The Steelers were clicking on almost all cylinders against Miami, the "almost" being Ben Roethlisberger, who threw two picks in only 18 attempts. Ben also took a big hit late in the fourth quarter, which injured his ankle and put him in a walking boot following the game. Everyone expects Big Ben to play next weekend, but if he's not close to 100%, the Chiefs are going to win. Roethlisberger has a history of playing through injury, and playing badly through injury. The Chiefs looked great at the end of the season, Reid is money coming off a bye, and Ben might be banged up. It's enough for me to take the Chiefs by 6.

Green Bay Packers @ Dallas Cowboys

The NFC's best team against the NFL's hottest team. The Cowboys won 30-16 in Green Bay, but that was three months ago, and the Packers aren't the same team. For that matter, neither is Dallas. The Cowboys played a tough schedule the last two months, but they've looked solid more than dominant. The Packers, crushing a Giants team that swept the Cowboys, look dominant.

Jordy Nelson's status is unclear, and the Packers were 4-4 on the road this season, while Dallas went 7-1 at home. Green Bay's beat-up defense will have a much tougher task against the potent Cowboys than the punchless Giants, and if they win, it will probably be a shootout, with a big game from Rodgers. I hate picking against such a hot team, but I believe the Cowboys hang on and win by 4.

* * *

2016 Hall of Fame Finalists

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

1. LaDainian Tomlinson — Rushed for 13,684 yards (5th all-time) and 145 touchdowns (2nd all-time). He rushed for 1,000 yards eight times and 1,600 yards three times. In 2006, when Tomlinson won NFL MVP, he set a single-season touchdown record (31) that will probably never fall in a 16-game season.

2. Brian Dawkins — Nine-time Pro Bowler with more than 25 each of sacks, interceptions, and forced fumbles. He had an interception for 15 seasons in a row, and 2 or more sacks seven times. He was an effective ballhawk (37 INT), but also the league's hardest-hitting free safety.

3. Jason Taylor — Scored 9 touchdowns and three safeties, incredible numbers for a defensive lineman. He was athletic and powerful, with six seasons of double-digit sacks. Three-time All-Pro and the 2006 Defensive Player of the Year.

4. 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. He gets a little boost on my list because his time on the regular ballot is running out.

5. Alan Faneca — A nine-time Pro Bowler, with both the Steelers and Jets, and six times first-team all-pro. I was a little surprised he didn't get in on the first ballot last year.

6. 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.

7. Kevin Mawae — Eight-time Pro Bowl center, All-Pro with both the Jets and Titans. Mawae was first-team All-Decade in the 2000s, the best center of his generation. He and Faneca will probably steal some votes from each other.

8. Isaac Bruce — Fourth all-time in receiving yards. He had eight 1,000-yard seasons and caught the 73-yard game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XXXIV. Bruce was named to four Pro Bowls and went over 1,000 yards four other times, including 1,292 in 2004 and 1,781 in 1995.

9. Don Coryell — Ground-breaking offensive mastermind, the only coach in history whose team has led the NFL in passing offense four consecutive seasons. 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.

10. Morten Andersen — Andersen is the NFL's all-time leading scorer, and Adam Vinatieri would have to play two 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.

11. 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.

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

13. 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. 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.

14. Ty Law — Eleven-year starter who made five Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams. He led the NFL in interceptions twice and in INT TDs another year, retiring with 53 picks for 828 yards and 7 TDs. He also intercepted 6 passes in the playoffs, including three in the 2003 AFC Championship Game. This is probably his best chance to get in, before contemporaries like Ronde Barber, Champ Bailey, and Charles Woodson are on the ballot.

15. Tony Boselli — Best offensive tackle in the NFL for a couple years, a five-time Pro Bowler. He only had 5½ healthy seasons, which has limited his success in HOF voting.

Senior and Contributor Candidates

The 15 "modern" finalists are joined by one Senior nominee (Seahawks safety Kenny Easley) and two Contributors (Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue). None of the three are competing directly against the modern players, so I'm listing them separately. I support two of the three.

Easley played only seven seasons before severe kidney disease forced his retirement, but was perhaps the greatest ever at his position. He was an Ed Reed-type player, a hard-hitting strong safety who went after passes like a ball-hawking free safety. Easley intercepted 32 passes in just 89 career games, an average of 6 per 16 games. Three times he gained over 100 yards on INT returns. Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf is among those who consider Easley "the best safety I've ever seen." He made five Pro Bowls, four All-Pro teams, and Defensive Player of the Year in 1984. Easley's short career has kept him out of Canton so far, but his selection is long overdue.

Tagliabue was an excellent commissioner, who expanded the league, grew its popularity, maintained labor peace, avoided the steroid controversies that plagued baseball, and maintained a civil relationship with players, which his successor has failed to repeat. Tags anticipated sports leagues' modern social responsibility, and made the NFL a trailblazer in that area, most notably by moving the Super Bowl from Arizona when the state refused to recognize Martin Luther King Day. That probably makes him a good person, but it definitely made him an effective commissioner.

I'm honestly not certain what the argument is for Jerry Jones to be in the Hall of Fame. He's a high-profile owner of a team that had a national following already. He's his own general manager, and he has some definite successes to point to in that arena, but there are a dozen GMs more accomplished who aren't in the PFHOF.

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