Monday, January 16, 2017

NFL 2016-17 Divisional Weekend

By Brad Oremland

Divisional Game Balls

Offense — Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons. Aaron Rodgers looked more impressive leading a game-winning drive, but Ryan had better numbers and more points against a better defense.

Defense — James Harrison, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers. Last week I used a tie among all four starting linebackers, and could almost do that again, but Harrison, with 3 tackles for loss and a sack, gets the nod.

Special Teams — Mason Crosby, K, Green Bay Packers. Hit a season-long 56-yard field goal to take the lead with 2:35, then a 51-yarder — twice — to win.

Honorable Mentions: RB Le'Veon Bell, DB Jeff Heath, K Chris Boswell

Five Quick Hits

* Thought-provoking tweet from Chase Stuart: "What would Twitter say if Peyton Manning threw 2 interceptions all season and then threw 2 interceptions in a playoff game in cold weather?"

* The Chargers are moving to Los Angeles and the Raiders are going to Las Vegas. After over a decade of stability, the NFL's geography is changing a lot. I suppose it could be worse: no one's in London yet.

* All the head coaching vacancies have been filled except for the least desirable, with the San Francisco 49ers. That team's management is so bad, taking the job can only set back your career prospects.

* That's bad news for hot coordinators still in the playoffs, like Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia, and Kyle Shanahan. It would be bad news for Todd Haley if he were a head coaching candidate, which he surprisingly is not.

* A question for those who perform the national anthem: are you the vessel for a song about something greater than yourself, or is the song about what you bring to it? Is the national anthem about respecting the country, about honoring the patriots who fought and died for freedom, who sacrificed to benefit others, or is it fundamentally about you?

Divisional Roundups

Atlanta Falcons 36, Seattle Seahawks 20

Seattle's defense ranked in the top five in yards per game (319) and points per game (18.2). The Falcons topped that by over 100 yards (422) and double the points (36).

The penalty on Kevin Pierre-Louis, which nullified Devin Hester's long punt return and set up a safety, was obviously huge, the biggest play in the game. But the Seahawks were outclassed. They couldn't stop the Falcons' offense, and their offensive line couldn't stop the Falcons' defense. They couldn't run at all, and Russell Wilson was under pressure much of the game. If they can't address the line in free agency, the Seahawks should spend their first two draft picks on offensive linemen.

Both Saturday games featured head coaches facing off against their former bosses: Atlanta's Dan Quinn was defensive coordinator for Pete Carroll in Seattle, and Houston's Bill O'Brien was offensive coordinator for Bill Belichick in New England. Speaking of O'Brien...

New England Patriots 34, Houston Texans 16

Bill O'Brien coached not to lose, in a game where his team was a 15.5-point underdog. Looking to pull one of the greatest upsets in history, his strategy was to play it safe.

Early in the second quarter, Houston had 4th-and-2 at the 8-yard line, already down 14-3. You've got to score a touchdown there; you've got to go for the first down. Phil Simms said, "No doubt, you kick the field goal in this situation." With all due respect to Simms' mastery of strategy, that is a losing philosophy. The Texans have the 29th-ranked offense in the league; how many more times are they going to reach the red zone? As it turned out, the answer was "one."

Later in the same quarter, Houston had 4th-and-5 from the Patriots' 44-yard line. That's too close for a punt and too far for a field goal. Go for it! O'Brien punted and New England took over at the 18, a 26-yard net punt. The Texans probably weren't going to win anyway, but if they score there, maybe Brock Osweiler doesn't feel so desperate later and throw 2 fourth-quarter interceptions. If you get stuffed on fourth down, fine, you lost 34-13 instead of 34-16. Take a few chances, and maybe you can pull off something great.

The goat in this game was O'Brien, not Will Fuller. You expect a professional receiver to make that catch in the end zone, but as a former college WR, I can tell you that's not an easy play. On a ball thrown directly over your head, you can't look it into your hands. It's a tough catch.

Green Bay Packers 34, Dallas Cowboys 31

Easily the best game of the playoffs. The fourth quarter featured a 15-point comeback and four lead changes in the last five minutes, including three lead changes in the final two minutes.

The Packers' first three drives went 70 yards, 90 yards, and 80 yards, producing three touchdowns and a 21-3 lead. The Packers led 28-13 in the fourth quarter, but their injury-riddled defense couldn't cover Dez Bryant and couldn't hold the lead. Down 28-20, Bryant scored a TD with 4:12 left, and Dak Prescott tied the game with a two-point conversion on a QB draw.

After seven plays, Mason Crosby re-took the lead with a season-long 56-yard field goal, and Dallas got possession at its own 25-yard line with 1:33 and a timeout. Dak Prescott hit both of his first two passes, putting the ball in Green Bay territory, then spiked the ball with :49 left. It amazes me that teams will waste a timeout to avoid the 5-yard delay of game penalty, but waste a down rather than use a timeout. Anyway, the spike made it 2nd-and-10. The Cowboys gained seven yards, then had an incompletion, bringing up 4th-and-3, at the 33-yard line, with :40 — and that last timeout — still remaining. Dan Bailey hit a 52-yard field goal to tie the game.

Following a 17-yard gain, Aaron Rodgers got sacked at his own 32-yard line with :18 remaining. A lot of teams would kneel that out and go to overtime, but the Packers kept playing. On 3rd-and-20, with :12 left, Rodgers threw a prayer down the left sideline, and tight end Jared Cook made arguably the catch of the season, tipping his toes in bounds for a 35-yard gain with :03 left. Crosby hit a 51-yard field goal, but Jason Garrett called one of those time-wasting, unsportsmanlike ices right before the snap, so Crosby had to do it again a minute later. He did, and the Packers won.

There were four 50+ yard field goals in this game. I don't think I've ever seen a game with so many exciting field goal attempts. Has there ever, in the history of American football, been another game with three 50+ yard lead-changing field goals in the final two minutes? If so, was it in a single-elimination playoff game? Holy cow.

Pittsburgh Steelers 18, Kansas City Chiefs 16

Second game in a row with a successful 3rd-and-20 conversion! Down 15-7 late in the third quarer, Kansas City desperately needed a spark from its offense, and Jeremy Maclin caught a pass right at the first down marker. It was the second-most dramatic 3rd-and-20 conversion on the second day of the divisional round of the 2016-17 playoffs.

However, it was one moment of glory in a lackluster performance by the Chiefs. Their offense couldn't convert third downs (2/9), and their defense couldn't stop Le'Veon Bell (30 rushes for 170 yards). The game was only close because Pittsburgh kept stalling in the red zone. Chris Boswell set a postseason record with six field goals, three of them under 40 yards and all within 45. Despite the presence of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, the Chiefs don't have a dynamic offense. If Jamaal Charles were two years younger and healthy, this game would have looked a lot different. Jamaal Charleses don't grow on trees, but Kansas City has a clear need for offensive playmakers to address this offseason.

Conference Championship Forecasts

The final four features two regular-season rematches and a lot of familiar faces. This will be Matt Ryan's second NFC Championship Game. It will be Aaron Rodgers' third. It's Ben Roethlisberger's fifth AFC Championship Game, and Tom Brady's 11th. The Steelers have the longest drought between appearances; this is their first AFC CG since the 2010 season, when they lost Super Bowl XLV to Green Bay. Hey, there could be a rematch of that...

Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots

These teams met in Pittsburgh in Week 7. The Steelers didn't have Roethlisberger, and the Patriots won 27-16. Backup QB Landry Jones actually passed for more yards than Tom Brady, but LeGarrette Blount rushed for 127 yards and 2 TDs, and Jones was ineffective in the red zone. That's something the Steelers need to address, no matter who's throwing the ball. Six field goals won't cut it in New England. The Patriots are really good, and if you're going to beat them, you need to capitalize on opportunities.

That's going to be tough against a defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFL. Pittsburgh's offensive line was sensational against Kansas City, and needs to repeat that performance next weekend. If Le'Veon Bell rushes for 170 yards again, they've got a shot against anybody. You can't dominate a team that's running the ball down your throat.

I worry more about Pittsburgh's defense, trying to stop New England. We know from Week 7 that the Patriots can run on them, and we know from the last 15 years that Tom Brady can throw it okay. The Steelers have won nine in a row, but they're not good enough to beat the Patriots in Foxboro. New England by 7.

Green Bay Packers @ Atlanta Falcons

Another rematch: the Falcons won 33-32 in Atlanta in Week 8. Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers combined for 7 TDs and 0 INTs, both with passer ratings over 120. Expect similar fireworks next Sunday. The Packers have scored at least 30 points for six games in a row, and the Falcons have topped 30 for five games in a row. The early total from linemakers is 60, which is really high, but I'd still take the over.

The wild card here is health. Julio Jones seems to be more-or-less okay, but it's not clear what the Packers can expect from Jordy Nelson, who has broken ribs. More significantly, the Packers are dealing with numerous injuries on their defense, especially in the secondary, and I don't think they can stop the Falcons. It wouldn't surprise me if Atlanta scores 40 points. That means Rodgers needs to match Atlanta's offense and win a shootout. We know he can do that, but I think it's just too much to ask. Atlanta wins a close one by 3 and advances to Super Bowl LI.

* * *

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.

2016 NFL All-Loser Team

QB Drew Brees, NO
RB David Johnson, ARI
WR Mike Evans, TB
WR T.Y. Hilton, IND
WR Michael Thomas, NO
TE Greg Olsen, CAR
C Matt Paradis, DEN
G Richie Incognito, BUF
G Marshal Yanda, BAL
OT Taylor Lewan, TEN
OT Jack Conklin, TEN

DL Aaron Donald, LA
DL Calais Campbell, ARI
DL Carlos Dunlap, CIN
LB Von Miller, DEN
LB Thomas Davis, CAR
LB Kwon Alexander, TB
CB Aqib Talib, DEN
CB Chris Harris, DEN
CB Xavier Rhodes, MIN
S Eric Weddle, BAL
S Tony Jefferson, ARI

K Justin Tucker, BAL
P Johnny Hekker, LA
KR Cordarrelle Patterson, MIN
PR Jamison Crowder, WAS

Offensive Loser of the Year: David Johnson, ARI
Defensive Loser of the Year: Von Miller, DEN
Most Valuable Loser: David Johnson, ARI
Coach of the Losers: John Harbaugh, BAL

Our actual 2016 NFL All-Pro Team was published before the playoffs, along with awards including MVP, Coach of the Year, and Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year.

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