NFL 2017-18 Wild Card Weekend

Wild Card Game Balls

Offense — Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints. Caught 8-of-9 targets for 131 yards and six first downs. On his 46-yard catch in the fourth quarter, Thomas stayed in bounds — which most receivers wouldn't have done — and picked up an extra 10 yards.

Defense — Calais Campbell, DL, Jacksonville Jaguars. Consistently disrupted plays in the Bills' backfield, with 4 hits on the quarterback.

Special Teams — Matt Bryant, K, Atlanta Falcons. Bryant went 6-for-6, including 51- and 54-yard field goals.

Honorable Mentions — QB Drew Brees, DL Aaron Donald, (tie) Atlanta Falcons coverage team

Five Quick Hits

* NFL Players of the Month for December: Le'Veon Bell, Jordan Poyer, Harrison Butker (AFC); Todd Gurley, Chandler Jones, Robbie Gould (NFC).

* I suspect that Seth Wickersham's story on the Patriots' "power struggle" has been overblown, but if you haven't read it, you probably should.

* Titans coach Mike Mularkey was blunt in acknowleding that he has received "no support" from team management, despite leading the moribund franchise to two winning records in two full seasons.

* Even though it resulted in an interception, I liked Sean Payton's decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 at the end of the game. If you get the two yards, you win, without a doubt. If you don't make it, hey, Carolina still needs a touchdown.

* The odds of an extra 30 yards from a punt making the difference in that situation are negligible in comparison to the 100% odds of victory if you move the chains.

Jon Gruden's Last Broadcast

The Oakland Raiders, for reasons beyond my understanding, have hired Jon Gruden as their head coach. Gruden was successful in his first run with the Raiders, from 1998-2001, going 38-26 and reaching an AFC Championship Game. He was less successful in Tampa Bay, winning a Super Bowl his first season but with no playoff wins in the subsequent six years, during which Tampa went 45-51. In Gruden's seven seasons, the Buccaneers never — not even once — ranked in the top half of the league in points per game.

Now, after a decade away from the sidelines, the Raiders have fired their most successful coach since, well, Gruden, and made Chucky the highest-paid coach in NFL history, with a contract reportedly worth about $100 million over 10 seasons. I'll bet right now that Gruden doesn't last five seasons, much less 10.

I never particularly liked the pairing of Gruden with Sean McDonough on Monday Night Football, though that's more about McDonough. For reasons I can't fathom, McDonough said on Saturday that Alex Smith's reputation is "very productive in the regular season, not so much in the playoffs." Every word in that sentence was wrong. Smith played great this season — he was arguably the best QB in the league — but his reputation is as a game manager, not a great regular-season quarterback. In the playoffs, however, Smith has a passer rating of 97.4 (compared to 87.4 in the regular season), with 14 TDs and 2 INT. His teams average 26.3 points per game in the playoffs. I don't recall ever hearing or reading a suggestion that Smith was a postseason choker.

That absurdity notwithstanding, I thought McDonough and Gruden did an excellent job on their final broadcast together. I particularly liked their plain talk about the NFL's rules and officiating problems. I'll give an "amen" to McDonough's position on replay: "Just wish they'd go back to when replay came into sports a long time ago — correcting obvious errors. That was not an obvious error." Similarly, I appreciate Gruden's plain-spoken observation in the third quarter, "This is not good officiating."

I won't miss this announcing team, and I hope ESPN will shake up the whole booth now that Gruden's leaving — finding a new play-by-play announcer as well as a new analyst — but they went out with style.

Wild Card Roundups

Tennessee Titans 22, Kansas City Chiefs 21

A pair of injuries decided this game. The Chiefs led 21-3 at halftime, but lost Travis Kelce 1:25 before halftime and Chris Jones in the first minute of the third quarter. Minus their best offensive player and their best defensive lineman, Kansas City managed only 48 yards in the second half and absolutely could not stop the Titans, who on their four second-half possessions scored 3 touchdowns and then successfully ran out the clock. Jon Gruden observed, "Kansas City in this second half has been a shell of itself without Kelce."

Alex Smith played a nearly flawless first half, 19-of-23 for 231 yards and 2 touchdowns. Steve Young called it "one of the best first halves of a playoff game in the history of quarterbacking." But with a double-digit lead in the second half, and Kelce on the sidelines, KC should have leaned more on 2017 rushing champ Kareem Hunt, who got only 5 carries in the second half. The play-calling wasn't outrageous, but it would have made sense to shift a few 2nd-and-long touches in Hunt's direction rather than relying on Demetrius Harris and Albert Wilson.

I know Marcus Mariota threw a touchdown pass to himself, but the Chiefs' injury-driven meltdown was the story of the game.

Atlanta Falcons 26, Los Angeles Rams 13

I don't know how much playoff experience means in general, but it certainly appeared to matter in this game. The Rams led the NFL in scoring this season, averaging 29.9 points per game; Atlanta held them to 13. It probably should have been 10, since Dan Quinn facilitated a field goal-producing drive just before halftime with an ill-advised timeout.

All-pro returner Pharoh Cooper lost two fumbles (one charged to teammate Blake Countess), which led to two Falcon field goals and seemed to affect both teams' confidence and momentum, but the first turnover took Ed Hochuli's crew an unpardonable seven minutes to confirm. Following the play, two minutes and a commercial break passed before an official replay challenge was initiated, and seven minutes elapsed between snaps. The call was obvious after just one or two replays, and the initial ruling was confirmed. How does that take seven minutes? Unacceptable.

Jacksonville Jaguars 10, Buffalo Bills 3

A defensive battle in which both teams combined for just 208 passing yards. Blake Bortles became just the fourth quarterback since 1950 to gain more yards rushing than passing in a postseason win. The previous three were Otto Graham in 1950 (8 pass attempts), Bob Griese in 1973 (6 attempts), and Michael Vick in the 2004-05 Divisional Round (16 att), when his Falcons pounded the Rams for 328 yards on the ground. Bortles, who passed 23 times, was the least effective passer of the quartet.

Boomer Esiason was brutal in his assessment of Bortles' performance. Bortles is set to earn $19.1 million next season, and this performance will only multiply concerns that he's not the right QB for a team with the tools to win right away. The Jaguars led the NFL in rushing (including 322 yards from Bortles himself, which shouldn't be ignored) and they have a great defense. If they don't go deep into the playoffs, it will be hard not to conclude that Bortles is the key piece holding them back. Jacksonville went 2/12 on third downs against Buffalo.

The Bills were equally ineffective, with 42 pass plays producing 133 yards and 2 turnovers. I'm happy for them at ending their long playoff drought, but they weren't a playoff-caliber team. The pass game desperately needs upgrades, and I know Tyrod Taylor is likely out, but the real need is for some receivers who can get open.

New Orleans Saints 31, Carolina Panthers 26

The Saints beat the Panthers for the third time this season. This was the 21st meeting, since the AFL merger in 1970, of a playoff team with an opponent it had already beaten twice. It was the 14th win for the sweeping teams: the Saints beat Carolina 34-13, 31-21, and 31-26. The Panthers successfully shut down Pro Bowl running backs Mark Ingram (35 yds) and Alvin Kamara (33 yds), but Drew Brees passed for 376 yards, 17 first downs, 2 TDs, and a 115.2 rating. This offense has too many weapons to shut down.

The Saints, like the Falcons, unwisely used a timeout near the end of the first half. With 1:22 remaining and the ball in Carolina territory, Brees completed a 25-yard pass and New Orleans called timeout. Following another 14 yard gain on the next play, the Panthers called timeout. The Saints scored a touchdown, but Carolina had enough time left to drive for a 58-yard field goal before halftime. There was plenty of time left and the Saints had all their timeouts; they should have let the clock run there. Speaking of Carolina's long field goal, though, it seems unfair to me to blame kicker Graham Gano's 25-yard miss for the loss; that 58-yarder, which tied a postseason record, should redeem him. If he'd connected from 25 and missed from 58, no one would blame him.

Divisional Forecasts

Only three of the remaining eight teams made the playoffs last season. That's unusually low; a lot of the preseason favorites stumbled this year, mostly due to injuries.

Atlanta Falcons @ Philadelphia Eagles

The Falcons, who went 10-6 and finished third in their own division, are favored in this game. I guess that's a reflection of the injury to Carson Wentz, and lack of faith in Nick Foles as his replacement. I picked Atlanta last week against the Rams, but I think the Eagles take this one. The Falcons are coming off a cross-country road game, playing away again versus an opponent who went 7-0 at home before a meaningless Week 17 game.

The Falcons matched up really well against the Rams, but that's not the case with Philadelphia, which has bruising RBs who could create problems against Atlanta's undersized defense. I also think the Eagles, who were seen as Super Bowl contenders for most of the season, are better-prepared for the playoffs than the Rams were. The Eagles win by 6.

Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots

This figures to be a snoozer; the Patriots are 13½-point favorites. Tennessee squeaked out a comeback against Kansas City thanks to key injuries, a freak deflection, and the Chiefs' capacity to screw up in critical moments. The Patriots are a much more imposing opponent, and the Titans are in way over their heads.

Late in the season, New England developed a dynamic ground game with Dion Lewis, to complement the reliable excellence of Tom Brady. The defense has improved dramatically from its poor start in September, and the special teams are good across the board. The line seems about right to me; I'll take the Patriots by 13.

Jacksonville Jaguars @ Pittsburgh Steelers

I don't believe in the Jaguars. They've been up-and-down all season, and they're 2-3 against playoff teams, including Sunday's unimpressive win over Buffalo. The other win was a 30-9 beatdown of the Steelers, in Pittsburgh. That was a fluke. Ben Roethlisberger threw 5 interceptions, and if you want to bet on that happening again, name your wager.

In the last meeting, Leonard Fournette rushed for 181 yards and 2 touchdowns; the Steelers probably need to cut those numbers in half this time around, and they'll have to do it without Ryan Shazier. The defensive strategy is obvious: shut down Fournette and force Blake Bortles to beat you with his arm. The Steelers have a great defense capable of doing that, and I don't believe Bortles can make them pay, or anyway not at a pace that keeps up with Pittsburgh's offense, a majority of which was voted to the Pro Bowl.

If you're still not convinced, the forecast in Pittsburgh on Sunday shows a high of 24°. Temperatures in Jacksonville should reach into the 70s most of this week. Steelers by a touchdown.

New Orleans Saints @ Minnesota Vikings

These teams met in Week 1, with the Vikings winning 29-19. I'm not sure that means anything four months later. Sam Bradford passed for 346 yards in that game.

The Vikings have been the NFL's best team over the last month or so. They went 7-1 at home, and the Saints went 4-4 on the road. The Saints have great weapons all over the field on offense, but the Vikings had the NFL's best defense, leading the league in fewest points allowed and fewest yards allowed. We tend to overestimate great offensive teams and underestimate great defensive teams. I don't know if defense wins championships, but I think it will win this game. Vikings by 4.

* * *

2018 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. Ray Lewis — Thirteen-time Pro Bowler, 7-time All-Pro, 2-time Defensive Player of the Year, and Super Bowl XXXV MVP. Big-play linebacker who retired with 41.5 sacks and 31 interceptions.

2. Randy Moss — Had ten 1,000-yard seasons and nine years of double-digit TDs. Moss led the NFL in receiving TDs five times, including a record 23 in 2007, and was first-team All-Pro in four seasons. Perhaps the greatest physical talent in the history of his position.

3. 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 boost on my list because this is his final year on the regular ballot.

4. Brian Urlacher — Converted safety who was devastatingly quick as a linebacker. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler, four-time All-Pro, and Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. He had at least 4 sacks seven times, which is astonishing for an inside linebacker.

5. 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.

6. Alan Faneca — A nine-time Pro Bowler, with both the Steelers and Jets, and six times first-team All-Pro. I was surprised he didn't get in on the first ballot.

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.

8. Steve Hutchinson — Made seven straight Pro Bowls from 2003-09, along with five first-team All-Pro selections. The glut of strong offensive line candidates right now makes it unlikely that any of them will get in this year, since no voter wants to fill his ballot with blockers. One way or another, Jacoby won't be on the ballot next season, which might help.

9. 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.

10. 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 six passes in the playoffs, including three in the 2003 AFC Championship Game. It's outrageous that Law is a Finalist and fellow cornerback Ronde Barber is not.

11. 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.

12. 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, but he seems to be building momentum.

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. Everson Walls — Led the NFL in interceptions in '81, '82, and '85; he and Ed Reed are the only three-time leaders in history. He was a pure ballhawk, and a superior one, but he wasn't physically imposing and he wasn't fast.

Senior and Contributor Candidates

The 15 "modern" finalists are joined by two Senior nominees (guard Jerry Kramer and linebacker Robert Brazile) and one Contributor (former GM Bobby Beathard). None of the three are competing directly against the modern players, so I'm listing them separately. They're all excellent nominees.

Kramer was a five-time All-Pro and five-time NFL champion with the Packers in the 1960s. He threw one of the most famous blocks in history, on Bart Starr's game-winning QB sneak in the Ice Bowl. Kramer underwent 22 operations to stay in football, and had so many stitches that teammates called him "Zipper." He probably would have made the Hall of Fame decades ago, but backlash from his (very interesting) book Instant Replay soured some voters on his case.

In his first season, Robert Brazile recovered 5 fumbles and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. He made the next seven Pro Bowls in a row. Brazile was named to the NFL's All-Decade team of the '70s, and had one of the coolest, most quintessentially linebacker nicknames ever, Dr. Doom.

Beathard was a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs when they played in Super Bowl I. He was Director of Player Personnel for the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins. And he was General Manager for Washington in the 1980s, bringing in players like Darrell Green, Russ Grimm, and Art Monk. As GM in San Diego, he drafted Junior Seau and helped the Chargers reach their only Super Bowl in team history.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site