What I Saw, Week 17 – 2013

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WEEK 17, 2013

One Legendary Coach Bill Parcells-ism: “I go by what I see.”

Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

This is What I Saw from the past week’s NFL action.

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Happy effing New Year.  The regular season is over.  Say goodbye to twenty NFL teams and say hello to the big time.

This week I’m expanding Away from the game(s) to incorporate Black Sunday in head coaching, plus a different Playoff Picture with thoughts on the bye teams along with predictions for the Wild Card games that will include a look at what happened in Week 17 for the teams involved.

This might result in a narrow scope of games, with other games skipped but there will be a postmortem of each NFL team after the season in TFQ’s Deep Posts.

As they say in the art film Fubar, let’s giv’r.

Away from the game(s)

I SAW one important thing to consider before continuing on with my analysis and playoff predictions: How have I done so far?  Should you listen to the shit I’m spitting?  Well, maybe the second question is another can of worms, but here’s what I predicted last week and how things turned out in reality:

Me Reality
(1)Denver (1)Denver
(2)New England (2)New England
(3)Cincinnati (3)Cincinnati
(4)Indianapolis (4)Indianapolis
(5)Kansas City (5)Kansas City
(6)Miami (6)San Diego
(1)Seattle (1)Seattle
(2)Carolina (2)Carolina
(3)Philadelphia (3)Philadelphia
(4)Chicago (4)Green Bay
(5)San Francisco (5)San Francisco
(6)New Orleans (6)New Orleans

I guess that’s all right, although many seeds and teams were already locked up going into Week 17.  Just for shits and giggles, here’s what I had when I started the Playoff Picture in What I Saw, Week 12:

Me Reality
(1)Denver (1)Denver
(2)New England (2)New England
(3)Cincinnati (3)Cincinnati
(4)Indianapolis (4)Indianapolis
(5)Kansas City (5)Kansas City
(6)San Diego (6)San Diego
(1)Seattle (1)Seattle
(2)New Orleans (2)Carolina
(3)Detroit (3)Philadelphia
(4)Philadelphia (4)Green Bay
(5)Carolina (5)San Francisco
(6)San Francisco (6)New Orleans

So, heading into December I had the AFC pegged (but didn’t listen to myself about the Chargers as things played out, because I didn’t account for Kansas City sitting most of their key players on Sunday) and made a bit of a mess of the NFC.  Thanks, Detroit, for shitting the December bed – 0-4 in the last calendar month of the regular season – but other than that I make no apologies.  Pegging 11 out of 12 playoff teams from November is okay.

Just saying.

So before I begin looking at Black Sunday and the weekly playoff picture, allow me to take a stab at the results for January and the Super Bowl, keeping in mind that I’m apprehensive of prognostication because I can’t predict the actions of others whose hands are forced by others – at high speeds. 

AFC

Wild Card Round

(4)Colts over (5)Chiefs: I don’t like the Chiefs on turf, or with the extra week’s rest head coach Andy Reid gave his star players.  KC hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1993 season when Joe Montana was the QB, and it’s not happening again – yet.

(3)Bengals over (6)Chargers: Cincy is unbeaten at home this season, San Diego is 4-4 on the road.  More importantly, the Bengals have a stronger core of impact players.

Divisional Round

(1)Broncos over (4)Colts: I really like the Chiefs in an upset here if they make it, but I see an upset in the earlier round, and thus a sweet revenge win for Denver after losing to Indy in the regular season.

(3)Bengals over (2)Patriots: The Pats could easily win this game, but Cincy won’t be fazed in Gillette Stadium and their defense is up to the task of stopping QB Tom Brady.

Conference Championship

(1)Broncos over (3)Bengals: I know, I fucking know.  I’ve said I won’t believe in Peyton Manning & Co. winning in the playoffs until I see it.  I’ve said I like Cincinnati.  I’ve also said that the Bengals will be formidable, but won’t go as far as they could have with star DT Geno Atkins, who is on injured reserve.  If the Patriots make it to this game, I like them to beat Denver.  But oh well.

NFC

Wild Card Round

(6)Saints over (3)Eagles: New Orleans wished Dallas had won in Week 17 so that they could play indoors to start a playoff run, but that’s life.  Philly’s defense is just too soft downfield to hold off Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham (weather permitting).

(4)Packers over (5)Niners: Despite the seeding, this is an upset.  I like Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb back in action, with home field advantage.  A gut-check pick, but I’m in.

Divisional Round

(4)Packers over (2)Panthers: I’m picking this crazy upset for one reason only, and it’s the same reason Green Bay might beat the Niners: The weakness of the opposing defense is the downfield coverage.  Apparently my gut likes the Packers right now.  That, or it’s the whiskey mixing with the pizza.

(1)Seahawks over (6)Saints: New Orleans got schooled by Seattle in the Northwest 34-7 on Monday night in Week 13 and I see few reasons why that won’t happen again.

Conference Championship

(1)Seahawks over (4)Packers: A fun rematch of RefereeGate, the game that pretty much ended the referee lockout in 2012.  Finally the depleted Packers roster catches up with them – especially on defense.

SUPER BOWL

Seahawks over Broncos

I said that I still don’t believe in Peyton Manning in big games, and I think he’ll do a reprise of the Colts-Saints Super Bowl, where he played well but shit the bed in the end.  Seattle’s vaunted defense will be pushed to its limit but as Bill Belichick has proved over the years, a Manning-led offense doesn’t overcome physical pass D, and Super Sunday will be no different.

I SAW that the end of the regular season could mean just two things: Playoffs and pink slips.  Let’s take a look at the latter.

Black Monday

I SAW the NFL go three straight years with a coach going one-and-done.  This year’s victim was Cleveland’s Rob Chudzinski.

In this culture of immediacy and knee-jerk PR reactions under the pressure of amateur public scrutiny, Black Monday bled into Sunday.  Jets head coach Rex Ryan was publicly assured of his job almost immediately after the team’s afternoon win and Chudzinski lost his Sunday night.  Monday followed with a flurry of other dismissals:

Cleveland – Rod Chudzinski

I guess continuity isn’t much of a priority in Cleveland, where “Chud” became just the eleventh NFL head coach to be fired in one season or less since 1990.  What sort of prospective head coach wants to work for a front office team that only gave the last coach one season to work with – a season during which they traded one of their most talented players on offense (RB Trent Richardson) and all but sold out their second-year quarterback (Brandon Weeden)?  If I’m a potential hire, I’m wondering whether or not I’ll be put in a position to succeed.

It’s a raw deal for CHUD, but that’s what happens when you’re a Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller.  Chudzinski is an offensive minded coach, but while his defense did well under top-notch coordinator Ray Horton, the other side of the ball was unable to do much with WR Josh Gordon, LT Joe Thomas and a bum parade.  No worries; CHUD will rise again, be it in the form of a coordinator or a college coach.

CHUD

(New World Pictures)

Washington – Mike Shanahan

A brutally inglorious end to a great head coach’s career, if that is indeed what we’ve witnessed on Black Monday for Shanahan, a two-time Super Bowl-winning skipper with a career mark of 177-143-0.

It’s not much of a secret what the main factor was in his dismissal.  It was likely the awkwardly public deteriorating relationship between him and second-year QB Robert Griffin III.  To be fair, RG3 deserves some of the blame himself by publicly declaring in spring that we will be ready to play in Week 1 after reconstructive knee surgery in January.  That proclamation placed a lot of pressure on the organization to play a player who was clearly not ready to go, as evidenced by the team shutting Griffin down for the last two weeks of the season for fear that he would lose another offseason of preparation due to injury.  The worst part of that storyline, to me, was the near-constant media leaks from within the Redskins about Shanahan and Griffin.  (For example: the ugly report that RG3 asked not to have negative plays he ran showed in film sessions.)  Who knows what went on there, but it’s safe to say the reports didn’t motivate owner Daniel Snyder to sustain his professional relationship with the embattled coach.

Behind the RG3 debacle, however, lurk larger issues – namely the state of the roster overall.  The offensive line and defense have more holes in their rosters than, well, the offensive line allowed in games.  GM Bruce Allen spent the better part of Washington’s controversial season in relative hiding.  On Monday he held his own press conference, declaring that he would be making the personnel decisions from here on out.  While that likely narrows a coaching hire to a less proven personality that doesn’t want control over such matters, it also betrays a frustration with many of the personnel moves that were – or weren’t – made during Shanahan’s tenure.  The ’Skins have a bunch of talented players, but are dangerously close to rebuilding mode with all their roster needs and a lack of high draft picks because of the trade for the second overall pick in 2012 that got them Griffin.  Bottom line: A three-win season and an eight-game losing streak to finish the season tends to finish jobs.

Detroit – Jim Schwartz

This move is probably the least surprising firing thus far despite Schwartz’s rapport in the locker room.  Detroit obviously improved initially under Schwartz, but who wouldn’t improve a team that went 0-16 in the season before they took over?  Looking back at Schwartz’s body of work over his five seasons in the Motor City, the 10-6 playoff season in 2011 is an aberration.  In fact, you have to go back to the dark ages in Tampa Bay under John McKay from 1976 to 1980 to find a worse record over a coach’s first five years with a franchise than Schwartz’s 29-51.  (McKay went 22-53-1.)

McKay is the source for one of my favourite press conference quotes in sports history.  When asked about his team’s execution while mired in a losing streak, McKay said, “I’m all in favour of it.”  Execution – or, rather, lack of it – was the main factor that led to Schwartz’s dismissal.  During his tenure the Lions became notorious for dirty cheap shots, mental lapses and undisciplined technique at most positions.  It’s usually the last straw for a head coach when the side of the ball they specialize in is the weak link on his team, and although the D-line is surely a force to be reckoned with, Detroit’s defense never ranked higher than 13th overall in the NFL with Schwartz in charge.  That, a near-fight during a postgame handshake, countless questionable in-game decisions, a seemingly unappreciative and abrasive demeanor with the press, a 1-7 finish to 2013 – all of these aspects contributed to this reasonable firing.

Tampa Bay – Greg Schiano (also fired GM Mark Dominik)

Maybe it’s because he looks and talks like George W. Bush, but I’m happy to see Schiano go.  The low point this season, with a blackballed quarterback (Josh Freeman), press leaks about that QB’s drug tests and rumors of player discontent was surely the last straw for Schiano, despite the Bucs rebounding to finish 4-4 after starting 0-8.  One can point to the injury of RB Doug Martin as an excuse for the Buccaneer’s disappointing season, but Tampa went 0-6 with Martin in the lineup.

To me, it’s fairly obvious that ownership had high hopes for this season after some expensive moves in free agency, especially on defense.  That side of the ball finished in the bottom half of the league, and the offense finished dead last overall.  Some people are interpreting the dual firing of Schiano and Dominik as a sign that Tampa is angling for a big-name head coach who will want control of personnel decisions, but tell me who that is because I don’t see any such names available.  I think both men got canned simply because of the inability to translate front-page transactions to on-field results.

About that owner-employee situation in Tampa Bay….It was a pretty shitty move on owner Malcolm Glazer’s part to wait until Schiano addressed the players in a season-ending meeting on Monday before axing him.  Not only is that unprofessional towards Schiano, but it kind of mindfucks the players, having just heard a rah-rah speech for the offseason by a man who was summarily fired.  Schiano even had to give his press conference after his dismissal at a hotel near the stadium.  Real professional, Glazer.

UPDATE: Tampa Bay has hired Lovie Smith as head coach.  See below for more.

Minnesota – Leslie Frazier

At the risk of oversimplifying, Frazier’s dismissal comes down to two factors: The defense and the quarterback position.  As I said above with regards to Jim Schwartz in Detroit, Frazier is a defensive coach and similar to his former Lions counterpart the Vikings defensive backs are one of the worst groups of its kind in the NFL.  In a division with Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford that’s not a good thing.  The mess at QB is less so Frazier’s fault – it wasn’t him who decided to pay Josh Freeman $2 million for 8 games in a situation he was unlikely to succeed in – but in a bottom line environment, all accountability funnels towards the head coach.

Numbers and specific personnel aside, it felt like Minnesota didn’t play with much chemistry and/or collective intensity during Frazier’s time at the helm.  One could argue that his most successful season, 2012, was due to the transcendent play of RB Adrian Peterson and little else.

The Vikes have a lot of work ahead of them, especially if DE Jared Allen leaves for free agency.  GM Rick Spielman’s job is on the line with his choice for the next man to try and rebuild this team.

I SAW after 17 weeks that failed to disappoint we are finally at the playoffs.  I gave my predictions for the whole postseason above.  Let’s take a closer look at the teams that made it, and the Wild Card matchups.

Playoff Picture

Courtesy Cold Hard Football Facts: Teams led by quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have been the number one seed in the AFC for 5 straight years.  They’ve also been the top two teams in the AFC the last two teams, and the top two NFL offenses in terms of scoring.  As those French say, the more things change….

AFC

(1)Denver (13-3)

The Broncos are clearly the favourite in the conference.  The Clockwork Orange Offense ticks on like a metronome, with QB Peyton Manning as the breakneck pace setter.  Five non-quarterback players on offense have scored double-digit touchdowns – running back Knowshown Moreno, tight end Julius Thomas and wideouts Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.  No other team in NFL history has fielded four such players.  After that, five other Denver players have crossed the goal line: RB Montee Ball (4), WR Andre Caldwell (3), RB Ronnie Hillman (1), TE Jacob Tamme (1) TE Joel Dreessen.  So now opposing defenses know.  Only five guys are likely to score.  Good luck addressing that.

Let’s look at the potential for failure.  The only three teams to have beaten Denver this season are all alive in the AFC: San Diego, Indianapolis and New England.  It could be argued that all three of those teams have a nemesis for Manning on their coaching staff.  We know what Pats head coach Bill Belichick has done to Manning over the years.  Then there are the Pagano brothers.  Chuck stymied Manning as a Ravens defensive coordinator before besting him this season as head coach of the Colts.  After years as an assistant in San Diego, Chuck’s brother John took over as defensive coordinator there and beat Denver in Week 14.  Of course, “stymieing” Peyton Manning equates to holding him to a good statistical game, so the key to success for Denver – in terms of winning or losing – will likely lie in the turnover battle.  As I said above, I think they’ll handle a weak conference but fall short in the Super Bowl.  This season simply feels too similar to last season, during which they came out of their bye week rusty after the rest and a weak December schedule.

(2)New England (12-4)

Here we are again, a ninth 12-win season over the last eleven years.  No biggie.  It’s true that this might be the Patriots’ most flawed team during that span.  It’s also true that the AFC might be at its weakest overall state in recent years.

Is there any other offense in football that keeps opponents guessing more?  Brady and RB LeGarrette Blount were given a chance to produce the same amount of times Sunday (24 carries and 24 attempts, respectively), which no one this side of anyone predicted.  With his opportunity in the rain, Blount rolled up more yards than Brady (189 to 122), and averaged more yards per run than Brady did per pass (7.9 to 5.1).

I did some stat digging on this….

TRIVIA BOMB:

Tom Brady has been outgained by a Patriots running back only three times in his NFL career: Sunday by LeGarrette Blount (189-122), Week 14 in 2006 by Corey Dillon in a 21-0 loss to Miami (79-78), and Week 15 in 2001 by Antowain Smith in a 20-13 win against the Dolphins (156-108).

It’s safe to say that New England’s fortunes will rest on Brady’s arm and not Blount’s legs, but it has to be reassuring for Pats fans to see another facet of the offense find itself just in time for January.

New England’s defense will be its demise, namely its inability to force turnovers as of late.  The Patriots are ninth in the NFL in takeaways, but have forced 1 or fewer turnovers in 5 of their last 7 games.  Mind you, the Pats had four takeaways in each of the other two games over that span – against Denver and Baltimore.  This amounts to a very streaky defense in terms of ball hawking, which could come back to bite New England in the ass if Brady stalls following a regular season that had to have taken its toll on him while he carried the offense.  If they face Cincy or Indy in the Divisional Round that could be a good thing.  Otherwise, who knows.

(3)Cincinnati (11-5) vs. (6)San Diego (9-7)

I guess I should have stuck with my prediction several weeks ago that the Chargers would make the playoffs due to their schedule down the stretch.  But I also didn’t expect that they’d face the Chiefs’ practice squad on Sunday – and get a late Christmas gift from Bill Leavy’s officiating crew, which missed a violation by San Diego on a missed 41-yard field goal by Kansas City that would have won the game and put Pittsburgh in the playoffs instead of the ’Bolts.  (Sorry, Steeltown, but it’s not like you haven’t had your own fair share of triumph and beneficial missed calls….ahem, ahem, Immaculate Reception.)  When the dust settled after the OT win against KC, San Diego did something they’re not unaccustomed to doing as a franchise.  They became just the sixth playoff team to make the playoffs after starting 5-7 or worse through the first 12 games, joining their own 2008 and 1995 editions:

Teams In Playoffs After 5-7 Or Worse In First 12 Games – Current Alignment

Year Team Start
2013 Chargers 5-7
2008 Chargers 4-8
2007 Redskins 5-7
1996 Jaguars 5-7
1995 Chargers 5-7
1990 Saints 5-7

(ESPN Stats & Information)

Which sort of Chargers team will roll into Paul Brown Stadium Sunday, one thankful for making the playoffs as such a long shot and will lie down, or one that sees their gaining entry to the postseason as an opportunity to try for something more special? 

QB Philip Rivers improved to 30-6 in December for his career, and he’ll need to keep riding that wave.  It will help that he’s been on fire during his team’s four-game win streak to make the playoffs:  74-for-110 (67.3%), 845 yards, 9 TD, 2 INT for a 109.8 passer rating.

The same can be said for RB Ryan Mathews, who finished second to Eagle LeSean McCoy for the most 100-yard rushing games this season, with 6.  (McCoy had his seventh Sunday night in Chicago.)

The Bengals are coming into this game with some momentum of their own, having won five of their last six en route to winning the AFC North.  Cincy has scored an average of 29.4 points per game and allowed more than 20 points just once over that span.

A while back I said that Cincinnati could make some noise in these playoffs, but wouldn’t go the distance like they could have if injured DT Geno Atkins was playing.  No team has rolled on with fewer hiccups after key injuries than the Bengals, but I stand by my earlier assessment.

There is an awful lot of pressure on QB Andy Dalton to come through after two straight years of one-and-done in the playoffs.  Many of Dalton’s season stats are career highs, including a franchise-record 4,296 yards and 33 TD passes.  However – and it’s a big however – one of those career highs is 20 interceptions, four of which were thrown on Sunday against a Ravens defense that came into the game tied for 20th in the NFL with just 12 picks.  He also threw three of those interceptions on passes to star WR A.J. Green.  Dalton-to-Green now leads the league for interceptions on targets between two players, with twelve.  I think the surprise wideout of the year, Marvin Jones and a running game that surpassed 100 yards in 6 of the last 8 games will have to have good games to put Dalton in a comfort zone and avoid him forcing balls to his number one option.  In other words, the defense will do its job; it’s up to Dalton.

The Bengals are the last team to beat the Chargers, 17-10 in Week 13 – also in Cincinnati.  The overall result will be the same with more scoring by two offenses that have picked up their respective pace since the last meeting, but not too much more, since if figures to be very cold on Sunday.

Prediction: Bengals, 28-17

 

(4)Indianapolis (11-5) vs. (5)Kansas City (11-5)

This is a weird one.  Two teams with identical records but markedly different fortunes this season.

The Chiefs are the feel-good story of the year, going from worst to first in the AFC West under new head coach Andy Reid.  They even should have won on Sunday without many of their starters (see above).  Here’s a list of key KC players who were inactive for Week 17:

Chiefs Inactives In Week 17 – This Season

Player Position # Of Starts This Season
Alex Smith QB 15
Jamaal Charles* RB 15
Dwayne Bowe WR 15
Branden Albert* OT 12
Tamba Hali* LB 15
Derrick Johnson LB 15
Dontari Poe* DT 15

(NFL Network)

*- 2014 Pro Bowl selection

Last week I argued that Reid might be best served to play his starters in order to keep momentum going into the playoffs.  (I also think that it’s unwise to give confidence in Week 17 to a team you could still end up facing in the postseason, but that’s a less important issue in this case.)  I stand by that, because when you end up finishing the season losing five of seven after a 9-0 start, momentum isn’t something to take lightly – let alone now that you face a Colts team that beat you 23-7 at home just two weeks ago.

It’s not a good sign that Kansas City suffered their first loss after their bye week.  Until then Reid had been 13-1 in his head coaching career following a bye, the only blemish coming in a virtual throwaway season last year in Philadelphia.  Since the bye in Week 10 the biggest decline has been on defense.  After Week 9, the Chiefs led the league with 36.0 sacks (4.0 per game) and 23 takeaways (2.5 per game).  Over the last seven weeks of the season KC 11.0 (1.6 per game) sacks to fall to a tie for sixth in the NFL, and 13 takeaways (1.6 per game) dropped them to second in the league in that category.  Those results showed up on the scoreboard: By Week 9 the Chiefs had allowed 12.3 points per game to lead the league, but allowed a very concerning 27.7 over the last seven games to end up tied for fifth overall at 19.1 points per game.  That’s a very big decline, even considering the time missed by LBs Hali and Justin Houston and DL Mike DeVito.  (All three players could be ready to go for the Colts game.)

It’s no surprise to say that the Chiefs’ fortunes will rest on the defense stepping up against Colts QB Andrew Luck.  But the offense needs QB Smith to play well.  Charles surpassed 100 yards against the Colts’ 26th-ranked rush defense in the last meeting – and should again – but Smith put up an awful 57.6 passer rating.  Sure, Indy took an early lead that allowed their defense to key on Smith, but Kansas City didn’t trade a second round pick in last summer’s draft (plus a conditional one this season) for Smith just to watch him fall short in big moments.  He’s played well against Denver in two losses, but he needs to be great in January for KC to keep playing.

At least Kansas City gets to face the most inconsistent team of all those still alive for the title.  The Colts have scored 30 points or more five times, all of which they won; they’ve also allowed 30 or more points three times, all of which they lost.  They’ve been able to right the ship with three straight wins to end the season after rotating wins and losses for six weeks before that.

Indianapolis comes into January banged up.  Key defenders CB Vontae Davis (groin), Aubrayo Franklin (knee) and Linebacker Bjoern Werner (ankle) all left Sunday’s win over Jacksonville with injuries.  That isn’t good news for a defense ranked 20th in the NFL overall.

Most pundits will likely favour the Chiefs in this game, and I don’t blame them.  But there’s something about this matchup that smells fishy.  Kansas City feels like a team that needs to taste the postseason before they make a better push another year, much like the Bengals two years ago.  The Andrew Luck-T.Y. Hilton connection can take advantage of KC’s suspect cornerbacks, and DE Robert Mathis has been playing like a man possessed this season.  It also helps that the Colts have rushed for 367 yards total over the last three games – 135 of which came against the Chiefs.

Prediction: Colts, 24-17

NFC

(1)Seattle (13-3)

See Seattle wins vs. St. Louis, 27-9 for my thoughts on the thuggish feel to the Seahawks’ win over the Rams Sunday.  The win ensured home field advantage for Seattle, the NFL team with arguably the biggest edge when playing in their own city.  QB Russell Wilson has only lost once there in his two-year career, but that came just two weeks ago against Arizona.  The Cardinals did it with their defense.  My top four defenses this season are Carolina, Seattle, Arizona and San Francisco.  It’s no coincidence that two of those teams are among the three to beat the ’Hawks this year (’Zona and San Fran), while the other, Carolina, only lost 12-7 on opening day.  The Seahawks will face the Niners, Saints or Packers in the Divisional Round, and though they’d publicly talk shit about facing San Francisco for a rubber match in January, that’s the last of those teams Seattle wants to host in two weeks because of the defense they would face.  That being said, the Seahawks are 4-0 at home against those three teams over the last two seasons.

As far as Seattle’s own defense is concerned, if there were any doubts about its NFL supremacy it did a lot to assuage them on Sunday against the Rams.  It tied a franchise low by allowing St. Louis to rush for just 13 net yards, and picked off QB Kellen Clemons twice to finish atop the league in that category for the season, with 28.

On offense, QB Russell Wilson has shown enough poise through his sophomore season (one during which quarterbacks often falter – just ask RG3 and Andrew Luck) to earn the expectation that he’ll be able to play well enough not to lose any game he will play over the coming weeks.  He needs help, though, especially if they come up against a potent offense.  RB Marshawn Lynch was able to put up his first 90-yard game since Week 10, which is a good start.  But Wilson will need help downfield, and WR Golden Tate has taken big strides this season.  He capped the regular season with eight catches for 129 yards, both career highs.  Tate is in a contract year, so that works in Seattle’s favour in terms of his inconsistent focus.

The conference is Seattle’s to lose.  This is a rather unfamiliar position for head coach Pete Carroll in the pros, but he’s used to having players rule the perch and then come off of a rest to win big games from his days at USC.  If there’s a team to beat them, I say Carolina.

(2)Carolina (12-4)

What a difference a year makes.  Hell, what a difference a dozen weeks makes.  Since starting out 1-3 the Panthers went 11-1 to finish the season and make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.  Carolina also wins the award for Most Surprising Team to Earn a Bye Week this season.  That extra rest will be well used, what with primary receiver Steve Smith nursing a sprained knee.

Even with RB Jonathan Stewart out with an injury, I really like the Panthers’ ground game, with DeAngelo Williams carrying the lion’s share of the workload, RB/FB Mike Tolbert bashing out red zone and short yardage situations, and QB Cam Newton filling in the gaps as expertly as he tends to.

But if Carolina runs (pardon the expression) into a physical front seven that can bottle up the run, it’s all on Newton.  I say he’s ready for it.  This season he’s learned how to maximize his opportunities.  He’s put up career highs in completion percentage TD passes and passer rating while throwing a career low in attempts.  More importantly, the flak he took for last season’s immaturity has hardened his resolve.  Newton has grown into a leader who actually seems happier putting up average stats while winning instead of living with big numbers while watching the playoffs from home.  Every quarterback says that they approach the game this way, but fewer actually mean it.  Newton seems to mean it.  But if they lose, I say it’s because the front office still needs to surround their star QB with better players at the receiver position.

Before we move in, let’s give PROPS to two people you probably haven’t heard of.  I often say that the best teams are the ones with the best men in the trenches, and the Panthers are a good example of that this year:

It’s hard to put a finger on what John Matsko, Carolina’s offensive line coach, has done to improve his unit, but has he ever done so.  All of the five starts scheduled to start next game were with the team last season when the line was constantly pushed back, off the line of scrimmage.  This season they look like road graders.

Eric Washington, the Panthers D-line coach, has awakened the beast that is DE Greg Hardy – he of 7 sacks over his last two games.  It’s no fluke either, as Hardy finished the season with 15.0.  Maybe a defensive line coach’s job is made easier knowing LB Luke Kuechly is there as a magic eraser, but that shouldn’t take away from Washington’s overall role in helping make up one of the most fearsome front sevens in the pros.  He’s also done a good job turning Star Lotulelei into the space eater many scouts doubted he could be.

(3)Philadelphia (10-6) vs. (6)New Orleans (11-5)

After streaking into January on a 7-1 run to finish the regular season, the Eagles get the privilege of facing one of the best sixth-seeded teams in recent memory.  You can bet the Saints would like to see a playoff realignment to favour win-loss percentage over division winners, now that they have to venture outside the Super Dome to play a team with a lesser record – more on that in a moment.

Many people – myself included – wondered if head coach Chip Kelly would have a big impact in his first year as an NFL coach, with the Eagles.  How about a second-string QB at the start of the season, Nick Foles, finishing with the highest passer rating in the league?  Or RB LeSean McCoy becoming the first Eagle to lead the league in rushing since the great Steve Van Buren in 1949 – oh, and setting franchise records for rushing yards and yards from scrimmage?  (Elias Sports Bureau)  Or how about WR DeSean Jackson putting up the franchise’s second highest receiving yardage total in a season, with 1,332?  (Mike Quick had 1,409 in ’83.)  Those numbers are telling, but the defense ranks near the bottom in all three yardage categories, but that’s something that could come in time.  After all, Kelly is an offensive coach taking over a defense that was in shambles when he arrived.

Kelly’s influence might be most felt in the team’s conditioning.  There was a lot of press – including some good reporting by The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas during the preseason – about Kelly’s hiring of former Navy Seal trainer Shaun Hul.  Philly’s head coach isn’t beyond reason.  He knows that the pace and level of excellence he demands from his players demands exemplary fitness, and the shadowy-yet-health-conscious program that he’s implemented with Hul’s help seems to have paid off since the Eagles offense hasn’t shown the slightest sign of fatigue.  That could pay off in January.

Frankly, there isn’t much to take away from the Saints’ pasting of Tampa Bay at home apart from a rebound win after basically giving up the NFC South to Carolina the week before.  Mind you, QB Drew Brees played like he was proving a point: Four TDs and four incompletions in the first half en route to a passer rating of 157.4 for the game.  But, in what is becoming a cliché for New Orleans that came at home.  Clichés are clichés for a reason, though – because they apply so often.  In this case ’Nawlins is 8-0 at home, 3-5 on the road while continuing a multiple-season trend.

RB Darren Sproles had just five touches for 29 yards from scrimmage on Sunday.  Hopefully head coach Sean Payton was merely keeping him fresh for the playoffs, because Sproles will likely be a key to the Saints’ success.

On defense, this group can hang with most.  It was able to hang with any – that is, until it lost S Kenny Vaccaro to a broken ankle two weeks ago.  They didn’t feel that absence yet, but they will against Philly.  Kelly will make sure of it in the Eagles’ game plan on offense.

Is there a more weather/location-dependent game in store these playoffs?  Maybe if the Saints have to play somewhere else outdoors in the north in future rounds.  We saw what happened to them in inclement weather in Carolina….Philly is 7-0 when leading at halftime this season.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  If they can manage to head into the break with the lead next weekend, I think they have a chance.  I also think Brees is salivating at the chance to pass against the lowest-ranked passing defense in the league.  Eagles CB Brandon Boykin (on WRs Marques Colston and Kenny Stills) and LB Mychal Kendricks (on TE Jimmy Graham) will need to come up big to hold off ’Nawlins.  I don’t see that happening, unless the weather takes away traction from the turf-happy Saints and makes the ball slippery for Brees.

Prediction: Saints, 42-27

 

(4)Green Bay (8-7-1) vs. (5)San Francisco (12-4)

Last week, I said that Packers QB Aaron Rodgers might come out rusty and that head coach Mike McCarthy might be better off opting for backup Matt Flynn, who had played well lately.  At first, I was right.  Rodgers threw two ill-advised passes that were intercepted by the Bears.  According to the Fox broadcast, the pick in Chicago’s end zone was just Rodgers’ fourth career interception in the red zone.  (Wow.)

Then, I was wrong.  Keep in mind (which I didn’t) that Rodgers had been practicing for three weeks prior to Sunday’s game in the Windy City.  After settling down, the Packers pivot showed why he came into Sunday with the highest career passer rating in NFL history (105.2): Because he puts the ball on the money, even when he has to flick his hips at the last moment while on the run.  (Which he did – my, such sexy footwork you have! – on the game-winning TD to WR Randall Cobb on Sunday.)

Isn’t this Packers team reminiscent of their Super Bowl edition in 2011?  Sure, that team had Rodgers for a whole season, but the slew of injuries they had to overcome galvanized them once they made the playoffs.  This 2013 team feels eerily similar, and now they’re full of confidence, getting to host a Niners team that they want revenge on for a Week 1 loss.  It was a step-up game all around for Green Bay, with James Starks racking up 88 yards on the ground while starter Eddie Lacy fought through a gimpy ankle, WR Jordy Nelson emerging from an off season to catch 161 yards, and, most poignantly, Cobb, who came back from a broken leg to catch 2 passes for 2 TDs on Sunday.

I’ve been saying for weeks that momentum is key.  The Pack has a ton of it right now.

Speaking of momentum, unstoppable Green Bay, meet immovable San Francisco, winners of six straight.

The Niners could easily make a second straight Super Bowl appearance, but I think they’ve had too intense a season of ups and downs to make it through January.  The defense is peaking at the right time, but the cornerbacks are suspect, especially with starter Carlos Rogers fighting a bad hamstring (his status for next weekend is uncertain).

As far as inconsistency goes, look no further than QB Colin Kaepernick.  This season he’s had eight games with a passer rating over 100…and five below 75.  He’s not the same dual threat he was last season, either.  In 2012 he rushed for 415 yards while not starting a game until Week 7.  This season he’s rushed for 524.  I actually think the explanation for this is more straightforward than it might seem: Without WR Michael Crabtree in the lineup until a few weeks ago, San Fran lacked two downfield threats out wide.  As a result they had to use more base tight end sets, with a more closely cropped formation that doesn’t favour the read option offense or scrambling lanes for a QB.  Perhaps that can change against the Packers, against whom Kaepernick set a single-game rushing record for quarterbacks in last season’s postseason.

That’s what is tricky about gauging this matchup: Last January Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards against Green Bay.  The next game the Packers played, in Week 1 this season, he passed for 412 yards.  I doubt either extreme will happen again next weekend, but it begs the question: What will Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers take away from Kaep?  The kid has killed him either way.  RB Frank Gore will need to be contained too, but with Green Bay’s personnel that’s easier said than done.

Despite all of this, I think the Packers have the mojo for the upset.  I see Rodgers flashing his imaginary belt a few times, discount double check-ing San Fran into the offseason.

Prediction: Packers, 24-17

I SAW the Texans hire Bill O’Brien as their new head coach, and QB Teddy Bridgewater declare for the 2014 draft – which Houston has the first overall pick in.

This is a hard hire to analyze.  O’Brien has pedigree, cutting his teeth as an offensive assistant/coordinator under Bill Belichick, mostly during the time current Pats coordinator Josh McDaniels was head coaching in Denver.  Such experience is hard to appraise, especially given the failings of recent Belichick assistants as head coaches (see: Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis, Eric Man-gina and McDaniels).  But O’Brien should be commended for having the balls to step in at Pen State and guide the Nittany Lions to a 15-9 record in two seasons following all of the tragedy and scandal that rocked the school.  Again, this is hard to analyze in terms of value for pro coaching.  Only time will tell if O’Brien is the right man for the job in Houston.

Only time will tell what the Texans will do with the first pick in the draft too, but if they don’t trade down it would surprise few at this point in time if they opted for a quarterback – more specifically Bridgewater.  It was unclear if the Louisville star was going to declare for the draft, but I think two things made his decision.  First, he played one of his best games as a college player in the Russell Athletic Bowl and it’s hard to imagine his stock rising any higher after that.  Second, Bridgewater and his advisors likely saw Houston with the first pick this coming offseason, as opposed to a perennial doormat like Cleveland, Jacksonville or Oakland ending up with the chance to take him first the following year.

Imagine, though, if the Texans don’t take a QB or Bridgewater with the first selection.  That would put the Rams in position to trade the second overall pick to a quarterback-needy franchise for a windfall of picks, just like they did two years ago in the blockbuster trade with the Redskins for the chance to take Robert Griffin III.  If that’s what happens, St. Louis GM Les Snead will have his hand in one of the best three-season draft rebuilding plans ever.

I SAW the Bucs hire Lovie Smith to a four-year contract as their head coach.  I love(ie) it.  I’m not sure I’ve seen players stand behind a coach more than the Bears buys did for Smith.  He has his failings on offense, but Tampa Bay is poised to be next year’s Kansas City – a team that floundered despite a roster full of impact players built by the former general manager (Mark Dominik and Scott Pioli, both of whom were fired for their good work) and as a result could win at least 8 games next year with the proper coaching.  I’m already curious about this…. Will Smith employ his trademark Tampa Two defensive scheme?  Many will say that it’s not suited to CB Darrelle Revis, for one.  I say bullshit.  Imagine Revis in a tackling, man-to-man role similar to Ronde Barber, or dynamic safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson keeping receivers in front of them, ready to pounce?  LB Lavonte David is a Derrick Brooks clone, so there’s that too.

Let’s just hope the owner gives Smith longer to implement his systems than he gave Greg Schiano (see above).

I SAW Elias Sports Bureau, the NFL’s official statistician, rule that Broncos QB Peyton Manning’s single season record of 5,477 passing yards will stand despite a lateral pass to WR Eric Decker Sunday that was counted as a 7-yard gain.  (Yards gained off of a backwards pass are counted as rushing yards.)

You can read about the ruling and see a replay of the backward pass here.

I have mixed feelings about the decision to uphold Manning’s record.  First of all, I disagree with the claim that the play is too close to overturn the initial ruling.  Decker clearly receives the pass farther behind the line of scrimmage than where Manning releases the ball.  It’s also important to uphold the rules to a T.  But this case is more complicated.  Manning passed the previous record holder, Drew Brees, by just one yard before sitting out the whole second half of Sunday’s game against Oakland.  It’s safe to say that Denver’s coaches would have kept Manning in the game to get the record if the aforementioned play had been ruled accurately.  I also can’t think of such a landmark result being overturned after the fact.  The closest I can come up with was in 2012 when Major League Baseball changed the seventh inning hit that broke up White Sox Jeremy Guthrie’s no-hitter bid to an error, but that ruling was essentially moot since Guthrie went out and allowed back-to-back singles in the eighth.

Sometimes everyone has to live with missed calls that stand after the league admits the oversight – just ask the Steelers after Sunday’s Chargers-Chiefs game (see (4)Indianapolis vs. (5)Kansas City).

I SAW former NFL QB Tim Tebow tell the media in a conference call, “I’m the best I’ve ever been as a quarterback.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Tebow’s been much better at the position since he stopped throwing the ball in games entirely. 

Green Bay (8-7-1) wins @ Chicago (8-8), 33-28

I SAW the Bears fall just short of the playoff in their first year under head coach Marc Trestman.  The new coach did a great job with the offense, leading it to the second-most points per game in the NFL this season despite playing without QB Jay Cutler for an extended period.

Trestman gets a pass as far as the performance on defense goes – not only because he’s an offensive coach, but because Chicago sustained 39 games missed by Week 1 starters due to injury, the most in the NFL, and the majority of them were on D.

I SAW Bears QB Jay Cutler extend his record to 1-8 against the Packers during his time in Chicago.  If he stays in Chicago (his contract is up), he’s going to have to overcome that slump.

I SAW Bears WR Brandon Marshall make an exquisite TD catch to open the fourth quarter and

It’s so difficult to relocate the football once having to turn 180 degrees on the run while the ball is in the air.  Teammate Alshon Jeffrey is a budding superstar but don’t doubt who’s the best wideout on the team.

SNF- Philadelphia (10-6) wins @ Dallas (8-8), 24-22

I SAW the allas Cowboys can’t play efense.  (Maybe they’ll earn those “d”s back, but not yet.)

I SAW Dallas QB Kyle Orton throw a two minute drill interception to give the win to Philadelphia.  Romo could’ve done that.

I SAW more bad coaching from Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett.

On a micro level: Backup QB Kyle Orton threw 46 passes after just 15 attempts in games over the last two seasons, while RB DeMarco Murray ran just 17 times (for 51 yards).  How many times does that need to happed before Garrett calls running plays in crisis moments instead of shitting the bed and opting for a pass?

On a macro level: Garrett’s best leadership skill seems to be applauding mediocrity, as he does so often while praising players in losses more than many of his colleagues do after wins.  Honestly, there were times during Sunday night’s postgame press conference that it sounded as though Dallas hadn’t lost the game while listening to Garrett handjob his players’ effort during a stinky season.

In Garrett’s defense, condoning mediocrity might be something he learned from his boss, owner Jerry Jones, who keeps complimenting the job done by his head coach in going 8-8 three seasons in a row.  (According to STATS LLC no team in history has gone 8-8 three straight times.)  How much more mediocre can you get than that?

New York Jets (8-8) wins @ Miami (8-8), 20-7

I SAW the Dolphins get outscored by the lowly Jets and Bills by a combined score of 39-7 when all Miami needed to do was win one of those games to make the playoffs.

Shame on the Dolphins for losing two win-and-you’re-in games to the Bills and Jets.

In the end, Miami isn’t going fishing.  They’re floating upside down into the offseason.

Dolphins shirt-Frank Gore

Sweet shirt, once sported by Niners RB Frank Gore.  Posted from The Score on Tumblr

Carolina (12-4) wins @ Atlanta (4-12), 21-20

I SAW a Panthers receiver named Marvin McNutt.  That’s my favourite NFL name since Michael Bumpus ran patterns while going Bumpus in the night for the Seahawks.

I SAW PROPS to TE Tony Gonzalez, who retires as the best tight end the world has ever seen.

I’m sure I’ll say more about Gonzo’s career in the days to come.  For now, I want to point out something he said to The MMQB’s Peter King after playing his last game:

For me, I’m really tired of living and dying with the game. Every game. I’ve tried to turn it off. I’m still trying. I can’t. It sucks. Believe me, it sucks.

This immediately reminded me of part of Jerry Rice’s Hall Of Fame acceptance speech:

There were no shortcuts. The concrete had to be laid a certain way. The bricks had to be stacked because any slowdown was money lost. It was a lot of pressure. I didn’t want to let my father down. I was afraid to fail.  I’m here to tell you that the fear of failure is the engine that has driven me throughout my entire life. It flies in the faces of all these sports psychologists who say you have to let go of your fears to be successful and that negative thoughts will diminish performance. But not wanting to disappoint my parents, and later my coaches, teammates and fans, is what pushed me to be successful.

By no means am I saying anyone should feel sorry for rich Hall Of Fame athletes (Gonzo will be there, first ballot) who earned their keep playing a game.  But don’t forget some of the psychological torment some athletes put themselves through in order to “get by.”

Seattle (13-3) wins vs. St. Louis (7-9), 27-9

I SAW a very scrappy game.

Jesus, these teams shouldn’t play each other for a while, let alone at least twice per season.  Honestly, they should just go cool off for a bit.  Maybe the chippiest, grimiest game I’ve seen in a while.  (Grimy: Dirty, but not penalty-dirty.)

This development doesn’t surprise me at all.  The explanation is simple: Pete Carroll (Seattle) and Jeff Fisher (St. Louis) are two of the most respectable head coaches in the NFL – and I’m a fan of both – but they also cultivate the grimiest mindset in their players.  You hear more about the Ryan brothers, Jim Harbaugh’s mindset, and especially Jim Schwartz’s crew (a Fisher disciple, by the way), but make to mistake.  Carroll and Fisher are cutthroat, play to the echo of the whistle-type of leaders behind their J. Crew veneers.  It’s all the more obvious when their players face one another, like pushing together two opposite-poled magnets.  And Sunday’s grime-fest even went down without injured Rams CB Cortland Finnegan on the field, the closest thing pro football has to the hockey goon.

New York Giants (7-9) win vs. Washington (3-13), 20-6

I SAW PROPS to Redskins LB London Fletcher, who has said he’s “99 percent” sure he’s retiring.  (And it sounds more decisive than Tony Gonzalez’s similar claim last season before returning for 2013.)

Fletcher is a middle linebacker who stands 5’10”.  Usually that is a recipe for an injured player, or at the least one that will succumb to repeated contact with larger players.  Instead, Fletcher has played in 254 straight games.  Only three other players in league history have played that many games in a row.  He’s also started at linebacker for 213 straight games – an NFL record at the position.  For me, this is the most durable player ever.  While many blockers lost the undersized Fletcher in a crowd, here’s one fan who will miss him dearly.

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, WILD CARD EDITION – HERE AT TFQ.  IN THE MEANTIME, FOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK AND @TFQuarter

3 thoughts on “What I Saw, Week 17 – 2013

  1. I enjoyed reading this but for two things – missing letters in the “I SAW the Dallas Cowboys can’t play defense” statement. Disruptive as I tried to figure out if it was intentional as the rest of the writing didn’t contain missing letters. And the season opener with Carolina did not take place in the Rainy City but in the sweltering South. Go Hawks!

  2. Pingback: What I Saw, Wild Card Round – 2013 Season | The Fifth Quarter

  3. Pingback: What I Saw, Divisional Round – 2013 Season | The Fifth Quarter

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