Winning in March

Cleveland Browns, NFL, NFL Free Agency

Whether they’re declared the winners of free agency after the first week, the Cleveland Browns and new general manager Andrew Berry staked their claim to yet another off-season champions trophy. Berry attacked three positions of weakness, signing two of the top 15 players available in tight end Austin Hooper (4 years, 42 million) and right tackle Jack Conklin (3 years 42 million). Case Keenum (3 years, 18 million) signed to back up Baker Mayfield, then they acquired fullback Andy Janovich for a 2021 seventh round pick, sent to Denver. The big, early moves were upgrades to the offense, a nod to new head coach/offensive genius Kevin Stefanski and franchise QB Mayfield. Headlines in March are nice, but did the Browns get better?

Let’s start with Hooper. As with most first day free agent signings, this was an overpay. Hooper is now the highest paid tight end in the league. He isn’t George Kittle or Travis Kelce, but he has made two straight Pro Bowls and is a force down the seams in the middle of the field. He’ll drag linebackers with him, allowing Jarvis Landry space on crossing patterns and Odell Beckham one-on-one coverage on the outside. Stefanski was offensive coordinator in Minnesota for just one year and leaned on two tight end sets. 56% of Minnesota’s plays occurred out of multiple tight end formations, 2nd in the league. Given the dearth of quality tight ends in free agency and the draft, along with the inconsistency of David Njoku, signing Hooper was a necessity. Stefanski’s offense depends on the position; they’ll still need growth from Njoku. Hooper gives the offense reliability, but the large contract points to desperation by Berry and Stefanski.

Though Freddie Kitchens garnered most of the blame for last year’s failures, his offensive line shared the fans’ wrath. Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 23rd in the league. They gave up 2.6 sacks per game (15th) and anchored the 12th best rushing attack (118.8 per game). Not outstanding numbers, yet not the abomination some make them out to be. Enter Jack Conklin. Another upgrade, Conklin is a good, not great, right tackle who will, at worst, improve the gap size for Nick Chubb to run through. PFF ranks him as the 12th best running blocking tackle in the league over the past four seasons. His passing grades, however, aren’t stellar. The 37th ranked pass blocking tackle in the league last season, Conklin is average in pass protection. He’ll need help in some one-on-one match-ups, particularly against division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh, another reason for the need to upgrade the tight end position.

Throw in the trade for Janovich, along with the 2nd round tender given to Kareem Hunt, guaranteeing he’ll be with the team next year, and it’s obvious the new Browns regime wants to run the ball. Stefanski has served under run-first dictator Mike Zimmer in Minnesota and had running game guru Gary Kubiak looking over his shoulder in 2019. For those worrying about analytics taking over in Cleveland, this isn’t it. The numbers say the only down and distance where it’s more beneficial to run than pass is 3rd and 1. Playing a fullback and using two tight ends condenses the field, allowing teams to better control Landry and Beckham. Teams that run the ball don’t trust their quarterback (see the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo). What do Berry and Stefanski think of Baker Mayfield?

Which brings us to the Case Keenum signing. The Browns needed a backup quarterback. Keenum’s one successful NFL season occurred in Minnesota in 2017 with Stefanski as his quarterback coach, making this signing inevitable. Keenum knows the offense, and can step in and lead if Mayfield gets injured. What if Baker struggles, however? Imagine a 1-3 start, and Mayfield swimming against the current as he was last year. This coaching staff and front office didn’t draft Baker Mayfield. He has two years left on his rookie deal; teams normally try to do extensions one year before contracts expire. If Baker doesn’t pop this season, think Andrew Berry wants to hand out a 35-40 million dollar contract to an average quarterback next off-season?

On defense, the Browns filled holes with linebacker B.J. Goodson, safety Karl Joseph, and defensive tackle Andrew Billings. Joseph is a former 1st round pick who has battled injuries. The weakness at the position in Cleveland’s secondary all but guarantees him a starting spot; he, Sheldrick Redwine, and J.T. Hassell are the only safeties on the roster. Billings adds depth behind Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi, while Goodson will compete for time with last year’s rookies Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki.

The defensive signings are underwhelming. Expecting anything other than replacement-level production is foolhardy. The loss of Joe Schobert, last year’s QB on defense, hurts, but the contract he signed in Jacksonville (5 years, 53.75 million) was exorbitant. The front four remains strong; behind them, however, there are questions. Denzel Ward struggled overall and with injuries after a Pro Bowl rookie year. Greedy Williams was just okay. The holes at safety are glaring. Mack Wilson showed promise, but no other linebackers on the roster affected games in 2019. The front office must go heavy on defense during next month’s draft. Cleveland’s brass may want to pound the running game, but that strategy works only with a top 5-10 defense. Unless the defensive line is as dominate as San Francisco’s last year, this approach won’t work.

The Whip Around

1.The Tom Brady signing in Tampa is a shock. the offensive weapons are plentiful at receiver and tight end, and Tampa’s offensive line ranked 7th a year ago, according to PFF. Shaq Barrett led the league with 19.5 sacks. There’s talent on Florida’s west coast, but is a 43-year-old Brady the answer? Jameis Winston stockpiled yards, touchdowns, and interceptions last season; its doubtful Brady will throw for anywhere near the 5109 yards, or the 30 picks, Winston tossed. Bruce Arians’ belief must be that fewer turnovers will equal more wins. Only two teams gave up more points than the Bucs last year, however. Tampa will make for an interesting watch, and we’ll get a heavy dose of them in prime time. I’ll bet the Patriots and Belichick win more games, though.

2. With Brady’s departure from New England, Buffalo sees an opportunity. Josh Allen progressed last year, minus the mess he made in their playoff loss to Houston. Devin Singletary averaged 5.1 yards a carry as a rookie, John Brown and Cole Beasley combined for 139 catches and over 1800 yards, and the defense ranked only behind New England’s in points allowed. Enter Stefon Diggs. Trading away a 1st, 5th, 6th, and 2021 4th for Diggs was the ultimate win-now move for a franchise sharing a division with the Brady-less Patriots, the going nowhere Jets, and the rebuilding Dolphins. Diggs is a home run hitter and Allen’s arm, though inaccurate, is strong enough to sling it to him deep. The Chiefs and Ravens make a Super Bowl run unlikely, but a home playoff game in snowy Buffalo isn’t out of the question.

3. What is Bill O’Brien doing in Houston? If DeAndre Hopkins isn’t the best wideout in the league, he’s in the top three. A second rounder and David Johnson for Hopkins? Look what Buffalo gave for Diggs, above. This is unconscionable. No one should be coaching and general managing an NFL franchise; O’Brien is proving that point in real time. With J. J. Watt suffering injuries yearly, Deshaun Watson must watch while Houston’s talent gets pillaged by the rest of the league. Watson is a top five quarterback in the league on a rookie deal. Teams with an asset that large are in Super Bowl or bust mode. O’Brien has wasted Houston’s opportunity to strike before their QB bill comes due. Stripped for parts now, what will the franchise look like after paying $40 million per to Watson?

4. The Rams released Todd Gurley, and Melvin Gordon can’t find a job. It sucks to be an NFL running back these days. Facts are facts, however, and teams don’t have to pay, in the form of top draft picks or high dollar contracts, to get production from the position. In 2017, Gurley and Gordon ranked 2nd and 7th in the league in rushing yards. Two years later, both are unwanted (Gurley signed a 1 year deal with his hometown Falcons on Friday). Passing is king in the NFL. Few teams win by running the ball. Those that do don’t have a workhorse running back (see San Francisco and Baltimore). Nick Chubb, beware. He has two years left on his rookie deal, then will try to negotiate a new contract with an analytics heavy front office that didn’t draft him. It would shock me (SHOCK!) if Andrew Berry gave a running back 12-15 million per year, regardless of Chubb’s production over the next two years.

5. Why are the Bears giving Jimmy Graham 16 million over 2 years? He’ll be 34 next year and has averaged 46 catches and 2.5 touchdowns with Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball over the last two seasons while missing 10 games. Nick Foles too? Bears fans, get ready for a prime slot in the 2021 draft.

6. Chargers fans will join them. After the departure of Philip Rivers to Indianapolis, L.A. has announced they’ll ride with Tyrod Taylor instead of pursuing Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, or any other quarterback on the market. If nothing else, Newton puts asses in the seats of the new SoFi Stadium the Chargers are sharing with the Rams. Stars sell in L.A., right? Nothing like a rebuild for a team in a market already struggling to attract fans. Expect a Keenan Allen trade demand any time.

7. Good for Byron Jones, one of the most consistent corners in the league, for getting his money in Miami. 5 years 82 million, with 40 mil guaranteed over the first two years. No one will complain about living in Miami with that much cash, but don’t expect much action in January.

8. The Ravens signed Michael Brockers to a 3 year, 30 million dollar deal after trading a fifth round pick for Pro Bowler Calais Campbell. The hell? This time a year ago, Baltimore looked vulnerable. They had contemplated firing John Harbaugh and a second year running quarterback was being handed the reins. Now, they’re coming off a 14-2 season, have the league MVP, and just rebuilt their defensive line into one of the best in the league. The rest of the AFC North teams are playing for one of the three wild card spots.

 

Super Bowl LIV and a New NFL Dynasty

NFL, NFL Playoffs, Super Bowl LIV

The 2019 season produced the ideal Super Bowl match-up. Sure, a Ravens-49ers clash would have been a backyard brawl, while Chiefs-Saints may have set the scoreboard on fire. This one presents a strength on strength battle, however, the best offense in the league versus it’s best defense. The NFL’s premiere quarterback against an overbearing four man pass rush. The Niner offense vs. K.C.’s defense may decide the game, but the fireworks and drama will occur when Patrick Mahomes has the ball.

Andy Reid uses the running game to give Mahomes plays off, to rest before his next trick. It’s a smokescreen. While Damien Williams may break a chunk play off once a half, these yards are a product of the passing game. Patrick Mahomes is the best quarterback in the league, and it isn’t close. He possesses the size, arm strength, accuracy, intelligence, savvy, escapability, and audacity one looks for in a franchise quarterback. He has no flaws. Consider his stable of weapons: Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman, and Demarcus Robinson give him the most dangerous threats in the league. All his receivers can and will beat one-on-one coverage deep. Kelce dominates the middle of the field. The quickness of the wideouts allow them to amass gobs of yardage off screens and slants. No lead is safe against them. Down 24-0 in the Divisional Round against Houston in the second quarter, K.C. went on a 51-7 run. With the rules as they are, no defense can slow them down.

The only way to bother a generational quarterback is to pressure him with four rushers and hit him often. San Francisco has the talent to annoy Mahomes. Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, and Solomon Thomas combined for 35 sacks and 69 quarterback hits on the season. Impressive, and a necessity on Sunday. The 49er secondary will try to cover long enough to allow the pressure to get to Mahomes, and while Richard Sherman is one of the best, speed bothers him. Man coverage won’t work against the Chiefs; relying on defensive backs to cover those speedsters one-on-one for 3-4 seconds per play is ludicrous. San Fran will have to drop 7 in coverage, remain disciplined in their assignments, and hope the pass rush gets to Mahomes.

This is the tricky part. While K.C.’s offensive line is average on their best day, Mahomes moves as well in the pocket as anyone this side of Lamar Jackson. While long runs like his touchdown scamper against Tennessee in the AFC Championship aren’t the norm, Mahomes possesses strong footwork in the pocket, able to shift his body to open passing windows. His ingenuity outside the pocket- sidearm throws, no-look passes- add another dimension teams cannot prepare for. Mahomes is a match-up nightmare. He is the quintessential franchise quarterback. The mistakes he can cover for are infinite.

While the fascination lies with the Chief offense battling the 49er defense, the inverse conflict is predictable. San Francisco will run the ball at the K.C. defense early, often, and at all costs. While he’s been steady all season, Jimmy Garoppolo has a tendency to turn it over, and Kyle Shanahan cannot afford to trust his quarterback on a stage of this magnitude. He only allowed Garoppolo to throw 19 times against Minnesota in the Divisional Round, 8 versus Green Bay in the NFC Championship. No secrets here.

The 49ers have run the ball down opponents’ throats all season, ranking 2nd in rushes and yards per game. Tevin Coleman is questionable, but Ryan Mostert and Matt Breida have been exceptional this year. Their speed, matched with Shanahan’s wide zone blocking scheme, allow the Niner offense to control the line of scrimmage. Kansas City’s defense is poor against the run (26th in yards, 29th yards per rush). San Francisco must run the ball to control clock. Run on 1st and 2nd down to keep 3rd down manageable, then find George Kittle with easy passes when necessary to throw. Asking your defense to carry the weight of shutting down K.C.’s offense is too large a burden to bear. The 49er offense must do their part.

The push and pull on Sunday will be fascinating. Can the dominate 49er defense have any success in slowing down the unstoppable Kansas City attack? Patrick Mahomes has never had a subpar game; can San Fran force him into one? Will the S.F. running attack dominate K.C.’s defense to the point Mahomes can’t get off the sideline?

Both offenses will find success in what they do well. The Kansas City defense isn’t good enough to slow down the 49er rushing attack. Will they have too much success running the ball? San Francisco’s biggest worry may be too many chunk runs, scoring too quickly in defiance of their eat-the-clock strategy. K.C.’s run defense is so soft, it isn’t hard to imagine a scenario whereby the 49er running attack works too well, putting the ball back in Mahomes’ hands with little rest for their defense.

Which won’t end well for the 49ers. While they may get pressure, the K.C. quarterback is too good to allow it to bother him consistently. Patrick Mahomes has diagnosed and taken advantage of everything NFL defenses have schemed to stop him. His talents are many, his weapons too dangerous to cover for 60 minutes. The Chiefs will score points; can the 49ers keep up? Kyle Shanahan has counted on his defense to keep pressure off his quarterback, but he’ll need Jimmy G to make multiple plays on Sunday. This is when mistakes happen. The stress of trying to score with the Chiefs will prove too much to handle.

Patrick Mahomes has been the best player in football the last two years, and Andy Reid one of the league’s greatest coaches. With the New England reign likely ending, a new one begins in Kansas City. Though early in his career, Mahomes has shown the abilities to be one of the greatest to play the position. A Chiefs win on Sunday portends a new NFL dynasty.

Kansas City, 31-28

 

Conference Championships

Conference Championship, NFL, NFL Playoffs

Tennessee @ Kansas City

Hard to say which of these squads’ victories was more impressive last weekend, but for very different reasons. The Titans dominated the presumptive MVP and the best team in the league by beating the Ravens up in the trenches, grabbing the lead, and forcing Lamar Jackson to beat them with throws outside the hash marks. The Chiefs spotted Houston 24 points with shoddy, careless play before going scorched earth, outscoring a shook Texans team 51-7 over the last 40 minutes of the game. While both defenses are adequate, neither is special. The AFC title game matches the best passer versus the best runner in the league. For one day at least, they’ll settle the argument: pass or run?

These teams met Week 10 in Tennessee, a Titan 35-32 victory. Neither defense had much success; Mahomes threw for 446 yards and 3 TDs in his return from injury, while Derrick Henry rushed for 188 and 2 touchdowns. Expect more of the same this weekend. The Titans will fight to hold unto the ball, running Henry into the ground to keep the Kansas City buzz saw on the sideline. Their plan should work. The Chief defense gives up 4.8 yards per rush, 28th in the league. They must score as they did in Week 10, however. Patrick Mahomes and his assortment of weapons is too good; the best defenses struggle to keep up. Tennessee’s D struggles to defend the pass (21st completion percentage, 15th yards per attempt, 15th QB passer rating). Average defenses do not slow down Mahomes, and the Chiefs offense will work on their home turf. Add the confidence boost this crew received from their jaw-dropping performance last Sunday, and it’s likely this gets out of hand.

Mahomes to Kelce is unguardable, especially in the Red Zone

The Titans have to hope for more loose play with the football from Kansas City. Turnovers could swing things their direction, and they’re more equipped to sit on a lead than Houston. Make no mistake. Henry must be otherworldly. He’s gained at least 180 on the ground in 3 straight, an NFL record. He’ll need at least that much again for the Titans to score and drain clock. Arthur Smith, Tennessee’s offensive coordinator, needs to dust off the back pages of his play book as well. The Henry touchdown pass last week was a perfect example of the creativity needed to pull off another upset. Realizing Baltimore’s D keyed on stopping the brutish running back, they executed the jump pass to a wide open Corey Davis to perfection. The Titans will have to take chances; going for it on 4th downs, 2 point conversions, and blitzes. If they send multiple rushers at Mahomes, it will most likely lead to Tyreek Hill torching defenders deep. It’s a chance they must take, however. The Titans don’t get to the quarterback, and Mahomes had the fifth lowest sack rate in the league. Mahomes with time will pick you apart. Any better ideas?

Exquisite call and execution

The Titans must throw when the Chiefs stack the box, and Ryan Tannehill has proved capable of beating teams with his arm. His deep ball to Kalif Raymond in the 2nd quarter last week was a beauty and punctuated his team’s belief they could spring an upset. He must hit more than one, however, and 88 yards, his total last week, won’t do. The plan must be to run at the K.C. defense, but the Titans will have to throw more than last week to stay attached. A good strategy for the Tennessee offense will be to throw often on their first drive, heavy on play action. They don’t want forced into passing every down. While Tannehill was efficient all year (his 9.6 yards per attempt and 117.5 passer rating led the league), the Titans have to throw when the Chiefs aren’t expecting it. The Titan offensive line allowed sacks on 10.94% of drop backs, 32nd in the league. The Chiefs defense sacked the opposition at a 7.18% rate, 11th in the NFL. If the Chiefs D knows Tannehill is throwing, he will end up on his back.

The Titans upset last week shines hope that this could be close, but the Ravens are a different team. Baltimore dominated by overpowering teams early, building a lead, and forcing them into mistakes. They lack the ability to come back from large deficits; for all of Lamar Jackson’s exceptional talents, picking defenses apart with his arm isn’t one of them. His strength in the passing game was determinant on defense’s fear of his legs. Take that away and he becomes manageable. Pat Mahomes has no such weakness. He can move if he has to, but will slice opponents with his arm. Derrick Henry is a force and will make plays, maybe even keep it close for a time. The Patrick Mahomes Era is upon us, however, and the Chiefs reign in the AFC begins on Sunday.

Kansas City, 38-24

Green Bay-San Francisco

Another rematch from the regular season, this one a 37-8 49er beat down. Did Green Bay learn anything from the Week 12 throttling that could change this outcome?

The Niners sacked Aaron Rodgers 5 times in the earlier meeting and he threw for only 104 yards. This cannot happen again. Rodgers is one of the ten best quarterbacks of all time, and, while his numbers were just good last week (243 yards, 2 touchdowns), he must be great against this San Francisco defense. The Niners have been weak against the run (4.5 per carry, 23rd in the league) and Aaron Jones will need a big game to slow the S.F. pass rush. This comes down to Rodgers, however. To cement his legacy, he must show big against an oppressive defense.

This drop in the bucket sealed the win last week. Can Rodgers do this consistently on Sunday?

The problem for the Packer offense is the lack of holes in the 49er defense. Every level is exceptional. Davante Adams is one of the best receivers in the game, but the rest of their wideouts are average. Richard Sherman will take away the left side of the field against whoever Green Bay sends over there. Assuming they’ll try to keep Adams away from Sherman, it forces Rodgers into looks on one side of the field, making it tough to move the ball through the air. He’ll need to find Jimmy Graham and Aaron Jones over the middle in the passing game.

This assumes Rodgers will have time to throw. The San Fran defensive front is unstoppable. They can pressure any team in the league with four rushers, allowing their corners, safeties, and linebackers to blanket the secondary. Along with the five sacks in Week 12, they hit Rodgers 10 other times, and he lost a fumble. He won’t have time to throw deep. Aaron Jones must have a monster game both rushing and receiving for the Packers to score. Rodgers must be at his best as well. He needs to read the defense quickly and get rid of the football swiftly on dump offs and quick timing routes. Sustained drives picking at S.F. for 4-6 yards a pop may be the only avenue available to the QB.

This 4 man pass rush is overwhelming

The Green Bay offense has been run-of-the-mill all season. They sit in the middle of the pack by all metrics and rank in the bottom 25% in 3rd down conversions (just 36% on the season). A team that does nothing well against the best defense in the league has a narrow path to score points.

For the Pack to pull the upset, they must turn Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49er offense over. The unit averaged 1.4 turnovers per game. Jimmy G accounted for 18 of those. Kyle Shanahan will do everything in his power to make his quarterback a non-factor on Sunday. The Packers defense is only average, but can get after the passer with Za’Darius and Preston Smith. Shanahan won’t take many chances. With a second half lead against the Vikings last week, he called only five passes. Expect more of the same this week. Shanahan knows he can trust his defense and running game. He’ll lean on Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, and Ryan Mostert to wear down Green Bay’s front. If Garoppolo’s throwing, either Rodgers is scorching or Shanahan has lost his mind.

It’s difficult to envision a path to a Green Bay victory. If the game was in Lambeau, possibly the Pack could awaken some ghosts, get an early turnover, and keep the crowd and pressure on Jimmy G. The Niner defense is too good, however, and Rodgers has been pedestrian all season. Rodgers threw two dimes on third downs last week on Green Bay’s final drive to seal a victory. If San Francisco’s running game controls the clock like I expect, he won’t get that chance in Santa Clara.

San Francisco, 23-7

 

NFL Divisional Round

Divisional Round, NFL, NFL Playoffs

Who wins this weekend, and how do they get it done? As always, the pressure falls on the quarterbacks.

Minnesota @ San Francisco

Kirk Cousins won the biggest game of his life last Sunday, throwing two beautiful passes during the game winning drive. His 43 yarder, dropped in a bucket to Adam Thielen, and the touchdown fade to Kyle Rudolph showed the talent all knew Cousins possessed. Don’t slough at those who questioned whether he could win a big game, however. Cousins’ record against winning teams before Sunday was 6-30; his record on Monday Night is 0-9. The win in New Orleans was big and Cousins played brilliantly. The questions were legit, however.

Which quarterback do you trust? The forecast calls for 15-25 MPH winds, so two teams who want to run the ball will be more inclined to do so. Both teams rank in the top five in rushing yards per game, and both defenses are middling at stopping the run. Getting the lead will be paramount. Neither coach wants the game in their QB’s hands. This is especially true of Mike Zimmer and the Vikings. San Fran’s defense is the best in the league against the pass and third in the NFL in sack percentage. If they can force him to throw, don’t look for Cousins to repeat the successes of last week. Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams can lock up Adam Thielen and Stephon Diggs long enough to allow the 49ers’ front four of Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner to put Cousins on his back. Dalvin Cook has to break multiple long runs for Minnesota to score.

Pay attention when either team gets into the red zone. Minnesota has an advantage on both sides of the ball deep in scoring territory. The Vikings score touchdowns on 62% of their red zone drives (10th in the league) and allow touchdowns on only 44% of their opponents’ red zone opportunities (2nd). San Francisco, meanwhile, is 21st offensively (53%) and 23rd defensively (60%) inside the 20s. If Minnesota pulls the upset, it’ll stem from their offense’s ability to score touchdowns while the D holds the 49ers to field goals.

How will Jimmy Garoppolo react to the playoff stage? He prepared as a backup in New England, but the step up will test his nerve. Garoppolo was awful in the Niners first loss of the season in overtime against Seattle, but made big throws late in victories in New Orleans and against the Rams. Jimmy G’s 13 picks on the season will be on Kyle Shanahan’s mind, though. The Vikings intercepted 17 passes on the season. If San Francisco has to throw, Danielle Hunter will force Garoppolo to throw quicker than he’s comfortable with.

San Francisco’s defense has been outstanding all year; their front four is the best in football. They’ll pressure Kirk Cousins into mistakes while their running back trio of Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert, and Matt Breida wear out Minny’s defense.

San Francisco, 23-14

Tennessee @ Baltimore

Any doubt attached to this Ravens bunch disappeared long ago, but Tennessee must be John Harbaugh’s worst nightmare. The Titans revel in the physical style Baltimore wants to play. Tennessee will pound Derrick Henry and attempt to hit A.J. Brown deep after the defense has fallen asleep. Ryan Tannehill doesn’t turn it over, only throwing 6 picks on the season. These teams mimic the other’s style, but only one has Lamar Jackson.

Both teams want to run. Who can stop the other? The Ravens struggle to defend the run, giving up 4.4 yards per rush, 21st in the league, while the Titans fare better, allowing 4.1 (7th). Lamar Jackson is a different animal, however. The Ravens pounce on teams early while defenses are adjusting to his speed. A few designed runs gash opponents, causing them to inch toward the line of scrimmage. Jackson then throws it over their heads. Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards are coming for you too. Tennessee must stop them first.

Discipline from the Titans is paramount. Though it can lead to other problems, they must spy Jackson with Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown and Kenny Vaccaro. Mix it up; give Lamar different looks; just don’t leave him unattended. Corners Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson, along with safety Kevin Byard, must shut down Baltimore’s tight ends and wide receivers in one-on-one man match-ups to have any chance. All others on defense must focus on stopping the lethal run game.

Tennessee has to take advantage of Baltimore’s so-so run defense. Pound Derrick Henry. Mix in Dion Lewis’ speed for a change of pace. They’ll need at least one deep ball connection between Tannehill and A.J. Brown to put the Ravens on their heels. Baltimore has been stingy against the pass, allowing opposing QBs to complete only 58% of their passes and just 6 yards per attempt (6th lowest). Tannehill has had success taking the top off defenses, but Henry will need to cook to unlock this option for his offense.

Baltimore has been a juggernaut since losing to the Browns in Week 4. Lamar Jackson is the unquestioned league MVP. They have the highest scoring offense and 3rd stingiest defense in the NFL and are playing at home in front of one of the best crowds in football. Tennessee gained an enormous boost going to New England and knocking off the champs last week, however. The Titans aren’t afraid to take a punch and will dish out a few themselves. This one feels closer than expected.

Baltimore, 19-15

Houston @ Kansas City

This one looks ugly for Houston. Ten point dogs, the Texans struggled at home to beat a Buffalo team not ready for the playoffs. The Bills led until 4:37 left in the 4th quarter, and, though he tried, Josh Allen couldn’t get the Houston defense to take the ball from him. The Texans dropped 4-5 would be interceptions and couldn’t recover an insane lateral by Allen on Buffalo’s final drive that sent the game into overtime. Coaching blunders and clock mismanagement littered a poorly played game by each side. Now Houston must travel to Arrowhead to face a Chiefs team more prepared than ever to reach the Super Bowl.

Patrick Mahomes fought injury most of the season, missing 2 games and a half of another with a dislocated kneecap. While his yards and touchdown passes were down from a year ago, so were his interceptions, cut from 12 to 5. Mahomes’ injury and Lamar Jackson’s ascendance to an MVP level has allowed the Chiefs an unassuming entrance into the playoffs. Baltimore is bludgeoning people in the manner K.C. did a year ago. Will the relative quiet surrounding the Chiefs work to their benefit?

Even without Mahomes for 1/8 of the season, K.C.’s offense purred. Houston’s defense is ill-equipped to handle the myriad of weapons at Mahomes’ disposal. Tyreek Hill, who missed four games himself, and Travis Kelce are two of the best at their positions in the league. Add rookie Mecole Hardman and the fleet Demarcus Robinson to Mahomes’ arsenal and the Texans’ 29th rated pass defense is in trouble.

J. J. Watt played 50 of 81 snaps last week, an absurdity considering the team ruled him out for the season in October with a torn pectoral muscle. A behemoth, Watt must wreck the K.C. offense for the Texans to remain close. A possibility if healthy, the task seems insurmountable now. The Texans rank in the bottom half of the league in every imaginable defensive stat. They’re last in the league in giving up touchdowns in the red zone. They give up 6 yards per play, 30th in the league. Teams convert 3rd downs at a rate of 48% against them, and they allow 7.1 yards per pass, 24th worst in the league. Unless the Chiefs turn it over multiple times, Houston’s defense will get steamrolled.

While K.C.’s defense improved over last year, offenses can still get them in the run game. Chris Jones and Frank Clark are dynamic rushing the passer from the edges, and will force Deshaun Watson out of the pocket against the Texans’ weak offensive line. The Chiefs allow the 4th worst completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks and hold them to the 5th worst passer rating in the league. K.C. gave up 128 yards per game on the ground, however, and the Texans must attack here if they hope to stay close. They must lean on Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde to grind yards and clock. Designed QB runs with Watson could help slow the pass rush.

Houston’s margins are thin. Watson is fantastic, however, and can sway games on his own. The Texans have to push the envelope, going for touchdowns instead of field goals and taking chances on 4th down. Baltimore tried this strategy in week 3 before they began eviscerating the league. The Ravens ran the ball 32 times, were 3-4 on fourth down conversions, and went for 2 on 3 different occasions, including the first touchdown of the game. The Texans must use the same strategy. This won’t be another low scoring playoff game; the Chiefs offense is too good and the Houston defense is poor. This will take a massive effort from Deshaun Watson and Bill O’Brien. Watson may have a huge game. O’Brien out coaching Andy Reid is less likely.

Kansas City, 30-17

Seattle @ Green Bay

The toughest game of the week to call and a battle of two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Green Bay finished 13-3, but what do they do well? Aaron Jones established himself as a weapon both running and receiving while Aaron Rodgers became more of a game manager in 2019. Seattle wants to run the ball, but their strength offensively is in the passing game. Seattle’s defense is poor in every category, but they force turnovers. Ditto for Green Bay, but the Smith’s, Preston and Za’Darius, haunt opposing quarterbacks. This one may turn into a shootout.

The Seahawk defense is bad at everything. 22nd against the run, 26th against the pass; they don’t sack the quarterback and they give up touchdowns in the red zone. They were fourth in the league in takeaways, but don’t expect Aaron Rodgers to throw picks at Lambeau. Rodgers had only 4 interceptions on the year and hasn’t thrown one at home since week 6. He hasn’t torched defenses like in years’ past, but he also hasn’t had to.

Rodgers put up good numbers by other quarterbacks’ standards, but below average according to his. 4002 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 62% completions are all well under his career averages. Davante Adams failed to reach 1000 yards, and tight end Jimmy Graham again disappointed. Aaron Jones surged, however, the only member of the Green Bay offense to exceed expectations. If the Pack win on Sunday, Jones will have shredded Seattle’s porous run defense.

Green Bay’s defense doesn’t stop the run either, but can defend the opponent’s passing attack because of the Smiths. A combined 25.5 sacks have made opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket. Russell Wilson can move, however, and the Packers have faced immobile signal callers all year. Wilson will slow the Packer pass rush on his own and pick up a few first downs with his legs. The likely second-place finisher in the MVP vote, it has taken an otherworldly season from Lamar Jackson to deny Russ the award.

Can Seattle’s offensive line give Wilson time? Injuries have ravaged the unit. Left tackle Duane Brown and guard Mike Iupati both missed Sunday’s game against the Eagles but practiced some on Thursday. They’ll help stabilize things in front of Wilson. Will the Seahawks force the issue in the running game? Marshawn Lynch has been dynamite in short yardage situations in his return to Seattle, and rookie Travis Homer and flashed on a couple of chunk runs against San Francisco the last week of the season, but only gained 12 yards on 11 carries against Philly. Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have made it no secret they prefer to run the ball. Russell Wilson represents their path to victory, however.

The last game of the weekend is a tossup. This one may come down to the QB who has the ball last.

Seattle, 31-30

 

Changes that will make the Cleveland Browns a Contender in 2020

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL

2019 was a typical season in Cleveland. The talent and hope acquired over the off-season was over-hyped and misplaced. The despair of 1 win over two seasons caused an abundance of optimism; fans expect the misery compiled over two decades to one day pay dividends. What if it never does?

The talent is still in place for a rebound in 2020. The attitudes and discipline must change, however. In a division alongside exemplary franchises in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, they cannot cut corners. Certain things need fixed if the Browns are to compete in the AFC North.

Baker Mayfield must become a leader. Quarterbacks in the NFL have no other choice. The position is too important; his teammates will follow his lead in whatever direction he goes. No more calling out teammates in the media, as he did with Duke Johnson last spring. If there’s a problem with the training staff, keep that in house. His intentions were to take heat off Odell Beckham when he attacked the team’s medical personnel; it’s still a bad look. Mayfield needs to mature. That’s fine, he’s only 24. But if he is to improve in 2020, it’ll start with his attitude.

Damarious Randall is a free agent, and he needs to go. Most thought the trade that brought him to Cleveland was a steal; a talented defensive back for a sub par backup quarterback, DeShone Kizer. Good organizations don’t let talent walk without reason, however. Green Bay knew what they had in Randall and gave him away. Freddie Kitchens suspended Randall for unknown reasons before the biggest game of the year in Pittsburgh. He was the most disinterested member of the team on Sunday against Baltimore, blowing coverages and allowing 3 of the Ravens’ touchdowns. Randall has an attitude problem, and the Browns are no longer in a situation to overlook discipline in favor of talent.

Randall is #23. This is nonsense

On that note, John Dorsey has to consider character in the draft. No more Antonio Callaway’s or Josh Gordon’s. The organization can’t afford to take fliers on guys in hopes they’ll rehabilitate themselves in the NFL. The franchise doesn’t provide an environment for struggling players to get better. Everyone deserves a second chance to prove themselves. Cleveland can no longer be that place. Take a lesson from Bill Belichick and draft intelligence over talent.

Sign Kareem Hunt. On the surface, this flies in the face of my last point. From the outside, however, it seems Hunt has made an earnest attempt to rehabilitate himself. A restricted free agent, the Browns can match any contract he’s offered or will receive draft pick compensation for him. The offense was at its best this year once Hunt returned from suspension. A Nick Chubb-Kareem Hunt backfield gave Kitchens a plethora of options and different looks to throw at defenses. Throw in Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry and the offense’s ceiling remains high. If a coaching change is inevitable, give the next guy a chance with these weapons.

Other than quarterback, the ability to pressure the opposing offense without blitzing is the most valuable attribute on the field. On November 15, the day after the 1st Pittsburgh game, the Browns were 6th in the league in pressure rate at 8.33%, according to teamrankings.com. Today they’re 14th at 7.09%. When all were healthy and not suspended, the Browns’ defensive line was one of the best in the league at pressuring the quarterback. Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon, Larry Ogunjobi, and Sheldon Richardson are the most talented group on the team. Don’t get cute by trying to trade out of a strength. If the defense succeeds in 2020, it will be because of the defensive front.

Draft offensive linemen. Dorsey has forsaken the line for other positions in his previous drafts, for good reason. O-line is best filled with late picks and free agents. Wyatt Teller has played well at guard since being inserted in the lineup, and they acquired him with a 6th round pick a week before the season. The skill positions have talent now; the front office can address other needs. Dorsey should try to get younger and more athletic at the tackle position through the draft. Safety, linebacker, and tight end are also holes on the roster. Expect a less sexy draft this year.

A complete organizational makeover must occur. It’s time for the power mongers in Cleveland to get serious about winning. Success is a mindset, built every day. The disappoints of 2019 can act as a wake up call if the Cleveland Browns treat them as such. The entire franchise needs audited. John Dorsey must flush selfish attitudes. If they ever expect to win, a sobering look in the mirror must occur. The knee-jerk reactions, preseason chest pumping, and smug approach to team and roster building can no longer continue. The Haslams must study accomplished organizations in all walks of life and change their philosophy and approach to running an NFL franchise. Sadly, this is the hardest change to make. If it does not occur, however, the Cleveland Browns will continue to be an underachieving failure.

The Whip Around

1.Many teams failed in 2019, but the L.A. Rams are at the top of the list. Sean McVay is no longer a delicate genius; Jared Goff now just an average quarterback. The Rams move into a new stadium next year and their owners were hoping a dynasty would reside in the new digs. What are the Rams now? The team of the future a year ago, things look murky now. Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks will account for 108.7 million of the salary cap next year, and the NFL projects the cap to be in the 200 million dollar range. Over half on five players. They traded their 2020 and 2021 first round picks for Jalen Ramsey. Gurley may or may not have arthritis in his knee, but something is wrong, and he’s only 25. Cooks dealt with concussions the entire year. Goff took a severe step backward. His cap hit is 36 million of that total. What a difference a year makes.

2. The Texans, week to week, are an enigma. They’ve beaten the Patriots and Titans in Nashville but lost to Denver and scraped by Tampa in the last four weeks. Their record is 10-5, yet they’ve only scored 14 more points than they’ve given up on the year. The loss of J. J. Watt was a killer to an already average defense and Deshaun Watson has cooled off. He’s only thrown 8 touchdown passes compared to 7 picks with a completion percentage of 62% over the past six weeks. Watson has to carry the Texans if they are to win in the playoffs. A first round loss to Buffalo is a possibility.

3. One of the best stories of 2019 has been Ryan Tannehill. His instincts on this touchdown pass to Tajae Sharpe are beautiful.

4. Alvin Kamara scored two rushing touchdowns in Tennessee on Sunday, his first scores since week 3. While he missed four weeks because of injury, it’s amazing he went that long without a touchdown, yet the Saints barely missed a beat. Drew Brees and Michael Thomas kept the New Orleans offense afloat, but they must lean on Kamara in the playoffs if they hope to advance. Brees will need at least the threat of him in the backfield to keep good defenses like San Francisco and Green Bay off balance. If healthy, he’s the most dangerous weapon in the league this side of Tyreek Hill. He’s key to their Super Bowl hopes.

5. What did we learn about Daniel Jones this year? The numbers are good: 62% completions, 2726 yards, 23 TDs, 11 picks. Three games buoyed his TD-Int ratio. Against Detroit, the Jets, and Washington he threw 13 TDs and no picks; otherwise he’s been average. Jones showed athletic ability, running for 253 yards and the game winner in his first start against Tampa. Not the bust many expected, the Giants need more weapons on the outside for him and Saquon Barkley to flourish. New York will be an interesting team in a poor division in 2020. If Jones and the defense improve, they have a shot in the NFC East.

6. The Steelers’ lack of talent showed itself on Sunday in a horrible loss to the Jets. With their playoff fate in their own hands, Mike Tomlin benched Devlin Hodges after throwing 2 picks. Mason Rudolph avoided the turnovers that earned him a seat next to the head coach earlier in the season, but could only generate 10 points. Pittsburgh is coaching rich but talent poor. The surprise is that they’re anywhere near the playoff race. Still, this was a bad loss against a weird Jets team. Will Ben Roethlisberger fair any better when he returns next year?

7. I’ve questioned Jimmy Garoppolo’s poise and playoff readiness all year. If he makes throws like this while pressured in January, the Niners will be in Miami come February.

8. Bad teams do dumb stuff. The Rams, Cowboys, and Browns all had horrible blown coverages in their games over the weekend that led to losses for all three. In week 16, one would be inexcusable, but three? There’s an attention to detail needed at the highest levels of everything; these teams and players are lazy in their preparation and execution. Talent is important, but having players who know where to be when 10 other guys are counting on them is essential.

9. Has any player single-handedly disrupted an offense the way Za’Darius Smith did to Minnesota’s on Monday night? 3.5 sacks. 5 tackles for loss. 5 quarterback hits. He’s making a late push for Defensive Player of the Year and giving the Pack an identity beyond Aaron Rodgers. He and line mate Preston Smith have combined for 25.5 sacks on the year and give Green Bay’s defense a chance against the high-powered offenses in New Orleans and San Francisco. They must be at their best for the Packers to compete in the playoffs.

10. San Francisco-Seattle
The only interesting game on a poor week 17 schedule, Seattle needs a good showing after 3 weeks’ worth of blah performances. Forced to sign off-the-street running backs Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin after a slew of injuries, its past time for Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to hand the reins to Russell Wilson. If the Seahawks win in the playoffs, it will be because of their quarterback. The conservative game plans must go; Seattle’s defense isn’t good enough to support 3rd down runs and punts on the opponent’s side of the field. Let Russ cook. See how far he can take you.

The 49ers need this one to lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. A Sunday nighter in Seattle should toughen this young team, but are they ready to win on the road in the playoffs? For San Francisco to have any shot at the Super Bowl, they need this one to keep them out of Green Bay or New Orleans in January.

 

It’s Time to Talk About Baker Mayfield

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL

The Cleveland Browns have started thirty different quarterbacks since 1999. None have been good. A few were adequate. Most didn’t deserve the punishment on their bodies and careers the snaps in Cleveland inflicted. As far as on-field problems, none have contributed more to the pitiful record posted by the franchise over the last two decades than poor QB play. Baker Mayfield would change that. He set a rookie record by throwing 27 touchdown passes in 2018. He looked poised in the pocket, strong armed and accurate. Mayfield’s performance rejuvenated Breshad Perriman’s career and, overnight, improved the play of the offensive line in front of him.

That Mayfield disappeared.

What happened? Were the expectations too much to handle? Have the commercials and magazine covers inflated his ego? Did he stop doing the little things that elevated him from walk-on at Oklahoma to Heisman Trophy winner? Talent doesn’t erode overnight. Something shook Baker Mayfield last off season. Will he recover from the debacle of 2019, or will this season hijack his confidence? Will his become another name written on duct tape, crossed off with a Sharpie, added to the absurdity?

Baker has been uncomfortable in the pocket all season. His offensive line is slightly below average, the 18th ranked pass blocking unit according to pro football focus. Mayfield makes that line worse. When pressured, he gets sacked 20.2% of the time, 5th worst in the league. Last year that number was 16.2%, 9th best in the NFL. Mayfield is panicky in the pocket, not reading defenses, and taking sacks. He’s indecisiveness in the face of pressure causes him to bail on clean pockets as well. His instinct when he feels pressure, real or imagined, is to run to his right. When this occurs, he eliminates the left side of the field as an option. He also has a tendency to throw on the run, not setting his feet before releasing the ball. This causes accuracy problems.

The crux of Mayfield’s problems are the accuracy issues. Time after time, balls sail on him. The interception over Odell Beckham’s head in the end zone on Sunday is an example. Mayfield had time, set his feet, read the play, but missed his receiver.

Baker completed 68.1, 70.9, and 70.5 percent of his passes in three years at Oklahoma. As a rookie, the number was 63.8%, but over his last 8 games ballooned to 68.4%. This year his completion percentage is 60%, 29th in the league. His accuracy and arm strength were two qualities John Dorsey banked on when he drafted Mayfield number one. How did Mayfield lose his touch?

Everyone has doubted Baker Mayfield since high school. Only six feet tall, naysayers told him he couldn’t play college ball, wouldn’t win the Heisman Trophy, didn’t deserve to be the number one pick in the draft, would rot in Cleveland. The success during his rookie year changed that. Mayfield was a blossoming superstar. Companies wanted him to endorse their products. The NFL put him in a commercial celebrating its 100th year with Tom Brady; he was the successor to the throne. He influenced the organization to hire his guy, Freddie Kitchens, as head coach. How many rookie QB’s have ever wielded so much power?

The Browns then traded for Odell Beckham and Olivier Vernon. They signed Sheldon Richardson. Super Bowl predictions poured in from publications across the country, all because of Mayfield’s brilliance. He was the one, the savior. No one doubted Baker Mayfield anymore.

He no longer had to fight. He was next. Mayfield had a seat at the table reserved. It would be easier now.

Until it wasn’t.

Baker hadn’t dealt with success on that scale before. He relaxed. No one was left to prove wrong. Now he had Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. A few speed bumps were possible, but hell. His new hobby would be ring collecting.

The team’s mindset mirrored Mayfield’s. Not a soul in the organization expected it to be difficult. This is the argument for not blowing it up.

From the outside, it’s a disaster. December in Berea has its own feel. Could this season be the punch in the mouth Freddie Kitchens, Baker Mayfield, and Myles Garrett needed?

As bad as Mayfield has been, the organization has to trust it was a blimp on the radar, a necessary obstacle for his development. This franchise has gone over a decade without a winning season or a shred of talent on the roster. The only answer is to blow it up after one season? Fire the first time head coach, again. Trade one of the five best wide receivers in the league who fought injury the entire season. Get rid of the defensive coordinator whose secondary was injury prone and had his best pass rusher suspended for the final six games. This is the best way to fix the franchise?

Baker Mayfield will be the starting quarterback in 2020 regardless of who the coach is or who’s catching his passes. What happens if he struggles next year? Is he guaranteed the job in 2021? Ask the Bears if Mitchell Trubisky gets a fourth season. If Mayfield is the 30th rated passer in the league again next year, he won’t see 2021 in Cleveland. What happens then? That coach gets fired? Nick Chubb gets traded, Myles Garrett too? That’s the best way to build this franchise?

No second chances, no time to learn on the job. No chance to adjust.

That’s how it’s done in New England and Pittsburgh and Baltimore and Green Bay and Seattle, right?

Does this guy sound like he wants out? Give this team a chance to build something.

The Whip Around

1.How about the Falcons? Since the horrific loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl, Atlanta has underachieved. A loss in the Divisional Round to the Eagles after the 2017 season has led to records of 7-9 and 5-9. Opinions differ, but most consider Matt Ryan a top 10 quarterback in the league, and Julio Jones is one of the game’s best. They’ll post a second losing season in two weeks, however. Rumors have had Dan Quinn on the way out since October. Are the Falcons better off firing the coach and trading Ryan and Jones?

2.  Kyler Murray has been inconsistent, as rookies are, yet looks to be a franchise quarterback in Arizona. He is the only QB in the league with over 3000 yards passing and 500 yards rushing. The Cardinals’ organization knows they made the right decision in choosing Murray over Josh Rosen. With Lamar Jackson’s success in Baltimore, Arizona has proof a hybrid quarterback can win in the NFL. Murray displays more arm strength and accuracy than Jackson. Now, will the organization support their young quarterback as well as they do in Baltimore?

3.  I don’t know how defenses prepare for this.

4.  29-30, 307 yards, 4 touchdowns. Drew Brees’ numbers on Monday Night were record setting on multiple fronts. Not only did Brees pass Peyton Manning on the all-time touchdowns thrown list, his 29-30 also topped Philip Rivers’ completion percentage in a single game. Brees now owns the career yardage and touchdown record and has won a Super Bowl, with an outside shot at another this season. Where does he rank all-time? It’s hard to place him above Tom Brady, but he could slot anywhere from 2 to 7 after the GOAT. The era he’s played in has inflated his stats, but how many QBs changed the fortunes of an entire franchise as Brees has in New Orleans? Brady has earned the number 1 slot, but Brees, Peyton Manning, John Elway, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Aaron Rodgers are almost impossible to slot behind him.

5.  Chris Myers and Daryl “Moose” Johnston struggled to call Sunday’s Falcons-49ers game. Before Julio Jones caught a touchdown pass, Myers highlighted the fact that Jones hadn’t caught a pass for a touchdown in 9 games, the longest “in-season” streak of his career. Thankfully, Myers stressed this was an in-season streak, and the weeks he wasn’t catching touchdowns in June didn’t count. Not satisfied with that nonsense, Johnston expressed his glee that replay couldn’t review holding calls while watching a replay of Julio Jones being interfered with in the end zone that was uncalled by the referees. Dan Quinn threw the challenge flag while Moose argued the play was unchallengeable as Fox went to a commercial break. Sit the next couple out, fellas.

6.  Kansas City only looks better with each passing week. Patrick Mahomes is getting healthier, rounding into 2018 form. No team in the AFC, including Baltimore, possesses the weaponry at his disposal. Travis Kelce is one of the best chain movers in the league, and Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Sammy Watkins, and Demarcus Robinson are all threats to house it whenever they touch the ball. The defense added Terrell Suggs this week, claiming him off waivers from the Arizona Cardinals. He’ll add to their so-so pass rush and should free Frank Clark from double-teams. Don’t put the Ravens in the Super Bowl yet.

7.  Just when it seemed Tennessee would overtake the Texans and the AFC South, Carlos Hyde flexed in the fourth quarter, running for 43 yards and a touchdown. His 10 yard burst for a TD gave Houston the lead before 5 bruising carries on the next drive ate clock and set his team up for a short field goal that put the game out of reach. Hyde’s running is a dynamic Houston has missed and will need it they hope to advance in the playoffs. Overlooked wherever he plays, Hyde has been productive in all his stops, averaging 4.1 yards per carry over his career. Not dynamic, he’s neither the fastest nor the biggest. If he can curb his fumbling problem (4 in 2019) he’ll give teams something other than Deshaun Watson to worry about in the playoffs.

8.  This is a garbage throw, but Stephon Gilmore reads Andy Dalton like a book on his 2nd pick of the day. Is Gilmore the Defensive Player of the Year?

9.  Could Philip Rivers’ career with the Chargers be over? A free agent at years’ end, the team has to decide what to do with the 38-year-old QB. At 5-9, L.A. has missed their window. The juggernaut in New England proved too much for them to overcome. Rivers, like Eli Manning, is at the end of a magnificent career. The Chargers hold the 9th spot in the 2020 draft, and at least six teams in front of them already have a young quarterback. If Rivers is amenable, sign him to a 2 year deal, draft a QB, and allow him to mentor the rookie. He’s up to nine kids, so babysitting should be old hat.

10. Green Bay-Minnesota
The Vikings continue to impress and the Packers are scraping by against poor teams. While 11-3 and leading the division, Aaron Rodgers has become a game manager. His yards gained per pass attempt (7.3) is second lowest of his career when he’s played a full season. Rodgers has only thrown 2 interceptions, however, and Aaron Jones gives him a weapon out of the backfield unlike anything he’s ever had access to. Meanwhile, Kirk Cousins is completing 70% of his passes and has only thrown 5 interceptions himself. Dalvin Cook seems unlikely to play, however. It’s hard to trust Cousins and the Vikings in a huge game on Monday Night without their best offensive weapon. The game and the NFC North title go to Green Bay.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

 

The Media Can’t Wait to Tell You About Odell Beckham

Cleveland Browns, NFL, Odell Beckham

They make everything difficult. The wins seem like losses. The losses feel like organizational failures. The Cleveland Browns are tough to watch and hard to root for. Players fight with the media, coaches, and the medical staff. The pressure to win this season was too much, and no one in the building proved capable of relieving it. Through all of this, however, the Browns will most likely finish 8-8, their best record since 2007. Unlike the years between then and now, playoff talent is in the building. The thought of massive trades and a total remake of the coaching staff is insanity. If every team behaved so irrationally, Bill Belichick would be the only coach in the league with job security.

Rumors flew Sunday morning following a Jay Glazer report that Odell Beckham Jr. was unhappy in Cleveland and had been telling opposing players and coaches to “Come get me.” If true, not the greatest look. Here’s what Beckham’s been through since March, however.

Traded from a franchise and city he enjoyed playing for.
Reunited with his best friend, igniting Super Bowl buzz in his new locale.
Tasked with learning a new offense while dealing with lingering injuries, curtailing his practice time.
Continually targeted by the NFL for uniform violations often overlooked when donned by others.
Bothered throughout the season by a sports hernia that will require off-season surgery.

Visor look familiar? Beckham had to change his Week 2 against the Jets. Murray played entire game with his.

Beckham loves attention and has brought some of these troubles on himself. Is that an indictable offense? What was your last Facebook post about? How many pics have you posted on the ‘Gram today? Face it, everyone wants attention, posting their thoughts and pictures for the world to see hoping to get noticed. The difference is Odell owns that spotlight. He generates clicks and likes for everyone. He draws more traffic than another think piece on what’s happened to Rashard Higgins. If there’s smoke around Beckham, reporters will create a wildfire.

Beckham’s signed through 2023 at salaries of 14.2, 15.7, 15, and 15 million per year, not exorbitant for a player with his talent. His teammates seem to like him; he gifted them his Nike Air Max 720s this week. Freddie Kitchens claims to have a good relationship with the wide receiver. Beckham tweeted last week he didn’t want out of Cleveland. If he wants to be somewhere else, he hasn’t fractured the team because of it.

Beckham’s at the top of the screen in orange socks. That’s the guy who’s a headache and distraction?

In 2007, Kobe Bryant wanted out of Los Angeles. He went on a radio show with Stephen A. Smith and stated he would like a trade out of LA. Bryant said he’d been lied to by the organization and wasn’t confident they’d surround him with the talent needed to win titles. He said nothing could be done to repair the relationship.

How many games did Bryant play for another organization?

While Odell may want traded, the franchise doesn’t have to oblige him. His contract is team friendly and, whether he wants out or not, his best friend is still in Cleveland. This gives the Browns an advantage, a way to massage the relationship. Though Beckham draws attention, he doesn’t seem the type to ignite the situation with an Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell power move. Don’t panic.

Beckham hasn’t pulled a Kobe in Cleveland. Maybe he wants out. Or maybe he’s going through something personal. A trade wouldn’t rectify these problems. The past year has been a whirlwind, and he hasn’t been healthy. After the season, talk to him. Get Jarvis Landry, John Dorsey, Baker Mayfield, and receivers coach Adam Henry in a room with Odell. Find out what’s going on, and what he wants. Better yet, do this with the entire team.

Transparency among the front office, coaching staff, and players will provide the building blocks for what this organization needs: stability. The 2019 season cratered because 53 players, a coaching staff, and a front office were searching for different things in opposing directions. Instead of firing coaches and trading talent to lay blame for not meeting expectations, exercise some maturity. The 2020 season and beyond depends on it.

The play of Sheldon Richardson deserves a mention. If not for Joe Schobert, Richardson would be the MVP of the defense. Far and away the best run stopper on the team, he moves well laterally, clogging opposing teams’ running lanes. He’s stepped up his pass rush since Myles Garrett’s suspension as well, tallying all 3 of his sacks and 4 of his 5 quarterback hits since the 1st Pittsburgh game.

A sequence of plays on Sunday highlights his worth on defense. The Bengals had driven into the red zone with the Browns leading, 7-3. Richardson tackled Giovani Bernard for a 2 yard loss on second down then sacked Andy Dalton on third, single-handedly forcing Cincinnati to settle for a field goal. A touchdown could have devastated the team’s already weak psyche. Often overlooked, Richardson has proved to be another excellent addition by John Dorsey.

The Whip Around

1.No more Rams predictions here. They could lose out or make the Super Bowl and neither result would surprise me. A dominant performance against Seattle on Sunday night featured last year’s Jared Goff (293 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Todd Gurley (113 total yards and a touchdown). A defense featuring Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and Dexter Fowler Jr. can shut down offenses. The team has experience navigating the playoffs. Have the inconsistent Goff and (maybe? probably?) injured Gurley hit their stride? A team no one will want to play come January.

2. With Kirk Cousins at quarterback and injuries bothering Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook, the Minnesota defense must step up. Danielle Hunter got the memo, posting 3 sacks in the 1st half against Detroit along with 3 other quarterback hits and 3 more tackles for loss. He’s fourth in the league in sacks, 11th in quarterback hits, and fourth in tackles for loss. Hunter is making a case for Defensive Player of the Year. The Vikings need everything they can get out of Hunter. Average against the run(11th) and pass(16th) on defense, they’ll need Hunter to slow down the Chargers’ and Packers’ offenses in the next two weeks if they hope to hold off the Rams for the last NFC Wild Card spot.

3. Run Kyler Murray, Run

4. Devlin Hodges has played well enough to keep the Steelers in the playoff hunt. He isn’t turning the ball over and hits just enough deep shots to his receivers to put up the 20 points on the scoreboard his defense needs for Pittsburgh to sneak away victorious. Good luck listening to a Steeler game, however. I expect Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth to come armed with duck calls in the booth Sunday night. Whether it’s the studio guys, the play-by-play announcer, or the color man, they waste no opportunity to call Hodges “Duck”. They’re all giddy with excitement over the goofy nickname, laughing and chortling for 3 hours like school girls. We get it, he has an odd nickname. He likes to duck hunt and won calling contests, how original. The broadcast sounds like a kindergarten classroom after a duck, duck, goose game has broken out. Can we move on?

5. The George Kittle play is the stuff of legends. Who doesn’t love watching a tight end shed blockers for 30 yards? Helluva win by the Niners.

6. The Chiefs proved able to beat the Patriots on Sunday, but how will that game look in a month and a half? New England is going through their yearly swoon and though Tom Brady seems poised for an old folks home, K.C. wasn’t dominant. Patrick Mahomes looks good, not great, and deals with a new injury each week. New England forced overtime twice, only to have 2 touchdowns taken away by the referees. Despite the win, the Chiefs will most likely have to come back to Gillette Stadium for the rematch in January. Andy Reid against Bill Belichick in New England in January? I know who I’ll have in that one.

7. Jameis Winston has thrown five pick sixes this year. FIVE. A handful of quarterbacks rank behind him with 2. He leads the league in interceptions with 23. The next closest is Baker Mayfield with 16. Now the good news. He’s second in the league with 26 touchdown passes and 4115 passing yards. Winston turns 26 in January and will be a free agent in March. What the Bucs do with him is anyone’s guess. His completion percentage could be higher (61%), and he takes a lot of sacks (41), but damn is he talented. If Tampa declines to sign Winston to another contract, here’s betting someone will throw gobs of money at him. Teams can live with the completion percentage and sacks if he cuts out the picks. Some QB hungry team will make a bet their offensive coordinator will be the one to straighten him out.

8. Someone take the NFC East out back and shoot it. I’m sick of watching these teams, always in prime time, fumbling over each other. That one of these unworthy franchises will get a home playoff game is criminal. I realize asking the NFL to change a rule is asinine, but please get rid of the division winners getting an automatic home game standard. A playoff berth for one of these dumpster fires is more than enough.

9. The wait continues for a vintage Aaron Rodgers performance. The opportunity arrived on Sunday with Washington in town, and while he’s been efficient, the 350 yard, 4 touchdown games have vanished. Though he’s thrown only 2 picks on the season, is this Rodgers enough to lead the Pack to the Super Bowl? The defense ranks in the 20s against the pass and the run, though they average 1.5 takeaways per game. While 10-3 looks nice and having Aaron Rodgers behind center always gets you a seat at the table, 5 point home wins against horrible teams isn’t inspiring confidence of a January run.

10. Tennessee-Houston
The Game of the Week is in Nashville, featuring an ascending Titans team catching the Texans off an embarrassing home loss to the Broncos. Ryan Tannehill won’t come down to earth, adding a shredding of Oakland’s secondary to his impressive rebound season. If Tannehill and Derrick Henry continue their recent hot streaks, the Titans become a real threat in the AFC. Houston’s defense ranks 25th overall, and without J. J. Watt up front the Texans struggle to pressure the quarterback. The Titans’ defense hasn’t lived up to expectations either however, and their hyped secondary has been bad, surrendering 260 yards per game through the air (teamrankings.com). Deshaun Watson won’t put two dud performances back-to-back. Look for a shootout in Tennessee.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com.