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

 

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.

 

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

Cleveland Browns, Freddie Kitchens, NFL

There was never a doubt about Sunday. It was a loss in April when the schedule released, a loss during training camp, and a loss now. The way the Browns lose is concerning. When the talent isn’t meeting expectations, turnovers and penalties are mounting, and head scratching decisions are made on the sideline the blame lands in one spot, the head coach.

Freddie Kitchens was the concern heading into the season. Never a head coach at any level, did he possess the traits necessary to guide this out-of-control hype train? His team lacks discipline and does not correct mistakes. Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are the most skilled receiving duo in the league. They have combined for 64 catches and 1 touchdown in seven games. Something ain’t stirring the Kool-Aid.


Kitchens wasn’t ready for all the job entails. The players, management, and ownership were unprepared to handle the attention shone in their direction during the off-season. The 2019 season has been an organizational failure akin to the failures of the last twenty years. Nothing has changed in Cleveland.


Now is when it has to. Don’t fire Freddie. Forget about trading Odell. Don’t give up on Baker. This season has turned from one of hope to one of education. The Browns have detonated everything in the past at the first sign of adversity, leading them into the depths they reside today.


Let Kitchens learn on the job. What are the alternatives? Coach after coach turnstiles through Berea, none given a chance to show growth. Who is great at their job after two months? Who will hire the next coach if he’s fired? Jimmy Haslam has shown zero ability to run a franchise or hire competent help, save for John Dorsey. Why would anyone assume the Haslams will get the next one right? The process, and Dorsey, led the organization to select Freddie Kitchens to lead this team. They saw something in him, giving them faith he could do this. Don’t pull the ripcord now. Give Kitchens a chance to grow.

The turnovers and penalties led to the loss on Sunday. Not much needs rehashed. Until the players take on the responsibility of disciplining themselves on the field, until they decide winning matters, nothing will change. A few observations, however.


Why in the world are teams, and the Browns specifically, guarding Julian Edelman with linebackers and safeties? Edelman is the only pass catcher on New England’s offense that poses a threat to a defense. Instead of letting the Patriots scheme their way into mismatches, why not shadow Edelman with your best corner? Denzel Ward, or even Greedy Williams, should have drawn the assignment of checking the New England wide receiver. Instead, Joe Schobert and backup safety Eric Murray got beat on touchdown catches by Edelman. In certain match-ups, you must adapt the scheme to negate what an opponent wants to do.

Trying to guard Edelman(11) with Schobert(53) in the red zone is criminal


On fourth and seven from the Browns’ 33, New England went for it instead of kicking. The defense was unprepared and had to burn a timeout. On a cold, wet day and the other team employing a shaky kicker who they cut this week, why were they not ready for the possibility Bill Belichick wouldn’t kick? Inexcusable.


A positive from Sunday? The defensive line as a unit and Olivier Vernon were exceptional. Vernon and Myles Garrett recorded sacks, and Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson stuffed the run and applied adequate pressure up the middle, preventing Brady from stepping up in the pocket. After a slow start, Vernon has flashed during the last two outings, providing pressure on opposing offenses opposite Garrett.

The recipe this week is the same as it’s been, avoid turnovers and penalties. It’s been a simple yet unattainable goal. They’ve shown no desire to rein in their disorderly tendencies and until that happens the opponent will not matter.


Joe Flacco is injured. The Broncos traded their best wideout, Emmanuel Sanders, to the 49ers last week.


Third year quarterback Brandon Allen has never taken a regular season snap and will start on Sunday. According to Lance Zierlein of the NFL Network, Allen is mobile with a strong arm. He’ll run if the pocket breaks down. Denver will look to pound the running game Sunday.


Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman are a strong running back duo. Lindsay is quick, a threat to break a big gainer each time he touches the ball. Freeman is more of a grinder who’ll wear defenses down the more carries he gets. With a young quarterback under center and the Browns defense struggling against the run (ranked 29th in the league) the Broncos have one choice on offense.


Defensively, the Broncos have been stout. Fourth in total yards, fourth against the pass, and 17th against the run, a low-scoring slog is likely on Sunday. Establish Nick Chubb, but continue to work to get Beckham and Landry involved. Von Miller is one of the best pass rushers in the league, yet has struggled a bit this year, only 4 sacks to his credit. Chris Harris Jr. has made 4 Pro Bowls at cornerback, yet is on the wrong side of 30. The Browns offense moves the ball when they avoid mistakes. They should do so Sunday.


The lighter portion of the schedule has arrived. Will the Browns take advantage? The difficulty faced to this point will either sharpen them or break them. Does the team many predicted them to be exist?

The Whip Around


1. Does anyone else in the history of football make this throw?

2. Matt Nagy has to put his players in a better position to succeed. Settling for a 41 yard field goal try, when the team had 43 seconds to improve field position is bush league, and is playing not to lose. Should an NFL kicker make a 41 yarder? Absolutely. But if you can make things easier on your players you do it. That kick isn’t a chip shot outdoors off Lake Michigan in October. Nagy set Eddy Pineiro up to be the scapegoat.

3. Nick Bosa is in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Seven sacks, nine hurries, and six quarterback knockdowns according to pro-football-reference.com, he’s terrorized opposing offenses, grinding them to a halt. The rookie is a star, leading a 49er defense that ranks second in the league in points allowed and 1st in both passing and rushing yards. If those numbers hold, Bosa will have two new trophies on his mantle, DPOY and Rookie of the Year.

4. The Rams have Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, and Robert Woods on offense, yet Cooper Kupp is far and away their best weapon. He’s taken ownership of the middle of the field, sitting down in holes against zone coverage and making life easier for Jared Goff. After he catches the ball, he runs. Far. Second only to Austin Ekeler in yards after catch, he and Michael Thomas are the only receivers in the top ten, the rest being running backs. If the Rams make a second half run, Kupp will be a huge reason for it.

Via foxsports.com

5. Andy Reid called a fantastic game for Matt Moore on Sunday night, putting his backup QB in spots to succeed. Moore was efficient and didn’t turn the ball over. For all of Reid’s genius offensively, game situations still confound him, however. Down seven with 5 minutes left at their own 40 and facing a 4th and 3, Reid elected to punt. The Chiefs’ offense wouldn’t see the ball again. Why punt in that situation? Moore was playing well, and K.C. has two of the best short yardage weapons in the game in Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. K.C.’s defense was struggling, as they have for two years. Coaches need more aggression in those situations.

6. Derrick Henry dropped the ball on Sunday. He just dropped it. This dude is maddening.

7. Bad offenses are at their worst in goal to go situations. Chicago’s train wreck of a unit fits the bill. First and goal from the 4 with 43 seconds left in the 1st half, they ran for no gain, called a timeout, threw for a one yard gain, called a timeout, then threw incomplete. O.K., bad, but still 25 seconds left. Another run for no gain drained the clock to 1 second before Mitch Trubisky threw incomplete again. Eddy Pineiro kicked a 19 yard field goal. A touchdown there would’ve saved them from needing a field goal at the gun to win. Bad teams do bad things.

8. Buffalo came back to earth Sunday, getting trounced 31-13 at home against Philadelphia at windswept Orchard Park. Philly ran at will, totaling 218 on the ground. Josh Allen isn’t consistent enough for the defense to have off days, and the offense lacks any other play makers. The easy early season schedule may catch up to the Bills.

9. If you can figure out Jameis Winston, Tampa will pay you millions to move to the Gulf Coast of Florida. Here are Sunday’s numbers: 21-43, 301 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 picks, 2 fumbles, 53 yards rushing. You could see his game ending interception coming from Memphis. It’s the same as watching an old person sliding around on ice. Are they going to fall or catch themselves?

10. Just when Indianapolis looked like it belonged in the conversation with Kansas City and New England, they lay an egg at home against Denver, needing a 51 yard Vinatieri field goal to eke by the Broncos. The defense and running game will keep them in games, but Jacoby Brissett isn’t dynamic enough to win a shootout in the playoffs. The third best team in the AFC is light years behind the front two.