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 its 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

 

Blame the Haslams

Cleveland Browns, Jimmy Haslam, Kirk Cousins, NFL

Everyone expected too much of the 2019 Cleveland Browns. It’s easy to look back, after another upsetting loss in Pittsburgh, and diagnose the problems. But what are the solutions?

What will get this organization over the misery and dysfunction? A change of ownership is the clear answer, yet the Haslams are the only untouchables in Berea. It’s hard to fathom the franchise ever reaching the level of competency needed to sustain winning with the current ownership in place. They have no clue what it takes to run an NFL franchise. The checks keep pouring in however, and Jimmy Haslam’s bank account will continue to grow regardless of the mess he makes in Cleveland. With billions of dollars, no one tells you how big a fool you are.

Haslam lacks leadership skills. He established this by the way he ran his previous business. Pilot Flying J truck stops faced a lawsuit and settled with plaintiffs over a fuel rebate scheme in the early 2010s. Whether he led the scheme is inconsequential. Haslam bears the blame. Either he knew about the scam and didn’t stop it or was unaware of a multi-million dollar scheme perpetrated by his company. Which is worse?

It was his company. Haslam’s name was on the door. He signed the checks. It was his responsibility to know the goings-on inside the company and to fix problems before they hurt his employees or customers. Same in Cleveland.

Haslam doesn’t care about people or integrity. He’s a greedy buffoon who inherited a bunch of money, allowing him to make a fool of himself while spending it. His loyalty is only to himself and his dollars. He doesn’t care about the Cleveland Browns and lacks the wherewithal necessary to fix his mess.

Haslam on Sundays

Since the owner is safe, the coach has to go, right? Sure, fire another head coach. A failed strategy for two decades. Freddie Kitchens has struggled this year. His team has lacked discipline and has been unprepared to play on most Sundays. They carry a swagger of a group that’s won Super Bowls without playing a playoff game.

Two questions.

  1. If Haslam fires Freddie, who’s hiring the next guy? The same group that hired Kitchens will lead the search. Is anyone confident they’ll get the next one right? What is in Jimmy Haslam’s background that proves he’s adept at choosing good people to put in important positions? What hire can you point to of his and claim as a success? Even the John Dorsey hire isn’t the slam dunk now that it was a year ago.
  2. What respected, sought after coaching candidate will come near this job? In each of Haslam’s coaching searches, he’s not landed the big fish he’s desired and has had to settle on a backup choice, except for Hue Jackson, the one hire in which Haslam landed his man.

Facts are, NFL types know the problems in Cleveland and want no part of it. Any coach worth his salt will have better opportunities elsewhere and will steer clear of Berea. That leaves passed over assistant coaches, a bargain bin Haslam can then sort through. These guys will carry the same credentials as Kitchens. At least Freddie has gained experience on an NFL sideline as the head man. Give him an off-season to evaluate himself and his team. Something led Dorsey and Haslam to hire Kitchens. The next guy isn’t as good as you think he is. Give this one more than a year to grow into the position.

So if you can’t fire the owner or the head coach, what’s next? Someone has to be held accountable, right?
Bad season.
Fire someone. Anyone.
Repeat.

This doesn’t work. The Browns have shown it doesn’t over two decades. The merry-go-round has to stop. At some point, the organization has to exert some patience. An attempt to build a stable franchise needs to occur. The hysteria and finger pointing over a disappointing season should instead cause an evaluation of the current staff members. What are their strengths and weaknesses? What can the organization do to make them better? How can this franchise put their people in a position to succeed?

Turning this ship around will fall on the players. The talent is there. Baker Mayfield, Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, Joe Schobert, Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, and Odell Beckham Jr. have all proved in their careers they can be successful in the league. How bad do they want it? Are they content cashing checks and going .500, or do they want more? Will they work to fix the problems here(some they’ve caused), or will they demand trades, looking for an easy out?

The upcoming off-season will unveil the character of this roster. The drama of this season will either be an important lesson learned or become a way of life. Do these guys want to be great? Do they desire to change the fortunes of a city and a franchise, or are they comfortable with the status quo?

The Whip Around

1.Kirk Cousins has a history of struggling under the lights and, despite playing better in Seattle, wasn’t good enough for the Vikings. An interception to start the 4th quarter and incomplete passes on 3 of his last 4 throws on Minnesota’s final drive doomed his team. The Vikings are competent and may have a shot to win a playoff game against the NFC East winner. They’re quarterback is inconsistent, however, possessing the Tony Romo gene. When the stakes are highest, no matter how well he’s played, Cousins gives games away.

2. What the hell did Philadelphia do on Sunday? A loss in Miami to a G league team is embarrassing, and the Eagles are no longer getting a pass. I’ve expected the switch to get flipped in Philly, especially with the division so winnable. Carson Wentz has been average, and the defense is just meh, ranking 18th against the run and 13th defending the pass. Surrendering 365 passing yards to Ryan Fitzpatrick, in as winnable a game as exists in the NFL, is upsetting. Despite the Cowboys’ woes, they’re the de facto favorite in the East.

3. Few teams had a stranger season than the Carolina Panthers. After losing their first two games and Cam Newton, the team rallied around Kyle Allen and Christian McCaffrey, winning 5 out of 6. McCaffrey was even getting MVP buzz. Allen would lead Carolina to the playoffs and Newton was out, on to Chicago. Only a month later, they’ve canned Super Bowl coach Ron Rivera, McCaffrey looks human, Kyle Allen has struggled, and the Panthers have lost 4 in a row. Rumors are swirling around Greg Roman, the Baltimore offensive coordinator credited with both Colin Kaepernick’s and Lamar Jackson’s successes, as their next head coach. Cam is on the wrong side of 30 and taken a huge amount of hits in his career. He’s finished the past two seasons on IR. How good do we think Greg Roman is?

4. Onside kicks are impossible to recover since the NFL changed the rules. Enter Younghoe Koo.

5. The annual “The Patriots dynasty is finished and so is Tom Brady” talk started this week, later than usual. Writers and talking heads fell all over themselves to proclaim the Patriots dynasty over. Not buying it. The Patriots are 10-2, tied for the best record in the league. How many years do Belichick and Brady have to rub the Super Bowl trophy in America’s faces before we learn the lesson? The Pats win because they’re smarter and better prepared, not because they have more talent. They’ve established a culture that doesn’t take shortcuts. New England may not win the Super Bowl, but good luck picking against them.

6. San Francisco-Baltimore was December football in its prime. A slug fest in rainy Baltimore, each struggled to establish a passing game. The playoffs will test these two run heavy, defensive minded teams. No one would dispute they’ve been the two best teams over the last month. Can they carry that momentum into January and beat more established quarterbacks in the playoffs? With 2 minutes left and 85 yards needed to advance, will either of these QBs be up to the task?

Just get a Lamar Jackson. Easy way to control that Niner D-Line

7. All those who had Ryan Tannehill leading the Titans to a playoff berth, please rise and get out; you’re a liar. The Tennessee QB was precise on Sunday, completing 17-22 passes for 2 touchdowns in the Titans’ dismantling of the fading Colts. The Titans are always stout on defense and possess a capable running game; the quarterback has prevented them from advancing in the playoffs. Could Tannehill change that? Don’t laugh, he leads the league in passer rating and is completing 73% of his throws. The remaining schedule is tough, facing games in Oakland, home versus New Orleans, and two against Houston. If they can get into the playoffs, however, watch out. Who matches up better against Baltimore?

If Tannehill keeps dropping it in the bucket like this……..

8. The Bills’ defense flexed on the Cowboys Thanksgiving Day, announcing themselves to a national audience as AFC contenders. Consistent all year, they’ve ranked just behind the 49ers and Patriots but added a pass rush. They’ve averaged 5 sacks over their last 3 contests (teamrankings.com), turning a previous weakness into a strength. Ed Oliver, Shaq Lawson, and Jordan Phillips have 9 sacks in those games and dominated Dallas’ vaunted O-line in particular. Weak offensive lines in New England and Kansas City might have a problem on their hands against Buffalo, but Josh Allen still isn’t trustworthy enough to predict any upsets from the Bills.

9. While Baltimore and New England gather all the press clippings, Kansas City lies in the weeds. The forgotten contender, Patrick Mahomes’ injury removed them from our thinking. An easy 40 against Oakland on Sunday should have gotten you reacquainted. When healthy, Mahomes is the best quarterback in the league with the most dangerous weapons. While their defense is suspect, the offense can score at will from anywhere on the field and rarely turns the ball over. New England visits K.C. on Sunday, a colossal test for each team. If the Chiefs can hang 30 on that defense, I suspect the radio silence on the Chiefs will end.

10. San Francisco-New Orleans
Los Angeles Rams-Seattle

The Saints have something to prove Sunday against the 49ers. They’ve struggled in recent weeks against division opponents Carolina and Atlanta. What’s wrong with Alvin Kamara? With only 587 yards rushing and 444 receiving on the season, Drew Brees’ most dangerous weapon seems to fade in and out of games. While Michael Thomas has been otherworldly, New Orleans will need Kamara to slow down the 49er pass rush to have any chance against San Fran.

If the Rams plan on showing up for the 2019 season, now would be the time. A loss here would all but end their playoff hopes. The struggling offense found some footing against the Cardinals; Jared Goff threw for 424 and Todd Gurley ran for 95, but they’re too sporadic to trust. Seattle and Russell Wilson win and put up bags of points in the process. Can the Rams score the 30 necessary to keep up with the Seahawks? Wilson wins games at the end, he’ll do so again Sunday night and put a head scratching L.A. season to bed.