Monday Morning Digest: Picking Wild-Card Winners and Watching Falcons Soar
The NFL playoff field is set!
While the Patriots, Cowboys, Chiefs and Falcons enjoy some bye week R&R (recuperation and recovery), the Steelers host the Dolphins in the Ben Roethlisberger Revenge Bowl, the Raiders visit the Texans in the Quarterback Desperation Bowl, the Packers host the Giants in the 2011 Playoff Upset Rematch Bowl and the Lions travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks in...a game the Seahawks will probably win.
The first Monday Morning Digest of 2017 wraps up Week 17's action and previews all four wild-card games. It also features a guide to coaches in peril, goes unit-by-unit through the playoff teams, examines some strange stats from the 2016 season and much more.
We even crown a "Team of Destiny." No, it's not the Cowboys. Or the Patriots. Keep guessing...
Top Story: The Atlanta Falcons Are This Year's Team of Destiny
Devonta Freeman catches a checkdown pass for 35 yards to set up a touchdown. Freeman runs up the middle for 75 yards for another touchdown.
Julio Jones draws pass interference for 46 yards, gains 21 yards on a shallow crossing route and then scores a touchdown on a fade route that should be entered in the dictionary as the perfect example of a fade route.
Tevin Coleman catches a touchdown pass. Mohamed Sanu catches a touchdown pass. Justin Hardy, one of the Falcons' weekly random contributors, makes a one-handed, back-of-the-end-zone touchdown catch (pictured) that looks like something Odell Beckham Jr. would do with a butterfly net.
This has been going on all year. The Falcons scored 38 points Sunday against the Saints and averaged 33.75 points per game for the season. They have the best offense in the NFL. Better than the Cowboys. Better than the Patriots.
But what about the defense, you ask? It's not great, but it is better than you think. The Falcons allowed just 43 points in Weeks 14 to 16, entering the fourth quarter with a 25-point lead against the Saints. Then they allowed a late-game Drew Brees explosion. But they also got sacks from Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett, two rising stars on the defensive front, and survived a scare when Beasley left the game with what turned out to be a minor injury.
So the Falcons have the best offense in the NFL and a defense with a rapidly improving corps of young stars. They have been clobbering opponents for weeks. But recognition has been glacier-slow in coming.
Matt Ryan has finally earned some grudging MVP notice, but when we start listing "dangerous, don't-wanna-face-'em" playoff teams, the Falcons always get stuck behind the Packers (Aaron Rodgers!), Steelers (Big Ben and Friends!) and even the Giants (They inexplicably win Super Bowls every few years without being all that great!).
The Falcons may truly be the Super Bowl contender all other Super Bowl contenders claim to be: the one that everyone overlooked, the one that no one gave a chance or took seriously, the one whose only believers were in the locker room.
Does that make the Falcons a "Team of Destiny"? What does "Team of Destiny" even mean?
The Falcons earned the second overall seed in the NFC playoffs. They rebuilt carefully around a quarterback and superstar wide receiver who once took them to the brink of the Super Bowl, assembling a top-flight coaching staff, drafting wisely, spending prudently and exercising patience with young prospects.
They played through a tough schedule, suffered some heartbreaking losses against strong opponents, beat a few others and kept getting better. They positioned themselves so they don't have to worry about the 12th Man, Lambeau Field or cold weather, eliminating a dome team's most dangerous foes.
The Falcons sure look and sound like a team that's destined for great things.
Does that make them a "Team of Destiny"?
It doesn't matter. Just know that they are a team you don't want to take lightly in the playoffs.
Some fascinating odds and ends from Week 17:
- News that Gary Kubiak is resigning for health reasons may have saved a few head-coaching jobs. If the Broncos job opens up, it immediately becomes the most appealing opportunity available, presumably gobbling up the most in-demand coaching candidate. Teams like the Jets and Bears may have decided they are better off with their incumbents than chasing what would probably be, at best, their second choice as a replacement.
- The Redskins blew it. They were outplayed and out-hustled for the entire first half. Then, with the game still close in the waning minutes, Kirk Cousins threw a devastating interception when a checkdown or a throwaway would have kept the team in game-tying field-goal range. The Redskins have more talent and often perform much better than some of this year's playoff teams (the Texans and Lions come to mind). But if this is how they are going to play in big games, the whole organization has to do some soul-searching, and not just about how to handle Cousins' contract.
- Tony Romo played one series against the Eagles, completed three of four passes for 29 yards and one touchdown and looked like the Romo of 2014. The Cowboys hope that a) those were Romo's last passes of the 2016 season, if not his illustrious Cowboys career, and b) whoever will coach the Broncos next year was watching.
- Michael Floyd barreled through Dolphins defenders for a Patriots touchdown, delivered a rugged block on a Julian Edelman touchdown and caught a tightrope pass along the sideline. We can argue the merits and ethics of second chances. What's certain is that when the Patriots offer a second chance, it's backed up with such a high likelihood of a Super Bowl ring that players are more likely to make the most of the opportunity.
- Aqib Talib ripped a gold chain right off Michael Crabtree's neck after a play early in the Raiders-Broncos game. One Broncos offseason priority should be helping Talib rediscover the boundary between "playing with passion" and "acting like a deranged lunatic."
- Colin Kaepernick received the Len Eshmont Award, which recognizes "inspirational and courageous play," from his 49ers teammates last week. It's a sign that political activism may not be as divisive on a personal or professional level than it is on, say, a comment thread. As America descends into the new 1960s, with "tune in, turn on, drop out" replaced with "Netflix and chill," it's obvious we have not seen the last of social protest by athletes. Kaepernick's award reminds us that our nation's political differences do not have to divide us. Though if we are not careful, they could lead to a string of 2-14 seasons.
AFC Wild Card Game Preview: Quarterback Nightmare Bowl (Raiders at Texans)
Both the Texans and Raiders may be down to their third options at quarterback. Oakland's Matt McGloin, filling in for Derek Carr, suffered a shoulder injury against the Broncos, leaving rookie Connor Cook to flounder against the still-great Broncos defense in a 24-6 loss.
Texans starter Tom Savage (pictured), playing in a meaningless game to get some reps and build off a pair of quasi-acceptable performances against the Jaguars and Bengals, suffered a concussion on a quarterback sneak at the start of the second quarter against the Titans. Brock Osweiler relieved Savage, and after a typically Osweilerian start (a sack on 4th-and-6, a one-yard pass on 3rd-and-18 from the Texans' 2-yard line), he completed enough catch-and-run plays to DeAndre Hopkins to lead a handful of scoring drives and keep a 24-17 loss to the Titans respectably close.
Bill O'Brien would not reveal who his starter will be if Savage is healthy, courtesy of Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. For the Texans, the "third option" at quarterback is trying to pretend that any defense is worried about the first two.
Who Has the Edge?
Neither McGloin nor Savage was effective when they were healthy Sunday, with McGloin consistently off target and Savage getting strip-sacked for a touchdown early in the game. So the best-case scenario is one of the worst playoff quarterback matchups in recent memory. The worst-case scenario: Brandon Weeden is still on the Texans roster, folks.
With both quarterbacks likely to be about equally awful, the Texans will get a boost from the generous Raiders defense, which allowed a 64-yard run to Justin Forsett and a 43-yard catch-and-run to Devontae Booker when it was trying to deliver a step-up performance against a bad offense Sunday.
Texans 19, Raiders 13, Patriots licking their second-round chops like a dog staring at an Arby's bag.
What Else Might Happen
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk cited a report from Fox Sports' Jay Glazer about O'Brien's potentially parting ways with the team if the Texans lose. Florio went on to say O'Brien will be a hot head-coaching candidate elsewhere if that came true. Imagine running a football team and being so bereft of ideas that you are eager to hire the "quarterback guru" who is available precisely because his failure to develop a quarterback led to a playoff loss against either McGloin or Cook.
AFC Wild Card Game Preview: Dolphins at Steelers
The Dolphins faced the Patriots in Angry Roman Legion mode Sunday and got trampled 35-14. The Steelers rested their stars in a meaningless game and got lulled into the worst possible overtime scenario against the Browns: The Browns risked losing the first pick in the draft in case of a victory, while the Steelers didn't want to keep playing. Landry Jones connected with Cobi Hamilton to mercifully end a 27-24 game that, considering the circumstances, was a lot of fun to watch.
Who Has the Edge?
Jay Ajayi rushed for 204 yards in a 30-15 Dolphins upset of the Steelers in Week 6. Ben Roethlisberger (pictured) suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter of that game, but the Steelers let him stumble around ineffectively for the rest of the game while Ajayi and company took advantage of interceptions and three-and-outs.
The Steelers run defense is still vulnerable when their offense doesn't force opponents into catch-up mode: The Ravens rushed for 122 yards on Christmas Day, while Isaiah Crowell gashed them for 152 yards Sunday.
But the Dolphins are now the team wondering whether to trust a hobbling quarterback or his career backup. Ryan Tannehill has been seen at practice wearing a knee brace and throwing the ball around, but not actually practicing. Matt Moore played well in relief late in the season but proved against the Patriots that he is no match for better opponents.
The Steelers have gotten healthier and better on several units (secondary, receiving corps) since Week 6. The banged-up Dolphins may have burned all their fuel just reaching the postseason.
Steelers 31, Dolphins 20.
NFC Wild Card Game Preview: Lions at Seahawks
As emphatic statements of playoff worthiness go, coming back to narrowly beat a two-win team that later fired its head coach and general manager—all the while committing dumb penalties, surrendering safeties and squabbling on the sideline—probably wasn't what the Seahawks had in mind. But that's what the Seahawks did in a 25-23 win over the 49ers to lock up the third seed in the NFC.
At least the Seahawks aren't on a three-game losing streak and only in the playoffs by virtue of a bunch of close wins against bad opponents and a collapse by the Redskins, like the Lions.
Who Has the Edge?
All of the little things the Lions got away with early in the season have caught up to them in the last three weeks.
Their injury-depleted secondary allows opponents to complete a whopping 73 percent of their passes, while their offense lacks big-play capability. The Lions were able to squeak out wins against opponents like the Jaguars and Rams with sound situational football and great special teams play. But that won't be enough in Seattle.
Do not let their 10-5-1 record and division title fool you. These are not the 2013-15 Seahawks. Their defense has fallen back to the pack without Earl Thomas. Their offensive line is so bad it's nearly legendary.
But the Seahawks did what they needed to so they could earn a home game, while the Lions let an opportunity to win the NFC North slip away so badly that they ended up in the worst possible playoff situation. That's how the system is designed to work.
Seahawks 23, Lions 13.
NFC Wild Card Game Preview: Giants at Packers
The Giants played their starters in a game that was meaningless for them, hoping they could achieve 2007/2011 Super Bowl Surge mode while battling the desperate Redskins. The defense certainly shifted into playoff gear with three turnovers and constant pressure. The offense remains a puzzling mix of sprinkled big plays, blown blocks, strange calls and Eli Manning misfires.
Aaron Rodgers had no problem throttling into Super Bowl gear with 300 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-24 win over the Lions.
But the Packers paid a high price to clinch the division: Quinten Rollins had to be carried off the field with a potentially serious injury, while fellow cornerback Damarious Randall also left the game with a knee injury.
Who Has the Edge?
The Packers beat the Giants 23-16 in Week 5 during the "What's wrong with Aaron Rodgers?" national mass delusion. Janoris Jenkins picked Rodgers off twice in that game, but the Packers were able to drive up and down the field consistently in those long-ago days when Eddie Lacy and James Starks were their running backs.
The Packers' midseason fugue didn't coincide with Rodgers' mini "slump" but with the loss of Lacy and injuries on defense, particularly in the secondary. The Packers run the risk of not matching up well with the Giants now that Rollins is (almost certainly) out and the running game is once again an offensive afterthought. The Giants are at their best when Odell Beckham Jr. and others are winning mismatches and their secondary and pass rush are taking advantage of a one-dimensional offensive opponent.
The Giants faced the heavily favored, 15-1 Packers in Lambeau in the 2011 playoffs. They engineered a stunning 37-20 win with four turnovers, four sacks and three Eli Manning touchdowns. It's a reminder that anything can happen when the Giants are in the playoffs and that Rodgers cannot do everything by himself, even when he appears to be invincible.
Giants 27, Packers 24.
Unit-by-Unit Playoff Digest
Wondering which playoff team has the best pass rush? The worst offensive line? The most special special teams? Digest has you covered.
Best: Cowboys, obviously. Worst: Seahawks, obviously. Run a simple stunt or twist against the Seahawks line, and it reacts like you just cast that folding skyscraper spell from Doctor Strange. The Falcons have the second-best line in the postseason, the Giants the second-worst.
Best: Packers. Worst: Lions. Most of the best pass-rushing teams this season (Broncos, Vikings) failed to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, some teams with big pass-rush reputations (Giants, Dolphins) either suffered injuries or racked up lots of sacks against weaker opponents. The Packers generate much more pressure now that Clay Matthews and the secondary are healthy. (Healthy cornerbacks allow for more creative blitzing.) The Lions entered Sunday night's game with five sacks in their previous six games.
Best: Packers. Worst: Raiders. The Cowboys have a pretty good run defense that looks awesome statistically (83.5 yards allowed per game) because teams are too busy playing catch-up against them to run the ball. The Chiefs have a surprisingly porous run defense (4.4 yards per rush allowed) but get away with it because their secondary picks off a gajillion passes.
Best: Giants, Chiefs. Worst: Lions, Raiders. The Giants are best at forcing quarterbacks to check down to their fifth option, while the Chiefs are best at baiting interceptions. The Lions will give up dozens of teeny-tiny completions per game. The Raiders allowed a 60-yard touchdown while I was typing this.
Best: Chiefs. Worst: Texans. You have probably noticed Tyreek Hill; the Chiefs also possess strong field-goal and punting units. The Patriots and Lions are also dependable in all facets of the kicking game (Matt Prater's Sunday night miss from 39 yards aside). Texans kicker Nick Novak is unreliable beyond 45 yards (he missed a 45-yarder Sunday) and terrible on kickoffs, but no one notices such things when the big-bucks quarterback is terrible for three solid months.
Best: Cowboys. Worst: Steelers. It's hard to picture the Steelers' winning if anything happens to Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, James Harrison or one of the veterans on the offensive line or in the secondary. The Patriots may have better overall depth than the Cowboys, but there is something reassuring about having Tony Romo sitting on the bench.
Best: Patriots, lapping the field a dozen times. Worst: Chiefs. Andy Reid remains the NFL's best coach from the start of the preparation week until there are five minutes left in the game. Honorable mention for "worst" goes to the Seahawks, who may face a Richard Sherman mutiny if they botch another goal-to-go opportunity.
For Whom the Bell Tolls: Coaching Carousel Roundup
Teams used to wait until the Monday after the end of the regular season—"Black Monday"—to fire coaches and executives. Now, they do it minutes after the final gun, on New Year's Eve or whenever they feel like it. Here's an update on the coaches and general managers who lost their jobs this weekend, the ones who received votes of confidence and the few who remain in limbo.
Todd Bowles and Mike Maccagnan, Jets
The Jets' problem is not that they want to beat the Patriots, but that they want to already have beaten them. So the team's decision to retain Bowles and Maccagnan, per Gary Myers of the New York Daily News, suggests owner Woody Johnson may have finally figured out that a lasting dynasty cannot be built in one offseason. Or maybe Johnson is so stoked about a potential appointment as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom that he no longer cares that the Jets lack a quarterback or direction. Fire Danger: None.
John Fox, Bears
You know a head coach is desperate for excuses when he chokes down the bile and says nice things about... urp...analytics. "Those people who study the game can look at it statistically and see quite a lot of growth," Fox said of his Bears in a press conference last week. Speaking for "those people:" Sorry, Coach, there's no growth, but the Bears organization appears reluctant to hop on the crowded carousel this year. Rest assured that if Fox keeps his job, he'll forget this deathbed conversion to the dork side. Fire Danger: Very Low.
Hue Jackson, Browns
He may be the most respected and secure 1-15 coach in history. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam stated that he felt the Browns have "the right people in place" after Sunday's loss. But the Browns are the Browns, so nothing can be ruled out. Fire danger: Low.
Chip Kelly and Trent Baalke, 49ers
The NFL's zaniest shotgun wedding is already over. The 49ers' coach and GM were fired Sunday. Apparently, gutting the roster, drafting injury cases and running a system the league completely figured out two years ago doesn't lead to success. Who knew? Jed York is the most likely owner in the league to begin his search for replacements by reading this slide. Fire Danger: Already cooked.
Marvin Lewis, Bengals
All parties and reports indicate he will return. Patience is a virtue and stability an asset, but it feels odd to wait an additional year just to watch things deteriorate a little further. Fire Danger: Extremely low.
Mike McCoy, Chargers
Who? He was the Chargers head coach. Really? Hadn't they already replaced him with, like, Ken Whisenhunt or some cellphone play-calling app that glitches out in the fourth quarter? Nope. McCoy was the head coach until Sunday afternoon. Well, did he have any magical "franchise relocation" skills? Because those are absolutely essential for a team that might be moving soon. HOW DID YOU GET THIS NUMBER, JEFF FISHER? Fire Danger: Already cooked.
Chuck Pagano (pictured) and Ryan Grigson, Colts
It might be fun to keep PaGrigson around for another year just to hear what wacky excuses they come up with next. With both still under long-term contract, it could happen. Fire Danger: Lower than you think.
Sean Payton, Saints
The Saints want to work out a trade for Payton, because the Saints mismanage their resources terribly and desperately need an extra draft pick, or some discount coupon codes to lower their cap costs, or something. Payton is a fine candidate for an Andy Reid-style rebirth with a new team, where he can reboot and refresh his system. In New Orleans, it will just be more .500, all-shootout, no-defense seasons until Drew Brees' arm crumbles to dust. Fire Danger: Very low, and any trade won't be finalized Monday anyway.
Playoff Fantasy Digest
We're taking the daily fantasy approach to playoff advice, so this slide focuses exclusively on teams that are playing in the Wild Card Round. If you are drafting a team to get you through the entire playoffs, you don't need us to tell you that Tom Brady and Ezekiel Elliott are good.
The Lions are a fine source of potentially undervalued players once you get past Matthew Stafford and Golden Tate. Zach Zenner gets tons of bulk-freight carries and touches. Marvin Jones hasn't scored a touchdown since mid-October but still gets a steady diet of medium-to-deep targets. Eric Ebron is always involved in the offense. And Anquan Boldin gets enough touches near the goal line to compensate for his low yardage totals.
Green Bay Packers
Fullback Aaron Ripkowski now has three touchdowns in six weeks and is a semi-regular ball-carrier for the time being, so don't be shy about taking a cheap flier on him. Ripkowski's ascent only goes to show you what lengths teams will go to just to avoid placing any trust in Christine Michael.
The ultimate fantasy rummage bin. DeAndre Hopkins has one 100-yard game since Week 2 and one touchdown since Week 5. Tight ends Ryan Griffin and C.J. Fiedorowicz could be appealing low-cost options, but selecting one guarantees the other will have a big game.
Forty-nine percent of Jay Ajayi's 1,272 rushing yards came in three games, and 33 percent of them came courtesy of the Buffalo Bills. Ajayi (pictured) also racked up 204 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers, of course, so the potential for a sequel is mighty tempting. Just be wary of the many 15-20-carry, 50-75-yard, zero-touchdown games in his portfolio.
No Raiders skill-position player gained over 50 yards Sunday. Only select Michael Crabtree or Amari Cooper if you are getting a significant quarterback-catastrophe discount. Sebastian Janikowski is a fine kicking option for a potential slopfest against the Texans, though even Janikowski has gone two weeks without a field-goal attempt.
New York Giants
The Giants had not scored a rushing touchdown since November 20 before Rashad Jennings punched one in Sunday. If you are tempted to sift through the Giants running game for a player, Jennings is more likely to get a goal-line touch or provide some points-per-reception value than rookie Paul Perkins, who rushed for 102 yards against Washington but lacks all-purpose value.
There are worse strategies than blowing 90 percent of your budget on Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and then just filling out your roster with Texans.
Russell Wilson has averaged 232.8 passing yards and 1.6 touchdowns per playoff game for his career (10 games), plus 30.8 rushing yards and two total rushing touchdowns. It's not great production, but it sure looks good compared with what you are likely to get from the Texans, Raiders or Dolphins quarterbacks. Beware of Thomas Rawls, who has 16 carries for 22 yards and one touchdown in his last two games.
Final Stat Nuggets from the Regular Season
Some final statistical nuggets from the 2016 season:
- Sam Bradford set a new single-season record with a completion percentage of 71.6. Bradford's 2016 season will be brought up whenever someone wants to argue that completion percentage is a meaningless stat from now until someone like Brock Osweiler breaks the record. Actually, the all-time completion percentage leaderboard is full of stars like Drew Brees and Steve Young. But every once in a while, a quarterback like Bradford comes along with a gift for six-yard passes on 3rd-and-18.
- Reggie Bush finished the season with 12 carries for minus-three yards. The last non-quarterback to rush more than 10 times and gain negative yardage was John Adams, who rushed 14 times for negative-two yards for the 1961 Bears. The all-time record for fewest rushing yards in a season is held by Paul Governali, quarterback of the 1946 Boston Yanks, who rushed 33 times for a loss of 186 yards (some of those rushes would probably be classified as sacks these days). Maybe the Bills should have let Bush play Wildcat to chase Governali's record. It would have made as much sense as starting EJ Manuel.
- Drew Brees finished the season with 5,208 passing yards. He has produced five of the nine 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history. The Saints might want to try making their defense do a little more so Brees can do a little less.
- Dak Prescott broke Robert Griffin III's rookie record with a 104.9 passer rating. Roman emperors used to have advisers repeat "You are mortal" to them over and over during "triumph" parades to keep them humble. Prescott should hire someone to repeat "You could end up like Robert Griffin III" over and over for the same reason.
- Johnny Hekker set a single-season record with 51 punts inside the 20. Maybe the Rams should let Hekker conduct interviews for the next head coach.