Monday Morning Digest: Breaking Down the NFL's Final Four

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 16, 2017

Monday Morning Digest: Breaking Down the NFL's Final Four

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    The NFL's final four may give you a case of what Yogi Berra used to call "deja vu all over again."

    The Patriots have reached the AFC Championship Game every year since 2011. The Packers won the Super Bowl after the 2010 season and have reached the final four two other times in the last decade. The Steelers have gotten here five times since 2000. Even the Falcons were here back in 2012.

    We must go back to 2009 to find a season in which none of this year's final four teams were involved in the conference championship games. That was the year the Saints beat the Colts in the Super Bowl; you probably remember the onside kick. The Saints beat the Vikings to reach the Super Bowl, while the Colts knocked off the Jets.

    So the last time the Patriots, Packers, Falcons and Steelers were all watching the conference championships on television, Brett Favre was still in the NFL and Mark Sanchez was good.

    This year's final four may look a little familiar, but that doesn't mean the home stretch of the 2016 season will be predictable. This week's Digest takes a look at the remaining teams and matchups while also keeping you up to date on the coaching carousel and other league news.

    It all starts with the question that only Earl Thomas dared to ask: Did the Patriots have it easy this year?

Did the Patriots Take Easy Street to the AFC Championship Game?

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    Most of us look at the Patriots and see, well, the Patriots: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, a deep supporting cast, great schemes, playoff experience and an almost insurmountable home-field advantage.

    Injured Seahawks All-Pro safety Earl Thomas sees something different. "Tom Brady has the easiest route... put his ass in our division and see what he does!!! #salty!!" Thomas tweeted Saturday.

    Thomas isn't your everyday hater, and he cannot be the only one who thinks the Patriots got a boost from a weak schedule, the injury-fueled Raiders collapse and other factors that allowed them to wait around Foxborough for Brock Osweiler to show up with a bunch of interceptions in his back pocket.

    Does Thomas have a point? Let's break down some facts. 

    • The Patriots did have the NFL's easiest schedule, according to Football Outsiders, which ranks schedule strength according to a mathematical formula.
    • Thomas' Seahawks faced the sixth-easiest schedule in the NFL. Thomas may have forgotten the NFC West ceased being football's toughest division the first time Jim Harbaugh slammed an office door on Trent Baalke.
    • The FO strength-of-schedule system does not account for injuries or suspensions. So it does not know the Patriots faced the Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger. It also does not know the Patriots beat two quality opponents and a division foe during the Tom Brady suspension or suffered one of their two losses with an injured, rookie, third-string quarterback in the huddle.
    • "Easy schedule" arguments hold water when some team wins and reaches the playoffs thanks to a bunch of narrow victories. The Patriots went 14-2. The Seahawks reached the playoffs by beating two teams that had already fired their coaches and the Panthers in their "let's manufacture a drama" mode. If any division leader besides the Texans rode their schedule into the postseason, it was the Seahawks.
    • One reason the Patriots' schedule appears easy is they have dominated the AFC East for so long that: a) we perceive the other three teams as also-rans, even when a team like the Dolphins has a good season; and b) the Jets, Dolphins and Bills are always changing in an often self-defeating effort to catch up. In other words, the Patriots have done a lot in the last 15 years to make life in the AFC East easier on themselves.

    The bottom line is the Patriots would be the Patriots in any division. They would earn first-round playoff byes, home games and the chance to beat up on some team that got lucky in the Wild Card Round.

    Thomas' Seahawks were also an elite team for a few years. Many thought they would still be playing this week. They aren't, and it has nothing to do with the schedule.

    That's not saltiness Thomas is tasting. It's sour grapes. 

Final Four Spotlight: Packers

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    Heading Into the NFC Title Game

    The Packers coughed up 21-3 and 28-13 leads against the Cowboys, eventually squeaking out a 34-31 lead at the final gun with the help of garden-variety Aaron Rodgers heroics.

             

    What They Do Best

    Rodgers is the Packers, from his ability to place deep passes to his receivers, just between a defender and the sideline, to his knack for catching the defense for a 12-men-on-the-field foul during substitutions.

    When Rodgers is dialed in and getting a little support from the rest of the team, even hard counts before the snap can be an adventure for opponents. The Cowboys revealed all of their blitz and coverage secrets to Rodgers by jumping and twitching after his hard counts in the first half. Some of them looked ready to hand him their credit card information.

               

    What They Do Worst

    The Packers' lack of a traditional running back shows when they are trying to nurse leads against quality opponents. They ran just 17 times against the Cowboys on Sunday despite leading for most of the game. When stuck deep in their own territory, the Packers were reduced to plunging fullback Aaron Ripkowski into the line. When opponents can disrespect the run, Rodgers starts facing intricate blitzes.

    The Packers secondary collapsed in the middle of the season because of multiple injuries, so the health status of safety Morgan Burnett (quad injury Sunday) must be monitored carefully.

                   

    Matchup to Watch Against Atlanta

    The Packers defense likes to stay in a base 2-4-5 personnel grouping, even on early downs against strong rushing teams. Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 125 yards against the Packers, and he could have done more damage if they did not lead for most of the game.

    The Falcons' running game can be just as effective as the Cowboys'. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman could make the Packers pay for their all-nickel, all-the-time approach, especially if the game stays close.

                    

    Bottom Line

    The Packers' Super Bowl hopes ride not with Rodgers, but with the health of Burnett, Jordy Nelson and cornerback Quinten Rollins, as well as Mike McCarthy's ability to keep their offense semi-balanced.

    If the Packers are banged up in the secondary and predictable on offense, all the Hail Marys in the convent won't save them.

Final Four Spotlight: Falcons

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    Heading Into the NFC Title Game

    The Falcons cut through the vaunted Seahawks defense like a bread knife through mayonnaise in Saturday's 36-20 victory. The Falcons have won their last five games by an average score of 38-19. They're on a bit of a roll.

                    

    What They Do Best

    The Falcons are particularly efficient on first downs, where they averaged 5.21 yards per rush and 10.06 yards per pass during the regular season, according to NFL GSIS.

    Think about it: The average Falcons pass on first down results in a first down. With a balanced offense, solid offensive line, gobs of weapons, MVP-caliber play from Matt Ryan and superlative game-planning by Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons are nearly unstoppable on offense.

                  

    What They Do Worst

    The Falcons allowed 4.5 yards per rush and ranked 29th in the NFL in run defense, according to Football Outsiders. Their best run defense has been an offense that forces opponents to throw the ball to catch up.

                   

    Matchup to Watch Against Green Bay

    Taylor Gabriel (pictured) was a matchup headache for the Seahawks with four catches for 71 yards against nickel and dime defenders. With the Packers secondary depleted by injuries, Gabriel could run wild.

    Micah Hyde may be the best option the Packers have for covering Gabriel, but using Hyde in man coverage limits some of the blitzes and wrinkles the Packers like to throw at opponents.

                  

    Bottom Line

    The Falcons are the NFC's best team. No one noticed because their schedule was difficult, they lost a few close games and they just couldn't compete with America's Team and the dueling Best Rookie Ever nominees when it came to getting the national spotlight.

    Next week, they should prove who they really are against a banged-up, one-dimensional ("Save us, Aaron Rodgers!") opponent.

Final Four Spotlight: Steelers

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    Heading Into the AFC Title Game

    The Steelers stole a script from their archrivals in Baltimore, beating the Chiefs 18-16 on the strength of six Chris Boswell field goals and holding on for dear life in the fourth quarter. It was a Ravens-style win, meaning it was a less than convincing one.

              

    What They Do Best

    Antonio Brown is the hardest receiver to cover in the NFL. Federal law requires us to mention that Le'Veon Bell's patience makes him one of the hardest backs in the league to stop.

    The Steelers defense ranked second in the NFL in goal-line stops, allowing touchdowns in 57.7 percent of goal-to-go plays, according to NFL GSIS.

                             

    What They Do Worst

    The Steelers committed 1,068 yards in penalties during the regular season, the sixth-highest total in the NFL. Cornerbacks Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell combined for 29 penalties.

    The Steelers were flagged for 11 unnecessary roughness penalties, seven facemask penalties and three roughing-the-passer fouls. After some nasty helmet-to-helmet hits over the last two weeks, referees will be watching them closely.

                  

    Matchup to Watch Against New England

    Football Outsiders ranks the Steelers as the worst team in the NFL at shutting down their opponent's No. 1 wide receiver. Look for Julian Edelman to have a big day...or for the Steelers secondary to rack up a bunch of flags trying to stop him.

              

    Bottom Line

    The Steelers rely heavily on a handful of front-line players and are sloppy in many areas of the game the Patriots will find ways to exploit. No matter how good Bell, Brown and Ben Roethlisberger are, it takes more than three guys to beat the Patriots in Foxborough.

Final Four Spotlight: Patriots

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    Heading Into the AFC Title Game

    The Patriots played their sloppiest game of the season Saturday, not counting the time they made injured rookie Jacoby Brissett run out the Deflategate clock against the Bills like some Triple-A pitcher eating the back end of an August doubleheader.

    As a consequence of several first-half turnovers, a poor performance by their running game and an uncharacteristically weak effort by Tom Brady, the Patriots barely covered a 16.5-point playoff spread, per OddsShark.

                

    What They Do Best

    The Patriots are best at being the Patriots. No team is better at exploiting opponents' weaknesses while compensating for its own. On the rare occasions the Patriots look bad, like they did for the second quarter Saturday, they find ways to make the opponent look worse.

    The Patriots have been particularly stingy at allowing big rushing plays: Opponents had just three rushing plays longer than 20 yards during the regular season, the lowest figure in the NFL. It's just one of many little ways the Patriots make sure they are in position to dominate the game, even if Brady isn't glowing and levitating.

                  

    What They Do Worst

    According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots had the third-best pass defense in the league on throws to the left but ranked 29th in stopping throws to the right.

    The difference is probably not as great since Eric Rowe started playing outside cornerback, with Logan Ryan (pictured) in more of a havoc-causing slot role. Or maybe the field at Foxborough is slightly tilted and only Bill Belichick knows about it. Brace yourself, America, for #Levelgate.

                 

    Matchup to Watch Against Pittsburgh

    Rowe and Malcolm Butler will likely share responsibilities covering Antonio Brown, with safeties providing plenty of over-the-top help. But Belichick often does unconventional things to shut down top receivers.

    Expect disguised coverages, linebackers buzzing underneath Brown's routes and other wrinkles, especially since the rest of the Steelers' receiving corps isn't particularly frightening.

                

    Bottom Line

    The Patriots are the Patriots are the Patriots. They have more ways of beating you, or making you beat yourself, than any other team in NFL history. Pick against them at your own peril.

Final Four Ranking Digest

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    Offensive Lines

    1. Steelers: Great pass protectors who get bonus points for run blocking effectively despite the fact that they have no freakin' clue what Le'Veon Bell is planning to do when he takes a handoff.

    2. Falcons: Excellent at run blocking, good enough in pass protection.

    3. Packers: Exceptional pass protectors, particularly left tackle David Bakhtiari.

    4. Patriots: What looks like great pass protection is often really Tom Brady's pocket presence and decisiveness. Still, this is the best Patriots line since about 2011.

               

    Defensive Fronts

    1. Patriots: An incredibly deep and versatile group.

    2. Packers: Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, Mike Daniels and some inside linebackers who run around and look busy.

    3. Steelers: In a strange development, the Steelers are short on quality edge-rushers, at least in the under-35 demographic.

    4. Falcons: Full of young, rapidly improving players, which is not the same as being full of Super Bowl-caliber players.

                

    Secondaries

    1. Patriots: They can go six deep and still get matchups that Bill Belichick wants.

    2. Packers: Even without Morgan Burnett and Quinten Rollins healthy.

    3. Falcons: Safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal are fine. The cornerbacks would have been scorched Saturday if the Seahawks believed in blocking.

    4. Steelers: As inexperienced as the Falcons secondary but more likely to draw a penalty.

                  

    Special Teams

    1. Patriots: Stephen Gostkowski's midseason slump is long forgotten. Dion Lewis' touchdown against the Texans is not.

    2. Falcons: Reliable kicking, sound coverage, nuttin' fancy in the return game.

    3. Packers: Vulnerable kick-coverage units. Christine Michael waiting to make a disaster happen on kickoffs.

    4. Steelers: When Antonio Brown is still a team's primary return man, it's a sign that it is not as focused on special teams as it should be.

                

    Coaching

    1. Patriots: Bill Belichick and his staff.

    2-3. Long pause...

    4. Everybody else. 

Digestible Nuggets

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    One last look back at teams that were eliminated this weekend.

              

    Cowboys

    The Cowboys are one pass-rusher away from the Super Bowl and should remain contenders for a long time.

    The Tony Romo situation is their only potential stumbling block. As long as Romo remains in Dallas, Dak Prescott will be a couple of bad throws away from a storyline, and Jerry Jones is more susceptible than most NFL decision-makers to get swept up in a storyline.

    The Cowboys need to trade Romo for whatever they can get or just release him and do a year of salary-cap penance.

                

    Texans

    Both head coach Bill O'Brien and general manager Rick Smith are expected to return next season. They must work together to solve the Brock Osweiler riddle they created for themselves instead of playing the blame game for what may go down as the biggest free-agent quarterback mistake in history.

    O'Brien may push Tom Savage as the solution in order to strengthen his street cred as a quarterback developer. Smith may look to the draft for a chance to start over. Texans fans must hope they act in the best interests of the team instead of trying to vindicate themselves.  

                

    Chiefs

    If you are wondering how far a team can go with Alex Smith at quarterback, the Chiefs have spent three years answering that question. It's a tricky place for an organization to be in: The Chiefs need a quarterback upgrade to break through and become Super Bowl contenders, but handing the job to a rookie will probably set them back at least one year.

    Oh, and it was holding, Chiefs fans. Clear, obvious holding, in plain view, which had a major impact on the outcome of the play. What Eric Fisher did to James Harrison will draw a penalty nine times out of 10, and the 10th time would be the blown call.

                

    Seahawks

    If they stay in their jobs, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and offensive line coach Tom Cable should be forced to watch Russell Wilson's foot-stomp safety (pictured) on a continuous loop with their eyes pried open, A Clockwork Orange-style.

    That way, the next time either tries to experiment with an offensive line full of late-round picks, out-of-position players and power forwards who played left tackle in junior high, he will fall to the ground with convulsions.

    If the 49ers actually make Cable their head coach, their next quarterback should invest in some steel-toed cleats.

Coaching Carousel Digest

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    Tom Coughlin, Jaguars Chief of Football Operations

    Tom Coughlin started his introductory press conference five minutes early, which may have been the most Coughlin thing that Coughlin has ever done.

    He has always been a grinder who wants to know how the fifth-round pick is doing in his positional drills, so it will be interesting to learn whether his new supervisory role becomes "tone-setter and big-picture thinker for the franchise" or "micromanager who drives everyone nuts."

    The fact that the Jaguars staff is filling up with old Giants assistants may be a sign of which way things are leaning.

             

    Doug Marrone, Jaguars Head Coach

    Did anyone outside of team headquarters look at the 2016 Jaguars and say, "Oh yeah, all this team needs is a promotion from within"? It remains to be seen whether Doug Marrone's primary skill is doing the job or merely getting the job.

               

    Vance Joseph, Broncos Head Coach

    Vance Joseph on the Broncos: "This is not a rebuilding situation; it's a reboot."

    Is reboot the right word? It sounds a little too close to "we're starting over."

    What Joseph should have said was: "The Broncos are like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Everything is usually awesome. But last season was like Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Gary Kubiak burned out like Joss Whedon. So I am here to make sure the Captain America movies and Infinity Gauntlet are awesome." 

    Then again, John Elway might hear all of that pop-culture gobbledygook and immediately call Kyle Shanahan.

    Many have noticed that Joseph's Dolphins defense did not exactly resemble the 1985 Bears this year. But as a general rule, it's better to hire a coach based on his managerial, communication and adaptability skills than based on the ranking of the unit he coached.

               

    Anthony Lynn, Chargers Head Coach

    Ken Whisenhunt is reportedly staying on as Anthony Lynn's offensive coordinator. Lynn rose through the ranks as a running backs coach in conservative Brian Schottenheimer and Greg Roman systems. Whisenhunt designs intricate passing games that work for established Pro Bowl quarterbacks, and only established Pro Bowl quarterbacks.

    They will either merge to give the Chargers the best of both worlds or the team will head to Los Angeles with built-in friction between the new coach and the experienced, well-known coordinator.

                 

    Sean McDermott, Bills Head Coach

    Sean McDermott (pictured) is from the Andy Reid family tree by way of Ron Rivera. He is straightforward and detail-oriented.

    This is in contrast to the bluster and inability to sweat even the medium-sized stuff of the person he's replacing, Rex Ryan.

    It's like dating someone on the rebound who is the exact opposite of your ex. A shockingly large number of head coaching changes fit into the "rebound" category.

    The Bills need McDermott's no-nonsense approach. They also need a quarterback and a front office that isn't openly trying to sabotage its quarterback.

Fantasy Cheat Sheet

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    Daily fantasy rankings, not real-life rankings, folks. (That disclaimer was entirely for Patriots fans.)

              

    Quarterback

    1. Aaron Rodgers; 2. Matt Ryan; 3. Tom Brady; 4. Ben Roethlisberger. If you don't love Aaron Rodgers against the Falcons defense, then you don't love fantasy football.

               

    Running Back

    1. Le'Veon Bell; 2. Devonta Freeman; 3. LeGarrette Blount (pictured); 4. Ty Montgomery; 5. Tevin Coleman; 6. Dion Lewis; 7. DeAngelo Williams as Bell insurance; 8. Aaron Ripkowski; 9. Some Patriots Third-Stringer You Never Heard Of; 10. Going Entirely Without a Running Back; 11. Christine Michael.

                 

    Wide Receiver

    1. Antonio Brown; 2. Julio Jones; 3. Julian Edelman; 4. Davante Adams; 5. Randall Cobb; 6. Taylor Gabriel; 7. Eli Rogers; 8. Chris Hogan; 9. Mohamed Sanu; 10. Geronimo Allison; 11. Some Mystery Falcons Receiver; 12. Danny Amendola; 13. Is Sammie Coates still on the Steelers roster? He is? Well, Sammie Coates then. ... Jordy Nelson ranks second on this list if he is healthy.

               

    Tight End

    1. Martellus Bennett; 2. Jared Cook; 3. Austin Hooper; 4. Richard Rodgers; 5. Hoping Ladarius Green Clears Concussion Protocol; 6. Jesse James; 7. Some Falcons Backup Tight End You Have Never Heard Of; 8. The Falcons Backup Tight End You Have Heard Of (Levine Toilolo). Bennett had just one catch against the Texans, but keep in mind that he scored three touchdowns in the Patriots' final four regular-season games.

                

    Kicker

    1. Matt Bryant; 2. Mason Crosby; 3. Stephen Gostkowski; 4. Chris Boswell. Think "shootout in a dome." Boswell isn't going to have another six-figgie performance.

              

    Defense

    1. Patriots; 2. Falcons; 3. Packers; 4. Steelers. The Falcons have five defensive touchdowns this season. But if you are looking for big defensive plays in the postseason, start with the Patriots at home, especially since Ben Roethlisberger has been a little generous with the interceptions lately.

News Wrap-Up

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    There was plenty of NFL news this week that didn't involve the final four or head coach hires.

    Chargers move to Los Angeles. They have a portfolio of glamorous headshots, 100 copies of their screenplay, a good lead on an agent and spunk, not to mention a goofy logo. They may not make it big, but then again, the Chargers always were the NFL team most likely to wind up on midnight Cinemax.

    Mike Zimmer casts doubts on Teddy Bridgewater's 2017 availability. The universe is coming up with increasingly cruel ways to give Sam Bradford additional chances to earn $17 million.

    Ravens hire Greg Roman as an offensive assistant/tight ends coach. Have you ever watched a cartoon where the villain builds a death ray, but the death ray has a self-destruct switch the heroes easily locate? Have you ever wondered why cartoon villains build self-destruct switches into their death rays? If so, you should also wonder why the Ravens keep building them into their offensive coordinator situations.

    Bears sign Rueben Randle. Randle will be the subject of numerous "redemption" stories in minicamp, will make two obvious errors per practice in training camp and will get cut by Labor Day. It's a shame Randle and Jay Cutler are unlikely to ever share the same field. The scowls after the first miscommunication would be worth the admission price.

    Devin Hester announces retirement plans after Saturday's Seahawks loss. In Seahawks fashion, he went out with a bang. Which was called back due to a holding penalty.

    Buccaneers retain Mike Smith as defensive coordinator. The Redskins and Panthers are experiencing a coordinator "brain drain" right now that could keep them stuck in the NFC's middle tier. Look at how losing assistant coaches kept the Bengals in second gear for many years. The Buccaneers could get an edge by maintaining continuity.

    Jim Irsay pursued Jon Gruden and Peyton Manning for coaching/executive positions. Why did Irsay stop when he could have held a seance to land Vince Lombardi and Alexander the Great? Irsay's quest for bigger-name football talent would have severely undermined Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano if anyone still had any trust or confidence in them.

    Ringling Bros. Circus will close after over 100 years. Darn it, Rob Ryan just finished typing his cover letter.

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