Monday Morning Digest: Playoff Preview and Season Wrap-Up Extravaganza
In this week's jam-packed New Year's edition of Monday Morning Digest:
- Wild-card previews for all four games, including the Bills-Jaguars matchup we never asked for but probably deserve.
- The NFC South gets three playoff berths and a lot of love. Yes, even the Falcons get some love.
- With the top of the draft order (mostly) set, we look at which teams will make which awful mistakes in which sequence.
- Patrick Mahomes gives Chiefs fans something to get excited about (besides, you know, a home playoff game and such).
- A countdown of the most dangerous teams in this year's playoffs.
And much, much more.
Happy New Year! Let's get ready for some wild-card action.
Playoff Fear Factor: Ranking the Postseason's Scariest Teams
Playoff seedings are one thing. Playoff threat levels are another. Some teams in this year's postseason field are healthier, more experienced, more explosive or just generally more worthy than the teams seeded above them.
So before we get to the playoff game previews, let's rank from top to bottom the scariest teams in the 2017 NFL postseason.
1. New England Patriots (1st Seed, AFC)
There's Tom Brady/Rob Gronkowski/Bill Belichick, as usual. There's also the potential terror of an auto-da-fe by Grand Replay Inquisitor Al Riveron. The heretics accuse me of favoring the Patriots? Blasphemy! Watch as I overturn even more touchdowns, to prove by my indifference to criticism that I am the one truly unbiased defender of rulebook orthodoxy! Muahahahahaha!
2. New Orleans Saints (4th Seed, NFC)
With the rise of the Saints running game and defense, Drew Brees is enjoying a late career similar to John Elway's collaboration with Terrell Davis or Peyton Manning's team-up with the Broncos defense a couple of years ago. You remember how those stories ended. Sunday's stumble to the Buccaneers looked more like an aberration against a team with nothing to lose than a cause for concern.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (2nd Seed, AFC)
The league's designated oversharers finally experienced a therapeutic breakthrough when they released James Harrison (and tossed all his dirty laundry on the front lawn, deadbeat husband-style). Martavis Bryant's Instagram beefs are a distant memory; he was even snowball-fighting with frenemy JuJu Smith-Schuster in the end zone Sunday! Ben Roethlisberger is no longer hearing voices in his head ordering him to throw late-game interceptions. Beware of the team that finally shuts up.
4. Minnesota Vikings (2nd Seed, NFC)
At first glance, the Vikings look like a cute little feel-good, try-hard, no-name, happy-to-be-here, playing-with-house-money playoff team. Then you realize they faced the toughest schedule of any playoff team (per Football Outsiders), are exceptionally balanced and loaded with talent at the non-glamour positions. Sunday's win was a convincing effort over a Bears team throwing a kitchen-sink playbook at them.
5. Los Angeles Rams (3rd Seed, NFC)
The strongest top-to-bottom team in the NFL, though with lots of little worries (inexperience, a backup kicker, losses to two other NFC playoff teams) that make them look more like next year's Super Bowl winner than this year's.
The Rams rested their starters in a quasi-meaningful game Sunday (the third seed was still in play) and got smoked by the San Francisco Garoppolos. So the real fear is that they will lose in the first round of the playoffs, which would get the NFL's curmudgeon coaches (most of them) blaming "lost momentum" and trigger future Week 17's full of superstars tearing ACLs for no good reason.
6. Kansas City Chiefs (4th Seed, AFC)
Forget the unstoppable early-season Chiefs, the distracted, divided, easy-to-beat midseason Chiefs and the late-season Chiefs, who were somewhere in between. The Playoff Chiefs are 1-8 in the postseason since Joe Montana retired in 1994. They'll lose to the first team that takes care of business against them.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars (3rd Seed, AFC)
The Jaguars look more like they are trying to out-Raven the Ravens than out-Seahawk the Seahawks lately.
8. Carolina Panthers (5th Seed, NFC)
They're dangerous when they are on a roll. They are not on a roll. And they were swept by the Saints this season.
9. Philadelphia Eagles (1st Seed, NFC)
Maybe Playoff Nick Foles is the new Playoff Joe Flacco. But probably not. Assuming Andrew Luck didn't bring any miracle cures for Carson Wentz back from Amsterdam or wherever, the Eagles' best hopes are their running game, their defense and the icy January weather in Philly, a potential equalizer against dome and warm-weather opponents.
10. Atlanta Falcons (6th Seed, NFC)
The only people who believe in the Atlanta Falcons less than the rest of us believe in the Atlanta Falcons are the Atlanta Falcons.
11. Los Angeles Chargers
Just kidding! They didn't make the playoffs, tiebreaker fans. Instead you have...
11. Tennessee Titans (5th Seed, AFC)
Don't look at them. It makes them nervous.
12. Buffalo Bills (6th Seed, AFC)
The AFC's least undeserving wild-card hanger-on reaches the playoffs for the first time this millennium due to tiebreaker tangles, third-string Dolphins quarterbacks and Ravens stuff. Let's be nice to them for a few days.
Wild-Card Game Spotlight: Panthers at Saints
How We Got Here
The NFC South spent the season beating each other up, resulting in three teams reaching the playoffs but none of them managing a first-round bye.
The Panthers looked distressingly flat in a 22-10 loss to the Falcons. The Saints coughed up a fumbled punt return and multiple opportunities to put the game away in a messy loss to the Buccaneers. But a regular-season sweep gave the Saints the division crown and home-field advantage next Sunday.
Keys to the Game
The Saints rushed for 149 yards and 5.5 yards per carry in their first win over the Panthers (34-13 in Charlotte in Week 3) and 148 yards and three touchdowns in their second meeting (31-21 in Week 13 in New Orleans). The Alvin Kamara-Mark Ingram ground game is critical for the Saints, particularly against the Panthers, whose pass rush can punish opponents who get into bad down-and-distance situations.
The Saints rushed for just 92 yards and 3.5 yards per carry Sunday, giving the Buccaneers extra possessions that resulted in a late comeback. They cannot let that happen next week.
Cam Newton threw for just 350 yards combined in the two losses to the Saints. The Panthers lack the receivers to challenge the New Orleans secondary. And one or two Newton miracles won't be enough to make a difference, particularly if the Saints ground game is humming.
It's hard to beat the same opponent three times in one season. Then again, there are usually good reasons why they were beat the first two times: Saints 31, Panthers 20.
Wild-Card Game Spotlight: Bills at Jaguars
How We Got Here
Why, that's a fine question. How did we get to the point in human history where the Jaguars are hosting the Bills in a wild-card game?
The Jaguars spent the season surprising opponents with a vicious defense and disguising the liabilities of their quarterback with a strong running game and outstanding field position. Their defense is no longer surprising (though it's still pretty vicious), and the Hide-a-Bortles tactics have begun to run thin.
The Bills were puttering through one of their self-defeating .500-caliber seasons when they faced the Colts and Dolphins in three of their final four games. A snowstorm against the Colts, a three-interception Jay Cutler performance, a Week 17 guest appearance by Dolphins third-stringer David Fales, a Ravens collapse and a tiebreaker technicality to trump the Chargers (who trounced them in November), and presto! The Bills are partying in the playoffs like its 1999.
The Bills, though, may be without their best player, as LeSean McCoy was carted off against the Dolphins with an ankle injury.
Keys to the Game
The Bills offense flows through McCoy and the play-action threat of McCoy. The Bills backup running backs are career practice-squadder Marcus Murphy and former Panthers fullback/glorified assistant coach Mike Tolbert. So without McCoy against a tough defense, the Bills would look like the off-brand Seahawks on offense.
Even with Shady, the Bills' best chance at victory is to force mistakes by Blake Bortles, who has thrown five interceptions in his last two games. If they cherry-pick some turnovers, use field position to set up Stephen Hauschka field goals and get a big play or two from Tyrod Taylor, there's a slim chance the Bills could beat the one NFL team more surprised to be in the postseason than they are.
Jaguars 22, Bills 17: A game that features at least two defensive/special teams touchdowns and one 55-yard field goal.
Wild-Card Game Spotlight: Titans at Chiefs
How We Got Here
The Titans needed a win over the Jaguars to clinch a playoff spot, so they ticked off all the boxes on the Titans Narrow Victory Checklist:
- Facing AFC South opponent? Check.
- Long run by Derrick Henry the only real offensive highlight? Check.
- At least one Kevin Byard interception? Check.
- Game played when the national audience was distracted by more important/interesting games? Check.
The Chiefs, as you know, played three different seasons in 2017, and two of them were good. They gave rookie Patrick Mahomes a start Sunday but still beat the Broncos. More on that later in Digest.
Key to the Game
The Titans think they win games with a creative running game and an opportunistic defense. The Chiefs actually do it.
The Chiefs are most vulnerable against opponents who can spread the field and challenge the non-Marcus Peters members of their secondary. The Titans like to constrict their formations, run between the tackles and hide the fact that Marcus Mariota has the velocity of a 45-year-old knuckleballer.
The Chiefs offense can be neutralized when Alex Smith is flushed from the pocket or placed in bad down-and-distance situations. The Titans pass rush looks great against the likes of Blaine Gabbert or Jacoby Brissett but ineffective against quarterbacks who know how to take care of themselves.
In summary, this is a best-case matchup for the Chiefs. The Titans would have been better off with a Jaguars rematch. If only the Ravens had cooperated by winning the fifth seed. The Ravens never cooperate.
Chiefs 23, Titans 16
Wild-Card Game Spotlight: Falcons at Rams
How We Got Here
The Falcons just couldn't choke hard enough when it mattered.
OK, that's mean. The Falcons endured 28-3 barbs all year, but they also carefully collected playoff tiebreakers by beating the Seahawks, Packers and Cowboys, putting themselves in position to clinch a spot with Sunday's unimpressive 22-10 victory over the Panthers. (The Seahawks self-destructed, but not before making it look like they would win despite themselves again.)
The Rams rested everyone they could and lost to Jimmy Garoppolo and the New Power Generation but claimed the third seed in the NFC playoffs anyway when the Buccaneers played spoiler against the Saints.
Key to the Game
The Rams are the NFC's best-coached team. The Falcons may be the worst, at least on offense.
The Falcons use their personnel poorly when they have the ball and are awful at situational football. They commit penalties on 3rd-and-short as if Steve Sarkisian drew up a false start for them on the sideline. The closer they get to the goal line, the more they flail. The Rams, by contrast, execute some of the most balanced, unpredictable game plans in the NFL.
The Falcons are an easy out unless Julio Jones goes ham or their defense forces you into a field-goal fest. The Rams should win easily if they don't beat themselves.
Rams 27, Falcons 16: The first Rams playoffs win since the 2004 postseason.
Player Spotlight: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs
Andy Reid rested Alex Smith and other starters in a nigh-meaningless game, giving speculators a first look at ultra-talented rookie Patrick Mahomes against a solid defense that still theoretically had something to play for (John Elway was practically on the sideline poking Broncos coach Vance Joseph in the back of the head with a stick).
Unfortunately for prospect scrutinizers, an early Kareem Hunt touchdown run and a Chiefs fumble-return touchdown left Mahomes with little to do but manage the game for much of the afternoon. Mahomes delivered a 3rd-and-long strike to Albert Wilson with a defender draped around his waist, stepped out of bounds on a would-be touchdown scramble and threw an ugly interception that sailed straight to safety Darian Stewart. He also led a late field-goal drive with a couple of sharp throws during a two-minute drill.
But Mahomes mostly looked like just another backup playing with Week 17 backups, going 22-of-35 for 284 yards and one interception in a 27-24 win.
What It Means
The shadow of Jimmy Garoppolo hangs over Mahomes and the Chiefs. Smith is no Tom Brady (good heavens), but he's a veteran who once again led his team to the playoffs this season, meaning the Chiefs must balance their short-term Super Bowl chances with a future that obviously belongs to the more talented Mahomes.
It would have been swell for Mahomes to rip off four touchdown passes and lay claim to the starting job the moment Smith falters in the playoffs. Similarly, a three-interception meltdown by Mahomes (who combines the best of Brett Favre with the absolute worst of Brett Favre) would have at least provided some clarity about his readiness level. Instead, he gave us something squarely in between.
Mahomes looked as good as advertised, made some fine throws and decisions and delivered a few clunkers. He remains the quarterback of a future that will not arrive for at least one more week.
What Happens Next
Mahomes takes a seat as Smith leads the Chiefs against the Titans. The Chiefs did determine one thing Sunday: They can move the football if their starting quarterback gets hurt. Not every playoff team can say that.
Draft Order Digest
Now that the 2018 draft order is set, let's run down the offseason priorities—and potential pitfalls—of some of the teams who have been looking to next year for weeks.
1 (and 4). Cleveland Browns
Knowing the Browns, they'll talk themselves out of the top quarterbacks in the draft (Josh Rosen doesn't like us! Baker Mayfield is too short! Lamar Jackson is a wide receiver!), come up with some defiantly ridiculous solution at the position (AJ McCarron is gonna be our Jimmy Garoppolo!) and spend more energy blaming everything on the last regime than setting up success for the current one (see: everything the team has done and said since the Sashi Brown firing).
Hue Jackson's probable retention as head coach makes this scenario even more likely.
2. New York Giants
Once new general manger Dave Gettleman helps select a head coach and fumigates the team culture, he can do what he does best: draft defensive linemen and make unpopular salary cap cuts. Just which unpopular cuts Gettleman will make are hard to predict, as there are many, many options.
3. Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck disappeared for a couple of weeks to visit some special doctors in the Netherlands. That's right, folks: The story of the 2018 Colts starts like a Pineapple Express sequel. (Or...er, Pulp Fiction).
Chuck Pagano was fired Sunday night, and the combination of Luck and a Non-Pagano could have a slingshot effect, making the Colts next year's Rams. Then again, if the Tom Cable rumors turn out to be true, Luck might as well brush up on his Dutch some more.
5. Denver Broncos
The Broncos need complete offensive remodeling, from quarterback to the skill positions to the scheme (they didn't appear to have a scheme this year). But look for John Elway to make some kind of "Look at me, I'm John Elway!" move for Kirk Cousins (Eli Manning, Sam Bradford, etc.) then draft a defensive tackle because Elway doesn't believe in drafting for needs—even gaping, critical ones.
6. New York Jets
The Jets will retain Todd Bowles, who did a fine job coaching up inferior talent this year, and GM Mike Maccagnan, a fourth-degree black belt in the martial art of drafting bad quarterbacks then blaming the team's failure on bad quarterbacking (it's a popular form of career self-defense among mediocre NFL decision-makers). Once the Jets get their quarterback, they'll realize they have many other problems.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers were as disappointing and dysfunctional as the Giants, so there's a high probability Dirk Koetter (retained because Jon Gruden was just teasing them to make the Raiders jealous) will go Full Metal McAdoo next year. At least the team's personnel priority is easy to spot: acquire edge-rushers. Lots of them.
8. Chicago Bears
The statuses of John Fox and GM Ryan Pace were up in the air at press time. No matter who is coaching or buying the groceries, a starting-caliber wide receiver or three would be nice.
9-10. San Francisco 49ers/Oakland Raiders (Coin Flip)
Two Bay Area teams, two radically different directions. The Garoppolo trade transformed the 49ers from a bottom feeder with draft day dreams to a middle-of-the-pack team that can build a contender by adding a veteran wide receiver (the draft is thin at that position) and reinforcements elsewhere.
The Raiders fired Jack Del Rio on Sunday and are preparing to relive the Gruden glory years after all the promise of last season was dashed by terrible schemes on both sides of the ball. The Raiders need innovation and motivation more than they need new players. Gruden provided both...back when you were excited you could type little messages on your flip phone.
Inside the Numbers Wild-Card Digest
This week's Inside the Numbers focuses on players who might—or might not—be useful in the wild-card round of your fantasy playoffs.
Drew Brees, Saints
Behold, the awesome, statistic-muffling power of a great running game: Brees has not thrown for over 300 yards since a Week 11 win over Washington and hasn't thrown for three touchdowns since Week 3 against the Panthers. Brees still makes a great wild-card fantasy option because: a) he has completed 74.6 percent of his passes against the Panthers this season (and a league-record 72.0 percent against the whole NFL); b) the other alternatives have names like Blake Bortles, Marcus Mariota and Tyrod Taylor; and c) he's Drew Freakin' Brees.
Kareem Hunt, Chiefs
In the three games before his one-touch, one-touchdown Week 17 effort, Hunt rushed 78 times for 362 yards and three touchdowns, adding 14 catches for 88 yards and one touchdown. The increased workload is a result of Andy Reid ceding play-calling duties to coordinator Matt Nagy—Reid has suffered from featured running back amnesia since Brian Westbrook's heyday in Philly—so look for Hunt to retain workhorse status in the playoffs.
Marcus Murphy, Bills
The Bills' starting running back if LeSean McCoy is unavailable is a former Saints seventh-round pick and sometime return specialist (he returned a punt for a touchdown against the Panthers in 2015) who had cups of coffee in Jets training camp and on the Colts practice squad before he landed with the Bills in November. He had one career rush (for zero yards) and one three-yard reception before rushing seven times for 41 yards and catching two passes for seven yards Sunday.
Remember when the Bills didn't bother matching the Patriots' tender offer for Mike Gillislee? Remember when Sean McDermott signed his over-the-hill weightlifting buddy Mike Tolbert as McCoy's backup? Here we are.
Sammy Watkins and Cooper Kupp, Rams
Watkins' red-zone statistics this season: 10 targets, seven catches, seven touchdowns, nearly all of it coming in the second half of the season. Kupp in the red zone: 20 targets, 12 catches, five touchdowns. Watkins is more likely to haul in a fade, Kupp to make a catch short of the goal line and try to knife through the defense. Kupp is valuable in PPR leagues; Watkins is nearly worthless. Whatever you decide from a playoff fantasy standpoint, remember that Sean McVay's game plan is one step ahead of you.
Matt Bryant, Falcons
Bryant was 5-of-5 on field goals and scored 16 points against the Panthers on Sunday. It was his seventh double-digit scoring game of the season. Bryant is also 17-of-20 inside 40 yards this year, making him the kicker you want in the fantasy playoffs: a veteran whose team is good enough to reach the red zone but bad enough to stumble when it gets there.
Offensive Line of the Week
The Chargers did everything they could to earn a playoff berth except hack the league computers and change the tiebreaker protocols. Their offensive line helped Melvin Gordon and Co. churn out 115 rushing yards while allowing just one sack of Philip Rivers. So let's hear it one last time for Russell Okung, Dan Feeney, Spencer Pulley, Kenny Wiggins and Joe Barksdale.
Defensive Line of the Week
If Lions head coach Jim Caldwell keeps his job, he can thank Ziggy Ansah for the three-sack performance that helped shut down the Packers and lift the Lions to 9-7.
Special Teamer of the Week
Bryce Callahan's sneaky punt-return touchdown for the Bears—he lurked near the sideline at the snap, slid under the punt while Tarik Cohen pretended to wait for it on the opposite side of the field then raced past the stunned Vikings coverage unit—may have been the cleverest thing John Fox has ever been associated with.
Acceptable Losses of the Week
Sorry, Seahawks and Ravens fans, but it was gratifying to see your teams knock themselves out of the playoffs. The Seahawks' only offensive highlights for most of their loss to the Cardinals were when they recovered their own fumbles, while the Ravens offense consisted mostly of Joe Flacco underthrowing Mike Wallace. The fact that both teams stayed in their games (and the playoff picture) until late was testimony to the weakness of the wild-card field, not the strength of either team. Maybe Sunday's losses will finally prompt both teams to get serious about fixing their offenses.
Reason to Hate the Patriots of the Week
Jets receiver Robby Anderson spiked the ball on the Patriots sideline after a first-down grab, and the ball bounced off the facemask of nearby defender Johnson Bademosi. Bademosi waited a split second then flew backward like he had just been struck by Thor's hammer. Yeah, you know what everyone wants to see these days? A call go the Patriots' way for once. Luckily, the refs didn't bite.
Perfect Summation of the Year of the Week
The Browns had a chance to pick up their first win of the season, but on 4th-and-2 in the fourth quarter against the Steelers, a short pass after a scramble by DeShone Kizer skittered through Corey Coleman's hands. It was a failure that featured two high-round draft picks from the last two seasons. Not only have there been more Star Wars movies than Browns wins in the last two years, but the team has shockingly little to show for all its draft investments.
32 Memories for 32 Teams
Let's wrap up our kickoff of the 2018 calendar year with a look back at great moments from the 2017 season for every NFL team.
Bengals: Carlos Dunlap's deflection-and-pick-six to beat the Colts.
Bills: Shady McCoy, in overtime, during nuclear winter.
Broncos: Aqib Talib punctuates a jolly stomping of the Cowboys with a 103-yard pick-six.
Browns: Josh Gordon returns with a bang. Redemption is possible, even when victory is elusive.
Buccaneers: A rare moment of creativity and delight in a lost season: the Leonard Wester tackle-eligible surprise.
Chargers: Poor Nathan Peterman.
Chiefs: It's hard to top Kareem Hunt stunning the Patriots on opening night.
Colts: Players (and others) kicking snow away for Adam Vinatieri's corkscrew extra point in a Buffalo blizzard.
Dolphins: Xavien Howard's two-interception Monday night masterpiece proves Tom Brady is mortal.
Eagles: Pinpointing the moment Philadelphia fell hopelessly in love with Carson Wentz.
Giants: Odell Beckham Jr.'s ray-of-hope Warm-up Watched Around the League in Week 2. (It's been a rough year, Giants fans.)
Jaguars: Five interceptions and a blowout of the Steelers herald a new era of Jaguars football.
Jets: Those who scoffed at Josh McCown-to-Jermaine Kearse were doomed to be foiled by them like the Chiefs were.
Lions: Staying alive in the playoff race by turning Ford Field into Radio City Music Hall.
Niners: Jimmy Garoppolo's first game-winning drive signals the future has arrived in San Francisco.
Panthers: "You've been watching film, huh? That's cool. Watch this."
Patriots: That night when even the fog is on their side.
Raiders: The Thursday Night Flea-Flicker, as all went (briefly) right for Amari Cooper and the Raiders.
Rams: Handoff to Todd Gurley II on 3rd-and-20? Against the Seahawks? Of course that's a touchdown!
Ravens: Even the classic Ravens never delivered a drubbing like the one the Dolphins suffered in Week 8.
Redskins: Kirk Cousins to a diving Josh Doctson to set up a game-winning touchdown in Seattle. You definitely like that.
Saints: You may not know what a catch is, but Alvin Kamara does.
Titans: Derrick Henry seals a win with a long touchdown, raises the Titans to 8-4.
Vikings: The Undrafted Duo of Case Keenum and Adam Thielen convince their few remaining doubters against the Rams.