Looking ahead to the first week of the playoffs.
The road to the Super Bowl is long, winding through 17 weeks of the regular season, and then a narrowed field navigates a month-long playoff tournament. Every team imagines they are on their way to Houston, host to this year’s Super Bowl . . .
The NFL is a competitive environment of ever-increasing intensity, evidenced by the number of teams that spiral, year upon year of a particular coaching regime, up the levels of the playoffs. —Farewell to Football (p. 274). CLICK HERE to order a copy in paperback or Kindle format.
The Really Good Team (AFC first-round byes)
- New England Patriots
- Kansas City Chiefs
New England led the AFC in scoring (3rd in the NFL), averaging 27.6 points per game, and they led the league in point differential, outscoring their opponents by 191 points. They come into the playoffs with the league’s best record at 14-2, and they’re hot, having won their last seven games. I think that’s the definition of prohibitive favorites to go to the Super Bowl. The Chiefs are a very solid team, but Andy Reid has never shown himself to be a very good “big-game” coach, while that’s pretty much Bill Belichick’s middle name.
AFC Wild-Card Playoff Games
Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans (Saturday afternoon)
The big question in this game will be “who’s playing quarterback?” The Raiders lost their emerging star and team leader Derek Carr to a broken leg week before last, and then back-up Matt McGloin was put out of the game by a vicious hit from Denver defensive
lineman Jared Crick. McGloin or his replacement Connor Cook may start for Oakland. Houston could be led by either Brock Osweiler, who replaced Tom Savage after he was taken out of the last game of the season with a concussion, or by Savage, who replaced Osweiler in the middle of the Jacksonville game after Osweiler threw two first-half interceptions. Yes, Coach Bill O’Brien is back to playing the Quarterback Shuffle!
It may not matter who plays quarterback for Houston, since their offensive line has been so bad that neither Savage nor Osweiler has had time in the pocket to get much of a passing game going. Honestly, Houston is balanced in how ineffective their blocking, and thus their offense, has been: they were at the bottom of the league in both rushing
touchdowns (only 8 all season) and passing touchdowns (15). They had fewer total touchdowns than Buffalo–a team that failed to make the playoffs–had rushing touchdowns. There’s a reason I call it the Dinky Toys offense, as the Texans are ranked 29th in the 32-team league in both yards and points.
Even if they can beat the quarterback-challenged Raiders (and they do have the league’s top defense, led by Jadeveon Clowney, who’s finally playing like a #1 overall draft pick), the Texans aren’t likely to go anywhere in the playoffs scoring an average of 17 points per game. All the other AFC teams in the playoff tournament average more than 22.
Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday noon)
The Dolphins are playing with a back-up quarterback, too, while Pittsburgh comes in with a top-10 offense led by three B’s: quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell, and wide receiver Antonio Brown. (Roethlisberger threw for more touchdowns than the Houston Texans scored altogether.) The Dolphins are just taking their first steps up Playoff Mountain this year under new coach Adam Gase, not having made the tournament since 2008.
The Really Good Teams (NFC first-round byes)
- Dallas Cowboys
- Atlanta Falcons
The Cowboys finished the season with the best record in the NFC, 13-3, and demonstrated remarkable offensive balance throughout the regular season. They scored 25 passing touchdowns (good for #14 in the NFL) and 24 rushing touchdowns (#2 in the NFL). Most
everyone agrees that their strategic plan of drafting offensive linemen year after year has paid off, with rookies Dak Prescott at quarterback and Ezekiel Elliott at running back benefiting tremendously from the best line in the NFL. The Falcons led the league in scoring and were at the top of the heap in most measures of the offense. The question will be how far into the playoffs second-year head coach Dan Quinn can take the team.
NFC Wild-Card Playoff Games
Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks (Saturday evening)
The Lions are going to have a hard time getting out of Seattle with a win. Quarterback Matthew Stafford has been bothered by a finger injury, and Seattle still fields a strong and opportunistic defense, even without injured Earl Thomas tying together the defensive backs. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson seems to be hitting his post-season stride, a threat to defenses with both his arm and his legs (and mobile quarterback Aaron Rodgers decimated Detroit in the last game of the regular season Sunday night).
New York Giants at Green Bay Packers (Sunday afternoon)
As Deadspin detailed, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is playing pretty well going into the playoffs. So is New York quarterback Eli Manning, and the Giants may have the better defense–certainly they are healthier in the secondary than are the Packers. This is likely to be the game everyone will be talking about come Monday morning.
The Good News!
Even if the Texans burn out in the playoffs, you can spend some winter days reading my book, after you take a 15% discount on the paperback format:
Farewell to Football? An American Fan’s Examination of Conscience. Click here to order a copy in paperback or Kindle format.
BLOG-READERS’ DISCOUNT: To receive a 15% discount on my peculiar spiritual memoir: Click on THIS LINK, click on “Add to Cart” button, and enter the discount code UQAEWA7F in the box in the lower right hand corner of the “Shopping Cart” page, and get 15% off!