The Road to Houston: Previewing the Divisional Playoffs

Looking ahead to the best week of the NFL 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 nrg-stadiumway 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.

Game of the Week: Clash of the Test Pilots!

Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys

If Dak Prescott has shown that he has the Right Stuff to play quarterback in the NFL like a test pilot, Aaron Rodgers has recently made it clear that he’s at the top of the pyramid. The Green Bay quarterback extends plays well past their usual crash-points, keeping on the move and eluding pressure until it’s just about impossible for the defense to maintain coverage on Packers receivers. This should be an exciting and fun game, and I have no idea how it may turn out. The Cowboys have proven sound all season, and given their performances across the entirety of the NFL season, the Dallas rookies–Prescott and running back Ezekiel  Elliott–aren’t likely to fold in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean that Dallas is the prohibitive favorite to win this game, since Green Bay is almost certain to score a lot of points.

test-pilot
Preparing for Operation Run the Table.

Back to the battle of the test pilots: while Prescott doesn’t make many mistakes, only throwing four interceptions in the regular season, the streaking Rodgers hasn’t been intercepted in eight games, and has thrown for 19 touchdowns in leading the Packers on a seven game winning streak (“running the table”). I’m really just looking forward to the game, and may the best man win.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs

I think I know what Pittsburgh’s game plan will be in Kansas City: score as much as quickly as possible (which they sure can do), forcing the Chiefs to try to play a game that isn’t their strong suit. The three B’s for the Steelers, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell, and receiver Antonio Brown, are all in peak form, as Miami witnessed first hand last weekend. Bell had more than 100 rushing yards, and Brown had more than 100 receiving yards, and each scored two touchdowns in the wild-card game. The Chiefs may respond with a few more counter-punches than we are used to seeing from them, though. Tyreek Hill scored a dozen varied touchdowns in the regular season–3 rushing, 6 receiving, and 3 on returns, qualifying himself as a one-man explosive play. Quarterback Alex Smith continues to pose a dual threat, running for 5 regular-season touchdowns and throwing for 15, so if the Chiefs’ defense can just slow down the Steelers’ offense, it could be a close, probably high-scoring, game. I give the Steelers the edge based on the “been-there/done-that” factor. Ben Roethlisberger would love to go to his third Super Bowl as the elder statesman of his team.

Houston Texans at New England Patriots

Thought Experiment: Game Planning. New England’s head coach Bill Belichick, the master of analysis, faces a fairly simple task in this game: outscore a Texans offense that doesn’t rack up many points. (In the regular season, New England averaged over 27 points per game, while Houston only averaged 17.) Even against Houston’s tough defense, the Patriots will get their points–their offense is all about moving players around to create mismatches. And even though the Texans had the best defense in the NFL by fewest-yards-allowed, guess who had the best defense by fewest-points-allowed? The Patriots.

My guess is that after studying the tape of Houston’s low-power offense, New England’s

dinky-toys
Dinky Toys Texans:  not scoring many points makes it hard to win NFL games!

coaches will try to confuse Brock Osweiler with looks he hasn’t seen or by moving players around right up to the snap. Osweiler takes a long time on each play decoding the defense and yelling out adjustments, and his (many) bad throws seem to result from him being confused on coverage. Let the Texans run the ball if they want, because they won’t score enough points that way. Eventually, Osweiler will have to pass, and the Patriots will look for opportunities to intercept those passes (Osweiler tied for fourth-most interceptions in the league during the regular season), or shut down the deep threats and force the short check-downs–again, the Texans aren’t going to score enough points that way. The Patriots are likely to play five or six defensive backs all game.

Is there any way the Texans can win this game? Yes, if their defense can force turnovers like they did against Oakland. But New England was the second-best team in the league in turn-over differential, and the team set a record by only throwing two interceptions–all regular season!  Belichick’s teams have been historically great at not turning the ball over, so this represents a slim hope for the Texans. (New England’s turnover ratio from 2013 to 2016: +25, +9, +12, +7, +12.)

Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons

This game seems the most exploratory or uncertain to me. Seattle’s defense is not quite themselves without Earl Thomas, but they are still Seattle’s defense. They’re up against the league’s top scoring offense (by a lot), though, so they will be challenged. Atlanta’s uncertainty arises from its leadership–second-year head coach Dan Quinn, who came from Seattle, and quarterback Matt Ryan, whose playoff record has been uneven. Ryan has lost five of the six playoff games he’s played in, but he had a great 2016 regular season that makes him a front-runner for MVP honors. Seattle is generally better at finding ways to win, so I give them a slight edge.

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:

47767911_High Resolution Front Cover_6181606 (2)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!

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