Players to Watch, Matchups to Keep an Eye On in Super Bowl LI

It is Super Bowl week. Both conference representatives, the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots, have arrived in Houston. There will be a lot to discuss all week. The headlines began a week ago: “Goodell Versus Brady”; “Can Matty Ice Cap His MVP Season with a SB Title?”; “The Belichick-Brady Drive for 5”; “Atlanta’s Quest for First Championship”.

We attempt to delve into some of those topics and much more, as we key in on some intriguing questions and matchups as the big game draws near.

 

Non-Quarterback MVP

This is a QB award and we know it. Of the 50 Super Bowl MVP trophies that have been handed out, 27 have gone to the quarterback position. So let’s eliminate Tom Brady and Matt Ryan from this discussion and look at some other guys who might be able to buck the trend and walk away with the hardware.

Vic Beasley — A quiet 15.5 sacks this season for the second year linebacker put him tops in the league in that category. Atlanta better come strong after Tom Brady, and you can imagine, if they do, that Beasley will be leading that charge.

Julian Edelman — The Atlanta defense can be run on. No team uses the short passing game as an extension of their running game more effectively than the Patriots. And few receivers (or running backs for that matter) in the league are as elusive, quick, or can take a hit quite like number 11 can. If Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady decide to attack that weakness of the Falcons defense, Edelman could be the beneficiary.

Others to Watch: Julio Jones — the guy is as good a receiver as there is in the league and Matt Ryan will certainly be looking to get him involved early and often; LeGarrette Blount — it would be just like the Pats to switch from throwing the ball all over the field to pounding the rock.

 

Surprise Breakout Performance

There are countless players who over the years have saved their best performances for the biggest stage. Some parlayed the performance into regular national recognition as a top player at their position — Malcolm Butler, for example; others did not see much come of their one-hit wonder performance in the big game — Chris Matthews and his 4 catches, 109 yards in Super Bowl XLIX two years ago for the Seahawks in a losing effort or Dexter Jackson in Tampa Bay’s victory in 2002. Who will hear his name called numerous times this Sunday by Joe Buck and Troy Aikman during the broadcast?

Taylor Gabriel is an explosive, fast receiver, and if the Patriots plan on bringing the safety up to help defend Julio Jones, Gabriel should enjoy some space downfield against the Patriots third cornerback. New England has perfected the “bend but don’t break” defense — give up the yards but hunker down and stop teams from getting into the endzone. Gabriel is just the type of player who can find space and collect yards downfield on this defense.

On the New England side, they have so many weapons. So this answer really boils down to who Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Tom Brady want to use to exploit matchups on Sunday. For me, I think running back James White has been a little too quiet this postseason — like, is-he-even-on-the-team quiet. One carry, four catches for 27 yards, and a TD is the totality of White’s postseason. Brady likes throwing to him out of the backfield and will even line him up as a receiver at times. How Atlanta guards against him might be more than that defense can handle.

Others to watch: Austin Hooper (ATL tight end) — second best TE in the NFL as far as DVOA goes; Aldrick Robinson (ATL wide receiver) — speed kills; Kyle Van Noy (NE linebacker) — most productive defensive player for the Patriots in their win over Pittsburgh.

 

Matchup to Watch

The fun, headline-grabbing matchup is the one happening on the edge, between all-pro WR Julio Jones and Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler. While that could very well be an exciting matchup, the one that could determine the game will be fought down in the trenches — as it oftentimes is: Atlanta’s pass rush versus the New England offensive line.

The Patriots o-line was their major weakness in 2015-16, and may have been the biggest contributing factor as to why they lost to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship. Brady was hit — a lot. Brady was made uncomfortable — a lot. Brady felt pressure up the middle, in his face — a lot. Seemingly, every time he dropped back to pass, he was hurried and rushing his throws. So New England did what New England does — they made a point to fix it by hiring former Patriots (and at the time retired) offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. For what it’s worth, Brady has been extraordinarily complimentary of his blockers up front — whether that’s true praise or whether it’s simply knowing where your proverbial bread is buttered, can be debated.

But the stats do bear it out: according to Football Outsiders, New England’s offensive line ranks 6th in pass protection. How that unit stacks up against the league’s best sack artist, Vic Beasely, could tell the story of Super Bowl LI.

Others to Watch: LeGarrette Blount versus all 11 Atlanta defenders at once (you did see the run against the Steelers, right?); and of course, the aforementioned Julio versus Butler.

 

Under the Most Pressure

Hard selection on the New England side. Who really on that sideline has a lot to prove? Certainly not Belichick or Brady — their legacies are firmly cemented and each will already go down as two of the very best, if not THE best, at their respective jobs. So how about the hero from Super Bowl XLIX — Malcolm Butler? The undrafted cornerback has already defied odds and expectations by making it to the NFL, winning a Super Bowl, and making, quite possibly, the biggest interception in Super Bowl history. So how, you ask, is Butler the one with the most pressure on him? Well for starters, it’s difficult finding any Patriot with an ounce of pressure on them — so you might need to stretch it a bit. Secondly, Butler has the task of shadowing the league’s best and most dangerous wide receiver in Julio Jones. And his tweet that became public from years ago about wanting to cover Jones will have a way of getting the media’s attention all week.

You could make a strong case for the entire Atlanta or New England defenses as well — both have the challenge of facing highly-potent offenses. Also, of course, Matt Ryan faces the pressure of closing out his magical, probable-MVP season with a win in Houston.

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

 

 

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Federer’s Brilliance on Full Display ‘Down Under’

It’s been 4 and a half years  since Roger Federer — tennis’s greatest player of all time — last hoisted a Grand Slam trophy. Injuries, new young and up-and-coming talent, and Father Time have all had a hand in keeping Fed winless in the sports most glamorous events. After securing a record 17 Grand Slam championships at Wimbledon in 2012, Federer has gone 0-3 in Grand Slam finals since. He easily could have 20 by now — heck, in 2012 no one had any right to believe Roger couldn’t win multiple slams each year for as many more years as he wished to play. That was naive, of course. That’s part of the beauty of being so great. When you’re on the top of the mountain, it’s impossible to imagine them not being there. Implausible to believe time would catch up to them, that others could overtake them, that the greats always fade away. Then, in the blink of an eye, that’s exactly what happened.

Over the last few seasons, Roger Federer seemed to be as mortal as any other player to pick up a tennis racquet. Sort of.  Well, maybe that’s slightly unfair, but when comparing Federer to, well, Federer, he was greatly underachieving. The 2013 campaign saw the living legend win only one tournament, no Grand Slams, and slip in the world rankings down to 6. And while the 2014 and ’15  seasons went much better — multiple runner-up finishes at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Federer still couldn’t add to his 17 major championships.

Then came last year.

As difficult as it was to imagine his descent in 2012, it was equally difficult to envision him winning another Slam after the tumultuous 2016 season he endured, which saw him pack up and disappear from sight in the middle of the summer. Knee surgery early in the year left the Swiss Wizard hobbled and without confidence on the court.

So when seedings were released for the Australian Open, it may have been hard to swallow, seeing Fed on the 17th line, but it wasn’t surprising — maybe the biggest surprise was that he was even playing tennis still, not where he was seeded.

But now, here we are, the weekend of the Australian Open final and look who’s preparing to play in his 28th Grand Slam championship match — another one of his many records. Yep, you guessed it.

Federer’s run in Melbourne has been magical and few could honestly say they predicted this. The man’s 35 years old — practically AARP-age in the tennis world; he’s a year removed from knee surgery; he hadn’t played competitive tennis in basically six months; and he had a tough road to hoe just to make it to the quarterfinals — playing and beating three top-10 players en route to Sunday’s finale.

When he takes Rod Laver Court on Sunday in search of an 18th Grand Slam title and a fifth Aussie Open championship, Federer will become the oldest man to reach a Slam final since 1974. Just add it to the resume of amazing feats that he continues to accomplish.

And if you thought the story couldn’t be written any better, Federer will need to beat longtime on-court nemesis and owner of 14 Grand Slam titles himself, Rafael Nadal, to complete the storybook ending. The calendar may say 2017, but looking at the Australian Open this weekend, it sure feels like 2005.

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

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30 Patriots-Falcons Super Bowl LI Facts

Hold on tight, everyone. We’ve got two weeks — 12 days exactly — before the next and last football game is played this season. So we’ve got a lot to cram in.

I’m hearing, and you’re probably hearing and reading too, that Super Bowl LI has the potential to be one of the great championship finales of all-time. It certainly provides  the matchups — Julio Jones versus Malcolm Butler; the heroes — probable MVP and all around great guy Matty Ice making his first appearance in the Super Bowl; the greats — Tom Brady and Bill Belichick; the legacies — again, Brady and Belichick; the intrigue — commissioner Roger Goodell versus all of New England. What doesn’t this game have?

But all this talk and hype could go right out the window if it turns out to follow in the path of the championship games we just witnessed last Sunday — and, remember, everyone said how those two games were going to be great.

What we can say is that we don’t know how Super Bowl LI will turn out or who will decide the game or what events will transpire that will have us all talking come the following Monday morning at work. So why try predicting anything? (Well, for now at least. Check out a post next week and I’m sure I’ll have given great reasons why a prediction is in order.)

Let’s play it safe now — again, TWO FULL WEEKS we have!!!! Let’s ease into this. Here’s 30 facts involving the two teams set to square off in Houston on February 5.

1. Both the Patriots and Falcons strut into Houston after big wins in their respective conference title games. It’s the first time since 1978 that both Super Bowl teams won their conference championships by 19 or more points.

2. While the Patriots came off as the preseason Super Bowl favorites, the Falcons were at 80-1 odds, behind Jacksonville and the Jets. Yes, you read correctly.

3. Super Bowl LI features the league’s number 1 offense in Atlanta and league’s the number 1 defense in New England. “Defense wins championships” has held true in all five previous such matches in Super Bowls.

4. No NFL MVP has won the Super Bowl since Kurt Warner pulled off the feat in 1999.

5. Tom Brady will have appeared in 14% of all Super Bowls after LI is in the books. This is his seventh — a record for any player at any position.

6. Brady put up MVP-caliber numbers this season in just 12 games. he posted an NFL record with a 28:2 touchdown to interception ratio.

7. The Pats defense ranked first in points allowed this regular season — 15.6.

8. LeGarrette Blount’s 18 rushing TDs were not only a New England record for rushing, but the mark also led the league.

9. Bill Belichick will be making his ninth appearance in the big game in his coaching career — seventh as head coach of the Patriots.

10. The Patriots best defensive player in the AFC Championship Game according to metrics was Kyle Van Noy. The linebacker wasn’t even on the Patriots roster until midseason when Belichick acquired him from the Detroit Lions.

11. New England’s linebacker leader Donta Hightower played the fewest percentage of snaps against Pittsburgh that he has all season since week 5.

12. Patriots receiver Chris Hogan caught 9 balls for 180 yards in the AFC Championship Game. Those are Julio Jones numbers. In fact, Julio caught 9 passes for 180 yards last Sunday.

13. The odds-on-favorite to win the MVP this year, Matt Ryan, set career highs in yardage (4,944) and TDs (38). The maestro of the Falcons offense has saved his most explosive performances for the playoffs — huge wins over Seattle and Green Bay have catapulted the NFC South Champs into the Super Bowl for just the second time in the franchise’s history.

14. Kyle Shanahan has quickly become one of the hottest coaching candidates — and is likely to head west to take the vacant 49er job once the Super Bowl ends. The young offensive coordinator has teamed nicely with Matty Ice to form a prolific tandem, scoring the seventh most points in any NFL single season.

15. Since week 13, Atlanta has averaged 39 points per game. Seriously.

16. The Falcons have scored a touchdown on their opening possession in 8 straight games.

17. So Bill Belichick and New England DC Matt Patricia go from game planning for Antonio Brown to now trying to defend against Julio Jones? Not an enviable task. Jones’s 300-yard receiving game earlier this season was the first since 2013 and only the sixth in NFL history.

18. Atlanta’s offense has been hugely successfully due much in part to their strong backfield play. Tevin Coleman and DeVonta Freeman put the Falcons fifth in the league in rushing while losing, a league-best, one fumble in 2016.

19. Atlanta linebacker Vic Beasely led the league with 15.5 sacks.

20. Head coach Dan Quinn is making his third Super Bowl appearance in the last four years — ’13 and ’14 as Seattle’s defensive coordinator and now as the head man leading the Falcons. Don’t forget who Seattle played two years ago and what offense Quinn had to prepare for.

 

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8 Things to Watch for as ‘Conference Championship Sunday’ Approaches

1. Can Bill Belichick contain Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell?

There might not be a better coach in the history of the game at taking away the opponent’s best weapon than Bill Belichick. He did it earlier this season when his and Matt Patricia’s defense held Le’Veon Bell to 81 yards rushing when these two teams met during the regular season.

That was a different Bell then, though. Bell has been the league’s best rusher as far as yards per game, carries per game, touches per game, and yards from scrimmage per game. Not to mention, the Michigan State alum is coming off two games in which he became the first running back ever to post 150-yard rushing games in his first two career postseason games.

In addition to Bell’s otherworldly talents, he’s running behind an offensive line that, according the NFL Research, ranks first in the league in yards before contact and fewest run plays stuffed.

But I’m sure Belichick is up for the challenge of devising a gameplan that seeks to make the Pro Bowler a non-factor on Sunday. He’s got a history of doing doing it — ask Thurman Thomas when the Bills played the Giants in Super Bowl XXV about the Belichick-led New York defense or ask Marshall Faulk how Super Bowl XXXVI went for him, going up against the Patriots and the Hoodie.

The magic number to watch — 90. The Steelers are 9-0 when Bell rushes for 90 or more yards. On the other hand, New England’s D has gone 24 games without allowing a single rusher to break 90 on the ground against them.

2. Can the Steelers defense put pressure on Tom Brady?

Think of games where Tom Brady looks, well, human. Actually, think of the games where he looks straight bad — Baltimore, Denver, Giants, even some Jets games when the Jets aren’t awful. Now ask yourself, what are those teams doing to give such fits to likely the greatest player at his position in NFL history? Pressure. And not just normal pressure coming around the ends or occasionally getting a blitzing linebacker or safety through a gap to hit the QB. Those defenses disrupted Brady because they got in his face. They collapsed the pocket, gave him no space, no vision, no sight lines, no chance of holding the ball long enough to get a WR open deep. Houston did an admirable job in the divisional round of getting pressure up the middle and landing body blows on Brady — it just wasn’t enough (and the Texans offense will shoulder a good chunk of the blame there as well).

But if the Steelers are successful, you have to think the Pittsburgh offense will take advantage of any extra possessions their defense affords them or turnovers they can get.

The key number here is 3. New England is 2-4 in the playoffs when Brady gets sacked 3+ times.

3. Will either New England or Pittsburgh’s defenses show cracks?

While both defenses are playing as stoutly as one could imagine, there are some legitimate concerns for both:

  • Despite the teams combining to go 17-0 since Nov. 14, how will each respond when playing against the quarterbacks that this game will feature?
  • Each defense ranks in the top 5 in every major statistical category — but neither defense has matched up with the offenses they will see Sunday.
  • These are two of the league’s most efficient offenses, according to DVOA — New England first and Pittsburgh 8th.

Of New England’s 17 games, only four were against teams ranked in the top 17 in points scored per game. Pittsburgh, you ask, is ranked where? Tenth.

During their current 9-game winning streak, the Steelers offense scored less than 24 points only once — last week against KC. The previous eight games they averaged 27 points per.

4. Will Pittsburgh be able to put past performances against Tom Brady behind them?

History doesn’t always play into the present. But it’s hard to look past it completely. Brady is 9-2 in his career against Pittsburgh. And against the Mike Tomlin-coached Steelers, the future Hall of Famer is 5-1 with 19 TDs/0 INTs. Yeah, those are the types of historic numbers that are hard to overlook.

For the Steelers to advance to another Super Bowl, you’d have to think they will need to put a dent in those pristine stats.

5. Can Vic Beasley disrupt Aaron Rodgers?

A fun matchup to watch Sunday will be the chess match between Aaron Rodgers and Atlanta LB Vic Beasley. Offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga and T.J. Lang will be tasked with keeping Beasely away from their mobile QB, but how Rodgers uses his legs, himself, will tell the story. The second year OLB led the NFL with 15.5 sacks. But few are better than Rodgers at moving the pocket and avoiding the pressure.

6. Which QB’s historically great hot streak is more likely to end Sunday?

One is likely the MVP of the league and has been the most consistent quarterback from week 1 until now. The other has been the best QB since week 12 when his team began their 8-game winning streak. The Big Ben – Tom Brady matchup Sunday night might not even be the best QB battle of the day. The Rodgers – Ryan duel could be a shootout of mass proportions — Ryan is ranked as league’s best quarterback according to DVOA and Rodgers is eighth. In addition, both offenses are ranked in the top 4 in efficiency.

One of the these two fantastic players will watch their season end Sunday, but don’t bank on it being either of their faults. Neither defenses in this game are stellar — even though people are hastily running out and making comparisons of Atlanta’s defense to Seattle’s. Let’s hold on for a minute though. The two units rank 22nd (GB) and 23rd (ATL) in team defense, according to DVOA.

Whoever’s hot streak ends Sunday might just be a matter of who has the ball in their hands last.

7. Can Mike McCarthy beat Atlanta without a run game?

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone — Mike McCarthy has never embraced a true running game in Green Bay. And when you have one of the all time greats under center, you don’t feel pressured to have some outstanding RB. One of McCarthy’s most magical tricks this year might be that he had Ty Montgomery — a wide receiver — carrying the bulk of the load out of the backfield during this 8-game win streak.

That said, the Packers ran the ball with incredible efficiency this year — ranked fourth in that category, according to Football Outsiders.

The answer to this question might depend on how the Falcons answer — will Matt Ryan come out slinging it to keep up with A-Rod or will Atlanta slow the game down, control the clock, and run the ball. How the Falcons respond will determine if Green Bay’s gameplan can work.

Keep this in mind, though: for all this hype about the Falcon defense, the unit ranks 29th against the run. If Green Bay chooses to run, they might have some space.

8. Is the GB defense physical enough to stand up to Falcon running backs DeVonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman?

Green Bay’s defense ranks 14th in efficiency against the rush — and they’ll need to be even better than that against Atlanta’s two-headed running back attack. The Falcons are seventh in rushing efficiency and are the best in football when it comes to driving down field and getting points — 3.06 points per drive, best in the NFL.

The Falcons outstanding efficiency has much to do with their balanced offensive attack. The Green Bay defense is going to have to pick and choose what weapons to stop and when — take a page out of the “Belichick” gameplan.

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

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NFL Divisional Round Predictions

Last week’s start to the NFL playoffs was underwhelming to say the least, as the average score differential for the four games was 19 points. The Divisional Round has garnered a reputation for being the best weekend of NFL football — the wildcard round has a couple “cinderella” hopefuls and maybe a team or two that, really, has no business being in the postseason; and then next week’s championships games are great but you only get two. This Saturday and Sunday, we get the four best teams in the regular season and we get last weekend’s winners. Promises to be some pretty good football. At least we hope so.

Let’s ask (and attempt to answer) the four big questions, as the playoffs dwindle down to final four.

 

Is it same old Falcons this postseason or is this 2016-17 version different?

As much as I want to say that we’ve been down this road before with Atlanta and I’m not going to fall for the flashy offense and the big numbers that MVP candidate Matt Ryan has put up, I can’t. I’m biting — hook, line, and sinker. This Atlanta team IS different. Put Ryan’s numbers and that third ranked passing offense aside for a minute. Look at what the Falcons do almost just as well — fifth in the league in rushing with the two-headed monster of DeVonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. So while the Falcons defense is not impressive on paper — stuck in the bottom quarter in total defense and pass defense and the bottom third in rush defense.

But hang with me for a second. In the postseason, the teams that win either can play great defense or have such sound ball control offense that their defense doesn’t have to be on the field too often. And the Falcons have that scary balance where they can light up the scoreboard through the air when they need to — and just when the safeties are dropping back and only 4 are in the box, Atlanta pounds the rock. Atlanta’s best defense is in fact their offense.

And Seattle doesn’t have the kind of offense that can keep up with Atlanta.

Prediction:

Atlanta 31, Seattle 16

 

Can Houston pull one of the biggest upsets in playoff history?

Does the simple “No” suffice here or do you want me to elaborate? Ok, well, Houston doesn’t give me much to work with. They’ve dropped their last five to the Pats and have been outscored 54-6 in their last two meetings — the most recent being the 27-0 drubbing with rookie third stringer Jacoby Brissett quarterbacking the New England offense.

Saturday night, Tom Brady will, of course, be under center and we know how most postseason games usually turn out when he’s running things. The line is 16.5 in Vegas and that’s huge — the third most lopsided spread in NFL playoff history. And I can’t see New England not covering.

Prediction:

New England 30, Houston 12

 

Is Dallas set up for a Super Bowl run or are their rookies destined to hit that “rookie wall”?

I’ve been saying it all season — it’s hard for any rookie to carry a team into the postseason in the NFL. Now, I understand the college game has changed the perception of the “rookie wall”. Decades ago, college seasons lasted 11 games — not the case anymore. So it’s not so much a matter of the amount of games, but rather the level of competition on a weekly basis that the rookies have to adjust to. For example, Zeke Elliott may play in 13 games at OSU, but he gets a couple non-conference cupcakes that he could rush for 150 yards on one leg against. Not to mention, the conference is always good for offering up a number of easy games — Zeke didn’t have to be at 100% to have great games against Illinois or Purdue or Northwestern or Rutgers or Maryland. You see where I’m going?

That doesn’t happen in the NFL. Every week is a battle and there are no cupcakes — not even Cleveland. (Well, maybe Cleveland.) You don’t get an off-week — unless you are literally off and on a bye.

So yes, I think Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are going to hit this wall; however, it doesn’t necessarily translate into the Cowboys losing. At least, it by itself won’t contribute. The bigger problem is that the Cowboys have the hottest team and the hottest QB in the NFL coming to big D. That, along with the rookie wall, will be enough to end Dallas’s season. I see Green Bay moving a step closer to the Super Bowl.

Prediction:

Green Bay 28, Dallas 25

 

Can Alex Smith generate enough offense to hang with Big Ben and the Steelers?

It’s going to take a massive effort from the Kansas City defense and their special teams to have a shot at hanging with a Pittsburgh offense that is powered by two of the best players in the entire NFL at their respective positions and a Super Bowl winning quarterback. The KC defense is good enough to do it — they’re fast, they hit, and they have a nose for the ball. And the biggest factor of all Sunday night might just be something that neither team can control — the weather. The Kansas City area is expecting a severe ice storm — that’s why the game has already been moved from its original 1:00pm start to its new primetime slot at 8:20. The weather could certainly wreak havoc on what both teams want to do, especially on the offensive side of the ball. And if one of these two teams has the defense to take advantage of the weather leveling the offensive playing field, it’s Kansas City’s.

If Alex Smith has a short field to work with and Tyreek Hill gets loose on offense or on a punt return or two, this could turn quickly. Pittsburgh has all the weapons and the look of a team poised to go in and battle the Patriots in Foxborough — a game they’re more than capable of winning. I’m just not so sure they make it there.

Prediction:

Kansas City 20, Pittsburgh 19

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

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3 NFL Items for Discussion as We Wait for the Weekend’s Games

After four very non-competitive games on Wildcard Weekend, we are all chomping at the bit for some exciting postseason football. The Divisional round starts on Saturday afternoon — but that’s still a few days away. So what else is there to quench our NFL thirst? Here are 3 things to keep your eye on — we may not get any vindication or answers until the spring on a couple of these thoughts while one we should know in a matter of a week or so. But either way, we’ve got some meaty topics to sink our teeth into, as we await the actual games.

1. The Detroit Lions will make Matthew Stafford the highest paid player in NFL history.

This isn’t shocking — especially to Lions’ fans, who’ve been prepped for this for over a year when the Detroit front office did not trade the QB. But what becomes more clear, as that day approaches, is that the Lions are on their way to resembling the Indianapolis Colts — both have quarterbacks that are good enough to keep them from losing 9 or 10 games every year, both will have no money to realistically spend on other key positional players, and both put tremendous pressure on their GMs to hit home run after home run on their foreseeable drafts because they just flat-out can’t afford to have misses or busts.

Don’t get transfixed on Stafford being the highest player in the history of the league — that just comes with the territory. Someone — who’s probably underserving — will surpass him in 6 months or a year and so on and so on the cycle goes. As long as the salary cap keeps going through the roof, owners will have to spend the money they have — so what a player makes is in no way by any means indicative of how good that player actually is. For example, LeVeon Bell, Antonio Brown, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers — none are the highest paid in the NFL nor have any of them ever been the single highest paid in the league. Instead, names like Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, and Ryan Tannehill are atop that list — or at least will be atop that list soon.

The problem with paying the former Georgia Bulldog is not that it is an underserving contract — you can’t kill the guy for being in a position to be offered $25 million a year by other grown adults. The problem is that the Lions are, and have been for 50-plus years, a team unable to consistently win for their fans. And now they seem to have a QB good enough to at least get them to the playoffs every other year and they have a GM who’s given fans in the city a shred of optimism because his background is with the New England Patriots. So all that said, the Lions could be, might be trending in an upwards direction — until they are handcuffed by a contract to Stafford that will eat up roughly 15% of their team salary moving forward for the next 5 or 6 years. Add in the contracts of defensive standouts — who they will feel compelled to keep — Ziggy Ansah and Darius Slay, and you’re now talking about a third of your money being tied up with 3 “good” players.  And yes, while other teams tie up lots of money in only a handful of players also, the good teams who compete for titles on a regular basis, put that money in players who are much better than Stafford, Ansah, and Slay.

It won’t happen for another 5, 6, 7 months, but make no mistake, Lions’ fans — it is going to happen.

2. Josh McDaniels may be on the verge of becoming the 49ers head coach with his own GM and his own quarterback.

The idea of the Patriots offensive coordinator getting his second shot at being a head coach in this league is one that falls into the “it’s only a matter of time” category. McDaniels has spent the better part of his NFL career learning under the likes of Bill Belichick, Charlie Weis, Scott Pioloi, Nick Caserio, and coaching the likes of Tom Brady. To say McDaniels would be a logical candidate for any head coaching vacancy is a considerable understatement. The question, ultimately, boils down to where and when?

The when is any minute — maybe we’re even on borrowed time with McDaniels still in New England. The where is starting to become clearer. Of the positions that McDaniels interviewed for last Saturday, as he and Pats prepared for their AFC divisional round opponent, the one that stands out is the 49ers job. The offensive minded coach isn’t saddled with a quarterback in SF like he would be in Los Angeles with Jared Goff or Jacksonville with Blake Bortles — he can take one as early as #2 overall in the upcoming draft. He also isn’t married to a sitting general manager. And the more reports you hear, the more it looks like San Francisco has their eyes on ESPN analyst and former NFL defensive back Louis Roddick, who just so happens has hinted at coveting the New England OC.

We’ve seen plenty of nondescript, unimpressive turns for former Belichick disciples over the years, as they fly from the cozy nest up in Foxborough to see what they can accomplish on their own. How McDaniels fares, if he departs for the Bay Area, isn’t a reflection of Belichick or anything in New England; it will be a reflection of what the 40-year old has learned since his first head coaching gig in Denver seven years ago, where he went 11-17 and was dismissed 12 games into his second year.

3. DeShaun Watson will go from top of the college football mountain to the doldrums of the NFL when he is selected #1 overall by the Browns.

After throwing for over 400 yards in back-to-back title games the last two seasons against the vaunted Nick Saban defense, the Clemson QB is, undoubtedly, riding the highest high of his very impressive collegiate career. Strong arm, mobile, good vision, proven leadership skills, and the intangibles it takes to win an NCAA national championship — all traits that should suite Watson well, as he moves on to the next level.

Will it pan out for the kid? Will all this success in college translate to the pro game, where every play is sped up exponentially? Who knows. But what we do know is maybe the saddest thing of all — he’ll get to try this whole professional football thing in Cleveland, where quarterbacks go to, well, we know what happens. Brandon Weedon, Brian Hoyer, Josh McCown, Jason Campbell, Colt McCoy, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III, and Cody Kessler are just a few quarterbacks to take regular season snaps for the Browns over the last few seasons. So yeah, forgive me if I’m of the belief that DeShaun Watson’s best days of football are behind him. Hope you didn’t erase the title game from your DVR yet.

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

 

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