7 Burning Questions Heading into the Divisional Round in the NFL Playoffs

  1. Can Dallas do enough, offensively, to keep up with the Rams? This isn’t a trick question. But they might not need to. Yes, the Rams are flashy and fun and when they get rolling, it’s a fast-paced brand of offense that few teams in the NFL can keep up with. But there’s always an antidote for everything. The Cowboys have it — they can run the ball, eat clock, keep Sean McVay’s offense standing on the sideline, and force the Rams into playing frantically with limited possessions. It’s not a matter of Dallas keeping up offensively — rather, it’s whether or not Dallas can impose their own offensive style of play onto this Rams team.
  2. What did the Rams learn from losing to Chicago and from watching the game film of the Dallas win over New Orleans earlier in the season? This is mostly rhetorical because I don’t really have an answer. The Bears and Cowboys play differently on defense, but the overall gameplan is the same — slow the game down, don’t let Todd Gurley run, force Jared Goff into being uncomfortable and rushed, and control the pace of the game. The Rams will need to get on the scoreboard early and turn the tables on Dallas — force the Cowboys into feeling like they need to press and throw the ball more than running it with Ezekiel Elliott. This game is a battle of who can establish their preferred style of play first.
  3. Is Cooper Kupp’s injury going to derail the Rams versus the Cowboys? Since Kupp went down with a season-ending knee injury, the Rams offense has not been the same. More specifically, Jared Goff has not been the same. Through 10 weeks with Kupp in the slot, Goff completed 70% of his passes for 16 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. After Kupp went down, Goff’s numbers slipped — 59% completion rate with 16 TDs and 8 INTs (those were worse until he threw 5 TDs and 0 INTs in the season’s final two games against the Cardinals and 49ers). In addition, Kupp’s replacement has not nearly been as reliable. When targeting Josh Reynolds, Goff is on target 52% of the time with 3 TDs and 4 INTs. Kupp is a big piece to this offense and serves as very reliable safety valve for Goff. If he’s pressured, it’s worth watching how Goff answers and where he tries to go with the ball.
  4. Would anyone be stunned if three road teams won again this weekend? The argument could be made in the AFC that the two best teams remaining in the playoffs are the 5th and 6th seeds. The Chargers are a 12-win team with a top 4 MVP candidate, who just got unlucky that they played in the same division as Kansas City. The Chargers spent the better part of the season in most experts’ top-5 power rankings. And the Colts have won 10 of their last 11 and look as complete a team that’s left standing. Those two teams, without question, could come away with road wins this weekend. In the NFC, the Cowboys are practically playing a home game in L.A. against the Rams. That’s three. The Eagles winning in New Orleans is a much tougher sell.
  5. What looks will the Chargers defense throw at Tom Brady? The Cover-3 scheme has not been a defense that has stymied Tom Brady very much in past years. Against the Cover-3, Brady ate up the Seahawks and Falcons in the Patriots’ last two Super Bowl victories and did the sam in last year’s AFC title game against the Jaguars. Gus Bradley will try and be creative — you’d think rushing four (led by Joey Boss and Melvin Ingram) and dropping seven into coverage would be the plan of attack. The key will be if those pass rushers can throw Brady off his timing. If not, he’ll probably pick apart the defense.
  6. Are we all guilty of completely overreacting to the Colts? The Colts are 10-1 in their last 11 games, including in that time two wins over the Texans and a shut out win over the Cowboys. After their 1-5 start, Indianapolis has more than figured things out. Since mid-October, the Colts are better than the Chiefs. And the Colts don’t have that one glaring weakness, opposed to the Chiefs and their abhorrent defense. No disrespect to the Chiefs because that offense is beyond explosive and their speed might eventually extend plays too long for the Colts defenders to stop them. These are two good teams. The Colts are better, though.
  7. What is stopping the Saints from totally and unequivocally bum-rushing the Eagles like they did when they met earlier this season? Nothing. That’s the answer. The Eagles have improved in the last month — more consistent play out of the QB position and the defense has been much better. But the Saints have few holes and the Eagles are not equipped to exploit them. This might not be very close.

Thanks for reading. Subscribe to the Sports Talk Center blog and you can receive emails when content is updated. Also, follow me on Twitter @brian22goodwin. You can also subscribe and download the Sports Talk Center Podcast, wherever you get your podcasts from: Apple iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, Google Play, or Spotify. Just subscribe, download, listen, and enjoy.

Listen to EPISODE 127 (“Previewing the Divisional Round  of the NFL Playoffs”) right here:

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

10 Biggest Questions Surrounding Wildcard Weekend in the NFL

  1. Can the Chargers fix the problems their defense encountered against the Ravens rushing attack when the two played three weeks ago? The stars are there in L.A. That’s not the question. Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and Derwin James (and that secondary) are designed to disrupt the quarterback and make plays on the ball — they are not built to clog lanes and stop the run. Even if the Chargers know what they need to do to stop Lamar and the run game, the question becomes “do they have the personnel to actually do it?”.
  2. Is Phillip Rivers going to look more like the MVP candidate we all talked about for the first 15 weeks of the season or the guy we saw against the Ravens and Broncos the last two weeks? Melvin Gordon’s return should be helpful, and Rivers has played enough football over the course of his career to be able to make adjustments to a defense he saw just three weeks ago. But Baltimore’s defensive front embarrassed those pass blockers in Week 16.
  3. Who out-“ballsys” the other, Matt Nagy or Doug Pederson? Of course, we all watched in awe as Pederson went against the traditional grain in last year’s Super Bowl against the Patriots with his playcalling. Matt Nagy comes from the same Andy Reid tree and understands the importance of making bold decisions in this era of football. In a close game, I’d expect one (or maybe more one) decision to swing the outcome.
  4. Will Mitchell Trubisky be given the time he needs to pick apart the Eagles’ secondary? Philadelphia’s defense is predicated on its pass rush — and it has to be because that secondary has been through the ringer this season. Fletcher Cox, Tim Jurnigan, Derek Bennett, and Michael Bennett will have to make Mitchell Trubisky feel pressured and rushed. The Bears coaching staff has to understand if Trubisky isn’t given enough time to get the ball out, he can easily be forced into some big mistakes. However, if given time, the second-year QB should be able to move the ball down field.
  5. How big of an impact will Khalil Mack have going up against Lane Johnson and/Jason Peters? The versatile edge rusher is better than either of Philly’s two tackles, but Johnson and Peters only need to combine to outplay Mack on Sunday night. Bears’ DC Vic Fangio has moved Mack to the right, to the left, dropped him into coverage, and pretty much played him all over the field, and this has freed up other Bears’ defenders to make plays all year long. Mack doesn’t need a handful of sacks to have a meaningful impact on this game.
  6. Who do you trust more: Jason Garrett and Dad Prescott or Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson? Silly question, I know, but I had to ask it. This game might just be that simple.
  7. Can Seattle’s defense get off the field and limit Dallas’ T.O.P.? Seattle has a top-5 defense on stopping third-down conversions while the Dallas offense converted in those situations at over a 45% rate — top 10 in the NFL. Strength on strength. If Jason Garrett could have it his way, Dallas would grind this win out on the back of Ezekiel Elliott — and that’d be the smart way to go. But Seattle’s defense, you better believe, is going to ask Dak Prescott to make some big plays in the passing game or with his legs. Third down success rate will be a telling stat in the game.
  8. Is the Dallas defense good enough to stop the explosive plays from the Seahawks passing game? We talk about how the Seahawks have transformed their offense into a ground-and-pound attack on the ground, but yards on the ground do not necessarily translate into wins — red zone efficiency and chunks plays are two more predictive indicators of wins and losses. And it just so happens the Seahawks have a Super Bowl-winning QB, who can throw a magnificent deep ball, and has two exceptional weapons on the outside who can get open deep down the field.
  9. If not DeAndre Hopkins, then who? Ummm. I wish I had an answer here, but Houston doesn’t have much in the way of offensive weapons. You’d have to imagine Houston would like to establish the run game with Lamar Miller.
  10. Can the Texans generate an effective pass rush with just JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney? Disrupting Andrew Luck will be a key to Houston’s gameplan. And the Texans have the pass rushers, however of their 43 sacks only 18 have come from players not named Watt or Clowney. That’s about a sack a game. If Indy’s very much improved offensive line can limit Watt and Clowney, Houston might have a tough time getting to the QB.

Thanks for reading. Subscribe to the Sports Talk Center blog and you can receive emails when content is updated. Also, follow me on Twitter @brian22goodwin. You can also subscribe and download the Sports Talk Center Podcast, wherever you get your podcasts from: Apple iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, Google Play, or Spotify. Just subscribe, download, listen, and enjoy.

Listen to EPISODE 123 (“The Keys to the Wild Card Games “) right here:

Listen to EPISODE 124 (“Ranking the NFL Playoff Teams, Picking Wild Card Weekend Winners, and Predicting the Eight Head Coaches to Get Hired”) right here:

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail