Predicting NFL playoff seeding ahead of Week 17

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Lots on the line next Sunday in Week 17. Nothing monumental, but there’s one win-and-you’re-in scenario and at least 22 teams have something to play for, as improbable as some of the scenarios are. The key games next Sunday as the league’s 99th regular season ends:

• For the sixth seed in the AFC: Indianapolis at Tennessee, 8:20 p.m. ET. The winner is the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs. The loser is eliminated. Two hot teams: Indy’s 7-1 in its last eight, Tennessee 6-2. A bit of irony: When Colts GM Chris Ballard was choosing his next coach, he was down to Mike Vrabel and Josh McDaniels in mid-January. I thought he was leaning Vrabel. But he chose the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, and Vrabel went to Tennessee, and Ballard got jilted by McDaniels, and Ballard chose Frank Reich as his head coach. And now Reich has the Colts, stunningly, one win from the playoffs after a 4-12 season. (Watch it on NBC on on the NBC Sports app)

• For the AFC North title: Cleveland at 9-6 Baltimore, and Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, both 1:05 p.m. The Steelers, as crushed as they must be after the weird and slightly unjust loss at New Orleans, will beat the woebegone Bengals. Since only one team from the North can make the playoffs—Ravens or Steelers—that means the Ravens would have to beat Cleveland to win the division. A Steeler win would leave the division in the hands of the revolutionized Ravens, who are running at a pace we haven’t seen in more that 50 years. But here comes Baker Mayfield, who doesn’t give a crap about anything but playing great and winning. The Browns are 5-2 since whacking Hue Jackson for Gregg Williams/Freddie Kitchens, and I think they have a chance to pull off a crazy win.

Now … about the Ravens running game. This is the craziest factoid of a crazy season—and it certainly is crazy when the Cleveland Browns are 7-7-1 with a game to play: Since Lamar Jackson has taken over the quarterback job in Week 11, the Ravens are 5-1, and they have run the ball 63.6 percent of the offensive plays. The 1964 Browns, with steamrolling MVP Jim Brown dominating the ground game, ran it 53.9 percent of the offensive snaps. The 1966 Packers, the first team to win the Super Bowl, ran 57.6 percent of the time. It’s Lamar Jackson’s world, and we’re just living in it.

• For the final two NFC seeds: Arizona at Seattle, Philadelphia at Washington, Chicago at Minnesota, 4:25 p.m. Seattle clinched a playoff spot Sunday night, and now has to beat the worst team in football, the Cardinals, at home, to clinch the fifth seed. The Vikings (8-6-1) and Eagles (8-7) will battle for one spot. If Minnesota beats the Bears, the Vikings make the playoffs; if they lose and Philadelphia beats Washington, the Eagles are in.

Will the Bears play all-out to win, with only a whisper of a chance to pass the Rams for the second seed? Good question. “We need some help,” Zach Ertz told me after the dramatic Philly win over Houston, “but we’ve had the kind of year where you just don’t know anything.”

The Eagles have had the strangest of seasons; they’ve gone 4-1 since being embarrassed 48-7 by the Saints last month. I asked Ertz what he’s learned in 2018 after the Eagles stormed to a Super Bowl win last year. “I’ll tell you,” he said. “The NFL is really hard. It’s really had to win football games, any game. I cannot believe the Miami Dolphins went undefeated all the way through the Super Bowl. I cannot believe the Patriots went undefeated [in the 2007 regular season]. That sounds a little simplistic, but it’s what I think.”

• For AFC seeding: The Chiefs host Oakland (4:25 p.m. ET), and if the Chiefs beat the 3-11 Raiders, they win first seed and will play at home throughout the playoffs … The Patriots host the Jets (1:05 p.m.), and if the Pats beat New York, they win second seed in the playoffs … Houston has a nightmare scenario: losing to Jacksonville (1:05 p.m.) and falling to the number six seed, with the Colts-Titans winner advancing to first place in AFC South. The 11-4 Chargers are locked at five, unless Oakland beats KC and LA wins at Denver (4:25 p.m.)

• For NFC seeding: New Orleans (13-2) has clinched the top seed … The 12-3 Rams must beat the Niners (4:25 p.m.) to clinch the other first-round bye and will be heavily favored to do so … The 11-4 Bears are likely locked into the three seed; they can only move up with a win over Minnesota and loss by the Rams to San Francisco … Dallas (9-6) is locked in at the four seed, with a Seattle-at-Dallas rematch likely in wild-card weekend. Very attractive TV matchup there.

So … my very imprecise crystal ball shows:

The AFC
1. Kansas City
2. New England
3. Houston
4. Baltimore
5. Chargers
6. Indianapolis

The NFC
1. New Orleans
2. Rams
3. Chicago
4. Dallas
5. Seattle
6. Minnesota

Under that scenario, all four wild-card games would be rematches of 2018 regular-season games, with three played at the same site, and all four games played in Eastern or Central time.

Read the rest of Football Morning in America by Peter King

Five NFL players who could become stars in 2019

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By Sam Monson, PFF Senior Analyst

One of my favorite aspects of PFF data and grading is how it can spot the obvious coming when it’s still some ways off on the horizon—getting ahead of the curve and identifying talent before it becomes self-evident. Every year there are players who excel in limited snaps before ultimately being handed a larger role and workload for their teams. When they continue dominating, we wonder how they were ever seen as anything other than superstars.

Case in point: When Joey Porter was a star and the sack leader for the Miami Dolphins back in 2009, coming off a 17.5-sack season, we at PFF were clamoring for his backup –- a former undrafted pass-rusher who had not long before been playing in Canada -– to get more snaps because he was generating pressure at a far greater rate than Porter. Cameron Wake ultimately went on to be one of the best pass rushers of the past decade and looked it from Day 1 if you were seeing beyond the box score numbers.

Such examples are everywhere, and each year it’s always an interesting exercise to take a look through the PFF grading and predict the players that could take that next step if they get the right opportunity. This past week we unveiled our PFF 50—a list of the best 50 players in football entering the season—but in this case let’s look a year from now and predict some players who could make that list in 2020.

Levi Wallace, CB, Buffalo Bills: If there’s a player with the backstory to rival Wake’s, it’s Wallace. With precisely zero scholarship offers coming out of high school, Wallace walked on at Alabama, and eventually earned a starting job. Then he had to do it all over again when he went undrafted before signing as a collegiate free agent with Buffalo. As a rookie in 2018, he earned the highest PFF grade of any first-year cornerback, along with the highest coverage grade, and wasn’t beaten for a catch longer than 29 yards all season. Though he played far fewer snaps than first-round selection Denzel Ward of Cleveland, Wallace looks like a potential star in the making if he’s given greater opportunity in year two.

Vita Vea, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: At the other end of the scale, you’ve got Vea, a player who went in the first round in 2018 but fell off the radar a little because he began the season injured, then took a little while to get going and ultimately didn’t produce the box score production people want to see. Vea ended up with only three sacks, but had 23 additional pressures as a pass-rusher, 17 of which came in the final six weeks of the season. Over that stretch of play, his overall PFF grade was 86.4, and he had a top-20 grade at his position, hinting at what’s to come.

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Minnesota Vikings: Changing positions in the NFL can be a significant adjustment, and sometimes it takes time. The Vikings drafted Alexander in 2016’s second round and moved him inside to the slot after he principally played outside at Clemson. His transition wasn’t smooth, but he has now seen his overall PFF grade improve each year of his NFL career: from 47.5 as a rookie, to 54.1 in 2017, climbing to 78.1 last year. Over the final half of the season, he was the highest-graded cornerback in the league at 88.2, surrendering just 80 receiving yards in a seven-game span. Alexander could emerge as a force with the right opportunity in 2019.

O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Another former first-round pick, Howard has yet to top 600 receiving yards or 35 receptions in a season, even while tight ends are breaking receiving records across the NFL. Dive deeper into the numbers, however, and Howard looks primed for a huge season with an uptick in opportunity. His overall PFF grade last season was 89.4, higher than any other tight end outside of San Francisco standout George Kittle. And on a yards per route basis, he was third behind only Kittle and Kansas City star Travis Kelce. His average depth of target was 11.3 yards downfield, a top-five mark in the league, and now the vertical threat he brings is being linked up with new Bucs coach Bruce Arians and an offense that lives down the field.

Jon Halapio, C, New York Giants: The Giants are revamping their offensive line in a major way, but one of the unsung components of the rebuild is at center, where Halapio could emerge as a foundation piece to the new-look front. He began last year as New York’s starter before going down with an injury after just 116 snaps of action. But in those snaps, he didn’t allow a single pressure, despite almost 50 pass-blocking snaps against the Jaguars and their array of pass-rushing weapons. With vastly improved players beside him, Halapio could prove to be a significant upgrade as a player who isn’t being talked about much heading into 2019.

Why Jameis Winston could win NFL passing title in 2019

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By Pro Football Focus

We think Jameis Winston will challenge for the passing yardage title in 2019. Last year he trailed only Josh Allen in average depth of target. These throws put Winston in a position to do great things at times (he was second among quarterbacks in the percentage of throws we grade as “positive”), as well as bad things (he was 21st in limiting negatively-graded throws). New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians has a track record of succeeding with high-variance quarterbacks like Winston.  In 2015 Carson Palmer had an MVP-caliber season under Arians, posting roughly the same average depth of target as Winston in 2018 and leading the league in percentage of positively-graded throws.  With Mike EvansChris Godwin and O.J. Howard a very capable trio of pass catchers, look for Winston to either make good on his 2015 draft position or give the Bucs no other option but to find his replacement the following year.