Previewing NFL wild-card playoff games

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What’s in store for the NFL’s wildcard-playoff round? Here’s a look.

Saturday

Indianapolis (AFC 6th seed, 10-6) at Houston (AFC 3rd seed, 11-5), 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN. I remember a phone call with Frank Reich about 55 weeks ago, one late night last December. He was bummed. He thought his shot to be a head coach was slipping away, maybe forever. And as the musical chairs filled in January, and he was left without a job again, he accepted that maybe he’d never get that shot. Then, of course, Josh McDaniels backed out of the Colt job, Reich played a huge role in Philly’s offensive explosion in the playoffs with a backup quarterback, and Colts GM Chris Ballard noticed. “One of the greatest audibles of all time,” Al Michaels called the pivot to Reich, and of course he’s right. Reich has been the perfect coach for a revived Andrew Luck, and the perfect, patient coach for a young team that started 1-5 and won nine of its last 10 to earn the NFL’s last of 12 playoff spots Sunday night in Nashville. To beat Houston, a line that allowed only 18 sacks of Andrew Luck in 16 games will have to be that good again. Jadeveon Clowney has become as dangerous a defensive force as a healthy J.J. Watt, so the Colts can’t double just one guy anymore. On the other side, Deshaun Watson got sacked a league-high 62 times, and though he had an excellent year (68.3 percent, 103.1 rating), he may have to run more than the Texans want so he can escape the Colts’ improving pressure up front. It’ll be cool to see Luck in the playoffs for the first time since the Deflategate Bowl in Foxboro four years ago. Colts and Texans split their games this year. Composite score: 58-58. Should be fun.

Seattle (NFC 5th seed, 10-6) at Dallas (NFC 5th seed, 10-6), 8:15 p.m. ET, FOX. How strange. Dallas has the league rushing champion, but Seattle had the more productive run game this year. Hmmm. Ezekiel Elliott or Chris Carson. Who’d you rather have? But Seattle, after replacing Tom Cable with Mike Solari as offensive line coach, ran for a steamrolling 2,560 yards (4.8 per rush), compared to Dallas’ 1,963 (4.5 per rush). That could help Seattle take the Dallas crowd out of the game early. Running it so well has helped Russell Wilson have his best season (35 touchdowns, seven picks, 110.9 rating). Dallas’ two young linebackers, Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, will be vital against the run and in spying Wilson. Offensively, the Cowboys have developed enough weaponry to win without Elliott dominating, as they showed in the 36-point game at the Giants on Sunday, when Elliott was a healthy scratch. The difference here could be how much the Seattle front seven, led by veteran linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, can dent the Cowboys’ offensive line and pressure Dak Prescott, who was sacked a surprising 56 times this year. Seattle beat Dallas in Week 3, 24-13, in the Earl Thomas middle-finger game. Seems like 12 months ago, not three.

Sunday

Los Angeles Chargers (AFC 5th seed, 12-4) at Baltimore (AFC 4th seed, 10-6), 1:05 p.m., CBS. The rematch of one of the best games of the NFL season, 15 days and 2,700 miles apart, should be compelling. Even though the Chargers led the game for only one minute, it felt a lot closer than 22-10, Ravens, when they met at the StubHub Center in California Dec. 22, a defensive duel that got broken up in the second half with a Lamar Jackson touchdown bomb and a late Antonio Gates fumble-turned-Ravens-TD. The Chargers are going to have to find a way to stop the flood of the Ravens’ running game. In the seven games quarterbacked by Jackson, Baltimore has rushed for 267, 242, 207, 194, 242, 159 and 296 yards. While the rest of the league is closer to 65-percent passing, the Ravens of the last seven weeks have been 65 percent runs. It’s like old-time football. When I spoke to Jackson on Sunday night, he wanted to be sure I understood he did more than just run. “I mean, we’re throwing the ball out there too,” he said. “I don’t know about back in the day. We are doing by design. We play a complete game.” The run is a weapon Baltimore didn’t have pre-Jackson, and it’s been a revelation to watch it. For the Chargers, playing Baltimore a second time in such a short window has to help the Chargers in recognition. Philip Rivers must play better than he did in the first meeting, when he threw a pick on the first Charger snap of the game and never had a drive longer than 35 yards. The NFL has become a mega-points league, but I doubt this will be a game with 40 points scored. The Chargers will make Lamar Jackson beat them with his arm (or try to), while the Ravens will try to zero-blitz pocket passer Rivers into mistakes. Not sure how much this comes into play Sunday, but the Chargers are a 7-1 road team this year. No other AFC team has more than five road wins.

Philadelphia (NFC 6th seed, 9-7) at Chicago (NFC 3rd seed, 12-4), 4:40 p.m., NBC. The heart says Nick Foles. The head says Khalil Mack. Watching the Chicago defense swarm around Kirk Cousins all day Sunday (albeit in a climate-controlled stadium in Minneapolis; who knows what the conditions will be Sunday afternoon on the shores of Lake Michigan), I wondered how any quarterback would have the time and space to dice up the Bears D. The presence of Mack allows Akiem Hicks and Leonard Floyd to take their star turns. Foles won’t be cowed by them, or by the noise that will make a silent snap count imperative. But if his ribs or chest affect him, that’s another distraction from playing a tight offensive game. The rise of the Bears has been more of a defensive story, but they’ll need the shifty Tarik Cohen to make plays against an oppressive Philly front that’s been dominant at times but also generous against the run. Three times in the season’s second half the Eagles allowed more than 140 rushing yards to a foe. Clearly that’s how the Bears will want to want to play this game, with an efficient and clock-eating run game. The Eagles are dangerous. They’ve played in many more bigger games than the Bears have over the past 13 months, and an early deficit won’t rock Philly. I’ve got a feeling this is a tight game late in the fourth quarter.

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NFL fans apparently don’t want an 18-game regular season

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In the news this week, as the league gets back to business for the 100th season of American professional football:

• The owners and players meet Wednesday in another formal bargaining session for a new CBA. A three-day meeting is scheduled between the NFL’s Management Council and the NFLPA’s Executive Committee (a 10-player unit including president Eric Winston and VPs Richard ShermanBenjamin Watsonand Adam Vinatieri). This will be the fourth bargaining session between owners and players this spring/summer, with the hope being the two sides can reach an agreement on a new bargaining agreement in 2019. (The CBA has two more seasons to run, and expires in the spring of 2021.)

Commissioner Roger Goodell recently told CNBC that it is “certainly our intent” to try to get a new CBA before the start of the season. In a round of calls Saturday, I got some optimism from a team source who felt the chance of making a deal on a new CBA was 50-50 this year if the union would stick with the current economic formula of the game; currently players get about 47 percent of the game’s gross revenue.

But I talked to a source on the player side who wasn’t nearly as hopeful, in part because he felt the players need a bigger cut of the pie to agree to a new deal two seasons out from the end of the current CBA. This person called the first three meetings positive, but baby steps toward a deal. I do know that there have not been any significant discussions on a change in the revenue split yet. Those talks will have to progress for anything to get done.

• The 18-game schedule is nowhere near a reality. I heard that one or two teams are interested in what the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday the NFL has proposed discussing with the players as part of the CBA talks: an 18-game regular-season schedule, with each player eligible to play a maximum of 16 games. This is not a new idea—it’s been thrown around at league meetings as one idea to expand the inventory and enrich the league’s TV deals for years.

“I can’t see it,” one plugged-in club official told me. “Imagine you pay to see Tom Brady and the Patriots, and the Patriots announce that week it’s one of the two games he’ll sitting out this year. Now you’re seeing Brian Hoyer throw to some practice-squad guy. I don’t see any way we could ever do that.”

I’ve always thought in an era when the reduction of head trauma is job one in everything the league does, the only way the NFL could even consider 18 games is with teams playing players a maximum of 16 weeks. But the details make it too hard. How would a team divvy up the starts, say, for the starting offensive line? Would they figure the starting tackles should play every week with the starting quarterback, and thus doom the backup in his two games to a run-for-your-life offensive scheme?

The continued pursuit—or the continuing broaching—of an 18-game schedule is such a short-sighted and greedy thing. The NFL paid each team $275 million out of the league share of total revenue in 2018, and teams paid about $215 million annually in player costs (cap plus benefits). After that, teams can reap major raw profits over what they did in local team revenue.

Someone in the NFL seems determined to kill the most golden of geese by pursuing, even in a passing way, this stupid idea. Greed, in this case, is not good.

• Fans don’t want 18 games either. I put out a Twitter poll Saturday and Sunday, asking if readers preferred a 16 or 18-game schedule. Of 13,533 voters, 79 percent said 16. Great comment from a Vikings fan, Jason Altland: “If I pay out the nose for decent tickets in Baltimore or New York to see my Vikings, I want to see all the healthy stars play. I don’t want to pay and end up with a [Stefon] Diggs or {Adam] Thielen bye game.”

Pro Football Talk also polled its readers over the weekend about the 16/18-game idea, with more options than I offered … and 62 percent said they favored 16 games—with 8 percent saying they favored 18 with a maximum of 16 games per player per season.

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Why Melvin Gordon’s holdout with the Chargers could get ugly

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I think this Melvin Gordon-Chargers impasse could get ugly. The Chargers running back, entering his fifth season, could hold out from training camp into the season if he doesn’t get either a new contract or a significant raise from his $5.6-million salary in 2019. There’s a few reasons the holdout could last a while, starting with the fact that Chargers GM Tom Telesco, who grew up in the Bill Polian front office of the Colts, is not afraid to take a hard line. But mostly, it’s about what happens in recent years when teams have either paid runners or drawn a hard line with them. Examples:

• Le’Veon Bell balked at the Steelers’ offer of $14.5 million on the franchise tag last year. James Conner wasn’t quite as productive as vintage Bell—270 touches, 1,470 yards, 13 touchdowns—but he was close. And Conner, who made $754,572 last year, cost 1/19th of what Bell would have commended. No one in Pittsburgh is bemoaning the loss of Bell, though he’s a great player.

• Todd Gurley is a great back too, and the Rams paid a guaranteed $45 million last year. They’ll say they aren’t regretting what they paid Gurley, but an odd and persistent knee problem last year limited him to 88 carries in the Rams’ last nine games—including a 35-yard rushing performance in the Super Bowl. The Rams picked up C.J. Anderson off the street in December, and in five games, he rushed for 488 yards.

• David Johnson of the Cardinals responded to his new $13-million-a-year deal on the eve of the 2018 season by rushing for 940 yards (3.6 yards per carry).

• Devonta Freeman signed with Atlanta for $22 million guaranteed in 2017. He’s missed 16 of the Falcons’ last 32 regular-season games and averaged 58 yards per game in the 16 he’s played.

In 30 games over his two NFL seasons, Charger understudy Austin Ekeler has proven elusive and reliable, averaging 5.3 yards per rush and 10.3 yards per catch, with just two lost fumbles. I don’t think Telesco will be afraid to take the slings and arrows of a holdout. So if you’re drafting your fantasy team very early, I’d give a long look at Ekeler.

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