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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Revisiting Saints trading entire draft for Ricky Williams and the deals that almost happened

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“Twenty years ago—that’s crazy,” the Washington coach at the time, Norv Turner, said Friday. As was the deal. At the time, so much about it was revolutionary. The noted draft-value trade chart, invented by the Cowboys a few years earlier, had the Saints trading away 4,441 points of draft value in exchange for 1,700 points—the value of the fifth overall pick. “When the coaches were told about it that day,” Turner said, “we looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t real. You gotta do that.’ “ And GM Charley Casserly, negotiating with Saints GM Billy Kuharich, agreed to it eagerly.

Ditka was smitten with Williams after his 2,124-yard, 27-TD senior year at Texas, and he proclaimed at the league meetings a month before the draft that he’d trade his entire draft for Williams. “Put us in line,” Casserly told Kuharich. Except New Orleans didn’t have a second-round pick that year. So Casserly said he’d have to have a first and third in 2000 to make up for the lack of a second-rounder. The Saints did it. (Man, why not ask for Ditka’s first-born too?) “A generational trade,” Casserly called it.

From the moment the deal happened, there were problems. Big problems. Williams was intensely shy. The Saints flew him to New Orleans for a post-draft press conference. On the plane, he was given a Saints cap to wear. “I’m not wearing that,” Williams said. He was told he’d be doing the press conference from a podium. “I’m not doing that,” he said.

Uh-oh.

When the dreadlocked Williams got to the Saints offices, Ditka greeted him wearing a wig with dreadlocks, and a flowered shirt and shorts. Williams did the press conference, standing to the side of the podium, not behind it. There was a fan fest with maybe 5,000 fans there on the property, fans going crazy because they got the best player in college football, and they chanted for Williams. Someone with Williams that day said, “Ricky looked around, and he was in shock. This was not what he thought the NFL would be. The look on his face was, ‘What the f— is this?’ “

Ricky-mania was in full swing. Williams dressed in a wedding gown and Ditka in a wedding tux, and they posed as bride and groom for an August 1999 cover of ESPN The Magazine. Heaven knows why Williams did that, but the season started bad and got worse. Williams’ shyness bordered on the weird. I went into New Orleans to interview him, and though pleasant enough, he insisted on doing the interview with his helmet on, with the dark shield covering his face. The Saints went 3-13, and Ditka was fired.

Williams lasted three seasons with the Saints before being traded to Miami in 2002. Other than helping New Orleans win a division title in 2000, Williams’ tenure in New Orleans was more circus than football. I texted Ditka on Friday and would have loved to speak with him about the trade and the weird year, but he didn’t get back to me.

“Oh my God,” his assistant head coach, Rick Venturi, said the other day. “That trade was a sugar rush for the franchise. We were at a low ebb. Everyone makes fun of the deal, because we gave up the farm to get Ricky, but we really trusted Mike. He’d won before, and he gave us faith we’d win with him.”

Postscript I: The Bengals, picking third, had a chance to make the same deal Washington made. Eight picks to move from three to 12 with New Orleans. Nope, the Bengals said. We’re staying. We’re picking the guy we want badly. Akili Smith.

Postscript II: Casserly thought he had a deal with Chicago, picking seventh, to move from 12 to seven if the player Washington wanted was available. That player: Champ Bailey. So after the deal with the Saints went through, Casserly called the Bears back, ready to move up five slots in exchange for third, fourth and fifth-round picks. “We had a deal, but they upped the ante on me when I called back,” he said. The Bears wanted Washington’s third-rounder in 2000, or there’d be no deal. Casserly, fuming, took a deep breath and agreed to the ransom. “If you really want the player, you’ve got to take a step back and take the emotion out of it,” he said. Washington got Bailey at seven.

Postscript III: I didn’t ask Casserly if he got any satisfaction from the quarterback Chicago took to be its long-term QB solution at 12—Cade McNown, who won three games in two years for the Bears. McNown was a disaster, and was out of football after two seasons.

Postscript IV: Casserly’s reward for getting those eight picks and maneuvering to pick up Bailey, and following that with Washington winning the NFC East? He got fired at the end of the year after new owner Dan Snyder took over.

Postscript V: Bailey lasted only five years in Washington before a contract dispute prompted the team to trade him to Denver for Clinton Portis. Bailey played 10 of his 15 seasons in a 15-year career for Denver. After being elected to the Hall last February, Bailey got a call from Casserly. “You realize I never would have traded you,” Casserly said.

Postscript VI: Williams had a good NFL career, in between missing two years for a “retirement” and a marijuana suspension. He finished with 10,009 rushing yards in 11 seasons, 31st on the all-time rushing list. Interesting who is 32nd: Clinton Portis.

They don’t make trades like they used to. 

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It’s now or never for Seahawks to sign Russell Wilson to long-term deal

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I don’t think signing a boilerplate contract averaging $34 million a year—something Wilson never could have dreamed possible when he was the 75th player picked in the 2012 draft—will be enough for him, and for his representative, Mark Rodgers, a baseball agent with one football client, Wilson. I think Wilson actually would be content playing out his current contract and then working under the franchise tag for the next two seasons rather than taking a typical mega-millions contract. Playing year-to-year, Wilson would average $27.8 million a year over the next three years, rather than a solid $34 million a year over five or six.

That seems ridiculous. There’s a few reasons why it’s not.

But first, this deadline agent Rodgers has given Seattle. Today’s a big day in the Pacific Northwest if you take Wilson and Rodgers at their word, that—according to a source close to the talks—they say they won’t do a long-term deal with the Seahawks if it’s not done by tonight. Read that last sentence again. I didn’t mean they’d put off further talks on a new contract till 2020 if it’s not done by tonight. I meant Wilson and Rodgers don’t plan to negotiate further with the Seahawks, period. My source says they’ve told GM John Schneider it has to be done now, or not at all.

That’s why, with this being what Wilson likely believes is his last chance to get a truly market deal in Seattle, I would be shocked if he leaves this all to Rodgers, regardless how much he trusts his agent. Wilson’s an activist. I would bet he wants Schneider and/or Carroll to hear from him directly about why he wants to get this deal done now, and he wants to get it done differently than other quarterback deals have been done. I’ve known Wilson since training camp of his rookie year, and he’s one of the ultimate hands-on players I’ve met. He has never struck me as the type to hand a job this big to his agent and say, Good luck. Call me when it’s done.

If it does get done, my source says the contract would likely include devices to adjust future years of the deal based on how high the cap goes up year to year, or based on new revenue streams (gambling revenue, for example, or a TV contract that explodes). If it is not done, it means the Seahawks have determined Wilson isn’t worth setting such a precedent. (No NFL player’s contract fluctuates based on cap increases or increases in the league’s bottom line unknown at the time of signing.) That would be understandable, but would it be the right call for the Seahawks? It could be a potentially career-altering risk for Schneider and coach Pete Carroll.

Of course, there’s no real reason why a deal couldn’t be done July 15 or Dec. 15 either. But waiting would be calling Wilson’s bluff. Maybe you win, maybe you lose. It’s a risk. Normally, talking about hard negotiations, I’d say big deal. Quarterbacks—all except Kirk Cousins—might play a year on the franchise tag, but they eventually sign long-term and stay with their teams. I think there’s a good chance Wilson could be different.

Like Cousins was, Wilson is not afraid to play year-to-year: this year at $17 million, and then as many as two years on the franchise tag, at $30.3 million in 2020 and $36.4 million in 2021. If the Seahawks chose to franchise Wilson a third time, the cost would rise to $52.4 million for 2022. Which would be a very difficult one-year salary for any team to digest, unless the cap skyrockets in 2021, when a new CBA is due to take effect.

Most players want the assurance of guaranteed money and long-term security. They’ll take significant guaranteed money in exchange for fighting for what Cousins got (a fully guaranteed three-year, $84-million contract) or what Wilson presumably wants (a fluctuating contract, based on the league’s future success). But from what I hear, Wilson and Rodgers feel the league could be on the precipice of major new revenue streams. Recently, Bills co-owner Kim Pegula said she wanted to have the opportunity to provide sports betting inside their stadium. What might the NFL’s take on in-stadium gambling be, and how would that be divided with the players? Could Facebook or some digital brand bid an unheard-of sum for the rights to part of the TV deal in 2022?

Because the game is so injurious, you don’t see many players going year-to-year. But Wilson’s durability is a big part of his football appeal. Since the day Wilson was drafted in 2012, the Seahawks have played 125 regular-season and postseason games. Wilson has started them all. Last year, he was the only NFL quarterback to take every offensive snap for his team. In the last two years, he has played 2,186 of Seattle’s 2,191 offensive snaps. That could change in an instant, of course. But Wilson is fine gambling on himself, and on his durability.

For those who would not put Wilson in the same stratum as Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or Drew Brees, it’s understandable. But Wilson is the second-highest-rated quarterback in history (100.3). He has 83 career wins, regular-season and postseason, in seven years, an average of 11.8 a year.

Schneider, of course, has to worry about 53 players, not just one. Linebacker Bobby Wagner is due to hit free agency after this season, and he’s had the kind of career that one day will merit Hall of Fame consideration. If Wilson, the offensive leader, gets a precedent-setting contract, then what of the unquestioned leader of the defense, Wagner? He certainly wouldn’t get quarterback money, but Wagner might want to push for the kind of financial incentives Wilson gets.

A few other things, counter to the current rumor mill. I do not believe Wilson is pushing for a trade right now, to the Giants, or anywhere. I believe he wants to work out a deal with Seattle. I believe Wilson wants to know where he stands with the Seahawks long-term, which is one of the reasons why he is pushing hard for a deal to be done now. I believe if the Seahawks do not do a deal by midnight tonight, it doesn’t meant they don’t want Wilson to be their quarterback for the next decade—it just means they’re not willing to set a contractual precedent like tying his contract to how fast, and how high, the cap rises over the life of the deal.

Pragmatically, if I’m Wilson, everyone around the league views me as an Eagle Scout type, and as long as I step on the field, I’ve got to be all-in, and a team guy all the way. That is the only way he can maximize his value long-term, and perhaps post-Seahawks. And if I’m the Seahawks, I know the kind of person I have in Wilson, so maybe I feel: Let’s go year-to-year over the next three years, for reasonable money for a franchise quarterback, and hope at some point in those three years there’s a thaw and we can re-visit this contract.

Whatever happens, this is a dramatic day in Seattle. I don’t know which way it’ll go, but I don’t think it’s time to shred the “3” jerseys yet. Gut feeling: At the very least Wilson plays in Seattle three more years. And a lot can happen in those three years.

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