Previewing NFL’s divisional round playoff games

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I’ve always hated “the divisional round,” as a name for the second weekend of NFL playoffs. Doesn’t come much more boring than that. I christen this weekend the Conference Semis. The most compelling game, from my chair, looks like the first one.

Saturday

Indianapolis (11-6, AFC 6th seed) at Kansas City (12-4, AFC 1st seed), Arrowhead Stadium, 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC.

I don’t recall the last time a respected football voice (Steve Young, in this case) said of a sixth seed: “Nobody wants to play the Colts right now.” But he did, and there’s evidence for that. Indy’s 10-1 since Week 7, and it’s not just The Andrew Luck Story. The Colts’ D suffocated Houston till garbage time, using more secondary blitzes than I’ve seen in a while. Unknown corner/slot corner Kenny Moore blitzed 11 times, per Pro Football Focus, and extra men were swarming around Deshaun Watson all night. The wild-card win is exhibit A of why defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus is on the radar of several teams looking for a head coach this month.

With the Chiefs likely to get speed receiver threat Sammy Watkins back from a nagging foot injury that never goes away, that means it’s going to be an interesting race: Can the Colts’ rush get to Patrick Mahomes before he can find an answer in his five-across receiver sets? I can’t wait to see how the Chiefs try to block this Indianapolis front, and whether Andy Reid will just keep his aggressive downfield spread ethos and trust Mahomes to get the ball out quick. This game would be great strategic fun on that alone. Now add in the Luck factor, and coach Frank Reich’s ability to free up a variety of receivers weekly, and the fact that someone named Marlon Mack rushed for 148 yards, most in Indy team history, and the Chiefs have allowed 164 rushing yards a game over the last five games.

This looks nothing like a 6 versus 1 playoff game. This looks like a pretty even ballgame with great storylines.

Dallas (11-6, NFC 4th seed) at Los Angeles Rams (13-3, NFC 2nd seed), L.A. Coliseum, 8:15 p.m. ET, FOX.

Let’s step back for a minute and think how interesting it is that two years ago, the two teams now in southern California, the Rams and Chargers, were a woebegone 9-23, and league owners were rolling their eyes at the possibility of the combo platter of two lousy teams owning this valuable piece of NFL property known as Los Angeles. Now they’re 26-7, and they’re legit members of the NFL’s elite eight. Nothing is forever in the NFL.

Other than Jerry Jones getting to take his entourage to Nobu in Malibu, the best thing for Dallas about this weekend is this matchup. In 2018, the Rams gave up 5.1 yards per rush, which is beyond an Achilles heel. It’s preposterous, and it’s the biggest reason why the Rams could be endangered species when Ezekiel Elliott rolls into the Coliseum on Saturday evening. Elsewhere in this column I write about how impressive a football player (not just a great back; I mean a complete player) Elliott is. And the more the Cowboys are able to ride Elliott, the less of a factor Aaron Donald will be in making Dak Prescott’s life miserable.

The tale of two backs in this game—which will be the ratings bonanza of the postseason—has one big mystery: How healthy is Todd Gurley, and how productive can he be? Gurley hasn’t been himself since he saved the Rams with a 155-yard performance (rushing and receiving) at Detroit, and regardless whether he practices this week or is listed on the injury report, I won’t trust him till I see if he can dominate a game the way he did in the first half of this season. This game’s going to be closer than it looks.

Sunday

Los Angeles Chargers (13-4, AFC 5th seed) at New England (11-5, AFC 2nd seed), Gillette Stadium, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS.

For the NFL-record 10th straight year, the Patriots open the AFC playoffs at home. New England’s edges entering this game: 13 days between games … Rob Gronkowski can always use the rest … Bill Belichick is pretty smart, and smarter when he’s got two weeks to prepare … The Chargers could be weary, with L.A.-to-Baltimore, Baltimore-to-L.A, and Baltimore-to-Providence flights, 17 hours in the air in all, in a nine-day span prior to the game.

Now to the football: The Chargers have multiple pass-rush threats that bedeviled a mobile quarterback, Lamar Jackson, in a seven-sack whipping of the Ravens. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are the major threats, but Justin Jones and Isaac Rochell are big and quick too, and they both got to Jackson in Baltimore. So it’s a big, athletic defense that will be the challenge for Tom Brady, with the Chargers’ weakness their injuries at linebacker. This is not a game the Chargers will want to play seven defensive backs. New England’s strength will be the ability to play an unpredictable offensive game, as coordinator Josh McDaniels has designed run-heavy, swing-pass-heavy, pass-heavy, and Gronk-light plans during the course of a malleable season—so the Chargers won’t have much of an idea what they’ll see until a little after 1 p.m. Sunday.

The Chargers won’t be cowed by much of anything. They’ve won in four times zones this year, including Greenwich Mean Time. That’s London. “We love the road,” Derwin James told me. “Maybe a lot of teams don’t, but we’re young, we’re all good with each other, and we love spending time together. The road’s good for that.” Well, whatever works. The Chargers are 8-0 outside of Los Angeles this year. Then again, New England is 8-0 at Gillette this year. Something’s got to give.

Philadelphia (10-7, NFC 6th seed) at New Orleans (13-3, NFC 1st seed), Superdome, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX.

I was in New Orleans the weekend the Saints hosted the Eagles in November. “Hosted” is a collegial, misleading word. “Pillaged” would be better. Saints’ best six drives that afternoon in the Dome, against a team that looked dead for the year: 57, 86, 89, 89, 70, 87. Eagles’ best six drives: 75, 31, 19, 17, 16, 14. This was as brutal a mismatch as either team had all season … and now the Eagles travel to New Orleans again.

So why should it be different? Maybe it won’t be. Except for Miracle Nick Foles replacing Carson Wentz, there’s not much different about the Eagles eight weeks later. But the Saints are looking less invincible since then. After putting up 45, 51 and 48 in three straight November weeks, they’ve averaged a quite strange 21 points per game in the last six weeks (including a meaningless Week 17 game). The real Saints need to stand up here, if they’re going to win the second Super Bowl of the Payton/Brees Era. The offensive mortality has to give Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz hope.

On the other side, Foles is 4-0 in playoff games as an Eagle the past two seasons, and there’s something strange and almost eerie about the Eagles when Foles plays. They find a way to win. Fletcher Cox told me the Eagles players “just flushed” that November game—didn’t watch or study it; it got out of control against a secondary ravaged by injury, and Philly just moved on without allowing that game to defeat the players. We’ll see if that approach works.

The one thing you do notice about the Eagles on the defensive side now is they’re not held hostage by awful pass coverage. They’ve allowed 30 points just once since the Saints game. I think this game comes down to Drew Brees finding completions, short and intermediate, and not giving Foles more than eight or nine possession to make his magic.

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Why the New York Jets deserve the controversy, dysfunction surrounding them

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1. I think the Jets architecture job is not the one to take if you want to run a franchise, Peyton Manning. To be charitable, the Jets are not close to contention.

2. I think I won’t be the first to use this rationale for my opinion about what happened when Mike Maccagnan got dismissed the other day as Jets GM, but it’s the first thing that occurred to me: The Jets truly deserve this controversy. A few points:

• I have no sympathy for Maccagnan, who lorded over a 14-35 team since New Year’s Day 2016. Only Cleveland and San Francisco have won fewer games since then. But by my math, Maccagnan just spent $235 million in free agency this offseason, a gargantuan sum. He just had the keys to the draft and, apparently with minimal input from the head coach, made Quinnen Williams the third overall pick in the draft. He was fired 19 days after the draft. What owner in his right mind allows a GM he figures he may well fire run a crucial off-season? Christopher Johnson, that’s who.

• Adam Gase is going to have a major say on who becomes the next GM of the Jets. Gase was 23-26 in his three-year stint coaching the Dolphins, and, though the quarterback position was plagued by injuries while he was there, he’s supposed to be a quarterback guru, and the Dolphins, again, are starting from scratch at the position after firing Gase four-and-a-half months ago. I like Gase well enough. But what exactly has he done, first, to earn a head-coaching job after his three years in Miami … and, second, to play a significant role in picking the architect of the new Jets?

• I assume the reports of Gase not wanting Le’Veon Bell for $13.5 million a year are true. (I don’t blame him.) But the leaks in that building are never-ending, and in this case, the leaks could drive a wedge between a guy who doesn’t seem very happy to be a Jet in the first place, Bell, and the guy who’s going to be calling his number this fall. Gase better figure a way to tamp that down. I don’t know if he can.

• How do you have faith in the Jets to get this GM thing right now? And what smart GM-candidate type (Joe Douglas or Louis Riddick or Daniel Jeremiah) would want to take his one shot—because most GMs get one shot at running a team—working for Christopher Johnson?

• If I were Mike Greenberg, I’d be burying my head in my hands this morning, wondering why oh why did I get stuck loving this franchise? How can season-ticket-holders send in their money this year thinking they’re going to see the turnaround season of a team that’s won 5, 5, and 4 games the past three years?

• Sam Darnold doesn’t coach.

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The lessons Chris Long learned from playing with Patriots, Eagles, Rams

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Chris Long, who retired over the weekend after an 11-year NFL career that ended with two Super Bowl rings (in 2016 with New England and 2017 with Philadelphia), and an NFL Man of the Year Award (in 2018) for his work in U.S. social justice and building fresh-water wells for thousands in Africa, on the lessons he takes with him into retirement:

“I learned to never make a decision based on just one thing. The decision to retire was complicated. It was based on health, which is still very good, and family, we have two small children, and football fit, which includes a chance to win and my role and geography. Philadelphia is where I wanted to play a couple more years. I love Philadelphia. But as a player I learned the most important thing to me is Sunday, and having a chance to be a big part of it. It seemed like player-coach was kind of the role that was going to be carved out for me—maybe playing 10, 12, 15 plays a game. I’m a rhythm player. I need to set people up, I need to be in the flow of the game. If I sit on the bench for three series, I can’t get rhythm, and I’ll get cold and maybe I’ll hurt myself. Some people think that’s great—play less and you won’t get hurt. Man, I want to play ball. In Philadelphia, it didn’t seem there was much of a chance to compete there. But they were honest with me the whole time. I appreciate the honesty. I’ll always love Philadelphia and the Eagles, but I didn’t want Week 4, 5, to come around and people think, Whoa, where’s Chris? Did Chris retire? I’d rather do it this way than just fade out. And I didn’t want to start over again across the country somewhere.

“I learned so much in my career. Getting drafted second overall, and going to St. Louis, and the fact that we were losing, I just thought, I am not gonna fold. I am not a loser. I am gonna be a bright spot. I am gonna give these fans, who I deeply appreciate for their dedication, the respect they deserve . Anyone playing in that era in St. Louis knows how bad it was at times. It was carnage, in so many ways. It was a test of my will. Do I get irritated by the no-Pro Bowl thing, never making a Pro Bowl? Yeah, I do. Fifty sacks in the first six years, with no one watching, on a bad team. I just felt the narrative should be, That kid panned out. But that’s okay—it was a labor of love. I have zero regrets.

“In New England, I learned so much about football. I always thought I was a smart player, even though I never thought about anything but the six inches in front of my face. In New England, I was forced to learn so many schematic concepts. In my career playing football, nobody asked me to do as much as Bill Belichick did. I might be 3-technique, or a linebacker, or a linebacker dropping into coverage more than ever, or playing inside more than ever. I’ll always remember how much I learned watching Bill in practice. He can coach any position as good as any position coach in league. He can walk around the field and stop drills and coach each position—at the highest level. And the quality of the dudes. Solid men. The right kind of people.

“Tom Brady blew me away. Who’s the most famous athlete of our generation: Tom Brady? LeBron? Messi? Ronaldo? Serena Williams? Maybe I haven’t been around enough to know how the biggest stars really act. But Brady is a normal guy. When I got there, here comes Tom. ‘Hey Chris, I’m Tom, nice to meet you.’ Well, yeah, I know you’re Tom. A lot of people want to hate him for all the success, and I understand how you can dislike the Patriots, but I cannot understand how you can dislike Tom.

“That Super Bowl against Atlanta … when we were way behind, I’m thinking, ‘I waited my whole life to be here, and this is a nightmare. This is the worst nightmare I have ever had.’ If we lost that night, I very possibly would have retired a bitter man. But winning it breathed life into me.

“Going to Philadelphia, I felt I found a home. Best sports city in America. But how different my situation was. I went from team captain with the Rams two years before that to winning the Super Bowl in New England to starting on the bottom in Philly. I was an average Joe. I was challenged. I learned how much being a team, being together, really means. We were a case study for whatever you believe. Either we were an anomaly or we proved you could do good things and win in pro sports. We happened to have guys who were good players who cared. I remember winning a Monday Night Football game, falling asleep at 4 or 5 o’clock, and waking up for a train to Harrisburg to work with state legislators on policies. It just showed how much we could make changes in things that matter, and play really good football too. You can be a football player and a citizen. It’s gratifying when young players come up and say they’re inspired to do more because of things that Malcolm Jenkins or Torrey Smith have done, or me.

“I’ve always tried to be me first and a football player second. When I came into football, I didn’t want to be this piece of wreckage who couldn’t move or have a normal life. But I learned you can’t predict the future. I thought I’d play eight years. I thought I’d retire at 30. But I played 11, and now I’m 34.

“NFL Man of the Year … I never felt deserving of it. I am not the best person in the NFL. I never want to get up there promoting myself as some infallible person. I was very honored. But I was also conflicted that people saw me as this community service guy, not a player. Nobody saw me as the player I was in my prime. I don’t want to be known as Community Service Guy; I want to be known as a guy who busted his ass for 11 years at his craft. But I do appreciate the fact that people saw that I played for free for one year, that I was part of a group that built 61 wells for people to get fresh water in Africa, and that we’ve got 220,000 people drinking from our wells. I will not downplay that stuff. But I am not some angel, believe me. I don’t have a brand. My brand is me.

“Retirement is interesting. It is something I feared for a long time. It is an existential crisis. I’ve been doing something since high school, working toward a goal. I fantasize about crossing the threshold, but at the same time it’s something you can be deathly afraid of.

“I am excited about the next phase of life. I’m launching a digital media company. I will have my own pod. I’m just excited about being able to control the narrative. I like to create. Maybe I’ll work at a network. Whatever I do, I’ll be me.”

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