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 NFL free agency is often Fool’s Gold

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So we’ve just had a week of all NFL, all the time, of two mega-New York stories (Odell Beckham Jr., being traded by the Giants and Le’Veon Bell signing with the Jets) breaking within five hours, and the New York media machine going as wild as it can. Fans of the Detroit Patriots are fired up. The Raiders are going to the playoffs. J-E-T-S! Jets Jets Jets!

I am here to dump cold water on this.

Five very bad team stories of spending big in free agency:

• 1996: The Jets, 3-13 in 1995, signed Super Bowl QB Neil O’Donnell (to the third-highest quarterback contract ever) and tackles Jumbo Elliott and David Williams. O’Donnell started 0-6 and got yanked. New York finished 1-15 and fired the coaching staff.

• 2000: Washington, 8-8 in 1999, went wild in free agency, signing Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders and Jeff George to deals totaling $99 million on paper. Sanders lasted one sub-par year and retired, coach Norv Turner was canned in December, and Washington went 8-8, 8-8, 7-9 and 5-11 in the four years after the gold rush.

• 2009: Washington, which likes to win March, replayed its free-agent follies of a decade earlier, making the worst signing in free-agency history (Albert Haynesworth, seven years, $100 million, and he lasted two disastrous years) and a few others. Washington crashed to 4-12. Coach and GM: fired.

• 2011: Philadelphia, NFC East champs in 2010, worked the free market like no team in the 26-year history of free agency, led by president Joe Banner and GM Howie Roseman. ”They came out of the gate like wild men,” coach Andy Reid said. “Dream Team,” quarterback Vince Young christened the newbies—Nnamdi Asomugha, Ronnie Brown, Cullen Jenkins, Young, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and others. “Dream Team” went 8-8 and 4-12. Reid got fired.

• 2016: Jacksonville spent $199 million on good but not great players (Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, Chris Ivory, Kelvin Beachum). The reward: The Jags regressed from 5-11 in 2015 to 3-13 in 2016, and coach Gus Bradley got whacked in December.

I sense a trend.

“There are lots of mistakes made in free agency,” Cleveland GM John Dorsey said Saturday. “And lots of mistakes made early in free agency—when there are 32 teams competing for the best players, and you’re going to pay probably 20 percent more than makes sense.”

Sometimes high-priced imports work, and they improve a team mightily. Reggie White had great defensive impact as the first big free agent in 1993, and made it cool for free agents to work in Green Bay. Drew Brees (2006, San Diego to New Orleans) became one of the best quarterbacks ever. Andrew Whitworth (2017, Cincinnati to the Rams) has been one of the best left tackles of football for a growing and starry team. The Giants got a one-year pop out of Janoris Jenkins, Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon in 2016, and made the playoffs that year … but it was like a 5-Hour Energy jolt. The Giants crashed. And there are a lot more Haynesworths and Asomughas and ’96 Jets than there are even one-year success stories.

Just Look At 2018

While getting excited about the new class of free agents, remember these Pro Football Focus ratings of some of the richest players who changed teams in the 2018 free-agency class.

Kirk Cousins ($28 million per year) was PFF’s 11th-rated quarterback.
Case Keenum ($18 million per) was the 28th-rated quarterback.
Sammy Watkins ($16 million per) was the 38th-rated wide receiver.
Nate Solder ($15.5 million per) was the 38th-rated tackle.
Trumaine Johnson ($14.5 million per) was the 43rd-rated cornerback.
Allen Robinson ($14 million per) was the 35th-rated wide receiver.
Andrew Norwell ($13.3 million per) was the 13th-rated guard.
Malcolm Butler ($12.2 million per) was the 73rd-rated cornerback.
Ryan Jensen ($10.5 million per) was the 36th-rated center.

Seriously: How many GMs who signed those players, 12 months later, wish they hadn’t? Keenum in Denver, Watkins in Kansas City, Johnson in New York and Butler in Tennessee … Those would be the top on my list.

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10 hours that changed the NFL: Inside the Odell Beckham Jr. trade

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The reality is it was probably smart to trade him. That doesn’t, however, make the decision to sign him for $18 million a year less than seven months ago very smart.

So … last week. I believe GM Dave Gettleman thought it was a sign of desperation to reach out and try to scare up offers—that he learned under Ernie Accorsi, who played that kind of game with the Chargers in last-second Eli Manning trade during the 2004 draft. So Gettleman reached out first to only one team before dealing Beckham: Buffalo. When the Antonio Brown deal fell through, Gettleman called Bills GM Brandon Beane wondering if he was so interested in Antonio Brown, how about Beckham? Beane didn’t bite.

Hearing the persistent rumors, Cleveland GM John Dorsey reached out Tuesday morning. No harm, no foul, he figured. That began a back-and-forth over the next 10 hours, approximately, that featured about 12 ideas/offers/counter-offers. The Giants wanted two first-round picks for Beckham, but I believe Gettleman knew that bounty might be tough to get because Beckham had proven himself a difficult player to handle. The Browns discussed some other players. But Gettleman, smarting from the prospect of losing safety Landon Collins in free agency to Washington (still hard to fathom why the Giants didn’t franchise their unquestioned defensive leader, Collins, at $11 million for 2019), had studied one Cleveland player he wanted: the 25th pick in the 2017 draft, versatile if slightly disappointing safety Jabrill Peppers. And at some point during the day, my understanding is Gettleman made it clear that the trade would not get done without Peppers being in it.

That was okay with Cleveland. My read of Peppers—and when I asked a couple AFC people about him in recent days, the view was shared—is that he was a good and aggressive run-defender and okay but not very instinctive or disruptive against the pass. He allowed, per Pro Football Focus metrics, passer ratings of 128.4 and 116.5 in coverage in his first two NFL seasons. If that doesn’t get better, Peppers won’t be a long-term Giant. But in the Giants’ eyes, Peppers could replace Collins, and he’d be the second first-round pick Gettleman wanted. And the Giants had made an iffy pick in the 2018 Supplemental Draft last summer, using their 2019 third-rounder on Western Michigan cornerback Sam Beal. Cleveland’s mid-first-round pick (17th overall), and the former first-rounder in Peppers, and the low third-rounder (95th overall) this year replacing the third-round pick they’d lost … all of that was compensation enough for Gettleman.

So when the deal got to the one and the three and Peppers, Gettleman and Dorsey agreed. By my measure, the Giants got about 80 percent value for Beckham; I’m not as high on Peppers as Gettleman obviously is—or as Gettleman has to be. Gettleman had to decide whether he wanted to leverage the Cleveland offer with other teams. Because Beckham’s stock had been tarnished, it’s doubtful, for example, that he could have fetched better than 17-95-Peppers from the 49ers for picks and/or a player in the next two drafts. The Niners have been sniffing around Beckham for months. But they’re just not a good match right now. The Giants need high picks and/or productive players. The Niners wouldn’t have wanted to trade a high pick this year or next plus rising star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner … and the Giants might not have wanted to settle, say, for next year’s first-rounder and this year’s second-rounder (36th overall) plus a lesser player than Buckner (say safety Jaquiski Tartt). The Giants need help now. So Gettleman took the bird in the hand. He lanced the boil.

In the coming days, or at the NFL meetings in Phoenix, Gettleman will be pressed on why he said, “You don’t give up on talent,” and then he gave up on it. He’ll probably say he didn’t give up on talent—he used Beckham to get more talent, including Peppers and two picks in the first three rounds in a draft stocked on defense, where the Giants are woebegone. Gettleman’s history in Carolina was to build from the inside out, to build his lines first. The Giants now have picks 6, 17, 27, 95 and 108, and even if they pick a quarterback first, New York should pound the defensive side of the ball with at least three or four of those choices.

So now the Giants can approach 2019 and beyond without the distraction of Beckham—but also without his greatness. I do not buy that it’s a great move; I do not buy it’s a bad move. And I can tell you the Giants, absent a strong pitch by Cleveland, would still have Beckham on the team today.

One last Giants-related thing: the Aug. 28, 2018 signing of Beckham to the five-year, $90-million deal. Think back to last August. Beckham had a quiet offseason, mostly, and part of the allure of the Giants job for rookie coach Pat Shurmur was to coach him. If Gettleman did not sign him before the season, the Beckham contract would have been the Sword of Damocles over the Giants’ season. And so the deal got done. Six weeks later, Beckham appeared in the ill-fated ESPN interview alongside Lil Wayne (Non Sequitur of the NFL Season) and questioned Eli Manning’s ability. Josina Anderson asked Beckham, who signed the biggest contract for a receiver ever, and was playing in the media capital of the world, if he was happy. “That’s a tough question,” he said. Strange thing to say, and, inside the Giants and around New York, the answer went over like a fart in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Shurmur disciplined Beckham. But it didn’t get much better from there—and missing the last month of the season with a quad injury left some in the organization wondering how hurt he was.

Part of me says, “Good luck, Cleveland.” And maybe history will repeat itself and Beckham eventually will be a problem. Maybe he won’t. His best football friend and one of the only people who can tell him when he’s being an idiot, Jarvis Landry, is the leader in the receivers room. His LSU receivers coach (and two-year position coach with the Giants),
Adam Henry, coaches the wideouts in Cleveland. And there’s Freddie Kitchens, the head coach who appears to have some blunt-force trauma to his communications.

Kitchens is the big X factor. Some boom-or-bust players seem like tech stocks at the start of their careers. Patrick Mahomes and Saquon Barkley turned into Apple, John Ross and Reuben Fosterinto AOL. Kitchens, who took over offensive play-calling after Hue Jackson was fired last fall, helped the Browns to a stunning 5-2 finish, making Baker Mayfield look like a fledgling Favre. Kitchens had enough of the Midas Touch to land Cleveland’s head-coaching job. Amazing story. But can he handle being a first-year head coach, and the pressure that comes with coaching an ascending Cinderella, and the play-calling, and handling the incendiary Beckham?

“From a planning standpoint,” Dorsey told me Saturday, “you want to surround a first-year head coach with quality coaches at all levels. I think we’ve done that. Surround him with a strong coaching staff [veteran offensive coordinator Todd Monken, ex-head coach Steve Wilks as defensive coordinator]. And remember: This head coach is very direct, very honest. He’s going to tell it like it is, and he’ll tell Odell like it is. He will hold players accountable. He’ll let players express themselves, as he should do.

“We really like Odell. He’s passionate. He’s competitive. He wants to be great. You can’t have enough of those guys. He’s on time. Everything you hear is he’s a great teammate. We’re thrilled to have him.”

Dorsey has had one heck of a run these last 11 months. He drafted the franchise quarterback (Baker Mayfield) and a long-term very good running back in Nick Chubb; traded for two Pro Bowl receivers (Landry, Beckham); signed the tarnished 2017 NFL rushing champ (Kareem Hunt). Now Dorsey has to be sure his offensive line is good enough, and I’d watch for some fortifications there.

He was in full we-haven’t-done-anything-yet mode when we spoke Saturday, but he knows the expectations, locally and nationally, are through the roof. The Browns are already the Vegas favorites to win the AFC North. Last time they won the division: 30 years ago, in 1989, when Dorsey was a Packers linebacker and Bud Carson coached the Browns.

“You’re never happy till you get to the ultimate goal,” Dorsey said. “Right now we’re a third-place team, 7-8-1, building a team that can compete. That’s all.”

He’s right, technically. But for the first time in 1.5 generations, there’s the weight of expectations on the Browns. Odell Beckham has put them there.

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