For those of you who have not yet encountered the latitude offered by retirement, let me say that Friday has arrived, and you can now – hopefully – forget and ignore all the nonsense you put up with all week long. Here in Curmudgeon Central, today is merely the penultimate Football Friday. There really is nothing to merit comment regarding college football over the past week; so, let me dive directly into pro ranks.
Here is a manifestation of how dominant the NFL is with regard to our football focus here in the US:
- Three weeks from now, a new football league – the AAF – will take the stage. The AAF has a national TV contract and 8 teams in training camp preparing for the first weekend of games on Feb 9 and Feb 10.
- When I look at the national sports websites, there is not a mention of the AAF. There is news; the local media in the cities with teams are covering that news – to varying degrees – but there is no overall buzz around this new sporting enterprise.
- So long as the NFL has playoff games and then enters its two-week media saturation leading up to the Super Bowl, the AAF is an afterthought. Perhaps, next season, they might want to move their starting date deeper into February to get some attention to their league before starting their regular season.
- Just a thought…
The Steelers fired their running backs coach, James Saxon. To set the record straight here, I do not know James Saxon from a saxophone but here is what I know:
- The Steelers played the 2018 season without LeVeon Bell at running back and it is highly unlikely that James Saxon played much of a role in the contract impasse that made Bell’s absence a reality.
- In Bell’s absence, James Connor assumed the lead back role and played 13 games. In those games, Connor ran for 975 yards (4.5 yards per carry) and 12 TDs. Connor also helped in the passing game adding 497 yards receiving (9 yards per catch).
- So, how is it that the running backs coach was found to be lacking to a degree sufficient that the Steelers let him go?
While I am on the vector heading of player performance and coaching overlap with that performance, maybe someone can offer an explanation for this – other than a different coaching capability or utilization:
- How come Eli Apple was a bust with the Giants – and a “problem” in the locker room reportedly – but quickly emerged as a better than average cornerback once he was shipped off to the Saints?
All four teams that had BYE weeks two weeks ago won their games last week. That week of rest and rehabilitation is a big deal. Since 2011, those teams with the BYE week are 25-7 straight up in the divisional round.
One other “trendy” item from last week is that the higher scoring team for the season on average won every game. In fact, the NFL’s “Final Four” this year is composed of the 4 highest scoring teams over the course of the regular season:
- Chiefs scored 565 points
- Rams scored 527 points
- Saints scored 504 points
- Pats scored 436 points
Remember, defense wins championships…
And … congratulations to the KC Chiefs. With their win last week over the Colts, the Chiefs snapped the NFL’s longest home playoff losing streak ever – – 6 games. The last time the Chiefs won a playoff game in Arrowhead Stadium was in 1993 and their QB on that day was Joe Montana.
I believe the Eagles/Saints game last week turned on the fake punt that resulted in a Saints’ first down in the second quarter. Up to that point, the Eagles had the momentum; after that play, the momentum was balanced and turned slowly in favor of the Saints for most of the rest of the game. I really thought that Nick Foles was going to lead the Eagles to another magical win in the final two minutes. If you had told me that the Saints would be the winner on a turnover, the last Eagles’ player that I would have thought to be involved would have been Alshon Jeffrey. But that is how it all went down… Saints survive and advance.
Patrick Mahomes started one game for the Chiefs last year; the 2018 season is the moral equivalent of his rookie year as a starting QB. Yes, the rules of the NFL have changed to favor passing offenses; nonetheless, his stats of 50 TD passes and 5000+ yards passing in his “rookie season” is amazing. The only other two QBs in NFL history to reach those two milestones in a single season are Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Neither Brady nor Manning is in the Hall of Fame just yet, but can there be any doubt they will be there when they are eligible for induction?
Having offered what I think is well-deserved praise for Patrick Mahomes, I have a question arising from last week’s Colts/Chiefs game:
- Who were those guys playing defense for the Chiefs and where were they all season long?
The Colts led the NFL in converting third-down situations for the regular season; they converted 49% of the time. Last week, the Chiefs defense did not allow a third-down conversion; the Colts went 0 for 9 in that circumstance. Even more importantly, the Chiefs’ defense forced four consecutive three-and-outs on the Colts’ first four possessions of the game.
The Rams/Cowboys game turned on a complete reversal of form for the two teams. The Rams’ run defense was the worst in the NFL in the regular season in terms of yards allowed per run play. Last week, they stuffed Ezekiel Elliott holding him to 47 yards for the game and rendering him a non-factor for the Cowboys’ offense.
- [Aside: When the Rams stuffed Elliott on 4th and short in the 4th quarter to ice the game, I was glad to see that the Rams’ defenders did not get themselves a taunting penalty for showing Elliott his “feed me more” gesture. I half expected that gesture to be prominently on display at that point.]
Meanwhile, the Rams – known for their high-powered pass attack ran the ball down the Cowboys’ throats all game long. The Rams had 2 RBs each gain over 100 yards in the game – remember that Elliott had 47 yards in the game. The Rams gained 5.7 yards per rush attempt against a Cowboys’ defense that many folks thought was a dominant unit.
The first half of the Pats/Chargers game was an organized butt-stomping. The Pats’ defense had not been the best part of the team all season long, but in the first half of that game they looked as if they could have carried the team to the playoffs no matter what else had happened to the team. Regarding the Pats’ team, there has been a lot of talk/speculation that his might be the end of Gronk’s career. He was not targeted even one time in the first half, so you might conclude that his ability to get open has diminished. However, when I watched replays, I saw Gronk blocking from his TE position as if he were an additional offensive lineman on the field. I have no insight into his injury status or his individual career plans, but the way he blocked in the game against the Chargers makes me think he still has NFL caliber skills.
The Chargers’ cornerback and punt returner, Desmond King, had a particularly bad time of it in the first half of the game. King gave up a TD pass on a blown coverage; he was called for a holding penalty on a third-and-long play that would have gotten the Chargers’ defense off the field; he fumbled away a punt. If you had not seen the Chargers play before that game, you might have concluded that King is a stumblebum – – and you would have been dead wrong. Desmond King was named to the Pro Bowl this year; he just had a disastrously bad half of football in a nationally televised game.
Before I get to the games themselves, the Pats are underdogs this week. The last time the Pats were an underdog was – according to a friend who keeps a database on this sort of thing – on September 20, 2015 when the Pats were 2-point underdogs on the road against the Bills. [Aside: The Pats won that game straight up.]
That same friend did some “data mining” on pro-football-reference.com and provided me with this fact:
- The last time the Pats won a road playoff game was in 2006. That sounds dire – – until you realize that the Pats have been playing most of their playoff games in Foxboro for most of the time in the intervening years.
(Sun. 3:05 PM EST) Rams at New Orleans – 3.5 (56.5): Drew Brees is 6-0 in playoff games in the Superdome. That fact also came to me from my “data miner” although that is not something so obscure that I could not have found it myself. When these teams met in the regular season (in November) the score was 45-35; the two defensive units seemingly took the day off and the two offenses ran up a total of 970 yards in the game. I expect both defensive units to play better in this game – although I have concerns about the Saints’ run defense given the Achilles’ tendon injury to Sheldon Rankins last week. Here are two important factors in my pick for the game:
- Jared Goff – despite his obvious skills – has very good games and not-so-good games. This year, he has had a game where he threw 5 TDs; this year, he also had a game where he threw 4 INTs. It is almost as if his performance and stats can be “bipolar”. If there is a pattern that predicts which type of game he is about to have, I have not been able to discern it.
- The Rams ran the ball well last week – and if they can do that again here, they will likely win the game. However, the Rams stopped the Cowboys running game by focusing their front seven on the run almost to the exclusion of anything else except for obvious passing downs. They dared Dak Prescott to beat them and he could not. If the Rams try something like that against the Saints, Drew Brees is perfectly capable of taking control of the game and winning it for the Saints.
I like the Saints to win and cover here. I also like the game to go OVER.
Two trends support the game going OVER:
- Saints are 10-4-1 to go OVER in their last 15 playoff games.
- Saints/Rams games are 9-4 to go OVER in the last 13 head-to head matchups.
If you are convinced that the Rams will win the game straight up, you can get odds of +145 on the Money Line this morning but there is another way to play that. If the Rams indeed win here, they will be in the Super Bowl and you can get a futures prop bet on the Rams to “win it all” at odds of 18-5. If the Rams indeed win here, the odds on them winning the Super bBowl will drop dramatically about 2 minutes after this week’s game is over. So, if you are a Rams’ believer…
(Sun 6:40 PM EST) New England at KC – 3 (55.5): Let me offer up a few more stats/trends that relate to this game:
- Tom Brady has been the starting QB in 28 playoff games that the Pats have won. Not surprisingly, that is an NFL record…
- Since Andy Reid came to KC, the Chiefs are 2-1 against the Pats. None of those three previous meetings were playoff games.
- Andy Reid’s Chiefs lost to the Pats earlier this season in Foxboro 43-30 in mid-October. The Chiefs were undefeated going into that game.
- Andy Reid and Bill Belichick have coached against one another 8 times. In 7 of those 8 games, the game went OVER. (Thanks again to my data-mining friend.)
Both teams played very well last week – particularly on the defensive side of the ball; the Pats held the Chargers to 19 yards rushing on 10 attempts. Yes, the Pats took a dominant early lead and made the Chargers have to throw the ball, but when they tried to run, they had no success. I do not expect either defense to shut down the opposing offense here. If that is going to happen it will be at the behest of Mother Nature and not anyone’s defensive schemes. Having said that, I believe that the defense that plays better will be the one on the winning team. On the assumption that the weather will be tolerable (high-20s) and that the wind will not be of the gale force variety (as per weather.com), I like this game to go OVER. With less conviction, I like the Pats plus the points here too – – to some extent because it is such a novelty wager.
Here are a two opposing trends related to this game:
- Chiefs are 2-9 against the spread in their last 11 playoff games.
- Chiefs are 13-5 against the spread in their last 18 games against AFC opponents.
Finally, as you watch the games this weekend and listen to the commentary by the announcers, keep this observation in mind from Bob Molinaro of the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot:
“Sarcasm ahead: How did TV audiences ever comprehend that a football team was closing in on the goal line in the days before announcers began caterwauling about the red zone?”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………