I heard It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year probably a hundred and fifty times last month. I have no qualms with the song as far as Christmas songs go. It's not my favorite, but it's listenable. Most importantly, it's not A Little Drummer Boy, a song that makes me want to remake a Butthole Surfers' album cover. I do have one major issue with the song--the entire premise is a lie. Christmas is cool and all, but it most certainly isn't the most wonderful time of the year. These next two weekends are.
The Wild Card and Divisional rounds of the NFL playoffs are my two favorite sports weekends of the year. There's actually stakes, and the crusty skidmarks of the league like the Cowboys and Titans are vanquished from memory; they can't waste anyone's time anymore.
Gone are the days of Redzone, multiple games at once, and fantasy football, where we bounce back and forth between touchdowns, commercials, and Twitter feeds as we try to not miss anything and massage pleasure into our simple brains. We're just left with the twelve best teams in the league, and each game is played individually with the spotlight solely on it. It's time to sit back and take in one spectacle at a time. Soak in the beauty of the best teams playing football at its highest level.
All times Central.
Saturday, 3:35 p.m.: Kansas City at Houston (+3).
I'm sorry for being a tease, but I won't be giving my pick for this game here. I'm currently writing an exhaustive preview and don't want to spoil anything. Check back tomorrow at 2 p.m. for it.
Saturday, 7:15 p.m.: Pittsburgh at Cincinnati (+2.5).
The Bengals have never won a playoff game with Marvin Lewis as head coach. He's been there since 2003. It's his 13th year in Cincinnati. They're 0-6 in the playoffs.
It must be terrible to be Marvin Lewis. He had a first round bye nearly locked up and had a team that could actually make a Super Bowl run. They have a great defense, and Andy Dalton finally corrected the problems he had with pass pressure that had plagued him his entire career. But then Dalton threw an interception on a screen pass in the redzone and ruined it all by breaking his thumb attempting to make a tackle.
His replacement, AJ McCarron, has actually played well. He's not Dalton, but he's filled in and has gotten better with time. This season , he chest piece laden swashbuckler is 79-119 (66.4%) for 854 yards, 6 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and has a Y/A of 7.4. His problems are that he holds onto the ball too long and he doesn't handle pressure well. He's been sacked 12 times in the 3.5 games he's played. Behind the same offensive line, Dalton was sacked 20 times in 13 games. This is just another piece of evidence proving that quarterbacks have an affect on sack totals, and that the blame doesn't lie entirely on the offensive line.
The most important matchup in this game is going to be the deep pass. The Steelers have a trio of receivers in Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton who can all run in a straight line past defensive backs. The Steelers have thrown 144 deep passes (throws greater than 15 yards down the field), which ties them for 2nd with the New York Jets and puts them 2 behind Jacksonville for first place. Here's Ben Roethlisberger's numbers on these throws:
He throws the ball down field often, and when he does, he throws it far. Only Dalton has a higher Y/A than Roethlisberger. The problem is Roethlisberger doesn't throw as many touchdowns as you think he would, and only Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown more interceptions on deep passes than Roethlisberger. He has an issue forcing the ball downfield.
The Bengals, on the other hand, are one of the best teams in the league at stopping deep passes. Teams have attempted 110 deep throws on them. Opponents complete only 34.5% of these throws, and they have 15 interceptions, which is best in the league. They also have the best defensive DVOA on deep passes (-31.9%), and give up the lowest average gain on these throws at 8.46 yards per attempt.
Additionally, Roethlisberger has played Cincinnati twice this year. In these games, he's completed 5 out 18 of his deep pass attempts, good for a completion percentage of 27.8%, for a grand total of 105 yards (5.8 Y/A), 0 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. Yikes. It's going to be difficult for the staple of the Steelers' offense to have success in this one.
The one thing favoring the Steelers, aside from McCarron, is Cincinnati has a DVOA of -4.5% (13th) when covering a team's best receiver. Pittsburgh has Antonio Brown, the best receiver in the NFL. This season, Brown led the league in DYAR with 516, was 9th in DVOA (19.7%) despite his high usage, and caught 70% of his 193 targets for 1,841 yards and 10 touchdowns.
I have a feeling any analysis is for naught. It's the Bengals in the first round. It's the Bengals in the first round with AJ McCarron at quarterback. Be right back, I'm going to cash in some savings bonds real fast even though they haven't fully matured yet.
Pick: Steelers (-2.5).
Sunday, 12:05 p.m.: Seattle at Minnesota (+4).
The Seattle Seahawks have finished first in DVOA for the forth year in a row and are now a DVOA dynasty.
They're also the best team in the NFL right now. Weighted DVOA is used to measure how a team is playing as it enters the playoffs. It does this by giving games later in the season more weight than games that occurred earlier in the year. The Seahawks have a weighted DVOA of 51.1%, which is 28% better than second place Arizona. The hot team riding a tidal wave to the Super Bowl is a myth, but right now the Seahawks are better than anyone else, and that does mean something.
In order for Seattle to exact their revenge and make up for Malcolm Butler's interception, they need to win three road games to make it out of the NFC. As the six seed, they have to win in Minnesota, in Carolina, and probably in Arizona to make it to Santa Clara. No matter how great a team is and how well they're currently playing, this is a difficult thing to do.
Minnesota is the first level Seattle needs to get past. Seattle won on the road 38-7 the first time these two teams played. Russell Wilson threw for 3 touchdowns, completed 77.7% of his passes, and was sacked just once. Thomas Rawls chipped in with 100 yards rushing. It's important to note the Vikings were missing the interior offensive line devourer that is Linval Joseph; they also lost Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith in the first half. The Vikings' defense was depleted in that game.
For the Vikings to win this game, they're going to have play a perfect game. In the games they've won against top competition, they've had to play a conservative style of football. They can't get in a shootout. They have to run the ball well. They can't fall behind. They have to hold the opponent to less than twenty points. They can't make mistakes.
Russell Wilson is the biggest obstacle to this plan. He hasn't shown any semblance of a player you can obstruct this season. Wilson has made the leap into the upper tier of quarterbacks.
|1,192 (3rd)||24.3% (3rd)||68.7% (2nd)||34 (6th)||8||3,744||8.3 (3rd)||45 (3rd)|
|17% (14th)||122 (3rd)||566||85||6.65||1|
Additionally, this has come behind an offensive line that finished 30th in adjusted sack rate. This past offseason, the Seahawks weren't able to invest in their offensive line and composed it with mid-round draft picks and undrafted free agents. They resigned core players like Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Bobby Wagner. As a result, Seattle didn't have the funds to scrap together something better than awful for an offensive line. They needed Wilson to evolve into something greater and transcend his o-line. He's done that.
For Minnesota to win, they're going to have to make Wilson miserable. Joseph, Sharrif Floyd, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, and Anthony Barr need to not only pressure Wilson, but bring him down when they get there too. Only Cam Newton has broken more tackles behind the line of scrimmage than Wilson the last two seasons. The Vikings can't let him slither away, run the scramble drill, improvise, and find Doug Baldwin cutting back to the ball. They'll need to sack him around five times and force turnovers.
Additionally, Marshawn Lynch will probably play in this game. Like Wilson, Lynch has the ability to transcend his offensive line. No running back broke as many tackles as Lynch did in 2013 and 2014. The Vikings' front seven should be able to control the line of scrimmage, but they have to be able to control Lynch in addition to Wilson.
The last important point to touch on is the weather. It's going to be below frigid and will even make the viewers at home shiver while they're wrapped up in blankets with the heater cranking. The temperature is looking to be in the single digits. It should feel like twenty below and it's possible that it actually reaches that mark. Oh, and there's going to be 15-20 mph winds. No one at this game will ever see their balls again. Poof! They're going to coil up and never come back. It's a mystery why the Vikings' new stadium is indoors.
Today, Brian Burke tweeted out some of his research he's done relating to the effect weather has.
Bottom line is that the cold doesn't have much effect until it gets really, really cold. And this Sun in MIN it'll be that.— Brian Burke (@bburkeESPN) January 7, 2016
I like this Minnesota team. They're going in the right direction. But in order for them to beat the Seahawks, the cold needs to be more than a novelty, Seattle has to turn the ball over, Adrian Peterson must run effectively and often, they'll need to get pressure and bring down Wilson, and they need lay a perfect game. That's too many ifs.
Pick: Seahawks (-4).
Sunday, 3:40 p.m.: Green Bay (+1) at Washington.
One of my favorite stats I read this year came when Bill Barnwell had fun with arbitrary data points. It was Kirk Cousins' numbers before and after "YOU LIKE THAT!" Before he screamed into the camera, Cousins had thrown 24 touchdowns and 27 interceptions. Since then, he's thrown 23 touchdowns and 3 interceptions while completing 72.4% of his passes.
The issue with Cousins was never his arm strength or talent. It was the number of turnovers he gave up. You can't start a quarterback who's throwing that many interceptions. An interception is worth about somewhere between 4 and 4.5 points depending on field position. In Cousins' case, that's a 96 point difference. Now that his turnover issues have changed, so has Washington's success.
The team they're playing, the Green Bay Packers, have been a below average team of late. They started 6-0 and have gone 4-6 since then. Their weighted DVOA is -3.9% (19th). This is mostly because their offense, and more specifically, their offensive line and receivers. Since Thanksgiving night, Aaron Rodgers has been sacked 22 times. Only Blaine Gabbert has been sacked more often. Their line hasn't blocked well, and their receivers haven't been able to beat tight coverage. There's a hole in their heart without Jordy Nelson, a consistent deep threat who opens up shorter routes for Randall Cobb and others.
The other side of this coin is the Redskins' defense. Their pass rush consisting of Ryan Kerrigan (9.5 sacks), Preston Smith (8), and Chris Baker (6), is 8th in adjusted sack rate. This group has helped masked the troubles in the Washington secondary. This team still starts DeAngelo Hall at cornerback. Consequently, they have a DVOA of 13.2% (28th) covering WR #1 and a DVOA of 23.7% (30th) covering WR #2. If the offensive line can hold up, Cobb and James Jones should be able to get open.
To me, it looks like this game is going to come down to whichever quarterback is better. Despite past problems, it's still the Green Bay Packers. They have Aaron Rodgers, who's like a basketball player that's always stewing to go off for forty points and win a game all on his own. As a result, I'm going with Green Bay.
However, this game is a mere sideshow. It really doesn't matter. Either team will get trounced against Carolina or Arizona next week. The one thing I care about is seeing a hoody tackle. Throughout this season, James Jones has refused to take his hoody off like a troubled seventh grader and has worn it underneath his pads during the game. Players get tackled by their dreads all the time. Why can't we get a hoody tackle? This needs to happen before next year begins. I can't wait that long.
Pick: Packers (+1).
Enjoy the games, everyone.
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