2016-17 Deep Ball Project Sample: Sam Bradford

Hello, friends.

The 2016-17 Deep Ball Project (DBP) isn’t finished yet, but it is more than halfway complete as of this writing. I’m currently busy writing in the entries of the quarterbacks I have watched (the ones that started a minimum requirement of 8 games), and so you can get an idea of what the DBP will look like, this article features a sample of Sam Bradford’s downfield passing log.

I will try to complete and release the article as soon as next month, maybe earlier if things are ahead of schedule, but for the meantime, enjoy this sample.

Sam Bradford (Minnesota Vikings)

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When the Vikings traded for Sam Bradford to backup the injured Teddy Bridgewater before the 2016 season began, it was met with a polarized reception. The tide of that changed when the Vikings started 5-0, but came back when they finished the season 8-8, with much of the criticism coming at the front office for trading for Bradford.

All things considered, however, you just may be surprised by Bradford’s downfield passing. His reputation is that of a short passer, but that’s unearned. Playing behind the worst offensive line in the league, little time is given for Bradford to develop his reads or the receivers to progress on their routes, leading to missed opportunities and sacks.

But when Bradford was able to release the ball, he did it with extreme efficiency. If you’re aware of my past work, you’ll know Bradford was graded highly in the 2015-16 DBP. Usually, there’s nowhere to go but down, but Bradford found a way to go up, further increasing his accuracy with tight, precise downfield bombs hitting receivers in stride and away from defenders. His arm talent and velocity control are both sublime, and compared to the rest of the league, threw him on a pedestal.

Bradford’s downfield passing isn’t just underrated, good, very good, really good, or great. It’s sensational. Look for yourself and see a quarterback with tremendous deep passing ability.

FINAL GRADE: A+

Kenny Britt Offers The Ideal Free Agent WR

The 2017 wide receiver free agency class is deep. DeSean Jackson, Kenny Britt, Alshon Jeffery, Terrelle Pryor, Pierre Garçon, Kenny Stills, Robert Woods, Terrance Williams, and Cordarelle Patterson are some of the big names this class has to offer, so there’s plenty of toys for teams to choose from.

Kenny Britt is one of the bigger names. With the Los Angeles Rams likely to let him walk in free agency, teams such as the Redskins and Eagles have been connected to him since the offseason began as possible landing spots.

In the league since 2009 (with the Titans and Rams), Britt came off a career year in 2016. He caught 68 passes for 1,002 yards and 5 touchdowns, averaging 14.7 yards per reception. He was also the Rams’ first 1,000 yard receiver since legend Torry Holt in 2007.

These stats may not be anything to sneeze at, but this is not indicative of Britt’s quality of play. This more describes the offenses he was on and the quarterbacks he played with. Between Vince Young, Case Keenum, Kerry Collins, old Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker, Jared Goff, Austin Davis, Shaun Hill, and Nick Foles, none of these quarterbacks have given Britt a chance to thrive and put up blockbuster numbers.

That could change in 2017 with a different team. Not to say there’s anything wrong with the Rams keeping one of their actual skill players on a team lacking them, but teams in need of a WR would benefit from adding Britt to their rosters. Entering 29 years of age in September, Britt will be a benefit to a team looking to compete for several years for several different reasons.

 

First, Britt’s ball skills are really good. I won’t go into great detail on what’s happening in these GIFs because they’re all pretty similar, but Britt’s always been a really talented player. He has the ability to turn inaccurate throws into spectacular plays because of his natural grip on the ball.

All 3 of these GIFs are one handed catches in the same ballpark as Odell Beckham’s. The 3rd GIF is an accurate pass, but Britt’s concentration to haul in the pass is extremely impressive.

Next, Britt’s awareness and ability to adjust his route on the fly is exceptional. When going behind the scenes to look at a receiver, it’s important to note the design of the route as well as what the WR can do about it. The Rams offense is poorly coached, often doing nothing to help the QB or the WRs and instead trapping them in a claustrophobic offense.

Britt bails out the coordinator on each of these two plays. In the first GIF, #18 makes the defender adjacent to him run further than he should, allowing Britt to stop and have plenty of space for Case Keenum to throw him the ball. Because of the awareness and self created space, Britt is able to immediately adjust to YAC mode, making an ordinary play turn into a big gain.

In the 2nd GIF, Britt stops his route and sees an opening for his quarterback to throw him the ball to. His patience and awareness of the situation stand out, and he grabs the pass and uses his strength to pinball away from defenders and into the end zone for the touchdown.

 

Size Matchup

 

Speaking of strength, that’s what’s up next. Britt’s size and frame are perhaps what stands out about him the most. At 6 ft 3 and 223 lb, Britt is a huge receiver with a big window to throw the ball to. He has some of the tools of a receiving tight end such as the ability to box out, so he’s a favorable target on 3rd down conversions.

In the first GIF, Britt’s frame is able to create space as he uses tight footwork to make an impressive touchdown catch. In the 2nd GIF, #18 boxes out Revis Island, allowing for the easy pass completion and the first down conversion.

(This particular trait is a must for WR needy teams. A big, efficient WR not only allows for big plays downfield and first down conversions, it also allows for a change in gameplan as teams with talented receivers will be able to get more opportunities because of the defense’s distractions to the big WR. Though, this is important regardless if you’re big or not, as DeSean Jackson’s impact in Washington will tell you. Teams have been so occupied with covering Jackson that it was only when the 2nd half of 2016 came out that his numbers exploded.)

With a team like Carolina is where Britt would fit perfectly, mainly because of his tendency to have big downfield plays and his frame.

 

Route Running

Finally, Britt’s route running deserves more credit. Frame can only get you so far in the world of pass catching;  you also need to refine the art of creating separation.

Fortunately, Britt does that and then some. The first GIF displays an excellent jab move to get open for the deep connection. The 2nd GIF shows off the double move for another deep connection, while the 3rd GIF shows Britt burning one of the best cornerbacks in the league in Richard Sherman. The pass is overthrown, but Britt does an outstanding job of creating separation and giving his quarterback a chance.

Further examining the art of separation, it’s important you have a laundry list of ways to create separation. Defenses will figure you out if you only have one way to separate, so widening your skill set in this particular area is key. Not to sound cliche, but Britt understands the approach and technique needed for each play. In the GIF above, Britt pulls off the stop and go technique, allowing him to get easy separation and provides his quarterback a nice open cushion to throw the ball to.

 

Conclusion

Kenny Britt is a really good wide receiver and the ideal free agency target. As previously stated, his pedestrian career numbers are an indication of the quality of the teams he’s played for. For a competitive team hungry for a wide receiver, he offers great ball skills, exceptional awareness, a consistent matchup winner, and diverse and refined route running.

Britt is acquainted with all the necessary tools for a great WR to thrive in the league. With an actual team, he can get the credit and huge numbers he has always deserved.

(Featured image via blacksportsonline.com)

Jalen Richard Brings A New Dimension To Explosive Raiders Offense

Stories can come from anywhere at any angle. That’s what’s so great about them. They can come through the straightforward “as we expected” route or through the underdog rags to riches route.

For Oakland Raiders running back Jalen Richard, his story comes as an underdog. Undrafted out of Southern Mississippi, Richard had to participate in a 3 day tryout just to even make it to Raiders training camp. All of this while competing with Dwayne Washington, Oakland’s 5th round pick.

Despite going through the preseason injured, #30 made enough of an impression that he had made the team. A terrific achievement, but how long would it last?

The unthinkable happened. Not only did it last the entire season, but Richard’s addition to the Raiders has actually made the offense better.

Despite being undrafted, he already looks like a high quality back after 1 year, and on an offense rich with talent. Mostly used as the return guy, Richard’s role was used increasingly as both a running and receiving back, And he quickly caught the attention of analysts such as Jon Gruden, Dan Fouts and Cris Collinsworth once his role was increased.

As a result of his breakthrough, the Raiders showed unbelievable depth at both the run and receiving game, helping them make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Richard finished his rookie season with 491 rushing yards (5.9 YPC) and a touchdown while putting up 29 receptions for 194 yards and 2 touchdowns. Richard is only the fourth player in NFL history (and the first since 1979) to rush for a 75-yard touchdown or longer in his first career game, running for an 84 yard touchdown on his first career carry.

It’s this kind of impressive play that has allowed the Raiders to explore new dimensions with an already explosive offense.

Richard’s size and play has given him comparisons to famed small back Darren Sproles, and in respect he does represent that role. Where as Latavius Murray is tall and sturdy, making him the workhorse back, Richard is small and nimble. He is also an intelligent player, allowing him to have a wide skill set for the Raiders to use him as an offensive weapon.

Richard’s nimbleness makes him an alarming threat in the running and receiving games. He is difficult to grasp not just because of his size, but also his athleticism. In the first GIF, He jumps on the screen pass from Derek Carr, and uses that jump to get a quick burst of acceleration. In the 2nd GIF, Richard shows outstanding vision and dodges an incoming tackler, creating space ahead of him to turn nothing into a 6 yard gain. The same field awareness is used in the 3rd GIF, where #30 uses an excellent outside jump cut to gain 7 yards while helping the offense move the chains.

These 3 GIFs are perfect for showing off how wide Jalen Richard’s skill set is because his thought process is prepared meticulously beforehand. He’s able to survey the field and instantly decide how to approach tacklers, angles and gaps, the sign of a quality back. So it goes without saying that Richard has this in spades.

In perhaps his best career game yet against the Colts, Richard showed outstanding vision and patience, helping him get 66 yards on 6 carries. In the first GIF, Richard makes an amazing cut across the field at the line of scrimmage for a massive gain. The Le’Veon Bell esque patience is shown in the 2nd GIF, where Richard is able to manage a claustrophobic gap to get a 9-yard gain out of it.

 

These next set of GIFs show Richard’s sturdiness despite his size. Here, he bursts through a small hole while jabbing his way from a tackler, who gets hands on him but can’t bring him down. The result is a 22-yard gain. The 2nd GIF shows Richard breaking 2 tackles, one with an up the middle jump cut and an outside cut.

Despite his small size, Richard is surprisingly tough to take down. It’s one thing to even get to him, but to wrap him up and take him down is another story. His burst and strength allow him to slip through tackles and go for longer gains after contact.

In this GIF from the playoff game against the Texans, not only did Richard (somehow) survived this hit, he also avoided getting brought down, bouncing off the tackle like a pinball and running for the races, giving Oakland excellent field position on the eventual scoring drive.

Conclusion

Football audiences gawk at flashy stats and performances, but to me, the ability to know how to approach the football and a situation is more impressive. This may seem obvious, it’s a trait certain players in the league lack. You’ll see guys lose precious yards in situational play because they’ll jump to conclusions and look to get more yards, or fail to see openings and useful opportunities.

For a player who had to participate in a 3-day tryout just to make it to training camp, much less go undrafted, to show off these traits and then some is sensational. The work Jalen Richard has put into his craft has made him a really good back, and his emergence has not only given the Raiders further depth at the running back position, but also another way to approach the field.

It’s difficult to conclude how Jalen Richard went undrafted, because his talent and football smarts indicate he’s a high quality starter and will be one for years to come.

(Featured image via justblogbaby.com)

Just How Good Was The 2016 Atlanta Falcons Offense?

The 2016 Falcons have been the biggest surprise team of the season. Expected to finish at the bottom of the NFC South, the team not only won the division at 11-5, but clinched the #2 seed and a first round bye despite a tough schedule. In their playoff games at home, they wiped out Seattle and Green Bay to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1998, facing the Patriots.

The question is, why didn’t this happen the previous year when expectations were high? The team was expected to win the division in 2015, and started out 5-0 before losing 8 of the next 11 games, finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs. What caused it? Red zone problems and offensive line struggles proved nails in the coffin for the team.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the key behind Atlanta’s success in 2016 has been the offense playing at a higher level. Boasting the #1 scoring offense in the league, the team ripped apart defenses equally on the air and ground. With Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme realizing its potential and Matt Ryan playing more efficiently under it, the offense thrived.

With 540 points, the offense easily led 2016 in scoring, with 71 points ahead of the 2nd place New Orleans Saints; This was the 9th highest scoring differential from first to second place since the AFL-NFL merger in 1966.

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As you can see, the 2013 Broncos and 2007 Patriots were historically explosive, The 49ers were on fire in the 90s, and the Rams had that historic Greatest Show on Turf run during the turn of the new millennium. So are the 2016 Falcons historic? Well, in comparison to some of teams mentioned, not quite as much. However, they are one of the best offenses in recent memory, as shown by several statistics that are worthy of being mentioned.

-The Falcons have scored a TD on their opening drive in each of their last 8 games prior to the Super Bowl matchup against New England. 

-In 14 of 18 games played prior to the Super Bowl, the Falcons have scored on their opening drive. In those 14 games, the team is 12-2.

-Matt Ryan’s 9.3 Yards Per Attempt are the most from any qualifying QB since Kurt Warner’s 9.9 in 2,000.

-With 1,409 receiving yards in 14 games (100.6 YPG), not only has Julio Jones put up a record 4 consecutive seasons with 100 yards per game or more, this is also the most seasons of this kind in NFL history, as no other receiver has more than 3. It should be noted Jones only played 5 games in 2013, but this is still a tremendous achievement.

-On their 6 game winning streak extending into the postseason, the Falcons have scored 39.0 points per game. In 3 of those last 6 games, they’ve put up at least 40 points.

-The offense has scored 30 points or more in 11 games this season, the 5th highest mark in NFL history (This does NOT include postseason games).

-Matt Ryan has set single season franchise records for passing yards (4,944), completion percentage (69.9%), touchdowns (38), and passer rating (117.1, which is also the fifth highest mark in NFL history)

The team’s offense finished first in Football Outsider’s DVOA metric, a stat that judges team efficiency while adjusting a team’s schedule.

Special Thanks to @Topher_Doll for helping out with some of the stats.

We’ve broken down the team statistically, but what caused these statistics to appear against teams like the Packers, Seahawks, Raiders, Chiefs, Broncos, Buccaneers, Eagles, Panthers and Cardinals?

To help, Atlanta got heavily involved during the offseason. The team signed former Cleveland Browns Alex Mack (center) and Taylor Gabriel (WR), who previously played under Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan when he was in Cleveland in 2014. Bengals receiver Mohamad Sanu was signed as well.

The development of key players was also a huge plus. Devonta Freeman cemented himself in the top 10 running back conversation, while Tevin Coleman broke out and established himself as the team’s #1 receiving back. Gabriel, Jones, and Sanu ended up being perfect players for the kind of offense Shanahan was calling, and Ryan, the presumable MVP, was able to overcome his red zone struggles from the previous season to help elevate Atlanta’s passing game.

With a quality offensive line, great running game, explosive passing game enhanced by Shanahan’s excellent scheme, and Matt Ryan putting up giant numbers, the Falcons offense thrived.

But it doesn’t do any justice to just talk about the players without showing visual imagery. These are the standout keys to Atlanta’s offense with some of their best plays GIF’d.

Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan has had a career year statistically. As well as likely winning the MVP award, Ryan was elected First Team All Pro as a QB, the first Falcons QB to have said honor. While he’s never been the flashiest passer, Ryan has always been really good, even great at times. He’s also a smart QB, able to make up for a lack of great arm strength or standout mobility by being accurate and executing Kyle Shanahan’s offense much more efficiently than 2015.

Julio Jones

Julio Jones is one of the best receivers in the game. He is up there guys like Odell Beckham, AJ Green, or Antonio Brown, and at his peak he’s near unstoppable. His ability at the catch point combined with his size and frame has made him a one man wrecking crew at times, and his explosiveness after the catch, including his ease at creating separation, has helped him rack up massive numbers.

Devonta Freeman

Much like Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman broke out in his sophomore season and took a huge step forward, and continued his progression with a terrific 2016 season. Exceptional as both a runner and a receiver (his 437 YAC were the 4th most among receiving backs in 2016, only behind Bell, David Johnson, and James White), Freeman offers smooth cuts, impressive turns to the other side of the field, great vision in tight gaps, and a nice burst after contact. His development has not only been a surprise, but also welcomed in a league currently rich with running back talent.

Tevin Coleman

Tevin Coleman is Plan B for the Falcons run game, and a really good plan B at that. Coleman’s skill set is just in the ballpark as Freeman’s, but he’s also faster and less hesitant, and has more of a pinball burst than Freeman. Like Freeman, Coleman was a question mark his rookie season before taking a big leap forward, not only giving Freeman rest, but also quality depth at the running back position. With Freeman and Coleman, Atlanta has had one of the most explosive run games in the league.

Kyle Shanahan’s Gameplan

Finally, we take a look at the true heart of the Falcons offense: coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan had already proven himself as a coordinator in roles with Washington and Cleveland. In Cleveland he was able to get the most out of Brian Hoyer and elevate the team to a 7-4 start. 2015 did not finish as was expected, but 2016’s results cemented his status as the best offensive coordinator in the league.

Shanahan is an excellent playcaller because of his creativity and intelligence. He understands how to scheme players open, how to negate weaknesses on offense and how to exploit weaknesses on the other side of the ball, and gets the most out of limited players. All of this is done with play calling that is not only fresh and diverse, but also makes sense and has thought put into it (something certain coaches in the league lack).

In the GIF above, from the divisional game against the Seahawks, the Falcons run a slant designed to get in the hands of Julio Jones immediately. Ryan is supposed to get the ball out of his hands quickly, and he does. This stuns Seattle’s defense, who is playing back expecting longer developing routes. With the receiver next to Julio becoming a blocker, Shanahan’s play call exposes the coverage, resulting in an easy touchdown for the dirty birds.

In the GIFs above, Shanahan provides free lessons on how to create space in routes. In the first GIF, on the left side, the routes of the two receivers intersect, allowing Coleman to get open on the shallow cross route allowing for an easy first down. In the 2nd GIF, the offensive line is schemed intentionally to bring “pressure” on Ryan, allowing him to dump the ball off to a wide open Taylor Gabriel, with blockers in front of him. This is a great play call and the execution is just as good.

Another thing shown from the 2 GIFs is the Falcons are very well coached and disciplined. This sounds like a given, but certain teams have hotheads that can’t keep their cool or approach the ball or a route the wrong way. Pretty much all of Atlanta’s skill players have strong technique to approaching the ball and route, and in doing so make the end results much better. This not only can be credited to head coach Dan Quinn, but Shanahan’s offensive scheme as well.

Lastly, as previously stated, Kyle Shanahan knows how to get the most out of limited players. Mohamad Sanu and Taylor Gabriel are not outstanding players, but are good fits under Shanahan’s offense. Gabriel was a former Brown who previously had experience with Shanahan in 2014. In 2015, Gabriel had drop and route issues, leading to Cleveland releasing him.

While Gabriel has a limited skill set, Shanahan’s been able to put him in places where he is best suited in. In the end around above, Gabriel is the perfect fit for the play call because of his speed. The blocking is outstanding, so Gabriel doesn’t need to rely on fancy moves, just speed.

Conclusion

The 2016 Atlanta Falcons’ offense was excellent. No one will probably say they were on the level of the 2007 Patriots or 1999 Rams in terms of talent, but in terms of refinement, technique, and execution, they just might be up there with those teams. They’ve offered a consistent level of explosive field opening play that we’ve seen before, just not done this well.

Regardless of the end result of the Super Bowl matchup with the Patriots, the team’s offense has cemented itself as one of the greats. If it’s not an all time great, it’s at the very least one of the best of the 21st century. For a city that has had very limited postseason success, the Falcons offense, and the team as a whole, has given Atlanta sports fans something to remember and hold on to for a very long time.

(Stats via pro-football-reference, sportingcharts, and ESPN.)

2016-17 Conference Title Predictions

It’s here at last. The top 4 teams have made it to the Conference Championship games, and with Pittsburgh, New England, Green Bay, and Atlanta in, we’ve got two excellent matchups.

 

Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons

We have the top two MVP candidates in Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers facing off against each other’s defenses in an exciting matchup.

Last week against Seattle, The Falcons dominated the entire way through, with Ryan, the run game, and Kyle Shanahan’s game plan playing exceptionally against an Earl Thomas-less Seattle defense to make it back to the NFC Title game for the first time since 2012.

In a thriller against the Cowboys, Rodgers threw one of the greatest passes you’re likely to ever see, helping convert a long first down on a tight throw to Jared Cook, ultimately setting up Mason Crosby’s game winning field goal against the #1 seed in the NFL.

The hot streak Rodgers is on is one of, if not the best stretches he’s ever been on, consistently throwing darts and giving his receivers so many chances despite their limited quality and crucial drops. He will need to continue to be on his A-game to counter the #1 offense in the league.

It’s true. The Falcons have exploded and have struck fear in almost every opponent they’ve faced this season, and have overcome a tough strength of schedule. Against the Packers defense, they’ll want to get creative right away and force Rodgers to play from behind. Atlanta is not afraid to stay aggressive and in the last game at the Georgia Dome, they’ll show it too.

This is a game where the Packers’ receiving group can’t afford drops. Vic Beasley against the Packers offensive line is another exciting showdown as well. With this said, the game can go either way, but Atlanta should be able to make it back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1998. Matt Ryan must continue his efficiency and strong execution of Shanahan’s offense for the Falcons to stay on top though.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots

This is the AFC matchup we’ve all been waiting for. Gronk isn’t available, and neither is Martavis Bryant, but we have the Killer B’s (Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Chris Boswell?), and Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Martellus Bennett, and Dion Lewis.

The last time these teams faced off, Pittsburgh made it close, but New England ultimately pulled away in the 4th quarter. Big Ben was also absent from that game with a leg injury. He was excellent the last time he faced New England the season opener in 2015), but now is a different story. Ben has not been the usual quality we’ve expected him to be, and now is a better time than ever to get back to it.

Bell has been a one man wrecking crew in the first two postseason games of his career, and while he’ll certainly be needed to pound the rock, it is Roethlisberger that has to go aggressive against a weaker Patriots defense. The play calling needs to be on point and prevent itself from trying to outsmart New England. Rarely has that worked in Foxboro.

The key is to attack New England’s weak points on defense, because Tom Brady will be able to expose Pittsburgh’s. The Steelers’ defense has improved somewhat this season, but it’s still not enough where they can overwhelm Brady completely. The key is to force Brady to beat them deep, as he is the weakest of the top QBs in terms of downfield passing. Brady has been excellent in the past against the Steelers because he’s able to recognize their weaknesses and use the underneath game and pick apart the open receiver quickly. Should recent matchups be of indication, he’ll do the same here.

But this is not the same dominate Patriots team we’ve become accustomed to. Gronk being sidelined for the year has exposed the team, and while Belichick’s coaching makes everyone better, the team looked vulnerable against the Texans in Foxboro before Brock Osweiler cost Houston a win with his incompetence. As previously mentioned, the defense is weaker, and the offensive line is not of the same quality.

Pittsburgh was able to get by Kansas City with field goals at Arrowhead Stadium, but that’s impossible to do against the best team in the AFC. The red zone struggles from the previous week need to cease for Pittsburgh to have a shot.

I think New England will win, but I will not be surprised if Pittsburgh does. This is a dynamic offense with their top 4 pieces (Ben, Bell, Brown, OL) intact going up against a depleted New England roster. This should be a fun matchup.

 

(Featured image via thegridfe.com)

2016-17 Divisional Round Predictions

Easily the best weekend in football, this year’s Divisional Weekend matchups make for the ideal Crunchtime Matchups.

Crunchtime Matchups: Divisional Weekend

We’ve got 4 matchups deciding who plays for the conference championships the following week, so let’s get this started.

Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons

Not only will this be a rematch of the classic regular season showdown from earlier in the season, it will be a rematch of the 2012 NFC Divisional Round game, also played at Atlanta. Despite blowing a huge lead, the Falcons managed to win that game, and were a drive away from the Super Bowl.

Now back in the playoffs as the #2 seed, the Falcons, under new head coach Dan Quinn, have been led by All-Pro QB Matt Ryan, the dynamic running duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, the receiving skills of Julio Jones, and the dangerous offensive scheme of Kyle Shanahan. Despite losing corner Desmond Trufant, the defense has improved in recent weeks, with linebacker Vic Beasley leading the way.

Coming off an explosive victory against the Lions in the Wild Card round, the Seahawks look to avenge their loss in the 2012 playoffs with an explosive set of playmakers. Receiver Paul Richardson had the most attention due to an unbelievable touchdown catch (and 2 really good catches in addition), but Thomas Rawls and Doug Baldwin are also coming off huge games.

This is easily one of the most intriguing playoff matchups in recent memory. Beasley going up against Russell Wilson’s mobility is enticing on paper, and Kyle Shanahan’s scheme against the Legion of Boom is another attention grabber.

This is easily the best offense Ryan has played in. The talent isn’t the best he’s played with, but Shanahan’s scheme has made for a QB friendly environment, and combined with Julio, Freeman and Coleman, a dangerous one for opponents. Without Earl Thomas, Ryan should be able to connect with Julio a lot easier, and SEA will definitely miss Thomas in that regard.

Wilson absolutely cannot feel the pressure in this game. He’s been inconsistent in terms of how he moves in the pocket, but usually makes up for it with his legs, smarts, and deep arm. Here, he must be more patient in the pocket against a better opponent.

One factor that could help Seattle out is the possible return of rookie C.J. Prosise from injury, though that is yet to be determined. Rawls and Wilson are the bread and butter of the run game though, and you can expect Doug Baldwin, Jimmy Graham, and Richardson to get heavily involved as well.

This should be a really fun game, one that Atlanta should win. If the Seahawks had Earl Thomas, they would probably win this, but I think his loss against an excellent offense will hurt in the end.

Houston Texans at New England Patriots

Deja vu. When these two teams met in Week 3, the Patriots massacred the Texans, and Brock Osweiler played an atrocious game.

This time, Tom Brady is playing, and so called “Brady Killer” Osweiler is still starting after posting a strong (in comparison to previous games) performance against the Raiders last week.

The Texans defense is the big reason why this matchup has any intrigue in it. The Patriots offensive line is not of the same quality it has been under most of the Brady-Bill Belichick era, and Rob Gronkowski is out for the rest of the season, but the team still looks primed to make the Super Bowl. This is thanks to Brady and Belichick (of course), but also a strong running game featuring LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis, and a receiving game featuring Julian Edelman, Malcom Mitchell, and newcomer Martellus Bennett, who has done a great job of filling in for Gronk.

Jadeveon Clowney had a huge game last week, including an interception with massive pressure on the Raiders offensive line, but otherwise this is the least interesting matchup of the 4 games. And at New England, the Patriots should win without any problems. The only thing that would save Houston is if Brady were extremely off because of pressure and Osweiler turned into Brady, but that might not happen.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs

Yet another rematch. The Steelers creamed the Chiefs in Pittsburgh the last time these two teams played. Ben Roethlisberger played an unbelievable game then, and Le’Veon Bell rushed for 100+ yards despite returning from both an injury and suspension.

This time, Roethlisberger looks extremely shaky, and because of a hit on a late interception against the Dolphins last week, he’s sustained yet another injury. Only the billionth one in the last two seasons! That didn’t matter last week because Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell took care of business against a week Miami Dolphins team, but at Arrowhead Stadium, that will.

Alex Smith’s consistency has been anything but, yet Andy Reid’s offense has managed to get the most out of him. Travis Kelce has been the best tight end on the field this season, and behind him include the explosive Jeremy Maclin, rookie Tyreek Hill, and Spencer Ware.

But it’s the defense that is the real story with this team. Sparked by Justin Houston’s return, the sensational corner Marcus Peters, and Eric Berry, the team has grown into one of the deadliest defenses in the league. That has helped the team win the AFC West for the first time in 6 years, as well as clinch a first round bye for the first time since 2003.

Against one of the top offenses in the league, the Chiefs have their hands full, but also have home field advantage. This is a game where Big Ben’s quality will matter a lot more. After a fantastic start to the season, Ben’s quality of play and consistency have both declined since a leg injury against the Dolphins in the regular season.

Todd Haley’s offense will give them a chance though. Expect Bell, coming off a huge playoff debut, to be involved in the receiving game. Antonio Brown, Ladarius Green, and Eli Rogers should also get heavy reps as expected. The Chiefs defensive line against the Steelers offensive line is an excellent matchup that should get more coverage.

Both teams will need their quarterbacks to limit their mistakes, but Pittsburgh will need it more. Smith is a good athlete, and against this defense I expect him to use his mobility a few times.

Kansas City should win this one, but it should be a great matchup.

Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys

Guess what? Another rematch! Yeah, all 4 games this week are rematches of regular season games.

Aaron Rodgers is the hottest player in the league, throwing 22 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in his last 8 games, which the Packers have gone 7-1 in en route to a siege of the NFC North crown and a massive win against the Giants last week. Rodgers passed for over 300 yards and 4 touchdowns in that one.

This will also be a rematch of the 2014 Divisional Matchup. This time, however, Tony Romo is not playing. Instead we have rookie Dak Prescott, who has done a nice job in his debut. Behind the best offensive line in the league, the sensational Ezekiel Elliot, and Dez Bryant, the Cowboys exploded to a 13-3 finish in the regular season, clinching their first bye (and home field advantage) since 2007.

Without Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb will have to fill in. Cobb had 3 TD catches last week, and Davante Adams is not dropping the ball quite as much as his 2015 season. With Rodgers playing on fire, this will be the most covered matchup of the weekend.

Both offensive lines are two of the best in the league, so we shouldn’t see too much pressure with both units relatively healthy going into this game. Prescott must continue his strong play and limit the mistakes against the Packer defense, while Rodgers needs to continue his strong patience and footwork in the pocket.

It’s tough to bet against Rodgers on this streak, but I think the Cowboys end it Sunday. The matchup should be a lot of fun though.

(Featured image via cheatsheet.com)

2016-17 Wild Card Weekend Predictions

We’ve made it through the 2016 season, and though it had many ups and downs, we are now approaching the first week of the postseason. This season, due to various injuries and a league almost completely made up of parity, a bunch of new teams have made the postseason, in addition to familiar ones.

This Wild Card weekend alone features 4 new playoff teams (Oakland, Detroit, Miami, and New York Giants). So let’s put aside the MVP discussions for now and bring in the Wild Card Weekend.

 

Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans

It’s been an interesting season for both of these teams. The Raiders are in for the first time since 2002 thanks to an explosive offense featuring one of the best receiving groups in the league, a strong backfield, the play of Derek Carr (before the injury), and of course, the incredible offensive line.

The Texans, on the other hand, are 9-7 for the 3rd straight year under Bill O’Brien. Someone has to win the AFC South, and despite Brock Osweiler’s best efforts, Houston managed to come out on top of the worst division in football. Still, With the arrival of the underrated Lamar Miller, the offense improved, and on the defense, Jadeveon Clowney finally stayed healthy and proved his worth as a second superstar on the Texans’ defense.

Oakland comes in without Carr thanks to an injury sustained from a week 16 game against the Colts, but even with rookie Connor Cook making his debut in the postseason (the first time it has ever happened), the Raiders should help him out. The short passing game should really get going with Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree,  and Jalen Richard being great at yards after the catch, and the pass protection will ensure a QB friendly offense for the rookie in his debut.

But really, it’s up to the QB to execute. Derek Carr’s arm talent definitely helped enhance the Raiders offense, and backup Matt McGloin clearly was not up to the task against the Broncos in week 17. Cook will likely struggle in this regard in his debut.

The Texans just need to do their best to prevent Osweiler from making mistakes. He’s been a $72M disaster, constantly throwing ill advised passes and playing like a rookie. The only reason he’s even starting is because Tom Savage is hurt.

With Lamar Miller returning and making his postseason debut, the Texans need to heavily rely on the running back to make plays. DeAndre Hopkins has been to half death by Osweiler, but the heartbeat is still intact, and the Texans need to make sure to give him as many opportunities as possible as well.

Against a weak Raiders defense, the Texans would have an easier time winning, but this is Osweiler we’re talking about here. This should be a close game for the wrong reasons, but I have Oakland barely winning.

 

 

Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks

Despite starting the season at 1-3 and ending it on a 3 game losing streak, the Lions have survived and have made the postseason at 9-7. Injuries to the running back position destroyed their hopes of winning the NFC North though, and the defense is arguably the worst in the league. The receiving group, however, is great, and has helped keep a questionable team (until the 4th quarter) intact.

The Seahawks have had a season filled with injuries, yet here they are hosting a playoff game once again. We know how dangerous Russell Wilson is when he’s hot, but Thomas Rawls, Doug Baldwin, Jimmy Graham, Paul Richardson, and Jermaine Kearse give the team an explosive unit even without CJ Prosise and Tyler Lockett.

The two injuries to the aforementioned players are devastating, but for this game, they should survive. Wilson needs to find his consistency in a season without it, but his mobility will be enough to extend plays and target his talented receivers. All I can say for Detroit is that they must play hard for 4 quarters instead of just 1. Stafford has to limit the boneheaded mistakes from the last 3 games, and Zach Zenner must get going early on.

All in all, Seattle should win this one without any problems, depending on if Wilson is on point.

 

Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers

Yeah, no one really knows how the Dolphins are in the playoffs, but head coach Adam Gase’s arrival has turned them around. Ryan Tannehill’s injury is a big blow to the team’s hopes, but with the breakout season of Jay Ajayi and the reliability of Kenny Stills and the offensive line, they have a shot against one of the most explosive units in the league.

Ben Roethlisberger. Antonio Brown. Le’Veon Bell. Ladarius Green. The offensive line. That’s all you need to know about the Steelers.

Normally this would be a blowout game on paper, but Roethlisberger has been two sided, being either terrific or atrocious. We have to wonder if he’s fully recovered from his knee injury, but at the same time we shouldn’t doubt what he can do when fully healthy.

 

And this time, Le’Veon Bell will make his postseason debut. From the moment he returned from suspension, Bell has been outstanding, showing a degree of patience and vision never seen before in the league. Ladarius Green has emerged as another receiving option.

Adam Gase will have the Dolphins prepared, but whether they’ll execute is another story. This is a team without a whole lot of talent, but can make a move if they continue the hot streak they’ve been on since the 1-4 start to the season.

The game depends on Roethlisberger’s quality of play for both sides. If he makes mistakes, the Dolphins will be close. If he doesn’t, Pittsburgh should have an easy time winning this game, even with a bad defense. The Dolphins need to get the run game going and hope for the best from Matt Moore, but otherwise the Steelers should have this one.

 

New York Giants at Green Bay Packers

Easily the game of the week, these two teams will face off in the playoffs for the first time since…..the last time the Giants even made it (2011). And we know what happened there.

Thanks to an improved defense and the emergence of rookies Sterling Shepard and Paul Perkins alongside Odell Beckham and a healthy Victor Cruz, the Giants have run out to an 11-5 season. Eli Manning isn’t even playing his best football, but this is still a dangerous team.

Aaron Rodgers has carried the Packers from a 4-6 start to a 10-6 finish. He is arguably the MVP in a season without one, and with the help of one of the best offensive lines in the league, has been able to connect with his receivers in ways no other quarterbacks can. Ty Montgomery has been able to provide *some* consistency at running back, and Davante Adams is dropping less passes this season.

At Green Bay, this will be a huge showdown. Landon Collins has been the Giants’ best player on defense thanks to his huge work in progress. He is a dangerous threat at safety and rushing the quarterback, and will be the key in containing the best quarterback in the league.

Odell Beckham will make his postseason debut. His speed, catch radius, nimbleness, footwork, and route running are all fantastic, and he is arguably the most complete wide receiver in the league. Shepard is a great #2 receiver with some of the same skills as Beckham. Perkins has emerged as the Giants’ starting back, and his vision and elusiveness have proven to be huge in the last few weeks.

The game all depends on if Eli Manning can find his consistency and if the Giants can contain Rodgers. The offensive line should be able to give him enough protection, something Eli’s group has failed to provide. Clay Matthews is healthy, and will prove to be an liability to the Giants offensive line, so it’s up to Eli to scout him out and avoid the pass rush.

With all this said, we should have a really good finish to Wild Card Weekend, but thanks to the homefield advantage, I’d give the Packers the win. Don’t be surprised if the Giants pull this one out though.

 

FINAL PREDICTIONS

Oakland>Houston

Seattle>Detroit

Pittsburgh>Miami

Green Bay>New York

 

(Featured Image via USAToday.com)