What I Saw, Week 16 – 2013

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WEEK 16, 2013

One Legendary Coach Bill Parcells-ism: “I go by what I see.”

Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

This is What I Saw from the past week’s NFL action.

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HAPPY HO-HO, PIGSKIN FREAKS!

Santa football

I thought for this holiday edition of What I Saw I’d give us all a gift – me, for not writing as much as usual, and the rest of you for not having to read it.  (Especially my trusty proofreader/cat feeder/partner in crime Count Yorga.  Happy winter Jew-thingy, Yorga!)

I’ve eschewed the weekly analysis of every single game because let’s fact it, most of the non-playoff-relevant games can eff off while we stuff turkey and stuffing down our throats and accept presents we never asked for.  Besides, I plan to do a TFQ Postmortem on each team as the playoffs wind down, so stay tuned for that.

I’ve focused on some news, a la Away from the game(s), especially injury news, which I waited until today to have as updated as possible.  (Most players are ruled out by Friday because teams operate on an unwritten rules that if a guy can’t get any reps in practice before a Saturday walkthrough, he’s not going to play.)

After that, I’ve enhanced my Playoff Picture by beefing up on analysis of each team’s status in terms of seeding, et cetera, and also making predictions on what I think the final playoff teams will be, and where they’ll be ranked.  Enjoy.

Away from the game(s)

I SAW an NFL weekend largely defined by teams gaining more playoff leverage – several of whom sustained key injuries (see below).  Fortunately for fans of intrigue and confusion, Week 17 is shaping up to be the week of the spoiler, as a kaleidoscope of postseason scenarios could have some very plausible upsets end up shattering the January hopes of some contenders.

There were some weird moments to the week that was.

Among them:

The Chiefs go 1-for-8 on third down and get spanked by the Colts while the Panthers went 0-for-9 on the penultimate down and managed a huge win against the Saints to take control of the NFC South.  I tend to say that going 0-fer on third down won’t win you any games, but it might end up winning Carolina a second round bye.

New England and Baltimore combined for 62 rushing attempts and 263 yards in an early blowout sort of game that would usually see a box score full of passing.  Leave it to the Ravens to finally find a ground game – while suffering their worst blowout since 1997.

Any doubt that the Ice Tub Division, aka the NFC West, is the best division in football?  It’s like a mini-SEC out west, with three teams with double-digit wins (San Francisco, Seattle and Arizona) and a last-place team in the St. Louis that no one wants to play despite their spate of injuries this season.  The NFC North boasted three teams with double-digit wins last season, but those Packers Bears and Vikings teams pale in comparison to this year’s versions of the Seahawks and Niners.  How rare is this situation?  I did some digging….

TRIVIA BOMB:

Since realignment in 2002 a division has had three double-digit win teams in a season just four times: The AFC South in 2007 (Titans, Jaguars and Colts), the NFC South in 2010 (Saints, Falcons and Bucs), the NFC North in 2012 (Packers, Bears and Vikings) and this season’s AFC West crop (Niners, Seahawks and Cardinals).  Prior to realignment, divisions had at least 5 teams in them, so three teams with 10-plus wins happened more often.

I SAW more media criticism than usual leveled at Lions QB Matthew Stafford after Detroit played themselves out of playoff contention with a brutal OT loss to the Giants on Sunday.  Here’s a pretty concise take on the issue from Kurt Warner.

If you didn’t already think so, know that Stafford is officially a gunslinger.  He’s a special sort, though – not just a silly decision-maker in big moments, but also one whose footwork looks like James Brown’s used to while Bobby took it to the bridge.

I’ve defended Stafford’s varied arm slots on his throwing delivery before, because it can help a quarterback throw into windows against a pass rush – but only if done with discipline.  This season, Stafford’s discipline has waned considerably and the inconsistent throwing motion has spread to make for bad footwork.  I think the main cause of this has been the fact that WR Calvin Johnson is Stafford’s only consistent target downfield, and is so skilled that Stafford can get away with too much sloppy technique.

I’m sure many – perhaps even his coaches – will call for Stafford to throw with only one motion to address the problem.  I disagree.  Find a way to keep that advantage, but tighten up the rest of his technique from the ground up.  There’s not much wrong with Stafford that some off-season drills and another receiving threat can’t fix.

I SAW important injuries on potential playoff teams in Week 16.  People seem to be treating Bronco Von Miller’s knee tear as the most significant, but that’s just because Denver is the darling of the league at the moment while people are high sniffing Peyton Manning.  The loss of impressive S Kenny Vaccaro is a tougher blow to the Saints because the rookie is a big presence in both the run and pass game, whereas Miller is more specialized at pass rushing – not unlike Packer Clay Matthews who re-injured his thumb and whose status is unclear (hampering Green Bay’s chances of stealing the NFC North, as could RB Eddie Lacy’s ankle injury). 

Panthers WR Steve Smith has been ruled out for Week 17 with a sprained PCL tendon in his knee, but that’s good news after what appeared to be a much more serious injury.  If Carolina can secure a bye with a win against Atlanta, Smith can get three week’s rest.

At the league’s most important position, two quarterbacks on teams fighting for the AFC’s sixth seed have gimpy knees – Miami’s Ryan Tannehill and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco – but both seem likely to play without much impediment next week.

And somebody finally went there!  Yes, Pats head coach Bill Belichick of all people (it’s good that it’s coming from a voice that most people in the field respect) wondered aloud if the practice restrictions in the latest collective bargaining agreement might be linked to a perceived increase in injuries.

Speaking of the postseason….

Playoff Picture

(Seeding still my predictions.)

(Scenarios for each team as per the San Francisco Chronicle)

AFC

(1) DENVER (12-3): Clinched the AFC West and a bye in Sunday’s win against Houston.  Can secure home field advantage with a win or tie in Oakland, or a New England loss or tie.

The Broncos didn’t get a 40 burger but their QB, Peyton Manning, had a historic Fitty burger.  Fitty-one passing touchdowns, that is – an NFL single season record.  The Clockwork Orange offense rolls on, but it sputtered against a reeling Texans defense at times, gaining just 38 yards in the third quarter and punting on all four possessions in that frame.  It’s hard to evaluate the defense’s decent showing against Houston because that offense is so snake-bitten at this point.  Losing LB Von Miller for the playoffs is something they can weather – Miller missed the first 6 games of the season serving a drug suspension, and he’s had but 5 sacks in nine games – but a squad already spread thin loses some depth with Miller sidelined.  My other concern with this team is that they’ve had the same potentially momentum-sapping prelude to a playoff game that they had last season when they were upset by the Ravens: A weak set of opponents to end the regular season, followed by a bye.

(2) NEW ENGLAND (11-4): Clinched the AFC East Sunday.  Can still win home field advantage with a win against Buffalo and a Denver loss.  Can guarantee themselves a bye with a win/tie, or a loss/tie by Cincinnati and Indianapolis.

If it’s possible to be a dynasty over a span that includes a nine-year stretch without a championship (it isn’t), the Patriots are such a team.  On Sunday they won their 10th division title over the last 11 seasons.  New England is on the verge of their eighth 12-win season during the Belichick-Brady era.  (Until then the Pats had never won 12 games in a season.)

This season, however, the Patriots are more of an X factor than they usually are.  They look positively dominant in a game like last week’s pasting of the Ravens in Baltimore, yet they play down to teams a lot and both sides of the ball have been ravaged by injury.  In other words, it’s easy to picture New England going one-and-done in the playoffs or going to their sixth Super Bowl.

Was LeGarrette Blount’s 16-carry, 2 TD performance performance a sign of things to come, or are the Pats just mindfucking opponents again?  They’ll need to keep doing that sort of thing to keep rolling.  Not falling into a trap game against a sneaky-dangerous Bills defense next week in order to earn a bye will help too.

(3) CINCINNATI (10-5): Clinched the AFC South on Sunday.  Can secure a bye with a win against the Ravens and Patriots loss.

TRIVIA BOMB:

This is the first time the Bengals have made the playoffs in three straight seasons.  (The MMQB)

Cincy is undefeated at home with next week’s Baltimore game left to play there, and could benefit by getting a higher seed to potentially get an extra home game somewhere along the line in January.  But I think this team needs to maintain momentum more than take a week off.  I tallied up QB Andy Dalton’s totals in the four December games this season that followed Cincinnati’s bye week: 90-of-140 (64.3%) for 1,061 yards (265.3/game), 10 touchdowns, 1 interception and a 108.1 passer rating.  Dalton’s offensive line has allowed just seven sacks over that same span, on par with their fifth-lowest sacks allowed in the NFL (29) despite having to make adjustments due to injury.  Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has outdone himself again in the Why Is This Man Not A Head Coach Department, having his defense play at a top level despite key injuries, notably to DT Geno Atkins.  In the six games since Atkins went down the Bengals have allowed just one opponent to score more than 20 points on them.  In fact, you could make the argument that no team has played on through major injuries as seamlessly as Cincy has but sometimes all of that can turn out to be lightning in a bottle, momentum that can escape into thin air if given too much time off.  Either way, them beating Baltimore and New England losing to Buffalo is the least likely of the pertinent scenarios, so I’m locking them out of the bye week, but Cincy beware: Indy can still leapfrog you, since they face the Jaguars.

(4) INDIANAPOLIS (10-5): Clinched the AFC South on Sunday.  Can earn a bye with a win in Jacksonville, a loss by New England and a loss/tie by Cincinnati.

Some may be impressed by Indy’s last two showings, but it’s still a sign of the flighty play from the Colts under head coach Chuck Pagano.  That sort of thing can happen with an intense coach.  In other words, their defense looked good over the last two weeks, but it’s not a stretch to see it shit the bed come playoff time – or on Sunday against a Jaguars team that aren’t the pushovers they once were, for that matter.  You can say the same thing about the on again, off again offense.  With those things in mind, it doesn’t feel right that Indy is still in position to grab second seed in the AFC, but that’s where things are at.

I just can’t see this offense winning in the playoffs, so let’s hope they don’t crack the top three seeds.  It’s not all his fault (to say the least), but QB Andrew Luck needs to be playing better.  I know that finding a running game is a big part of the Colts identity under offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, but games like Sunday’s 34-carry, 4.0-yard average “outburst” from the committee of running backs isn’t going to be what wins when the games go to the next level.  In Hamilton’s defense, the play calling might be in part to protect an offensive line that has fielded seven different starting lineups this season – and Sunday was their fifth in five games.  (STATS LLC)  But come playoff time that patchwork unit will put all the more pressure on Luck, especially with Colts defense that tends to give up points.

(5) KANSAS CITY (11-4): Clinched a playoff spot, and are locked into the fifth seed.

The Chiefs have a chance to play spoiler to division rival San Diego next week, and they should try to do so, despite the game’s virtual meaninglessness.  No late-season game is meaningless, no matter what a team has clinched, and it’s not just because of potential injuries.  It’s also because of momentum.  The two motivations are at odds with one another, and I get the sense with Andy Reid that he won’t press his key starters into too much playing time in order to prevent injury, especially if the score gets anywhere near out of hand.

Sunday’s bad loss to the Colts at home doesn’t bode well for KC, because the two are likely to meet again in the Wild Card round (so long as Indy remains the fourth seed).  But it might not be such a bad thing for the Chiefs to have to play that game on the road.  Kansas City is 5-3 at home, and 6-1 away from Arrowhead Stadium.  What should be more concerning to the KC coaching staff is how easily the Colts offensive line handled their front seven.  This team desperately needs LB Justin Houston back, and this week might mark his return from a month-long absence due to an elbow injury.  Getting back a guy who has 11 sacks in 11 games this season usually helps.

(6) MIAMI (8-7): Can clinch the sixth seed with a win and a Baltimore loss/tie, a win and a San Diego win, a tie with a Baltimore loss and a San Diego loss/tie, or if Miami, Baltimore and San Diego all tie.  Simple.

I don’t think that the Dolphins are the sixth-best team in the AFC right now.  I’d probably give that to the Chargers or Ravens first.  But Miami has the most advantageous entry scenario of the contenders for the second Wild Card.  They get to host the Jets, who are 6-1 this season on the road and generally shitty.  New York might come out flat under the increasing expectation that head coach Rex Ryan is finished there.  I think the Ravens will lose to the Bengals.  The Chargers are a bit of a toss-up given their opponent might pack it in.  However, if there’s a way to blow it against Gang Green, Miami might be able to find it.

The Dolphins had a great chance to increase their playoff hopes with the lowly Bills but they shit the bed in goose egg fashion on Sunday, getting blanked in Buffalo, giving me an idea for the title of my next porn.  Blanked In Buffalo

buffalo sex

They came.  They needed their photocopier repaired.  They got blanked.  In Buffalo.  Coming soon from Vividplex Video, starring Ryan Tannehill and the armpit of the U.S.

Not only did Miami lose to the Bills and thus drastically hamper their playoff chances, but after a season of leading the league in times sacked, QB Tannehill succumbed to injury, suffering some sort of a knee injury.  He was able to return to the game, so hopefully for the ’Fins’ sake it won’t affect his performance against New York.  But that doesn’t mean that Miami shouldn’t be concerned about the safety of their quarterback behind an offensive line that differs greatly from its opening day incarnation.

If Sunday’s loss to Buffalo was any indication, the coaching staff isn’t keen on favoring the run to give their pivot breathing room.  How they only ran the ball 12 times in bad weather and the offensive line getting torn apart in the passing game is beyond me.

THE CONTENDERS

BALTIMORE (8-7): Can clinch a playoff spot with a win at Cincinnati and a San Diego loss/tie, a win and a Miami loss/tie, or a tie with a Miami loss and a San Diego loss/tie, a tie with a Miami tie and a San Diego loss, or a loss with a San Diego loss and a Pittsburgh loss/tie.

To make a sloppy story short, if the Ravens can’t handle the Bengals next week they’re most likely screwed.  I give Baltimore the edge over the rest of the contending pack out of respect for the defending champs, but they’re already backing into the end of the regular season more than they did last year.  During their pseudo-storybook season last year, Ray Rice converted a fourth-and-29 against the Chargers to keep their playoff hopes alive en route to a championship.  Sunday’s failed fourth-and-1 in the red zone against front seven-challenged New England might be the best snapshot of Baltimore’s failing defense of the title.

On a broader spectrum, the Ravens are “fresh” off one of their worst losses since the team moved from Cleveland.  The Baltimore D had been holding up its team’s back for some time now, but it snapped loudly while giving up a 40-burger to the Pats.

There are a lot of reasons to point to for the struggles of the Super Bowl champs.  One of them is the failure of QB Joe Flacco and the offense to connect on strikes downfield…and there are a lot of reasons to point to for that as well.  The loss of WR Anquan Boldin (trade) and TE Dennis Pitta (injury until two weeks ago) who both stretched the defense, the injury time served by WR Jacoby Jones, the failure of WR Torrey Smith to ascend to a number one option under those trying circumstances – whatever you want to ascribe the problem to, the evidence is clear: This season Flacco has three touchdowns and eight interceptions on throws 15 yards or farther downfield.  Last season he threw for 11 and 2, respectively.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  I thought while it was happening that the Ravens squeaked by on fluky deep balls last season, and maybe that’s the case.

CHARGERS (8-7): Can clinch a playoff berth with a win against the Chiefs and either a Miami loss/tie and a Baltimore loss/tie, or a tie and losses by both said teams. 

The Chargers’ fortunes are iffy because they face Kansas City, who might not give them their best shot since they’re locked into the fifth seed.  As I’ve mentioned above, I think KC should play next week’s game on the West coast as a regular game, but who knows.

All things being equal, San Diego has won three straight, and I still wouldn’t want to face Philip Rivers in a playoff game.  A few weeks ago I thought the Bolts’ favorable schedule would put them in the postseason, but they can’t control the actions in other games, and now they’ll probably find themselves on the outside looking in.

It’s a shame, because with the improved play of RB Ryan Mathews there might not be another team playing with more balance on offense than the Chargers.

PITTSBURGH (7-8): Needs a win, a Ravens loss, a Chargers loss and a Dolphins loss to force a 5-team tie for the sixth seed, which the Steelers would win by virtue of the second tiebreaker, record within the conference.  No biggie.

Actually, considering that Baltimore plays the Bengals, San Diego faces the Chiefs and Miami takes on the Jets (okay, that’s the weak link, but plausible) it’s not that outlandish to consider the Steelers as postseason participants.

Win and lose, Pittsburgh has been stymied by controversial plays over the last month: Head coach Mike Tomlin’s sideline box-out violation against the Ravens, WR Antonio Brown’s stepping out of bounds versus the Dolphins, and Sunday’s lateral-bacle in Green Bay.  Similar to Carolina’s miracle, the Steelers beat the Packers going 2-for-10 on third down.  QB Ben Roethlisberger has quietly thrown 19 touchdowns and 5 interceptions over Pittsburgh’s last 8 games.  He’s not blowing the lid off of stadiums in terms of yardage, but he’s grinding it out, Brady-style this season in large part due to the timely contributions of Brown.

However, this team truly stunk up the league through the first month-plus of the season.  In equivocal fashion, Pittsburgh both does and doesn’t deserve to make the playoffs.  Fitting, then, that both they and the football gods will decide their fate.

NFC

(1) SEATTLE (12-3): Clinched a playoff berth on Sunday.  Can secure the NFC West and home field advantage with a win/tie against the Rams, or a San Francisco loss/tie.  Verrrrry, veerrry eeeenteresting.  The Seahawks’ armor didn’t just show a kink, it got pried open and shit in by the Cardinals, who snapped Seattle’s 12-game home win streak by out-physical-ing the most physical team in the NFL.  The ’Hawks have to face the super-annoying Rams next week too, and almost have to win that game to take their division after weeks of looking like they had the conference in hand.

An even more concerning link: The running game.  To the casual observer, Marshawn Lynch is in usual beast mode, with 1,160 rushing yards – 6th in the NFL.  However, his production has dipped significantly over the home stretch, as evidenced by his fifth straight week averaging below 4.0 yards per carry in Sunday’s loss to the ’Cards.  The problem runs deeper:

Marshawn Lynch, Rushing By Week – This Season

Weeks 1-10 Weeks 11-16
Yards per Game 87.1 57.8
Yards per Rush 4.6 3.3
Avg. Yards After Contact 2.0 1.6
First Downs per Game 4.8 2.8

(ESPN Stats & Information)

QB Russell Wilson has been able to make due with a depleted receiving corps by utilizing play action all season, but unless you’re Peyton Manning play action only works as well as the running game.  If opposing defenses continue to be able to bottle up Lynch, Seattle’s January run might be shorter than many expect.

One note on the injured receivers: It has been hinted that Percy Harvin could go on injured reserve for the rest of the season.  If that happens it would be a frustrating development for both wideout and franchise, but despite barely playing all season Harvin is still a worthwhile investment – especially if you consider the expensive trade for him in the context of Seattle signing QB Charlie Whitehurst for 2 years and $8 million in 2010 before Whitehurst had thrown a regular season pass as a pro.  The Seahawks boast one of the deepest rosters in the league along with San Fran and Cincy, and can thus afford a few gambles.  Harvin might still pay out, just likely not this season.

(2) CAROLINA (11-4): Clinched a playoff berth Sunday.  Can win the NFC South and a bye with a win/tie at Atlanta, or a New Orleans loss/tie.  Also can secure home field advantage with a win and losses by San Francisco and Seattle.

On Sunday this team got all Lebowski and showed true grit.  Not only did they have to beat a Saints team that whupped them two weeks prior, but they had to take on the wrath of god and/or Mother Nature.  Honestly, watching the game live on TV, the game started to show some clouds, then a commercial break.  When FOX came back to the game it was monsoon season.  Strap on your bible belts, it’s the Tobacco Road Rapture!  Check out this petulant family in an awesome pre- and post-storm .gif.

http://s3.amazonaws.com/br-cdn/temp_images/2013/12/22/829073876.gif

Carolina has come a long way.  They could get to rest on a bye week before hosting their first playoff game since the Jake Delhomme interceptiongasm of the 2008 season.  A 12-win campaign would cap a surprising regular season for the Panthers, but don’t write off the Falcons, who have a handful of proud veterans (and one, TE Tony Gonzalez, whom teammates will be playing hard for in his last pro game) and gave the Niners a hard time Monday night.  In fact, after a potentially franchise-defining win against New Orleans Sunday Carolina had better be careful not to get their collective paw caught in a trap game.  An elite defense is usually a good preventative measure against upsets and the Panthers are playing like one, led by LB Luke Kuechly.

I personally think that experts are too quick to anoint elite middle linebackers, and I admit that trend had me skeptical about second-year ’backer Kuechly, who was moved to the inside partway through his rookie season.  No longer.  He had a Nightcrawler-like 24 tackles, one for a loss, a pass defensed and an interception while ranging all over the field on Sunday against a very good offense in arguably the franchise’s biggest regular season game since their 2003-season Super Bowl appearance.  (And I’m not even sure that edition had a regular season game calling for as much of statement as Sunday’s Saints game did.)  Since tackles became tracked stats in 1994, those 24 tie for the most in a game, with the Jets’ David Harris in 2007.  (NFL Media)  Kuechly was so…everywhere that I swear I started hearing –Bamf!– when Carolina’s D was on the field.

Nightcrawler_Bamf

(Marvel Entertainment)

Now, Kuechly & Co. will likely host at least one playoff game while coming off a 7-1 home record.  With Smith or without, this team should be feared.

(3) PHILADELPIHA (9-6): Clinches the NFC East with a win/tie in Dallas.

Same situation goes for the Cowboys but I was giving the East to the Eagles before the season-ending back surgery for Dallas QB Tony Romo, right about when Philly took Chicago out to a 5-floor woodshed Sunday night.

Some are focusing on the poor game Eagles QB Nick Foles had against Dallas in Week 7 but this is a different Foles now.  Think Foles is still on a hot streak?  He threw four incompletions against the Bears on Sunday, three of which were intentionally thrown away, the other one dropped.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, Foles is the first quarterback since the start of the 2008 season with at least 20 attempts in a game without one thrown off-target of defensed.  Worried that the crucial Week 17 tilt against Big D is in Texas?  Suck on these numbers I dug up:

Nick Foles Home Games vs. Road Games – NFL Career

Yards/Att Yards/Game TD INT Pass Rating
Home 6.96 188.7 9 4 87.4
Road 8.56 271.1 22 3 111.7

There’s also this guy named LeSean McCoy who just so happens to lead the league in rushing yards.  Over four December games so far this season Shady has caught at least 5 passes three times, averaged over 7 yards per carry three times, and scored 2 TDs twice.  No other running back is playing better this side of Jamaal Charles.

McCoy and Foles are playing at such a high level that it overcomes Philly’s bad defense – even if they weren’t facing the worst defense in the NFL this season in the Cowboys.  I think new head coach Chip Kelly will have Philly treating this game just like any other – in a good way.  It took some time, but this team’s buying into Kelly’s program is starting to pay dividends on the gridiron.

(4) CHICAGO (8-7): Can clinch the NFC North win a win/tie against Green Bay.

If the Bears are going to take the division from the Packers, they’re probably going to have to score a bunch to do it because their once-formidable defense is formidably awful.  Chicago has allowed opponents to post a 40-burger four times this season.  Coming into this season it had taken them nine years to allow that same total.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  Sunday’s 54-point debacle against the Eagles was just one point shy of the franchise record.

Chi-Town could have clinched their division with a win on Sunday instead of that egg they laid, and now the oldest rivalry in the NFL will decide who gets into January.  I get the sense that Packers QB Aaron Rodgers won’t be his usual self after 7 games off, and as injury-riddled as the Bears are, Green Bay has more banged up key players at the moment.  LB Lance Briggs made a glitch-free return for Chicago on Sunday.  To say his presence is a welcome sight for the D is an understatement.

This team’s fate is likely attached to QB Jay Cutler, who has been so-so overall in his two starts since being sidelined with groin and ankle injuries.  His line in those 2 games: 42-of-66 (63.6%) for 487 yards, 4 touchdowns, 3 interceptions and an 87.1 passer rating.  Two of the interceptions were on tipped balls against the Browns, but it’s safe to say that the Nutler has yet to find his groove.  I expect head coach Marc Trestman to lean harder on RB Matt Forte against the Packers’ 26th-ranked run defense and the offense to essentially win the day and usher the Bears into January.

If the Bears lose, here’s why.

TRVIA BOMB:

Ray Rice, Bryce Brown, Brandon Jacobs and Benny Cunningham had their only 100-yard rushing game of this season against the Bears defense.  (NFL Network)  From Elias: Because it stinks.

(5) SAN FRANCISCO (11-4): Can clinch the NFC West and a first round bye with a win at Arizona and a Seattle loss.  Can even secure home field advantage if those things happen and a Carolina loss/tie.

Assuming that the Niners will win in Arizona in Week 17 – which is by no means a given – there might be no hotter team in the conference.  San Fran has won five in a row and 10 of their last 12 games.  It’s fitting that the top team in the NFC will largely be decided by all four NFC West teams, each of whom face one another next week.  The Niners could easily end up on top of the West, given how hard the Rams, Seattle’s opponent, are to beat in divisional games under head coach Jeff Fisher.

Mind you, the Niners tend to paly close games – only two of their seven games since their bye week have been decided by more than 10 points – in large part because of an offense that still hasn’t been able to get the vibe flowing for QB Colin Kaepernick.  He’s been efficient over his last five games, posting a passer rating above 100 in four of them, but over the same span he hasn’t thrown for more than 275 yards, or accounted for more than 2 TDs.  I get the sense that offensive coordinator Greg Roman plans to let Kaepernick loose more, as the games get more meaningful.  The Niners will have to make sure than RB Frank Gore still gets at least 20 touches too, though.  I see no reason why Kaepernick can’t replicate some of his output from last season.  He’s getting more reps with the original offensive skill players now that WR Michael Crabtree has some games under his belt.  Keap struggled earlier in the season, but a dual-threat QB can’t use the threat of the run as much while trailing on the scoreboard because the opposing defense can favour the pass.  Now that San Fran’s D is playing more like its usual self and the scores are closer, look for more Kaepernick – for better or for worse.

(6) NEW ORLEANS (10-5): Can clinch the NFC South and a first round bye with a win against Tampa Bay and a Carolina loss.  Can secure a Wild Card berth with a tie and an Arizona loss-tie, an Arizona loss or a San Francisco loss/tie.

The Saints looked like their goose was half-cooked in Sunday’s loss to the Panthers.  New Orleans dominated many stats, except for turnovers and the score.  It was the sort of loss that can have a demoralizing effect on a team.  It didn’t help that head coach Sean Payton shook things up by replacing both the placekicker and left tackles.

New Orleans has lost 3 of its last 5 games.  Brees’ passer rating is above 115 in each of the two wins and below 80.5 in the three losses.  Protecting him from the opposing pass rush is crucial for success, but at times the Saints O-line has looked like a sieve, especially on Sunday and against the Seahawks three games ago.  Payton’s decision to elevate rookie Terron Armstead to protecting Brees’ blind side with no snaps on offense in the pros didn’t exactly solve any problems in that area.  According to The MMQB, the Panthers beat Armstead for three of their six sacks in Sunday’s game.  That’s a season-high for sacks allowed by the fleur-de-lys, by the way.  And now they have to go the rest of the season without S Kenny Vaccaro (see above).  I’ve said it before: It looks like Rob Ryan’s defense is burned out after a formidable improvement upon last season.  Now, it’s looking like the whole team is suffering from that affliction.  It’s possible that the Bountygate hangover-turned resurgence could be too much to bear for now.

THE CONTENDERS

GREEN BAY (7-7-1): Can clinch the NFC North win a win at Chicago.  Just like in the NFC East, the NFC North comes down to a Week 17 win-and-you’re-ingasm.

No playoff-eligible team going into next week has their fortunes more up in the air thanks to key injuries than the Packers.

The most surprising development in this regard (more even than the return of the quarterback, which I’ll get to in a moment) is that WR Randall Cobb has been practicing with the team and might play on Sunday.  That is huge for the Packers, who have gone without whom I think is Rodgers’ favourite target for 10 weeks.  Cobb’s presence will help suture Rodgers back into real-game speed if he can play.

Can star rookie RB Eddie Lacy rebound from Sunday’s ankle injury?  Cheesehead Nation better hope so.

Did LB Clay Matthews’ second injury to the same thumb hold him out of the deciding game against Chicago?  Well, that’s not a significant as Rodgers or Lacy, but Matthews embodies what little pass rush the Packers have.

One thing has been somewhat cleared up: Star QB Aaron Rodgers is going to start on Sunday against the same defense that broke his collarbone in Week 9.  What isn’t clear is how well Rodgers will perform.  I can’t criticize head coach Mike McCarthy for opting for one of the top 5 quarterbacks in the NFL, but how rusty will Rodgers be?  Meanwhile, backup Matt Flynn has played very well in Rodgers’ absence.  It would be silly to say Flynn should play, but I wonder if he doesn’t give Green Bay a better chance against in Chicago.

Con artist-cum-castoff-cum-starter again Flynn’s return to relative importance is wacky.  Flynn is one of the frontrunners for TFQ’s Take Our Shirt Award in the Upside Down Awards for in essence parlaying one great (six touchdown) game as a Packers backup in 2011 into a three-year $26 million deal with the Seahawks (with $10 million guaranteed), then, after doing sweet fuck all in Seattle, getting traded to the Raiders for a fifth round draft pick in 2014 and a conditional pick in 2015.  Oh, wait – Oakland also reworked Flynn’s deal to get him $6.5 million guaranteed this season.  Then, Flynn was released and ended up getting re-schkooped by Green Bay after Rodgers went down and backup Scott Tolzein sucked.  Circle of life.  Flynn shit the bed against the geriatric Steelers defense on Sunday, going 21-of-39 (53.9%) and a 69.6 passer rating.  But in the two games before that, against the Falcons and Cowboys he went a combined 50-of-71 for 557 yards, 5 touchdowns, 2 interceptions and a 105.2 passer rating.

Now Flynn will make way for Rodgers’ return, just like Josh McCown did for Jay Cutler with the Bears two weeks ago.  Dallas and Atlanta have two of the worst defenses in the NFL, so who is to say what sort of game Rodgers will spit out against the Bears after so much time off?  My call: Not enough to win the game.

Green Bay has a much better chance to make the postseason that one would have thought several weeks ago, but my gut tells me that they’ve simply weathered too many injuries to have enough left in the tank.  But I won’t be surprised if they make the playoff either.  If they do, with a healthy Rodgers, Cobb and Lacy, look out NFC.

DALLAS (8-7): Can clinch the NFC East with a win against Philadelphia.

As I said, I figured Dallas to lose this game prior to Cowboys QB Tony Romo’s being shelved for the rest of the season.  Give Romo some credit for playing through pain, though.  With a herniated disk in his spine that was actually causing issues all the way down his leg, he went 7-for-10 for 119 yards after the injury.  And now he’s done.  Perhaps mercifully, if you’re like me and you expected another big game flop from America’s Team and America’s favourite overrated, yet oft-criticized quarterback.

But let’s not consider Sunday night’s matchup with Philly a write-off just yet.  After all, Dallas has yet to lose within their division this season.  What’s more, the loss of Romo should force Big D to do what they should have been doing more often regardless: Run the damn ball.  RB “Don Juan” DeMarco Murray had a decent day Sunday – 22 carries for 96 yards (a 4.4 average), a rushing score and the game-winning touchdown reception – but in the bigger picture he became just the second ’Boys back since Emmitt Smith to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.  (Julio Jones was the other, in 2006, via STATS LLC)  A ground game is obviously all the more crucial in Week 17 in order to take some of the pressure off of backup QB Kyle Orton, who has thrown just 15 attempts over the last two seasons combined.  Murray’s totals over the last 3 games: 58 carries, 376 yards, and 2 rushing TDs.  He’ll need to match that pace or better if Dallas is going to make it into January.  But who really wants to see that happen, now that they’d end up being the crappiest team in the playoffs?

Some have noted that Dallas held the vaunted Eagles offense to 3 points in their October meeting, but Big D’s D has regressed a lot since then, and LB Sean Lee won’t play next week to boot.  That puts all the more pressure on the offense, then.

I’m tired of everyone climbing on top of embattled defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.  He may very well be fired in the offseason, but he’s just the messenger.  His Tampa Two defense isn’t worth shit without a 4-man pass rush, and owner/GM Jerry Jones did little to make that happen, roster-wise.

Some thoughts on Orton: At one point in his career, before Detroit’s Sean Hill played great in relief of Matt Safford in 2010, I thought Orton was the best backup in the pros.  But he’s spent the last two years turning 31 and not playing in games.  Let’s rewind to the 2011 season, during which he started 8 games – 5 for the Broncos, then 3 for the Chiefs after Denver cut him.

The bad: 59.5 percent completion rate, 1,758 yards (219.75 yards/game) 9 TD, 9 INT and a 77.8 passer rating in those eight starts.

The good (and this is reaching): Orton threw just one pass (an incompletion) in his first game as a Chief, but had his best statistical performance of that season the following week – 23-for-31 (74.2%), 299 yards and a 104.1 passer rating.  On one hand, putting up a game that good after a mid-season trade, without knowing the offense for very long, indicates Orton might exhibit some decent poise against the Eagles next week.  On the other hand, that good game in ’11 came against the Packers who ranked dead last in pass defense that year.

My own personal scouting report from that period: A very serviceable pro who throws a good deep ball, knows his limitations and doesn’t try to do too much.  But he’s also Peyton Manning-slow, and while Dallas’ offensive line ranks tied for 8th-best in the NFL this season in terms of sacks allowed, they still gave up 35 of them with an athletic passer who can move in the pocket in Romo.  Not to sound like a broken record, but the run game will have to keep the Eagles pass rush honest, and if Philly ends up creeping that eighth defender up to the line of scrimmage Orton is the right QB to take some deep strikes off play action.  But he won’t be able to lead the Cowboys to enough points while their defense gets schooled by the Eagles’ balanced attack.

ARIZONA (10-5): Can clinch a playoffs berth with a win against San Francisco and a New Orleans loss/tie, or a tie and a New Orleans loss.

Well, I said last week that if the Cards were going to make the dance they were going to earn it by beating the Seahawks and Niners.  Upset number one is in the bag, now on to number two.

The chirping from the desert has already begun, with ’Zona head coach Bruce Arians saying that Niners WR Michael Crabtree isn’t the same player since coming back from his Achilles injury.  Arians might have just been answering a question in earnest, but you can bet that his Week 17 adversary Jim Harbaugh already has Arians’ comments posted on the proverbial bulletin board.

I expect this game to be a slobber-knocker.  Both teams are able to play with a “no respect” chip on their shoulder, looking for a physical statement win with which to go into the playoffs.  After an under-publicized first half of the season, the elite Cardinals defense has returned to form:

Arizona Defense – This Season

Weeks 1-7 Weeks 8-16
Points per Game 23.0 17.5
Yards per Play 5.2 4.4*
Rush Yards per Play 97.0 73.6*
3rd Down Conversion % 40.7 32.5

(ESPN Stats & Information)

*- Best in NFL

The good folks at ESPN Stats & Information give some more great numbers to help explain Arizona’s improvement.  According to them, the Cardinals send 5 or more pas rushers on 48.4 percent of dropbacks, most in the NFL.  Nevertheless, during the second half of the season defensive coordinator Todd Bowles (a rising star of a coach, in my opinion) has found ways to calls less blitzes while getting more production out of a standard (4-man) rush:

Arizona Defense With 4 Or Fewer Pass Rushers – This Season

Weeks 1-7 Weeks 8-16
% Of Plays 44.4 57.3
Completion % 65.8 56.8
TD-INT Differential +2 -2

This is what Niners QB Colin Kaepernick will be facing – not to mention RB Frank Gore having to take on the league’s top run defense.  Not only could San Fran lose this game, but the Arizona D could kill any chance for momentum on offense as the Niners head into the postseason.

I’ll be surprised if the Cardinals rushing attack will be able to get much done in Week 17, so it’s on QB Carson Palmer, who had been hot until last week’s four interceptions against Seattle, but the Niners cornerbacks can be had.  I wouldn’t want to challenge rookie safety Eric Reid over the middle, but if Palmer can connect on some deep strikes outside the numbers to his big wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd it could loosen up the formidable San Fran D.

The bigger problem for the Cardinals is needing the Saints to lose to the Buccaneers.  Tampa Bay has been very tough as of late, but I just don’t see Sean Payton and Drew Brees losing that game, so as good as they’ve been this season, Arizona is going to be left on the outside looking in.

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, WEEK 17 – HERE AT TFQ. 

IN THE MEANTIME, FOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK AND @TFQuarter

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