NFL Check In: Trades, QBs, and More

We’re around the midpoint of the NFL season, and it hasn’t been too exciting a season. Maybe it’s because I’m a Giants fan and the Giants have been an absolute trainwreck this year. Maybe it’s because after all these years of following and watching, I’m finally getting sick of it. Maybe it’s because the NFL as a whole has just been in decline, which I think there are plenty of reasons for. But that’s another conversation. (And no, players kneeling during the anthem isn’t one of them. Seriously, if that bothers you, you need to get over yourself.) Nonetheless, there have been some things going on around the league that I think are worth going over. Let’s start with some surprising trades we’ve witnessed over the past week, starting with the Pats trading away their backup QB, Jimmy Garoppolo, to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for a 2018 second round pick.

Normally this wouldn’t be that unusual for the Pats. They’ve dealt good backups as well as good starters before without so much as a bat of an eye. It’s only surprising now because Tom Brady is near the end of his career (even if his play on the field doesn’t indicate it), and there were many indications throughout the offseason that Garoppolo would be the guy to succeed Brady. After filling in very admirably for Brady to start the season last year, it would have been a very Patriots-like thing to do to trade him. There were whispers about the Browns, and the Patriots would have likely been able to get decent value for him. The general understanding was that the Pats chose to stick with Garoppolo because they truly did believe that Brady was close to the end and that he could be the guy to succeed Brady. The Pats clearly thought very highly of him, as confirmed by how Belichick reacted to losing him this week. Judging based off that explanation that Belichick gave, which was unusually revealing for him, it seemed like the Pats wanted to keep Garoppolo, but with Brady playing at such a high level, they couldn’t afford to sign a backup to a long term contract, even if they did like him. Which makes sense on their part. It’s just puzzling at first because if that was the logic all along, then you would have figured they would have traded him during the offseason. But I think it was also a question mark as to whether Brady would play as well as he is. As Belichick said, they tried to keep Jimmy as long as they could but just couldn’t make it work, likely because of what they would have had to pay him.

As for the niners, it’s a bit puzzling on their part as well. They’re winless to start the season, but there have been signs of progress. 5 of their 8 losses have been by 3 points or less. At the end of the day, the logic behind giving Shanahan and John Lynch long term contracts seemed to be that this was going to be a long term rebuilding project that was going to take time. No one was really expecting results this year. It’s why Shanahan came into the season with Hoyer as the starter. The understanding was that he just needed someone to hold the ship down and run the offense and then next year, the niners would likely draft a QB. Hoyer hasn’t been that good, which is why he was benched for CJ Beathard, the niners 3rd round pick from this year’s draft. But with Hoyer’s release, it’s clear that Garoppolo will now be the starter.

What I’m wondering is, why now, and what does this mean for the niners long term? Certainly if Garoppolo stinks up the joint this year they have no obligation to keep him. Obviously as a coach your number 1 goal is to win games, but still, if this was going to be a rebuilding year without a QB, why bring in Garoppolo midseason? Are they just seeing if he has the potential to be a franchise guy, and if not they’ll cut and run (like the Bears did with Glennon)? Do they want him to be their starter long term? At this point you’re 0-8, so you’re already on the fast track for the number 1 pick in the draft. It just doesn’t make sense to me to change the course. If Garoppolo plays well enough, they could fall off that path. We already haven’t seen enough of Beathard to know who he is. He’s probably not the guy, but why not let him finish up the season just to see and then draft a guy next year?

And what if Garoppolo isn’t the guy long term? I guess it’s not a huge risk move, but I’m not entirely sold on Garoppolo yet. Obviously he’s played well with New England. And yes, he seems better than backups they’ve had in the past that haven’t gone on to do well. He’s more talented than Cassel and Hoyer, and he’s more disciplined than Mallett, who was never a great fit for the Pats. Still, you have to mention those guys. Cassel especially, but also Hoyer, both played well for New England, and they couldn’t keep it up elsewhere. In fact, the sample size overall for backup QBs that went on to be starters elsewhere because of good play in good systems with limited action isn’t great. Outside of Cassel and Hoyer in New England you have Kevin Kolb from Philly, Matt Flynn from Green Bay, and most recently Brock Osweiler from Denver. Now obviously the Pats thought highly of Garoppolo so that’s worth something, but it’s no given that he’s a starter in this league. The sample size is way too small. He’s had a game and a half of regular season action as a starter. So for the niners, it’s not a very high risk move, but I just don’t see the logic behind it. Why not see what Beathard has, ride out the rest of the season, and draft Darnold No 1 overall next year? Then again, as Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com suggested this morning, maybe the niners just don’t like the incoming college QB crop.

The other two big trades were even more headscratching. Let’s start in Carolina where the Panthers traded away Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin had a great rookie season and has been inconsistent since, although Cam Newton and the passing game have also been inconsistent and erratic and it’s always hard to separate receiver performance from the guy throwing to him. Benjamin was meant to be a big receiver with a big catch radius, a guy who can give Cam Newton margin for error. It’s the same profile as Devin Funchess, their other WR, which is why some on NFL Network last night suggested that the Panthers felt they could get rid of him. Funchess certainly has come on recent, but I don’t know about that theory either. Because the Panthers knew what they were getting in both Benjamin and Funchess. They purposely picked both those receivers with that profile because they knew it fit Cam Newton’s playing style. The Panthers GM recently said that this move was about making the offense faster. It’s a bit of a headscratcher, but at the end of the day, it’s likely that they felt good about Curtis Samuel (their 2nd round pick from this year) and Christian McCaffrey, and thought that they had other holes they needed to fill that they could with the draft resources they got from this trade. Maybe they also didn’t want to pay Benjamin once his contract was up. At the end of the day, a lot of these moves are about value relative to cost.

And then there’s Jay Ajayi from the Bears to the Eagles, another headscratcher. The Dolphins offense had been one of the worst in the league and their passing game with Jay Cutler is pretty much nonexistent. Ajayi can be somewhat of a week to week proposition, but there’s no doubt that he’s talented and one of the tougher grinders in this league. Their offensive line hadn’t been playing well, but without Ajayi they have basically nothing to hang their hat on on offense. Maybe Gase wants to go full on rebuild? Doesn’t seem like him. Maybe there were just off the field issues or philosophical differences. I’ve heard some whispers about that. Ajayi is somewhat inconsistent, but for an offense that’s been that bad and has had absolutely no passing game, it doesn’t entirely make sense.

In other news, the Broncos just benched Trevor Siemian for Brock Osweiler. It’s likely not a move they wanted to make, but Siemian just hasn’t been cutting it in recent weeks. It’s unfortunate, as I’ve liked Siemian. He has a decent foundation and wasn’t the main issue last year. I always thought with a good surrounding cast he can play well. He started the year off well but the Broncos are currently in a 3 game losing skid, and the Broncos likely felt that with a defense as good as theirs, they couldn’t have their Quarterback holding them back. It’s true that Siemian simply hasn’t been playing well enough. At his best he’s an Andy Dalton type player, a ball distributor who won’t wow you and won’t carry your offense by himself but can run your offense if you give him a team. But he’s made some very poor decisions in the past few weeks. I’ve also noticed that the ball isn’t coming out of his hands with quite as much zip as I’m used to seeing from him.

It’s unfortunate, because he really is their best option. Brock Osweiler did flash at times when Kubiak was head coach, but he was one of the worst Quarterbacks in the league last year, and he’s not going to do much for you. His flaws are tough to work around. It’s alarming that Paxton Lynch hasn’t been given an opportunity. They wanted him to win the job in the preseason and drafted him high enough to tell you that they thought he could be their guy in the future. That he couldn’t even beat out Siemian, a 7th rounder, and that they aren’t turning to him now, shows that they know something we don’t, and he hasn’t progressed the way they may have hoped.

Still… I’m extremely skeptical that Osweiler will provide them with anything. Maybe we’ll see Lynch in the future. Who knows. This should have been Siemian’s job to run with and I don’t see the switch helping them, but unfortunately he hasn’t been good enough, and when that happens in this league, you’re going to lose your job.

On the other end of the spectrum, how good has Deshaun Watson been in Houston? It’s really crazy to watch. I don’t think anyone saw this coming. Of course, he’s far from a finished product. O’Brien is helping him a lot, and defenses will figure out ways to stop him. But still, the aggressiveness and playmaking prowess is refreshing in this age of checkdowns. And he’s passed so many really really hard tests. He was inches from beating New England in New England, Seattle at Seattle, and Kansas City. And he’s started the seasons with 19 touchdowns (breaking Kurt Warner’s record of most for the first 7 games of a career) and 8.3 yards per attempt. He’s escaping, throwing down the field, and making Andrew Luck type tight window throws down the field. But he doesn’t have anywhere near the arm Andrew Luck has. Physically, he’s not that different from where scouts had him. He’s just making the plays. Kudos to him. After years of QB purgatory post Schaub era, it seems like the Texans have their guy. It will be interesting to see where things go moving forward.

Lastly, let’s wrap things up by looking at who the marquee teams are around the league right now. This year has been as we’re starting to see a shift in the guard of who’s good in the NFL. The Tom Brady wave of QBs will retire soon. Rodgers is hurt. The patriots defensive losses finally seem to have caught up to them. Brees is still great but on the tail end. The Chargers have been blowing leads and comebacks for 5+ years now. And the Steelers passing game hasn’t matriculated as we would have expected. Overall, it seems like a crappy year for the league. Cardinals, Panthers, Falcons, Giants, a lot of names that have been in it recently are not this year. But we’re also seeing some new teams rise up to take their place. The Eagles are looking very good with Carson Wentz. Obviously his development has been great but its the whole team that looks very complete right now. Then you have to love what the Chiefs are doing with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. And Alex Smith is playing differently than he ever has. It seems like the drafting of Pat Mahomes really lit a fire under him and he was sick of everyone saying he doesn’t throw down the field enough. They are the cream of the crop this year, and I would love to see them take out PIT and/or NE in the playoffs. And I don’t expect them to go too far with their QB and being in the same division in the Patriots, but the Bills have been quite the surprise under Sean McDermott this year. They are now 5-2 which is shocking, to be honest. Even the Jets, who looked about as close to committing to tank as any team could be, are 3-5 and fighting hard every week. I won’t say I’m excited for it, but this week’s Bills Jets matchup on Thursday night might even be worth watching a bit.

The league is always in flux and things have certainly been changing as of recent. But at midseason, the contenders and pretenders are starting to sort out, and it will be interesting to see where things go moving forward.

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Super Bowl LI Thoughts

I’m really excited for this Super Bowl matchup. Its one of the best I can remember in recent years. I’ll start by saying although the Giants are my number 1 team, I’ve always liked and rooted for the Falcons, mostly because of Matt Ryan. First of all, he just seems like a really good dude. You can tell in his interviews; he’s always humble, candid, and honest. It never seems fake. His answers are neither of the meaningless, rambling sort, nor are they of the snide, arrogant sort. At the same time, he’s a fiery competitor, a leader, a hard worker, someone who has matured with the team, and someone whose teammates want to play with him. Of course, I can’t know these things for sure, but this is the sense I get from following the NFL.

I also like and respect who Matt Ryan is as a player. He’s always been a very good Quarterback, but the type of Quarterback that often gets overlooked by the casual fan and mainstream media. He’s not a top 5 Quarterback, a Brees/Manning/Brady that is going to carry his team to the playoffs every year, he’s not a guy who has had a lot of playoff success or any superbowl rings to fall back on, and he’s not flashy: he has neither a cannon arm, top notch speed, nor a controversial personality, and he’s not an up and coming young guy. As a result, the casual fan probably views him as nothing more than an average Quarterback, along with the likes of Matt Stafford (although, he’s on the rise this year), Sam Bradford, Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Kirk Cousins, etc. Many people may even view Flacco as better than Ryan, since Flacco has a Superbowl ring.

This is not the case. Matt Ryan is and always has been a very good Quarterback, a guy who’s in the second tier of Quarterbacks just outside your top 5, “elite” guys. But because of our lack of nuance in Quarterback analysis, he isn’t looked at this way. Like I said, you’re either an elite guy, you have a ring/playoff success, you have some flashy skill, or you suck. (Or you’re “a great leader”, which usually just means you have playoff success. Or you yell at people a lot.) It’s unfortunate. Matt Ryan isn’t a guy who does one thing extremely well; he’s a guy who does a lot of things really well, things that are often overlooked. He’s very accurate, he makes good decisions (for the most part), he’s mechanically very sound, he has good, quick footwork, he gets rid of the ball quickly and on time, he’s good at reading the defense, and he’s not hesitant: he’s not afraid to pull the trigger and throw into coverage. I’d say his signature trait is his anticipation. Anticipation means that rather than waiting until you see the receiver break open and throwing to that spot, you anticipate where he is going to be once he breaks open. You throw it to that spot before he in fact does break open, but by the time it gets there the receiver is running right under it. Peyton Manning made a living doing this. It’s a big time, very important professional Quarterbacking trait, and its usually something you either have or you don’t; it isn’t really something that can be taught.. (Although you can be a great QB without having great anticipation. For example, Aaron Rodgers, for the most part, doesn’t anticipate throws to the degree that some QBs do, but he can typically get away with it because he has unbelievable arm strength and an unbelievably quick release.) Anticipation is important because the earlier the you throw the ball, the less likely it is that the pass rush gets home. In addition, receivers are rarely wide open in the NFL. Anticipating routes allows the offense to beat even very good coverage, because ultimately, the defense doesn’t know where the receiver or the ball is going. And lastly, throwing with anticipation gives the defense less of an opportunity to react. If you wait until a receiver is open before you throw the ball, it will typically be too late, because by the time the ball gets there, the defense will have had time to react and break up the pass.

Matt Ryan’s anticipation was evident ever since he came out of college and into the draft. It was evident on the first professional pass he ever threw in a regular season NFL game: a 62 yard Touchdown to Michael Jenkins. Matt Ryan wasn’t great right away, but he was always above average, even from the start, and he has improved his game steadily as the years have gone by. Early in his career, he generally took a back seat to Michael Turner and the running game–although he was always special when it came to late game comeback and go-ahead drives. As the years have gone by, he’s improved his arm and core strength, has become more functionally mobile and more quick twitch, and has become better throwing from a crowded pocket. Now in his ninth season, he’s at the peak of his game. He turned in a well deserved MVP season, and he did it without that great of a cast of wide-receivers, outside of Julio Jones. You could argue its not even the best cast of wide receivers he’s played with. (When you consider that he had Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, Tony Gonzales, and Harry Douglas, it’s definitely not. Would you take Taylor Gabriel, Mohammed Sanu, and Austin Hooper over any of those guys in their prime?)

There are also very few asterisks to go along with Matt Ryan’s season. He’s been consistent from start to end. Although he’s had some bad moments, he really hasn’t had any bad games in their entirety. He’s played the 2nd toughest slate of defenses, and although his defense has improved as the season has gone on, it’s still one of the worst statistical defenses to reach a Superbowl.

I’m just really happy for Matt Ryan and that he’s been able to make it this far. Nine seasons in, the hard work has finally paid off in spectacular fashion, both at an individual and team level. His first five years were as good as they come, with playoff berths each year except 2009 (9-7). and then things fell apart. In 2013, 2014, and 2015, the Falcons went 4-12, 6-10, and 8-8, respectively, and although Matt Ryan wasn’t playing that bad individually, he was unable to elevate the circumstances around him. After arguably his worst season in 2015, it was fair to wonder if Matt Ryan was closer to the end than the beginning. Last year was also the first year for Head Coach Dan Quinn and Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and I can tell you, after reading some comments on thefalcoholic.com, the Atlanta fans HATED Kyle Shanahan. They thought he broke Matt Ryan and wanted him gone. And now look at where we are. Matt Ryan’s had the best season of his career, the Falcons are in the Superbowl, and Kyle Shanahan is being looked at as one of, if not the, hottest young coaching prospect in the business.

And this all plays into the story of the Superbowl and why I think it’s such a good matchup. You have the Atlanta Falcons, the new kids on the block. They’ve generally been good guys in this league. They don’t get a lot of hype and don’t make a lot of noise. And they’ve never won a Superbowl. The closest they’ve been in recent years is 2012, when they gave up a 17 point lead to Colin Kaepernick and the Jim Harbaugh led 49ers (remember that?) and were stopped on 4th down about 10 yards out from the endzone, and  2004 when the Michael Vick miracle run was halted by the Eagles. We all know how that saga ended. And then you have the Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the Patriots, the reigning kings of the NFL. The galactic empire everyone’s aching to see taken off their throne. They also have this ridiculous “us against the world” mindset like they did in 2007 post spygate. They think they and Brady were legitimately wronged by Roger Goodell, and the New England fans simply won’t let it go. Albert Breer recently did an article about specifically that for the MMQB: Why the NE fans won’t let go. And Brady’s dad just came out a few weeks ago and said something to the tune of he doesn’t want Roger Goodell handing his son the trophy, or something like that. Cry me a fucking river. Seriously, does anyone even feel bad for this team or this franchise? They had their starting QB banned for four games, and still went 3-1 without him. They’re going on their 14th division title, 7th Superbowl appearance, and going for their 5th win since 2001. And New England’s fans insist on playing the victim mentality, crying about the haters, and whining about something that’s over and has been over for quite some time. Maybe if the Patriots had just participated in the investigation and Tom Brady hadn’t destroyed his phone, this wouldn’t have happened. The Patriots have shown a repeated affinity for spotty gamesmanship, and this wasn’t so much about the deflated footballs than it was about Goodell sending a message to Belichick and the Pats that they’re not above the league. They get off easy in 2007; Goodell never should have destroyed the tapes, and I think this was him putting his foot down. And enough with the complaints that Goodell is a dictator and above the law. This is the NFL, people, and Goodell is the commissioner. Due process need not apply. Maybe he is an authoritarian leader, and maybe that’s wrong, maybe it’s not. But its a private institution. If Goodell wants to run it like that, he’s allowed to do so. It’s so petty for Pats fans to compare this to like, actual real world legal matters like they’re somehow analogous.

And yes, I have issues with Goodell, issues that I’ve often been vocal about. But botching and covering up concussion and injury situations and excusing rape and domestic violence is very different than crying because your star Quarterback was banned for a quarter of a fucking season. For Pats fans to attempt to draw any comparison is immature and irresponsible.

And just to be clear, I really don’t give a fuck about Spygate. I think the Patriots titles are legitimate and not tainted. I’m just sick of Pats fans whining and playing the victim card for something that was arguably justified but even if it wasn’t, is long over and really isn’t that big a deal.

So yea, that’s my spiel. A little off topic there, but point is, does anyone outside of New England really want to see Tom Brady win his fifth Superbowl??? I would love for nothing more than to see the Falcons walk away with the Lombardi in this one. Now enough of that. Onto the actual game.

The Game

This has been painted as the No 1 offense vs the No 1 defense because that’s what it is, statistically, but I think that’s a misleading title. This is nothing like 2013 Denver vs Seattle, which really was offense vs defense. I view this more like 2014 Seattle vs New England, two well rounded and balanced teams, except I would argue this is even more offense oriented. I would expect a relatively high scoring affair and I would expect it to be close. These are two very sound, well-coached teams. Overall, you have to give New England a slight edge just because of experience and the Belichick factor, and because their defense has been slightly better. When it comes to holding a lead late, unless they’re playing the Giants (or the other Manning brother in 06 and 09), New England’s defense always seems to come through, no matter who’s playing for them. But Atlanta definitely has a shot and could very well win this game as well. Not only in terms of story but in terms of the actual teams, this is a very good and even matchup and unless something crazy happens, should be a great game.

You certainly can’t discount Atlanta and their offense coming in. Yes, it’s New England, and yes, there’s a tendency for big time offenses to fall apart on the big stage. But you have to understand that Atlanta has been battle tested this season, and they’ve passed every test with flying colors. Even in 2007, New England’s offense started to cool down down the stretch, to the point where you could argue their defense bailed them out in the 07 AFC Championship game against the Chargers after a poor game from Brady. While Denver’s total shutdown of the Carolina offense was somewhat surprising last year, Carolina’s offense was not as good as Atlanta’s is now. They didn’t heat up until halfway through the season, faced a much easier schedule, Cam Newton’s year wasn’t as good as Matt Ryan’s is this year (he played fairly poorly when pressured), and they were very much aided by starting field position thanks to their defense getting turnovers. The only reason their loss was somewhat surprising was because they basically destroyed a pretty good Arizona team in the Championship game the week before.

Meanwhile Atlanta has been the bedrock of consistency, and against a pretty tough schedule. They haven’t slowed down as the season has gone on. Matt Ryan has set a new NFL record, breaking the previous by over a yard, of 7.91 yards per attempt in all 18 games this season. They scored 540 points this season, the most in the NFL, and seventh most in NFL history. They’ve scored an opening drive TD in something like eight straight games this season. Outside of a 15 point outing at Philly in week 10, they’ve scored at least 23 points all season. In fact, I only count four games where they were under 30 points all season. These were all losses. They ripped through Seattle and Green Bay like it was nothing in the Playoffs. They’ve performed well against Denver, KC, and twice against Seattle (although the KC game and one of the Seattle games were losses, they were still only by a combined 3 points).

Point being, there’s enough reason to respect Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense coming into this game and not think it’s just going to be a blowout. They’ve been consistent all season long from start to end and have done so against a challenging schedule. They also have the ability to score in different ways and aren’t reliant on any one weapon. The Pats, on the other hand, have had a very easy opposing QB schedule, and you could argue that that’s a liability for that NE defense. Overall, we have two good offenses and two okay but vulnerable defenses. Atlanta’s is bad but has improved as the season has gone on. New England’s has been good but hasn’t faced that much challenging opposition. I expect both defenses will be playing bend but don’t break, so we might see a lot of long scoring drives.

For Atlanta’s offense, I think the key will be some balance running the football. They don’t have to (and likely won’t) have too many long runs, but they just need to have some semblance of balance to stay ahead of the down and distance. They’re a primarily two tight end team and their pass game works off of that. They’ve been successful running the football all season long. Devonta Freeman is a quick but tough and gritty runner, and Shanahan’s zone running scheme with some hurry-up mixed in certainly helps the running game and helps those lineman to get into a rhythm. But I always feel like when teams need to run the football, the Pats tend to shut it down, so that will be key for Atlanta. If the run game is totally stuffed and Matt Ryan has to throw 50+ times, I think that spells win for New England.

Atlanta’s young defense has been improving as the season has gone on. That tends to happen with young players. They’re talented, but key for them will be not making mental mistakes against the very schematically complex NE offense. And you know Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick will throw in some new wrinkles for them that they haven’t shown all season. They just have so much formation diversity and do so much shifting to get favorable matchups, they can be tough to keep up with. They also have a lot of option routes built into the offense, and we know someone like Julian Edelman is a very precise route runner and can fake you out in a jiffy. He always tends to show up for the big games. Atlanta has to be disciplined and not be constantly in reactive mode. Make them earn it. Don’t blow coverages, and don’t miss tackles. Dan Quinn’s defenses usually are pretty disciplined, but like I said, its never easy against the NE offense.

Brady torched Quinn’s defense during Superbowl 49 when Quinn was with the Seahawks. You’d like to think he’s learned from that game and will be more aggressive with his coverages and not play as much soft zone. After what happened to the Steelers in the AFC Championship and how much everyone has talked about it, you would think no one will ever play zone against the Patriots ever again for all of ever. Dan Quinn’s foundation is cover 3, but despite that and what people tend to think, he’s actually been playing much more man this season, and I expect he will do the same against New England. They just have to some way to handle all the mismatches New England will be prepared to throw at you, because they’re so good at isolating the matchup they want. During Superbowl 49, they used Gronk as a moveable chess piece, which allowed him to get over the top for a TD. No Gronk today, so we’ll see what they do. Expect to see NE trying out a lot of different things early to gather information about how Atlanta is going to play them.

It may come as somewhat of a surprise that there’s been a lot of talk not about the receivers but about the backs of these teams. That makes sense to me. A hybrid or receiving running back that can not only run out of the backfield but detach out wide and create mismatches is one of the biggest weapons in the NFL. Teams typically don’t look at them in that position or don’t expect them to be in that position, as someone you have to account for as a receiver. Especially so because they line up all over the place. Teams tend to not have guys that can cover them. Think about someone like Sproles when he was with New Orleans. Think about how the Detroit passing game kind of died this year once Theo Riddick got hurt. Go all the way back to Marshall Faulk with the greatest show on turf, and how Belichick essentially got the better of the Rams in Superbowl 36 by taking Faulk out of the game. These receiving backs are way more valuable than people realize. New England has known this and has been king of the receiving back, going way back to and starting with Kevin Faulk in the early 2000s, one of the prototype receiving backs in the NFL. They then had, among others, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, and now James White and Dion Lewis. Shane Vereen had 11 catches in Superbowl 49, which is ridiculous for a back. The Pats love to split James White out wide, so Atlanta has to be cognizant of that and know who they want covering him. The same can be said for Atlanta. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have been arguably the NFL’s best two headed running back monster. The Denver defense talked about, after their week 5 loss to Atlanta, how they were surprised to see Atlanta send their backs out wide, and how they weren’t expecting that and how it reminded them of, none other than the NE Patriots, when the played them in the 2015 AFC Championship. Tevin Coleman lined up in the slot and beat a LB in the Seam for a TD in that game. Atlanta should be very proactive with both Coleman and Freeman in the receiving game. Other than that, you know Kyle Shanahan will have this offense schemed up to perfection, so NE has to hope they can be ready for the pace, don’t give up big plays, have some idea of staple route concepts Shanahan likes to run (and what defenders are supposed to do against certain route concepts meant to put defenders in a bind and break down coverages), and try to be physical and knock receivers off their rhythm. You want to say they have to make Atlanta beat them with people other than Julio Jones, and I still think that is key, but even so, Atlanta’s been fine this year when Julio has been taken out of the game. And Greg Cosell of NFL Films said that he believes Malcolm Butler won’t cover Julio Jones because he typically doesn’t take bigger more physical receivers (and I believe he said Logan Ryan wouldn’t either but I’m not sure could be wrong on that one), so you just wonder what they will do to/with Julio.

I expect both Quarterbacks to have good, efficient games. One or two key turnovers could be the key in this one. I’m trying to think if I’ve forgotten anything…

Oh yea. To blitz or not blitz Brady? A lot of people are saying don’t blitz Brady. Teams that have beaten Brady have tended to get pressure on him without blitzing, which, isn’t saying that much of anything crazy. My first thought was that you have to speed up Brady somehow. Houston had some nice blitz designs and threw Brady off a bit in their AFC Divisional Round loss. But I don’t know that Atlanta is that style of defense. Atlanta did blitz Rodgers heavily early in that game and it worked. But Rodgers, as great as he is, is not the rhythm player Brady is, and people had been so scared of and passive against Rodgers that it almost seemed like they weren’t expecting it. I don’t think you’ll see that much blitzing against NE. Again, this isn’t anything groundbreaking, but I think you should blitz Brady if you can get there!! But again, given everything I’ve said about how I expect this game to play out, I would expect a very bend don’t break, disciplined, physical approach from both teams.

Lastly, I’m sure some of you are wondering what my prediction is. Truthfully, I don’t really like predictions. The NFL is so unpredictable that I prefer analysis. But, it is the Superbowl, so I suppose I should give one just because why not. Like I said, I do give New England a slight edge (I also tend to always feel that way about teams I’m rooting against), but I don’t want to pick New England because Atlanta does have a chance and I really do want them to win. I like the 28-24 number, but that’s what Superbowl 49 was so that’s a bit of a copout, so let’s just sayyy, ahh I don’t know….

31-27 Atlanta.

Well there you go! That’s just about everything I have to say. Now let’s go ahead and sit back, relax, and enjoy one of the greatest sporting events this (sometimes) great country has to offer! Truthfully, I think the Superbowl is one of, if not the, best football games of the year. And that’s because it’s just pure football. Its the one game where you’re not thinking about anything else. There’s no other scores, no fantasy, no implications for other teams or waiting for other games. Its just it, this right now, do or die. I think there’s something cool, intense, but also kind of relaxing about that.

Hopefully this game will be as good as expected. And that will wrap up the 2016 NFL Season! If you liked this post, please consider subscribing. I know my posts are long, but I try to offer as much quality content as possible, and I only write when I really have something to say. I would very much appreciate the support.

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Will anyone ever challenge the Patriots?

Victories by Atlanta and New England today wrapped up one of the most noncompetitive postseasons we’ve seen in recent memory. Let’s only hope the ATL-NE Superbowl will be better. I think it definitely has the potential to be, but let’s save that discussion for another day. Right now I want to focus on the team everyone loves to hate, the New England Patriots.

Brady and Belichick will now head to their seventh (!!) Superbowl after clinching their what has to be a record fourteenth division title. I just want to ask a simple question: Why is it that nobody can ever beat, or even compete with, this team? It honestly feels like they can get to the Superbowl without even trying.

No, I’m not a fan of the New England Patriots. But I’m also not hating on them just for the pure sake of hating. As a fan, I want to see good football. Yes, I know the Patriots are good. They’re clearly one of the best coached teams and their players are some of the best at executing in the NFL. But still, it’s the NFL. Someone should be able to figure out how to beat them. They may be the Patriots, but they’re not impossible to beat. You just have to, obviously not make mistakes, but also, know how to play them.

But for the Patriots it’s not just that they win, but it’s that they win without barely any resistance. Lose Tom Brady for four games? It doesn’t matter. Lose your second stringer also? Doesn’t matter. Trade away your best defensive player? Doesn’t matter. I thought losing Gronkowski would be what would do them in as that’s what usually does, but it hasn’t stopped them yet.

In the divisional round, the Patriots played a sloppy game offensively… and still won by 18 points. And then we get to the Steelers today. It was a pretty sad showing; what was a 17-9 game at the half got out of hand pretty quickly and ended at 36-17, with the Steelers final score coming when the game was already out of reach. A couple years ago, when the Colts got crushed at New England, I chastised them for doing a generally terrible job defending the Pats offense, not just in that game, but throughout the decade. For the Steelers, it’s the same story. Teams just can’t get out of their own way vs New England.

I was pessimistic about this matchup for the Steelers from the start, not just the start of this game, but for most of the season as well–that is, if the Steelers were going to end up going to New England, I did not think they would succeed. That’s because the Steelers rarely ever play the Patriots well, and especially not at New England. This has been the case since about 2004, and regardless of what players are on the team, it rarely ever changes. You see Pittsburgh looking just as lousy, making the same mistakes, and not giving the kind of challenge to New England that they should for a team of their caliber.

Today we saw more of the same from Pittsburgh. More of the same ineffective tactics for defending the New England offense. Pittsburgh seemed largely overwhelmed with and unprepared for New England’s hurry up offense. They were often shuffling to line up and there were blown assignments and wide open receivers–not the first time that’s happened with these two. As usual, they played way too soft, gave receivers on the outside huge cushions, which allowed easy pitch and catches on quick outs and hitches, and allowed receivers to sit down in between zones (Edelman especially–we often saw sticks routes on 3rd and long) as well as run across the field on over routes through zones (no tackling by PIT) and run over the top of man. As usual, NE had little success running but had great success with play action and the spread game. Pittsburgh offensively wasn’t much better. Ben started off throwing the ball well, but they were overly stubborn with the run, showed no tempo late in the game, had a lot of drops, ran draws at the goal line, failed to get their playmakers involved, weren’t aggressive on 4th down, and had balls contested at the catch point in man-to-man coverage. The 4th and goal stop was a horrendous play call– a low percentage fade throw over the top from a tight formation that PIT had shown a couple times and NE had covered well.

Overall the main recurring problems for PIT against NE are the defense is way too passive with their zones and large cushions and often looks overwhelmed with NE’s spread tempo and ends up busting coverages. Some might say I’m being unfair because PIT was without Leveon Bell, but you can’t put the whole game on that, since these are issues for PIT that go back years before Bell was around, and more importantly, they’ve played well offensively without Bell plenty of times in the past. In fact, it almost seems like half their team gets suspended for drug use every year and they still find a way to put it together usually.

For Pittsburgh, I wonder if people are ever going to start questioning if coaching is a problem. I’m not saying it definitely is, but even though this is a good team, it just seems like a team that underwhelms to me so often. As I’ve mentioned, they always falter against NE. They also always have a few games a year where they play down to the competition (like their loss on the road to Miami this year). These few games either keep them out of the playoffs entirely or keep them out of homefield advantage. PIT isn’t going anywhere, but for a team with a hall of fame QB and an otherwise solid foundation, they should be making the playoffs every year and making deep playoff runs every few years, and that doesn’t seem to be happening.

For New England, it’s another trip to the Superbowl, and it’s just annoying to sit and watch teams make the same mistakes against them over and over again. They have such a good home field advantage (check out some of these stats at the middle of the page) that with HFA throughout the playoffs they’re basically a lock to at least the AFC Championship if not the Superbowl, and in that division they’re basically a lock for the playoffs. You look at the AFC at the beginning of the year and ask, who can challenge them? PIT is never up to the task. With KC, Andy Reid always seems to choke in the playoffs and struggle with some clock management issue. The Jets had some success against them in the Ryan era, and they play NE well about half the time (and get blown out the other half), but they’re not going to be anywhere near the playoffs for a while. Peyton Manning’s retired, so he’s not stopping anymore Brady runs like he did in 06, 13, and 15. The Ravens and Giants both play NE very well, but half of the time they’re not even making the playoffs. Andrew Luck could be the guy eventually, but his team’s not even good enough to get him to the playoffs, and his coaching staff certainly isn’t good enough to match up with Bill Belichick. Brady will probably be retired by the time his Colts are ready to challenge for the AFC Title. (Although once Brady does retire, he could have multiple rings in his sight. They have to get the team together first though.)

So off New England goes to Houston to play Atlanta for Superbowl LI. For the sake of all of us NFL fans, I ask you, Atlanta, please give us a game that’s worth watching, and don’t hand this thing over to NE.

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