There will be four teams in the inaugural College Football Playoff at the end of the season. What common characteristics will distinguish these teams above all others?
28 Dec 2013
by Rivers McCown and Andrew Potter
Rivers McCown: In case you've been living under a rock, Pittsburgh wins the tiebreaker to go to the playoffs if they win and the Chargers, Dolphins, and Ravens all lose. Pittsburgh has certainly been playing better football of late, but if you were an AFC No. 3 seed to be named later (Cincinnati is the most likely winner), which of these four teams would you least want rolling into your town? I would anecdotally think the Chargers and Steelers would be the harder teams to fully stop.
Andrew Potter: The Chargers and Steelers have the best two quarterbacks out of those teams, which is reflected in the teams' respective pass offense DVOA ratings, but the team I'd be least pleased to face is the Ravens. They have a solid defense and a very good kicking game, plus a capable quarterback with a couple of proven targets. All it takes is their offensive line to pull itself together for one game, and they could suddenly be a dangerous team. Of course, that's been the case for months without said pulling together ever actually occurring, so make of that what you will. Pittsburgh has a strong passing attack, but the current defense isn't up to scratch so I'd be less concerned about a Dalton meltdown against them. That assumes Cincinnati is the third seed: we've all seen what Tom Brady tends to do to Pittsburgh if New England's there instead.
I don't, however, expect all three of the other AFC wild card contenders to lose to let Pittsburgh into the postseason in the first place.
Rivers McCown: Well, Cincinnati didn't exactly cover themselves in glory the last time they played the Steelers. That aside, I think this is the point of the season where we let go of what teams could be and embrace what they are. Baltimore just hasn't rounded into shape like we thought they would. I would pick San Diego over Pittsburgh because I think the offense is just better enough to make a difference. Pittsburgh's biggest problem seems to be finding a way for Kansas City to beat the Chargers, as the Browns probably won't offer much resistance despite all their Pro Bowlers.
Andrew Potter: Once teams are in the tournament, it seems plain to me that what they could be can be just as important as what they are -- but only if they actually get there in the first place, which is Baltimore's first problem.
Rivers McCown: We spend a lot of time with our eyes looking for "the next Kansas City." I wonder if Cleveland might not be that team. The defense has underperformed their talent drastically, they developed two very good offensive chess pieces in Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, and a good quarterback would really change the way this team operates. Do you have any developed opinion on Rob Chudzinski as a head coach? The Browns might be one of the five teams I have watched least this year.
Andrew Potter: Well, first they have to acquire said good quarterback -- assuming that neither Brian Hoyer, Jason Campbell, nor the Curse of Brandon Weeden is the answer. (Which looks to be about as safe as assumptions get.)
I don't have an opinion on Chudzinski at all, developed or otherwise. 4-11 is in the realms of what I expected from the Browns. Norv Turner as offensive coordinator was a smart hire. Brian Hoyer was a nice surprise while he lasted. The defense has been quite the opposite. The roster has some talented pieces, but some glaring holes. How Chudzinski and his staff go about fixing that for year two will tell us more about them than year one did.
Rivers McCown: With two first-round picks, I expect the Browns to be players in any Teddy Bridgewater trade-up scenario. I also expect them to be interested in Johnny Manziel.
Andrew Potter: So Kirk Cousins has now thrown for over 650 yards, four touchdowns, and five interceptions this year. He's finished 16th and 15th in Quick Reads the past two weeks. Sounds about average, right? Alas, his -28.5% DVOA is 42nd in the league, and his -114 DYAR is 35th. So much for artificially boosting his trade value against the Falcons and Cowboys defenses. This weekend, the difficulty level goes up from Rookie to All-Pro against the seventh-ranked Giants defense (-8.6%). Looks like Pierre Garcon better have his sticky hands on.
Rivers McCown: All-Pro? My first reaction was to say that we should dial that back a little bit, but then I realized that actually is the third difficulty level in Madden. Silly.
The big stakes for this game involve the No. 1 overall pick. If the Redskins lose, the St. Louis Rams still have a chance at it. If they win, the Texans sew it up regardless of what happens in their game.
New York's pass defense has been surprisingly good against No. 1 and No. 2 wideouts given how unheralded the cornerback talent is on the roster. I feel like we've spent the last two seasons watching montages of Prince Amukamara and Jayron Hosley getting burned on Sunday Night Football. They are 27th by DVOA on passes against running backs, though, which would seem to suggest that the Redskins should dig Larry Centers up for this game. Or throw at Roy Helu. Whichever. I just think things should be more fun in Week 17.
Andrew Potter: Running is the strength of the ... running was the strength of the Washington offense until Kirk Cousins took over at quarterback, after which they promptly posted a season-worst -53.8% DVOA against the Falcons before recovering to a mediocre 3.4% against Dallas. Their offense has posted negative DVOA in five of the last six weeks, with the only positive game being Week 13 against, you guessed it, the New York Giants. Much has changed since then, however.
Rivers McCown: If they had a hypothetical award for most interceptions, I think Rueben Randle deserves at least a share of the crown this year.
Reasons for optimism in Washington: the season isn't 18 games yet ... that's all I got.
Rivers McCown: The Ravens certainly appeared to be trying to play football on Sunday, but while their defense came to play (don't look at the Tyrod Taylor-influenced final score) their offense continued to play poorly. Dennis Pitta's return has been statistically underwhelming (-8 DYAR, -12.4% DVOA, 22 targets), and it seems fairly simple for Baltimore's opponents to just play to keep the deep ball out of the game because there is no consistency in the rest of the passing game. My gut feeling is that if this was going to be corrected, it would have happened by now. Then again, I thought the same thing about the 2012 Ravens, so maybe it's still impossible to write them off completely.
Andrew Potter: Ordinarily though, their defense is good enough to keep them in games even if the offense struggles (not, of course, when the offense is actually throwing points to the other team like at the end of last week's game). Which is every week, actually: the offense has had one positive DVOA game all year, against Miami in Week 5. That the Ravens even have a chance at the postseason is therefore entirely down to the defense -- ten weeks out of 15 with negative DVOA -- and the second-ranked special teams. That's exactly what gives them their best chance in this game: the Ravens have shown in the recent past that they can beat the Bengals with those units, even while their offense posts a -40.9% performance. I do, however, think they'll need a little bit more from their offense to win this one.
Rivers McCown: Well, as usual when the Bengals are involved, it all kinda depends on which Andy Dalton shows up. If you'll remember the first time these teams met this season, he was a completed Hail Mary away from throwing for about 200 yards while being sacked five times. As long as it's Dalton at the trigger, and not someone like Peyton Manning, I think the Ravens have enough depth in the secondary to hold off reads one and two and get to the quarterback.
Andrew Potter: Which would leave us with a classic AFC North defense versus defense struggle, which is perhaps to be expected from this Ravens offense versus the Andy Dalton Bengals regardless of how good the defenses are.
Rivers McCown: Andy Dalton can find a way to make any game a defensive struggle.
Andrew Potter: Houston is the favorite for the first overall pick, whereas Tennessee is favorite for very little beyond this game. Both teams have clear issues, and neither might have the same coaching staff by Monday night. Is a coaching change the clear first order of business in repairing these franchises or do any other, more pressing concerns present themselves?
Rivers McCown: Coaching changes will help both franchises, but what both of them really need to do is cast off the shackles of complacent leadership. Bob McNair has had just two head coaches since the Texans took root in 2002, and, asides from a brief flirtation with Sage Rosenfels and injuries, two starting quarterbacks as well. The Titans have been stuck in Bud Adams' head since about 2008; a land where there's been almost zero accountability for roster moves and little has been done to fix problems until this offseason. Both of these teams now have excuses to cut bait on mediocrity and attempt the risks they'll need to take to compete with Andrew Luck for the next ten years. I have no real read on the Titans, though I do think Tommy Smith has a much higher chance of changing things than his father-in-law did. The Texans, I think, will window dress. That may very well work if they wind up with Teddy Bridgewater. But it's probably not the right process.
Andrew Potter: Do you see any way they don't end up with Bridgewater? Surely trading down is unfathomable, and they can't possibly win the one game they need to lose, can they?
Is there any similarly glaring need for Tennessee on the playing side? I almost think that their brand of mediocrity is the hardest problem to fix. You either need to go full Jacksonville and gut the roster, or your progress is likely to be glacially slow. Which it has been for Tennessee already -- what are the clear and distinct differences between this Titans side and the one Jeff Fisher coached three years ago?
Rivers McCown: I could easily see Houston winning this game. This is not a good Tennessee team. And Wade Phillips desperately needs a win for his (pathetic) attempt to remain head coach to succeed.
Mediocrity is not hard to fix. Attachment to mediocrity is what is hard to escape. Jake Locker is the perfect quarterback to demonstrate what I mean: I don't think he's an objectively good quarterback, and I don't think he's going to become one. But he's going to show enough flashes on certain throws to convince coaches that he can be taught. And he's going to be back in charge next year, and nothing will have changed. Chris Johnson has his uses, but he's not worth all the money he's making, nor is he worth building an entire bruising offensive line for just to make him look good. The trap of mediocrity is that there are enough good plays to make you think you're on the cusp when you aren't really close to it.
Andrew Potter: Which all ties into the complacent leadership problem you mentioned above. It's kind of silly that a potential 2-14 team may be closer to contention than a potential 7-9 team, but such is the importance of the quarterback position. I do think these teams will have those records at the end of Sunday, and I do think that the Texans will be positioned better for success as a result.
Rivers McCown: Well, I hope you're right. Something about being a Texans fan has made me predisposed towards pessimism.
Rivers McCown: I know they had a nice game against Kansas City. I know the Colts are better than any other AFC South team. I still have a problem with them getting 10.5 points against any team.
I think one of my problems with Chuck Pagano as a coach is that I believe that a coach's personality extends to his team. Pagano is a fighter. He fought cancer off, in case you forgot what happened last year. But I think that manifests itself a little too often in wanting to win these grueling, grind-it-out sessions, which I think can keep games abnormally close sometimes. Especially when Trent Richardson is the back you're trying to pound with.
Andrew Potter: Isn't that a problem specifically with the run-the-ball-and-stop-the-run mentality though, rather than something specific to Pagano? Those teams place themselves at the mercy of big plays, while limiting the opportunity for themselves to be the beneficiaries of those plays. I think the biggest issue for the Colts overall is that they just aren't that talented at most positions, and where they are talented they aren't deep, so where a team like Cincinnati can overcome multiple injuries to their secondary, Indianapolis can't except in very specific circumstances (also known as games against the rest of the AFC South).
Rivers McCown: Sure, but I think Pagano is more stubborn in sticking to this philosophy than most. Granted, he hasn't had the receiving talent to make Andrew Luck perfectly successful this year ... but he still has Andrew Luck.
Andrew Potter: Right, but when you've a back like Trent Richardson ... um, does anybody have a carries to wins correlation for Richardson? Is it negative?
Rivers McCown: Don't give them another excuse to make a wins-based statistic. They'll take it.
While we're here, I think we should recognize someone who I don't think will win defensive player of the year and who I think is probably a top-3 candidate. With zero help around him, Robert Mathis has been incredible this year. 17.5 sacks despite every blocking scheme keying on him. I don't think Indianapolis can count on this to be a new established level of production for him going forward, but he has been phenomenal and every bit as fun to watch as Luck this season.
Andrew Potter: Mathis is a better example of the classic Brady Argument than Brady himself: look at his production, then look at his supporting cast. Hard to imagine where this year's Colts defense would be without him.
Andrew Potter: Ah, Miami. From a late win over the division champion Patriots one week, to a shutout loss against the last-place Bills the next. There are no win-and-in scenarios in the AFC, but the Dolphins do at least need to win -- they cannot possibly fall flat on their face again, can they?
Rivers McCown: I don't think the Jets have the pass rush to bother Ryan Tannehill like the Bills did, but that's an inherent risk you take when your offensive line is held together with baling wire. It could very well happen at any time. As long as Kyle Wilson is on the field, the Dolphins should have someone they can throw to. (Or at.)
Let me turn this discussion around a bit. Rex Ryan, NFL head coach. Would you keep, or would you toss?
Andrew Potter: I'd keep him. I think he's a good coach with an excellent defense, whose players enjoy playing for him, are well-drilled, and play above their ability. I don't think it's his fault that the team hasn't had a decent quarterback, and it's very difficult to have a good offense without a decent quarterback. It's clear that something needs to change on the offensive side, but that still requires a quarterback to either develop or to land in their laps. Until that happens, the issues aren't going to go away -- but get this team a halfway competent offense, and they'd very quickly be a very dangerous contender. Ryan is a big part of the reason for that.
Rivers McCown: I think Rex Ryan is a great defensive coordinator, I think he's a little overmatched as a head coach. For one thing, whatever input he's had on the offensive side of the ball has been brutal. For another, he just doesn't know how to keep the circus out of town. And that is a skill that is especially important for a coach in New York. I've used this before, but he strikes me as Bizarro Gary Kubiak: loud where Kubiak is quiet, defense where Kubiak is offense, and ultimately not fit to be a head coach because his problems on the other side of the ball are too limiting to his team's chances.
(All this said; I don't think Rex Ryan is a BAD head coach. I just think it's hard to surround him with enough to make him a great one.)
Andrew Potter: My willingness to keep him would, certainly, depend on how much input he's had regarding the offense, both in philosophy and player development. That side of the ball has varied from mediocre to disastrous on his watch. I do think he's one of the better head coaches in the league, however, so if he can get competence from the offense the Jets will be a very dangerous team. Which, I realize, is the exact same line I'm parroting about this year's Ravens. Maybe I'm just too optimistic about offenses attaining mediocrity.
Rivers McCown: The Jets need their own version of Wade Phillips to leap towards the playoffs. Oh, and talent. They need talent too.
*puts out the Norv Turner bat signal*
Rivers McCown: The Minnesota secondary! The non-Calvin Johnson Lions receiving corps! It's the NFL on FOX!!
I feel bad for Lions fans. I do think there is something to the idea that a team is more disappointing when they make a sudden fall from contention than it is when they're just awful all year and you can kind of drift in-and-out of caring. I'd much rather be say, a Raiders fan than a Lions fan. At least that way I'm not getting teased at all. And the saddest part is that the only thing I feel like this team is missing as a contender is secondary weapons outside of Calvin Johnson. And if Titus Young hadn't gone off the reservation ... they could very well have had that this year. (Or if Ryan Broyles could actually stay healthy.)
Andrew Potter: There's something gut-wrenching, too, about supporting a team which is terrible for so many years, then to finally have a decent team with the division title and playoffs in your grasp, and just crash and burn in a fire of indiscipline and 61-yard opposing field goals.
I still don't think I'd prefer to be a Raiders fan though. That would involve being a Raiders fan.
I do think that the Lions have more issues than just a secondary receiver. Their run defense is very good, but their pass defense is below-par. Their field goal unit is basically joint-second-worst in the league, and their kicking game in general is also poor (their return game is above-average, bringing their special teams DVOA up to just below average). Their pass defense struggles against opposing top receivers. Their quarterback is talented but inconsistent and can lose them games as easily as he can win them -- he's 13th by DVOA, but it's a high-variance 13th. Their main running back is fumble prone. Having the league's best receiver is the main reason their offense is as good as it is, and it's still below average by DVOA. Their head coach isn't believed to be particularly astute. A combination of the Aaron Rodgers injury and the thousand-and-one injuries to Chicago's defense is the major reason they even had the chance they did at the division.
All of those issues are fixable, however, so at least there's reason for optimism. Minnesota's issues are considerably less simple to fix.
Rivers McCown: Their pass defense is pretty good considering where it was last year. They need a second reliable cornerback, but they were so far behind the eight ball with the salary cap last year that it was hard to blame them for going with high draft picks at the position. They willingly signed David Akers. That's something that probably won't happen again. Matthew Stafford is a very good quarterback who was tasked with hiding the offensive line issues that they had. I think the context in Detroit is simply that they have a top-heavy roster -- and I think that's a good sign going forward because mediocrity is easier to find in free agency than good players.
Jim Schwartz, I will grant you, appears to be a game management problem. But he doesn't have to be next year!
Andrew Potter: He and Leslie Frazier both.
Andrew Potter: Not only do the overall DVOA ratings appear to favor Carolina, but the individual matchups do as well: their defensive line against Atlanta's offensive line; their running game against Atlanta's defense. Is Atlanta's sole reason for optimism the fact that this wretched season is almost over, or do you think there's a way they can still spoil the Panthers' second seed dreams?
Rivers McCown: Beyond the fact that they're in the random number generator that is the NFL, sure, I think there's some reasons to be optimistic about for Atlanta in this game. I do think Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez can get open. Atlanta's running defense hasn't been as abysmal as their passing defense. Without Steve Smith the Panthers aren't in as good of a position to exploit said awful passing defense.
Of course, that shouldn't be enough for them to win or anything without some lucky bounces, but I don't think Atlanta is as woefully overmatched as the total DVOAs would have you believe.
Andrew Potter: I'm sure White and Gonzalez can beat the Panthers defensive backs. It's whether Matt Ryan will be buried under a nine-man pileup by then that's in question. I was impressed by the Falcons against San Francisco, however, and there's definitely some talent left on their roster. That said, I do not expect them to beat Carolina in this game.
Rivers McCown: How do you feel about the Julio Jones trade in retrospect? There seems to be no question that he was "worth" the picks that had to be given up to get him, but the lack of good young depth on this roster is a problem. Especially at offensive line.
Andrew Potter: Entertainingly, one of Dimitroff's justifications for the pick was the amount of young, developing talent they had on the roster. I do think it's a move that was worth making, even with hindsight. Would they rather have Derek Sherrod and David DeCastro than Jones? No, I don't think they would. (And they certainly wouldn't prefer to have either of those plus A.J. Jenkins or Jonathan Baldwin.) This season's problems in Atlanta are fixable -- Sam Baker coming back healthy would be a good start -- and Jones is an integral part of the solution; I don't think that trade is a reason for the problem existing in the first place.
Rivers McCown: The next time Sam Baker comes back healthy will be the first. Which, honestly, is one of the things I think people fail to account for most when we talk about draft failures. Sometimes a guy can be a good pick and still fail just because the rigors of NFL football are a harsh mistress. Baker went from looking like a great pick in year one and two to being a pedestrian left tackle primarily due to injuries.
I love Julio Jones and all, but I think the "good process" move is to not trade up in the first round unless you're (a) getting a major discount to do so or (b) taking your stab at a franchise quarterback. It turned out very well for Atlanta, certainly. That doesn't mean the process behind it was smart.
Andrew Potter: There's an argument to be made for ensuring you get what you expect to be an impact player if you believe that's what you need. I don't think they overpaid for the player they (correctly) thought they were getting. I certainly agree, though, that it doesn't apply to every team in every situation, and overall it probably isn't a good idea for most -- indeed, this year it would be a bad idea for Atlanta. Too many holes to fill to give up chances at filling them.
Rivers McCown: And the one chance that the Arizona Cardinals can make the playoffs rides on the ice-cold Mike Glennon and The Tampa Schianomen knocking off New Orleans at the dome. It should be noted that Tampa did play New Orleans well in Tampa earlier this year -- and probably would have won had Josh Freeman not been so busy being Josh Freeman. It also merits mentioning that Rob Ryan's defense is really reliant on good safety play, and without Kenny Vaccaro (broken ankle) I think they are in for a bit of a rude awakening.
But, I still don't think that's enough for me to pick them to lose this game given how good they've been at home this year and the implications of win-or-go home.
Andrew Potter: Left tackle Terron Armstead didn't exactly inspire confidence in his debut, but better players than he have struggled against Greg Hardy. Adrian Clayborn is a good player too though, and could cause trouble for the Saints rookie. That said, I expect trouble for the Saints would have to come from Gerald McCoy, and I'm interested to see how the Buccaneers attempt to cover Jimmy Graham. I do expect Rob Ryan's defense to be too much for Glennon and company.
How likely do you think Glennon is to be the long-term solution for the Buccaneers? Are his struggles mainly inexperience, or something more difficult to correct?
Rivers McCown: I'm not a Mike Glennon believer, but I also haven't spent an entire day breaking down his games or anything. In general, I worry that a quarterback with a streak like Glennon's has been "figured out" by the league.
Andrew Potter: In general, that's probably a reasonable assumption. Even without Vaccaro, I think the Saints will be comfortably too much for the Buccaneers on both offense and defense. Depending what happens (or doesn't happen) to Schiano in the hours following that, the Glennon question may quickly become moot anyway.
Rivers McCown: I would frame my suspicions as I "wouldn't be surprised" if Tampa covered. I think it would take some truly suspicious machinations for them to win.
Andrew Potter: Defense and running was enough for the Bills to shut out Miami in a 19-0 victory last week. The same approach looks likely this weekend, given that run defense is the weakness of the Patriots and pass defense is the strength of the Bills. The meaningful portion of Buffalo's season ended weeks ago, but how much reason for optimism is there for the way the year has gone overall?
Rivers McCown: I think from the standpoint of offensive development, this was sort of a lost year. EJ Manuel didn't really show as much as you would have liked, and that's a big downer. (Not to mention the injuries.) I have enjoyed watching Doug Marrone's mind work with the offense though, and Robert Woods has been productive when he's been on the field. It just felt like this offense was still trying to find it's calling card when I watched it.
The defensive improvement under Mike Pettine has been tremendous though. I guess that's what happens when you install someone who worked under Rex Ryan, give him a talented defense, and have him replace Dave Wannstedt.
Andrew Potter: Having just about anybody competent replace Dave Wannstedt would have been a good move after last season's defensive performance.
Thaddeus Lewis gets the start for Buffalo again this week, so we won't get any more opportunities to analyze EJ Manuel.
Meanwhile for New England, life after Rob Gronkowski hasn't been quite as traumatic as expected: above 50% passing DVOA and above 29% total offensive DVOA in both games since he was lost for the year. Buffalo has the second-best pass defense DVOA, however; as well as our highest rating against receiving backs (-36.3%) and second receivers (-44.3%), both of which are critical components of the Patriots offense.
Rivers McCown: You should never count out Touchdown Tom, Andrew.
Andrew Potter: I was going to reply with a (mostly joking) comment about Brady's annual four-interception meltdown game, but apparently my Brady clock is stuck in 2006 -- he's only thrown three or more interceptions once since the calendar hit 2007 (four against Buffalo in 2011) after doing so at least once every year from 2001 to 2006. Turns out he also hasn't thrown more than one interception in any game this season -- he's never before gone a full season without at least two games with two or more interceptions.
So yes, Brady voodoo, and New England once again to get the second seed.
Rivers McCown: Never. Count. Out. Touchdown. Tom.
Rivers McCown: If last week hadn't happened, this is where I'd write "Kellen Clemens, Seahawks defense, next game."
The thing is, Arizona has Patrick Peterson. St. Louis does not. Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin are, I believe, good enough weapons to exploit the Rams secondary. The Rams caused a lot of problems for the Seahawks up front the last time these teams played, but Seattle was still working without Russell Okung and dealing with a lot of backup-quality line play. Robert Quinn is amazing, but he's not going to hurry Russell Wilson in under two seconds on every snap.
Andrew Potter: Last time was in St. Louis too, which is very different to playing in Seattle. It's clear that the Seahawks line can be attacked, but the Rams secondary is also vulnerable. I don't expect Seattle's offense to play as poorly (-39.4%) as it did in St. Louis, and I don't expect the Rams to be able to run as well (23.3%) as they did in that game.
Rivers McCown: If you are the Rams, what are you going to do with your (likely) top two pick in this year's draft? A Jadeveon Clowney auction could bring another Griffinesque ransom to the table.
Andrew Potter: It depends what offers I get. Clowney plus Quinn with Chris Long also rotating in sounds nasty. Secondary help may be a better investment, however, so I could be tempted otherwise. I'm fairly sure they consider themselves settled at quarterback, and they can't draft an upgrade at offensive coordinator, so whatever gets them the clearest upgrade is probably the avenue to pursue.
Rivers McCown: I don't think they should consider themselves settled at quarterback, but I agree with you that they probably do.
I have to imagine it's cost-prohibitive to trade Long's pre-slotted rookie deal, and there's no way anyone should be trying to trade Robert Quinn. Would you consider moving one of them inside, or is that a waste of their talents?
Andrew Potter: I doubt it'd be a good use of any of them, though that doesn't mean it couldn't work -- especially on passing downs. I was envisioning a rotation of the three at defensive end. As this season has overwhelmingly demonstrated, you can never have too much depth at key positions.
Rivers McCown: There is such a thing as focusing too much talent in one position, though. That crosses the line for me unless a position switch makes sense.
Andrew Potter: Incredibly, the rest of the NFC North's collective failure to win this division means a Packers victory at Soldier Field would see them snatch it from Marc Trestman's Bears. The returning Aaron Rodgers will still need to overcome a bad Packers defense, but the easiest way to do so may be to hand the ball off to Eddie Lacy thirty times and see how many Bears defenders it takes to bring him down. That bad Packers defense should mean that Jay Cutler finds the going easier here than it was against Philadelphia, which in turn would probably mean the type of shootout that is atypical of this historic rivalry.
Rivers McCown: I believe the rust on Rodgers and Randall Cobb have a better chance of slowing them down than the Bears defense. In fact, that's the only pure talent reason I can think of to pick the Bears to win this game. Cutler may be better than Josh McCown, but I'd find it hard to believe he could outduel Rodgers against that defense.
This used to be the kind of game that Dave Toub (long-time Bears special teams coordinator, departed for Kansas City) could swing. But he's not here anymore.
Andrew Potter: The Bears are still better than the Packers on special teams though, especially on kickoffs and kickoff returns. That's unlikely to be a massive advantage, but it's an advantage nonetheless.
Really, trying to predict this game is even more of a fool's errand than trying to predict the NFL in general. Rodgers could be the Rodgers we're used to, or he could look like a guy who's just missed basically half the season. Who really knows? And could Matt Flynn succeed against the Bears defense anyway? I think handing off to Eddie Lacy is one of the few tasks he can execute just as well as Rodgers can.
Rivers McCown: You've mentioned this Eddie Lacy guy twice now. Are you implying that the Chicago run defense is bad or something?
Andrew Potter: I took the Eagles to score 57 against them in this very column last week, and missed by three. Yes, my faith in the Bears run defense is not at its all-time high.
Rivers McCown: We've seen some linebackers step in and be great immediately as rookies. It's tough to completely bury a guy after one season, but the Jon Bostic selection in the second round hasn't come up roses yet. The good news for Chicago is that, long-term, Alshon Jeffery's development should finally turn the Bears into a team that can win shootouts. Also, after they release much of the deadweight (like Julius Peppers) this offseason, they should have plenty of money to play with. I really like how they're set up long term, and think the Phil Emery hire has been successful so far.
Just, uh, cover your eyes when Lacy touches the ball. And cover your ears when Marc Trestman tries to explain his timeout usage.
Rivers McCown: Three field goals might be enough to take this game, is my initial thought.
This is exactly the type of game where I think conservative play-calling may be warranted. There'll be armchair analysts who look at this game and scoff at run-run-pass, but one turnover in this one could be the difference maker.
Andrew Potter: Assuming that this is a defensive struggle throughout, which team would you favor here? Arizona has the better defense and is at home, but their offense is more likely than San Francisco's to make critical mistakes. Their defense was able to overcome that in Seattle, but surely it's too much to ask that of them two weeks running against two of the best teams in the league? San Francisco is much better on special teams, particularly their punting game, which could help tilt the field in their favor, and their offense is top-ten by DVOA both running and passing. Their last game below 19.0% DVOA was Week 11 against New Orleans, whereas the Cardinals have been above-average but inconsistent over that period, especially passing the ball.
Rivers McCown: My gut tells me Arizona isn't going to be dismissed that easily. I don't necessarily think San Francisco's offensive line can run over that defensive front, and Colin Kaepernick isn't exactly a maestro in the pre-snap phase. I do think San Francisco is a better team top-to-bottom, and I do think they are better coached. This is certainly an interesting test for them as far as their offense is concerned, because my confidence in them making a run would be boosted if they managed to get Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis going against this pass defense.
Andrew Potter: Arizona is 20th by DVOA against tight ends, allowing 78 yards per game on roughly nine targets. Against every other receiver type, they're seventh or higher. Against the Cardinals in Week 6, Vernon Davis had 8 catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. The entire rest of the San Francisco receiving corps, which was absent Michael Crabtree, gained 72 yards on 8 catches. Davis certainly appears to be key to the 49ers offense in this game.
Rivers McCown: Floyd has really caught my attention of late. I think Arizona has enough short area targets to make things work right now, and San Francisco did falter a bit against the Falcons. Not necessarily calling an upset, but this wouldn't go down as a big surprise in my book.
Andrew Potter: To seal home field advantage for the playoffs, all second-ranked Denver has to do is win at second-bottom Oakland. Should be simple enough, even with their defense once again missing Von Miller. We discussed home field advantage for the Saints last week: what are the specifics of that advantage for the Broncos?
Rivers McCown: Denver's offense is 34.1% at home, 29.0% on the road. Defense: -5.5% at home, 1.8% on the road. There's really not much in the way of splits with the Broncos, except of course for the imagined narratives that say that Peyton Manning struggles in the cold. I'm less interested in long-term numbers because without Manning everything changes, but in 2012: 27.1% home/16.6% road (offense), -16.2% home/-11.6% road (defense)
Denver's defense is an interesting unit to me. They've been dealing with a lot of injuries all year -- the under-the-radar one is Derek Wolfe, who they really missed against the Chargers -- they were without Von Miller for a few games at the start, and now at the end. Somehow, I still feel they are less than the sum of their parts. I think outside of maybe Seattle and Arizona, their defense at full strength can hold their own in a comparison to any other defense in the league. Yet, the numbers haven't reflected that.
Andrew Potter: Don't you think that's overselling the secondary? Rahim Moore, Duke Ihenacho, Mike Adams, Chris Harris, Tony Carter, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and the declining (and oft-injured this year) Champ Bailey. There are a couple of good individuals there, but that doesn't seem like a particularly good group to me. They have a solid front four and good linebackers, but I don't think 14th by DVOA is unreasonable given the substantial absences of Wolfe, Miller, Bailey, and Moore as well as Kevin Vickerson.
Rivers McCown: I don't think there's a particularly bad player in that group you just listed outside of Champ Bailey. Harris and Rodgers-Cromartie have both had outstanding seasons. The safeties aren't game changers or anything, but they're fine. Rahim Moore takes a lot of guff for the mistake against Baltimore, but in general I'm high on him. I think a lot of other secondaries have bigger weak points than Denver has.
Andrew Potter: It's not that I think they're bad, at all; I just don't think of them as outstandingly good either (except DRC, who I consider a very good player). DVOA indicates that the Broncos defense has had one terrible game (against Dallas) and one excellent game (against Washington), and otherwise hovered around average-to-slightly-above-average. I don't think that's a performance level notably different from the talent, especially accounting for their injuries. I do think it's good enough to help reinforce the Broncos as favorites in the AFC, absent any random disasters.
Oakland, we covered at length last week. This won't be the game that makes or breaks anything for Dennis Allen and the rest of his staff.
Rivers McCown: Hard to handicap this game with Andy Reid saying he may rest some starters. On the other hand, I may finally get that look at Chase Daniel I wanted a few weeks ago. Putting up huge numbers against the Chargers defense would surely be meaningful, right? Oh ... actually, it wouldn't. That's a real bad unit still.
Last time these teams played, San Diego was relatively hapless for two quarters, then demolished the Chiefs defense once Tamba Hali and Justin Houston left the field. Do we see any reason for that to change given the circumstances?
Andrew Potter: I could see them not being hapless for the opening two quarters, particularly as they have plenty to play for and the Chiefs have little reason to push anybody who isn't fully healthy.
Don't look now, but the Chargers defense has had negative DVOA two weeks running. They'd only had one game all year with negative DVOA before Week 15. There's a significant change in their average performance following Week 10, with only the last game against Kansas City as an outlier.
Rivers McCown: You'll forgive me if I don't break out the Bob Sanders alert siren, I hope. I don't think this is exactly a change we should expect to continue.
Andrew Potter: I don't think they'll be playing long enough for us to find out, even though I do think they'll win this game.
Rivers McCown: We're all about random, gut-based predictions here at Football Outsiders, right? Screw it. I predict the Chargers make the playoffs.
Andrew Potter: By DVOA, Week 7 against Philadelphia was the worst performance of the season for the Dallas offense -- though not for the passing game, which was worse in Weeks 6 (-21.3%), 10 (-27.1%), and 15 (-23.9%). This week, Kyle Orton will start in place of Tony Romo, which should weaken the Cowboys offense considerably. Meanwhile, Philadelphia's defense has improved in the second half of the season -- its failure against Matt Cassel notwithstanding -- and has posted negative DVOA in four of its past six games. What sort of offense are you expecting from Dallas with Orton rather than Romo under center?
Rivers McCown: I think the reason you pay for Kyle Orton is that he can run the playbook. I don't think that'll change much. The changes will be more obvious: Philadelphia winning before the snap and getting some key sacks that Romo may not have given up, and also just ball placement will be a bigger issue that could limit the deep passing game.
Honestly I'm feeling a little gypped that Romo isn't going to be able to play. This would've been a really fun game with him. Without him, I'm guessing we'll see Orton struggling to keep up with a Chip Kelly offense that should have its way against the Dallas defense. (Of course, that didn't happen last time these teams played, but Nick Foles played through that game with a concussion. And it was very obvious watching the game that he was struggling mentally.)
Andrew Potter: I recall writing the Three Cone Drill preview for that game and sighing mightily as it went nothing like I'd expected. The Eagles are better overall now than they were then though, and the Cowboys were probably worse even before accounting for the absence of Romo. Given that the Eagles were already the better team and trending upwards even before the Cowboys lost their starting quarterback, I wonder if by halftime NBC will be feeling cheated too.
Rivers McCown: Dallas Cowboys Failure Porn seems to be the key marketing strategy of Sunday Night Football for the past couple years now, so I'm sure they won't be too heartbroken to get some more. Even if it is without Tony Romo.
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