Tag Archives: AFC North

5th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Pittsburgh Steelers

Our continuing previews of the 32 NFL teams leading up to the start of the 2018 season resume as we conclude with the AFC North. Here, we preview the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are coming off a first-place finish in the division last season.

The Steelers have won at least 10 games in each of the last four seasons, and they have won the division three times during that span. They’re looking to continue that momentum in 2018 and tried to build up their defense this offseason to achieve that goal. They signed LB Jonathan Bostic and longtime Packers S Morgan Burnett in free agency and picked S Terrell Edmunds in the first round of the draft. They also drafted QB Mason Rudolph, potentially looking to the future under center. It’s not all good for the Steelers, though. They were unable to reach an agreement with RB Le’Veon Bell on a new long-term contract and he is currently holding out during training camp.

The Steelers offense racked up the third most yards in the NFL last season and ranked eighth in points scored with 6,047 and 406, respectively. QB Ben Roethlisberger was a big part of that success, of course. He threw for 4,251 and 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 15 games. WR Antonio Brown had 101 receptions for a league-best 1,533 yards with nine touchdowns while playing in just 14 games. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster had 917 yards and seven touchdowns on 58 catches in 14 games, including seven starts, while TE Jesse James caught 43 balls for 372 yards and three scores. Bell played in 15 games last season, carrying the ball an NFL-leading and career-high 321 times for 1,291 yards and nine touchdowns. He was also one of the league’s most productive running backs in the passing game, totaling 85 receptions for 655 yards and two touchdowns. Backup RB James Conner had 32 rushing attempts for 144 yards  but didn’t have any receptions, with just a single target, in his 14 games. The defense allowed the fifth-fewest yards and was in the top 10 in points allowed last season.

The Steelers open their campaign on the road against the Browns, then come home to take on the Chiefs in Week 2. After a visit to Tampa to take on the Buccaneers, the Steelers host the Ravens and Falcons in Weeks 4 and 5, respectively. Their bye comes in Week 7, and it’s bookended by a road game at the Bengals in Week 6 and a Week 8 contest against the Browns in Pittsburgh. After hosting the Panthers in Week 10, the Steelers have back-to-back road games against the Jaguars and Broncos. They face a potentially tough stretch late in the season, visiting the Raiders in Week 14, hosting the Patriots in Week 15 and heading to New Orleans to take on the Saints in Week 16. They finish their regular season schedule with a Week 17 home game against the Bengals.

The Steelers are still the class of the division, and it’s not close. Even if Bell’s holdout lasts into the regular season, which is unlikely, the Steelers will be fine. They have a top-tier quarterback and perhaps the best receiver in the league in Brown. In a division without much competition for them, the Steelers should easily get to double-digit wins again this season, possibly finishing as good as 12-4. For the Steelers, it’s not about getting to the playoffs as much as it’s about how deep into the playoffs they’ll go. Expect another division title for the Steelers.

Sources: http://www.steelers.com, http;//www.pro-football-reference.com

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5th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Cleveland Browns

Up next in our continuing preview of all 32 NFL teams over the course of the next 32 days (or so) leading up to the start of the 2018 season is the Cleveland Browns, coming off a last-place finish in the AFC North last season.

The Browns haven’t had a winning record since going 10-6 in 2007 and they finally hit rock bottom last season, becoming the second team in NFL to go 0-16, giving them an overall record of 1-31 over the last two seasons. When the situation gets that bad, it means there’s nowhere to go but up. They had two of the first four picks in the draft, and they used those to select QB Baker Mayfield and CB Denzel Ward. They took RB NIck Chubb with their second-round pick, which was just part of their offensive overall. They acquired QB Tyrod Taylor in a trade with the Bills and signed free-agent RB Carlos Hyde. They also traded for WR Jarvis Landry. In terms of losses, the Browns traded QB DeShone Kizer, who started 15 of their games last season, in exchange for DB Damarious Randall at the beginning of what was a busy offseason for player transactions for the team, giving their fans hope that they may actually win a few games in 2018. And just this week they made another trade with the Bills, this time sending WR Corey Coleman to Buffalo for a draft pick.

The Browns ranked in the bottom third of the league in offensive yards last season and were last in points scored, but that was before the overhauled offense. Taylor, who is expected to begin the season as the starting quarterback, threw for 2,799 with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions in 15 games with the Bills last season, which was a better performance than Kizer had for Cleveland. Hyde had 240 carries last season with the 49ers, running for 938 yards and eight touchdowns. He also had 59 receptions for an additional 350 yards. RB Duke Johnson, who is third on the depth chart entering the season, had 348 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 82 carries last season, and was productive through the air with 74 catches for 693 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers made Johnson the Browns’ leading receiver in 2017. Landry had a career-high 112 receptions for Miami last season, totaling 987 yards and nine touchdowns. WR Josh Gordon played in five games after coming back from his suspension, recording 18 catches for 335 yards and a touchdown. The defense was around the middle of the league in yards allowed but was next-to-last with 410 points allowed.

The Browns have a couple of tough matchups to begin the season, hosting the Steelers in Week 1 and then visiting the Saints in Week 2. Things should get easier when the Jets come to Cleveland in Week 3. The Browns play at the Raiders in Week 4. The divisional games pick back up in Week 5 when the Browns host the Ravens. The Browns finish their season series against the Steelers in Pittsburgh in Week 8. The Browns then have two straight home games — against the Chiefs and Falcons — leading into their Week 11 bye. Coming out of the break, they visit the Bengals and Texans. The Browns host the Panthers in Week 14 and host the Bengals in Week 16 before heading to Baltimore to finish the season against the Ravens.

The Browns certainly improved their team this offseason so they shouldn’t have another one-win or winless season, but how many wins they’ll get in 2018 is the question. They have a pretty tough schedule overall, so I think they’ll probably max out at three or four victories. A big key to that will be Gordon, who missed the start of training camp as he continues to work on his substance abuse issues. If he can stay on the field for the whole season, he could be a big weapon in the passing game. It’ll also be interesting to see if Mayfield takes over as the starting quarterback at any point during the season. The Browns have a promising future with some of the young players they have on the team, but they’re still probably at least a couple of years away from contending and have a realistic shot at making the playoffs.

Sources: http;//www.clevelandbrowns.com, http;//www.pro-football-reference.com

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5th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Cincinnati Bengals

The second preview in our look at all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days (or so), followed by a season prediction post, leading up to the start of the 2018 season features the Cincinnati Bengals, who are coming off a third-place finish in the AFC North last season.

The Bengals are coming off a second straight third-place finish in the division, the result of a 7-9 record last season. The team didn’t make any major signings this offseason. Some of the minor acquisitions they made include signing free agent T Chris Baker and trading for T Cordy Glenn. They signed QB Matt Barkley to serve as Andy Dalton’s backup after losing QB A.J. McCarron in free agency. Also leaving as a free agent was RB Jeremy Hill, opening up more playing time for second-year RB Joe Mixon. They drafted C Billy Price in the first round of this year’s draft. Head coach Marvin Lewis could be on the chopping block if the team doesn’t find success this year because he has led the team since 2003 but does not have a single postseason victory in that time.

The offense was last in the NFL last season with 4,488 yards, and the Bengals’ 290 points scored placed them in the bottom 10 in that category. Dalton had one of the worst seasons of his career last year, throwing for 3,320 yards, but he did have 25 touchdowns. He threw 12 interceptions. WR A.J. Green, unsurprisingly, was his favorite target; he had 75 catches for 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns. WR Brandon LaFell added 538 yards and three touchdowns on 52 receptions. Mixon was the team’s top rusher in 2017, totaling 626 yards and four touchdowns on 178 carries, adding 287 receiving yards on 30 catches in 14 games, including seven starts. RB Giovani Bernard ran the ball 105 times for 458 yards and two scores; he was more active in the passing game, catching 43 balls for 389 yards and two touchdowns. Defensively, the Bengals were around the middle of the pack in both yards and points allowed.

The Bengals open the season on the road, at the Colts in a game that could go either way depending on the status of Indianapolis QB Andrew Luck. They head home in Week 2 to take on the Ravens, then visit the Panthers before another road game against the Falcons. The Bengals’ first of two against the Steelers happens in Week 6 in Cincinnati, then they hit the road to take on the Chiefs in Week 7. The Buccaneers come to town in Week 8, then the Bengals have a Week 9 bye. They host the Saints in Week 10. The Bengals have three consecutive games against AFC West opponents in Weeks 13-15 against the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders, with the second game in that stretch on the road. They finish the season with back-to-back divisional road games, at the Browns and Steelers.

The Bengals struggled on offense last season, but it could see an improvement if TE Tyler Eifert can stay healthy. He played in only two games last season and is injury-prone; he has played in 13 or more games just twice in his five-year career. WR John Ross only played in three games in his rookie season due to injuries, so he can also help boost the offense if he can stay on the field and perform to the level expected of a first-round draft pick. It likely won’t be enough, though, as the Bengals are probably a .500 team at best, and I think another 7-9 season could be on the horizon for them, which would likely finally force Lewis out the door.

Sources: http://www.bengals.comhttp://www.pro-football-reference.com

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5th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Baltimore Ravens

It’s August, which means the NFL season is approaching and it’s time for our annual preview of all 32 NFL teams over the next 32 days (or so), followed by an overall season prediction post, leading up to the start of the 2018 season. We begin this year’s previews with the AFC North and the first team in the division, the Baltimore Ravens, who are coming off a second-place finish in the division last season.

The Ravens’ finished last season at 9-7, their first winning season since 2014, which is also when they made their last playoff appearance. This offseason, the team focused on adding wide receivers to help QB Joe Flacco, signing free agent WRs Willie Snead, Michael Crabtree and John Brown. They also added some depth at the quarterback position, selecting QB Lamar Jackson in the first round of the draft and signing QB Robert Griffin III as a free agent. Their running back core includes RBs Alex Collins, Javorius Allen and Kenneth Dixon.

Overall, the offense ranked 27th in the league with 4,886 yards and ninth with 395 yards.Flacco only threw for 3,141 yards last season — about 1,200 yards fewer than the year before — and 18 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. Collins led the running game with 973 yards and six touchdowns on 212 attempts. Allen ran the ball 153 times for 591 yards and four touchdowns, adding 250 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns on 46 receptions. The receiving core has been completely overhaul so none of last year’s top receivers are on the team in 2018. Snead played in 11 games, including seven starts, with the Saints and had just eight receptions. Crabtree recorded 58 catches for 618 yards and eight touchdowns in 14 games with the Raiders, and Brown had 21 receptions for 299 yards and three touchdowns 10 games — 5 starts — in an injury-shortened season with the Cardinals. On the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens allowed the 12th-fewest yards in the league and ranked sixth with 303 points allowed. The defense led the league with 22 interceptions in 2017.

Looking at the schedule, they begin things with a winnable game at home against the Bills, then visit the Bengals in Week 2. They have a stretch of three straight road games in Weeks 4-6, visiting the Steelers, Browns and Titans in that period. They then face tough games the next three games when they host the Saints, visit the Panthers and have their second game with the Steelers. The Ravens get a late bye in Week 10,  then face the Bengals and Raiders at home. They face tough opponents in the road in Weeks 13 and 14, visiting the Falcons and Chiefs. They get a home game with the Browns in Week 17, which could be beneficial if they need to win that game t secure a playoff spot.

This could be a make-or-break season for Flacco and head coach John Harbaugh. They won a Super Bowl in the 2012 season but have made the playoffs just once since then. If the Ravens aren’t playing in January this season, it could be the end of the Flacco-Harbaugh era in Baltimore. Jackson is likely the heir apparent under center for the team and could see some playing time if Flacco disappoints. They have a pretty tough schedule and I think the best they can hope for is to finish 8-8, or possibly match last year’s 9-7 mark.

Sources: http://www.baltimoreravens.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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My NFL Picks: Conference Championships — Vikings play a road game hoping for a Super Bowl at home

Before the season started, not many people probably expected the starting quarterbacks in the conference championship games to be Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, Nick Foles and Tom Brady. The latter is probably the only one of the quartet that would have had many votes. But thanks to injuries and an upset in the AFC divisional round, that’s where we stand as we enter the semifinals of the tournament known as the NFL postseason.

The first game of the Sunday doubleheader features Bortles leading the Jaguars — whose defense has carried them to this point — into Foxboro to take on Brady and the Patriots, who are playing in their seventh-straight conference championship game — and 12th overall during the Brady era — as they look to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Then the nightcap features the top two seeds in the NFC, with Foles and the Eagles hosting Keenum and the Vikings, who are one win away from becoming the first team in league history to play in a Super Bowl being held in its home stadium.

I didn’t have a good week with my picks last week. I was 1-3 picking games, 0-3-1 against the spread, and 2-2 on over/unders. For the postseason, I’m 3-5 straight up, 1-6-1 ATS, and 4-4 on over/unders.

No. 3 seed Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 1 seed New England Patriots (-7.5, over/under 45)

The Jaguars were underdogs by a full touchdown against the Steelers last week, but they won a high-scoring affair, 45-42, to make it to their third conference championship game in franchise history. Bortles had one of his typical games last week, completing just over 50% of his passes for 214 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. RB Leonard Fournette ran for 109 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries. The defense kept the Jaguars in the game, with two sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery, which LB Telvin Smith returned 50 yards for a touchdown.

In the Patriots’ 35-14 thumping of the Titans, Brady was 35-for-53 for 337 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. He threw one touchdown each to TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Chris Hogan and RB James White, while WR Danny Amendola had 11 receptions for 112 yards. On the ground, RB Dion Lewis had 15 carries for 62 yards, and RB Brandon Bolden and White each had a rushing touchdown. The Patriots didn’t have any defensive scores or any takeaways, but the defense did sack Marcus Mariota eight times in the game and limited the Titans to one touchdown until late in the game when they added a second when the game was already out of reach.

That brings us to this week. There’s not much of a chance that the Jaguars will score in the 40s again this week, so if the defense gives up 42 points again, the home team will be celebrating another AFC title. Bortles has to make sure he doesn’t  turn the ball over, but Fournette will be key to success for the Jaguars. Not only is he the team’s best offensive player, but the Jags have to run the ball a lot to keep the clock moving and keep Brady off the field. That is essential if the Jags want to make it to the first Super Bowl in franchise history. Also essential, the defensive players being at the top of their game. The Jaguars have one of the best defenses in the league, and good defenses have had success keeping Brady in check this season. The big story for the Patriots is Brady’s throwing hand. He injured it in practice earlier in the week and is questionable for Sunday. It a near-certainty that he’ll play, but if the hand is a real issue, it could prevent him from playing up to the level we’re used to seeing from him. He has a history of performing well in big games, and I think that will continue this week. I don’t think the hand will be much of an issue. I expect the Jaguars to give the Patriots a more competitive game than the Titans did last week, but the Patriots should come out on top. I’ll go with a final score of 30-20, so that’s Patriots (-7.5) and over the 45.

No. 2 seed Minnesota Vikings at No. 1 seed Philadelphia Eagles (+3, over/under 39)

The Vikings needed one of the best finishes in NFL history to beat the Saints last week after giving up a 17-0 halftime lead. Keenum was 25-for-40 passing for 318 yards, one touchdown and one interception. WR Stefon Diggs had six receptions for 137 yards, including the game-winning touchdown on the memorable final play. WR Adam Thielen added six catches of his own for 74 yards. RBs Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon each had a rushing touchdown, with Murray running for 50 yards and McKinnon 34 yards. The defense sacked Drew Brees twice to go along with two interceptions.

The Eagles relied largely on their defense to beat the Falcons and get the chance to host the NFC championship game. Foles was 23-for-30 for 246, with neither a passing touchdown nor an interception. The Eagles’ lone touchdown last week came on a run by RB LeGarrette Blount, just one of nine carries in the game for him. RB Jay Ajayi was the most production Eagle on the ground, which isn’t saying much because he only had 54 yards on 15 carries. The leading pass-catcher was WR Alshon Jeffery, who had four receptions for 61 yards. RB Corey Clement caught five balls for 31 yards.

For this week’s game, it’s a battle of backup quarterbacks, with Keenum filling in for Sam Bradford and Foles seeing action because of the injury to Carson Wentz. Of the two quarterbacks, Keenum is probably better but neither is likely going to be the reason his team wins the game.This is going to be  a defensive battle. Both teams have good defenses, but the Vikings have the better unit on that side of the ball. The Vikings also have the better receivers with Thielen and Diggs, but Eagles TE Zach Ertz could be an X-factor for his team. The Eagles have  a slight advantage in the running game, with Ajayi versus the Vikings’ duo. Overall, I give the Vikings the edge in what should be a close, low-scoring affair. I’m going with a Vikings win, 21-17, which means Vikings (-3) and just under the 39.

By the end of the night Sunday, we’ll know which teams will be playing in Super Bowl LII in Minnesota. In the NFC, it’ll definitely be a quarterback playing in his first Super Bowl. In the AFC, it’ll be either another first-timer or a quarterback with a lot of Super Bowl experience.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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My NFL Picks: Divisional Round — Can the Titans, Jags pull off upsets

After a couple of surprising results in the Wild Card round, we’re now at the NFL Divisional playoffs. After their bye weeks, the Patriots, Steelers, Eagles and Vikings are back in action and hosting games this weekend. The Vikings are just two wins away from becoming the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium, while the Patriots are looking to repeat as back-to-back Super Bowl champions. The Eagles are hoping they’ll be able to win the first Super Bowl in franchise history, but that’ll be tough with Nick Foles starting at quarterback.

In last week’s games, I went 2-2 straight up, 1-3 against the spread and 2-2 on over/unders for a mediocre start to the postseason with my picks.

Saturday

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No. 6 seed Atlanta Falcons at No. 1 seed Philadelphia Eagles (13-3, NFC East champions) (+3, over/under 41)

The Falcons are coming off somewhat of an upset, beating the Rams on the road last week, and they now face the top team in the conference in the Eagles. The Eagles aren’t at full strength, though, with Foles continuing to start with Carson Wentz injured. The Eagles have played so poorly since Wentz went down that they’re the underdogs in this game despite being the top seed in the conference and playing at home.

In the seven games he’s played this season, including three starts, Foles has completed 56.4% of his passes for 537 yards and five touchdowns, with two interceptions. He won two of his three starts, but  those games were against the Giants and Raiders; the Falcons will present a much bigger challenge. The Eagles don’t have much of a running game, with RB LeGarrette Blount the most productive back this season with 766 yards but just two touchdowns a season after scoring 18 touchdowns with the Patriots. In the passing game, TE Zach Ertz was the team’s leading receiver this season with 74 catches for 824 yards and eight touchdowns, but WR Nelson Agholor wasn’t far behind him with 768 yards and eight touchdowns — but most of that production was with Wentz throwing them the ball. Defensively, the team gave up the fourth-fewest points in the league this season and had the fourth-most takeaways.

The Eagles will likely have to rely on the defense to stop the Falcons, led by QB Matt Ryan, RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and WR Julio Jones. With the way Foles has played since Wentz went down, I think the Falcons are the better team. I’ll give the points and go with the Falcons (-3), 27-20, and over 41.

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No. 5 seed Tennessee Titans at No. 1 seed New England Patriots (13-3, AFC East champions) (-13.5, over/under 48)

This seems like the biggest mismatch of the weekend, with the Titans nearly two-touchdown underdogs in Foxboro. They fell behind the Chiefs early in last week’s game but came back to win by a point. They ultimately scored 22 points, which likely won’t be enough to beat the Patriots on Saturday. 

Patriots QB Tom Brady had one of his typically strong seasons, throwing for 4,577 yards and 32 touchdowns with eight interceptions. For much of the season, the team didn’t have what would be considered a lead running back, but RB Dion Lewis came on strong late in the season to take on that role. He ended the year with 896 yards and six touchdowns on 180 carries.  Despite playing in 14 games, TE Rob Gronkowski still surpassed 1,000 yards for the season, with eight touchdowns on 69 receptions. WR Brandin Cooks was right behind him, with 65 catches for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns. The defense gave up the fifth-fewest points in the league during the regular season but was in the bottom 10 with just 18 takeaways.

The Titans offense is clearly worse than the Patriots’, especially with RB DeMarco Murray already ruled out, leaving RB Derrick Henry as the team’s lead back. For the Patriots, RB Rex Burkhead, who played a pretty big role in the passing game this season, missed the last couple games of the regular season with a sprained knee, but he is listed as probable to return to action this weekend. Like Burkhead, WR Chris Hogan is probable to return to the field this week after missing some time due to injury. I’m not expecting a competitive game here. Titans QB Marcus Mariota isn’t in the same league as Brady. I’m picking the Patriots, 34-21, so the Titans (+13.5)  barely cover. And over 48.

Sunday

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No. 3 seed Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 2 seed Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3, AFC North champions) (-7, over/under 41)

The Jaguars may have beaten the Steelers when they played during the regular season, but they needed Ben Roethlisberger to throw five interceptions in order to do it. The Jaguars offense looked terrible last week and only won because the Bills were worse. QB Blake Bortles isn’t good, and the defense will have to make sure this is a low-scoring game for the Jaguars to have any kind of chance to pull off the upset.

Roethlisberger played in 15 games this season, throwing for 4,251 yards and 28 touchdowns with 14 interceptions — more than a third of which came in the Jaguars game. RB Le’Veon Bell ran for 1,291 yards and nine touchdowns in 15 games, adding 85 receptions in the passing game for an additional 655 yards and two touchdowns. Those 85 catches were the second-most on the team, behind WR Antonio Brown, who caught 101 passes in 14 games. He totaled 1,533 yards and nine touchdowns on the year. Rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster came on strong late in the season — taking advantage of Brown missing the last two games with an injury — and ended the season with 58 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. WR Martavis Bryant had 50 receptions for 603 yards and three scores. Defensively, the Steelers gave up the seventh-fewest points in the league and was near the middle of the pack with 22 takeaways.

Brown hasn’t played since leaving the Steelers’ Week 15 game against the Patriots early with a partially torn calf, but he has been practicing this week and is expected to return to action. That doesn’t bode well for the Jaguars, whose best receiver, WR Marqise Lee had just 56 receptions during the season. The Jags’ best offensive player is rookie RB Leonard Fournette, but he’s only surpassed 100 rushing yards twice since Week 11. Steelers (-7) win easily, 27-14, and that’s a push of the 41.

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No. 4 seed New Orleans Saints at No. 2 seed Minnesota Vikings (13-3, NFC North champions) (-5, over/under 46.5)

For the second straight week, the Saints are playing in what appears to be the most competitive game of the four. Last week, QB Drew Brees threw for 376 yards and two touchdowns on the way to beating the Panthers, but star running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combined for just 45 rushing yards.

An early-season injury to Vikings QB Sam Bradford led to QB Case Keenum becoming the team’s starter. In his 15 games, including 14 starts, during the regular season he threw for 3,547 yards and 22 touchdowns with seven interceptions. RB Latavius Murray led the team on the ground, running for 842 yards and eight touchdowns and his backfield mate Jerick McKinnon ran for 570 yards and three touchdowns. McKinnon also had 51 receptions for 421 yards and two touchdowns. The Vikings had two strong receivers with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Thielen caught 91 balls for 1,276 yards and four touchdowns, and Diggs caught 64 passes for 849 yards and eight touchdowns in 14 games. TE Kyle Rudolph also had eight touchdown catches, on 57 receptions. While the offense was good, it was the defense where the Vikings shined all season, allowing the fewest points in the NFL, but the Vikings finished in the bottom third of the league with 19 takeaways.

This is the classic matchup of a strong offense against a strong defense. People say defense wins championships, but in this case I think the better offense will come out on top. The Saints are strong both in the passing game with Brees and WRs Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn and on the ground, with Kamara and Ingram. The running backs will have to do better than they did last week, though, if the team is going to be successful on the road against the Vikings. I expect it to be a close game, so I’m going to take the points with the Saints (+5) winning 28-24, with the score going over.

After this weekend’s games we’ll have the final four set, and they will each be one step away from making it to Super Bowl LII.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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My NFL Picks: Wild Card and Playoff Predictions — Can the Bills win their first playoff game in 18 years?

With the 2017 NFL regular season complete, it’s time to move on to the playoffs. This year’s postseason features a number of teams who didn’t make it past the regular season last year, as well as a team that hasn’t been in the playoffs in 18 years as the Bills make it to the postseason for the first time since the 1999 season, ending the longest active drought in the four major pro sports leagues in the U.S. The Bills aren’t the only new blood in this season’s playoffs; they join the Rams, Titans, Jaguars, Panthers, Saints, Eagles and Vikings as teams in this year’s field that weren’t there a year ago, which means 75% of this year’s playoff field is new, with the Steelers, Patriots, Chiefs and Falcons the holdovers. The Patriots and Steelers hold the AFC’s byes as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively, and in the NFC the top two seeds are the Eagles and Vikings, who will wait until the divisional round to play as they vie for their spot in Super Bowl LII.

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As I start picking the playoff games, I wrapped up the regular season with a record of 132-124 against the spread and 166-90 straight up.

Saturday

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No. 5 seed Tennessee Titans (9-7, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Kansas City Chiefs (10-6, AFC West champions) (-8, over/under 44)

It was basically a tale of three seasons for the Chiefs in 2017. After starting 5-0 and being the last undefeated team in the league, they went 1-6 in their next seven games before finishing the campaign on a four-game winning streak. They’ll look to continue that momentum Saturday afternoon when they host the Titans, who are playing in their first playoff game since the 2008 season. Somewhat surprisingly, the Chiefs have the advantage at quarterback, based on how they played this season. Chiefs QB Alex Smith had a career year, throwing for 4,042 yards and 26 touchdowns in 15 games while throwing five interceptions, just one off from his career-best in that category. Titans QB Marcus Mariota, on the other hand, regressed from his 2016 production. He also played in 15 games, throwing for 3,232 yards, which was just a couple hundred behind last year. His 13 passing touchdowns, however, were half of the 26 he threw in 2016, and his interceptions increased from nine to 15.

The Titans could have an issue in the running game if RB DeMarco Murray can’t play. He missed the team’s Week 17 game with a knee injury, which could put his status for this weekend in question. Like Mariota, Murray’s production went down this season, running for just 659 yards and six touchdowns in his 15 games this season. He also had 39 catches for 266 yards and 1 touchdown. If he can’t go, the Titans have one of the league’s best backup running backs in Derrick Henry, who only had eight fewer rushes than Murray and totaled 744 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. The Chiefs have the best running back in the game with rookie RB Kareem Hunt, who ran for 1,327 yards and eight touchdowns, along with 53 receptions for an additional 455 yards and three touchdowns. The Titans don’t have great options in the receiving game. TE Delanie Walker‘s 74 receptions led the team; he had 807 yards and three touchdowns. WRs Eric Decker and Rishard Matthews had 54 and 53 catches, respectively; Decker’s catches went for 563 yards and 1 touchdown while Matthews had 795 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Chiefs had two pass-catchers who surpassed 1,000 receiving yards. TE Travis Kelce had a team-best 83 catches for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns, and WR Tyreek Hill caught 75 balls for 1,183 yards and seven touchdowns. 

Both teams were middle-of-the-pack in scoring defense, but the Chiefs were ahead of the Titans with 26 takeaways, compared to 21 for Tennessee. S Kevin Byard led the Titans defense with eight interceptions, and CB Marcus Peters five interceptions were the most on the Chiefs. Titans K Ryan Succop made about 83% of his field goal attempts this season and converted 31 of 33 PATs while Chiefs rookie K Harrison Butker was successful on 90.5% of his attempted field goals, and he made all 28 of his PATs in the 13 games he played.

The Chiefs have the clear advantage offensively in this game, while the defenses are pretty evenly matched. I’m not sold on Smith being one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but I think the combination of Hunt, Hill and Kelce will be too much for the Titans to be able to keep up with them. I think the Chiefs win the game fairly easily. I’ll go with a 27-17 final score, which means I’m taking the Chiefs (-8) and barely over the 44 points, even though my projected score would be a push.

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No. 6 seed Atlanta Falcons (10-6, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Los Angeles Rams (11-5, NFC West champions) (-6.5, over/under 48.5)

After failing to hold onto a 28-3 lead, the Falcons ultimately lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI in February, and now they’re looking to get back to the Big Game for another shot at winning it. Playing in a second straight Super Bowl won’t be easy for the Falcons, though, as their offense this season isn’t nearly as good as it was a year ago. A big part of that is because of QB Matt Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP who took a big step back this season. He threw for 4,095 yards and 20 touchdowns, which were his worst numbers since 2010 and 2008, respectively. He also threw 12 interceptions, five more than in 2016. In his second season in the league, Rams QB Jared Goff showed a vast improvement over his rookie campaign. He sat out the regular season finale so played in 15 games, throwing for 3,804 yards and 28 touchdowns with seven interceptions, matching the number of picks he threw in seven games in 2016.

RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman split the bulk of the Falcons’ carries, with Freeman leading the way with 865 yards and seven touchdowns on 196 rushes; Coleman ran for 628 yards with five touchdowns in 156 attempts. If you combine their stats, they pretty much match the production of Rams RB Todd Gurley, an MVP candidate. He carried the ball 279 times for 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns, a nice bounceback performance from subpar numbers he put up in 2016. Gurley was also highly involved in the passing game, catching 64 balls for 788 yards and six touchdowns. Those numbers were better than pretty much all of the Falcons pass-catchers other than WR Julio Jones, who had 88 receptions for 1,444 yards but just three touchdowns. WR Mohamed Sanu‘s five receiving touchdowns led the Falcons; he had 703 yards on 67 catches. For the Rams, rookie WR Cooper Kupp had 62 receptions for a team-best 869 yards and five touchdowns. WR Robert Woods matched that touchdown total, and WR Sammy Watkins led the team with eight receiving touchdowns.

The Falcons had a better defense during the season in terms of points allowed — 315 vs. 329 — but the Rams’ 28 takeaways were the fifth-most in the league and significantly more than the Falcons’ 16, which placed them in the bottom five of the NFL. If the game comes down to kicking, the Falcons have a clear advantage with veteran K Matt Bryant, who was successful on 34-of-39 field goal attempts and converted all 35 of his PATs. With Rams K Greg Zuerlein going on IR after Week 16, they’re relying on rookie K Sam Ficken, who made two of his three field goals and went missed one of his five attempted PATs in Week 17.

I don’t think the Falcons have much of a chance to win this game, unless Ryan happens to return to his 2016 form rather than the way he played in 2017. Even then, Goff and Gurley may be too much for the Falcons to be able to keep up with them. To me, it’s not a question about which team wins the game, but rather what the Rams’ margin of victory will be. I think the Rams win by better than a touchdown, so I’ll go with the Rams (-6.5), 31-20, and over 48.5.

Sunday

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No. 6 seed Buffalo Bills (9-7, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6, AFC South champions) (-9, over/under 39.5)

The Bills are the most surprising of the playoff teams to me, as I predicted them to win four games in my season preview. Even though they ended up going 9-7, I don’t think they’re as good as that record would indicate, and they’ll face an even tougher challenge in the game if they’re without their best offensive player, RB LeSean McCoy, who left Sunday’s game with a leg injury and whose status for this game is in question. Bills QB Tyrod Taylor played in 15 games this season, 14 starts, and threw for 2,799 yards and 14 touchdowns with just four interceptions. Jaguars QB Blake Bortles had a stretch of playing well during the season, ultimately throwing for 3,687 yards and 21 touchdowns on the year with 13 interceptions.

McCoy ran the ball 287 times this season, gaining 1,138 yards with six touchdowns. But if he can’t go, RB Mike Tolbert will likely get the start, and he had limited opportunities during the season. He played in 12 games but had just 66 rushes for 247 yards and one touchdown, and he was outgained on the ground by Taylor. If the Bills are without McCoy on Sunday, the Jaguars will have a significant advantage at running back with rookie RB Leonard Fournette, who ran for 1,040  yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games. McCoy also led the Bills with 59 receptions, going for 448 yards and two touchdowns. TE Charles Clay, who dealt with injury issues during the season, had 49 catches for 558 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games, and WR Kelvin Benjamin played six games with the Bills after being traded by the Panthers, nabbing 16 receptions for 217 yards and 1 touchdown. WR Marqise Lee led the Jaguars with 56 catches in 14 games, totaling 702 yards and three touchdowns, but he is questionable for Sunday’s game as he recovers from an ankle injury. WR Dede Westbrook came on late in the season, finishing the year with 27 receptions for 339 yards and one touchdown in seven games.

The Jaguars had one of the best defenses in the NFL this year, allowing the second-fewest points in the league at 268, while the Bills allowed opponents to score 359 points. The Jags’ 33 takeaways also ranked second in the league, and the Bills were tied for ninth with 25. Bills K Steven Hauschka was 29-for-33 on field goals and converted all 29 of his PAT attempts. Jaguars K Josh Lambo played in the team’s last 10 games  of the season, missing just one of his 20 field goal attempts and going 22-for-24 with his PATs.

Neither team has a great offense, but the Jags have the best offensive player in Fournette, especially if McCoy misses the game or is limited. Taylor and the Bills should have an especially difficult time moving the ball down the field against the tough Jaguars defense. This is the Bills’ first playoff appearance in a long time, but I don’t think it will last long. I’ll expecting the Jaguars to win a low-scoring game, 20-14, so I’m taking the Bills (+9) and under 39.5.

No. 5 seed Carolina Panthers (11-5, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed New Orleans Saints (11-5, NFC South champions) (-6.5, over/under 48.5)

The Panthers and Saints both went 11-5 this season, but I don’t think they’re as evenly matched as that would indicate. Panthers QB Cam Newton had one of the worst seasons of his career, throwing for 3,302 yards and 22 touchdowns with 16 interceptions, one off of the most he’s had in any  season of his career. Saints QB Drew Brees also had a down year but performed better than Newton. He had 4,334 passing yards with 23 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, which almost matched his career-best of seven.

Newton led the Panthers with 754 rushing yards and six touchdowns, with RB Jonathan Stewart adding 680 yards and six touchdowns. Rookie RB Christian McCaffrey ran for 435 yards and two touchdowns, but his bigger contribution came in the passing game; he had a team-best 80 receptions for 651 yards and five touchdowns. The Saints had the best running-back duo in the league, with RB Mark Ingram leading the way with 1,124 yards and 12 yards. Rookie RB Alvin Kamara had 728 yards and eight scores on 120 carries. Both were effective in the passing game, as well, with Kamara grabbing 81 receptions for 826 yards and five touchdowns, and Ingram catching 58 balls for 416 yards. Panthers WR Devin Funchess had 63 receptions and led the team with 840 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. TE Greg Olsen missed much of the season, playing in just seven games and totaling 17 catches for 191 yards and one touchdown. For the Saints, WR Michael Thomas led the way with 104 catches for 1,245 yards and five touchdowns. 

The Saints’ defense was improved over recent seasons, ranking 10th in the league in points allowed at 326, but the Panthers were right behind them at 327. The Saints had 25 takeaways, compared to the Panthers’ 21. Panthers K Graham Gano made all but one of his 30 field goal tries and missed three of 37 PATs. Saints K Will Lutz went 31-for-36 on field goals and 47-for-50 on his attempted PATs.

Of the four games this weekend, this one should feature the two best offenses. For the Panthers, Newton needs to avoid turning the ball over and Olsen, who returned from his injury a couple weeks ago, needs to be close to 100% and have a good game if they want to be able to beat the Saints on the road. I think the Saints are the better team overall and I trust Brees more than Newton with the way they played this season. I think Saints win 34-27, so I’ll go Saints (-6.5) and well over 48.5.

Based on the above picks, here is how I see the rest of the postseason playing out:

Divisional Round

Saints beat the Eagles
Patriots  beat the Chiefs
Steelers beat the Jaguars
Rams beat the Vikings

Conference Championships

Steelers beat the Patriots
Saints beat the Rams

Super Bowl LII

Saints beat the Steelers

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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