Tag Archives: Bills

5th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Tennessee Titans

As our previews of all 32 NFL teams continue, we conclude our look at the AFC South with the Tennessee Titans, who finished in second place in the division last season.

Despite finishing 9-7 and making the playoffs last season, the Titans made a change at head coach, replacing Mike Mularkey with former Patriots LB Mike Vrabel. As far as player movement, the Titans signed RB Dion Lewis to fill the void left on the depth chart following the release of RB DeMarco Murray. They also signed G Xavier Su’a-Filo and backup QB Blaine Gabbert. They focused on helping their defense in this year’s draft, selecting LBs Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry with their first two picks. They lost WR Eric Decker in free agency.

The offense ranked in the bottom half of the league last season with 5,024 yards and 334 points. QB Marcus Mariota led the way with 3,232 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 15 games, with another five rushing touchdowns on his ledger. TE Delanie Walker led the team with 74 receptions, going for 807 yards and three touchdowns. WR Rishard Matthews added 53 catches for 795 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games  — 11 starts — and rookie WR Corey Davis caught 34 balls for 375 yards in 11 games, including nine starts. RB Derrick Henry ran the ball 176 times for 744 yards and five touchdowns. With the Patriots, Lewis had 180 rushes for 896 yards and six touchdowns, adding 32 receptions for 214 receiving yards and three scores. The defense was around the middle of the league in both yards and points allowed.

The Titans open the season on the road against the Dolphins, then face the Texans in their home opener in Week 2. Another divisional game follows in Week 3 when the Titans visit the Jaguars. The Titans host the defending champion Eagles in Week 4. They continue to alternate home and road games by visiting the Bills in Week 5, hosting the Ravens in Week 6 and heading to Los Angeles to take on the Chargers in Week 7. The Titans’ bye follows that game, with a visit to the Cowboys on deck in Week 9. The Titans host the Patriots in Week 10 and then have two straight divisional games on the road when they take on the Colts and Texans in Weeks 11 and 12, respectively, Their second game against the Jaguars comes in Week 14, and that’s followed with a Week 15 game at the Giants. The Titans conclude the regular season with consecutive home games against the Redskins and Colts.

The Titans find themselves in a potentially tough position in 2018 with a quarterback who threw half as many touchdowns last year as he did in 2016 and a rookie head coach in Vrabel.They’re in a tough division with a Jaguars team that almost played in the Super Bowl last season and teams in the Texans and Colts that should be better this season as they get back stars who were injured for much — or all — of last season. On paper, the Titans appear to be the worst team in the AFC South and with tougher competition expected in the division, they’ll probably finish with a worse record than last year, unless Mariota has a breakout season. The Titans are probably looking at about a 7-9 mark, with a best-case scenario of 8-8.

Source: http://www.titansonline.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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5th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Chicago Bears

We continue our previews of all 32 NFL teams leading up to the start of the 2018 season with the NFC North. Up first in the division is the Chicago Bears, who are coming off a last-place finish in the division last season.

It’s been a rough stretch for the Bears in recent years, having finished in last place in the NFC North for four straight seasons and not finishing better than 6-10 during that span. Their big offseason acquisition was signing WR Allen Robinson, hoping to improve upon a passing game that was the worst in the NFL in 2017. The team also signed WR Taylor Gabriel and TE Trey Burton to give QB Mitch Trubisky more offensive weapons. They went defense with their first pick in the draft, though, selecting LB Roquan Smith.

The Bears ranked 30th in the league with 4,599 yards of offense and 29th with 264 points scored. After starting last season as the backup to Mike Glennon, Trubisky ended up starting 12 games, throwing for 2,193 yards while throwing seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. RB Jordan Howard led the ground game with 276 carries for 1,122 yards and nine touchdowns. RB Tarik Cohen had 370 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 87 carries, but he was almost as productive in the passing game with 53 catches for 353 yards and a touchdown. With the Falcons, Gabriel had 33 receptions for 378 yards and a touchdown in 16 games — four starts — last season and Burton had 23 catches for 248 yards and five touchdowns in 15 games, with just one start, with the Eagles. The defense was in the top 10 in the league last season in both yards and points allowed.

The Bears begin their season against their biggest rival, visiting the Packers for the Sunday night game in Week 1. Another primetime game follows when they host the Seahawks for Week 2’s Monday nighter. After games at the Cardinals and home against the Buccaneers, the Bears have an early bye in Week 5. Coming out of the bye, the Bears face the entire AFC East in four consecutive weeks — at the Dolphins, hosting the Patriots and Jets, and visiting the Bills — in Weeks 6-9. They face the Lions in Weeks 10 and 12, with a home game against the Vikings sandwiched between those. The Bears have home games against the Rams and Packers in Weeks 14 and 15, respectively, before ending the season with road games against the 49ers and Vikings.

Trubisky is going to have to put up better numbers in his sophomore season if the Bears want to avoid a fifth straight last-place finish in the North. The team spent this offseason acquiring pass-catchers who can help Trubisky succeed. If Robinson is healthy — he tore in ACL in the Jaguars’ season opener last season — he could prove to be a valuable option in the passing game for the young quarterback. In terms of talent, the Bears could be the third-best team in the division, at best, and they have a tough schedule ahead of them this season so, despite the additions they’ve made since the end of the 2017 season, I don’t see them being a .500 team. They were 5-11 last year, and that could be a good prediction for 2018 as well. With some luck, they could get to six wins, but I don’t expect better than that for the Bears this season.

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

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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: 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: 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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My NFL Picks Week 17: Playoff spots up for grabs, Browns look to avoid 0-16 (Updated)

It’s the final week of the 2017 NFL regular season, which means some teams are still battling for the final playoff spots, others are just playing out meaningless games, and the Browns are trying to avoid becoming just the second team in league history to go 0-16. Seven of the eight division titles have been wrapped up — only the NFC South remains in contention, along with both AFC wild cards and one wild card in the NFC. The teams that have not clinched a spot in the postseason but remain in the hunt are the Titans, Ravens, Chargers and Bills in the AFC and the Falcons and Seahawks vying for the final NFC berth.

As usual in Week 17, some teams with nothing to play for will either not play their key players or only play them for part of the game. The Chiefs have already announced QB Alex Smith will sit out and rookie QB Patrick Mahomes will make his first career start, and the Rams have said a number of starters, including QB Jared Goff and RB Todd Gurley, will not play in their season finale. That makes picking games more difficult than usual this week, especially with teams like the Jaguars who are looked into their playoff seed but claim they’re still going to play to win this week. I went 6-10 last week, giving me an overall record of 123-117 for the season. I’m using the lines from ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ‘Em game. My picks are in bold and my survivor pool pick (straight up, not ATS) is in red

Sunday 1PM games

Bears at Vikings (-12.5) – The Vikings, who are coming off a shutout of the Packers, are currently the NFC’s No. 2 seed, but could fall out of that spot — and the accompanying first-round bye — this week, so they’ll likely play their starters this week. But I think the spread could be a bit much because the Bears have a pretty good defense. I’ll take the points.

Browns at Steelers (-14.5) The 0-15 Browns need to beat the Steelers to avoid joining the 2008 Lions as the only 0-16 teams in NFL history. I don’t think that’s going to happen, it’s just a question of how much the Steelers win by. The Steelers are locked into the No. 2 seed but could still move up to No. 1 and get home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a win and a Patriots loss. If the Patriots get a big lead on the Jets and look like they’re on pace to win by halftime, the Steelers could pull their starters in the second half, which would limit their scoring potential so I’m going to take the points.
(Update: There are reports that OL Marcus Gilbert has said that QB Ben Roethlisberger and RB Le’Veon Bell will not play in the game. If that’s the case, it wouldn’t change my pick of taking the points with Cleveland.)

Cowboys at Eagles (+2.5) – The Eagles locked up the No. 1 seed in the NFC when they beat the Raiders Monday night, which means they’ll probably put their backups in at some point during the game — if the likes of QB Nick Foles and RB Jay Ajayi play at all. The offense didn’t even look good on Monday with them playing, so I think the Cowboys have a pretty good chance to win the game. I’ll give the points.

Packers at Lions (-7.5)The Packers couldn’t score last week against the Vikings. The Lions defense isn’t as good but Packers QB Brett Hundley isn’t good. The Lions lost to the Bengals last week, but they should be able to beat the Packers and I’ll give the points.

Texans at Colts (-3.5) – Both of these teams have had disappointing seasons but the Texans have the best offensive player in the game with WR DeAndre Hopkins, so I’ll take the points. (Update: There are reports that Hopkins is not expected to play, but even if he sits I still think the Texans will be able to stay within a field goal, if not win outright, so I’ll keep my original pick.)

Jets at Patriots (-15.5) The Patriots need to win this game so clinch the top seed in the AFC, which they should do. I wouldn’t be surprised if they sit some of their starters late in the game, so I’ll take the points.

Redskins at Giants (+3.5) The Redskins and Giants have both been plagued by injuries this season but the Redskins seem to be handling it better. The Giants were shut out by the Cardinals last week and I don’t see them keeping this game very close. The most notable aspect of the game for the Giants is the possibility that it will be Eli Manning’s last start with the team. I’ll go with the Redskins.

Sunday 4PM games

Panthers at Falcons (-3.5) – The Panthers have already punched their ticket to the postseason and have a chance at winning the NFC South with a win and a Saints loss. They also have a shot at the No. 2 seed with a win and help. The Falcons are currently the No. 6 seed with a wild card but need to win to hold off the Seahawks, who would overtake them with a win if the Falcons lose. That means both teams are playing for something, but it’s more critical for the Falcons to get a victory. They’re at home, but I think the Panthers are the better team. I’ll take the points.

Bills at Dolphins (+2.5) – The Bills are on the outside looking in for their first playoff berth since 1999. They need a win and a Ravens loss, or other help, to get into the postseason. They’re facing a relatively easy game against the Dolphins and I think they should be able to win by about a touchdown, so I’ll give the points on the road.

Bengals at Ravens (-9.5) – The Ravens are currently the fifth seed and just need to win to clinch a spot in the playoffs. If they lose, losses by Bills or Titans would also get them in. They shouldn’t need that help, though, as I think they beat the Bengals, but I don’t think they’ll win by double digits so I’m giving the points.

Chiefs at Broncos (-3.5)- With the news that the Chiefs, who are the AFC West champions and locked in as the No. 4 seed, starting Mahomes at quarterback, you have to wonder how much their other stars — such as RB Kareem Hunt, WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce — will play in the last game of the regular season. That gives the Broncos a better chance to win the game, but I’m still not sure they’ll be able to do it. If they do win, it probably won’t be a big margin of victory so I’ll take the points with the playoff-bound squad.

Jaguars at Titans (-5.5) – The Jaguars continue to say they’ll play to win on Sunday despite  being locked into the third seed, but given the line the oddsmakers aren’t believing them. I believe the jags will play their starters for at least the first half, which I think would be enough to win the game. Give me the points.

Raiders at Chargers (-7.5)The Chargers need a win (or tie) and help to sneak into the playoffs, and they’re playing a Raiders team with nothing to play for that didn’t have much offense on Monday night. One concern for the Chargers is the availability of RB Melvin Gordon, who suffered an ankle injury on Sunday but says he’s ready to go this week. I think the Chargers win and it probably won’t be that close.

49ers at Rams (-3.5) – The Rams can’t improve their playoff positioning beyond their current No. 3 seed and have already said that Goff, Gurley and DT Aaron Donald are among their starters who will sit for the finale, so they are clearly treating it as a preseason-type game. With the way the 49ers have played since installing Jimmy Garoppolo as their starting quarterback, and with QB Sean Mannion getting the start for the Rams, I expect the 49ers to give the Rams outright so I’m taking the points.

Saints at Buccaneers (+7.5) – The Saints simply need  a win (or Panthers loss) to clinch the division title, and I expect them to get it easily. I’ll give the points.

Cardinals at Seahawks (-8.5) The Seahawks need a win (or tie), combined with a Falcons loss, to earn a playoff spot. I think both of these will happen, and I don’t expect the Cardinals-Seahawks game to be that close so I’ll give the points.

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