Tag Archives: Cowboys

4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Atlanta Falcons

As our previews of all 32 NFL teams continue, we turn our attention to the NFC South, beginning the division with the Atlanta Falcons, who won the division last season and made the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

The Falcons’ season ended on a bitter note in February, giving up a 28-3 lead to lose to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI by a score of 34-28. Leading up to that, though, the Falcons had a strong year in which they finished the regular season 11-5 to secure their first division title since 2012. The team didn’t have any notable additions in the offseason, so the front office must think the team the Falcons had last season is good enough to have similar success in 2017. The team made UCLA DE Takkarist McKinley its first-round draft pick.

QB Matt Ryan had the best season of his career in 2016, completing 69.9% of his passes for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns, with 7 interceptions — all career bests. The bulk of his production went to WR Julio Jones, who recorded 83 receptions for 1,409 yards but just 6 touchdowns in 14 games. WR Mohamed Sanu played 15 games, with 59 receptions for 653 yards and 4 touchdowns. RB Devonta Freeman ran the ball 227 times for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns;l he added 54 receptions for 462 yards and 2 touchdowns in the passing game. RB Tevin Coleman had 118 rushing yards in 13 games, totaling 520 yards and 8 touchdowns, in addition to 3 receiving touchdowns on 31 receptions. Not surprisingly with the numbers Ryan put up, the Falcons’ offense scored the most points in the NFL last season, and their 540 points was 71 points better than the No. 2 team. They needed to score a lot because the defense allowed opponents to score the sixth-most points in the league.

When a player has a career year, you expect him to slip back a bit the next season so don’t expect Ryan to get close to 5,000 yards this season, but 4,500 yards or better is likely given that he’s surpassed that number every season since 2012. He still has all of his offensive weapons entering the year, and I expect TE Austin Hooper to take a step forward in 2017 after a rookie season that saw his reps increase as the year went on. One thing to note is the team has a new offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian, who replaces Kyle Shanahan, who got the head coaching job in San Francisco this offseason. With the way the offense played last year, I wouldn’t expect Sarkisian to stay from the offensive game plan that obviously worked well in 2016.

The Falcons open their post-Super Bowl season on the road against the Bears in Week 1. They get a home game in Week 2 as they play their first regular-season game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, hosting the Packers on Sunday night. Up next on the schedule is a road game at the Lions, followed by a home game against the Bills in Week 4. That leads into an early bye in Week 5, followed by a home contest with the Dolphins. Week 7 has a Super Bowl rematch on tap as the Falcons head to Gillette Stadium to try to avenge their overtime loss to the Patriots. They host the Cowboys in Week 10 and then take a cross-country flight to Seattle to take on the Seahawks in Week 11’s Monday night contest. A divisional battle with the Buccaneers in Atlanta follows in Week 12. Another primetime game is slated for Week 14, with the Falcons hosting the Saints on Thursday night. The same teams meet two weeks later, this time at the Superdome in New Orleans in Week 16. The Falcons finish out their regular season schedule at home against the Panthers in Week 17. I think the Falcons are looking at a 10-12 win season this year, and I’m leaning more toward the higher end of the range.

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

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4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Green Bay Packers

The next NFC North team in our continuing preview of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days (or so) leading up to the start of the 2017 season is the Green Bay Packers, who are coming off a first-place finish in the division.

The Packers came within a game of making Super Bowl LI last season, falling to the Falcons in the NFC Championship. In the Aaron Rodgers era, the Packers have consistently had one of the top offenses in the NFL, and they added to it in the offseason by signing free-agent TEs Lance Kendricks and Martellus Bennett in an attempt to beef up a weak point of their offense. They’ll join a receiving core led by WRs Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams. There could be some questions with their running game, with WR-turned-RB Ty Montgomery expected to be the No. 1 back heading into the season.

Rodgers had one of the best seasons of his career last year — a high bar to cross — throwing for 4,428 yards and a league-leading 40 touchdowns, with 7 interceptions. He threw 14 of those touchdown passes to Nelson, who had 97 receptions for 1,257 yards. Adams had 75 receptions for 997 yards and 12 scores. WR Randall Cobb had decent production in the 10 games he played, grabbing 60 balls for 610 yards and 4 touchdowns. Montgomery had 44 catches for 348 yards. After being converted to a running back in the latter part of the season due to injuries, he became the team’s lead running back. Overall for the season, he had a team-high 77 attempts for 457 yards and 3 rushing touchdowns. Rodgers had the second-most rushing yards on the team, with RBs Eddie Lacy — who is now with the Seahawks — and James Starks limited in playing time by injuries. With the Patriots last season, Bennett had 55 receptions for 701 yards and 7 touchdowns, and Kendricks totaled 499 yards and 2 touchdowns on 50 catches for the Rams. The offense scored the fourth-most points in the league last season, and the defense was ranked in the bottom third of the league in points allowed.

If the Packers can get good production out of the running game, they should have one of the league’s best offenses again in 2017. The Rodgers-Nelson combo has been one of the best over the last several years when both are healthy. Adams is a strong No. 2 receiver, and the tight ends the team signed should be a vast improvement over what they got out of TEs Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers a season ago. With the defense not doing well last season and no major players signed on that side of the ball, the Packers are likely going to have to put a lot of points on the board to win games. They went with defensive players with their first four picks of the draft, including Washington CB Kevin King in the second round, but you never know how much success a player will have in his rookie year in the league.

The Packers’ schedule kicks off with a home game in Week 1 against the Seahawks, who should be among the better teams in the NFC this season. It doesn’t get easier in Week 2 when the Packers do battle with the Falcons as they open up their new stadium in the Sunday night game. They have a primetime rivalry game, taking on the Bears at Lambeau Field in Week 4’s Thursday nighter. The Packers then face the Cowboys on the road in Week 5, then travel to Minneapolis to take on the Vikings — likely their biggest competition in the division — in Week 6. They host the Saints in Week 7, then get their bye and come back to host the Lions in Week 9. The Packers face the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a primetime contest in Week 12. They end the season with back-to-back divisional contests, hosting the Vikings in a Saturday night special in Week 16 and visiting the Lions in Week 17. I think the Packers should at least match last year’s 10-win total, and they could improve upon that by a game or two, depending on how well the defense plays.

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

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Texans trade Osweiler on first day of NFL free agency

For the second straight season, the Texans made headlines on the first day of NFL free agency, but this time it was for getting rid of a player instead of signing one. Also making significant moves today were the Jaguars, Browns and Bears.

Last year, the Texans gave free-agent QB Brock Osweiler a four-year, $72 million contract, but his performance this season left a lot to be desired and led many people to consider that one of the worst free-agent signings in NFL history. Texans GM Rick Smith righted that wrong today, trading Osweiler —  and the $16 million guaranteed to him for the 2017 season — along with their sixth-round pick in this year’s draft and a second-rounder next year to the Browns in exchange for Cleveland’s fourth-round pick in this year’s draft and, more importantly, salary-cap relief. Getting Osweiler’s salary off the books for this season gives the Texans more flexibility to potentially sign a quarterback. Reports have been running wild of late that Cowboys QB Tony Romo is on their radar, and moving Osweiler makes it seem like they are closing in acquiring Romo, either by trade or signing him if the Cowboys cut him.

For the Browns, it’s not exactly clear what they want with Osweiler. There have been reports that teams have already contacted them about possibly trading for the Browns’ newly acquired quarterback. The possibility also exists that the Browns could simply cut Osweiler and take the cap hit. They have plenty of cap room so it wouldn’t have a significant negative effect on them. If the Browns don’t keep Osweiler, they can use the No. 1 overall draft pick to get a quarterback or sign a veteran quarterback to act as a bridge to QB Cody Kessler when he’s ready to take the reins as the starter.

That trade wasn’t the only move the Browns made today, They also tried to bolster their offensive line by re-signing OL Joel Bitonio and signing free-agent OLs JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler to multi-year deals. They also signed WR Kenny Britt, who is coming off of a career year in 2016 with the Rams.

The Jaguars signed some free agents they hope to help their defense, signing CB A.J. Bouye, DE Calais Campbell, S Barry Church and LB Lerentee McCray, which should help them compete in the AFC South. The Bears made a quarterback swap today, releasing QB Jay Cutler and signing QB Mike Glennon to a three-year contract. They lost one of their key players on offense, though, as WR Alshon Jeffery signed with the Eagles.

Other notable players who changed teams today, either through free agency or trade, include:

WR DeSean JacksonBuccaneers
WR Torrey Smith — Eagles
RB Danny WoodheadRavens
CB Stephon GilmorePatriots
QB Brian Hoyer49ers
WR Pierre Garcon — 49ers
WR Brandon MarshallGiants
TE Julius ThomasDolphins
OT Branden Albert — Jaguars
OL Russell OkungChargers

In non-player news from today, the Redskins fired GM Scott McCloughan

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NFL Conference Championship Preview: Packers-Falcons, Steelers-Patriots playing for spots in Super Bowl LI

We’re down to the final four teams of the NFL season, who need to win just one more game to advance to Super Bowl LI in Houston. Sunday’s action begins in the NFC with QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers heading to Atlanta to take on the Falcons, led by QB Matt Ryan, in what will be the final game at the Georgia Dome before the Falcons’ new stadium opens next season. In the AFC, QB Ben Roethlisberger leads the Steelers to Gillette Stadium to take on QB Tom Brady and the Patriots, who are playing in their sixth straight AFC Championship game. This foursome features three quarterbacks — Rodgers, Ryan and Brady — who are in the conversation for league MVP and three — with Ryan being the exception — who already have Super Bowl titles in their careers, with Brady going for his fifth. With these four teams still alive, my preseason pick of the Packers meeting the Patriots in Super Bowl LI is still alive. I went 3-1 against the spread, straight up and on the over/unders last weekend to bring my totals for the postseason to 5-3 against the spread, 7-1 straight up and 4-4 on over/unders.

No. 4 seed Green Bay Packers at No. 2 seed Atlanta Falcons (-5.5, over/under 60.5)

On Sunday, the Packers played in one of the best playoff games in recent memory, beating the top-seeded Cowboys in a game that saw three 50-plus yard field goals made in the final 93 seconds, two of which — including the game-winner — came off the foot of Packers K Mason Crosby. The Packers struck early in the game, taking a 21-3 lead in the second quarter before the Cowboys came back with a touchdown by WR Dez Bryant and a Dan Bailey field goal to make it 21-13 at halftime. The Cowboys’ big comeback came in the fourth quarter, scoring 18 points to tie it and force Crosby to make the final kick from 51 yards out at the end of regulation to win the game without having to go to overtime. Rodgers was 28-for-43 for 356 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. Both of his touchdowns were thrown to tight ends, Jared Cook, and Richard Rodgers. Cook was the team’s leading receiver with 6 receptions for 104 yards and the score; he also caught the pass that set up Crosby’s game-winning kick. R. Rodgers only catch was the 34-yard touchdown that put the Packers on the board in the opening quarter. While the Packers didn’t get many rushing yards, RB Ty Montgomery did score a couple of rushing touchdowns among his 11 carries, which went for 47 yards; he also added 34 yards on 6 receptions. S Micah Hyde led the way defensively, with an interception and a sack; LB NIck Perry accounted for the Packers’ other sack of Cowboys QB Dak Prescott en route to the 34-31 win in the nailbiter.

Following the Falcons’ first-round bye, Ryan didn’t miss a step from the numbers he put up during the course of the season. throwing 3 touchdowns without an interception on a 26-for-37, 338-yard performance against a decent Seahawks defense that was suffering through some injuries. WR Julio Jones had 6 receptions for 67 yards with a touchdown before sitting out part of the fourth quarter after aggravating a toe injury that was affecting him late in the regular season. Ryan’s two other touchdowns went to WR Mohamed Sanu and RB Tevin Coleman. RB Devonta Freeman was the team’s top receiver for the game, with 4 receptions for 80 yards, including a 53-yarder. Although he didn’t get a touchdown reception, Freeman did score on the ground, with a one-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that highlighted his 14-carry, 45-yard rushing performance. He had the most carries for the Falcons but Coleman totaled the most rushing yards, with 57 yards on 11 attempts. The defense intercepted two of his Seahawks QB Russell Wilson’s 30 passes, with LB Deion Jones and S Ricardo Allen recording them. The team also sacked Wilson three times in the 36-20 victory.

Offense is what both of these teams do best so it should be a high-scoring game, as evidenced by the 60.5 over/under total. Rodgers and Ryan were the top two in the league in passing touchdowns during the regular season, with 40 and 38, respectively. With both quarterbacks able to rack up the passing yards, the running game could be key to victory in this one. That is an area in which the Falcons have the advantage. Even though Freeman didn’t have great numbers against the Seahawks, he ranked in the top 10 in both rushing yards and touchdowns in the regular season, and Coleman is among the best No. 2 running backs in the league who can put up numbers when Freeman needs a breather. The Packers, on the other hand, have struggled in the running game all season, including totaling just 87 yards on the ground on Sunday. The Packers did fine without WR Jordy Nelson last week and it’s not looking good for him to play this week. WR Davante Adams has an ankle injury and has not been practicing this week,but he is expected to play. For the Falcons, Jones should be able to take the field despite his toe injury. I think the Packers be able to win without Nelson, though it would be tougher if Adams is limited. Give me the Packers with the points in a 31-27 game, so under the 60.5.

No. 3 seed Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 1 seed New England Patriots (-6, over/under 50.5)

The Steelers beat the Chiefs, 18-16, despite not scoring a touchdown. K Chris Boswell was a perfect 6-for-6 on field goal attempts, the longest from 45 yards, to account for all of Pittsburgh’s scoring. RB Le’Veon Bell was the team’s best offensive player as he improved upon his Steeler-record 167-yard game in the wild-card round with a 170-yard performance on 30 rushes last week. Roethlisberger was 20-for-31 for 224 and 1 interception in the game. Not surprisingly, WR Antonio Brown was the top receiver, totaling 6 receptions for 108 yards. TE Jesse James had a good game, with 5 catches for 83 yards. The defense did a good job of containing Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill, who I called the X-factor in my preview of the game. In terms of defensive stats, LB Ryan Shazier had an interception of Chiefs QB Alex Smith and LB James Harrison recorded a sack.

The Patriots didn’t look great in the first three quarters but pulled away in the fourth to beat the Texans 34-16 in the divisional round. Brady threw two interceptions, which was as many as he threw in his 12 regular-season games, on the way to finishing 18-for-38 for 287 yards and 2 touchdowns. WR Julian Edelman had 8 receptions for 137 yards, and Brady’s touchdown passes went to RBs Dion Lewis and James White. Lewis also scored on a rushing touchdown and a kick return touchdown, but he did fumble the ball twice, losing it once. The Patriots didn’t get much production on the ground, with fewer than 100 rushing yards. The defense grabbed 3 interceptions against Texans QB Brock Osweiler and sacked him three times, with CB Logan Ryan recording both a sack and interception.

The Patriots seem to be the most-balanced team in this foursome, with a strong offense and defense. Even at 39 years old, Brady is playing at the top of his game and while Roethlisberger is a good quarterback, he hasn’t been playing well lately and can’t match the numbers Brady is putting up. Bell will have to have a third straight game of more than 100 yards if the Steelers want to pull out the upset because I think he is the team’s best offensive weapon. That might be tough,though, facing the Patriots’ stout defense. Field goals won’t cut it this week. If they can’t score when they get into the end zone, it’s not going to go well for the Steelers. It’s a six-point spread and I think the Patriots can cover it. I’ll take them to win 30-21, which will be just over the over/under.

These results would keep my preseason Super Bowl LI pick — Packers versus Patriots — alive. The Packer injuries worry me a little, but it’s hard to go against Rodgers with the way he’s been playing of late, particularly since Ryan doesn’t have a great track record in his postseason career. I’m more confident in my Patriots pick because Roethlisberger hasn’t been playing well of late and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick usually does a good job of stopping the opponent’s best offensive weapon, which in this case is Bell.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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NFL Divisional Round Preview: Patriots are big favorites, Packers-Cowboys play to advance to the NFC championship

With the wild-card games in the books, the top two seeds in each conference take to the field for the first time in this postseason. That means the Patriots, Chiefs, Cowboys and Falcons host games coming off of their first-round byes. For a team like the Patriots, that means veteran QB Tom Brady, one of the best in the postseason, takes on a Texans team with a mediocre offense while Cowboys rookie QB Dak Prescott not only gets his first taste of the playoffs but also the first truly meaningful game of his career, as the Cowboys led the NFC East virtually all season. The Falcons and Chiefs, meanwhile, have veteran quarterbacks — Matt Ryan and Alex Smith, respectively — who haven’t achieved a great deal of success in their postseason careers, save for Smith helping the 49ers reach the 2012 NFC Championship game. After finishing two games over .500 with a 129-127 record against the spread (and 156-98-2 picking games straight up) in the regular season, I went 2-2 against the spread (and 4-0 straight up but just 1-3 on the over/unders) last weekend.

Saturday

No. 3 seed Seattle Seahawks at No. 2 seed Atlanta Falcons (11-5, NFC South champions) (-5, over/under 51.5)

The Seahawks are coming off of an impressive win in the wild-card round against a Lions team with a quarterback that has been dealing with a broken finger for the last several weeks. This week, they’ll have a tougher matchup against a squad led by Ryan, who is a leading candidate for league MVP honors. RB Thomas Rawls was the Seahawks’ main offensive weapon last week, running for 161 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries. QB Russell Wilson was 23-for-30 for 224 yards and 2 touchdowns. Catching nearly half of those completions was WR Doug Baldwin, whose 11 receptions led to 104 receiving yards and a touchdown. WR Paul Richardson put up decent numbers for him, with 3 catches for 48 yards, including a touchdown on an impressive catch in the end zone, making up for a lack of production from TE Jimmy Graham.

Ryan is coming off of a career year in which he threw for 4.944 yards and 38 touchdowns with just 7 interceptions, giving him a NFL-best passer rating of 117.1. He hasn’t had much success in his postseason career, though, going 1-4 with a 9-7 TD-interception ratio in five starts, and he has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in three of those five games. Looking at what the rest of the Falcons offense did during the season, RB Devonta Freeman led the way on the ground, carrying the ball 227 yards for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns. No. 2 RB Tevin Coleman added another 520 yards and 8 scores on the ground on 118 rushes. WR Julio Jones had another of his typically great seasons, with 83 receptions for 1,409 yards and 6 touchdowns in 14 games. WR Mohamed Sanu added another 59 grabs for 653 yards and 4 touchdowns, and Freeman had good production in the air game out of the backfield, with 54 catches for 462 yards and 2 touchdowns. Defensively, the Falcons are among the worst in the league,ranking in the bottom 10 in both points and yards allowed.

This game is a battle of the league’s best scoring offense in the Falcons against a Seahawks defense that allowed the third-fewest points in the league during the season and gave up just 6 against the Lions last week. If the Seattle defense can’t keep the Falcons from getting into the end zone, which I don’t think they will, I think the key offensive weapon for the Seahawks will be Rawls. He’ll have to have another good game, like his 161-yard performance against Detroit, if the team has a chance to win. I don’t think Wilson will be able to keep up with Ryan in the air so it’ll be up to the rushing attack to outplay Freeman and Coleman, in my opinion. I don’t think they’ll be able to do it. Falcons win the game, 30-24, to advance to the fifth conference championship game in franchise history. They’ll cover the five-point spread, and the game will go over the 51.5.

No. 4 seed Houston Texans at No. 1 seed New England Patriots (14-2, AFC East champions) (-16, over/under 44.5)

In a rematch of a Week 3 game that saw the Patriots — with QB Jacoby Brissett starting — shut out the Texans at Gillette Stadium, the Texans head back to Foxborough for a chance at redemption as they try to make it to their first AFC Championship game in team history. Last week, the Texans beat the Raiders at home behind a strong showing by the defense — particularly DEs Jadeveon Clowney, who recorded his first career interception, and Whitney Mercilus, who had 2 sacks and 5 tackles in the game. CB A.J. Bouye had an interception of his own in the winning effort. The offense, as has been the case all season, wasn’t very explosive, although QB Brock Osweiler did show some promising signs at times, making a couple of nice throws to WR DeAndre Hopkins, who had 5 receptions for 67 yards and 1 touchdown on 9 targets. Overall, Osweiler was 14-for-25 for 168 yards and 1 touchdown. Not impressive but the lack of interceptions was a good sign because he had more interceptions than touchdown passes — 16 vs. 15 — during the regular season. The Texans couldn’t get much done in the running game; RB Lamar Miller was only able to get 73 yards on 31 carries, though he did get into the end zone once.

After missing the first four games of the season while serving his suspension for Deflategate, Brady put up impressive numbers, leading many to make him their MVP pick despite missing a quarter of the season. In his 12 starts, Brady had a 28-2 TD-interception ratio while throwing for 3,554 yards. Unlike Ryan, who hasn’t done well in the postseason historically, Brady almost seems to up his game in January. He has won 22 of his 31 starts — including four Super Bowl victories — and thrown 56 touchdowns compared to 28 interceptions. With TE Rob Gronkowski missing most of the season to injury, WR Julian Edelman was the team’s leading receiver with 98 receptions 1,106 yards and 3 touchdowns. TE Martellus Bennett stepped up in the second half of the season after Gronk went on IR. He finished the year with 55 catches for 701 yards and 7 touchdowns. RB James White was productive in the passing game out of the backfield, with 60 catches for 551 yards and 5 touchdowns. RB LeGarrette Blount was the team’s leading rusher, carrying the ball 299 times for 1,161 yards and an impressive 18 touchdowns. As if having one of the league’s best offenses wasn’t enough, the Patriots also had the best scoring defense during the season, giving up only 250 points — 34 fewer than the next best team, the Giants.

On paper this game seems like a blowout, and that is reflected as well in the 16-point spread. The Week 3 shutout doesn’t do much to refute that. While I don’t think this game will be close, I find it hard to give a team 16 points in the playoffs. The Texans defense will have to keep Brady and the Patriots in check if they want to have any chance of pulling off the upset because the Texans offense may be hard pressed to get into the 20s against a Patriots defense that allowed an average of 15.6 points per game during the regular season. Patriots win the game easily, but with a 27-13 score I’ll take the Texans with the points, and that will also be under the 44.5.

Sunday

No. 3 seed Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 2 seed Kansas City Chiefs (12-4, AFC West champions) (-1.5, over/under 44)

The Steelers easily took care of the Dolphins in the wild-card round to earn the trip to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs. In Sunday’s game QB Ben Roethlisberger didn’t have a great outing, going 13-for-18 for 197 yards and 2 touchdowns with 2 interceptions, but he didn’t have to be at the top of his game thanks to RB Le’Veon Bell, who set a Steelers postseason record by rushing for 167 yards and 2 touchdowns on 29 rushes. WR Antonio Brown helped the Steelers jump out to an early lead with a couple of first-quarter scores. Overall, he had 5 receptions for 124 yards and those 2 touchdowns. The defense had three turnovers, including an interception by LB Ryan Shazier.

For the Chiefs, Smith set a career high this season with 3,502 passing yards, though that resulted in just 15 touchdowns and he threw 8 interceptions, which was his highest total since throwing 10 in 2010. RB Spencer Ware was the team’s leading rusher, getting the start in 14 games and carrying the ball 214 times for 921 yards and 3 touchdowns. TE Travis Kelce caught 85 passes to lead the team with 1,125 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns. It was WR Tyreek Hill who was the Chiefs’ breakout star on offense this season. He had 61 receptions for 593 yards and a team-high 6 touchdowns in the passing game, but that’s not the only part of the game in which he was active. He had 24 carries for 267 yards and 3 touchdowns, and he added another 3 touchdowns on special teams, returning two punts and a kickoff for scores. Defensively, the Chiefs allowed 311 points during the season — seventh best in the league — but was in the bottom 10 in yards allowed.

The 1.5-point spread indicates that this game is expected to be close. The Steelers have the better offense with the Roethlisberger-Bell-Brown triplets, but the Chiefs have the better defense, which the team will rely on to keep the Steelers out of the end zone as much as possible as Smith and Ware can’t compare to Roethlisberger and Bell. The X-factor for the Chiefs is, of course, Hill. If he can continue the strong second half of the season that he had, it could be enough to get the Chiefs the win If he can score on a kick or punt return, that would certainly help take some of the pressure off of both the offense and defense. In the end, though, I don’t think the Chiefs will be able to score enough points to pull out the victory. The Steelers are the slight underdogs so I’ll take the points. I think Pittsburgh wins, 23-20, and I’ll go under the 44.

No. 4 seed Green Bay Packers at No. 1 seed Dallas Cowboys (13-3, NFC East champions) (-4.5, over/under 52.5)

The Packers pulled away from the Giants in the second half of their wild-card game last week and ended up winning by 25 points, but they may have lost a key player in the process. WR Jordy Nelson left the game early with what was later determined to be fractured ribs. Even without Nelson playing the entire game, QB Aaron Rodgers had a big game for the Packers, going 25-for-40 for 362 yards and 4 touchdowns. He had two receivers cross the 100-yard mark; WR Davante Adams had 8 receptions for 125 yards and 1 touchdown, while WR Randall Cobb came back after missing a couple games with an injury and had 5 receptions for 116 yards and 3 touchdowns, including one on a hail-mary pass just before halftime. The running game struggled, as it has most of the season, with RBs Christine Michael and Ty Montgomery splitting the touches almost evenly but totaling just 74 rushing yards between them. On defense, LB Clay Matthews had a sack and a forced fumble and CB Damarious Randall intercepted an Eli Manning pass.

Led by rookies Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys had their best season since 2007 with a 13-3 record. Prescott threw for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns with 4 interceptions. He also had 6 rushing touchdowns on 57 carries. That was nothing compared to what Elliott did on the ground, carrying the ball 322 times for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns. WR Cole Beasley was the team’s leading receiver with 75 receptions for 833 yards and 5 touchdowns. Veteran TE Jason Witten added 69 receptions for 673 yards and 3 touchdowns while WR Dez Bryant had 50 catches for 796 yards and 8 touchdowns in 13 games. The defense was the team’s weak point during the season, allowing both the fifth-most points and yards in the league.

Both teams have good offenses and questionable defenses so points should be easy to come by in this one. Nelson’s availability is a big question mark for the Packers. The team is saying he likely won’t be able to practice until Saturday, so a decision on his status for the game won’t be known until the weekend. If he can’t go, that would be a blow to the Packers offense and would require the likes of Adams and Cobb to repeat their performances from last week. I give the Cowboys a slight edge in this game because of Elliott. The Packers run game can’t come close to the production he is likely to put up, and that could be the difference in the game. Cowboys win, 30-27, so they don’t cover the spread but do advance to the NFC Championship game. And that score means I’m going over 52.5.

If these results happen, it’ll eliminate the possibility of my preseason Super Bowl LI pick — Packers over Patriots — from happening. With the Patriots likely beating the Texans, that prediction will stay alive if the Packers can manage to beat the Cowboys.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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My NFL Picks Wild Card Playoffs: Giants-Packers highlights a weekend full of backup quarterbacks

After 17 weeks of the regular season, the NFL playoffs have arrived with 12 teams hoping to end up in Houston on Feb. 5 to play in Super Bowl LI, although just a handful or so have a realistic chance of making it there. There’s not a lot of star power in the wild card round, with teams like the Patriots and Cowboys having earned first-round byes. The best matchup of the weekend figures to be the last game of the weekend slate, when the Giants head to Green Bay to take on the NFC North champion Packers. Two of the other three games each feature at least one backup or third-string quarterback getting a start. During the regular season, I finished with a 129-127 record against the spread (and 156-98-2 picking games straight up).

Saturday

No. 5 seed Oakland Raiders (12-4, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Houston Texans (9-7, AFC South champions) (-3.5, over/under 36.5)

For the second straight season, the Texans won the AFC South with a 9-7 record and host the first game of the postseason. It didn’t go well last season, when they got shut out by the Chiefs, 30-0. This time, they’ll play the Raiders, who are going to start third-string QB Connor Cook. QB Matt McGloin started in Week 17, filling in for QB Derek Carr, who suffered a broken leg a week earlier. McGloin left the game with a shoulder injury, though, so he will not be ready for action this week, setting Cook up to make his first career start in the NFL. The Texans quarterback situation is also a mess. QB Tom Savage started the last couple of games, but he had to leave Sunday’s game as he entered the concussion protocol and did not return to the game after that. That let QB Brock Osweiler, who was benched for Savage earlier in the season, get back in the game. At this time, Osweiler is expected to start for the home team.

Neither team is likely going to be able to rely on its running game, either. RB Latavius Murray is the Raiders’ leading rusher, but he totaled just 788 yards on the ground in 14 games. Texans starting RB Lamar Miller missed the last two games with injury but is expected to be ready to go this weekend. If healthy he can have a good game, but his health is a question mark. The Raiders likely have the advantage in the receiving game, with WRs Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper each having amassed more than 1,000 receiving yards. Subpar quarterback play limited the production of the Texans’ receivers, with WR DeAndre Hopkins leading the way with 954 yards but just 4 touchdowns. Rookie WR Will Fuller V showed promise at times, hauling in 47 catches for 635 yards and 2 touchdowns. If Osweiler starts, look out for TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, who is Brock’s favorite target not named Hopkins. Fiedorowicz had 559 yards and 4 touchdowns on 54 receptions, second only to Hopkins.

The biggest discrepancy between the teams comes on the defensive side of the ball. Even without DE J.J. Watt, who hasn’t played since Week 3, the Texans have one of the best defenses in the league, while the Raiders were in the bottom half of the league in points allowed and in the bottom 10 in yards against. With the teams expected to struggle to score points with the quarterbacks who will be starting for them, defense will likely be the X factor in this game, which is why I give the Texans have the overall advantage. In a rematch of the Mexico City game from Week 11, I’ll take the Texans to win the game, 16-10, so I’ll take the Texans (-3.5) and under the 36.5 total.

No. 6 seed Detroit Lions (9-7, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1, NFC West champions) (-8, over/under 43.5)

Losing to the Packers on Sunday night forced the Lions on the road in Seattle instead of hosting a playoff game as the NFC North champions. This quarterback matchup is the opposite of the early game, with two quarterbacks who have strong track records over several seasons in the league. For the Lions, QB Matthew Stafford threw for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns with a career-low 10 interceptions. On the other side, QB Russell Wilson was inconsistent over the course of the season but got better as the season progressed and he got over some injuries that nagged him early in the season. He threw for 4,219 yards and 21 touchdowns with a career-worst 11 interceptions, although he ended the season without throwing a pick in the last two games. Overall, the two teams are pretty evenly matched at the quarterback position.

Injuries caused both teams’ running backs to significantly underperform. No back carried the ball more than 92 times for the Lions. That was RB Theo Riddick, who hasn’t played since Week 13. RB Zach Zenner was the LIons’ best running back late in the season, starting the final two games and scoring 3 touchdowns on 32 rushes. Despite being limited to nine games, RB Thomas Rawls led the Seahawks’ rushing attack, with 109 carries for just 349 yards and 3 touchdowns. Both teams had more success through the air, with each squad having a 1,000-yard receiver. For the Lions, it was WR Golden Tate, who had 91 receptions for 1,077 yards and 4 touchdowns. Veteran WR Anquan Boldin also had a good season; he had 8 touchdowns on 67 receptions. For Seattle, WR Doug Baldwin led the way 94 catches for 1,128 yards and 7 touchdowns. TE Jimmy Graham had 65 receptions for 923 yards and 6 touchdowns in a comeback season after playing in just 11 games in 2015.

The Seahawks have the advantage defensively, ranking in the top five for the season in both points and yards allowed. Even without S Earl Thomas, who is on injured reserve, the Seahawks have the better defensive unit than a Lions squad that allowed 66 more points than Seattle did during the regular season. Although the Lions have a good offense, I think the Seahawks will be up to the challenge and that should be the difference in the game. People say defense wins championships, and I think it’ll win this game for the NFC West champs. Seahawks win the game, 27-20, so I’ll take the Lions with the points and over the 43.5 total.

Sunday

No. 6 seed Miami Dolphins (10-6, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5, AFC North champions) (-10, over/under 46)

Heinz Field will be the site of the early Sunday game when the Dolphins visit the Steelers. QB Matt Moore is going to get the start for the Dolphins, as he’s done each of the last three weeks as QB Ryan Tannehill recovers from his sprained knee. The Steelers will be starting a quarterback with plenty of playoff experience, Ben Roethlisberger, who didn’t have the best season of his career but is still better than the opposing quarterback. Steelers have the definite edge at the position.

The Steelers may have a slight advantage in the running game — with RB Le’Veon Bell, one of the league’s best at the position — but it’s probably the closest among the offensive skill positions. Despite being suspended for the season’s first three games and not playing in a meaningless Week 17 game, Bell ran for 1,268 yards and 7 touchdowns in 12 games. Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi had similar numbers — 1,272 yards and 8 touchdowns — also in 12 starts. A large chunk of Ajayi’s production, however, came in just a few games when he had back-to-back games of 200-plus yards in Weeks 6 and 7, with a third 200-yard performance in Week 16. Outside of those three weeks, his stats don’t look overly impressive. In the receiving game, WR Jarvis Landry led the Dolphins with 94 receptions, 1,136 yards and 4 touchdowns. But the Steelers again have the advantage at this position with WR Antonio Brown –perhaps Pittsburgh’s best offensive player — catching 106 balls for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns despite not playing in Week 17. Bell is also a key part of the receiving core; he was second on the team with 75 receptions on the season, adding 616 yards and 2 touchdowns to complement his rushing numbers.

Although neither team’s defense is particularly noteworthy, the Steelers also have the better unit on that side of the ball, having given up 53 fewer points during the season than the Dolphins did. And the Dolphins allowed the fourth-most yards in the league, which isn’t good when you’re facing a team with Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown. Overall, the Steelers are the clear favorites and should win the game, but I think a 10-point spread is a bit much for a game like this because the Dolphins can put points on the board. I’ll take the Steelers to win the game, 32-27, so give me the Dolphins (+10) and over the 46 total.

No. 5 seed New York Giants (11-5, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Green Bay Packers (10-6, NFC North champions) (-4.5, over/under 44.5)

Wild-card weekend concludes with a matchup of one of the league’s best defenses against one of the top offenses. The Packers won 23-16 when these teams met at Lambeau in Week 5 so the Giants are looking to avenge that loss. Giants QB Eli Manning didn’t have great season, putting up his worst numbers since 2013. He threw for 4,027 yards and 26 touchdowns with 16 interceptions. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, almost single-handedly led his team to the division title as he had to deal with a lack of a running game and a poor defense. He had his best season since 2011, throwing for 4,428 yards and 40 touchdowns with just 7 interceptions.

The running game wasn’t either team’s strong suit this season, although Giants RB Paul Perkins started to come on in the last couple of weeks, culminating in a career-best 102-yard performance against the Redskins in Week 17. For the Packers, WR-turned-RB Ty Montgomery was the team’s leading rusher; he ran the ball 77 times for 457 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Giants have a strong one-two punch at receiver, with WRs Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard. Beckham had 101 receptions for 1,367 yards and 10 touchdowns while Shepard totaled 683 yards and 8 touchdowns on his 65 catches. For the Packers, WRs Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams lead the receiving core. Nelson had 97 receptions for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns. Adams just missed the 1,000-yard milestone; he had 997 yards and 12 touchdowns on 75 receptions.

The Giants have the advantage on defense, ranking second in the league in points allowed. Conversely, the Packers were 12th-worst in that stat, having given up 106 more points than Big Blue. And the Giants’ defense will have to perform well if they want to win the game because the offense isn’t as potent as Green Bay’s. I expect the Packers to win the game and think they’ll cover, 27-21. I’ll give the 4.5 points and go over the 44.5

Awaiting this weekend’s winners in the divisional round are the Patriots and Chiefs in the AFC and the Cowboys and Falcons in the NFC. If my picks hold up, next week’s AFC games would pit the Texans against the Patriots and Steelers taking on the Chiefs in the AFC, while the Cowboys would host the Packers with the Seahawk visiting the Falcons in the NFC.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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My NFL Picks Week 15: Patriots try to get revenge on the Broncos

The end of the regular season is quickly approaching as we enter Week 15, which begins with the Rams — who fired head coach Jeff Fisher earlier this week — heading to Seattle to take on the Seahawks. The NFC North-leading Lions visit the Giants in an early Sunday game, and the Patriots head to Denver to take on the Broncos in a rematch of last season’s AFC Championship game in the doubleheader game. Sunday night features the Buccaneers, who are in the hunt for a playoff spot, taking on the Cowboys, who are coming off their second loss of the season last week. I went 10-6 last week, bringing my record to 100-106 for the year. I’m using the lines from ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ‘Em game. My picks are in bold and my survivor pool pick is in red

Thursday Night Football

Rams at Seahawks (-14.5) – The Rams have been the laughingstock of the league this week, firing Fisher after giving him an extension earlier in the season, and they’re not very good but 14.5 is a big spread. On a short week, there’s usually not a lot of offense in Thursday night games so the Seahawks will win the game but they won’t cover.

Saturday Night Football

Dolphins at Jets (+2.5) – With QB Ryan Tannehill suffering a sprained knee last week, the Dolphins are down to backup QB Matt Moore, who isn’t great but better than some of the backups in the league. The Jets are using QB Bryce Petty and will be without starting RB Matt Forte, who suffered a potentially season-ending injury on Sunday. The Forte injury gives RB Bilal Powell a chance to get the start. I don’t think the Jets will have enough offense to win. Dolphins win and cover.

Sunday 1PM games

Browns at Bills (-9.5) – The Browns continue to look for their first win to avoid going 0-16. With three games left, this could be their best remaining chance to get a win, but QB Robert Griffin III didn’t look good in his return to the field last week. WR Terrelle Pryor is the only Browns player on offense who’s been productive this season. I don’t see them getting the win in Buffalo, but I also don’t think they’ll lose by double digits so I”ll take the Browns with the points, though they’ll be 0-14 when the game is over.
Packers at Bears (+6.5) – The Packers need to win this game to keep their playoff hopes alive, while the Bears are just playing out the season. The Bears will get WR Alshon Jeffery back from his four-game suspension and RB Jordan Howard has been having a good season, but I don’t think the Bears have enough playmakers on offense to beat the Packers, who have started to play well in recent weeks behind QB Aaron Rodgers. Packers cover.
Steelers at Bengals (+3.5) – The Bengals have won two in a row — last week’s win came against the Browns — but they’re having a disappointing season at 5-7-1. The Steelers are on a four-game winning streak, and I continue that to continue behind the offense of QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown. I’m taking the Steelers.
Lions at Giants (-4.5) – This battle of playoff contenders sees Lions QB Matthew Stafford going into the game with an injured finger, which won’t help him find success against a Giants defense that has looked good in recent games. I think the Giants win the game and cover to stay in the Wild Card chase.
Titans at Chiefs (-5.5) – The Titans need to keep winning if they want to win the AFC South, but that won’t be easy this week against a tough Chiefs defense. The Chiefs beat the Raiders by eight last Thursday and now have extra rest before taking on the Titans at home. I expect the Chiefs to win the game and cover.
Colts at Vikings (-4.5) – The Colts are coming off a loss to the Texans that put their playoff hopes on life support. I think they’ll bounce back to keep this game close, but I think the Vikings defense will ultimately be enough to win the game to stay in the playoff race. I’ll take the Colts with the points, though.
Eagles at Ravens (-6.5) The Ravens had a disappointing game against the Patriots on Monday night, but the Eagles aren’t the Patriots. The Eagles have lost four in a row and I don’t expect them to be able to score much against a Ravens defense that is among the best in the league. I’ll give the points.
Jaguars at Texans (-6.5) – The Jaguars are looking for their third win of the season, but that might be a tough task on the road against a Texans team with a good defense led by DE Jadeveon Clowney. Texans QB Brock Osweiler isn’t very good so I’m not confident about giving so many points with the Texans, but I’m going to do it because the Jaguars aren’t good.

Sunday 4PM games

49ers at Falcons (-13.5)The Falcons put up 42 points on the Rams last week — without WR Julio Jones — and now they get the 49ers, who will have to travel across the country for the game. I normally don’t like taking the favorite with such a big spread, but the Falcons offense can put up points and the 49ers aren’t a good team so I’ll give the 13.5 points.
Saints at Cardinals (-2.5) – Two of the more disappointing teams in the league meet in this contest. I believe QB Drew Brees and the Saints offense can do what they need to win this game against a Cardinals team that has a decent defense. Since I think the Saints can win outright, I’ll take the points.
Patriots at Broncos (+3.5) – This is a battle between one of the league’s best offenses in the Patriots against the Broncos’ strong defense. We saw a similar matchup on Monday night when the Patriots took on the Ravens and won that game convincingly. Despite having to travel to Denver on a short week,I expect QB Tom Brady and the Patriots to win this game and cover the 3.5 points.
Raiders at Chargers (+2.5) – Two teams that could be moving to new cities in the coming years meet in what could be one of the Chargers’ final home games in San Diego. The Raiders are definitely the better team and I expect QB David Carr to bounce back from a subpar performance against the Chiefs last week to lead the Raiders to their 11th win of the season.

Sunday Night Football

Buccaneers at Cowboys (-7.5) – The Bucs are looking for their first six-game winning streak in franchise history, but it’ll be a tough task for QB Jameis Winston and the rest of the team to do that against the Cowboys, who still have the league’s best record after losing to the Giants on Sunday night. Cowboys QB Dak Prescott performance hasn’t been as prolific in his most recent games as it has been for much of the season, but I still think the Cowboys will be able to win the game. I don’t, however, think they’ll cover so I’ll take the Bucs with the points.

Monday Night Football

Panthers at Redskins (-4.5) – The Redskins are looking to stay in the NFC Wild Card race by picking up a win at home on Monday night. I think the Redskins have just enough to cover the spread so I’ll take them to win.

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