Tag Archives: NFL

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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Patriots, Falcons make history with first Super Bowl to go to overtime

It was expected to be a high-scoring affair heading into Super Bowl LI with the high-powered offenses of the Patriots and Falcons in the game at Houston’s NRG Stadium. That wasn’t the case, though, early — at least on the Patriots side as they were shut out in the first quarter and scored just three points in the opening half, going down 21-3 at halftime. Things got better for the Patriots in the second half as they came back to force overtime and eventually win the game.

Both offenses got out of the gate slowly, with a scoreless game through the first quarter. The Falcons got on the scoreboard first with a five-yard touchdown run by RB Devonta Freeman, who made a nice cut to the outside, where there were no defenders, to get in the end zone early in the second quarter. That touchdown came on the ensuing drive after Falcons LB forced a fumble by Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount when the Patriots were in field goal range. he next score came on a 19-yard touchdown catch by TE Austin Hooper from QB Matt Ryan to put the Falcons up 14-0 nearing the midway point of the second quarter. As the Patriots were driving later in the quarter — helped by three defensive holding penalties that resulted in Patriot first downs — QB Tom Brady threw a pass that was intended for WR Danny Amendola but landed in the hands of Falcons CB Robert Alford, who had nothing but open field in front of him and took it into the endzone for a pick-six that made it 21-0 with under three minutes to go in the half.

The Patriots looked like they’d follow that score with a touchdown of their own on the ensuing drive, but it wasn’t meant to be. As they were driving down the field, a holding call against TE Martellus Bennett negated a run by RB James White that would have gotten the Patriots inside the five-yard line. Instead, they had a 2nd-and-15 at the 20-yard line with 12 seconds to go. A screen pass to Bennett didn’t go anywhere and because he got taken down in-bounds instead of getting out of bounds, the Patriots had to use their final timeout to stop the clock with five seconds to go in the half. They then settled for a 41-yard field goal off the foot of K Stephen Gostkowski to get on the board and cut the deficit down to 18 points heading into halftime. Although Falcons WR Julio Jones only had three catches in the first half, he did make this seemingly impossible grab.

The second half began with the Patriots defense forcing a much-needed three-and-out followed by a good punt return by WR Julian Edelman to get the Patriots in good field position close to midfield to try to cut into the lead further. They can’t capitalize on it, though, and are forced to punt after a couple of dropped balls by Edelman and Amendola not helping Brady out. The Falcons struck first again in the second half with a six-yard touchdown pass to RB Tevin Coleman to end a drive that featured a 35-yard reception by WR Taylor Gabriel.

Brady then drove the Patriots down the field on a 75-yard drive that culminated with a five-yard pass to White. Gostkowski’s PAT attempt bounced off the upright and was no good, making it 28-9. An unsuccessful onside kick attempt gave the Falcons good field position, which they couldn’t take advantage of and didn’t score, punting to begin the fourth quarter. The Patriots’ subsequent drive ended in a 33-yard Gostkowski field goal to get the Patriots within two scores, 28-12. That drive could have been better for New England had it not been for two sacks on the drive by Falcons DT Grady Jarrett, the second on a third-and-10 that forced the field goal attempt. A sack-fumble on the ensuing Atlanta drive — the Falcons’ first turnover of the postseason — gave the Patriots hope. Despite DE Dwight Freeney sacking Brady for a five-yard loss on the first play of the Patriots’ drive coming off the fumble, the Patriots were able to finish off a quick drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to Amendola. A two-point conversion by White brought the Patriots back within one touchdown, 28-20, with 5:56 left in the fourth. Gostkowski’s kick pinned the Falcons back at their own 10-yard line, but a 39-yard catch-and-run by Freeman got them near midfield on the first play of the drive. That was followed up later in the drive by another outstanding sideline catch to get the Falcons in field goal range on a 27-yard completion.

But a sack by Patriots DE Trey Flowers, followed by an offensive holding call knock them out of field goal range, giving Brady and the Patriots a chance to tie the game with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Patriots’ drive started at their own 9-yard line, but Brady was hitting his receivers — including an amazing catch by Edelman that rivals the greatest catches in Super Bowl history — leading up to the two-minute warning.

White finished off the drive with a three-yard touchdown drive after making a couple of nice catches to set the Patriots up in that position. The ensuing two-point attempt is good with a pass to Amendola to tie the game at 28-28 with 57 seconds to go in regulation and no timeouts for the Falcons. They didn’t do anything on the drive, making this the first Super Bowl ever to go to overtime.

The Patriots won the coin toss and chose to receive the ball, giving them the first shot on offense in the extra period. A touchback caused the Patriots to start at their own 25-yard line but Brady was able to take the offense down the field. A defensive pass interference call in the end zone gave the Patriots a first-and-goal from the two-yard line. After an incomplete pass to Bennett, Brady gave the ball to White for the game-winning touchdown.

Patriots win the game in overtime, 34-28, earning Brady and head coach Bill Belichick their record-setting fifth Super Bowl titles. The Patriots also obliterated the Super Bowl record for a come-from-behind victory. Prior to this game, no team had come back from being down more than 10 points to win a Super Bowl. With the victory, Brady wins his fourth Super Bowl MVP trophy, the first player in NFL history to achieve the feat. Brady threw for 466 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.

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Super Bowl LI Preview: Brady, Belichick go for record 5th rings as Patriots battle Falcons

For the first time in four years, the Super Bowl does not consist of the two No. 1 seeds going against each other. It’s the AFC’s top-seeded Patriots — going for the franchise’s fifth title, which would tie the team for second-most all-time behind the Steelers — taking on the Falcons, the No. 2 seed from the NFC, who are playing in just their second Super Bowl and looking for their first title. The Patriots, on the other hand, are playing in their NFL-record ninth championship game. Patriots QB Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have each been part of the Patriots’ four prior championships and are making their seventh overall Super Bowl appearances, the most in league history for a player or coach.

Neither team struggled to win its conference championship game, both more than doubling their opponent’s score. The Falcons defense stifled QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense and Green Bay’s defense couldn’t stop QB Matt Ryan and the rest of the Atlanta offense as the Falcons won 44-21. Brady and the Patriots put up 36 points on the Steelers defense and limited Pittsburgh’s offense, which played without RB Le’Veon Bell for most of the game when he exited early with a groin injury. New England won the game by a final score of 36-17.

With two of the league’s best offenses playing in Super Bowl LI, it looks to be a high-scoring game, which is reflected in the 59 over/under in Vegas, which is up from the already-high 56.5 where it opened. The Patriots are three-point favorites in the game, which opened as a pick ’em. Heading into the final game of the postseason, I am 9-2 picking games straight up, 6-4 against the spread and 5-5 on over/unders.

The Falcons had the league’s top scoring offense during the regular season and have kept up the offensive attack through their first two playoff games, scoring 36 and 44, respectively. The Patriots can put points on the board, as well, scoring 34 and 36, respectively, in their first two games of this postseason. Both quarterbacks are MVP candidates after putting up big numbers during the season but I’ll give the advantage of the Brady and the Patriots. It’s hard to go against the clutch performances he has put up throughout his career and the four Super Bowls he has one. I say the Falcons have the advantage at the receiver position with WR Julio Jones, who is one of the best in the game, gaining more than 1,400 receiving yards with 6 touchdowns during the season and adding another 4 touchdowns in his two playoff games so far this season. The question is how healthy he is, as he has been limited in practice this week. WR Julian Edelman should have a good game for the Patriots, but a key for them could be WR Chris Hogan repeating the performance he had in the AFC Championship, when he had 9 receptions for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Steelers. Falcons RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 19 rushing touchdowns in the regular season, but Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount ran the ball into the end zone 18 times himself while rushing for more than 1,100 yards. The Patriots rushing attack hasn’t been able to get much going yet in the postseason, which could hurt them against the Falcons if they can’t keep up with the Freeman-Coleman combo. I think the running games are pretty even between the two teams.

The Patriots had the top scoring defense during the regular season and the Falcons defense has improved in recent weeks, having allowed 21 points or fewer in five of their last six games. Other than the Packers last week, though, they didn’t face a team with as strong of an offense as the Patriots have so New England will present a big challenge for the Atlanta defense. For the Patriots defense, CB Malcolm Butler — who made the game-winning interception in Super Bowl XLIX — led the team with 4 interceptions during the regular season. Patriots have the advantage at defense.

There’s no doubt that the Patriots have the advantage at head coach, with Belichick coaching in his record-setting seventh Super Bowl. Although Falcons head coach Dan Quinn is in his first Super Bowl as a head coach, he was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator when they made it to Super Bowls XLVIII and XLIX so he knows what it’s like to be on the sidelines for a Super Bowl. But it’s Belichick who is considered by many to be the best coach in NFL history. He knows how to come up with a game plan that helps to limit the opponent’s best weapon. If he can do that on Sunday, it’ll likely mean Jones has a subpar performance.

This should be a close game, but I think Brady and Belichick will lead the Patriots to the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl title. I’m predicting a final score of 31-27 Patriots so I’ll take them to cover and that’ll be under the 59. Blount is named MVP.

(Spread and over/under from Vegas Insider)

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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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Will the Chargers start 2017 by ending their tenure in San Diego?

The Chargers have called San Diego home since 1961, when they were in the AFL before eventually moving to the NFL when the leagues merged, after playing in Los Angeles in their inaugural season of 1960. When they take the field against the Chiefs at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday, it could be their final home game in San Diego. There is rampant speculation that they will be moving back to Los Angeles for the 2017 season, eventually playing in the Rams’ new stadium when that is finished, which is expected to be in time for the 2019 season.

When the NFL owners approved the Rams’ move to Los Angeles last January they also approved a move of the Chargers to the City of Angels, giving them an option that, if exercised, would allow them to move about 125 miles up the Southern California coast to Inglewood. The Chargers were given a year to exercise the option, which means they have just a few weeks left to pull the trigger if they choose to do so. With that in mind, when they host the Chiefs on Sunday in the final game of a sub-.500 season for the Chargers, their players, coaches and fans won’t know if it’ll be the last time they take the field in the city that the team has called home for more than five decades. It will be an emotional game, as it was last season when the possibility of it being the team’s final game in San Diego was already on people’s minds.

The issue leading to the possible relocation to Los Angeles is a new stadium. The team feels Qualcomm Stadium isn’t good enough anymore but the city isn’t willing to put up the money to pay for a new facility for the team. Talk of leaving San Diego picked up steam in November when a ballot measure that would have raised hotel taxes to help fund a new downtown stadium failed to achieve the two-thirds majority needed for approval. Had that passed, the team and the league would have contributed $650 million toward the project. In a seemingly last-ditch effort to save the team, city officials including Mayor Kevin Faulconer reportedly met with team owner Dean Spanos last week to try to reach an agreement. Earlier in the month, the city council offered to lease the land where Qualcomm Stadium sits to the Chargers for $1 a year over 99 years, allowing them to remain there while discussions about a new stadium continue into the future.

If this is it in San Diego for the Chargers, their run in the city will end with Week 16’s loss against a Browns team that was 0-14 entering the game and could be looking at another loss with a tough game against the division-rival Chiefs, who will be going all-out as they need a win — coupled with a Raiders loss — to have a chance at winning the division and earning a first-round bye in the playoffs.