It’s finally here! Super Bowl hangovers and playoff droughts be damned! By hook or by crook we’ve got more intrigue in this year’s playoff than any in recent memory. One team, the Titans, ended a ten year playoff drought, while another, the Jags, ended a nine year drought. Oh and the love-able losers! The Buffalo Bills ended a playoff drought dating back to 1999. And our beloved Dirty Birds find themselves back in the dance. So much for that hangover eh critics?! The 2017-2018 Wild Card has great matchups across the board and a division rivalry to boot. Did we mention a head coach hosting the team he dropped like a bad habit in 2015 following an ownership change and a 9 and 7 season? So much to get to, so little time!
We’d be remiss if we didn’t take care of a couple of housekeeping items that resulted from the fallout that has become known as “Black Monday” in the NFL. Every year following the last Sunday of the season, teams looking to make moves will fire their head coaches, usually, and sometimes even their front office staff including GMs and the like. There are currently six head coaching positions open, including the one vacated prior to the end of the season, the New York Giants. The one garnering the most attention is the Oakland Raiders.
Former Raider head coach and California native, Jack Del Rio, was released by the Raiders in a pre-emptive attempt to bring back legendary superstar head coach and ESPN TV personality, Jon “Chucky” Gruden. Many “in the know”, including ESPN’s Adam Schefter, have stated that Del Rio was released because the Raiders already have a deal in place to acquire Jon Gruden as their head coach. Gruden has confirmed his interest and reports relating a potential move back to the sidelines. There’s one major problem with this, and it’s known as the “Rooney Rule”. Legendary Steelers owner and operator, Art Rooney, helped implement an NFL league wide policy that teams must interview minority candidates for jobs before simply brining in another head coach or hiring someone right away.
Given the Raiders situation, how exactly does this work? No, seriously, there’s no good answer. Clearly this policy benefitted the Steelers as they brought in Mike Tomlin who is already getting his jacket sized for the hall of fame given the incredible work he’s done in his first ten years in Pittsburgh, but not every franchise has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to head coaches. The Raiders have to harken back to John Madden to recall any glory days. The next closest thing they have is the run that Gruden helped Oakland put together in the late nineties.
So the opportunity to acquire a hall of fame caliber coach has presented itself to Oakland and can anyone fault the Raiders for pursuing Gruden as a legitimate option? Did we mention that Oakland is easily the best bet to be turned around in just one season? Oh, and that Gruden has familiarity with the city and the ownership having worked directly with Mark Davis’s father, Al? It’s an important, open minded and fair policy when talking about the Rooney Rule, but in this specific situation, would anyone blame Oakland for scooping Jon up ASAP? Put it this way. Would anyone blame Indianapolis or Tampa Bay if they were able to bring Tony Dungy out of retirement to be their head coach without even considering anyone else? Elite coaches who have the ability to mold and grow men, build a team first mentality, and lead are rare. They don’t grow on trees, so when you have the ability to snag one, you take it.
Is there a different head coach who might do an even better or as good of job as Gruden could? Possibly. But in this specific scenario with so much history and a known commodity, we don’t think the Raiders are completely in the wrong. Now should minority coaches receiving phone calls from Raiders brass for head coaching interviews be skeptical and even turn Oakland down? Possibly yeah. But it will be difficult for many potential head coaches to beat out a former coach who has won a Super Bowl anyway. We’ll leave the discussion there for now and see how the situation plays out, but either way it will be fun to see “Chucky” back on the sidelines on Sundays in 2018!
*Note – TSO is a huge Jack Del Rio fan, and abhor the fact that he continues to get an unfair shake as a head coach, while he continues to do more with dysfunction than most coaches are ever asked to come in and clean up.
We wrapped up the season on a high note, and we’ll look to build on that momentum as we turn the page into 2018!
Saturday, January 6th, 2018
Tennessee Titans @ Kansas City Chiefs – ESPN & ABC
Our first matchup has the young Titans squad heading into Arrowhead to take on the suddenly hot again Kansas City Chiefs. Tennessee took care of business against the Jaguars, defeating them for the second time this season to secure their spot in the playoffs. Kansas City beat the Broncos in what was a throw away, yet impressive performance from their rookie QB, Patrick Mahomes. The writing is all but on the wall for Alex Smith. Mahomes, the heir apparent, is waiting in the wings and ready to take over for KC next season. With that knowledge and draft pick, Smith has played 2017 like a man possessed. Smith has thrown it deep more than ever in his career, in part to showcase his skills and in part to prove his doubters wrong yet again.
Yes, Alex Smith is the underdog yet again. Not with the Chiefs, but within his own team and in NFL coaches and players minds. That’s right, the top pick in the 2005 NFL draft, is considered an underdog. Hard to believe, but thus has been the career of the top pick. Maybe it’s because he was picked over Aaron Rodgers and we all know how that guy has done, or maybe it’s because Smith has been the conservative game managing type of QB for the majority of his career. That said, of QBs with over 150 passing touchdowns, Smith holds the best TD-INT ratio of signal callers playing this wild card weekend. Smith has a 12-2 TD-INT ratio.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum we have Marcus Mariota, who while still young and explosive, struggled this season. Mariota posted 13 TDs to 15 INTs. Yes, Marcus Mariota threw more interceptions than he did touchdowns. Granted that stat can be misleading as it disproportionately weighs the terrible 4 INT game without accounting for the additional 5 rushing TDs Mariota also accounted for. Mariota never threw more than 2 INTs the rest of the season, but he did put up a stinker against the Steelers on that awful Thursday night performance. You know, that performance where he hit Rishard Matthews for a beautiful 75 yard touchdown? Yeah. Same game. Thus is the story of Mariota, flashes of brilliance sprinkled with moments of head slapping decision making.
Mariota won’t be doing this alone however. For all of the hype around Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt, the Titans have a stud rookie at the receiver position, Corey Davis, and a second year running back in Derrick Henry who will have something to say about who the playmakers are. Did we mention Rishard Matthews flew under the radar yet again with another great season? Derrick Henry said he played and felt “soft” against the Jaguars last week and that he is making sure that doesn’t happen again. Henry, mind you, is 6’3″ and 250 lbs. Not exactly a “soft” man rumbling downhill at one of the ten worst defenses at stopping the run. The Titans for comparison? Tennessee is one of the five best at stopping the run, meaning it could be a big day for Henry and tough one for the rookie, Kareem Hunt.
The Titans have been doubted all season, but they bring the better defense to the table with playmakers to match Kansas City’s. Granted a lot of this hinges on Mariota playing well, but what team’s performance doesn’t hinge on their starting quarterback playing well? Even without De’Marco Murray, the Titans run all over Kansas City and put them behind the eight ball, forcing Alex Smith out of his comfort zone. The Titans cornerbacks are two of the best in the NFL, Logan Ryan playing great ball and rookie Adoree Jackson having the speed to matchup with Tyreek Hill will cause Chiefs pass catchers all kinds of problems. Did we mention that Kevin Byard is tied of the lead in the NFL with interceptions by a safety? Too much stacked up against a Kansas City offense that will be made one dimensional. Titans win in and upset over the Chiefs.
Atlanta Falcons @ Los Angeles Rams – NBC
Here we go! The upstart Los Angeles Rams host the defending champion Atlanta Falcons. TSO’s Dirty Birds! That’s right people, ATL didn’t have a bad enough hangover to not make it do the dance, and now that the Dirty Birds are there, expect the boys from the Dirty South to make some noise!
The Falcons biggest test will come against the potential 2017 MVP, Todd Gurley. Gurley has been nothing short of phenomenal the past few weeks. The NFL’s player of the month for December will test his mettle against the Falcons defense that has turned things completely around since the start of the season. Potential MVP versus last season’s MVP…this is gonna be good!
That Damn Good Dawg (DGD) has made Dawg Nation proud, but will he continue his ridiculous run into 2018 like his alma mater? Gurley goes up against a Falcons run defense that has yielded a paltry 3.45 yard average on the ground, raking in the top ten over the past month. Sure, Atlanta started slow and sloppy defensively, but they have turned it around and Rams coach Todd McVey will look to find creative ways to get #30 the ball in open space.
Atlanta’s defensive game plan will be simple, load the box and clamp down using their size and speed to contain Todd Gurley and force Jared Goff to beat you over the top. Goff has some weapons on the outside between Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp, but will Goff be able to connect? Jared has turned things around from his abysmal rookie season, but the question is, what do you believe? Do you believe Goff has arrived and is ready to set the NFL world on fire? Or do you believe Goff is the beneficiary of a bounce back from a Jeff Fisher led offense to a Todd Gurley centered offense where he isn’t asked to do too much? The answer tends to lie in the middle.
Having seen Goff in person, it’s difficult to truly believe in his arm strength and decision making just yet. Expect Goff to make a couple of costly mistakes and the Falcons linebackers to frustrate and contain Gurley, while the Rams corners will be unable to contain Atlanta’s talented receiving corps. Dirty Birds head into LA and upset the Rams post-season party.
Sunday, January 7th, 2018
Buffalo Bills @ Jacksonville Jaguars – CBS
Okay, in case you missed their reaction check this out.
To add context we must start here:
You can’t help but root for these underdogs out of Buffalo. It has to be quite the vindication for Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy, players once traded from their playoff level teams. Unfortunately for the Bills they may not even have the services of “Shady” McCoy after he sustained an ankle injury in their week 17 win. Odds are Shady will give it a go, but if he isn’t 100% he won’t necessarily help Buffalo or add a ton of value to the Bills offense. Taylor will then need to live up to his “T-Mobile” nickname to avoid “Sacksonville’s” pressure. The Bills will likely target their tight ends, Charles Clay and Nick O’Leary, against the Jags linebackers.
There’s no real weakness to the Jaguars defense, and “defense wins championships”. Granted, the Jags don’t have the most explosive offense, especially since Fournette sustained a couple of injuries during the season and hasn’t returned to 100%. The real question mark is quarterback, Blake Bortles. Already called “trash”, by Houston Texans defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney, Bortles’s most recent opponent said this about the Jacksonville signal caller:
So again, what do you believe? Do you believe Bortles is the guy who was lighting it up for three straight weeks near the end of the season, or do you believe his peers on the field? It’s difficult to see Bortles lighting it up this post season, but it’s also difficult to see the Bills finding any kind of offense against the Jaguars historically dominant defense. Especially with McCoy possibly limited, and the rapport between KB and Tyrod not yet developed, it’s too much of a stretch to see Buffalo generating enough offense to topple the Jags at home. Jacksonville wins by luck of the draw more than anything, getting their first playoff win in nearly a decade.
Carolina Panthers @ New Orleans Saints – FOX
Saving the best for last this wild card weekend! Will the Saints be able to sweep Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, beating them for a third time this season?
The Panthers bring a tried and tested defensive unit into New Orleans to attempt to slow down a new look Saints offense more reliant on the running game, yet still fueled by the arm of Drew Brees. For all of the talk of the historically dominant duo of Kamara and Ingram, all Brees did was set a new completion percentage record, besting Sam Bradford’s 70% from last year by completing over 71% of his passes. Granted, part of Brees’s new record, as if he needed another one, is due mostly to him not being asked to do as much by forcing passes since his backfield has been running over, through, and around their opponents. Simply put, the Saints offense is nasty.
Will Luke Kuechly rise to the occasion and beat Kamara to the point? That’s the only way Kuechly wins that battle, he has to beat Kamara to the point in open space where Sean Payton will scheme to get him the ball. If Kuechly is slow or gets chipped, Kamara is too good in open space to be brought down by many defenders, even all pros like Luke. Christian McCafferey may get jealous watching Brees and Kamara work as he was drafted by Carolina to be that very guy. McCafferey has had over 80 catches and 5 receiving touchdowns, so he’s held his own, but it’s been Kamara who has been the revelation and rookie to watch in the NFC.
So goes Cam, so goes Carolina. Which Cam will we get Sunday? The Cam who threw three picks against Atlanta to close out the season, or the Cam who went into Foxboro and outpaced and outscored the explosive New England Patriots? Panthers fans certainly hope it’s the latter and not the former. We tend to believe Cam will land somewhere in the middle this week. Newton tends to rise to the occasion and make life difficult for opposing defenses in big games. Cam can take the top off of a defense and extend plays for his guys to get open, so New Orleans will need to remain disciplined and not let their young defense get impatient. In a close division rivalry for all the marbles we’ll take Brees and Saints to defend their turf in the Superdome. Saints win a battle down by the Bayou.
That wraps up our Wild Card preview, but we’ll be back for more next week in the divisional round. For now, we ask, what do you believe about this Wild Card weekend and these Wild Card teams? Thank you for reading, liking, loving and sharing. We appreciate all of you and look forward to seeing how this wild, Wild Card weekend shakes out!