Game Previews, NFL games

Previewing the 2019 NFL division title games:

Obviously there are no actual division title games in an isolated fashion the way we have them in college, but instead things just fell into place for these rivals to potentially play for the divisional crown in their head-to-head matchup over these last two weeks of the regular season. At this point all of those teams have played their rivals already once, so it will be interesting to look back at those prior meetings, but we also want to take a look at how everybody has fared throughout the rest of the year and how they will match up schematically as well as personnel-wise. There are three of those games in week 16 and another two in week 17, with one matchup for each week that will also need some other things to happen in the additional week to be decisive in that matter.


 

Week 16:

 

Bills-Patriots

 

Bills Buffalo Bills @ New England Patriots Patriots

 

The situation:

We have reached week 16 and the Patriots haven’t even clinched their division yet? What a crazy world we are living in. Buffalo now stands at 10-4, which is the first time they have reached double-digit wins since the turn of the millennium, and they still have an outside shot at winning the AFC East as well as earning a first-round bye. Since New England already won their first meeting at Orchard Park, the Bills would obviously have to win this game as well as beating the Jets in the season finale, while also needing some help from the Dolphins when they travel to Foxborough. It took me a while to figure this out, since I thought the Bills would actually own the tie-breaker in case these two teams were to tie the season series at one a piece, with Buffalo having a better win-loss percentage in conference play. In fact it is the Pats however, who would have the better record in common games, which overrules conference play. Regardless, this could still be a determining game and at least is crucial to the final seedings in the AFC, especially with Kansas City hoping for an upset and a chance to steal that number two seed from New England.

 

Introducing both teams:

After the Patriots won their first eight games of the season, they have now gone 3-3 since then. Their offense has been really sputtering for most of that stretch and there is no help in sight when it comes to pass-catchers. Tom Brady has been frustrated with the young corp of receivers and he has had plenty of misfires himself. The defense has put up some historical numbers and really bailed these guys out, combined with a few blocked punts and other special teams plays. With that being said, they have not been able to slow down the elite quarterbacks in the AFC and they just allowed the Bengals to go right down the field on them on their opening possession, while Joe Mixon went for over 100 yards in the first half alone. At the same time, they are still in line for a first-round bye in the playoffs and now have seen every division leader in their conference, meaning you are pretty much assured that Belichick will put together a game-plan to keep whoever travels to New England off balance with unscouted looks and little wrinkles. On offense they are clearly trying to work rookie receiver N’Keal Harry into the mix, when you look at how his snaps and touches have gone up. While their rushing attack hasn’t been the same without their starting tight-end and fullback from a year ago, they are starting to use all their backs in different ways.

Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane have truly put something special together up in the Buffalo, with the roster they have constructed and the culture they have established around the organization. Offensively, they have completely changed their identity from a downhill run team with multiple tight-ends and backs to running 11 personnel more than almost anybody in the league and using a more up-tempo approach under Brian Daboll. Josh Allen has looked more comfortable that way and played like a top ten QB because of it. Rookie Devin Singletary has really come along for them as a dual-threat back, which made LeSean McCoy expendable before the year started. Cole Beasley has been great for them working the middle of the field and John Brown has earned their trust as the go-to target. Defensively, they have allowed an average of 14.3 points per game over the second half of their season and really hit their stride over the last month. Their pass rush is coming to life more and more as the year moves along, their young linebackers are flying around and Tre’Davious White has played at an All-Pro level, for a team that is outstanding at game-planning on the back-end. The two real concerns I have with the Bills are a missing big-bodied wideout to make plays individually and defending teams who can bash them in the power run game.

 

The Xs and Os:

Looking at the strengths of these two teams, you can probably expect something similar to that 16-10 game in Buffalo back in week four. Both squads came into that matchup at 3-0 with little competition up to that point. Tom Brady and Josh Allen struggled mightily in that meeting, as neither one of them even completed half of their passes or threw a touchdown and combined for four interceptions. However, while Brady has heard more doubters as the year has gone along, Allen is now at a different stage of his development, leading an offense that fits him a lot better. Three of those picks were on the Bills QB and he left the game at the start of the fourth quarter. The Pats also blocked a punt and still there was the hometeam at the three-yard line a few minutes later and attempting three more drives down six points. When you look at how both teams have been trending since then, Buffalo is probably the more dangerous squad because of the evolvement of the offense and the rise of their pass rush. With that being said, Belichick’s troops rarely lose at home in general and they have a huge advantage when it comes to all those DBs crowding that undersized Bills’ receiving corp, with some zone sprinkled in to fool the opposition. The real question will be if the Pats can move the ball enough themselves or get some cheap points off a trick-play.

 

Cowboys-Eagles

 

Cowboys Dallas Cowboys @ Philadelphia Eagles Eagles

 

The situation:

It has felt like this would be the only game that really matters in an NFC East race for the last month or so now – even if the two contenders have been moving at the speed of snails for most of it. Compared to some other of these late-season finishes, where some teams have gotten really hot later on, the Cowboys and Eagles have trumped each with lowlights. Dallas got embarrassed at home on Thanksgiving only for Philly to lose at Miami a few days later. Then the Cowboys followed that up by making Mitch Trubisky look like an MVP candidate on Thursday Night, while it took the Eagles until overtime to grab their first lead over the Eli-Manning Giants, who were losers of nine straight at that point. This last weekend both teams got back to their winning ways, but in every different fashions – the Eagles struggled with the Redskins until the final seconds of that game, while the Cowboys finally beat their first opponent with a winning record all year in a 44-21 beatdown of the Rams. The Cowboys would clinch the division with a win this weekend, while the Eagles would also have to win at MetLife the following week.

 

Introducing both teams:

The Cowboys have given us plenty of ammunition to make fun of their fans for years now, but when you think about their 2019 season, you almost have to feel annoyed for them. They come out of the gate looking like a juggernaut against some bad teams and then lose to all six teams with a winning record, before pulling out a dominant performance against the surging Rams, where they finally look like the ultra-talented team we thought they were before the year kicked off. Their speaking captains not even knowing the general language on a coin toss was the climax for a badly coached team. I like some of the things OC Kellen Moore has done with motions and different formations to scheme open receivers, but this defense has given up 82 combined points to Sam Darnold, Jeff Driskel and Mitch Trubisky and some of their situational decisions and awareness have been mind-boggling. With that being said, the O-line looked like the best in the league with Zeke going off for 160 yards and two TDs, while producing twice as many sacks defensively as they surrender and coming up with a couple more turnovers.

For the Eagles, this has been a very underwhelming season altogether. They have given their fans hope with a Thursday Night win at Lambeau Field and dominant showings against the Jets and Bills, but had no chance in their first meeting with the Cowboys, looked lifeless against the Seahawks and messed up that trip to South Beach. What I thought was one of the more talented rosters in the league has been hampered by injuries and they simply haven’t played a complete game in a couple of months now. Only six teams have dropped more passes than their guys, only rookie Daniel Jones has fumbled the ball more than Carson Wentz and the defense has allowed a touchdown of more than 40 yards in each of the last four weeks. Last Sunday former Houston quarterback Greg Ward was the only receiver to catch a pass for the Eagles. The one guy that has really flashed recently is running Miles Sanders, who I said one of the top candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year before the season kicked off. Outside of him, Carson Wentz has been dragging his team to wins these last two weeks despite no dependable receivers and Jim Schwartz surrendering easy touchdowns by calling cover-zero blitzes on third & long.

 

The Xs and Os:

Looking at how these two teams match up, the Cowboys have a clear advantage with their offensive skill positions against that Philly secondary. For a team that struggled to slow down Washington last week, facing Dallas’ number one ranked total offense, which already put up 37 points against them in their first meeting, is scary. The biggest gamebreakers will be those two explosive backs on either side, who both looked as good as they have done all year this past Sunday. However, to me what will decide this game will be the battle at line of scrimmage and the turnover race. The Cowboys O-line looked amazing against the Rams, but Fletcher Cox has given them some trouble through the years and their starting left guard is now on IR. The Eagles front on the other hand has been banged quite a bit and will face a pretty strong Dallas pass rush, but those guys have disappeared in a lot of their big games. Lincoln Financial Field and the Eagles health could the X-factors here. We know that the Philly fans don’t shy away from booing anybody – including their home team – but if things go right for their home team, that atmosphere can have an effect on the opposition. Moreover, Jordan Howard, Lane Johnson and Nelson Agholor could all return this week and if they are on the edge, there is really nothing they should save themselves for. Based on the starters on either side of the ball, the Cowboys should clearly be the favorites, but we have seen both Dallas come up short in the prime matchups and Philly shock people as underdogs.

 

Packers-Vikings

 

Packers Green Bay Packers @ Minnesota Vikings Vikings

 

The situation:

Once again, for this matchup to decide who will win the NFC North, week 17 has to be taken into account as well, but let’s look at these teams coming into Sunday first. The 11-3 Packers are travelling to Minneapolis with a spot in the playoff secured already, while the Vikings are far from their goal of playing in January at 10-4. If the home team wins this divisional battle, they would book a ticket to the postseason and could still hope for the Pack to lose at Detroit in the season finale, while winning their week 17 matchup against the Bears, in order to win the North. However, the Vikes could also still fall out of the postseason race altogether with home losses to the Packers and Bears, if the Rams win their final two games. The Packers have the upper hand here due to their win-loss percentage in common games, but the Rams also have the tie-breaker over them thanks to a better in-conference record. So Minnesota still has everything to win as well as everything to lose, while Green Bay is looking to secure the division early and keep that number two seed, thanks to a strong record in conference play.

 

Introducing both teams:

Having watched every single game the Packers have played all year, it is crazy to think they are 11-3 as the two seed right now. Versus the Bears alone a bad Mitch Trubisky throw into the end-zone and a pitch not being made for a walk-in touchdown on the final play of the game have given them two wins. They were also gifted a couple of hands to the face calls to beat Detroit, a different spot for Christian McCaffrey could have sent that game to overtime and when they travelled to San Francisco, they got absolutely blown out. With that being said, I liked Green Bay before the season started and there is still reason to. Matt LaFleur’s offense has been at least some upgrade, Aaron Jones is continuing to emerge as one of the more dynamic two-way backs in the game and Aaron Rodgers is second behind only Jameis Winston with 35 passes of 25+ yards, while having thrown 22 interceptions less. Defensively, this group looked a lot different at the start of the year, when they held the Bears, Vikings and Broncos to a combined 45 points. I still like Mitte Pettine’s creative blitzes and the way he puts his two great pass rushers in one-on-one situations, but they struggle with teams that combo-block their interior defenders in the run game and they are susceptible to some big plays through the air.

The Vikings on the other hand are looking like one of the more complete teams in football. Now with Adam Thielen back in the lineup, they have two legitimate playmakers at receiver, Kyle Rudolph has been used more as a blocker this year but has also come up clutch for them on several occasions and Kirk Cousins has been playing as well as he has ever done, pushing the ball down the field for big plays while also taking care it. The key to Minnesota’s offense however is superstar running back Dalvin Cook and we will have to monitor his status closely after banging up that shoulder once again. The way they utilize him in the zone run game and put the ball in his hands on screen passes can dictate game-scripts. Defensively, their corner play has taken a big dip from the years prior, especially with Xavier Rhoades looking like a shell of himself. However, Eric Kendricks has become one of the premiere middle linebackers in the game and that defensive line has shown the ability to take over some games. Last Sunday, it looked like the Vikings would go into halftime down 13-12 when the Chargers easily were in field goal range already, but a strip-sack directly led to a touchdown the other way and the defense dominated the second half. Six more turnovers and a shutout led to a final score of 39-10.

 

The Xs and Os:

When these two teams step on the field on Monday Night, I truly believe the Vikings are the more complete group. Their defense is so disciplined that they won’t give away nothing easy. Whether that may be their defensive ends peeling off with guys on the backside of bootlegs or their layered pass rush that makes it tough for Rodgers to extend plays. At the same time, we have seen the great offensive play-callers take advantage of some of the limited coverage variations by making it tough for the defenders to pass on assignments and I don’t think Minnesota has anybody who can cover Davante Adams. On the other side of the ball, the Packers will have a tough time slowing down that Viking attack. This is a situation where the biggest strength for Minnesota – the run game – faces the biggest weakness for Green Bay – their interior rush defense. The status of Dalvin Cook – and his back-up rookie Alexander Mattison for that matter – will be a huge factor because of that. In theory Jaire Alexander and Kevin King should match up pretty well against that receiving duo for the Vikes, but we have seen those guys get loose against the Pack plenty of times, especially when they have a lot of field to work with on post-routes and such as off play-action.

 


 

Week 17:

 

Titans-Texans

 

Titans Tennessee Titans @ Houston Texans Texans

 

The situation:

With the Texans’ 24-21 win in Nashville last Sunday, it took a little bit out of this week 17 rematch, but the AFC South and Wild-Card situation is far from being decided. Houston is travelling to Tampa Bay this Saturday for the early-window game to face a smoking hot Bucs squad. The Titans on the other hand face one of the NFL elites in the Saints, but at they least they get them at home. If Houston wins this weekend, they would already clinch the division thanks to a better record within the South. If they were to lose and the Titans pull off another improbable victory at home, this matchup would once again decide who gets to wear the crown at ten wins. Let’s say they both win their week 16 games – at that point Houston wouldn’t really have much to play for, depending on what the three AFC teams in front of them do, and could actually sit some of their starters, which would open up a path to a Wildcard spot for Tennessee. They would then hope for the Steelers to lose at least one of their last two games – at the Jets and at the Ravens. And as crazy as it sounds – if the Texans lose out while the Steelers win out, they would be out of the playoffs entirely.

 

Introducing both teams:

Prior to last Sunday, you could have easily argued that the Titans were the hottest team in the entire league not named Baltimore. They had won six of their last seven games, including an upset over the Chiefs, a clutch win in Indianapolis and beatdowns of the Jaguars and Raiders. That run was allowed by Derrick Henry running over defenses every week and sparked by some brilliant plays by Ryan Tannehill once he was inserted into the starting lineup. Another guy who has been on fire is rookie receiver A.J. Brown, whose 267 receiving yards and three touchdowns over the last two games lead all NFL players. Defensively, they allow just under 20 points, have forced 22 turnovers and hadn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher outside of Christian McCaffrey all year long. I have been a fan of defensive coordinator Dean Pees for a long time now because of the way he mixes up coverages and really keeps offenses on their heels with where he brings pressure from in combination with who he drops out. With Tennessee it is about all three faces of the game however, as their special teams have actually changed games. They blocked a potential game-tying field goal versus Kansas City and they took another blocked kick back for a touchdown in a 17-17 game at Indy. While their own field goal kicker situation has been a mess, they easily lead the league with six blocks themselves and Brett Kern is number on with 37 punts downed inside the opposing 20.

The Texans on the other hand have been one of the more frustrating teams to watch this year, simply because they have been so up-and-down on a weekly basis. One week the Panthers hold them to 16 points, the next they explode for 53 against the Falcons. They win at Arrowhead and build some momentum, but come out of their bye week completely flat in an embarrassing 41-7 loss at Baltimore. And in December alone they finally get a win over the Patriots only to find themselves in a 38-3 hole against the Broncos the next week. With that win over the Titans they have taken control of their destiny, but am I supposed to trust them again an explosive Bucs team this week already again? A lot of people might think Houston has one of the best defenses in the league because of what they see against New England in primetime, but they have been highly questionable for pretty much the entire year. The only two teams that haven’t scored at least 20 points on them this year have been the Jaguars and Panthers. They have major issues in the secondary – outside of Justin Reid – and they have allowed a league-worst 48 percent of opposing third downs to be converted. The Texans’ success is all because of Deshaun Watson putting together some magic. When he is on, he can get as hot as anybody outside of Patrick Mahomes, but they need that full receiving crew to really kick into gear.

 

The Xs and Os:

Unlike the other games we are discussing here, we have just seen this matchup play out and have a pretty good understanding of what could happen in week 17. However, the Titans were without their best corner Adoree Jackson and Derrick Henry was clearly not 100 percent with a bad hamstring, after not having practiced all week. Having those two back all full strength potentially could be big and it’s a weekly guessing game for the Texans if speedster Will Fuller will be available. Without him they are 2-2 this season and they score almost five points less per game, which would be even more if they didn’t put up some points against Denver in garbage time. Outside of that, the Titans could easily have the heads-up in this matchup already. In a three-point game they had a field goal blocked on their opening series, a pass at the goal-line come out of the receiver’s arms and pop right into the ones of Whitney Mercilus to set up a Texans touchdown and a great pass by their punter be denied only by an even better play by the corner. The Texans got quite a big break heading to Tampa Bay, as the Bucs will likely be without their two star receivers, while Tennessee hosts the Saints, but if this rematch ends up deciding the division winner, this will be another close, probably more high-scoring game.

 

49ers-Seahawks

 

49ers San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks Seahawks

 

The situation:

And then there’s the biggest game left over these last two weeks of the regular season. It is not just a huge matchups because two heavyweights square off against each other for what will decide the NFC West, but also the implications it will have on the rest of the playoffs. The 49ers started the season 8-0, but now have gone 3-3 since. Of course their losses came to Seattle in an overtime thriller, at Baltimore on a last-second field goal and now again in dramatic fashion against the Falcons, when they were missing half of their starters on defense. So let’s not act this is not a great team still. Seattle on the other hand hasn’t won a game by more than one possession since week four, while also losing two games by multiple scores since then. With the ‘Hawks having won the first matchup between the two, they are ahead for now, but no matter what happens in week 16, this game will decide the division champion – San Francisco would at least hold the tie-breaker on common opponents and Seattle would have swept the season series if they won. Both these teams could still be the one or the six seed and almost anything in-between, outside of that fourth spot which is reserved for the worst division in the NFL.

(For the football nerds: Moreover, the Vikings could still jump whoever comes short of winning the West, although they would only be ahead of the Niners at the same record. The craziest scenario for me would be Seattle losing to the Cardinals before beating San Fran, while Green Bay wins out and New Orleans loses one of their final two games – which would make the Packers the number one seed, the Saints second and the Seahawks third. Also, somehow the Vikings are still alive for a first-round bye if the Seahawks, Saints and Packers all were to lose out.)

 

Introducing both teams:

I really don’t think this loss to the Atlanta should concern 49ers fans too much when it comes to the quality of their team, even though it obviously influences their final seeding in the NFC. It took review on a play where the game’s best receiver just crossed the goal-line in the final seconds to lose that game, despite San Francisco being without five defensive starters and coming off a huge win in New Orleans. One of the replacements was the guy I thought was responsible for that go-ahead touchdown. This is still one of the elite groups in the league as far as I’m concerned. Kyle Shanahan is the best offensive play-caller in the game today for my money, because of the way he designs his run game out of different personnel packages and all those bootlegs, throwback screens, etc. off it. With 20 drops on the season there are some concerns around this receiving corp as George Kittle at one point was targeted 11 straight times on Sunday, but they have had a few guys come up with big plays for them. San Francisco also has a nice mix of skill-sets with their three backs and none of them should be too tired as we approach Christmas. Their defense – when healthy – might be the best in the entire league, with the combination of depth and talent on the D-line, Fred Warner emerging as a playmaker at middle linebacker and underrated pieces in the secondary. They have shown that they can play multiple ways.

The Seahawks on the other hand might be coming off a victory and own the number one overall seed in the conference at this moment, but they have certainly given me more reason for concern. These are mostly due to a defense that is perceived differently than what it should be. Seattle is 29th in passing yards allowed and they have given up under 20 points just twice – against the Cardinals and Eagles. Obviously Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and those guys are great, but this season they have struggled to put games away because of that unit and they have allowed huge days to the great receivers in this league. This team’s success really is mostly due to their MVP candidate Russell Wilson. If Baltimore wraps up the number one seed and he doesn’t have two horrific games all of a sudden, Lamar Jackson will win the award, but I certainly believe Russ would be a worthy candidate as well. The Seahawks want to win with a bruising ground game and they are fourth in the league in rushing yards, but whenever they have needed their quarterback to step up and make big plays, he has come through for them. This group has won as much as they have because they have been on the right side of shootouts. The losses of Rashaad Penny and Josh Gordon for very different reasons are huge hits however.

 

The Xs and Os:

Looking at the first meeting between these two teams, the final score is very deceiving when you think of how the game actually went. The San Francisco defense was pretty much dominating the game when it was 10-0 with about three minutes left in the first half, when Jarran Reed strip-sacked Jimmy G and Jadeveon Clowney scooped it up for a touchdown. Then it was a slightly overthrown ball to Kendrick Bourne around midfield that set up a short field for Seattle and another strip-sack by Clowney that had the Niners down 21-10 all of a sudden. The 49ers defense countered with their own strip-and-scoop to get back into the game and push it to overtime, where their undrafted rookie kicker missed a potential game-winning field goal. So not only was this a much more defensive-oriented battle than the final score of 27-24 indicates, but the 49ers could have easily won that game as well. What is different this time around is the fact that they will play up in Seattle in front of the 12th man and the stakes couldn’t be higher, since this will feel like a playoff game already and the loser will have an actual road playoff game the following week, while the other team can likely rest their guys for a week. I will be watching if the Seahawks can stay ahead of the sticks, because we already saw what that vaunted Niners pass rush can do against the Hawks O-line in the dropback game. At the same time we could see Clowney dominate San Francisco’s left tackle again, because it may not be Justin Skule filling in anymore, but Joe Staley has looked pretty bad since returning from injury.

 

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