10 Bold Predictions for 2018

As a huge football nerd, there is no way I am waiting seven more months for some answers to the 2018 NFL season. So, I’ve made up a few. Please enjoy my extremely early and bold takes on what might happen in 2018.
*sidenote: Most of these will probably be wrong. If I nail any of them, I’m a god.

9ebzja2zfeigaziee8y605aqp.gif1 – Kirk Cousins signs with the Broncos

Denver, and John Elway in particular, believe they can reach Super Bowl LIII with the help of a poised QB. There is a chance that the Broncos draft a QB, but Elway’s pitch to Cousins is too good for him to reject. Elway’s ability to relate to Cousins as a veteran quarterback is enough to convince Kirk that Denver is best place for him to succeed.

15578552015.gif2 – Browns take Saquon Barkley with the #1 pick

Scot McCloughan will have a major influence on this pick. McCloughan believes in taking the best player available, and will argue that Barkley’s skillset is that of a NFL hall of famer. The Browns will take huge criticism for this pick, but the reality is they still get their preferred quarterback, Josh Allen, with the fourth overall pick. If the Browns take a quarterback at number one, Barkley will get taken by the Giants or Colts. This ensures that the Penn State phenom will suit up for Cleveland.

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3 – Le’Veon Bell gets franchise tagged, and sits out two games

 Pittsburgh ignores Bell’s warnings of sitting out 2018, and tags him anyway. In response to the situation Bell sits out all of training camp and the first two games of the Steelers’ season. When the Steelers start the season 0-2, Bell comes back to give Pittsburgh life. It ends up being a genius move as Bell proves to be the spark for Pittsburgh’s offense. As a result, Bell’s price tag rises by the end of 2018.

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4 – Amongst injuries, the Packers once again struggle to reach their potential

When healthy, Green Bay shows that they are a league powerhouse, but when dealing with injuries they’re inconsistent. The Packers front office once again fails to bring depth in talent to Green Bay, and the starters are the only players that can win games. Without that depth, Green Bay will lose games that they shouldn’t.

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5 – Jimmy Garoppolo leads the 49ers to a NFC West title

Garroppolo proves to be a premier passer in the NFL. San Francisco is the last undefeated team remaining in 2018 after a big September win streak. The Rams-49ers rivalry is renewed as the game’s viewership rises. The McVay-Shanahan aspect brings all sorts of storylines about the success of young coaches, and eventually San Francisco beats out Los Angeles for the division title.

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6 – All first-round bye teams from 2017 regress in 2018

They still have a great chance to make the playoffs, but they will all regress by at least a game in 2018. The Eagles success came in their first year as a powerhouse, and just like Dallas this year, the league will catch up a bit, but not to the same degree. The Vikings are an inconsistent franchise, the Patriots lost both of their coordinators, and the Steelers will have controversy among controversy between Bell’s contract situation and Mike Tomlin’s coaching issues.

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7 – Matt Patricia leads the Lions back to postseason

Patricia will immediately get consistent play out of a talented Lions defense that never played its best under Jim Caldwell. This combined with the excellent play of Matthew Stafford and his receivers leads to a one game improvement in 2018. After back to back 9-7 seasons, a 10-6 record is enough for a wild card spot.

dwuw5lojnwsj12vfe0hfa6z47.gif8 – Five head coaches move on after 2018

The Bengals’ Marvin Lewis and the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll retire, and the Buccaneers and Dolphins fire their head coaches after continuous poor seasons. But, most shocking is Vance Joseph’s firing by the Broncos after Denver fails to win eight games despite great play from quarterback Kirk Cousins. The aging Denver defense regresses making it hard for the Broncos to get back to the playoffs.

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9 – Tyrod Taylor takes over for Ben Roethlisberger, and saves Pittsburgh’s season

During the offseason, many will speculate that Pittsburgh will draft a future replacement for Ben Roethlisberger. Perhaps they’ll draft Lamar Jackson and use him similarly to Kordell “Slash” Stewart, who played receiver for one year before becoming the starting quarterback. Instead they sign Tyrod Taylor in free agency to become the future QB. When Big Ben goes down to an injury in week 8, Taylor takes over and leads Pittsburgh to the playoffs. Unfortunately, he once again fails to win on wild card weekend.

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10 – The Texans take down Carson Wentz’s Eagles in Super Bowl LIII

Deshaun Watson proves to be the real deal at quarterback for Houston, who upset New England on the road in the AFC Championship Game. The Eagles get back to the Super Bowl behind Carson Wentz’s MVP season, and are favorites as justified by their home win over the Texans back in October. Watson crushes Steve McNair’s Super Bowl QB rushing record of 64 yards with 110 of his own. He also throws for over 260 yards and accounts for three touchdowns as Houston rolls 31-20. Watson, of course, is the game’s MVP.

Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

All Rights Reserved – Nick Merriam – 2018

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Super Bowl LII Prediction

Fifty-eight years is a really long time, especially when you compare it to just one year. Both the Eagles and Patriots enter Super Bowl LII with much different attitudes. The Patriots, an annual powerhouse fresh off their fifth title in fifteen years, are trying to do the unheard of by winning six Super Bowls under one coaching staff. The Eagles, a fanbase part of the greatest money making division in professional sports are still awaiting their first Super Bowl, yet hold their own in terms of pride and legacy within the NFL. This is a normal occurrence for the Patriots, but for Philadelphia, this might be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Fifty-Eight years is a really long time, but Eagles fans are the ones that can best deal with it. For that, I credit them.

I did well on picks during Conference Championship week with a 2-0 record, nailing both the Eagles and Patriots picks. Alas, it is much to late for me to improve this year as my season record has dipped from last year’s 170-95-2 record (0.642). This year, at 163-103 (0.613), picks have been a struggle. However, I can still finish with a winning record in the playoffs if I get the Super Bowl pick right. Currently at 5-5, I still underachieved compared to a 10-1 playoff record last year. Anyways, let’s pick Super Bowl LII.

Super Bowl LII – Minneapolis, Minnesota
#1 Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) @ #1 New England Patriots (13-3) 6:30 NBC

Nick Foles has been called the ‘indicator player’ for this game. His play will decide the outcome. Foles, fresh off one of his greatest performances against Minnesota, has a Rex Grossman-esque feel to him. Just like Grossman, he deserves to play in the Super Bowl, but can he perform at a high level during it? This is where the two split, as Grossman was never going to win Super Bowl XLI, but Foles can win this game. However, he won’t be the reason Philly wins, or loses. The Patriots aren’t worried about Nick Foles, he’s not Superman by any stretch. New England will approach this game defensively in one of two ways. One, shut down the Eagles run game and force Foles to make plays in the pocket, and give opportunities to the Eagles’ elite receiving corps, or Two, cover the receivers up, and see if Philly can run their way to a title. Either way, I think Foles will be the medium in this game. Foles is not going to kill the Eagles with costly turnovers, but I don’t expect him to torch the secondary like he did two weeks ago either. Due to that being a worry though, I think Bill Belichick will focus his defensive efforts more on the skills of Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffrey. The Eagles will run the football well, but will they stick with it? Andy Reid and his underlings, like Doug Pederson, tend to get pass happy when calling plays in big games. The Eagles’ offensive coaching staff must stay patient, and take whatever the defense gives them. In this case, it’s running between the tackles with LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi. Tom Brady and company will struggle early on with the genius of Jim Schwartz’s defense, and the Eagles will find themselves winning. Like most Patriots Super Bowls, Tom Brady will have to lead a comeback. The Eagles up 11 points, start to get confident, and back come the Patriots. In an almost helpless hour for Eagles fans, Brady will tear up the Eagles secondary, and what was once a 21-10 lead, will become a 28-28 stalemate. The mismatch between the Eagles’ cover linebackers and the Patriots’ pass-catching running backs will be detrimental to Philadelphia. However, unlike Matt Ryan and the Falcons, the Eagles do not panic. Philadelphia has the veteran leadership that Atlanta lacked. After giving up a big lead, the Eagles slowly start to move the football. The top offensive line in football is able to fend off a fired up Patriots’ pass rush as Foles has enough time to go through progressions and deliver the football downfield. This offensive line is something that Atlanta missed big time in last year’s Super Bowl, and was the likely cause of their demise. At around midfield with time ticking down, Foles hits Alshon Jeffrey on a comeback route going out of bounds. This play is very similar to the one ran by Carson Wentz in week 3 against the Giants to beat New York, and at halftime by Foles against Atlanta in the Divisional Round. Once again Jeffrey makes the play, and Jake Elliot boots through the three most important points in Philadelphia sports history. Finally the NFC East can say it is the greatest division of all time, as it is the first in the NFL to have all four teams win a Super Bowl. Alshon Jeffrey takes home MVP honors, as he quietly makes up for most of the Eagles’ passing offense.
Pick: Eagles 31, Patriots 28

Photo Credit: Yes I can draw

All Rights Reserved – Nick Merriam – 2017

Scouting Josh Rosen

Welcome to the start of the path to the 2018 NFL Draft in April. For those of you who are wondering, I will be addressing the Super Bowl this weekend in article form, but for now I will begin a series of scouting overviews. Of course, we will start with quarterbacks. This past week I looked at four games of Josh Rosen’s college tape at UCLA. The following is what I believe will translate into his pro game.

Unbelievable Arm Strength and Accuracy
This is the current argument for Rosen’s great translation into a pro-style offense. Rosen’s short-game accuracy is unmatched by any quarterback entering this draft. He makes quick decisions out of play-action and 3-step drops. One thing that stands out is his spiral. Rosen spins the ball perfectly on almost every single pass, and this allows him to fit passes into tighter windows than most players on his level can. He throws low to avoid tipped balls, and his placement allows receivers to get upfield and make big plays after the catch. Rosen’s middle field vision is fantastic. The only knock I have on his short pass game is that sometimes on sideline routes he gives corners a chance to jump the pass. This is due to staring down receivers on out routes, but can be improved as he has done so with many details throughout his college career.

Deep-Ball Talent is there, but Needs Improvement
Rosen is at his worst when he puts air under the football. His best downfield passing plays are crossing routes at about 15-20 yards downfield so he can throw the ball relatively flat; a bullet pass. Any further downfield than that can lead to forced or not well thought through passes. Sometimes, he gets lucky, but other times he has thrown untimely late game interceptions. Seam routes have also been a struggle. Rosen tends to try not putting air under the ball on these passes. This leads to awkward looking incompletions, and sometimes under thrown balls that are intercepted. Yet, he clearly has the skillset to make these throws. UCLA did not ask for Rosen to throw the ball downfield much, and it may be that he just needs the right coach to improve this part of his game.

Pocket Expert
Josh Rosen will be a pocket passer at the professional level. He consistently shows strengths in pocket awareness. Rosen is not afraid to stand in and take hits while delivering the ball downfield. Unfortunately there is a slight downside to this as he tends to take hits that he shouldn’t. With an injury history like Rosen’s (which we will get to in a moment), pro scouts would like to see him take less of these hits. Rosen has shown tremendous growth in his ability to go through progressions and quickly deliver accurate passes. Last year, he used to have trouble getting locked on to single receivers. This would lead to unnecessary sacks. His Senior year production shows his amazing ability to learn and process new attributes of the game. His ability to go through progressions has continues to get better, and will be a strength of his game at the next level.

Good Improviser
Early on in his college career Rosen made lots of rushed and careless mistakes when the pocket broke down, but lately he has demonstrated an ability to avoid such mistakes by getting outside of the pocket on broken plays. Rosen has an above average ability to throw the ball on the run, and makes smart decisions with the ball like throwing it away when needed. Although he needs to learn to slide at the end of runs, he also has been effective when scrambling. Rosen is labeled as slow, but I could see him running a faster 40 time than expected.

Debatable Off-Field Issues
Rosen’s comments on SAT requirements at Alabama make him look like an entitled kid from California, but it does show a competitive spirit. Rosen is not afraid to say what he thinks, and based off his development through college, I sense that he is a very smart individual. Intangibles will be the reason he drops in the draft if he does. Besides that, physically he has a thin frame but makes up for it with a strong arm. He has a long injury history and sometimes takes unneeded hits on the field. These injuries include concussions, and problems with shoulders, hands, and wrists. Rosen plays well in the face of on-field adversity and learns from in-game mistakes, which makes him a great competitor.

Overall: Rosen and this entire QB draft may be slightly overrated, but in a west coast scheme with an offensive minded coach he will have similar success to Jared Goff of the Los Angeles Rams.

Photo Credit: Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

All Rights Reserved – Nick Merriam – 2017

Conference Championship Picks

We have two games and two weeks until Super Bowl Sunday. In possibly one of the greatest weeks of the year, the NFL will see it’s last two games at a non-neutral site until the 2018 season starts. First, the Patriots will host the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium in what has become an annual game for the Brady bunch. New England got here in typical Patriots fashion with a quiet 13-3 season followed by a divisional round blowout. Except, the Patriots season wasn’t as quiet as usual due a questionable relationship between coach, owner, and quarterback. As for Jacksonville, their surprising 10-6 season had a lot to do with the best defense in football. After a 10-3 drubbing of Buffalo, which led to doubt over the capabilities of Blake Bortles at quarterback, Bortles came back with a stellar performance to down the Steelers at Pittsburgh for the second time this year. Thus, Jacksonville’s story book run will continue  today. The NFC Championship game may not have as many storylines, but it is a fantastic showdown between clashing styles. Minnesota and Philadelphia have rode great defenses to this matchup, and although the Vikings are favored, the Eagles will have home-field advantage and momentum coming into this one. It should be an old-fashioned defensive battle in the cold.

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Both the Eagles and Vikings had great performances against the run last week. Both were up against explosive and dynamic running back duos. This has been the story all season long: can you beat these defenses through the air? Philadelphia has been hard to beat because of their pass rush. No team has had run success against the Eagles, and as a result, offensive coordinators need to do their best to avoid third down. On third down, Jim Schwartz’s defensive front is invincible. With an inexperienced quarterback in Case Keenum, Minnesota needs to complete intermediate passing routes on first down to avoid pressure from the likes of Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan. The Eagles have a similar outlook, but may be better off in the run game. Philadelphia cannot allow Minnesota’s ball hawking secondary to force turnovers, and as a result, it will be up to their strong offensive line and running backs to maintain some sort of standard on the ground. 3.5 yards per carry and balanced play calling could do the trick.

Surprise of the Week:
I can’t say I’ve been more surprised by any other team than the Jaguars, who I have now incorrectly picked against in back to back games. If you had told me that Jacksonville would give up 42 points to Pittsburgh last Sunday and win, I probably would have smacked you across the face, because that doesn’t happen when you have a number one defense, and Blake Bortles as your quarterback. However, Bortles was the game manager  for the Jaguars. He completed important passes on third down, created plays with his legs, and most importantly didn’t turn the ball over. If Bortles can have that type of success today, there’s no telling how far the Jaguars can go. In fact, they’ve been given a reasonable chance against the Patriots today, and they deserve it.

The Divisional Round went a little better for me as I went 2-2 in picking games. I’m now 3-5 in the playoffs, and 161-103 (0.610) on the season. There are only three picks left on the whole year, so I’ll hope to make the best of them. Let’s get to it!

AFC Championship Game
#3 Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) @ #1 New England Patriots (13-3) 3:05 CBS

Tom Coughlin has had the Patriots number. You’ve probably heard about that all week long. Yet, there is a kryptonite to the Patriots that shows itself every once in a while. Brady and Belichick have oft been beaten out by signature pass rushers. Von Miller, Michael Strahan, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Terrell Suggs are a few names that come to mind. The Jaguars have the pass rush to torture New England’s offensive line, but is it enough to win if the Patriots take away Jacksonville’s run game? There is worry about Tom Brady’s hand inside the Patriots’ organization. Can he play the same? The answer, if you really didn’t know, is yes. I bet Tom Brady is going to take a beating in this game, but the confines of Gillette Stadium will be too much for the Jags to overcome. Perhaps we will see a performance similar to Curt Schilling’s bloody sock game of Boston lore from Tom Brady. The Bloody glove game? Just note that I coined that phrase before anyone else did. The thing is, there are just too many weapons on this team. Pittsburgh had a lot of weapons, but it is clear that Jacksonville only had to limit the production of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell early on to win; this game will be very different. The Patriots have an intricate way of game planning for elite defenses. They figure out what good matchups they have, and try to exploit them early on, but never stick to the plan. Obviously finding good matchups is the norm for offenses in the NFL, however, that’s not the Patriots’ plan. New England quietly knows what personnel, not plays, the defense isn’t expecting, and this week that most definitely will be wide receiver screens, and draw plays to unexpected running backs like James White and Rex Burkhead. Eventually, Dion Lewis will line up as a receiver with another half-back in the backfield, and beat the Jags on an intermediate route with yards after the catch. New England doesn’t have a ton of weapons, they just know how to use every player on their roster, and at home they’ve been unstoppable at this game plan in January. Pick: Patriots 23, Jaguars 17

NFC Championship Game
#2 Minnesota Vikings (13-3) @ #1 Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) 6:40 FOX

The Vikings were my Super Bowl pick entering the playoffs because of upstart quarterback play from Case Keenum, a high performing defense, and, in my opinion, the best receiving corps in the NFL. Earlier in this article I discussed the offensive plan for each of these teams entering the game, so I will refer to that a bunch in this segment. The Vikings will need success on first down. Philadelphia’s third down pass rush is reminiscent of the days of the Bears’ 46 defense in 1985, except on one down instead of all three. Minnesota needs at least a few big plays in the passing game to even score tonight. I do not trust Case Keenum on third down against the Eagles defense. Eventually, if third downs becomes a pattern, the Eagles will force multiple turnovers out of Keenum, and the Vikings will be unable to get their pro bowl receivers involved. As I mentioned before, throw the run game out the door, because the Eagles have been unstoppable in that category. Also, Case Keenum played kind of sporadically at times against New Orleans. It often looked like he was throwing balls off his back feet hoping for a receiver to make a play. Most of the time, because of a talented receiving corps, he got lucky. That will not be the case if he does the same against the Eagles’ defense. Case Keenum’s play on Sunday reminds me of Eli Manning in the playoffs. This is going to sound a bit harsh, because it is, but closing your eyes and tossing the ball up into the air is not an effective way of winning games. Keenum did that against New Orleans, and it was great to watch, but I’ll be the first to tell you that the Vikings did not deserve to win that game. Down the stretch, Minnesota faltered on defense, and Drew Brees looked unstoppable. Now, I’m never going to compare Nick Foles to Drew Brees, but I think he can play poised in this game. Foles completed over 75% of his passes against Atlanta, which is really good. Anything like that out of him today will easily beat this Vikings team. Minnesota, despite a lot of talent, looked inexperienced in their first playoff game. As I said, the Vikings were my Super Bowl pick entering the playoffs, but the Eagles confidence has changed my mind. It’s another home upset for Philly. Pick: Eagles 14, Vikings 13

Photo Credit: AP Images/USA Today Images

All Rights Reserved – Nick Merriam – 2017

Divisional Round Picks

Last year the NFL playoffs started out rather slow. With Derek Carr’s injury, the Raiders had no chance to win at Houston, and the Lions were clearly outmatched by Seattle. Then, to finish up Wild Card weekend, the Steelers demolished Miami 30-12, and the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers routed the Giants 38-13. The average score in the 2016 Wild Card round was (with rounding) 30-11. That being said, I am very happy with this past week’s four football games. Even the less entertaining games (Rams-Falcons and Jaguars-Bills) still came down to the wire. The playoffs are a time when the NFL should be at its best, and last week, the NFL was.

Comment of the Week:
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Thank you for the stat Justin. This is a lot like Antonio Brown’s primetime game stretch that I discussed earlier this year. Julio Jones is at his best in the NFL playoffs, and he was a major reason for Atlanta’s NFC title last year. If the Falcons’ game plan fails, Jones becomes a powerful plan B. Sometimes, because of Atlanta’s vast amount of skill position talent, Jones goes unnoticed. The Eagles must do their best to avoid that today. Jones is the type of player that can take over games if he plays well early on. I expect the Falcons are preparing to get him the ball often due to the cold northeast weather. Jones has the physicality to punish Philadelphia’s defense. That physicality is something that the Falcons will need badly against a tough Eagles’ defense.

Surprise of the Week:
Whenever a team comes back from 18 points down at Arrowhead stadium, it’s impressive. So, as goes the statement above, the Titans victory on Saturday was impressive. The plan to trust the power run efficiency of Derrick Henry was a success, and it gives the Titans a glimmer of hope going into Foxborough. Marcus ‘Magic Man’ Mariota stepped up big time in his first playoff game. Besides an early interception, which was not entirely his fault, Mariota extended plays all evening long with his legs, and made passes when it counted most. When scouts talk about the ‘it’ factor, they make it clear that ‘it’ is the will to win even when the game seems to be slipping away. Lately, it seems Mariota’s ‘it’ factor is spreading through the Titans’ organization.

Last week I had another poor 1-3 showing in the picks department. This year hasn’t gone as well as I hoped as I move to 159-101 (0.612) in picks on the season. Maybe this week will be better. Only one way to find out.

6-Atlanta Falcons (10-6) @ 1-Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) 4:35 NBC (Saturday)

As I said, this game may come down to the Falcons’ use of Julio Jones. Jones has played lights out in the postseason, but can he continue that success against a good Eagles defense in frigid temperatures? The cold weather will matter in this game as the Falcons are used to playing nine dome games a year. Coming from Los Angeles, where it is much warmer, it is worth wondering whether or not Matt Ryan is ready for postseason football in the cold. Coming into the 2017 postseason, Matt Ryan had played eight playoff games, and was 3-5 in those games. Seven of those eight, were played in domes. The only outdoor playoff game Atlanta had played was a 24-2 loss at MetLife Stadium, in 44˚ weather, to the New York Giants. In that game, the Falcons scored zero offensive points, and Julio Jones had one catch for 13 yards. It is going to be over 10˚ colder in Philly today. Matt Ryan is going to struggle to push the ball down the field into strong winds. Atlanta needs their improving pass rush to keep them in the game. The big question for me is, can the Eagles’ offense run the ball at a high level? Last week, Todd Gurley was efficient against the Falcons, but he didn’t get many touches. I think the Eagles will run the ball more, and become one dimensional early on. The cold weather will effect Matt Ryan, but he will make a big plays late as the Falcons force more turnovers, and despite an ugly performance, win a low-scoring slugfest. Pick: Falcons 13, Eagles 10

5-Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ 1-New England Patriots (13-3) 8:15 CBS (Saturday)

This is a game that no one should overlook. Marcus Mariota has nerves of steel. If anyone can go toe to toe as an inexperienced quarterback against Tom Brady, it’s Mariota. The Patriots like to focus on their opponents offensive strengths, and take them away. The Titans are going to have win using Mariota’s athleticism if this happens. Derrick Henry is the Titan’s home run hitter, so if the Patriots shut him down, the offense will have to throw the football. Marcus’ arm may have trouble beating a talented New England secondary, but I have no doubt that his scrambling ability is incomparable to anything that Bill Belichick coached teams have seen before. His legs will create some big plays in this game, and keep the Titans close. Of course, even with this happening, the Titans still have to stop a well rested Tom Brady. Not to mention Rob Gronkowski is playing his best football, and Dion Lewis is the best running back the Patriots have had in a while. I think the Patriots will enter this game with a run first mentality, and it will slowly wear down the Titans defense. Both sides should protect the ball well, and eventually experience will win this game. The Pats are victorious, but don’t cover the spread. Pick: Patriots 28, Titans 21

3-Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) @ 2-Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) 1:05 CBS (Sunday)

The storyline here is obviously the brutal game the Ben Roethlisberger had against the Jags back in October. In that game, Roethlisberger threw five interceptions; two of which were returned for touchdowns. Jacksonville’s run game was on fire that day, but unnoticed by most, Blake Bortles was awful. Here’s my take: the Jaguars can win this matchup without a passing game. This may seem like a good thing for Jacksonville, but it isn’t. I think Roethlisberger could struggle in this game, but I don’t see him throwing two pick-sixes. The Jaguars’ excellent secondary couldn’t replicate their five interception performance all year long against quarterbacks like Blaine Gabbert and Tom Savage, so how can they do it again against one of the league’s most prolific passing offenses? Even if Roethlisberger threw five interceptions again, the Jaguars defense would have to return at least one of them for a score. Jacksonville needs their defense to score, because their offense can’t. In that 30-9 week 5 win for Jacksonville over the Steelers, the Jags run game was dominant. Leonard Fournette alone ran for 181 yards, something he didn’t come close to doing again all season. The October game against Pittsburgh is a statistical outlier. I think Ben Roethlisberger will struggle in this game, but Jacksonville’s offense will be unable to take advantage. Eventually, Antonio Brown should take over. After all, Brown did have 157 receiving yards in that week 5 game. Pick: Steelers 24, Jaguars 14

4-New Orleans Saints (11-5) @ 2-Minnesota Vikings (13-3) 4:40 FOX (Sunday)

This is the game of the week. I have a feeling that the winner of this one has a very good chance of lifting the Lombardi trophy in February. Those that expect the Saints to win this game will point to the difference in quarterback play between Case Keenum and Drew Brees. This is a fallacy, and I will tell you why. Quarterback play is a huge factor of deciding football games, but they are ultimately just a major part of the passing offense. The unit as a whole must be measured head to head in order to make a decision on who has the advantage. The big issue here for New Orleans is that the Vikings receiving corps is way more talented. Adam Theilen and Stefon Diggs have arguably both been top ten receivers in 2017. As for the Saints, their best receiver is Ted Ginn Jr. Ginn Jr is a fine player, but he doesn’t elevate the Saints’ offensive production. The Vikings have been almost flawless throwing the football this year, and I don’t expect that to change in Minneapolis tomorrow. The Saints will need Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to pick up the slack, and they are definitely capable of this, however, last week against the Panthers, Kamara and Ingram were anything but dominant, combing for 68 yards on 21 touches. Usually those number are average, but for a duo that drives an offense, it’s unacceptable. I expect them to play better against Minnesota, but not enough. Case Keenum will prove he can win in the playoffs. Pick: Vikings 34, Saints 30

Photo Credit: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

All Rights Reserved – Nick Merriam – 2017

NFL Postseason Preview (With Wild Card Weekend Picks)

It’s the NFL playoffs! This ritual is repeated every January to decide which franchise will steal the spotlight in America’s greatest game. The AFC is shaping up to be a battle between the Patriots and Steelers again, but the Jaguars and Chiefs may have a few things to say about it. With the Bengals upset of the Ravens on Sunday, the Bills are in the postseason for the first time in seventeen years. As for the NFC, the number one seeded Eagles are having quarterback problems, but they still can lean on home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The Vikings have hopes for a home Super Bowl, and the Falcons rolled Carolina to clinch the last NFC playoff bid. This is one of the most parity ridden playoff settings I’ve seen in a while, so let’s break it down.

Comment of the Week:
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The Bills’ playoff appearance is one of the feel good stories of 2017. With the front office nearly making the biggest midseason blunder we’ve ever seen by starting Nathan Peterman against the Chargers, Tyrod Taylor responded by going 4-2 in the final six games to make the postseason. This included a big win on the road against the Chiefs, and a sweep of a Dolphins team that gave Buffalo problems last year. Because of the play of Taylor and McCoy, the Bills haven’t lost to a non-Patriots team since that midseason blunder. Buffalo deserves this, and I hope it doesn’t end immediately.

Surprise of the week:
It has to be the Ravens absolute meltdown versus Cincinnati. Baltimore was primed to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2014, a year where they upset Pittsburgh on the road, and nearly beat the Patriots the next week. The Ravens have proven to be a dangerous team in the postseason under the leadership of John Harbaugh. I had been saying for weeks that the improved play of Baltimore was an omen for a surprise in the playoffs, and it’s disappointing that their season was ended short. The fact is, Baltimore took too long to start playing well. If the Ravens had played strong football for sixteen weeks, maybe we’d be having a different conversation.

Last week I was 11-5 picking games to move to 158-98 (0.617) on the season. I will once again do a pick segment this week, but I also will give a idea of how I see the entire playoffs shaping up. To start, let’s look at this week’s games.

5-Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ 4-Kansas City Chiefs (10-6) 4:35 ESPN/ABC (Saturday)

This is a much closer contest than many are giving it credit for. The Titans trotted into a frigid Kansas City last year needing a win for their playoff hopes. Thanks to the clutch legs of Marcus Mariota and Ryan Succop, the Titans did the unthinkable, and pulled off the upset 19-17. I could see something like that happening this year, but there are some clear differences between those teams, and their current versions. For one, the Titans don’t have any momentum entering this game. The win against Jacksonville was big for Tennessee’s confidence, but it was sloppy. As for the Chiefs, they have been rolling behind a revamped running game. I think the Titans can keep this close, but in the end Kareem Hunt will be the difference as he grinds up over 100 yards on the day. Pick: Chiefs 20, Titans 17

6-Atlanta Falcons (10-6) @ 3-Los Angeles Rams (11-5) 8:15 NBC (Saturday)

I like the Falcons momentum entering the playoffs, but the Rams have been absolutely rolling over the past month. Todd Gurley has all of the sudden entered the MVP race by dominating the Titans’ and Seahawks’ defenses in weeks 15 and 16. Gurley not only has been effective out of the backfield, but more importantly has helped in the passing game. Gurley’s check down routes open up the downfield passing game for Jared Goff who has been money in December. This is a team that can go all the way this year; don’t turn your heads just because of LA’s youth. Sean McVay may be a first year head coach, but the fact is he’s been tormenting defenses for four years now. In fact, this isn’t even his first playoff game. McVay’s Rams have played way too well this year to fall flat in this game. Pick: Rams 31, Falcons 20

6-Buffalo Bills (9-7) @ 3-Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) 1:05 CBS (Sunday)

Maybe I’m getting caught up in the hype, but there will be an upset this week. The Bills have all the makings of a team that can go into Jacksonville and win. I know LeSean McCoy is a little hobbled, but the Bills will only need him for a few plays. The strategy will be to run screen plays during Jacksonville’s blitzes. If the Bills time their play calling right, it opens everything up. Giving the Bills space is huge because it allows Tyrod Taylor to scramble, and opens up underneath routes to Nick O’Leary and Charles Clay. The other big factor here is Steven Hauschka. The Bills kicker has been accurate of late, and I have a feeling that will matter in this game. Buffalo has done a good job stopping offenses in the red zone, and one Jacksonville missed field goal could be the difference. I think Tyrod Taylor steps up big time, and delivers Buffalo a playoff win. Pick: Bills 19, Jaguars 16

5-Carolina Panthers (11-5) @ 4-New Orleans Saints (11-5) 4:40 FOX (Sunday)

Their is a common belief around the NFL that beating a team three times in one season is extremely difficult. This is true. Nothing about this game should scream ‘easy’ to the Saints’ fan base, but I should point out that New Orleans dominated Carolina in their two regular season meetings. The Saints have the defense to shut down Cam Newton. New Orleans’ secondary matches up well with Carolina’s mediocre receiving corps, and as a result, Newton must either force throws or tuck the ball and run. At some point, Newton and the Panthers will trail, and he will need to throw the ball downfield. What happens then is he takes his time in the pocket. This allows for Cameron Jordan and the improved Saints front seven to pressure Newton. I would not at all be surprised if Newton makes some big plays in this game, but this mismatch almost guarantees him to turn the ball over at some point. It will be tough for the Panthers to overcome the extra possessions that the Saints will receive. Pick: Saints 30, Panthers 22

Those are my picks for this week, but what do I think happens next? My expectations are that the Eagles will improve against the Saints, but Drew Breess will make the plays needed to pull off the victory in Philadelphia. After that, the Saints will face Minnesota, who benefits from a mismatch with the Rams. The Vikings will clinch a home Super Bowl by once again shutting down the Saints offense, as they did back in week 1 on Monday Night Football. As for the AFC, the Bills victory will be short lived as they fall in Foxborough next week, and the Steelers will continue their domination of the Chiefs. In the AFC title game, the Steelers will give New England all they can handle, but Antonio Brown’s beat up ankle will hurt them in the end. The Patriots will hobble into Minneapolis after barely surviving the Steelers, and the Vikings will ride the home momentum to their first ever Super Bowl.
My Super Bowl Prediction: Vikings 27, Patriots 21

Photo Credit: Getty Images

All Rights Reserved – Nick Merriam – 2017

 

Final Power Rankings: What’s Next?

The NFL regular season is over, but the hype is only beginning. Twenty clubs have been eliminated to create a twelve-team field. This field, known as the NFL playoffs, will be eleven huge games to decide the world champion. For those teams heading into the playoffs, I have noted what they must do to make a deep run into January. For every other team, I have said what their offseason plans must include. Let’s rank them one last time.

32 – Cleveland Browns (0-16) Last Week: 32

Offseason Priority: Draft, draft, and draft
The Browns will look to the 2018 draft this year considering their current state. Besides a handful of free agents (Terrelle Pryor), the Browns will not be very active during signing season. The dysfunction of the organization makes them a tough candidate for players looking for a new team. With five picks in the first two rounds, the Browns’ focus is on their scouting reports. Cleveland most certainly must take a quarterback in the 1st round.

31 – Houston Texans (4-12) LW: 31

Offseason Priority: Regroup and gain confidence
The Texans have the pieces in place to win the AFC South in 2018, and possibly more. 2018 will be about short-term memory for Houston, who will improve next season sans another tragic injury bug. Deshaun Watson developed quickly in 2018. The great thing about that is the possibility that Watson gets even better. If he does, Houston could go from the bottom of the barrel, to Super Bowl contenders.

30 – New York Giants (3-13) LW: 30

Offseason Priority: Fix defensive issues
The Giants offense clearly struggled this year, but they were without one of the best deep threats in the NFL in Odell Beckham Jr. With him back in 2018, we should expect an uptick in passing production. The bigger question to me is what happened to New York’s defense. Last year, the solid play from the Giants defense made them a Super Bowl contender going into the playoffs. This year, with similar personnel, that defense was ineffective.

29 – Indianapolis Colts (4-12) LW: 29

Offseason Priority: Andrew Luck’s health
The Colts have been carried by Luck before. Without much talent on either side of the ball, Luck presents the Colts with stability at the league’s most important position. Not only that, but he is arguably one of the best quarterback’s in the league. Questions once again will surround Luck’s phantom shoulder injury. Even if he does heal, will he have the same sort of production? It is the difference between completely rebuilding, and not, for Indianapolis.

28 – New York Jets (5-11) LW: 27

Offseason Priority: Find a quarterback
The Jets have more pieces than you’d think. The offensive line is still in shambles, but the running games is average, and the receiving corps has performed well. As for New York’s defense, it is easily one of the more underrated units in the NFL. With Jamal Adams at safety, the Jets have a young leader who will only improve. Now they need that type of leadership at quarterback. So, do the Jets test free agency? Or do they have their eyes set on a draft prospect? At the #6 pick, a top QB should be available.

27 – Denver Broncos (5-11) LW: 26

Offseason Priority: Find a quarterback
Come to think of it, the Broncos and Jets aren’t too much different. The difference is Denver may be more prepared to win now if they get their QB, but they have an older roster. Just like the Jets, Denver could look towards free agency to find a quarterback. Unlike the Jets, Denver does not have a lot of cap space. With a championship defense, I would not be surprised if John Elway uses the #5 pick in the NFL draft on Wyoming product, Josh Allen.

26 – Chicago Bears (5-11) LW: 24

Offseason Priority: Draft the best wide receiver
This is pretty simple. The Bears have a higher draft pick than any other team whose number one need is wide out. The Bears’ scouting department will be tasked with selecting the best receiver. Lucky for Chicago, this is a draft loaded with top receiver prospects. It will likely come down to either Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, or Courtland Sutton out of SMU. Ridley is following a couple of top wide outs out of Alabama in Julio Jones and Amari Cooper, but don’t sleep on Sutton.

25 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11) LW: 28

Offseason Priority: Reboot the running game
Tampa Bay’s win against the Saints shows that they have the talent to beat teams in the NFC South. The Buccaneers entered the season with a promising passing attack. Not once did the trio of Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, and OJ Howard look as dominant as I thought they would. This is because of a slight regression on the part of Jameis Winston, and a complete disappearance of the run game. Tampa needs to add a running back and multiple pieces on the offensive line.

24 – Green Bay Packers (7-9) LW: 22

Offseason Priority: Make some noise in free agency
I don’t care what position it is, Aaron Rodgers is getting annoyed by the fact that Green Bay hasn’t had success in past free agent seasons. Rodgers’ job is to be his best on the field, and he does that. The least the Packers’ front office can do is speculate on a few free agents. Last offseason, the Packers signed Martellus Bennet, and although it didn’t work out, it was a step in the right direction for this organization. The Packers have already signed Davante Adams, now they need to find some defensive pieces.

23 – Miami Dolphins (6-10) LW: 21

Offseason Priority: Find an identity
I talked about this in previous editions of the power rankings; Miami doesn’t have an identity right now. Jay Ajayi was their lone star player, but now he is gone, so what now? Miami is in an interesting position because they don’t have much to build off of, but with more talent than the average bad team, they aren’t about to rebuild. The Dolphins’ front office and coaching staff will choose what they want out of their players in the coming years.

22 – Oakland Raiders (6-10) LW: 20

Offseason Priority: Lower the expectations
Derek Carr and company crumbled under the pressure in 2018. The Raiders and many NFL analysts expected way too much from a team that has no defense. Oakland had a great record in one-score games in 2016; a big reason for their 12-4 record. After a six game drop off this year, the Raiders must realize that they don’t have the talent of a Super Bowl team just yet. With Jon Gruden hired, their will be a major culture change in Oakland. Jon Gruden is the type of person that can fix the Raiders’ psychology.

21 – Arizona Cardinals (8-8) LW: 23

Offseason Priority: Focus on the defense
Without a quarterback or coach after the retirements of both Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer, Arizona will certainly have to find replacements for both. The Cardinals have a pretty good defense bolstered by the likes of Tyrann Mathieu and Chandler Jones. Jones’ 17 sacks were good for best in the NFL. With this talent, the defense should be the Cardinals focus going forward. As for the offense, they will get back one of the best dual threat players in the NFL, David Johnson.

20 – Washington Redskins (7-9) LW: 18

Offseason Priority: Be patient
The Redskins have talent, and an average to above average coaching staff. Too often in the past, this team has blown everything up way too early. If the Redskins front office sticks with what they have, then they’re doing their job. Washington for the first time in a while seems to be banking their future on young talent, but these players need time to develop. If the Redskins can sign Kirk Cousins, then they can keep pace in the NFC with their youth.

19 – Cincinnati Bengals (7-9) LW: 25

Offseason Priority: Players must prepare
Each of the past two seasons, the Bengals have started off horribly, and it set the tone for the rest of their year. In today’s NFL, most teams aren’t that far off from being a playoff team. The Bengals are no exception. If the Bengals are ready to play football in the September of 2018, then they can have a big turnaround. You may think this falls on the coaches, but believe it or not, this is a player issue. Cincy has had character issues in the past, and that could be a factor here.

18 – Detroit Lions (9-7) LW: 17

Offseason Priority: Find another leader
This is not to say that Detroit doesn’t have veteran leadership scattered throughout their roster, but there is a clear difference between the type of leadership a Matthew Stafford brings compared to a Golden Tate. Tate is a good player, and possibly better than good, but Stafford is a generational talent. Detroit needs another player with that type of talent who can lead them into the playoffs. It could be at linebacker, safety, or perhaps even running back; the Lions need another player with an ‘it’ factor to push them over the top.

17 – Dallas Cowboys (9-7) LW: 16

Offseason Priority: Be disciplined
It wouldn’t be completely insane for me to state that the Cowboys offseason shenanigans destroyed their 2017 campaign. Jerry Jones needs to have some guidelines. The Cowboys before Jerry Jones were known for their discipline and confidence on the field. In those days of Roger Staubach and Ed ‘To Tall’ Jones the Cowboys were a consistent powerhouse. The modern-day Dallas teams have that talent, and the confidence, but they lack the discipline. It is going to take a culture change for this franchise to win championships.

16 – San Francisco 49ers (6-10) LW: 15

Offseason Priority: Ride the momentum
Finishing the season with five straight wins will make the 49ers a favorite pick for a new playoff team in 2018. Jimmy Garoppolo is undefeated as a starter, Carlos Hyde and Matt Breida are part of an improving backfield, and the receiving corps has young stars like Marquise Goodwin and George Kittle. With the return of Pierre Garçon, this offense should be in full throttle. As for the defensive front, the three headed moster of Arik Armistead, DeForest Buckner, and Solomon Thomas presents a problem for most offenses. The only thing that can hold the Niners back now, is cockiness. Looking at you Carlos Hyde.

15 – Seattle Seahawks (9-7) LW: 13

Offseason Priority: Change personnel, not identity
The Seahawks have fully informed the public that they will be making some major changes this offseason. This may mean a lot of players will be moving on, and it may mean some changes in coaching and the front office. Either way, the Seahawks have a lot of talent, and should continue their mentality of a good pass defense and an offense that runs through the talents of Russell Wilson. The Seahawks have an opportunity to change a lot of things, but sometimes the best thing to do is make small changes.

14 – Baltimore Ravens (9-7) LW: 9

Offseason Priority: Recognize Alex Collins as your future
Alex Collins proved during the final stretch for Baltimore that he can be a game changer in this league. With Joe Flacco aging, and the Ravens subpar receiving corps, Baltimore’s offense can run through the legs and vision of Collins. This may mean adding more depth to the offensive line, but more importantly, it means changing the offense. Even with Baltimore struggling in the pass game this year, they still kept a balanced play calling strategy. I’d like to see this offense become run-first type.

13 – Tennessee Titans (9-7) LW: 19

Playoff Strategy: Forget about December
The Titans entered December with an 8-4 record, and although they weren’t playing amazing football, they were winning close games. Tennessee will have the opportunity to become that team once again, as they travel to Arrowhead Stadium where they upset the Chiefs last year. The Titans have a few things that really matter in close contests. One, their kicker Ryan Succop is one of the best. Two, the run game can close out games when they lead. Tennessee is built to win ugly, and sometimes that works in cold weather.

12 – Buffalo Bills (9-7) LW: 14

Playoff Strategy: Shutdown offenses in the red zone
Besides nursing LeSean McCoy back to full health, the Bills can win games by forcing opponents to kick field goals. Buffalo has often won this year when it has done so; the Bills have a good kicking game that can win these battles. With a few explosive plays on either side of the ball, the Bills have a surprisingly good chance of pulling off an upset this week.

11 – Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) LW: 12

Offseason Priority: Plan for the future
The Chargers have one of the best rosters in terms of youth talent in the NFL. This is a sign of good things to come in Los Angeles, but first they must find a replacement for Philip Rivers. If the Chargers do this, they become prepared for the next decade. With strong units on both sides of the ball, the Chargers are in good shape. Tyrod Taylor or Baker Mayfield are possible names that could become the face of this franchise.

10 – Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) LW: 8

Playoff Strategy: Get Fournette going
The Jaguars looked unstoppable this year when their run game was dominant. Jacksonville has a championship defense: it forces turnovers and can rush the quarterback at an elite level, but it needs support from the offense. Blake Bortles has hurt the Jags more than helped them at times. He needs to minimize mistakes for Jacksonville to have any chance at a Super Bowl run, but we have seen this team score in bunches when its run game gets rolling.

9 – Atlanta Falcons (10-6) LW: 11

Playoff Strategy: Find the 2016 magic
The NFC champions are still alive in this race, and could become dangerous at any point. This team has the feel of those Giants’ teams that made Super Bowl runs in 2007 and 2011. Atlanta has experience, and they are coming off a huge win. Momentum has been the standard for Super Bowl teams in past NFL seasons, match that up with an improving defense, and a quarterback who has played well in recent postseasons, and you have a contender.

8 – Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) LW: 5

Playoff Strategy: Skill positions must step up
Nick Foles may be a huge down grade from Carson Wentz, but no one is pointing out the abysmal play by the Eagles’ receivers. Alshon Jeffery completely disappeared over the last two weeks of the NFL season, Torrey Smith hasn’t done much of anything since the halfway point, Nelson Agholor is up and down in terms of production, and the Eagles’ great running game has been uninspiring. Philly has a championship defense, but they need to score points to have any chance. All it takes is for one guy to step up; it could be anyone.

7 – Carolina Panthers (11-5) LW: 7

Playoff Strategy: Create big plays in the passing game
Besides a slightly worse defense, there aren’t many differences between this year’s Panthers, and the 2015 version that went to the Super Bowl. The one thing that does come to mind, however, is the big pass plays Cam Newton created. In 2015, the Panthers offense was run heavy, but when they threw the ball they connected on deep plays to Greg Olsen and Tedd Ginn Jr. With Olsen healthy, and Devin Funchess stepping up, Carolina has an opportunity to replicate that success.

6 – Kansas City Chiefs (10-6) LW: 10

Playoff Strategy: Run first mentality
During the Chiefs midseason slump, it was clear that Andy Reid was pass happy. With a return to a run first offense, the Chiefs were able to win their last four games. This makes Kansas City a dangerous team. Will the Chiefs replicate the version of themselves that won at New England earlier this year? Or has their scheme been found out? Either way, Kareem Hunt leads the league in rushing, and his bruising style opens up the field for big plays to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Look for a lot of Kareem Hunt on Saturday.

5 – New Orleans Saints (11-5) LW: 6

Playoff Strategy: Score early and often
The Saints have gone by a clear game plan all season long of big plays early on, and turnovers with a solid ground game late. New Orleans has gotten used to leading early, but when they trail late they still have Drew Brees to bail them out. As the weather gets colder, a warm weather team like New Orleans will struggle to hold leads. The Saints’ players will wear out easier. This just means that New Orleans will have to create more big plays in the 1st quarter.

4 – Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) LW: 4

Playoff Strategy: Antonio Brown
The Steelers are a very good team even without Brown, but before his injury Antonio Brown was dominating the NFL. It is important that he is healthy for their divisional round contest, because he should get a heavy dosage of targets. Brown’s ball skills, ability to run after the catch, and love of the game makes him one of the greatest receivers to walk the gridiron. Last year, he completely took over a game against the Dolphins in the first quarter of Wild Card Weekend. With that type of swagger in these playoffs, he can carry Pittsburgh to a seventh Super Bowl.

3 – Los Angeles Rams (11-5) LW: 3

Playoff Strategy: Continue to develop
The Rams are young. This is something you’ve probably heard about all season long. The reason why Los Angeles has been able to overcome such inexperience is their constant improvement. Sean McVay is the master developer. He turns young talent into dominant veterans faster than any coach I’ve seen before. With Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, and the defense playing their best ball, this team can win it all. If the development continues, there is no reason to count out these Rams.

2 –  Minnesota Vikings (13-3) LW: 2

Playoff Strategy: Cast aside all previous failures
The Vikings have been haunted for years by past failures. Fran Tarkenton’s 0-4 record in Super Bowls, the Gary Anderson missed field goal in 1998, and Brett Favre’s pick in the 2009 NFC Championship Game all continue to be the image of this franchise. Mike Zimmer and company must toss it all aside, and realize that 2018 is not 1976, or 1998, or 2009. This seems like an easy thing to do, but trust me, this fan base has seen it happen over and over again, and the pressure is on. If the Vikings focus on what’s happening right now, they can win the Super Bowl.

1 – New England Patriots (13-3) LW: 1

Playoff Strategy: O-line must hold up
The only times we have seen Tom Brady fail in the postseason this decade were when the offensive line was majorly outplayed. The Jets’ and Ravens’ secondary took advantage of pressured throws in 2010 and 2012 respectively. The Giants and Broncos sacked Brady a bunch during wins against New England in 2011, 2013, and 2015. In 2014 and 2016, when the offensive line outplayed each front seven it faced, New England won the Super Bowl. Other than that, Brady and Belichick should continue to do what they do in every January, win.

Photo Credit: Charles Krupa/AP, Dec. 31st, 2017.

All Rights Reserved – Nick Merriam – 2017