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 – 2018

 

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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 – 2018

 

Week 17 Picks

How about some havoc? Week 17 tends to carry some of that as the playoff chase hits a climax, and then closes out here. Teams like the Seahawks, Chargers, and Bills need to win, and get some help, to find themselves playing on Wild Card Weekend. Others, like the Ravens and Falcons, have it simple. If they win, then they’re in. There are some other weird unlikely scenarios that could still occur, for example the Panthers gaining a first-round bye, but the focus will be on the wild card teams for the most part. So who will be in? Let’s find out.

Comment of the Week:Week 17.png
This may not be true for all seasons, but this year the playoffs will be particularly open. Last year, for example, each playoff game was decided by an average score of 14.81 points. If not for an amazing Super Bowl, and a Packers-Cowboys divisional round matchup that will go down as one of the most memorable games in NFL history, the 2016 NFL playoffs would have been awful. Keep in mind, a lot of these games were closer due to late touchdowns scored by the losing team. Even with those scores involved in the calculation, the average game was still decided by over two touchdowns. I guarantee, that this year’s NFL playoffs will be much more exciting. Not only will the games be closer, but I cannot stress the parity of each conference. It’s anyone’s game.

Surprise of the Week:
It’s clearly either the Lions’ or Cowboys’ inability to win clutch games. Because I’ve come to expect the Lions to falter in December, I have to go with Dallas’ loss. The Cowboys did not look any better on Sunday after the return of Ezekiel Elliot. Certain play calling decisions on first and goal may have helped their demise, but Dak Prescott’s play is inexcusable. Prescott regressed without Elliot in the backfield, and as a result, many expected him to play better last week. Dak did not. In fact, you could argue that Prescott’s play against Seattle is his worst performance. Analysts are knocking the play calling, and Dez Bryant’s fumble, but Prescott has gotten away with his absence of clutch play. For example, the pick he threw in the redone. Dez Bryant does need to catch that ball, but Prescott needs to lead Bryant more with that pass. Simple.

Last week I was 12-4 on my picks. That may be a strong showing, but I’m beginning to slip in the ‘expert’ standings. At 147-93 (0.612), I’m only slightly above the .600 threshold. Well anyways, time for picks.

Washington Redskins (7-8) @ New York Giants (2-13) 1:00 FOX

The Redskins have stressed the importance of finishing at .500 in the standings; a three game win streak is a good way to finish the season. Kirk Cousins started slowly against the #1 ranked defense on Sunday, but eventually turned on the jets in a 27-11 rout of the Broncos. The bigger story for me, however, is the emergence of a Washington pass rush. After four more sacks on Sunday, the Redskins have had nine sacks in two games. The Giants’ offensive line has struggled, so I expect the Redskins to continue that trend today as Cousins easily outplays Eli Manning. Pick: Redskins 24, Giants 13

Chicago Bears (5-10) @ Minnesota Vikings (12-3) 1:00 FOX

The Vikings can lock up a first-round bye with a win here, so they will not be resting their starters. Case Keenum and company have been firing on all cylinders of late, and should have no problem continuing to do so. The Bears defense has played well, but I don’t see them holding up against Stefon Diggs and Adam Theilen for 60 minutes. Chicago is going to have to score some points. That usually isn’t much to ask in the NFL, but lately for the Bears, it is. The Vikings are rolling into the playoffs. Pick: Vikings 31, Bears 17

Green Bay Packers (7-8) @ Detroit Lions (8-7) 1:00 FOX

Brett Hundley has struggled at home all season long, but on the road, he’s been excellent. The Lions have struggled to win games in December for a long time, and this again will be a game that they should win. Last time these two teams hooked up, the Packers were still figuring out their offense without Aaron Rodgers, and the Lions were playing like a playoff team. Green Bay’s run game and pass attack have both improved, and the Lions’ pass rush has regressed since then. If Hundley can create plays with his legs, the Lions will be in trouble. December stumbles have been the story for Detroit in the Matt Stafford era. Pick: Packers 23, Lions 20

Dallas Cowboys (8-7) @ Philadelphia Eagles (13-2) 1:00 FOX

It will be interesting to see how the Eagles handle this game with the #1 seed already wrapped up. The offensive struggles from Monday night need to be corrected, so I have no doubt in my mind that Nick Foles will play at least a half of football. Here’s how this game is going to go: The Eagles offense will get on the board early and prove that Monday night was an aberration. Once that happens, most starters will be pulled. Finally, Dallas’ offense will get going, and comeback against the Eagles’ backups. Dallas wins a close one, but Eagles fans shouldn’t be stressed. It will be clear that Dallas won against the Eagles B team. Pick: Cowboys 27, Eagles 23

Houston Texans (4-11) @ Indianapolis Colts (3-12) 1:00 CBS

Man, what an irrelevant game this is. The Colts should win considering their beatdown of Houston in week 9, but it will be ugly. TY Hilton torched the Texans defense that day in NRG Stadium; it was one of his few big performances in 2017. I think we can expect Hilton to have a similar type of game in the friendly confines of Lucas Oil Stadium. As for the Texans, how is this team supposed to score? Like I said, this will be ugly. Pick: Colts 17, Texans 7

Cleveland Browns (0-15) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) 1:00 CBS

Sorry Browns, I think 0-16 is inevitable at this point. The Steelers are still hoping for a Patriots slip up, and the #1 seed in the AFC. This may be unlikely, but they need a win to have any chance. More importantly for Pittsburgh however, is the development of non-Antonio Brown receivers. Ben Roethlisberger has to gain confidence in the rest of his receiving corps. It’s an underrated factor of this game. If the Steelers receivers step up, and play really well, it could give them the confidence to play some dominant football in January. Pick: Steelers 30, Browns 13

New York Jets (5-10) @ New England Patriots (12-3) 1:00 CBS

As mentioned above, the Patriots need to win this game to wrap up home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. We’ve seen Belichick coached teams slip up in this situation before. The Jets gave New England all they could handle back in their October matchup, but lost a close game. I think the Jets will show up here as well. New England will have to earn the top seed in the AFC, but they should be able to handle the Bryce Petty-led Jets. This game will be close early on, but the Patriots pull away late. Pick Patriots 20, Jets 10

San Francisco 49ers (5-10) @ Los Angeles Rams (11-4) 4:25 FOX

I was going to pick the Rams, but now they are resting all of their starters. They are forfeiting the #3 seed, which bothers me. Yet, an injury to Jared Goff or Todd Gurley would be detrimental to the Rams’ Super Bowl chances. If it were my team, we’d play it out. Just saying. As for the 49ers, they are rolling into the offseason. Jimmy Garoppolo is great, the defense is making big plays, and the running game has awoken thanks to support from the passing attack. Make it five straight wins to finish the season for San Francisco. Pick: 49ers 27, Rams 20

New Orleans Saints (11-4) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11) 4:25 FOX

Thanks to the Rams, a New Orleans win will lock up the #3 seed, and the NFC South. Tampa Bay gave the Panthers a tough game last week, and at home they should give the Saints a good fight as well. However, New Orleans is clearly a better team. Drew Brees hasn’t had an air show since week 11, and by air show I mean a 300+ yard passing performance. I think the Saints try to rest their running backs a bit here, and give Brees a chance to warm up for the postseason. Brees throws for at least 300 yards, a few scores, and most importantly, wins the NFC South for the Saints. Pick: Saints 31, Buccaneers 24

Arizona Cardinals (7-8) @ Seattle Seahawks (9-6) 4:25 FOX

It is currently being reported that this will likely be Bruce Arians last game as a head coach in the NFL. The man is retiring, and because of that, he should give the Seahawks a good fight. Arians is 3-1 against the Seahawks in Seattle, which is an unbelievable record. Believable or not, this is not a walk over game for the Seahawks. Russell Wilson and company have been on a back and forth momentum train all season long. Trailing in the 4th quarter, Wilson saves the Seahawks season with a long touchdown pass to Paul Richardson. Seattle wins a very close game here, but they need an Atlanta loss to make the playoffs. I wouldn’t be surprised if Seattle loses this game, but I can’t pick against Pete Carroll. Pick: Seahawks 20, Cardinals 16

Carolina Panthers (11-4) @ Atlanta Falcons (9-6) 4:25 FOX

Altanta is a win away from the postseason, otherwise they will be the second straight team to lose a Super Bowl, and then miss the playoffs the next year. Here is what is going to happen: Cam Newton and company are inspired early on by a chance to win the NFC South. The Panthers run game will silence the Mercedes-Benz Stadium crowd with a couple early scores. One of these scores will be set up by a bad Matt Ryan interception, as he struggles in the first half. Facing a 14-3 halftime deficit, the Falcons realize their next 30 minutes must be perfect. Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones will finally channel their 2016 selves, and help Matt Ryan pick apart the Panthers secondary in the second half. This time, Julio Jones catches an over the shoulder pass to win a thriller in Atlanta. Pick: Falcons 17, Panthers 14

Kansas City Chiefs (9-6) @ Denver Broncos (5-10) 4:25 CBS

Deshaun Watson may have been my #1 QB prospect, but Patrick Mahomes was my #2 prospect. Along with that, I expected a huge gap in success between Mahomes, and the 3rd quarterback in my scouting report, Mitchell Trubisky. Mahomes will look promising in his first game as a starter. Poor Alex Smith will be out the door as Andy Reid falls in love with the gunslinger from Texas Tech. In a Brett Favre-like performance, Mahomes torches the Denver defense, and the Chiefs realize their future is bright. Pick: Chiefs 27, Broncos 17

Cincinnati Bengals (6-9) @ Baltimore Ravens (9-6) 4:25 CBS

The Bengals are going to give the Ravens a good fight after spoiling the Lions season last week. Unlike the Lions, the John Harbaugh-led Ravens have been excellent in December. I think Joe Flacco continues to improve, and the Ravens force a few turnovers out of Andy Dalton. Remember, the Ravens have won five of six, and this win will make it six of seven. If they win this game handily, they can ride the momentum towards some playoff victories. Do not count out Harbaugh in the postseason, where he has yet to exit in the first-round. Pick: Ravens 23, Bengals 13

Buffalo Bills (8-7) @ Miami Dolphins (6-9) 4:25 CBS

The Bills need a win and losses by the Titans and chargers to make the playoffs now that Baltimore has won. LeSean McCoy was way too much for Miami to handle a couple weeks back, and that will happen again this week. More importantly, I think the Bills’ defense steps up and forces multiple turnovers today. We will see a complete performance from the Bills, on the road, but will it be enough? Pick: Bills 26, Dolphins 10

Oakland Raiders (6-9) @ Los Angeles Chargers (8-7) 4:25 CBS

The Chargers need a win and a Titans loss to make the playoffs. Since the Raiders have such a huge fan base in Los Angeles, this should be an effective home game for Oakland. However, The Raiders have continuously lost games where they outplay their opponents. Mentally, they have been battered. At this point, I don’t think they can compete with a playoff aspiring team. The Chargers will win, behind a great performance from Philip Rivers, but is it enough? Pick: Chargers 30, Raiders 21

Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5) @ Tennessee Titans (8-7) 4:25 CBS

Last week I said that the Titans would play better, and that’s because they’ve been better at home, and they know that they need to win to make the playoffs. This week is similar, but against a worse opponent. The Titans must get back to their ground game. The Titans run game was dominant against the Jaguars defense back in week 2. This game will be no different. The Titans may not be one of the six best teams in the AFC right now, but their matchup with Jacksonville is a good one. Despite a late season slump, the Titans are in. Pick: Titans 19, Jaguars 17

Photo Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

All Rights Reserved – Nick Merriam – 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Week 17 Power Rankings

One more week to go until the postseason. I have to say, week 16 was mostly uneventful except for a couple of teams battling in the NFC wild card race. Those teams, the Lions and Cowboys, had a rather disappointing end to their seasons. With the elimination of those two, it comes down to Atlanta and Seattle for the sixth seed. In the AFC: Baltimore, Tennessee, Los Angeles, and Buffalo are battling for the final two wild card spots. Let’s see how each team is shaping up going into the final week.

32 – Cleveland Browns (0-15) Last Week: 32

Cleveland is going 0-16. To be honest, they should have been 0-16 last year, so maybe this is some sort of malevolent retribution by the football gods. The Browns took over the 32nd spot in these rankings all the way back in the early days of week 4. They never looked back, or forward in this case. If you stay the worst team in football for fourteen straight weeks, you need to change something. For Cleveland, they decided on a new general manager: John Dorsey

31 – Houston Texans (4-11) LW: 31

During the Steelers domination of the Texans on Christmas evening, we were reminded that DeAndre Hopkins is a really good wide receiver. When we remembered that, we were reminded of how he and Deshaun Watson took the league by storm in early October. It just makes this 4-11 season even more disappointing for Texans fans. At least getting a top pick and having a lot of talent worked out for the last team that had their season killed by injuries (Dallas).

30 – New York Giants (2-13) LW: 30

Injuries piled up on the Giants in their 23-0 loss on Sunday. Even rookie Evan Engram finally succumbed to this year’s bad luck. Engram has been the lone bright spot in the Giants’ 2017 season. The rookie finally filled a spot at tight end that New York hadn’t had consistency at since the late 2000s. After the hiring of Dave Gettleman, maybe this team will finally draft some offensive linemen.

29 – Indianapolis Colts (3-12) LW: 29

The Colts have clinched a top three draft pick, which is deserving to say the least. However, there was some fight in these Colts on Saturday. This surprised me a lot because the combination of a bad season, and bad weather, usually leads to a poor performance. Eventually though, the Ravens overpowered Indianapolis. The Colts were once again a minor speed bump for those vying in the playoff picture.

28 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11) LW: 28

Kudos to Tampa for showing up in a road divisional game at the end of the year. The Buccaneers clearly wanted to spoil the Panthers season on Sunday afternoon, and where ‘this close’ to doing so. Jameis Winston has had a couple of strong performances to finish out 2017; something that should give the Bucs’ fans hope going into the 2018 campaign. As for Dirk Koetter, he’s as good as gone.

27 – New York Jets (5-10) LW: 26

Bryce Petty, in a shocker, has not been the answer at quarterback for the Jets. It seems Christian Hackenburg will never get a chance to start, so it’ll be back to the drawing board for gang green. As for the defense, they had a good showing against a Chargers offense that can be explosive. There are buiding blocks for Todd Bowles’ future as the Jets head coach. Now can he utilize them?

26 – Denver Broncos (5-10) LW: 24

Denver was completely flat on Sunday after a two-game win streak. The Broncos are playing so badly it makes you wonder if quarterback is their only need. The Denver defense is getting older, and has been relatively uninspiring of late. Denver might go out and draft Josh Allen, or grab an Alex Smith or Kirk Cousins in free agency, but I don’t think it will be enough to make them an immediate Championship contender. I’m saying this because it seems like many have that expectation of Denver if they did get a high level QB.

25 – Cincinnati Bengals (6-9) LW: 27

The Bengals are this year’s spoiler. Cincinnati’s run game showed up in a big way on Sunday as Marvin Lewis’ bunch bounced back from two straight horrific games. I know Marvin Lewis is going to be gone by the end of this year, but I still withhold the belief that he wasn’t the problem with this team. The Bengals have had consistently good defensive units under the defensive minded Lewis. The issue has been the offense. Cincinnati has lost two offensive coordinators to head coaching jobs under Lewis.

24 – Chicago Bears (5-10) LW: 25

I guess you could call the Bears win a bounce back victory, but any win against Cleveland deserves harsh scrutiny. Were the Bears a good football team on Sunday, or is Cleveland just so bad that they can make even the worst teams look good? Either way, the Bears are probably headed for a 5-11 season. This is about where most pundits expected Chicago to be.

23 – Arizona Cardinals (7-8) LW: 23

Drew Stanton returned on Sunday and showed that he is clearly better than Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert, who has been given numerous opportunities to start in this league, is now doomed to be a backup for the rest of his career. Maybe Drew Stanton can be a starter somewhere? If Mike Glennon can get payed double digits to start in this league, then why not? He’s certainly playing better than any current Broncos quarterback.

22 – Green Bay Packers (7-8) LW: 16

What a horrible way for Green Bay to leave their fans at Lambeau Field. Green Bay was shutout on Saturday by a Minnesota team that hadn’t shutout anybody since 1993. Not only that, but the Vikings obtained their first sweep of the Packers since 2009, and invaded the Packers home turf. By the end of the night, Lambeau Field was full of Vikings fans doing their signature Skol chant. This is not the way the Packers envisioned their season ending.

21 – Miami Dolphins (6-9) LW: 22

I don’t know how to feel about this Dolphins team in terms of offseason preparation. The Dolphins have a bunch of players that show up and play lights out football one week, and then look absolutely abysmal the next. Will Ryan Tannehill change this team’s outlook? If he doesn’t is Adam Gase on the hot seat next year? Miami isn’t a complete mess, but they have many questions to answer before next September.

20 – Oakland Raiders (6-9) LW: 21

The Raiders season was summed up by their loss on Monday Night Football. Oakland had found a way to run the ball against the Eagles, and until the 4th quarter, had protected the ball pretty well. With Philadelphia doing nothing on offense, all the Raiders had to do was not turn the ball over inside their own territory. Of course, with the game on the line, they did. Try again next season Oakland.

19 – Tennessee Titans (8-7) LW: 20

As I predicted in the picks segment, the Titans showed up on Sunday. Unfortunately, as I also predicted, the Rams have been playing way too well for any upset to occur. The Titans can still make the playoffs if they can just beat the Jaguars this week. It’s no easy task, but Tennessee did beat Doug Marrone’s bunch 37-16 back in week 2. Somehow, someway, the Titans need to find that spark from earlier in the season.

18 – Washington Redskins (7-8) LW: 19

Clap it up for Jay Gruden who has gotten his players to show up for two straight meaningless games. The Redskins have stressed the importance of finishing at .500; no one in this organization wants to finish with a losing record. As proven against the Broncos, Washington has thrived against under average quarterback play this year. Next year, we will see if this defense can take the next step against tougher competition. As for the DC papers questioning the importance of these wins, shut up.

17 – Detroit Lions (8-7) LW: 14

Oh no no no. Horrible. How does a team with as much talent as the Lions continuously blow games they should win in December? Matt Stafford has to be completely frustrated as a hall of fame quarterback who will miss the playoffs for the sixth time in his nine-year career. I hate to call out the coaching, as I believe most coach firings are the product of impatience, but Jim Caldwell is just ‘blah’. He’s just a guy. Nothing about Caldwell makes me think he is a championship caliber coach. Food for thought.

16 – Dallas Cowboys (8-7) LW: 15

Trust me, I can’t show it to you through words, but I’m laughing so hard right now. I was actually scared of Dallas getting back into the playoffs, but the Cowboys looked worse with Elliot back than they did without him. After the game, Dez Bryant was asked to take a pay cut because, to be honest, he isn’t playing that well. As you might guess, Bryant will not cooperate. Dallas still has lots of talent, but you can’t ignore the overarching theme of the locker room and front office dysfunction that this team brings year in and year out.

15 – San Francisco 49ers (5-10) LW: 18

The 49ers are back! Jimmy Garoppolo is now 4-0 as the Niners’ starting quarterback and John Lynch would be crazy to not bring this kid back. If Garoppolo does come back, I am guaranteeing a San Francisco playoff berth next year. Carlos Hyde even thinks his team is going to win the Super Bowl. This Lynch-Shanahan combo looked interesting at the beginning of this offseason, now it’s setting the bar for coaches and GMs entering the league.

14 – Buffalo Bills (8-7) LW: 13

The Bill have the right to complain about the NFL’s catch rule, but they still need to show up in the second half. I really hope the Bills or Titans make the playoffs so we can avoid the discussion about Petermangate. There’s a good chance that Buffalo’s front office has screw the Bills out of a playoff berth by starting Peterman against the Chargers. Either way, the Bills will likely end the season 9-7, which is better than most Bills seasons, and better than most predicted at the beginning of 2017.

13 – Seattle Seahawks (9-6) LW: 17

Seattle has been so inconsistent, how can we be certain that they will beat the Cardinals on Sunday? Bruce Arians is 3-1 at CenturyLink Field, so the Seahawks better not overlook the Drew Stanton led Cards. As for their win against Dallas, it wasn’t impressive, but it was surprising. The Seahawks became the first team since the 1966 Eagles to win a game with less offensive yards than penalty yards. However, what mattered on Sunday? The defense forced turnovers, and Russell Wilson played well in the 4th quarter. It’s the same formula we’ve seen from the Seahawks all year long.

12 – Los Angeles Chargers (8-7) LW: 12

It may not have been pretty, but the Chargers kept their playoffs hopes alive on Sunday with a gritty road win. Melvin Gordon is a hot and cold running back, but when he’s hot he is one of the most dangerous players on the field. He doubles as a power back, and a receiver out of the backfield; a combination that is hard to come by in this age of football. Gordon’s 128 yards on 22 touches were the difference in LA’s win.

11 – Atlanta Falcons (9-6) LW: 10

Atlanta’s loss at New Orleans is in no way a death sentence. The Falcons were never going to sweep a clearly superior Saints team, but Atlanta still needs to beat the Panthers in week 17 to make the playoffs. The issue with Atlanta has been their offense. Matt Ryan’s group has only scored 19 points per game over the past three weeks. Lucky for the Falcons, they went 2-1 during that stretch. Atlanta better do something quickly because they won’t win too many playoff games with 19 points.

10 – Kansas City Chiefs (9-6) LW: 11

Since everyone is having discussions about the best celebrations of the year, I’m going to nominate Andy Reid’s Santa outfit as my champ. Does that count as a celebration? It should. As for the Chiefs, their running game is becoming a huge asset again. It’s turning Tyreek Hill back into a big threat, and it’s lessening the burden on Alex Smith. Everyone is forgetting about the Chiefs, but trust me, this is a team that the Patriots, and others, do not want to see.

9 – Baltimore Ravens (9-6) LW: 9

The Ravens can win on Sunday to gain higher seeding, but they should be in the playoffs sans some unusual scenario where they lose and both Buffalo and Tennessee win. It was a great final stretch for Baltimore, who has won five of their last six contests. Some of those wins came in blowout fashion, and their one loss was a great performance against the Steelers. I’ve been saying it for weeks: The Ravens are dangerous once in the playoffs. They cannot afford a slip up against Cincinnati for momentum’s sake.

8 – Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5) LW: 5

No reason to worry here if you’re Jacksonville. The Jaguars had already locked up the AFC South heading into their match with the 49ers. The 49ers were playing for the future. This was a road game, across the country I might add, and there was a clear gap in momentum between the two teams. San Francisco took advantage, and it wasn’t even a blowout. The Jaguars just need to put this loss aside, and find that type of momentum for a home playoff game next week.

7 – Carolina Panthers (11-4) LW: 8

Cam Newton is really carrying this offense; he might be the most athletic human on this earth. Seriously, how many people can double as an NFL quarterback and a power running back. One: Cam Newton. If you want to see some vintage Cam Newton, go back and watch the kid in his college days. He’s unbelievable. As long as Newton is playing well, the Panthers will have a chance in the playoffs.

6 – New Orleans Saints (11-4) LW: 7

Signature win for the Saints on Sunday who looked absolutely dominant against a good Falcons team. The Saints have a clear formula: they take early leads with big plays from Alvin Kamara and Tedd Ginn Jr, their pass rush and secondary make it hard for offenses to engineer comebacks, and Mark Ingram puts a seal on the victory with power running to wear down the defense. If everything fails, then they still have a hall of fame quarterback as plan B. Pretty good.

5 – Philadelphia Eagles (13-2) LW: 3

It’s good to see this defense show up and force five turnovers on Monday night. They were the difference in a 19-10 Eagles victory. Very rarely can you say that a defense single handedly wins a game. The Eagles D did that against the Raiders. The combination of pressuring Derek Carr, a ball hawk secondary, and the ability to strip Oakland skill positions added up to a dominant night. The Eagles offense, however, has to be more effective. That warrants a drop in these rankings.

4 – Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) LW: 6

Pittsburgh punctuated its season on Monday by blowing out the Texans on the road without Antonio Brown. This victory showed that Ben Roethlisberger has many other weapons in the passing game besides Brown. Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster showed up in a big way to lead the Steelers to a 34 point performance. Not bad for an offense missing its best player.

3 – Los Angeles Rams (11-4) LW: 3

Todd Gurley should be the MVP. Never mind his play, the Rams have looked excellent. Jared Goff is playing as well as anyone at the quarterback position right now, and the defensive front is being led by a defensive player of the year candidate, Aaron Donald. Because the Rams will not play their starters in week 17, they will likely forfeit the 3 seed to the Saints. This is really stupid. Instead of facing an inconsistent Falcons team, or a Seahawks team that LA just beat 42-7, they will play a well-rounded Panthers team. It’s the only thing I don’t like about the Rams right now.

2 – Minnesota Vikings (12-3) LW: 2

All is right in Minnesota as the Vikings swept Green Bay, and closed in on a first-round bye. The Vikings have an energized fan base, and a team that has been riding momentum ever since week 5. The only thing that is dangerous about all that, is sometimes the bye can silence the momentum. Minnesota must be wary of that; this might be the franchise’s best chance to win their first Super Bowl.

1 – New England Patriots (12-3) LW: 1

Man, Tom Brady has not played well ever since the Miami loss, but it hasn’t mattered. You know why? Rob Gronkowski is why. The guy is just straight up manhandling defenses. In the second half against Buffalo, and in the 4th quarter against Pittsburgh, he was clearly the best player on the field. However, this is an opening for other AFC teams. If somebody can stop Gronkowski, the Patriots become beatable. Either way, these are your Super Bowl favorites.

Photo Credit: Robert Reiners/Getty Images. Dec. 24th, 2017.

All Rights Reserved – Nick Merriam – 2017

Week 16 Picks

There are two more weeks until we know the NFL playoff bracket, and this week will only make that picture more clear. We have multiple games that will shape the standings, and ultimately, who will represent each conference in February. The Eagles can clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win tomorrow, and the Bills can make the playoffs if they win out, but must win at New England today. Not to mention that Saints-Falcons game is looking pretty good. Let’s pick the games!

Comment of the Week:
Week 16.png
This is indeed a really underrated move by the Niners. Jimmy Garoppolo not only has made this team look good over the past couple weeks, but he’s also given the franchise hope for the future. His will to win is only a type that comes from sitting under Tom Brady for so many years. Garoppolo is clearly the future for San Francisco. So why does it seem to me that Kyle Shanahan is not all in? It’s weird, but the 49ers seem to sense that Garoppolo want to test free agency. To be honest, why wouldn’t he? Garoppolo is playing well, multiple teams need a quarterback, and the money value for quarterbacks is currently very high. I don’t think it would be smart for Garoppolo to do this, as San Francisco seems to have growth in sight, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.

Surprise of the Week:
Although it wasn’t an upset, we should all be surprised by the sheer amount of domination we saw from the Rams last week. Los Angeles was clicking on all cylinders with the pass rush on fire, the secondary holding tough, and Todd Gurley looking like a league MVP. Jared Goff’s game continues to get better as he outplayed Russell Wilson at Seattle’s house. It’s a game that marks a new king in the west. Los Angeles is going to win this division, and Sean McVay has many years of success laid out in front of him.

Last week I went 10-6 on my picks. The 10-6 mark moves me to 135-89 (.603) on the season. I need a strong finish to even come close to my 0.642 mark from last year, so the work is cut out for me.

Buffalo Bills (8-6) @ New England Patriots (11-3) 1:00 CBS

Like I’ve been saying for the past two weeks, this is a huge game for Buffalo. You might say that the future of the franchise hinges on a victory here. The Bills need a playoff berth; it’s been way too long. If Buffalo loses today, the press will talk about Buffalo’s front office failures, and how it kept them out of the playoffs for another season. This would not be a good look. Unfortunately, Tom Brady has always been great at home in December, and I don’t see him crumbling today. Tyrod Taylor will play well, but Buffalo’s defense will falter. Pick: Patriots 34, Bills 24

Miami Dolphins (6-8) @ Kansas City Chiefs (8-6) 1:00 CBS

Miami needs to win this game to have any shot at a playoff spot. With a slight chance of snow, and freezing temperatures, I don’t see a warm weather team winning in KC today. The Chiefs finally got off the schneid with two big wins, and would have to play pretty bad down the stretch to blow their division lead. The Chiefs will not choke today. Kansas City finally figured out that the run first mentality works in their offense, and the Dolphins have struggled against the run all year long. Kareem Hunt should have a great game as the Chiefs continue to roll. Pick: Chiefs 26, Dolphins 13

Denver Broncos (5-9) @ Washington Redskins (6-8) 1:00 CBS

The Redskins are just flat out beat up. Denver has been paying better in recent weeks on defense, and should give a backup Redskins o-line all sorts of trouble. Kirk Cousins has not looked good when facing imminent pressure, and could struggle today. As for the Denver offense, they are going against an inconsistent Redskins defense. The Broncos figured out last week that CJ Anderson is better with more touches, so he should carry the load today. This is not good for a Redskins defense that has struggled against workhorse backs all season long. Look for a low-scoring sloppy game. Pick: Broncos 16, Redskins 10

Los Angeles Chargers (7-7) @ New York Jets (5-9) 1:00 CBS

A couple weeks ago, going on the road against the Jets was considered a trap game. I even thought the Chargers might lose this game, but multiple injuries on New York’s side have changed the outlook. With the Jets beat up, this should be a win for the visitors. The Chargers need to win out to have a shot at the wild card. Philip Rivers and the defense will show up, and Los Angeles will resemble the team we saw two weeks ago more than the one we saw in Kansas City. Pick: Chargers 30, Jets 16

Cleveland Browns (0-14) @ Chicago Bears (4-10) 1:00 CBS

It’s supposed to snow in this game, which makes it quite interesting. Snow makes the parity of football games go way up; good news for the Browns. Cleveland’s last two wins came on Christmas Eve, and they can go three for three with a win today. However, the Bears bounced back nicely from their last loss, and I think we will see improvement from Mitchell Trubisky and the run game today. The Browns just don’t have as much talent as the Bears, or anyone for that matter. Pick: Bears 24, Browns 19

Atlanta Falcons (9-5) @ New Orleans Saints (10-4) 1:00 FOX

Big game in the Big Easy. The Saints are not getting swept by Atlanta. In fact, I think if the Saints had Alvin Kamara in the first matchup between these two, the Saints would have won. With Kamara back, and the Saints at home, New Orleans could win convincingly. I like Drew Brees to have a dominant game today; he’s been somewhat average in previous weeks. It’s about time New Orleans had another offensive explosion. It’s a statement win for Sean Payton’s club. Pick: Saints 38, Falcons 23

Los Angeles Rams (10-4) @ Tennessee Titans (8-6) 1:00 FOX

Watch out if your the Rams here. The Titans have not looked good in recent weeks, but those games have been on the road. Tennessee has been a much different team at home. The Titans will try to get back to their power run offense, and as a result, make this a very physical football game. The Titans know they need a win, and a win here would reestablish themselves as a playoff caliber team. I expect a great effort from Tennessee, but ultimately Todd Gurley is too much. In close games, quarterbacks and coaching usually are the deciding factors. Coaching definitely leans towards the Rams. Pick: Rams 34, Titans 28

Detroit Lions (8-6) @ Cincinnati Bengals (5-9) 1:00 FOX

Here’s another game where snow is a possibility. If you’re a Detroit Lions fan, you should wish your heart out for no precipitation. The Bengals can win this game if it gets sloppy. As for Detroit, they’ve been playing pretty well, and still hold legitimate hopes for a playoff berth. I don’t think Matthew Stafford will slip up today, and I expect a big game from Marvin Jones Jr, who is returning to Cincinnati for his first time since playing for them. Pick: Lions 28, Bengals 14

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10) @ Carolina Panthers (10-4) 1:00 FOX

The Panthers are still pushing for an NFC South title, and although they need help to accomplish this, they can help their cause with a win today. James Winston looked better on Monday night, but I don’t think he will fare as well on the road against a stout passing defense. The Panthers have been rolling with big home wins against the Vikings and Aaron Rodgers-led Packers, so there is no way they lose to Tampa at home today. Pick: Panthers 23, Buccaneers 10

Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4) @ San Francisco 49ers (4-10) 4:05 CBS

I’m not jumping ship from the Niners’ hype train just yet. Jimmy Garoppolo has quickly turned this into a team that can contend with anyone. At home, the 49ers’ fan base will be going nuts. This isn’t an important game for the Niners, in fact a win will hurt their draft stock, but their fanbase would love to see the win streak continue. This win isn’t about talent, it’s about hope. San Francisco has a lot of hope, and you know what, they have underrated talent too. Pick: 49ers 23, Jaguars 21

New York Giants (2-12) @ Arizona Cardinals (6-8) 4:25 FOX

The Giants offense looked much better on Sunday as Eli Manning torched the Eagles secondary for over 400 yards. The Cardinals offense looked horrible. Even with Arizona at home and the Giants’ inconsistent defense, I don’t think the Cardinals will score enough points to win this one. In a high scoring but ugly game, the Giants passing offense will continue to roll as Eli gets New York a win for their dignity. Pick: Giants 31, Cardinals 25

Seattle Seahawks (8-6) @ Dallas Cowboys (8-6) 4:25 FOX

Dallas has much more momentum coming into this game than Seattle does. I’ve learned this year that good teams tend to bounce back from bad losses, and Seattle’s a good team. However, I don’t think they will play well enough to win this one. Dallas isn’t just playing for a playoff spot, they’re playing for pride. Ezekiel Elliot is angry, and he’s already said that he will rush for 200 yards in this game. I don’t know about 200 yards, but I could definitely see 150 yards from Elliot. Dallas rolls on. Pick: Cowboys 33, Seahawks 21

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3) @ Houston Texans (4-10) 4:30 NBC (Monday)

Christmas time with the Watt family! Unfortunately, only one of the Watt brothers will be playing in this game. TJ Watt’s team is in the playoffs, and still has to play for a first round bye. Mike Tomlin coached teams rarely slip up in this situation, and I doubt they will today. Watch out for a big game from Le’Veon Bell in Antonio Brown’s absence. Pick: Steelers 27, Texans 16

Oakland Raiders (6-8) @ Philadelphia Eagles (12-2) 8:30 ESPN (Monday)

This will be an ugly weather game, and as we’ve seen in the past, that will hurt the Raiders. Nick Foles once threw seven touchdowns against the Raiders defense, and I don’t think he will do that here, but he might come close. The Raiders defense has struggled against down field pass plays, and the Eagles will torch them on Monday. Not only that, but the Eagles run game should shine. Outside of coaching, not much leans towards the Raiders here. I expect an Eagles blowout. Pick: Eagles 36, Raiders 16

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Bill Wippert

All Rights Reserved – Nick Merriam – 2017

 

 

Week 16 Power Rankings

This is the first time in years where it feels like the playoff race is going to wind down before week 17. Most matchups that matter for the postseason are going to be games between top seeds, and teams who have already been eliminated. The question becomes, who can play spoiler? Over the last few weeks, the answer is nobody. But, with the lack of current drama, there will be lots of postseason drama. The playoffs are shaping up to be exciting, so let’s see where each team stands heading towards those eleven huge games.

32 – Cleveland Browns (0-14) Last Week: 32

Can the Browns beat the Bears? Mitchell Trubisky was very inaccurate on Saturday , and he could be again this week. The key will be poise from DeShone Kizer, and turnovers forced by the defense. The strategy exists for Cleveland, but can they execute? This game doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but the city of Cleveland has endured enough. The Browns deserve a win.

31 – Houston Texans (4-10) LW: 30

That loss to Jacksonville on Sunday could not have been uglier for Bill O’Brien’s group. The Texans let Blake Bortles, and a group of backup wide receivers torch them for 326 yards through the air. This is not the end to 2017 that Houston had in mind after seeing the talent of Deshaun Watson. It’s funny how an injury in practice can doom a season. The Texans deserve some mercy.

30 – New York Giants (2-12) LW: 31

I don’t know what happened on Sunday, but the Giants offense looked like a completely new unit. Philadelphia was having some trouble with tackling, but the play designs were clearly working from a coaching standpoint. New York may not have to look far for their next head coach. Steve Spagnuolo has the credentials, and he prepared his team well this week.

29 – Indianapolis Colts (3-11) LW: 27

The Colts season never looked promising, and Thursday night was a final blow to the head of Chuck Pagano’s group. Wait, I shouldn’t say final blow, that happened a long time ago. Thursday night was a kicking over of the Colts’ grave. Indianapolis will certainly have an interesting offseason at the quarterback position, but I’m also wondering how they address the defense.

28 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10) LW: 29

On Monday night the Buccaneers actually looked like the team we expected them to be. Unfortunately, when you’ve been losing all season long, you continue to find ways to lose. If the Bucs had been 6-7 or 7-6 entering that game, they would have won. Losing is a disease; it spreads. After a certain amount of losing, you can’t win no matter how hard or well you play.

27 – Cincinnati Bengals (5-9) LW: 26

After learning that Marvin Lewis will resign at the end of the season, Cincinnati had its worst performance of the year in Minnesota. This is unnerving because the Bengals had just turned in their other worst performance last week against the Bears. Actually, last week’s performance may have been worse, but does it really matter? I’d just like to point out that I made a bold prediction back in the week 12 power rankings’ Bengals segment about Marvin Lewis not getting fired at the season’s end. Guess what? Lewis didn’t get fired; he quit. Nick 1, Marvin Lewis Haters 0.

26 – New York Jets (5-9) LW: 25

Not a horrible effort in New Orleans by the Jets despite having Bryce Petty as their starting quarterback. New York, as I’ve said, will view this season as a success. They’ve competed their tails off all season long after facing more doubt than other team in September. New York is going to draft a quarterback in April, and then we will see how this team develops.

25 – Chicago Bears (4-10) LW: 24

Mitchell Trubisky had an ugly game in Detroit. Fear not Bears fans, this is something to expect from a rookie quarterback in his tenth start. Trubisky has been gifted with a development year. Chicago did not expect to win more than 6 games this year, so growth is important. Even with the failures in Detroit on Saturday, Trubisky has shown growth throughout 2017. The Bears have been looking towards 2018 since the beginning of 2017, and they should be ready to play come next September.

24 – Denver Broncos (5-9) LW: 27

Brock Osweiler played well on Thursday night, but it was against a bad Colts secondary. Either way, the Broncos are finishing the season strong. After losing eight straight games, Vance Joseph’s group has won two in a row. The Broncos will have a chance to win out if their defense continues to show up and they stick to the run. CJ Anderson’s success this year has been directly proportional to the number of touches he gets. He had 30 carries for 158 yards in Indianapolis on Thursday night; both are season highs.

23 – Arizona Cardinals (6-8) LW: 19

There we go, the Cardinals finally looked like the team that they are. Blaine Gabbert was just awful on Sunday. Not only could he not convert on six red zone attempts, but he also had a completion percentage south of 40%. The silver lining is that Larry Fitzgerald continues to defy age. Fitzgerald was the best offensive player on the field all day long for both teams on Sunday. However, It wasn’t enough to win against a badly beat up Redskins team.

22 – Miami Dolphins (6-8) LW: 23

Finally we are certain that this horrible football team will not have a winning season. Miami has not been mathematically eliminated yet, but they should be turning their heads towards the offseason as the chances of a playoff berth are slim to none at this point. Miami’s top priority in free agency will be resigning Jarvis Landry. Then, do they sign a quarterback to compete with Tannehill? The QB market is very deep this year, and I would be surprised if they did.

21 – Oakland Raiders (6-8) LW: 20

The Raiders lost season comes to a close, although they are not mathematically eliminated. Derek Carr looks like a quarterback that the Raiders can build around, but thy only thing he has besides an above average offensive line, is Michael Crabtree. Amari Cooper has not shown up, Marshawn Lynch has shown flashes, but is mostly irrelevant, and the defense has only one good player in Khalil Mack. An analyst on NFL.com theorized that Marshawn Lynch has hurt the Raiders locker room, and I love Lynch, but I can’t but wonder if that is the truth.

20 – Tennessee Titans (8-6) LW: 17

Oh no, here we go. Are the Titans going to lose their last four games and miss the playoffs? Marcus Mariota is having his worst season, the run game has disappeared, and their talented offensive line can’t amount much of anything. The issue isn’t that Tennessee doesn’t have good players. The issue is that Mariota is in a compact power-style system. Smashmouth is not the best offense for harnessing Mariota’s talents. What does that mean for the future of this Tennessee coaching staff?

19 –  Washington Redskins (6-8) LW: 22

Winning ugly is still winning. Kirk Cousins didn’t blow minds in a win, but he was efficient going 18/26 for 196 yards and 2 scores. Washington only held the ball for six minutes in the first half, yet they still led at halftime. The best unit on the field Sunday was the Redskins defensive line. They continuously applied pressure and batted passes. Anthony Lanier, an undrafted free agent, is looking better and better each week. I should note that Zach Vigil’s would be interception, which wasn’t reviewed with under two minutes to go, was almost a travesty.

18 – San Francisco 49ers (4-10) LW: 23

Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t just good, he’s clutch. Needing a field goal late against the Titans to win, he it George Kittle over the middle for a big play. Garoppolo is having success with a set of receivers that are below average. It makes me wonder what will happen when he gets Pierre Garçon back next year. As for the rest of 49ers, they are playing well. San Francisco made it to 4 wins like I said they would, but they might win more.

17 – Seattle Seahawks (8-6) LW: 12

The Seahawks are barely clinging to their playoff lives after a blowout loss at home. How often have you seen that in the Pete Carroll era? The Seahawks never get blown out at CenturyLink Field. Todd Gurley absolutely demolished the Seahawks. Seattle let Gurley account for four touchdowns and 180 yards from scrimmage. Those are numbers that a good front seven should not be allowing. This was the type of performance that shows Seattle is not a playoff team this year.

16 – Green Bay Packers (7-7) LW: 13

Well, that ended faster than I had hoped. Green Bay will miss the postseason for the first time since 2008 as Aaron Rodgers is not enough to beat the Panthers in Charlotte. Carolina has given Rodgers trouble in the past, so I’m not concerned about Rodgers in the future. I think the Packers would have come back and won if not for Geronimo Allison’s fumble. Rodgers did throw three interceptions on Sunday, but you could see him playing better as the game went on. The attention now turns to Green Bay’s front office, which has struggled to bring in talent during past off-seasons.

15 – Dallas Cowboys (8-6) LW: 16

The Cowboys stay alive in the playoff hunt thanks to an index card. Surviving until Ezekiel Elliot’s comeback was always the plan, and now Dallas will get to execute it. Dallas will hope for wins against Seattle, and at an Eagles team who might be starting their backups. The Cowboys also need Atlanta to lose at New Orleans, and against Carolina, and the Lions to drop one game. If all these things happen, Dallas is in the playoffs. It isn’t the most likely of scenarios, but it’s certainly possible.

14 – Detroit Lions (8-6) LW: 15

The Lions are still in it. Win out, and they stand a great chance at making the postseason. In a must win situation, Matthew Stafford was great. He looked like a man who was fed up with his team’s year to year inconsistencies. Quietly, the Lions defense has been playing better over the past two weeks as well. Detroit gave rookie Mitchell Trubisky fits all day, and didn’t let Chicago reach the end zone until the ending stages of the game.

13 – Buffalo Bills (8-6) LW: 14

Big win for Buffalo. Tyron Taylor is still holding on as winning out would place the Bills in the playoffs. But can the Bills win at New England? This is unlikely, but they have a chance. LeSean McCoy is playing better as the season goes on, and Taylor is out to prove himself. The Bills are a great story, and it would be a shame if one front office blunder against the Chargers kept them out of the postseason.

12 – Los Angeles Chargers (7-7) LW: 9

I find it weird that the Chargers fell flat in their biggest game of the season. This team had been flying high, but Saturday night’s loss didn’t show that at all. Philip Rivers struggled for the first time in a while, the defense didn’t create big plays, and they gave a struggling team life. The Chargers can still make the AFC wild card, but the AFC West title is looking like a long shot after being swept by Kansas City.

11 – Kansas City Chiefs (8-6) LW: 18

The Chiefs found their swagger again in their biggest game of the year. Saturday night marked the first time since early in the season that Kareem Hunt rushed for over 100 yards. Hunt’s success seems to spur on the Chiefs’ success, and they should keep that in mind going forwards. The run first mentality opens up the downfield passing game with Tyreek Hill. Hill in my opinion is the best deep threat in the NFL, and if the Chiefs get him going it means their offense is clicking. It was good to see the Chiefs secondary step up in a big game.

10 – Atlanta Falcons (9-5) LW: 10

One win will clinch a playoff berth for the Falcons. Two wins will clinch the NFC South. This is a great set up for a team that likes to get hot going into the final weeks of the season. Matt Ryan is looking good, the run game is getting better, and the defense is looking much improved from last year’s unit. As of now, I don’t think this team can win more than one playoff game, but my opinion could change quickly. If Atlanta wins in New Orleans this week, they could be turning their sights towards the Super Bowl.

9 – Baltimore Ravens (8-6) LW: 11

I love the way Baltimore is playing. Another domination of Cleveland last week leaves only two more wins for the Ravens to clinch a postseason berth. Once in, they become Tom Brady’s biggest weakeness. Baltimore is used to playing in Foxborough, and has the pass rush to do what we’ve seen Denver do to the Patriots in January. The Ravens are a scary team that continues to get better in all phases of the game as the season goes on.

8 – Carolina Panthers (10-4) LW: 8

Cam Newton to Greg Olsen is back! Olsen had over 100 receiving yards on Sunday, and as a result should give the Panthers a new dynamic going forward. As for the defense, you can’t say enough about picking off Aaron Rodgers three times. Carolina is really good at home, but how will they fair on the road in the playoffs? In two weeks, Carolina will travel to Atlanta, and we will see how they play there.

7 – New Orleans Saints (10-4) LW: 7

The return of Alvin Kamara clearly sparked this offense. Mark Ingram’s power run abilities are opened up by Kamara’s screen game and ability to stretch a defense. As we saw on Sunday, this led to Ingram’s long game clinching touchdown run on an inside play. The Jets gave the Saints trouble early on, but as we’ve seen by Drew Brees led teams over and over again, the Saints marched on and found a way to look like the clearly better team in the end.

6 – Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3) LW: 1

Sorry Pittsburgh, it’s a dumb rule, but it’s the rule. Jesse James’ non-catch should send the message to the NFL that the catch rule must be changed. If it were up to me, I’d make it so that the play would end when the ball crosses the goal line. Alas, that is not the rule, and Pittsburgh will likely have to win at Foxborough to advance to the Super Bowl. The silver lining for Pittsburgh is that they outplayed New England for much of the contest without Antonio Brown. It should be interesting to see how these teams adjust if they play again in five weeks.

5 – Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4) LW: 4

It’s hard to move Jacksonville down after a blow out win, but the win was against a pretty bad team, and the team that jumped the Jaguars (Minnesota) is clearly playing better. Blake Bortles has saved his best play for the most important few games of his career. Bortles is playing well enough that the Jaguars have moved into most Super Bowl discussions. It’s amazing what he’s done with Keenan Cole, but how about the play from Dede Westbrook? Westbrook is easily one of the most underrated draft picks this year.

4 – Los Angeles Rams (10-4) LW: 6

Holy Toledo! The Rams looked unstoppable on Sunday. After Sean McVay said he didn’t give Todd Gurley enough touches in the Rams loss to Philly, he responded by creating a career game for running back. Gurley’s play should launch him into MVP discussion, not to mention it came against an above average defense. Gurley played so well, that he’s overshadowing the dominant performance by Aaron Donald and the defense. Russell Wilson and company only scored 7 points in their biggest game of the year.

3 – Philadelphia Eagles (12-2) LW: 3

The worry amongst Philadelphia fans no longer is about Nick Foles. Foles played exceptionally well in his first start, tossing four touchdown passes to zero interceptions. The worries that were originally set aside for Foles, has now been reserved for the defense. The Eagles let the 31st ranked offense move the ball for over 500 yards on Sunday. Many thought that the Philly defense would be the least of their worries going forwards, but if this trend continues, it could be a problem.

2 – Minnesota Vikings (11-3) LW: 5

Nice bounce back from Minnesota on Sunday; they absolutely destroyed the Bengals. The defense really made a statement on Sunday, as they looked dominant all game long. If Minnesota can inflict this type of defensive punishment for the rest of the season, then I think it’s safe to say that the first Minnesota Lombardi is coming. Oh, and it was cool to see Teddy Bridgewater get in the game.

1 – New England Patriots (11-3)

Home-field likely will go through Gillette Stadium again this year. This is again just another dominant season by Brady and Belichick. The poise of Brady late in the Steelers game in a hostile environment is why people say he is the greatest quarterback of all-time. New England will be Super Bowl favorites heading into the playoffs again, and they deserve it.

Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel / AP. Dec. 16th, 2017.

All Rights Reserved – Nick Merriam – 2017

Saturday Picks – Week 16

Week 16 starts on a Saturday this week with two games that could have a major impact on playoff seeding. The Ravens are fighting for a wild card berth and cannot afford to drop a game to the Indianapolis Colts. The Vikings have a slight chance at home field advantage, but they must win at Lambeau field to have a chance. Let’s pick the games.

Indianapolis Colts (3-11) @ Baltimore Ravens (8-6) 4:30 NFLN (Saturday)

Baltimore needs this game and as a consequence should cruise to victory. The Colts quietly have been playing worse and worse every week. Last week, Brock Osweiler picked apart the Colts’ secondary. If the Colts can let Osweiler look good, then they can definitely let Joe Flacco look good. I think the Ravens defense will pick up where it left off last week, and pressure Jacoby Brissett all day long. Two turnovers should be enough for the Ravens, who are rolling towards the playoffs. Pick: Ravens 31, Colts 10

Minnesota Vikings (11-3) @ Green Bay Packers (7-7) 8:30 NBC (Saturday)

This could be a surprisingly difficult game for the Vikings, who have struggled at Lambeau Field in past seasons. Brett Hundley is not Aaron Rodgers, but there has been clear growth in Hundley’s game over the past few weeks. The question will be if Minnesota can slow down Green Bay’s rushing attack, which has been strong with Hundley under center. If they do, and Hundley has to throw the football, it will be difficult for the Packers to score. I think Case Keenum does enough to win this game. Pick: Vikings 27, Packers 17

Photo Credit: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images North America. Jan. 2nd, 2016.

All Rights Reserved – Nick Merriam – 2017