http://regressing.deadspin.com/the-word-thug-was-uttered-625-times-on-tv-yesterday-1506098319

richard-sherman-michael-crabtree

Sherman followed up this game winning pass defense with an interview more typical of pro wrestling than pro football.

Clips:
“The word “thug” has been used so many times by the same sort of people about the same sort of thing that it’s no longer even accurate to call it code—it’s really more of a shorthand. It means a black guy who makes white folks a little more uncomfortable than they prefer. On Sunday night, Richard Sherman made a lot of people uncomfortable. Then on Monday, people said thug on TV more often than on any other day in the past three years.

[in nation-wide programming] Richard Sherman is beaten out by John Kerry, who on August 29, 2013, called Bashar al-Assad a “thug.” Sit on that one for a minute.

Others have moved on to “knucklehead,” which, anecdotally at least, seems to have supplanted “thug” as the pundit’s epithet of choice. While it lacks “thug”‘s imputation of menace and violence, “knucklehead” at least carries a certain air of dismissiveness; it also sounds softer.”

—–

Does any of the Sherman chatter change the way you think about the upcoming Super Bowl?

 

The Detroit Lions are busy underlining reasons why they’ve been one of the basement franchises of the NFL for the past generation.  The Lions last won a playoff game in 1991 and have seen the postseason only twice in the last 15 years.

NFL’s Worst Team Records from 1999-2013
Rank Team W L T Win %

1

Detroit*

77

163

0

0.321

2

Cleveland*

77

163

0

0.321

3

Oakland

94

146

0

0.392

4

Arizona

96

144

0

0.4

5

Houston

79

113

0

0.411

6

Buffalo

99

141

0

0.413

7

Washington

104

136

0

0.433

8

Cincinnati

106

133

1

0.444

9

St. Louis

107

132

1

0.448

10

Kansas City

109

131

0

0.454

11

Jacksonville

109

131

0

0.454

[*] The Lions and Browns have been so bad, they could go 16-0 next season and still not catch the next worst team.

Detroit then fired coach Jim Schwartz after five seasons of undisciplined play, ineffective preparation, and squeezing minimal results out of significant talent.  While that may have been the motto for the Lions the past five years, is there any reason to think moving on from Schwartz will turn Detroit into a contender?  In short, no.
As a Vikings fan, I can take some Schadenfreude in seeing the small and subpar net that Detroit has cast in its coaching search.  The Lions reported top choice was former Arizona head coach (and recent San Diego offensive coordinator) Ken Whisenhunt.  Whisenhunt’s claims to fame appear to be coordinating the offense for the defense-dominated 2005 Steelers Super Bowl run, and watching Larry Fitzgerald and Kurt Warner take the Cardinals on their backs to an NFC Championship in 2008.  Fitzgerald averaged about 140 yards and 1.75 TDs per game in those playoffs, and made several jaw-dropping catches, which are pretty hard to credit to the head coach.  Detroit’s hopes of having Whisenhunt channel Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford into 2008’s Fitzgerald and Warner were dashed when Whisenhunt jumped to the Titans earlier this week.  At least Ken’s new team, won’t have to worry about him missing several days of work before a critical playoff game to interview for jobs with other NFL teams.  Most likely because he’ll already have a head coaching job, but also because they’re probably not going to sniff the playoffs anytime soon with their new offensive Whis.

(The Titans have built their team, admittedly poorly, around a ground-and-pound running game, so they followed up an offseason of free agent acquisitions and draft picks focused on the running game by bringing in a offensive “guru” coach whose running game as a head coach ranked 29, 32, 28, 32, 24, and 32.  Wooooooof.  Good luck with that, Titans.)

The Lions have also interviewed Jim “Ice” Caldwell, and two just fired coaches: Gary Kubiak and Mike Munchak.  This Fire(d) and Ice group of also-rans and cast-offs has the second coming of Bill Belichick? Caldwell’s Colts team fell off a cliff when Peyton Manning got hurt, and Stafford is not in Manning’s class as a QB.  Munchak was overmatched by his job in Tennessee, leaving little reason to expect more if he gets another shot.  Kubiak, he who nearly died on the sidelines during a game last season, may be the best choice among this motley crew, having a few years of success in Houston that wasn’t predicated upon having an All-Pro QB.  Kubiak’s offensive success and zone blocking scheme seem more exportable a system than Caldwell’s Let’s Rely on Peyton Manning plan.

Given this crop of candidates, it’s going to be more long, painful seasons coming up for Lions fans. 

In the NFL timid approaches to 4th down can often turn the better team on a given day into the losing team.  NFL coaches leave opportunities and points all over the field on Sundays in the name of conservative play-calling and sops to outmoded strategies based on ‘taking the points’ and overvaluing field position above possession of the ball.  These strategies worked better when football games were slogs and slugfests, and are ill-suited to the dynamic offenses that dominate today’s NFL.  Here’s a look at some of the ways 4th down decision-making played out in the wild card games last weekend.

Chiefs – The poor, poor Chiefs, they should have just had a day of mourning in KC on Sunday after the way the Chiefs-Colts game unfolded on Saturday.  As to 4th down decisions, the Chiefs opted early for a field goal on 4th and goal from the two.  Here’s a good rule of thumb, if the game isn’t on the line, don’t try a FG that’s under 20 yards.  The percentages and expected points are against you.  But, hey, I guess a 19-yarder was in Ryan Succop’s ‘range’ so time to KICK to go up by 3.  It was a bad decision at the time, and later came home to roost.  Chiefs lose by 1 point.  The only 4th down the Chiefs tried to convert in the game was the 4th and 11 that ultimately ended the game when Dwayne Bowe came down with the pass about 3 inches out-of-bounds.

Live Fearless, Indeed, Andy.

Live Fearless, Indeed, Andy.

Colts – On the flip side, down 24-7 with 10 mins to go in 2nd quarter at midfield, behind but not in desperation end-of-game time.  4th and 1. Colts go for it!  They run Andrew Luck on a read-option play where the Chiefs bit hard on the fake to Trent Richardson (why, why, why? Is Richardson going to beat you???).  Luck runs for 20+, and the Colts steal a field goal.  Did I mention the Colts would go on to win by 1?

Bengals – Cincinnati was the most aggressive of all the playoff teams on 4th down during the regular season (chart below), so naturally in the 2nd quarter facing 4th and 1 in SD territory …the Bengals punted. The Bengals punted on a couple of other opportunities too: 1st quarter on 4th and 4 at SD 48 (score: 0-0) and 3rd quarter on 4th and 5 at the 50 (Score: 10-7).  The Bengals converted 1 of 3 desperation 4th down attempts, but their window on the post-season had already closed.

Chargers – Had three opportunities to go for it — FGs on 4th and 3 at CIN 6 (score: 14-10, 2:04 of 3rd quarter) and 4th and goal at CIN 5 (score: 17-10, 14:20 of 4th quarter) and a punt on 4th and 1 at CIN 41 (up: 20-10, 8:16 in the 4th).  Given the game situation, the decisions were at least defensible in terms of getting the lead past critical scores – 7-point and 10-point leads – late in the game or trying to salt away the clock, especially with lead short-yardage RB Ryan Mathews sidelined with an ankle injury.  The punt is clearly the shakiest of the 3 calls, as converting on that play would have run another minute plus off the clock and potentially yielded a game-icing touchdown.  It took the Bengals only 4 plays to get back to the spot where the Chargers punted. Mike McCoy has been the most conservative 4th down coach in football this year, a low risk, low variance approach seems unlikely to serve him well if he tries to employ it against the Broncos

Eagles – Saints.  Eagles have actually been average to below average on 4th down aggressiveness this year, despite Chip Kelly’s reputation.  Looking at teams that went for it on 4th down outside of desperation down (at least 2 minutes remaining in the game and up or down by 14 points or less), the Eagles ranked 18th in the league; controlling for number of opportunities the Eagles ranked 16th, going for it on 10.2% of 4th downs outside of desperation time.  Somehow Kelly has maintained his reputation as a 4th down gambler, despite a year’s worth of evidence that he’s pretty much right in the middle of NFL coaches.  Here’s the regular season ranks of the playoff teams on going for it on 4th down in these situations:

 4th down aggression outside of last 2 minutes, regular season

Team Passes
Runs Punts FGs Going for it
CIN

6

11

66

19

16.67%

GB

8

5

60

32

12.38%

CAR

5

5

59

20

11.24%

NE

7

6

68

36

11.11%

DEN

5

3

52

18

10.26%

PHI

4

6

65

23

10.20%

SEA

2

5

61

27

7.37%

SD

1

5

50

32

6.82%

SF

2

4

60

31

6.19%

IND

2

3

61

33

5.05%

The Eagles did go for it twice on 4th and 1. First at the NO 15 in the 1st quarter. LeSean McCoy converted, but the Eagles had to settle for a long field goal attempt after 2 busted plays and a conservative run call on 3rd and 29 from the NO 34, which left kicker Alex Henery to miss a 48 yarder.  Both 4th down calls seem correct here, even if the Eagles probably left 3 points on the field.
The Eagles also converted on 4th and Goal from the 1 with another McCoy run late in the 3rd quarter. Making it surprising when with 11 minutes to go in the game Kelly ordered the FG unit in on 4th and 1 from the NO 7 with the Eagles down 6 points.  Apparently he was hoping that Henery could get extra credit and the kick would count for 6.

The Eagles have converted 75% of their meaningful 3rd or 4th down attempts with 1 or 2 yards to go this season.  McCoy had converted 21 of 25 such attempts during the regular season, was 4 for 4 on 4th and short in the regular season…and had already done it twice earlier in the game!!  Trailing in the 4th quarter of an NFL playoff game, Kelly played it extremely conservative and, ultimately, lost.  Gah!!

49ers – Packers.  SF was the more conservative side here, as Jim Harbaugh punted twice from inside GB territory in the second half for 17 and 25 yards, and belted FGs from 22 and 25 yards.  GB didn’t have many close or egregious 4th down calls. Their only 4th down attempt all day was a mega-holding enhanced Rodgers to Cobb pass for 26 yards. Both teams went for it once on 4th down, and both had their longest pass plays of the day on that play.  SF’s conservative strategy did win the game, but with some better use of in-game strategy this one would not have had to come down to a last second field goal.  The 49ers can and do ‘trust their defense’ more than most teams, but a strategy based on hoping to win on a last second field goal, is one that risks sending San Francisco back home sooner than they’d like.

Yesterday, I did a breakdown of the NFL playoff offenses, so now it’s time to look at the defenses, special teams, and my picks for the wild card games.

Defensive Line – Rushing:

These rankings are based on FO’s Adjusted Line Yards metric – the defensive side of one of the stats I used for ranking offensive lines earlier.  This will include defensive line play as well as linebacker play in stopping the run.  Denver really stands out among the dirty playoff dozen here, with the second-ranked Panthers closer to the Eagles in seventh place than to the Broncos.  This is also useful for looking at which teams are more likely to be able to come from behind as the opposing offense will have more trouble trying to salt away the clock against stout run defenses.

Defensive Line Team Adj. Line Yds NFL rank

1

Denver

3.22

3

2

Carolina

3.66

9

3

Kansas City

3.68

11

4

Seattle

3.73

13

5

New Orleans

3.75

14

6

Cincinnati

3.82

15

7

Philadelphia

3.9

17

8

San Francisco

4.13

22

9

Green Bay

4.26

26

10

Indianapolis

4.3

28

11

New England

4.37

30

12

San Diego

4.46

32

Pass Rush:

Here we’re using FO’s Adjusted Sack Rate (ASR) looking at how often a defense gets a sack (or a grounding call) on a passing play adjusted for down and distance, etc.  Of interest here is that 7 of the top 10 teams in the NFL on this metric made the playoffs, putting ASR up with things like passing offense as correlated (at least for this season) with making the playoffs. If the seeds hold, it will be fun to watch how the best pass rush in the playoffs in Carolina fares against the worst pass protection in Seattle.

Pass Rush Team Adj. Sack Rate NFL rank

1

Carolina

9.20%

2

2

New Orleans

8.60%

4

3

Green Bay

8.10%

5

4

Kansas City

7.90%

6

5

Seattle

7.60%

7

6

New England

7.50%

8

7

Indianapolis

7.40%

9

8

Cincinnati

7.00%

14

9

San Diego

6.90%

15

10

Philadelphia

6.70%

19

11

Denver

6.50%

21

12

San Francisco

6.00%

29

Tackling, Run Support:

In trying to capture more of linebackers contributions, I combined two stats into one ranking for run support.  Again based off of FO stats, Second Level Yards refers to yards gained from 5-10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and Open Field Yards covers anything over 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.  This helps measure defensive pursuit and tackling ability while trying to remove the influence of the defensive line.

It’s a bit surprising to see Carolina so low here, with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis having such great seasons, but the rest of Carolina’s back 7 defenders have not been as dominant.  The Philadelphia-New Orleans and Green Bay-San Francisco wild card matchups should be two examples of contrasts here, though the Saints scheme is not reliant on trying to break long runs and may mitigate some of Philly’s advantage there.  Green Bay’s weak run support has the potential to be a huge factor in the Arctic conditions at Lambeau on Sunday.

Tackling, Run support Team 2d level yds – rank Open field yds –rank Combined rank

1

Philadelphia

1

1

2

2

Cincinnati

2

3

5

2

San Francisco

3

2

5

4

Denver

4

8

12

4

New England

8

4

12

4

Seattle

6

6

12

7

Indianapolis

9

7

16

7

Kansas City

5

11

16

9

San Diego

12

5

17

10

Carolina

10

9

19

10

New Orleans

7

12

19

12

Green Bay

11

10

21

Total Pass Defense:

Seattle is unsurprisingly the top ranked team in total pass defense per FootballOutsiders’ DVOA metric.  The Cincinnati-San Diego game shapes up as a mix of contrasts with strength vs strength when the Chargers have the ball and weakness vs weakness when Andy Dalton and Co have it. Green Bay joins San Diego near the bottom of another defensive ranking.

Total Pass D Team DVOA NFL rank

1

Seattle

-34.30%

1

2

Carolina

-15.40%

3

3

Cincinnati

-14.50%

4

4

New Orleans

-9.20%

6

5

Kansas City

-6.90%

7

6

San Francisco

-2.10%

10

7

Indianapolis

1.50%

13

8

New England

3.90%

14

9

Denver

10.20%

21

10

Philadelphia

16.60%

25

11

Green Bay

21.30%

28

12

San Diego

23.90%

31

Defense Efficiency:

Defensive efficiency rankings are also based on DVOA ratings, to helps take into account overall performance and capture other factors that may slip through the cracks in the more specific defensive factors already included. Nothing particularly earth shattering here, but I was surprised to see that the Eagles improvement over the second half of the season has still only pulled them up to 23rd in the league.  Also only half of the top 10 most efficient defenses made the playoffs.  Defenses can’t win championships if they don’t get you into the playoffs. Am I right, Cardinals?

Def. Efficiency Team DVOA  NFL rank

1

Seattle

-25.80%

1

2

Carolina

-15.70%

3

3

Cincinnati

-12.70%

5

4

Kansas City

-6.70%

9

5

New Orleans

-5.90%

10

6

San Francisco

-4.60%

13

7

Denver

-0.20%

15

8

Indianapolis

0.80%

16

9

New England

4.10%

21

10

Philadelphia

5.00%

23

11

Green Bay

14.40%

31

12

San Diego

17.50%

32

Combined defense rankings:

Adding up the points based on the rankings of the 12 playoff teams in each of the 5 defensive categories gives us this overall view of the remaining Super Bowl hopefuls, which break down into 4 fairly clear tiers of elite, above average, average, and poor:

Total Defense Points
Seattle

15

Carolina

17

Cincinnati

22

Kansas City

23

New Orleans

26

Denver

32

San Francisco

34

Philadelphia

38

New England

38

Indianapolis

39

Green Bay

46

San Diego

54

Special teams:

Let’s also take a quick look at special teams.

Kicker:

I gave the kickers their own stat, but only gave it half the weight of the other positional rankings.  Looking at this chart will give you a good idea of which team decided to fire its kicker 2 weeks ago.  The New Orleans stats are based on Garrett Hartley, and it’s hard to imagine Shayne Graham will be as bad as the NFL-worst Hartley was.  The Chiefs also have to be crossing their fingers that Ryan Succop won’t have to make any critical kicks for them.

Kicker

Team FG rating NFL rank

1

New England

11.5

1

1

Denver

10.8

3

2

San Francisco

5.9

6

2

Seattle

4.4

8

2

Green Bay

4

10

3

San Diego

3.4

11

3

Indianapolis

2.9

12

3

Carolina

2.5

13

4

Cincinnati

-1.4

21

4

Philadelphia

-2.8

24

5

Kansas City

-5.5

26

6

New Orleans

-13.8

32

Rest of Special Teams:

After breaking out the kickers, I combined FO’s special teams rankings for kickoffs, punts, and returns into one category.  The Broncos biggest vulnerability – as played out in their now inconsequential loss to New England earlier this season – is revealed.  The Chiefs excellent return game propels them to the top here, for the Pats is Gostkowski’s kickoffs, and for Seattle it’s their incredible punts and punt coverage.  Expect KC to win the field position battle with Indy.

R/Special Teams Team ST rating NFL rank

1

Kansas City

44.7

1

2

New England

22.1

3

3

Seattle

19.5

6

4

San Francisco

12.6

7

5

Cincinnati

7.8

11

6

Carolina

2.6

14

7

New Orleans

1.3

16

8

San Diego

0.7

17

9

Indianapolis

-3.3

22

10

Green Bay

-6.1

23

11

Philadelphia

-11.3

24

12

Denver

-16.4

28

Overall playoff breakdown:

In looking at 5 categories each for offense and defense and 2 (well 1.5) for special teams, here are my overall playoff rankings:

Overall rank Points
Denver

52

Seattle

56

New Orleans

58

New England

68

Carolina

69

Kansas City

73

San Diego

77

Cincinnati

77

Philadelphia

80

San Francisco

82

Green Bay

93

Indianapolis

100

The most noteworthy thing to me is how high New Orleans ranks out.  Yes, they are facing a path of three road games to get to the Super Bowl.  Yes, they have played much better at home. Yes, they already lost by 27 points in Seattle, where they would go if they get past the Eagles.  But, the Saints grade out as a serious title contender.   The 49ers, Packers, and Colts, meanwhile, are the biggest longshots.

For the wild card matchups, all of the road teams grade out as high or higher than the home team/division winners.  I’m going with the road teams across the board:

 My picks:

Games My rank difference Point spread My pick
No v PHI 22 for No PHI -1.5 Saints
Sd v CIN Even CIN -6.5 Chargers
Sf v GB 11 for Sf Sf -3 Niners
Kc v IND 27 for Kc IND -1.5 Chiefs

And then there were 12.  Twenty NFL teams have taken the express route to the offseason, allowing for some extra measuring, parsing, and spitballing about the remaining dozen teams.  After all, one of them is going to wind up winning it all and will see its quarterback get henceforth labeled as a ‘winner’ and ‘clutch’ regardless of what actually happens during the games.

First, I’m going to walk through a position-by-position breakdown of the playoff teams and then at the individual matchups this weekend.  I modified a take on the simple system of ranking each team in the playoffs at key positions from 1-12, then totaling up the scores with a golf-style of lowest score winning.  I leaned on key FootballOutsiders statistics to construct these rankings.

Quarterbacks:

This is based on only statistics from this NFL season, so Tom Brady’s historic playoff success or Aaron Rodgers’ unclutchness don’t really factor in.  This list is ranked based on FootballOutsiders (FO) statistics for Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) for both passing and running.  Most noteworthy to me here is how high San Diego’s Philip Rivers ranks.  If the Chargers defense wasn’t abysmal, they’d really have a shot at making some noise in the playoffs.  For Green Bay, this only includes Aaron Rodgers stats (same for Philly and Nick Foles), pro-rating Rodgers stats would potentially move him up two positions, but it opens up a can of worms with how to take into account other players who missed time.  I’m sticking to actual on-field performance.

QB

Team

DYAR

1

Denver 2490

2

San Diego 1754

3

New Orleans 1743

4

Philadelphia 1072

5

New England 976

6

Seattle 912

7

San Francisco 885

8

Indianapolis 800

9

Green Bay 765

10

Cincinnati 603

11

Carolina 533

12

Kansas City 330

Running backs:

These ranks are based on the combined rushing and receiving DYAR for the top two RBs for each team.  I was shocked to see San Diego come out on top here.  Woodhead and Mathews form the most potent backfield in the NFL. Soak that in. Then go ahead and soak in the terribleness that is Trent Richardson’s -75 DYAR for Indy.  Richardson is in select company as Ray Rice, C.J. Spiller, and Ben Tate are the only other running backs who had seasons in the neighborhood of -100 DYAR.

The low numbers for the run-first 49ers backfield are also worth noting.

RB

Team

RB1 – DYAR

RB2 – DYAR

Total DYAR

1

San Diego

386

202

588

2

Philadelphia

478

35

513

3

Denver

363

80

443

4

Carolina

184

159

343

5

Kansas City

381

-39

342

6

New Orleans

196

134

330

7

Green Bay

184

146

330

8

New England

158

126

284

9

Seattle

239

-31

208

10

Cincinnati

192

-28

164

11

San Francisco

86

41

127

12

Indianapolis

161

-75

86

Receivers (WR and TE):

For receiver rankings I again used DYAR, including the top 3 WRs and top TE on each team.  Players out for the season are not included for obvious reasons, and I just put a blank for the Niners 3rd receiver because they rarely use 3 WR sets meaning their play has been sparse and largely insignificant.  Jason Avant of the Eagles, on the other hand, has been appreciably poor in his opportunities this year, posting a Trent Richardson-like -68 DYAR while getting on the field for more than 70 percent of the Eagles offensive snaps.

The Bengals have the worst TE’s by far here, despite spending two first-round draft picks on TEs in the past 4 years. Sadly Tyler Eifert outperformed Jermaine Gresham at -34 DYAR to -49.  Woof.  And the Colts once again rank overall worst at receiver among playoff teams.

WR + TE Team WR1 – DYAR WR2 – DYAR WR3 – DYAR TE- DYAR Total – DYAR
1 Denver 428 379 206 215 1228
2 New Orleans 274 208 150 233 865
3 San Diego 342 237 48 114 741
4 Green Bay 401 146 120 -25 642
5 Seattle 273 200 115 48 636
6 San Francisco 385 42 0 198 625
7 Philadelphia 350 218 -68 89 589
8 Cincinnati 279 208 31 -34 484
9 New England 203 162 46 4 415
10 Carolina 74 65 38 85 262
11 Kansas City 73 70 -23 21 141
12 Indianapolis 152 31 -38 -23 122

Offensive Line:

For O-line rankings, I equally weighed run blocking, as measured by FO’s Average Line Yards blocked per run, and pass blocking, as measured by FO’s Adjusted Sack Rate, and then averaged the rankings.  Remember back when San Francisco was supposed to have the best line in the league. The Eagles have notably poor blocking but excellent rushing and passing numbers, this tells me the Chip Kelly offense still has quite a bit of room to improve in future seasons.

Off. Line Team

Run block

Pass protection

Overall line rank

1

Denver

6

1

3.5

1

New England

1

6

3.5

3

New Orleans

5

3

4

3

San Diego

3

5

4

5

Kansas City

2

7

4.5

6

Cincinnati

8

2

5

7

Green Bay

4

10

7

7

Indianapolis

10

4

7

9

Carolina

9

9

9

10

Seattle

7

12

9.5

11

San Francisco

12

8

10

12

Philadelphia

11

11

11

Offense Efficiency:

Offense efficiency rankings are based on FO’s Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average efficiency rankings.  This helps take into account overall performance in addition to the more individual position ratings. No big surprises here, other than maybe the Bengals ranking lower than both the Colts and Chiefs.

Offensive Efficiency Team Offense DVOA

1

Denver

33.7%

2

Philadelphia

22.9%

3

San Diego

22.5%

4

New England

16.4%

5

New Orleans

15.9%

6

Seattle

9.4%

7

San Francisco

9.1%

8

Green Bay

8.6%

9

Carolina

8.1%

10

Indianapolis

4.2%

11

Kansas City

2.8%

12

Cincinnati

0.5%

Overall Offense:

That’s all for the offensive side of things, so here’s how all the offensive categories stack up.  Adding up the rankings from each of the five previous offensive categories (QB, RB, WR/TE, O Line, Efficiency) gives us this for the playoff offenses:

Total Offense  Points
Denver 7
San Diego 12
New Orleans 19
New England 27
Philadelphia 27
Green Bay 35
Seattle 36
San Francisco 42
Carolina 43
Kansas City 44
Cincinnati 46
Indianapolis 49

 

Almost pulled off my first 5-0 of the season last week, just missing by one point in the Carolina-Jets game. But a 4-1 record was nothing to sneeze at.  Now, if only the season were several weeks longer, as I’m hitting my stride now.

Week 16 we have teams starting to position themselves for the playoffs and a number of teams already eliminated from playoff contention left to vie for pride and draft pick positioning. On to this week’s top 5 picks.

- New England +2.5 BALTIMORE. Who’s better at gutting out crappy wins late in the season than these two?  Can we throw the late 2000s Giants in this one too, and then nobody will have to watch what will undoubtedly be an excruciating game decided by questionable refereeing and field goals.  Take the points, Brady, and Belichick in a close game.

- Pittsburgh    +7 GREEN BAY — I assume everybody in the LVH Supercontest will be on this line too.  They set it on Wednesday clearly expecting Aaron Rodgers to play.  Actual line for the game is down to GB -2.5 now that Rodgers is out.  The Rodgers injury appears to mirror the timetable for Tony Romo’s broken collarbone in 2010 that kept him out of the lineup for 9 weeks before the Cowboys finally gave up the prospect of him coming back and put him on the injured reserve list.

- Dallas  -3 WASHINGTON.  Only 2 more weeks left to bet against His Royal Highness and his Crown Prince in DC! Washington ran an almost completely different offense last week with Kurt Cousins, including a 2:1 ratio of passes to runs. The Shanahans really want to pump up Cousins’ numbers over these final weeks. The Cowboys have to be excited to face one of the few teams in football that is legitimately worse than them on both sides of the football and even possibly on the sidelines. If Washington loses to Dallas at FedEx Field and nobody shows up to see it, does it make a sound?

The Shanahan-inspired fanbase.

The Shanahan-inspired fanbase.

- According to my numbers, I’ve got San Diego with the most value of the remaining games (a 16-point advantage versus a 10-point spread) but i think my number system gets a little skewed in blowouts.  The Chargers haven’t show a huge go-for-the-jugular initiative this season, and I’m hesitant that they will be willing or able to run up the score, especially in a division rivalry game.  Next up is KC, and they give me similar concerns against an Indy team that looked much better last week.   So, here come the Arizona Cardinals. Carson Palmer‘s been playing out of his mind ever since the last Seahawks game, where these would rank among QBs for the whole season in parentheses — averaging 280 yds/game (6th), completing 69% (2nd), QBR of 74.7 (3rd) and qb rating of 106 (6th), with a TD/INT ratio of 3.25:1 (7th).  Ok, I talked myself into the Cards…in Seattle…in a matchup of the league’s top two defenses.  Arizona +10.5 SEATTLE.

Gotta love Okung's sweater, but this pic makes me feel better about the Cards chances.

Gotta love Okung’s sweater, but this pic makes me feel better about the Cards chances.

- CAROLINA -3 New Orleans. I’m already going against Seattle at home; why not go against Brees in the South. The Saints have to be better than they looked last week, but yeesh did they look bad.  As long as Mark Ingram is getting snaps and carries any Sean Payton is a genius talk is pure folly.  This game is the opportunity that Carolina’s been playing all season to have.  Their defense and special teams are better, which I expect to make the difference in what shapes up as a great matchup on Sunday.

Last week: 4-1.

Overall: 38-35-2.

Time to finish the season strong with a string of winning weeks.  Here are my top 5 picks for week 15:

Kansas City -4.5 OAKLAND – The gild, such as it was, is clearly off of the lily for the Raiders.  They are becoming who we thought they were as one of the worst teams in the league that will struggle on both sides of the ball.  Chiefs should be motivated by the Broncos’ loss on Thursday that cracked open the door for KC to sneak in to a first-round playoff bye.  Chiefs by 7+.

Chicago +1 CLEVELAND – The Bears are my kryptonite this year, or maybe the flame to my moth. I need to make some sort of rule not to pick them, but almost every week they have the best figures relative to the spread per the advanced metrics calculations I do.  It doesn’t help any that the Bears haven’t been doing well against the spread this year, where they are 3-9-1.  Tim Jennings is still a top tier corner for the Bears and if he can contain Josh Gordon the way he handled Dez Bryant last week (2 catches, 12 yards), the Bears should be in great shape for a win on the road.

CAROLINA -11 NY Jets – It’s amazing that this is such a high spread, and that I’m laying the favorite.  The Jets defense continues to be decent, and the Jets are coming off a win while the Panthers are looking to rebound from losing badly to the Saints last week.  Nonetheless, I had the Panthers estimated at 17-point favorites.  They match up very well against a Jets team that cannot score in bunches.  Cam Newton’s running ability will play a significant x-factor here to help sustain drives, while the Panthers defense could hold the Jets to single-digits. A 30-10 final score would not be unreasonable here.

INDIANAPOLIS -5.5 Houston – This is much more anti-Houston than pro-Indy, and a vote of confidence in Wade Phillips’ terribleness as a head coach.  The Colts have somehow already clinched a playoff spot and are on a 2-year run of ridiculous good luck.  Houston’s knack for turning several good plays into one fantastically bad one has turned into an art form during their current 11-game losing streak. The Case Keenum experiment has been a disaster. Over the past 4 games, Keenum’s averaged: 53% completions, 6.5 yards per attempt, a 65 quarterback rating, and a 33 QBR…all of which would rank 32nd or below in the league for the season.  Woof!

Arizona -3 TENNESSEE  - The Cards have quietly been playing playoff-caliber football.  They’ve won 5 of 6 and are definitely the better team in this one.  I like Fitzpatrick to fall behind early and get burned by trying to force throws in a doomed comeback attempt.

Last week: 3-2.
Overall: 34-34-2.

Plenty of NFL teams have watched this season go worse than expected, but none have handled it with the comedic timing and all-around dysfunction of Washington.

Coach Mike Shanahan authored the latest and most curious chapter in this saga in announcing that he was shutting down Robert Griffin III for the rest of the season.  Following on the heels of a leaked story last week that Shanahan nearly parted ways with the team on the eve of the team’s playoff game last season, the prevailing narrative to emerge is that Shanahan wants owner Daniel Snyder to fire him and let Shanahan collect $7 million for not coaching next year.  Snyder is by no means a sympathetic figure, but while Snyder is often misguided, he’s continually trying to do what’s best for his franchise.  Shanahan meanwhile only tries to do what’s best for Mike Shanahan.

Shanahan’s ego seems to trump all else and is running the show here. It’s been a steady stream of ego-first stories since he graced the DC area with his “Ultimate Leadership” (Check out Gregg Easterbrook’s excellent skewering of Shanahan from his Denver days.) Shanahan can turn any QB into a star, in his mind, as long as the QB follows him unquestioningly.  Questioning gets you a spot on the bench or another team; ask Bubby Brister, or Jake Plummer from Denver or Jason Campbell, Donovan McNabb, and now Robert Griffin from Washington.  The Great and Powerful Shanahan is above questioning by mere quarterbacks.

Benching Griffin is about ego not football.  Mike Shanahan’s ego called on Griffin to play hurt last season with the ultimate result being a torn ACL.  For some reason, Shanahan’s ego is now concerned that treating Griffin as though he was the most instrumental player to the team, mortgaging the team’s future drafts to acquire him, and showing him that he was going to play regardless of injury status has made Griffin too comfortable in his position and not fearful enough of Shanahan’s unprecedented power and genius combination.  Sounds a lot like reaping what you’ve sown.

Griffin’s benching followed Washington getting embarrassed by Kansas City 45-10.  Publicly claiming, as Shanahan did, that this decision was for Griffin’s health, is a farce as they let Griffin go out in ice and snow against KC and left him in for another quarter after Washington had fallen behind by 30. His claim would have had a smidge of potential validity if he’d done it a week earlier, once Washington got eliminated from playoff contention.

It’s certainly a convenient way to pass the buck from himself…and his son, who happens to be the offensive coordinator…onto the players.  A central tenet of NFL coaches in distress is to blame players for losses.  You’ll never hear a losing coach in a post-game press conference say that “we had a bad scheme for the game. Our gameplan was wholly inaccurate and inadequate” or something similar.  You’ll hear lots of quips about how “we need to execute better” or “we need to avoid turnovers” or other ways of shifting the blame onto the players and away from coaches.

The only winner here is the St Louis Rams who see their draft position improve with each downward spiral by Washington, as the Rams hold Washington’s first-round pick in the next NFL draft thanks to the trade for Griffin.

There can be no good ending here, and I can’t wait to see what Shanahan will do next in his attempt to get fired. He’s already set the franchise back years with his mismanaging of the QB position.  Remember, he traded a 2nd a 4th round pick for McNabb, before dealing 3 1st rounders and a 2nd round pick for RG3.  Washington’s roster is hollow and now Shanahan wants out.

A couple of tough finishes last week to highlight how tricky trying to outsmart the spread can be.  On to week 14′s top picks:

-NE -11.5 Cle.  I calculated the Pats as though they should be 17-point favorites here. The difference between 11.5 and 17 is smaller in game terms than the difference between say +3 and -3 despite them both being 6 points.  The Browns could sneak in a late cover or happen to catch the Pats sleeping, but I just don’t see that happening in NE.  The biggest risk here is that the Brandon Weeden stink appears to be dissipating into the more palatable Jason Campbell malaise.  I got burned thinking last week was going to be an Eff You game for NE. It wasn’t and yet was somehow probably more demoralizing for the Texans and the now-fired Gary Kubiak than if it had been.  This edition of the Pats may not have as much Eff You potential, but if they get their LB rotation down to at least limit the run, who’s going to want to play them in the playoffs? They are in the top tier of those teams (Sea, Den, NE) with the two NFC South teams and SF as the only others that could even give some pause to opposing teams.

-Speaking of 2 of these teams elite teams…Sea +3 SF.  However this game turns out, there’s just no way that SF should be favored.  I’m as far from a Seahawks bandwagoneer as they come. I find them insufferable, especially the gaggle of showboating marginal wideouts, but I do have eyes.  (As if on queue: http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2013/12/05/doug-baldwin-seahawks-have-best-receiving-corps-in-the-nfl/) My concern is that Seattle has a tendency to go M.I.A. for a few quarters at a time here and there.  When they are on, they are great, but the Houston, St Louis, and Tampa games were all ones they deserved to lose.  A curious way of supporting a Seattle pick, but there you have it.  Wilson and Lynch are better than Kaepernick and Gore. If SF gets anything done here, it’ll be Vernon Davis chewing up the weakest spot of the Seattle D – cover LBs.

-NYJ -2.5 Oak.  The Jets solid defense and special teams should be enough for a win over the cross-country traveling Raiders. Both teams have offenses that only a mother could love. If you like watching football, I recommend steering clear of this one as this looks like it’ll feature turnovers and penalties, two areas where both of these woofers are below average.  The Jets have been particularly awful of late. Last week they managed the rare feat of playing each of their two QBs for a half, and both got QBR ratings of under 5 on a scale of 1-100.  To win here, the Jets formula should be simple, ball control, field position, and conservative tactics that play into the hands of their superior defense.  The Jets need to bring back 1950s era tactics, rather than pretend they have a modern passing offense.  Oakland also does not travel well, the Jets have been decent at home, and QB Matt McGloin hasn’t faced a defense as good as New York’s. The Raiders are 1-5 this season away from Oakland, and have been outscored by 43 pts points on the road.  In an average road game, the Raiders lose by 7. That’s about where I see this one heading too.

-Kc -3.5 WAS. Watching RG3 and the Washington offense play during their current 4 game skid, has at least had the positive effect of making their terrible tackling stand out less as the team’s biggest weakness.  The Shanahans milked some distraction last week from the officiating blunders late in their game against the Giants, but Washington was the worse team in that game.  The Chiefs are on a 3 game losing streak of their own, but have slowly improved their offense.  Good offenses in Denver and San Diego have been able to break down the Chiefs aggressive defensive scheme, too bad that Washington has little to no chance to adjust their scheme to take similar advantage.  Washington employs the same game plan week after week, valuing consistency over success. Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster should be able to gain big yards in the open field here.

 Washington losing streak – run/pass breakdown
Team Run Pass
Minnesota

36

37

Philadelphia

38

35

San Francisco

26

26

NY Giants

31

32

-Buf +2.5 TB. My Bills, my poor adopted Bills, got hosed in Toronto last weekend. They had the game in the bag several times, but between several terrible calls by the refs, dropped passes, and critical fumbles, they literally let the game slip through their fingers.  The Bucs turned back into the Bucs last week getting clobbered by the Panthers. CJ Spiller had a great game for the Bills last week too, giving them back a major weapon. The Bills are easily good enough to win this one and are getting a few points. Take ‘em.

Last week: 1-4.
Overall: 31-32-2.