Chiefs vs. Colts, 4:35PM ET
The Colts hammered the Chiefs 23-7 in Indianapolis in Week 16 but expect a different outcome today. Kansas City wasn’t prepared for the hurry up that Pep Hamilton threw at Bob Sutton’s defense but with more time to prepare, the Chiefs should adjust. Injuries could impact this game from Kansas City’s side of things, as Tamba Hali is questionable and Eric Fisher has been ruled out for the contest. But Fisher the Chiefs expect Hali to play and Fisher wasn’t performing well before suffering the injury so his loss shouldn’t play a significant role in today’s outcome. The Colts aren’t a very good first half team but they’ve done well playing from behind with Andrew Luck under center. Unfortunately that plays into Kansas City’s hands. Look for the Chiefs to build a lead and then protect it with a combination of Jamaal Charles and their pass rush. FREE PICK: Chiefs -2.5
Saints vs. Eagles, 8:10PM ET
The Eagles have only beaten one playoff team this year and that came in Week 10 against an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers squad. But you’re naïve if you believe that Philly’s success this year is somehow marginalized by its schedule. Look at the NFL this year – half the league is garbage, which contributed to the Eagles’ “soft schedule.” Regardless, the Saints are a completely different team on the road than it is playing on the fast track of the Superdome. Drew Brees can talk about the Saints’ road record since 2009 all he wants but the fact remains that he’s a less accurate quarterback, Sean Payton is a more conservative play-caller and Rob Ryan’s defense isn’t as potent. Look for the red-hot Eagles to advance to the next round with a victory. FREE PICK: Eagles -3
Chargers vs. Bengals, 1:05PM ET
The side is difficult to handicap for this matchup because nobody knows which Andy Dalton will show up. He’s as likely to throw for four touchdowns and 350 yards as he is to turn the ball over four times and keep his opponent in the game nearly single-handedly. Thus, the true value of this matchup may be in the total. The over is 4-0-1 in the last five meetings between these two teams in Cincinnati and 7-2-2 in the last 11 meetings overall. The over is also 4-0 in the Bengals’ last four games overall, 5-0 in their last five home games and 4-1 in their last five games versus AFC opponents. FREE PICK: OVER 45.5
49ers vs. Packers, 4:40PM ET
Everything about this matchup screams 49ers, at least on paper. They have the significantly better defense, they’re built to win on the road thanks to their running game, and they’ve owned the Packers in the recent past. But this Green Bay team is eirly similar to the one that won the Super Bowl in 2010. That year, the Packers suffered key injuries throughout the season and barely made the postseason before riding a red-hot Aaron Rodgers to the title game versus Pittsburgh. Rodgers looked rusty last week versus the Bears but his second-half magic makes it hard to bet against him at home tomorrow night. If this game turns into a shootout, I like Rodgers over Colin Kaepernick, who has gotten a free pass for his inconsistent play this season after leading the Niners to the Super Bowl last season and playing with Michael Crabtree for most of this season. FREE PICK: PACKERS +3
Andy Dalton is a pretty good quarterback. The question is whether he can ever be any better than that and actually lead the Cincinnati Bengals to a playoff win, let alone the Super Bowl. With his lame performance against the Cleveland Browns this past Sunday, questions are starting to emerge around the league and in Cincinnati as to Dalton’s ceiling as a quarterback.
Dalton has a decent arm, but not a great arm. Under pressure his accuracy seems to falter as well. The Bengals were looked at as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, but Dalton always made me skeptical about that prediction, and now his recent performances are causing more people to be skeptical as well.
Mississippi vs. Alabama, 6:30PM ET
Alabama doesn’t look as dominant as it has in year’s past, and bettors have taken notice. The spread in this game has been bet down from one key number of 17, to another key number in 14. The Rebels have fared well against the Tide, covering in all four of their last four meetings with ‘Bama in Tuscaloosa. They’re also 6-2 against the spread in their last eight meetings overall with the Tide, while the road team is 5-0 against the number in the last five meetings between these two teams. Ole Miss has a balanced offensive attack thanks to quarterbacks Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti, who is a running threat. The Rebels enter tonight’s game with plenty of confidence and should stay within two touchdowns of a Tide team that didn’t look sharp defensively two weeks ago versus A&M. FREE PICK: OLE MISS +14
Wisconsin vs. Ohio State, 8:00PM ET
The Buckeyes have been flat-out dominant in their first three games and own the fourth-highest scoring offense in the country (52.5 points). But Braxton Miller is set to return tonight following a sprained left MCL injury suffered a few weeks ago. Rust might be a factor in the early going, which could give Wisconsin confidence for the rest of the game. The underdog is 10-3 against the spread in the last 13 meetings between these two teams and the Badgers are 4-0 against the number in their last four games overall. They’re also 7-3 against the spread in their last 10 conference games and have rushed for 387 yards or more in three of their four games. Look for Wisconsin to give Ohio State its first challenge of the season. FREE PICK: WISCONSIN +6.5
Bengals vs. Browns, 1:00PM ET
The Bengals are coming off two emotional victories against Pittsburgh and Green Bay, and now has to travel to Cleveland and play a team in the Browns that they’re expected to beat. There’s always value in the home underdog, especially one in Cleveland that shocked bettors a week ago by beating Minnesota outright as a 6.5-point dog. The line in this game has been bet down from 5 to 3.5 despite the public siding with Cincinnati. The underdog is 10-1-1 against the spread in the last 12 meetings between these two teams and the Bengals are just 2-5-1 against the number in their last eight games versus the Browns. Look for a confident Cleveland team behind Brian Hoyer to keep this game within a field goal. FREE PICK: BROWNS +3.5
Seahawks vs. Texans, 1:00PM ET
The Seahawks look every bit a Super Bowl contender in the early going. They suffered no letdown last Sunday when they thumped a brutal Jacksonville team a week after crushing division rival San Francisco on Sunday Night Football. But the Seahawks have never been a team that travels well and the Texans are licking their wounds after being embarrassed in Baltimore last week. Houston knows it can’t afford to fall behind in the AFC South, especially with Indianapolis playing Jacksonville this week. Look for the underdog Texans to win outright as a small home dog. FREE PICK: TEXANS +1
+ After building two Super Bowl teams in the past 13 years, it’s hard to fathom why people continue to doubt Ozzie Newsome. Once Ed Reed signed with the Texans last week and joined the likes of Dannell Ellerbe, Ray Lewis, Bernard Pollard and Paul Kruger as players that will no longer don purple and black, people started to question Newsome’s decision making. But he reminded everyone that he’s one of the best GMs in the NFL when he inked Elvis Dumervil to a five-year, $35 million contract over the weekend. Dumervil’s cap hit this year will only be $2.5 million, which is why Baltimore was able to fit him under the cap. Granted, his contract will still add up to $35 million over the next five years but for the time being, Newsome displayed shrewd maneuvering by landing the top free agent on the market in the same offseason that he gave franchise quarterback Joe Flacco a massive new deal. Dumervil will return to outside linebacker in Baltimore’s 3-4 defense after leading the NFL in sacks from that same position in 2009. The Ravens, folks, are going to be just fine.
+ Ted Thompson once drafted Justin Harrell in the first round. Ozzie Newsome invested top selections in Kyle Boller and Mark Clayton. Jerry Reese whiffed on Aaron Ross. The best GMs in the NFL all miss – it’s part of the gig. But Buddy Nix’s lack of foresight in the past two drafts could ultimately cost him his job. Since Nix drafted him with the 34th overall pick in the 2011 draft, Aaron Williams has struggled mightily in coverage and is entering a make-or-break season. For those that need a refresher, Williams was selected ahead of both Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick. It’s hard to blame Nix for passing on Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder in the first round that year, but Kaepernick could have been a perfect fit in former head coach Chan Gailey’s system. Nix also selected former NC State receiver T.J. Graham ahead of Russell Wilson in the third round last April, and we all know how that turned out for the Seahawks. Again, it’s not completely fair to criticize Nix for passing on Dalton, Kaepernick or even Wilson, because a lot of GMs of quarterback-needy teams missed on those players, too. But when you miss on those guys because you handed Ryan Fitzpatrick a six-year, $59 million contract and now you have to play Russian roulette with Geno Smith, Matt Barkley or Ryan Nassib, you leave yourself open for condemnation. It’s not all Gailey’s fault for the current mess that resides in Buffalo.
+ Whether they wait until Nnamdi Asomugha and/or Charles Woodson’s market value drops even lower or attempt to out-draft Craig Dahl (that shouldn’t be difficult), it’s hard to imagine that 49ers GM Trent Baalke is done upgrading his secondary. But I also don’t think San Francisco is overly concerned about its defensive backfield. When Justin Smith tore his triceps against the Patriots last December, the 49ers were victimized for 443 yards through the air and their secondary was never the same after that point (neither was Aldon Smith for that matter). It’s not the back end that makes San Francisco’s defense so dangerous, but its front seven. That’s why its understandable that Baalke didn’t want to invest $40-plus million to retain safety Dashon Goldson, who signed with the Bucs two weeks ago. Baalke has a knack for finding bargains in free agency (see Carlos Rogers in 2011), so look for the Niners to sign a stopgap like Asomugha and then invest heavily in their defensive line in next month’s draft.
+ The Bengals have been reluctant to hand out big money deals in the past but they would be wise to lock up franchise player Michael Johnson now. Based on the deals that Elvis Dumervil (five years, $35 million) and Cliff Avril (two years, $13 million) just signed, Cincinnati is overpaying Johnson this year at his $11.2 franchise number. That’s not to suggest that the 26-year-old pass rusher isn’t worth the investment because he is. But if the Bengals view him as a core piece of their defense, then it behooves them to work off of the contracts that Dumervil and Avril just signed. Otherwise, they risk having Johnson’s price tag go up when Jared Allen, Justin Smith, Justin Tuck, Michael Bennett, Matt Shaughnessy and Brian Robison hit the market, too. This the shrewd decision that has often eluded Mike Brown and his front office in years past.
+ As much as it pains Chicago fans to admit, it’s time for the Bears and Brian Urlacher to move on. If anyone wants to question what Urlacher meant to the Bears’ defense over the past decade, all you have to do is go back to 2009 when he missed 15 games due to a dislocated wrist. Nick Roach was forced into the starting lineup and the entire unit suffered because opponents had success attacking the middle of the field. But under new head coach Marc Trestman and second-year GM Phil Emery, the Bears are undergoing a facelift and part of that process is saying goodbye to aging vets. Urlacher’s play last year dipped dramatically and Trestman may not want to stick with the Tampa 2 scheme that Lovie Smith installed when he took over in 2004. Simply put, why invest money in a player that is no longer the focal point of the franchise? (Sentiment isn’t a good reason.) For better or for worse, Emery is building a team around Jay Cutler, which is one of the reasons why he hired Testman and invested over $7 million a year in blindside protector Jermon Bushrod. It’s understandable that Urlacher still believes he can contribute and it’s disappointing that he feels as though Chicago disrespected him with a $2 million-per-year offer. But Emery has to do what’s best for the Chicago Bears – not for Brian Urlacher. This is a painful, yet logical time for both parties to part ways.
1. Mike Shanahan cost both his quarterback and his team on Sunday.
That was a shameful display of coaching on Sunday by Mike Shanahan. First and foremost, who cleared Robert Griffin III to play? Dr. James Andrews said he never even examined him, so if it was Shanahan that cleared him then the league needs to investigate why a head coach is playing doctor. Secondly, RGIII was clearly in pain after he tweaked his knee near the end zone of the Redskins’ second scoring drive. It was painful to watch him fall to the ground after being untouched and then quickly glance to the sidelines looking for somebody (his head coach maybe?) to waive the white flag for him. But he’s tough and he should be commended for staying in the game. Still, it shouldn’t have taken his knee bending sideways and him lying on the ground withering in pain during the fourth quarter for Shanahan to finally pull him. He couldn’t run and he couldn’t put weight on his back leg, which caused him to throw inaccurately on nearly every attempt. By keeping him in the game, Shanahan continued to put RGIII at risk for serious injury. Forget being a human being at that point – why didn’t Mike Shanahan, the head coach, recognize that his injured quarterback was costing him an opportunity to win? Even if RGIII had begged to stay in the game Shanahan should have pulled the kid at halftime and allowed a healthy Kirk Cousins to have a crack at Seattle’s defense. There was a lot of bad coaching that took place this weekend but Shanahan was the king of stupidity on Sunday.
2. There’s a lot of good and bad that came out of the Seahawks’ win.
After 12 minutes had ticked off the clock on Sunday, it looked as if the Redskins were going to waltz down to Atlanta next week. So it was impressive to watch the Seahawks weather the storm and produce what wound up being a convincing victory. Marshawn Lynch was in full “beastmode” while rushing for 132 yards on 20 carries and he could be in store for another big game next week because the Falcons can’t stop the run either. Russell Wilson was shaky in his NFL postseason debut but he made plays when they counted, specifically on a 22-yard pass to Zach Miller on third down to set up a go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. The defense also harassed a limited RGIII and held Alfred Morris in check outside of the first quarter. But the news wasn’t all positive for Seattle. The early reports are that top pass rusher Chris Clemons tore his ACL and his loss would serve as a big blow to Seattle’s defense with Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ explosive passing game on deck. That was also an extremely physical game for the Seahawks, who now have to fly back to Seattle before making the cross-country flight to Atlanta next weekend. That’s a lot of traveling for a team that has a history of not playing well on the road so while it’ll be a happy flight back to Seattle for Pete Carroll’s team, it might feel like a short week with all that transpired on Sunday.
3. Bill Musgrave did Joe Webb a disservice.
Joe Webb was brutal in Green Bay on Saturday night but he should be spared of heavy criticism. Christian Ponder’s injury left the Vikings in a bad situation and it’s hardly surprising that a quarterback with zero reps in the regular season struggled in a road playoff game. That said, Webb took first-team reps all week in practice so clearly Minnesota knew there was a good chance that Ponder wouldn’t play. So why offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave didn’t play to the strengths of his backup quarterback is beyond conventional wisdom. Remember, Green Bay prepared all week for Ponder, not the athletically-gifted Webb. Outside of Adrian Peterson, the biggest threat Minnesota had was the element of surprise but Musgrave decided against using it to his advantage. Why did he ditch the read-option after the first series of the game (a series that netted the Vikings a field goal)? Why didn’t he turn the contest into the equivalent of a college football bowl game? Instead of using Webb’s speed as a weapon, Musgrave kept him in the pocket. Instead of putting the Packers on their heels, Musgrave allowed Green Bay to turn Clay Matthews loose by forcing an inaccurate Webb to stand still. The results were predictably horrifying for the Vikings, who just one week ago beat that same Packers team to reach the postseason. Granted, Musgrave should be cut a little slack for having to call plays for a quarterback he hadn’t worked with all season (at least not in a regular season game). But instead of going for broke with the cards that he was dealt, Musgrave played things conventionally and wound up losing anyway.
4. The Bengals’ over thought their game plan.
Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden made tight end Jermaine Gresham the focal point of his game plan on Saturday because he believed the way to beat Houston’s defense was to attack its linebackers. It was, at the very least, a novel approach. But Gruden also completely outthought himself in the process. When it comes to the playoffs, teams need to dance with who brought them and in the case of Cincinnati, that would be A.J. Green. Andy Dalton had negative-6 yards passing at halftime of the Bengals’ 19-13 loss to the Texans on Saturday as Green wasn’t even targeted once. When the Bengals changed their approach at halftime to get Green (five catches, 80 yards) more involved, they moved the ball much more effectively in the second half. Granted, credit Wade Phillips for scheming to take Green out of the game. He often used a corner underneath and a safety over top in coverage, which helped neutralize both Green and Dalton. But Gruden’s job is to design ways for Green to get open and he didn’t do that until Houston had built a 17-6 lead in the third quarter. Failing to utilize his best playmaker in the biggest game of the season could eat at Gruden all offseason.
5. Andy Dalton needs more help.
Andy Dalton has struggled playing against the upper-echelon of NFL defenses in his first two seasons. No quarterback likes to have defenders in their face but Dalton especially struggles when teams figure out how to bring pressure up the middle. The Texans did that on Saturday and Dalton struggled mightily. His overthrow to A.J. Green late in the fourth quarter was so bad that a diving Green (who had broken open on the play) never laid a hand on it. And because of his talent limitations (the biggest knock on him is his average to below-average arm strength), there also seems to be a ceiling to Dalton’s development. That said, he’s led the Bengals (the Bengals, mind you) to back-to-back postseason appearances. Poor performance or not, Cincinnati isn’t considering making a change at quarterback right now, nor should it. That said, the Bengals need to find Dalton more weapons because it’s hard to imagine him leading Cincinnati to the Super Bowl on the strengths of his God-given abilities. They need to find another weapon opposite of A.J. Green. They need to find a running back capable of producing explosive runs. They need to find a slot receiver with breakaway speed and another pass-catching tight end to go along with Jermaine Gresham. Outside of upgrading the middle linebacker position (Rey Maualuga was repeatedly exposed on Saturday), Cincinnati’s defense is in good shape. What the Bengals need to focus on now is elevating the talent around their quarterback or else the expectations for both Dalton and the offense should be tempered.
6. The Texans seemed relieved, which isn’t a good thing with who’s coming up.
Despite their victory over the Bengals on Saturday, the Texans are far from “fixed.” Houston dominated Cincinnati in every facet of the game except the scoreboard. Arian Foster went off for 174 yards of total offense and J.J. Watt was once again a one-man wrecking crew but Houston still couldn’t pull away. In fact, had Andy Dalton not overthrown an open A.J. Green in the end zone late in the fourth quarter, Cincinnati could have easily pulled off a victory. Instead, the Texans hung on for victory and were rewarded with a trip to New England (the site of their 42-14 massacre in Week 14). One touchdown and four field goals isn’t going to cut it next weekend versus the Patriots. Nobody game plans to take away a team’s biggest strength like Bill Belichick, so don’t expect Foster to have the same output next Sunday. Can Matt Schaub elevate his play by putting an entire team on his shoulders? Considering how relieved he looked just to make it past a limited Cincinnati squad, it’s doubtful.
7. It was a collective effort by the Packers.
As Cris Collinsworth pointed out on the broadcast Saturday night, Green Bay’s defense did a great job walling off Adrian Peterson throughout the game. Considering he still rushed for 99 yards it’s not as if the Packers shut him down, but they ensured that he didn’t break long runs by tackling and constantly putting defenders in his face. But it was a collective effort by the Packers, who are at their best when they get everyone involved offensively. John Kuhn only touched the ball five times but he found the end zone twice. Greg Jennings didn’t score but he routinely caught passes on third down to keep the chains moving and DuJuan Harris did a nice job serving as Aaron Rodgers’ check down option. Speaking of which, Rodgers didn’t post monster numbers but he was highly efficient. His poise and accuracy allowed Green Bay to sustain drives and keep Peterson on the sidelines. With Joe Webb floundering on the other side, once Rodgers and the offense built a lead you knew the Packers could start preparing for San Francisco. The task gets much more difficult a week from now but Mike McCarthy had to be pleased with his team’s sound effort on Sunday night.
8. Win or lose, it was a hell of a season for the Colts.
This goes without saying – Andrew Luck needs more help. Save for Arizona, Indianapolis had the worst pass protection in football this year and yet because of Luck, the Colts made the playoffs. But teams that regularly have to throw the ball 50-plus times a game don’t win, especially on the road in the playoffs. He was hit on damn near every pass attempt this season and unlike Russell Wilson and RGIII, Luck wasn’t aided by an effective running game. He, and the Chuck Pagano-inspired Colts, were the best surprise of the 2012 season. And while I thought they would have kept the game on Sunday closer than they did, it was still a very successful season for that team. It won’t be long before the Colts are winning AFC South titles on a consistent basis again.
9. The Ravens offense finally woke up.
Throw out their impressive Week 16 victory over the Giants, the Ravens haven’t exactly been awe-inspiring of late. Their offense has struggled in large part to Ray Rice being limited by his own offensive coordinator and Joe Flacco’s inconsistency. But on in the second half on Sunday, Baltimore’s offense finally awoke from its month-long slumber. Anquan Boldin was marvelous. He essentially put the entire offense on his shoulders while harassing cornerback Cassius Vaughn of pass plays of 50, 46 and 21 yards. On a day when Ray Rice uncharacteristically put the ball on the ground twice, he stepped up when his offense needed him most. Credit the Ravens defense too, because they consistently came up with stops or held the Colts to three points when their backs were against the wall. This is a team built for the postseason and while Denver looks like an unstoppable force, don’t forget that Baltimore has often resembled an immovable object in the past. They’ll likely give Peyton Manning all he can handle next weekend.
10. Was anybody else left unfulfilled?
Life is all about expectations. The moment the final seconds ticked off the clock in Washington’s Week 17 victory over Dallas I immediately became excited for the weekend of playoff bliss that was ahead. RGIII vs. Russell Wilson? Adrian Peterson vs. Green Bay III? Andrew Luck making his first postseason start? Yes, please. Fast forward to Sunday night and I’m left completely unfilled. That just wasn’t a very sharp weekend of football. Cincinnati, Minnesota and Indianapolis all stunk. Washington came out of the gates hot but RGIII’s knee injury cooled that fire. Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco were good, but they were the only quarterbacks that played well. None of the games were blowouts by definition yet all four somehow managed to seem over well before the final whistle blew. After watching Northern Illinois, Kansas State and Oklahoma make a mockery of their bowl games, football fans were ready for a great weekend of NFL action. But instead we got three lackluster finishes and one game (Seattle-Washington) that barely would have caused a ripple on a regular NFL Sunday. “Meh” was the word of the weekend.