Wild Card Preview:Welcome to Kirk Cousins’ House Party

Folks, things at 4th & Gyas are dreary to say the least. In the past three weeks I’ve written three different *top –class articles about halfway through, realized I probably couldn’t finish them in time, and simply given up. The result? You were left with no advice on the most important fantasy football week of the year and nobody took the time to explain all of the Week 17 playoff scenarios to you. Now you’ll never know just how amazing it was to watch Rex Ryan complete his sweep of the Jets this past Sunday and end their sorry little season. But alas! I have awoken from my late-season slumber to see the playoffs through just like the Patriots who only called five pass plays in the first half against the Dolphins – but more about that later.

First and foremost I’d like to pour one out for the 2015 NFL regular season; it was beautiful, it hurt, it inspired, but most importantly Future MVP Blake Bortles (his full name) threw 35 touchdowns. The playoffs are always met with much anticipation and excitement – rightfully so, of course, but I can’t help feeling morose about 16 games being played this past Sunday and only two being played on the next. Now of course feelings are fleeting in this league and we’ve got plenty to discuss with what may be one of the most closely contested postseasons we’ve ever seen looming just over the horizon. There are four newcomers to the big dance and more storylines than you could ship to Peyton Manning’s house in a single HGH package.

Unfortunately the postseason transition isn’t a happy one for everybody. The infamous “Black Monday”, when unsuccessful teams discard their underachieving coaches, is a harsh reality-check immediately after the season. Jobs are lost all around as coordinators who couldn’t find the best use of their rosters and general managers who insisted on drafting Johnny Manziel in the first round have to clear their desks and hope for a new start somewhere else. Black Monday can often be an occasion for hope after the sadness for many franchises unless you’re a Chargers fan and the team has decided to retain your 4-12 coach even though 14-2 was somehow not good enough to keep Marty Schottenheimer around. Notably, Chip Kelly was fired after his third season as head coach of the Eagles, Jim Tomsula is out of a job after one season in San Francisco, and Mike Pettine was shown the door after just one season as Cleveland’s head man. [Strap in for forthcoming rant about the firing of coaches in the NFL]

Here’s the thing about firing a guy like Pettine after he’s only had one season to turn around a team that hasn’t reached .500 in a season since 2008: IT’S UNIMAGINABLY MORONIC. As an owner you’re essentially saying, “Okay here’s a bunch of players you didn’t draft who don’t know your systems and the culture you want to create. Win immediately”. How do you expect anyone to succeed under those circumstances? The desire for instantaneous positive results has begun to ruin the culture of team-building in the NFL. Look at a guy like Chip Kelly. Upon his arrival in Philadelphia he had his own schemes and systems to employ in order to realize his vision for the team’s future. However, no doubt looking over his shoulder and fearing what would happen if he could not produce wins immediately, he tried to change the team’s culture all at once. The questionable releases of key players by Kelly to remake the team in his own image only heightened expectations and increased the pressure on him to win on Sundays. When he couldn’t, he was told good riddance by a franchise and fan base that didn’t understand his end goal and why he had tried to reach it so boldly. Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy has outlined time and again the necessity for a coach to be allowed at least five years to turn a losing team around. It’s nearly impossible to build a roster, coaching staff, and culture necessary to win otherwise. Impatient teams like the Browns and 49ers will likely find themselves in a losing cycle of firing coaches every 1-2 years because of their unwillingness to wait out the early kinks. Dungy, Jon Gruden, and even Bill Belicheck are examples of great coaches who were fired only to reveal in another city that they simply hadn’t been given enough time to succeed. You guys okay if we talk about some football now?

There are twelve total teams that will play at some point in January after the first 17 weeks of football have come and gone. The magic of the postseason is that these teams, no matter where they stand at season’s end, have the potential to re-write the narrative of their franchise. Hope for the future for some, a potential dynasty slipping away for others. The most iconic moments in NFL history reside in these matchups; the divisional grudge-matches and David-vs-Goliath showdowns that have defined careers. It is in the playoffs where we as fans experience the limits of our belief, push the boundaries of passionate investment and, for all but one team, know the depths of heartbreak. It is a glorious and beautiful machine that produces moments that fathers will pass on to their sons for decades to come.

Some of my fondest memories as a football fan have come after Week 17, like the time I sat on the floor in my room for hours after watching my Patriots lose to the Jets in a divisional round matchup in 2010. In all seriousness, the playoffs are about as equally terrifying as they are exciting for those whose teams advance into the race for the Super Bowl. Just like how Broncos fans know that they’re one vicious hit away from watching Brock Osweiler come into a divisional playoff game trying to overcome the 17-point deficit built up by Peyton Manning’s three interceptions in the first half. At its best, the playoffs prove the superhuman quality of the athletes that influence so many lives around the world. At its worst, our heroes become nothing more than average joes, unable to achieve what we – fairly or not, regularly expect of them: the impossible. Because God loves all of His children and this is the most competitive playoff field we’ve seen in a long time, there are no clear favorites in either conference which means we’ll get to analyze matchup by matchup starting with, of course, Wild Card Weekend. Before we even get to that let’s just establish who even made the playoffs because if you’re like my adorable friend Kat who just started reading this blog I can safely assume that you have no idea.

AFC Playoffs

  1. Denver Broncos
  2. New England Patriots
  3. Cincinnati Bengals
  4. Houston Texans
  5. Kansas City Chiefs
  6. Pittsburgh Steelers

NFC Playoffs

  1. Carolina Panthers
  2. Arizona Cardinals
  3. Minnesota Vikings
  4. Washington Redskins
  5. Green Bay Packers
  6. Seattle Seahawks

I didn’t include the records of any of these teams because we’re in the postseason and none of that matters now, all we need to worry about is who wants it more. There will be four games this weekend, two on Saturday and two on Sunday, for your viewing enjoyment and all of them should be great except maybe Texans vs Chiefs, but let’s not get into that just yet. For now I don’t want to ruin the light-hearted and fun aura that’s encapsulated my brain since the final seeds in each conference were solidified. I’ve been talking way too long, TO THE ANALYSIS! (Start times for each game listed in San Diego Beach Time – SBT)

(4)Texans vs (5)Chiefs, Saturday 1/9 1:20pm SBT

In terms of quarterback play, which typically takes center stage in January, this is the most underwhelming game we’ll see throughout the postseason. Houston themselves started four different quarterbacks at some point this season, finally sticking with Brian Hoyer for the long run. Hoyer threw for 2,606 yards and 19 touchdowns which, on both occasions, is really unimpressive in every sense of the word. His opponent this Saturday, Chiefs QB Alex Smith, has long been labeled as a “game manager” quarterback who is afraid to throw further than 10 yards down the field at a time. Smith threw for a whole 20 touchdowns this season making this matchup one we shouldn’t expect a lot of fireworks from.

Throwing out the lack of gaudy stats between our two featured signal callers, there is one characteristic they share that will make this game very interesting down the stretch. Tightly contested games in the playoffs often come down to which team will make a mistake and turn the ball over first. That already important aspect of football will be magnified by 10,000 on Saturday because both Hoyer and Smith have thrown the fewest interceptions this season among playoffs quarterbacks, tied with Tom Brady at 7. These offenses are almost mirrors of each other, electing to utilize the running game and short passing to set up the defense for an occasional shot down the field that they may get exploited on because they’ve already loaded the shallow third of the field expecting yet another five-and-out route. Hoyer’s got his deep threat in wunderkind DeAndre Hopkins, Andre Johnson’s successor who might actually be better than Johnson ever was, and Smith’s got Jeremy Maclin who came over from Philadelphia, the first Kansas City wide receiver to catch a touchdown pass in about a season and a half. Neither team has any significant offensive advantage given the conservative tendencies of their coaches and the middling abilities of their quarterbacks.

When it comes to the defensive side of the ball, there’s one glaring disadvantage looming over Kansas City’s head. Houston happens to employ probably the best defensive player the NFL’s seen in about 10 years, a guy you may have heard of named JJ Watt. Watt lead the NFL in sacks once again this season with 17.5 quarterbacks dragged down behind the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately for Andy Reid and Co., the Chiefs’ offense plays right into Watt’s huge, possibly surgically-augmented hands. The amount of screens they run, which means a receiver catches a pass behind the line of scrimmage and is tasked with sneaking past defenders to gain yards, tend to be a lot less successful when Watt is on the field. Although a solidified offensive line has been a major key to Kansas City’s 10-game winning streak, which started when the Royals won the World Series by the way, they can now expect to be tested to their absolute limit against the most imposing defensive lineman in the league.

Not to be left out of the excellent defense conversation, the Chiefs feature a rookie cornerback who leads the league in interceptions (8) and passes defended (26). Marcus Peters has wasted no time in establishing his name in the NFL as one of the premier defensive backs in the country. If Peters can contain DeAndre Hopkins, who caught 111 passes and 11 touchdowns this season, it will force Hoyer to find other receivers down the field. That will be good news for Eric Berry and Sean Smith, the other Pro-Bowl caliber defensive backs lurking in Romeo Crennel’s secondary. When all is said and done this game may become a defensive showcase where some offensive guys are also on the field. Expecting only about 30 points total to be scored in this game, I’m giving Kansas City the edge on account of Alex Smith refusing to lose to a mediocre AFC South team yet again. Chiefs 17, Texans 13.

(3)Bengals vs (6)Steelers, Saturday 1/9 5:15pm SBT

Where the previous game left much to be desired in terms of offense, this divisional matchup may make you wonder whether these teams have even actually hired anyone to play defense in the first place. True rivalries in the NFL are hard to come by and usually don’t last very long because of free agency and how often players switch teams on a season-to-season basis. Lucky for us, the Bengals and Steelers are two of the best teams in the league when it comes to finding their significant talent in the draft and retaining those players for a long period of time. As a result, we get to watch two teams who really don’t like each other face off for the third time in the same season. Strap in folks, this one’s gonna be a doozy.

Let’s start with the ridiculously explosive receivers we’ll be treated to this Saturday. Antonio Brown of the Steelers and A.J. Green of the Bengals both finished in the top 10 for receiving yards this season, also scoring 10 touchdowns each. The Steelers also feature Martavis Bryant who seems to score a touchdown whenever he even stands near an NFL field. Cincinnati also employs 13-touchdown tight end Tyler Eifert in case a defense wanted to key in on Green down the field. Not to mention that they can always hand the ball off to the Jeremy Hill/Giovani Bernard two headed monster in the backfield. To make a long story short although I’ve already given you the long story anyway, Cincy and Pittsburgh feature two of the most diverse, multi-faceted offensive units that we’ll have the pleasure of seeing in the playoffs. However, each team’s got just one teensy little problem…

Each of these bloodthirsty foes will potentially be impacted by a significant injury to their offense. For the Steelers, DeAngelo Williams was carted off of the field during their Week 17 win over the Browns with a reported high ankle sprain. Williams started 10 games for Pittsburgh after star running back Le’Veon Bell went down earlier this season and ran for 907 yards while leading the league in rushing touchdowns with 11. If Williams is unable to play on Saturday then the Steelers will have to start a two-man committee of random players you’ve never heard of who presumably will combine to create half of the productive value. Without a steady running game the Steelers offense becomes stagnant and dependent on Big Ben avoiding pass rushers who collapse the pocket in three seconds once they realize every running back is on the sideline. When Ben has to run around for six or seven seconds and chuck a deep ball into double coverage, Reggie Nelson will be there lurking for an interception to add to the eight he snatched in the regular season.

On Cincinnati’s side the injury intrigue is even heavier than the possibility of Roeslithberger facing a five-man rush all day and inevitably hurting his ankle, only to return to the game five minutes later because he doesn’t actually feel pain. In a Week 14 loss to the Steelers, Andy Dalton threw an interception in the end zone and subsequently broke his thumb while trying to tackle the linebacker who had just caught his pass. Dalton’s injury forced rookie AJ McCarron into the huddle and created a controversy once McCarron began drawing comparisons to former backup-turned-starter Tom Brady. McCarron has since gone 2-1 in three games started after Dalton’s injury and could really be 3-0 if not for a voodoo-magic loss on Monday Night Football that could have gone either way. Andy Dalton has made the playoffs with the Bengals every season since he was drafted, but has yet to actually win in the postseason. Should Dalton be unable to play this Saturday, McCarron could win a playoff game before the Red Rifle which I can only assume would result in the rookie’s hair turning red and Dalton exiling himself to the Dagobah system for 30 years. No matter who is starting for the Bengals on Saturday neither of them will be ANTONIO BROWN so this one goes to the Steelers, 30 – 21.

(3)Vikings vs (6)Seahawks, Sunday 1/10 10:05am SBT

Last Sunday was what I can only assume the most emotionally confusing day in Teddy Bridgewater’s life. With the chance to go into Lambeau field and take the NFC North title right out of Aaron Rodger’s tablet-chucking hands, he led his team to victory on Sunday Night Football. Immediately following the game, it was revealed that the sixth-seed Seahawks would be visiting Minnesota in the Wild Card. On that same Sunday, those Seahawks absolutely shellacked the Cardinals 36-6, who by the way went 13-3 and earned a first-round bye in the playoffs. Basically it’s not the best time to face Seattle and Russell Wilson, who’s thrown 25 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions since Seattle’s Week 9 bye. Minnesota is hoping that their freezing cold home field will give them an advantage over these burning hot Seahawks. It may be the only advantage they can claim going into the Wild Card match on Sunday.

I need to take a second to recognize the fact that Russell Wilson is the best quarterback from the 2012 draft class that included Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. In total there were four quarterbacks taken in the first round and Wilson was not one of them, waiting until the third round to hear his name called. Since that draft, Luck has earned a reputation as Bill Belicheck’s punching bag and expert interception artist, Griffin lost his job to Kirk Cousins (a 4th round selection in that same draft) and other notable first-rounder Brandon Weeden hasn’t done anything of note besides start a game for at least five different teams at this point. Meanwhile, Russell Wilson already has a Super Bowl ring and would probably have another one had Pete Carroll not looked across the field into Bill Belicheck’s cold, soul-less eyes and realized that he was not going to call a timeout. Wilson, primarily known for his ability to escape the pocket and do his best work on the run, reinvented himself this season after losing Marshawn Lynch and rookie phenom backup Thomas Rawls for the season.

As unlikely as it may seem, the Vikings may have actually drawn a favorable matchup in Seattle. The strength of Minnesota’s defense is using pressure from their enormous defensive line to make a quarterback throw at safeties Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes before they are ready. The most intriguing aspect of this matchup may be Marshawn Lynch’s reported return to the active roster. Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch are presumably the first and second best running backs in football, whichever way you think that ranking falls. Seattle’s defense likes to key in on shutting down a team’s ground production early, so Peterson will find himself running into a swarm of tacklers whenever he should carry the ball. If Lynch does suit up on Sunday the Vikings will have an interesting challenge figuring out how the Seahawks will attack them now that Russell Wilson’s right arm has taken over the offense and Lynch hasn’t seen the field in months.

Minnesota’s offense features no particularly spectacular receivers for Bridgewater to throw to downfield. No Vikings receiver surpassed 800 yards this season, averaging more like 500. Stefon Diggs is the deep threat of this offense, but without a legitimate star receiver to command a double-team, the Seahawks defensive backs will be able to play tight man coverage and dare Bridgewater to test them. If linebacker Bobby Wagner can handle the big tight end Kyle Rudolph it will free Earl Thomas to roam the field and go wherever he is needed which is absolutely horrible news for Minnesota. As much as I would love for Teddy Bridgewater to win his first division crown and playoff game in the same season, the world needs Seattle to face off with Carolina next week in what would most likely be the game of the decade. Seattle runs away in the fourth quarter, 31-17.

UPDATE: Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch did not travel with the team to Minnesota, told coaches that he didn’t feel like he could do it as team was loading onto buses.

(4)Redskins vs (5)Packers, Sunday 1/10 1:40 pm SBT

Last Sunday as I was watching football with my buddy Serg, who is rocking an amazing moustache right now, a group of (drunk) friends playing shuffleboard near us must have yelled “You like that?! You like that!!” at least 57 times and I’m definitely taking the over on that one. In case you don’t know, Kirk Cousins led the Redskins to a comeback win over the Buccaneers in Week 7 and then walked past the media room after the game screaming “You like that?! You like that!!” and amazingly has managed to elevate his game ever since. In 9 starts since YLT Cousins has thrown 23 touchdowns against only 3 interceptions, won the NFC East outright and became the first Washington quarterback to surpass 4,000 yards in a season. You could say life is pretty good for Cousins right now. He is now facing the challenge of beating Aaron Rodgers and the packers in the playoffs, which might actually be easier than it seems. Humor me, people.

Rodgers and the Packers have played at least one postseason match every year since 2009, going one-and-done three times in that span. They were also knocked out in their second game twice, winning more than two games just once in 2010 when they were Super Bowl champions. Green Bay has a history of losing to more physical teams in the second-season, notably falling to the Giants and 49ers in seasons when they were favored to make the Super Bowl. The key to success against Rodgers is constant pressure and tight coverage on his receivers. Since losing Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL the Packers’ receiving corps has been exposed for their inability to get open against defensive backs that play physical, press coverage which forces Rodgers to stand in the pocket for four to five seconds hoping to find separation downfield. Washington will depend on Dashon Goldson to punish receivers who find space in the middle of the field in order to make them run routes along the sideline where the quickness of DeAngelo Hall and Bashuad Breeland will put them at a disadvantage.

The biggest challenge Washington’s defense will face is stopping Fat Lacy on first down. If Green Bay can send Lacy forward for five or six yards on first down, they will be much harder to stop on third down when their average deficit will be about three yards. I’m most excited to see Washington defensive-lineman Ryan Kerrigan on Sunday who has been out of the national spotlight for far too long. Kirk Cousins will need Desean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to be reliable down the sidelines, but his most favorable matchup comes in the form of tight end Jordan Reed, who is bigger and quicker than his likely draw HaHa Clinton-Dix. Reed has been damn near automatic for Cousins in third-down situations, using his hands to create separation in the seam and then out-running whatever unfortunate linebacker has the task of containing him. I’m not ready to de-board the Cousins train just yet, and I have a feeling he’ll be screaming at reporters this Sunday. Washington 27-24.

That does it for our Wild Car preview, faithful readers! All five of you can send any questions, comments, or inappropriate sports-related jokes to thegyasishoes@gmail.com or just find us on twitter @4thandgyas. Be sure to plan your weekend accordingly in order to catch all of the playoff action and check back for more playoff coverage, spotlights, insight, and scathing opinions of Gary Kubiak’s decision to start Noodle Arm Manning in the playoffs. Until next time!

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