The OKC Steelers and the “State Farm Factor” — it’s playoffs time, baby!

A few nights ago I was watching the movie 300 with a few friends of mine because this is the sort of thing that men are wont to do. There’s a particularly challenging scene in the movie where the captain of the 300, apart from Leonidas who was king, watches his son be decapitated at the hands of a cowardly Persian soldier on a horse. The Captain immediately goes berserk, slaughters five or six other Persians, then erupts into the most tortured screams you have ever heard as he holds his son’s (now headless) body. He later confesses to everyone that his only regret was never telling his son how much he loved him, and how proud he was to be able to fight next to him. Real heart-wrenching stuff.

What I have always found so puzzling about this scene is when the Captain declares that he had “lived his life without regret until now”. Keep in mind, this dude is definitely at least 50 years old, buff and oiled up yes, but still definitely 50 and somehow up to that point in his life had no regrets. *insert Kanye “HOW” meme* I’m only 22 and I have regretted way too many things to count. On top of that, I could probably list every single thing I’ve ever regretted if you gave me enough time. I regret the way things ended with my ex-girlfriend. I really regret not sweeping the garage before my dad came back from the store when I was 10; he took my Gameboy away for a whole month! Most importantly though, it eats at me every day that I wasn’t actively writing when the Patriots won their last Super Bowl. I had kept up my blog that entire season and as soon as the playoffs began my laptop started to act a little funny, so instead of problem-solving I said “Oh, what the heck. I had a good run.” And what do you know; my boys went out and won it all. That is my biggest regret and the very same misstep which brings us here today.

After deciding that I wouldn’t have time to write about football this year, I watched the Patriots start three different quarterbacks, trade players who were once deemed pillars of our future, and amorphously change their identity on a weekly basis as key contributors went down or returned from injury. All while losing as many games as Tom Brady threw interceptions this season. Which is two, in case you were wondering. TWO. The guy’s a demi-god. Anyway, I would be remiss to keep my nose out of the most unique postseason in recent memory with teams like the Raiders and Dolphins finally  re-joining the ranks of the 12 teams so lucky to play for a chance at the Super Bowl.

So let’s get caught up to speed here for a moment. The Patriots are doing what they do best, which is win more than everyone else and embarrass a few teams along the way. The Raiders had an inspiringly resurgent season and then lost the division title in Week 17 after Derek Carr tragically broke his leg. The Chiefs usurped that same division title because Tyreek Hill is faster than anyone who might be trying to keep him out of the end zone at any given time. Aaron Rodgers pouted through five or five games and then decided to play football again, while their rival Lions return to the postseason for the second time in three years. When the dust of 2016 settled and drunken vagrants rang in the new year, 12 teams stood above the rest. Of course, simply reaching the playoffs doesn’t guarantee that your team is a legitimate contender. Let’s look at the six seeds from each conference and determine who has hope and who is probably going to get humiliated.

AFC

  1. New England Patriots. Yet again, the Patriots a riding a win-streak (7 games) into the postseason where they’ve secured home-field advantage. As they’ve shown by appearing in the last five AFC Championship games and winning a Super Bowl just two years ago, New England always has the potential to be champions. This offense lost Gronk earlier in the season, but still boasts more weapons than any defense can contain for a full four quarters. Their recent addition of Michael Floyd could be an x-factor down the stretch. If anything could sink these Patriots, it would be their defense, which has shown a bit of inconsistency and weakness against the run. If not there, their most troubling piece is rookie Cyrus Jones, who seems to have been sent to sabotage the team by turning the ball over whenever he might get the chance. You can probably expect to see the Patriots in the AFC Championship.
  2. Kansas City Chiefs That’s right; those “boring” Chiefs won 12 games and secured the other first-round bye in the AFC. Their season seemed to be in question when star running back Jamaal Charles was unable to return to the field, but Spencer Ware stepped in seamlessly and rookie Tyreek Hill emerged as a threat to score from quite literally anywhere on the field at any time. The KC defense resumed business as usual, leading the NFL with 33 takeaways and a turnover differential of +16 which could have a big impact in a cold, defensive matchup at Arrowhead come the divisional round. With only one game to win to reach the AFC Championship, the Chiefs are closer to the Super Bowl than they’ve been since 1970.
  3. Pittsburgh Steelers. Antonio Brown and the Steelers twerked their way through a surprisingly tough division battle with the Ravens and won 11 games to lock in as the AFC’s third seed. The question for Pittsburgh is simple; will they be the team that hung 43 points on Kansas City’s fearsome defense or the one that suffered a 30-point blowout by an Eagles team that missed the postseason? When Le’Veon Bell is juking defenders out of their socks and the Roeslithberger-to-Brown connection is flourishing there’s no limit to what this offense can do. When it’s not…I don’t know that I’d want to be depending on Eli Rogers to take me to the Super Bowl. Also, can we just point out that the Steelers at one point had Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, AND Emmanuel Sanders? Are you kidding me?? Three of the league’s most dangerous superstar receivers on one team and now there’s only one left, wondering if he’ll ever win a ring of his own. Are they the NFL’s OKC Thunder? Discuss. In the meantime, let’s move on.
  4. Houston Texans. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Oh, you’re still here? Well, alright then. Miraculously, the Houston Texans are hosting a playoff game. The same Texans who paid Brock Osweiler an egregious sum of money only to eventually bench him (because he was garbage) for Tom Savage and then be forced to start him once again after Savage was injured. I mostly blame Houston’s 4th seed on a combination of the Colts refusing to play any sort of defense, Andrew Luck really enjoying throwing the ball at defensive players to see if they’ll catch it, and Marcus Mariota’s unfortunate injury during Tennessee’s playoff-push. Nevertheless the Texans are definitely going to play a postseason game on Saturday. I can only assume it will be the last game NRG Stadium hosts until the actual Super Bowl, which will have nothing at all to do with Brock Trashweiler.
  5. Oakland Raiders. Oakland was riding an exciting, high-flying offense towards a first-round bye until MVP-candidate Derek Carr was sacked in Week 16 and subsequently broke his leg. His backup, Matt McGloin, sustained a shoulder injury the next week which means that rookie Connor Cook will make his first career start on Saturday against Houston. Not exactly the most encouraging situation. Even though the Raiders boast one of the NFL’s best groups of receivers and possibly it’s second-toughest offensive line, they will need transcendent performances from both units in order to have a shot at another Lombardi trophy. If Oakland can’t hang with the score-at-will offenses of New England, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City, their chances of becoming champions are likely dashed until Carr’s return.
  6. Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins have been telling us for the past few years that Ryan Tannehill was their franchise QB and that playoff-level talent existed on their roster. Now Miami was no juggernaut this season, but 10 wins and a running back that posted four separate 200-yard games is nothing to sniff at either. The real onus for the Phins will be their secondary, which sometimes looks like the 2012 Seahawks and other times resembles a piece of swiss cheese – plenty of holes. Miami also lost their passably-effective QB to injury, so it falls on the shoulders of Matt Moore to lead them to Houston in February…so…probably don’t bet on that.

                                                                      NFC

  1. Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys have been the gold standard of the NFC all season long, and don’t expect that to change in the postseason. It has long been believed that a strong running game is the key to victories in January when the air turns frigid and snow begins to cover the ground. With the #1 ranked offensive line in the NFL leading Ezekiel Elliot to 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns, Dallas won’t have any issues in that department. Not that they’ll have to worry about weather, anyway. Should the Cowboys make it to Super Bowl LI, their home-field advantage means that they will never have to play outside the Republic of Texas. The pressure will be on rookie QB Dak Prescott to prove his magic throughout the season was no fluke, but Dallas is set up to win even if he were to be less spectacular than we’ve grown accustomed to.
  2. Atlanta Falcons. Matt Ryan has been a good quarterback since he entered the league. The Falcons have had a good offense since Ryan become their starting quarterback. However, they’ve failed to make the postseason these past four seasons. This year Matt Ryan threw for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns while depending on people named Taylor Gabriel because Julio Jones was on and off the injury report. The Falcons scored 30+ points ten times this season, putting up 40+ in five contests. I don’t know who deserves to win the MVP award this season, but I do know that an offense as versatile as Atlanta’s would take a miracle to shut down, no matter who they’re lined up against. If Julio is being triple-teamed, Gabriel and Sanu can gash you. If Tevin Coleman is being stuffed at the line of scrimmage, Devonta Freeman might catch 8 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns. You never know where the back-breaking performance is going to come from. Not to mention that their young defense, led by All-Pro pass rusher and NFL sack leader Vic Beasley, can completely change games at any time with a well-timed interception or 40-yard fumble return. We’ve seen Atlanta’s “good” teams wither away in the past, but it’s time for the NFC to take notice that they’re dealing with something else entirely.
  3. Seattle Seahawks. 2016’s version of the Seahawks was impossible to figure out. During their rise to the top of the NFL, which featured two trips to the Super Bowl and one Lombardi trophy, Seattle relied heavy on Marshawn Lynch. Well, he retired in the offseason and his heir apparent, Thomas Rawls, was injured to start the season. Their suffocating defense always provided a spark when the offense might be struggling to control a game. Defensive lynchpin Kam Chancellor missed half the season and irreplaceable talent Earl Thomas was lost for the year. The remaining members of the “Legion of Boom” could be seen on almost a weekly basis looking confused, frustrated, and even arguing with each other. When all else failed, Russell Wilson could be called on to manufacture some magic that carried the Hawks to victory. With the run game struggling and an ankle injury nagging him, Wilson looked painfully average for most of the season. Still, Seattle found themselves at 10-5-1, narrowly missing out on a first-round bye. Recently the question for Seattle has always been, “what must a team do to beat them?”, now the Hawks have to figure out how stop beating themselves in time to hit their postseason stride and make a run towards Houston.
  4. Green Bay Packers. After it seemed like the Packers would have to watch from home while Detroit and Minnesota took over the division, Aaron Rodgers led the Pack to a 6-game win streak and yet another NFC North title. The issue in Wisconsin is just that: Rodgers is the only thing this team has going. Green Bay’s shoddy defense has given up 21+ points 10 times this season, relinquishing more than 40 in consecutive weeks to the Titans and Redskins. Their defensive backs seem overwhelmed on a weekly basis, which is very bad news when the likes of Odell Beckham, Jr. and Julio Jones are lurking out there in the playoff tundra. The Packers usually specialize in shootouts, but should a team with even a competent semblance of a defense begin to pour on the points, Green Bay may be watching its Super Bowl hopes sail right over their heads.
  5. New *Jersey Giants. This season I’ve been robbed of watching Eli Manning throw New *Jersey’s playoff hopes directly into the waiting arms of opposing defensive backs. Don’t get me wrong, he still throws beautiful interceptions that are always followed by a classic ManningFace®, each one more precious than the last. No, the difference isn’t Eli at all. What’s changed for the Giants this season is that they went out and spent free agency money like America was going down in flames this summer and it *actually* worked out. We’re not talking about giving Albert Haynesworth $100,000,000 here, folks. Olivier Vernon (D-end), Damon “Snacks” Harrison (D-tackle), and Janoris Jenkins (cornerback) have turned the Giants defense into a legitimate force, able to overcome even Eli’s worst day in the pocket. Add in the revelation that has been second-year safety Landon Collins and you’ve got the recipe for a late postseason run. Each year in the draft I study and drool over five or six I wish the Patriots would draft, but who will never fall far enough for that to actually happen. Jenkins and Collins have both made that list, and they have both become exactly who I thought they’d be when I researched them pre-draft. So kudos to Giants GM Jerry Reese. New *Jersey may have the perfect formula to ground some of the NFC’s high-flying offenses that lead the field in this year’s playoffs.
  6. Detroit Lions. I’ll be honest with you guys; I have zero faith in there being even a slim chance for Detroit to reach the Super Bowl this year. However, for all the (admittedly hilarious) memes about Jim Caldwell’s non-expressive face, this will be his second postseason trip with Detroit in three years. The Lions have finally developed an offensive strategy outside of “Let Stafford chuck it deep to Megatron” and the defense now features players known for more than being humiliated on Thanksgiving every year. I firmly believe that Detroit is a workhorse running back and ball-hawking safety with sideline-to-sideline range away from threatening as true contenders.

 

                            Totally Clairvoyant Predictions

If you’ve ever read 4th and Gyas before, and I do sincerely apologize if you have, you know that the only thing I love more than making big predictions is letting everyone know when they turn out to be right. That being said, the playoffs are prime-time for shmucks like me to make all kinds of bold claims and just blame the “unpredictability and great parity of the NFL” when we’re completely wrong. Let’s talk about this weekend’s slate of matchups, shall we? (Home teams in all caps)

 

Saturday, Jan. 7th

  • TEXANS vs Raiders, 1:35pm PST

This could very well end up being the worst quarterback matchup we’ve ever witnessed in the playoffs. In one corner you’ve got Brock Osweiler, benched for a guy with an exponentially cooler name and slightly better throwing arm, and in the other corner you’ve got Connor Cook, whose last start was a blowout loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff. That’s because, you know, he’s a rookie getting his first start in a playoff game on the road. The Texans offense does feature the bright spot of inhumanly talented receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but his presence may be nullified by Osweiler’s inability to actually get the ball to him, which any fantasy football owner can tell you about at length. The x-factor in this unavoidably abysmal game will be Khalil Mack, Oakland’s galaxy-devouring linebacker. Or wait, is he a defensive end? Trick question, it doesn’t matter because he was named an All-Pro at both positions last season. It also doesn’t matter because Mack could line up at deep safety in a prevent cover-3 and he would still be tossing your favorite QB into the stands within three seconds of the snap. Mack finished the season with 11 sacks and 5 forced fumbles, and somehow that doesn’t even begin to tell the story of his impact week in and week out. The Raiders will feel the loss of Derek Carr in these playoffs, but on Saturday Brock Thirdandlongweiler will take the pressure off of Cook’s shoulders. Raiders 20, Texans 13

  • SEAHAWKS vs Lions, 5:15pm PST

The Seahawks of the last four years are kind of like if the Lions were looking into the Mirror of Erised from Harry Potter that shows you your deepest desires. The Lions have only dreamed of the kind of dominant run game that Seattle has featured in the Russell Wilson era, not to mention those aggressive defensive backs that play the ball at its highest point with actual success. About those DBs though, Detroit’s short pass overload style of offense may be their perfect foil. Seattle’s defense is designed to give an opponent room to pass within 0-5 yards and eliminate any hope of a deep pass with the ever-lurking Earl Thomas, who seems to apparate around the field at will. Unfortunately for the Legion of Boom, Earl Thomas is injured and contemplating retirement while opposing quarterbacks attack the center of the field he once roamed with so much authority. Besides, Matt Stafford is just fine with throwing five-yard passes because Golden Tate has a knack of turning those into big gains and long touchdowns. Detroit also finds itself with an injured defensive back problem on its hands, and no member of that defense was ever Earl Thomas to begin with. Russell Wilson likes to test a defense deep early and often, but with Tyler Lockett’s broken leg flopping around somewhere the Seahawks’ facility, that may be easier said than done on Saturday. Still, Seattle is the scariest team in the NFL come playoff time until proven otherwise. Seahawks 34, Lions 23

Sunday, Jan. 8th

  • STEELERS vs Dolphins, 10:05am PST

When the Steelers and Dolphins met earlier in the regular season, Miami took home a 30-15 victory. The Dolphin defense intercepted Ben Roeslithberger twice and breakout back Jay Ajayi rushed for 204 yards and 2 tds. That game was a perfect base sample for these two teams and how they’re structured. See, Miami’s 30 points that day came without a single touchdown thrown by Ryan Tannehill. This offense isn’t dependent on a quarterback throwing for 3-400 yards and a few touchdowns every week. As long as the running game is successful, and I would call 222 total yards successful, the threat of a quarterback like Big Ben is nullified because he’s not on the field. When the defense does have to do their part is when the second key for Miami comes into play. Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake force their way into the opposing backfield play after play with a wide range of blitz options. At the second level, utility linebacker Kiko Alonso prowls for short passes that he can intercept, or otherwise punish whoever might be catching them. Finally, Miami’s aggressive defensive backs, led by cornerback Byron Maxwell and safety Reshad Jones, patrol the deep third of the field. Just like their earlier matchup, Miami will want to goad Roeslithberger into making mistakes downfield. Pittsburgh is similar in their desire to work from the run game outward. If do-everything back Le’Veon Bell finds running lanes early, the Steelers will continue giving him the ball until the defense is completely committed to stopping Bell, then attack deep with Antonio Brown and Eli Rogers. Miami will have to frustrate Pittsburgh on the ground to put the game on Roeslithberger’s arm. Antonio Brown, the best receiver in football, can break this game wide open at any point, but my x-factor here is Cameron Wake. If he can trap Ben in the pocket and consistently apply pressure, Roeslithberger may switch into hero-mode and start tossing ill-advised passes for the secondary to take advantage of. Miami 27, Pittsburgh 24

  • PACKERS vs Giants, 1:40pm PST

This matchup is without a doubt the crown jewel of Wild Card Weekend. Green Bay, the offensive juggernaut riding a red-hot win streak runs right into New *Jersey, the immovable defense giving quarterbacks and receivers nightmares. This game will be won or lost on defense, and at times this year it has felt like the Packers don’t even have one. That’s good news for Eli Manning, because while he hasn’t been an MVP this season, he is fully capable of giving Odell the ball and letting him take advantage of weak secondaries like the one he’ll be facing at Lambeau on Sunday. Beckham has produced over 100 receiving yards four times this season, posting 222 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Ravens in Week 6. Green Bay has another pretty important knock against them in this game – I call it the “State Farm Factor”. The Packers went on a magical run from the Wild Card to the Super Bowl in 2010, defeating the Steelers to bring another Lombardi Trophy to what can technically be called “Title Town”. Shortly after, Aaron Rodgers, Clay Mathews, and other stars began appearing in a slew of commercials, most notably for State Farm. In the next year’s playoffs Green Bay was humiliated by these same Giants, 37-20, after securing a first-round bye. The next year they again fell in the divisional round, 45-31, this time to Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers. Every year, it’s been the same story for Green Bay. Packers fans laud Rodgers as the MVP after turning around early-season struggles and the Cheeseheads get muscled out of the postseason by a team who is not spending their time making State Farm commercials or heating their field. It’s just facts, people. I can’t decide which I’m more excited for in this game – Eli’s expressions when he inevitably throws a terrible interception, or Rodgers pouting and rolling his eyes when his receivers are dropping passes over the middle on third and 6. I can’t wait! Giants 33, Packers 24

There you have it folks, Wild Card Weekend gift-wrapped and tucked in real nice. Now of course, I’m going to predict the rest of the playoffs as a whole just for good measure, but there will be plenty of time to talk about the Super Bowl when the time comes. Forgive me for not having a bracket ready, its 11:04 on Saturday so at this point I’m amazed that I’m still pushing to get this out before the games start.

In the AFC, the Dolphins take down the Steelers and book a reverse-vacation trip to Foxboro in the divisional round. Meanwhile, the Raiders move past Houston and straight to Kansas City. The Chiefs feast on turnovers galore and lock themselves in for the AFC Championship, while New England stomps the Dolphins for a third time this season. Alex Smith can’t keep up with Brady at Gillette and the Patriots book a flight to Houston.

In the NFC, Detroit falls to Seattle and there’s a second set of Hawks in Atlanta for a few days. The Giants pound Rodgers and head back to JerryWorld to try and pull off a full-season sweep of Dak and the ‘Boys in Dallas. In Atlanta’s last home game before they move into their terrifying new stadium, the Falcons out-pace Seattle in a shootout. Third time’s the charm in Dallas and Eli Manning throws a couple awful interceptions to see the Cowboys through to the conference championship. Ultimately, the Cowboys defense can’t contain Atlanta’s onslaught of weapons and the Falcons set their date with the Patriots in Super Bowl LI.

Patriots vs Falcons, Super Bowl LI. Book it, ya turkeys! Alright that’s it for today, go buy some burgers to grill and call your friends over for the games. It’s the playoffs, people. Cherish our beloved football while it’s still here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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