This should have been a perfect weekend for a cold snap to keep everyone inside, glued to the onset of NFL postseason action and intrigue. Instead, all four home cruised to relatively easy victories. That’s a far cry from last year, when the lower-seeded team won every matchup on Wild Card weekend.
$.01--The final game of the weekend had a chance to salvage what had been a yawner of a football weekend. Instead, Green Bay beat up the New York Giants 38-13.
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense shook off a sluggish start and blistered the Giants’ outstanding defense. The Giants squandered a couple of early red zone opportunities and never got shots at later redemption. Rodgers had no such issue, buying an incredible eight seconds by barely moving in the pocket on his first TD strike.
Much will be made of the Giants receivers taking a quick side trip to Miami and posing topless on a yacht on their day off. Odell Beckham and crew did not play well, for certain. They also didn’t give up 38 points to the Packers offense. They didn’t whiff on the blocks that put Eli Manning under duress, notably on the Clay Matthews strip sack which effectively ended any meaningful action. They didn’t allow this…
Should the Giants wideouts have shown better discretion and more professionalism? Sure. It’s disappointing to see them not fully engrossed in preparation. Then again, sometimes the mind and the body need diversions. They had the day off, and they blew off steam while getting some mental decompressing. I won’t defend it and I wouldn’t want anyone on my team to do it, but I understand their rationale. And I’ll bet they’ll never do this again, just as Tony Romo hasn’t gone on a Mexican beach vacation on his bye week since the uproar several years ago. Young players learn, and sometimes the process is painful for fans.
$.02--Houston soundly whipped visiting Oakland 27-14 in the first game of the weekend. The result is not surprising given Oakland’s unfortunate injury circumstances, but that shouldn’t overshadow a really strong performance from Bill O’Brien’s Texans.
Brock Osweiler stepped back into the starting QB role and looked better than he has at just about any point in his first season in Houston. The final numbers don’t look great, but consider he did almost all his passing damage in the first half. That helped Houston carry a 20-7 lead into the break, a margin which was never really challenged.
Oakland’s Connor Cook looked very much like a rookie fourth-rounder making his first career start…on the road…against the NFL’s No. 1 defense…without the starting left tackle. He got no help from his receivers, who dropped an astonishing 10 passes. Houston got a hand on six of his first 14 attempts, including an amazing INT by Jadeveon Clowney to set up Houston’s first touchdown. The Houston defense consistently dictated the action, and it was a rough go for the rookie from Michigan State. Cook did show some signs of competence, but a good throw here and there was small consolation for Raiders fans missing MVP candidate Derek Carr.
Back to Clowney. The 2014 No. 1 overall pick has battled injuries and inhuman expectations in his career. While he’s been very good all season playing defensive end--he earned AP 2nd-Team All-Pro honors--this was Clowney’s national unveiling. He terrorized backup LT Menelik Watson, consistently moving Cook from where and when he wanted to be. Don’t read the box score and see “Clowney - 1 tackle” and think otherwise; watch the game and you’ll see a defensive end ruin an offense.
He had help. A.J. Bouye pitched a shutout in coverage, a development I covered for The Texans Wire. Corey Moore notched his first career INT at safety. Whitney Mercilus was all over the field, too. The Texans defense proved why they led the league in yards allowed and first downs surrendered. They proved they belonged in the playoffs. If Osweiler can play like he did against Oakland, Houston has a chance next weekend.
$.03--Seattle put this Detroit Lions' fan out of his misery with a thorough 26-6 drubbing on Saturday night. The Seahawks toyed with the Lions throughout one of the worst first halves of football all season before exposing the overmatched visitors with a dominant second half.
The Seattle offensive line, by far the weakest positional unit of any of the 12 playoff teams, destroyed Detroit’s defense with the run blocking. Thomas Rawls gashed Detroit for 161 yards on 27 carries, frequently breaking multiple tackles and exposing a slow Lions D lacking any semblance of playmaking talent.
This was more of the Lions most folks expected all season. Detroit overachieved with the historic eight 4th-quarter comebacks, but the road ended abruptly in Seattle. Detroit played the four best teams on its schedule in the final four weeks and lost them all. The plain truth is the team rode a hot quarterback and a great kicker to unexpected victories. I said before the season they were a 6-10 team with a 10-6 schedule, and that’s basically what happened. With the decision to keep Jim Caldwell looking shakier by the day, it’s important to note he had far and away the least amount of talent to work with of any playoff team.
Detroit got no help from yet another incompetent officiating crew, which the NFL itself acknowledged blew at least three calls. The most egregious was not the missed facemask on Paul Richardson’s otherwise amazing one-handed catch for a Seattle TD. No, the worst was the illegal block in the back penalty assessed to Johnson Bademosi…while he covered a punt. That’s not a possible penalty; the defense is never in a situation where it can block, period. The official who threw the flag got confused, and then after the officials conferred they changed the call from a bad one to a literally impossible one. Roger Goodell was in attendance, and hopefully the commissioner heard the groans and knew just how horribly his officials botched yet another game. It’s one thing to miss subjective penalties, but there should never be any procedural errors, certainly not in the postseason.
Seattle just kept on making plays when they needed them, while Detroit could not. Be it a superior roster, playoff experience, coaching mettle or home field advantage, they were clearly the better team. Interestingly, this was the only game where the losing team was within one score at any point in the fourth quarter.
$.04--Pittsburgh put a licking on visiting Miami in the Sunday afternoon game. The final was 30-12, and from what I watched of the game, the score makes the game seem a lot closer than reality.
I would elaborate further on the game, but I’ll be a professional and admit it: this game turned me off quickly. Pittsburgh scored on the first two drives of the game while Miami looked as cold and lifeless as Steven Seagal’s career, so I bailed.
I went and got a haircut. My son and I also stopped into a local sporting goods store and hit the clearance rack for new basketball shorts. When we got back home I unloaded the dishwasher, a move which genuinely astonished my wife, who has handled all things dishes (I do all the cooking) for at least 10 years.
I couldn’t go cold turkey, even on this duck of a contest. I had the game on the radio all the time--save the 10 minute haircut--and it was background viewing during my kitchen work. I saw the hit where Bud Dupree nearly erased Matt Moore from the face of the earth. I saw Le'Veon Bell’s touchdown scamper. I even saw Miami’s late touchdown.
That was more than enough to get the pulse of this game. It was a mismatch on paper and that proved true on the frozen Heinz Field turf, too. Miami had to get a monster game from RB Jay Ajayi, but the Steelers knew it and held him to just 33 yards on 16 carries. The Dolphins couldn’t outmuscle or outhit Pittsburgh, either.
Miami had a fine season and there is no shame in losing the franchise’s first playoff game since 2008 after a 10-win season. Without injured QB Ryan Tannehill, the playoff odds were very long. This was a stepping stone season for rookie coach Adam Gase, and he proved a great fit. Next year they might actually challenge New England for AFC East supremacy. Disappointed Dolphins fans, not to mention anyone who actually watched this entire slog of a game, might have a hard time believing that right now, but it’s absolutely true…with a good offseason and return to health from Tannehill.
This is how my ballot looked for the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) on-field regular season awards, with a brief explanation behind each choice.
MVP - Matt Ryan. I chose the Atlanta quarterback because the Falcons would not have been the No. 2 seed in the NFC without him. That’s a greater accomplishment in my mind than Aaron Rodgers leading the Packers from a bad start (which he contributed to) into the playoffs. Tom Brady and Le'Veon Bell missed too much time due to suspension, and Ezekiel Elliott had the best supporting cast of any viable candidate.
Offensive Player of the Year - Ezekiel Elliott. I don’t allow the MVP to win any other awards so this nod goes to Elliott. Critics point out he runs behind a great offensive line, but they fail to notice other recent Dallas backs have not been nearly so productive behind even better Cowboys’ lines than this one. He is a big reason Dak Prescott thrived and the Dallas defense could take chances.
Defensive Player of the Year - Vic Beasley. The fact some readers are asking themselves “who” is an indictment of how poorly the NFL markets teams outside the big-name (Dallas, Green Bay, New England, Seattle, Pittsburgh) perennial contenders. Beasley led the league in sacks and sparked a defensive renaissance in Atlanta, and he also played the run very well. It’s a shame more people didn’t get to see the Falcons play this year. Landon Collins was second.
Rookie of the Year - Ezekiel Elliott. He’s the most impactful rookie I’ve seen in 12 seasons of being paid to cover the league.
Offensive Rookie - Elliott. In sticking with my earlier criteria I probably should have chosen someone else. Bears RB Jordan Howard would win it if I did so. Tyreek Hill did amazing things but the Chiefs waited too long to unleash him.
Defensive Rookie - Joey Bosa. The Chargers' pass rushing dynamo made it a clean sweep for Ohio State rookies. He missed all of training camp and the first couple of weeks and still lapped the rookie field in QB sacks and hurries. Jalen Ramsey was a close second in a season with few rookie defensive standouts.
Comeback Player - Jordy Nelson. I have a feeling this one winds up being unanimous. Nelson missed all of 2015 with a knee injury. He led the league in touchdowns in 2016.
Most Improved - Bryan Bulaga. I had a lot of candidates in mind here, but Bulaga’s consistency in his improved play as Green Bay’s right tackle won me over. For years he’d been an overrated liability, but he was the best right tackle in the league in 2016. Landon Collins emerged as the best safety in the league for the Giants, but he wasn’t as bad (relatively speaking) as Bulaga had been.
Coach of the Year - Bill Belichick. Hate all you want, but he guided the Patriots to the AFC’s best record with three different starting QBs and missing the most unique offensive weapon in Gronk for half the year. No coach more consistently puts his players in position to succeed and protection from failure than Belichick. Jack Del Rio gets second for instilling the winning attitude back in Oakland.