Monthly Archives: January 2019

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Reason to be excited: Sean McVay. The second-year coach never has coached on a stage of this magnitude, but over two seasons, the offensive wunderkind has proved his innate leadership ability and willingness to evolve as a playcaller. McVay’s offense is full of weapons, including a much-improved quarterback in Goff, a dynamic duo in Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, and two 1,000-plus-yard receivers in Cooks and Woods. And recently, he has found a way to keep defenses on edge in utilizing every single one of them. Goff was 7-of-7 for 107 yards when targeting Cooks in the NFC Championship Game. — Lindsey Thiry

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Reason to be concerned: Experience. There’s no telling how a team of young playmakers will react when they take the field for the biggest game of their careers. They showed their poise in a divisional-round win and in the NFC Championship Game, but Cooks and cornerback Aqib Talib are the only offensive and defensive starters with Super Bowl experience. — Thiry

Rams will win if …: they avoid turnovers. A common denominator in all three of the Rams’ regular-season losses were turnovers by Goff; he threw an interception against the Saints, threw four against the Bears and was responsible for two turnovers in a loss to the Eagles. If Goff can take care of the football, the Rams can win the Super Bowl. — Thiry

X factor: Woods caught 86 passes for 1,219 yards during the regular season. He also added six scores in a system that fits his skill set. Look for Woods to show up running intermediate cuts off the Rams’ early-down play-action concepts, while also creating separation on deep crossing routes. And when Goff can throw in rhythm, Woods will find the open voids in the coverage to move the sticks. He’s a slick route runner with the toughness to make plays inside the numbers versus both zone and man coverage. — Bowen

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Patriots’ best chance to win: Run the ball and keep Patrick Mahomes off the field. As easy a time as Tom Brady had Sunday, a big reason the Patriots were so dominant was their Sony Michel-led run game, which helped bleed off the first quarter before Philip Rivers even took the field. New England had the fifth-most rushing yards and the fourth-most rushing touchdowns in the league this season. The Patriots averaged a time of possession of 32 minutes, 21 seconds in their wins and 28:17 in their losses. Against Mahomes, who had 50 touchdown passes this season, and a Chiefs run game that rolled up 180 yards in Saturday’s home playoff victory over the Colts, it’s vital the Patriots control the ball, the clock and the game with their offense.

Early Vegas game lines
From Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook
Chiefs’ best chance to win: Well, based on Sunday, it’s obviously not “load up on defensive backs, sit back in an insanely soft zone and let Brady pick you apart as if he’s playing on a football-toss machine at Dave & Buster’s.” That didn’t work too well for the Chargers. No, the Chiefs’ best chance to win is to do what they did Saturday and play out of their minds on defense. Kansas City was able to pressure Andrew Luck just enough (especially considering how hard that was to do in 2018) while their corners covered as well as they have all season. If Kansas City’s defense can crank it up at home again the way it did in the divisional round, the Chiefs will make it a lot tougher on the Patriots than the Chargers did. But that isn’t saying much.

Stat to know: Chiefs coach Andy Reid is 1-4 all-time in conference championship games — all in the NFC while he was coaching the Eagles, and none since 2008. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, meanwhile, is 8-4 all-time in conference championship games (all with the Patriots). Belichick will be coaching in his eighth consecutive AFC Championship Game and has won the past two.

Bottom line: The game is at Kansas City, not Foxborough, Massachusetts, and that could make the difference. During the Brady/Belichick era, the Patriots are 20-3 in postseason home games, but just 3-4 in playoff games as the visiting team. They haven’t won a road playoff game and the Super Bowl in the same season since 2004. The past two times they played an AFC Championship Game on the road, they lost — in Denver three and five years ago. This season, the Patriots are 9-0 at home and 3-5 on the road, including double-digit losses at Jacksonville, Detroit and Tennessee. The Chiefs are 8-1 at home. When they faced the Patriots in Week 6, it was in Foxborough, and New England beat them 43-40 on a last-second field goal in a game that featured 30 combined fourth-quarter points. This should be a classic rematch, and the fact that it’s in the Chiefs’ building would seem to give them a chance to slay the league’s most fearsome January dragon.

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Mack finished the Eagles game with two quarterback hits, and the Eagles did little running the football, but the Bears’ pass-rushers were anonymous by their usual lofty standards. Mack spent most of the game matched up against Jason Peters on the left side — by my count, 25 of Mack’s 40 snaps against Eagles pass attempts came with him on the edge against Peters — but the legendary Eagles left tackle held his own. Perhaps curiously, the Bears chose to line up Mack on the interior only twice, with zero snaps pitting Mack directly against Eagles left guard Isaac Seumalo, the weakest point of the Philadelphia offensive line. Both snaps with Mack inside Floyd produced Foles incompletions.
Nick Foles completed 25 of 40 passes for 266 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions against the Bears. Photo by Tannen Maury, EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
Pressure did produce a truly awful interception from a scrambling Foles, one of two picks from the 29-year-old on the day. The other throw was perhaps more frustrating, with a Foles checkdown placed on the wrong side of Wendell Smallwood’s body. Smallwood should have been able to shield the ball from Roquan Smith, who ripped it away for the interception, but if Foles places the ball on the opposite hip, Smallwood either catches it or the pass falls incomplete.

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Otherwise, Foles was very good given the circumstances. He picked on All-Pro corner Kyle Fuller early with throws to Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery, who finished his revenge game with six catches for 82 yards. Forgotten trade acquisition Golden Tate finished with five catches for 46 yards, including a deep post where Foles managed to thread a throw between triple coverage and the game-winning fourth-down pass on a quick out.

Both plays capitalized on missing Bears starters. Chicago finished the season as one of the healthiest defenses in football, but its two missing regulars in the secondary would have made a difference. While star safety Eddie Jackson was active after missing the final two weeks of the regular season with an ankle injury, the Alabama product never saw the field. Cornerback Sherrick McManis, who took over in the slot after Bryce Callahan hit injured reserve in December, was the player Tate beat for the game-winning touchdown.

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New Year’s resolution: Surround Tom Brady with more explosive playmakers. The Patriots made 26 transactions at wide receiver since 2017 training camp began, which reflected their struggles to decisively address the position. That put more of the burden on the 41-year-old Brady, who invested heavily in bringing along Josh Gordon before the receiver was lost to an indefinite NFL suspension in mid-December. — Mike Reiss
7. Houston Texans (11-5)
Week 17 ranking: 7

New Year’s resolution: Make the offensive line the priority in free agency and the NFL draft so you can ensure Deshaun Watson is able to remain on the field. The Texans gave up an NFL-high 62 sacks in the regular season. Watson has been sacked 81 times in 23 career games; he can’t continue to take that kind of beating. The Texans need to bring in an offensive lineman in free agency and target one of the top offensive tackles in the draft. — Turron Davenport
8. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
Week 17 ranking: 8

New Year’s resolution: Develop Lamar Jackson as a passer. There’s no question Jackson is an electric runner and a poised leader. The next step in Jackson’s evolution is in the passing game. In seven starts, Jackson completed 58.2 percent of this passes, throwing five touchdowns and three interceptions (82.6 passer rating). With a full offseason, teams are going to pick apart Baltimore’s dominant rushing attack. To counter that, Jackson has to become more consistent with his throws. — Jamison Hensley

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9. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
Week 17 ranking: 9

New Year’s resolution: Tighten things up on defense. One of the hallmarks of Pete Carroll’s Seahawks teams has been that they rarely give up big gains, but that hasn’t been the case this season. The Seahawks have allowed 5.92 yards per play, easily the most in any of Carroll’s nine seasons in Seattle and almost a full yard more than they allowed in 2017. Adding a playmaker at safety or linebacker this offseason would help, but the Seahawks will need the improvement to come from within during the playoffs, especially if they run into a big-play offense such as that of the Rams or Saints. — Brady Henderson
10. Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
Week 17 ranking: 10

New Year’s resolution: Acquire a complementary receiver to go with T.Y. Hilton. The Colts’ second-best receiver has been tight end Eric Ebron, who had a team-high 13 touchdown catches during the regular season. Dontrelle Inman, who was signed after Week 6 because of injuries at the position, moved all the way up to the No. 2 receiver by late in the season. But he turns 30 at the end of January. Getting a young No. 2 receiver — or one just as good as Hilton — will make an already impressive offense that finished sixth overall even better. — Mike Wells
11. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
Week 17 ranking: 12

New Year’s resolution: Reach a long-term deal with DeMarcus Lawrence. The Cowboys wanted Lawrence to prove he was not a one-hit wonder after he recorded 14.5 sacks in 2017, so they placed the franchise tag on him. He answered in 2018 with another Pro Bowl season and 10.5 more sacks. The Cowboys have a history of keeping their own players off the market, and Jerry Jones has sought a “war daddy” pass-rusher since DeMarcus Ware’s departure. Lawrence has shown he is one of the best pass-rushers in the league, and the Cowboys will have the cap room necessary to keep him. — Todd Archer