Hurley’s Picks: Questioning NFL’s Stability Ahead Of Divisional Playoff Weekend

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — If there’s one thing the NFL values as it maintains its place as the most powerful sports league in the world, it is this: stability.

Why else would the league have kept Roger Goodell as its commissioner amid a firestorm of controversy following the public release of the Ray Rice tape? Of course, any league seeking a PR boost would have removed Goodell, chastised his unethical ways, and installed a new man to run the operation and vow to do it in a better fashion than his predecessor.

But instead, in the name of stability, the NFL weathered the storm and came out mostly unscathed. The country largely moved on as soon as the football games began, and the owners didn’t have to explain to sponsors, television networks, advertisers and business partners why they were forced to undergo a change atop the organization.

Stability won the day for the sake of business (and making money) over public relations.

It was a shrewd business move, one that NFL owners are quite fond of making. Yet, looking at the NFL at this very moment, it sure seems like instability has crept in quite a bit.

On Thursday, the Chargers made their impending move to Los Angeles official. This is a move that benefits very few (rich) men and seems destined to fail. The Los Angeles market had enough trouble supporting one franchise this year, as evidenced by its attendance figures (mediocre for a city that was just given an NFL franchise for the first time in decades, especially in the second-largest city in the country) and unimpressive TV ratings. Now, that same market is about to get saturated with another NFL team, one that just went 5-11 and was the only team in the NFL to lose to the Cleveland Browns all year.

Meanwhile, for the second time in as many years, the NFL is sending the moving trucks in to take away a franchise from a city that had long supported a team. That is, most certainly, bad business.

And when the Raiders move from Oakland to Las Vegas in the name of more earning potential, on the heels of their best season in years and their first postseason appearance since 2002, leaving behind arguably the most passionate fan base in sports? Well, that will be worse than the St. Louis and San Diego robberies combined.

Zooming out even more, this is not the greatest time for league in general. Yes, they’re still a powerhouse in the ratings compared to other sports, but their dominance is slipping. Americans still love watching football … but not as much as they love watching “The Big Bang Theory.” Overall ratings dropped 8 percent, and it led to Derek Thompson of The Atlantic summarizing things thusly:

At best, televised football is no longer a growth industry, but merely a strong business that has peaked. At worst, this is the beginning of a period of steady decline for the one thing on traditional television that was never supposed to waver.

There’s no doubt that the sideshow nature of the presidential election stole some viewers from the NFL this past fall, but there’s also an undeniable development that the product is getting worse before our eyes. There are, anecdotally and unscientifically, at least 10 teams which a national audience has zero interest in watching. Yet the league throws Titans-Jaguars out there in prime time with the hope that some odd-colored jerseys will close the ratings gap.

Plus, it’s a quarterback league. But Peyton Manning retired, leaving Tom Brady (39, unnecessarily suspended for four games), Drew Brees (37 ), Eli Manning (36), Joe Flacco (31), Aaron Rodgers (33), Ben Roethlisberger (34) and Russell Wilson (28) as the only active QBs with a Super Bowl win to their name. While Wilson represents the most promising of the younger QBs in the league (and while Dak Prescott may wind up being the real deal), there’s no denying the dearth of elite quarterbacks rising up through the ranks.

Combine that lack of quarterback talent with the constant carousel of head coaches who look more and more overmatched each year, and the future does not look particularly bright for the league.

That’s not to say the league will close its doors and be forced to hold those famed bake sales any time soon. The league is thriving financially by most standards. Gary Bettman would likely be willing to sacrifice an arm and some toes for the NHL to get the kind of ratings and TV contracts that the NFL generates. That’s all obvious.

But a closer look at everything — especially coming off a brutal wild-card weekend in which the average margin of victory in four games was 19 points — shows that things are not quite as in order as they were not too long ago.

Can it rebound? Sure. Probably. These guys are skillful businessmen, and they tend to find a way. But for the first time in a long time, they’re going to have to work for it.

Now let’s get on to some picks, with the hope that this weekend brings some more interesting action than last weekend.

(Home team in CAPS; Thursday lines)

Seattle (+5) over ATLANTA
I actually think Atlanta can do it. I think the Falcons can win the dang game. I really do.

But it will not be easy. Nothing against Seattle ever is.

The absence of Earl Thomas does make it easier to believe that soon-to-be league MVP Matt Ryan will do enough to win the football game. But I can’t help but feel like it may be of the skin-of-their teeth variety, rather than the convincing-playoff-win-that-lets-everybody-know-you’re-legit variety.

The Falcons may have boasted the second-best point differential in the NFL this season at plus-134, but in their four games against playoff teams, they went 2-2 with a plus-5 point differential.

That included, of course, a meeting with the Seahawks in Seattle, when Tony Corrente’s officiating crew the Seahawks narrowly defeated the Falcons, 26-24. Three months later, the results of that game mean little outside of the fact that the two teams matched up fairly evenly.

Comparing resumes against postseason teams, the Seahawks went 3-1, but that loss was a doozy — a 38-10 thumping at Green Bay. The Seahawks have proven to be liable to lay an egg at times this year, and I don’t discount that possibility entirely this weekend. I’ve just learned over the years that it’s best to not get overly confident in betting against Peter Carroll.

I just hope it’s as spectacularly entertaining as the last time these teams met in the postseason.

NEW ENGLAND (-15.5) over Houston
The Patriots are in a different league from the Texans.

And that is pretty much that.

KANSAS CITY (-1.5) over Pittsburgh
Look, if Ben Roethlisberger can’t move, then the game shouldn’t even be played. I’ve seen enough immobile Roethlisberger for five lifetimes; I know how that story goes.

I understand the Steelers are saying that Roethlisberger’s injury is no big deal, but I’m going to don my white coat (and that random circular instrument on my head) and say that it looked bad enough to give me doubts about Large Benjamin’s ability to play quarterback in an NFL playoff game, on the road, against a team that led the league in interceptions and allowed the third-lowest passer rating against in the league.

Doctor Hurley has spoken.

Plus, the Steelers beat up on a Dolphins team that clearly wants nothing to do with being outdoors and also happens to employ Matt Moore as a quarterback, and suddenly they’re a real Super Bowl threat? Let’s relax a touch with that. The Steelers are pretty good, but a 30-12 win over the Dolphins doesn’t catapult them to the front of the pack.

OK OK OK, I know, I’m bypassing the absolute beatdown that the Steelers bestowed upon the Chiefs back in October. I know. I get it. And Roethlisberger’s five-touchdown performance was impressive. But Sammie Coates was the Steelers’ leading receiver that day with six receptions for 79 yards; since then, he has two receptions for 14 yards. And Le’Veon Bell did run all over them, but the Chiefs greatly cleaned up their run defense after getting exposed like that. They allowed just two 100-yard rushers in 12 games after that loss to Pittsburgh, and they ended up allowing just 10 rushing touchdowns all season.

There’s also the fact that Roethlisberger has been pretty darn bad on the road this year:

I don’t love the idea of ever going with Andy Reid and Alex Smith — who does? — and that’s especially true when going up against a team that is perpetually considered to be “battle-tested” and “unafraid” the way the Steelers are. But they are the better team, they are rested, and they are at home. They should win the game.

DALLAS (-4.5) over Green Bay
Aaron Rodgers covers up so many holes on a not-so-great Packers team. It’s unbelievable. The running game is non-existent, the defense stinks, and are we really sure about the head coach? Rodgers makes all of that matter very little. Even after losing Jordy Nelson early in the second quarter, Rodgers put on a show in putting the Packers on his back and leading them to a playoff victory last weekend. As a result, everybody’s going ga-ga for the Packers.

But the problem, you see, is this. They’re not very good!

Again, Rodgers is great — amazing, even. He’s fantastic. And they’re on a nice little run of seven straight wins here. There’s no doubt about that.

But that streak doesn’t tell the whole story. Half those wins came against bum teams, and they came after the Packers got blown out on three consecutive weeks by the likes of Indianapolis, Tennessee and Washington. The winning streak is nice but … people don’t forget.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, just refused to fold all season long. And it all came together in that Week 16 win over Detroit, when the Lions had a chance to clinch the postseason but instead got doubled up by Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Dez Bryant. (Sidebar: Those are some cool first names.)

The reason for such confidence in the Cowboys — beyond the obvious of playing at home and coming off a week of rest — is the ease with which they move the football. That offensive line is just so potent, so domineering, that it’s easy to see the Cowboys put up at least their average of 26 points as they go up against the league’s 21st-ranked scoring defense and 22nd-ranked overall defense. Green Bay also owns the 31st-ranked passing defense. The field will be wide open for Prescott to continue that remarkable run of efficiency and effectiveness.

With those helmets and jerseys and the characters involved, this game is certainly worthy of prime time. But the actual matchup on the field is more lopsided than some might want to believe heading into the weekend.

Last week: 3-1
Regular season: 121-127-8

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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