By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s remarkable, really, that we have more than 1 million kids playing high school football and some 70,000 college football players in this country, yet we can’t get 12 good NFL teams to round out a playoff field. How does that happen?
I don’t think it falls on the shoulders of the players, because talent is not ever lacking on the field on Sunday afternoons (even in Cleveland!). It also can’t fall completely on the shoulders of the coaching; for as much as we like to goof on certain coaches, the game is simple enough for the majority of the 32 adults tasked with leading teams can handle most of the responsibilities. Plus with coordinators on both sides of the ball, and position coaches, and strength and conditioning coaches, and so forth, plenty of systems are in place to ensure that everybody involved with the football team should be at their best.
And yet, here we are. The playoffs are commencing, and in the world’s greatest football league, we don’t have 12 excellent teams. How does that happen?
This year, we’ve got the Bills and Titans in the mix. With apologies to the fine folks of Nashville and Buffalo, those teams are not very good. Both have negative point differentials on the year, with the Bills sitting at a whopping minus-57.
Last year, we had to endure a playoff game quarterbacked by Brock Osweiler and Connor Cook. (It was not good.) The Dolphins also graced us with a decidedly non-playoff-worthy playoff showing. The Lions were also kind enough to lose 26-6 in the wild-card round.
The 2015 Texans had no business being in the playoffs, the 2014 Panthers made the playoffs (and randomly won a game) despite a losing record, and the 2013 Packers were complete pretenders. Every year, there is at least one dud that works to cheapen the thrill of wild-card weekend.
That’s not a complaint, necessarily, but rather a bit of a prologue to what I’m about to do with these picks this weekend.
(Home team in CAPS; Wednesday lines)
KANSAS CITY (-9) over Tennessee
After such a long-winded opening statement inspired by the badness of the Tennessee Titans, I wasn’t going to go ahead and grab those nine points, you know?
The Titans, as has been mentioned, are not very good. On the road, they are especially not very good. They’re 3-5 on the road, with two of those wins coming in Cleveland (in overtime) and Indianapolis.
Marcus Mariota on the road has also been dreadful, as evidenced by his five touchdowns and 11 interceptions and his 69.1 passer rating.
Arrowhead in cold weather is generally not hospitable to visiting quarterbacks, anyway, and that’s held true this year. In December, the trio of Jay Cutler, Philip Rivers and Derek Carr combined to complete 63 of 115 passes (54.8 percent) with three touchdowns and five picks while averaging 241 yards per game and 6.3 yards per attempt. The Chiefs won all three games, by an average margin of 14.7 points.
A ground game might help the Titans keep it close, but DeMarco Murray hurt his knee and almost certainly won’t play. Derrick Henry has averaged 2.25 yards per carry over his last four games.
Basically, if you have plans for Saturday afternoon, keep them. You won’t be missing much.
LOS ANGELES RAMS (-6.5) over Atlanta
I really wanted to believe in the 2017 Falcons, who actually make for quite a story. The whole “28-3” comes up every now and again, but it bears repeating just how devastating a collapse that was in the Super Bowl. I don’t think I was alone in thinking it would send the entire Falcons franchise into a tailspin, from which they would not recover until they gutted the roster and started fresh with a new coach and quarterback. That was a curse-level collapse in Houston.
And when they lost three in a row and four of five from Weeks 4-9, they were following the script. A 23-7 beatdown by the Patriots — the culprits of the franchise’s inevitable demise — proved that the season (and beyond) was indeed doomed.
Then, miraculously, they righted the ship. They beat some good teams. They won on national TV in two consecutive weeks. They finished strong. They processed all 12 stages of grief in rapid succession, and all of a sudden they looked like a legitimate football team. They were … kind of fun.
And there is no more fun potential concept in the NFL right now than the possibility of a Super Bowl rematch. I might tune in, personally speaking. I’d watch the whole darn game.
But unfortunately for the Falcons, they’re running in to the NFC’s most complete football team.
The Rams led the NFL in scoring. They can pass. They can run. They can force turnovers.
The Greg Zuerlein injury is sneaky huge for the Rams, and a kick from Sam Ficken could end up making of breaking their season this month. (My money’s on the latter.)
But that shouldn’t factor in to Saturday night’s game. The Rams are just the comprehensively better football team.
JACKSONVILLE (-9) over Buffalo
The Bills’ story is great, and we’re all happy (I guess?) for the long-suffering fans from Buffalo. But I hope they had their fun last Sunday night, because they’ll be lucky to score a point in Jacksonville.
That may seem like an overstatement … but it’s not.
The Bills scored just 18.9 points per game this year (22nd in the NFL) and gained 302.6 yards per game (29th in the NFL). Now they’re going on the road to face the No. 2 scoring and No. 2 overall defense in the NFL.
And they’re going to be doing without their only offensive weapon. LeSean McCoy single-handedly accounted for more than 30 percent of Buffalo’s offensive yards from scrimmage. He had 287 rushing attempts; the next-closest running back was Mike Tolbert … with 66. Travaris Cadet was third with … 22, and even he won’t be there on Sunday due to a gruesome ankle injury suffered in Week 16.
McCoy also was Tyrod Taylor’s most-targeted receiver with 77 targets on the year, so Taylor will be left to either force throws to Charles Clay and Zay Jones, or hold on to the ball too long and get sacked. Oh, the Jaguars ranked second in sacks, too. And Taylor was sacked 46 times, which was third-most in the NFL. I should have mentioned that. And now I just have.
It’s going to be brrrrrutal to watch the Bills trying to move the ball against the Jaguars, and Leonard Fournette should have no problems cutting up Buffalo’s run defense, which ranked 25th in yards allowed per rush and allowed the most rushing touchdowns in the entire NFL (22).
So, congrats to the Bills for breaking the postseason drought. But the Bills are certain to remain winless in the postseason since 1995.
NEW ORLEANS (-7) over Carolina
The one underdog I’d potentially fall for this weekend is Carolina. (David Puddy voice) As you can see, I did not fall for Carolina.
If there is an underdog that has a real chance to win, of course, it’s the Panthers, no doubt. They’re a perfectly all right football team, and who knows — maybe Greg Olsen will be the difference-maker.
But there are a few issues with the Panthers. Namely, they can’t defend the pass (28th in the league). And they can’t pass (18th).
In a playoff game in New Orleans? That might prove problematic.
I know people will say “it’s hard to beat the same team three times in a season,” and maybe there’s some truth to that … except there isn’t. A team has completed a three-game sweep 13 out of 20 times since 1970. And the Panthers not only lost both games to the Saints, but lost against the spread both as five-point favorites and 5.5-point underdogs.
Could the Panthers end up bucking the trend? Sure, it would not be historically shocking. But with late-season divisional losses in Atlanta and in New Orleans, the Panthers are just too inconsistent to trust in a spot like this.
So there it is; enjoy your chalk on this wonderful wild-card weekend. This year, the playoffs don’t really begin until the divisional round.
Last week: 9-7
Regular Season: 121-123-12