The second phase of the 2016 season is complete.After the exhibition season that defined August, the 256-game regular season concluded Sunday night and the most important phase – the Playoffs – gets underway this weekend.
As is typical of most seasons, there is a significant change in the makeup of the 12-team Playoff field. Six teams that made the Playoffs last season are back for this season’s road to Super Bowl 51. Green Bay, Houston, Kansas City, New England, Pittsburgh and Seattle are returning and trying to do what none of the group did last season – make it through their conference and play in the Super Bowl in Houston, Texas on February 5.
The six-team turnover this season finds Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, Miami, the New York Giants and Oakland replacing Arizona, Carolina, Cincinnati, Denver, Minnesota and Washington. For the first time in more than a dozen years neither of the teams that played in the previous season’s Super Bowl even made it back to the Playoffs the next season, and defending champion Denver and runner up Carolina ended their seasons on Sunday.
Interestingly, the last time this happened was following the 2002 season when both Oakland and Tampa Bay failed to make the Playoffs in 2003. It was the second straight season in which neither Super Bowl team made it back to the Playoffs as both New England and St. Louis failed to make the 2002 Playoffs after the Patriots had upset the Rams in Super Bowl 35 the previous season.
And two seasons earlier the same phenomenon occurred, so three times in four seasons the defending conference champions failed to make the Playoffs. Prior to this season, those three occurrences were the only times it occurred since the Playoffs were expanded from 10 to 12 teams back in 1990.
The overall quality of this season’s Playoffs field can be considered rather weak on several levels.
In each of the four Wild Card games the road team has allowed more yards than they gained during the regular season led by Miami. The Dolphins allowed an average of 49 more yards (382 per game) than they gained (333). Oakland was minus 3 ypg, the Giants minus 10 and Detroit minus 16.
And the number two AFC seed, Kansas City, was outgained by an average of 25 yards per game.
Average yards per game may not be the best measure of ability or lack thereof. Yards per play is considered by many analysts a better measure of ability and efficiency. Both Oakland and Houston had negative yard per play differentials.The Raiders and Texans were the same minus 0.4 yards per play. Detroit was also minus 0.4 ypp and Green Bay, surprisingly, was minus 0.2 ypp.
Three of the dozen Playoff teams allowed more points than they scored during the regular season, led by Houston (minus 3.1 points per game) and joined by Detroit (minus 0.8 ppg) and Miami (minus 1.1 ppg).
Six teams in the regular season failed to score at least 30 points even once in any of their 16 games. Two of those teams are in the Playoffs – Houston and the New York Giants.
At the same time, the field has generally played well down the stretch as might be expected of teams making the Playoffs. A full one third of the field enters the Playoffs on winning streaks of four games or more, led by New England and Pittsburgh, both of which are riding seven-game winning streaks.Right behind is Green Bay, winners of six straight. Atlanta has won four in a row.
Five of the Playoff teams enter the postseason off losses but only one of the five – Detroit – has lost more than just its last regular season game. The Lions have lost their last three games, turning a 9-4 Division leading record into a 9-7 Wild Card.
New England will be very tough to beat and deservedly is the clear favorite to win Super Bowl 51. The team itself may not care but Patriots fans certainly do not want to face their Super Bowl nemesis, the Giants, in the Super Bowl. The Giants are looking very much like the team that upset the Pats in both the 2007 and 2011 seasons.
The one team that remains overlooked in the media is Atlanta. The Falcons had a very strong, consistent season and won the NFC South, the only Division in which the last place team won at least six games.
Dallas and Atlanta were the two best teams in the NFC from the start of the season and deserve to be the top two seeds. Green Bay and Seattle have plenty of recent Playoff experience and the Giants have a history of making deep Playoff runs. Only Detroit should be considered a true longshot to emerge as NFC Champion. The NFC Playoffs should provide a very high level of football.
The tough competition faced by the eventual NFL Champ will have that team well prepared to face New England or whichever other team emerges from the AFC.
In the AFC both Houston and Oakland have to be considered longshots to win the Conference championship because of their QB situations. Had the Raiders’ Derek Carr not been injured in week 16 and lost for the season Oakland would have been a real threat to go deep in the Playoffs and would have posed a major challenge to the Patriots. Houston’s chances are very low because of the QB issues.
Miami’s inexperience makes them a different type of longshot than the Raiders or Texans. First season coach Adam Gase has transformed the Dolphins into a team poised to contend for the Playoffs for the next few seasons, although until Brady and coach Bill Belichick retire knocking off the Patriots in the AFC East remains a major challenge.
Both Kansas City and Pittsburgh pose legitimate challenges to New England. The Steelers have an offense that can match the Patriots score for score with a veteran roster and a coach and QB combination that has won a Super Bowl (Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin). The Chiefs play solid defense and have an offense that makes few mistakes.
The NFC Playoffs can be expected to produce more upsets from a seeding standpoint and it would not be a surprise to see the fifth seeded Giants make it to the Super Bowl. But both top seeded Dallas and second seeded Atlanta have earned their first round bye and should advance to the NFC Championship game in Dallas. It would not be a surprise, however, if Atlanta upsets the Cowboys.
AFC Playoffs are being referred to as the “New England Invitational” and for good reasons, many of which were cited above. The Patriots should advance to the AFC Title game and defeat either Pittsburgh or Kansas City.
A matchup of New England versus either Dallas or Atlanta would make for a very entertaining game with a Total likely in the mid to upper 50s. We’ll know in a few weeks if we get that matchup for Super Bowl 51.
Oakland +3.5 at Houston (37): Oakland is in the Playoffs for the first time since their Super Bowl season of 2002. Houston is in the Playoffs for a second straight season and for the fourth time in six seasons. Better defense and the home field should be the difference although the Raiders will bring great intensity to this game, seeking to show they can overcome the adversity created by the loss of Derek Carr. But with third stringer Connor Cook suddenly thrust under center, the lack of experience could create issues with timing and false starts, especially in a road environment. The better defense combined with the home field are enough to forecast that the Texans advance to face New England next week. HOUSTON/UNDER
Detroit +8 at Seattle (42.5): Detroit allowed over 150 rushing yards in each of its last two games and the defense, which had held eight straight foes to 20 points or less, allowed 42 and 31 points against a pair of Playoff teams, Dallas and Green Bay, in their final two games. Seattle will be relatively fresh since they cruised into the Playoffs with no “must win” games down the stretch. They have always had a very strong home field with great crowd support.
Don’t forget, while Seattle was still playing meaningful football the Seahawks went into Foxboro and dealt New England its only home loss this season. Detroit QB Matthew Stafford has a long history of struggling against winning football teams, especially on the road. Despite the high number Seattle is well positioned to get a solid win and advance to the Divisional round. SEATTLE/OVER
Miami +10 at Pittsburgh (47): Miami upset Pittsburgh 30-15 earlier this season as 7.5 point home underdogs. It was a brilliant offensive display by the Dolphins, who ran for 222 yards and passed for 252 yards in what was the first of six straight wins to overcome a 1-4 start. It can several games for a new coach to get a handle on the strengths and weaknesses of his team; such appears to have been the case with Gase and the Dolphins.
Pittsburgh has played in 11 Playoffs games over the past decade, most of them have been close and tightly contested. Of those 11 games, 8 have been decided by 7 points or less, including 6 of the 7 played since 2010. MIAMI/OVER
NY Giants +4.5 at Green Bay (44.5): This may be the most intriguing of the Wild Card games. The Packers have lost 3 of 6 home Playoff games since 2007 and two of them have been to the Giants. The Giants went on to win the Super Bowl in both seasons. A pair of veteran Super Bowl winning QBs match up with potential league MVP Aaron Rodgers directing the Pack and Eli Manning running the offense for the G-Men. The Giants bring the better defense into this game but also the more turnover prone offense. But the Giants may have the biggest “big play” threat in WR Odell Beckham Jr. Rodgers has his own stable of quality receivers.
Green Bay’s rushing offense has been below average but was very productive in two of its last three games and the Pack enters the Playoffs having won six in a row. Despite Manning’s flaws and what has been a below average season for him statistically, his leadership ability is second to few and he’s consistently found a way to make the big play at the key time. Of the four Wild Card games this one has the highest possibility of producing an upset, one that would surprise very few. The cold weather should not bother the Giants and do not be surprised if this game is decided either on the final possession or in OT. GIANTS/UNDER
Last week: 8-8