Previewing The NFL Divisional Round
Have you noticed? It’s surreal.
The air seems cleaner. Food tastes better. The most foul bottle of water (cough, Dasani) rolls off your tongue like ambrosia. I just want to wrap myself in this feeling and slowly fall into a deep sleep and eventually die.
That’s how wonderful it is to no longer have the New England Patriots involved in the NFL playoffs. If you want to lob the “hater” grenade my way, that’s fine. I’ll happily fall on that. The American public has been spared the torture of watching Tom Brady skate through two home games to reach another Super Bowl.
And that’s a reason to celebrate. Let’s break down the other reasons to celebrate, since it’s the new year and it’s playoff time.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
The Patriots are gone
Sorry, it’s just worth repeating again.
Whiners don’t prosper
Sean Payton is a talented head coach. That is not in dispute. He’s also a first-class gasbag and crybaby who deserves most of the on-field misfortune that comes his way. So, it warmed the heart to see what happened in the Saints’ divisional round loss to the Vikings.
After Payton spent all offseason boo-hooing and blubbering about how his team got screwed by the infamous non-call against the Rams in last season’s NFC title game, the NFL decided to make pass interference reviewable. Wonderful. Well, the replay officials must not have got the memo because it appeared they went out of their way in the regular season to never overturn a call made (or not made) on the field.
So, when Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph seemingly pushed off a bit and caught the game-winning touchdown pass in overtime last week, the world held their breath to see if the booth would rule it pass interference.
Negative. Not only did they not rule it pass interference, they didn’t even bother with a review. Glorious.
The NFC East is gone
The league’s most putrid division didn’t deserve to have a playoff entrant. And while it was a bummer to see Carson Wentz go down with a concussion, having the Eagles get eliminated is truly for the greater good of the league.
Alabama Heisman winners can play
Derrick Henry is the reason we’re Patriot-free. He went old-school last week, carrying the ball 34 times (yes, it can be done) and trucking defenders en route to 182 rushing yards and a touchdown. And this was in Foxborough, by the way.
Meanwhile, Mark Ingram is a big reason why the Ravens averaged a league-high 201.6 rushing yards per game this season. The only negative is that he’s dealing with a calf injury and hasn’t practiced this week. He’s considered day-to-day, so at least the door isn’t closed on him playing Saturday night.
We like that!
Ignore the talking heads. Most people in this great country are capable of feeling joy for another person. And that person is Kirk Cousins, who despite the shortcomings on his resume, finally got a playoff win under his belt.
And no, that doesn’t erase his past. We all know he has an awful record in Monday night games. Yes, he’s less-than-stellar against teams with winning records. But dammit, there’s time for all that later.
For now, can we just be happy for him? Let him have some fun. It will probably come crashing down on his head this weekend anyway. Then we can go back to our regularly scheduled bash Cousins programming.
January at Lambeau Field
There’s nothing more appropriate. As we celebrate the NFL’s 100th season, don’t we deserve to see playoff football in Green Bay? The Packers are something of an enigma as they finished the regular season with a 13-3 record and yet, nobody seems to like their chances of reaching the Super Bowl.
But that doesn’t matter. Win or lose, we get to see real men play real football in the cold. I’m praying for inches of snow.
Did I mention …
The Patriots have been eliminated? It never gets old, right?
WHAT’S THE CHATTER?
Home on the range: Admit it, you didn’t think this day would come. Deal with it. Jason Garrett is no longer the coach of the Dallas Cowboys. The days of hovering around .500 with an occasional blip of double-digit wins are over. Or so we think.
Taking Garrett’s place is none other than Mike McCarthy. The man who was unceremoniously booted out of Green Bay after last season. It wasn’t bad enough that he was fired, the team stabbed him in the back on the way out by bashing his coaching style and even insinuating that he would get massages instead of attending meetings.
Which makes him the perfect hire. Jerry Jones doesn’t want a free thinker. Nor does he desire to hire someone with an independent streak. Jones really wants someone who is just grateful to have a job and therefore will be willing to put up with his bucket of nonsense.
Good luck, Mike!
He’s not leaving: While the nation is more than happy to take a victory lap after New England’s demise, don’t think that Tom Brady is just going to ride off into the sunset. There’s no way he’s going to let his storied NFL career end on a pick-six. He intimated on Instagram that he still has unfinished business and will be returning for another season.
Whether that will be in New England is anyone’s guess.
Ratings bonanza: Remember when everyone was freaking out over sinking TV ratings. People were quick to blame player protests, concern over concussions, you name it. Yeah, those days are gone. The data is out and NFL games made up 41 of the top 50 broadcasts of 2019. So, maybe people can stop with the “game is dying” hot takes.
Rooney rule? There are three African American head coaches in the NFL. When the majority of the league’s players are from that racial group, that’s a troubling statistic. The worst part is, I don’t have a good way to change that. The Rooney Rule was supposed to get more African American head coaches in the mix for jobs, but they’re increasingly being used as pawns to interview and then quickly cast aside to make way for the team’s true candidate. That’s unacceptable.
DIVISIONAL ROUND MATCHUPS
Vikings vs. 49ers — Saturday, 4:35 PM ET
San Francisco had last week to rest up and get prepped. However, no amount of prep work can truly get someone ready for the intensity of playoff football. And for the most part, the 49ers roster is filled with players who have yet to play January football. They have all the talent in the world, but sometimes people shrink under the lights.
Will Jimmy Garropolo stand confident in the pocket or will he force throws and turn the ball over? The 49ers’ fortune will be tied to that.
Because in every other facet of the game, they should dominate. Their defensive front seven should be able to tee off on Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook with a raucous home crowd behind them, especially if they get out to an early lead. Richard Sherman should lock up Adam Thielen, leaving the rest of the secondary to handle the rest.
My pick: 49ers
Titans at Ravens — Saturday, 8:15 PM ET
Here we go, Baltimore! After a 14-2 regular season that came seemingly out of nowhere, here’s your first chance to see if that success carries over into January. No pressure or anything, right?
On paper, this should be a breeze. When it comes to pretty much every position group, the Ravens have the edge. However, there’s one spot of concern. If the Titans hope for a shot at a win, they need to contain Lamar Jackson. They’re probably not going to do it defensively. No, that ship has sailed. They best way to contain Jackson is to keep him off the field.
And this is where Derrick Henry comes in. If he can carry the load the way he did last week, the Titans can control the clock and keep Jackson from getting into a rhythm. In fact, this could end up being the shortest game of the weekend (according to the actual clock). Sounds easy until you remember the Ravens defense is fifth in the league against the run, allowing just 93 yards per game.
Sorry, Tennessee. Your train probably stops here.
My pick: Ravens
Texans at Chiefs — Sunday, 3:05 PM ET
People like to make fun of Kansas City’s defense. But here’s an interesting nugget: Starting on Nov. 18, they haven’t allowed a team to score more than 21 points in a game. In three of those six games, they’ve allowed less than 10.
And yet, there is some reason for concern. The Texans were fortunate to escape the wild card round with a win, but that was against a fierce Bills defense. The Chiefs, while not the disgrace they were in 2018, don’t measure up. The one thing they don’t want to happen is to let Deshaun Watson get comfortable in the pocket and start picking them apart.
That doesn’t mean that Patrick Mahomes can’t keep up. Of course he can. However, with the lack of a consistent running game, the last thing the Chiefs want is to need a score late in the game with J.J. Watt (despite not being 100 percent) breathing down your neck. That’s how upsets happen.
That being said, I don’t think it will.
My pick: Chiefs
Seahawks at Packers — Sunday, 6:40 PM ET
This ain’t your daddy’s Seahawks. No, sir. This isn’t a team that coasts into the playoffs with a perfect home record along with a few road wins.
Seattle turned the tables in 2019 by finishing 7-1 on the road and 4-4 at home. Weird, right? So, don’t expect to see Russell Wilson flinch even a little bit in the cold at Lambeau Field. The big issue is their running game as they lost their top three running backs to season-ending injuries, only to bring Marshawn Lynch back in time for the postseason.
Will he be enough? Will the Seahawks’ battered offensive line be able to withstand Mike Pettine’s defense? That’s up to the Packers.
You can guarantee that Green Bay wants this win in the worst way. They’ve suffered too many losses at the hands of the Seahawks and now they have them right where they want them. There will be no CenturyLink Field shenanigans this time.
Or … will there?
My pick: Seahawks
Currently a Mobile Editor at Yahoo, Saraf spent 5.5 years (Oct. 2010 - Feb. 2016) working for FOX Sports as an NFL Editor and Writer. Prior to that, Saraf worked for CBS Interactive for 4.5 years (May 2006 - Oct. 2010) as a Staff Editor.