NFL

NFL Talk: Parity, Coaches Getting Fired, Playoffs, Games to Watch

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The more we avoid it, the more it comes back to haunt us.   

What is it, you say?   

Parity. 

The Playoffs will probably be as big of a dice-roll as the regular season is at this rate too.  When you think someone's dominant, they are exposed.  This week just proved that regardless how good you think someone is, another team comes through and exposes them.  

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We'll also do a 2 part section where I look at the NFC contenders in the playoffs and what it would take to hand these teams a loss in the postseason.  Next week, we'll be covering the AFC as well along with laying out how the playoffs will unfold. 

Plus the head coaching carousel just keeps spinning further to the point that we might have a record 12 head coaching vacancies this off season.  We'll see who's on the hot seat and measure whether they're really safe or not. 

Plus we'll see if we can recover from another upset week of Screamers and Sleepers in this edition of the Weekly Scout's Take! 

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The loss by the Eagles at the hands of the Joe Webb-led Vikings was another prime example of how unpredictable this NFL season has been.  The Minnesota Vikings (6-9), with nothing more to play for than the possible promotion of interim Head Coach Leslie Frazier to full time, were the ones playing as if they had a First-Round bye on the line.  The Eagles (10-5) came out flat and looked as if the extra 2 day layover from the winter storm that hit the NorthEast was more harmful than helpful.   

Rookie QB Joe Webb was the QB that looked more poised in the pocket and prepared to handle pressure thrown at him.  Throwing 17/26 for 195 yards and running for a TD, he looked like the mobile QB who was making plays on the run and left the Eagles defense with more questions about themselves than answers.   

Mike Vick was harassed all night from the very beginning.  Leslie Frazier's aggressive stance on defense was a drastic change from the recognizable lack of effort put on the field by the Vikings the past two weeks.  From the first quarter, the Vikings were sending a varied mix of blitzes from every angle.  They had no real answer for DB Antoine Winfield coming off the edge, who accounted for 2 sacks and a fumble return for a touchdown.  When they were able to cover the outside blitz, it would push Vick into the hands of a rushing defensive lineman.  Vick was sacked a total of 6 times, but hit countless more times. 

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With the Eagles losing to the Vikings, the Chicago Bears were able to secure a First-Round bye in the Playoffs.  The Bears, who are going to Lambeau Field to play the 9-6 Packers for the Pack's own playoff berth, have a very interesting question in front of them now.  With the First-Round bye secured and really no extra motivation to play the Pack, will Bears' Coach Lovie Smith play his starters in the final game? 

Lovie's words to the media were "I was hired to beat the Green Bay Packers, so we'll be out there playing with full effort this Sunday."  Of course, this was also prior to being handed a week off from the Vikings as a parting gift for the 2010 season.  I have to think he'll reconsider this now that the real goal of having an extra week off was accomplished by assisting methods and didn't require any real effort on their part.  I'll be interested to see this, as he'll be facing a Green Bay team that is starting to get hot at the right time and playing inspired football right now. 

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Following the trend of upsets, the aura of invincibility that surrounded the Atlanta Falcons' Georgia Dome has to be fading away after Monday Night's loss at home against the defending champion New Orleans Saints.   

New Orleans, much like Green Bay, is hitting their stride at the right time.  Their passing offense is starting to become more and more explosive, and with a healthy Pierre Thomas back in the line up, the ability of switching between the run and play action has become a threat again.  Drew Brees, although having a career high of interceptions this year, is able to move the ball efficiently this year with over 10 receivers having 20+ catches this season.   

New Orleans is still in the mix for the #1 Seed in the NFC Playoffs, but it would take a miracle from the lowly Carolina Panthers beating Atlanta in the Georgia Dome and them winning against the upstart Buccaneers in the SuperDome.  Not to mention, the Bucs are still alive in the playoff race.  With a Green Bay and Giants loss, all the Bucs would need is to beat the Saints to punch their ticket to the Playoffs.   

This will be a fun weekend of football, i'm willing to bet on that one.   

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With the head coaching lives of so many coaches in jeopardy right now, not to mention already 4 coaches have been let go, let's look at the remaining coaches that seem to be on the hot seat right now and see who will be looking for work next year and who's safe. 

Tom Coughlin, New York Giants - Biggest media market in the country, demanding fan base, and it doesn't help that the Giants are falling apart at the absolute worst time.  Rumors have said that Bill Cowher, former Super Bowl XL winning coach, is interested in the NY job and likes the type of team they have constructed.  Sorry Cowher, but I don't think you'll see Tom lose his job this season.  I know that the New York fan base is a rough and restless group, but he's only in his 3rd season since pulling off the biggest Super Bowl upset in history.  I think the Mara family will remember this when evaluating this offseason. 

Gary Kubiak, Houston Texans - The newest franchise in the NFL has only reached the heights of a 9 win season throughout their tenure in the NFL.  Kubiak, while significantly upgrading their roster and giving them a great offense, has constantly put a lackluster defense on the opposite side of the ball and the fans are speaking out.  There is a group in Texas formed by Houston fans rallying to have Gary Kubiak fired.  With Cowher ironically also speaking interested about the Houston job, I think Kubiak's run in Texas has finally come to an end.  You can put my vote in that he'll be searching for a job this offseason. 

John Fox, Carolina Panthers - I don't even this one deserves much to it since this is seeming like a mutual divorce rather than a firing.  In Fox's latest press conference, he even knows his time in Carolina is done and isn't being bashful at all about it.  Carolina is in shambles and with the other 3 franchises in the NFC making great strides in being much more competitive, I can't see Carolina being a job many coaches are diving after.  It's going to take a lot of work to put this team back together so the next person will have their hands full. 

Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals - I almost want to put this in a similar context that the John Fox situation above is, but it's not as evident.  Lewis's contract is up and he is upset with the lack of personnel control that he's given.  He was a great defensive mind but GM/Owner Mike Brown refuses to give up control on that front.  Lewis's band of talent and attitude in Cincinnati imploded this year to the point it's a mess that i'm not sure he even wants to try and fix.  Lewis I think will be coveted somewhere in the NFL where he'll be offered the ability to have control over personnel, but I think this marriage is finally falling apart. 

Eric Mangini, Cleveland Browns - When GM Mike Holmgren was hired to start constructing a team for the sports-jinxed team of Cleveland to be proud of, the big question would be if the "Man Genius" would survive.  Although the Browns have shown some flashes of being a buzzsaw that no team wanted to face (handily beating New Orleans on the road and dismantling the Patriots at home), they have been way too inconsistent for someone to feel confident that they can survive with the likes of Baltimore and Pittsburgh.  This could be a puzzling situation but I don't believe Mangini survives, not with good friend John Gruden on the market and looking for a team to build and rally around. 

Jack Del Rio, Jacksonville Jaguars - The Jaguars were one of the surprise teams in the NFL this year. No one expected them to be anything worthwhile and just inhabit the cellar of the AFC South.  With them still alive in the division race, I think Del Rio survives 1 more year.  This team has made progress.  They've lost a couple key contributors to injury and even still managed to be competitive.  With the uncertainty of the labor agreement coming up, I don't know that Jacksonville wants to risk losing their forward trend, especially when it slowly looks like Indianapolis is eroding year by year.  Jacksonville could be in a prime position to take over in the AFC South, but Del Rio's slack will be close.  If they fall apart in 2011, I don't think he'll survive the entire season. 

Tony Sparano, Miami Dolphins - Sparano was looked at as a prodigy for Bill Parcells, being hand picked to turn around the Miami franchise from their awful 2007 1-15 record.  When he turned them into an 11-5 playoff team that won the AFC East, the city thought they found their future.  Instead, its been more and more frustrating as the seasons have progressed.  With Parcells finally leaving the Miami franchise to step away from football, the protective blanket that was around Sparano is gone.  I believe you'll see Sparano's tenure end, mainly due to the fact that the Miami job is more appealing than most other open spots this offseason.  Sparano will be coveted though, so don't expect to see him unemployed long. 

Jeff Fisher, Tennessee Titans -  The longest tenured coach in the NFL, Fisher has been with the Titans/Oilers since 1993.  He's been a pretty consistent coach, taking the team to a Super Bowl appearance in 1999 and having some recent success.  However, the meltdown this year, combined with the constant barrage of drama between him and franchise QB Vince Young have gotten to owner Bud Adams.  Vince has been one of Adams' favorite players and ultimately it could lead to Fisher's tenure ending in Tennessee.  If Bud Adams is smart, he'll keep Fisher and cast off Vince Young.  However, this doesn't seem like the writing on the wall is supporting that.  Adams' love for Vince Young might be Fisher's undoing and I believe it could doom the Titans.  Fisher will be picked up quickly due to his trend of success and respect around the league.  I think there might be a couple franchise owners wishing this happens. 

Along with the addition of the interim jobs currently open (Dallas, San Francisco, Minnesota, and Denver), this could be a wild offseason for coaching and personnel changes.  I believe that Leslie Frazier and Jason Garrett are safe and will stay permanent in their respective interim positions.  With big name coaches like Bill Cowher, John Gruden, and Brian Billick all out there, this could drive the asking price for any experienced head coach way through the roof.  Watch for some surprise names like Jim Harbaugh from Stanford to possibly pop into the NFL.   

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The NFC Playoff picture is just about unfolded with only 2 divisions left to decide.  With the NFC South and West to be unfolded on Sunday, lets look at the teams that are in it (or sure to be in it) and what it would take to send these teams home early in January. 

Chicago Bears -  Great defense, Jay Cutler's becoming much more mobile, and the most dangerous Special Teams unit in the NFL.  So how do you stop the Chicago Bears?  Two ways:  Stop Matt Forte and attack their original weakness, the offensive line.  This team has been running more than throwing over the past 2 months and Forte's been key to them moving the ball so effectively.  The other way is bring back the old Jay Cutler.  You can pressure this team by sending different blitz variations between the center/guard to put pressure in Jay Cutler's face as much as possible.  Cutler can be pressured into turning the ball over.  He's been smarter about protecting the ball and making better decisions but old habits still die hard.  Mike Martz has designed plays to keep him moving around and get the ball out of his hands quicker than normal.  Attack through the center and push the pocket upfield, protect the short slants and do not, i repeat, DO NOTkick the ball to Devin Hester.   

Atlanta Falcons - The New Orleans Saints did a great job of writing the book on how to beat the Falcons.  This offense runs through Michael Turner.  The first goal is to take him out of the game.  Make the run game essentially useless.  Turner's a downhill runner and they don't run him side to side often which will bite them.  If you keep Turner in control, next thing to do is put bracket coverage all night on Roddy White.  Don't let White get in any kind of rhythm and frustrate this guy.  This offense is kind of a Pick-Your-Poison deal where you are going to get hurt somewhere, its just where you get hurt and how bad.  I'd let Atlanta be able to throw to Tony Gonzalez before I'd throw to White.  Defensively, you need to focus on one man:  Jon Abraham.  If you can keep him down and make him a non factor, I believe you can chip away at this defense.  This is a complete team so it won't be easy, but you need to make them uncomfortable.  Once Matt Ryan is uncomfortable, that's where you can really put serious pressure on this Atlanta offense. 

Philadelphia Eagles - Philly's got the most explosive offense but they're in a similar situation to Chicago.  Their offensive line is bad, which was demonstrated by Minnesota's upset on Tuesday.  Vick has tendencies where he'll get flustered and revert back to his old, inconsistent self.  When the Giants played them in the beginning of the season, they showed you can push Vick to the right and he'll run much more often than pass.  Push pressure up left to flush him out and make sure you hit him.  Often.  He needs to be under pressure and you can force Vick to make enough mistakes to take that offense out of the game.  Defensively, avoid Asante Samuel like your job depends on it.  He's a takeaway machine, and if you attack him, you'll lose.  This Philly defense is vulnerable to TE/LB matchups, so destroy them in the short game and then sink them in with play action.  I've believed since week 1 this defense was overrated, and someone will show it.  

St Louis Rams - The Rams are probably the biggest surprise this season, winning a combined 6 games in 3 season to being 7-8 with just 1 game to play for the NFC West Division championship.  Behind rookie QB Sam Bradford, they've been able to move the ball alot better offensively than in previous years and look to have found stability at the QB position.  I believe Bradford will be a good QB in the league for years to come, but right now he's still a rookie and will make rookie mistakes.  Force Bradford to beat you in this game.  He's had the reliability of Steven Jackson to take pressure off him making plays.  Take Jackson out of the game and put the game on Bradford's shoulders.  Defensively, be mindful of DE Chris Long and LB James Laurinaitis.  Both these guys can make life very painful for opposing offenses.  The Rams have been much improved in run defense but I believe you can still attack this defensive line.  My money is that Coach Spagnuolo will have some very creative blitz schemes designed to keep offenses on their toes, so teams will need to be ready.  This team can be beaten much easier than anyone else in the conference due to the lack of experience and defined play-makers but I wouldn't overlook them. 

Green Bay Packers - Although they haven't locked up a playoff spot, I believe this team will be playing in January.  They are a tough team to beat due to being stacked with talent at all levels.  However, one of the biggest problems lingering with this team is penalties.  They will give you opportunities to beat them.  They've been one of the most penalized teams in the league for the past couple years.  Offensively, this offensive line isn't exactly the best.  They've struggled to run the ball all season and QB Aaron Rodgers is used to scrambling to extend plays.  If you can keep Greg Jennings in check throughout this game, Rodgers is known to hold on to the ball much longer than needed and you can force sacks or strip fumbles.  Defensively, you have to account for OLB Clay Matthews at all times.  This guy is almost a lock for Defensive Player of the Year.  He's an absolute athlete and will get in the backfield consistently.  Before the ball is snapped, he needs to be targeted immediately.  It will be tough to pass against one of the best passing defenses in the league with Tramon Williams and former DPOY Charles Woodson.  Against the run, Green Bay has been less than average since the loss of DT Jonny Jolly, allowing around 116 yds/game.  Spread this defense out side to side.  Gash them up with the run and force the DBs to come in for run support.  Then you can attack deep.  If you can win the Time of Possession battle with the run here, you can leave with a win. 

New Orleans Saints - The defending Super Bowl Champs have started to play good football as of late.  Although they've not been the same running team they were last year, they have no problem relying on the pass.  Drew has 10 receivers on this team who have over 20 catches this season, so you can't really zero in on any one person to beat this team. The goal here is lots of pressure.  The Falcons were able to get pressure on Drew alot and force a couple turnovers as a result.  Blitz heavy and often. LT Jermon Bushrod has problems against speed rushers.  You can make life difficult by isolating him one on one with a speedy outside backer or send Corner/Safety blitzes off the slot. Defenses don't have to respect the run game from the Saints because they don't really have much of one right now.  Drew hasn't been as consistent this year as he was last year and has turned the ball over more than 20 times this season.  Win the turnover battle here. Defensively, the easiest way is to run it right up the center on them.  The interior of this smaller defensive line can be pushed back.  Don't let Brees and Co. on the field, and just chip away at the defense.   

New York Giants - I am throwing New York in the mix just because if somehow Chicago wins in Lambeau Field and knocks the Packers out of the playoff race, I think New York will step up and get a win over Washington to lock up that final wild-card spot.  The problem with this team is they are too inconsistent.  When New York is good, I believe they're the best in the NFC.  They have arguably the best pass rush in the NFC along with Chicago.  They have a solid run game with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.  Their young WR core has the talent and speed to stretch the field, and they have a very good TE in Kevin Boss.  Their problem is they are way too hot and cold.  Eli's leading the league in INT's thanks to a combination of not being on the same page as the receivers and tipped balls off the receivers hands.  If the good NY Giants show up, the best way to beat them is to beat the pass rush.  Short, quick passes to wear them down.  Running against this defense is going to be hard, but not impossible.  I wouldn't expect to rely on the run to beat them, but make the defense respect it to be able to use play action.  To stop them offensively, its a simple idea:  Send everyone you've got at Eli Manning.  Eli, like Jay Cutler, will not hesitate to throw a ball up for grabs if he's got defenders bearing down on him.  Its kind of his "Brett Favre" mentality.  He'll take chances in pressure situations.  Forcing Eli to win the game is the best chance you'd have to stop the Giants if they come to play ball.  He doesn't seem to do too well under pressure situations so if you can capitalize on a couple of his mistakes, I think you can turn the game around the Giants and send them home early. 

Next week we'll look at the AFC Playoff picture and what it will take to send each of those 6 teams packing early.   

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Well things didn't exactly go as well as expected last week, with Arizona's defense showing up to play in their upset win over Dallas and the "defensive struggle" in the Windy City. (Not that both teams had a hard fight with the opposing defense, I'm more referring to the fact that both defenses struggled to cover anyone)  I'm once again at a .500 and need to have a strong bounceback this week.  Let's look at this week's Screamers and Sleepers! 

SCREAMERS!!!! 

Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers 

Lovie Smith and the Bears have already said they are planning on playing 100% in this game.  With the Eagles loss, the Bears have locked up a bye week for the Playoffs and essentially wouldn't have much to play for, however this Bears team seems like they want to make a statement going into the post-season.  Green Bay's playoff lives are on the line here with one simple message:  Win and you're in.  This game will mean more to Green Bay than it will Chicago so I expect to see the Packers playing at a ridiculous level on their home ground.  I think Green Bay pulls out a hard fought win to keep them playing next week. 

Green Bay pulls off a tough victory 24-17 in Title Town. 

St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks 

I know you're probably thinking "Why on earth am I saying that the NFC West divisional game will be a screamer?  Simple, its the same mentality that Green Bay is thinking.  Both teams are fighting to punch their ticket to the tournament, so what else would these teams need to get fired up about?  The NFL "Jesus", Charlie Whitehurst is starting for Seattle while a St. Louis team behind rookie standout Sam Bradford will be trying to bring the Rams to the playoffs for the first time in almost 5-6 years.  I expect to actually see a good game between these two teams, but I think the Rams will pull the division out when it counts.   

Sam Bradford is declared a city hero for at least a week as the Rams make the playoffs   27-21 

Sleepers.... 

Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles 

Since the Eagles lost on Tuesday to the Minnesota Vikings, they are essentially locked in at the #3 seed and this week's game has become a useless week.  Mike Vick and Asante Samuel are both banged up, McCoy's not too brisk, so this essentially becomes a bye week for the Eagles.  Coach Reid has already said he's not planning on starting Vick so expect to see alot of Kevin Kolb this week.  Meanwhile, Dallas will most likely be starting 3rd string QB Stephen McGee due to Jon Kitna getting injured against the Cardinals on Christmas day.  This will look more like a preseason game than an actual regular season game so don't expect much out of Philly, but Dallas should be fighting for Jason Garrett's career here. 

Dallas pulls off a needed win for Jason's future and Philly gets healthy watching from the sidelines  28-24. 

Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers 

The battle for last place in the worst division in football.  Neither team has anything but a sliver of pride to play for.  Arizona showed some life on christmas in defeating Dallas at home, but I think that was their last hurrah.  They are on a short week and San Francisco will have had more time to prepare for this.  Although, with all the turmoil in San Francisco in the past week, you can roll the dice to decide who will win this one.   

We'll say San Francisco wins since they're at home 13-10.