Professional basketball drifts from era to era. Today it’s being powered by a fortuitous talent boom, advanced metrics, and a few offense-friendly rule changes, which helped spawn the most entertaining night-to-night product in 24 years. Teams dropping 140 points or draining 24 3s in one game? Six-foot-11 Greek point guards and 7-foot-3 Latvian dudes with 28-foot range? Magnetic stars averaging triple-doubles or going for 30 and 12 every night? This moment is the rare combination of evolution and good fortune — but that’s the NBA, a league that ebbs and flows with its stars (for better and worse). And remember, those stars always determine the title. Always. Without exception.
In contrast, the NFL’s machine revolves around two words: parity and unpredictability. The 32 owners want everyone to have a chance, so the league leverages its unforgiving salary cap, short playing careers, nonstop turnover, and imbalanced schedules much like a casino tilts the odds in craps. Sustained success is nearly impossible; it’s also nearly impossible to avoid an occasionally decent season no matter how stupid your brain trust might be. That’s why the Belichick-Brady Patriots and the post-Modell Browns have to be considered two of the biggest outliers in modern sports history. How can two NFL franchises succeed or fail for that long when the league is carefully built to prevent that from happening?
Most modern NFL “runs” last for three to five years, good or bad, like Manning’s Broncos, Harbaugh’s Niners or even Bradley’s Jaguars. In certain years, high-powered offenses led by elite quarterbacks matter most. In other years, overpowering defenses prevail in February. Crammed between those models — in years like 2005, 2008, 2012 and 2013 — are postseasons determined by an undeniably entertaining takeaway: “Any of these 6–7 teams could have won with the right series of breaks.” We leave NBA postseasons wondering, “Are we in the middle of [blank] happening?” We leave NFL postseasons thinking, “That’s the year when [blank] happened,” while knowing that it means nothing for the following season.
So what will we be saying five weeks from now? What’s [blank]?
The Broncos won last year’s Super Bowl despite the single worst performance by a winning quarterback; the salad fork in Peyton Manning’s back never mattered once Denver’s defense went into All-Madden mode. I see it swinging in a more traditional direction in 2017: All four playoff weekends will be determined by quarterback play ranging from “fantastic” to “unforgettably abhorrent.” No defense can steal Super Bowl LI with the (gulp) possible exception of the (gulp) Giants, who finished second in defensive DVOA, looked a little (gulp) 2007-ish at times and would thrive in ugly, disjointed, cold-weather games like the one (gulp) Packers fans openly fear on Sunday. Other than that? Quarterbacks, quarterbacks, quarterbacks. So here are 10 questions about this weekend’s eight starters.
1. How do you wager on a playoff game featuring Brock Osweiler and Connor Cook?
I love horror movies so much that (a) I think I’ve seen every movie made in the past 10 years revolving around the theme “There’s something wrong with this house,” (b) I might see the new M. Night Shyamalan movie in theaters, (c) I went to see Halloween H20 in 1998 in Somerville, Massachusetts, dressed like Michael Myers, and (d) I pay-per-viewed the fairly atrocious Blair Witch remake on Tuesday knowing it would be fairly atrocious (and it was). But the Blair Witch franchise hinges on one savvy wrinkle — not found footage, but the fact that it’s creepy to watch traumatized horror movie characters standing in a corner and facing a wall. It just is. In fact, I jokingly did it to my son on Wednesday night and he got so frightened that he ended up sleeping in the same bed with me and my wife that night.
Here’s why I bring this up: It’s not just the NFL playoffs, it’s the playoffs of gambling. For 11 games over four weekends, we put our football wagering chops on the line, try to go 11–0, try to pull off teasers and parlays and just plain bathe in gambling nirvana. And since 1990, the year when I gravitated toward betting because the sad-sack Patriots had ruined football for me, I don’t ever remember saying, “There’s no freaking way I would ever bet on that playoff game.”
Well, until now. We’re here.
Choice A? The Brockening.
Choice B? A rookie QB, on the road, in his first NFL start.
Go into the corner, face the wall, don’t turn around. Stay away. You hear me? Stay away.
2. That’s all fine, but I love gambling and I’m betting on that Raiders-Texans game no matter what you say. Who would you pick?
I wasn’t kidding. Stay in the corner.
3. Look — it’s the first playoff game of the weekend. I’m not staying in the corner. I’m betting it. Can’t you just nudge me one way or the other?
Fine, fine. The Texans are laying 4 points at home, only they have a home-field disadvantage because their fans revile Osweiler so much. Brock threw 12 picks at home and four on the road; he was like the Little League coach’s lousy son who inexplicably keeps getting to pitch, while Texans fans were the other parents secretly hoping he’d get nailed by a line drive. Why do you think they cheered Brock’s Week 15 benching so loudly that you would have thought the Rockets had traded for Kevin Durant? And what makes you think that crowd is ready to take him back? Or that this isn’t getting worse?
Also helping the Raiders: their superior offensive line, their signature best player (Khalil Mack, better than anything Houston has to offer), their superior skill position guys, and their vastly superior special teams (Oakland finished 11th in DVOA; Houston finished 32nd). There’s even an undeniable touch of “Nobody Believes In Us” potential with Derek Carr sidelined … right? And they have better coaches; it can’t be forgotten that, if Houston blows this game, Bill O’Brien’s name will be crawling across the ESPN ticker within 36 hours.
Maybe Oakland’s pass defense stinks, but it can stop the run and it’s good on the road (6–2), and, again, Houston’s QB is Brock Osweiler … and his backup is Brandon Weeden! We’re getting MORE THAN A FIELD GOAL against an Osweiler-Weeden playoff ticket playing in front of a salty, unsupportive, possibly fuming crowd??? Throw in the “When in doubt, take the points” rule and, I mean …
(Uh-oh. I’m talking myself into the Raiders. Better go back to the corner …)
4. Why is everyone pretending that Matt Stafford is fine when he has a dislocated middle finger on his throwing hand, he has to wear a glove to keep the splint in place, his numbers have tanked since he got injured and the Lions weren’t even that good to begin with?
Check it out …
Oh, and Detroit’s defense gave up 73 total points to Dallas and Green Bay, finished 32nd in defensive DVOA, and made Jim Caldwell blink three different times. In 2016, the Lions had three legitimate victories, six legitimate losses, and seven either-or games — they went 6–1 in those games, including three comeback wins that were pulled out of the deep recesses of their sphincters. Meanwhile, Arizona went 7–8–1 while blowing two game-winning field goals, giving up a fluke two-minute drive to Miami and losing to the stinky Rams at home because Carson Palmer got concussed. We ended up with the wrong 6-seed. Sorry, Lions fans.
5. After what you just laid out, I want to throw the Seahawks (giving 8 at home to Detroit) in every two-team teaser imaginable. Should I be concerned that the Seahawks can’t run or block, or that Russell Wilson finished six spots lower in QBR than Tyrod Taylor?
You’re fine. Wilson at home against a crap defense is easy money, as well as this weekend’s smartest pick for your daily fantasy QB. (Right now, he’s $7 million on DraftKings and $7.7 million on FanDuel. I love “single entry” daily fantasy leagues for the NFL playoffs even if there’s a 50 percent chance I’m still going against some Ukrainian hacker who has 2,500 other teams. Don’t judge me.) Down the road, this could go one of two ways …
Direction 1 (unlikely): Wilson catches fire (it’s a QB-Driven Postseason!), pulls off a Round 2 upset in Atlanta (as we all kick ourselves for trusting Matty Ice and Atlanta’s D), then lucks out with a Round 3 home game against Green Bay (yet another defense that can’t really take advantage of Seattle’s weak O-line) … and suddenly they’re in the Super Bowl against (fill in any half-decent AFC defense) as we kick ourselves for underestimating Ciara’s husband again.
Direction 2 (way more likely): Seattle becomes Round 1’s Media Overreaction Team — a.k.a. the Round 1 team that looks stupendous and throws everyone off their scent. Recent examples include the 2015 Chiefs, the 2014 Panthers, the 2012 Packers, the 2011 Texans and the 2010 Ravens. Couldn’t you see Seattle destroying Detroit, followed by a week of “Lemme tell ya something, guys, I think the Seahawks can go into Atlanta and win” conversations on every sports show with a white guy and a black guy trading loud monologues with an attractive woman sitting between them?
6. If the Aaron Rodgers Impressiveness Scale ranges from 1 (related to someone who won ‘The Bachelorette’) to 10 (completed two insane Hail Marys during the same season and neither seemed particularly lucky), where should we rank Rodgers vowing to run the table with a seemingly lousy team, then actually running the table and grabbing the 4-seed?
Definitely a 9 and maybe even a 9.5. You know what I loved about it most? The way he explained it in Peter King’s Monday column:
“I just thought at the time we needed a reminder of how good we are, and how close we were to being really good. We needed a jolt. I didn’t mind being the one to do it … I looked at our schedule and I thought it was possible.”
(One of my obsessions over the years: for anyone who excels at quarterback, what’s the ratio of talent versus intangibles like charisma, work ethic, smarts and competitiveness? Drew Brees told me on a 2014 podcast that he believed it was 80/20 … with the 20 being talent. Rodgers is one of the most talented quarterbacks ever, but it was so much more important that he assessed a bleak situation, as well as the mood of his team, then figured out a smart short-term solution to potentially flip it. That’s the 80/20 thing in a nutshell, right?)
Also from King’s column:
“Honestly, it was closer to realistic than it was a wing and a prayer. I thought we were close. I knew we were good, and I thought we needed some confidence. I knew it would add some pressure to my shoulders, but I was okay with that. I’m confident in myself. When the pressure’s on me, I feel I can lead by example.”
What else do you want from your star?
Of course, Rodgers’s smartest move was examining that schedule — at Philly, home for Houston and Seattle, at Chicago, home for Minnesota, at Detroit. All winnable games, and they even caught a banged-up Seattle team on the right weekend. It’s the biggest reason why I don’t trust this Packers resurgence. But he’s an all-timer who figured out how to make THIS team work. Oh, and it’s a QB Playoffs. Beware of Rodgers. And yet …
7. Does Playoff Eli really exist?
I once argued that Joe Flacco and Joe Flaccid were two different people, so I’m definitely willing to consider the concept of Playoff Eli. And I promise to be objective even if he cost me two Super Bowls, even if I see the Helmet Catch in my sleep sometimes and even if I’m already resigned to the Giants winning three straight low-scoring games and … well …
But here’s the problem with “Playoff Eli.” It’s somehow Year 13 for him. His career is older than Twitter, and he’s taken almost as much abuse. He’s 8–3 in the playoffs — every win came in the postseasons after 2007 and 2011 — and hasn’t made it out of the regular season in five years. In 10 of Eli’s 12 seasons, the Giants never won a playoff game. So how the hell does that make him Playoff Eli? José Maria Olazábal turned pro in 1985, won two Masters in 1994 and 1999, and never won another major. Should we start calling him Augusta José? I mean, he won two whole Masters!
I once had a reader named Micah Kormylo suggest something called a True Playoff Record. Get a Round 1 bye, that counts as a playoff win — and why wouldn’t it? Miss the playoffs, that counts as a playoff loss — and why wouldn’t it? For example, Tom Brady is 22–9 in the playoffs with 11 first-round byes and two missed postseasons (2002 and 2008, which he missed with a torn ACL) — that makes his true playoff record 33–11. Thirty-three different times, he helped the Patriots advance one playoff round. Isn’t that a better reflection than “22–9”?
And does “8–3” really tell Eli’s story? The true playoff records for active quarterbacks who have started at least 10 playoff games:
Tom Brady: 22–9, 11 byes, 2 misses — 33–11
Ben Roethlisberger: 11–6, 3 byes, 4 misses — 14–10
Joe Flacco: 10–5, 1 bye, 3 misses — 11–8
Russell Wilson: 7–3, 2 byes, 0 misses — 9–3
Eli Manning: 8–3, 1 bye, 7 misses — 9–10
Aaron Rodgers: 7–6, 2 byes, 1 miss — 9–7
Drew Brees: 6–5, 2 byes, 9 misses — 8–14
Can you really be Playoff Eli when you’re 9–10? And yet, this month really does feel like Déjà Eli Vu. An underdog Giants team needing three straight on the road, carried by an excellent defense and Eli’s uncanny ability to connect two or three monster throws at the best possible times (while somehow telepathically convincing defenses to drop his two or three worst throws at the worst possible times)? We’ve been here before. I hate it, but we’ve been here before. The Giants aren’t just (a little) better than Green Bay, they’re specifically built to play in cold weather and stifle this goofy Rodgers offense. 16–13, ugly, disjointed … dammit. I’m picking the Giants to cover 4.5 points and maybe even win.
(And if I’m wrong? Fuck ’em. Enjoy the Simmons Stink.)
8. (From Derek in Providence.) “As a Pats fan, the only thing I want left from the Brady era is a Super Bowl win over the Giants. There’s not a doubt in my mind that we could beat Eli Gump on our third try, and my sole logic for this is because it took the Rock three times to beat Stone Cold at ‘WrestleMania.’ Is this unreasonable, or can this logic be backed by science?”
Unreasonable? That’s the best case I’ve heard! All three Austin-Rock WrestleManias were scripted, just like the NFL scripted it when it told the league to never call New York’s offensive line for holding in Super Bowl XLII. (Just kidding. Kind of.) All three WrestleManias and both Giants-Patriots Super Bowls had dramatic endings that seemed preordained (and in the case of all three WrestleManias, they were). And the Rock broke that WrestleMania jinx only after nailing Austin with three straight Rock Bottoms — maybe that’s the equivalent of the Pats picking off Playoff Eli three times in Super Bowl LI?
9. Even though the Dolphins beat the Steelers by 15 in Week 6, Miami is getting 10 points because the gambling public loves Pittsburgh and loves going against backup QBs. But are we sure Matt Moore is a traditionally terrible backup QB? Could he actually pull off an upset or come close?
Chew on these numbers …
QB 1: 14 starts, 2,800 yards, 24 TDs, 9 picks
QB 2: 13 starts, 2,995 yards, 19 TDs, 12 picks
QB 2? That’s Ryan Tannehill’s 2016 season before he injured his knee.
QB1? Matt Moore’s last 14 starts for the Dolphins — 11 in 2011, three this season.
We never valued Moore as a superior backup for a simple reason: We never had a real reason to think about him. Moore hadn’t played since Grantland launched 2011’s dearly departed Bad Quarterback League — back during the time Jay Kang selected Moore’s Dolphins with the eighth pick and called him “the slightly uglier Matt Leinart.” If you discard Moore’s lousy 2010 performance (1–4 record, 5 TDs, 10 picks, 55.6 rating), when Moore replaced an imploding Jake Delhomme on a freefalling 2–14 Panthers team, he’s actually 14–9 as a starter in four different seasons.
Could Moore manage the game, avoid turnovers and make a couple of big throws against a wildly unimpressive Steelers defense that lacks a decent pass rush? Of course. Could Miami control the clock with Jay “I Probably Swung Your Fantasy League Even Though You Didn’t Know Who I Was in August” Ajayi, who topped 200 yards the last time he played Pittsburgh? Of course. Could Jarvis Landry torch them for 11 catches and a couple of big plays while shouting lines like, “They drew first blood, not me”? Absolutely. Could Adam Gase put himself on the map as this year’s Hot New Coach? Hell yeah. I’m grabbing the 10 points even if it violates about four different Playoff Manifesto rules. The line should be 7. You’re getting a free field goal. Take it.
10. (From Brett in Cincinnati.) “You’ve mentioned several times on ‘The BS Podcast’ recently that Roethlisberger doesn’t look totally right. Could we be overrating him? He started as a game manager and won two Super Bowls running a ground-and-pound offense with a great D. At some point Pittsburgh’s defense declined and their best players became playmakers (Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown) along with speedy receivers. Roethlisberger seamlessly went from being known as a guy who mostly handed off but occasionally shed four pass rushers and hit a deep ball to being known as one of the NFL’s best QBs. Is this a classic case of the Joe Johnson underrated-for-so-long-they-became-overrated theory in action? How much winning has he really done since everyone started assuming he was great?”
Brett left out, “PS: If I saw Ben crossing the street, I would definitely run him over.” (Of course you’re dubious of Ben Roethlisberger! You’re from Cincinnati!) Still, Brett tapped into something I’ve been thinking about all week. Roethlisberger’s Steelers just ripped off seven straight wins and I’m still picking against them at home. What does that say about Big Ben? His former offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, recently claimed that “People are finally realizing what I knew for a long time: that he’s been the most underrated quarterback in the NFL going back six, seven years.” That’s weird because …
A. Roethlisberger capped off a Super Bowl–winning drive with one of the greatest passes ever (to Santonio Holmes, who made an even better catch). That happened eight years ago and we all threw him on The List after that: Brady, Manning, Rodgers, Brees, Romo, Luck, Wilson … always six or seven names, with a few staples, and Big Ben was always one of the staples. Even after Roger Goodell suspended him for six games (reduced to four) in 2010 for some questionable off-field behavior, we knew Pittsburgh wasn’t trading him, because nobody trades a franchise QB. (Oh, and if they ARE mysteriously trading one, then you know it’s a red flag. Right, Chicago?) As The Ringer’s Mallory Rubin said in a meeting this week, “I’d argue that he’s the most properly rated athlete in any sport.” I think she’s right.
B. You know how Steph Curry will finish with something like 27 points, but it felt like 50 because you remember every 3 and every time he had the crowd rocking? Roethlisberger and Rodgers are the QB versions of that; their signature plays or drives feel bigger. There’s a “Wow!” factor with them.
For Rodgers, it’s those play-extending scrambles (Wilson does it, too) or his unprecedented ability to heave precise 60-yard bombs off his back foot. For Roethlisberger, it’s those plays when defensive linemen are banging into him or pulling on him, only he’s fending them off like he’s Big Show battling 10 guys at once in the Royal Rumble, or vintage Shaq powering up for a dunk with three Sacramento Kings dangling from his arms. One of my readers once suggested a new statistic called “Roethlisbergers,” which would capture every third-and-long when a QB turned a potential sack into a first down or touchdown. There’s still time. By the way, I’m positive that Blake Bortles has never had a Roethlisberger.
C. Sorry to create two scales in the same column, but if we created the Michaels-Collinsworth Scale for “Athletes Who Routinely Pull Off Ludicrous Plays That Reduce Michaels And Collinsworth To Gasping, Chortling, Blubbering Messes,” then Rodgers would be a 10, Osweiler would be a 1 … and Big Ben would be at least a 9, right? Media members love raving about his toughness (he’s the indestructible guy you’d want leading your group of survivors in any apocalyptic Walking Dead–type scenario), his clutchness (39 game-winning drives, tied for seventh all time), those aforementioned “Wow!” plays and his ability to shake off a couple of poor throws and catch fire when it matters (like in Week 16 against Baltimore). They even call him “Ben” like he’s a close member of their family. Again, he’s properly rated.
D. Like Rodgers and Green Bay, Roethlisberger’s Steelers can look like manure for two months, then slap together two quality wins, which is followed by everyone immediately anointing them Super Bowl sleepers. (And if they win six or seven straight? Look out!) If anything, both guys get a little too much respect. Since Rodgers beat Roethlisberger in Super Bowl XLV (February 2011), they’ve lost eight of 12 combined playoff games, including two all-time postseason-favorite fails — Green Bay’s 15–1 season going up in smoke against the 2011 Giants (8-point underdogs), and Roethlisberger being the answer to the trivia question “Who’s the only QB to lose a playoff game to Tim Tebow?”
Add everything up and you end up with the following two points: I wouldn’t be shocked if Miami beat Pittsburgh, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Pittsburgh went into New England in Round 3 and outscored the Patriots in a shootout. I wouldn’t bet on either outcome, but that’s the thing about Roethlisberger — he’s shown a tendency to keep the best and worst possible scenarios hanging around.
He’s 10th all time in passing, ninth in touchdowns and ninth in passer rating while playing for a cold-weather team. He made one of the best Super Bowl throws ever, and he played terribly in two other Super Bowls. He beat Apex Manning in Indy, and he lost to Apex Tebow and Broken-Down Manning in Denver. He’s had only two 30-touchdown seasons and one All-Caps GREAT season (2014: 4,952 yards, 32–9 TD/INT, 103.3 rating), and he has only one playoff victory since the 2010 season. He’s also the best “I can’t believe he got that third down; we had him sacked four different times!” guy I’ve ever seen.
He could absolutely beat Miami by 30 points this weekend. Or he could absolutely keep the Dolphins hanging around for three and a half quarters before turning it on late. Or he could never really get going in time and suddenly be limping off the field, wondering what happened. He’s Ben Roethlisberger. He’s memorable. He’s one of a kind. And still, I’m grabbing the 10 points. Even in a QB-Friendly Playoffs.
My final Round 1 picks: Oakland (+4), Seattle (-8), Miami (+10), New York (+4.5).
Just don’t let me bet on that Raiders game. Please.
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