CFB Playoff Preview

Tomorrow, we ring in 2015 with a bit of history. The national semifinals of the first ever college football playoff. While I highly recommend giving tomorrow’s Auburn/Wisconsin and Baylor/Michigan State games a look, the national semis are the standouts in a jam packed slate. Here is my take on each.

Rose Bowl (2) Oregon vs. (3) Florida State- This game sells itself. Two glamour programs with Heisman Trophy winning QBs square off with a ticket to the title on line. Marcus Mariota pilots a Ducks offense that leads the nation in just about every offensive category. Their break neck paced no huddle offense causes problems for every defense, Florida State will be no different. However, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the Ducks top corner and overall defender is out with injury. He can blitz, cover, and tackle, a rarity. For all their flaws and near losses, Jameis Winston and defending national champ Florida State haven’t lost in roughly two years. Thus, I’m shocked at the lack of a chance people are giving them here. Look for future NFL standout tight end Nick O’Leary to key the upset and the FSU defense to get just enough stops and force a big turnover late. FSU 41 Ore 38.

Sugar Bowl (1) Alabama vs. (4) Ohio State- Nick Saban and Urban Meyer square off once again in a matchup of coaching titans. This time Saban has a huge edge. For once, Alabama has a great offense to match the defense. Steady handed QB Blake Sims, RB T.J. Yeldon and Heisman finalist WR Amari Cooper are simply lethal. Combine that with more aggressive play calling from offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and I just don’t see them being beat. I respect the Buckeyes for getting this far with a revolving door at QB. Joey Bosa and the defense will keep them in it for a while, but it won’t be close. Bama 35 OSU 17.

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NFL Black Monday Rumblings

With the NFL regular season coming to an end yesterday, “Black Monday” is upon us. Focus will shift to the playoffs later in the week, but today, tomorrow and Wednesday are mostly about general manager and coaching moves from teams who failed to make the playoffs. As of the time of this post, the openings around the NFL are as follows.

NY Jets- Head coach and GM

Atlanta- Head coach

San Francisco- Head coach

Oakland- Head coach

Chicago- Head coach, GM, and entire coaching staff

This list could grow in the coming days, but for now here on my thoughts on each team who made moves today. I will only comment with specific names on the coaching vacancies. I’m not as familiar with candidates for the GM positions. That’s the downside of being just a fan, and not an insider… yet.

Atlanta- For me, this is the most attractive of the openings. Head coach Mike Smith was let go after a 34-3 home drubbing in a winner take all division title game against Carolina. Smith reached the playoffs in 4 of his first 5 seasons, but went just 10-22 in his last 2. A QB like Matt Ryan and wide receivers like Julio Jones and Roddy White are enough to make any coach salivate. The running game is better than people think. They need help on defense, big help. They were dead last in the league in yards and 27th in point allowed. They have no pass rush to speak of. They have some nice players on defense, but need to rebuild that side of the ball through the draft. In spite of what I just said, because Mike Smith’s pedigree was defense, I expect them to go offense with this hire. Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase will surely get a look, as will Seattle OC Darrell Bevell. Former Jets head coach Rex Ryan would be great here, but don’t hold your breath. Atlanta ownership is too safe for a brash kind of guy like Rex.

San Francisco- I’m not sure where to go here. They’ve won a lot over the past 4 years, but no playoffs this year. There’s plenty of talent here, particularly on defense when linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are healthy, which they weren’t this here. However, I have serious questions about QB Colin Kaepernick in terms of accuracy and durability. The biggest issue for me is that management and ownership just ran off head coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh can be notoriously difficult to deal with, but all he’d done is win. Yet, he was still chased back to the college ranks and his alma mater, Michigan (most likely). Due to the issues with Harbaugh, I’d be shocked if any top candidate took this gig, despite the talent. I keep hearing Mike Shanahan’s name, I doubt it. I think the 49ers will be forced to keep things in house and go with Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is also in play here.

Oakland- Another “Black Monday”, another Raiders head coaching vacancy. They are still a long way away from being a contender, but there is more hope in Raider land than in years past. Rookies QB Derrick Carr and LB Khalil Mack are the building blocks on each side of the ball. That makes 2 more building blocks than Oakland has had in past years. They would like to bring back Jon Gruden or snag Jim Harbaugh. Here in reality, look for interim head coach Tony Sparano to land the permanent gig. He’s tasted success as a head coach in Miami, and led the undermanned Raiders to 3 wins down the stretch.

NY Jets- They played hard for Rex Ryan right to the end and sent him out a winner. They have a playoff caliber defense. However, the direction of the coaching search will remain murky until they find a GM to replace John Idzik. My advice: hire a young offensive mind who wants to stick with QB Geno Smith and rebuild the offense around him. Also, don’t touch the defense, except maybe finding a touch more speed on the back end. The Jets are not as far off as most folks think.

Chicago- They are a mess. However, I’m one of the 6 or so folks who still believe in QB Jay Cutler. I’d be shocked if they find a trading partner for Cutler based on his contract. I believe his issues are all fixable. He needs to clean up his footwork a bit and be more careful with the football. Their biggest issues are on defense. They don’t do anything well and don’t have a single elite player anywhere on that side of the ball. That is why Rex Ryan is the PERFECT guy for this head coaching job. He’ll get the most out of the least with the defense. Also, he got to 2 AFC title games with Mark Sanchez. He can find success with Jay Cutler. Ryan is also well respected in the league and can build a great staff that will allow him to let the offensive minded guys work with the offense, while he coaches the hell out of that defense. Not to mention, the Chicago people would eat him up. Rex would win big in Chicago. For me, it is a no brainer. We’ll see if they go down this road.

Look for a CFB playoff preview and NFL wildcard weekend preview from me later this week.

Taking a look at the Jay Cutler mess and the rest of the NFL week 16

Before diving into the rest of the NFL week 16 slate, I have to start with the mess in Chicago. Starting quarterback Jay Cutler was benched this week after another blowout loss Monday night to the Saints. The Bears are a mess. Their 5-9 record is especially disappointing when you consider that many people (including myself) thought they were a playoff team before the season. They have nothing to lose. That being said, this move is still mystifying to me. Cutler will be replaced by Jimmy Clausen who hasn’t started a game since 2010 and has a grand total of 1 NFL win as a starter.

I realize Cutler has been awful and a turnover machine, leading the NFL with 18 interceptions this year. However, there isn’t a sane person on this planet, including Bears head coach Mark Trestman who can tell you with a straight face that Clausen is a better QB than Cutler, in any situation. Nobody is talking about the Bears 30th ranked defense, patchwork offensive line, or refusal to build around their best offensive player, RB Matt Forte. Everyone has piled on Cutler simply because his sometimes too calm demeanor makes him easy to dislike. The situation is made even messier by the fact that Cutler is the NFL’s highest paid QB this year. Trestman and the rest of the staff are dead men walking, but Cutler’s contract means he’ll likely be back in Chi-town. I still believe in Cutler’s skillset, but the clock is ticking on the 9 year pro. He has as much God-given talent as anyone. Fixing Cutler will be top priority for whoever takes charge in Chicago.

Chargers (8-6) at 49ers (7-7)-Transitioning to the teams that matter in December for the right reasons, this game is the second of two Saturday games this week. The Chargers are scarping for all their worth to get in the playoffs at the back end of the AFC race, but they’ll be without top RB Ryan Matthews and wide out Keenan Allen. QB Philip Rivers is also banged up, but will play. The 49ers are out of the playoff race, but remain playing hard for head coach Jim Harbaugh whose rift with management has become irreconcilable for all involved. The 49ers can still run the ball and play defense with the best of ‘em. I’ll take San Fran to win behind a big day from Frank Gore and make things really tough on San Diego in terms of the playoff race. SF 24 SD 20

Chiefs (8-6) at Steelers (9-5)-Another huge game here. The Steelers can clinch a playoff spot with a win and Kansas City can put themselves in good shape heading into the regular season finale with a win. Ben Roethlisberger, Le’veon Bell, and Antonio Brown are just carving up defenses week after week for the Steelers. Kansas City has a tall order here, the defense is fantastic, but the offense is limited and Pittsburgh will still score. If they do miss the playoffs, the Chiefs will look at losses to 2 win Oakland and Tennessee as backbreakers. Pittsburgh keeps rolling towards a division crown as I predicted all year long. Pit 24 KC 13

Cardinals (11-3) at Seahawks (10-4)-I respect the hell out of Arizona for winning in spite of all their injuries. However, they are now down to their 4th QB and 3rd RB. Seattle is the toughest place on earth to play a football game as a visitor. This will get ugly as Seattle takes control of the NFC West. Unless they get healthy quick, Arizona will struggle to win a playoff game. Sea 24 Ari 0

Colts (10-4) at Cowboys (10-4)-The Colts are pretty much locked in to the 3 or 4 seed in the AFC. Unless Denver and/or New England collapse they really can’t improve or worsen their playoff position in the last two weeks of the regular season. Dallas needs this to keep Philly at arm’s length in the NFC East. Based on that alone, I’ll take Dallas. Dal 24 Ind 14

Broncos (11-3) at Bengals (9-4-1)-I’m a diehard Broncos fan and a Cincinnati native. I will be at this Monday night showdown. My family reads this blog. I cannot pick this game without catching hell from somewhere. So, I’m not going to. The keys to this game for each team are as follows. The Bengals must get off to a good start, pressure Peyton Manning, and be physical with Denver’s big wide receivers. Denver needs to keep running the ball effectively with C.J. Anderson, blitz Andy Dalton at will, and get tight end Julius Thomas involved in the passing game. Denver can clinch a 1st round bye with a win. Cincinnati can clinch a playoff spot.

I’ll also take Atlanta to pull the mini upset in New Orleans and keep their hopes alive in the dismal NFC South. There are also 5 college bowl games today in addition to the 2 NFL games. Happy football weekend to all!

Do or die Sunday: Week 15 NFL preview (for real this time).

A quick note before I get into this post. My last post was titled in part “Week 15 NFL preview”. Well, last week was only week 14. This will be my week 15 NFL preview. However, I’ll start with brief thoughts on the college football playoff. In short, the much maligned committee got the 4 teams right. Oregon vs. FSU and Ohio State vs. Alabama are very attractive semifinal games. I will preview them as they get closer. They are still almost a month away. Moving to the pros, there are only 3 weeks left in the regular season. It’s do or die this week for many teams when it comes to the playoffs.

Bengals (8-4-1) at Browns (7-6)- This is a huge game for both teams in the wicked tight AFC north, though the Browns’ chances at a wildcard are much more realistic than winning the division. The Bengals’ early season tie with Carolina is holding off the surging Steelers (who drubbed Cincy last week) and Ravens for now. However, we all know what the big story is here. The long awaited debut of Johnny Manziel as an NFL starting QB. He replaces the struggling Brian Hoyer as Cleveland tries to save their season and get back to the playoffs for the first time in 10+ years. I expect Johnny football to make a few big plays, both good and bad. I feel that reports of the Bengals’ demise have been overblown. They were just overmatched last week. Cleveland doesn’t have anywhere near the offensive weapons that Pittsburgh does. So, they should be fine here. Cin 24 Cle 13

Steelers (8-5) at Falcons (5-8)-This is the toughest pick of the year for me. You all know I been high on the Steelers all year. They have what I consider to be the 2nd best offense in the league, behind Green Bay. Le’veon Bell is making the running back position cool again. However, the secondary is a major issue. They gave up 200+ yards to A.J. Green alone last week. This is not ideal when playing Atlanta, who despite their 5-8 record is leading the subpar NFC South. They aren’t playing like a 5-8 team either. They were a few bounces of the ball away from winning a pass filled shootout in Green Bay last week. They can and will score on anyone. They may be without top receiver Julio Jones, which may save the Steelers secondary. Expect their remaining game with the Saints to be the decider in the NFC South. Steelers in a shootout here. Pit 41 Atl 38

Cowboys (9-4) at Eagles (9-4)-The NFC East crown is likely on the line here. Philly holds the tiebreaker by virtue of their Thanksgiving Day win in Dallas. Dallas is undefeated on the road this year. RB Demarco Murray has an outside shot at 2,000 yards this year and has spearheaded a very solid Cowboys attack all season. Philly’s fast paced offense gave Dallas fits on Turkey Day and there were wide open running lanes for Lesean McCoy. I expect Dallas to correct these issues. Also, I just can’t get how bad the Eagles looked last week vs. Seattle out of my head. Dallas finally wins a big game in December and takes control of the NFC East. Dal 24 Phi 21

49ers (7-6) at Seahawks (9-4)-After a disaster last week in Oakland, the 49ers need a miracle to reach the playoffs. They aren’t doing anything well and the future of head coach Jim Harbaugh is getting murkier by the minute. They shouldn’t expect any sympathy from division rival Seattle who needs this game to keep pace with division leading 11-3 Arizona who keep making me look stupid by winning with backups and third stringers. Seattle needs it more and is just better. I expect the 49ers to fight like hell and die on their sword though. Sea 16 SFO 10.

Also of note this week, the Broncos can wrap up their 4th straight AFC West crown with a win in San Diego, who is also fighting for their playoff lives. Have a great football Sunday everyone. Hoping to get back to a normal posting schedule next week.

CFB playoff thoughts and week 15 NFL preview

I’ll start this post with my thoughts on tomorrow’s selection of the 4 college football playoff team. As I’m writing this, we know Alabama and Oregon are in, as they should be. Florida State, TCU, Ohio State, and Baylor are fighting for the final 2 spots. My thoughts are simple. I know they haven’t dominated anyone, but if FSU wins tonight and finishes the regular season undefeated for a 2nd straight year, they should be in. I cannot believe the committee has dropped them the last 2 weeks, making this a question. However, FSU beating Georgia Tech tonight is no sure thing. Also, if OSU beats a good Wisconsin team tonight while starting their 3rd string QB, I don’t care how good TCU is, the Buckeyes should get in.

There are many huge games in the NFL this week. I was 4 for 4 picking games on the blog last week. Let’s keep the good mojo going.

Steelers (7-5) at Bengals (8-3-1)-I probably gave away a few of my picks in Wednesday’s post, this being one of them. The Bengals squeaked by in Tampa last week, thanks to Marvin Lewis and his eagle eye. However, the offense is sagging right now, and the defense can be had, particularly against the run. Steelers RB Le’veon Ball is 2nd in the league in rushing, enough said. Despite a head scratching loss last week, I’ll keep riding with the Steelers and their high powered offense. I see no way that Andy Dalton and company score enough points to keep this one close. Sorry to my Cincy friends and family. Pit 34 Cin 17

Seahawks (8-4) at Eagles (9-3)-This is the most interesting game of the weekend for me. The Eagles fast paced offense and opportunistic defense are coming off an impressive holiday showing in Dallas. The world champs shelled division rival San Francisco on Thanksgiving night holding them to just a field goal. However, Seattle is nothing short of bad when throwing the ball on offense, ranking 29th in the league. That will keep them from winning here, and ultimately repeating as champions. Phi 27 Sea 19

Chiefs (7-5) at Cardinals (9-3)-If you read Wednesday’s post, you know where I think the Cards are headed. To make matters worse for them, starting RB Andre Ellington is out with a hip pointer. KC was ripped for 200+ rush yards by Denver last week. Arizona will be unable to exploit that. KC grinds out an ugly win to keep pace in the wacky AFC playoff race. KC 17 Ari 9

Ravens (7-5) at Dolphins (7-5)-As I said Wednesday, this is an elimination game as far as the playoffs are concerned. I’ve liked Baltimore better than Miami all year, but not here. The biggest story in sports that no one talked about this week was the Ravens losing run stuffing nose tackle Haloti Ngata for the rest of the regular season to a suspension. It takes two guys to block him, thus opening up opportunities for others. Without Ngata, Miami’s above average run game will prosper. Mia 16 Bal 10.

Lastly, I’ll take massive underdog Atlanta to go into Green Bay and shock the world Monday. I think people are over the top on Green Bay right now and Atlanta is looking like the team that is taking control of the NFC South. They’ve played as well as anyone the last two weeks. The hardest part of a football Sunday that has this many good games is figuring out which game to watch when.

NFL tidbits: The Cardinals are falling apart and its anyone’s guess at the back end of the AFC

Rather than the traditional Tuesday evening QB post this week, I thought wait until Wednesday and unpack the mess at the back end of the AFC playoff picture. However, before I get there, one other major thing stood out this weekend. The Arizona Cardinals are a sinking ship. After losing starting QB Carson Palmer for the year due to a knee injury, they have lost two straight, Drew Stanton is reminding everyone why he was the backup QB, and the defense suddenly looks average. With four tough opponents remaining, including three division games, this group has a real shot at losing out and becoming the first team ever to start 9-1 and miss the playoffs. I think that’s exactly what will happen. You heard it here first. Elsewhere, there are 6 teams at 7-5 in the AFC. They are fighting for likely one or two playoff spots. I will do a breakdown of each. Note: I have not calculated tie-breaker scenarios.

Buffalo- This group is scrappy, physical, and underrated. Kyle Orton has stabilized the offense and the defense is better than people think. However, the schedule is not kind. Three of their four remaining games are against Denver, Green Bay, and New England. Arguably, the three best teams in football. In short, I like the team, but don’t like their chances.

Cleveland- They are maybe the most interesting team in this mess. They have a major QB decision looming. Brian Hoyer has been dreadful the last few weeks. Calls for high profile backup Johnny Manziel are getting loud, and head coach Mike Pettine said a change was an option he would consider after the loss in Buffalo Sunday. For what it’s worth I’d go with Johnny Football. The schedule is middle of the road in terms of difficulty, the defense is really good, but I can’t trust a team w/ QB issues in a playoff race.

Kansas City- They are my favorite team’s rival, but I really like this team. They are smart, well coached, and physical. However, they have gotten away from their trademark top of the line running game led by Jamal Charles over the last two games. If they get back to that, I like them to finish 10-6 and snag a wildcard.

Miami/Baltimore- I’m doing these two teams together for a very simple reason. They play each other Sunday in what essentially amounts to an elimination game, as it will be very difficult for the loser to find their way into the playoffs. Both teams have good but not great offenses led by Joe Flacco and Ryan Tannehill. Baltimore has the slightly better offense and Miami the slightly better defense. Both teams are very solid. I like one of them to reach the playoffs. Find out which one when I preview their game as part of Friday’s usual NFL preview post.

Pittsburgh- I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think very highly of the Steelers. I still do. They match up really well with division leading Cincinnati and play twice in four weeks to close the year. I expect two Steeler blowouts in those games. One additional win should be enough to get them in the playoffs, either as a division champ or wildcard. Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, not one of these other 7-5 teams can come close to matching that kind of offensive personnel. Barring major injury, they are a lock to reach the playoffs. This big wad of 7-5 teams is a product of the most competitive NFL season in years. Whatever happens down the stretch, it will be fun to watch.