Friday, January 05, 2018

NFL Wild Card Predictions

It's been a strange year for pro football, in some part due to Clownigula stoking his freak-show base. More than that, though, there are elements in the game itself, as well as its participants, that are starting to accumulate on the consciences of fans:  the violence and criminality of some of the star players; the CTE and other physical tolls taken on the players; the season-ending injuries to new stars such as DeShaun Watson and Carson Wentz; the crummy ref calls that always seem to favor the Patsies; the idiotic cracking down on touchdown celebrations; and yes, the stupid polarization of the fans over an issue that affects no one.

And the fucking commercials -- Jesus Hamster Christ, you can only watch so many goddamned insurance and fast food and truck commercials in a fucking lifetime, crammed ass-over-teakettle into a three-hour window, over and over and over again till you're ready to eat a Desert Eagle. It's just not worth it anymore, to an increasing degree.

Some of it is just market saturation and corporate overkill, but in general, the league and the sport itself seem to be on the cusp of a long decline. Will Leitch covered a lot of this in a terrific article around Thanksgiving, but the broad stroke is that we're watching young men damage themselves irreparably, and whether enough fans feel guilty enough about that to watch less or not at all, the bottom line is that far fewer kids are playing youth football already. Wait and see how that dilutes the overall talent level by the time they're of age to play pro sports, if they haven't turned it into flag football before then.

All that said, this past week has had some potentially interesting and cool news for the NFL. The Patsies might lose Belichick to the Giants over the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. Jon Gruden is finally coming back to the Raiders for a 10-year/$100M contract, and maybe a piece of the team. I genuinely look forward to the Patsies being terrible and the Raiders finally winning a Super Bowl. But I also realize that there won't be many more seasons where football will still be fun to watch. The returns seem to be diminishing at a faster rate.

But for the time being, the pigskin prognostications are still fun to do, so let's kick off the next few weekends of random guesses (all times PST):

(10/6) (1:30 PM) Tennessee at Kansas City (-8.5):  Neither of these teams will go very far in the playoffs, so it's hard to invest too much time in stat-mining. The basic premise is that the Chefs are tough at home and DeMarco Murray is injured. Both QBs have been playing reasonably well this season, nothing special, and Kansas City's secondary is banged up, so Marcus Mariota should be able to pile up some passing yards. The Titans should beat the spread, but that's about it.

Final Score:  Chiefs 27, Titans 21.

(5:15 PM) Atlanta at Los Angeles Rams (-6):  The return of football to LA strikes me as a positive, for some reason. Sure, the Rams' and Chargers' owners are bastards, but they're all bastards. It's in the league charter as a condition of membership. Maybe the only owner who's not a total shit is Oakland's Mark Davis, who dresses like an eight-year-old and is moving the team to Vegas.

At any rate, the Rams have experienced a nice turnaround this year, and are fun to watch. Jared Goff appears comfortable with the offense now, and Todd Gurley racked up 2,093 total yards from scrimmage and 19 TDs, so it's understandable that Rams fans are having visions of Marshall Faulk. The drastic improvement in Goff and Gurley can at least in part be attributed to the free-agency signing of left tackle Andrew Whitworth, a Pro Bowl mauler from the Bengals whose absence was certainly noticed in Cincinnati.

After blowing a 28-3 lead in the second half of the Super Bowl, the Falcons shook off the hangover and managed to finish 10-6, which was still only good enough for third in the punishing NFC South division. QB Matt Ryan is having a bit of an off year (for him), but is still one of the top passers in the league, and the running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are solid if unspectacular, combining for 2,109 total yards and 16 TDs. It's not going to be enough to get past the Rams' pounding defense.

Final Score:  Rams 37, Falcons 24.

(10/7) (10:00 AM) Buffalo at Jacksonville (-8.5):  The resurgent Jaguars, like the Rams and Eagles in the NFC, are shaking up the usual collection of teams that make the postseason. For that matter, so are the Bills, a one-time perennial playoff team that is making the first postseason appearance in 17 years. But where the Bills essentially backed into their playoff spot, Jacksonville actually looks improved, with oft-maligned QB Blake Bortles connecting with his receivers much more consistently and seeming to find a rhythm.

The Jaguars beat up on Baltimore and Pittsburgh early in the season, but dropped their final two games against the 49ers and Titans, resting some of their starters for the playoffs. (The Rams did the same thing in their season finale against the Niners.) Sometimes that works well, but with young teams needing consistency and momentum, sometimes it throws them off. However, Jacksonville went 6-2 at home and has the league's best pass defense, while Buffalo has struggled all year offensively, so this should go the Jaguars' way.

Final Score:  Jaguars 31, Buffalo 13.

(1:40 PM) Carolina at New Orleans (-7):  Both of these teams finished atop the NFC South with 11-5 records, but since New Orleans won both regular-season matchups, they claim the division crown and hence home field advantage for this game. After starting the season with back-to-back losses against the Vikings and Patriots, the Saints rediscovered their offense and went on a tear. Rookie sensation Alvin Kamara forms a potent rushing tandem with Mark Ingram; each back accounted for over 1,500 total yards and a dozen touchdowns. QB Drew Brees was his usual efficient self, posting 4,334 passing yards, and a respectable 23-8 TD-INT ration.

The Panthers, for their part, have gotten it done with a less-powerful offense, with most of their victories being within a touchdown. Their performance last week in Atlanta, with a critical playoff seeding on the line, does not bode well for them -- QB Cam Newton was held to 180 passing yards and threw 3 interceptions in a 22-10 loss. As mentioned, the Saints already beat the Panthers twice, by a total of 31 points, and there's not really an indication that that's going to change.

Final Score:  Saints 31, Panthers 20.

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