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2022 Coaching Analysis - Part 4

Carolina Panthers

Leadership: Matt Rhule (HC), Ben McAdoo (OC), Phil Snow (DC), Sam Darnold / Baker Mayfield (QB)

The Matt Rhule era in Carolina could finally end this season. Unless key actors on this team surprise me, the Panthers have done little to change the trajectory of their organization after last year’s tragic campaign.

Let’s start with the offense. The club made a good move canning Joe Brady, but Ben McAdoo isn’t necessarily the right replacement. McAdoo chiefly runs a safer variant of the air raid - his offense emphasizes looser formations with 3-4 receivers flared out along the wings. It’s a style of offense tailored more towards bull-headed quarterbacks who aren’t afraid to sling the ball around or shoulder the burden of production successfully. Sam Darnold certainly isn’t that quarterback. Baker Mayfield may have some of that temperament McAdoo wants in his ideal quarterback, but Baker’s shown time and time again that he’s incapable of leading through skill or intelligence. Sure, he’s shown admirable toughness, but that isn’t nearly enough to thrive in an offense that demands so much from the quarterback. Christian McCaffrey is probably the best weapon on offense, but his durability worries me - the man’s only played 10 games over the past two seasons.

Things aren’t much better on defense either. The team letting Haason Reddick walk was foolish considering he was pretty productive as a pass rusher lining up alongside Brian Burns in the trenches. Rhule and Snow are likely expecting Derrick Brown or Yetur Gross-Matos to account for the missed production, but neither are guaranteed to do so. On top of that, Phil Snow is such an uninspiring coordinator - it sickens me to see the man pick the worst times to call three-man pass rushes. Three-man pass rushes only work when used judiciously in choice circumstances, but Snow’s never really demonstrated much nuance in the way he manages his defense. It shows in the EPA chart below.

Not only did Carolina’s defense worsen as the season waned onward, but the unit didn’t fare so well against division rivals in subsequent matches, which tells me offensive coordinators gained a beat on their tendencies.

The fact that the sportsbooks seem to forecast this team winning only 6 games this season is damning enough. One would have thought the inclusion of Baker Mayfield would have boosted this team’s prospects, but the experts feel otherwise. I’m inclined to agree.

Kansas City Chiefs

Leadership: Andy Reid (HC/OC), Steve Spagnuolo (DC), Patrick Mahomes (QB)

The Chiefs are always a fun team to analyze, being perennial championship contenders. This year should be no different. Even though Tyreek Hill and a few other receivers are no longer with the club, don’t expect the offense to lose much a step here - Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Juju Smith-Schuster were signed in the offseason, so the unit won’t be lacking in weapons. Yes, neither player can adequately replace Tyreek Hill, but those two should help spur a much-needed identity shift in this offense. Too many defenses were comfortable playing against this unit with multiple safeties, especially given Kansas seemed oddly unwilling to adopt a less explosive style of football in response. With Hill now gone, Mahomes and Reid will have no choice but to devise new strategies now that their receiving corps is missing its signature explosive weapon.

Defensively, things should be fine too. Even though the defense lost its “quarterback” in Tyrann Matthieu, the team should be able to compensate just fine with Justin Reid - I trust Spags will do his best to ensure Reid and some of the other coverage players can lead this offense should the need arise. Melvin Ingram was essentially swapped out with another older proven veteran in Carlos Dunlap. The hope here is that Dunlap carries over some of his production from his days in Seattle last year, because if not, the Chiefs will only have one definitively dominant pass rusher in Chris Jones. One thing in their favor is that Dunlap actually churned out slightly better numbers than Ingram last year, though I distinctly remember the latter making his presence known on more critical plays.

Ultimately, the fate of this team lies in the leadership outlined above. I know it sounds like an obvious truism, but it cannot be emphasized enough in the case of the Kansas City Chiefs. Spagnuolo will need to partly reinvent this defense now that it’s missing some key contributors from the past couple years. Remember that aggressive press coverage only works if the secondary stays disciplined in formation, but that type of discipline only comes with habituation. So expect this defense to go on a transformative journey as the season unwinds. On offense, Reid and Mahomes need to show much more flexibility in their approach to offensive football. As I said earlier, not having Tyreek Hill in the huddle anymore might be that mental reset they so desperately need - with their glorified deep threat now replaced by a pair of scrappy receivers, Reid and his quarterback are forced to adjust to an offensive brand of football no longer predicated on the deep ball.

I think it can happen. And I think the Chiefs are once again a strong contender for the Super Bowl.

Las Vegas Raiders

Leadership: Josh McDaniels (HC/OC), Patrick Graham (DC), Derek Carr (QB)

Probably the most exciting team to watch given their potentially high ceiling.

Offensively, the team’s loaded with weaponry at every key position - tight end, slot receiver, running back, and outside receiver. Speaking of outside receiver, dealing two first round picks for Davonte Adams was a stroke of genius. Yes, Adams won’t have as productive a season under Carr as he would have under Rodgers, but in the grander scheme of things, Carr and the Raiders needed him to be the cornerstone of an offense built more on the diversity of its personnel than on the sheer talent of the man playing under center. Everybody knows Carr lacks the tools to be anything more than an average quarterback, but the number of quality skill players should be enough to keep this offense thriving, so long as McDaniels doesn’t screw things up as badly as he did in Denver.

And that’s the big question here. I know Michael Lombardi sings his praises as an offensive genius, but I have my own reservations about declaring Josh McDaniels as such. Last year’s Patriots were stocked with talent too. Yet it didn’t feel like that. Jonnu Smith was criminally unused. Hunter Henry only started emerging as a viable receiving threat later in the season. Granted, the organization was developing a rookie quarterback at the time, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a unit coached by McDaniels underwhelm. 2019’s Patriots also disappointed in terms of weaponry, despite that unit being led out in the field by the inveterate Tom Brady. People have made the argument that Brady’s trust issues frustrated any of McDaniels’ attempts to foster more production from his set of receivers, but that’s only speculation at this point. I do give him credit for tailoring New England’s offense in 2020 to a more run-oriented one, knowing full well Cam Newton’s far more efficient running the ball than passing it.

On defense, I expect Patrick Graham to pick up right where he left off in New York. This time though, he’ll be given not one, but two premiere pass rushers at his hand in Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones. He’ll have no excuse should his defense fail to mount any sort of consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. But if he can sustain solid pressure with his defensive front while keeping coverages in the backfield hazy (in true Belichickian fashion), then we could see the Raiders finally emerge as one of the league’s better defenses.

So much of their success here depends on whether McDaniels can live up to the hype. The history of Bill Belichick’s coaching tree gives me pause here - despite all of Belichick’s success, not one of his assistants have established themselves as credible head coaches elsewhere. In fact, it makes me chuckle to think most of his assistants tend to find their way back home after failing dismally in their own ventures as head coach - Matt Patricia, Josh McDaniels (after his failed time with the Broncos), Joe Judge…Brian Flores would have likely been welcomed back too had he not broken Belichick’s heart. It’s very possible McDaniels might end up back home in New England in due time. That being said…I do see this Raiders team having some success, if only because of their stacked roster.

Denver Broncos

Leadership: Nathaniel Hackett (HC/OC), Ejiro Evero (DC), Russell Wilson (QB)

Dange-russ is in town! Before we discuss him and the offense though…let’s start with write-up discussing defense.

Ejiro Evero is a name I never heard until now. Apparently, he’s been coaching the Rams secondary the past three years or so, all under different defensive coordinators. It’s not fully known which style of defense he plans on adopting. My guess is it’d be some sort of variant of the Fangio defense, possibly with Patrick Surtain or Justin Simmons in some sort of free-wheeling role, similar to what the Rams pulled off with Jalen Ramsey. One notable decision is that Evero plans on keeping the same exact terminology Fangio instituted the past few years during his coaching tenure up in Colorado, allegedly in a bid to keep things simple for his defensive roster through the transition. But I suspect that this decision comes more because Evero’s style of defense is fundamentally the same as Fangio’s. Anyway, Evero should see some success, if only because the Broncos have one of the best defensive backfields in the league. Up front, they have a few issues, but Bradley Chubb’s return to full health combined with the newly acquired Randy Gregory may give them a much-needed boost, especially in terms of the pass rush.

Offensively, things remain a black box. Not much is known about Nathaniel Hackett - even though he has some prior stints as offensive coordinator, it’s hard to gauge his thinking or coaching ability. His last true stint as a coordinator came during the Doug Marrone era in Jacksonville. To his credit, his offense was good enough to advance to the conference championship. The year after though…the unit completely collapsed. In fact, things were so bad that Marrone was forced to fire Hackett midway through the season. Not long after, Matt LaFleur took him under his wing in Green Bay as anoffensive coordinator, but in reality, Hackett wasn’t really much a coordinator so much as a crony charged with running the offense according to LaFleur’s principles. Now that Hackett is the head coach, he’ll be able to go forward with his own vision of offense, though what that ultimately looks like remains to be seen.

One thing for sure - his system will need to incorporate Russell Wilson’s vision of an ideal offense as well. Denver gave up significant capital to acquire Russell Wilson from the Seahawks, so it goes without saying that the man will have some say over the structure of the offense. Luckily for him, this offense is stocked with a good bit more talent than what he was given in Seattle. That being said, it’s pretty clear from the last few years that Wilson is waning as he’s aging - Russell’s no longer capable of carrying the offense on sheer will any more. For this offense to be prolific, significant contributions are needed from the ground game.

Thankfully, Denver has two proven tailbacks in Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon. On top of that, Hackett has a proven history crafting efficient rushing attacks. Honestly, so much of Denver’s success on offense this year will be determined by whether Russell Wilson can distribute the ball and trust other elements around him to carry the burden of production.

Denver is a little too wild for me to run any forecasts. Too many intangibles will dictate their win-loss record this season. The only real expectation I have is that things will start slow as the franchise looks to familiarize itself with a new coaching regime as well as a new quarterback. Do expect things to improve over the course of the season, though it’s impossible to determine when exactly things will swing upward.

2022 Coaching Analysis - Part 3

Green Bay Packers

Leadership: Matt LaFleur (HC/OC), Joe Barry (DC), Aaron Rodgers (QB)

These Packers concern me. I’ve been trashing them the past couple years and the club’s done nothing but prove me wrong. This year though…this year may be that year the team finally falls hard from grace. They’ve traded away their best weapon on offense, a move all the more foolish given he was responsible for roughly 40% of their production in the passing offense last year. On top of that, free agency stole away yet another favorite target of Aaron Rodgers - Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Arguably, the only proven weapons left on that team are Allen Lazard and Robert Tonyan. Maybe Randall Cobb and Sammy Watkins can develop into reliable outlets in the passing game, but it’s certain nobody on that roster can carry the air game quite like Davante Adams. In fact, no one player stands out in that receiving corps, so any success Green Bay enjoys in the air will need to come from Aaron Rodgers working his magic and LaFleur devising new concepts to throw off opponents.

But who the hell are we kidding? Nobody respectable actually believes in Matt LaFleur. LaFleur might be a decent head coach, but his game planning and strategizing is just pathetic. Nowhere was this more evident than Green Bay’s postseason losses. The Packers offense has consistently squandered away so many opportunities to advance far into the playoffs and contend meaningfully for a championship, something that’s all the more disappointing considering Aaron Rodgers has been playing at an MVP level the past two seasons. Against Tampa Bay and San Francisco’s capable defenses, too many drives stalled quickly. I’m assuming a lack of creativity makes this offense way too predictable. Normally, a lack of imagination isn’t necessarily a bad thing so long as the unit is brimming with talent, but that’s not the case with Green Bay’s offense. Any adjustments are negligible at best.

Furthermore, the defense doesn’t inspire me much at all. Joe Barry started out strong, but two games late in the season led me to question his aptitude. Against Baltimore, his refusal to corral Lamar Jackson in the pocket was almost criminal - the Ravens came so close to mounting a successful comeback precisely because Lamar was allowed to run free. The week after against the Browns, his defense gave up way too much ground to Cleveland’s running game - Cleveland’s tailbacks were chewing off 8 yards on average with each run. Had the Browns actually had a competent quarterback helming their offense, they’d have won the game easily.

If it isn’t clear enough already, I have very few expectations for this team. Somehow, this club manages to string together far more wins than people expect, but it matters little come January. Against teams with solid rosters and quality coaching, Green Bay falls apart. This season though, a postseason berth isn’t a slam dunk now that their roster no longer features players who were so critical to their success the past couple of years. A playoff invite is still a very real possibility, but let’s not be shocked should the Packers finally collapse under the weight of their hubris.

Cincinnati Bengals

Leadership: Zac Taylor (HC/OC), Lou Anarumo (DC), Joe Burrow (QB)

Cincinnati presents some championship promise here, especially if their attempts to remedy the offensive line bear fruit. Zac Taylor still remains a liability on offense due to his stubborn insistence on running an air raid offense without any regard for his personnel, but Joe Burrow and his skill players can overcome his poor planning with their talent. One would hope that Taylor would evolve into a better coach following another embarrassing Super Bowl loss, but that seems unlikely for a man who only clinched the division despite his best attempts to choke the game away against the visiting Chiefs.

In fact, it’s hard to admit this for someone who made so much money riding Burrow and his Bengals through the playoffs, but fortune was on their side for much of last year. It’s hard to see that happening again, given one of the grand rules of thumb in football is that things always regress toward the middle. But losing lady luck’s good graces might not matter much so long as Burrow and company elevate their level of play with help from the reformed offensive line.

Lou Anarumo in particular has cemented himself as an elite coach in my eyes. His masterful adjustments in the second half against Kansas City in the AFC conference finals was the critical reason the Bengals advanced to the Super Bowl. Let’s not also forget his unit’s impressive performance against the Rams in the championship, even though the game ended up being a losing effort for them. The Bengals defense never garnered a reputation for stopping the run, but Anarumo and his men managed to stonewall the Rams on virtually all their rushing attempts - Los Angeles was only able to generate 43 yards from 23 rushes. Incredibly impressive especially against a unit that commits so much effort to its ground game.

I see another good year in line for Cincinnati this year, so long as injury doesn’t cripple the more important players on this team.

Minnesota Vikings

Leadership: Kevin O’Connell (HC/OC), Ed Donatell (DC), Kirk Cousins (QB)

These Vikings are an interesting bunch. Parting ways with the old regime in charge after multiple seasons of disappointment, Minnesota decided it was in its best interests going with the latest trends and hiring younger blood. As a result, Kevin O’Connell is now the head coach as well as the architect of the offense.

Given O’Connell’s background and his selection of offensive coordinator, it’s clear the man isn’t looking to deviate much from the style of offensive football proselytized by his former colleague and mentor, Sean McVay. So expect the offense to run the vast majority of its plays from 11 personnel. Also, expect the playbook to mostly consist of crossing routes, outside zone runs, and play-action. Luckily, the Vikings have the players on offense to actually succeed, even if McVay’s philosophy has lost its creative panache. Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielan can carry this offense through sheer talent alone. That being said, I do expect Cook to thrive under O’Connell, as outsize zone-running schemes cater well to his slash-and-dash style of running.

Ed Donatell is a man I don’t know much about. His coaching impact in Denver over the past three years is difficult to assess considering former head coach Vic Fangio ran things on the defensive side of the ball over there. It’s assumed Donatell will try to institute a variant of the Fangio defense in Minnesota. It won’t be easy feat considering many of the defensive veterans have been habituated to Zimmer’s scheme for the past several years. On top of that, Fangio’s style of defense is fruitful generally when the front lines of the unit boast defensive linemen who can effectively shut down the run. It’s unlikely that Minnesota has the horses along the trenches to stop opposing rushers - last year, the Vikings ranked among the worst when it came to run defense. The good news is that Minnesota will be starting two potentially elite edge rushers in Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith. If these two stay healthy together, the Vikings may be able to suffice with underwhelming production from its interior linemen.

So where do we stand here? Not too sure. Minnesota is a team that could start slow as Kevin O’Connell adjusts to his new life as head coach. It’s very possible the Vikings could be competing for a playoff berth in December though, and should the offense finally settle into a groove and the defense regresses from its lousy showing last year, Minnesota could surprise people in the postseason.

Seattle Seahawks

Leadership: Pete Carroll (HC/DC), Shane Waldron (OC), Geno Smith / Drew Lock (QB)

Seattle’s expected to be one of the worst teams in the league, thanks mostly to its woeful quarterbacking situation. Then again…Pete Carroll and John Schneider might feel differently considering Drew Lock was highly rated by both men when he came out in the draft.

It’s hard to gain any sort of beat on this team now that it’s rebuilding. Offensive coordinator Shane Waldron can’t really be judged by his results last year, especially given Russell Wilson refused to relinquish some of the reins he held over offense. One thing worth noting - things didn’t really change much in terms of EPA when Geno Smith had to relieve Wilson for three games as starter. Will things be different now that Waldron has assumed full control of the unit? Perhaps, especially now that Noah Fant’s presence gives Seattle yet another weapon on offense. Still…the more I think about it, the less confidence I have in the man improving. The whole Geno Smith

Defensively, things are muddy now that the organization released 3 of their best 4 pass rushers from last year. I’m not sure what Pete Carroll is planning here - Poona Ford and L.J. Collier have been failed experiments so far as pass rushers. Jamal Adams can cause some havoc in the backfield as a blitzing safety, but his production in that respect is capped, as a defensive backs can only raid the backfield so much. Darrell Taylor is the only player with any real upside there. So unless Taylor breaks out, the Seahawks will have one of the worst set of pass rushers in the league. That being said…one good thing is that Pete Carroll has brought Sean Desai into the fold as an advisor on defense. It’s a good move considering the cover-three base defense is on its way to obsolescence. Carroll would definitely benefit from incorporating some of Vic Fangio’s complex coverage concepts into his defense. The longer it takes for opposing quarterbacks to decipher the defense, the more it would help what is expected to be a lackluster pass rush.

Seattle isn’t expected to do much and I don’t really see things playing out any other way. You know, low expectations may help this team against opponents who play down to pathetic opponents, but don’t expect Carroll and his crew to pull out many wins this year as the team looks to rebuild from the Russell Wilson era.

2022 Coaching Analysis - Part 2

Indianapolis Colts

Leadership: Frank Reich (HC/OC), Gus Bradley (DC), Matt Ryan (QB)

The Colts are interesting from a leadership perspective. I believe strongly in Frank Reich and his leadership over the offense. Without him, one could argue the Eagles wouldn’t have won the championship back in 2017. His understanding of offensive schemes and his attention to detail show up on tape, especially in that road game against Arizona last year when the four of his starting offensive linemen were sidelined with injury. Most other organizations would be incapable of adjusting - not only did Reich adjust, but his men outright won the game.

But I’ll tell you this - his ability to evaluate quarterbacks needs to be called into question. First, the man tried to gamble on old man Philip Rivers. When that failed to pan out, the organization gave up valuable draft capital to bring Carson Wentz into the fold. It was believed that under Frank Reich’s mentorship, the former first-rounder would blossom again. Instead…the exact opposite happened - the same mistakes and egotistical mindset that plagued him in Philadelphia resurfaced in Indianapolis. But despite that, the team was literally on the cusp of a playoff berth…until Carson went and squandered that away in two embarrassing late-season losses. The Colts quickly became a laughingstock for closing out the season in such disappointing fashion. If there was a silver lining to their campaign last year, it’s that Wentz finally realized his true calling - to be a noose choking the life out of any team unfortunate enough to have him on their roster.

This year, the team again dipped into the well of aging quarterbacks by bringing Matt Ryan on board. The hope here is that Ryan can realize his true potential now that he can count on actual football players to protect him inside the pocket, instead of the cadavers Atlanta fielded in front of him. Even better than that, Ryan now finds himself in a very favorable situation considering Indy has one of the league’s best offensive lines. If he can shrug off whatever PTSD followed him from Atlanta, he and Reich can make some real hay in terms of offensive production, especially if Jonathan Taylor returns in top form this season.

Gus Bradley remains another interesting question as well. It’s easy to dismiss the man after his disastrous years over in Jacksonville and his stubborn insistence on running a defensive scheme long after it’s been decoded. But the Raiders defensive unit he coached last year performed surprisingly well, especially in the tail end of the season when Vegas was fighting for a wild-card invite. Bradley also found ways to leverage Yannick Ngakoue’s skill set, something Minnesota nor Baltimore could quite figure out.

Still…it does worry me that the Raiders defense surrendered over 40 points against the Chiefs both times they met last year. It’s not good when a division rival dominates you so thoroughly in two meetings, especially when those meetings are only a few weeks apart from one another. Rewatching the first half of their Sunday night match-up in 2021, the Raiders were selling out to play the deep ball, leaving easy completions to Travis Kelce underneath. Actually, these completions shouldn’t have come as easy as they did, but it seems the Raiders linebackers and safeties were helpless against Kelce. Even a starting cornerback couldn’t do much against Kelce in press coverage. Vegas adjusted in the second half by playing more cover-three, but Mahomes and Tyreek Hill adjusted quickly as well, connecting on some deep passes against the thinly-manned defensive backfield. It’s possible that the Chiefs were simply more amped to play the game compared to the Raiders, especially as Jon Gruden wasn’t there to stoke that hatred against Kansas that used to fuel Vegas. But it’s still disappointing that an organization that played these Chiefs so ferociously the year before completely collapsed, and defensive ineptitude played a large role in why this collapse happened.

In the end, I’m not sure what to make of this Indy team. It needs a few big uncertainties to fall in their favor, and as I’ve learned the hard way in making these preseason forecasts, teams that have multiple questions to answer don’t usually end up answering all of them in positive fashion.

New Orleans Saints

Leaders: Dennis Allen (HC/DC), Pete Carmichael (OC), Jameis Winston / Andy Dalton / Taysom Hill (QB)

It’s hard to assess these Saints. First off, Dennis Allen’s previous head coaching experience was disastrous, to say the least. Though it can be argued he wasn’t given much help in terms of roster talent, the Raiders only logged 8 wins under him while losing 22 contests.

As a defensive coordinator though, the man’s worked magic, marshaling quite a bit of production from a roster that’s above average at best. His defense consistently kept teams in negative EPA territory last season. A few of the sadder performances they put forth last year came when they suffered as a result of mistakes the offense kept making. Despite the offense literally flailing through much of the season because of all the instability at the quarterback position, the defense was so good that the Saints finished the year with a winning record. That being said, New Orleans did have one sorry outing against Philadelphia late in the season. It was obvious the Eagles could only matriculate the ball through the ground game, but Allen’s defense still managed to cough up over 200 yards against the Eagles on the ground.

But as head coach, it remains to be seen whether the man can install the type of culture and discipline Sean Payton was able to cultivate in the organization. Coordinators have quite a few responsibilities, but head coaches are uniquely charged with a certain responsibility that can’t be learned by anybody not in that role - head coaches need to provide the glue capable of holding a club together through the travails of the season. And that glue isn’t easy to make. If anything, it’s more an art than a science, as there’s no one formula out there to help coaches develop that glue. A mix of judiciousness, authority, respect, composure, and organization skills are needed to install a sort of culture capable of binding a team together. Whether Dennis Allen finished learning all those skills during his tenure under Sean Payton remains to be seen.

On top of that, Payton’s absence also means Pete Carmichael is now formally assuming offensive coordinator duties. Carmichael will now be shepherding this unit on game day instead of Payton. Is he ready? I have no idea, to be frank. He’s spent 16 years working jointly with Payton. Now he’ll have to assume the role without any guidance from his former head coach.

The Saints will be interesting to watch. Not much is expected from them, but they’ll still be exciting to watch only to see whether Allen and Carmichael can rise to the next level now that they’ll be heading into battle without their trusted general.

Houston Texans

Leaders: Lovie Smith (HC/DC), Pep Hamilton (OC), Davis Mills (QB)

Lovie Smith was promoted to top coach after David Culley was fired at the end of the season. It was an odd promotion though, given Houston’s front office was rumored to be eyeing Josh McCown for the head coach position before Brian Flores ruffled the NFL’s feathers with his discrimination lawsuit. In the wake of that lawsuit and all the publicity it garnered, Houston’s general management shied away from McCown, knowing that hiring a white man who’s never before been coach as their next head coach would have made for some exceptionally bad press. If anything, it would have practically validated Flores’ allegations that the league discriminated against hiring minorities to fill coaching vacancies. So McCown’s candidacy was quickly quashed and Lovie was picked to assume the role of top coach in the organization.

Lovie Smith’s previous head coaching stints have produced mixed results. Sure, he managed to take the Bears to a Super Bowl appearance back in 2006, but that was 16 years ago. Ever since Chicago forced him out unceremoniously several years later, his head coaching resume has been an absolute disaster. His reputation bounced up a bit last year after Houston’s defense exceeded expectations by feasting on turnovers. But on so many other metrics, the defense fell hopelessly short. Not to mention that unit relied on older journeymen trekking towards the end of their respective careers. It remains to be seen whether the unit actually boasts enough young talent to sustain them for the foreseeable future. Either way, don’t expect much from a unit that thrived off turnovers, as turnover opportunities are too volatile on a year-to-year basis to be considered sustainable. No matter what fans believe, quality defenses just cannot base their success on turnovers. In fact, one look at the EPA chart for the Texans defense should show you how wild turnovers can be.

Pretty nuts, isn’t it?

On the other side of the ball, you have Pep Hamilton now replacing Tim Kelly. Honestly, Pep doesn’t inspire much confidence. He’s built his reputation as a quarterback whisperer, but one wonders whether that reputation is justified. Would Andrew Luck or Justin Herbert be household names if Pep wasn’t there to train them? We’ll never know for certain, but I’d bet good money the both of them would have done just fine with or without Hamilton.

To his credit though, he has worked some magic with Davis Mills last year. Mills was considered a rough prospect last year when the Texans scooped him up in the third round of the draft. And even though Mills had plenty of forgettable moments last season, it’s pretty clear the kid played much better as the season progressed. His best game literally came against a Charger team who the bookmakers pegged as double-digit favorites. Despite Houston losing the majority of its personnel on offense to COVID, Davis Mills played fantastic and actually led the team to a win.

Let’s wrap this up. Houston is still very much in the throes of a rebuild here. Things aren’t expected to change very much from last year, especially after most of the coaching staff last year has been retained this year despite Culley’s firing. The front office inserting themselves as much as they do in coaching matters and game-planning doesn’t help either…

Pittsburgh Steelers

Leaders: Mike Tomlin (HC/DC), Teryl Austin (DC), Matt Canada (OC), Mason Rudolph / Mitch Trubisky / Kenny Pickett (QB)

It’s difficult to assess these Steelers. For one thing, the quarterback position is completely unsettled, and will likely be in constant flux through the season as injuries and disappointments mount. It’s also tough assessing Matt Canada’s influence on this team even though it’s his second year now as a Steeler - the only real insight I could gather from his first season with the organization is that he couldn’t stop Roethlisberger from playing like a corpse. And to be fair, it’s not really his fault - even the best coordinators could only so much with quarterbacks who’ve clearly aged way past their prime. With Ben out of the way this year, we may see his vision for the passing game finally realized, though it may need to be simplified if quarterbacks are rotating in and out of the starting role.

Defensively, Pittsburgh is a mixed bag. Despite being loaded to the gills with talent on that side of the ball, it was a year full of highs and lows. Against solid competition, the defense took way too many haymakers to the chin. Against lesser opponents though, the defense held their own, especially when those lesser opponents were division rivals.

And really, that becomes the story of Pittsburgh last year. It was a team that fought hard against mediocre teams only to get bowled over by stronger opponents. With the exceptions of a Titans club missing most of its playmakers on offense and a Buffalo squad caught slacking at the beginning of the season, these Steelers were constantly housed by playoff and playoff-adjacent teams.

Maybe things can change this season, especially as Mike Tomlin looks to revitalize the defense by changing up key pieces of his coaching staff. Still, it’s hard to see this team improving by leaps and bounds, especially if the quarterback position remains an open question for most of the year.

2022 Coaching Analysis - Part 1

So for the first time in Owl Blog history, I’ll be assessing coaches primarily when evaluating teams. By tracking these coaches, their core competencies, and their overall level of success, I feel I can better predict the outcome of games. After all, terrible coaches tend to lose more while good coaches win more and end up leaving some sort of subtle impression on the game of football.

Los Angeles Rams

Leaders: Sean McVay (HC/OC), Raheem Morris (DC), Matthew Stafford (QB)

The Rams have solid management. McVay’s offensive coaching could use some work, especially given the pathetic showing by the Rams offense in the Super Bowl. On top of that, his playbook has been criticized as being too simple, a weakness which is all too easily exposed against the league’s better defensive minds. Still, the play-action and the outside zone runs still hit gold against lesser coaches and teams.

Still, Raheem Morris coming into the organization last year and successfully running Brandon Staley’s style of defense was remarkable, considering it’s a philosophy that was (more or less) forced upon him as a prerequisite for taking the coordinator job. That defensive line was far more productive too. Not only was Aaron Donald playing some of the best football of his career, but the team also found a complementary piece in Von Miller. Without Von Miller as the book-end rusher working in tandem with Donald, it remains to be seen whether the Rams could have won the Super Bowl. Credit to Raheem Morris though for finding ways to pull even more production from these men. It was the defense that ultimately carried the club to the Super Bowl.

Matthew Stafford’s arrival also worked some wonders when it came to the team overcoming adverse momentum. Under Jared Goff, McVay and his men weren’t that successful navigating against negative game script. For the Rams to win, it would almost always take them require them to hold the lead by the start of the fourth quarter. That changed considerably under Stafford in 2021, as the Rams were able to mount a total of 4 noteworthy comebacks, 3 more than the total number of comebacks they were able to wager in 2019 and 2020 combined.

Nothing substantial has changed in the offseason, so expect the Rams to be one of the better franchises in the league in terms of management.

Buffalo Bills

Leaders: Sean McDermott (HC/DC), Ken Dorsey (OC), Josh Allen (QB)

So Buffalo promoted an assistant coach to offensive coordinator after Brian Daboll left in the offseason to become the head coach of the New York Giants. Ken Dorsey isn’t really expected to change the structure of the offense much, especially given the way Josh Allen was able to blossom over the past couple years in Daboll’s system. That being said…last season was a little strange for the Bills offense - Josh Allen and the rest of the unit disappointed relative to expectations. Until late in the season, their performance on the field missed that crisp quality that defined them the season before. It wasn’t until their game against the Buccaneers that the offense began developing some rhythm. Come wild card weekend, Buffalo’s offense finally hit their stride, embarrassing the Patriots in a laugher.

Part of the problem with the Bills was their offensive protection. Allen’s tendency to hold steady while a big play develops didn’t serve him kindly when his offensive line struggled to ward off pass rushers. All the more strange too considering Daboll comes from the Patriot school of offensive football, which emphasizes shorter passes towards the middle of the field - Allen seemed to prefer heaving the ball to the receivers running deeper routes downfield. Then again, Daboll seems to call quite a few spear plays, and those types of plays tend to be a hallmark of a coach who favors longer passes.

What ultimately worked for Buffalo last year was that Allen adjusted to the pressure. While it wasn’t a complete transformation, Buffalo’s young quarterback seemed more willing to settle for shorter passes towards the end of the season. Those short throws worked wonders against defenses conditioned into thinking Buffalo would never compromise on its love of the deep ball.

Defensively, McDermott is expected to field another stellar defense, though their pass rush will once again be called into question. No one player on that defense really broke out as a marquis pass rusher. The hope this season is that their first round draft pick from last year Gregory Rousseau would finally emerge as a premiere edge player, with Von Miller on the other side of the defensive line helping him in a complementary role.

One thing worth mentioning - Buffalo did not stage a single comeback last year. In fact, they’ve choked up three fourth-quarter leads. do blame the coaching here, in part because McDermott was exceptionally horrific in his management of game clock. Things are probably going to be a bit different this season so long as Allen doesn’t regress into old form.

Dallas Cowboys

Leaders: Mike McCarthy (HC), Kellen Moore (OC), Dan Quinn (DC), Dak Prescott (QB)

The Cowboys underwhelmed relative to expectations in the postseason last year, exiting all too early in the wild-card round despite being seen as dark horse contenders for the Super Bowl. Why? I’m not too sure. When analyzing their offensive and defensive EPA over the season, one thing that comes to mind is that non-division rivals actually fared pretty well against them in the second half of the season. The only non-division teams they managed to thrash were a Saints team led by Taysom Hill and an Atlanta team that Dan Quinn held a grudge against.

Speaking of which, kudos to Quinn for adopting a new style of defense, even if it may have become a tad bit simple towards the tail end of the season. Simplicity of scheme is fine so long as the defense is loaded with stallions, and the Cowboys boasted one of the better defensive rosters last year.

Kudos to Kellen Moore too for tailoring his game plans according to situation. That road win against Minnesota last year was a master class in game planning, considering the Cowboys were forced to start a fourth-stringer at quarterback. Same with the game against the Buccaneers, when Moore willfully abandoned the ground game in order to try and maximize offensive production against a Tampa defense known for neutralizing opposing rushers. Questions remain about whether he can adjust his strategies successfully mid-game, but his pre-game planning is something to be admired.

Sadly, I expect good things from Dallas this year, simply going by the strength of their coaching and the fact that they boast the best quarterback in their division. That being said, that postseason loss still concerns me. It isn’t so much the upset factor as it is the way Dallas lost that game. Analyzing the box score along, it seems penalties and a lack of a rushing game doomed them. But when I dig deeper into their skill player production over the season…I think the real reason was simply the lack of legitimate playmakers on offense. Ezekiel Elliott wasn’t effective, no matter how many times they rode him into the dirt over the season. Amari Cooper just wasn’t on the same page as Dak, which is all the more evident now that the front office flipped him over to the Browns in a trade. CeeDee Lamb was the only worrisome threat, but with precious few exceptions, no one man can carry an offense all by himself. Without anybody else to compliment Lamb, it was all too easy for good defensive coordinators to neutralize Dallas’ offense.

Will that happen against this year? Possibly. But we’ll assess that as the season waxes on.

Washington Commanders

Leaders: Ron Rivera (HC), Scott Turner (OC), Jack Del Rio (DC), Carson Wentz / Taylor Heinecke (QB)

Dan Snyder is a sad sad man. But this profile isn’t about him. It’s about the poor men serving under his leadership.

Washington underwhelmed relative to expectations. Not only could Taylor Heinecke establish himself as the franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future, but even the defense took a step back. The organization (arguably) boasted the best pass rushers in 2020, but those players regressed pretty badly in 2021, partly thanks to injury.

So what’s the prognosis like this season? I don’t expect much to change. None of these coaches really impressed me. Ron Rivera’s tendency to take on risk produced middling results. Normally, that type of attitude is crucial toward mounting comebacks and maintaining leads, but the team still choked away three leads last year, two of them against Philadelphia. On top of that, Carson Wentz is a liability. The best-laid plans of mice and offensive coordinators go to hell so long as he’s helming the offense - his inclination for hero ball backfires way too much. The fact that the owner of the Colts denounced him as harshly as he did is testament enough to Wentz’s ineptitude.

If Wentz actually proves to be a downgrade from Heinecke, let’s not expect much change from this Washington squad. If anything, they may struggle to even notch more than five wins if Wentz continues to bungle games as only he can. On top of that, it’s clear the other coaches in the division have some sort of read over on Washington, if the second half of last season was any indication.

Super Bowl LVI: Pass Rush Analysis

Normally for the two teams in the Super Bowl, I watch games in which they share a common opponent to gauge their pass rush productivity. This year, I’ll avoid watching games involving division rivals - the familiarity factor really screws things up. It’s much better watching games in which the teams are playing against a common opponent that’s not all too familiar with either team, in order to assess things as fairly as possible.

On top of that, the two teams had to have faced these common opponents in roughly the same time period. It’s not fair if both teams have faced off against the common opponent on opposite ends of the schedule, especially the way teams tend to evolve over the season.

This year, the Bengals and the Rams only share one common opponent that’s not a division rival - the Green Bay Packers. It’s not an entirely equitable comparison given both clubs faced off against Green Bay seven weeks apart. But it’s the best common point the two teams shared this season, so here we are.

Packers @ Bengals

Hurries - 6
Hits - 4
Tackles for No Gain - 4

Total Number of Plays - 56

Rams @ Packers

Hurries - 9
Hits - 5
Tackles for No Gain - 5
Penalties - 2

Total Number of Plays - 73

Rams @ 49ers

Hurries - 2
Hits - 1
Tackles for No Gain - 10
Penalties - 0

Total Number of Plays - 58

49ers @ Bengals

Hurries - 5
Hits - 10
Tackles for No Gain - 3
Penalties - 1

Total Number of Plays - 64

2021 Playoffs: Thoughts Before Conference Championships

Last weekend was full of ups and downs for me. Saturday was a remarkably bad day for me, starting with the Titans offense choking hard against a young Bengals club I clearly underestimated. The Packers losing to the 49ers wasn’t quite as shocking, but the manner in which they lost was…outrageous. In fact, the whole game was a mess with both teams producing dud performances on offense. San Francisco’s offense didn’t even find the end zone once, but the team still won thanks to an exceptionally strong performance from its defense as well as Green Bay shooting off its toes in the fourth quarter.

Sunday was beautiful though. I nailed both games, though the Chiefs game did give me some IBS towards the end. Kansas coughing up two touchdowns against a guy that hasn’t mounted a comeback in more than a year was unsettling. The worst part is that the Chiefs had multiple opportunities to close out drives on fourth down, but they let Josh Allen MacGyver his way toward conversions.

So one thing I learned - I truly undervalued offense. On top of that, I terribly overestimated Tennessee’s offensive potential. Todd Downing isn’t some ingenuous offensive mind - he’s an idiot. Forcing Derrick Henry to tote the rock for much of the game even though D’Onta Foreman was so much more productive in that same role is inadvisable. Not being able to move the ball forward one stinking yard on two successive downs is a fireable offense, period. On top of that, Tannehill just forcing balls late into tight windows ended up giving the Bengals three turnovers. Then again, when your offense isn’t adjusting to its strengths and insisting on doubling down on a losing strategy, your offense loses whatever charm and ingenuity powered it through some tough moments. Without a competent ground game and Tannehill not showing any inclination to run the ball, Tennessee’s offense was reduced to A.J. Brown (with some dash of Julio Jones). Not good. In that respect, Tennessee may have rolled into the postseason with the worst offense of the 14 playoff teams.

Anyway, let’s get to this. I feel much more confident analyzing these remaining teams now that I have two weeks worth of playoff data on them.

Bengals @ Chiefs (-7.5)

Am I the only one seriously wondering why the Chiefs are giving more than a touchdown here?

Forget the fact that the Bengals have beaten Kansas just a few weeks ago. Cincinnati is much more of a complete team than I initially thought, especially now that playoff experience isn’t much a concern any more. The Bengals actually have a more complete offense compared to Kansas City, given Burrow is an elite quarterback while Mahomes hasn’t been consistent enough to merit elite designation. Defensively, things are a bit of a wash given both teams have one truly dominant defensive lineman and another edge rusher in a sidekick role.

One can argue Kansas has a coaching advantage with the duo of Andy Reid and Steve Spagnuolo competing strategically against Zac Taylor and Lou Anarumo. But Anarumo actually impressed me last week with the way his defense was able to stunt Tennessee’s attempts to establish the ground game. Spags on the other hand has me questioning his competence given all the yards and points he let up against Josh Allen in the waning moments of the fourth quarter. I know Tyrann Matthieu being out with a concussion didn’t help him one bit, but it was still pretty shameful the way Allen marched his offense down the field on two separate lead-changing drives. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s consider coaching a wash too.

If Mahomes isn’t playing in elite form this Sunday, the Chiefs only have one definitive advantage over Cincinnati - home field advantage. Noticed I emphasized the word “definitive” in that last statement - Kansas has also proven itself capable of mounting comebacks whereas Cincinnati’s losses their season leave some reason for doubt. But given the poise they showed last week while Tennessee’s defense was bullying them relentlessly, it’s very possible the Bengals are more than capable of coming back should they fall behind drastically.

For Kansas to win decisively, Mahomes needs to be elite. I’m sure Chiefs backers are more hyped than ever on their quarterback’s potential given the way things unfolded against Buffalo, but I’m still not fully sold. His performance was too uneven early in the season - for him to really reform into a first-class passer would be damn near magical, thought not impossible. We’ve seen it done before with Nick Foles.

Still…give me the Bengals here, both against the spread and the moneyline. I’m on the underdog train here.

49ers @ Rams (-3.5)

I love the 49ers in this spot. It’s difficult for any one team to beat another team three times straight in the same season, but it’s been done several times over the past decade or so. Given the way San Francisco was able to physically dominate the Los Angeles at the line of scrimmage just a few weeks ago, I say we’ll see another one of those hat tricks this year.

How does Los Angeles adjust when the other team is just so physically dominant and maybe even more intellectually capable than them? For one thing, McVay will need to introduce concepts that hasn’t been featured much on film this year. Second, the defense will need to force some ugly turnovers from Jimmy G. Third, Matthew Stafford has to compose himself against this ferocious 49er front. His tendency to make regrettable decisions under pressure has screwed the team way too many times this season, especially against San Francisco

Can all these things be achieved? Sure, but the odds are incredibly remote. The reality is that Sean McVay isn’t known for changing things much, especially this late in the season. Perhaps a few gadget concepts will be introduced into the playbook, but these Rams prefer not to stray too far from their philosophy on both sides of the ball, even if doing so would help them tackle certain opponents better. Lacking that ability to adapt doesn’t serve them well here against objectively superior competition like the 49ers.

In the end, the Rams are a team facing an uphill battle here, despite the spread telling people otherwise. Give me the 49ers, both against the spread and the moneyline.

Division Round Insights

Bengals @ Titans

Tennessee is just depressing me. Even if they win, it’s a horrible win. I need to re-assess the continuity of the offensive line here. It’s a line that’s really struggling to get any push up front in the running game. Now they have all their starters back, but it hasn’t really amounted to much - Cincinnati is winning the battles in the trenches.

Credit to Lou Anaramo. Disguising coverages, lining up heavy along the front…it’s clear the defensive coaches behind the Bengals are fully aware Tennessee wants nothing more than to just run the ball. Even though the Bengals are giving up yards in the game, they’re not giving up much in terms of success rate, which is what ultimately matters.

So it appears Zac Taylor has adjusted in the second half by opting to run Mixon more, possibly out of heavy formation. Smart adjustment.

One yard away and Tennessee couldn’t gain that one yard to earn a new series of downs. I don’t get it. If Julio Jones or AJ Brown weren’t on the field, then Cincinnati was tipped off all so easily that both would be running plays. That would confirm to me that Tennessee has absolute shit coaching on the offensive side of the ball.

Regardless of who wins this game, one thing is evident to me - when your coaching is arguably shit and you literally shoot yourself in the foot by refusing to bench somebody who’s clearly not playing at full throttle, your offense is worthless. Tennessee has had two weapons really contributing for them the entire game - AJ Brown and Julio Jones. If D’Onta Foreman was more of a focal point in the ground game instead of Derrick Henry, then this could potentially be a blowout. But with only two vectors out there, this Tennessee offense has been ground to a halt.

49ers @ Packers

Let this game serve as further proof that even a dominant receiver can only do so much against a tough defense. I’m thinking my mistake this season was not sticking with my fibonacci style of grading when it comes to evaluating offensive weaponry. A team with limited weapons can be so easily shut down, even with an elite quarterback at the helm.

Randall Cobb isn’t contributing much returning from injury. Never count on a player returning from devastating injury in the postseason. A player needs at least a few games to fully turn up.

One thing I’m beginning to reassess is the value of a quarterback’s mobility. Don’t get me wrong, some quarterbacks build their game on top of their ability to run. But that’s exactly it - quarterbacks running with the ball by design is very different from quarterbacks scrambling with the ball. And in that sense, a quarterback able to run with the ball shouldn’t be considered an additional dimension on offense.

Rodgers is clearly irritated in the fourth quarter. Some of his throws to Davonte Adams are being forced or off-target. So uncharacteristic of Rodgers, but when a team lacks toughness, mistakes like this can happen.

Rams @ Buccaneers

One drive in and Tampa Bay hasn’t done much to pressure Matthew Stafford. The Rams were limited to a field goal due to McVay calling a few questionable plays in the end zone (double-dig and fade to Van Jefferson).

Cam Akers, Odell Beckham, Tyler Higbee….the Rams are having all these weapons emerge just at the right time.

In the second half, the Rams were all too eager to drain the clock instead of put up more points. It was a very sad strategy that almost backfired when Brady tried to mount a comeback. Los Angeles has potential on offense, but McVay can’t be hitting the brake when an entire half has yet to play out.

Bowles had a hard time finding an antidote to this Rams offense. It’s a style of offense that just doesn’t play well with his philosophy on defense.

Bills @ Chiefs

Will be worth watching the Bills defense line to see if any of their players can generate some impactful plays.

It’s a little concerning watching the Chiefs resort to Mahomes running the ball on multiple occasions in the first drive to generate any production.

It took Josh Allen quite a few plays, but the Chiefs defense ultimately gave way and afforded him not one, but two lead-changing touchdowns late in the fourth quarter. Ultimately, Buffalo failed to come back successfully, but it was pretty remarkable to see Josh Allen successfully lead two touchdown drives to try and stamp Buffalo’s ticket into the playoffs. I need to be more careful assessing these teams and their backbone. It’s clear this Buffalo organization is very different from the team that was punched hard in the mouth in their first outing against New England.

Speaking of which, this Kansas defense disappointed me. They were given more than enough opportunity to finish off Josh Allen and company and they were unable to do just that. Not sure why. Perhaps Tyrann Matthieu not being back there really hurt them down the stretch, as the honey badger is so good at organizing the defensive backfield. Still…it’s inexcusable to let them convert on three fourth downs to try and steal the game away. Let this be a reminder that the defense is better than where it was earlier in the season, but it’s still remarkably pedestrian in many ways.

2021 Playoffs: Thoughts Before Divisional Round

I decided to make this post in order to log my thoughts on these division games before they happen. After the weekend ends, I’ll be revisiting the words I wrote here to assess my estimations and understanding of all the teams involved in these games.

Bengals @ Titans

Cincinnati did well to ward off Las Vegas last week when they tried to stage a comeback. But the road for them has to end here. It just wouldn’t make sense otherwise.

Tennessee has too much raw talent and quality coaching for the Bengals to overcome. Cincinnati’s lone advantage here is at quarterback, but that alone can’t compensate for all the other cards the Titans hold over them, namely coaching and home field advantage. On top of that, Cincinnati hasn’t really proven itself a team capable of comebacks, especially on the road.

I expect the Titans to come firing out of the gates here on top of a wave of emotion. Tennessee should dominate this affair from start to finish.

49ers @ Packers

The Packers are on notice after San Francisco surprised folks last week with a decisive win over the Cowboys. And they certainly should be - San Francisco has some fierce potential here given the quality of their coaching as well as the overall talent of their roster.

The problem here is I’m not quite sure the 49ers are talented enough to upset Green Bay over on the frozen tundra in Wisconsin. I mean…San Francisco’s front only has one marquis player in Nick Bosa. If Bosa is shut down and nobody else can sustain consistent pressure against Rodgers, their defense will be picked apart - Rodgers is too damn good to not find somebody so long as his offensive line holds opposing pass rushers at bay long enough. To be fair though, San Francisco has a fair number of defensive linemen who can emerge as impact players, so it’s not as if the 49ers are hopeless defensively. Still, it won’t be easy for any of their linemen to break out against the game’s best quarterback.

What’s far more concerning is Jimmy Garoppalo. The man has a ceiling, something that was made abundantly clear last week against the Cowboys when he nearly gave the win away in the last third of the game. Garoppalo can manage a few touchdown drives here and there, but enduring success isn’t quite his forte, especially given his spotty track record this season staging comebacks. Sure, he waged a few successful road comebacks, but the key word there is “few” - he hasn’t done it enough to ward off my lingering doubts about his toughness.

In the end, San Francisco is a live dog when it comes to the spread. When it comes to winning though, give me the elite quarterback playing on his home turf.

Rams @ Buccaneers

It’s weird for me to think of the Rams as a legitimate contender here, but the reality is that Sean McVay and company have gotten the better of Tampa Bay twice now. His secret has always been invoking the hurry-up offense early and often. Tampa Bay has one of the league’s most aggressive defenses when it comes to rushing the passer, but that pass rush is neutered if a team opts to sell the pass rush short.

Although now that I’m watching the tape from their last game back in September…I notice Bowles finally wised up in the second half, electing to play the Rams much more conservatively by sending only four men to rush the passer while the rest dropped back into some sort of hybrid zone/man coverage. And it still didn’t work - Stafford was given way too much oxygen in the pocket. Shaquil Barrett in particular really failed to impact the game much. One could argue Jason Pierre-Paul not being present that day really set their pass rush back, but given his limited production this season, that argument doesn’t hold much weight.

So if we assume the Rams have proven themselves superior to the Buccaneers regardless of coaching adjustments, how can Tampa Bay win the game? I’m not sure. Los Angeles hasn’t really suffered any major setbacks between then and now. Yes, Robert Woods will no longer be there, but it seems the organization has found a suitable replacement in Odell Beckham. On top of that, the pass rush has been upgraded now that Von Miller has joined the roster. Leonard Floyd never really developed into that cornerstone piece capable of complimenting Aaron Donald inside the trenches, but Miller has that potential so long as the coaches can regulate his snap count to keep him fresh.

Now Tampa on the other hand…their roster has been suffering setback after setback for the better part of the season. Sure, a few players are expected to return just in time for this game, but it’s quite possible there’ll still be vital players absent on Sunday, namely offensive linemen. And for those men returning this week, in what shape are they in? Are they fully healthy? Bruce Arians isn’t necessarily above forcing roster personnel into action even if they haven’t fully recovered from whatever kept them inactive. If anything, throwing injured players into battle may end up being detrimental to the club’s chances of winning.

The only clear advantage Tampa has entering this contest will be home field advantage. Other than that, not much has changed, and that doesn’t bode well for the defending champs. I’m not sure the hostile vibes of enemy territory will be enough to kill Stafford and company, especially if McVay can just reuse the same concepts and plays that were so resoundingly successful in their regular season meeting.

Bills @ Chiefs

Ever since the Bills brutalized the Patriots last week, so many people have been too happy hopping on the Bills bandwagon. To be fair, it’s hard to really downplay their achievements after the way they’ve schooled Belichick and his boys over the past couple weeks. These Bills deserves serious credit for rediscovering their groove after being left for dead by those same Patriots that Monday night up in Buffalo.

That being said…this team is still lacking so many qualities that championship teams need to see their way through the postseason. They don’t have an elite quarterback. They don’t have any elite defensive linemen lining up in the trenches, let alone any players with elite potential. They’ve failed to mount a single comeback this season. Their strengths rest in all their diverse weaponry on offense as well as their overall coaching on both ends of the ball. While so many other playoff teams would love to have the coaching intellect Buffalo has in droves, it’s not enough by itself to win Super Bowls. Remember the cardinal rule underpinning my playoff model - no one thing can single-handedly carry a team to a Lombardi trophy. A team needs to be strong in a preponderance of championship aspects to be considered a legitimate contender to win the Super Bowl.

But that’s not what we’re evaluating here, is it? The question here is whether Buffalo is built to beat Kansas in the divisional round. And to be frank, it’s a possibility. The Bills have already beaten these Chiefs earlier in the season. But that was when this Kansas defense was at its lowest point of the year. It was comically inept. No longer the case anymore now that playoffs have begun. It’s pretty far from being a dominant unit, but it’s made tremendous strides towards the middle now that Chris Jones has shifted back to playing within his comfort zone from the interior of the defensive line. On top of that, Melvin Ingram has arrived as an edge rusher worthy of lining up opposite Frank Clark. The cornerbacks have been better in coverage too, something absolutely critical given how often the Chiefs love to blitz.

Furthermore, Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid have adjusted a bit on offense now that defenses are much more committed to playing deep coverage against Tyreek Hill. Mahomes is a bit more willing to throw the ball underneath. Byron Pringle’s also emerged as a possibly reliable third weapon alongside Kelce and Hill, so that should help. Will it be enough to change the outcome from that early-season outing? Quite possibly. I’m giving the edge here to Kansas City.