Week 17 and Black Monday post-mortem

Oh my lord. Ladies and gentlemen, you could not have asked for a better week 17 finale of what was an eventful NFL season. Virtually every game had some sort of controversy, officiating blunders, dumb plays but mostly, fantastic finishes.

Here are my thoughts on what transpired in the wildest week 17 in a very long time

Miami falters in final two games

Ryan Tannehill, prior to the last two games, appeared to have turned a corner in a big way. He had eight touchdowns, two interceptions and a completion percentage above 64 percent. He and the Dolphins had two opportunities to clinch a playoff spot, in week 16 against the Bills and week 17 against the Jets. Not only did they fail to get a victory, but they also did it in miserable fashion. Miami could only record one offensive touchdown in their final 25 possessions (or seven points in two games) of their make-or-break season. Tannehill had games with quarterback ratings of 42 and 46 respectively. His receivers could not catch anything and the defense only had two sacks in the final two games. I have said many times that ‘win and you’re in’ type of games are as important to the team that has nothing to play for. The opportunity to knock off a division rival and crush their playoff hopes is a factor that cannot be overlooked. The Heimlich maneuver couldn’t help the Dolphins from choking away the final two games, but credit to the Bills and Jets who showed great resolve. Now, the Dolphins go into the offseason with questions about Joe Philbin and Tannehill’s college head coach (current Dolphins OC), Mike Sherman and how the team showed zero physicality, poor game planning and having been thoroughly outcoached in the final two games.

Ravens fall to Bengals; fail to defend their Super Bowl crown

The Ravens had everything that needed to happen, although simultaneously, with the Dolphins losing against the Jets. Like the Dolphins, poor quarterback play plagued them as Joe Flacco threw four interceptions in their final game of the season. Flacco struggled with a lack of playmakers due to the loss of Anquan Boldin as well as the pre-season injury to Dennis Pitta. Still, you would think a $100 million quarterback would play better down the stretch and propel his team to a playoff appearance. Back-to-back dud-like performances, similar to Tannehill, were the undoing of the Ravens and Flacco. Yes, their running game struggled all season and they had deficiencies with leadership on defense along with a lack of experienced safety play, but the loss, to me, falls on Flacco for not living up to his hefty contract. The Ravens will have a lot of soul-searching to do.

Despite the win, the Bengals should be concerned about Andy Dalton’s four interceptions. He was careless with the ball and displayed the type of performance the Bengals have been accustomed to seeing from him in his first two-playoff appearances. Thankfully, this time, they will be playing in the confines of Paul Brown Stadium, where they’ve scored 40 plus points in four of their last five games. If Dalton can avoid the boneheaded mistakes, Cincinnati with its talented  young defense and mauling offensive line can will extremely tough to beat. Their style of play can vary, where they can bruise you with the ‘Law Firm’, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, or play an up-tempo style using Gio Bernard inside or outside the tackles and in the passing game. The Bengals have also unleashed the deep-ball with greater propensity as Marvin Jones and of course, A.J. Green forms a tandem that will post a lot of problems in the playoffs. If they get Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert back for the playoffs (they missed the season finale), their offense can be absolutely explosive.

Chargers’ gain is the Steelers’ loss

Heading into the late afternoon games, the Steelers had done what they needed to get into the playoffs, at least for the time being. They made quick work of a Browns team that had lost 10 of their last 11. The Dolphins and Ravens both had performances from the quarterbacks that sealed their dismissal from the postseason. The Steelers needed a Chiefs win against the Chargers, which would have catapulted them into an improbable post-season appearance (remember, they started the season 0-4).

The kicker for the Steelers and what, on the onset of the Chiefs versus Chargers matchup, swung the pendulum towards the Chargers favour was the fact that the Chiefs had announced, earlier in the morning, that they would be sitting many of their star players, including four of their Pro Bowl starters: Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles, Brandon Allen, Dontarie Poe and Tamba Hali. Andy Reid had elected to rest his key players, as the Chiefs fifth seed position in the playoffs was securely entrenched and it was a fair argument in favour of resting players and to avoid any injuries.

Regardless of the likes of unknown’s Chase Daniel and Knile Davis leading the way for the Chiefs, Andy Reid coached a great game and had them up by three points (27-24) with just less than 3 minutes left in the contest. The Chargers squandered opportunities to take the lead via touchdown, but they were at least able to level the game at 27 a piece. The Chiefs, with under a minute left, drove down the field and Ryan Succop had an opportunity to kick the Chargers out of the playoffs and the Steelers in it by nailing a 41-yard field goal with two seconds left on the clock. Well, that surely was no gimme as Succop missed the kick wide right. According to Mike Pereira, San Diego had more than 6 players on one side of the center on the line of scrimmage. The penalty should’ve resulted in a subsequent 36-yard try and a repeat in the fourth down play.

That led to a controversial overtime segment where it had appeared the Chiefs had recovered a strip fumble and scored a touchdown off of a Chargers fake punt in their own territory. However, the officials had ruled otherwise and gave San Diego a first down based on forward progress by Eric Weddle being stopped. The Chargers were able to kick a field goal and hold the Chiefs out of the end zone.

San Diego is a dangerous team because Philip Rivers is playing at an elite level, displaying tremendous accuracy on his throws and the moxie and confidence that made him one of the best quarterbacks a few years ago. The Chargers are also benefitting from a bevy of unheralded, but talented players in Ladarius Green who has stepped us as a complementary big-play tight end in Mike McCoy’s offense. Additionally, Ryan Mathews has continued his strong play with another 100-yard performance in Sunday’s matchup. I love the job that Mike McCoy has done. He has brought an accountabiity and toughness to the team that has been lacking since Marty-Ball was fired five years ago.

I have some issues with their defense, but otherwise, San Diego can definitely go into Cincinnati and give the Bengals a tough contest. The last time they played, the Bengals did beat the Chargers (17-10) at Qualcomm Stadium in a tightly played matchup.

The rest of the AFC playoff picture had Peyton Manning breaking Drew Brees’ previous mark of 5,476 yards and setting a new record by halftime. Denver will be the first seed while the Patriots clinched the second seed thus joining the Broncos in having next week off on bye. As mentioned, the Bengals beat the Ravens, securing the third seed in the AFC. They will host the Chargers while the Colts will host the Chiefs to finalize the wild card weekend matchups.

Panthers secure first division title since 2008

In the NFC, the Panthers won a wild game off a bad snap by the Falcons in the final seconds of the game. As has been the case in their last three of four games, their passing offense has not eclipsed 182 passing yards. It didn’t matter though as their front seven had nine sacks on the Falcons and their porous offensive line. The Panthers and Cam Newton, who has developed into one of the better third and fourth quarter quarterbacks, are firing virtually on all cylinders and their defense has to be considered a top-three unit. With the win, the Panthers locked in a first-round bye and won the NFC South for the first time since 2008. One issue I could see with the Panthers is their tendency to start games slowly on offensive. If they end up facing a team that can score points in a hurry like the Eagles or Packers, they will have a hard time getting back into the game. So far though, their defense is stout enough to withstand any offensive scheme.

188th meeting of Bears-Packers, a classic

Honestly though, when the news broke out that Aaron Rodgers was going to be activated for this game, I had a hard time picking against Green Bay. For one, Jay Cutler had a 1-9 record entering the game against the Packers and Rodgers and with the newfound running attack that the Packers have continued to use, paired with the return of the Rodgers and Randall Cobb, Chicago had an inevitable task of halting a third straight NFC North title for the Packer.  What a contest in Chicago, who had an opportunity to clinch the division last week, but could not bring that to fruition.

The game was back and forth, with both run defenses getting gashed for most of the game. Eddy Lacy, James Starks and Matt Forte had their way against their respective opponents front seven’s. Jay Cutler was not flawless, but his only turnover came from a last second Hail Mary. Conversely, Rodgers looked rusty from the onset. Typically accurate and pinpoint with his back-shoulder throws and patented slant routes to his receiver, Rodgers threw behind or high on multiple occasions.

The key play of the game was in the second quarter, Julius Peppers had stripped-sacked Rodgers. Neither of the players on either side reacted promptly to the ball being on the ground until Jarrett Boykin, was advised by his sideline to get the live ball and scamper into the endzone. This play has happened more than enough times, one would assume that coaches would properly prepare their players for such a situation.

Despite the blunder, the Bears had their opportunities to close out the game and were nearly a minute away from a victory. On fourth and eight, Aaron Rodgers avoided a Julius Peppers rush (thanks to a great chip block by John Kuhn), rolled to his opposite left side and made a perfect throw to a wide open Randall Cobb for the go-ahead 48-yard touchdown.

You surely cannot discount the resolve of the Packers and Aaron Rodgers. They are a veteran laden team with a coach that has experience in getting his team to now, its fourth straight playoff appearance. Their defense clearly has some holes as they lack the discipline to play good assignment football. Their pass rush and secondary are not complimenting each other and it doesn’t help that Clay Matthews will be out for their wild card matchup against the 49ers. Regardless, when you have number 12 with the big green and white ‘G’ in yellow trim playing at Lambeau in inclement weather, you still have to like the Packers chances or at the very least, give them a fighters chance.

The rest of the NFC playoff picture was finalized rather predictably as the Saints made easy work of the Bucs, which rendered the Cardinals efforts against the 49ers useless.  They needed a big upset from Tampa Bay, which was a daunting task with the Saints at home. As a result of the win against Arizona, San Francisco was able to secure the fifth seed in the playoffs–of course, the prize for that is traveling to Green Bay in frigid weather in a rematch of last season’s divisional round game.

Regardless of the QB, same old Cowboys

The final game saw the Cowboys lose, for the third straight season, in a play-in-game type scenario against an NFC East foe. That means Dallas has faced the gauntlet and lost against every team in the division in those consecutive seasons. Amazingly, the game ended like it typically does with Jerry’s boys scoring a late touchdown, getting the ball back with an opportunity to win, then faltering by throwing an interception to seal victory for their opponent. At least it wasn’t Romo this time, as Kyle Orton did yeoman’s work in almost leading the Cowboys to their first playoff game since 2009. The problems in Dallas are well documented. DeMarco Murray was not featured enough and Dez Bryant was quiet until his 32-yard touchdown catch late in the game. The biggest issue has been a defense that has looked as lifeless as Monty Kiffin in a sideline shot.

Give the Eagles their due. Nick Foles runs the offense with great efficiency and avoids careless plays with the football. An offensive line that was one of the most porous last season played at an elite level all season. Shady McCoy was the best running back in the league this season, but it is their defense that has impressed. Cary Williams had a tremendous game in coverage and Mychal Kendricks, despite a rough game against Jason Witten, made key plays when he needed to. Fletcher Cox and Trent Cole have also been revelations for a defense that kept improving as the season went along. Riley Cooper and Brent Celek had terrific second halves as well.

The point is, the Eagles are very dangerous and have talent all across the board. Don’t be alarmed if you are not familiar with some of the names of the players, this team is scary.

So the playoffs are set and the first round matchups are as follows

AFC: Chiefs @ Colts/Chargers @ Bengals

NFC: Saints @ Eagles/49ers @ Packers

For a preview of the playoff matchups you can check back on my blog as well as the next episode of Pick Six Live (@picksixlive).

Black Monday, a national epidemic

The day after thanksgiving is coined as Black Friday as retailers are known to be on the black and gain a profit with their financial reports for those days. Sales and discounts are widespread with consumers flocking for the next bargain-basement deal.

Black Monday in the NFL is anything but that. For the 20 teams that did not make the playoffs, it is the biggest day of the offseason. Instead of turning a profit, organizations are going into the red as they fire coaches with millions of dollars owed and multiple seasons left in their contracts. For Rob Chudzinski, Greg Schiano, Leslie Frazier, Jim Schwartz and Mike Shanahan, their teams had enough regardless if it was less than a year in like for Cleveland, or the fifth season in Detroit.

Of course, the shocker is with the Browns, where Chudzinski, who was had tears of joy last season after getting hired by his hometown team, was blindsided by minority owner Jimmy Haslam and Joe Banner after being fired on Monday. Haslam and Banner felt the wrath of the Cleveland media who asked them fair but tough questions. The head-scratcher was Haslam and Banner talking about the credibility and track record of sticking with one coach in Andy Reid during their time in Philadelphia. Well, you would think that same patience would’ve been used in this situation but, alas, no dice.

It is hard to truly know what transpired, but for the Brown brass to state that they didn’t see any improvement after only one season is a little bit more than a knee-jerk reaction. What we do know is that the Browns, having hired their sixth head coach in the last nine years, are back to square one. Needless to say, the reaction from Browns players and fans was one of great confusion and frustration. Same old Browns the rest of the league was surely saying.

For the other four coaches, the writing was on the proverbial wall.

Jim Schwartz has his opportunities, but ultimately he will be judged on the fact that he could only get the Lions to one postseason appearance and a team with a plethora of talent was known more for off -field issues, dumb penalties and one of the worst turnover ratios in the league.

Greg Schiano, I had thought, had bought himself another year with the team finishing the season 4-8 after starting 0-8. No, 4-12 is not great, but they never gave up on their coach and played well against some of the better teams in the conference. Alas, we are here today and Schiano’s dictator style of coaching could not endear himself enough to Malcolm Blazer. The Josh Freeman and MSRA situations were handled very poorly, as was the usage of Darrelle Revis. Ultimately, the uncertainty of Mike Glennon as the future at the quarterback position made this an easy decision, as a new coach gets to come into a very good situation and handpick his own quarterback. Schiano now becomes a favourite to take over at Penn State should Bill O’Brien move on to the NFL.

Leslie Frazier from all accounts is a terrific human being and football man, but it always just felt when watching the Vikings that he did not have the pulse of this team. He seemed lost at times and the Vikings were routinely out-coached. Despite a 10-6 record, last season, and an improbable playoff appearance, Frazier did not get a contract extension–that was the telling sign that he was going to be a lame-duck or at best, the decision to keep him would be evaluated year-to-year. Jason Garrett and Leslie Frazier are both great post game. They display tremendous class, are both very well spoken and well respected by their peers and players. During game day however, they have not been able to get the most out of the rosters that they have and at least for Frazier, that was his ultimate undoing.

Mike Shanahan was definitely not getting retained. The writing was on the wall and the strained relationship could not be healed. Shanahan’s, RGIII and Daniel Snyder were caught in a weekly whirlwind of leaks, odd questioning of each other’s tactics and no sense of continuity going forward. RGIII’s play regressed immensely and from his weekly press conference, there was a sense he attributed his shortcomings to Kyle Shanahan’s play calling. Regardless, there was no chance of the elder Shanahan stepping down as the Redskins head coach, as he would’ve left a cool $7 million on the table. Like the Browns, the Redskins have been devoid of continuity in their leadership. Yes, Shanahan lasted four seasons, but it was a tumultuous period for both parties. The notion that Dan Snyder is simply too stringent to work with continues to gain further credence as Washington has failed again with a high-profile head coach (remember the failures of Spurrier, Gibbs, Schottenheimer, Turner).

Contrary to what Shanahan says about the team being better off now than when he got to Redskins park, the team that should’ve earned a second overall selection, gives that pick to the Rams based off the RGIII trade. The overall talent is the worst in the division and they need to rebuild their offensive line, their defensive line, their secondary and some may even say their quarterback. Who knows whom they will covet as a head coach, but the track record speaks for itself. Retread and older coaches have not worked for Washington. It is time to infuse some new blood into that group of players.

Monday also saw Jets owner Woody Johnson announcing the return of Rex Ryan. It is easy to see how well respected he is within that locker room. An 8-8 season considering the lack of talent they had coming into the season was nothing short of remarkable. Ryan is still looking like a lame-duck coach, but he coaches his ass off and develops players as well as any head coach in the league. The fates of Joe Philbin, Jason Garrett, Dennis Allen and Mike Munchak are still to be decided, but my gut tells me all of them return, with Munchak sweating it out the most.

The need of owners to win right away is understandable, with the likes of the Chiefs going two wins one season and eleven the next. Still, building a playoff caliber roster that can last for more than five seasons is very difficult. Teams make it even more difficult by not showing patience in a head coach and his program. Look at the Giants and how Tom Coughlin had the trust of management. Despite a rocky start in New York, he rewarded them with two Super Bowls, and even after mediocre seasons that followed both championship years, Coughlin and the Giants know that continuity trumps the need to hire and fire blindly like the Browns.

This season, the Panthers are reaping the rewards of sticking with a good coach in Ron Rivera. The team stumbled last season and early out of the gate this season. Starting 1-3, canning Rivera would have been premature, but nothing out of the ordinary based on past precedence. Don’t you think Jerry Richardson and general manager Dave Gentleman are happy about their decision?

After Black Monday, there are some jewel vacancies that are open. The Lions and Buccaneers have loaded rosters. Tampa Bay has three elite players in Revis, Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy. Their offense has an explosive runner in Doug Martin, a perennial 1,000-yard receiver in Vincent Jackson and a potential star at tight end in Tim Wright. Mike Glennon fared well as a rookie and you could do worse than him. The Lions situation is also self-explanatory with Stafford, Megatron, Reggie Bush and Ndamukon Suh. Both situations could use a veteran coach who can change the culture of those teams and add some stability.

Regardless of who goes where, patience must remain a virtue for NFL owners and general managers. Quick trigger head coaching moves almost always ensure continued mediocrity and the Browns are exhibit one-A.

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