The white noise around the Browns

Wide receiver Jarvis Landry arrives in Cleveland from Miami in exchange for two draft picks.

The idea of hope must be dangerous for Cleveland Browns fans. They haven’t had much to be hopeful for, really since they restarted as a franchise in 1999.

They would also have a fear of hype around the team. Last year’s draft saw them trade back to collect three first round picks which they used on Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers and David Njoku.

The haul was met with almost universal praise and the addition of quarterback Deshone Kizer on day two saw their draft class as a foundation for improvement in 2017.

Of course, the group of rookies proved only to be the foundation for more losing as the Browns outdid their 1-15 2016 campaign, completing the first winless season since the Detroit Lions in 2008 leading to another top pick in this upcoming draft.

Despite the positive draft grades and general sense of optimism coming out of Philadelphia from Browns camp, the post-draft hot takes didn’t bear fruit on the field, at all.

So, hype around Cleveland with this current administration, which somehow largely remained intact after their winless season, is toxic and that’s scary as the Browns moved to the centre of the NFL universe on the weekend, completing a slew of trades which lit up social media.

Cleveland completed a series of trades with all arrivals and departures summarised in the tweet below;


They added a competent and solid quarterback in Tyrod Taylor, a consistent and productive receiver in Jarvis Landry and a young, talented cornerback (who will play safety) Damarious Randall. All this for a few picks and the above mentioned Kizer, who was shuttled off to Green Bay after one season.

In a vacuum these are decent trades. I like Taylor, he’s a good option as a bridge QB for one year, the length remaining on his contract. Landry’s catching stats are impressive, without being a real deep threat and Randall has 10-interceptions across his three-year career. Three starters for a bunch of draft picks and a quarterback who was never going to start again.

Even the change in direction of improving via trades can be commended. The Browns have cap space and draft picks to burn, so go get better. It beats overspending for mediocre starters in free agency.

However, these trades are the dawn of anything, they don’t mark a change in the Browns’ fortunes, they’re not hurtling in the right direction. They just made a bunch of trades, that’s it.

On cue, the immediate reaction crowd announced Cleveland’s moves as the start of the new generation. General manager John Dorsey the cowboy, throwing his chips around, not afraid to take risks.

Trades are great, but any revolution in Cleveland begins on draft night, where they have two opportunities inside the top four picks to land the quarterback of their dreams. After plenty of misses, this year they must hit. This will be the seminal moment of 2018 for the Browns, not a bunch of trades before free agency opens.

For all the love and hype the Browns have received after recent draft hauls, all they’ve really accomplished is whiffing on grabbing their next franchise quarterback. Trading out of the draft spots used on Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson.

A real new dawn will come from wins on the field and the star college quarterback the Browns pick, hopefully for fans sake at number one, will be the cornerstone of that.

Even this pick will only be the beginning, Cleveland has an achingly long road ahead of rebuilding and future trades will no doubt be a major part of this.

Instant reaction is how the world works in 2018, but save your proclamations of a return to glory at the Dawg Pound for much, much later down the road, hot takes now, mean nothing.

Muscle Hamster departs Tampa Bay after six frustrating years

Doug Martin was released by the Buccaneers and is now a free agent.

On Wednesday Tampa Bay announced they had released running back Doug Martin after six seasons with the team.

It brings to end one of the strangest tenures of any player at any team.

At his best, Martin was one of the most productive running backs in the league, at his worst he was an injury prone player who battled substance abuse.

In 2015 he finished second in the running title, only behind Adrian Peterson, finishing with 1,402 yards and six-touchdowns. In his rookie year, he ran for 1,454 yards and 11-touchdowns. That saw him become a finalist in the Rookie of the Year award (losing out to Robert Griffin III) and earned him a Pro Bowl trip.

His rookie year also included a career day where he rushed for 251-yards and four-touchdowns against Oakland, becoming only the second player to rush for 250+ yards and four TD’s in NFL history.

In his four other seasons with the Bucs, he failed to rush for more than 500-yards and score more than three-touchdowns. He also never started more than 11-games. It was a frustrating, rollercoaster ride that was always coming to an end this year.

It’s interesting to think about how the former Boise State product will be remembered as a Buccaneer. His two full seasons were so good it always allowed him a little extra leverage from fans and the organisation.

After being drafted in the first round in the 2012 draft, Martin immediately became the team’s starting running back, rushing for 95-yards in his debut against Carolina. He had his first breakout game on Thursday night in Minnesota, rushing for 135-yards and a touchdown and a week later set several franchise records in that game against the Raiders.

He battled through two-injury plagued seasons before his 2015 renaissance and always seemed like a popular player among the team and with supporters.

Despite his inconsistency and injury troubles, Martin earned himself a five-year $35.75 million extension after his successful 2015 season, which included $15 million in guaranteed money. Big coin in the modern NFL where running backs struggle to get paid.

The team also held onto him after his four-game suspension for testing positive to Adderall and his announcement that he would enter a treatment facility. They easily could have cut Martin considering his suspension voided all the guaranteed money he was owed. However, the team kept him for one more year and at the time it seemed like a sensible move.

Now though, the Bucs had little choice but to cut the 29-year old and he finds himself as a free agent for the first time in his career.

He has always been a fun back to watch, short in stature but so hard to bring down, with a quick burst and an ability to find the hole in traffic. A little ball of muscle, making the nickname he earned at college so fitting.

He’s also battled through being stuck on a team constantly mired in mediocrity. Barely sniffing the playoffs and being a member of struggling offences under a carousel of head coaches and offensive coordinators.

It certainly wasn’t coincidental that in Martin’s two best season, the Bucs’ offence as a whole was much more productive. In his rookie year, quarterback Josh Freeman had his best statistical season and 2015 marked the arrival of Jameis Winston who threw for over 4,000. That year Martin and Charles Sims, who may also be released this off-season, formed one of the best running back tandems in the league.

But as has become custom in Tampa over the past decade, his brilliance was always fleeting and fans went into each season “hoping” for the best, not expecting, which is an issue considering Martin was the team’s featured running back.

Martin will find another home and could certainly return to his best in a new environment and if it’s anything like he produced with Tampa Bay, he’ll be a valuable pick-up.

His best was as good as anyone, the Buccaneers just didn’t get to see enough of it.

2017 NFL Free Agency Day One Musings

Cleveland came to Houston’s rescue and traded for Brock Osweiler, “buying” a second-round pick.

Surely somewhere deep inside their Park Avenue headquarters, the NFL thanks their lucky stars they have the Cleveland Browns and curse the day they let the first incarnation of this treasured franchise to leave for Baltimore. The Browns were the worst team in 2016, yet are one of the best at creating headlines

The opening day of the 2017 NFL Free Agency period and the start of the New Year in the league already steals the sporting headlines, however the Browns added the biggest storyline which sent Twitter and the NFL world into meltdown.

Brock Osweiler, the $72 million mistake in Houston, was traded to Cleveland on the eve of the new NFL year and league Twitter initially destroyed the Browns, understandably, and then suddenly began praising Paul DePodesta and the front office for the innovative deal which sent Osweiler and a second-round pick from the Texans to the Browns for a 4th and a 6th round pick in the upcoming draft.

The deal has now been labelled as “creative” and considered a win-win for both franchises as Cleveland essentially paid $18 million for a second-round pick. The deal does make sense for both teams, but it’s hardly a game-changer.

Rich Smith looks like a magician, having now washed his hands clean of the disaster that was signing Osweiler to the monster deal last off-season, however the team is still without a capable starting quarterback and sound out of the race for Tony Romo who looks destined to end up in Denver.

The Browns get another second rounder this year to make it 22 picks across the next two drafts. It means another dart to throw at the dartboard and knowing Cleveland’s history, there’s no guarantee they nail the pick, or any pick for that matter.

The caveat is if they can pull off a trade, which has to be the strategy, however their main target doesn’t seem available for any price. Jimmy Garoppolo is unlikely to be traded, no matter what Cleveland offers.

The main question and where Cleveland could have improved the deal would have been whether they could have squeezed more out of Houston to help free up the cap space Osweiler was stealing next season. But, nevertheless the deal is done and the Browns livened up free agency once again.

The trade kicked off the new NFL year; however the action began well before 8am AEST time and now on to other matters, from a typically jam-packed opening day of free agency.

Jags gonna jag

Jacksonville goes all out to spend as much money as possible on beefing up their defence. Nope, it’s not 2016, or 2015, or 2014. The Jaguars have broken the bank once again, splashing the cash on a number of high profile defensive free agents. They began by handing Calais Campbell a massive $14 million per year deal to beef up an already loaded, money-wise, defensive line and then grabbed free agency darling A.J. Bouye from their division rivals for $67.5 million over five-years and Barry Church from Dallas to add starters in their secondary. At some point all this spending will generate some wins for the struggling AFC South outfit.

Washington are imploding, which is not like them

The off-season drama at Redskins Park is just as crazy as usual with an exodus of team members, both on and off the field.

Having already lost one wide receiver in Pierre Garcon to San Francisco, DeSean Jackson will line up across from Mike Evans in Tampa Bay, as he accepted a $35-million deal over three-years. Defensive tackle Chris Baker joined the speedy wide receiver in moving south to Tampa and their quarterback drama continued to roll on as Kirk Cousins continued rumblings of his desire to move to San Fran.

Lastly, the saga of Scot McCloughan finally came to an end in Landover as he was officially fired having already been driven out of the building by a toxic front office which even went and tarnished his reputation on the way out.

Oh, at least they did re-sign Jay Gruden for two more years.

NFC West contrasts

There were a lot of comings and goings in a division which struggled overall in 2016, with Arizona and San Francisco leading the news.

The Cardinals lost a host of defensive starters with Campbell being joined by safety pair Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger who left for Baltimore and Washington respectively. They are also poised to lose linebacker Kevin Minter, although did acquire safety Antoine Bethea from the Niners and had already re-signed pass rusher Chandler Jones for five more seasons.

San Francisco was the opposite and has thrown money around to simply add capable starters. Including their own re-signings, the 49ers have added 12 players, with some costing a fortune. They can pair newly added Garcon with Aldrick Robinson to provide some weapons for whichever former Chicago quarterbacks starts, with Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley both moving to Santa Clara.

The Niners have also added linebacker Malcolm Smith, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, tight end Logan Paulsen and full back Kyle Juszczyk, who becomes the ninth highest paid rusher in the league, receiving $21-million over four-years.

Mike Glennon gets paid and Chicago fans hold their breath

No news on Romo or Garoppolo on day one, however the next big name on the quarterback off-season list found a new home. The Buccaneers back-up has found his starting job with the Bears and got a massive payday to go with his promotion, a three-year deal at an average of $14.5 million. It’s no doubt a massive gamble to throw starting QB money to a guy who hasn’t started a game since 2014, but Glennon has at least shown some signs.

The big issue facing the Bears and Glennon is their lack of receivers and the loss of Alshon Jeffery, who signed a one-year deal worth $14 million in Philadelphia, won’t help that. They did add former Pittsburgh wideout Markus Wheaton and tight end Dion Sims from Miami, but it’s not exactly an imposing receiver group and Glennon isn’t going to play at a decent level without the talent around him.

Other titbits

– Safety Micah Hyde left Green Bay for Buffalo and looms a decent signing for a team which also lost cornerback Stephon Gilmore to New England.

– Speaking of New England, your candidate for departing Patriot who re-joins the team before the end of the deal he just signed is Logan Ryan. The depth cornerback signed a massive $30 million deal over three-years with Tennessee and will be back under Bill Belichick by 2019, for half the cost.

– Typically quiet running back market with Seattle providing the main news as they sniff around both Eddie Lacy and Jamaal Charles. All quiet on the Adrian Peterson front, the same for Latavius Murray and LeGarrette Blount.

Jay Cutler was released by Chicago, finally.

Taking a ride on the QB carousel

Both Kirk Cousins and Tyrod Taylor could have new homes in 2017.

Anyone familiar with Face Off, the 1997 insane action thriller starring a bonkers Nicholas Cage and even more bonkers John Travolta would know the dangers of carousels.

Slight spoilers if you haven’t seen it by now. In the opening scene of the movie, Travolta is enjoying a carousel ride with his young son, when Cage arrives with his sniper rifle and guns down the small boy with the bullet passing through Travolta on the way.

Now a scenario like this is unlikely, however carousels are still dangerous, especially in the NFL where quarterback carousels can spin around and around, for some teams across multiple decades.

It isn’t hard to glean from the 2016 season alone that there is a sever dearth of QB talent in the league. From the 32 teams, there’s maybe 10 absolute franchise quarterbacks and maybe eight or so more who can reach that level or are at least adequate.

There’s also a large chunk of teams stuck in an endless circle, either without a competent quarterback or without a QB at all (San Francisco).

Two teams which sit somewhere in the middle are Washington and Buffalo. Kirk Cousins and Tyrod Taylor are around the same level of quarterback. For the Redskins, Cousins has already led the team to the playoffs and demonstrated a clear ability to be a solid starter, capable of playing at, or near a Pro Bowl level.

In Buffalo, Taylor may not be as accomplished a passer as Cousins, however has the athletic traits to compliment a decent arm and solid playmaking ability.

Neither of these guys loom as potential top-10 passers, however with enough around them, they could lead their respective franchises on playoff runs and, if the cards fell the right way, even to a Championship Game or a Super Bowl. The main point being, there are worse options available.

And yet both teams are refusing to lock up their starting quarterbacks and one seems increasingly likely to leave the team this off season.

For the second straight year, Washington has chosen to snap the franchise tag on Cousins. This is the first-time multiple franchise tags have been used on a quarterback in successive years and strongly indicates the Skins’ reluctance to lock up Cousins for the long-term.

Cousins threw for a career-best 4.917-yards in 2016, adding 25-touchdowns and 12-interceptions. These numbers took his past two-season total to over 9,000-yards and 54-touchdowns. Those are quality figures and although the team struggled down the stretch and missed the playoffs, Cousins played at a consistent level.

Jay Gruden has publicly sung the praises of his 27-year old passer and Cousins fared favourably on Football Outsiders rankings, finishing fifth in DVOA. Yet no long-term deal, for the second season in a row.

Now the major barrier you would assume keeping Dan Snyder from handing out a big deal to Cousins is the required pay packet it will take. Under the franchise tag, he’ll earn around $24 million and any long-term deal would average out to over $20 million at a minimum. That’s par for the course for quarterbacks in the 2017 market.

For a second, ignore all the reasons why Washington should not pay up for Cousins and consider this, what superior options do they have?

The reason there is a lack of QB talent in the NFL is because there aren’t many good quarterbacks. Just a look at the free agency market shows pickings are slim and the only even competent signal caller who will join the market shortly is Tony Romo, who is 37 in April and is one injury away from having his bones disintegrate.

Going with Kirk Cousins is Washington’s only logical solution for next season and the seasons beyond that, it’s the logical solution for any length of time that would be covered in a long-term deal. There aren’t any better options out there.

Which brings it back to the Bills. They’ve gone even further than Washington and with a new coach in charge could move on from Taylor this very off-season.

Buffalo’s quarterback of the past two seasons was surprisingly benched for EJ Manuel of all people in Week 17 and Sean McDermott hasn’t exactly been enamoured with the dual threat playmaker since he arrived at Orchard Park from Carolina.

Taylor is a clear level or two below Cousins, however has been a consistently solid starter since 2015. He’s thrown only a combined 12-interceptions in two season, compared to 37-touchdowns and also added 10-touchdowns on the ground and over 1,000 rushing yards. He’s done all this with fairly mediocre receiver talent and an offensive group often wrecked by injuries.

He must have surely exceeded Bills expectations since arriving from Baltimore where he was a career back-up. Yet the stats barely bought him any loyalty under Rex Ryan and those feelings have translated to a new coaching staff.

It’s hard to imagine what both Buffalo and Washington envision as they plan their quarterback rotation for 2017. Where is this next incarnation of Aaron Rodgers waiting in the draft or in free agency?

This year’s draft class sounds particularly mediocre and despite the annual Combine buzz driving the likes of Mitch Trubisky, Deshaun Watson and Deshaun Kizer up the draft board, all will be huge gambles and nothing suggests they can be 2017’s Dak Prescott.

Make no mistake, both players have flaws and ceilings, but even if their peaks aren’t at a truly dominant and transcendent level, teams can compete with decent quarterback play and Denver won a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning’s noodle arm leading their offence.

Teams never seem to be content with what they have and obviously win-losses force decisions and neither Buffalo or Washington made the playoffs in 2016. However, both teams have bigger issues than at quarterback and if they’re not careful they’ll be like 15 other franchises, going around in circles.

A moustachioed Nicholas Cage won’t be eying them off through the scope of his sniper rifle, but both the Redskins and the Bills need to tread carefully and avoid the spinning horses.

Super Bowl Redo: Why universe, why?

The strip sack which turned the game in the Patriots favour.

The night before the Super Bowl, I was flicking through my Foxtel IQ looking for the 2014 New England-Seattle Super Bowl to have a quick re-watch before Monday. Before I got there, I found the 2014 NFC Championship game between Green Bay and Seattle.

Compelled to re-watch the final quarter and overtime, it’s easy to forget what a remarkable game that was. How many ridiculous things went Seattle’s way and the excruciatingly brutal loss suffered by the Packers. Who would have thought the next day we’d see a collapse that tops Green Bay’s capitulation? And then some.

Atlanta’s 25-point blown lead and eventual loss in overtime is without compare in terms of NFL chokejobs and it’s hard to come up with a collapse from another sport more brutal without thorough research. My yardstick in the AFL, not by margin or magnitude, but in shock value, is North Melbourne’s collapse against Adelaide in Round 9, 2013. The Kangaroos led by 30-points with less than ten minutes to go on the Channel Seven countdown clock and were pipped on the line by a point after Jared Petrenko kicked the winning goal with 20-seconds to play. That was mid-season in a largely meaningless Sunday afternoon game at Etihad Stadium; this was the freaking Super Bowl.

For every Atlanta fan, and any sane NFL fans who despise everything about the Patriots, the final 20 minutes on Monday felt like death by 1,000 cuts. A long, slow and painful piece of torture while the 28-3 advantage was slowly whittled away as Tom Brady stood with consummate ease in the pocket and carved through the Falcon’s secondary like a knife cutting through butter. What made it so painful is that everyone could see it coming and yet you just sat there helpless. Every supporter of good around the world and even Atlanta’s own coaching staff and players were powerless to stop the onslaught.

There were four key plays which I will remember from the rollercoaster of emotions everyone experienced in the four engrossing hours. From a growing sense of joy to utter despair.

Robert Alford pick-six (Starting to believe)

Despite Atlanta establishing a quick 14-0 second quarter lead, behind a dynamic and efficient offence which had the Patriots defence scrambling, there was a feeling at any point that Belichick would kick the offence into gear and respond. When Brady dropped back on 3rd and 6 with pressure in his face and missed the roaming Alford who picked off his wobbly pass and walked into the endzone, there was a genuine feeling that the Falcons were going to pull it off.

Julian Edelman’s pass attempt which lofted incomplete (Good has prevailed over evil)

Not only does Belichick and Brady have an extensive trick bag, their tricks always seem to work. Edelman hitting a deep touchdown in the divisional round against Baltimore in 2014 has always stood out as an example of the slices of luck which always seem to go New England’s way. When Belichick turned to his wide receiver’s arm once again, it went over the head of the outstretched Dion Lewis. It should have been the sign that luck wasn’t going to be on the Patriots’ side, even if they converted a fourth-down pass on the next play.

Donta Hightower’s strip sack fumble on Matt Ryan (The game’s turning)

New England had drawn within 16-points and theoretically, with multiple two-conversions, made it a two-score game, however it wasn’t quite panic stations yet. When Hightower had a free rush on Ryan thanks to Devonta Freeman blowing a blocking assignment, alarm bells began to ring. The Pats recovering the fumble sparked a turning point, Atlanta was going to have to fight desperately to hold on.

Trey Flowers’ sack on Matt Ryan, knocking Atlanta out of field goal range (No! Whyyyyyy?!)

Julio Jones had his David Tyree moment, a spectacular catch in a clutch moment to sink New England in a Super Bowl. Before getting to the tragic aftermath, the more you watch the initial Ryan scramble & perfectly placed throw and the incredible piece of athletic brilliance from Julio Jones, the better the catch looks. On Ryan’s part, there were few spots he could have thrown that ball without it being intercepted by Eric Rowe and that he lofted it high enough to clear Rowe was an achievement in itself. But Julio defied gravity and all logic in coming down with that ball. Of course, despite having the Super Bowl won with a field goal, Ryan was sacked by Flowers with the drive somehow ending in a punt. As soon as Matt Bosher was called upon, the game was going to come down to a two-point conversion because Atlanta weren’t stopping New England on the next drive.

Four moments painting a picture of a journey from ecstasy to tragedy. To be clear, I don’t like the Falcons, sure they aren’t as hated as Carolina or New Orleans, but they are still a division rival. However, even I’m heartbroken by what happened. How do you come back from that? How do Falcons fans get through the next month? How do they trudge through the off season? How do they return next year?

It is surely a loss that will rock the core of the franchise and serious questions can be asked on the toll the loss will take on Atlanta next season. They were already due to take a massive hit with the loss of Kyle Shanahan, who inexplicably has become somewhat of a villain. While many would have been screaming at the TV when Ryan went down after Jones’ catch, infuriated that Atlanta simply weren’t running the ball to guarantee a makeable field goal and drain the clock, Shanahan was still one of the key architects to the Falcons impressive season and if anything, the criticism against him has become a little overblown.

Without Shanahan, Ryan must prove his ability to play at an MVP level with newly appointed offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, although keep in mind that all the pieces will remain. With all of Brady’s dominance due to a tired and impotent Atlanta pass rush, it can’t be forgotten that the Falcons offence only managed 21-points for the game and crucially failed to sustain drives throughout the second half, with four of their drives resulting in three-and-outs. More staggeringly, after building the 28-3 advantage, the team only ran 12-more plays for the game. This obviously due to New England’s dominance in time of possession, but Atlanta had their moments and with their consistency on offence all year, their inability to score at least another field goal or even drain the clock was extremely deflating.

The defence played almost the perfect first half. Alone they outscored the Patriots 7-3, but did so much more. They forced constant pressure on Brady, leading to inaccurate throws and the vital pick six. Their young and speedy linebackers swarmed the field and they stifled a running game which loomed as a decisive advantage for New England pre-game. The one downside, which proved instrumental, was that they may have played too well, they forced turnovers and scored too quickly, Atlanta simply never had the ball.

It was a horror show in the last quarter and overtime, they were cooked, the pass rush disappeared and Brady got into an unstoppable groove. Even worse, when they had the few opportunities to force turnovers or make a stop, they could never quite complete the job. Vic Beasley nearly sacked Brady in his own endzone, they allowed a fourth down conversion previously mentioned and what seemed to be the final nail, Edelman signature catch was kept off the ground by Alford’s ankle.

Once the coin toss fell as heads gifting possession to the Pats in overtime, the Super Bowl was over, Atlanta must have smelt defeat and on cue New England strolled down the field and James White of all people capped off his signature day with his third touchdown, there’s just no such thing as karma.

In the immediate aftermath and in the ensuing days, a similarity between that NFC Championship in Seattle and this past Super Bowl has emerged, like for Green Bay, Atlanta needed just one more stop for the rest of the game, just one more score, just one thing to go there way and it never did. While the moments weren’t as crystal clear as Seattle’s successful onside kick or their incredible two-point conversion, the Falcons needed just one more moment to go their way and they would have been Super Bowl champions.

Facing a 25-point deficit midway through the third quarter of the Super Bowl, a team needs everything to go right, there is zero room for error; they need to make every important play. New England did all that, everything went right.

At our Super Bowl event, we were waiting for that one final moment which would end the Patriots charge and we could all celebrate an Atlanta victory. Unfortunately for us, the city of Atlanta and Falcons fans all over the world, it never happened.

Kansas City’s regular season dominance means little without playoff success

Alex Smith led the Chiefs to another early playoff exist against Pittsburgh.

If you had compiled a list of all the factors that would lead to a Kansas City loss on Monday, most would have been ticked off.

An inability to stop Le’Veon Bell, an anaemic offence, the limitations of Alex Smith and of course, good old Andy Reid playoff clock management.

The two-point loss to Pittsburgh is another gut punch for an organisation which is starving for playoff success and an awful contrast to the regular season form of a franchise often considered underrated with the ability to rip off wins in the regular season.

The Chiefs are 23-9 over the past two regular seasons, winning a division title and making two trips to the playoffs. The net result of this supremacy? A single playoff win, over Brian Hoyer and a Houston side which fell apart at home.

On the surface and in the box score, you see a side which didn’t give up a touchdown, scoring two of their own, yet losing due to a playoff record six-field goals from Chris Boswell. There was also more unwanted history by becoming the first team to score two more touchdowns than their opponents and lose in the playoffs.

However, looking deeper, the loss is far more brutal. Kansas City left a litany of yards out on the field, wasted scoring chances and made some critical mistakes at important times which saw them knocked out again in a game where they were outplayed, yet was still very winnable.

Defensively the Chiefs followed their “bend but don’t break” mantra, allowing yards while still becoming incredible stingy in the redzone and despite a feeling that the Steelers always had the upper hand, they still never scored a touchdown.

Through the air they largely kept Ben Roethlisberger in check, even if they couldn’t force consistent pressure up front, limiting Big Ben to 224-yards and stymying Brown’s influence after a 52-yard bomb in the first quarter, while covered by Justin Houston, keeping him to 56-yards for the rest of the game and importantly keeping him out of the endzone.

The Chiefs lost the game on offence and Smith was one of the main culprits. There’s a clear ceiling on having Smith at quarterback, somewhere between the heights of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady and the dregs of your Jay Cutler and Ryan Fitzpatrick and every so often you see his limitations.

For all the hype of Kansas offensive playmakers, it’s really two players and the Steelers made it their mission to limit the impact of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.

Hill had little influence on offence, minus drawing the attention of linebackers to open up space for teammates. He didn’t have a single punt return and there were no vintage kick returns to light up Arrowhead Stadium. Kelce disappeared after the first quarter and had two brain fades, the first a 15-yard penalty on a ridiculous unnecessary roughness call and after the game, abusing the refs for calling Eric Fisher’s obvious hold. He always dropped a catchable touchdown pass, all combining for an ugly night from their star tight end.

Outside of that, they didn’t get enough from their run game, rushing for a total of 61-yards and Jeremy Maclin was the second-best receiver with 28-yards, although some of that is on Smith. Even the idea that your most explosive offensive players are a tight end and a return specialist, suggests you lack playmakers in key positions.

Back to Smith, he had a massive chance to score earlier on the final touchdown drive as he missed Maclin on a deep ball in the redzone, throwing to the wrong side, stopping a certain touchdown for the wideout and he also missed Hill when the speedy receiver had burned the Steelers secondary, only to see Smith scramble out of a clean pocket.

For all the effort from the Chiefs defence to keep it tight, it felt like a one-sided game and there was never a feeling that Smith was going to rise another level to legitimately make it a contest.

An event much more of a certainty than a Smith-led comeback was Reid’s famous playoff clock management rearing its ugly head again and of course it did on an eight-minute touchdown drive in the final quarter which left them almost no time to get the ball back after their failed two-point attempt.

The slow pace was made worse by stupidly wasting a timeout before a key fourth down play, when surely you would have two plays lined up on third down in case you didn’t initially convert.

The Chiefs’ march through the regular season under Andy Reid is often ignored, but they show a level of consistency and ability to just pull out close games which few teams can match. However, it all goes away in January, leaving opportunity and reason for Kansas City to be ignored.

And for all the hype of Arrowhead being a fortress rivalling even that of Seattle, the Chiefs have staggeringly won just two-playoff games at home since 1970. Two! They are also 0-4 when going into the playoffs as the number one seed.

Those stats obviously aren’t all to do with the current Andy Reid-led team; however, it does highlight an offseason ineptitude which continues to plague the AFC West side.

So now the inevitable questioning must commence about how far Kansas can go under the current regime and what does stability mean early in the year when it generates little at the end.

The league may not notice Kansas City’s consistency from September to December, but there’s no shying away from what continues to happen in January.

Divisional Round Preview: At least make it a challenge

Houston were shutout in New England in the regular season, a repeat of that is on the cards.

If there was one upside from a fairly mediocre wildcard weekend, aside from Aaron Rodgers’ domination and a second week of “Boatgate”, it was that only eight of the best teams remain, setting up a mouth-watering (or as Ray Lewis likes to say, “mouth got water”) divisional round featuring three dream match-ups.

On the NFC side of the playoff bracket, you could mix up the four remaining combatants in any combination and only get great games. Seattle didn’t really exceed expectations in their 26-6 win over Detroit, however at least they are peaking and the hint of a dangerous running game led by Thomas Rawls and a defence which is still formidable suggests they will at least make it tough for Atlanta.

Green Bay travelling to Jerryworld would be a suitable NFC Championship game with Rodgers’ playing at an all-time level and looming as a serious roadblock for the 13-3 Cowboys team that would definitely have preferred a meeting with New York, despite the fact that the Giants swept their division rivals in the regular season.

Kansas City hosting a white-hot Pittsburgh looms to be an intriguing matchup as Le’Veon Bell looks to follow up his impressive playoff debut, this time against a fiercer defensive unit in front of an opposing and raucous crowd at Arrowhead Stadium.

So three of the best possible match-ups fill this weekend, a good way to move on from the previous weekend of one-sided romps which included an overmatched Connor Cook, Matt Moore recovering from a concussion in the space of a few minutes and Odell Beckham putting a hole in a Lambeau Field locker room wall, his lone highlight after a poor game.

The one tiny issue with the second round of the playoffs is the obvious fact that there are four games this weekend. The fourth game of course features the Houston Texans, a team which to their credit did what they had to do and eliminated the Raiders behind a solid defensive showing and surprisingly competent quarterback play from Brock Osweiler.

Despite this, the Texans are really the only team that doesn’t belong in the final eight. They lucked out against the Raiders, with Derek Carr on the sidelines, watching on TV on the other side of the US. So well done for getting this far, but realistically they would have been the easy beats for whoever was lucky enough to host them and who gets that privilege on Sunday? Why who else but the New England Patriots.

It’s amazing how the universe decides each year, how can we make it even easier for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady? They already have an uncompetitive division in which they’ve ruled for almost the entire 21st century, they already have the smartest coach in the league who despite being superior already, makes it his mission each and every week to embarrass the slew of mediocre coaches in the league. And they already have one of the best quarterbacks of all time, who has the means to access the best care and recovery methods to ensure he can play at a top level until he’s 65.

No, it’s not enough letting them sleepwalk through the regular season into a division title and usually a bye week, let’s make their playoff path as simple as possible. The Patriots go into Sunday’s game as almost unbackable favourites, it’s a mere certainly that they won’t only win, they’ll destroy Houston for another divisional round blowout.

Just look at the recent history of who New England has faced for a trip to the AFC Championship game. Last year they met a Chiefs team which was overmatched offensively to keep up with Patriots and even threw in some insane Andy Reid clock management, winning by a touchdown in game which was never that close. In the 2013 season, they waxed Indianapolis 43-22 after the Colts had come off a shootout with the Chiefs. In 2012 they faced their first meeting with Houston and won by 13, and in 2011 they were able to enjoy a match-up with Denver, led by Tim Tebow, right after the magic had disappeared, crushing the Broncos 45-10.

It makes sense though that in 2016 the Pats would get an “Advance straight to go” into the Championship game. After surviving the horrors of “Deflategate” in the opening month of the season, New England have had a ridiculously easy schedule for a Super Bowl contender and the added benefit of key injuries in the AFC making it even more of a cakewalk.

The Pats faced only four-playoff teams in the regular season for a total of five games and even that doesn’t tell the true story. Two of those games were divisional games against the Miami, the second of which coming against Matt Moore. They faced Houston, who as stated above, shouldn’t be in the playoffs at this point and even faced the Steelers with back-up Landry Jones as quarterback.

Their playoff path was made much easier once Carr went down, meaning they would avoid having to face both Kansas City and Pittsburgh in the playoffs and heck, even with Ryan Tannehill going down it meant their final game against the Dolphins, which netted them the top seed, became a non-event.

So hopefully we can move on past Deflategate when the Pats lead 35-7 in the third quarter and Osweiler is being roasted on Twitter and recognise how easy the Pats have it every year.

Here are the four games, while I’ll go and be sick.

Seattle @ Atlanta (-5)

The 2012 divisional round epic played out between the Falcons and the Seahawks has quietly been forgotten as truly memorable playoff classic. Russell Wilson sat on the verge of being a playoff hero in his rookie year, leading the visitors in a two-minute drill, with Marshawn Lynch scoring a touchdown with just 25 seconds to go. Matt Ryan quickly answered and moved the home team into field goal range in 17 seconds, where Matt Bryant did the rest, claiming victory for Atlanta. The teams don’t seem as evenly matched this time around with the Falcons having a superior offence to last time and Seattle a defence closer to average.

The Falcons are going to put up at least 30-points, they have done that in almost every game this season, so can the Seahawks match that? Their hope comes at the line of scrimmage, where in Week 6, Seattle overpowered the Falcons offensive line and put consistent pressure on Ryan. They also limited Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to 50-rushing yards on 17 carries. However, Ryan still threw for 335-yards and three touchdowns and that was in Seattle’s building.

Apart from Vic Beasley, the Seahawks won’t face a ferocious pass rush, so they will be able to keep Wilson upright, however they simply don’t have the weapons and are not playing well enough to top Atlanta.

Houston @ New England (-15)

See above, this will be a whitewash. A fun game to play while watching the Texans get blown out will be to count the number of JJ Watt sideline shots. The reported number last Sunday was 16, he’ll try to top that this week.

Green Bay (+4.5) @ Dallas

For the second playoff weekend, the Packers look set to be in the juiciest match-up of the four-game slate. If it lives up to expectation, their meeting with the Cowboys will be a good one. Rodgers and the Green Bay offence overcame a slow start at Lambeau and turned on the jets in a second half demolition of the Giants.

The star QB has returned to peak performance about a year-and-a-half of more mediocre form. A quick sidenote on that, there’s a lot of revisionist history going on regarding Rodgers and his struggles in the first half of the season, it’s almost as if it never happened because he’s playing so well now. There’s nothing wrong with criticising a player and an offence when they’re not performing, even if it is Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers.

For Dallas, they watched the Packers obliterate a Giants defence which is far superior to their own. The positive is their offence can work to control the clock and limit Green Bay possessions and Rodgers’ time on the field. The wildcard is Dak Prescott’s first playoff game, will he be nervous? Will he miss some throws early? And will he turn the ball over?

This is going to be tight and for all of Green Bay’s good work on this winning run, the Cowboys regular season dominance can’t be discounted or forgotten. Jerry Jones will be looking extra smug in his luxury box at the end of this one. #Dezcaughtit

Pittsburgh @ Kansas City (-1.5)

The closest match-up and the toughest game to call sets up an epic in Kansas City. Pittsburgh didn’t do their chances any harm in Miami seeing as that game was over midway through the first quarter. The Dolphins may have made it interesting on the scoreboard, but the Steelers were always a couple of gears above their opponents.

The unveiling of Bell, Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger as a trio on offence did not fail to disappoint. Bell smoked Miami for two touchdowns, Brown did the same and Roethlisberger completed his first 12 passes. The only lowlight was an injury to Big Ben which left him in a moonboot, however knowing his history; the moonboot was probably more for affect than anything.

Kansas City are at a level above Miami and it’s hard to see a scenario of the Chiefs getting blown away early. This is a big game for the Chiefs, it’s time they capitalised on two-seasons of regular season consistency and went deep into the playoffs. Their defence is comparable to last season where they fell at this hurdle; however the addition of Tyreek Hill on offence is the real wildcard. They’ve lacked a spark on offence in past seasons; however the rookie sensation can open up the field for Alex Smith, who has a patchy playoff record (2-3). Get it done Kansas City.

Wildcard Weekend Preview: Why can’t we have 12 decent playoff teams?

Jay Ajayi rushed for over 200-yards and two-scores against Pittsburgh in Week 6.
An up-and-down regular season, marred by lower TV ratings, a lack of power teams and patchy quarterback play is now over and we’ve reached the playoffs where most would have hoped 12, at least competent teams would have escaped the mire to provide some entertaining games in January.

That hasn’t quite happened, in fact not only did few fresh contenders emerge down the stretch, but Super Bowl calibre teams have become weaker, with injuries ravaging most of the AFC. It’s created a situation where the six playoff teams in the conference provide us with a quarterback list of Tom Brady, Alex Smith & Ben Roethlisberger (tick) and Connor Cook, Brock Osweiler and Matt More (cross).

From this motley crew of quarterbacks, it’s created two things, 1. A clear path for the Patriots to waltz into another Super Bowl and 2. A fairly lacklustre wildcard weekend slate.

It seems fitting that in this season so many teams would get knocked with major injuries or have lost all form by the time we entered the playoffs.

Houston have no business being division champions or playing in the postseason, Oakland’s hope died with Derek Carr’s broken leg, Detroit’s incredible run of early season luck appears to be over and Moore has replaced the injured Ryan Tannehill, weakening an already pedestrian offence. Throw in a Seattle team which hasn’t produced the form required to contend and it’s a mix of also-rans filling up half of the playoff spots.

There is some good news, Green Bay has backed up Aaron Rodgers’ proclamation from late November that they would run the table and are on a six-game winning streak. Atlanta’s offence is fully fit and absolutely firing, Kansas City look stronger than last year and New England & Dallas have emerged as legitimate number one seeds in any season, not just the weakened 2016 campaign.

The Houston, Oakland barnstormer to open the postseason looms as a non-event as we look forward to a far from memorable quarterback battle between a first-time starter and guy who was benched as recently as Week 15, after floundering as the Texans’ starting QB. Still, it’s not like this game will come without precedence and will even follow a recent tradition of stinkers on wildcard weekend. Here’s a short list of similarly lampooned games, like Cook vs Osweiler.

2015 season – Kansas City 30-0 Houston Texans

As bad as Osweiler has been this year, he has a very low bar to reach if he wants to top Houston’s previous playoff disaster. Who could forget the way the Texans were embarrassed in their own buildinf as the Chiefs broke a 23-year playoff win drought. Knile Davis kicked off the beatdown with a return touchdown on the opening kickoff and Brian Hoyer was sent running for the border after throwing four-interceptions.

2014 season – Arizona 16-27 Carolina

If Connor Cook debuting in a playoff game is a shock, then so was the Cardinals’ third string quarterback Ryan Lindley starting in Carolina two years ago. The career back up struggled throwing for just 82-yards and committing two turnovers as Arizona produced an historically bad offensive performance, picking up just eight first downs and gaining 78-net yards on offensive, a playoff record in futility. This all coming against a Carolina team which had finished 7-8-1, surging to win the putrid NFC South.

2012 season – Cincinnati 13-19 Houston

After so many one-and-done playoffs losses for the Bengals, it’s a little hard to remember Andy Dalton’s second attempt at ending Cincy’s playoff drought. Houston were the beneficiaries of a struggling Dalton who threw for just 127-yards, completing less than 50% of his passes.

2011 season – Cincinnati 10-21 Houston

Dalton’s first playoff effort was just as tough as he threw three interceptions and saw his team run over in Houston. The highlight of the game was JJ Watt’s 29-yard pick six and the rough outing was a taste of things to come for the Bengals in the playoffs.

So, as you ponder not waking up on Sunday morning for the AFC playoff clash, remember you’ve seen this all before. And now that we’re here, let’s preview the four games.

Oakland @ Houston (-3.5)

If someone had told you three weeks ago that the Raiders and Texans would meet in the wildcard round and the starting quarterbacks would be Cook and Osweiler, what would be more surprising? The fact that Oakland had lost their MVP calibre quarterback and had replaced him with a debutant, or that Osweiler would somehow start another game for the Texans? It’s a tough call, but certainly once Tom Savage took over for the AFC South champs to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat against Jacksonville, it would have been safe to assume Osweiler was done, at least for this season.

With the $72 million QB back in command of the offence, he actually walks into a decent situation as the Houston playoff narrative has been turned on its head. As the playoffs approached and the Texans loomed as a possible AFC South division champion, contenders for the fifth seed would have been licking their lips at the possibility of a very winnable playoff game. Now it’s the Texans who must sense a massive opportunity.

The Raiders look like a broken team which has succumbed to the fact that without Carr at quarterback, they simply cannot contend in the AFC. Cook faces a baptism of fire against a Texans defence which is strong all around and even better at home. After all that has happened, Osweiler may lead Houston to a playoff victory, good work NFL.

Detroit @ Seattle (-8)

At some point the Lions were going to have to pay for their incredible run of good karma and the final three-weeks of the regular season suggest their 9-4 wasn’t a true indication of the quality of this team. Their offence was stifled against the Giants, they were outmatched by a Dallas offence and simply couldn’t keep up with Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers at the top of his game.

The bright spot for Detroit is their wildcard opponents seem at least one level beneath those three NFC playoff teams and despite winning another NFC West crown, look to be a shadow of their former selves and just don’t seem to pose a threat in the NFC title race. Even with the return of Michael Bennett, the loss of Earl Thomas has been massive and while it’s clearly hurt them in the regular season already, they will truly feel the absence of Marshawn Lynch in January as their running game crawls behind a poor offensive line.

Even with their weaknesses, Seattle look to have the firepower to at least last one more week. Detroit’s own lack of a running game will mean Matt Stafford will need to be on fire and with a suspect middle finger still plaguing the QB, the Clink can celebrate another playoff win.

Miami @ Pittsburgh (-10.5)

Pre season expectations of a dominant Steelers offence haven’t been met by Mike Tomlin’s team and they’ve instead been plagued by inconsistency. Aside from their absolute stinkbomb against Philadelphia, the Steelers’ Week 6 thrashing at the hands of Miami was one of their worst performances of the season. Although unlike the wildcard game this was a road game, the Dolphins ran all over the Steelers D, with Jay Ajayi celebrating his breakout game with 204-rushing yards and two touchdowns.

Pittsburgh also battled away with an injured Roethlisberger who missed a series in the second quarter with a leg injury which came on an interception, completely swinging momentum. A hobbled Big Ben hurting their offence, it was the dominance Miami had over the Steelers’ D which was the biggest surprise.

However, it does look like you can’t take too much from that game. For the first time in a while, Pittsburgh’s offence is fully loaded in January and with Miami battling defensive injuries, particularly in the secondary, this looms as a blowout if Pittsburgh can click. Ajayi will be the key for Miami, they’ll need to lean on his rushing and control possession to stand any chance as they too head into their first postseason since 2008 with a backup quarterback.

New York Giants (+5) @ Green Bay

If there is one game to look forward to on wildcard weekend, it’s this one. A genuine battle between a high-flying offence and dominant defence looms at a frozen Lambeau Field. A fun subplot running through the season has been the thought of the Trilogy taking place in the Super Bowl as the Giants and Patriots both surged into the postseason. A fun omen would be if New York could repeat a feat they achieved in both Super Bowl years by beating the Packers in Green Bay.

Thankfully for Green Bay, Rodgers has returned to not being human and put on a masterclass in Detroit to steal the NFC North title and propel the Packers into another playoff run. Jordy Nelson is a top-five wide receiver again and Davante Adams has made a quantum leap. Their defence is still suspect, however outside of Odell Beckham, the Giants offence has been awful with Eli Manning being the main culprit.

Despite all that, the Giants defence is legit, their off-season overhaul has exceeded expectations and they have the ability on all three lines of defence to match Rodgers and company. It’s going to be Part III and Eli is coming for the Evil Empire once again.

Without Luck, what else does Indy have?

Ryan Grigson has felt the heat after back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

Black Monday passed with little fanfare in the NFL, most of the bloodletting having taken place the night before as Mike McCoy, Chip Kelly and Rex Ryan were all given their marching orders, while reigning Super Bowl winning head coach Gary Kubiak stepped down due to health concerns.

Alongside these departing head coaches, 49ers’ GM Trent Baalke was fired from Levi’s Stadium and it became publicly apparent that Doug Whaley has almost no power as GM in Buffalo.

Two names absent from these lists after another mediocre season in Indianapolis were Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson. The thought of change in Indy following their 8-8 finish came and went with barely a whimper, save a quote from Jim Irsay stating that he was “very unhappy” with his team’s performance during an interview in which he flagged possible organisational changes.

Irsay has every right to be unhappy, not just with this season, but the past two seasons of Pagano and Grigson’s tenure which has spluttered after bright beginnings in 2012 which produced three playoff appearances and a trip to the AFC Championship Game in 2014.

The AFC South has been jampacked with intriguing storylines this season, from Blake Bortles’ severe regression, the Tennessee revival behind Marcus Mariota and of course the complete flameout of Brock Osweiler in Houston. All of these stories wrapped into another bizarre battle for the division which ultimately fell the Texans’ way despite abysmal quarterback play.

The Colts fell completely under the radar and their .500 finish has been lost in the wash as pundits discuss how Houston are hosting a playoff game, decrying the fact that we have been robbed the chance of seeing Mariota lead their “exotic smashmouth” offence in January after a broken leg derailed the Titans season, sinking any playoff hopes in Week 16.

True is it a shame that Tennessee couldn’t usurp Houston for that 4th seed in the AFC, it’s also a shame that a team led by Andrew Luck throwing for 4,240 yards, 31 touchdowns and a passer rating of 96.4 was beaten twice and finished a game behind a Houston team led by Brock Osweiler who couldn’t top 3,000 passing yards, threw half the number of touchdowns and who finished with a passer rating more than 20-points below Luck’s.

Luck played at a Pro Bowl level and should probably have replaced Ben Roethlisberger as the third AFC quarterback. When an organisation fails to win a mediocre division with QB play like that, it’s a serious indictment on the rest of the team and that’s where Grigson can be blamed.

Outside of QB, the Colts came into the season with a suspect offensive line, a lead back who had turned 33 with severe tread on the tyres, holes all over the front seven and a secondary which had turned into a mess through injury and an overall lack of quality.

The Colts paid for this lack of talent on defence, particularly early where they conceded 25-points or more in seven of their nine games before the bye and suffered close losses against Detroit, Jacksonville and inexplicable collapse against the Texans on Sunday night.

The Colts aren’t close to a Super Bowl contender and really didn’t deserve to make the playoffs in any normal division. However they’re in the AFC South and their situation is inexcusable with a gifted passer like Luck at quarterback.

Both Pagano and Grigson came under fire after the 2015 season, where they also finished 8-8. They had a fair excuse with the absence of Luck for long stretches of the season through injury and were both awarded contract extensions.

This year though, their offence was mainly healthy all season, only Dante Moncrief missed meaningful time. Luck missed just the one game against Pittsburgh, a game in which they were non-competitive.

Pagano has mainly escaped criticism for the past two seasons, with most of the blame being directed at Grigson. After initial success in 2012 via offensive weapons in the draft, the GM’s drafting has been patchy as he’s favoured skill position players, ignoring areas of need. Using another first round pick on a wide receiver in 2015 was the real headscratcher and Phillip Dorsett’s 2016 numbers of 33-catches for 528-yards and a miserly two-touchdowns certainly hasn’t vindicated the pick.

Outside of the quarterback position and the main group of receivers, the current Colts roster is comparable to when Pagano and Grigson took over, following a 2-14 season which anchored Indy as the worst team in the league.

The pair have been given considerable time to overhaul the team and yet still oversee a defence with massive holes and an offensive line which is improving, yet still struggles to protect their franchise QB.

Certainly, three straight playoff appearances rightfully brought them some time, however if you can’t build and coach a team capable of winning the current AFC South, how much leeway do you deserve?

Irsay has traditionally been patient with both head coaches and general managers. Pagano is the team’s third head coach since 2001 and the hiring of Grigson ended a 15-year association with a Polian as GM.

Now though, Irsay’s patience must be waning and change may be needed to revitalise a team which has been stuck in the middle of the league, outside of the playoffs.

Black Monday bypassed the Colts for another season, however change may be on the horizon as Indy needs to start capitalising on having a top-five quarterback in the prime of his career.