It is okay to see football as a battle between two quarterbacks

In the days leading up to a big football game, you will often hear people discussing a game as a matchup between two great quarterbacks. This description has great appeal. Quarterback is the single most important position in football, and quarterbacks are often the most well-known personalities on the team. How well a team fares usually has more to do with how well the team’s quarterback plays than the performance of any other single player. When the dominant narrative of a game is about the two opposing quarterbacks, there is always a backlash against the idea. This counter-narrative, put forth by fans in a knowing voice, reminds us that players of a single position in football, quarterback or otherwise, don’t actually play against each other. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, two legendary quarterbacks whose teams will play each other in the AFC Championship Game this weekend, won’t even be on the field at the same time, unless it is for the coin flip or an awkward pre- or post-game hug. Fans who argue against the legitimacy of a quarterback vs. quarterback narrative have the full weight of literalness and snark on their side, but they’re missing the point.

Two athletes don’t need to play directly against one another or even perform at the same time to engage in epic competitions. Take the many fantastic duels in Olympic sports like figure skating, gymnastics, or any of the skiing disciplines. The one after another format of all three of these sports only acts to heighten the drama as one athlete tries to best the mark set by a previous competitor. Even in team sports, like basketball and soccer, where two opposing great players are usually on the court or pitch at the same time, they don’t necessarily come up directly against each other. In the past year’s NBA finals, the two best players on each team were LeBron James for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Steph Curry for the Golden State Warriors. James is 6’8″ and over 250 lbs. Curry is 6’3″ and 185 lbs. They barely interact more on a basketball court than players of the same position in football would on a football field, it’s just that football makes this division more explicit.

If we are going to personalize a football game, perhaps it’s more literally correct to talk about the matchup between a great quarterback and a great defensive player. For example, we could talk about the battle of wits and bodies between Peyton Manning and Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins. Or even more directly, between Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and cornerback Aqib Talib or whoever the Broncos decide to have guard him. Those are all fascinating sub-plots and one-on-one battles, but in the end, they’re not as compelling as Brady vs. Manning. There’s something more compelling about watching two people try to achieve the same thing. It’s why we often find that Presidential primaries are more interesting than general elections. No matter how interesting the candidates are in a general election, over 80% of everyone who watches, roots, and votes will do so based on party. In a primary, everything is up for grabs. That’s how it is in football. It’s fascinating to watch a great offensive player play against a great defensive player, but each of their successes and failures is so contextual. In a battle between two quarterbacks, even though the battle is not literal, the figurative battlefield is much more level. One quarterback may have better receivers or a better offensive line than the other, one quarterback may be up against a tougher defense than the other, but their goals are the same.

Simplifying football to a matchup of two quarterbacks is not a lazy simplification, it’s a convenient way of capturing one of the most exciting aspects of the sport.

2016 NFL Divisional Preview: Pittsburgh at Denver

The Denver Broncos host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the last of the four 2016 National Football League (NFL) Divisional playoff games. This game is on Sunday, January 17, 2016 at 4:40 p.m. ET on CBS.

What’s the Plot?

The worst part of football is how damaging it is to the mind and body of the people who play it. It’s also one of the things that makes football so fascinating. At the team and individual level, football poses questions — how badly do you have to be injured before you stop playing? how effective can you play while injured? how do you replace an injured player? how can you overcome the loss of one, two, five, ten injured players — and demands answers. This game is largely about those questions. Can the Pittsburgh Steelers overcome the loss of their best running back and wide receiver? Can their quarterback play effectively with an injured shoulder? Were the Denver Broncos right to choose to go with their once legendary but now seriously diminished quarterback over the younger healthier choice? The answers to those questions will determine who wins and who loses.

Who are the main characters on the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Ben Roethlisberger – Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is the biggest mystery of this game. He injured his throwing shoulder in last week’s game against the Bengals, left the game, and then heroically returned to help his team to victory. During the week, he claimed that he had torn ligaments and that he was going to play. Roethlisberger is famous both for playing through injuries that would leave most humans curled into a small ball, moaning, AND for exaggerating the extent of his injuries. Are his ligaments really torn or is he playing it up to make him feel tougher for playing? His teammates won’t care as long as he makes it out onto the field and can throw the ball. The first is a certainty, the second a mystery.

Martavis Bryant/Marcus Wheaton/Darrius Heyward-Bey  – The Pittsburgh Steelers started the season with one of the most talented trios of wide receivers in the league. Antonio Brown was the leader of the bunch but he will not be playing today due to a concussion he suffered last week. One of his normal two wingmen, Martavis Bryant or Marcus Wheaton will have to step up to replace him. Bryant and Wheaton are both young receivers whose ceilings seem limitless but neither is as good as Brown. Sliding into the third wide receiver position from the bench will be Darrius Heyward-Bey, whose main claim to fame so far was that the Oakland Raiders selected him way too early in the NFL draft. What these three receivers have is speed. Each of them is freakishly fast, even for football players. There will be two or three times during the game when one of them gets behind his defender. If Roethlisberger has enough arm strength to get them the ball, there could be a long touchdown or three.

Who are the main characters on the Denver Broncos?

Peyton Manning – Quarterback Peyton Manning will be an obvious choice for the NFL Hall of Fame when he retires. He’s the most prolific passer in league history. At 38, after multiple neck surgeries, he’s clearly a diminished player. During the first half of the season, the Broncos were winning despite his poor play. During the second half, they played without him, going with the younger Brock Osweiler. In the final game of the season, Osweiler struggled and Manning was called on to come in and win the game. He did and now the team has chosen to go back to him for the playoffs. Manning, even at 60% of what he used to be, is a very good quarterback. Manning at 40% of what he used to be is a liability to his team. Which Manning will we see?

Derek Wolfe / Von Miller / DeMarcus Ware – These are the three defenders who are most likely to hit Ben Roethlisberger and knock him and his injured shoulder out of the game. Wolfe is a gargantuan defensive lineman, Von Miller is a swashbuckling linebacker, and DeMarcus Ware is a savvy veteran still capable of making explosive plays. Watch for these guys to put a little extra mustard on their quarterback hits today…

Aquib Talib / Chris Harris – The flip-side of the Steelers speedy receivers are the Denver Broncos two cornerbacks. Aquib Talib and Chris Harris are the best pair of pass defenders in the league. Antonio Brown might have been enough to get these guys sweating, but without him in the game, Talib and Harris will probably be able to take two Steelers receivers out of the game and leave their teammates to worry about the rest.

Who is going to win?

The only thing that could keep the Denver Broncos from winning would be a total and complete collapse from quarterback Peyton Manning. With one of the best defenses in the league going up against a reeling Pittsburgh Steelers offense, the Broncos may only need one or two touchdowns from their offense to win. I trust that Manning has enough football wherewithal left in his body to do at least that.

2016 NFL Divisional Preview: Green Bay at Arizona

The Arizona Cardinals host the Green Bay Packers in the second of the four 2016 National Football League (NFL) Divisional playoff games. This game is on Saturday, January 16, 2016 at 8:15 p.m. ET on NBC.

What’s the Plot?

The Green Bay Packers were generally thought of as the least likely of the four Wild Card teams last weekend to win on the road. They may have been, but they still traveled to Washington and won their game convincingly. The spark from their offense that had been missing for the last three quarters of the season was back. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers looked happy and everything was rosy in Green Bay. Now, less than a week later, they are back on the road facing a rested and daunting Arizona Cardinals team. The Cardinals have been a potentially great team for the past few years but each year their potential is stolen from them by dint of an injury to quarterback Carson Palmer. There are lots of great players on the Cardinals (their depth is impressive) but only one is irreplaceable. This year, Palmer is finally healthy for the playoffs and it will be a thrill to see how far this team can get… as long as he stays healthy.

Who are the main characters on the Green Bay Packers?

Aaron Rodgers – I wrote last week about the mystery of Aaron Rodgers. Generally thought of as the best quarterback alive, he had been having a terrible season. True, he was missing (and will be until next year) his best wide receiver, but that shouldn’t be enough to totally thwart such a great player. Whatever accounted for Rodgers’ malaise, he shook it off and played an amazing game. He’ll need to be even better this week for the Packers to have a shot against the Cardinals.

Mike McCarthy – Mike McCarthy has been the coach of the Green Bay Packers for the last ten years. That’s a long time in football terms and it’s also Aaron Rodgers’ entire career. Despite having won a Super Bowl in 2010 and returned to the playoffs every year since then, McCarthy is not thought of as a great coach. My guess is that this is due to a combination of Rodgers getting the bulk of the credit and McCarthy making too many obvious time-management blunders at the end of games. Last week’s victory over Washington quieted some of McCarthy’s critics.

The offensive line – A few weeks ago, when these two teams played in the regular season, the Cardinals blew the Packers out and a big reason for that was the Packers offensive line. In that game, two of their best linemen were out injured. The team should get at least one and perhaps both of them back for this one and they hope the results will be different. As is often said about quarterbacks, you should be able to get a good sense of how well the game is going to go for the Packers by how many times the line lets Aaron Rodgers get hit. As a reminder, this is the line that made news last year for playing Settlers of Catan.

Who are the main characters on the Arizona Cardinals?

Bruce Arians – Head Coach Bruce Arians is almost always the biggest character in the room. He’s an iconoclast who wears his weirdness literally on his head. He’s famous for wearing kangol hats. When it comes to football, he’s ready to try just about anything that might work but he has some clear preferences. On offense, he wants to throw the ball farther down the field more often than any other coach in the league. This high-risk, high-reward strategy asks a lot of the team’s quarterbacks and offensive linemen, which has been a problem in the last two years.

Carson Palmer – The guy throwing the ball down the field for Arians is Carson Palmer. Palmer has had one of the most long-lasting tragic careers in sports. Early in his career, he was seen as being on track to be one of the truly great quarterbacks of his generation. Then, on the first throw of his first playoff game, he completed a beautiful, long pass to receiver Chris Henry (who has since died, so this is a doubly tragic play in retrospect,) and was hit low by an opposing linemen and tore his ACL. The injury was not a career ending injury (clearly) but it altered his path significantly. He’s now seen as a very good player whose greatness was robbed from him, not once, but several times thanks to other injuries. At 36, this isn’t his last shot to reclaim that greatness, but it may be his best shot. It’s hard not to root for Palmer.

Larry Fitzgerald / John Brown / Michael Floyd / Jaron Brown / J.J. Nelson – This is the best set of five wide receivers that any NFL team has ever had. Other teams (including the Pittsburgh Steelers this year) might have had a better top three, but I don’t think any team was as good and as deep as the Cardinals. Larry Fitzgerald (who remains the best football player I’ve ever seen in person. I had the unfortunate pleasure of watching him go for 207 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first half against Rutgers in 2003.) is the old man of the bunch. A sensational player who has transitioned into being the world’s best possession receiver, capable of picking up 8 yards whenever his team needs him to. The other four are different varieties of deep threat — insanely fast dudes who are good at running past their defenders and catching the ball. If they start getting it going, just watch and marvel at them.

Who is going to win?

I don’t think this game is going to be particularly close. Yahoo’s football blog ran an article about this game headlined, “No on expects another blow out when Packers meet Cardinals.” I do. The Cardinals should be able to start scoring and never look back. The Packers might be able to score some but not nearly enough. Cardinals will win by a bunch.

2016 NFL Divisional Preview: Kansas City at New England

The New England Patriots host the Kansas City Chiefs in the first of the four 2016 National Football League (NFL) Wild Card playoff games. This game is on Saturday, January 16, 2016 at 4:30 p.m. ET on CBS.

What’s the Plot?

The New England Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champions but they’re not at full strength. If they were, they would be a giant favorite to win this game. The team the Patriots started the year with looked very much like it could have gone undefeated and won another Super Bowl without too much trouble. Then the injuries started. The Patriots have lost more and more important players than most teams. One question, perhaps the main question coming into this game is: how many of those players will the Patriots have back and at full strength for this game? Those are actually two different questions. The Patriots are planning to have all three of their key pass catching players, wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski back as well as offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer back for the game. But if you believe the news coming out of the New England camp, none of them will be at full strength. The Kansas City Chiefs are probably NOT listening to the word out of the New England Camp very much. Not only because the New England camp is notoriously tight-lipped and mendacious, but also because a team that has just won 11 games in a row doesn’t have to listen to anyone.The Chiefs are on quite a roll! Just last weekend, they went into Houston and absolutely smashed the Texans 30-0 in the first round of the playoffs. They’re doing it with smart offense and tough defense and for now, they seem unbeatable.

Who are the main characters on the Kansas City Chiefs?

Alex Smith — Quarterback Alex Smith was drafted number one overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 2005. His story has always been one of moderate success despite two great deficiencies: hand size and arm strength. The importance of arm strength is obvious — if your arm isn’t strong enough to throw the ball far down the field, it’s hard to be successful. When you watch Smith, compare his throws in your mind to others that you’ve seen. You might notice his throws looking not as snappy as other quarterbacks. More likely you can notice what you don’t see — the so-called “out pattern throws.” An out is when a wide receiver runs down the field and then perpendicularly to the sideline. The quarterback is expected to throw the ball before the wide receiver turns so it’s there for him to catch. It’s a difficult throw to make because, even more than the longer down-field throws, it has to be made with strength so defenders don’t have time to intercept it. Smith pretty much doesn’t even attempt these throws. What Smith does do, he does extremely well. He’s very athletic, able to avoid defenders trying to sack him and even to make longish dowfield scrambling runs at time. He rarely makes bad decisions that lead to interceptions or fumbles. He’s a solid but unspectacular dude.

Eric Berry — Safety Eric Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma a little over a year ago. He got treatment and was back to playing shape by the time this season started. His play this season has been nothing short of inspiring. He’s back to what he was before the cancer, one of the best safeties in the league. Also, from his Wikipedia page, comes the odd but charming fact: “Berry suffers from equinophobia, a fear of horses, frequently brought on by the Kansas City Chiefs’ mascot, Warpaint. The fear was brought on after a traumatizing childhood event at a petting zoo where a horse bit him while his back was turned.”

Who are the main characters on the New England Patriots?

Bill Belichick — It all starts with coach Bill Belichick. Now the longest tenured coach in the league by far (Belichick started in New England in 2000, the next two coaches started at their jobs in 2003 and 2006!), depending on who you talk to, Belichick is thought of as either an evil genius or a benevolent one, but either way, he’s given a lot of the credit for the Patriots’ winning ways. He’s not a stereotypical football coach who screams and yells or tries to motivate his players. He doesn’t give memorable half-time speeches. He just tries (with his assistant coaches) to out-think, out-smart, and out-prepare the opposing team. Before every game, Belichick figures out what the other team is good at and what they’re bad at. Then he decides how to attack them where they’re weak and avoid falling prey to what they are good at. It seems simple, but most teams either can’t figure this out or are unable or unwilling to change what they do fast enough to adjust to their opponent.

Tom Brady — Quarterback Tom Brady is the other side of the New England Patriots coin. He’s been in New England just as long as Belichick and he gets almost as much credit. He’s widely considered one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play football. Even at age 38, he doesn’t seem to be noticeably slipping in any dimension of his game. Given the issues the Patriots have had this year with their offensive line, one of Brady’s most important qualities is his ability to anticipate what the defense is going to do, even before the play begins, and react quickly to what they actually do once the play starts. He rarely gets hit because he rarely holds onto the ball for more than a second or two. He gets it, and throws it, fast!

Rob Gronkowski — Tight end Rob Gronkowski provides an element of meat to balance Brady and Belichik’s cerebral natures. Gronkowski is a 6’6″ 265 lbs football monster. When he goes down the field to catch a pass, he often looks too big, too fast, and too skilled for the other team to have a chance at stopping him. He looks improbable, like the result of a cheat code in a video game. Then a defender hits him and every Patriots fan in the world gasps. Gronkowski’s one weakness is his health. He seems to always either be seriously injured, hobbled, or one hit away from being one of those things. Right now, reports say he’s suffering from knee and back injuries. Only time will tell if that’s true, but if it isn’t, watch out!

Who is going to win?

The Kansas City Chiefs are on an amazing run this year but the New England Patriots have been on amazing run now for more than a decade. The Chiefs are a team that’s succeeding despite some very obvious flaws, first among them their quarterback’s limited ability to make certain types of throws. The one person you don’t want to run into when your options are limited is Bill Belichick. Belichick is too good at finding and exploiting small flaws, much less giant obvious ones. The Patriots may not be able to overpower the Chiefs but over time, little by little as the game goes on, they’ll outsmart the Chiefs.

 

2016 NFL Wildcard Preview: Green Bay at Washington

The Washington Redskins host the Green Bay Packers in the last of the four 2016 National Football League (NFL) Wild Card playoff games. This game is on Sunday, January 10, 2016 at 4:40 p.m. ET on Fox.

What’s the Plot?

If you had asked a football fan who they thought would win between these two teams any time this season before about a month ago, or really anytime in the past twenty years before about a month ago, the answer would have been the same and it would have been confident: the Green Bay Packers. All of a sudden, it’s not so clear. The Packers have had profound trouble on offense in their last few games while the Washington Redskins have slowly but surely improved. It still feels wrong to say it, but this looks like the most evenly matched game of the weekend.

Who are the main characters on the Green Bay Packers?

Aaron Rodgers – Aaron Rodgers is generally thought of as the best quarterback alive. So why is he having so much trouble this year? One obvious answer is that he’s missing his best wide receiver, Jordy Nelson, who injured his knee before the season started and will not play until next year. That might explain it, and it certainly raises the general fan’s opinion of Jordy Nelson if it does, but it doesn’t seem like enough. How can the best quarterback of a generation be stymied by the loss of a single receiver? Watching Rodgers these days is like an optical illusion: because he’s been so good for so long, you expect to see him be remarkable but he persists in being pedestrian. It will be very interesting to see how he plays in this game.

Eddie Lacy – If Rodgers is an illusion, Lacy is a conundrum. It’s difficult to explain such a talented runner having such an up-and-down season. He’s played great one game, poorly the next, and sometimes not at all. He’s been called overweight and unmotivated. Who knows what’s up with him off the field that might explain his performance this year. What we do know is how impactful he can be when he’s on. The Packers will do everything they can to get him on for this game.

Mike McCarthy – Mike McCarthy has been the coach of the Green Bay Packers for the last ten years. That’s a long time in football terms and it’s also Aaron Rodgers’ entire career. Despite having won a Super Bowl in 2010 and returned to the playoffs every year since then, McCarthy is not thought of as a great coach. My guess is that this is due to a combination of Rodgers getting the bulk of the credit and McCarthy making too many obvious time-management blunders at the end of games. In any event, despite the historic patience of the Green Bay organization, McCarthy could be in trouble if his team plays poorly in this game.

Who are the main characters on the Washington Redskins?

Kirk Cousins – Four years ago, the Washington Redskins traded a slew of draft picks to the St. Louis Rams in order to draft a quarterback high in the 2012 NFL draft. That quarterback was Robert Griffin III. Later on in the same draft, down in the fourth round, the team took another quarterback, Kirk Cousins. While RGIII has sputtered, Cousins has thrived. In this, his first full season starting, he led the team to a division title and what’s more important, he’s steadily improved throughout the year. Cousins could always make big plays but now he seems more able to avoid the big mistakes that plagued him earlier in his career.

DeSean Jackson – Wide Receiver DeSean Jackson is the most dangerous player on the field… for both teams. He’s a brash, big play receiver who sometimes has lapses in big moments. He has a history of celebrating touchdowns too early and dropping the ball before he actually scored. Just a few weeks ago, he was returning a punt and ran backwards about fifteen yards before fumbling the ball. For every one mistake he makes, he makes three or four great plays, but even so, fans of both teams will hold their breath when he has the ball.

Alfred Morris – The Washington Redskins featured running back will once again be the dependable Alfred Morris. On the field, Morris is a solid if unspectacular player but it’s hard not to love him for his off-field personality. He drives to work in the 25-year-old car he had before he was a professional football player. That is, he drives it when he’s not biking to work. He gets together before every home game to chat with a group of stadium ushers he’s friends with. He seems like a truly awesome dude.

Who is going to win?

Oh, I guess the Washington Redskins should win this game. They are definitely the team that has played better over the past four to six weeks. That said, it’s impossible for me to truly believe that a team whose quarterback is Kirk Cousins should really win over a team whose quarterback is Aaron Rodgers. When in doubt, go with the better quarterback, and Rodgers is the best. Green Bay will find a way to win.

2016 NFL Wildcard Preview: Seattle at Minnesota

The Minnesota Vikings host the Seattle Seahawks in the third of the four 2016 National Football League (NFL) Wild Card playoff games. This game is on Sunday, January 10, 2016 at 1 p.m. ET on NBC.

What’s the Plot?

By winning their last game of the season, the Minnesota Vikings clinched their division title and guaranteed that they would host their first playoff game. Hosting a game is usually good news for a team’s chances (home teams win 59% of the time in the regular season and 65% of the time in this round of the playoffs) and it’s always good news for the home fans who get to see a playoff game in person. In this case, there’s an enormous dose of negativity mixed in with that optimisim. To start with, the weather is supposed to be freezing. Actually, it’s supposed to be between 31 and 41 degrees below freezing with a steady 10-15 mph wind. That’s enough to bother even hearty Minnesotans! Perhaps even more importantly, winning the division matched the Vikings up with the Seattle Seahawks, a team no one wanted to play. The Seahawks have a lower seed because of a slow start to the year but they’re still the team that went to the last two Super Bowls and a frightening matchup.

Who are the main characters on the Seattle Seahawks?

Russell Wilson – After three years in the NFL, quarterback Russell Wilson had led his team to the playoffs in all three years and to the Super Bowl twice, winning once. That’s a heck of a record for any quarterback, especially one who was thought to be too small to be successful in the NFL. Despite that amazing start, it wasn’t until this season, his fourth in the league, that you started hearing people talk about Wilson as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. With injuries hampering the team’s running offense, it started to rely more heavily on Wilson and he did not dissapoint. It’s largely through his amazing improvisation and accurate passing that the Seahawks are back in the playoffs for the fourth straight year.

Marshawn Lynch – Running back Marshawn Lynch, known as Beast Mode for his brutally physical running style, has missed the last month and a half after having surgery on a sports hernia. A sports hernia is a significant tear in the abdominal wall and muscles and the surgery to repair it is pretty major. Lynch plans on being back for this game, but it’s an open question of how close to his normal self he’ll be able to be.

K.J. Wright/Bobby Wagner/Bruce Irving – Over the past few years, the Seahawks have been known for the strength of their defense. More specifically, they’ve been known for their strong secondary (nicknamed the Legion of Boom) and their aggressive pass rushing defensive line. In this game however, because the strenghts of their opponent are a strong running attack and a mobile quarterback, the most important part of the Seahawks defense may be their linebackers. In K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner, and Bruce Irving, the Seahawks have three strong veteran linebackers. The outcome of this game is most likely to hinge on their success or failure.

Who are the main characters on the Minnesota Vikings?

Adrian Peterson – Running Back Adrian Peterson has been thought of as the best running back in the NFL since his rookie season in 2007. Even at age 30, (an age many running backs slow down at,) Peterson is still one of, if not the best running back in the league. He seems to get stronger throughout the game, running his best late in the fourth quarter when the defense starts to get seriously tired and sick of tackling him. Peterson has been a problematic figure to root for since his arrest last year for beating his young son.

Teddy Bridgewater – If Peterson is the past and present of the Minnesota Vikings, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is the future. This is only Bridgewater’s second year in the league and the Vikings have seemed to be approaching his development slow and steady. Their approach is to run the ball, play good defense, and ask Bridgewater just not to lose the game. It will be interesting to see what happens if the Vikings get down by ten points. I believe that Bridgewater is capable of doing more than he’s been asked to do, but the proof is in the pudding. Let’s see it.

Who is going to win?

Of all four games this weekends, Seattle is the biggest favorite. I suppose that should make me think they’re going to win, but I don’t. I have a funny feeling that between the freezing cold, the early start time (noon in Minnesota will feel like 10 a.m. for the Seahawks), and the vagaries of the NFL, the Vikings will find a way to win. Also, I’ve been rooting against the Seahawks for no reason for the last several years and I’m not going to start now!

2016 NFL Wildcard Preview: Pittsburgh at Cincinnati

The Cincinnati Bengals host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second of the four 2016 National Football League (NFL) Wild Card playoff games. This game is on Saturday, January 9, 2016 at 8:15 p.m. ET on CBS.

What’s the Plot?

This game will be the third of the season between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. This is possible because the two teams are in the same division, the AFC North, and so they always play twice during the regular season. The Bengals won the division and the Steelers qualified for the playoffs as a Wild Card. Luck has paired them together for a third time but the question is, who will it be lucky for? The last time the two teams played, both teams seemed at least as interested in being the more physical team as being the team that scored more points. I’d expect that element of physicality to continue in this game.

Who are the main characters on the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Ben Roethlisberger – At the start of this season, I described quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as “”Giant, raw, and talented in his first few years as a professional, Roethlisberger has evolved into a solid quarterback whose success seems inevitable and effortless.”” That’s pretty good! I’ll stick with it. This year has only confirmed that Roethlisberger’s success. Surrounded by talented wide receivers and leaned on even more heavily by his team in the absence of injured running back Le’Veon Bell, Roethlisberger has thrived.

Antonio Brown/Martavis Bryant/Marcus Wheaton – As I mentioned in the last paragraph, the Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the most talented trios of wide receivers in the league. Antonio Brown is the leader of the bunch. He’s an all-purpose brilliant wide receiver. He’s good at everything. You can throw him a short pass and expect him to run with the ball or send him deep and hurl the ball to him. He’s deceptively powerful, quick, and reliable. He’s even a dynamic punt returner. Alongside Brown are two young receivers whose ceilings seem limitless. Both Martavis Bryant and Marcus Wheaton are deep ball specialists. They can either run past their defenders or jump over them, but either way, when Roethlisberger drops back and winds up, the expectation is that one of these guys is going to do something spectacular. Bryant is the more exciting of the two — his nickname, “the alien,” nicely expresses how unusual his skills are.”

Who are the main characters on the Cincinnati Bengals?

Andy Dalton – Andy Dalton, the starting quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals, has managed to be both surprisingly successful and surprisingly unsuccessful in his time in the NFL. This is his fifth year and in each of his four previous years, he’s helped his team make the playoffs. That’s a surprisingly successful record for any young quarterback, much less one who was drafted late in the second round. Unfortunately for Dalton, the Bengals have lost all four of the playoff games he’s been involved in, and in many of them, he’s played poorly. The question remains, which is the “real Dalton?” The guy who wins a lot in the regular season or the guy who always loses in the playoffs? This game may be a referrendum on that topic, but Dalton will have to play to make it so. He broke his thumb five weeks ago and as of now is not practicing. Whether he plays or whether it’s his backup, AJ McCarron, Dalton will be a big part of the story.

Giovani Bernard/Jeremy Hill – The Cincinnati Bengals have two very different players at running back. Giovani Bernard is quick, sudden, and small. Jeremy Hill is a battering ram. Which back the Bengals decide to use more often early in the game will give a good indication of how they think they can beat the Steelers. If Bernard is in, it’s a good bet the Bengals think they can outscore the Steelers by passing the ball. If Hill is in, the Bengals either think they can win by being more physical or they are scared of the Steelers and want to shorten the game (running takes more time off the clock than passing.)

Marvin Lewis – Marvin Lewis is the long-time head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. Like his counterpart on the Steelers sideline, Mike Tomlin, Lewis has been the beneficiary of a very patient owner. He’s coached through good times and bad times. If the Bengals lose this game, particularly if Dalton plays and they lose, Lewis may finally find his job in serious jeopardy. It’s much harder to change quarterbacks than coaches and five consecutive playoff losses may be too much to take sitting down, even for a patient owner.

Who is going to win?

It’s hard for me to imagine the Pittsburgh Steelers losing this game. Their passing game is so good and so explosive that it should dominate this game. The Bengals will go into the game worried about how they are going to neutralize the Steelers passing on defense and keep up with them on offense. Add the fact that the Bengals will be going with either their backup quarterback or a newly healed Andy Dalton who hasn’t played in a month, and things don’t seem good for Cincinnati. Steelers win.

2016 NFL Wildcard Preview: Kansas City at Houston

The Houston Texans host the Kansas City Chiefs in the first of the four 2016 National Football League (NFL) Wild Card playoff games. This game is on Saturday, January 9, 2016 at 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN or ABC if you’re in the Houston or Kansas City areas.

What’s the Plot?

The Kansas City Chiefs are an easy team to root for. Full of characters with obvious flaws but even more obvious redeeming characteristics, they came charging back from a bad start to the season, winning their last 10 games of the season to make the playoffs. The Houston Texans are by no means villains, but winning their sorry AFC South division with a 9-7 record doesn’t exactly inspire confidence or a strong desire to see them win in the playoffs. Both teams have close to extraordinary defenses that drag their more pedestrian offenses to success.
“Andy Reid – Head Coach Andy Reid looks like a giant walrus and coaches like one too. What does that mean? Is ‘walrus’ really a meaningful football term? No, it is not. Reid was the long-time coach of the Philadelphia Eagles where he presided over a consistently very good team that came just short of winning a Super Bowl. In Kansas City, he’s had his ups and downs but has mostly been very successful. His specialty is generating offense from teams without any super-stars. His tragic flaw is time management. Late in games, you can almost count on Reid to misuse his team’s timeouts. This is a very visible flaw which sometimes seems to cost his teams victories but realistically, it’s only a small part of coaching.

Who are the main characters on the Kansas City Chiefs?

Alex Smith — Quarterback Alex Smith was drafted number one overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 2005. His story has always been one of moderate success despite two great deficiencies: hand size and arm strength. The importance of arm strength is obvious — if your arm isn’t strong enough to throw the ball far down the field, it’s hard to be successful. When you watch Smith, compare his throws in your mind to others that you’ve seen. You might notice his throws looking not as snappy as other quarterbacks. More likely you can notice what you don’t see — the so-called “”out pattern throws.”” An out is when a wide receiver runs down the field and then perpendicularly to the sideline. The quarterback is expected to throw the ball before the wide receiver turns so it’s there for him to catch. It’s a difficult throw to make because, even more than the longer down-field throws, it has to be made with strength so defenders don’t have time to intercept it. Smith pretty much doesn’t even attempt these throws. What Smith does do, he does extremely well. He’s very athletic, able to avoid defenders trying to sack him and even to make longish dowfield scrambling runs at time. He rarely makes bad decisions that lead to interceptions or fumbles. He’s a solid but unspectacular dude.

Eric Berry — Safety Eric Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma a little over a year ago. He got treatment and was back to playing shape by the time this season started. His play this season has been nothing short of inspiring. He’s back to what he was before the cancer, one of the best safeties in the league. Also, from his Wikipedia page, comes the odd but charming fact: “Berry suffers from equinophobia, a fear of horses, frequently brought on by the Kansas City Chiefs’ mascot, Warpaint. The fear was brought on after a traumatizing childhood event at a petting zoo where a horse bit him while his back was turned.”

Who are the main characters on the Houston Texans?

J.J. Watt — Defensive end J.J. Watt is the best defensive player in the NFL. In his four years in the league before this one, he won the Defensive Player of the Year award twice. His team plays a 3-4 defense, which means that there are three players in the defensive line (at the start of each plays, the defensive line crouches directly opposite the offensive line) and four linebackers upright behind them. Most teams that play this formation expect the three linemen to battle their opposites to a standstill while the real pressure on the quarterback comes from linebackers. Watt is so dominant that he’s able to create pressure as one of the three linemen. Doing this is almost like giving his team an extra player to play with. Off the field, he’s in a trillion commercials, including that one for… a cell phone, I think, where he’s chopping wood in a forest.

Deandre Hopkins — Wide Receiver Deandre Hopkins is one of the best wide receivers in the league. This is an amazing feat because he’s not remarkably tall or unusually fast. He must be extraordinary at the less obvious skills for a wide receiver: running precise and deceptive routes, not foreshadowing the moment when he’s going to reach up and catch the ball, having precise control over his body, timing his jump perfectly so the ball reaches him at the apex of his leaping ability. Hopkins is a joy to watch… as long as you’re not rooting against him. ”

Who is going to win?

The Houston Texans were able to make the playoffs despite being forced to start four different quarterbacks during the season. Overcoming injuries to that many quarterbacks and still succeeding is a rare feat but overcoming an injury to the team’s starting left tackle is even more difficult. That’s what the Texans are facing after starting left tackle Duane Brown tore his quadriceps muscle in last week’s game. If you think it’s strange that an injury to a left tackle should be so much more damaging than one to a quarterback, you should read Michael Lewis’ book, The Blind Side. I’m a believer in the power of the left tackle, so I’ve got to believe that the Kansas City Chiefs will win this game.

 

What is an audible in football?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is an audible in football?

Thanks,
Ruben


Dear Ruben,

One of the things that separates football from most other sports is the degree to which its coaches control the action. Football stops and starts all the time, and each time it does, coaches on both sides have the opportunity to tell their players what to do. In the NFL, coaches are actually able to talk between plays through a microphone to one offensive player on their team and one defensive player. These players are identified by having a small green dot on their helmets. These messages from the coaches to their players are simple codes that refer to plays which the players have learned in practice. Each one is complex enough to tell each of the eleven players on offense or defense what to do during the upcoming play. All of this happens quickly, in ten to fifteen seconds, and then the two teams run to the line of scrimmage and set up opposite each other. Here’s where things get interesting and where the audibles come into play.

Once the two teams set up to run their plays, as pre-determined by their coaches, a new and vast array of information is available. The offense can see where the defense has lined up. The defense may be able to guess what the offense is going to do. The problem for football coaches is, at this point, they are no longer able to talk to anyone on the field. Some coaches, usually in college football, get around this by having their players set up, pause, and then look to the sidelines where the coach will be signaling a new play to them through some large visual code that is easily understood by them but complex enough to mean nothing to their opponents. Most coaches, especially at the professional level, simply trust a player on the field to decide whether to change the play or go with the original one. If a player on the field (always the quarterback on offense and often a linebacker on defense) decides to go with a new play, that play and the process of deciding to change the original call and communicate that decision is called an audible.

One common example of an audible that television commentators often talk about looks at the number of defensive players “in the box” or set up to defend a run. If there are a lot of defensive players “in the box” and the original play was a run, the quarterback may decide to audible to a pass play. If there are only a few and the original play was a pass, the quarterback may audible to a run. Usually the relevant numbers are five and eight. Five men in the box is an open invitation to run the ball. Eight players guarding the run is a tempting situation to audible to a pass play.

As you may have guessed from the word, audible, which also means something you can hear, the change to the original play call is usually accomplished by SHOUTING! The quarterback on offense or the designated player on defense will scream a new instruction to their teammates. This instruction, like the original play call, will be in code so the other team can’t figure out what it is. Screaming is the easiest way to perform an audible but it’s not always possible. Football crowds are wise to the advantages easy audibling gives an offense, so when the opposing team’s offense is on the field, especially during important third downs or at the end of games, the crowd will scream as loud as they can to make audible audibles impossible. When this happens, a team will revert to hand signals to communicate. Audibles are still possible but the chance of miscommunication is greater.

One amusing element of audibles is that quarterbacks will often scream fake audibles just to make the defense wonder whether the quarterback has seen something nifty and is changing the play to take advantage of it. This adds some of the chatter we often hear from quarterbacks, like Peyton Manning’s famous “OMAHA!” What’s a real audible call one game or series may be a fake one the next. If all this sounds confusing, it is! It’s just one of the small things that makes playing football such an intellectually as well as physically challenging feat. You can understand how football players might want to pause the game and just ask whether an audible is real or not. They don’t do that though, at least… almost never. A microphone at a recent NFL football game caught a Carolina Panther asking quarterback Cam Newton if the audible, “Even Janitor” was a real thing. This is what it sounded like:

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

One line to fool them all – 1.4.16

Sports talk is frequently used as a common language but it’s far from universal. If you’re someone who doesn’t follow or even understand sports, you can find yourself at a disadvantage in common small-talk situations like in an elevator, waiting for a bus, sitting at a bar, or around the proverbial water cooler at work. Even if you are a sports fan, it’s impossible to watch everything and know everything. To help in these situations, we provide lines to use when engaged in a conversation about all of the high profile sporting events of the day, plus explanations of what they mean.

NFL Football

Jacksonville Jaguars 6, Houston Texans 30

Line: If defense really wins championships, watch out for the Texans. Of course, if it’s actually quarterbacks…

What it means: There are two cliches about winning championships in football that seem to contradict each other. One school of thought suggests that the team with the best defense has the best chance of winning. Another school of thought is that the only thing that really matters is who has the best quarterback. The Texans have a great defense but not a great quarterback, so Texans fans are hoping the first school is correct.

Pittsburgh Steelers 28, Cleveland Browns 12

Line: The Steelers may have backed into the playoffs, but they’re still the scariest team in the AFC.

What it means: The Steelers needed help (in the form of another team losing) in order to even qualify for the playoffs today. They got that help and therefore just snuck into the playoffs as the last team to qualify. Don’t let that fool you though, they are one of the most dangerous teams because of their explosive offense. When their passing game gets going, they have the potential to simply score faster than other teams can keep up with.

New York Jets 17, Buffalo Bills 22

Line: Rex Ryan gets his revenge.

What it means: Buffalo Bills head coach, Rex Ryan, was head coach of the New York Jets for years before being fired last season. The fact that his new team had a chance to knock his old team out of the playoffs with a win today was almost too good to be true, plot-line-wise. This Jets loss seemed inevitable, not just because of the Rex Ryan factor but also because of the Jets long history of losing the most important football games in the most excruciating ways possible.

New England Patriots 10, Miami Dolphins 20

Line: It’s hard to tell whether the Patriots didn’t care about this game or did care but couldn’t get anything going.

What it means:  After starting the year 10-0, the Patriots lost four of their final six games. The team looked oddly out of it today but it was hard to tell if they were dispassionate or impotent. If they were dispassionate, it’s because the only thing they had to win today was the first overall seed in the playoffs, which they might not care about. If they were impotent, it’s because they’re still missing two of their top wide receivers and the bulk of their offensive line.

Tennessee Titans 24, Indianapolis Colts 30

Line: Too little, too late for the Colts. And probably their coach and general manager.

What it means: The Colts were supposed to win their division this year and content for the Super Bowl. Instead, their season was an unmitigated disaster, and even the major injury that their star quarterback, Andrew Luck suffered, doesn’t seem like it will help their coaching staff and front office keep their jobs. Expect word of their firings to come out soon.

Baltimore Ravens 16, Cincinnati Bengals 24

Line: Great win, but will Dalton be back for next week?

What it means: The Bengals, once a laughingstock, have turned into a model of consistency. This will be their fifth straight trip to the playoffs. Surprisingly, the biggest concern for Bengals fans is not that they’ve lost their first game in the playoffs in each of the previous four years. Instead, they are worried about the thumb of their starting quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton fractured that thumb four weeks ago and the team was surely hoping to snag a first round bye to give him another week to heal. That won’t be the case, so he’ll either need to press that thumb into early action or the team will be stuck with their back-up quarterback A.J. McCarron.

Washington Redskins 34, Dallas Cowboys 23

Line: Why not?

What it means: The Redskins didn’t need to win this game — it had no bearing on their playoff positioning at all. If you’re a true Washington player or fan, there’s never a bad time to beat up on your arch-enemies, the Cowboys, especially when they’re down as far as they were this season.

New Orleans Saints 20, Atlanta Falcons 17

Line: These teams are going to look different next year.

What it means: Both of these teams disappointed their fans this year. More importantly, perhaps, they both disappointed their owners. It’s a good bet that at least one and maybe both of their coaches will get fired in the next few days. Lost of players, including long-time and beloved Saints quarterback Drew Brees, could also be on their way out.

Detroit Lions 24, Chicago Bears 20

Line: This game was so meaningless, I heard a rumor that the Red Zone channel didn’t even bother to show its scores.

What it means: The Red Zone channel is an NFL product that’s sole stated purpose is to show every score of every game every Sunday. For them to ignore a game would be a nearly unthinkable statement about how meaningless the game was. I doubt it actually happened, but just that the rumor exists is enough to describe this game.

Philadelphia Eagles 35, New York Giants 30

Line: Bad team that fires its coach beats bad team whose coach is about to resign?

What it means: The Eagles made headlines last week when they fired their coach and general manager, Chip Kelly. Kelly has been one of the most controversial figures in the league over the past three years, coming in as a college offensive savant, and leaving as a bumbling coach and inscrutable general manager. The Giants coach, Tom Coughlin, will go down as one of the franchise’s best ever, having won two Super Bowls during his tenure. Still, it’s possible that tenure is over after a very rough season. He probably won’t get fired but he might retire. He is almost 70.

St. Louis Rams 16, San Francisco 49ers 19

Line: Dysfunctional beats boring, I guess.

What it means: The 49ers have been a dysfunctional organization for the past two years, thanks to power struggles between their old coach, Jim Harbaugh and General Manager Trent Baalke, a bizarre head coaching hire, Jim Tomsula, and a mid-season quarterback change. The Rams haven’t been dysfunctional, but their coach, Jeff Fisher, guarantees that they’ll be boring. They believe in running the ball and playing solid defense and not much else. There’s little to no creativity in the way they play, and the results show that.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 10, Carolina Panthers 38

Line: 15-1 and the 1 seed and somehow the Panthers still feel underrated.

What it means: The Carolina Panthers will end the season with the best record in the entire league. Their quarterback, Cam Newton, is the favorite to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award. Still, somehow, despite all of that success, their name doesn’t come up in discussions of Super Bowl favorites nearly as much as you’d think it would.

Oakland Raiders 17, Kansas City Chiefs 23

Line: It ended up not mattering, but the Chiefs still have to feel good going into the playoffs with 10 straight wins.

What it means: The Chiefs were hoping that this win would let them leapfrog the Denver Broncos into a higher playoff seed. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, the Broncos also won, so that won’t happen. Seeding aside, there’s no team that should feel more confident heading into the playoffs than the Chiefs, who completed a near-miraculous recovery from a poor start and the loss of their best offensive player to win their last 10 games and make the playoffs.

San Diego Chargers 20, Denver Broncos 27

Line: Manning’s back. Which makes me wonder, was this whole thing a ploy to get him rested coming into the playoffs?

What it means: The Denver Broncos clinched the top overall seed in the AFC by winning this game. They also reignited a quarterback controversy by replacing quarterback Brock Osweiler with future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Peyton Manning after halftime. Manning was himself replaced by Osweiler earlier in the season and the Broncos had more or less convinced everyone that they were happy to go with the younger Osweiler for the rest of the season. Now it seems like Manning will start their first playoff game. It’s an odd situation and choice that makes me wonder if the Broncos planned to go back to Manning all along.

Seattle Seahawks 36, Arizona Cardinals 6

Line: The Seahawks should change their name to The Walking Dead. Or Mark Twain.

What it means: We all should have known better than to declare the reign of the Seahawks over after only six games. When they were 2-4, we piled on and said (and wrote) that they were not a great team anymore. That was a mistake! Now they look just as good as ever and I would not be surprised to see them make the Super Bowl again, for the third straight year. Oh, and the references? The Walking Dead is a zombie show, where dead bodies come back to life. Mark Twain is often quoted for his line about how the news of his death was “greatly exaggerated.”

Minnesota Vikings 20, Green Bay Packers 13

Line: Congratulations Vikings, your reward is to play Seattle next week.

What it means: This is sarcastic. By winning this game, the Vikings won their division and secured themselves a higher seed in the playoffs and a home game in the first round. Unfortunately for them, it also means that their first round opponent will be the Seattle Seahawks, who look like one of the best teams in the league. They’re certainly more dangerous than the Washington Redskins, who the Packers now get to play in the first round. Sometimes a win is a loss and a loss is, well, at least a good thing.