What do I need to know about football and Super Bowl 50?

Who, when, how?

Super Bowl 50 between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers is at 6:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, February 7. It will be televised on CBS and streamed for free on CBS.com. For background on the Denver Broncos history, read this post. For background on the history of the Carolina Panthers franchise, read this post.

What’s the plot of Super Bowl 50?

Virtually everyone you talk to thinks that the Carolina Panthers are going to win and win easily. Why is that? What makes people so sure that the Broncos won’t be able to do much when they have the ball? How can anyone be so confident that the Broncos defense, which has been the best in the league all year, won’t be able to stymie the Carolina offense so completely as to win the game themselves? Is the conventional wisdom right this time? Find out in our plot post.

Who are the key characters of Super Bowl 50 on the Carolina Panthers?

Read about quarterback Cam Newton and the issues of race that have plagued, surrounded, and elevated him throughout his career. Then read about how head coach Ron Rivera’s reputation changed from a boring failure to a radical success. Meet some key members of the Panthers extraordinary defense including a defensive lineman who grew up in Tonga, a linebacker who will be playing two weeks after breaking his arm, and the newest star in the league, defensive back Josh Norman.

Who are the key characters of Super Bowl 50 on the Denver Broncos?

Learn about legendary quarterback Peyton Manning and how close his story is to mimicking that of former Broncos quarterback and now team president, John Elway. The Broncos’ connections to the past continue in our examination of head coach Gary Kubiak, who spent his entire playing career as a backup quarterback in Denver. Meet some key members of the (perhaps) even more extraordinary defense on the Broncos including a colossal defensive lineman, a swashbuckling linebacker, and a bruising defensive back.

How can I quickly study up on football in time for the Super Bowl?

We have a ton of content on Dear Sports Fan for learning football. Some of it is available in a couple email correspondence courses, Football 101 an Football 201: Positions. I encourage you to sign up for those, but they won’t help very much if you’ve got a Super Bowl party to go to today. Instead, you can read up on some of the basics right now!

I also wrote an epic series on brain injuries in football a year ago, culminating with my suggestion on how to fix the game. You can find my suggestion, with links to all the previous posts here.

However you choose to enjoy the game today, do it with curiosity and kindness,
Ezra Fischer

Super Bowl 50 – What's the plot? Who is going to win?

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. It’s certainly the biggest sporting event in the United States. This year, the game is between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers and will be held at 6:30 on Sunday, February 7 and televised on CBS. Watching any football game is more fun if you understand who the key characters are and what compelling plots and sub-plots there are. It also helps to know some of the basic rules of how football works. Dear Sports Fan is here to help you with both! For learning the basics of football, start with Football 101 and work up to Football 201. To learn about the characters and plot, read on and stay tuned for more posts throughout the week.

What’s the plot of Super Bowl 50?

The Panthers are expected to win. For a Super Bowl which matches the top seeds in each conference or half of the NFL, and therefore should be a relatively even match-up, this belief is remarkably widely held. One way of telling this is to look at the line Vegas set for the game and what happened to it. If you’re not someone who understands football betting, this post provides good background. The line opened (was first set) with Carolina as a three point favorite, suggesting that Vegas thought Carolina was three points better than Denver. Over the two weeks between when this line was set and now, so many people bet so much money on Carolina, that they actually moved the line so that Carolina was favored by five or five and a half points. Remember that the goal of a line-setter is to get half the money on each team so that no matter who wins, the bookies can basically pay the winners on one side with money from the losers on the other and pocket the transaction fees from both sides. When too much money comes in on one side, like it did for Carolina, Vegas will move the line so that it’s more favorable to bet on the team getting fewer bets. Even if you think Carolina is going to win the game, it’s much more attractive to bet on them when they only have to win by four points (Carolina by three means they need to win by four for a bet on them to pay out) than when they have to win by six points for you to win. The line moving so far is a sure sign that most people think that Carolina is going to win fairly easily. So, why are people so sure? We’ll examine the game in two phases — when Denver has the ball and when Carolina does — and try to explain the challenges Denver faces on both sides.

Denver’s offense is likely to struggle against Carolina for one main reason: their quarterback, Peyton Manning, is a shell of his former self. Manning is 39 years old, near-ancient for a football player, and he had neck surgery a few years ago. This has left him with a severely under-powered arm (for an NFL quarterback, for a normal person, he’s still a super hero,) and with little to no feeling in the fingers of his throwing arm. That he’s able to play at all is incredible but it doesn’t change the fact that his shortcomings will become his team’s shortcomings. Manning finds it difficult to throw deep down the field to his wide receivers. Alas, that’s the strength of one of his top two receivers, Demarius Thomas who is now less effective. More importantly, opposing defenses know Manning is less effective throwing downfield than he used to be, and they set themselves up accordingly. The Panthers, who also have one of the best one-on-one defenders in the league, won’t waste too many players defending deep passes. This leaves them free to concentrate on stopping or limiting the effectiveness of the two other things an offense can do: run and pass short. Carolina’s defense is hell on offenses trying to do these things at the best of times, but they’ll be downright Cerberus-like against a team they know can only do these things. Carolina has two excellent giant defensive tackles who will disrupt the Broncos running game, mostly by making it impossible for Denver’s offensive line to create clear areas for their running back to sneak through. When a running back does sneak through or when the Broncos circumvent the Panthers linemen by completing a short pass, the ball-carrier is unlikely to get far because of the Panthers swift linebackers who will flow toward the ball-carrier during this game with a ferocity and speed matched only by you or me headed toward the chip and dip at our Super Bowl parties. It’s hard to imagine Denver scoring many points on offense because it’s hard to imagine how they’ll find ways to gain more than five to seven yards on any single play.

Denver has made up for their deficits on offense all year by having the best defense in the league. Alas for Denver supporters, it seems like Carolina was designed specifically to thwart everything Denver is best at on defense. Denver excels at attacking their opposition’s quarterback. They’ve been able to hit, tackle, sack, and fluster almost every quarterback they’ve come across. They haven’t played anyone like Carolina’s quarterback Cam Newton though. Newton is not only enormous (6’5″ 245 lbs) but he’s also a normally unflappable person on the best streak of his career. If that weren’t enough, he is also an expert executor of the “read-option” offense. This tactic looks like a normal running play but gives the quarterback the option to look at how the defenders are reacting (read them) and then decide (because they have the option) to hand the ball off to the running back or keep it himself and run or throw it. At best, this tactic slows down opposing defenders. At worst, it leaves them bewildered and frozen in their tracks. Having the read-option in their back pocket and a physical, unflappable quarterback to run it, will make Carolina resistant to Denver’s defensive edge rushers. Denver has also been able to shut down opposing wide receivers all year with their combination of great defensive backs. Unfortunately, Carolina’s best pass-catcher is not a wide receiver, but a tight end — Greg Olsen. Denver did a great job on New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in their last game but it is an area they’ve been (relatively) vulnerable to all year. Denver still has a great defense that will find ways to make life hard for Carolina, but because of how Carolina’s offense works, they will be less affected than nearly any other team would be.

Who is going to win?

Usually there’s more suspense at this point in the post (and the football season,) but given the thrust of this article, it’s hard to generate much. The Carolina Panthers are going to win. I just hope the Broncos can put up enough of a fight to make the game interesting! I think they will. Their formidable defense will find ways to frustrate Carolina’s offense, who it must be admitted, have not faced much adversity so far this year. Given a few lucky bounces and perhaps a lucky injury or two, the Broncos could just sneak through and find a way to win in a low scoring game… but they won’t. Panthers 22, Broncos 16.

2016 NFL Championship Preview: Arizona at Carolina

The NFL season is like a good season of television. Like the old standard for television shows, it takes place over 22 weeks, with one game (episode) per week. Throughout the season, and over many seasons, football fans are treated to great character development and consistently intriguing plots. The competition to win a Super Bowl, which only one team can be succeed at each year, often feels as epic as Game of Thrones, Scandalor Downton AbbeyI’m always surprised when I talk to non-sports fans who are themselves surprised that I think about football in terms of plot and characters. I don’t think I’m unique among sports fans for following sports in this way, although perhaps most people wouldn’t use those terms. In any case, at this point, with only two episodes and three games left, this year’s arcs feel a little less epic than most. One reason for that is that the last four teams alive in the playoffs are the top four seeds, ranked one and two in each of the two conferences, the AFC and NFC. By earning a top-two seed, these teams got a bye, which means they took the first week of the playoffs off. So, we don’t have a team this weekend that’s coming off two playoff wins, with at least one surprise win. On the other hand, we do have the four teams that played the best over the course of the regular season. We’re set up perfectly for things to get truly epic very soon.

In this post, we’ll preview the plot and characters of the second NFL Championship game, the NFC Championship between the Carolina Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals. This game is in North Carolina on Sunday, January 24, 2016 at 6:40 p.m. ET on Fox.

What’s the Plot?

In the NFL these days, the offense almost always provides the most compelling characters who drive the plot of the game. That’s true in this game, but it’s worth admitting right up at the top that it’s defense which has driven both of these teams to the success they’ve had this year. Both teams have marvelous defenses, but because they’re evenly marvelous (Football Outsiders has Carolina as the second best defense in the league, Arizona the third,) they cancel each other out, plot-wise. When it comes to defense in this game, it’s safe to say, both teams will be great.

On the offensive side of the ball, we do have some wonderful contrasts. Carolina’s offense has a clear and unquestioned leader in quarterback Cam Newton. A dual running and passing threat, Newton is a young veteran at 26 who is having the best season of his career. He will almost definitely win the league Most Valuable Player award for his play this season. He probably would win the award even if he had had legendary supporting players, but it doesn’t hurt that most people think the other players on the offense are extremely average. Running back Jonathan Stewart has been around for a while, and shown promise before, but has always been brought down by one injury or another. The Panthers wide receivers are what turn Newton’s season from great to spectacular: Tedd Ginn Jr., Philly Brown, Devin Funchess, and Jerricho Cotchery are all totally unremarkable, below-average NFL wide receivers.

Arizona is almost the complete opposite. They’ve taken a very, very good but not great quarterback, Carson Palmer, and surrounded him with an extremely deep and talented bunch of players at wide receiver and running back. There are descriptions of most of these characters farther below, so I won’t go into them too deeply here, but it’s safe to say that any of Arizona’s top five wide receivers would be Carolina’s best or second best wide receiver if they switched teams. At running back, Arizona is actually using their third starter this year, but he may be their best. David Johnson is a rookie who played last year at the University of Northern Iowa. He’s looked completely at ease, and at times dominant, as a starting running back in the NFL. Impressive!

Arizona quarterback, Carson Palmer, is just slightly too good to turn this game into a referendum on whether it’s better in the NFL to have a great quarterback but nothing else on offense or an average quarterback surrounded by great skill players. Instead, let’s take the plot one step back from that dramatic precipice and simply say it’s a referendum on whether an absolutely great quarterback can elevate his supporting characters over a more well-rounded offense with better receivers and running backs but a slightly less dynamic quarterback.

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 are the main characters on the Carolina Panthers?

Cam Newton – Quarterback Cam Newton is, and always has been a lightning rod for controversy. In college, he won a national championship with Auburn, and it was an even more open secret than with most high profile college players that he had taken fairly large sums of money under the table for playing there. In the NFL, he’s been the subject of years of criticism for being too self-impressed, too brash, both criticisms that have suspiciously racial overtones. From a strictly football standpoint, he’s been an amazing success. He’s a combination of one of the top ten pure passers in the league with a top ten running back in a single body. Newton ran for over 600 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. This makes him an unusual double-threat for opposing defenses to fret about, especially when the Panthers get close to the goal line.

Josh Norman – If you had surveyed a group of football fans a year ago today about who corner back Josh Norman was, you would probably have gotten a lot of blank stares. Now, after the season he had this year, he’s a household name. Norman is one of the rarest commodities in football, a shutdown corner. He will line up opposite a team’s best wide receiver and basically erase him from the game. Quarterbacks have learned that throwing to a player guarded by Norman is close to a no-win situation and it can be a giant loss if Norman gets his hands on the ball. One thing that Norman doesn’t normally do though, is move into the slot (when there are three or more wide receivers on the field, the slot refers to wide receivers that are not one of the ones on the outside edge of the formation,) so he probably won’t be shadowing Larry Fitzgerald.

Luke Kuechly – Middle linebacker, Luke Kuechly is literally at the center of the Panthers defense and he’s figuratively its heart. He’ll be wearing the green dot on his helmet which signifies that he is the only defensive player who gets the play calls radioed in from the coach and it’s his job to communicate them out to the rest of his teammates. Experiment for a few plays and just watch him — he wears number 59 — and marvel at how quickly he figures out what the offense is going to do and gets himself into a position to help stop them from doing it.

Who is going to win?

The obvious choice here is Carolina. They are playing at home and their home field, which will be wet, cold, and in bad shape after a snow storm, should favor their more physical run-laden attack. They also came very close to going undefeated this year and n their first playoff game last week, went up 31-0 against the Seattle Seahawks in the first half, one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen. Compared to that, Arizona looked downright shaky in their first game. Carson Palmer barely played well enough to win, and the team needed overtime and extraordinary heroics from Larry Fitzgerald just to beat the Green Bay Packers, a team not nearly as good as Carolina. Despite all that, or maybe even because of it, I’m going to guess that Arizona wins this game. Both teams’ defenses will pose real problems for the opposition’s offense. I think it’s possible that at home, with all the expectations of being the number one seed and almost going undefeated, there’s a chance this seriously frustrates the Panthers. The Cardinals have struggled before, as recently as last week, and have more recent memories of overcoming. A bad start on offense won’t knock them out of whack, but it might derail the Panthers.

2016 NFL Championship Preview: New England at Denver

The NFL season is like a good season of television. Like the old standard for television shows, it takes place over 22 weeks, with one game (episode) per week. Throughout the season, and over many seasons, football fans are treated to great character development and consistently intriguing plots. The competition to win a Super Bowl, which only one team can be succeed at each year, often feels as epic as Game of Thrones, Scandalor Downton AbbeyI’m always surprised when I talk to non-sports fans who are themselves surprised that I think about football in terms of plot and characters. I don’t think I’m unique among sports fans for following sports in this way, although perhaps most people wouldn’t use those terms. In any case, at this point, with only two episodes and three games left, this year’s arcs feel a little less epic than most. One reason for that is that the last four teams alive in the playoffs are the top four seeds, ranked one and two in each of the two conferences, the AFC and NFC. By earning a top-two seed, these teams got a bye, which means they took the first week of the playoffs off. So, we don’t have a team this weekend that’s coming off two playoff wins, with at least one surprise win. On the other hand, we do have the four teams that played the best over the course of the regular season. We’re set up perfectly for things to get truly epic very soon.

In this post, we’ll preview the plot and characters of the first NFL Championship game, the AFC Championship between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots. This game is in Denver on Sunday, January 24, 2016 at 3 p.m. ET on CBS.

What’s the Plot?

This game is being billed as MANNING VS. BRADY XVII because it is the 17th time the quarterbacks of the teams, Peyton Manning for Denver and Tom Brady for New England, have played each other. That’s a big number for any pair of quarterbacks, but for two who have never been in the same division (and would therefore only play once per year in the regular season,) it’s a huge number. That number includes four playoff games, which is not a surprise because Manning and Brady have been among the most successful quarterbacks in the league over the past fifteen years. This is almost definitely their last meeting in the playoffs. Could there be a better way to end the rivalry? With one last game and a Super Bowl trip on the line?

Until two or three years ago, the conventional way of looking at their rivalry was to believe that Manning was the more prolific player but that Brady was more of a winner. Manning set more records but Brady had a psychological je ne sais quoi that helped him win when the stakes were high. Brady has won four Super Bowls in six Super Bowl appearances, Manning only one in three. Another key difference is that Manning was basically his own coach, managing all of the elements of his team’s offense, while Brady was a masterful piece, but still a cog in a system whose mastermind was coach Bill Belichick. For most of the past fifteen years, you could have a legitimate argument about who was better between the two. Now things have changed, and most people look at Brady and Manning quite differently. At age 38, Brady is still going strong. He looks as good as ever. Calm, almost regal while he plays, and pinpoint accurate as a thrower. Manning, on the other hand, is a mess. His throws wobble all over the place, he was benched for a big portion of the season, and he’s had to accept a form of demotion — he now fits into his coach’s idea about how the offense should operate, not the other way around. The key reason for this change? While each quarterback has suffered a major injury during their career (honestly, how could they not after such long NFL careers?) Brady’s was a torn ACL, something which has become relatively routine to return from, while Manning’s was an unusual neck injury which required spinal surgery and has left him with reduced strength in his throwing arm and a loss of feeling in his hand.

Characterizing a football game as a matchup between two great quarterbacks is a convenient thing to do. Quarterbacks are the highest profile characters and often the single most important players on their teams. With this game in mind, I argued earlier this week that this approach to plot is a legitimate one. Manning vs. Brady is definitely an attractive way of thinking about the plot of this game. Even given the physical disparity between the two quarterbacks’ conditions, it still works. Instead of being an anything you can do, I can do better competition, it’s a pair of individual events. Manning has to overcome his own limitations. He’ll be battling time and his own body to see if he can eek one more great (or, frankly, even average) performance out of himself. Brady will be engaged in a prolonged struggle with an equally daunting but external enemy, Denver’s defense, which is thought of as the very best in the league this year. Whichever team can win their own personal battle will probably win the game.

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.

Rob Gronkowski — Tight end Rob Gronkowski provides an element of meat to balance Brady and Belichick’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!

Malcolm Brown / Alan Branch — With Manning limited, the Broncos almost definitely need to run the ball effectively to win this game. The Patriots first line of defense against the run are their two big defensive tackles, Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch. Brown and Branch are classic Patriots finds — the 6’6″, 350 lbs Branch is a veteran player who was cut from several teams before ending up on the Patriots, where he has thrived. The smaller Brown, 6’2″, 320 lbs is a rookie who was picked at the end of the first round by the Patriots in this year’s NFL draft. If these two guys can keep from getting pushed backwards by the Broncos offensive line, it will go a long way toward preventing the Broncos from running effectively.

Who are the main characters on the Denver Broncos?

Demaryius Thomas / Emmanuel Sanders – Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have to do a better job of helping Peyton Manning drive the Broncos offense than they did last week. Last week, they combined for 125 yards and only caught nine of the 16 balls thrown their way. These are low totals for a team’s best two receivers. They’re very different from one another – Thomas is a prototypical new-age NFL receiver. He’s big, 6’3″ and 230 lbs. and aims to make big plays way down field. Sanders makes up for what he lacks in size, 5’11”, 180 lbs, with quickness and precise route running. His tendency is to catch many short passes and try to turn them into big gains by running after the catch. If anything, Manning’s lack of arm strength makes Sanders an even more ideal teammate.

Derek Wolfe / Von Miller / DeMarcus Ware – Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks every, but like all quarterbacks, if you hit him early and often, he can have a bad game. These are the three defenders who are most likely to knock him down and potentially knock him off his 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…

Who is going to win?

When Denver lost at home in the playoffs last year, it was a stunning loss. The Broncos hadn’t seemed unbeatable, but they were definitely expected to win. This year, despite having the best record in the AFC, their fans are much more wary. If they have hope that Peyton Manning can pull one last (or second to last) rabbit out of his hat, they’re hiding that hope carefully. The Patriots are favored by three points, according to Vegas, which normally gives the home team a three point advantage over however they think the game would go on a neutral field. That means they think the Patriots are actually six points better than the Broncos. I disagree. I think the teams are much closer than that. The Broncos have more talent in their supporting cast, especially on defense, than the Patriots do. Still, the Patriots have the better quarterback and the better coach, and that’s usually enough to win the game, as it will be in this very close AFC Championship game.

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!