Super Bowl Preview

The story of David vs. Goliath revolves around a giant versus a young boy.  The giant is cocky, because he can be.  He’s bigger than everyone, and claimed he could beat any solider of the army in a fight to the death.

No one took him up on that claim except one: A young, small shepherd boy named David.

The boy was offered to carry the weapons and perks the giant had, but he declined.  He felt he could do it without.  He brought a sling and a stone; nothing compared to what the Giant had.

In the end, that sling and stone was flung perfectly.  It killed Goliath.  David did it.

Nick Foles’ arm is kind of like the sling.  But it’s a wooden one with some string tied to each side of the wishbone-like stick.

It’s gonna have to be flung perfectly.

The Eagles can win this game.  It’s possible.  Philadelphia’s coaching staff has done a magnificent job replacing Carson Wentz, the MVP favorite until a devastating ACL tear against the Rams.  They’ve made backup Nick Foles have to do as little as possible; it’s been a lot dump-offs to the flats and a lot of work put in by their offensive line.

Let me repeat that:  A lot of work by the offensive line.

Against the Falcons, they manhandled a decent but not fantastic defensive front.  But the deal with Atlanta isn’t first level, it’s their linebackers and athleticism on the edge.  The Eagles offensive line was getting there in a flash.

If they can get there against Atlanta, getting there against New England should be no problem.

Foles was awful vs. Atlanta.  He missed throws, had happy feet, and almost single-handily cost them the game.  The Eagles had other silly stuff happen in that game that shielded some of the blame away from Foles.

But then he was amazing at Minnesota.  He made incredible throws against the best secondary in the league.  He actually looked competent.  And once again, the Eagles offensive line (and some lucky breaks from Minnesota’s offense) was the reason for it all.

The Patriots are the only team EVER to finish first in offensive DVOA and last in defensive DVOA.  Do you know how hard that is to do?  Let alone make the Super Bowl while accomplishing it??

With their offensive scheme, Philly torched a pretty good defense in Atlanta and the league’s best in Minnesota.  The Patriots shouldn’t be a problem.

New England’s defense lacks size in the front seven.  Sure, Kyle Van Noy has been good, but Leonard Fournette ran all over him and this group in the AFC Championship Game.

The Eagles have two Leonard Fournette’s in Jay Ajayi and LeGarette Blount.  Both are strong, powerful backs who can gash any front up the middle.  The Eagles can use both in multiple ways though.  With their run-pass option scheme, tricks can be played on the Patriots linebackers, getting them to come up and attempt to defend the run.  Using one as a dummy allows the other to get open in the flat, or to have tight end Zach Ertz run across the middle of the field.  These are the areas where the Pats struggle the most.

The Eagles just have to do the things that got them here.

Throwing downfield though, which was common against the Vikings, isn’t the best strategy for the Eagles.  New England’s secondary has gotten progressively better over the course of the season, and putting the ball in Foles’ hand in the Super Bowl isn’t exactly where I want my trust invested if I’m an Eagles fan.

Philly threw the ball against Minnesota because they could.  The risk was much less due to the situations they were put in.

The Patriots aren’t gonna be messing up.

I said in a column before Championship Sunday that Tom Brady had to be licking his chops to face these opposing quarterbacks.  Foles or Keenum in the Super Bowl?  Having to get by Bortles to get there??  Please.

This is where the real David vs. Goliath matchup is.  Though the two can’t be on the field at the same time, the way they impact the game when they’re on it will determine everything.

I think it’s a fair assessment to say Brady’s gonna have the bigger impact.

This game is a cake-walk to him now.  He’s got the experience.  He’s got the routine down.  He knows how to time everything.  He knows how to handle the long halftime.  He’s got this down.

Though Philadelphia’s defense was ranked 5th in the league this season, nothing ever’s been too hard for Brady.  He hasn’t choked in a Super Bowl.  He’s never played poorly.  It’s been other factors, factors out of his control, that have determined the fate of the game.

When the Giants have taken down the Patriots in the past, it was their ferocious defensive line that got pressure and forced Brady to make tough throws.  If you beat him up, you weaken him and his potential.  It’s like Stephen Curry…  physical point guards can bother him.  He hates playing Russell Westbrook, who’s not very talented defensively but can use maximum effort and sheer athleticsm to get in his head.

That’s whats gotten to Brady in the past.  A devastating pass rush that’s practically unblockable.

The Eagles have that.

They’re stacked up front.  Fletcher Cox is a versatile monster who can be lined up in any spot.  Slot him in the A gap and he’ll blow up rushes.  Move him to the B gap and he’s acting as a disguise… offensive lines have to double team him on the outside.  Bringing a blitz on top of that is an automatic sack.

If New England’s gonna use their running back duo, it has to be creatively.  The Philly linebackers are more talented than New England’s; they’re bigger and faster, and are better play-makers.  Outside zones and screens aren’t gonna get it done against this Philly defense.

This is not a game for either side to be conservative.  Defining conservative for Philly is a different game; there’s only so much Foles is gonna be able to do.  But for the Patriots, letting Tom Brady throw the ball to guys like Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan is their best bet.  Though Philadelphia’s defense has been strong all year, a weak link is the back end.  The unit ranks 7th in DVOA, and Philadelphia gave up the 13th most yards through the air this season.  If they were playing anyone but Tom Brady, those stats wouldn’t be as concerning.

As I wrote in last year’s Super Bowl preview, Brady is a machine.  He’ll pick apart any defense no matter how good they are.  And when the Pats have someone like Gronk, it makes Brady even scarier.

If I’m the Eagles, I’m using the anti-Belichick philosophy.  I’m not trying to take away the one thing that makes the Patriots go (Gronk, in this case).  I’m using somewhat basic coverages and trusting my guys to do their best.  I let the defensive line do their thing and hope that throws Brady off.

Philly can try to take away Gronk, but using resources there takes away from other areas of the field, where Brady can use his other weapons to be just as deadly.  You do not want Danny Amendola or Chris Hogan one-on-one.

If the Pats want to run the ball, I let them.  Because I know my offense is gonna be able to as well against the small New England front seven.

Again, I think aggressiveness on the offensive end is going to determine this game.  At full power, the Patriots are more potent.  I trust Brady to be able to make those tough throws on a good Philadelphia secondary.  As bad as New England’s defense is, Foles having to do anything more than hand the ball off scares me.  The Minnesota performance was great, but everything leading up to that wasn’t.  Isn’t the Super Bowl about consistency and trust?

I’m picking New England to repeat.  Now let’s see if I can predict the score exactly right again.

Prediction: New England-31 Philadelphia-24

Boogie And Blake: Can Two Big Men Really Play Together?

Around a year ago, we were wondering how amazing or disastrous the DeMarcus Cousins trade would be for the New Orleans Pelicans.  It was an ultimate Hail Mary trade made by their front office; a group that had shown signs of complete incompetency over the past few years.  But at the price they paid, it was totally worth it.

One year later, we’re still trying to answer that question, and we may never get an answer.  With Cousins tearing his achilles tendon Friday night vs. Houston, the Pelicans are left with Cousins’ expiring contract, Anthony Davis, possibly Nikola Mirotic and an extremely mediocre Jrue Holiday, who’s looks totally worth that $126 million contract when he’s playing well but also makes you go “What were they thinking?” when he’s playing bad, and a bunch of chumps who are legitimately bad basketball players.  That’s harsh, but it’s the truth.  Why was this team in and out of the playoffs until recently?  There’s your answer.

Before we look at the long term view of this, let’s take a moment of silence for the Pelicans and their fans.  The Boogie trade was the type of move New Orleans has literally never made.  It showed their fans that they were at least trying to be competitive; the first time that’s happened since the Chris Paul days.  It paired two of the league’s top 12 players, including the two best big men, and formed one of the most dominant duos ever.  It was fascinating, even when it didn’t work.  New Orleans would runs all sorts of fun sets with Boogie and Davis; double screens with Holiday, Boogie stretching out onto the perimeter and cutting in, Davis isolations, Boogie putting the ball on the floor and doing what he does best.  It went on and on.  It was a pure joy.  The team’s shortcomings weren’t their fault.

The shortcomings were going away recently too.  E’Twaun Moore had a massive December, putting up a 70.9% true shooting percentage and scoring 16.1 points a game.  Darius Miller had been making shots, and was a huge difference defensively when they slid him to the three spot and benched Rajon Rondo (Over their past 15 games, the Pelicans have a -6.8 net rating with Rondo-Holiday-Moore-Boogie-Davis.  Replacing Rondo with Miller brings the net rating up to 38.4.  38.4!).  The lack of three point shooting has still been an issue, and the problem only gets worse with Boogie out; Cousins was taking 6.1 threes a game and making them at 35.4% clip.  Holiday is taking five a game, but his don’t go in.  Moore is essentially their only option any more from deep.

From an offensive prospective at whole, the Cousins loss is huge.  That’s 25.2 points and almost 13 rebounds a game that they have to make up for, plus the loss of a rim protector (Cousins usually played five since Davis is athletic enough to cover the stretchy fours on the perimeter).  Davis playing center isn’t a disaster; he’s just as good at that as he is anything else.  But that’s not his preference, and he’s made that very clear to a front office that has mangled a bunch of things over the years.  Pissing off AD is not anything they want to do.

New Orleans has to hope that the contributions they’ve gotten from their role guys isn’t just a hot streak.  If it’s not, they may be able to survive and make the playoffs; The Nuggets and Trail Blazers have been just as mediocre, though I think Portland has a big move to make at the deadline.  Denver could as well, though they have Paul Millsap coming back soon.

If it is a hot streak, then the Pelicans are gonna find themselves in the same spot they were before the Boogie trade and earlier this season.  Fire up the tanks if that’s the case!

This leads into what New Orleans should do long term.  Boogie’s a free agent this Summer, and before the injury was scheduled to get paid.  Now, a nine figure long term deal seems unlikely, especially considering that it could very well be a whole year before Cousins comes back.  He certainly won’t be ready for opening night in the fall.

Front offices usually overreact to the fact that a guy they sign over the summer won’t be able to contribute right away due to injury.  It’s kinda silly… if you’re signing him to a five year deal, he’s only gonna miss the first part of the first season.

At the same time, it should be taken into serious consideration, especially given that this is an achilles rupture.  Myself, Kobe Bryant and Wes Matthews all know that it can end careers.  That Wes Matthews contract is an atrocity now…

Obviously Cousins is much better than Matthews and is much younger than Kobe was when he sustained his achilles injury; he’s somehow only 27.  But given that Cousins’ effort has been a major sore thumb no matter where he’s been in the league (Yes, New Orleans included) and the money he could earn, a potentially career-affecting injury could lead to some early decline/carelessness from him.

Teams should be wary about that this Summer when evaluating Cousins.  Yes, I said teams, because the odds he returns to New Orleans might be slim for multiple reasons.  Let’s run through them.

  1. The Lakers could easily have LeBron James, Paul George, Lonzo Ball and Larry Nance Jr. on their roster, making this a very likely destination for Cousins, whose name has been attached there for awhile.

You’re probably asking two questions:  1) Where is Brandon Ingram’s name?  2) How do they make the money work?

Well, they’re interconnected.  The Luol Deng apocalyptic contract is on the books for next year, and it’s probably gonna take Ingram to get it moved.  If I can get LeBron, Paul George and Boogie together, I’m trading Brandon Ingram faster than I’m trying to get out of high school right now.

If that contract is gone, LeBron and George get maxed, then there’s room for Boogie.  The Lakers only have 10 dudes under contract next season, and without Deng’s deal it’s Jordan Clarkson’s at $12.5 million.  That’s not an atrocity… they could move it pretty easily if they have to.

Three maxes doesn’t work though in the days of $150 million+ deals.  As I said above, there’s no way Boogie’s getting paid like he was going to after this injury.  Does he sign the veteran’s minimum to really help the Lakers out and possibly grab one more guy to help compete with Golden State, or could he do a Tyrod Taylor-NFL styled deal, with a cheap, say one year $10 million contract with a team option, in which they could opt into a max next season?  It’s a fascinating scenario.

2. There’s a case New Orleans should let him go.

The critiques on this front office go back and forth.  The trade for Boogie was a walk-off home run swing that’s starting to look like it was caught at the wall.  You can’t 100% blame them for it not working out; there were just some unfortunate circumstances.

But at the same time, their big free agent signings over the past two years have been Solomon Hill (A big, whooping congratulations there) and the Holiday extension (I can’t tell if it’s a “Yikes!” or not yet).  With Boogie’s contract, that left them strapped.  They couldn’t do anything else to add to the roster  (However, if Omer Asik is dealt at some point, that opens some money to play with this Summer).

If Boogie doesn’t re-sign, it leaves them room to add someone who’ll make an impact.  But does Boogie leaving make New Orleans a lot less attractive than they were?

It’s a tough balance.  Part of the problem is that the team can’t draft well; Anthony Davis fell into their laps in 2012.  If anyone else went No.1, the world would have been set on fire.  They deserve no credit for that.

The point is that free agents don’t want to come to New Orleans.  They have to build through the draft and they’ve failed at that.  They’ve failed to accumulate any assets that could be moved in a trade (Buddy Hield was not an asset in the Pelicans’ mind).

In a perfect world, Boogie not re-signing gives them something to work with.  But the Pelicans have created anything but that perfect world.

3.  A catalyst team could hop in the mix.

The Wizards could be a fit, but they’d probably have to pay a one year, $15-20 million JJ Redick-style deal to get him to come there.

The Bucks would also be extremely interesting, but they’ve got some other problems to work out before they can look at that (They’re rolling since the Kidd firing though!).

On every front, the Boogie injury sucks.  For New Orleans, it gives a troubled fan base an even more crushing blow, a front office a more complicated situation than they know how to account for, and the NBA another team stuck in the middle.  It’s the place no one wants to be, and the Pelicans just can’t escape it.


On the blockbuster Pistons-Clippers trade…

Pistons get: Blake Griffin, Willie Reed, Brice Johnson

Clippers get: Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, top four protected 2018 first round pick, 2nd round pick

Well then!  This was not the type of move I expected Detroit to make, and this was not the Clipper I expected to get moved either.

I didn’t really get this trade for either side.  Does Detroit really think they’re a contender?  How did the Clippers not get Stanley Johnson back?  There’s a lot to sort out here.

My first reaction:  It took the Clippers about seven months too long to figure out that Blake Griffin, Danillo Gallonari and DeAndre Jordan weren’t gonna work together.  The Gallo contract already looks like an albatross, and Jordan’s name has been everywhere in trade rumors.  With the injuries to the guards, it led Griffin to become the focal point, yet nothing was there to surround him.  This trade should have kicked off a reboot, garnering many assets.  Instead, they got a pick and competency for next season.

Not getting Stanley Johnson is a farce for LA.  Sure, Detroit didn’t want to give up on him yet.  But if you’re getting rid of Blake Griffin, acquiring Johnson shouldn’t be too unreasonable of a demand.  He’d be the No.1 or No.2 asset in this deal!  You’re already selling low at the point!

Instead, the Clippers got a some role guys who probably won’t be on the team two years from now.  If LA is kicking off a rebuild and is shipping more guys out, re-signing Bradley, as good as he is, makes zero sense at the price he’s gonna command this Summer.  Flipping him before the deadline is an intriguing option; many teams covet his defense.

Tobias Harris has been fantastic this season, and is under contract for next year as well.  He’s somehow only 25, so he’s got years ahead of him.  But next Summer he becomes a liability.  With the cap’s waffling lately, he’s gonna probably be paid a lot more than what he’s worth.  By then, you’re paying someone who’s had two (possibly only one) good seasons (That one is this year, by the way).  By the time your rebuild is complete, he’s entering his age 29 season.  By the time you’re contending, he’s gone or is washed up.

Harris is one of the dudes who benefitted massively from the cap spike two Summers ago.  From my perspective, his value didn’t change; he deserves to be paid somewhere in the $10-15 million dollar range, even with the spike.  But that’s not how inflation works.  If there’s more money to be spent, then there’s more money to be paid.  Sorry, I’m just not giving him five years, $120 million to be a competent bridge guy for my rebuilding team.

BOBAN (Yes, it’s being capitalized because he’s BOBAN and BOBAN is in LA now.  Also, he might be the No.2 asset in this deal) is a fine addition.  In giving up three frontcourt players, the Clippers needed minutes from somewhere else.  They’re gonna need even more if Jordan is moved.  BOBAN is on a favorable contract; it’s fine for what he’ll contribute.

BOBAN in LA is gonna be fantastic.  I can’t wait.  The crowd’s gonna love him.  Is Lob City 2.0 in the house with him and Milos??

The pick they got was absolutely necessary; I’m surprised the Clippers didn’t try and squeeze two first rounders out of Detroit given the overall return.

At the same time, the pick is also a little underwhelming.  It’s gonna conceive this year; there’s no way the Pistons are picking in the top four come June.  It should end up somewhere in the 15-24 range; not terrible but also not great considering this is a year removed from one of the best drafts of all time.  The 2018 draft is nowhere near 2017 in terms of depth.

Plus, you have Doc Rivers half in charge.  I understand Jerry West is there, but his role in LA seems to be a little too involved; just a reminder for the Jerry West backers that he helped facilitate this trade and thought signing Gallo was smart.  Doc can’t draft as we’ve found out over the past few years, and I don’t think 79 year old West is scouting the dudes in the 15-24 range on the Clippers big board.  The hope with this pick is that West can make the right decision based on his limited scouting and knack for talent, and that Doc doesn’t override him.

So yeah, congratulations to the Clippers on trading one of the league’s 15 best players for competency and draft hope.

I went hard on the Clippers.  It’s easy to do the same for the Pistons.

From a straight up value perspective, this trade was a steal for Detroit.  Sure, they got rid of part of their core, but they probably weren’t gonna pay Avery Bradley $90 million when they already have a ton of money committed, and that money committed wasn’t gonna get them anywhere in the first place.  There’s a chance Tobias Harris is just a good stats bad team guy; he’s practically been their whole offense this season.  They got rid of their pick, but I’d trade the 20th overall pick or so for Blake Griffin any day.  You do that 100 times out of 100.

However, the logistics of the deal aren’t as great.  Not only do the Pistons have some chemistry to fizzle together, but they also have some serious systematic problems with Griffin’s addition.  Some existed before he got there, and his presence complicates them even further.

The primary concern is how Griffin will fit with center Andre Drummond.  Both are best in the post; beating up on guys and doing the dirty work.  However, neither possess stretch capability, leaving two guys clogged in the paint in a league where teams are playing five-out most of the time.

The Clippers had experimented with Griffin on the perimeter.  He’s averaging almost six three attempts per game this season, and they’re going in on a iffy number: 34.2%.  That’s practically a tiebreaker; it’s right on the edge of good/bad.

Dig deeper though and you’ll realize the number is being held up by Griffin’s hot start to the season, where he shot 42.4% from three in the month of October.  Since then, his three point percentage has cratered; the highest monthly split behind the arc has been 33.3%.

This led LA to plant him at the elbow, and run the offense through his passing from that spot, similar to what Denver does with Nikola Jokic.  It’s worked; he’s averaging 5.4 assists per game.  But the Clippers just didn’t have enough around him to really make it work.  The Pistons could have the same issue.

Blake essentially becomes their point guard.  With Reggie Jackson injured, Ish Smith nothing more than a backup, and Drummond taking up space down low, getting creative with Griffin is the best way to go.  Whether it works or not remains to be seen; this experiment is similar to Boogie and AD last year.  But Stan Van Gundy needed to do something to save his job through the season and Summer.  This is that splash.  It may only be a ripple though.

The big guy playing point center has experienced trouble around the league.  That doesn’t mean it’s not a bad idea, but no team has really figured it out.  Just look at Denver, who’s fun on paper but still can’t formulate a contender with Jokic as their main piece.  LA couldn’t get it to work with Griffin.  The Pelicans didn’t have enough around their two big men.

Shooters are absolutely necessary if a team wants to play that way, and Detroit does have that.  Reggie Bullock is fine, Luke Kennard is gonna get more playing time with Bradley traded, and Anthony Tolliver can contribute as well.  On paper, it works.  But they’re gonna be screwed in crunch-time.  I certainly don’t want Reggie Jackson going into “I got this” mode with two minutes left.  Blake’s not able to take dudes one-on-one.  Neither is any of their other wings.

The big man isn’t totally dead, but it’s dead to the point that if he’s your best player, you better have your 2nd best player be a wing or guard.  Detroit doesn’t have that.  Neither does New Orleans.

The Pistons are even more screwed if Blake gets injured again, which is entirely possible.  Without him or Tobias Harris, Reggie Jackson enters unprecedented “I got this” mode.

Despite getting awesome value, this is a risky trade for Detroit.  If it doesn’t work for them, they’re stuck with bad contracts (Including Blake’s) and in the NBA’s 50th percentile, which is exactly where they were before the trade.

An underrated part of the move from the Clippers side is shedding Blake’s contract.  If Blake continues to be injury prone, the league continues to get more athletic, and the cap doesn’t increase, that contract is an abomination.  It could become untradeable.  That’s why getting out of it now is smart.

This trade could work for the Pistons, but history isn’t on their side.  You have to wonder if this is just a job-saving heave by SVG.


On the John Wall injury…

For a team that was already in a rough patch of their season, this could not come at a worse time.

The Wizards offense dies with John Wall out.  They lack passing without his presence; Bradley Beal isn’t that type of guard, and Tim Frazier and Tomas Satoransky aren’t nearly as talented.  Their assist numbers aren’t bad given their minutes; Satoransky averages 2.6 a game while Frazier averages 3.6.  But again, the impact and quality of the passes won’t be the same.

This is gonna lead to a Bradley Beal takeover, which isn’t a terrible backup plan; Beal probably deserves his own team.

But the Wizards get worse without Wall defensively.  On/off slightly backs that up, mostly due to the fact that Washington isn’t very good defensively in the first place. But we all know Wall is an incredible defender.  They go from bad to terrible without him on that end.

Over the year’s, Washington’s been frustrating.  They can play awesome one night and look like they can beat anyone.  Then the next, they look like a below .500 team.  This year, those issues have come to a head.  Now they’re more worrisome than before.

I’m not sure a trade make sense for them however.  Their best bet might be to ride this out and hope they can maintain until Wall is back.  Tyreke Evans couldn’t start with Beal and doesn’t pass the ball; it wouldn’t fill their long-term need.

If the Wizards can’t recover, you could point to Wall’s injury as the reason that their season died.  But doing that ignores much greater long-term problems.  Perhaps this injury leads Washington to look in a different direction this Summer.

On that awesome Celtics-Warriors game Saturday night…

If Houston-Golden State can’t be the Finals, then Saturday night’s game was a preview of June.

The East is wide open for Boston.  The Cavaliers have finally quit getting away with terrible defense.  Toronto is good, but we can’t trust them in the playoffs.  Washington just lost their best player.  The Pistons are have a ton to figure out.  The Bucks are transitioning.

Yet, this Boston team still has its flaws, most of which were exposed against Golden State.

First of all, the Celtics really missed Marcus Smart.  The bench was awful without him Saturday; his 10.1 points a game and facilitating was coveted.

It’s part of a larger problem Boston’s had.  With Kyrie Irving on the floor, the Celtics have a 108.4 offensive rating.  When he’s resting, that number plummets to 96.7, well below average.

This is why Tyreke Evans’ name has came up lately.  He’d give them some extra firepower off the bench, and has been able to make threes this year.  He could play off of Smart if needed.

Shane Larkin and Terry Rozier have been good, but like the rest of this Boston roster, you have to wonder if you can trust them in the playoffs.  You certainly couldn’t against Golden State; the two were 4-14 shooting on the night.

An even bigger concern:  It’s not like the Warriors were excellent defensively.  Characteristically, the Warriors missed a ton of close-outs on threes.  Kyrie was unstoppable.  Boston had a ton of open shots.  They just didn’t go in, especially down the stretch.

As fun as that game was, and as likely as it is that we get this matchup in June, Stephen Curry is still Stephen Curry, and the Warriors are still the Warriors.  As good as Boston can play, it still may not be enough.

That is, unless a man named Gordon Hayward is ready to go.

My NBA All-Star Ballot

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Yeah, these guys are all still here.

With the reserves released tonight, I figured I could wait to put this up until today.  I did follow the NBA’s short sighted guidelines.  No cheating allowed!

Two backcourt players, three frontcourt players

East Starters

Backcourt: Kyrie Irving

The numbers aren’t totally there, but Kyrie Irving has given Boston what they lacked the previous year:  A star who can take them to the next level.  A legit title-contender level.

The knocks are essentially on the efficiency:  Irving isn’t above 40% from three and is jacking almost seven a game.  His PER isn’t sky high at 24.1, but it’s also the highest of his career.  Combine the PER with a 31.5 usage rate, and people are gonna have a problem.

But, Irving’s been the guy, and is handing out five assists a game in Brad Stevens’ offense, which has been beautifully mastered to not allow Kyrie to have the ball all the time.

When it comes down to crunch-time, you’re no longer wondering if the Celtics are gonna survive.  You know they are, and that’s the difference Kyrie makes.

He’s also not been a disaster defensively.  Most of this is again the system Stevens’ employs and his surroundings; guys like Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris and Al Horford are amazing on that end.  But it’s not an easy or interchangeable system; Irving’s adjusted decently to the constant switching.  Obviously Boston is better on that end with him off the court, but it hasn’t been detrimental like some imagined.

Backcourt: DeMar DeRozan

Deciding between him and Victor Olidipo is easier than people are making it out to be.  While Olidipo’s season has been just as amazing as surprising, DeRozan’s cranked it up a notch as well.  And it’s meant more.

The Raptors are 2nd in the East thanks to DeRozan and a new, actual NBA offense.  Dwane Casey’s finally turned the corner, instilling ball movement and allowing threes to be put up.  That’s not DeRozan’s game, but it helps his case.  It’s the fact that he hasn’t changed while the offense has.  He’s still only attempting 3.2 threes a game, and is making them at a surprising 35.6% clip.  But 15.3 of 18.5 shots a game are twos.  He’s getting those shots through the movement, as 28.2% of them have been categorized as “open” by NBA.com.

What makes DeRozan a starter though is his talent that we’ve always know though: The absolute ball-out ability.  48.2% of DeRozan’s shots have came with a defender playing  “tight” defense on them (defined by NBA.com as defenders within 2-4 feet), and 51.5% of those shots are going in.  That’s insane.

I’d love to put Olidipo here.  Him and the Pacers have been one of the best stories in the league this season.  He’s got a good case for an All-NBA spot, and will definitely make an appearance later here.  But DeRozan’s team is better, and that matters.

Frontcourt:  LeBron James

Say what you want about the Cavaliers as a whole:  Their record, their defense, how the team may not be able to escape the Conference Finals, the Kyrie trade, whatever.  LeBron James is still an All-Star.

LeBron’s putting up 27.3 points a game, 8.8 assists and eight rebounds a game.  He’s 33.

I mean, c’mon now.  That is simply absurd.  The durability year after year is unmatched.  He’s somehow squeezing out 36.9 minutes a game, which is 3rd in the NBA.  It’s totally unfair and ridiculous to him, but it’s not like he’s gonna complain about it.

I could say more, but I think his general line speaks for itself.  There’s no debate.

Frontcourt:  Giannis Antetokounmpo

Like LeBron, his team should be better.  But it doesn’t matter.

One way to quickly quantify this:  He owns a 29.6 PER at a 31.4% usage rate.  I mean, Lord have mercy.

For Giannis though, it’s much more than the stats.  He’s been incredible yet again at getting to the rim, so much so that I don’t understand why he doesn’t do it every single time.  I mean, for one he is totally unstoppable; no one can defend that specimen attacking at that speed.  Secondly, having Giannis do the same over and over again has to be a better offense than whatever Jason Kidd is running – they need Jabari Parker back ASAP.

The jumpshot is still a work in-progress; every time he tries it, you can tell there’s serious hesitation.  It just doesn’t look clean.

Though the shots are coming at and around the rim, Giannis is shooting 54.8% and is grabbing 10.1 rebounds a game.  This is occurring at the same time as Giannis leads the league in minutes, and is practically playing center on defense (1.2 blocks a game.  Plus, 1.5 steals!  How is that possible?).

I don’t think he’s the MVP this season so far, but if James Harden continues to miss games, he’s gonna have a serious case.

Frontcourt: Al Horford

This was the hardest decision in the East (Possibly in the column).  I tossed it around for a while.

The main things it came down to:  1) Games played  2) I could criticize Embiid about more things.  As good as he is, there’s some faults.  Horford doesn’t have many.

Embiid has meant a lot more to his team numbers wise, the on/off court difference is stark when he’s not out there.  But the Sixers are worse than they should be, and Embiid their best player.  Isn’t there some responsibility there?

He’s also been a little pouty in games.  One bad possession or two and his body language changes.  Turnovers have also led to that.

Horford is the classier and more valuable player.  I don’t think Boston would be the No.1 seed in the East without Horford.  He had an MVP case early before James Harden stole the throne.

Horford does the small things.  Sets screens, gets rebounds, keeps spacing, makes fantastic passes (He leads the Celtics in assists!).  Him and Irving’s chemistry has been unmatched in the Eastern Conference.

He deserved the spot.  It’s understandable that Embiid won; the fan popularity, the Process.  His numbers aren’t bad either.  I just think Horford’s a little more valuable.

West Starters

Backcourt: Stephen Curry

He’s missed a lot time, but that didn’t stop the media and fans from caring.  They got it right.

Plus, who would have replaced him here? Would we really have felt good about Russell Westbrook starting instead?  I would have started Jimmy Butler had Steph not been eligible.

This doesn’t need a lot of explanation.  Curry’s been just as good as he was in 2014-2015, when they won the first title.  He’s very close to 50-40-90 club; his field goal percentage is just half a percent shy.  He’s putting up 27.7 points a game and has a 126 offensive rating, which is completely insane given the amount of time he spends on the floor.  PER has him at 29.3, which would be 2nd in his career behind that magical 2014-2015 season.  Need I say more?  Oh, and he’s on the best team in the league.  It’s too easy.

Backcourt: James Harden

He’s also missed games, but not nearly to the extent Curry has.

The Rockets have hit a tough spell recently, but that doesn’t knock James Harden out.  He’s still my leading MVP candidate, due to the season-long success and pure dominance he’s shown this year.  Harden leads the league in scoring and is the engine of the Rockets.  Everything runs through him, but it’s done in an efficient and pure way.  He’s dishing out 9.1 assists and has a PER of 30.4 (Some of the PER numbers this year are insane).  His usage rate is 35.9%, highest in the league.  That’s not usually a good thing, but when your PER is that high as well, then you’re doing something right.  It’s the same thing as Giannis.

Frontcourt: Kevin Durant

KD has been just as good offensively this year than any other year prior, but that’s not what I want to hit on.

It was clear after June’s Finals that KD had gone up a level defensively.  He went one-on-one with LeBron and beat him on both ends.

He’s backed that up this season.

With Zaza Pachulia not playing at the competent level he had been in previous years and Jordan Bell being solid but still raw, it’s forced KD to play a ton at the center position and under the rim.  And he’s been amazing.  He’s averaging 2.1 blocks per game, and is allowing a 54.7%  field goal percentage on shots less than six feet from the rim per NBA.com.  That seems high, but guys should be making shots at much higher rates on layups or put-ins.  An opponent field goal percentage that low for a small forward playing center is pretty impressive.  He’s also been just as good on the wing, allowing opponents to shoot only 32.7% on three point attempts.

What I worry about going forward is if he can keep this up on both ends, especially if  Golden State ends up playing Boston in the Finals or if Cleveland makes a trade for DeAndre Jordan or Marc Gasol (The 2nd option is a better one).  That might force Golden State to make a move for a five.

Frontcourt: Anthony Davis

The frontcourt spots in both conferences had some tough decisions.  In the West it’s even harder.

Thankfully, Anthony Davis is the easy shoe-in.  The Pelicans have been incredibly mediocre, but Davis has been awesome.  He’s averaging 26.7 points a game with 10.5 rebounds.  He’s shooting 55.9%, which is extremely impressive given that he’s not playing under the rim this year.  The Pelicans love to move him all over the court:  At the elbow, in the corner, on the wing.  With his skill set, he’s got moves to score from any of those places.  You could say he’s the single reason New Orleans is even this good.

Frontcourt: ?????

This is kinda an underwhelming spot.  There’s not really a great option.

DeMarcus Cousins was a MVP candidate very early on, but he’s not the best player on his team and still has some character issues (He’s very, very pouty.  Even more than Embiid).  It’s also hard to fathom Cousins AND Davis, who we can’t forget are playing for the very, very mediocre Pelicans.

LaMarcus Aldridge seems to be one of the consensus picks.  His bounce-back season has been one of the more delightful stories this year; everyone was off his bandwagon (I was voluntarily jumping off) after the playoffs.  He’s putting up 22.6 points a game on 48.7% shooting; a fine number considering he’s shot from all over the court.

This chart’s stats are current as of January 20th.

Look at that distribution!  The Spurs have figured out how to use him, finally:  He needs the ball and he needs it within the three point line.  He can’t play out on the wing.  That creates issues with the way the league is now and come playoff time, but the Spurs don’t care.  They’re just happy to be where they’re at right now.

Some people have gone with Karl Anthony-Towns, which is puzzling to me.  Sure, he and the Timberwolves have come on lately.  But that totally ignores the first 30 games of the season, where Towns was a disaster defensively.

You could not blame him for it though.  The Wolves don’t switch, leaving poor defenders like Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague in bad spots most of the time.  A lot of their defensive issues are team based, but there’s also no excuse for the simple lack of effort displayed by KAT early on.

Paul George is the last candidate here.  He’s a huge reason why the Thunder are 4th in defensive rating despite his slumpy shooting season (To be fair, he’s always been kind of up and down FG% wise).  However, he is shooting almost 43% from three on 7.3 attempts per game.  That’s just under half of his shot attempts on the year.

The Thunder have came around offensively.  George isn’t a massive part of their offense; it’s still heavily dominated by Russell Westbrook, who holds a 34.9 usage rate (That’s just way too high).  But when the Thunder need George, he’s been productive, scoring 20.6 points per 36 minutes.  It’s not how he should be used, but he’s been the perfect wingman for Russ while making a huge impact on the other end.

One last guy you could throw in is Jimmy Butler, but that would requiring slotting him in as a forward, which the NBA didn’t allow on their ballot.  Butler’s been good, and on fire recently, finally taking over at the end of games and usually guarding the other team’s best player.  But he’s not a forward, they play Andrew Wiggins at the three mostly, and Butler has the ball in his hands too much.  It’s not just the NBA’s ballot holding me back.

George and Aldridge are the two it really comes down too.  KAT hasn’t been consistent all year, and Boogie likes to disappear here and there.

To make this simple, here’s what it comes down to:  Aldridge is the sole reason besides his coach that the Spurs are this good.  At the same time, his coach could be the only reason.  George has made his team elite defensively and while making them a tad more efficient on the offensive end, and it’s not his fault they’re not more efficient in the first place.

I’m gonna go with Aldridge.  There’s more volume there, and he’s been more valuable.

Frontcourt: LaMarcus Aldridge

Quick hits on the East Reserves:

Players are listed by the two backcourt, three frontcourt, two wild card formula employed by the NBA

  • Victor Olidipo: Covered above.  Would have loved to start him.
  • Bradley Beal: Washington pisses me off; they can’t win in the clutch and give up way too easily, but Bradley Beal has been awesome, finally staying healthy and putting up 23.8 a game on 46.2% shooting.
  • Joel Embiid: Covered above.  The 2nd most obvious reserve.
  • Kristaps Porzingis: The Knicks could be worse.  Porzingis has been a menace defensively, leading the league in blocks.  I still worry about him one-on-one.  New York just doesn’t have the personnel to do anything different on the defensive side of the court.
  • Tobias Harris: Well, this is not where I expected us to be at this point in the season.  Harris has been the Pistons whole offense.  They have some type of trade to make.
  • Kyle Lowry: Six rebounds a game despite a down year.
  • Jayson Tatum: Tatum’s been a delightful surprise.  He could be a No.1 scorer on a team someday.  He needs more shots.

Quick hits on the West Reserves

Players are listed by the two backcourt, three frontcourt, two wild card formula employed by the NBA

  • Klay Thompson: He’s shooting 45.3% from three which leads the league.  Oh, and he’s putting up 20.6 a game.  Oh, and he’s on the best team in the league.
  • Jimmy Butler:  A huge reason for the Wolves being able to get things going.  He’s been great in crunch-time.
  • Draymond Green:  Still amazing defensively.  He’s averaging 7.9 rebounds, 7.6 assists, and 1.3 blocks and steals a game this season.  That’s just silly.
  • DeMarcus Cousins:  Can’t leave him out despite the non-start.  New Orleans might be terrible, but him and Davis are a joy.
  • Paul George: Covered above.
  • Russell Westbrook: For the stats alone, he has to be on here.  He’s insanely close to averaging a triple double again.  The Thunder are better than they have been in years with him the running the show by himself (Accounting for the year KD was hurt too).
  • Lou Williams:  I consider CJ McCollum here.  But the Blazers still aren’t great even when McCollum has played well.  The Clippers might have 10 wins if not for Williams.

How Did Bortles, Foles and Keenum End Up In The NFL’s Final Four?

Now would not be a good time to go back and read my NFL previews from September.  Like every year, there’s misfires and hits.  It happens to everyone.  So many variables come into play and change over the course of a season that it is nearly impossible to hit on a majority.  Stuff happens and we can’t do anything about that.

But you at least want to try to hit in a general direction.  There might be one certain thing that holds you back or powers your pick through, or there might be a unit that’s extremely underrated.

Out of the NFL’s conference championship contenders, I hit on two of them.  The Patriots didn’t end up at 15-1, thanks to a terrible defense and a slow start, but are the best team left and figured it out as the season went along, putting distractions aside and going about their business.  Classic.

The other hit was one I’m extremely proud of.  I had Philadelphia at 11-5, though expected them to lose the division to Dallas (at that time, it was very unclear what Ezekiel Elliot’s status was).  I had them sneaking in the playoffs, and warned of a possible renaissance from this team.

It happened, and then it all came crashing down.  The team was awesome.  Carson Wentz was freaking amazing.  The defense was stifling.  They were the favorites.

Now we’re here.  The Eagles are still here too, just in a different breed.  A breed that could land us Nick Foles instead of Wentz in the Super Bowl.

Yikes.

So how in the world did we get here?  It’s simpler than you think.

I always go back to that crappy Broncos-Panthers Super Bowl in 2016.  Do you remember that dumpster fire game?  In the new 49ers stadium that’s located in a marsh?  It was terrible.  The Denver defense (Yeah, that Denver defense) dominated, and Peyton Manning did just enough.

The mistake we keep making is ignoring that formula right there.  We get so caught up in “You have to have a quarterback this, you have to have a QB that.”  It’s true, but not to the extent we think.  Check out this list:

  • 2015-2016 Broncos
  • 2002-2003 Buccaneers
  • 2007-2008 Giants
  • 2006-2007 Bears

(OK, the stats don’t back up that Giants team, but that defense was a menace and killed Tom Brady during that Super Bowl.)

All of these teams made it to the Super Bowl.  Now check out this list of the starting QBs for those teams:

  • Old and creaky Peyton Manning
  • Brad Johnson (Wait, who?)
  • Eli Manning (He threw 29 TDs and 16 picks that year!)
  • Rex Grossman (C’mon now..)

Two of those dudes won!  They had insanely talented defenses that carried them the whole season, and did exactly what was needed (Basically: Don’t screw anything up) to get their team there.

That, to an extent, is exactly what’s gone on all season or over the course of the past few weeks for the Vikings, Eagles and Jaguars.  With the help of the weekend’s games, let’s figure out how exactly each team has handled their peculiar situations.

The Vikings defense is the real hero

A tenacious group, Minnesota’s defense, though expectedly strugglingly Sunday against New Orleans, has been the real reason the Vikings have gotten this far.  Ranked 2nd by DVOA and No.1 by my measure, you can’t find a weak spot.  They swarm to the ball.  They stifle running backs.  They make fantastic pass breakups.  Everything.  They do it all.

It was evident in the first half Sunday that this would be a struggle for New Orleans.  I felt like the crowd, the pressure and constant threat of that defense got to them.  Drew Brees was missing throws.  Mark Ingram was nowhere to be found.  Alvin Kamara was getting nowhere on the ground or in the flat, where Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr were flying up to make open-field tackles.  Andrew Sendejo made an amazing interception on a ball that was a tad underthrown.  It was a perfect storm, but for this Vikings unit, it was just another day.

It wasn’t all cheers though.  Before the game, one of my keys to the game for New Orleans was that they had to trust their weapons to make a play for them, even against this defense.  A break had to come, and in the second half, New Orleans found success.  Sure, the turnovers and special teams helped.  But Brees got the offense moving, and that’s what led to the comeback.

There’s multiple reasons why we shouldn’t be worried about the Vikings defense after the second half against New Orleans:  1)  That’s the scariest offense from a top-to-bottom roster they will face the rest of the way.  2)  Michael Thomas is just too good.  What receiver will Xavier Rhodes have to cover next?  Alshon Jeffrey?  He was a big part of the Atlanta game alright.  (By the way, Rhodes got cooked Sunday.)  3)  The offense put them in two horrible spots.  Really, they were at fault for one possession after being up 17-0.

But (I can’t believe I’m about to write this) Case Keenum had their back.  That’s right.  This time, it was the opposite of what we’d been saying all along.

The Vikings have made it work with Keenum.  You have to give credit to offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who’s probably taking a head coaching job (Please let it be Arizona) and could be brining Keenum with him (Please don’t let it be Arizona).  He’s gotten a career backup who was never good at anything being called a hero.  I mean, the Stefon Diggs touchdown is already being called “The Minneapolis Miracle” (What a great nickname).  Case Keenum has a freaking play nicknamed!

It also helps that the Vikings have two of the top 12 receivers in the league in Diggs and Adam Thielen.  Those two guys know how to get open;  Diggs is one of the best route runners I’ve seen (Him and Julio Jones are right up there) and Thielen is open even when he’s not.  There were three throws Sunday that Keenum should have never made, which included the one on the field goal drive where Thielen was fouled twice and still came down with it.  He’s reminiscent of Larry Fitzgerald catching passes from John Skelton or someone.

Minnesota has also made up for Dalvin Cook’s injury.  Though he wasn’t very prominent Sunday, people have forgot that Latavius Murray was a pretty good running back in Oakland; Minnesota didn’t sign him at $5 million a year for nothing.  He’s been extremely effective when needed this year, and has taken some pressure off of Keenum.  Jerick McKinnon has also been revived, and has turned into a specialist/jet-sweep guy for the Vikings.  Man, remember when everyone used to hate him?

Shurmur deserves all the credit in the world.  If this was the Keenum from past years, this team would be wasting a whole roster.

Carson Wentz left the Eagles in the best spot possible 

Essentially, the only thing Philly had to get through was the matchup vs. the Falcons Saturday night.  Wentz had left them in perfect position for the No.1 seed after the Rams game; they clinched it two weeks after the injury.  The wins that were needed to get it: @Giants, vs. Oakland.  Congrats.

I probably tuned out the Giants game because it felt meaningless at the time, and that Oakland game was one of the worst primetime games of the year, filled with bonehead coaches and refs (That was the index card game!).

The point:  Those were very winnable games.  And they won them.  Nick Foles had nothing to do with it.

Foles didn’t have anything to do with the win against Atlanta either.  You could make a case no one on the Eagles roster did given some of the play calls by the Falcons coaching staff, but that’s a different story.

Where Philly won the game was in the trenches.  The Atlanta defense has been hit or miss all year, giving up dumb plays during their bad spurts and locking down during their good ones.  But the Eagles offensive line dominated, opening up massive holes for Jay Ajayi and giving Foles plenty of time to dump the ball off.  It was the boys up front and the specialists that “upset” Atlanta.  Oh, and the Falcons coaching staff.  Can’t forget about them.

I don’t think the Eagles can go like this for much longer though.  Foles has been bad when they’ve needed him to make a play, and they’ve done a good job of adjusting to his weaknesses.  Minnesota’s defenses doesn’t allow adjustments though.  That’s…. a problem.

 

Jacksonville took the Minnesota formula, and still barely got by

Unlike the Eagles beating Atlanta, Jacksonville coming into Pittsburgh for a second time and whooping butt was an upset.  Nobody saw that one coming.

But there was an ever so slight chance that the Jaguars could make it a game, and it was gonna come down to their gameplan.  Turns out, the Jags sideline put together the perfect one.

Jacksonville, while not a powerful or efficient offense, had the right tools to throw off the Steelers.  Leonard Fournette is a smash-mouth, 30 carry running back who could pound you right up the middle.  Without Ryan Shazier, the Pittsburgh linebacking core was a mess.  They’d struggle to defend the run since his injury, and couldn’t contain the flats.  Jacksonville flawlessly attacked those weaknesses.  Fournette was unstoppable, and TJ Yeldon was extremely productive out of the backfield on screens.  It’s not a terrifying offense, but it got yards, and when Blake Bortles is your quarterback, that’s all you can ask for.

Offensively, the Steelers did what they’re best at:  Starting slow and being unproductive.  The game-plan was horrendous; Le’Veon Bell hardly touched the ball in the first half, and the Steelers kept running terrible screen and flare passes.  Guys like Telvin Smith, who had 16 tackles, are too fast for that.  Pittsburgh learned that the hard way.

When you’re the most dangerous offense in the league, you have to let your playmakers make plays.  Being matched up with dudes like Jalen Ramsey shouldn’t matter; even if it’s lockdown coverage the whole game, the one time it’s not it’s a touchdown.  That’s what playmakers do.

It took the Steelers a whole half to figure it out, but by then they were already down three possessions.  Ben Rothlisberger made some incredible throws, and his receivers made some incredible catches, but it was too late.  Coaching didn’t help down the stretch either; that onside kick call and its execution was egregious.

For the Steelers, the season ended in a way that was consistent with their play all year:  Late starts and poor execution, coupled with a shoddy defense.

For the Falcons, it followed the same trend as well:  Dumb mistakes and poorly timed miscues, as well as poor coaching.

And for the Eagles and Jaguars, it was situation and matchups that powered them to where they are, not necessarily talent.

For the Vikings, it was a imperfect yet perfect roster and a miracle of the ages that got them here.  And the scariest part is that they’re on their way to having the greatest advantage of them all.

That is, unless they have to face Tom Brady in the Super Bowl.  He must be licking his chops.

National Championship Preview

For anyone complaining about an all-SEC National Championship, hop off.  You’re not a real college football fan.

It’s not about whether your favorite team got cut from the Playoff, or whether your conference wasn’t represented, or whether an undefeated team didn’t make it.  The committee selected the four best teams and let the rest play out.

Sure, it’s okay to be pissed.  That’s what being a fan is.  But there comes a time where you have to be realistic and look at the whole picture.

Let’s give a resume of the two teams remanning:

Alabama

  • Has a top five defense
  • Has a two-headed monster at running back
  • Had one loss
  • Completely dominated the team we collectively agreed was the best in the country in the Playoff despite being ranked three spots below them

Georgia

  • Has a top two defense
  • Has a two-headed monster at running back
  • Has a quarterback who can make a big throw if needed
  • Had one loss
  • Came back from down 17 against the best offense in the country, which was led by the Heisman trophy winner, in the Playoff when nobody picked them to win

Yeah, I’d say these teams are still pretty good.

No.4 Alabama vs. No.3 Georgia 

As the resumes show above, these teams are pretty equally matched.

Defenses, specifically athletic guys on the edge, and running backs could cancel each other out in this game.  The Bulldogs struggled at first against Oklahoma, due to Rodney Anderson worm-like running and Baker Mayfield simply carving them up.  But halftime adjustments flipped the script, and in the 2nd half the Bulldogs got pressure on Mayfield and used their linebackers more creativity, sealing gaps and stopping the Oklahoma offense.

The Crimson Tide don’t present nearly that much to deal with on offense.  Jalen Hurts still doesn’t have my confidence despite picking him against Clemson; that game wasn’t gonna come down to him and it didn’t.

Georgia simply has to stop the run, which they are very, very capable of.  Put J.R. Reed on Calvin Ridley, and trust the athleticism on the end and the guys up front.  Damien Harris and Bo Scarborough are hard to stop, but they’re not slippery like Anderson.  They aren’t gonna be juking out these Georgia defenders.

Georgia’s backs are just as good, yet possess different skills.  Sony Michel is a smooth, shifty like back who can breakaway at any moment.  Nick Chubb is the opposite:  A big, powerful back who can run dudes over.  Chubb is the type of running back Alabama’s been accustom to having over the years.

But just like Georgia, the Bama defense took care of business in the playoff.  Sure, Kelly Bryant isn’t Baker Mayfield, but the Crimson Tide dominated what was a pretty good offense on New Year’s Day.  The Tigers offensive line couldn’t block anyone, and the longest pass allowed by Alabama went 19 yards.

It goes both ways.  Both of these teams have great running backs, but both defenses are more than equipped to stop them.

It’s not coming down to who out-rushes the other.

If I’m an Alabama fan, I’m gonna be terrified of whenever Jalen Hurts drops back to throw.  He’s best on the run, making plays with his legs or escaping the pocket and letting something develop downfield.  But both of those options aren’t gonna be there.  The Bulldogs are too athletic on the ends, and won’t let him run or get outside the pocket.  He’s gonna have to hang in and make the throws.  I don’t have confidence in him doing that.

Maybe he’ll prove me wrong, but my trust is much higher in Jake Fromm, who despite only completing 145 passes, has an arm and can sling it when needed.

If tonight comes down to the pass, this could be a breakout game for Fromm.  Obviously he’s well known already from being featured in QB1, but I’m talking from a “Holy crap, he’s amazing” point of view.  I think he’s got a lot of potential; we could be looking at the best quarterback in the country in two years.

Fromm is able to stay in the pocket and make tight throws.  Sure, the Alabama secondary is top-notch, with Minkah Fitzpatrick most notably, but even if Fromm has to dump the ball off, the Bulldogs have guys who can make plays with their legs after the catch.

This game is gonna be tight, and it’s gonna come down to who can get those extra bit of yards.  I trust Georgia to get them, because they can do it through the air.  As good as Alabama is, it still comes down to the quarterback.  Who do you want with the game on the line?

Prediction: Georgia-24  Alabama-21

The 2017 College Football Playoff Preview

 

We’ve made it to the final round of previews, to the games that have a little more emphasis to them.  Tonight is gonna be fun.

Playoff No.1 at The Rose Bowl: No.3 Georgia vs. No.2 Oklahoma

Let’s get this party started.

What a great game.  I can already tell I’m gonna agonize over this pick.

Let’s start with Georgia.  They have what’s almost a NFL defense; multiple guys will be first rounders in this Spring’s draft.  They have a two-headed monster at running back with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who both had 13 rushing touchdowns.  They have a true freshman at quarterback in Jake Fromm, who’s been awesome when the Bulldogs have needed him to be.  That’s not a shot, Fromm’s great.  But he only completed 145 passes this season.  The Bulldogs don’t have to throw the ball around to win games.  They can dominate anyone with their rushing attack and shut you out with their defense.

They might have to throw it around in this game though.  The Sooners have the top ranked offense by FEI, led by Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield.  The dude is a stud, there’s not really another word to describe him.  He knows how to win games, and he can do it in any way he needs to.

The Sooners had three players with over 500 yards rushing, two players with over 900 yards receiving and three players with over 700 yards receiving.  That’s how you maximize your resources.  There’s a lot for this 4th ranked Georgia defense (per FEI) to worry about.

I think the Sooners can run on Georgia, but that’s not their strength.  Despite the depth they have, you want the ball in Baker Mayfield’s hands.  He’s big time.  He’s made for these games.

But throwing on the Bulldogs is a daunting task.  They’ve only allowed 5.6 yards per attempt this year, second best in the country.  However, Georgia’s pass rush isn’t supreme; they were 60th in sacks.  Giving Mayfield time to survey the field and make throws is a death trap.

No one, and I mean no one, has been able to stop him.   TCU’s defense couldn’t do anything, twice.  The Ohio State defense that everyone loves couldn’t do anything.  To pick against the Sooners is tough.

Mayfield’s health has to be taken seriously though.  It sounds like he’s had the flu this week, which couldn’t have happened at a worst time. Since he’s not 100%, the Sooners could use their run game to attack instead, and let Mayfield pick his times to throw.  That might be an even better game-plan.

On the other end, the Sooners defense ranked 61st in FEI this year.  It didn’t matter with their offense putting up the numbers it did, but for the Playoff’s concern, it’s not great.  They’re much better against the run than the pass, which is a huge relief.  Fromm’s a true freshman who hasn’t been relied on.  Him throwing every other down isn’t their game.  It’s Michel and Chubb until they’ve given them the ball enough to make the defense think they won’t stop giving it to them.  That’s how Fromm’s dangerous:  He’s set up by his backs to make plays.

If Oklahoma can’t stop Michel and Chubb, then it’s up to Mayfield.  I’ll take those odds.

This feels like a shootout, and if that’s the case, I’ll take the quarterback I trust more.  Boomer Sooner.

Prediction: Oklahoma-42  Georgia-38


Playoff No.2 at The Sugar Bowl: No.4 Alabama vs. No.1 Clemson 

Georgia-Oklahoma is fantastic, but having part three of the trilogy to follow it up is even better.

Similar to the Warriors and Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, I’ve never picked against Clemson.  I got burned once and was right once.  Just like I was heading into the last NBA Finals.

But this time around, it’s a little different.  This Clemson team has been just as good after losing DeShaun Watson, thanks to a dominating defense and a ton of weapons to help out Kelly Bryant.

My concern for the Tigers in this game revolves around Bryant.  Backed by the defense, his struggles haven’t been documented as much as they should be.  With only 13 touchdowns and close to half as many interceptions, Bryant is not the QB that torched the Crimson Tide last January.  He’s completed 67.4% of his passes, but they only averaged 7.4 yards per attempt.

Clemson’s offense is based on their rushing attack.  Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster has been beasts, and Bryant’s probably better with his legs than his arm.  The backs can break away at any moment.  But that may not be the key to this game.

The Bama defense’s FEI is 5th in the country, but they fall almost 20 points below Georgia’s 4th ranked defense.  If you focus on the nitty-gritty of the ranking, the Tide’s struggles defensively have been allowing first downs and not forcing turnovers.  The Tide rank 18th in DFD, which is Football Outsiders’ first down rate stat.  18th is quite good, but not for a top five defense.  For comparison, Clemson ranks 5th in that category.

Given this, Clemson should do all they can to slow the game down and grind on this Bama defense.  Make it methodical and tire them out.

The problem with this is that the Tide have the 2nd best rushing defense in the country.  They’ve allowed a ridiculously low 2.8 yards per rush, and only gave up eight TDs on the ground all year.  That’s insane.  

I just don’t think Clemson’s offense is gonna be able to muster enough.

Let’s tackle the Bama offense next, and then I’ll come back to my trust level with each team.

I was extremely critical of Jalen Hurts last year.  He’s improved this season, only throwing one interception.  But like other QBs that rely on the run and their defense, he’s only thrown 135 passes at a 60.8% clip.  That’s paired with only 15 TDs.

Clemson’s No.2 ranked defense by FEI has been mesmerizing.  Like Georgia, it’s practically a NFL-caliber squad.  They’re impossible to get chunk plays on.  Like Bama, you have methodically get yards.  I think I trust the Tide to do that more.

A couple reasons why:  1) Damien Harris and Bo Scarborough are slightly better as a duo.  2) Bama is better against the run.  3)  I can’t believe I’m gonna say this, but I trust Jalen Hurts.  He’s got the experience, and so does this whole Alabama squad.

Overall, I think this is a grudge-match.  I think both QBs could easily struggle against these menacing defenses.  Clemson’s running game could experience difficulties getting going against this stout Bama front.  Scarborough and Harris are too good, and Hurts’ experience helps the Tide advance.

Prediction: Alabama-25  Clemson-13

The Warm-Up: Previewing Monday’s Non-Playoff Bowls

So that I could enjoy New Year’s Eve, I split up Monday column into two parts.  Here are previews for the non-Playoff bowls today.  The Playoff previews will go up later today.

Peach Bowl: No.12 UCF vs. No.7 Auburn

The rejuvenation of Auburn has been awesome this season.  This was the first year in awhile where they ran a competent, explosive offense that had an actual quarterback at the helm.  Pair that with one of the best defenses in the country, and the Tigers were a Playoff contender.

I hate to smear them, but it seems like every Group of Five that ends up in a New Year’s Six is a “good story”.  OK, they are, but someone has to get that bid.  One of them has to be a “good story”.  Can we just get rid of that label?

Also, it seems like every coach of the Group of Five team who ends up in the New Year’s Six is coaching their final game, like Scott Frost is at UCF.  Is that a little concerning for focus’ sake for the Knights?

Auburn has the matchup advantage here.  Yards per attempt and rush do not favor the Knights, who are 67th in YPR and 76th in YPA.  For Kerryon Johnson and Jarrett Stidham, those are good conditions for offense.

Johnson’s incredible.  If not for Saquon Barkley, he was the best running back in the country this year.  The position is always stacked, and was again this year, but his explosiveness and toughness was close to unmatched (Bryce Love was a tough MFer too).

The Tigers just have to do their thing and take care of the ball.  If UCF does one thing well, it’s force turnovers.  That’s why they’re ranked 20th in FEI.  If Auburn is mistake free, they should roll.

Central Florida could get their offense going to, though.  They like to throw the ball around; quarterback McKenzie Milton completed 69.2% of passes this year, and averaged an incredible 10.54 yards per attempt.  Talk about a downfield passing attack…

Auburn’s defense is great overall, but it’s really the front seven that’s the core of it all.  Their secondary was 27th in the nation this season; good but not great.  The Tigers are gonna be without top corner Carlton Davis, so UCF should attack that side of the field.  Davis was probably gonna be lined up on Tre’Quan Swift, the Knights’ No.1 target.

My concern with the Knights’ on the offensive end revolves around the fact that Auburn’s defense is one of the three best in the Nation, and UCF hasn’t dealt with anything like it.  The best defenses they faced were Memphis’, Temple’s and USF’s.  Those games were all shootouts; defense didn’t matter.  If that’s the case against Auburn, then UCF will find themselves in trouble.

Prediction: Auburn-42  UCF-28


Citrus Bowl: No.14 Notre Dame vs. No.17 LSU

This is the 2nd time these two have matched up in a bowl game in this site’s history,  and it’s as underwhelming as ever!

Once again, Notre Dame fell apart late in year after everyone overhyped them.  Who could have seen that coming?

LSU was ranked exactly where they should have been.  They’re the classic good defensively, average offensively SEC teams that’s probably a little too overrated but no one’s too upset about it.  The bias doesn’t exists as much here as it does at other schools.

The Tigers are the never good enough team.  With offensive coordinator Matt Canada out the door after this game, LSU is about to go through yet another overhaul.

The passing game just never really got going this year.  Danny Etling was alright; he didn’t make mistakes and was actually willing to put the ball downfield.  But he lacked big play ability, only throwing for 14 touchdowns.

The Tigers featured Derrius Guice quite a bit in their offense, who did as good a job as one can replacing Leonard Fournette.

The Notre Dame defense is stout.  It’s made up for their lacking offense, keeping them in games and really getting them to this bowl game.  Traditional stats disagree with their performance this year, but the Irish force a lot of field goals, and are tough to get first downs against.  You have to get big plays against them, whiiiiich LSU isn’t good at.

The Irish can’t rely on their offense in this game either.  LSU’s defense hasn’t been the same as past years either, but they still rank 32nd in FEI.  They’re good against both the run and the pass, but have a huge challenge in Josh Adams.  The Tigers got toasted by Kerryon Johnson against Auburn earlier in the season, but engaged in a stalemate with Alabama, and held their running backs to only 69 yards rushing.  Jalen Hurts had the most yards that game.  Brandon Wimbush isn’t running, and he isn’t gonna be able to throw either.  I’ve been over that.

Notre Dame has to get Adams going, because relying on the pass won’t get them far in this game.

The same goes for the Tigers.  I trust Etling more than I trust Wimbush, but I’m not confident in either.

I see both teams struggling to get their offenses going, and this ends up a low-scoring, defense-dominated grudge match.

As for who wins?  Crap-shoot.  Both teams are known for choking rather than being clutch, and neither was overly impressive this year.  If I take the better running back, that means Notre Dame is my pick.  Do I really feel good about that?

(Thinking)

Nope.  If anyone’s gonna choke, it’s gonna be the Irish.  I’m taking LSU.

Prediction: LSU-24 Notre Dame-13