Twins-Yankees Preview

This series could not be more evenly matched.

The Twins and Yankees arguably have the two most terrifying and powerful lineups in baseball as they hit the most and second-most home runs in baseball.  They have rotations that are a little less than enticing.  They’ve both battled through injuries and suspensions to key players.  This is the type of series that feels like it should be next round.  Instead, it’s in the ALDS.

A really good team is going home here.  The Twins completely revamped their lineup last offseason in order to do one thing: Hit a lot of home runs.  They did just that.  And they did it in a year where their pitching, after years of struggles, came together and finished third in total WAR accumulation.

That number is stunning one.  They got Jose Berrios to pitch like the stud they were trying to develop him into.  They got the Jake Odorizzi they traded for before the 2018 season.  They got massive contributions late in the season from Devin Smetzler (3.86 ERA in 11 games) and Randy Dobnak (1.59 ERA in nine games).

But pieces to the 7th-ranked rotation in baseball are missing.  Michael Pineda was suspended for PEDs and ruled out for the playoffs after posting a 4.01 ERA and 114 ERA+ in 26 starts.  Instead, they’re going to be relying on the youthful Smetzler (23 years old) and Dobnak (24 years old) and Kyle Gibson, whose had a rough year with a 4.84 ERA and 95 ERA+.

The inexperience is important.  The Yankees rotation has some of the qualms the Twins’ does.  Their big offseason trade for James Paxton didn’t turn out as expected as he hasn’t been the ace-quality pitcher they gave up Justus Sheffield among others for.  Masahiro Tanaka, their Game 2 starter, has a 4.45 ERA this year.  J.A. Happ, the likely Game 4, has struggled mightily as well.  Domingo German, likely the brightest spot in the group, was suspended for domestic violence and won’t pitch.

But the Yankees have experience.  Lots of it.  Tanaka has been in big games.  So has Luis Severino, who has looked good since coming back from injury with a 1.50 ERA.  J.A. Happ was awesome in the 2016 postseason, yet less so last year.

If the starters falter, New York can go to their incredibly talented bullpen, which finished just above the third-ranked Twins in accumulated WAR at No. 2 in the big leagues.

It’s a shutdown group.  Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green (Though he’s been pretty average this year) and Zack Britton are gas.  Adam Ottavino might have the best slider ever.  More importantly, all of these relievers have been around and been in games.  They’ve been there.

Minnesota, like their rotation, is relying on a lot of youth.  Zack Littel, Cody Stashak and Brusdar Graterol (He’s 20!) all figure to see innings.  Those three have appeared in 57 combined games this season, and they’re all 25 or under.

Both staffs are dealing with insanely good hitters.  With these lineups, it’s about surviving and having options to dig you out of jams.  The Yankees have that.  We don’t know if the Twins do yet.

Minnesota can win this series by getting ahead and roughing up the likes of Tanaka and Paxton, whose first inning struggles have been of note.  You can’t settle into lineups like these; you’ll be down five runs fast.  But if New York’s bullpen can allow zero runs afterward, and the Twins pitchers receive the same treatment New York’s staff gets, then the Yankees are in good shape.

This series is nearly impossible to pick; it was never going to be a four game series or less.  But the experience in New York’s bullpen is the only way these teams aren’t evenly matched.  I’m rolling with that.

Prediction: Yankees in 5

Rays-Astros Preview

The Twins-Yankees preview will go before first pitch of their Game 1 later today.

ALDS #1: Tampa Bay Rays vs. Houston Astros

The Astros are the World Series favorites heading into these playoffs, and there’s one big reason why.

Here’s a look at Houston’s Game 1,2 and 3 starters.

  1. Justin Verlander
  2. Gerrit Cole
  3. Zack Greinke

That is all.

With three aces going in the first three games of the series, an Astros sweep seems like an outcome that isn’t unlikely at all. So instead of looking at the series through an even lens, it’s probably best to preview it in terms of “How can the Rays not get swept, put up a fight or even win?”

Getting their rotation to match the inevitable performance that Houston’s aces will put up is a tough proposition, but it’s not totally impossible.  It’s been mostly control issues for Blake Snell this season; a year which has seen his numbers regress to a 4.29 ERA and 104 ERA+.  But his strikeout numbers have still been off the charts (12.4 strikeouts per nine innings) and his FIP is quite low at 3.32.

You can’t gift Houston baserunners though.  Like the Red Sox last year, they’re an offense that can hit for power and contact.  The Astros finished this season ranked third in home runs hit, second in doubles and had the highest batting average out of any team in baseball this season.

But, if the Wild Card games have been any indication, it’s the long ball thats going to be the trend of this postseason.  Snell was good at not allowing those, and the Rays will need him and Charlie Morton to hold their ground against this vaunted lineup with the inexperienced Tyler Glasgow and Ryan Yarborough likely rounding out Tampa Bay’s rotation.

Despite being the best in baseball, the Rays bullpen won’t be there to save them.  If Tampa Bay gets behind against any Astros starter, they likely won’t be coming back, as Houston’s bullpen ranked 9th in WAR accumulation this season.

Tampa Bay has to hope for scoreless innings deep into games.  It’s their only real chance.  Drive the pitch count up on Verlander, Cole and Greinke and force Houston’s bullpen to give up some runs.  Can that happen in even one game?  If Morton’s on the mound, then possibly.  His ground-ball tendency and the revenge factor could give the Rays a win.  But two wins for Tamap Bay seems like not respecting the dominance of the Astros enough.

Prediction: Astros in 4

Previewing Braves-Cardinals and Nationals-Dodgers

After a Wild Card round which featured one completely bonkers game and one meh game, we’ve reached the Division Series stage.

Since the MLB playoffs only take five teams in each league, someone good always goes home during the DS’, and with two really good series awaiting, that will be the case again.

NLDS #1: Atlanta Braves vs. St. Louis Cardinals

This series is loaded with young talent, and it’s not only going to be on display, but will be needed to show up and deliver during the most important time of the season.

A lot of that youth is within each team’s rotation.  21-year-old Mike Soraka, who generated 5.6 WAR this season (Second on the Braves), will be starting Game 2.  Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals right-hander, has been one of the hottest pitchers in the baseball throughout the second half and is only 23.  Dakota Hudson, who’s also been excellent this season, is 24.

Then of course, there’s the batters, where Ronald Acuna Jr. was a legitimate MVP candidate and almost turned in a 40-40 club performance as a 21-year-old.  Ozzie Albies raised his batting average 34 points this season in addition to hitting 24 home runs in his age-22 season, and Dansby Swanson has shown some impressive power at shortstop.

With all of this youth comes inexperience.  Atlanta will have some in their rotation with Mike Foltynewicz and Dallas Keuchel going in Games 1 and 2.  Same with the Cardinals in Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas.  Michael Wacha has struggled, posting a 4.76 ERA and 90 ERA+, and won’t be pitching in this series due to a shoulder injury while Wainwright and Mikolas have been average.  Wacha’s spot could see Daniel Ponce de Leon get a start, whose not a bad option as he’s been good in eight outings.

The true talent though in St. Louis’ rotation is young, which makes things a little dicey even with Flaherty’s hot streak in full bloom.

The Cardinals bullpen though is much better than Atlanta’s.  St. Louis was seventh in accumulated bullpen WAR compared to the Braves – who overhauled their staff at the trade deadline to get mediocre results at best – at 22nd.  But like the overall theme of this series, youth is prevalent within.  The Cardinals are putting relievers like Ryan Hensley (24 years old) and Genesis Cabrera (22 years old and hasn’t exactly been great this season) on their NLDS roster to pair with more experienced guys like the less-effective Andrew Miller and Carlos Martinez.

This should all balance out for St. Louis in the bullpen.  In the rotation though, the concerns are a little larger.  Wainwright is a decent trust bet, but everyone else – even Flaherty and Hudson – come with baggage.

The Braves are a scary lineup, much more potent than the Cardinals. Atlanta has their own youth, and only one pitcher who has experience and good performance (Dallas Kuechel, but even he has a sketchy playoff resume) in their rotation.  But in a series where taking advantage of inexperience will go miles, it’s going to come down to the better offense.  That’s Atlanta’s.

Prediction: Braves in 5

NLDS #2: Washington Nationals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers 

With insane, come-from-behind win Tuesday night, the Nationals not only gave us another absolutely insane Wild Card game, but gave us an even better second NLDS series to look forward to.

Mostly thanks to the pitching talent they possess, this Nationals-Dodgers series is way more fun and entertaining than a Brewers-Dodgers series.  That’s because Washington actually has a chance.

Despite their faulty bullpen which was 22nd in total WAR accumulated, the Nationals can throw Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasberg, Patrick Corbin and the ageless Anibal Sanchez out there and feel pretty good about their chances.  Despite stunningly getting roughed up early against the Brewers, Scherzer was incredibly efficient with his pitch count Tuesday, and could have gone even deeper into the game.  Strasberg and Corbin also have the ability to dominate for six-plus innings.  The Nationals need that as much as possible, because if they can get past the Dodgers, this team has the ability to play into late October, let alone the fact that Washington has a much better chance of not giving up runs when their starters are out there.

Washington’s starters going late into games in this series also gives the bullpen needed rest.  It’s not just the bullpen that wears down late into the postseason though; starters do too, which means the Nats later on in the postseason need their relievers to be ready and rested.  The extra rest they could gain this series could be critical.

The Dodgers are more threatening.  They have NL Cy Young candidate Hyun Jin Ryu, who was unhittable in the first half of the season before turning into just a very good pitcher in the second half.  They still have Clayton Kershaw, who whisked away some of the postseason concerns we’ve had for him in past playoffs last October, 24-year-old Walker Buehler having another insane season and their own ageless wonder in Rich Hill.

But that’s not all.  This is the best Dodgers bullpen in the past three years.  They finished 9th in bullpen WAR and have Kenley Jansen and Pedro Baez pitching well.  Deadline acquisition Adam Kolarek has been shutdown-worthy for Los Angeles with a 0.77 ERA.

Those overall numbers don’t factor in expanded innings for Dustin May, Kenta Maeda or Ross Stripling though.  Stripling and Maeda were both used as starters in more than half of their appearances this year.  This postseason, they’ll likely strictly be in bullpen roles, giving LA more experience and even better production in that department.  The versatility LA has gives more rest to the Jansens, Baezs and Kolareks of the world.

The Nationals bullpen doesn’t even compare.  It was the team’s biggest downfall early in the season, leading to their 19-31 record toward late May.

Things still aren’t great.  Only Tanner Rainey and Daniel Hudson are guys you’d feel somewhat decent about taking the mound in a playoff game right now, and even trust in them is limited by this loaded Dodgers lineup, which hit the fourth most home runs in baseball this season.  The Nationals bullpen had the highest fly-ball rate out of any bullpen in baseball this year.  Yikes.

Washington is really going to need their starters to stay in games as long as possible.  Three-plus innings out of this bullpen is enough to take the Nats out of any game their starter keeps them in.  If these games are a starting pitching duel, the better bullpen will prevail.  The Dodgers have that.

Prediction: Dodgers in 4

2019 AL Wild Card Game Preview

A year after winning 90 games and missing the playoffs, the Tampa Bay Rays have fought their way back and trumped an incredibly surprising 2018 campaign with an even more astonishing 2019 season, finishing with an incredible 96-66 record.

And it earned them a spot in the Wild Card Game.

The Rays winning 90 games last season and not making the playoffs felt downright unfair.  The Cleveland Indians are now rolling their eyes, as they finished with a record of 93-69 and failed to make the playoffs this year, but Cleveland falling out of the playoff race something we kind of saw coming.  This Rays rise is different.

Yet, it makes sense.  Their talent had always been there.  Now, with a creative pitching approach and new sluggers like Austin Meadows, Brandon Lowe and Avisail Garcia hitting a ton of home runs, the Rays are at the fore-front of baseball’s new age.

They face the Oakland A’s, who have been operating like this for years now.  Low-budget, small ball is the name-brand of Oakland, and it’s gotten them in the playoffs and to 90+ wins yet again.

Tampa Bay is going with offseason signing Charlie Morton on the mound, who has been fantastic in his age 35 season.  The former Astros right-hander has posted a 3.05 ERA and a 147 ERA+ in 33 starts.  Perhaps his most important statistic though?  His 0.7 home runs per nine innings, one of the lowest numbers in the league out of qualified pitchers.  That’s huge against an Oakland team that hit the fifth-most dingers in baseball this season.

Morton also does a good job keeping the ball on the ground.  He finished 45th out of 58 qualified starters in fly ball rate this season.

But the A’s lineup is terrifying; a sneakily underrated one in this postseason full of gauntlet-like batting orders.  Matt Chapman, Matt Olson and Marcus Sieman (8.1 bWAR!) are the top guys, but seven A’s hit 20+ home runs this year.  Terrifying might be an understatement.

Oakland is throwing Sean Manaea out there, a bold proposition considering it will be his sixth start of the season.  Shoulder surgery kept him out until September, where Manaea made five starts, all of which he pitched at least five innings in.  Manaea’s been fantastic in those starts, posting a 1.21 ERA and accumulating 1.4 WAR in those starts.  That’s 1.4 WAR in September alone.

With so many innings thrown by Manaea, concern about rust is void.  He’s shown that he can be out there for a decent amount of time.  He hasn’t pitched poorly yet though, which makes a playoff atmosphere a little dicey.

Oakland had the fourth-best bullpen in baseball based on total WAR accumulated, and that was with last year’s standouts Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino regressing big-time.  Both of them out are for the season now with injuries, meaning that guys like Jake Diekman or even Jesus Luzardo could see some work (Luzardo, a rookie, going in a high stakes game like this would be nuts).

If Manaea gets roughed up, the A’s have a deep and talented bullpen ready.

The A’s offense is a daunting group to bet against as well.  But the talent in Tampa Bay’s pitching staff (Best bullpen is baseball), combined with Morton’s ultra effectiveness and favorable numbers, is a bit more trustworthy than Oakland’s.  A game like this is why the Rays signed Morton.  He’ll prove his belonging.

Prediction: Rays-4 A’s-3

2019 NL Wild Card Game Preview

The Brewers and Nationals both entered the 2019 season with some doubt surrounding them.  How were the Nationals going to rebound without Bryce Harper?  Could they be just as good?  Could the Brewers follow up last season with just as impressive a run?  Were they really for real?

The answers were both yes.  There was never a doubt about the Nationals; their talent and pitching staff was too overwhelming.  Milwaukee had issues in that department, reducing their odds a bit.  But both prevailed and ended up here.  In the crapshoot, incredibly variable Wild Card Game.

The most meaningful trait in a wild card game is being just good enough.  Pitchers are everything in the postseason, but in these contests they’re a little less meaningful.  You just need guys who aren’t going to blow it or blow up.

The Brewers are starting Brandon Woodruff while Washington is rolling with their ace in Max Scherzer.  It’s already clear to see where the advantage is.  But Woodruff has been very good this season posting a 3.62 ERA and 123 ERA+ in 23 starts, proving that the promise he showed mostly in relief last season was real.  He also has sneaky postseason experience from last year, where he pitched in four games, posting a 1.46 ERA.

Nothing indicates Woodruff should blow up.  He had one start this season in which he was shelled and left early (Shelled being four runs or more given up).  It’s perhaps his recent injury history and lack of action lately that’s the bigger concern.  Woodruff missed a good portion of the last third of the season with an oblique injury.  He’s pitched just four innings of baseball since returning from it, giving up zero runs.  Throwing him into a high leverage situation like this so fresh off an elongated rest is a little risky.

But the Brewers have the luxury of pulling Woodruff whenever they want.  If a situation makes them uncomfortable, or Woodruff surrenders 1-2 quick runs, they won’t be afraid to go straight to their bullpen, where the 10th best hands in baseball by fWAR will all be on deck.  You’d think someone who could go three innings would come in first, so that Josh Hader would be ready for the later 1-3 inning stretch, but the Brewers’ versatility in their staff allows them to do really whatever they chose given the matchup.

Brewers relievers though have been below average when it comes to not allowing home runs.  Sure, those numbers have been completely inflated due to another season in which home runs have ballooned, but Milwaukee’s bullpen ranked sixth-worst in baseball in home-run-to-fly-ball percentage at 16.6%.  They were much better at not allowing fly balls in general though, ranking 23rd.  Milwaukee just has to limit the hard contact on those fly-ball prone pitches.  Another proposition toward going with a starter a little longer?  Milwaukee’s starters were slightly above average in HR/FB%, ranking 18th in baseball at 14.9%.

Will it all really matter though?  Max Scherzer might be the most unlikely pitcher in baseball to blow up in a big game.  He could go a legitimate seven innings, saving critical outs for Washington’s bullpen.  A classic Scherzer game dominates any lineup, and doesn’t allow mistakes (The lowest qualified FIP in baseball this season?  Scherzer’s 2.45.  That is 47 points lower than his ERA).

Scherzer isn’t going to give up a back-breaking home run or blow up in an inning.  Plus, the Nationals had the 10th-besth wRC+ in high leverage situations this season.  The Brewers were ironically seventh, but they have to face Scherzer.  Washington will be facing one pitcher, no matter what the scenario, who is somewhat as close to as good as him.

The Brewers late season run to get back in the playoff race without the reigning NL MVP and this year’s runner-up was incredible.  But with Scherzer on the mound for Washington and a pitcher who may be being rushed back a bit from injury, this game is the Nationals’.

Prediction: Nationals-5  Brewers- 2

Week 1 Overreactions

The overreactions column is going up before Monday Night Football because I will not be able to see either game in full tonight (Check my Twitter Wednesday morning for why).

Week 1 is always overwhelming.  But this year it felt a little less so.  For example, Miami did exactly what we expected them to (OK, well maybe not EXACTLY that bad but we knew they’d be bad).  So did Jameis Winston.  The Patriots and Chiefs look fantastic.  A lot happened that we knew would happen.  Here are some of the things that we didn’t think would, though.

Kyler Murray is really bad, wait, no, really good

What occurred Sunday afternoon was why Kyler Murray went No. 1 overall in the 2019 NFL Draft.

And it was why the Cardinals traded away Josh Rosen for practically nothing for him.

The trade, in a way, still hurts.  Not because Rosen was amazing by any means, but because of the public humiliation and shame that came with it.  The dumping of one  top ten pick for another in a single year’s time was unprecedented, and in a way unfair and borderline incompetent.

But man, does it seem like the right move now.

Slightly backed up by his performance Sunday, Josh Rosen does not do what Kyler Murray did in the fourth quarter of Arizona’s game against Detroit.

And sure, Rosen didn’t have talent around him.  That’s the whole case for the pro-Rosen camp.  He had (and still has) zero offensive line.  No real weapons (still true).  A defense that couldn’t carry him (still true).

Those points are good ones, sure.  But it was the same case for Murray Sunday.

That was evident in the first half of the game.  The offensive line, which was already banged up thanks to Marcus Gilbert being out with an injury, was horrendous and couldn’t keep Murray protected in the pocket.  Detroit used their underrated secondary to hover over Arizona wide receivers; the Lions finished the game with 11 pass deflections, four of which came at the line of scrimmage from the front seven (That might be the biggest concern regarding Murray’s height; not his durability).  The defense was fine aside from multiple blown coverages resulting in big plays downfield, and TJ Hockenson becoming the latest tight end to kill them.  Murray missed throws and forced things, leading to bone-headed plays like this one.

It was a simple case of trying to do too much.  Murray looked like a rookie out there in the first half.  And even though the offense was absolutely putrid, and at times hard to watch, it was okay.  Murray was going to struggle at times, and we knew that would happen.  He’s a rookie, and rookies do those things.

Then he turned into a veteran.

With 14:40 left in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals faced a 24-6 deficit and Murray took control.  Those missed throws in the first half turned into completions like this one.

This is more Larry Fitzgerald than Murray.  Give Murray credit for putting the ball in a spot where Fitz could get it, but only Fitz is able to actually get it in that position.  Only Fitz.  Very few side receivers in football make that catch.

Nonetheless, it was progress for Murray and for the offense as a whole.  That play felt like a momentum shifter.  It was the one impressive thing Murray had done all day.  More importantly, it started establishing trust between Murray and his receivers, which then led to this.

Again, not a great ball by Murray.  It was quite high, and David Johnson had to go up a mile to get it.  It would have essentially been a jump ball for the running back (AKA not Fitz) if Jalen Reeves-Maybin didn’t fall down.  But this time, instead of being a feel-good moment, it made things interesting.  It was a one possession game.

Detroit’s slogging around offensively, which was partly due to immense pressure brought on by the Cardinals (That’s the one thing the defense did very well Sunday), continued on the next possession, giving Arizona the ball back with 2:31 down eight.

This was the drive that Murray really showed it.  The skill.  The leadership.  It was all there, because he knew the moment and he knew the clock was ticking.

It was methodical.  For the most part, Murray moved the ball in small increments, gaining enough yardage every play except for this one, when he found Damiere Byrd down the field.

That’s a tough throw!  Murray had to complete that or else Arizona would have been facing 4th and 7.  Cornerback Jamal Agnew was draped all over Byrd too.

This set up the touchdown and following two point conversion, which was creatively designed by Kliff Kingsbury.

Notice how Fitz is in motion when the ball is snapped and starts his route without stopping.  That leaves Justin Coleman trying to catch up and adjust on the fly, giving Fitz just enough separation for Murray to be able to make the throw.

Christian Kirk then ran out route for the two point conversion, beating his man once again.

Murray’s magic didn’t stop there.  Despite the game ending in an underwhelming tie, the rookie almost made the most important throw of the game.  Of course, there were two sides to the play though.

This play is quite similar to the first Murray-to-Fitz pass.  Murray made Fitz work for it, but that almost makes it more effective, since defending a pass like that without committing pass interference is nearly impossible.  It’s what makes Fitz, Fitz.

No one was expecting the Cardinals to be good.  I had them at 6-10.  That’s probably still a realistic record.  No one should still expect them to be good.  But we knew they were going to be one thing: Fun and entertaining as hell.  So far, so good.

The Ravens are going to be unstoppable

Perhaps the most important part of Baltimore’s 59-10 slaughter of Miami was Lamar Jackson’s improved throwing ability.

The second-year quarterback threw for 324 yards and five touchdowns, 147 yards and two of those touchdowns via Marquise “Hollywood” Brown.

Brown had like a Randy Moss-like game.  In the first quarter, Brown had two catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns.

The first was more Brown than Jackson, as Hollywood used his speed to turn on the jets on a slant route.

But the throw was still one we weren’t sure Jackson could make.  He did have to fit it in there.

It was this throw though, that was stunning.

A couple things here:

  1. The amount of time Jackson had to uncork the ball
  2. The throw itself
  3. Brown getting separation then turning on the jets again

If Brown can be this type of receiver, where his speed is unmatched and he can run any route, then Baltimore’s offense is going to be a force rather than what I expected it to be.  After today, where Brown put on his show and Mark Andrews also had 100+ yards, Jackson may not need a ridiculous weapons core around him.  Sure, he was going against a Dolphins team that is confirmed to be not trying, but we didn’t even know Jackson could throw the ball as far as he did Sunday.  That development could go miles for Baltimore.

The Bears are in trouble

It is absolutely fair to say that Mitchell Trusbisky single-handily cost the Bears the game in the Thursday’s kickoff game.

Chicago’s defense was excellent, which is already starting to look like a wrong prediction of mine, but Trubisky was not, which is looking to be a correct prediction.

He only threw one pick, but should have likely had three on the night.

Here was the should-have-been second.

And here’s the third.

There’s likely more.  Trubisky forced balls and made poor decisions.  Chicago’s offense couldn’t get going due to Trubisky’s play and poor play-calling by head coach Matt Nagy, as they continued to throw the ball into the second half well after it was clear that Trubisky didn’t have it and that the running game with rookie David Montgomery did.

Chicago is going to be in trouble if Trubisky continues to play like this.  The Bears defense was outstanding given the loss; they got to Aaron Rodgers most of the night, and only gave up 10 points.  The Bears should have been able to manage that.

Only one of the defense or Trubisky can be bad in a game.  We may not have to worry about the defense regressing now, but them carrying Trubisky’s weight for the second straight season might wear them down, and for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations, that won’t be getting them there anyways.

The Cowboys are contenders

Dallas looked unstoppable Sunday.

Ezekiel Elliott didn’t get a lot of work, which was understandable after not practicing all offseason.  But he did score a touchdown and averaged 4.1 yards a carry on 13 of them.

But the running game, which is what Dallas has prided itself on since drafting Zeke, wasn’t the star of the show.

It was Dak Prescott, who threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns, dropping dimes all over the Giants’ secondary, giving two Cowboys receivers 100 yards each.

The Cowboys unleashed the air raid on the Giants.  New offensive coordinator Kellen Moore changed Dallas’ schemes so that they weren’t so heavily reliant on receivers getting themselves open; an issue that plagued them in the past.  Moore has opted to the RPO, which, when you have Zeke or rookie Tony Pollard in the backfield, is a deadly weapon.

Skip to the 19th second of this video and you’ll see how effective the RPO was.  Dak takes the snap and fakes the handoff, bringing Alec Olgetree, No. 47, down to account for it.

In this incredibly well-drawn and diagramed image, you can see Olgetree (down arrow) moving toward Pollard in the backfield while Blake Jarwin (right arrow) goes right by him, leaving Jarwin wide open for the eventual touchdown.

Another example is at the 57 second mark, where Dak fakes the run to Zeke out of the backfield and hits Michael Gallup for 36 yards.  There, the fake is to Zeke, which attracts a boatload of attention.

The two linebackers in the middle of the field, along with safety Antoine Bethea, all make minuscular movements to play the run.  Despite their slight reaction, it burns Bethea, who doesn’t get back in time to help No. 30 Antonio Hamilton in coverage with Gallup.

This change in scheme for the Cowboys, along with the pinpoint throws Prescott was making – throws that we’ve never seen him make before – makes their offense extremely dangerous.  To think Zeke only had 53 yards today is terrifying.  Maybe Sporting News wasn’t insane.

The Browns were overhyped

This isn’t an overreaction so much as it is actually true.  As I wrote in my preview, anyone who had Cleveland at contender status was buying in a little too much.

Sunday, those people got burned.

The Titans, as in the Marcus Mariota-led Titans, destroyed Cleveland 43-13 at home.

The Browns had a ton of issues.  First, simply put, their defense gave up 43 points to the Titans.  That’s not a good thing.

This may not be some fluke from the Titans either.  Tennessee looked explosive.  Rookie wide receiver AJ Brown had 100 yards on just three catches, including two deep shots, one of which was 51 yards.  Derrick Henry broke loose for a 75 yard receiving touchdown while also adding 84 yards on the ground.  Delanie Walker caught two of Mariota’s three touchdown passes.

Mariota was fine.  He only completed 14 passes; most of the big plays were after-catch products.  But he did enough for Cleveland’s defense to combust, and the offense certainly wasn’t there to save them.

Baker Mayfield had an extremely up and down game.  It felt like one of those Russell Westbrook games where he puts up a ridiculous stat line and dazzles you with a couple plays, but takes over too much in crunch-time and starts air-balling threes, including one at the buzzer.

Like Russ does sometimes, Mayfield tried to do a little too much.  Or completely missed passes like this one.

Yikes.  That ball was way behind his receiver.

Here’s another missed pass.

This was an instant “What the…” when I saw Mayfield throw this ball live.  There was no way it was ever going to get to Odell Beckham Jr.  Kevin Byard was right there in front of its trajectory, and Mayfield somehow never saw him.

The Byard pick was brutal. Cleveland was down just nine at that point with a whole quarter left, and in good field position too.

Mayfield then came back with this brutal throw.

That’s more inexcusable than the first.  Logan Ryan was draped all over Jarvis Landry and jumped the route easily.

It is important to mention that this was Mayfield’s 14th career start.  He hasn’t completed a full rookie season yet.  He’s still young and still learning.  He’s going to make mistakes because he is still kind of a rookie.  No matter what the surrounding cast is, guys are going to be playing their age.

Mayfield playing like a rookie sets Cleveland back a bit in terms of their plans and expectations for this season.  It could be a duel between him and the quarterback mentioned above later on in the season.

Quick hits:

  • We expected the Dolphins to be bad, but holy mother of God, for them to come out and play like that in Week 1 is a completely different level of bad.
  • I can’t tell if I feel bad for Josh Rosen after everything that transpired in Week 1 or not.
  • Who are the Dolphins players that want out?  Like, who is going to generate interest on that team?  DeVante Parker maybe?  They do have nice trade pieces in the secondary (Xavien Howard, Minkah Fitzpatrick).  Maybe those are the guys?  Reports have this as like a mass exodus.  Can someone name me 8-10 other players?
  • The Falcons going 11-5 already seems unlikely.  Matt Ryan looked like a 34-year-old out there yesterday.  Minnesota’s defense, which looks all the way back, swallowed up Atlanta’s offense, forcing two Ryan picks and holding the Falcons to just 73 rushing yards.  Their defense was dominated by Dalvin Cook, who also looks all the way back coming off ACL surgery last season.
  • Minnesota has the potential to be a Super Bowl contender, so maybe we should take this Falcons performance with a grain of salt.  Problem is, I thought Atlanta wasn’t very far behind them.
  • That was an Adam Gase coaching classic yesterday.  No one aside from Case Keenum (More on that soon) can play that well in one half and then do the complete opposite in the second.
  • Also, how does the Jets defense let Josh Allen of all people score 17 unanswered on them?  Allen was putrid Sunday, throwing two interceptions (including a pick six) and fumbling twice in the first half alone.   The Jets defense also got immense pressure on Allen.
  • The offense has to take most of the blame.  Sam Darnold was 28-41 for just 175 yards and a touchdown.  Their longest play of the game was 19 yards.
  • Gase wasn’t a bad hire.  The Jets just need to know that this likely what they’ll be getting in him.  He couldn’t get Ryan Tannehill to that next level. Who says he’ll get Darnold there?
  • Speaking of teams that also turned it around in the second half, the Eagles looked like two completely different teams against Washington.  You can say the same thing for the Redskins.
  • Philadelphia blew coverages and let Case Keenum light them up in the first half.  He finished with 380 yards and three touchdowns.  Washington got unexpected contributions from the everlasting Vernon Davis (DID YOU SEE THAT CATCH AND RUN) and rookie Terry McLaurin (This was less surprising).
  • But Keenum, as we’ve seen in the past, collapsed in the second half and couldn’t find the same spark.  Washington had zero chance running the ball, finishing with just 28 rushing yards total.  That made it hard for Washington to take things slow and kill clock.
  • The Eagles looked like serious contenders later in the game.  A bomb to DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffrey being used in the run and pass game shows the true potential of this offense.  They split carries between three backs too, with Darren Sproles oddly getting most of the work.
  • It’s amazing the Rams and Panthers put up 57 combined points considering how each offense looked.  Both Jared Goff and Cam Newton missed a lot of throws.
  • Neither were great.  Goff threw for just 186 yards with a touchdown and interception.  Newton threw for 239 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
  • This season is already going exactly how I thought it would for Carolina.  Despite Christian McCaffrey running all over the Rams and looking quite impressive, nothing else could get going.  They didn’t get any seriously big plays.  Newton’s shoulder, after looking fine on the first drive of the game, came into concern later on.
  • Los Angeles’ usage of Todd Gurley was odd.  He ended with a not-so-bad 97 yards on 14 carries, and had a catch, but it’s clear the Rams are putting him out there less.  There multiple snaps where he wasn’t even on the field.  Perhaps some decoy use would have alleviated Goff?
  • The two scariest teams before the season were the Chiefs and Patriots and that was confirmed this weekend.  Kansas City lost Tyreek Hill and looked fine thanks to Sammy Watkins burning everyone.
  • The loss of Nick Foles is going to hurt regardless of Gardner Minshew’s performance in relief of him Sunday.  Minshew is a rookie who was hardly a NFL quarterback (I was higher on him than most though.  Big yards means big arm and that translates).  He’s going to make mistakes and regress.  Jacksonville needs to be prepared for that.
  • The Chargers’ speed was the biggest factor in their 30-24 overtime win against the Colts.  Their skill positions players dominated Indianapolis.  Austin Ekeler ran wild, scoring three touchdowns and making Melvin Gordon lose any value he has left.  Keenan Allen made a spectacular jump ball catch for a touchdown.  And this was a game where Mike Williams only had 29 yards.
  • This was almost a classic Chargers meltdown though.  They allowed Indy to score 15 unanswered points after being up 24-9, which included a possession where Indy missed a field goal (Bad day for the old man Adam Vinateri).
  • The Colts’ game-tying drive was impressive.  Jacoby Brissett was in control, and the ball to TY Hilton for the winner was a beauty.  It might be their defense that needs to step up.
  • Could the Bengals not be terrible?  They looked really good yesterday against Seattle.  They got pressure against Russell Wilson (A must for their defense) and the offense looked surprising explosive against one of the better defenses in the league (John Ross breakout year?)
  • I think Jameis Winston is going find himself on the bench sooner rather than later.
  • He cost the Buccaneers big-time in that game.  They could have won.  Score was not indicative of how close that game was.
  • The 49ers and their injury luck at the running back position… man
  • The Steelers would have been featured above if I was surprised by what happened last night.
  • I was not, so it wasn’t featured.
  • The Patriots might go undefeated, so maybe Pittsburgh’s performance was is being a little overrated in terms of his terribleness, but if Pittsburgh’s offense is going to generate just three points, then they are going to be in serious trouble.

How Each NFL Bottom Feeder Can Have A Successful Season + Predictions

For the remaining teams, there isn’t a lot of hope that can be had for this season.  So instead of making ridiculous playoffs cases for each, we’ll take a look at what needs to happen or be learned this season in order to set up a successful future.

Cincinnati Bengals: Think hard about a complete teardown

The Bengals can release Andy Dalton this offseason and incur a dead cap penalty of $200,000.

Hitting the reset button by ending the Dalton era might be the right thing to do.  This roster is in putrid shape.  The offensive line is starting the likes of Bobby Hart at one of the tackle spots due to first-round pick Jonah Williams’ injury.  The defense ranked 28th in DVOA last season and is only getting older, though they are bringing back Preston Brown at linebacker.  They can’t keep AJ Green healthy, as he’s missed six or more games two of the three previous seasons.

There is some talent for a young quarterback to come in and work with if the Bengals bottom out.  Joe Mixon projects as a long-term Bengal, so does John Ross III and Tyler Boyd.  But would Cincy want to risk bringing in someone to such a bad situation?  We’ve learned that may not be the right thing to do.

Buffalo Bills: Let Josh Allen show you what he’s got

It’s kind of up to Josh Allen now.

The Bills have an underrated defense which has just two holes (One at safety and one on the d-line, which may not matter at all given the talent there).  They went out and got him some receivers in John Brown and Cole Beasley.  And the offensive line, while not fantastic, is much better thanks to the signing of Mitch Morse and the drafting of Cody Ford (A steal!).

The offensive line might be even less of a problem due to Allen’s running abilities.  It was perhaps his most impressive trait last season, which isn’t necessarily a good thing considering what we need Allen to show is his hopefully improved accuracy.

It’s not an overwhelming group of receivers (Devin Singletary and TJ Yeldon can do some nice things out of the backfield), but if Allen is going to show us why he was taken No. 7 overall, then he should be able to get it done.  If he can’t, the Bills might have some reshuffling to do, because this roster is much closer than people think.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Let this season be Jameis Winston’s last chance

Tampa Bay’s decision to run it back with Jameis Winston after watching him stumble his way to 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while averaging 7.9 yards an attempt last season is confusing.  Winston has thrown 58 interceptions in 56 career games and has been nothing but a distraction off the field.

Bringing in Bruce Arians, a 66-year-old coach who “retired” two seasons ago, to “develop” him (Did you know 25-year-olds can be developed?) feels like a scapegoat move.  It’s been clear to tell since Winston’s second season that he’s not moving the needle for you; that a team can’t live with the interception totals since the most touchdowns he’s thrown for in a season tops out at 28.  That year, Winston threw 18 interceptions to go along with it.

Despite a defense that was the worst in the league last season by DVOA, there is talent on this Buccaneers team.  Mike Evans is one of the best receivers in football, Cameron Brate is a reliable target and Chris Godwin could burst onto the scene this year.

Winston has to be the guy to make all of those things true, though.

Arizona Cardinals: It might be early, but make sure the receivers work

Kyler Murray is going to be good.

But the Cardinals can’t let what happened to Josh Rosen happen to Murray.  They can’t surround him with zero weapons and no offensive line.  They can’t let the 5’10 Murray take the beating Rosen did last year, or else he’ll be out of the league quickly.

The Cardinals have hopefully fixed one of those two issues.  After drafting Andy Isabella and KeeSean Johnson (And Hakeem Butler, who’s out for the season unfortunately), signing Michael Crabtree and bringing back Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk, they’ve given Murray not only a boatload of weapons, but weapons that fit the Air-Raid scheme Kliff Kingsbury is going to run.

When running the Air-Raid, you need each receiver to have one of two traits: Speed or jump-ball ability.  Run through each receiver on this roster and they’ve got one of those.

They’ve just got to execute it.  The sketchiness of the scheme is that it’s solely based on execution; you need the perfect players for it to work.  It’s extremely boom or bust.  If the weapons on the Cardinals bust, Murray is going to be in for a long season.  If it goes the other way, then watch out.

Miami Dolphins: For the love of God, play Josh Rosen and just see

There’s a chance the Dolphins have already given up on Josh Rosen given that he couldn’t beat out Ryan Fitzpatrick in camp.

But tanking the season away and potentially wasting it on a quarterback you don’t need instead of taking a different foundational player is squandering an insane opportunity.

The problem is that an accurate assessment might not be possible.  This Dolphins roster is somehow worse than the one the Cardinals trotted out last season.  I mean, DeVante Parker is the No. 1 option to throw to, besides Kenyan Drake screens out of the backfield.

And the defense has zero pass rush and no real impactful linebackers.  The secondary is fine, but it only came in at 24th overall in pass defense DVOA last season.

Rosen probably won’t show them anything because he won’t be able to.  But it would be disastrous to move on without having him play a snap.  If he comes in and is terrible (Whether it’s his fault or not), there’s at least a basis for moving on next offseason.

New York Giants: Hope Daniel Jones is good?

The Giants are in an incredible scenario in which they have two quarterbacks who should not be playing.

Eli Manning should not be playing because he’s old, sucks and has a high first-round pick waiting behind him.

Daniel Jones should be playing because, well, he likely sucks too.

We should give him a bit of the benefit of the doubt.  His preseason was quite impressive and had Twitter looking like a minefield of takes.  The guy hasn’t played a real snap yet and everyone is counting him out.

But the problem is that Jones went sixth overall.  That distinction will never leave him and always taint his value, because he’s likely never going to come close to living up to that ceiling.

Jones being “good” is him not being a disaster.  It is year one, so perhaps that’s where the benefit of the doubt is.  But the Giants are on thin ice with this one.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Figure out how to restock the core around Foles

The Jaguars are all-in with Nick Foles so much so to the point that it’s not worth discussing how they should get out of him.

They put themselves into the Foles hole, so we should focus on how they can maximize it.

If we learned anything about Foles in Philadelphia, it’s that you need the right infrastructure in place to make him the guy we saw leading the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory.

The Jaguars don’t have that yet.

They first need Leonard Fournette to have his best season ever.  After being injured for half of last season and rushing for not even 1,100 yards his rookie season, Fournette will have to carry the load for a Jags teams that has zero reliable receivers and a weakened defense.

Foles has a bunch of “maybes” to throw to.  While Dede Westbrook could be a fun downfield threat alongside Marquis Lee (Who’s working his way back from an ACL tear), we can’t be sure that either will emerge as a No. 1 option who Foles can rely on.  The same goes for second-year receiver DJ Chark in the slot.

Jacksonville’s defense is still good, but it may not be the type to carry this team to .500, especially with Foles’ lack of help.  The Eagles collective group in 2017-18 is much better than this one.

The line is still a force.  Marcell Dareus clogging the gaps with Calias Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue rushing the passer is terrifying.  Then throwing in Myles Jack in the middle and Jalen Ramsey above that creates a monster.  But the holes are there.  Ramsey playing corner leaves the safety spots in question with Tashaun Gipson’s departure.  Besides Jack the linebackers spots are iffy (Shouldn’t matter as much with that line though).  The offensive line is troublesome aside from Andrew Norwell (Taylor was a massive steal in the second round but has been dealing with injuries already).

Getting full value out of the Foles deal will be tough, but Jacksonville needs to do all they can to maximize it.  That should start immediately.

New York Jets: Push close to .500

A 6-10 season for the Jets would be a huge step forward.

Getting close to .500, which might be in range, would be monumental.

The possibility is there.  The Jets signed Le’Veon Bell and gave Sam Darnold other intriguing weapons.  They signed CJ Mosley away from Baltimore, putting an impact linebacker in the middle of their D. Quinnen Williams and Leonard Williams are a borderline unstoppable duo up front.

But eight wins seem really high.  The secondary has two holes aside from Jamal Adams and Trumaine Johnson.  The offensive line got help it desperately needed when they traded for Kelechi Osemele, but aside from him the situation is bleak.  When healthy, the weapons as a whole could lead to Darnold tearing things up, but Jamison Crowder and Quincy Enunwa have had trouble staying on the field due to injury.  The same goes for Robby Anderson, but that’s been a mix of on the field and off the field issues.

If injuries occur and the holes are too much to overcome, Bell is there for Darnold to lean on.  He’s got fresh legs and is one of the best running backs in the league.  His presence can’t be underrated.

Detroit Lions: Stay above or at .500 in a brutal division 

It’s amazing how Detroit spent all the money they did and still end up being a mediocre team.

While Trey Flowers was a much-needed and smart signing by them, it doesn’t necessarily move the needle.  Neither does Mike Daniels.  Neither does Danny Amendola.

The Lions are stuck in an extremely good division with a fine roster.  Matthew Stafford will put up numbers and has a good set of receivers (Watch out for TJ Hockenson.  That could be a needle-mover pick).  The defensive line got better with Daniels and Flowers.  But the linebacking core suffered a setback it didn’t need with Jarrad Davis’ injury in the third preseason game (He may or may not play Week 1).  Detroit also brought over Justin Coleman from Seattle to pair with Darius Slay (Underrated, by the way), which makes the group quite talented along with Quandre Diggs, but Tracy Walker is still inexperienced at the other safety spot.

It feels heavily like 8-8.  That might be a best case scenario in this division.

Washington Redskins: Put Dwayne Haskins in ASAP and build 

Dwayne Haskins was an absolute steal for Washington at 15th overall.  To get even better return on that pick, they need to see what they have immediately so they can make him the future.

They have various holes.  Despite wowing people in camp, wide receiver Terry McLaurin isn’t enough.  Sure, the return of Derrius Guice combined with Adrian Peterson will help out (The offensive line isn’t bad either!), and Haskins has the chance to make it work with whoever (His combination of arm strength and accuracy is unreal).  But as we’ve seen with Aaron Rodgers up in Green Bay, even the greats need some help.

The defense is much closer than the offense to becoming a force.  There’s spots here and there that need upgrading, but the talent in the front seven has the potential to develop nicely.  Keeping Case Keenum in at quarterback delays the identification of those holes.

Oakland Raiders: Decide whether Derek Carr is the guy

Despite all the nonsense that has taken place this summer, the Raiders made a lot of smart moves.  Their draft was close to a travesty, but they made smart trades and spent their money well otherwise.

They basically went out and told Derek Carr “Show it to us.”  The Kyler Murray rumors circling around them at the draft seemed quite real; Jon Gruden is crazy enough to do that.

It seems as if this is Carr’s last show.  There’s no excuses this time.  He has one of the best receivers in the league in Antonio Brown, along with Tyrell Williams (LOVED that signing) and speedster JJ Nelson.  They have two utility backs aside from Josh Jacobs, who figures to see a heavy workload.  The right side of the offensive line is stacked, the left side a little less so (That Kolten Miller pick needs to turn around fast).

Oakland may not win a lot of games, but that’s not necessarily the point.  The defense is relying on a lot of young talent and a lot of guys to step up.  They weren’t very good in either department last season (The front seven should be better however).

The defense doesn’t affect how Carr individually performs.  That’s all that matters this season.  Once they have that sorted out, they can then go about improving elsewhere.

Tennesse Titans: Make this Marcus Mariota’s last chance

Five years later, the two top picks of the 2015 NFL Draft are in the same scenario, and it’s not necessarily a good one.

It’s rare to have a situation where both guys might just suck.  Usually there’s a bust and a star.  Or two solid picks.  Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston could both be with different teams, or not on a team, after this season.

Like Derek Carr, the Titans need to really see what they have in Mariota.  They first need him to stay healthy in order for that to happen.  If another injury occurs, then that could be their answer right there.

The problem with the Titans is that, despite their best efforts, their receiving core around Mariota is still weak.  Corey Davis might be another miss at the top of the draft, and Adam Humphries is fine.  They did draft AJ Brown, who could come in and be a No. 1 target right away.  Counting on a rookie to do that may be too much to ask though.

The Titans may not need an answer right away because this roster is still far from contention.  But until then, you can lock down more mediocrity.  After three straight 9-7 seasons (which features just one playoff berth), this could be the year when things crater.

San Francisco 49ers: Know what defensive holes need to be plugged

Despite some concerning rumors emanating from San Francisco about their quarterback situation, we’re going to operate as if Jimmy Garrappolo is the guy going forward.  Whether they think he is or not, he kind of has to be given that contract.

In order to maximize that, the 49ers need to plug some holes.  They’ve been working on it.  They brought over Kwon Alexander this offseason after adding Richard Sherman before 2018-19.  They’ve also invested heavily in the defensive line which is a bit crowded but should be fantastic on paper.

But their holes defensively could be fatal.  They need another linebacker and another safety.  They need to make sure they’re going to be able to defend the run and not just rush the passer.

The extra linebacker hole is worrisome given the run defense.  I guess that’s why Alexander is there.

The offense is also concerning given the lack of a true No. 1 receiver and impactful weapons, but I trust Kyle Shanahan to make things better than they are.  Here’s to hoping they have the right man under center.


2019-20 RECORD PREDICTIONS:

AFC EAST:

  1. New England Patriots, 12-4
  2. Buffalo Bills, 6-10
  3. New York Jets, 6-10
  4. Miami Dolphins, 2-14

AFC North:

  1. Cleveland Browns, 11-5
  2. Baltimore Ravens, 10-6
  3. Pittsburgh Steelers, 9-7
  4. Cincinnati Bengals, 3-13

AFC South:

  1. Houston Texans, 11-5
  2. Indianapolis Colts, 7-9
  3. Jacksonville Jaguars, 6-10
  4. Tennesse Titans, 5-11

AFC West:

  1. Kansas City Chiefs, 13-3
  2. Los Angeles Chargers, 11-5
  3. Denver Broncos, 8-8
  4. Oakland Raiders, 6-10

AFC Playoff Seeds:

  1. Kansas City Chiefs
  2. New England Patriots
  3. Cleveland Browns
  4. Houston Texans
  5. Los Angeles Chargers
  6. Baltimore Ravens

NFC East:

  1. Philadelphia Eagles, 12-4
  2. Dallas Cowboys, 10-6
  3. Washington Redskins, 6-10
  4. New York Giants, 3-13

NFC North:

  1. Minnesota Vikings, 12-4
  2. Chicago Bears, 9-7
  3. Green Bay Packers, 8-8
  4. Detroit Lions, 7-9

NFC South:

  1. New Orleans Saints, 12-4
  2. Atlanta Falcons, 11-5
  3. Carolina Panthers, 9-7
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 4-12

NFC West:

  1. Los Angeles Rams, 12-4
  2. Seattle Seahawks, 10-6
  3. Arizona Cardinals, 6-10
  4. San Francisco 49ers, 5-11

NFC Playoff Seeds:

  1. Philadelphia Eagles
  2. New Orleans Saints
  3. Los Angeles Rams
  4. Minnesota Vikings
  5. Atlanta Falcons
  6. Seattle Seahawks