1. This note is the most important thing I’ll ever write, and thus a natural lede to the column: The term “Divisional Playoffs” makes no sense. It used to make sense, back when the division winners would face off in this round, but it no longer makes sense in the days of eight divisions and four wild-card teams, when some of the division winners have already gone home.
If the NFL is really married to the term “Divisional Round,” here's the only way to justify it: When a wild-card team defeats a division champion in the wild-card round, that wild-card team gets to proclaim itself champion of the defeated team's division. And they get everything that goes with it. So, for instance, the Philadelphia Eagles should have been proclaimed the 2018 NFC North champions. They get to raid the Bears’ locker room post-game and take all “NFC North Champions” paraphernalia—hats, t-shirts, jester caps, beanie babies, etc.—then celebrate on-field with all their new swag. More importantly, fans who purchased “division champions” items of a team that loses in the wild-card round then have one week to mail it to a fan of the victorious wild-card team. We’ll have people put their mailing addresses on a Google Doc spreadsheet or something, I’m not sure yet, I’m new at this.
Unless the league is willing to take all the preceding actions, then the second round of the playoffs shall henceforth be known as: The NFL Conference Semifinals.
2. There’s no logical reason to think the Eagles can beat the Saints in New Orleans. But then, there was also no logical reason to think Nick Foles would have come off the bench a year ago and become Super Bowl MVP. And there was really no logical reason to think a circumstellar disc would grow out to become the planet Earth and nestle into a gravitational pull 93 million miles for the sun, allowing intelligent life to develop and, eventually, this very column to be written. Unexpected things happen.
But keep a few things in mind as we suspend disbelief in regards to Nick Foles. (1) He made two crushing mistakes in the first half in Chicago last week, and a team with a more explosive offense might have left Philly in the dust. (2) Foles was good in the second half of the Bears win, though even with vintage Foles this Eagles team is not what it was a year ago. They have no run game (and the Saints have one of football’s best run defenses by any measure), and their secondary not only leans on young corners Avonte Maddox and Rasul Douglas (both of whom are improving but still shaky), but also continues to be without criminally underrated free safety Rodney McLeod playing that aggressive centerfield spot in Jim Schwartz’s single-high looks. And (3) Last week was Foles’s first true road game in the playoffs, and overall it was probably a B-minus effort. Remember, a year ago when Foles got his only postseason win outside of Philly in Super Bowl LII, that was a very suspect Patriots defense. Sunday will be Foles’s toughest test yet.
And one more thing: As you’ve probably noticed over the years, officials try not to throw flags in playoff games. You saw it in Chicago last week, when the Bears’ offensive line probably got the better of the Eagles’ pass rush any way you cut it, but they were also quite grabby in doing it, much of it borderline holding but none of it called (the Bears offense wasn’t flagged for any penalties all game). The Saints are better up front than Chicago, and the Philly pass rush is going to have to play the game of its collective life to disrupt Drew Brees, because they won’t get any breaks. And you saw what happened in the second half in Chicago, when Mitchell Trubisky got the Eagles on three double moves because there was no pass rush. Conversely, it’s difficult to picture any official hesitating to flag these young Eagles’ defensive backs against the Saints’ all-world passing-game weapons. Just ask Joe Haden. (What? I don’t have his number, find it yourself.) The Saints are going to put up points. It's going to be a tall order for Foles and the offense to go punch-for-punch.
3. Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s decision to go with seven defensive backs last week was one part brilliant strategy, and one part necessity. Every playable linebacker on the roster is hurt. And now the ones who aren’t physically hurt are emotionally hurt after reading the preceding sentence, which surely they’re doing from the locker room before taking the field at Gillette Stadium. (Sorry Kyle Emmanuel and Hayes Pullard, each of whom played one snap in Baltimore, but it’s the truth.)
As much as the Ravens are a run-based offense, a lot of that running scheme is based on misdirection and lateral movement. Except for the occasional give to Gus Edwards to ram up the gut, there’s not a whole lot of straight-forward, our-guys-are-better-than-your-guys aspects to the Ravens’ run game.
The Patriots, however, will put a running back behind fullback James Develin and steamroll you—that’s going to be an issue if the Chargers go as light as they did a week ago. If the answer is more snaps for Emmanuel and/or Pullard, then you have a coverage liability on the field against Tom Brady.
The Chargers, as a whole, are more talented than the Patriots. But with the different identities New England can take on offensively, the thin linebacker position is a potentially fatal flaw for Bradley's unit.
4a. “There once was a time that we knew damn well we’d be wise beyond our years. Now we’re old and it just seems we’re getting dumber.
“There once was a rhyme that would bring peacefulness to both of our ears. But this music lets us know that we’re not getting any younger.”
—Mount Moon (you know, the subway ukulele guy who did that song that was in one of the early episodes of Night Vale), probably signing about the current state of hiring processes for NFL head coaches
There was a time, a very annoying time, when this time of year would bring constant warnings of, “Don’t just hire a guy because he’ll win the press conference.” It’s an obviously true and clichéd axiom, along the lines of “40 times don’t matter it’s how fast the guy is on the field,” and “if your toilet is clogged don’t upper-deck it as a workaround because that's... that's just gonna make things worse.”
And yet, here we are, in the early days of 2019, teams tripping over themselves to hire the youngest, handsomest offensive coaches, and doing it as quickly as possible (in some cases, impossibly quick for a proper hiring process). None of this to say that Kliff Kingsbury, Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor won’t be tremendous head coaches. It’s just so obvious how desperate those teams wanted to shout “Sean McVay!” in a press release, because no one seemed to have taken the proper amount of time to conduct their search.
By Friday, every head-coaching position had (reportedly) been filled, despite the fact that the last hiring of the previous six cycles were Frank Reich, Kyle Shanahan, Doug Pederson, Dan Quinn, (Mike Pettine), and Bruce Arians.
Stepping back, it remains shocking how much teams care about public perception when it comes to head-coach hirings. I mean, honestly, have you been outside lately? People are idiots. (Not you though. You’re smart. And good-looking. I don’t mean that in a creepy way, just that I admire your unique beauty and I bet a lot of equally good-looking, smart people want to kiss you on your face. See? Not weird.)
4b. A game to play: Print out the following and then draw a line from the name of one of the eight head coaches of the conference semifinal playoff teams to his public profile at the time of his hiring. Pro tip: Use a pencil in case you want to erase any answers:
Once you’ve finished, mail it to me and include a self-addressed, stamped envelope and I’ll grade it and return it to you. If you get 8-or-8, it’s actually worth class credit at the Harvard Business School.
4c. Correction on the above note: If you get 8-of-8 it’s worth a credit at the Hartford Bus-ness School. You can trade in that credit for a Hartford city bus schedule. Which are free if you ask nicely.
5. There are many things NFL head coaches do that I will never be capable of understanding. Perhaps atop that long list is the urge to monogram sweatshirts, and monogram them in the geometric center of the front of the sweatshirt. First Bill Belichick, now John Harbaugh.
This might just be a blind spot for me. As I write this, I’m wearing my Connecticut Patriots 2001 t-shirt with the sleeves ripped off and a pair of irregular sweatpants my friend Mike got at the Champion Outlet just outside Syracuse then left behind when we all moved out after college. And I’m only dressed this nice—y'know, pants and all—because I needed to get working right after my niece’s first communion and didn’t have time to change. What I’m saying is, I don’t have a firm grasp on fashion.
But my questions are as follows, in no particular order because they’re all equally important: (1) Why monogram a sweatshirt? Is it just to class things up? Or are you worried about getting it mixed up because all NFL coaches take their shirts off when they go to the bathroom Costanza-style. And good coaching staffs all go at the same time. In which case, write your name on the tag or inside the back collar like you do with your underwear. (2) Why is it monogrammed on the middle of the torso? Why not offset on one side of the chest, or on the sleeve? And (3) How come NFL Shop doesn’t sell coach sweatshirts like they do player jerseys? If I’m a Ravens fan a John Harbaugh sweatshirt is second only to a Lamar Jackson jersey at this point.
6. Ladies and gentlemen, once again . . . The Mountain Goats!
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