1a. There’s been plenty of talk about Kirk Cousins’s performance—or lack thereof—in big games (even if Monday Night Football doesn’t qualify as a big game anymore). The volume on that criticism gets turned up in light of his contract, and it will reach a crescendo as he makes his postseason debut for the Vikings. But he has a chance to rewrite some narratives on Sunday.
We’ve seen Minnesota's offense unable to function against great pass rushes, and Cam Jordan is capable of wrecking this game singlehandedly. But with Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins out there’s really no one else in the New Orleans pass rush who the Vikings shouldn’t be able to handle. Dennis Allen dials up some well-timed blitzes, but Cousins has been excellent against the blitz all year. The issues have been against teams the create pressure without the extra rusher.
It’s not easy to go into New Orleans in January, but for Cousins, it’s really not a bad matchup, especially with Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook presumably back in full and the Saints thin in the secondary. And if the stage starts to feel too big for Cousins, my advice is to just picture everybody in their underwear.
1b. If it was Michael Thomas versus the Xavier Rhodes of two years ago, it would be a monster matchup. But right now, it’s a mismatch. The fact that the Vikings probably don’t have the bodies to deal with Thomas and Alvin Kamara (and Jared Cook) is probably why the Saints roll to a comfortable victory in their own building.
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2a. If you’ve ever dreamed of expanded NFL playoffs that retain bye weeks for top seeds and therefore pit 7-9 teams against each other on the first weekend, consider Eagles-Seahawks a look into the wonderful future.
We’ll start with the Seahawks, who, even before a rash of injuries, were one of the most suspect success stories of the 2019 season. On the year they ranked third in opposing kicker luck (expected points by opposing kickers based on league averages on under 50, 50-plus and PATs vs. actual points scored by opposing kickers), something almost entirely out of a team’s control. They also ranked 10th in points above expected red-zone performance, a volatile stat every year. They finished 14th in point differential (+7), and if you smooth out opponent kicker and red-zone rates, they would have finished 20th in point differential.
And that doesn’t even factor in the turnovers, oh the turnovers! Teams that have a lot of takeaways typically have either a great pass rush that forces opponents into playing too fast and making mistakes, and/or a secondary with a ballhawk or two. The Seahawks have neither of those things, yet they managed a mind-bending 32 takeaways on the season. None of it makes sense. Like a performance that only could have taken place within the Twin Peaks universe, and probably would have involved the backward-talking guy tipping off Pete Carroll, or at least giving Carroll good news about his gum.
The drying up of the takeaways has been an issue for the Seahawks of late; they didn’t force a turnover in season-ending losses to the Cardinals and 49ers. In fact, in the seven games when they didn’t have multiple takeaways (or, more appropriately, receive multiple giveaways), they went 3-4, with the victories coming against the Steelers the week Mason Rudolph came on in relief, the Cardinals, and the Bucs in overtime. They got five turnovers against the Eagles in the teams’ Week 12 meeting, and they only won 17-9.
2b. The Eagles, of course, have issues of their own, even if things look a little better after a four-game winning streak over NFC East opponents to close out the year (they went 4-6 outside the division in 2019). The issues with the receiving corps have been well-documented and they might be without Zach Ertz for a second straight week, meaning that Carson Wentz will have to stand on his head in his playoff debut if they fall behind early.
But the bigger issue might be a group of cornerbacks that have taken a collective step back this season. Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf are a handful, and it’s not difficult to picture Russell Wilson and his receivers dunking on the quartet of Mills-Douglas-Maddox-Jones, not unlike what Ryan Fitzpatrick did in putting up 37 points on this defense in the Eagles’ last loss: Chuck it up there and trust your guy is going to get it against these Philly corners.
2c. Considering the state of their receiving corps, will the Eagles try to take advantage of a crummy Seahawks pass defense? Seattle is one of the teams that still keeps three linebackers on the field the majority of the time, but they lost one in Mychal Kendricks, meaning rookie Cody Barton slides into a prominent role (unless Quandre Diggs returns to the lineup, in which case they might resort to three safeties with Delano Hill staying on the field). Either way, you’d think there’s an opportunity for the Eagles to get the run game going against a lighter Seahawks box.
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3. The Panthers should hire Eric Bieniemy and never look back. Matt Rhule should just take the Giants job—the quarterback is in place, plus you don’t want to run a war room off the bat anyway, and if things continue to go wrong the GM is already set up as the fall guy. The Cowboys should go get Robert Saleh—the flavoring he put in the Seattle-style Cover-3 would fit perfectly with Dallas’s defensive personnel—and keep Kellen Moore on as the offensive coordinator/de facto offensive head coach. I don't want to advocate for anyone losing his job, but the Jaguars should really reconsider this Doug Marrone thing. The Browns should hire Mike McCarthy, if not now then in 20 months when they fire the head coach and general manager they hire this time around. McCarthy molded a young Aaron Rodgers into the quarterback he became and could fix a young Baker Mayfield. Someone should give Jason Garrett a hug. But mostly, everyone should be happy that Chan Gailey is back to wreck AFC East defenses.
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4. Ladies and gentlemen . . . ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead!
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