We knew going into the season that the expanded playoffs would inject some chaos into the system. It provided some hope for struggling teams. We also got some additional games out of the deal. Now that we’re here, let the debates on this year's Super Bowl winner begin. The ‘one and done’ nature of the playoffs creates an irreproducible situation. Anything can happen. But the players, and their paths to get to this point, are why we watch. Lamar Jackson had to recapture last year’s magic to secure Baltimore’s spot while Alex Smith literally limped into the postseason. The storylines are always compelling. I dove into a couple ahead of the weekend along with some of the injury news that may impact the Wild Card games.
What Could Be
Tom Brady could win another Super Bowl.
Tom Brady is Emperor Palpatine.
We thought that the Titans had destroyed the Death Star and rid the league of Brady and the Patriots’ dynasty. And yet, he’s been resurrected in Tampa. We’re faced with the proposition of seeing Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Brown in another Super Bowl and it’s not as if they’ve just waltzed into this position. We’ve all had moments of skepticism regarding the Buccaneers. Brady started off the season 14th in Expected Points Added (EPA) per Play (0.19) and 19th in Completion Percentage over Expected (CPOE) at +1.6% through the first six weeks of the season. He was 18th in deep-ball completion rate (45.0%) and was averaging 19.0 PPG with just two Top-12 finishes. But Brady has returned to form at exactly the right time.
Brady has been fifth in EPA per Play and 13th in CPOE since Week 11. He’s thrown for over 300 yards in four of his last six games and completed two or more touchdown passes in every game since Week 10. He’s averaged 22.3 PPG over the last six weeks with two finishes inside the Top 4 which is remarkable for a pocket passer in a mobile quarterback’s league. Plus, the Buccaneers’ defense is formidable enough to get them through the playoffs. Their defensive front is second in pressure rate and sixth in adjusted sack rate. They’re fifth in offensive yards per drive allowed as a whole, but the secondary lapses have been their Achilles’ heel. Matt Ryan, without a running game or Julio Jones, tagged them for a combined 621 yards and five touchdowns in nearly consecutive weeks (Week 15 and Week 17). Patrick Mahomes, who they’d only see in the Super Bowl, lit them up with 462 yards and three touchdowns back in Week 12.
The odds are in their favor to get past Washington through the Wild Card round. After that, the football gods take over. Some folks are hopeful that Drew Brees can go out on top. Others are pining for Russell Wilson to get another shot at the title. However, Brady’s peaking at the right time and it has some of the league getting nervous about him winning a seventh ring.
What Could Have Been
Dak Prescott could have been in the playoffs.
We were robbed of the Cowboys being in the playoffs.
Actually, to be more specific, we were robbed of Dak Prescott being in the playoffs. It’s hard to look at the state of the NFC East and not envision Dallas being at the top. If Andy Dalton could muster four wins out of that squad and have them one game from the playoffs, Prescott would have gotten them into it. Dalton was…Dalton. At, or slightly above, league replacement level. He was 20th in EPA per Play (0.10) and 16th in CPOE (+1.5%) after he returned from his concussion and stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list. But having playmakers at your disposal tends to help. Dallas had four pass catchers inside the Top 100 across all positions for YAC (Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dalton Schultz). Their skills, combined with neutral and red-zone passing rates of 60.9% and 59.0%, are what fueled Dalton’s mediocrity. But he couldn’t cover up for Dallas’ defensive struggles. That was Dak’s job.
The Cowboys’ offense was averaging 42.0 yards per drive prior to Prescott’s season-ending injury (30.6 for Dalton). He was 13th in EPA per Play (0.20) with three consecutive games over 400 yards. Prescott was third in the league in yards created on deep balls and he averaged 50.3 attempts per game through the first month of the season. While all of these metrics are fantasy friendly, they were primarily driven by game script. Dallas was behind either a touchdown or more on 50.7% of Prescott’s attempts through Week 4. Teams were averaging 36.5 points against the Cowboys with 11 passing touchdowns scored on them in the first four weeks. The onus would have always been on Prescott’s shoulders, but his performances through Week 4 showed he was up to the task. Now, we have to wait until next season to see what the Dallas offense can truly accomplish.
Wildcard Injury Slants
New Orleans may get some much-needed help prior to Sunday afternoon. Michael Thomas (Ankle) was back at practice Wednesday and has been designated to return from IR. Thomas had been dealing with an ankle injury throughout most of the season and the three-week rest period should help. In addition, the Saints get some reinforcements. Latavius Murray and Dwayne Washington were activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list. Both were considered close contacts to Alvin Kamara who tested positive on New Year’s Day. The team is hopeful their starting running back can return, but his availability is still in question.
The Bills are dealing with injuries to most of their passing attack. Stefon Diggs (Oblique) and Cole Beasley (Knee) missed practice on Wednesday while Isaiah McKenzie (Ankle) was limited. These three have accounted for 12 of Josh Allen’s 37 touchdowns this season. Diggs insists ‘he’s cool’, but Beasley’s knee puts his availability for this weekend in doubt.
Mike Evans (Knee) was present for the team’s walkthrough, but ultimately did not practice on Wednesday. The team has been targeting a Thursday return to practice, but any work on Evans’ part would give us some insight into his possible workload ahead of Saturday night. LeSean McCoy did return to practice and will presumably be the third-string backup.
Rodger Saffold (Ankle) and Dennis Kelly (Knee) won’t be in any fantasy lineups, but the guy they’d be blocking for should be. Both Saffold and Kelly are starting linemen for the Titans and neither was at practice on Wednesday. Derrick Henry’s outlook would be directly impacted should they be forced to sit.
Jared Goff (Thumb) was seen throwing at practice on Wednesday. His limited appearance is a positive step towards suiting up for the Rams’ matchup against Seattle. However, there’s been no word from Sean McVay on who will start at quarterback for Los Angeles.
The Browns are already missing a receiver due to COVID-19 (KhaDarel Hodge) and opened the week down another. Donovan Peoples-Jones (Concussion) didn’t practice as he makes his way through the league’s concussion protocol. He has until Saturday to be cleared by an independent neurologist but his status for Sunday is uncertain.
Darnell Mooney (Ankle) led the team in targets (13) against the Packers. He was hit on a play in the fourth quarter and was immediately ruled out by the team. His ‘DNP’ tag to open the week isn’t a surprise but bears monitoring ahead of their game on Sunday.