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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Six Biggest Questions Heading Into the NFL’s Wild-Card Weekend

There are plenty of questions during an NFL season, and many of this season’s have pointed us right to where we are now: the playoffs. Just how good is this Raiders defensive line? Good enough to drag them to the playoffs, apparently. Can the Titans survive without Derrick Henry for long enough? They actually thrived. Can Kliff Kingsbury keep his job this season? A playoff berth certainly helps.

But that doesn’t mean unknowns end with the regular season. Come postseason, we face an entirely new set of questions, as regular-season records are discarded and the slates are wiped clean. It’s a 14-team, four-week, single-elimination postseason in the National Football League, and plenty of important, outstanding questions remain:

1. Will the Matthew Stafford trade deliver as promised?

The biggest move of the 2021 offseason was the trade of Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams. It included multiple first-round picks and one of the biggest dead cap hits in league history. It signaled the end of a(nother) tormented era of Lions football. It pushed even further the boundaries of Les Snead’s win-now, nobody-cares-about-later philosophy. It was tectonic.

Up until this point, everyone with an opinion on the trade has been right. Stafford is clearly better than Jared Goff, in that he can do more mature things in Sean McVay’s offense and has more physical talent. Goff is still capable, as evidenced by his quietly decent play with the Lions, who are happy to have a functional quarterback at the helm of their rebuild. If you think Stafford isn’t a significant improvement over Goff, you can make that case, too: The Rams are right about where they often were with Goff, as a top offense positioned for an NFC playoff run. The McVay offense took a November dip, as it typically did with Goff—but it also now operates with less play-action and more shotgun formations. It still has high peaks and low valleys. Everything is different, but also the same.

The playoffs is where the rubber meets the road. None of the details about the trade or the ensuing offense—the schemes, the EPA, the running game, the future picks, whatever—matter if the Rams don’t improve on their postseason fortunes with Stafford at the helm. That starts this weekend.

In four years with Goff under McVay, the Rams had two divisional wins and three playoff berths. Goff was 3-3 in six playoff games, if you include the Rams-Seahawks wild-card matchup last year in which a hampered Goff replaced starter John Wolford in the first quarter. Only once did the Rams clear the divisional round—that was the 2018 Super Bowl run, which ended in the game that has haunted McVay since: a 13-3 loss to the New England Patriots.

The Super Bowl is what the Rams had in mind when acquiring Stafford. Take the dumb picks and inconsistency of the regular season and cast them aside—the Rams were fine with the flaws that have plagued Stafford for his entire career. These playoff games, featuring elite defenses with bespoke game plans, are the ones that Goff couldn’t win because nobody was scared of him; every defense knew it just had to get the Rams into third-and-long. Stafford is meant to be the solution there.

He’ll have more postseasons than just this one; he’ll have tougher defenses to face than the Cardinals. But Stafford was a Super Bowl acquisition—a player meant to get the Rams over the postseason hump. Win games in January, and nobody will care about what the Rams gave up to get Stafford. Lose games in January, and suddenly, we will.

2. Have the Bills and Chiefs overinvested in the passing game?

There are a lot of football adages I could throw at you here. “Offense wins games; defense wins championships” stuff. I believe Vince Lombardi once said, “Gotta be able to run the ball in January.” Stuff like that.

But let’s be honest: The Bills and Chiefs are here because they can throw the football around the yard. They both have savant quarterbacks, each with a unique blend of confidence, field vision, arm talent, and athleticism to make throws that other passers only attempt in practice for fun. Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen are rule breakers and world-enders. They cannot be stopped; they can only be slowed.

But when they are slowed, the Bills and Chiefs have run into a similar problem: They struggle to run the ball. Buffalo’s starting running back, Devin Singletary, has 53 rushing yards over expectation on 188 carries; Josh Allen has 310 yards over expectation on 122 carries. Mahomes is also the leading Chiefs ballcarrier in rushing yards over expectation, with 106—Derrick Gore has 53 on only 51 carries, while starting running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire (119 carries) and Darrel Williams (144 carries) are both in the negatives. When these teams hand off to their backs, the results aren’t strong—and that’s as much about the structure of the offenses as it is the talent of the backs. As Steven Ruiz wrote earlier this week, both teams are inspired by spread offense principles: open formations with four receivers; lighter, pass-catching tight ends; running backs built to wiggle as pass-catchers in space.

Spread offenses are college-inspired, and college teams have run the football out of spread formations with success for a while. But there are mitigating factors in college that make it easier. Wider hashes make it easier to find space on the wide side of the field. Running quarterbacks are more common in college and help generate numerical advantages. And, perhaps most important: College players just aren’t that good at tackling. In the NFL, defenses have decided to give the Bills and Chiefs light boxes—they are second and fourth in light-box run rate this season—and dare those offenses to run them into submission. Both have tried and had some success, but not enough to punish those defenses out of light boxes and ease the burden on their passing game.

The Bills and the Chiefs are still chalky picks out of the AFC—and why wouldn’t they be? The passing game has carried them here, and will carry them further. But their opponents have a defensive blueprint: Play with two deep safeties, suffocate throwing windows with extra zone defenders, and challenge the running game to win out. If there are early playoff exits for either team, I’d imagine those insufficient running games will be the culprit.

3. Can Jimmy Garoppolo save his job?

When the 49ers traded up for Trey Lance, it seemed like they started a ticking clock on the Jimmy Garoppolo era. Eight months later, that clock is still ticking—and ticking, and ticking, and ticking.

Garoppolo has had … well, he’s had exactly the sort of season we expect from Garoppolo in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. He has dominated in advanced metrics—he has the fifth-best dropback success rate of all quarterbacks this season, per Next Gen Stats; he’s sixth in adjusted expected points added per dropback—and missed multiple games with injury. The offense has been one of the league’s best with Garoppolo, save for those three or four boneheaded plays that always strike at the most inopportune times. Despite the messy love triangle featuring Garoppolo, Lance, and Shanahan, there’s no doubt about it: When Garoppolo is at the helm, Shanahan’s offense sings.

But every game we see of Garoppolo may be his last. Owners aren’t patient, and I’m sure the entire 49ers building wants to see more of the flashes Lance has shown every time he’s been on the field. Garoppolo’s ceiling is known—we’re watching it now—and Lance was acquired with the belief that his ceiling is higher. But what if Garoppolo wins one playoff game? What if he wins two? What if he wins … you get my point.

Garoppolo’s future is one of the most interesting in the league. It figures to be a heavy year of veteran quarterback movement—Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, and Derek Carr are all on the table—and Garoppolo’s domino will likely fall somewhere after all of those. But with only a $26.9 million cap hit and a $1.4 million dead cap should he be moved, Garoppolo is a good bargain for any team confident it can put him in its system and cater to his strengths—whether that’s the Niners or someone else.

Can Garoppolo force the 49ers to keep him for another year? I think he can. But I also think, if he plays well enough to do that, the 49ers could return a huge value on Garoppolo’s contract from a needy team, like the Browns or the Broncos. There are many, many millions of dollars of current and future quarterback contracts that will be determined by how well Garoppolo plays down the stretch. Here’s hoping he can avoid the bad picks for long enough to make a run.

4. Is there a dominant defense in this year’s field?

The Dallas Cowboys defense is very good. It leads the league in takeaways, it’s top-five in pressure rate, and it’s second in DVOA. Dallas is powered by star players in cornerback Trevon Diggs and linebacker/edge/generally awesome athlete Micah Parsons.

The Buffalo Bills defense is very good. It leads the league in DVOA and pressure rate, and it’s top-five in takeaways. Even after the injury to star CB Tre’Davious White, they’ve continued to thrive with their depth along the defensive line, where nine players have taken at least 20 percent of the snaps this year.

The Steelers defense is good: T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward form as good of a defensive line pairing as there is. The Patriots defense is good: Bill Belichick defenses usually are. The Buccaneers defense is good: It was dominant in last year’s playoffs, and most of those guys are back and thriving.

But that Buccaneers defense serves as a good reminder of a football truth: It is really hard to have a consistently good defense, year over year. In terms of most catch-all football metrics, defensive performance is not particularly predictive. That doesn’t mean that a good defense suddenly can become bad in any given week, it’s just that the league is skewed toward offense, and when good offense meets good defense, good offense usually wins.

There are a lot of good offenses this year, per usual. The only playoff team without an above-average passing offense to make the playoffs this year is the Steelers. While defenses do get some nice situational matchups (the Bills did really well against the Patriots just one month ago; the Raiders’ defensive line is well suited to disrupt the finely tuned machine in Cincinnati), it’s tough to see any of these units carrying a team through the playoff gauntlet. It’s an offense-oriented league, and even if “defenses win championships” is a fun adage, it likely isn’t true this season.

5. Did the Bills draft a bad cold weather QB?

Before Bills fans get all up in a tizzy, this is, like, 75 percent a joke. Fifty percent. This is 35 percent a joke.

When the Bills drafted Josh Allen in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft, plenty of pundits cited a key point in the new marriage: Allen’s play in cold weather. As the quarterback of the Wyoming Cowboys, Allen had shown on film an ability to pass through swirling winds and secure the football in snowy conditions—things that fair-weather quarterbacks like USC’s Sam Darnold or UCLA’s Josh Rosen didn’t have the opportunity to do. With a rocket launcher arm, gusty days in Orchard Park wouldn’t deter Allen from pushing the ball through the air—a critical skill for a potential January playoff game in Buffalo.

Well, here the Bills are, facing a January playoff game. But it won’t be windy. It won’t be snowy, either. It’ll just be cold. Very, very cold, with the current forecast calling for a high of 11. And that isn’t good news for Allen and the Bills at all—in fact, it’s really worrisome.

In five games below freezing in his career, Allen’s completion percentage is 50.3 percent. In those games he averages 166.6 yards, and has six touchdown passes to seven interceptions. The problem? Impact hurts more in the cold, and Allen’s throws, coming off of that rocket of an arm the Bills coveted so much in the draft, land with a stinging impact on receivers’ hands. Stefon Diggs, Allen’s star receiver, alluded to this after the Falcons game the Bills played in the snow last month, remarking that he told Josh to “give him a little easy one” after dropping a touchdown pass.

The Bills can likely work around this. Allen can take some velocity off his throws, and the Bills’ receivers can also gut it out—it is the playoffs, after all. But if the Bills aren’t slinging it around the yard with Josh Allen heaters, they aren’t really doing much on offense. The whole ship is built around his arm talent, and if cold weather neutralizes that, the Bills may have accidentally jumped the shark in drafting a quarterback fit for their ferocious climate.

6. Is Jalen Hurts’s future in Philadelphia secure?

It seems like a dumb question. Hurts has far exceeded most expectations for the 2021 season. He led the Eagles to the playoffs with timely scrambles, accurate downfield passing, and tremendous ball security as both a runner and a passer. He galvanized a young locker room, stayed steady through early-season losses, and is a keystone of the Eagles’ diverse rushing attack. He has, incontrovertibly, played well enough to maintain the starting job in Philadelphia.

But it is not a dumb question. Not for anything to do with Hurts—but for the way the Eagles do business. No team views the quarterback position as a more fluid role in need of constant investment than the Eagles, who drafted Hurts with the 53rd pick despite their insistence that a franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz was already on the roster. They then traded Wentz less than a year later, incurring a massive dead-cap hit, when circumstances changed. General manager Howie Roseman is a wheeler and a dealer, and no possibility should be discounted when it comes to his quarterback position.

There are additional factors here: namely, how much ammo the Eagles have. With both the Dolphins’ and the Colts’ first-round picks in pocket, the Eagles have enough draft capital to trade for a veteran quarterback and still put together a strong draft class. Sure, if Aaron Rodgers becomes available, who wouldn’t take a swing? But Roseman has long been enamored of Russell Wilson, whom the Eagles intended on picking with the Nick Foles selection back in the 2012 NFL draft. Wilson was referenced when the Eagles picked Hurts, as proof of concept that they don’t want to miss out on quarterbacks in the draft that they believe can succeed.

And of course, Hurts himself has become all the more attractive as a trade asset. It’s tough to imagine the Eagles beating the Buccaneers, but a solid Hurts performance can keep the game respectable and gives Hurts another national spotlight under which to demonstrate his growth. I don’t think the Eagles plan to move on from Hurts—but I also don’t think anything he does this postseason will stop them from answering phone calls this offseason as well.

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