Steelers face a difficult choice

Saturday’s thrilling win over Cincinnati came at a huge cost for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Late in the game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took a shot from Vontez Burfict that tore ligaments in his shoulder and sprained his AC joint.

Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger left Saturday’s game against the Bengals only to return and lead the game-winning drive. 

Monday seemed to offer comfort for Steelers nation as multiple sources reported that Roethlisberger would most likely play in the team’s next playoff game against Denver. However, Tuesday, Ben addressed the media and admitted that he has not tried throwing a football since the game. That does not inspire confidence.

Roethlisberger also said that he would play if he could, but would never take the field if he thought it would hurt his team. I don’t think Ben will be the best judge of that.

Roethlisberger did reenter the game on Saturday following his injury and made a handful of short throws to move the ball down the field. He didn’t look completely comfortable though, which makes you wonder if he will be able to run this high powered Steelers offense. Roethlisberger is a tough player, fighting through ankle injuries all season to play, but if he cannot make the throws required, then the team is better off with him on the bench.

This Broncos team that Pittsburgh will face this weekend is fresh off a bye and looking to avenge a loss from a month ago in the Steel City. Their defense is arguably the best in the league with probably the most depth at the outside pass rushing positions. Denver has excelled all season at pressuring the quarterback, registering the most sacks in the NFL. Denver also has a ball hawking secondary that has time and time again limited teams en route to becoming the league’s (enter ranking here) pass defense.

Mike Tomlin
Tomlin has not named a starter for this weekend’s game with Denver.

If I’m Mike Tomlin, knowing that Roethlisberger has a torn up throwing shoulder, I am starting his back up Landry Jones. He hasn’t started a playoff game before or won two Super Bowls like Roethlisberger, but a healthy Jones will keep the defense honest. With Big Ben under center, I could easily see Denver stacking the box on every play, daring Roethlisberger to throw it down field. With a bum shoulder, he would never be able to do it. Jones is definitely not as talented, but the threat of him throwing the ball down field should open up some other things for the Steelers offense.

Thinking more about it, I don’t know if I want to risk Roethlisberger either. Pittsburgh has a good young core that they have built around Roethlisberger. If he happened to injure his shoulder further in this game, a real possibility with how often Denver reaches the quarterback, the Steelers could be in danger of starting next season without Roethlisberger or jeopardizing his career. Big Ben isn’t so young any more, as this is his eleventh year in the league. Putting my franchise quarterback who has won two Super Bowls at risk is not high up on my to do list if I am Tomlin.

Earlier Wednesday, Pittsburgh announced that Roethlisberger would play in this weekend’s game against Denver, leaving me to shake my head once again. It does not seem to throw him back into the fire like that with the season on the line. It has also been well documented in the media just how banged up Big Ben is. That will likely provide those Broncos pass rushers a little extra incentive to get back there and nail Roethlisberger if they can.

There is very little to gain from putting an injury-riddled quarterback out on the field. There does not seem to be a way to fully protect Roethlisberger other than sitting him out of the contest. It would be in the best interest for both the team and for Ben himself. Landry Jones did not endear himself to the fans or the coaching staff when he threw that interception against Cincinatti, but for right now, he is there best, and realistically their only hope.

A vote against NFL playoff expansion

This first weekend of the NFL playoffs was interesting to say the least. Brian Hoyer looked colorblind. Aaron Rodgers returned to superhuman form. Blair Walsh missed a chip shot. The Bengals and Steelers got physical with each other. It was equal parts surprising and exciting. For the most part, it delivered on all of the hype.

Roger Goodell has pushed for expanding the NFL season either by adding two more regular season games or two playoff games.

There were definitely things that could have improved the weekend. A better showing from Houston. Shorter games maybe. The one thing that definitely was not missing? Another set of games in each conference.

Over the past few years, there have been whispers about the NFL expanded its current playoff field to 14 teams from the 12-team format. The highlights of the plan would be to add another game, increase the suspense and make the road to the Super Bowl even tougher.

After this season though, I cannot imagine a reason to include two more teams. It simply seems unnecessary. The quality of the competition would drop. Already we saw what happened with the weakest division winners making the playoffs. Houston was embarrassed by Kansas City and Washington found Green Bay way too much to handle. Any games added by introducing more teams would likely be a bust. Sure, the Jets playing the Patriots in Foxborough would be exciting. Watching Arizona trash a .500 Atlanta team, that is something I could live without. It wouldn’t be good football. These mid-tiered teams would just be outmatched.

Moreover, they don’t deserve it. People spent a great deal of time complaining about how weak the AFC South and NFC East was this season. Across message boards and comment sections, there were calls for the NFL to reformat so that these teams that won each division would not automatically receive a bid to the postseason. The argument was that they did not have good enough records to make the playoffs. In the case of Houston, that turned out to be true, as the Jets had a better record, but the Texans made the playoffs instead. If those teams, who were division winners, were not good enough to qualify for the postseason, then why would teams even further down the list be considered in playoff expansion?

I am of the mentality that for a team to really be good enough to compete in the playoffs, they should have a winning record. Only one team that did not qualify for the postseason this year had a winning record. That was the Jets. Some others were close, like Atlanta and Indianapolis, but they finished at .500. In other words, they were average. It is pretty easy to argue that the Jets did not deserve to make the playoffs either. New York only beat two teams with winning records this year. In the NFL, we don’t want to see average teams make the playoffs. We want the best of the best so we can see some truly iconic and terrific games.

In the NFL, teams are made to be average. It is rare that there are 14 teams nowadays that have winning records. Only once in the past five seasons have there been at least 14 teams above .500 at the end of the season. It is not easy to get those kinds of results any more. The league is full of parity. It is also a bit ambitious to expect close to half the league to win more than half of their games.

The morale here? 12 is good. 12 is great. That potentially even more than we need. It is nice to keep the hope of some Cinderella teams alive (see 2007 Giants, 2009 Cardinals). However, introducing even more of them would just be overkill. It would detract from the postseason more than it would add to it. Let’s just keep this as it is and put this conversation of expansion to bed.

NFL Playoff Predictions: Wildcard Round

I wish I had a rooting interest in this year’s playoffs, but all the same, this is going to be a year to remember. There are tons of great storylines and some incredible games to be played and that starts today with Wildcard Weekend. Let’s start predicting some matchups.

Kansas City vs. Houston
2014 NFL Pro BowlFar from the sexiest matchup of the wildcard round. In fact, I would go as far as to say it is the least exciting. Still well worth watching though, which lets you know how great these playoffs will be. This projects to be more of a defensive struggle. Duane Brown’s injury is already a big blow to the Texans offense. Houston overall was lucky to make the playoffs. I think Alex Smith will show everyone his ability to handle the pressure of a playoff game. Charcandrick West and Stephen Ware should also help wear down a stout Texans defensive front. Mixing a mediocre Houston offense and the league’s third best scoring defense sounds like a recipe for disaster. I think the Chiefs will win this comfortably, 24-10.

Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati
DeAngelo_WilliamsNothing beats a divisional battle in the playoffs. If it couldn’t be Steelers-Ravens, (one of the best rivalries in NFL history) then I’m happy it could at least be Steelers-Bengals. These two split the season series, with the road team winning each matchup. I don’t think we are going to see that trend continue. I know Cincy is still without Andy Dalton but an even bigger blow comes on the other side. Pittsburgh will be without DeAngelo Williams, meaning that Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman will be carrying the load for the Steelers. For as much as this team relies on Ben Roethlisberger, I think they are going to be too one-dimensional. Throwing the ball constantly doesn’t allow you to control the game offensively and I don’t think the Steelers will be able to close it out late. A.J. McCarron has had a few weeks to learn the offense. Hue Jackson is one of the best offensive coordinators in the league and I think he will have a plan to upend the rival Steelers. Final score, Bengals 31 – Steelers 27

Seattle vs. Minnesota
Russell_WilsonMany are pointing at the midseason meeting between these two teams as the reason for why Seattle will win again. I don’t think it means anything how these two previously played. The Seahawks rode Thomas Rawls for a good portion of that victory. Rawls will not be playing on Sunday and neither will Marshawn Lynch. Russell Wilson is truly going to have no running game to support him in this one. Christine Michael will be the starting running back for the Hawks. Going up against a defense like Minnesota’s, that doesn’t bode well. That being said, this defense knows how to bottle up Adrian Peterson and will force Teddy Bridgewater to beat them with his arm. Bridgewater does not have a ton of weapons of his own in the passing game that will likely win one-on-matchups with this Seattle secondary. If this is a duel between Bridgewater and Wilson, I am taking Wilson every time. Seattle wins this blizzard bowl 21-10.

Green Bay vs. Washington
Kirk_CousinsThis is not a game many would have predicted at the beginning of the year. I for one though Washington would not come anywhere near the playoffs. I doubt many would have guessed that Green Bay would be on the road either. As much as I like Aaron Rodgers, especially in the playoffs, I don’t think he will be leaving the nation’s capital with a win. The Packers have failed to find any consistency on offense, whether it be running or passing. On the flip side, Kirk Cousins has been on fire for Washington. He’s been yelling, “You like that!” a lot, which is good news for this DC team. I think Washington’s passing attack will prove too much for an underwhelming Packers’ secondary to handle. Momentum has a lot to do with this one. Washington has won four straight while Green Bay has dropped its last two.  It will be close but I think Washington will win its first playoff game in 10 years, 27-24.

Mid-season NFL Playoff Picks

This is painful. I looked back at my preseason playoff picks for the 2015 NFL season and it was ugly. I had the Colts winning the AFC and the Chiefs making it as a strong wildcard team. In the NFC, I had Dallas as the third team in and the Carolina Panthers are nowhere to be found.

Obviously, I made some major gaffes in picking my preseason playoff field. Some of it was due to unexpected injuries. Others were me buying into the hype of some offseason moves. All in all, I have a laundry list of excuses (similar to the one I have for why my fantasy team is so bad this year).

Here we are now though in the middle of the season with every team having played at least eight games. With the second half of the season about to get underway, it is time for me to predict how the season will end. Hopefully, this head start will allow me to do a bit better with these.

AFC Playoffs
1. Cincinnati (14-2)
2. New England (14-2)
3. Denver (13-3)
4. Indianapolis (8-8)
5. New York (10-6)
6. Pittsburgh (9-7)

NFC Playoffs
1. Carolina (14-2)
2. Green Bay (13-3)
3. Arizona (12-4)
4. New York (9-7)
5. Minnesota (12-4)
6. Atlanta (11-5)

For the AFC, Cincy wins the conference because it wins the tiebreaker over the Pats for record in common games. Denver slips up just a little bit too much to earn the first round bye. The Jets take advantage of a fairly easy schedule down the stretch to make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2011. Pittsburgh, despite all of their injuries, has games against the Browns (twice) Colts and Ravens. That allows them to sneak into that last spot.

Over in the NFC though, things are much tighter. The Giants don’t really belong but a Week 17 win against the Eagles locks up the division for them. Carolina continues its dominance on its way to the top spot. Green Bay manages to rebound down the stretch and takes the first weekend of the playoffs off. Arizona outlasts the rest of the rugged NFC West to advance to the postseason once again, this year hopefully with Carson Palmer. Minnesota and Atlanta prove to be the best of the rest and lock up wildcard berths.

Adrian PetersonWildcard
Denver over Pittsburgh
New York over Indianapolis
Arizona over Atlanta
Minnesota over New York

Pittsburgh made the postseason but for the second straight year, not having LeVeon Bell proves to be too much for the Steelers to overcome. The Jets pick up their second win over Andrew Luck and Co. on the year behind a dominant ground game and an opportunistic defense. The Cardinals prove to have way too much for that Atlanta offensive line to handle as Matt Ryan has a rough day on the road. Adrian Peterson runs all over the Giants and the Vikings defense finds a way to limit Odell Beckham Jr. enough to get the win.

Cincinnati over New York
New England over Denver
Carolina over Minnesota
Arizona over Green Bay

Andy Dalton finally gets his first playoff win as the Jets offense sputters on the road. The game is close but Tyler Eifert ends up being the deciding factor. After beating New England at home in the regular season, Denver fails to take round two in Foxborough. Tom Brady does not lose to Peyton Manning twice in one year. The Carolina defense bottles up Peterson and forces Teddy Bridgewater to beat them with his arm. The Vikings offense is simply not made for that. Despite going on the road, that Arizona defense causes some issues for Aaron Rodgers and the lack of a Packers running game shows.

Tom BradyChampionship
New England over Cincinnati
Carolina over Arizona

The AFC Championship game comes down to some simply math. Tom Brady is greater than Andy Dalton and the 37-year old out-duels the Red Rifle to return to the Super Bowl. The defense manages to bend but not break against the Cincy offense. Super Cam continues his super season. He ends up coming nowhere near the MVP award but he is closing in on the Lombardi trophy. Carolina’s offense runs through him, Jonathan Stewart and Greg Olsen. The real reason that the Panthers are Super Bowl bound is that defense though. It managed bottled up the Cardinal running game and pressured Carson Palmer all day without having to truly blitz.

Cam_NewtonSuper Bowl
Carolina over New England

In a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII, Carolina and New England meet with the Lombardi Trophy on the line. This time though, its the Panthers who walk away having earned a ring. Carolina is able to pressure Brady without truly having to blitz, which is the same way the Giants beat him in the Super Bowl in past years. The Panthers are so deep along their defensive line, especially after getting Charles Johnson back midseason. The Patriots find themselves missing change of pace runner and pass-catching specialist Dion Lewis as they fail to generate much of a ground game. Cam Newton’s running abilities prove to be something New England struggles to contain as well. Julian Edelman has a big game but the Panthers limit Rob Gronkowski en route to the franchise’s first ever Super Bowl win.

King James turns back the clocks

LeBron JamesIt is always fun to turn back the clocks and reminisce about the days of old. LeBron James is doing that and then some right now in the NBA Playoffs. James has been on fire in the Eastern Conference Finals and is showing shades of his 2007 self. Even beyond that, this current Cavs team is starting to resemble the 2007 versions more and more as the playoffs roll on. It is slowly morphing into the LeBron show with a couple of random sidekicks jumping in every night to make an impact. The comparison is kind of scary.

The 2007 Cavaliers finished the season number two in the conference and entered the playoffs as a true title contender. James led the way and carried a team full of relatively unknown commodities. The starting lineup around LeBron consisted of Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlović, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskus. None of those guys were superstars by any means, and none of them scored more than 15 points a game in the regular season.

Obviously, this year’s Cavs have some more fire power but the pieces are continuing to fall as more of the burden falls on James. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love both are nursing injuries that could cost them the rest of the playoffs. The Cavaliers starting lineup now features Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov alongside James. None of these guys have average more than 14 points a game since the playoffs began.LeBron_James_Wiz

Once again, the King is forced to prove why he sits on the throne. LeBron has done a very good job of answering the call so far. In three games without Irving or Love on the floor this postseason, James has tallied 27.3 points, 11.7 assists and 12 rebounds per night. Everyone points to that 2007 squad as the team that LeBron single-handedly brought to the finals, but he only average 25 points along with 8 helpers and 8 boards. Despite being 8 years older, James is playing even better now.

LeBron_James_Defensively, James is playing like his younger self as well. After registering 1.6 steals and 0.7 blocks per contest during the regular season, James has turned it up a notch. The King is now posting 1.8 thefts and 1.3 rejections on a nightly basis since he’s entered the playoffs. Those numbers are identical as well to his 2007 playoff numbers.

The amazing thing is the transformation LeBron has undergone in that time. His game is very different now than it was 8 years ago but James is still proving to be productive. James is relying on his three-point shot less than ever and playing a lot more around the hoop. In fact 50.3 of James shots have come within ten feet this postseason. He continues to bang with guys in the paint and slash his way to the basket. What a difference this is now from what we saw when James relied on his jump shot and post fadeaway more often than not.

He does better with opponents around him too. LeBron has attempted 60 percent of his shots with an opponent less than four feet away from him. He has connected on 49 percent of them. Oddly enough, on the other 40 percent of his shots where an opponent is more than four feet away, James has only hit about 33 percent of those shots. This doesn’t take into account where he was on the floor but it is certainly interesting to see that he seems to relish some contact.LeBron_James_vs_Andre_Roberson

This was supposed to be a competitive Cleveland team because of the new Big 3 that was planning to take the league by storm. With only LeBron left standing of those three, they are still as viable a title threat now as they were before. Part of that is because of the three-point shooting from Dellavedova, Shumpert and J.R. Smith. Mozgov and Thompson’s rebounding certainly go a long way as well but without James this team would not have a prayer of beating Atlanta, much less winning a title.

Irving should return soon though and if he does at full strength this Cleveland team could challenge Golden State in the Finals. They would be deep enough at guard to contend with the Warriors backcourt rotation and they can answer with some three-pointers of their own. I am pulling for a Warriors-Cavaliers matchup now just because of the intensity that series could bring. James would likely faced Draymond Green on a night-to-night basis, which would be a great matchup. LeBron is hitting his stride at the right time so even Green might have trouble King James.

2007 might be long behind him but if James continues to play like he’s 23, he might just land himself another title and really turn up the heat on the conversation for greatest player of all time.