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After terrible wild-card games, Super Bowl chase really begins this weekend


After four lopsided games decided by a total of 76 points during a forgettable opening weekend of the NFL playoffs, the pretenders are eliminated. (Who knew the New York Giants would be in that group?) The postseason field is down to the real contenders (plus the Houston Texans).

When the most notable developments on a playoff weekend are a Florida excursion by a group of wide receivers the previous Monday, and a coach's late-game decision to leave his star quarterback on the field in a runaway, it isn't football at its most dramatic.

So it's on to the conference semifinals and the promise of better games. Here's an early look at the matchups:

Texans at Patriots: The Texans know plenty about how things work in New England with Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

Houston's coach, Bill O'Brien, is a former Patriots' offensive coordinator. The Texans' defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel, was one of Belichick's top coaching lieutenants during the most glorious of the glory days. Linebackers coach Mike Vrabel and special teams coordinator Larry Izzo were Patriots standouts as players.

But having knowledge of the inner workings of the Patriots and actually being able to put it to use are two different things.

The Texans have the defense to be competitive Saturday night in Foxborough, Mass. Houston ranked first in the league in total defense during the regular season. Its defense dominated the Oakland Raiders and their rookie quarterback, Connor Cook, in Saturday's opening-round playoff victory. But facing Brady and the Patriots is a far different matter.

O'Brien is sticking with Brock Osweiler at quarterback after Osweiler, benched late in the regular season but forced back into the lineup when Tom Savage was sidelined by a concussion, gave a steady performance against the Raiders. Most importantly, Osweiler avoided major mistakes and let the Houston defense do its thing. But more will be needed against the Patriots. Osweiler would have to do more than simply not lose the game; he would have to help win it. And that's probably not happening.

It's difficult to envision anyone going to Foxborough during these AFC playoffs and knocking off the Patriots.

It's next to impossible to envision the Osweiler-led Texans doing it.

Steelers at Chiefs: If only Coach Mike Tomlin had gotten quarterback Ben Roethlisberger off the field Sunday with the Pittsburgh Steelers' victory over the Miami Dolphins well in hand, the talk now would be all about just how great the Steelers' offense is whenever Roethlisberger, tailback Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown are on the field together.

But Tomlin, for some reason, didn't do it. Now the question will be to what extent he ends up regretting that. Minor mistake or season-ending blunder?

Roethlisberger hurt his right ankle on a second-to-last offensive play by Pittsburgh on which he threw an interception. He had his foot in a walking boot afterward but vowed to be in the lineup Sunday in Kansas City against the Chiefs.

That is believable. Roethlisberger's history is that he plays through injuries. He also has a reputation, justified or not, for dramatizing injuries. So it is reasonable to think that he will be on the field this weekend. But the issue will be how effective he'll be able to be.

The Pittsburgh offense was clicking from the outset against Miami, as the Dolphins failed to show up at chilled Heinz Field with the appropriate playoff intensity. The Miami defense offered little resistance to the Steelers' brilliant offensive triumvirate.

That reinforced the notion that the third-seeded Steelers, not the second-seeded Chiefs, are the most significant threat to the Patriots in the AFC.

Things will not be easy for the Steelers in Kansas City. The Chiefs have a tremendous secondary led by cornerback Marcus Peters and safety Eric Berry. They have pass rushers, led by Dee Ford, who can bother Roethlisberger. They have the big-play capabilities of rookie wide receiver Tyreek Hill on offense and special teams, giving them an element of explosiveness that previous Chiefs teams did not possess.

This is a true tossup. But the quarterback advantage, with Roethlisberger over Alex Smith even factoring in Roethlisberger's iffy ankle, allows the Steelers to move on to Foxborough.

Packers at Cowboys: The Packers' triumph Sunday over the Giants in Green Bay was convincing. It also may have been costly to the Packers if wide receiver Jordy Nelson's rib injury limits his effectiveness at Dallas or keeps him sidelined.

The Cowboys should be rested and ready after Coach Jason Garrett successfully walked the tightrope of keeping his foot on the accelerator while also attempting to avoid major injuries during the final stages of the regular season. Quarterback Dak Prescott, tailback Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver Dez Bryant should be able to do just about whatever they want against this Green Bay defense. The key for Dallas will be the soundness of left tackle Tyron Smith's knee after he exited the second-to-last game of the regular season and sat out the finale.

The Packers have a reasonable chance, of course, given the level at which quarterback Aaron Rodgers is playing. He made a very good Giants' defense look bad. Facing the Dallas defense is a step down from that. Even Rodgers's Hail Mary completions aren't all that shocking any longer, given the regularity with which they occur.

But Nelson's injury is significant, and Rodgers won't have enough help to bring the Cowboys' magical season to an end.

Seahawks at Falcons: The Seahawks beat the Detroit Lions by the deceptively lopsided score of 26-6 Saturday night in Seattle. The Seahawks only led 10-6 entering the fourth quarter, and that was even after getting the benefit of several egregiously missed calls by the officials along the way.

Now it's on to Atlanta, and the Seahawks must play far better if they're going to have a chance. They were only 3-4-1 on the road during the regular season.

The Falcons were the NFL's highest-scoring team during the regular season and some regard Atlanta's quarterback, Matt Ryan, as the league MVP front-runner. But the Falcons have vulnerabilities on defense. They do have a top-tier pass rusher in Vic Beasley, who led the NFL in sacks. And they can generate turnovers. But they're not likely to stop an offense in its tracks.

The Seahawks have a chance if they can run the ball with tailback Thomas Rawls, if quarterback Russell Wilson and his receivers do their part, and if their defense can be at its championship-caliber best even without injured safety Earl Thomas. But that is a lot that must fall into place. The Seahawks have not demonstrated this season that they can be reliably counted on to play consistently at a high level.

Yes, they can win in Atlanta. But the guess here is that they won't. 

--- 

Quick thoughts to wrap up the dud of an opening NFL playoff weekend:

1. The Giants didn't lose because Odell Beckham Jr. and his fellow receivers spent last Monday partying in Miami and being photographed shirtless on a boat. That's probably not even why Beckham didn't have a particularly productive game Sunday at Lambeau Field. But when you do something like that and then you follow it up by not playing well, you get what you get. It's just part of the deal. That's how it works in this league.

2. The hit by Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree that knocked Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore from the game in Pittsburgh for a play was pretty clearly illegal (and was penalized). Dupree appeared to lead with the crown of his helmet and hit Moore around the quarterback's jaw. Was it an intentionally malicious and dirty hit? That's all about intent which is much harder to determine, and no one should try to guess.

Dupree on the hit: "I thought it was clean, me personally. I was in coverage and I just [saw] him breaking contain. So I just ran just to try to get a sack. But I wasn't trying to injure him. I was just trying to get a sack, just trying to make a big play."

Moore said he didn't suffer a concussion. But he's not a medical professional. How does he know? And how did the medical personnel on the Dolphins' sideline determine so quickly that Moore had no symptoms of a concussion? Things have changed considerably in the NFL. But for there to be an honest-to-goodness culture change, a crown-of-the-helmet hit to an opponent's head like Dupree's should produce an ejection and an injury like Moore's should result in a player sitting out more than one play.

Moore committed three turnovers but wasn't totally terrible Sunday, throwing for 289 yards on 29-for-36 passing. He had next to no help. Osweiler played better than expected Saturday. Cook was overmatched. It was not exactly an across-the-board calamity over the weekend for the not-ready-for-prime-time playoff quarterbacks. But now it's time for the real front-liners to take over.

O'Brien and Caldwell: There was speculation last week that O'Brien and the Texans could part ways if Houston had lost to the Raiders. It remains to be seen if such talk will subside now that the Texans have moved on.

O'Brien certainly is a respected coach and he almost certainly would land in another head coaching job immediately if he were to leave Houston. But that becomes increasingly problematic the deeper the Texans advance into the postseason, given that a team with a head coaching vacancy would have to be willing to wait for him to possibly become available.

The Lions, meanwhile, announced last week that they are retaining Jim Caldwell as their coach. It is fair to wonder now if they have any regrets about saying that.

The Lions backed into the playoffs with three straight losses to end the regular season, and they didn't manage a touchdown Saturday night in Seattle. They had a record of 9-8 this season, counting the playoff defeat.

Caldwell is a perfectly capable coach. But such late-season collapses can cost a coach his job, even after reaching the postseason. In this case, though, it probably is too late for the Lions to go back on what they said.

Richardson's catch: Seahawks wide receiver Paul Richardson made perhaps the catch of the season Saturday night. He reached down and somehow grabbed the football one-handed with his left hand while entangled with Lions defensive back Tavon Wilson. The nearby official called pass interference against Wilson, which Seattle declined because of Richardson's otherworldly catch.

The interference call against Wilson was justified. He initiated contact with Richardson before the football arrived. What was clear on television replay, however, was that Wilson wasn't the only player who had committed a penalty on the play. Richardson had his right arm wrapped around Wilson's helmet and he was grabbing Wilson's facemask. The officials on the field did not call it, and current instant replay rules do not allow for the awarding of a penalty not called on the field.

That perhaps should change, at least when it comes to pass interference.

The case that pass interference, whether called or not called, should be reviewable by replay is easily made. Interference calls often are worth huge yardage and can be game-altering decisions. The Seahawks won a game during the regular season in significant part because an obvious interference penalty by Richard Sherman against Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones went uncalled.

In this case, offsetting interference calls against Richardson and Wilson could have been made if interference was reviewable. It would have wiped out a remarkable catch. But on-field justice would have been done.

Irsay's patience(?): A second straight 8-8 season for the Indianapolis Colts produced a second straight set of questions early in an offseason as to whether owner Jim Irsay would retain Chuck Pagano as the team's coach and Ryan Grigson as its general manager. This time, there was an added element: speculation in Indianapolis as to whether Irsay would attempt to lure Peyton Manning into accepting a front office position with the franchise.

By week's end, however, there were reports that Pagano and Grigson would remain in place and there was no indication that Manning is on his way to be the Colts' answer to John Elway as a savior of a roster architect, at least not immediately.

It is difficult to know at the moment how to interpret all of that, especially given that Irsay has remained silent publicly on those issues since the season ended.

A year ago, Irsay very publicly expressed his confidence in Pagano and Grigson when announcing his decision to retain them. He said they were "contractually tied" together. He expressed confidence that they were the right people for the job. He also said that he could have brought in a high-profile coach if he'd wanted to do so.

"I could've walked someone in that door tonight or tomorrow night and have them walking in with [a contract worth] eight figures a year on themselves or whatever and say, 'I'm making a big splash,'" Irsay said then. "Look, if that was the best for us, believe me, I would do it. [But] this guy is a great coach."

That is believable about being able to land a prominent coach, given the presence of Andrew Luck as a franchise-centerpiece quarterback.

So is Irsay being patient now? Does he remain just as confident in Pagano and Grigson, even after the Colts failed to win the AFC South in a season in which Luck was healthy and productive and the Texans were without J.J. Watt?

Has he, instead, resigned himself to this being the organization's new normal? Or, as yet another alternative, is he merely holding off on making major changes until he can convince Manning to return to the sport and run the Colts' football operations? Any of those explanations is potentially valid.

It will be interesting to see what Irsay says about it the next time he speaks publicly on the state of his team.

First-year coaches: There is always hope with a coaching change.

And sometimes, it's justified.

Two of this season's first-year head coaches, the Dolphins' Adam Gase and the Giants' Ben McAdoo, led their teams to the playoffs. Two others, the Cleveland Browns' Hue Jackson and the San Francisco 49ers' Chip Kelly, led their teams to the two worst records in the league. Kelly was fired after one season with the Niners.

The three other first-year coaches had their teams hovering around .500. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 9-7 with Dirk Koetter, as did the Tennessee Titans with Mike Mularkey. The Philadelphia Eagles went 7-9 with Doug Pederson.

The cumulative record of the seven NFL teams with first-year head coaches this season was 49-63. Those teams currently in the coaching market can only hope they do as well as the Giants and Dolphins did this season.

Riddick and the Niners: The 49ers are scheduled to interview Louis Riddick this week for their GM vacancy.

They would be wise to hire him.

Riddick is a former NFL player who later served as a scout and front office executive for the Eagles and Washington Redskins. He now is an NFL analyst for ESPN, and a very good one. His opinions are thoughtful and insightful, and he is not afraid to express a view that might be unpopular with a team or two in the league.

It is debatable whether Riddick should want to leave the relative safety of the ESPN studio to take on the massive rebuilding project that must be done with the 49ers, who fired Trent Baalke as their GM as well as Kelly. Television analysts, after all, are perpetually undefeated.

But if Riddick does want the job, and he would be a superb general manager. Already, it appears that he might be able to deliver a coveted coach. There has been increasing speculation that Riddick and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would come as a package deal. McDaniels interviewed Saturday with the 49ers, Los Angeles Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Wolf of Green Bay: Another interesting contender for the GM job in San Francisco is Eliot Wolf, the director of football operations for the Packers.

He is the son of former Packers general manager Ron Wolf, who is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and currently is viewed as the successor in waiting to Green Bay's GM, Ted Thompson.

But would Eliot Wolf be willing to continue to wait in Green Bay if he is offered the Niners' job? And would the Packers do anything to placate Wolf - or even nudge Thompson closer toward retirement - if they are afraid of losing Wolf? The Niners' interest could force the Packers' hand in that regard.

Redskins' coordinators: Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay is a candidate for the head coaching jobs of the 49ers and Los Angeles Rams.

The interest from teams during this head coaching hiring cycle signals that McVay clearly is on his way to being an NFL head coach. The question will be whether he is ready now. He doesn't turn 31 until later this month.

McVay obviously has done good work with quarterback Kirk Cousins and the Redskins' offense. But teams must attempt to discern how much of the credit for that goes to McVay and how much goes to the Redskins' head coach, Jay Gruden.

Gruden would be in the market for two new coordinators if he loses McVay, given that he just fired defensive coordinator Joe Barry.

The Redskins are paying the price for their decision to hire Barry over Wade Phillips two years ago. It is a decision that affected not only the course of the Redskins, but perhaps also NFL history. Phillips landed in Denver and his defense carried the Broncos to last season's Super Bowl title. It was the second career Super Bowl triumph for Peyton Manning, allowing him to walk away from the sport with the persistent questions that he'd faced for his relative lack of postseason success quieted.

Waiting on Darnold: Yes, NFL talent evaluators like Southern Cal quarterback Sam Darnold just as much as you do.

Darnold's electrifying performance against Penn State in the Rose Bowl elevated his public stature. The redshirt freshman is not eligible for this year's NFL draft. But he will be eligible for the 2018 NFL draft if he chooses to enter it, given that he will be three years removed from high school at that point. It's clear that Darnold could be in the conversation to be the top overall selection.

"Yes, he's certainly a guy that you would have to think about if you have that [No. 1] pick and you need a quarterback," a personnel executive with one NFL team said.

Raiders and Vegas: The Raiders, now that their season is done, are free to formally apply to relocate to Las Vegas, as owner Mark Davis has said he plans to do.

The move would have to be ratified by at least 24 of the 32 owners. And the league and owners might not be in a major rush, given that Davis has said the franchise would remain in Oakland while a new stadium in Vegas would be under construction.

Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick for the San Diego Chargers, who have until this coming Sunday to exercise their option to join the Rams in L.A.


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