Steve O’Rourke: Without Wentz, the NFC is wide open again

16 min


Football in 2017 is depressing.

Not just because the Raiders are bad again, but because high-profile player after high-profile player has fallen by the wayside this season.

On the defensive line, we’ve lost the likes of JJ Watt, Cliff Avril, and Nick Fairley while Ryan Shazier, Jamie Collins and Whitney Mercilus are just some of the linebackers ending the year on injured reserve. Behind them, in the secondary, Eric Berry and Richard Sherman headline a list of all-pro defensive backs watching the end of the 2017/18 season from the sidelines.

On the other side of the ball, we lost Joe Thomas and Jason Peters — two of the best left tackles in football — while Odell Beckham Jr and Allen Robinson, two of the most explosive receivers in football, have not had a chance to show their real worth. David Johnson is, perhaps, the best running back in football but, alongside exciting rookie Dalvin Cook who got hurt so early we’ll have to wait until 2018 before seeing them again.

And then there are the quarterbacks.

Aaron Rodgers, Carson Palmer, DeShaun Watson and Andrew Luck have all been badly missed by their teams this season but, perhaps, the cruelest blow of all came last weekend when Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz tore his ACL.

Eagles QB Carson Wentz pictured limping from the field last Sunday vs the Rams.

The Eagles, in case you didn’t know, have never won it all in the Super Bowl era — though they do have national championships from 1948, 1949 and 1960 — coming closest to lifting the Vince Lombardi trophy in 1980 and 2004 when they won the NFC Championship game.

This year, however, with the sophomore Wentz at the helm and the league’s only top-five rushing and passing defense — per Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA metric — they sit at 11-2 in position to have home advantage throughout the playoffs.

However, in his absence, the Eagles must make do with Nick Foles and nobody knows what version of the Foles-coaster the City of Brotherly Love is likely to get.

If it’s the one that, in 2013 under Chip Kelly, replaced Michael Vick for 10 games, throwing for 27 touchdowns and just two picks with the league’s best passer-rating of 119.2; then they’re laughing. If they get the version we’ve seen in the 26 games he’s played since — throwing 23 TDs and 20 interceptions with a passer rating of just 77.6 — then the NFC is wide open.

Just how tough is the Eagles’ predicament going forward? Well, very.

Not just because the Minnesota Vikings — despite last week’s loss to the Panthers — have the offence and defence to become the first team to host a Super Bowl, but because this week will see the return of the aforementioned Aaron Rodgers for the Green Bay Packers, a team that needs to win out to stand any chance of reaching the playoffs. More on that later.

But history is also against them. Since 1991, 13 different quarterbacks have started a game in the playoffs with 3-or-fewer starts in that regular season.

Their combined record in the postseason is 2-12 with Frank Reich — as a member of the 1992 Buffalo Bills — earning both wins. If there is one sliver of hope for the Eagles, it’s that Reich is currently the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia.

LA Chargers (7-6) @ Kansas City Chiefs (7-6) – Sunday, 1.30am

The best thing about this time of year, apart from drunkenly singing Fairytale of New York at the top of your voice on the way home from your Christmas party, is that Saturday football returns. While the first game is the non-descript contest between the Bears and Lions, the late game is a rather tasty encounter between the LA Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs with the winners almost certainly taking the AFC West and a place in the postseason.

Both teams sit at 7-6 but they’ve gone about it in vastly different ways. After winning their opening five games — with Alex Smith looking like a legitimate MVP candidate — the Chiefs have lost six of their last eight but bounced back to winning ways against a hopeless Oakland side last weekend. Key to that success was the re-establishment of a ground attack that appeared to have lost its way from weeks 6-13 when they only broke the 100-yard mark on the ground twice.

They’ll need Kareem Hunt to be at his very best again this week against a Chargers outfit that ranks sixth against the pass this season, but just 26th against the run.

They had their best ground performance of the season — 189 yards — when they beat the Chargers back in week three, but the real key to that game was forcing Philip Rivers into three turnovers.

Takeaways are likely playing a major role in the early hours of Sunday with the Chiefs and Chargers third and fourth in turnover differential respectively.

On their current four-game win streak, they’ve managed to force 11 while giving the ball away just once. However, it’s worth remembering going into this game that, going back to last season, of the 20 one-score games LA have been involved with this year, they’ve won just six.

Despite being on the road, the Chargers are just a one-point underdog. I know they’re the form team in the division but I have a nagging feeling that this is going to be ‘one of those’ games for LA so I’m taking the Chiefs at home. I also think, in primetime, they go comfortably over the points total (46).

Green Bay Packers (7-6) @ Carolina Panthers (9-4) – Sunday, 6pm

The Cleveland Browns very nearly spoiled the Rodgers’ Return Party but the fact is, with games against the Panthers, Vikings, and Lions to come, Green Bay are just a game — and a whole host of tiebreakers we’ll get into in week 17 — away from securing the final Wildcard spot in the NFC.

It feels like forever ago but cast your mind back to before Rodgers got injured against Minnesota and the Packers were 4-1 with Rodgers completing 66.3% of his passes (the second highest rate of his career) for 13 touchdowns and just three picks.

Since then, (not including the game he left) they’ve gone 3-5 and went from averaging 27.4 points per game with Rodgers to just 19.7 under Brett Hundley.

Making the playoffs will require Green Bay to be perfect, with a little help, but it’s not like Rodgers’ return is a surprise to Carolina’s coaching team. They’ve known since he went down that this might be his return and Ron Rivera said this week he has been prepping his team to face the two-time NFL MVP. To win, they’ll once again rely on a pass rush that sacked Case Keenum six times last weekend, pressuring him on a further 20 occasions. Given that Rodgers required 13 pins to fix his injury, why not see just how well his recovery has really gone?

Even with the return of Rodgers, the Panthers are 2.5 point favourites but I just can’t back against #12 in a must-win scenario. The points total (47) is intriguing too, but I’m edging towards the over.

New England Patriots 10-3 @ Pittsburgh Steelers 11-2 – Sunday, 9.25pm

Monday night showed us why football isn’t played on paper as the Patriots, on an eight-game win streak, slipped to divisional rivals Miami. In truth, it was a result that was coming for the defending champions as they were below par against the Dolphins in week 12 and against the Bills last weekend, even if they won those games by a combined 38 points.

On Monday, the Pats failed to convert a single third down for the first time since 1991, had no fewer than seven drives resulting in a three-and-out and finished the game with a season-low in rushing yards (25), total yards (248) and posted their second-lowest point total of the season.

The result sees Brady, as much as he is the greatest to ever play the position, slip to 7-9 all-time against the ‘Fins on the road.

The Steelers have very quietly gone about their business this season and find themselves holding the number one seed with just three games left. If Mike Tomlin had drawn up how he wanted the season to go back in week one, this would be his dream scenario with a chance to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win over New England.

This is a fascinating encounter as both teams rank in the top-10 in terms of points scored and points allowed and first (Patriots) and second (Steelers) in passing yards per game.

Like our first game, the key difference could be takeaways where the Patriots rank sixth in turnover differential while the Steelers languish in 17th.

It’s a stat that comes up time and time again, but nobody is better than the Patriots at bouncing back from a loss. Since 2003, their record is 43-7 straight-up in the wake of a defeat (86%), well in excess of the next best team — coincidentally Pittsburgh who are 53-29 (64.6%). Even taking into account the spread, New England is miles ahead of everyone else, posting a 37-13 record (with the Steelers joint second on 59.8%).

In short, I think the Patriots — with Gronk returning — justify their favouritism (-3) and bounce back from Monday night’s game to wrest back control of the AFC. 52.5 is by far the highest points total of this week’s action but I’m still tempted by the over.

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