On his broadcast Monday night, former Colts and Broncos Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning let the cat out of the bag when announcing to NFL fans that the term “halftime adjustments” was the biggest fallacy in the game. As his brother Eli said, there isn’t much time to do anything but pee, get a drink and get back to work. The brothers are so right. This is why the game is never about halftime, it’s broken into three parts. The first part relies on evaluating the first quarter, assessing the game plan, and making sure the prepared strategy was correct. Then, the second part uses the second and third quarters to adjust within the framework of the strategy, and finally, the third part makes the fourth quarter becomes a stand-alone game. Adjustments must occur quickly in between series, and the best play callers on either side of the ball anticipate the moves and never react.
Divisional weekend will show us which coaches can adjust, and which coaches fall victim to the wonderful Mike Tyson line: Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Some team will get punched in the mouth early—like Dallas did last year at home when the 49ers went ahead 10-0 in the Wild Card round. Dallas never punched back; they never understood how to play their opponent and operated as if the game was being played in Week 6 of the season.
More than any other weekend in the NFL, this weekend requires head coaches who understand style over scheme, and how to align their three phases—offense, defense and the kicking game—perfectly with one another. It will require perfect harmony between each unit, coordinators who call the game as a head coach, not focused on their individual needs. As Mickey Corcoran (Bill Parcells' high school coach) would tell Parcells, there is always a way to win a game, you just need to figure out how. The figuring-out part isn’t as easy as it sounds. And once you have it figured out, being able to execute the plan is another hurdle to overcome.
The execution hurdle was the reason the Jags lost to the Chiefs in Week 10. When you examine the game, the Jags understood how to play the Chiefs, had the perfect strategy, and they still lost by ten points. The Jags knew the style; they just didn’t play well, and their best player quarterback Trevor Lawrence didn’t have his greatest day. He protected the ball, but he missed too many throws. and in the Divisional round missed throws are huge mistakes. Yet not all is lost for the Jags. Like the Giants last week in Minnesota, the Jags understand what it will take to win and how they can handle the crowd. They know they cannot have empty possessions or missed field goals, and Lawrence cannot miss open receivers. They will need the ball last and will need to score as the clock runs out. It’s doable, but if they fall behind like they did in the first game, or as they did last week, they won’t be able to come back.
For the Cowboys, they must start fast. They must play from in front and force the 49ers to use Brock Purdy in the passing game, outside of the normal play-action throws. The Cowboys can move the ball on the 49ers if they help their left tackle, Jason Peters against Nick Bosa. The Cowboys' offensive line must play well, and their defense must have their best tackling game. If they win the game, their ability to limit yards after catch will be the difference.
The Giants have the momentum off their win in Minnesota and face an Eagles team that dominated them in Week 14 at the Meadowlands. The Birds ran for 253 yards, made big plays and forced the Giants to play outside their comfort zone. The Giants fell behind 24-7 at the half, could not convert third downs 30%, and allowed 41- and 33-yard touchdown passes. They played their worst game of the year that day, and the difference in talent between the two teams was noticeable. With Adoree’ Jackson and Leonard Williams healthy for the game (they didn’t play in either game), the Giants will slightly close the talent gap. Can they duplicate the Washington game plan of slowing the game down and winning third down? They must, as it's their only chance. The Giants have understood style of play all season as their formula hasn’t changed. They must slow the game down, play great situational football, and enter the fourth quarter either one score ahead or one score behind. If they play their style, it still doesn’t guarantee a win, but they would for sure cover. Remember, the number one seeds since 2003 are 13-25-1 against the spread.
The Bengals are not the same team as last year, and neither are the Bills. The Bills' defense ranks third in points per play for the season but appears vulnerable. Their defense never had control of the Miami game and won’t get control of the Bengals game either. Both teams will move the ball and make plays. The difference in the game will come down to which quarterback makes the least mistakes. And we all know Josh Allen has been more prone to mistakes than Joe Burrow. If the Bills don’t go back to their six-back offense and feature Allen as their lead ball carrier, they will not beat the Bengals. If they do, they will need to protect the ball and keep Burrow from having the ball in the fourth, with a chance to win—like Miami had last week.
One of the strengths of the Bengals is their defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, and his ability to adjust as the game goes along. Why he isn’t being interviewed for a head coaching position is baffling, but his talents could prove to be the difference in the game.
My advice for picking the games this week is to go with the best adjusters and the teams who can play different styles—and outside their comfort zone.
1. Patrick Mahomes - His loose play style in the red zone on those four-point plays is the difference between the Chiefs winning and losing. He plays his best in the red zone when it matters most.
2. Joe Burrow - He is the John Stockton of the NFL. He doesn’t look flashy or overly athletic, yet, all he does is make plays in critical situations to win games.
3. Jalen Hurts - Look for the Eagles to run Hurts early in the game to prove he is 100 percent healthy, forcing the Giants to account for him in the Eagles six back offense.
4. Trevor Lawrence - He cannot have a bad half, nor can he play as he did in Week 10. If Lawrence plays as he did against the Titans in Nashville, he will give the Chiefs more than they can handle.
5. Josh Allen - He must run—not scrambles, but designed runs for the quarterback. When he is the focal point of the run game, the Bills' offense is much better.
6. Dak Prescott - Prescott must play under control and use the old John Wooden adage, play quick, but don’t hurry.
7. Daniel Jones - Coming off one of his best games against a bad defense. Now he faces an Eagles team that has gotten 60 of their 69 sacks from their defensive line. Jones will need to run the ball and make plays with his feet, especially on third down.
8. Brock Purdy - No one makes the quarterback position easier to play than Kyle Shanahan. He is the best playcaller in the game and the best game adjuster. Purdy needs to make the easy throws and not play outside of the game plan.
Buffalo is trending the wrong way and needs to correct themselves. Their offense doesn’t have a rhythm, and they have missed Isaiah McKenzie in the slot. His hamstring is now healed which will give the Bills' offense more firepower.
Don’t be fooled, the 49ers' offense sets the table for the 49ers' defense. Yes, the 49ers' defense is fast, athletic and can rush the passer, but they are vulnerable when facing a good offense and smart play caller. Since Week 16, (not counting the Cardinals game) in those three games, the 49ers have allowed 863 passing yards, 72 first downs, and 77 points. In contrast, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense, allowed 23 points in four playoff games including the Super Bowl, 75 first downs, and 579 yards. Let’s stop this nonsense that the 49ers are an elite record-setting defense. They are good—and their offense helps make them great.
Line of the Week
The Bengals are a 5.5 underdog to the Bills. Yes, I know the Bengals are beat-up in their offensive line, and barely beat the Tyler Huntley-led Ravens last week. But with a week to prepare for their shortcomings, the Bengals, as they did last year, can manage the game around their line. It’s funny how perception rules the line. Last week, the Bills struggled to beat an injury-riddled Miami team, and no one is worried, yet the Bengals struggled and are penalized. This line appears to be too heavy in favor of the Bills.
Dan Quinn of the Cowboys (and former head coach of the Falcons) knows Kyle Shanahan well since Shanahan was on the Falcons' staff. They both know how each other thinks, plans, and adjusts, which should make this a fun game to watch. Neither man will hold an advantage before the ball is kicked into the air, but Shanahan will gain one once Quinn declares his intentions of how to slow down the 49ers' attack. For Quinn to slow down the 49ers' offense, he knows the run game is the straw that stirs the drink. Everything that happens starts and ends with the run game, and if he doesn’t force Purdy to make throws outside of the play-action game, his team will struggle to win.
Last week, 3-0 on my picks and check back for the Sunday email to read my selections. 37-25 on the season, and 142-101 in my career.