Ho Ho Ho!
RJ Claus is in town and I've brought all of you gifts from the NFL Pole!
I've made my list and I've checked it twice, I know which teams are terrible and which are nice. It's a White Christmas for some folks while the Grinch has stolen the playoff dreams of others.
Week 16 kicks off with a Christmas Eve matchup on NFL Network's Thursday Night Football. So giddy up, giddy up, let's go! I can hear those sleigh bells ring-ting-tingling which means it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride with you through my weekly picks!
Don't touch the reindeer. They bite. I'm trying to calm them down, but they take after Odell Beckham Jr. so there's not much that I can do about it.
Thursday Night Football: San Diego Chargers (4-10) At Oakland Raiders (6-8)
The boughs of holly are all around the Black Hole this week as it will be the final time that the Raider Faithful will get to see one of the finest to ever lace 'em up - Charles Woodson.
The Heisman-winning Wolverine announced that this season would be his last earlier this week. The Raiders responded by announcing that they might channel his Michigan days and line him up at wide receiver or have him serve some return duties. What a Christmas Miracle that would be!
Charles could line up at all 11 positions at the same time and probably beat this Chargers team as they are pretty spent. The Bolts have quit on the season as they seem to be destined for life in Los Angeles. Things could be worse.
Prediction: Chargers - 17, RAIDERS - 30
Saturday Night Football: Washington Redskins (7-7) At Philadelphia Eagles (6-8)
The NFC East could be sewn up Saturday Night when the Washington Football Club visits the land where Super Bowls run dry... the city of Brotherly Love - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Those Redskins caught a little bit of fire last week with their impressive win over the Bills. The Eagles might as well have been on fire with how bad they played at home against the Cardinals.
Chip Kelly might be the real-life incarnation of The Grinch with all of his smoothie drinking ways. DeMarco Murray is little Cindy Lou Who... confused at how Chip would want to steal happiness and joy from him.
There will be no joy for either Chip or DeMarco as Kirk Cousins, of all people, will put the exclamation point on his Cinderella season. I like that.
Prediction: REDSKINS - 27, Eagles - 23
Carolina Panthers (14-0) At Atlanta Falcons (7-7)
This is your weekly reminder that Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons are criminally overrated.
After he throws two interceptions this week, yes it is happening, Matty "Ice" will officially tie Peyton Manning for the league-lead in interceptions this season. As shocking as that sentence is remember that Manning hasn't thrown a pass since November 15th.
As terrible as the Falcons are, the Panthers are equally awesome. I'm convinced that these guys are untouchable. Whether you want them to go undefeated or not you need to accept that the fate of NFL History resting on the Atlanta Falcons is not a good idea.
Prediction: PANTHERS - 37, Falcons - 13
Dallas Cowboys (4-10) At Buffalo Bills (6-8)
The Kellen Moore bandwagon has pulled into town! Are you on it?
As doubtful as that is, I'd imagine that Moore's crowd of supporters is still larger than Rex Ryan's. The Buffalo Head Coach has huffed and puffed more than usual this year, and it's gotten his team nowhere. Shocker.
The Dallas Cowboys are past the point of being desperate for a win. At this point they just want to not be totally embarrassing. The odds of that against 'ol Rexy are pretty good if you ask me.
Although Rex Ryan is as inept as they come, these Cowboys have served as a great tune-up game for those in need. Eddie Lacy was having a terrible year and under some heavy scrutiny up until two weeks ago when he played the Cowboys and everything was perfect again!
Look for all of the Buffalo problems to suddenly be their area of expertise on Sunday.
Prediction: Cowboys - 19, BILLS - 24
Chicago Bears (5-9) At Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8)
There are so many storylines going on around the NFL all the time that some are bound to slip through the cracks.
Lovie Smith is getting a chance to face his former team at his new casa. He's probably prepping some coal for their stockings.
I want to like the Bears. I really do. They have what should be at least a watchable team, but they find ways to continually ruin it.
Jameis has been so up and down during his rookie season, but he'll find a way to get it going on Sunday. His rookie year will go full circle as he beats the team based in the city where he was drafted. Hooray for circles!
Prediction: Bears - 20, BUCCANEERS - 27
Cleveland Browns (3-11) At Kansas City Chiefs (9-5)
Who has a better chance at survival... Frosty the Snowman in July or the Browns against any professional football team? Tough question, isn't it?
It's the right time to rock the night away for the Browns. Your season is over, Cleveland. This is who you are. Embrace it.
The Chiefs are rolling right now. If you think the Browns are getting in the way of that then you've had one too many candy canes this year.
Prediction: Browns - 16, CHIEFS - 33
San Francisco 49ers (4-10) At Detroit Lions (5-9)
Our poor eyes.
Go to the store and get yourself a can of chicken noodle soup. You're going to need it after watching this game. I don't care that the Lions are coming off a win on Monday Night Football... these are two of the worst teams on this planet.
This year to, to save me from tears, I'm giving this game to someone special - Ebenezer Scrooge. Take care of this game for me, will ya buddy? Make it go away forever.
Prediction: 49ers - 9, LIONS - 23
Houston Texans (7-7) At Tennessee Titans (3-11)
This is a real thing.
The potentially Brandon Weeden-led Houston Texans can clinch the AFC South, and therefore a home playoff game, by beating the Zack Mettenberger-led Tennessee Titans.
What did we do to deserve this horror? This is supposed to be the season of joy to the world!
Heaven and Nature are singing about how weird of a season this has been, and this game is as much proof as you need.
Joy to the Texans. You're less terrible. Barely.
Prediction: TEXANS - 17, Titans - 6
Indianapolis Colts (6-8) At Miami Dolphins (5-9)
Seriously... what did we do as a society to deserve such terrible football games this late in the season?
I mean, you think "Week 16" and you immediately think about epic games with so much on the line. You think about watching this year's Colts with Matt Hasselbeck and now potentially Charlie Whitehurst versus this year's Dolphins and you feel like someone kicked you right in the jingle bells.
Santa has seen these teams when they were sleeping, and he thinks they play better football there in their dreams than they do on any kind of field.
Watch out, you will cry. You can pout Colts, I'm telling you why.
Prediction: Colts - 16, DOLPHINS - 27
New England Patriots (12-2) At New York Jets (9-5)
Finally! A real game! This is just a stocking stuffer, but get excited.
We've got a great division matchup here between the Patriots and Jets. New England is in contention for the number one overall seed in the AFC while the Jets are trying to keep their wildcard hopes alive. This game smells like a peppermint mocha... nice and epic.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is on fire, man. This is real fire, too, not just a case of playing the Cowboys recently. Tom Brady is Tom Brady, though. Who will prevail?
The Jets are going to get up for this game. They're going to throw the kitchen sink at the Patriots. This is the type of game that usually can overwhelm New England.
Which is why they're going to win it dramatically at the end.
Prediction: PATRIOTS - 34, Jets - 32
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) At Baltimore Ravens (4-10)
I could not care less that the Ravens beat the Steelers in the first matchup of these teams earlier this season.
That was a completely different Steelers team, one that was not scoring at absolute will on teams.
Pittsburgh just proved that their offense can hang with the best with their victory over the Broncos last week. All that Baltimore proved was that they seem to choose the pants that the team wears in the dark, or that they just don't care about looking good at all.
Give me Pittsburgh. Big.
Prediction: STEELERS - 37, Ravens - 10
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-9) At New Orleans Saints (5-9)
There's a heavy-scoring offense taking the field at the Superdome on Sunday. It's the Jacksonville Jaguars, not the New Orleans Saints.
The Jags are going to let it snow points everywhere! The Saints would have a difficult time hanging with them normally, but consider that Drew Brees is hurting and might not play and you've got a disaster waiting to happen.
You're going to hear some boos in New Orleans during this game. The Saints loyalists are going to reach their limit when they're getting boatraced by the Jaguars. Can you blame them?
Prediction: JAGUARS - 31, Saints - 14
Green Bay Packers (10-4) At Arizona Cardinals (12-2)
Sunday is going to be a silent night in Green Bay.
All of the cheeseheads are under the incredible misunderstanding that they have a good football team on their hands. Has anyone caught more breaks, or had an easier schedule, than the Pack this year? Anybody? Bueller?
This is going to be a trip back down to earth for Aaron Rodgers as he and his friends are going to face an elite team for the first time in quite a while.
It's a shame that Tyrann Mathieu tore his ACL last week, but it won't matter during this game. The Cardinals are going to rock around Aaron Rodgers like a Christmas tree.
Prediction: Packers - 20, CARDINALS - 45
St. Louis Rams (6-8) At Seattle Seahawks (9-5)
Jeff Fisher has one pretty reliable consistency with his Rams, and that's that they always get up for division games.
St. Louis has played San Francisco, Arizona, and Seattle pretty tough over the last few seasons. In fact they even beat the Seahawks in Week 1 of this season. The Rams rise above themselves for these big games.
Those days are over.
The Rams are having a Blue Christmas, and pretty much a blue existence. The Seahawks are peaking at just the right time and no one, especially the little baby sheep Rams, are going to get in the way of that.
Prediction: Rams - 13, SEAHAWKS - 33
Sunday Night Football: New York Giants (6-8) At Minnesota Vikings (9-5)
The New York Giants have one of the most explosive and talented receivers on their team.
They will be without his services during this game thanks to his antics last week against the Carolina Panthers.
Odell Beckham Jr. is a game-changer and would have given the Giants a huge chance in this contest. Without him they are left to rely on Elisha and we all know how that can go.
Minnesota has lost a teeny little bit of steam, but a teeny bit is all its going to take to beat the G-Men who have 99 problems... all of them being pretty relative to OBJ.
Prediction: Giants - 17, VIKINGS - 27
Monday Night Football: Cincinnati Bengals (11-3) At Denver Broncos (10-4)
There's a lot riding on this game.
The Bengals and Broncos are both in the running for a first round bye in this year's playoffs. The Broncos might even be getting ahead of themselves with that thought as the Chiefs are only a game behind them in the AFC West race. Yikes.
Good thing they have Brock Osweiler! Against AJ McCarron! What a weird season.
The Broncos are starting to fall apart, we saw it in Pittsburgh last week. A dance against one of the deepest teams in football is not the way to rebound and propel yourself forward.
Prediction: BENGALS - 24, Broncos - 20
Will Throwing to New Set of Targets Be a Challenge for Dak?
Pass catchers talk is the talk of the 2018 Dallas Cowboys offseason. How wouldn't it be with Dez Bryant being cut and Terrance Williams being in trouble? Not to mention the retirement of 15-year veteran and future Hall of Famer Jason Witten?
It's a new era for America's Team. If everything works out according to plan, an era that will be led by Quarterback Dak Prescott. Hopefully, it's one in which the Cowboys will get back to glory and bring home the much-desired sixth Lombardi Trophy.
A 12-4 record and the #1 seed in the NFC had almost everyone in Cowboys Nation content with #4. However, a rocky 2017 season and a 9-7 record resulted in tough criticism for the second year QB. Although he showed signs of improvement as the team's passer, the team's performance through Ezekiel Elliott's suspension and Tyron Smith's injury earned Dak Prescott a ton of "haters."
Heading into his third year in the NFL, Prescott has a ton to prove. It's time to show whether or not he's the future of the franchise. A good year and he'll probably see a juicy extension soon. A bad year and the front office may find themselves re-evaluating the position for 2019.
Plenty of challenges will be on the way of Dak, including facing the defending Super Bowl Champions twice this season.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the young signal-caller will be the players he's throwing to. During his first two seasons, Prescott has been mainly throwing the football to the same guys. His main targets in the span of two seasons have been Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams.
Witten and Bryant are both out of the picture now. Williams just might be in the future. He's job in Dallas was relatively safe because his contract really provided job security. However, after bringing in a ton of wide receivers in the offseason, he has to earn himself a spot.
Unfortunately for him, he's sitting out for offseason practices due to a foot injury. On top of that, we all know how T-Will got into trouble last week. You see, even before the accident, he arguably was the fourth best WR on the team, with Hurns, Gallup and Beasley over him.
If a suspension does come, Williams will likely be released since his guaranteed money will take a hit. The Cowboys may decide to stick with him, but with the receivers they have on the roster, they may want to use the roster spot on somebody else.
Let's say T-Will is ultimately released. That'll take away three targets that have always been there through Prescott's short career. In order to have a truly successful 2018, he'll have to overcome the absence of these guys and adapt to the new faces. Even if he isn't cut, he likely won't be a starter.
Allen Hurns and Michael Gallup are both expected to start once the season takes off. On the tight end side of things, the starting role is still up for grabs. Whether it's Dalton Schultz, Blake Jarwin, Geoff Swaim or even Rico Gathers remains unknown. The point is, it won't be Jason Witten.
In a year in which Dak has to prove he's the franchise quarterback this team needs, doing so with some of his main targets gone could make things a bit harder... or perhaps not.
At the end of the day, the receivers they brought in are supposed to be the kind of receivers they want on the so-called Dak-friendly offense. Prescott recently pointed out that he doesn't think a team needs a #1 WR.
If the team's plan works out and these receivers are better for a Dak-led offense and the identity they want to take as an offensive unit, the receiving corps should be seen as an upgrade rather than a downgrade. Of course, Witten is the exception. Even still, maybe they try new things with a younger TE lined up.
The new era the Cowboys are about to go into hinges on the success of this offense. Hopefully, both the receivers and the quarterback are able to step up. Let's get excited about it.
Can WR Noah Brown be a Surprise Starter in 2018?
With all of the new faces the Dallas Cowboys added to the wide receiver position it's easy to overlook someone like Noah Brown. Everyone is anxiously awaiting to find out what the "new toys" can do, but they tend to overlook an ascending player who's already on the roster. That is exactly what I believe Brown is in his second-year and why he could be a surprise starter in 2018.
Noah Brown didn't have a large offensive role as a rookie in 2017, but he did show flashes of a player whose arrow is trending upward. And now that the Cowboys have revamped pretty much the entire receiver position, Brown has a chance to climb the depth chart and become much more than just a role player.
There is really no way of knowing exactly where and how the Dallas Cowboys plan to deploy their WRs this season. The only thing we really know right now is that Cole Beasley will once again be the slot WR. Everything else is completely up for grabs, which is why this could be the position battle to watch throughout the remainder of the offseason.
With Dez Bryant, Ryan Switzer, and quite possibly Terrance Williams all gone, someone is going to have to catch passes from Dak Prescott in 2018. Allen Hurns, who the Cowboys signed as a free agent, is expected to replace some of that lost production as either the X or Y WR. But, behind him there's a lot of unknown.
The third-round draft pick Michael Gallup has the skill set to also play either X or Y, and should be part of the equation as well. But, you never really know how these collegiate players will transition to the speed of the NFL.
That is why I believe Noah Brown has a real shot at becoming a starter this season. This is especially true with Terrance Williams recent off the field troubles. I kind of doubt he has a job much longer.
With Williams likely on his way out, Noah Brown moves up the depth chart. I believe he can immediately step in and replace #83's production in the passing game and as a blocker in the running game as well. We got a glimpse of him doing just that last season, which might be why he's getting first-team reps in organized team activities (OTA's).
Second-year WR Noah Brown got a ton of work with the first-team. Lance Lenoir did also
It's easy to forget, but Noah Brown was mostly utilized as a blocking WR/TE last season. At 6'2", 225, Brown is now the biggest and most physical receiver on the Cowboys roster. His blocking ability is what got him on the field as a rookie, but he's no slob in the passing game if given the chance.
Brown is already a solid route runner, but he has been working during the offseason with a WR Guru, David Robinson, to improve this area of his game.
Now, I may be a little biased since I was a fan of Noah Brown's before the Cowboys drafted him. I actually had a fourth-round grade on him coming out of Ohio, so I was ecstatic Dallas was able to get him in the seventh.
But, despite my favoritism, I can really envision him becoming a surprise starter when the season opens up. He not only has the skill set to do it, but a year in the system could gives him an advantage over these new additions. It could of making all the difference.
Do you think WR Noah Brown be a surprise starter in 2018?
Creating a Monster: The Dallas Cowboys Offensive Line
After years of building, drafting, and retooling, the Dallas Cowboys have completed their offensive line. And in the process, they've created a monster. The addition of Connor Williams in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft has reasserted the Dallas Cowboys offensive line as the best in football -- and it may not be close.
The team has been on this path since 2011 to create an identity for their football team that starts up front on the offensive line.
What transpired in the 2009 and 2010 seasons had a lot to do with the direction the team has taken over the last 8 seasons to ensure they were great up front.
The End of 2009
In 2009, the Dallas Cowboys won the NFC East and proceeded to win their wild card game to reach the divisional round for the second time in three years, only to be beaten by the Minnesota Vikings 34-3.
What transpired in that game should have been enough for the Cowboys to address their offensive line in the 2010 draft as quarterback Tony Romo was sacked six times and threw an interception.
On the season, Romo was sacked 34 times, which is more than twice a game. Perhaps the wins on the season and the division title masked the issues the team had up front.
The Debacle of the 2010 Season
The team had lofty expectations heading into 2010. They had been to the playoffs three of the previous four seasons and, despite the drubbing at the hands of the Vikings, were still a formidable offensive team with some star power on defense in DeMarcus Ware.
Unfortunately, it was never to be.
Tony Romo only started six games and was sacked seven times in that span. Cowboys quarterbacks were sacked a total of 31 times, which would be right outside the top ten for most sacks allowed in the NFL in 2010.
Tony Romo went 1-5 in his six starts that season, getting sacked seven times in those six games before giving way to Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee for the final ten games of the season.
Head Coach Wade Phillips was replaced by Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett after a 1-7 start that culminated in an embarrassing loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
More Than a Coach Was Changed
The change in coaching signaled a change in philosophy from a 3-4 defensive minded head coach to an offensive one who was rooted in the glory days of the Dallas Cowboys of the 90's.
Those teams were known for their elite offensive line play that set the tone for the rest of the team. They protected Troy Aikman, who is in the Hall of Fame, and paved the way for the NFL's All-Time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith.
The impact that the offensive line had on the Cowboys teams of the 90's can't be understated.
So in 2011, Jason Garrett's first NFL Draft as the Dallas Cowboys head coach, he convinced Owner and General Manager Jerry Jones that they needed to do more to protect their most valuable asset (Tony Romo) while becoming a team that could run the ball and control the clock.
With the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft, the Dallas Cowboys selected Tackle Tyron Smith.
That selection was history making. It was the first time in the Jerry Jones era that they had spent a first round pick on an offensive lineman. A span of more than 20 years saw the Dallas Cowboys never invest a first in the offensive line.
Jason Garrett's work to make the Dallas Cowboys in the image of the Super Bowl glory days of the 90's finally came to fruition.
The Dallas Cowboys offensive line led the way for Running Back DeMarco Murray to lead the NFL in rushing. They protected Tony Romo to have the best season of his career, leading the NFL with a passer rating of 113.2.
Everything looked to be coming together for a team that went 12-4, won the NFC East, and beat some notable teams like the Seattle Seahawks along the way.
Then the "Dez Caught It" moment happened and we all came crashing back to Earth.
That season, though it didn't end in a Lombardi Trophy, was still a success as it created a template that could be successful in the NFL. As teams attempt to spread out their formations to throw the ball, the Dallas Cowboys, while still using a lot of 11-personnel, showed the NFL that you can still be a run-first, physical football team and win.
With the template set, all the Dallas Cowboys have to do is to continue to retool.
Creating a Monster
Let's review how the Dallas Cowboys have collected this impressive group of humans to block for their football team.
- Tyron Smith was the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft. Though he started out as a right tackle his rookie season, he made the move to the left side in his second year and has been considered one of the best tackles in the NFL since. Back issues have slowed him down, but he's still in his prime heading into his eighth (!!!) NFL Season.
- Travis Frederick was the 31st pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. A lot of the draft analysts around the league believed that to be a reach at the time when the Dallas Cowboys traded back to 31 to select Frederick. They don't think it's a reach now.
- In 2014 the Dallas Cowboys, yet again, selected an offensive lineman in the first round of the NFL Draft. It was widely reported that if Ryan Shazier would have been there at pick 16, that he would have been the selection. Shazier's been a great player in the league, but I'm actually glad that they got Martin. He's considered the best guard in the NFL and will probably be so for the next ten years.
- Right Tackle La'el Collins would have been a first round draft pick had his name not been attached to the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Instead of being a first round draft pick, the Dallas Cowboys, led by GM Jerry Jones, wined and dined Collins into signing a pretty nice deal for a UDFA. After rotating with Leary for a couple of seasons, he's now the RT for the best offensive line in football.
That brings us to the newest addition of what has been coined The OLuminati.
Heading into the 2018 NFL Draft, the whole world knew -- or hoped -- the Dallas Cowboys would address the left guard spot early on. When the first round came and went, most of us, including this writer, thought they'd likely have to trade up in the second to still come away with a plug and play guard at pick number 50.
So when they landed Connor Williams while staying put at 50, Cowboys Nation erupted with joy.
Connor Williams is strong enough to play on the interior but comes with the movement and flexibility to get to the perimeter and the second level. Though he was good last year, Jonathan Cooper was the weak link because of his movement limitations.
Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy
I just watched season one of the YouTube Red production Cobra Kai, which follows the lives of The Karate Kid's main characters Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence as adults.
Johnny, broke as a joke, relaunched the Cobra Kai karate brand based on the philosophy, "Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy." While it's a harsh philosophy to be teaching a bunch of teenagers, it certainly has its place with the Dallas Cowboys offensive line.
This group has the attitude and the ability to ruin days for opposing defenses. They aren't just going to get in your way, they're going to hit you and go through you.
This group of lineman has no weaknesses and if we talk about the signing of Cam Fleming, now you have a guy that played tackle for the New England Patriots during the Super Bowl as your tackle off the bench if you need him.
The Dallas Cowboys are going to be able to run inside and outside and to both sides of the offensive line with regularity because of the strength, physicality, and movement ability of their starting five. Opposing defenses aren't going to be able to load up on one side of the line because of a perceived weakness on the other side.
With Ezekiel Elliott running behind them, who's shown the ability to stretch a play outside and make a big run or find a crease in the middle of the line for a huge play, this is the Dallas Cowboys running game that Jason Garrett has been looking for since he took over in 2011.
While they've had success in the past, I have huge expectations for this group in 2018. 1,600 rushing yards for Elliott if he plays 16 games should be the floor. There's no reason he shouldn't flirt with a 2,000 yard season.
Now, whether that leads to a Super Bowl Championship remains to be seen, but we've seen in the past that when the Dallas Cowboys have success in the run game, it usually leads to wins, and lots of them.
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