Bruce Arthur: Buckle up for the best NFL weekend of the season

Bruce Arthur: Buckle up for the best NFL weekend of the season
Ah, the best NFL weekend of the year. The last four-game slate after more of the pretenders have been sent home, their deficits laid plain. Houston’s big-name defensive line got crushed. Baltimore had almost everything but a good QB, as per tradition. Chicago kicker Cody Parkey hit the upright and the crossbar on a game-winning field goal, but he had also hit the uprights four times in a game in November, so it wasn’t a total shock. Sometimes, a hobby becomes a lifestyle.

But in one case, it was the guys in charge. The Seattle Seahawks were facing Dallas’ elite run defence, which is also a semi-mediocre pass defence. Seattle has an elite quarterback in Russell Wilson. What to do? Fetch my three-dimensional chess calculator, Watson.

The Seahawks decided on one-dimensional chess. They tried to establish the run in the manner of occasionally husky football men throughout history, saving many passes for third down. The Seahawks led the league in rushing this season. Sure.

But against Dallas the run failed, and Wilson was pretty good when they called passes, but that didn’t happen enough, and the Seahawks are done. Head coach and one-time 9/11 conspiracy theorist Pete Carroll defended undistinguished professional son and offensive co-ordinator Brian Schottenheimer, and the end result is the strength and conditioning coach is getting fired. Clearly, his game plan of conditioning and strengthening the players was inadequate.

A football game is a little like life: it’s long, and sometimes requires painkillers. Adjustments are critical and if you don’t make them, you’re going to repeat the same mistakes and come up against a wall. Five years ago, Seattle blew a Super Bowl on a play call, with a different offensive co-ordinator; then, they threw the ball instead of running it. So like life, you can make different mistakes as it goes, too. Unlike 9/11, Seattle’s loss really was an inside job.

So who will screw up this week’s chess matches? Andy Reid and Kansas City are known to be vulnerable to explosive offences and also the orderly passage of time, and Indianapolis and Frank Reich’s defensive trickery and perhaps the never-ending scroll of existence itself will test the Chiefs, whose offence might not be stoppable.

Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson beat Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl last season with a trick frickin’ play, and has steered what’s left of the defending champs to the divisional round, where he should probably not play a zone defence against Sean Payton and Drew Brees.

The Rams were such a fun killing machine for most of the season that anyone who has ever met their young, creative coach, Todd McVay, is getting hired for an NFL job, unless they are a visible minority, apparently. But against Dallas, can even the brilliant McVay deduce that you are allowed, under NFL rules, to pass the ball on first down AND second down?

And then we come to the big one: Belichick versus a near-great quarterback who has been known to throw an interception here or there. At this point, if you’re hoping the Patriots have another run in them, you’re hoping someone oils Rob Gronkowski’s joints, and that the defence isn’t as mediocre as it seems, and that Tom Brady finds the magic again. (Hoping the Patriots make it isn’t as ridiculous as it seems, by the way: they do produce the best Super Bowls.)

But more than anything, you’re hoping Belichick does that thing where he finds the structural imbalances in the matchups and pries apart the seams that nobody else can see, and the Patriots pile up enough marginal advantages to win.

Unless he can’t. This past week seven NFL teams hired new head coaches, and maybe one of them will be a wild success. But even the geniuses can screw the whole thing up.
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