Advertisement

4-Down Territory: Most, least serious wild-card teams, Secret Superstars, new coaches

Now that the 2023 NFL regular season is over, and it’s Super Wild-Card Weekend, it’s time once again for Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire, and Kyle Madson of Niners Wire, to come to the table with their own unique brand of analysis in “4-Down Territory.”

This week, the guys have some serious questions to answer:

  1. Which wild-card team should be taken most seriously for a Super Bowl run?

  2. Which wild-card team should be taken least seriously?

  3. Who’s your Secret Superstar for the wild-card round?

  4. Which assistant coach would you most like to get a vacant head coaching job?

You can watch this week’s “4-Down Territory” right here:

You can also listen and subscribe to the “4-Down Territory” podcast on Spotify…

and on Apple Podcasts.

1. Which wild-card team should be taken most seriously for a Super Bowl run?

(Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)
(Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

Doug: I almost went with the Packers here, but I just can’t take their defense seriously, no matter how amazing Jordan Love is. The Cowboys are the obvious answer, but Mike McCarthy is going to do Mike McCarthy things at the worst possible time. He can’t help himself. So… I’m going with the Cleveland Browns. They have the NFL’s second-best defense behind only the Ravens in games that are to be taken seriously (which does not count the regular-season finale against the Bengals), and Joe Flacco is doing things we never thought he’d do. This sounds nuts, but the playoffs are so much about momentum, and right now, the Browns just have it.

Yes, Flacco will make a few head-scratching throws, but he’s on point in this offense, and everybody in that locker room believes that he can get it done. The only bummer is that the Browns are facing the Texans in the wild-card round, which means one of these teams will be eliminated, and the Texans would be the other team I’d say you’d better watch out for, because C.J. Stroud is a ball placement alien, and that can take you a long way. 

Kyle: It’s the Rams for me. They’re ostensibly coming off a bye after resting Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Kyren Williams, Aaron Donald and Ernest Jones vs. the 49ers. Puka Nacua had to play into the third quarter, but he exited as soon as he got his records. They get the first-time playoff team in Detroit. Then it’s likely 49ers vs. Rams, which is a division game and could go either way. Then they’re in the NFC title game maybe against the Cowboys – and Sean McVay vs. Mike McCarthy is a huge mismatch. Given how well Stafford has played over the second half of the year, and given how healthy LA is, I’m not ruling them out of Super Bowl contention.

2. Which wild-card team should be taken least seriously?

(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)
(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

Doug: The Eagles. I don’t even know what to say here. Well, actually, I have a lot to say here. Let’s start with the Eagles’ use of pre-snap motion, because they don’t use it. They’ve had pre-snap motion on 26% of their offensive snaps this season, lowest in the NFL, and they’re 10th in Offensive Success Rate when they do use it. A.J. Brown has been on a milk carton in the second half of the season. With Jalen Hurts at quarterback, they’ve called designed rollouts on just 2% of their offensive plays. But they’re 14th in Success Rate when they do. This is an unserious offense. 

Now, let’s get to the defense, especially the defense since Week 15, when Matt Patricia became the defensive play-caller. Not that it’s all Patricia’s fault, but they’re doing two things a lot more recently – a lot more man coverage, which they’re not good at, and a lot more single–high coverage, which they’re really not good at. Under Patricia, the Eagles rank dead last in Defensive Success Rate with MOFC coverage, and they’ve done that 29% of the time. They’ve blitzed on 20% of their snaps under Patricia, and they’re 28th in Defensive Success Rate when doing so. 

Overall, the Eagles have dropped from second in DVOA in 2022 to 14th in 2023. We talk about brain-drain when a team loses assistant coaches, and the losses of Shane Steichen and Jonathan Gannon are clearly affecting this team. There’s nothing they do really well on either side of the ball, and this team started the season 10-1 before dropping five of its last six games. Maybe they get past the Buccaneers in the wild-card round, and maybe they don’t, but I have absolutely no confidence in the Eagles’ ability to make any serious noise in the poseason.

Kyle: With all due respect to the job Mike Tomlin has done, I can’t confidently pick Pittsburgh to win any playoff games, much less multiple. I just can’t get past their lack of offensive firepower – although they did average 27 per game over their last three this season. Mason Rudolph just isn’t going into Buffalo and beating the Bills.

Typically I might talk myself into Josh Allen turning it over a bunch of times and the Steelers winning thanks to a low-scoring contest where their defense could maybe punch in a touchdown. TJ Watt’s injury changes all that though. Without him on the field (or even if he guts out his Grade 2 MCL sprain) the Steelers just aren’t the same defense and it’s hard to believe they can do enough on that side of the ball to carry an offense that will likely struggle to score more than a couple TDs.

It’s impressive the Steelers got this far, to be sure. They’re just not a legitimate Super Bowl contender given their QB situation and Watt’s injury.

3. Who’s your Secret Superstar for the wild-card round?

(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Doug: Antoine Winfield Jr., safety, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I feel like I have to be highly detailed here, because people obviously don’t know who Winfield is. This guy was a Pro Bowl snub, which is hilarious. This season, Winfield has made a very strong case as the NFL’s second-best safety outside of Baltimore’s Kyle Hamilton. Winfield has six sacks, 18 total pressures, 87 tackles, 26 stops, and six forced fumbles. He’s the first defensive back since 2000 with six or more sacks and six or more forced fumbles in the same season, and the forced fumble he had against Panthers receiver D.J. Chark on the goal line  probably won Tampa Bay that game.and saved their season.

I get that we can’t talk about every great defensive player, but the extent to which people have overlooked Winfield’s 2023 campaign is pretty ridiculous. I will say, however, that if he’s able to put one or more playoff games together playing at this level, people will start to recognize how indispensable to Todd Bowles’ defense he has become.. 

Kyle: Laremy Tunsil, left tackle, Houston Texans. There are not that many LTs you feel great about going against Myles Garrett, but Tunsil is on the short list. 

He received an 85.7 pass blocking grade from Pro Football Focus– the highest grade among OTs on AFC playoff teams and the third-highest overall among OTs with at least 550 snaps. He allowed just 20 pressures this season and figures to play a key role against one of the NFL’s best defenses in the first round.

Now, Tunsil certainly hasn’t been perfect in 2023. He gave up five sacks in 14 regular-season games. However, when he’s on he’s as good as any left tackle in football. If he shines in their playoff opener against the Browns it would help rookie QB C.J. Stroud settle in and give Houston’s entire offense a significant lift. 

4. Which assistant coach would you most like to get a vacant head coaching job?

(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)
(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)

Doug: Dan Quinn. The Cowboys’ defensive coordinator took that job in 2021 after five seasons as the Falcons’ head coach, including the infamous 28-3 loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl 51. But it wasn’t Quinn’s fault that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan didn’t just run the damn ball as the game progressed. Quinn finished his Atlanta tenure with a 43-42 regular-season record, but he was also presiding over a declining team that could never really get over that Super Bowl loss. In his three seasons in Dallas, Quinn has impressed me with his understanding of what modern defense is.

He didn’t take the Seattle Legion of Boom stuff over despite his time as Pete Carroll’s defensive coordinator; he adapted his schemes to his personnel, and when you look at all the guys on that defense who have become stars on the field without big names, it’s pretty impressive. Quinn is the kind of guy whose players buy in. They generally believe in him, and I think it’s time for him to get another shot. Maybe if Mike McCarthy does enough of those Mike McCarthy things we were talking about before, Quinn gets that gig. There’s been talk of a handshake deal to that effect for a couple years now. 

Kyle: Ben Johnson is going to be the most popular name in this coaching cycle, so there’s no real ‘hoping’ he gets a gig. He’ll have his choice of available jobs. In the interest of the bit though I’ll get specific. I’d like to see him go to the Falcons where he’d unleash Bijan Robinson, Drake London and Kyle Pitts. He also lowers the bar for what they need out of the QB. Johnson has done wonders for Jared Goff, which instills some confidence that he can help elevate whatever QB Atlanta rolls into 2024 with. Perhaps it’s Justin Fields. Maybe it’s a draft pick or a more seasoned veteran. Either way, Johnson figures to have the keys to unlock the best in that QB and utilize their slew of offensive weapons better than Arthur Smith did during his tenure. 

Johnson could surely do this wherever he lands, which is why he’ll be such a hot commodity. But it’s way less fun if he’s with Las Vegas or Washington. Drop this elite offensive coach onto a ready-made offense and let him cook. 

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire