Jimmy Graham

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Seahawks beat Cowboys 21-12 in playoff elimination game

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ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) Russell Wilson didn’t have to do much to keep alive Seattle’s hopes for a sixth straight trip to the playoffs, despite the return of star Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott from a six-game suspension.

Justin Coleman put the Seahawks in front for good with a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown , and Seattle beat the Cowboys 21-12 in a playoff elimination game Sunday.

Dak Prescott threw two interceptions and the Dallas offense didn’t score a touchdown despite the reunion with his backfield mate, the one he shared a remarkable rookie season with a year ago when Cowboys had an NFC-best 13 wins.

Now Dallas (8-7) is eliminated from the postseason with the end of its three-game winning streak, and the Seahawks (9-6) still have life after Wilson threw for two touchdowns despite a career-low 93 yards passing.

“In these situations where it truly is a must-win game, we don’t have to make anything up,” receiver Doug Baldwin said. “We’re well-prepared for it. The process that we’ve gone through the whole season really helped us today.”

Coleman gave Seattle a 14-9 lead in the third quarter when he reached down to catch Prescott’s badly overthrown pass to Elliott and ran untouched 30 yards for a touchdown.

It was the fourth pick-six of the season for Prescott, who threw just four interceptions last season when he was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. He has 13 interceptions for the season.

The Seahawks were eliminated in the NFC West race by the Los Angeles Rams’ 27-23 win at Tennessee. But they can still make the postseason with some help despite gaining just 136 total yards – their fewest since getting 135 in a 14-9 win over the St. Louis Rams in 2013.

Seattle’s first two offensive touchdowns were set up by pass interference penalties in the end zone. The first was a 3-yarder to Jimmy Graham, the second a 6-yarder to Baldwin after running plays backed up the Seahawks both times.

The Cowboys, who lost their first three without Elliott before the winning streak, didn’t take it easy on last year’s NFL rushing leader after his six-week layoff, giving him 15 carries for 73 yards in the first half.

The longest carry was a 9-yarder as he averaged 4.7 per carry. Elliott, who was suspended on domestic violence allegations, finished with 97 yards on 24 carries.

But Dallas didn’t give Elliott the ball with a first down at the Seattle 3 when trailing by nine points midway through the fourth quarter. After a Prescott run, a holding penalty on a pass play and the third sack of Prescott, Dan Bailey missed a 34-yarder.

Bailey, who had two 51-yarders among his four kicks, missed again in the closing seconds.

“It’s hard to get over,” said Prescott, who was 21 of 34 for 182 yards. “I’m sure I’ll get over it at some point. But right now’s not the time. Didn’t play well enough for us to win. Simple as that.”

Dallas receiver Dez Bryant dropped the first pass of the game and was caught on camera on the sideline yelling at former Cowboys receiver Miles Austin, now a staff member. Soon after, he fumbled after making a catch , setting up Wilson’s scoring toss to Graham.

Wilson saved that scoring chance by recovering a fumble on a bad handoff on the previous play.

“I didn’t have time to sense anything,” Wilson said. “The year on the line right there, with the ball on the ground. Whoever takes it, so I just leaped to get that ball.”

Bryant had another ball go off his hands on a throw behind him, and the tipped ball was intercepted by K.J. Wright to wipe out one of several promising Dallas scoring chances.

“I’m a little numb because the way we started, the good feeling, the uptick we had with Zeke coming back,” owner Jerry Jones said. “All of that, I thought that would rule the day today.”

MIMICKING ZEKE

Coleman repeated an Elliott antic from last season, when the Dallas running back jumped into a jumbo Salvation Army red kettle after a touchdown on Thanksgiving. Coleman got the same penalty, too – a 15-yarder for unsportsmanlike conduct.

WAY BACK

The Seahawks had 2 yards passing at halftime thanks in part to DeMarcus Lawrence‘s 22-yard sack of Wilson in the first half. Lawrence overpowered Germain Ifedi, forced Wilson to backtrack after he tried scrambling to his right and tackled Wilson as he tried to run away from him at the Seattle 8.

GRAHAM MILESTONE

Graham’s second-quarter touchdown made him the first NFL tight end with at least 10 scoring catches in a season for two franchises. He did it three times with New Orleans and has 69 career TDs.

INJURIES

Cowboys: Five-time Pro Bowl LT Tyron Smith started despite a right knee injury that kept him out of practice most of the week. He came out after the first series, replaced by Byron Bell.

UP NEXT

Seahawks: Home against Arizona next Sunday.

Cowboys: At Philadelphia next Sunday.

More AP NFL: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

Sunday Night Football odds have Patriots favorites over the Seahawks

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There is an expectation that Tom Brady and the New England Patriots will be untouchable in a post-bye week game, but their record against the spread in recent instances might suggest otherwise.

The Patriots are 7.5-point betting favorites against Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks with a 49-point total in the Sunday Night Football matchup at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. New England, due to road games and their bye week, is playing at Gillette Stadium for the first time in four weeks.

The OddsShark NFL Database points out the Patriots are 19-0 straight-up in their last 19 home games after consecutive road games. Interestingly enough, since 2009 New England is 5-2 SU and 2-4-1 against the spread in games following a bye week.

The Patriots are 7-1 SU and ATS, with the lone loss occurring when No. 3 QB Jacoby Brissett was starting during Brady’s Deflategate suspension. Brady, whose team is 9-1 SU and 7-2-1 ATS over their last 10 November home games, should have all hands on deck in the passing phase as slot WR Julian Edelman (foot) and TE Martellus Bennett (ankle) wait for minor ailments to heal.

Seahawks CB Richard Sherman will take away some routes from Brady, but that could leave openings for TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Chris Hogan. The Patriots might have some success going after Seahawks CB Jeremy Lane, who had a short week to get over a rough outing against the Buffalo Bills in Week 9.

The Seahawks defense, with DE Cliff Avril and DE Michael Bennett leading the front line, are tougher against the run than against the pass. New England mainly uses RB LeGarrette Blount to try to tire out opposing defenders and slow up the pass rush.

The Seahawks, at 5-2-1 SU and 3-4-1 ATS, are in good position to regain the NFC West title, but this is their biggest test of the season. Wilson, with a great deal of help from WR Doug Baldwin and TE Jimmy Graham, has kept Seattle’s offense functional even though they are third-last in the NFL in rushing.

Being one-dimensional against the Patriots, whose only loss came against the Buffalo Bills (who lead the NFL in yards per rush), is hardly a winning strategy.

New England, with a solid secondary led by FS Devin McCourty and CB Malcolm Butler, emphasizes preventing the deep pass. Wilson, who’s facing a tepid pass rush which has only 13 sacks, should be able to make his progressions and complete underneath routes.

Seattle, which has not been this big of an underdog on the NFL betting lines since 2012, barely ran the ball against Buffalo even though they led throughout the game. They will need some output from RB Christine Michael, since three-and-out possessions against the Patriots are a killer.

The total has gone under in six of the Seahawks’ last eight road games. The total has gone over in five of the Patriots’ last seven home games.

The revolution was televised: Growth of tight ends in the NFL

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Last week, Gregg Olsen burned the New Orleans Saints for 134 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Jason Witten leads the Cowboys in touchdown grabs and is tied for the team lead in catches. New Orleans’ offense is searching for answers, in part because of the loss of Jimmy Graham, who led the team in receptions and touchdown catches last year. These are all examples of the increased importance of tight ends in the NFL passing game.

How Things Used to Be

Twenty-five years ago, tight ends were but a minor factor in NFL passing games, and only for a handful of teams. In 1990, Jay Novacek of the Dallas Cowboys led all tight ends with just 59 catches, and only two more were over 50. Many teams did not even prominently feature a tight end. Only 25 tight ends were targeted at least 25 times, less than one per team. League wide, only 14.4 percent of passes were thrown toward tight ends.

Five years later, in 1995, the environment had started to change. Ben Coates caught 84 passes as Drew Bledsoe’s go-to target in New England. For the first time, 40 tight ends were targeted at least 25 times. The percentage of passes to tight ends had jumped to 16.6 percent. The picture five years later was pretty much the same, just with Tony Gonzalez as the name atop the leaderboards.

The Changing Landscape of Tight Ends

The arrival of Gonzalez helped accelerate the pace of change once again with 2005 as the watershed year. For the first time, league-wide tight end target percentage topped 19 percent. A quarter of the teams in the league had one tight end with at least 100 targets. A dozen tight ends had at least 55 catches. The last total included a pair of Tennessee Titans, highlighting an important trend.

Teams in the past rarely used multiple tight ends, and when they did no more than one was a volume receiver. That changed beginning a decade ago and saw its peak with the versatile two tight end attack of the 2010 New England Patriots, the second-best offense since 1989 per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.

Tight Ends Up, So Who Is Down?

The obvious question is, where did those tight end targets come from? The percentage of tight end targets is at 20 percent through three weeks of 2015, up from 14.4 percent in 1990. Which position is not getting thrown the ball as much? Table 1 has the answers.

Table 1. Target Percentage by Positions

Year WR TE RB
1990 61.0% 14.4% 24.7%
1995 59.8% 16.6% 23.6%
2000 59.9% 16.7% 23.5%
2005 61.0% 19.1% 19.9%
2010 59.3% 19.8% 20.8%
2015* 60.2% 19.8% 20.0%

*-Through Week 3

The first column makes it clear that wide receiver target percentage has not changed much over the past 25 years. It stayed remarkably constant, in the 59-to-61-percent range. The increase in the use of tight ends in the passing game corresponds almost perfectly with a decrease in the use of running backs in the passing game.

There is no story where fewer running backs are catching passes. Teams are actually throwing just as many passes to running backs as they were 25 years ago. Instead, they are throwing many more passes in total and all those extra passes are going to wide receivers and tight ends.

The Shift in Tight End Efficiency

For most years since Mike Ditka virtually created the modern tight end position in the early 1960s, the tight end was an intermediate stop between the running back, a safe target unlikely to gain many yards, and the wide receiver, a risky target that gained more yards on average per throw. Yards per target make this clear, as shown in Table 2.

Table 2. Yards Per Target by Position, 1990-2005

Year WR TE RB
1990 8.77 6.97 6.18
1995 7.68 6.74 5.60
2000 7.50 6.38 5.81
2005 7.52 6.55 5.42

For those seasons, the tight end stayed comfortably in that middle role. More recently, though, tight ends have become more like receivers in their efficiency.

Table 3. Yards Per Target by Position, 2010-2015

Year WR TE RB
2010 7.58 7.03 5.84
2012 7.67 6.98 5.75
2014 8.01 7.25 5.89
2015* 7.97 7.55 6.25

*-Through Week 3

This is the new wave of hybrid tight ends in action, players who look and run more like big wide receivers, and who play more like them too.

How Defenses Have Responded, and What It Means

The challenge presented by the new wave of tight ends is defenses have to decide how to play them. Do they treat them as wide receivers, and match up to them with defensive backs at the risk of being outmanned in run defense? Do they instead treat them as normal players, and match up to them with their regular defensive personnel? Per data available through Football Outsiders, most teams treat do not treat tight ends as receivers. Teams were in their base four defensive back sets against 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers) almost 80 percent of the time in 2014. Not quite the 90 percent of the time they fielded four defensive backs against 21 (two backs, one tight end, two receivers), but a far cry from the less than 7 percent of the time they fielded just four defensive backs against 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers)

As long as more receiving tight ends continue to come out of the collegiate ranks, and as long as teams continue to play tight ends with base personnel, expect tight ends to continue their rise to prominence in NFL passing games. Just don’t look for it on Sunday night, where Sean Payton is the rare NFL coach to keep passes to running backs in a place of prominence and the injury-riddled Cowboys threw more passes to running back Lance Dunbar than any other player last week.