Archive for the ‘2014-2015 Season’ Category

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The New England Patriots are the best team in football. Yet somehow, calling Seattle the second best team seems unfair to them. It’s really that close.

 

Fans, experts, or whoever else will talk all they want about how Seattle “shouldn’t even be here,” but I really don’t want to hear it. I don’t care how close Green Bay came to catching an onside kick. I don’t care how 99 times out of 100, the prayer of a pass from Russell Wilson wouldn’t have been caught for a two-point conversion. And I don’t care how the flip of a coin never gave Aaron Rodgers a chance in overtime. I really don’t care because the harsh reality of the NFL is that most games are close. It’s so useless to argue what “could have been” when we have plenty of reality to deal with.

All that matters is that Seattle is here. Whatever they had to do to get here, they did it. We can argue all day about who was the “better team,” but history doesn’t care about the better team. History only knows winners. And it’ll know the winner of Super Bowl XLIX, whether that turns out to be the better team or not.

So who wins?

After watching Seattle dominate the Super Bowl last year, proving me and many others embarrassingly wrong, and seeing them come back from the dead in the NFC Championship, they seem like the team that just can’t lose. I have a hard time even picturing them losing in my head. I was ready to witness it with my own eyes two weeks ago. Finally! But instead I watched every last piece required for them to stay alive fall into place. As it happened, I convinced myself that this team won’t lose. I’ve settled down since then but still, does this team die?

They didn’t always look so unbeatable. We may forget that their playoff hopes were in doubt at 6-4, following a 24-20 loss to Kansas City. Since then, however, they’ve won every game and have only allowed over 20 points one time: last game against Green Bay, the best offense in the NFL, to whom they allowed 22. It should be ok to assume that Seattle’s defense will play a decent game at the very least, though nothing is certain in the Super Bowl.

That’s how Seattle wins. They create turnovers and great field position for the offense and let Russell Wilson’s offense walk away with a win after scoring just 21-24 points. So all they need to do is keep Tom Brady at bay, force them to kick field goals, and they should win, right? It’s exactly how they did it against Green Bay. Five made field goals may be a great individual stat for a kicker, but it exposes the offense as failures in their one job: get the ball in the endzone, not just the redzone.

One makes $14 million a year, the other hasn't reached a seventh digit. The differences hardly end there between Tom Brady and Russell Wilson.

One makes $14 million a year, the other hasn’t reached a seventh digit. The differences hardly end there between Tom Brady and Russell Wilson.

Luckily for New England, they aren’t the Packers. Not only do they lead the NFL in getting to the redzone, but they also lead in TDs scored once they get there, something Green Bay couldn’t seem to do. The only problem is that Seattle leads the league in opponent redzone attempts. To make it simple, Seattle doesn’t let teams into the redzone, but if they do, it’s New England that has an edge.

That will be the matchup everyone is watching, Tom Brady vs. Seattle’s defense. With weapons like Gronk, Julian Edelman, and Brandon LaFell, Tom Brady should be able to get there at least a couple times. It might be ugly, but he’ll get there. If they can limit the field goals to less than two and make one of those a touchdown, that might just be enough to win. When their opponents score 23 points or less, Seattle is 13-0. But when teams can break that 24-point barrier, they’re 1-4.

That makes the other matchup that much more intriguing: Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch vs. New England’s defense. How many points will they need? People love to focus so much on the dominant Seattle defense that they overlook a grossly underrated Pats defense. When you think about the Seahawks D, you think about big hits causing fumbles and amazing plays in the secondary to get interceptions. Reality is, however, that both are pretty average in generating turnovers, in fact New England had more in the regular season (25) than Seattle (23). Don’t let the blemishes in NE’s schedule distract you from the fact that they allow just 2.1 touchdowns per game and are top 10 in stopping the run. Marshawn Lynch won’t be completely shut down, but he’ll have a hard time being able to get any 20+ yard runs. They’ve only allowed two all year.

So who will it be? The team that doesn’t die or the team that wins in so many different ways? Before the playoffs kicked off, I had these two teams playing in Super Bowl XLIX, with New England winning. I’ve been correct up to this point, so I’d be a fool to change now, right? There’s a reason I chose New England to beat Seattle a month ago. Outside of Seattle, the Seahawks aren’t the same team. They are still great, but not quite the same. In such a close matchup, this may be the difference.

It really is as close as it gets for me with this game. It reminds me of last year when I felt exactly the same way. I was positive we were about to watch one of the best Super Bowls ever. Unpredictability isn’t always a good thing. Either way, this year offers us a second chance. And I have to believe this year will be different, in more ways than one.

The better team doesn’t always win, but when the dust settles in Super Bowl XLIX, the winner will also happen to be the better team.

 Patriots 24,
Seahawks 21

Fans will use any weapon at their disposal, such as DeflateGate, to take down the NFL's evil empire.

Fans will use any weapon at their disposal, such as DeflateGate, to take down the NFL’s evil empire.

There’s likely nothing I could say about DeflateGate that hasn’t already been said by ESPN, Anderson Cooper, or The View. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, or rather confirmed, from this story, it’s that people love to hate the New England Patriots. They’ve been dominant for over a decade now, they continuously beat teams psychologically, their coach appears stoic and unbreakable, and their historically elite and competitive QB also sells Ugg boots. It’s not hard to see why the possibility of committing an NFL misdemeanor has grown into the cancer of a story that has consumed our sports lives for over five days now. They crushed the Colts 45-7 and not even the most delusional of Indianapolis fans would argue that a deflated ball made a difference in that game. Can you imagine the magnitude of this story if the game was actually close?

Only with New England does this story become an uncontrollable avalanche of nonsense. Sure, it would have made ESPN headlines with other teams in a high-stake game, but not like this. Not at all. Some of it isn’t their fault. They’ve been a great team for a long time now and fans hate consistently great teams. It gets irritating after a while seeing the same team and the same faces over and over again rising to the top. It’s natural.

But the Patriots also aren’t totally innocent in this. They helped build this hatred as a result of SpyGate. America hates cheaters. And when cheaters get caught, we love to rip them apart. Now DeflateGate, whether or not you believe the deflation actually made a difference, gives America, especially the media, yet another hatred nugget to sink their teeth into.

In most Super Bowls, most of America would be rooting against the Patriots, especially given the recent circumstances. The only reason the Patriots could conceivably be the favorable choice for many fans is because they’re playing a team America seems to hate just as much. But in a very different way.

The Seattle Seahawks aren’t dealing with a controversy. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to see their shocking and borderline unjust win over the Packers not end in a referee controversy. Crazy as it sounds, some may actually think Seattle is more deserving of being in the Super Bowl than New England is. Seattle made it fair and square, whether luck had to play a role or not. New England certainly didn’t need luck to make the Super Bowl. They were the better team. The best team in the AFC. Yet it appears they may have bent the rules to make it easier, which is enough for some people to fault. To be clear, I wouldn’t argue that Seattle is more or less deserving than New England. In my mind, both deserve to be in as much as the other. I picked them to make it before the playoffs started because they were the best teams in the NFL and nothing has changed. The point is that the narrative follows the Patriots and not the Seahawks.

Winning the Super Bowl once is enough to take with as loud a team as Seattle, nevermind twice.

One Super Bowl win is enough to endure with a team as loud as Seattle, nevermind two.

The hatred for Seattle is much more simple. They’re obnoxious. They have loud, obnoxious fans who wave a flag with a 12 on it, designating them as part of the team somehow. They have obnoxious players like Richard Sherman who freely talks trash before, during, and after the game on Twitter, to opposing receivers, and to Erin Andrews. They have a break-the-mold coach who’s as rowdy on the sideline as an insane Seattle fan is in their seat. They have a huge, punishing running back who likes to touch himself when he scores. They haven’t had the sustained success the Patriots have in the past decade, but they dominated Super Bowl XLVIII over America’s golden boy Peyton Manning. And now they’re back. We have to deal with them again, as if one time wasn’t plenty. They make it easy to hate them, but I have a feeling they welcome it.

Most of America would gladly root against the Seahawks if it wasn’t for their opponent, leaving all of us neutral fans in a tough spot. Do we take the longtime elite, supposed “cheaters?” Or the insufferable brutes who can’t wait to chant “repeat?” It seems like the best solution in this case would be to not watch. But of course we’ll watch. It’s the Super Bowl. But more importantly, we don’t just hate these teams, we love to hate them. We want to see them crash and burn, face justice. We’ll sit back and watch them beat each other up, because we know by the end, we’re guaranteed one will feel the pain. For many, that’ll be enough of a reason to watch. We’ll revel in the suffering of the loser while simultaneously forcing the success of the other out of our minds.

In the end, if there’s one real reason to watch the game, it’s because it’s football. Football between two of the best teams that play it. And even though the result is virtually guaranteed to be a love-hate dilemma for many of us, we just can’t get enough of great football.

Seattle likes to punish you with the run and swarms to the ball on defense. Green Bay relies on hanging large numbers on the scoreboard, using their top-scoring offense (30.3 points/game). New England will beat you in any way possible using the veteran leadership of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. And Indianapolis doesn’t have a whole bunch of playmakers, but they have one guy who leads the top passing offense in the NFL. They are the last four teams left in the NFL Playoffs. Despite their differences, they all have one thing in common and it’s a huge reason why they’re here: they have a great QB.

Quarterbacks run the NFL and it's why you see four great ones left.

Quarterbacks run the NFL and it’s why you see four great ones left.

To win meaningful games in the NFL, you need to be great at the QB position. You can fly through the regular season just fine without a great one, just look at Philadelphia or Cincinnati. But if you want to be a legitimate contender for the Super Bowl, a great QB is an absolute must. Or at the very least, a great playoff QB. And it’s been that way for about the past decade. Here is a quick list of the past eleven Super Bowl QBs:

Tom Brady (2)
Ben Roethlisberger (2)
Eli Manning (2)
Peyton Manning
Drew Brees
Aaron Rodgers
Joe Flacco
Russell Wilson

Most of those are unquestionably elite QBs. The only ones who may not amaze at first glance are Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, and Russell Wilson. But if you take a look at those three guys’ playoff performance, you’ll see why they were invaluable to their team. Flacco threw 11 TDs and 0 INTs on the way to winning Super Bowl 47. An absolute tear. Wilson’s numbers won’t jump out at you (524 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs in three games), but his ability to extend a play with his feet and make the smart decision just doesn’t show up on paper. You have to watch him to see just how important he is to Seattle. As for Eli, he’s never been a spectacular regular season QB. But once again, much like Flacco, he lights it up in the postseason. In his two playoff runs, Manning threw 15 TDs and only 2 INTs. That’s quite a feat for a guy considered to be an “interception machine” in the regular season. It’s worth noting that Manning dealt with the worst ranked rushing offense in 2011 and Flacco had an average defense (17th) behind him in 2012. If your QB isn’t one of the best, he better play like it when it counts. And that’s exactly what these three guys did.

No matter what happens, this won't be the last time Wilson or Rodgers sees the playoffs.

No matter what happens, this won’t be the last time Wilson or Rodgers sees the playoffs.

The other names on the list are just consistently outstanding performers. And what happened to the guys that weren’t good enough? Andy Dalton. Done in round 1. Matt Stafford. Done in round 1. Ryan Lindley. Done in round 1. See a pattern? They all lost to QBs better than them. The only exception would be Flacco over Roethlisberger in the first round, though even in that game Big Ben was outplayed.

So now here we are. Luck vs. Brady, Wilson vs. Rodgers. With great QBs at the helm for all four teams, it’s now the time to see who has the best team. Last year, I don’t think anyone would have taken Wilson over the MVP Peyton Manning, but Seattle was clearly the better team. It’s a team sport. Probably the biggest team sport out of the major four. Yes, you need a great QB to win the Super Bowl, but that’s because you need a great QB to even give you a chance first.

Sunday’s games, which I think will be fantastic, will give us the best indication so far as to who is solid all around. Indianapolis looks to be at a disadvantage at first glance, relying on Andrew Luck nearly all season to carry a below-average rushing attack and average defense this far. A much more rounded New England team should win that one, but does Luck have the magic? Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in the league right now by my estimation, but can he handle the noise of Seattle or, more importantly, their vicious defense? I had the Pats and Hawks in the big game before the postseason began and nothing’s really changed for me. Those look like the best teams in the NFL, but we’ll find out the true story Sunday.

May the best team win.

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After a crazy NFL season with plenty of surprises, the familiar teams are still the ones to beat.

As the defending champion Seahawks dropped to 6-4 after losing to the Chiefs, it looked as if this year was a little different. Seattle wasn’t the same dominant team. From our view, Seattle’s eyes ought to be locked on one of the two NFC wildcard spots because the 9-1 Arizona Cardinals were running away with the division. Something similar was happening to Green Bay, who had come accustomed to undeniable success in the past few years. They had owned their division since 2011 but now the Lions, of all teams, were on track to their first ever NFC North championship. Furthermore, Detroit was owning the entire NFC, occupying the #1 seed for the majority of the season.

Over in the AFC, New England was cruising. Even so, they couldn’t get rid of the murmurs of a potential run from Miami after seeing them win three straight. Denver was not short of division challengers either, as both the Chargers (tied for first) and Chiefs (2nd) refused to go away early.

It was finally time to see some “different” teams thrust into the spotlight.

*Sigh* Maybe next year.

When the dust settled, we were left with the same big boys we started with. New England and Denver shook off pesky division foes to clinch division titles and with it, the top two seeds in the AFC. The Chiefs, Chargers, and Dolphins all failed to even make the playoffs.

After holding on to the #1 seed for nearly the entire year, dreaming of finally having a meaningful influence in the postseason, Detroit failed to turn that dream into a reality. They once again fell to the big bully Packers, who took the NFC North for the fourth straight season and the #2 seed. As for that #1 seed, the 11-3 Cardinals were ready to pounce. A game away. But somehow, some way, through too many Cardinal QB injuries and Russell Wilson running wild, it was once again the Seahawks who not only stole the NFC West, but the #1 seed for the second straight year. Forget a wildcard spot, they had their eyes on the top seed the entire time.

And so here we are, left with Seattle, Green Bay, Denver, and New England atop the NFL, heading into the postseason. And that is where many of those fallen teams regain hope, as they should. Unlike the regular season, which has a way of balancing itself out over the course of 17 weeks, the postseason is much less forgiving. You’ve heard the stories about the 10-6 Giants and Ravens ending hot streaks with the trophy. As long as you can win and survive, as ugly as it can look, you can win the Super Bowl.

Having said that, I lack faith in a cinderella-esque run this year. I see the four big boys meeting in their respective conference championships, where the final result becomes a crap shoot.

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Seattle is the hottest team in the NFL heading into these playoffs. They’ve come a long way since being 6-4, not allowing over 14 points to any team since mid-November. Their top ranked rushing attack pounds the ball down your throat with Marshawn Lynch and converts crucial 3rd downs with Russell Wilson scrambles. Oh and they have home field advantage throughout the playoffs, where they haven’t lost since Week 6. Although the first Green Bay-Seattle matchup didn’t go well, a rematch in the NFC championship would be a dream, where I could see either team winning. The edge goes to Seattle there in their home field. Were it in Lambeau, I’d go the other way.

In the AFC, dethroning the Patriots is a tall order. Their only home loss came last week, when New England sat some of their starters to play it safe. It won’t necessarily be an easy road for the Pats, likely having to meet Indy, Denver, and/or Pittsburgh on the way, but I have no reason to believe they should lose to those teams.

In the Super Bowl, both teams lose their edge from being at home. There, it comes down to who can win one game. It’s tough as heck to pick against Seattle, who has looked nearly unbeatable lately, but I’m going with the consistent winning formula of the New England Patriots. Since Week 4 after getting crushed by KC 41-14, the Pats have bounced back to be one of the most consistently dominant teams in the NFL. Seattle or Green Bay winning wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Given the road New England faces and their ability for a number of different players to step up, I like their chances.

Even after lackluster seasons, either the Falcons or Panthers will steal a playoff spot with seven wins.

Even after lackluster seasons, either the Falcons or Panthers will steal a playoff spot with seven wins.

It’s the final week of the NFL season which means division matchups are everywhere. A few of those matchups will determine a playoff spot, starting with Carolina taking on Atlanta for the NFC South, the worst division in the NFL. It’s winner-take-all where loser gets to be on the couch as the winner hosts a playoff game. In a little bit less of a harsh result, Lions will try to shock the Packers in Lambeau, where they haven’t lost this season. Winner takes the division, while the loser settles for the wildcard spot. Same goes for the Game of the Week between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. In the AFC, one spot remains to be filled by either San Diego (who just needs to win), Baltimore, Houston, or Kansas City. I took almost every favorite to win this week, which could come back to bite me, but keep an eye out for that big upset. My picks below (home team in CAPS):

Last week: 10-6      Overall: 162-77

Cold Hard Lock: 8-7    Upset Pick: 11-5

Philadelphia over NY GIANTS

BALTIMORE over Cleveland

Dallas over WASHINGTON

Indianapolis over TENNESSEE

HOUSTON over Jacksonville

San Diego over KANSAS CITY

MIAMI over NY Jets

MINNESOTA over Chicago

NEW ENGLAND over Buffalo

New Orleans over TAMPA BAY

ATLANTA over Carolina

GREEN BAY over Detroit

DENVER over Oakland

SAN FRANCISCO over Arizona

SEATTLE over St. Louis

PITTSBURGH over Cincinnati (SNF)

Cold Hard Lock: MINNESOTA over Chicago; After watching Chicago lose three straight at home, not to mention seeing them the whole season, picking against them is easy. Plus, I like what Minnesota is doing. They’ve had a couple close losses recently, but to good teams and they are showing they are capable to throwing up a big number on the scoreboard. I’ll take the Vikings to close out their rebuilding season with a solid win.

Upset Pick: Philadelphia over NY GIANTS; I picked just about every favorite this week, leaving me with one minor upset in the last week of the season. The Eagles are sliding hard late, costing them a playoff spot. I think they can end the season on a somewhat positive note over a Giants team that is not good at home. New York’s passing defense still leaves a lot to be desired so if Philly’s air attack is clicking, it’ll be a long day for the Giants.

Game of the Week: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers; The best division in football will be decided by one game. And it’s on Sunday night. The last game of the regular season will fittingly decide the last playoff seedings and that’s why it is the Game of the Week. Both have been hot lately, though perhaps Cincy slightly warmer. They are coming off possibly their best win of the season over Denver, their fifth win in six games. They are looking better than they have all season and at the perfect time. Pittsburgh has won three straight, though perhaps not as impressively as Cincy. Still, they have found a winning formula that consists of a prolific passing game backed up by a power running attack and tight run defense. Both can breath easy knowing they have a playoff spot no matter what, but the winner will have home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Tony Romo has a chance to be a hero in Dallas on Sunday night against Indianapolis.

Tony Romo has a chance to be a hero in Dallas on Sunday against Indianapolis.

Only two weeks remain in the NFL regular season and that means we can start to make it easy on ourselves when looking at the playoff race. Without overcomplicating things by breaking down every team’s current standing and clinching scenarios, I’ll try to make a jumbled mess of teams simple to picture. In the NFC, only the Cardinals have clinched. We don’t know what seed they’ll get yet, but they’re in. The NFC South is going to give us another team. From that division, pick one: Saints, Falcons, or Panthers. That leaves us with four spots for five potential teams, all with a record of 9-5 or 10-4. Like I said, a jumbled mess. Pick one of these five to miss the playoffs: Lions, Packers, Cowboys, Eagles, or Seahawks. To sum it up, one pretty solid team is going to be watching from home, while an average team from the NFCS hosts a playoff game. That’s the NFC.

The AFC has more teams already in, but the picture is still not as clear cut. The Colts, Patriots, and Broncos are all in as division winners, meaning they’ll take seeds 1-3, but we don’t know what order yet. The AFC North will give us the fourth division winner. So pick one to be the 4th seed: Bengals, Steelers, or Ravens. Take the other two teams and throw them in the mix for the two wildcard spots. That will give us five teams with a real shot, so pick two: AFCN team 1, AFCN team 2, Chiefs, Chargers, or Bills. The fact that we could see three teams in from the AFC North makes things a little messy. I should note that the Browns, Dolphins, and Texans are all still alive, but need some ridiculous scenarios to go their way if they want a wildcard spot. So there’s the AFC.

As for games with playoff implications, take any game with one of the bolded teams. Even the teams that are already in are playing for a crucial bye week and home field advantage. If you want a game with major playoff implications, you may want to take a look at Atlanta vs. New Orleans, where the Falcons are eliminated with a loss. The Steelers are on the other side of the fence, only needing a win over Kansas City to punch their ticket. Again, that is their ticket to the playoffs, not necessarily the division. Seattle and Arizona play with plenty at stake in the NFC West, where Arizona can clinch the division and the 1st seed with a win. They play on Sunday night, meaning we might know if Seattle can clinch a spot with a win based on results from earlier games. Finally we have Indianapolis visiting Dallas, in the Game of the Week. Indy is fighting for one of those first-round byes in the AFC while Dallas is playing for the chance at a first-round bye, the division, or a wildcard spot. The next two games for Dallas are the difference between a top seed and elimination.

My picks below (home team in CAPS):

Last week: 13-3      Overall: 152-71

Cold Hard Lock: 8-6    Upset Pick: 10-5

JACKSONVILLE over Tennessee (Thursday)

Philadelphia over WASHINGTON (Saturday)

SAN FRANCISCO over San Diego (Saturday)

MIAMI over Minnesota

Baltimore over HOUSTON

Detroit over CHICAGO

CAROLINA over Cleveland

NEW ORLEANS over Atlanta

Green Bay over TAMPA BAY

PITTSBURGH over Kansas City

New England over NY JETS

NY Giants over ST. LOUIS

Buffalo over OAKLAND

DALLAS over Indianapolis

Seattle over ARIZONA (SNF)

Denver over CINCINNATI (MNF)

Cold Hard Lock: Denver over CINCINNATI; Cincinnati has as much to play for as anyone and they’re at home. It’s on Monday night, a huge game. And that’s exactly why I’m taking Denver as the lock. We know about the Bengals’ struggles in the playoffs in the spotlight and this regular season hasn’t shown us any different. On Sunday night against the struggling Pats, they got run over 43-17. At home on Thursday night against the Browns, they were humiliated again 24-3. A win this week puts them in playoffs, so the pressure is on. I’ve fallen for it before, but not this time. Cincy cannot win the big game.

Upset Pick: NY Giants over St. Louis; It’s awfully hard to defend the Giants after the type of season they’ve had, but I truly believe they are a better team than we think. Save for an unforgivable loss against Jacksonville, New York has only lost to one team (Niners) with under nine wins. They’ve faced brutal competition. That doesn’t mean they’re a good team, because good teams beat other good teams, but they should be able to compete in St. Louis where they are underdogs by 6.5 points. That’s a lot of points for a couple teams separated by a game, so I’ll take New York with their hot new weapon Odell Beckham Jr.

Game of the Week: Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys; I mentioned it earlier, this is as big a regular season game as Dallas has had in years. Two games remain with a first-round bye and elimination equally as likely. Those other big games did not go their way. Is this a different Dallas team? If they drop this one, we’ll hear about the “same ‘ol Cowboys who always find a way to screw it up.” For the Colts, they can play loose knowing they already have a spot in the playoffs. But they would love nothing more than to have home-field advantage in the postseason. A couple of points could separate what’s at stake for these two great teams.

With Hoyer struggling, Johnny Manziel gets his first NFL start.

With Hoyer struggling, Johnny Manziel gets his first NFL start.

The day has finally come. Everyone will remember where they were when Johnny Manziel made his first NFL start. Ok, maybe it’s not quite that significant, but the game is a big deal. And with Johnny taking the field for the first time, Cleveland-Cincinnati becomes the Game of the Week. If you get tired of watch Manziel however, there are plenty of other great games to see this week. Miami tries to score a big win in New England to keep their playoff hopes realistic. Buffalo and San Diego will do the same when hosting Green Bay and Denver, respectively. And watch out for Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Minnesota to pull an upset this week. My picks below (home team in CAPS):

Last week: 13-3      Overall: 139-68

Cold Hard Lock: 7-6    Upset Pick: 10-4

Arizona over ST. LOUIS (Thursday)

NY GIANTS over Washington

ATLANTA over Pittsburgh

NEW ENGLAND over Miami

KANSAS CITY over Oakland

INDIANAPOLIS over Houston

BALTIMORE over Jacksonville

Green Bay over BUFFALO

CAROLINA over Tampa Bay

Cincinnati over CLEVELAND

NY Jets over TENNESSEE

Denver over SAN DIEGO

DETROIT over Minnesota

SEATTLE over San Francisco

Dallas over PHILADELPHIA (SNF)

CHICAGO over New Orleans (MNF)

Cold Hard Lock: INDIANAPOLIS over Houston; Houston won last week to keep their playoff hopes alive, but I’m afraid Indy will put an end to what has been a wild Texans season. Andrew Luck is tearing it up this season with limited talent around him and if it weren’t for a guy named Aaron Rodgers, he might be the frontrunner for MVP. In a good division matchup, I love the Colts at home here.

Upset Pick: ATLANTA over Pittsburgh; This is a tough upset pick. Atlanta is 1-8 against anyone outside their division and even worse, they are 0-3 against teams from the AFC North. You can add on top of that that Pittsburgh is coming off a solid road win over Cincinnati. But lets not forget that Pittsburgh is one of the most inconsistent teams in the NFL and Atlanta is fighting for the division. With only a couple weeks remaining after this, a win here for the Falcons would go a long way in locking up the NFC South. Sometimes games in the NFL don’t make a whole lot of sense and that’s what I expect here. The Steelers will continue to confuse us with their roller coaster season and the Falcons will surprise us with an upset win at home.

Game of the Week: Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns; This game is so much bigger than Johnny Manziel. The Browns are still right in the middle of the AFC North division race, not to mention the AFC wildcard race. Cleveland is putting the hopes in the hands of the Heisman winner in what may be the Browns’ biggest game yet. In front of the hopeful Cleveland crowd, Manziel takes on the division leading Bengals. Only two games remain after this so if he can’t deliver a win, Cleveland will be pushed to the brink. This is one of their best chances to reach the playoffs in years. Can the Bengals, fighting to keep the division lead, stop Johnny Manziel in his first NFL start? All eyes on Cleveland-Cincinnati this week.

J.J. Watt is a lot of things, but not an MVP.

J.J. Watt is a lot of things, but not an MVP.

J.J. Watt has done some remarkable things this season. He has 11.5 sacks, already more than he had last season, three forced fumbles, and a pair of defensive touchdowns. He even has three offensive touchdowns, making him the first DL since 1944 to have five touchdowns in one season. He is quite arguably the best defensive player in the NFL. Some say he’s the best player in the NFL period. That may be true. But what he is not is the MVP.

Don’t confuse “best player” with “most valuable.” Watt’s stats are hard to argue with. Offenses gameplan for him unlike any other player, they need to know where he is on every play or he will wreak havoc. He, without a doubt, improves Houston’s overall performance. But does he do it enough to win MVP? No way, especially when Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Demarco Murray, and others are performing at such a high level and elevating their teams to Super Bowl contenders.

Being the defensive power he is, Watt is surely leading the Texans to a great defensive year. Except he’s not. Houston is allowing the third most pass yards per game (270). Of course, Watt is not primarily there to stop the pass, though he is known for his pass rushing ability. He is on the defensive line as the first line of defense against the run. In this category, Houston ranks 16th. Average. Where the Texans’ D does a little better is in points allowed per game, where they squeak in the top 10 at around 20.6 allowed. But even that hasn’t carried the Texans very far.

Houston currently sits at 6-6. Again, average. Houston is possibly below average when you look at their six wins. Those six have come against teams with a combined record of 22-50 (4-8 average). But perhaps those wins were still against capable offenses? Not so. The best offense they have beaten all season is Buffalo, who ranks 17th in points scored. The other offenses rank 22nd or worse and a couple, in the case of Oakland and Tennessee (played twice), rank in the bottom five. When Houston has faced a legit offense, Watt has been unable to give his team a win. The Giants, Eagles, and Colts all hung 30 points or more against Watt’s unit.

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Aaron Rodgers puts Green Bay in a position to win every game, throwing 32 touchdowns and just three interceptions.

But is it fair to call it Watt’s unit? After all, he’s only one guy. But so is Aaron Rodgers. The difference is, Rodgers has led his team to a 9-3 record. His unit is top 10 caliber. But what really makes Rodgers so valuable is that he is doing it with an average running game (19th yards per game) and below-average defense (24th yards allowed). Without Rodgers, how many games could the Packers win? The closest we could come to actually knowing is looking at last year when he was injured. Green Bay went 2-5-1. With him healthy, 6-2. This year we can only speculate as to how many games the Pack would win without their 10-year QB. I think it’s safe to say it wouldn’t be pretty.

How many games would Houston win without Watt? In the six wins over below-average offenses, they may not even have needed him. Would they win all six? Probably not, but they probably still could have managed to pick up four against Oakland, Washington, and Tennessee (twice). A difference of two wins. Is that what we’re giving the MVP for? Two wins?

Andrew Luck is another guy doing more with less. Like Rodgers, he has his team at playoff-bound (8-4) with an average running game (15th) and below-average defense (22nd). His offensive line isn’t that good either. Tom Brady is leading yet another offense without an arsenal of stars, save for Gronk. Julian Edelman is the Patriots’ leading receiver (let that sink in) and the Pats are one of the best two teams in the league. Demarco Murray is having one of the best seasons for a running back, but he at least has a solid team around him in Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and a fantastic offensive line.

Houston is a step behind in the AFC wildcard race. I just can’t see how someone can win MVP on a team that misses the playoffs. Even if they end up squeaking in, Watt shouldn’t stand a chance against the guys whose performance dictates their teams’ season. If Rodgers struggles, Green Bay struggles. If Andrew Luck excels, Indy excels. And so forth. Watt simply isn’t around the ball enough to have that effect. Though for a defensive player, he makes quite an impact.

Again, don’t confuse best with most valuable. For the record, I don’t think he’s the best, but one could at least make an argument. But how valuable can he be if Houston is average at best? The growing talk for Watt to win MVP is getting a little ridiculous.

Mark Sanchez has done a nice job filling in for injured Nick Foles. The Seattle defense will be his toughest test yet.

Mark Sanchez has done a nice job filling in for injured Nick Foles. The Seattle defense will be his toughest test yet.

Only four games remain in the NFL regular season. Teams and fans can visualize the wins and losses ahead. They can see what needs to be done to reach the postseason and for some, win the division. Some of the most critical of those four games are this week. Take the Steelers, for example, traveling to Cincinnati to try to gain ground on the division-leading Bengals. Or the Dolphins hosting Baltimore in a game that could very well end up deciding who gets an AFC wildcard spot. Arizona is struggling and tries to keep a perfect home record intact against Kansas City. Another perfect home record at stake is in the Game of the Week, where the Eagles welcome the Seahawks. Those are just a few to keep an eye on in Week 14, though virtually every game carries some importance this late in the season. My picks below (home team in CAPS):

Last week: 10-6      Overall: 126-65

Cold Hard Lock: 7-5    Upset Pick: 9-4

Dallas over CHICAGO (Thursday)

NY Giants over TENNESSEE

Pittsburgh over CINCINNATI

St. Louis over WASHINGTON

NEW ORLEANS over Carolina

MINNESOTA over NY Jets

MIAMI over Baltimore

Indianapolis over CLEVELAND

DETROIT over Tampa Bay

Houston over JACKSONVILLE

DENVER over Buffalo

ARIZONA over Kansas City

Seattle over PHILADELPHIA

San Francisco over OAKLAND

New England over SAN DIEGO (SNF)

GREEN BAY over Atlanta (MNF)

Cold Hard Lock: MIAMI over Baltimore; Now, Miami is only 3-2 at home this season but I love them in this spot. As the biggest coin-flip game remaining on Miami’s schedule, this game is critical. The Dolphins won’t give up such an important win against Baltimore, who suffered a heartbreaking loss to San Diego last week. Miami struggled as well last week (still escaped with win), but in a clash between two teams looking for a rebound, I like the home team. The Fins can smell the playoffs and a win here would be huge for them.

Upset Pick: Pittsburgh over CINCINNATI; I usually like Cincy at home but they showed me a few weeks ago (24-3 loss to Browns) that they aren’t the home team I thought they were. Proving this point even more, Cincy has won three straight on the road and heads back home to take on Pittsburgh. But something just doesn’t feel right. Cincy is on a three game win streak? They certainly don’t seem that good. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has been about as inconsistent as you can get. Having lost last week, I’ll take the Steelers to bounce back right on queue and beat the Bengals at home, snapping that odd win streak.

Game of the Week: Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles; Some might have thought this game easier to pick if it were in Seattle, but not so fast. Philly is quietly one of the best home teams this season, yet to drop a game in their own stadium. Seattle is hot, winning five of their past six. This is a great game and the matchup everybody wants to see is that high-scoring Philly offense against a red-hot Seattle defense that hasn’t allowed a touchdown in two consecutive games. Can Seattle overcome their road woes to capture the big win in Philly? Huge division and wildcard implications on the line in this NFC matchup.

The Packers are rolling. Can they keep it going against 9-2 New England?

The Packers are rolling. Can they keep it going against 9-2 New England?

The Patriots apparently have a saying in their organization that says, “the real season starts after Thanksgiving.” That’s great news for the Patriots because they have to travel to Lambeau to take on the Packers in the Game of the Week. It’s also good news for 1-10 Oakland. This week is full of great games to get the “real” season started and it begins with a couple AFC wildcard battles in Cleveland (hosting Buffalo) and Baltimore (hosting San Diego). You know those two division rivals will be keeping an eye on each other, as will Pittsburgh who hosts New Orleans. All of a sudden the Saints can’t win at home or on the road. Also, watch out for Tampa or even Atlanta to pull a shocker at home. My weekly Upset Pick is below as well as the rest of my winners (home team in CAPS):

Last week: 11-4   Overall: 116-59

Cold Hard Lock: 7-4  Upset Pick: 9-3

DETROIT over Chicago (Thursday)

DALLAS over Philadelphia (Thursday)

Seattle over SAN FRANCISCO (Thursday)

NY Giants over JACKSONVILLE

INDIANAPOLIS over Washington

HOUSTON over Tennessee

BUFFALO over Cleveland

BALTIMORE over San Diego

Cincinnati over TAMPA BAY

ST. LOUIS over Oakland

PITTSBURGH over New Orleans

MINNESOTA over Carolina

Arizona over ATLANTA

GREEN BAY over New England

KANSAS CITY over Denver (SNF)

Miami over NY JETS (MNF)

Cold Hard Lock: BALTIMORE over San Diego; Like the rest of the AFC North, the Ravens are a solid football team. They play their best football at home where, save for a Week 1 loss to Cincinnati, are 4-0 and outscore their opponents 114-30. The Chargers have picked up a couple home wins against bottom dwellers and are in for a rude awakening when they travel across the entire country to Baltimore. I’ll take the Ravens as my lock in this matchup between two 7-4 teams.

In a 24-17 loss to Denver in Week 2, Kansas City was just two yards away from tying the game. They'll get their second shot this week.

In a 24-17 loss to Denver in Week 2, Kansas City was just two yards away from tying the game. They’ll get their second shot this week.

Upset Pick: KANSAS CITY over Denver; Perhaps eclipsed by the Pats-Pack game before it, this AFC West division battle should be one of the best of the weekend. It looks like everybody loves Denver to win this after seeing KC hand Oakland their first win, which is why I have to go the other way. Denver is only favored by a measly point and a half. Kansas City is at home where, just like the Ravens, they have only dropped one game and that was in the opening week. Other than that, they’ve outscored visitors 123-51. Denver, on the other hand, is struggling. They’ve lost two of their past four, including a three point win over Miami in Mile High, where they love to play. And this time, they won’t have that nice thin air to help them. The Broncos may be a great team but they struggle to win on the road just like most NFL teams. They were held to a touchdown in St. Louis and allowed 43 points in New England, both losses. KC is the home dog with a capable QB and that gives me the green light to take the upset. This game really could go either way but I’d be kicking myself all week if I missed the Kansas City upset. Give me the Chiefs in a great Sunday night battle, 24-21.

Game of the week: New England Patriots at Green Bay Packers; I’ve already mentioned this game a couple times and there should be no question why. These are the two best teams in the NFL right now. A potential Super Bowl preview. AFC vs. NFC. Brady vs. Rodgers. There’s plenty of meat on this bone. But what I want to point out here is that these two teams didn’t start off too well and we may forget that. The Pats looked awful in their first four games, starting off 2-2. People were freaking out, scrambling to be the first ones to place the bookend on the over-a-decade-long Patriots’ dominance. In Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers had to tell his fans to relax after their 1-2 start. Now look at them. The Pats have won seven straight. The Pack, seven of their last eight. Both have plenty to play for in their respective conferences. In a matchup between the two best teams playing their best football right now, we’ll see if this game lives up to the hype.