Archive for the ‘Team Posts’ Category

i.jpg

It doesn’t seem to matter who the Broncos put in at QB, they keep winning games.

For some reason, I can’t seem to learn. The Denver Broncos have been good, no, great, for over a year now and I continue to deny them the credit they deserve. I picked against them a lot in big games last year, throughout the playoffs, and in the Super Bowl. My most egregious error, however, was previewing the AFC this offseason without even mentioning them.

Why? Why do I keep making this mistake? It’s because they haven’t had a QB I can trust. I’ve strongly believed (and still do, to a lesser extent) that the QB position is by far the most important position in today’s NFL and if you don’t have a great QB, you won’t win a Super Bowl. The Broncos proved me wrong last year and have carried their winning streak into 2016 with two rookie QBs, neither of which we have reason to believe are spectacular talents (yet). At 4-0, the Broncos are proving they can do it again without a great QB. They could very well not win the Super Bowl this year, but their sustained dominance gives us a look into something much more profound: with all the other pieces in place, teams don’t have to “get lucky” with the QB position.

That may sound really obvious, but it should be a comfort to many teams like Cleveland or Los Angeles. The Browns in particular have been searching for “that guy” for two decades now, using top pick after top pick on draft busts. They watch as teams like the Patriots and Steelers have struck gold with franchise QBs, allowing them to build a great cast around them on the way to multiple Super Bowls. They’ve also watched the Seahawks and Ravens find amazing QBs late in the draft, when they weren’t even looking for a franchise guy. Maybe one of these years the Browns will get lucky and find their Russel Wilson. Or maybe they can do it like Denver and pad their defense and offensive cast using the deep pool of talent from college.

This obviously isn’t as easy as it sounds. Realistically, teams like the Browns and Rams are already trying this and have to suffer through 6-win seasons and high coach turnover. It’ll be tough for a lot of teams to get it right, but we’re already seeing signs that a few are on the cusp. The Cowboys, Eagles, and Vikings (combined 8-1) have had amazing success out of the gate without elite QB play. Yes, Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz look very good so far, but do they look like instant franchise guys? They could turn out to be, but the point is they don’t have to be. Prescott and Wentz are helping their teams win games through ball protection and sustained drives. Neither rookie has cracked the top 15 in passing yards or TDs, but both lead the league in fewest interceptions thrown (none). More to the point, the Minnesota Vikings look like a top 5 team with Sam Bradford at the helm. We know Bradford. He hasn’t changed, but his team has. He now has an unbelievable defense behind him and a great coach to give him the plays necessary to succeed. Instead of the Rams looking for Bradford to guide them, it’s now the Vikings looking to guide Bradford. In the past, it didn’t appear this has been the “way” to win the Super Bowl. Now the Broncos have done it this way and so far it doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

It’d be great to see a league emerge where QBs can be relied upon less than they are now. It’s not particularly fun to see the Browns search for a QB year after year. With the college system producing so few NFL-ready QBs these days, it’s almost necessary to see teams win a different way. The Broncos may not have a Tom Brady or Big Ben, but they’ve been the best team in the NFL for a while now. It’s up to the rest of the league to catch up.

hi-res-135d8bf9cfc18359d2c5ffe078796d88_crop_north.jpg

Are we about to see Sam Bradford’s career defining year?

The past month has been a roller coaster for the Minnesota Vikings. Coming off an impressive NFC North title over their dominant rivals from Wisconsin, the Vikings and their fans had nothing but optimism heading into the 2016 season.

Adrian Peterson, 31, showed no signs of slowing down, despite the feared ceiling of 30-year-old running backs. The 2013 MVP led the NFL in rushing yards last year (1485 yds) and he cracked 10 rushing TDs for the eighth straight healthy year (11 TDs). Coach Mike Zimmer took over in 2014 and quickly delivered results. Minnesota improved upon their 5-10-1 record in 2013 with a 7-9 campaign in 2014. They turned this modest improvement into a huge leap in 2015, going 11-5 and winning the division. Zimmer emits an intelligence and resolve that has Vikings fans appropriately hopeful for the future.

Nobody, however, is more important to the Vikings’ immediate future than Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater didn’t show overwhelming signs of greatness in his sophomore season, but he showed encouraging signs of growth. Even with Peterson aging, he has time to grow and make the team his. Heading into 2016, it wasn’t unreasonable to think a greatly improved year by Bridgewater could lead the Vikes to do something special. And that’s why his season-ending injury in the offseason cast a dark cloud over the fans’ sunny optimism for the next five months.

What followed made things even cloudier, but not immediately darker. Minnesota traded for Sam Bradford, an enigma of a starting QB. Bradford, known for his injury woes, has started a full season twice in his budding career and has thrown for over 20 passing TDs only once. And yet, in the past three years, he’s seen two different teams (Eagles, Vikings) trade quite a haul to bring him in. Minnesota gave up a first-round pick in 2017 and another conditional pick in 2018, causing fans and the media to wonder why Minnesota was putting their bright future at risk for such an unproven QB. Like all questions in sports, this one has been quickly put to rest because of winning (for now).

636099014187607440-USATSI-9552607.jpg

Peterson didn’t have a great rushing start to the season, but his injury still leaves a huge hole to fill.

The Vikings won their season opener without Bradford (who was still picking up the playbook), but then thrust him into the challenging role of beating Green Bay. They asked not only he win over their hated rival, but that he do it in the first game of their brand new stadium, a structure as symbolic of Minnesota’s bright future as anything or anyone.

He won that game and played great while doing so. He looked as good (likely better) as he ever had in St. Louis or Philly. Adrian Peterson was injured during the game, but for a brief time, things looked great for the Vikings again. That optimism has once again been put on hold after news on Wednesday confirming a torn meniscus for Peterson, an injury that will require surgery and put him out for 3-4 months.

Peterson is out and Bridgewater is gone. Even without just those two, the team looks and feels very different from the one Minnesota fans expected this season. Yet so far, the results have been perfect. Other pieces of the team like the defense and Zimmer have held steady on this wild roller coaster. How long can Minnesota continue to survive?

It feels as if the darkness is still coming, even if beating Green Bay feels like a Super Bowl win. A lot of it rests on the shoulders of Bradford and the defense, but nobody has a tougher job than Mike Zimmer. In the coming weeks and months, we’re going to find out a lot about who he is, who this team is, and who they might become down the road.

i.jpg

Will we look back on 2016 as the start of something new? Or as another in a long list of wasted seasons?

Edit: At the time of this post, the Chargers pulled their contract offer from third overall pick Joey Bosa. He has since been signed by San Diego to a 4-year, $28.5m contract (similar contract to what was originally offered).

The San Diego Chargers are in a bad spot.

This isn’t a revelation by any means, but in a year where nearly every NFL team has a reason to be hopeful for 2016 or beyond (yes, even Cleveland), it’s worth acknowledging that San Diego is lost.

Since the great era of LaDainian Tomlinson came to a close in 2010, the Chargers have missed the playoffs in every year but one. As if consistently missing the playoffs isn’t bad enough, it’s how San Diego is failing that is giving them some serious long-term issues. Save for last year’s abysmal 4-12 campaign, the Chargers have won between 7 and 9 games since 2010, preventing them building a team through high-quality drafts. Things were looking a bit better when last year’s 4-win season finally yielded a top-5 draft pick, but they even managed to screw that up, failing to lockdown third overall pick Joey Bosa. Another 6-9 win season looms in 2016. The years following hold many questions and I fear the answers leave the city of San Diego without an NFL team.

The consistent heart, soul, and face of the Chargers has been Philip Rivers, who is in a unique position of being one of the better QBs in the league on a struggling team. He’s been remarkably healthy and successful in his career (individually, that is), playing in every game since 2006 and throwing for over 3000 yards in every season (most years over 4000). If there’s been one bright spot for Chargers fans to look for in the darkness of the past few years, it’s Rivers. But at 34, his retirement looms and the window for building a better team around him is rapidly closing. Soon, Rivers will be gone and the Chargers will be left pondering an even darker future: the search for a new franchise QB, a.k.a. the Cleveland Browns.

Another “franchise” player in Eric Weddle was let go this offseason after nine seasons with San Diego. His departure not only leaves the team with a defensive leadership hole to fill, but it revealed a level of dysfunction that is scary to realize. There was a lot of buzz about Weddle being fined by the team in 2015 for watching his daughter perform at halftime instead of joining the team in the locker room. In the following months, Weddle was extremely vocal about how poorly the Chargers front office and coach treated him in subsequent contract negotiations. The three-time Pro Bowler joined the Ravens this offseason.

Who really knows how poorly Weddle was treated, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is perception and draft picks like Bosa and countless free agents have to decide if they want to bet their career on Weddle exaggerating the truth.

As if all that doesn’t paint a bad enough picture for the future, remember the fact that San Diego narrowly evaded relocation for the upcoming season. The franchise agreed to remain in San Diego for at least one more season while they review plans for a possible move to LA (to share a stadium with the Rams) or Las Vegas. Pay close attention to the sights and sounds of the Qualcomm Stadium crowd and you’ll wonder why they cheer for a Philip Rivers interception. It’s because the seats are filled with visiting fans, so much so that you’ll see a sea of orange when they host division rival Denver. With the San Diego faithful getting drowned out in their own stadium, relocation seems inevitable and that’s any fan’s worst nightmare.

As a San Diego Charger fan, what do you realistically root for in 2016? Another 8-10 win season that leads to an encouraging playoff berth, but still leaves them floating in NFL draft purgatory? Or another bottom-dwelling campaign that grants them a chance at a total rebuild, but sends them to Los Angeles to begin that rebuild?

Philip Rivers’ final years are sliding away with nothing to show for it and how they perform in 2016 could finally determine where they go in the future, figuratively and literally.

The Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans boast a couple of the best defenses in the NFL this year. Their weakness lies on the other side of the ball at QB. We’ve seen great QBs carry poor defenses to the playoffs, but can either of these elite defenses pull off the reverse for their QB?
No offense will look forward to facing Buffalo's defense this season. Photo credit: WGRZ.com

No offense will look forward to facing Buffalo’s defense this season. Photo credit: WGRZ.com

You might best remember the Bills for their fantastic defensive performances late in the 2014 season against Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. Although the game resulted in a loss, the Bills intercepted Manning twice, kept him under 180 passing yards, and most importantly, kept him touchdown-free. This was easily Peyton’s worst game of the year. The main issue for Buffalo was stopping running back CJ Anderson, who found the endzone three times. That trifecta of scores aside, Buffalo actually made life difficult for Anderson, who finished with only 58 yards on 21 carries (2.8 yards/carry).

As impressive as this was, the pinnacle of Buffalo’s defensive success came against Rodgers, the eventual MVP of the league. Rodgers experienced the same struggles as Manning, throwing two picks and no TDs. This was his only game all season without a touchdown. But perhaps the most stunning stat of all from that game was Rodgers’ pass attempts, which reached 42 by game’s end. Unlike Manning, who only threw the ball 20 times, Rodgers was slinging all game. Time after time, Buffalo answered the bell, stifling the MVP like we’ve never seen before. This time the Bills prevailed in 21-13 victory.

Buffalo ended the season with arguably the best defense in the league, allowing just over 18 points per game (4th in NFL), just under 5000 yards total (4th), and 30 takeaways (3rd). Despite trading talented linebacker Kiko Alonso, they show no signs of slowing down this year. Defensive savant Rex Ryan has taken over the head coaching duties and finds himself in charge of yet another team with questions at QB, much like his former New York Jets.

After winning an offseason QB competition, Tyrod Taylor was tabbed the starting QB for Buffalo. The Virginia Tech alum has only appeared in 14 games since being drafted by the Ravens in 2011. In reality, he’s only truly played in one NFL game. This was in 2012, when the playoff-bound Ravens rested their starters in a meaningless season finale. Taylor went 15/25 passing, 149 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception. It’s safe to say that Taylor’s ability to play in the NFL has yet to be tested with real action. Being named the starter for Buffalo is by far the biggest feat of his career and we’ll finally get to see what Taylor can do.

JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney look to make life difficult for opposing QBs.

Jadeveon Clowney and JJ Watt look to make life difficult for opposing QBs. Photo credit: ESPN.com

The predicted success of Houston’s defense largely lies in its talent. Many believe defensive end JJ Watt is the best player in the NFL, MVP or not. He forces offensive coordinators to form plays around him or–to be realistic–avoid him. Fans are thrilled at the return of linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, the first overall pick from the 2014 NFL draft who suffered a season-ending injury last season. Houston will also welcome former New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork, hoping he can make a similar impact in their system. From Brian Cushing to Johnothan Joseph, Houston has talent and depth all over this defense and it’s why they are expected to be one of the NFL’s best.

Much like Taylor, QB Brian Hoyer had to survive a QB competition before being awarded the starting role. Hoyer has a bit more NFL action we can look at, but still a limited sample size. The last we saw of Hoyer was last year in Cleveland, where he was the starter as well. Hoyer found success early, helping the team reach 7-4 before struggling hard in the next two games. At 7-6, Cleveland decided to give Manziel a shot at salvaging the season. This effort fell flat as Johnny Manziel was roughed up in his first NFL start, handing the starting role back to Hoyer after an injury. The painful last weeks of the season finally came to a close as the Browns finished 7-9, missing the playoffs.

So Hoyer has found some scattered success in the NFL, but not anything to raise our eyebrows over. He’s average at best and like Taylor, will be tasked with winning games with an elite defense behind him. Can these guys do enough to take their teams to the playoffs? Both teams will likely be competing for the AFC wildcard spots, as their rivals in the Colts and Patriots have strongholds on their respective divisions. They’ll be looking at competent and successful QBs like Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, and Ben Roethlisberger vying for the very same spots. These QBs are used to moving the ball effectively and putting large numbers on the scoreboard. More importantly, they are QBs used to making the playoffs (except for Tannehill, yet).

In a time where there are so few great QBs coming out of college, a playoff birth for either the Bills or Texans will mean hope for those teams without a decent QB. It will mean that being stuck with a below-average passer isn’t a death sentence as long as you can grow a strong defense behind them through the draft and free agency. For now though, it remains a tough task as teams without a good QB continue to miss the playoffs year after year.

Cleveland leads the AFC North but still has key division games ahead. Can they navigate their schedule en route to an AFC North Championship?

Cleveland leads the AFC North but still has key division games ahead. Can they navigate their schedule en route to an AFC North Championship?

In case you haven’t noticed, the AFC North is the best division in football. Didn’t see that one coming. Not only does every team have a winning record, but each team sits at least two games above .500.  As it stands now, the Cleveland Browns lead the division at 6-3 (yes you read that right), Cincinnati follows at 5-3-1, with Pittsburgh and Baltimore right behind them at 6-4. It’s as tight as can be. While many of the other divisions have a couple teams battling it out, all four teams in the AFC North have a legitimate chance to be the division champ. It’s shaping up to be one of the best division races ever.

Back to basics for a second. Every division sends its winner to the playoffs, with a chance to send a second team to the playoffs if they have a good enough record for a wildcard spot. Every now and then a division sends three teams to the playoffs. The AFC West did it last year when Denver took the division and Kansas City and San Diego won both wildcard spots. With how well each team is playing in the AFC North this season, the division looks poised to send three teams to the postseason like they did back in 2011. But with key division matchups remaining, is the AFC North doomed to eat itself alive?

Four division games remain: Pittsburgh @ Cincinnati (Week 14), Cincinnati @ Cleveland (Week 15), Cleveland @ Baltimore (Week 17), and Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh (Week 17). There are 16 different ways these games can play out and based on these scenarios, we might be able to get a sense of how important those non-division games are for all four teams. Because 5-3-1 Cincy has to play 6-4 Pittsburgh twice, we can guarantee that one of these two teams will have five losses from remaining division play alone. Additionally, Cleveland has to play within division twice and Baltimore has one division game remaining so either of those squads could have five losses after those games. In fact, there is an 87.5% chance that two teams will have five or more losses after their remaining AFC North games. There’s a slim chance (37.5%) that either the Browns or Bengals will win out in their remaining division schedules, leaving them with only three losses.

Both the 6-4 Ravens and Steelers hope to distribute division losses to their AFC North foes.

Both the 6-4 Ravens and Steelers hope to deal division losses to their AFC North foes.

Why does this matter? If you haven’t checked lately or read my post on the AFC playoff picture, the AFC wildcard race is extremely tight. The room for error is razor thin and getting thinner with every passing week. As far as the wildcard spots go, we are looking for records right around 10-6 to have a shot. Depending on the results of coming weeks, that estimation could dip to 9-7 or even rise to 11-5. Keeping this window in mind, the AFC North might be in a little trouble if two teams will have five or more losses after remaining division games. If, for instance, Pittsburgh loses both games to Cincy, they’ll have win out the rest of their schedule to go 10-6. Didn’t I say the room for error was thin?

The good news for the AFC North is that there are some scenarios in which every team puts itself in a decent position. There is a 62.5% chance that all four squads will have below six losses after their remaining division games. This will give some teams–like Baltimore if they beat Cleveland–some breathing room when it comes to their remaining schedule. These are the scenarios that give the AFC North the best chance to send three teams.

Seeing how this will all shake out is the fun part. Those non-division games could crush the dreams–for both the division and wildcard spot–of any of these teams. You could argue that those are the games that really matter most. Like pointed out before, a six-loss team (after division games) would have to consider every non-division game a must-win.

With all this mess, can the AFC North really send three teams to the playoffs? Pay attention to those vital non-division games because we already know the AFC North is gonna rough itself up a bit.

Should we buy what Miami is selling?

Should we buy what Miami is selling?

Last week I broke down the AFC playoff picture and didn’t give Miami much of a chance to make the playoffs. They didn’t have quality wins (save for New England in week 1) and faced a tough second-half schedule (and still do). But last week they ripped the San Diego Chargers 37-0 for their third straight win, catching the attention of many. Miami = playoff bound? Those are the murmurs I’m hearing this week.

Slide1

Where were those headlines before the Chargers game? There’s a reason we didn’t see them and one big win won’t convince me so easily.

Before I say anything else, I have to give the Dolphins credit. In a game I picked as my lock, Miami made me look like a fool for going with the Chargers. I did not see such domination coming. Perhaps they’ll prove me wrong again. But for now, let’s look at things realistically for Miami.

I have to believe at least two teams from the AFC North will make the playoffs, leaving one wildcard spot for seven teams. Even after a big win over one of those teams, they aren’t leading the race. They share the same record as Kansas City, Cleveland, and Buffalo, but are trailing each team due to tiebreaker rules. And you better believe tiebreakers will come into play in such a tight AFC. They’ve already fallen to KC and Buffalo earlier this season.

What is encouraging from the Dolphins is their conference record (4-2) and the fact that they haven’t had any bad losses. A loss is loss of course, but when Miami has had to take care of business–against Jacksonville and Oakland–they have. This makes me pretty confident they can pick up three wins against the Jets (twice) and Vikings.

Miami's remaining schedule.

Miami’s remaining schedule.

The rest of their schedule is full of good teams and brutal road games. They have to go to Detroit this Sunday, Denver in week 12, and New England in week 15. I seriously cannot see them beating the Pats or Broncos on their home turf. Detroit gets Calvin Johnson back, who should only add to the surprising success the Lions are having thus far. If Miami can keep it going and win in Detroit, they could be poised for a run. I don’t see it happening. Luckily for Miami, they don’t necessarily need this game.

They host Buffalo on Thursday night in week 11, an absolute must-win game. They already lost to Buffalo badly in week 2 and cannot afford to drop a home win against a potential wildcard team, not to mention a division rival. Another toss-up comes at home in week 14 against Baltimore, yet another wildcard team they are competing with. If they can pick up these two wins, along with those three “take care of business” games, they’ll find themselves at 10-6, certainly a record good enough to make the playoffs. However, which 10-6 record will be rewarded? The Bills, Chiefs, Chargers, Ravens, Browns, Steelers, or Bengals could all realistically go 10-6 (or Bengals 10-5-1). They all have tough schedules too, but I have to believe we’ll see at least a couple of those teams reach the double-digit mark. If it happens to be the wrong teams, Miami could find itself on the wrong end of the playoff bubble.

Ryan Tannehill has played some of his best football in the past month. Can he keep it up against a fantastic Detroit defense this Sunday?

Ryan Tannehill has played some of his best football in the past month. Can he keep it up against a fantastic Detroit defense this Sunday?

It’s certainly doable. Miami showed us they are fully capable of competing with any team in the NFL with their rout of San Diego. But where was that when they got shellacked by Kansas City (29-10) and Buffalo (34-15)? Are they just now starting to find their groove? We’ll get a good indication against Detroit this weekend.

And what about Ryan Tannehill? After week 3, we were hearing rumors about him getting benched. Now after a few good games against bad defenses, he’s suddenly our new favorite rising star? In Miami’s last four wins, Tannehill has faced the pass defenses of Oakland, Chicago, Jacksonville, and San Diego. All four rank in the bottom third of the NFL in opponent passer rating. Detroit ranks third in that category. Let’s see how he does then.

All I’m saying is, let’s slow down with the Dolphins. Don’t get tricked by one big win. They will not win the AFC East and still face a tough road to a wildcard spot. They still have had troubles playing to their potential, including last season. I’m not buying into Miami just yet, but they have plenty of opportunities ahead to prove me wrong.

Even after a mid-season QB change, the Bills find themselves in a good spot in the AFC wildcard race.

Even after a mid-season QB change, the Bills find themselves in a good spot in the AFC wildcard race.

The second half of the NFL is the best half of the NFL. We think we know who these teams are by now (for the most part) and now the race begins. We’ll take a quick look at the AFC playoff picture as it starts to take form for the first time. Trust me, I am just as interested in the NFC but it is simply too early take a look over there. Spoiler alert: it’s wide open. Not to say the AFC isn’t wide open, which it is, but we can at least take out a few teams to clear up the early picture.

Before the season started, we looked at the AFC and saw three divisions where there was an overwhelming favorite. We couldn’t quite mark them down yet because we at least had to see them play. Well, eight weeks have past and those teams are who we thought they were. The Patriots, Colts, and Broncos are all division winners. Mark it down. In pen. Yes I see you sitting there a game behind, Bills and Chargers. It’s not gonna happen. Have fun fighting for the remaining two wildcard spots. You have company.

On the opposite side of things, there are four teams we can absolutely declare dead. And again, we could have before the season started but, to be “fair” I guess, we gave them a shot. No surprises are to be had here. Take out the Jets, Jaguars, Titans, and Raiders. They’re done.

Before we get into the huge pack fighting for those two wildcard spots, we should talk about the division complicating everything: AFC North. Obviously this remains the last division spot to be filled and could also send a wildcard team, maybe even two. The problem? Without the entire division being tied, the AFC North teams are virtually as tight as they could possibly be. They are so close, in fact, that the division leader Bengals (4-2-1) have less wins than the two teams trailing them (Ravens and Steelers 5-3)! To make matters worse, the team in last (Browns) has a winning record at 4-3. All four teams have a legitimate shot at winning that division. This means, of course, that all four teams also have a legitimate shot at finishing last. I mean, someone has to place last. Moving forward with this playoff picture, we’ll have to keep all four of these teams in the back of our mind as possible division winners, wildcard teams, or last place teams. As more division games take place (Ravens at Steelers this weekend, Browns at Bengals next week), things will start to clear up. For now, we deal with a bit of a complicated, and crowded, pack of wildcard contenders.

All of a sudden, the AFC North is the most exciting division in football.

All of a sudden, the AFC North is the most exciting division in football.

Considering the teams we’ve already knocked out or talked about, there are only five squads remaining in contention for those elusive two wildcard spots: Chargers (5-3), Bills (5-3), Chiefs (4-3), Dolphins (4-3), and Texans (4-4). But again, we are forced to consider those four from the AFC North, making it nine teams in the race. To make the picture a little easier to manage, I break these teams up into three groups. First, we have four teams–Chargers, Bills, Ravens, Steelers–in the lead pack at 5-3, along with Cincy at 4-2-1. These are the teams in the best position as it currently stands. If the season were to end today, the Chargers and Bills would be your two wildcard teams. These teams are in a good spot, but not by much. Right behind them is the “step behind” group, with the 4-3 Chiefs, Dolphins, and Browns. If you want a concise group of teams to watch in the AFC, keep your eye on these three for the next couple weeks or so. Every win one of these teams picks up from here on out will make the AFC that much more competitive. Finally, we have a group with a single member, the 4-4 Texans, who are on the outside looking in. Yes, they only have one more loss than the preceding group, but when they finally hit their bye in week 10, all the other AFC teams will have a chance to gain ground. Remember, with only two teams filling the wildcard, the Texans will need a lot to go their way when they don’t win.

So that’s the picture. Three groups with a bunch of good teams. But what really lies ahead for the AFC? Right off the bat, I have to say that things do not look good for the Dolphins. They face a brutal stretch where six of their next seven games are against teams with at least five wins. This includes games in Detroit, Denver, and New England. Their week 1 win over the Patriots is the sole quality win to this point. Their other wins have come against abysmal Oakland, inept New York Jets, and underachieving Chicago. If the first half of the season has been any indication of who the Dolphins are, then I can’t see any way they make it to the playoffs with what lies ahead.

Success against four manageable teams will put the Browns ahead of the playoff race.

Success against four manageable teams will put the Browns ahead of the playoff race.

The Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals are as much of a toss-up as you can get. Baltimore has looked great but was just swept by the sliding Bengals, and the Steelers are as inconsistent as can be. Good luck figuring them out any time soon. But what about the Browns? We are so used to seeing the big three fight it out year after year that we may overlook the team that we’ve heard for years now is “going to contend soon.” So does Cleveland actually have a shot to take the division? They absolutely do, but would have a much better shot in any other division. They have a crucial four-game stretch where they face teams with four wins or less (aka beatable teams). If they go 2-2 or less in these next four, the wildcard spot becomes their only hope. These are games they need to win. Meetings with the Colts and Ravens still lie ahead. Losing such critical ground in a rabid division such as the AFC North be nearly impossible to recover from. Even a wildcard spot will become difficult to achieve with teams like the Chargers and Bills gunning just as hard.

The eye-test has me loving San Diego more than Buffalo or Kansas City, even though KC just beat the Chargers in week 7. Their running game is eviscerated with injuries, yet Philip Rivers continues to carry the team to win after win. But like Miami, a brutal stretch awaits that has the potential to derail their playoffs hopes. They face Baltimore, New England, Denver, and San Francisco from weeks 13-16. They’ll need to get out of there with at least a couple of wins to secure a wildcard spot. The Chiefs and Bills are a couple teams I’ve been low on for most of the season, but have impressed me with recent wins. They face each other in week 10 in what could be a season-defining game. The winner will own the head-to-head tiebreaker in the case that these two finish with the same record.

So that’s where we stand halfway through the season. Enough drama for you? Just wait, every passing week will yield better and better games. It should have been readily clear that I have no idea how the AFC play out. I guess my gut feeling says we’ll see one AFC North team (pick one) and the Chargers steal those two wildcard spots.

If you thought the first half of the NFL season was good, buckle up.

 

Kirk Cousins was not the answer Washington was hoping for.

Kirk Cousins was not the answer Washington was hoping for.

A few weeks ago I talked about Kirk Cousins starting and how important the following weeks would be for him and Washington. Well here we are after five weeks of Cousins and the Redskins have seen enough. Unless Robert Griffin III miraculously heals in time to play in Dallas on Monday night, third stringer Colt McCoy will take the reigns.

I mentioned how we’ve seen mixed success from Cousins in his isolated appearances from the past three years. In these past five weeks, we’ve seen the same. More mixed success, according to the numbers anyway. Not counting the half he played against Tennessee yesterday, Cousins threw for about 330 yards per game, around 60% completion, with an average of 2 TDs and 2 interceptions. Those aren’t terrible numbers. But Cousins was lacking in the one stat that mattered most to the Redskins over this crucial stretch: wins. You can certainly credit Cousins with a win against Jacksonville when Griffin left early in the first quarter. Other than that, Cousins went 0-4 in the games he finished. Washington was trailing again against Tennessee when Cousins got pulled at halftime and replaced with Colt McCoy, who led the Skins to a 19-17 win.

Cousins’ numbers may not be that bad, but his performance told a different story. That mixed success was a little too lopsided. He showed flashes of potential, especially against Philly and Seattle. But when it rained, it poured. Ever heard of great QBs having a terrible short-term memory? Well, Cousins’ was great. At home against New York, Washington fell behind early and faced a 24-7 deficit. This is when Cousins was needed most and he delivered immediately, leading the Redskins on a touchdown drive to shrink the deficit to 10. With a chance to bring Washington within seven, Cousins threw a pick. The interception didn’t hurt him as Eli Manning gave the ball right back to the Redskins five plays later. One pick was not a problem. But for Cousins, it appeared the opposite was true as he started forcing passes into windows that weren’t there. One pick swelled to two, then three, then four. New York cruised to the 45-14 win.

The next multiple interception game came against Arizona, a game in which Washington found themselves down just three late in the game. With under 30 seconds left, Washington had the ball and a chance to get into field goal range. It was a tall order, but certainly not impossible. Cousins kept the excitement of that drive to a minimum by throwing a pick six on the very first play, effectively ending the game. It was his third interception of the day.

With suddenly limited backup options for Washington, the pressure on Robert Griffin III to stay healthy is perhaps the greatest its ever been.

With suddenly limited backup options for Washington, the pressure on Robert Griffin III to stay healthy is perhaps the greatest its ever been.

It should be noted that Cousins faced some tough teams. Those four opponents mentioned have a combined record of 17-9, including 5-1 Philly and Arizona. Washington gave him a chance to see what he could do against a weak 2-4 Tennessee team and after seeing another pick thrown in the first half, they pulled him before it could snowball into any more.

So where does this put Washington?

Well for now they turn to Colt McCoy, who played most of the year he was drafted (2010 by the Browns) and the year following. Since then, he’s seen extremely limited playing time. With Griffin getting healthier every week and closer to starting, McCoy is a temporary replacement, not an answer. When Griffin does return, Washington will cross its fingers hoping the time he has spent healing can somehow turn him into a QB resembling the one they saw bring them to the playoffs in 2012. With their insurance option in Cousins gone, Redskins fans will face a tough reality if–or rather when–Griffin suffers another serious injury.

Philadelphia's explosive offense has led them to a 3-0 start.

Philadelphia’s explosive offense has led them to a 3-0 start.

It sure didn’t take long for the list of unbeaten teams to be narrowed down. We just wrapped up Week 3 and we are left with just three unbeaten teams in the NFL: the Arizona Cardinals, Philadelphia Eagles, and Cincinnati Bengals. At this point last year, a whopping seven teams still held a perfect record. But does having a perfect record this early even matter that much? Let’s take a look at the history.

In the past five years, 23 teams have started with a 3-0 record. The average regular season record for those teams ended up being about right in between 10-6 and 11-5. In every year, at least one of those teams ended up winning their division and 17 made the playoffs. Also in every year, at least one team finished 12-4 or better. Only two teams finished with a record under 8-8. None of this should come as a huge shock as a 3-0 start usually means the team knows what they’re doing.

Big or small, Arizona has plenty of players that can change the game.

Big or small, Arizona has plenty of players that can change the game.

As far as the playoffs go, ten teams made it all the way to their respective conference championship game. Two won the Super Bowl.

These numbers should be really encouraging for fans in Arizona, Philly, and Cincy. Unless their team is an anomaly, fans should feel confident that their team will be 8-8 or better and therefore compete for the division or, at the very least, a wildcard spot.

But as football fans we know better than to just trust the numbers. These are three very different teams, in different divisions, with very different years ahead of them. They may all very well make it to the playoffs, but the journey won’t look the same.

Although Arizona went 10-6 last year with new coach Bruce Arians, they seem to have caught more people by surprise than the other two 3-0 teams. And I am sure one of those people. The Cards hasn’t exactly been the healthiest, especially on defense. Most notably, Darnell Dockett suffered a season-ending knee injury, Antonio Cromartie left Sunday’s game with a knee injury, and QB Carson Palmer hasn’t played since Week 1 due to a shoulder issue. Still, the Cardinals have looked really great and have beaten solid teams. Their best win came last week against San Francisco–who beat Arizona twice last year–when they had to rally after being down at the half. Perhaps even more impressive is that Palmer’s backup Drew Stanton led the charge and outplayed Colin Kaepernick, though not without the help of an overachieving Arizona defense. However, the QB position is what concerns me with Arizona going forward.

Palmer is still Arizona’s guy and expected to play Week 5 (Cardinals have a bye this week). Palmer looked great against San Diego, throwing over 300 yards with 2 TDs. Last year was pretty good for Palmer too. He threw for over 4000 yards and 24 TDs. Not bad at all. So why don’t I feel good about him? Is it because this is his 12th year? In a division with young Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, Palmer just doesn’t stand out as a flashy playmaker. But maybe that’s okay. Palmer is distributing the ball fine right now and doesn’t try to do too much. He is certainly a player to keep an eye on as he faces tougher defenses that will force him to win games for Arizona. I still think Seattle will win the NFC West, so the battle for a wildcard spot between the 49ers and Cardinals should be a great one. Arizona won the first bout, but can they have the last laugh?

Far away from Arizona is Philadelphia, where offense is not a problem. They are one of two teams (Atlanta) that have scored over 100 total points in their first three games. With up-and-coming gunslinger Nick Foles and arguably the best RB in the league LeSean McCoy, this really isn’t a surprise. They’ve used just about every weapon at their disposal to score points even though their top receiver in 2013, DeSean Jackson, was cut in the offseason. No Jackson, no problem. What is a problem is a defense that has allowed 78 total points. How long can they keep picking up wins? Only six teams have allowed more points through three games and all six have one win or less. Even with their defensive struggles, I still think Philly can win the NFC East. They should be able to afford a few losses at the hands of the defense with the other three teams in the division struggling.

Andy Dalton is cruising in the regular season, as he always has.

Andy Dalton is cruising in the regular season, as he always has.

The last of the three unbeaten teams is Cincinnati, who looks like not only the best out of these three but dare I say the best in the entire NFL? No, I don’t dare to say it because they aren’t the best team in the NFL. But they look damn good so far. They have beaten their opponents by a league-leading 47 total points, each win more impressive than the next. I mentioned earlier how Atlanta led the league in points scored. Well Cincy played them in Week 2 and held that high-flying offense to a mere ten points and forced three turnovers. I love the balance this team has. Although Andy Dalton may not be a superstar, he moves the ball effectively and plays consistently well throughout the regular season. Giovani Bernard has shown that he is the future of Cincinnati’s ground attack. And didn’t I mention what that defense did to Atlanta? So what’s not to like?

Problem is, I think I’ve heard this story before. The Bengals love the regular season, making the playoffs in three straight years. But when they get to the playoffs, bad things happen. In his three playoff games (all losses), Dalton has thrown six interceptions and just one TD. That’s been the huge knock against Dalton: he can’t play in the postseason. Of course Dalton isn’t the sole reason they lost those games, but why should we believe anything has changed? We won’t really know if anything has changed until we see them play in the playoffs again. It looks like Cincy has their sights set on another division title, but that will mean less and less if they keep underperforming when it counts.

Does a Super Bowl winner lie among these three? They have all put themselves in a great position after three weeks. In the remaining 14, they have a lot of work to do if they wanna reach the big game.

 

A strong rebound year for New York starts with solid play from Eli Manning.

A strong rebound year for New York starts with solid play from Eli Manning.

New York Giants: New York finished a game under .500 last year but it felt a lot worse after dropping six straight to start off the season. Besides depressed Giants fans with repressed memories, everyone remembers Eli Manning throwing 27 interceptions. What they might not remember is that New York had significant problems in the running game as well, with six different rushing leaders throughout the season. Changes needed to be made and they have. Kevin Gilbride is out as offensive coordinator (retired) and Ben McAdoo, quarterback coach of Green Bay, is in. Giants also picked up Rashad Jennings to lead the rushing attack, answering the question of many Giants fans, “Who is our running back again?” Jennings had a solid year in Oakland in 2013, picking up 4.5 yards per carry and 6 TDs. New York is also excited for rookie Andre Williams out of Boston College, the man backing up Jennings. In McAdoo’s new scheme, Manning hopes to throw for 70% completion. Even the most optimistic Giants fans don’t expect this to happen, but there is still major pressure on Eli to cut down on the mistakes.

The defense is a mystery as well, though they showed some late success in 2013. With Justin Tuck off to Oakland, defensive leaders like Antrel Rolle and Jason Pierre-Paul are expected to step up. They’ll have some more help in the secondary after picking up Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie from Denver in the offseason. If you still don’t know why this is a mystery team, just look at the logo on the helmet. It’s the New York Giants. Can you name a year they’ve ever been predictable? The new pieces are all in place. I can see these pieces clicking on the way to an NFC East title about as much as I can see it falling apart into a long losing streak. Early wins against Detroit, Arizona, and Houston would be a huge help for the chemistry of this new team.

Atlanta Falcons: The mystery of the Falcons is how in the heck did they go from four points away from a Super Bowl appearance to four total wins the next year? I don’t think anybody saw that coming and quite frankly, I don’t know what anybody see’s coming this year. Their passing offense actually ranked in the top 10 last year, as it should have. Matt Ryan is a perfectly capable QB with great weapons in Julio Jones and Roddy White. Their running game was the worst in the NFL, not even reaching 80 yards per game. They’re gonna give it another shot with Steven Jackson at RB and hope to see success from new faces in the O-line, like first-round draft pick Jake Matthews. Mike Nolan, in his second year as defensive coordinator, is expected to do a better job with his unit this year. A strong showing by the defense can take a lot of pressure off Ryan and Jackson to rely on their offensive production for wins. The tough part is they sit in a division with Carolina and New Orleans, two teams poised for another playoff birth. With the pieces clicking on defense, Atlanta’s offense will fly high and steal some wins from their rivals.

Arizona Cardinals: Much like the Falcons, the Cardinals find themselves in a tough spot. They were an impressive team last year, going 10-6 in Bruce Arians’ first year as head coach, a record good enough to win the NFC North or NFC East. Problem is, they are in the NFC West with Super Bowl champ Seattle and Super Bowl hopeful San Francisco, not to mention the Rams who took 1 of 2 in the season series. Their 10-win season was only the second since 1976. Can we really count on Arizona making it two straight years with double digit wins? If not, I don’t see any way they can make it to the playoffs otherwise. But this may be the start of a new era for Arizona. An era that ignores all the ones preceding it. They are finally starting to find a new identity after Kurt Warner retired in 2010.

Arizona won 10 games and still fell short of the playoffs. This year's path appears to be even tougher.

Arizona won 10 games and still fell short of the playoffs. This year’s path appears to be even tougher.

The Cards have a good mix of young and old. Carson Palmer is in his 12th season–2nd as a Cardinal–and showed he can be their guy for the foreseeable future. Although his interception numbers were high (22), he threw for the most yards of his entire career (4,274) in 2013. Sophomore Andre Ellington will be the primary running back after showing a lot of promise in his rookie year. Defensively, Arizona is really excited to shock the NFC. They had the best running defense in 2013 and only allowed about 20 points per game (7th in NFL). Watch out for this Arizona D to put on some impressive showings, like their 7-sack performance against Carolina. The only thing standing in the way of another great year for Arizona is their tough division, which accounted for four of their six losses in 2014. Finding those wins will be the key.

Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens are going through an interesting time. They surprised everyone and won a Super Bowl in 2012, then played average–literally 8-8–in 2013. They lost some pieces from that 2012 team (e.g. Anquan Boldin) and didn’t recover well. Their Super Bowl-winning rushing offense plummeted from the 11th best in the league to 30th. Ray Rice, suspended for two games for domestic violence, will be in danger of losing the starting job to Bernard Pierce if he has another disappointing year. Joe Flacco, keeping his interception numbers under 12 for every year of his career, threw an unprecedented 22 last year. Performances where Baltimore only rushes for 24 yards and Flacco throws five interceptions is something that just cannot happen in 2014 if they have any hope of getting back to the playoffs. They picked up Steve Smith from Carolina to help out the absence of Boldin. I can’t tell if this team can get their offense clicking like it did in 2012 and it will play a huge factor in their success in 2014.

Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery make up the best WR duo in the NFL. Can they do enough to send Chicago to the playoffs?

Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery make up the best WR duo in the NFL. Can they do enough to send Chicago to the playoffs?

Chicago Bears: Once known for their great defense, Chicago’s woes in 2013 stemmed from a terrible one. Many might point to Jay Cutler getting injured as the reason for their struggles but Cutler only went 5-5 and his backup Josh McCown went 3-3. What I see is a defense that allowed over 30 points a game seven times. To address this, Chicago took three defensive players in the first three rounds of their draft. Improving their running defense–ranked last in 2014–will be the primary job for a unit with some new faces (Jared Allen from Minnesota). The defense is the big question mark for Chicago and it will dictate the path they take this year. If the defense can perform well, Cutler will be free to tear up the NFC with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.