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Someone famous and cool once said the NFL doesn’t truly start until Thanksgiving. Well Turkey Day has come and gone and what we’re left with is a deep field of teams that look poised to play “real” football. Four teams in particular—Chiefs, Dolphins, Giants, and Lions—are a few of the hottest teams in football. It’s a typical NFL trope: who these teams are and how they win makes us skeptical of their potential. But just because it’s typical doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing. Nobody likes to be made a fool. Is what we’re seeing with these four teams a mirage? A closer look may reveal what we should expect in a post-Thanksgiving world.

First, let’s play a game. It’s that really awful game where any football broadcast takes some impressive stats, but puts a question mark over the owner of those stats. When the question mark is taken away, we’re all shocked!

“The guy ranked 2nd in first downs and 4th in rushing touchdowns is…Melvin Gordon??? How can that be?!”

Anyways, there’s a team in the NFL that is scorching hot. They are 18-3 in their last 21 regular season games. Some might call that the beginning of a dynasty. (Most people wouldn’t, but some might!)

Here we go, the big reveal…..it’s got to be the Patriots, right? They’ve been great for seemingly forever, with or without Tom Brady. But nope, not them.

Then maybe the defending champion Broncos? Think again.

Cowboys or Panthers?? They both lost just one game either this year or last year, so it’s not totally unreasonable. Except it’s not them by a long shot.

The answer, if not already given away by the title of the post, is…the Kansas City Chiefs! Shocked?? Ah, see, the game works!

Yes, the Chiefs are on a hot streak that has seemed to slip somewhat under the radar. Many Chiefs fans demand respect! Question is, do they deserve it? The idea of combining Alex Smith and Super Bowl triggers some cognitive dissonance. The way they win isn’t easy to trust. I believe Smith ranks just above WR Willie Snead in passes over 20 yards this season. TE Travis Kelce has consistently been Kansas City’s leading pass-catcher, snagging countless 10-yard seam routes. The defense has been consistently solid, ranking in the top 10 in points allowed for four straight years and never allowing more than 20 points per game in that span.

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The regular season is Alex Smith’s favorite time of year.

So why does it feel like KC is going to cruise into the playoffs, only to be knocked out by a “real contender?” They’ve beaten both the Raiders and Broncos already this year. At what point do we accept that they could make a run? Perhaps the latter part of their schedule could be a more in-depth litmus test for a playoff performance. They play @Atlanta, Oakland, Tennessee, Denver, and @San Diego (combined record 33-22). That’s a tough road to navigate, but if KC manages to squeak out just three, they’ll be sitting at 11-5 and almost surely in the playoffs. Even then, they’ll need to nab a couple playoff wins for people to take this team seriously.

In the deep AFC, the Chiefs are hardly the most interesting story at this point in the season. Many would likely hand over that title to the Oakland Raiders, but one scorching-hot team may be giving them some competition. That team is the Miami Dolphins, winners of six straight and now 7-4 on the season. There was a time when Miami was 1-4 and life made sense. This, once again, wasn’t a team we could trust and we could finally write them off early and move on with our lives. Jay Ajayi had different plans. Behind an offensive line that finally meeting expectations, Ajayi and the Dolphins have found a winning formula. They pound the rock with hard-hitting Ajayi and then toss the ball up to a budding superstar in DeVante Parker. Their defense is doing a better job of getting to the passer recently, but they still struggle to stuff the run game. One problem I have with this team that gives me pause is that they don’t seem to do anything spectacular. They are pretty good at a lot of things, but we often picture solid playoff teams with two or even one thing they’ve mastered. However, unlike the Chiefs, Miami may not have to be spectacular to find themselves playing in January. They face @Baltimore, Arizona, @Jets, @Buffalo, and New England (combined 28-26). Aside from the finale with the Pats, those are all games they could win with how they’re playing now.

Now let’s travel over to the NFC, where the Cowboys own the conference but their toughest competition might be found in their own division. New York (8-3) owns the 2nd best record in the NFC and are just two games out from the division lead. They won the crucial season-opener over Dallas and have another matchup (at home) approaching soon. However, even with the six-game win streak and the proximity to Dallas, something feels off. The expectations for this team before the season rested heavily on the defense. Many (including myself) figured that if those highly-paid free agents could just elevate that defense to average, a high-powered offense could carry them to interesting places.

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Not exactly the formula for a playoff contender.

Well, in true Giants fashion, the defense has done their job (16th in total defense), but it’s the offense that is struggling mightily. An offense with a two-time Super Bowl MVP QB, Odell Beckham, Victory Cruz, and Sterling Shepherd only ranks 22nd in total offense. To be fair, the passing game itself ranks 13th. But you can see the difficulties on the field. Punt after punt after punt against the Bears and Browns doesn’t exactly scream Super Bowl contender. With the offense still figuring it out 12 weeks in, we’re left with a similar question to Miami’s: what is this team actually good at? If you want to tab “clutch defense at the end of games” as reliable trait, then maybe that. Game after game the defense holds the opponent from that back-breaking touchdown that cost them so many games last year. That’s the real difference this year, isn’t it? New York isn’t that much different of a team from last year, they’re just winning the close games with a slightly-more-reliable defense. For New York, December looms as a potential wake-up call. They’re @Pittsburgh, Dallas, Detroit, @Philly, and @Redskins. Something tells me those teams won’t forgive stalled drives as much as the Bears and Browns.

Finally we come to the black magic that’s disguised as the Detroit Lions. In a division we expected Aaron Rodgers to control, but then thought Minnesota would run away with, the Detroit Lions hold the lead at 7-4. How are they doing it? Oh, you know, that old fashioned football strategy where you win seven games after trailing in the 4th quarter. Think about that. In all 11 games this season, Detroit has trailed in the fourth quarter. They’ve won seven of those games. It takes a brighter mind than I to figure out how they are getting away with that. Keep in mind this is all without star receiver Calvin Johnson Jr. We’ll see if they can manage to keep a lead against their upcoming schedule of @New Orleans, Chicago, @Giants, @Dallas, and Green Bay. It wouldn’t surprise me if Detroit begins to drop some of these late game. Their matchup with New York should be especially interesting given both those teams’ ability to close games out this season.

The NFC and AFC are incredibly deep this year, filled with many more interesting teams than just these four. However, there’s a great chance more than one of these teams gets into the playoffs on the back of their hot start. It may be hard to imagine now, but teams like these just need a few wins in January to luck into a Super Bowl birth.

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Green Bay used to be the team to beat. Now they’re being beat and will have to fight for a division that looked locked up. Photo credit: ESPN.com

One of my favorite things about every NFL season is how we form a framework of the league in our heads, using what we watch and our own preconceptions to position teams. Power rankings are a perfect example of this. The standings reflect wins and losses, but power rankings try to explain who these teams really are based on what we’ve seen. Nobody in the history of the league has ever agreed on one Power Ranking list. Our frameworks are all different and they change all the time.

My absolute favorite part about all this is how soon these beliefs become deeply entrenched. After just five weeks, we think we know who these teams are. Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong. I wish we had the ability to show our Week 5 selves what we’re saying now. Take, for example, the conversation I overheard today between a couple of guys about the Green Bay Packers:

“How about the Packers? Wow.”

“Yeah they’re awful now. No chance against Minnesota.”

Imagine telling that to somebody after Week 5! Green Bay was arguably the best team in the league at that point and looked poised to meet the Patriots in the Super Bowl after cruising to a 13-3 regular season. Now they’re “awful.” Now, that’s obviously a bit of an overreaction but it still illustrates how quick things can change. That may sound obvious, but just think about how confident you are in some teams right now. What if I told you the division-leading Vikings would miss the playoffs completely? Last year, the 7-2 NFC East leading Eagles were in the same position and ended up falling short of the postseason.

The season moves so fast and we’re unable to appreciate some of the trends and changes that form the league. Here at the start of Week 11, I think this is a good place to take a quick look back at where we were in Week 5 and then see where we might be in Week 17.

Seven weeks ago…

Real Clear Sports does a good job of gathering all the different Power Rankings from major sports sites and creating an aggregate list. This smooths out some outliers and gives us a good idea of what the public generally thinks of the league. Click here if you want to view the full Week 5 rankings yourself. Some things I noticed:

To me, the Patriots and Packers were clearly the two top dogs. They were hardly the only undefeated teams–there were six–but they were dominating opponents consistently, had two of the best QBs in the league, and performed as elite teams consistently throughout the decade. We were used to these guys being on top and they were on top again.

With Green Bay dropping three straight and relinquishing their division lead to the Vikings, who are the top dogs now? New England sure seems to have a stranglehold on the league’s top spot. While I’d agree that Carolina owns that second spot, I don’t think they’ve quite yet reached the caliber that Green Bay and New England appeared to have in those opening weeks. Green Bay is still a solid team, but their recent tumble has left the Patriots all alone.

On the other side of things, you may remember a few teams getting off to rocky starts. Chicago dropped three straight to begin the season on the way to 2-3. They were getting blown out in their losses and Cutler even got knocked out in the second week to make things look really grim. But pay attention to who some teams lose to because it could tell us something. Chicago lost to the Packers (6-3), Cards (7-2), and Seahawks (4-5), a pretty tough opening slate if you ask me. Against some easier competition, the Bears have figured some things out and have an outside shot at the playoffs at 4-5.

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All looked lost when Jamaal Charles went down for the year. Instead, Kansas City has won three straight and put themselves in contention for a playoff spot. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Minnesota and Kansas City are a couple teams in a similar position. They started slow (Vikings 2-2, Chiefs 1-4), but have strung together some wins to put themselves in contention. Minnesota is obviously in much better shape, now atop the NFC North at 7-2. But the Chiefs are quietly competing in that large pack of AFC teams gunning for a wildcard spot. They looked dreadful to start the season, but now sit at 4-5, a game out of that sixth spot.

It’s important to note that despite all these changes, most things have remained the same. Carolina, Cincy, and Arizona are still flying high while Seattle and Indy are surprisingly struggling. The NFC East was thrown into chaos with early injuries to Romo and Dez and somehow it seems like we’re dealing with even more questions today. We can expect a lot to stay the same in the next seven weeks of the season, but what has the potential to flip the script?

Seven weeks from now…

It’s all about playoffs. Seven weeks from now will be Week 17, right on the brink of deciding the final playoff spots.

Are five of the six NFC spots pretty much decided? Arizona (1) and Carolina (2) look to be well on their way to division titles, while Minnesota (3) and Green Bay (4) look to have the NFC North and first wildcard spot locked up. Atlanta (5) is two games ahead of any other NFC team for that final wildcard spot. They’ve struggled lately, but still look far more promising than the other NFC wildcard contenders. That leaves the last spot to be decided by how the NFC East shakes out. The teams in that division are so dysfunctional, there’s plenty of people suggesting that the return of Romo can propel the Cowboys to run the table and steal the division. They’re 2-7 right now and would be the first of their kind to ever clinch a playoff spot. Could we see a major change in that division? Will two teams emerge in a couple weeks or will it remain the jumble it is now by Week 17? Also, don’t count Atlanta in quite yet. I’m interested to see how Seattle competes down the stretch. They had a great second half in 2014 and another good run could launch them right back into the playoffs despite their 4-5 start. They are certainly capable of stringing together some wins.

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I’m personally most interested in the Arizona-Seattle dynamic. Has Arizona officially replaced Seattle or are we just being tricked? Photo credit: ESPN.com

In the AFC, there’s a major win equality crisis. Three teams (Cincy, Denver, New England), own 90% of the conference’s wins while the rest share the remaining 10%. Ok so it’s not quite that bad, but those teams look to have their division just about wrapped up. The fourth division, the AFC South, is in flux much like the NFCE is. The Colts, Texans, and Jags are all right there at four wins. The last two wildcard spots are where things get messy. The Steelers and Bills own them for now, but expect that to change with every passing week. There’s a pack of six other teams just one game out of that sixth spot. I’m really interested to see how this race shakes out. I expect three or four teams will remain afloat long enough to have a shot in their final game. The question is, who will it be? Keep an eye on Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Kansas City.

Every week we see a little bit more and adjust our image of the league. The playoffs are great, but try and appreciate these next few weeks of football. The race is heating up and we’re in for the best part of the NFL. Anything can change.

Seattle keeps dropping 4th-quarter leads and is now 2-4. Is it time we start thinking of the Seahawks as something other than an elite team?
It's not every Sunday that we see Seattle walking out of their own stadium with a loss. That's a problem, but it can be fixed. Photo credit: ESPN.com

It’s not every Sunday that we see Seattle walking out of their own stadium with a loss. That’s a problem, but it can be fixed. Photo credit: ESPN.com

The Seahawks play in San Francisco tonight on Thursday Night Football. The stakes? The winner avoids last place in the NFC West.

How did Seattle drop so far, from one-yard away from winning their second straight Super Bowl, to desperately trying to avoid last place and a 2-5 start at the hands of their diminished division rival? Are we witnessing the end of an elite team? A lot of people, especially those most eager to finally see the Hawks fall, would have you believe so. But I’m not jumping ship. Not after just six games.

Does all this sound familiar? If it does, it’s probably because Seattle suffered a similar rough start last year. In 2014, Seattle lost three of their first six. Looking at the records through six weeks, the opponents that had handed Seattle losses were the solid 5-2 Chargers, the red-hot 6-1 Cowboys, and the 2-4 Rams–a division rival playing at home.  The problem then? Seattle struggled to get off to a hot start, trailing at halftime and allowing over 27 points in all three of their losses. Seattle then rattled off nine of its last 10 games, never allowing over 24 points.

The losses for Seattle this year consist of another Rams team at home and three undefeated teams (Packers, Bengals, Panthers). The defense has allowed 27+ points in every loss (two games in overtime), but their hot-start problem has taken a bit of a different turn. They’ve led in all four losses at some point in the 4th quarter, only to see it slip away time after time. Quarterbacks are throwing at 84% in the 4th quarter against Seattle. They’re 0-3 on the road and have been taken down at home, a place they’ve only lost twice in two years.

So what does all this mean? They’re losing to good teams just like in 2014 and facing some defensive issues. Does that automatically mean they’ll turn it around and rattle off a bunch of wins? Of course not, but I don’t have a solid reason to dismiss the Seahawks yet. I’m a firm believer that truly great teams can beat other great/good teams and the Seahawks have been unable to do that so far. But, just like in 2014, that still doesn’t tell me that the situation is dire. Losses to the Packers, Bengals, and Panthers don’t worry me, especially when I’ve seen what their talent can do. I can’t possibly say they’re a great team at this point, but I’ve seen nothing that tells me they can’t become one.

Six games is just too small of a sample size to tell me how good they actually are. From what I’ve seen, this team can and will pull it together. They may be losing to great teams in the end, but don’t forget that they were actually outplaying these undefeated teams throughout most of the game. Seattle will not only beat the 49ers tonight, but they’ll pick up a bunch of wins against much easier competition (Cowboys, Vikings, Browns, etc.) and make it to the playoffs. If this is still the Seattle I know, they can even still win the NFC West, the very division that threatens to force them into last place with a loss tonight.

Buy or Sell: October

Posted: October 1, 2015 in Uncategorized
A month of football is in the books. Who can we trust to play well in the second month?
Atlanta is off to a surprising 3-0 start. Are we really buying what they're selling? Photo credit: ESPN.com

Atlanta is off to a surprising 3-0 start. Are we really buying what they’re selling? Photo credit: ESPN.com

It’s easy to predict that teams will experience the ups and downs of a regular season. What’s not so easy to predict is when those ups and downs will actually happen. You don’t want to be the guy who said that 3-0 team is destined for the Super Bowl only to see them fall to 4-7 later in the season. Luckily, I’m here to tell you which teams I love for the month of October and which ones I’m planning on ditching. As you’ll see this time, sound stock market logic–buy low, sell high–doesn’t always apply. Here’s who I’m buying and selling for the next month:

Atlanta Falcons (3-0): BUY

Atlanta has rocketed to a 3-0 start after ripping through the NFC East, but they were actually trailing in the 4th quarter in all three games. Doesn’t that mean they’re destined to drop a few at some point? Heck no. Here’s a shocking fact: most games in the NFL are close. I love a team that can continually pull out wins late in a game because that’s what it takes to win in the NFL. They do this primarily with a high-flying offense that sits behind only the Cardinals and Packers for most points scored in the NFC. Matt Ryan is playing like a top-10 QB and gets to throw to the best wide receiver in the league right now in Julio Jones. On top of all that, check out their October schedule: at home against the Texans and Redskins, then at New Orleans and Tennessee. Those four teams have a combined record of 3-9. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ryan, Jones, and a solid running game carry this Falcons team to a 6-1 or 7-0 record by Halloween. We’re not handing out Super Bowls or even playoff bids just yet, but for the next month I am totally buying the Falcons.

St. Louis Rams (1-2): SELL

A lot of people loved the Rams before the season started and then even more after they beat the Seahawks. Now they’ve lost their last two, including a measly 6-point showing at home against Pittsburgh. It doesn’t get any easier for this up-and-comer as they have to face Arizona and Green Bay in back-to-back weeks. Think that’s bad? Throw in the fact that both of those games are on the road and that is absolutely brutal. Not only are they facing two of the best teams in the NFL, but they have to play them where they just don’t lose (combined 15-1 2014 home record). They finally get a break in Week 6 when they get the Browns at home, but by then they will be staring a 2-4 record in the face. In one of the toughest divisions in football, that is a deep hole to climb out of. Their schedule lightens up at certain points, but for now I am staying away from St. Louis.

Philadelphia Eagles (1-2): BUY

This team is a tricky read. Who are they really? The team that looked plain miserable in their first two games or the team that looked like they were figuring things out in a surprise win over the Jets? I have faith that the Eagles are a little bit closer to the latter team and a light schedule may help them out in a division rife with issues. Their four games this month consist of playing in Washington, getting the Saints and Giants at home, then having to travel to Carolina. Aside from Carolina, those are three very winnable games against foes with a 2-7 combined record. I’m banking on the fact that the Eagles will continue to get better and that preseason projections weren’t totally off. I think it’s realistic to expect at least a 2-2 split in those games if not 3-1. Even a 2-2 October would leave Philly at a manageable 3-4. Considering the division they’re in and the fact that they looked finished after two games, 3-4 is not too shabby. I wouldn’t go all in here, but I’m still buying Philly to look like a much better team heading into November.

Lions are off to an 0-3 start and it looks like it'll only get worse from here. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Lions are off to an 0-3 start and it looks like it’ll only get worse from here. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Detroit Lions (0-3): SELL

On the surface, Detroit seems like the perfect team to buy low. They’ve faced some tough competition early, lost a couple close games, and are a better team than their record indicates. While this seems like a great recipe for some early bandwagon-hopping, I’m telling you to stay away. They’re already virtually guaranteed an 0-5 start with the Seahawks (on the road) and Cardinals (at home) coming up. After that, they get the Bears and Vikings at home. Assuming they can handle the Bears for their first win and top a Minnesota team that beat them earlier this season, Detroit is looking at a 2-5 record after two months of football. And that’s optimistic. The Lions are still a decent team, but a slow start combined with a rough October schedule forces me to sell.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-2): BUY

This is another risky buy, but it could pay off big. Right now a lot of people consider the Bucs to be one of the worst of the worst and I simply don’t see it that way. I think they have a lot more talent than their recent performances would have you believe and their upcoming schedule gives them the perfect stage to showcase that. They’ll start off with 3-0 Carolina, a likely loss sending Tampa to 1-3. But then they get the Jaguars at home and travel to Washington after a bye. No game is an easy game for the Bucs but these at the very least are winnable. If they manage to take those two, they’ll be sitting pretty at 3-3. Like Philly, this still won’t garner much love but it’s a heck of a lot better than what they look like right now. Tampa could just as easily blow all three of these games on the way to a 1-5 start, but Buy or Sell was made to take risks. I’m buying the Bucs to keep their season afloat.

“It’s only one week.” –losers in Week 1
Marcus Mariota hit the ground throwing, propelling Tennessee to a blowout win over Tampa Bay. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Marcus Mariota hit the ground throwing, propelling Tennessee to a blowout win over Tampa Bay. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Unfortunately, those losers are right. Week 1 won’t make or break a season for any team, but that doesn’t make the wins any less valuable and it sure as heck doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about.

Marcus Mariota stole the headlines on Sunday by outshining Jameis Winston (does it still count as outshining if one player didn’t shine even a little bit?) and leading the Titans to a definitive 42-14 victory. This kind of a win generates a lot of optimism for a franchise like Tennessee and understandably so. The last time Tennessee hung 40 points on an opponent was in September 2012. Despite his college success, a lot of question marks surrounded Mariota and his ability to adapt to the NFL. Obviously questions still remain, but Mariota proved he at least possess the capability to play a solid game (or in this case, a perfect game based on passer rating). I’ll pump the brakes on the Titans for now because I’m still not crazy about their ability to string a bunch of wins together. But hey, they did their job on the opening Sunday and it’s one less loss they have to worry about.

Speaking of losses to worry about, we’ll stick with this game and talk about the Bucs. I’m not gonna go crazy here and ask “What the heck happened??” and try to decipher every little thing that went wrong for them (that could take a while). It was a bad game. It probably feels like they’re 0-10 after a performance like that, but they’re not. They’re 0-1. So not that bad, right? Ehhh, maybe, maybe not. I picked this team to go to the playoffs because of the pretty consistent trend of at least one bad team going to the playoffs the next year. I rationalized picking the Bucs over the other five candidates by predicting Winston was the type of QB who is heavily influenced by confidence. Looking at Tampa’s early schedule, the potential for a few confidence-building wins was very prevalent. Unfortunately, this Week 1 opener at home against the Titans looked to be the easiest win of the bunch. Now they have to travel to New Orleans and Houston in back-to-back road games. A couple losses there could wind up making this another long and unsuccessful season for the Bucs. One game at a time. If Tampa can manage to somehow win in the Dome, that could make up for all the lost hope suffered in Week 1 and put this team back on track. For the record, it does appear I am at least somewhat correct in my assessment of Winston’s abilities to play with confidence. His first throw resulted in perhaps the most demoralizing play of all: a pick-six. From there, both Tampa and Winston struggled.

We'll likely notice the impact of Bryant's injury when Dallas is in the redzone. Photo credit: ESPN.com

We’ll likely notice the impact of Bryant’s injury when Dallas is in the redzone. Photo credit: ESPN.com

I don’t like to talk too much about what certain wins “mean” for different teams after the opening week. Too much changes week to week for me to already pencil in St. Louis as the NFC West champion. If you want to look at what may have lasting effects, turn to Dallas where Dez Bryant has been ruled out for 8-12 weeks with a broken bone in his foot. Even though the Cowboys’ offense relies mostly on Tony Romo and the offensive line, the loss of Bryant could really cause some issues. They seemed to have no problem moving the ball in their last two drives against the Giants, but tougher defenses will surely take advantage of the fact that a huge endzone threat is missing. Bryant led the league with 16 receiving TDs last year while only being the 12th most-targeted receiver. Bryant is on that offense to score. This won’t kill Dallas–that fantastic O-line will give Romo time to find other options–but there’s reason for concern going forward.

Some other brief notes that I don’t feel like expanding on further:

–That Rams defense looks great. I know Seattle’s offensive line isn’t the best, but boy did they send Wilson running a lot. They also forced three field goals and stuffed Marshawn Lynch on fourth down in overtime. Impressive win overall for St. Louis, I really thought Seattle would be ready for them this time.

–Let’s not forget the last team to earn a win in Week 1, the San Francisco 49ers. They had a pretty late game and quietly dominated a Vikings team that many believe will take a leap forward this year. They can still do that of course, but they looked helpless against the 49ers’ defense. Even after a rough offseason in San Fran (to say the least), something tells me the 49ers won’t be nearly as bad as people think. We’ll see.

–I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention my Giants. There, I mentioned them. Now can we please not talk about that game?

–Ok, in all seriousness, that was a painful loss. One yard away from beating Dallas in their own stadium. One yard. Defense looked much better than I thought but looked gassed by the end. Eli played decent aside from that egregious throw-away decision on 3rd and goal. Sigh, just one yard away. Then we hear afterwards that Jennings was told not to even score on the first two downs…..let’s not even get into it. A silver lining for Giants fans, because we all need it: they lost the opening game in both 2007 and 2011, when they won their last two Super Bowls. It’s 2015, another four years gone, another opening loss in the books……Super Bowl here we come?

–Fun fact of the week: Tony Romo threw 36/45 (80%) for over 350 yards, three TDs, and two interceptions. Josh McCown of the Browns completed 5/8 before being knocked out of the game with a concussion. McCown finished with a higher QBR (88.7) than Romo (85.9).

–Thursday night pick: Broncos over Chiefs. Peyton has a great track record against KC and I think despite the win, Denver is disappointed in its performance in Week 1. They’ll look much better in their win in Arrowhead.

We all love a good running back, but how much does a good one matter and how has their impact changed over the past 20 years? Watching what they do in the 2015-16 season may help clear things up.
DeMarco Murray led all running backs last season. Can he soar again with his new team in Philly?

DeMarco Murray led all running backs last season. Can he soar again with his new team in Philly? (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

There’s been a lot of movement in the backfield this season. DeMarco Murray, last year’s leading rusher, is now an Eagle after spending four seasons in Dallas. LeSean McCoy, former Eagle, is now in Buffalo. Arian Foster remained in Houston, but is declared out for about the first half of the season with a groin injury. And we can’t leave out Adrian Peterson, who will be back in action with the Vikings after being suspended indefinitely for allegedly striking his four-year-old son. With even more running back news beyond this, I wondered how big of an impact running backs really have.

I found that last season we saw the fewest number of running backs (2) with over 10 rushing touchdowns since 1993 (going forward, it’s important to note that the NFL expanded from 28 to 30 teams in 1995, 30 to 31 in 1999, and 31 to 32 in 2002). Only DeMarco Murray and Marshawn Lynch managed to crack the 10 TD barrier, each with 13. It also marks the fourth straight season that we’ve seen that number decline.

To see if this decline existed past touchdowns, I took a look at running backs with 1000+ yard seasons. The number of running backs that cracked that number also reached its lowest point in the last two seasons (13) since 1996. The decline isn’t as sharp as with touchdowns, but there is still a noticeable and steady slide since that number reached its peak in 2006 (23).

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Last year we saw running backs struggle harder to reach those benchmarks than we have in a long time. Does this mean the value of the running back is declining as a whole or that because there’s so few good running backs, that having a good one is even more valuable?

Hoping to get some sort of indication, I took a look at the running backs of some of best teams from past years. Looking at just the Super Bowl winners wouldn’t be very helpful because we know how little can decide one game. So I decided to look at the final four teams’ (NFC and AFC Championship) running backs from the past five years. Out of 20 total running backs, twelve had over 1000 yards, eight had over 10 touchdowns, and only six had both.

Top RBs

This doesn’t clear up the picture a whole lot. It doesn’t seem vital to have a stud at running back, though having one you can count on for solid production–like a 2011 Ray Rice, 2012 Stevan Ridley, or 2014 Marshawn Lynch–can sure help a lot. New England even managed to win the Super Bowl with a leading running back with less than 500 yards, though that looks to be a rare occurrence even today.

Finally, I looked at the reverse condition. How did the best running backs fare on their respective teams? Were they good enough to take them far? Again I used the final four teams as the measure of a great season. Looking at the top running back each year–based on a combination of rushing yards and TDs–I found that only one had been able to make it to a league championship in the past fifteen years. This was perhaps the most shocking trend I found throughout all of this. Having the best running back in the league seems to be a curse.

Top Rbs2

The biggest takeaway from these two trends involving final four teams is that your running back can be a good barometer for balance. The best running back in the league could be the best running back because he needs to be. Relying on the running back too much will eventually catch up with teams.

As for the decline we see in general, it’s still hard to say where running back value is headed. Keep a close eye on how the top running backs in the league help their team this season. Are they doing well because the rest of the team is struggling? Or are they just another great piece of a balanced team? These latter teams are the ones to watch out for in the playoffs.

Also, will we see a jump in production? I expect we will, but just how big a jump may tell us what to expect in the future of the running game. We’re seeing less and less “great” backs and if the slide continues, we could see a shift in strategy on both sides of the ball.

Kirk Cousins gave Redskins fans a reasons to believe in his 41-10 win over Jacksonville.

Kirk Cousins gave Redskins fans a reasons to believe in his 41-10 win over Jacksonville.

Kirk Cousins has always kind of been there. He was there when he was drafted 100 picks after Robert Griffin III, giving Washington some insurance at their historically-unreliable QB position. He was there to play the Falcons after Griffin was concussed in his fifth game, throwing for over 100 yards and a TD but two interceptions. He was there to tie the game with under 30 seconds left against Baltimore after Griffin injured his knee. The very next week, he was there for his first start against Cleveland, impressing fans with over 320 yards, 2 TDs, and a win. He was there to play in Washington’s first playoff game since 2007, struggling against Seattle after Griffin again injured his knee and tore his ACL and LCL.

Fast forward to 2013 and Griffin starts the season. Griffin clearly isn’t the same and after a 3-10 start, Cousins gets a few starts near the end of the season, again with mixed success. Washington ends 3-13.

Fast forward to this offseason and the murmurs of a Cousins start begin. A handful of fans start to believe that Griffin is not the guy. After some poor and reckless play from Griffin in the preseason, more and more fans start to look at Cousins. Still, it’s clear to most that Griffin, the 2nd overall pick that brought them to the playoffs in his first year, has to be the guy. He has to. He is Washington’s first real hope in years and gave them a small taste of greatness almost immediately. Can he return to that form? That handful of Cousins advocates know he can’t. They know Cousins can do a better job. They know he’s always kind of been there.

And now he’s here.

Whether they like it or not, Washington fans will finally get to see Cousins take the reigns for the foreseeable future. Griffin, seeming more and more fragile as his career progresses, dislocated his ankle on a non-contact play. He’ll be out for several weeks, though the team doesn’t know exactly for how long. Optimistic reports say he could return in a few weeks, others say we won’t see him again this season. Either way, Redskins fans will finally get answers to their questions for the QB position. Or perhaps more questions?

Things start to get really interesting when we think about the implications of Cousins’ success. Cousins filled in for Griffin against Jacksonville and impressed the home fans from his first throw–literally. Cousins threw a 20-yard touchdown on his first pass and continued to roll, adding another TD and 250 yards on the way to a 41-10 win. Yes, it was “only against Jacksonville,” but what if he continues to play well and get wins this season? It would appear that Washington is in a tough spot in that scenario. Do they go with a rolling Cousins or their high-pick hero? Believe it or not, it actually isn’t a tough call. As long as Cousins is winning, Griffin should not see the field again this season.

Another injury will sideline Robert Griffin III and with it, more doubt that he can be a reliable starter.

Another injury will sideline Robert Griffin III and with it, more doubt that he can be a reliable starter.

The really tough spot comes if Cousins doesn’t play well, goes 3-6 in his next nine games and Griffin is ready to return. With their insurance option seemingly gone, the reliability of Griffin’s health looks shakier than ever. Sure, if Griffin stays healthy he can do well. If he learns how to throw better from the pocket Washington will be fine. If he learns how to slide he can protect his body. But when do the “ifs” pile high enough for Washington to realize that Griffin isn’t a viable option? Injured again in his third season after two games, Griffin is becoming harder and harder to believe in. Injuries are part of the game, but it also looks like injuries are a part of RGIII.

The sample size for Cousins is too small and spread out to tell if he’ll do well. In his career he’s thrown 10 TDs and 10 INTs, with 57.6% completion, and 74.3 passer rating. Looking at QB stats from last year, those numbers are similar to Joe Flacco, Jason Campbell, and EJ Manuel. What does that tell us? Not much. That’s why these next few weeks will be pivotal for Washington and its fans. Drafting Griffin seemed to put an end to those QB questions for years, especially after he took them to the playoffs in his first season. Now just two seasons later, Redskins fans will have to go back to asking, “Can this guy do it for us?”

How’s Kirk handling all this? “My job is to be the backup quarterback and, if called upon to come in and play, then I better play and help this team win,” Cousins said after the win over Jacksonville. He may consider himself still a backup, but if Griffin is indeed out for a significant time, 2014 will be a Kirk Cousins year.

Even the staunchest of Griffin supporters will root for Cousins, as they should, because it’s still their beloved Redskins. Who doesn’t want their QB to play lights out? For Washington fans, hope borders desperation. Failure from Cousins means Washington is just one step closer to the pain they know all too well: 15 different QBs in 14 years. Redskins fans will hold their breath and see if Cousins’ arm can handle the pressure of their expectations because it appears that Griffin’s legs cannot.

Their victory over New England was only one win,  but still a great way to start a crucial season nonetheless.

Their victory over New England was only one win, but a great way to start a crucial season nonetheless.

With 10 seconds left in the 2nd quarter, Stephen Gostkowski nailed a field goal to put the Patriots up 20-10 heading into halftime. It appeared New England was on their way to another week 1 win, their 11th in a row.

Not this time.

After opening the 3rd quarter with a field goal, Miami completely changed the tide of the game with a sack and fumble recovery on New England’s ensuing possession. From then on, it was all Miami. The Dolphins closed out the game 33-20.

And just like that, New England’s streak of opening wins was snapped. One of the biggest shocks of the weekend was the consistently dominant Patriots failing to keep a lead and ultimately dropping a game they should have had.

After watching Tannehill grow for two seasons, Miami fans are expecting results in his third.

After watching Tannehill grow for two seasons, Miami fans are expecting results in his third.

That certainly was a surprise. But that game was about Miami just as much as it was about New England. They fell behind a team that took seven of their past nine meetings, not to mention 10 of the past 11 division titles. They fell behind, looked the Patriots right in the eye, and stole that game right from under them. Was it the start of something bigger? Could Miami potentially steal the AFC East as well? Maybe. It’s still just week 1. Everything will have to click just right for the Dolphins. And that’s where Ryan Tannehill comes in.

Tannehill had a promising rookie season, throwing for over 3200 yards on the way to a 7-9 record. He really showed us what he could do in his sophomore season when he threw for over 3900 yards and 24 TDs. Miami went 8-8. And now here we are, the Dolphins 1-0 with an impressive division win under their belt.

Needless to say, this is a huge season for Tannehill and Miami. It just kinda feels like their time. Winning the AFC East is a tall order, but going to the playoffs is almost an expectation at this point. And why shouldn’t it be? Their defense just stumped one of the toughest QBs they’ll face all year for the entire 2nd half. Knowshon Moreno, scooped up from Denver, shredded the Patriots’ defense for over 130 yards and a TD. Mike Wallace is an incredible talent and was targeted 11 times (7 for 81 yards, TD) as Tannehill’s favorite receiver. Now Tannehill has two years under his belt and is poised to take Miami to playoffs.

In games where Tannehill throws two or more interceptions, the Dolphins are 0-8.

In games where Tannehill throws two or more interceptions, the Dolphins are 0-8.

Tannehill has shown tremendous improvement over two seasons. He threw at least one TD in all but two games in 2013, compared to having six games without a TD the year before (not counting the game he got injured against Jets). His completion percentages have also become more consistent with more experience and attempts. He threw under 60% completion in nine games in his rookie season and only five the next year. In those games where Tannehill struggled, Miami went 1-13.

This is Ryan Tannehill’s most crucial season yet. Is he the guy? His third year will tell us a lot about the direction Miami is headed. His improvements look promising, but another 8-8 or 7-9 season is not what the Dolphins are looking for.

If Tannehill can continue to improve and limit his mistakes, he’ll be able guide this team to their best season in years. He doesn’t have to be perfect. Despite that 1-13 record, Miami managed to win against New England when Tannehill threw for 56.3% completion (now 2-13). He has the pieces around him to send this team to the playoffs. It’s certainly a season to watch Ryan Tannehill. His next test comes against Buffalo on the road.

Benching Josh Freeman is not as risky as it seems.

Benching Josh Freeman is not as risky as it seems.

In my division previews this year, I said that Tampa Bay’s hope for a good season rides on the success of Josh Freeman. So far, that has proved true. Through three games, Freeman has a 45.7 completion percentage (worst in the NFL), 2 TDs to 3 interceptions, and a 59.3 passer rating (worst in the NFL). Not surprisingly, Tampa Bay is 0-3.

Now, let’s slow down here for one second. It’s only Week 3 and if we look a little closer, Tampa’s losses aren’t that distressing. In Week 1, we have a 1-point loss to the Jets that probably should have been a win if it wasn’t for a dumb penalty late in the game. The next week, another last-minute loss to the still-undefeated Saints. Then last week, the worst of the three games, a 23-3 rout delivered by the Patriots. If a couple plays go the Bucs’ way, they’re looking at a solid 2-1 start. But the fact is, they didn’t make the plays and in this universe, they are 0-3. No, not all the blame falls to Freeman, as it rarely does on one player in the NFL. But you gotta believe that the 45.7% completion is a pretty significant reason why plays aren’t being made. We’re talking about plays that could have turned those close losses into wins. So if you’re Tampa Bay and the window is quickly closing in a division where everyone else has wins, something has to change. At this point, they can’t afford to see if Freeman will turn it around.

This puts the hopes of the Bucs’ season in the arms of Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay’s 2013 3rd round draft pick out of NC State. An unproven rookie is not exactly comforting to Tampa Bay fans, but something tells me he can do better than Freeman has so far because let’s face it, he can’t do much worse. Glennon will face a Cardinals secondary that has allowed nearly 300 passing yards a game (26th in NFL). Freeman certainly faced three tougher defenses than Arizona will field on Sunday so Freeman’s numbers may just be a reuslt of stingy secondaries. Coach Greg Schiano has made it clear he doesn’t feel like waiting to see if that’s true.

We’ll have to keep an eye on that game to see how Glennon does. If he falls flat, Schiano’s job will be all but finished.