For once, Week 1 offers little in the way of surprises

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Using players we’ve never heard of before, New England picked up where they left off.

Week 1 of the NFL has a knack for shattering expectations and throwing a wrench into the status quo. We’ve gotten so used to the shake-ups from the first Sunday, that Overreaction Monday is practically an NFL holiday at this point. This year, however, we were surprised by the lack of surprises out of the first week of football.

The “same old, same old” should be music to the ears of Patriots fans. Not only have they dominated their division for the past 13 years, but they’ve earned six straight first-round byes with records no worse than 12-4. On Sunday night, they traveled to face the Cardinals without Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski and looked poised for a little shake-up (called losing). Instead, Jimmy Garoppolo led the Pats to one of their more impressive regular season wins in a few years. It took a missed field goal by Arizona late in the game, but New England nonetheless survived, and that’s a story the AFC East is all too used to hearing. After the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills lost their season openers, the Pats are alone on top and that’s nothing new.

The same old story is a painful one for the Cleveland Browns and RGIII. Against a rookie QB and an uninspiring Philadelphia Eagles team, the Browns had reason to be optimistic. Instead, Cleveland relived the disappointment of the past two decades with an abysmal loss. Even worse, Griffin will miss an extended period of time after sustaining an injury. He took a huge hit near the sideline after he failed to slide. Sound at all familiar? Week 1 did nothing to quell the fears of a long season for Browns fans.

Cleveland wasn’t the only team to be dealt a familiar dose of disappointment. The San Diego Chargers were a different team last year after Keenan Allen sustained a lacerated kidney in Week 8. This year they’ll find out what it’s like to miss him for an entire season after Allen tore his ACL in Week 1.

Both the Saints and Colts showed eerily similar signs of the struggles they faced last year. A poor defense costing an elite QB the win is the losing formula we saw time and time again for the past few years.

Perhaps one Week 1 surprise was the Giants topping the Cowboys in a season opener. As shocking as that was, the real story was the Cowboys’ inability to overcome the missing veteran leadership and play of Tony Romo. Will Dallas be able to string together any wins without him? Even in the loss, Dak Prescott showed he’s a vast improvement over the replacements Dallas trotted out last year.

And how can we forget about the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Week after week we (myself included) refused to take this team seriously in 2015. They had a struggling Peyton Manning as their QB trying to see how far he could get on the back of a fantastic defense. This time, it was untested rookie Trevor Siemian with the great defense behind him against a Panthers team itching for revenge. I fell for it again and picked the Panthers. Then I watched as Denver’s defense thoroughly dominated and allowed Siemian to control the game with smart, safe passes. Why should I have expected anything different?

Week 1 looked awfully familiar and that makes me uneasy. Should we get ready for a repeat of 2015? Or is the NFL just setting us up to look like fools halfway through the season?

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The 12% rule: Seahawks, Ravens, and Giants headline a diverse 0-2 field

We all know how tough it can be to bounce back after an 0-2 start, so which teams have a chance to pull off the improbable?
Although Seattle may be wondering what went wrong, an 0-2 start shouldn't worry the Super Bowl runner-ups.

Although Seattle may be wondering what went wrong, an 0-2 start shouldn’t worry the Super Bowl runner-ups. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Throughout the current week, everyone from ESPN to your fun-fact-tweeting friend will remind you of the sobering correlation between 0-2 teams and the playoffs. On the off-chance that you’ve dodged the oft-repeated stat in all your time watching football, let me be the first to clue you in: historically, around only 12% of teams that start 0-2 make it to the playoffs. The reason this trend is so attractive to repeat on television and in casual conversation is because losing the first two games is so easy. It can happen to any team, really. Whether it’s last year’s Super Bowl runner-ups or a team with an injured QB, letting those two games slip by–no matter how slim the margin–drastically reduces that team’s chances of reaching the postseason. Historically, that is.

Unfortunately for the 0-2 hopefuls, we’ve seen this trend hold true over and over. Last year, only one slow-starter (Colts) out of seven clinched the playoffs. The year prior, again only one (Panthers) out of the eight clinched. In 2012, not one of the six could reach the postseason. If we’re keeping count, that’s two 0-2 teams out of 21 (9.5%) that managed to extend their season. Chances are only one of the nine teams below will do the same, if the trend holds.

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The trend makes sense. Most teams that start 0-2 lost those games because they aren’t good teams. But, as noted before, it can strike great teams as well. The Seahawks are perhaps the most notable of these supposedly “great” teams that have dropped their first two. Seattle is considered one of the NFC elite, having won the last two NFC championships and having been a yard away from winning a second straight Super Bowl. Hopes were high again this season for Seattle (I predicted a third-straight NFCN appearance), but the first two weeks have brought two losses.

My gut says they’ll be fine, as most of their wins will come at home. They’ve lost to some pretty tough competition, having to deal with a vicious Rams defense and then Aaron Rodgers, both on the road. Although there are definitely some areas to improve (offensive line, running game), I haven’t seen much that tells me this Seattle team is significantly worse than last year’s. In all likelihood, the Seahawks are the one team–or one of–out of the nine that will make the playoffs.

If there is only one team to make it, that should worry Ravens fans. Baltimore had sky-high expectations coming into this year, hoping an elite defense and great offensive line would propel them to the Super Bowl. The offense had major difficulty moving the ball against Denver in their opening loss, scoring only 13 points on 173 total yards. And yes, I know how good Denver’s defense is but I’m sorry, those are the type of defenses they’ll have to face in a playoff run. They did not look prepared to handle that task at all. The offense looked much better against the Raiders, nearly eclipsing 500 total yards. This time it was the defense that let them down, allowing Derek Carr to pass for over 350 yards and 3 TDs in a 37-33 loss. The bright side in all this is that, like Seattle, both these games were on the road and hopefully not indicative of how this team can perform overall. It wouldn’t surprise me if Baltimore still clinched a playoff spot, but they will have to do so in what looks to be a very competitive AFC North.

The Giants have put themselves in positions to win in two straight games. One of these days they might actually close the deal. Photo credit: ESPN.com

The Giants have put themselves in positions to win in two straight games. One of these days they might actually close the deal. Photo credit: ESPN.com

The polar opposite of a division like that would be the NFC East, where all four teams look to have dire issues of all kinds. This is good news for the Giants and Eagles who’ve both caught the 0-2 bug in their own special ways. If you follow the Giants this week, you’re bound to hear the phrase, “they should be 2-0.” No, they shouldn’t. They’re not 0-2 because of some freak misfortune that caused the ball to bounce one way and not the other. They’re 0-2 because of poor clock management decisions and porous 4th quarter defense. In other words, they lost because they were the New York Giants. Did they have a chance to win both games? Definitely. But to say they should be 2-0 is just plain inaccurate.

What New York can hope for is that they manage these flaws well enough to win some games. Luckily, they’re in a division where every team has problems. If they can just find a way to be the least problematic of those four, their 0-2 start doesn’t have to be a death sentence. They face the Redskins on Thursday night in a game that just became a lot more important after Week 2.

The Eagles are in the same boat division-wise, but they look to be much worse off than the Giants. In two games, they’ve managed to gather a whopping 70 rushing yards. That is disgraceful. I can’t even come up with a comparison that will do justice to how pitiful that number is. And this is the team that nabbed last year’s top running back in the offseason in DeMarco Murray. Their total of 34 points over two games actually seems high after having watched them. Like the Giants, they are blessed to be in a division that may forgive these shortcomings if remedied soon.

Speaking of underperforming offenses, how about the Indianapolis Colts? A popular Super Bowl pick that boasted the 6th-highest scoring offense last season, the Colts rank dead last in scoring after two weeks. How does that happen? Indy added veteran receiver Andre Johnson to complement T.Y. Hilton and also nabbed Frank Gore to improve the running game. Somehow, they only muster up 21 points in their first two games. Although Indy still sits in one of the weakest divisions in the NFL, I feel a lot more confident about the Seahawks’ or Ravens’ chances to rebound in the coming weeks. I have to believe the Colts will figure it out eventually, but they’ve looked downright dysfunctional to start the season.

New Orleans is another team that could benefit from a poor division, but I am honestly just about done with them. I keep holding out hope that a great QB-coach combo can carry the half-decent remains, but I’m let down every time. Last year I took a major chance and penciled them into the Super Bowl only to see them stumble to a 7-9 record. This year I tabbed them as the NFC South division winners, thinking this had to be the year they got back. Even this week I picked them to snap their despicable 5-game home losing streak against a Bucs team that looked abysmal in Week 1. Every time, let down. When will I stop falling for it?

With more than a few surprising 0-2 teams out there this season, our playoff outlook may need some adjusting. Only time will tell which of these teams can buck the trend and which ones drown in the pressure of a bad start.

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Other notes from Week 2:

–What’s going on with the top running backs from last year? I already mentioned the woes of Murray and he’s hardly the only one. LeSean McCoy is averaging around 65 yards per game, 17 less than last year. Marshawn Lynch’s average is down 24 yards and Jeremy Hill’s is down 19 yards. Lamar Miller, a back who gained over 1000 yards last year, is barely getting the ball (23 attempts) and has gained a measly 67 yards in two games. Eddie Lacy, even before getting injured on Sunday night, has been struggling as well. Justin Forsett, along with McCoy, Lynch, and Miller, has yet to reach the end zone. I realize it’s only been two weeks and I expect things to balance out, but it sure is a weird start for the NFL’s elite rushers.

–The Patriots and Packers look to be easily the two best teams in the NFL so far. New England’s offense is getting everything it can out of Gronk and Brady looks to be aging backwards. Rodgers continues to amaze without key players like Jordy Nelson and Eddie Lacy. And I’m definitely not just saying this because I picked these teams to meet in the Super Bowl………..definitely not.

–A cool catch from this week:

–My pick for this Thursday: Giants over Redskins. Despite the 4th quarter issues, New York has been playing decently well and will hopefully not need late-game smarts to win this one.

Week 14 (2013-14): Recapping the most thrilling Sunday in years

There was no guessing that Week 14 would be the best week of football of 2013 (so far). The schedule slate was solid: Detroit at Philly, Seattle and San Fran, Indy at Cincy, etc. The weather was expected to be bad, especially in the East. And Week 14 is the unofficial start of many teams’ final push towards a playoff birth. But there was nothing spectacular or unusual to give us an indication that what we were about to witness was going to be remembered and talked about for a long, long time. Yet, that’s exactly what we got.

Games we didn’t expect to be close turned out to be something to watch (see: Browns-Pats) and the most anticipated game of the week (for many), Carolina at New Orleans, was a dud. Simply put, Sunday was unpredictable, the word often used to describe the NFL as a whole. With the right combination of great plays, thrilling endings/comebacks, broken records, controversial calls, heart-breaking injuries, and, most of all, snow, the NFL gave us an incredible Sunday. I’m not even sure where to start.

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Calvin Johnson, along with most of Detroit’s offense, was slowed down by the snow.

I guess it would be appropriate to start where the madness began: Philadelphia. Snow hit the East hard all-around but seemingly no harder than it did before and during the Lions-Eagles game. After five fumbles by Detroit (three recovered by Detroit) and an interception from Nick Foles, Detroit managed to strike first and had no choice but to go for the two-point conversion. Kicking for points was simply not an option in this game (more on this later). The Foles interception left him just two TDs short from breaking Peyton Manning’s record of most TDs thrown without throwing a pick (20) set earlier this year. Detroit scored again in the third quarter to stretch the lead out to 14-0 after a failed two-point try. At this point it seemed Detroit had done enough to hold on to a low-scoring victory. Oh, how wrong that turned out to be.

Once he got going, Shady McCoy was impossible to stop.

Once he got going, Shady McCoy was impossible to stop.

Two men, once they found their footing, turned this defensive Snow Bowl into an all-out sprint. After Jeremy Ross’ 58-yard punt return to give the Lions the 14-0 lead, LeSean McCoy broke out for a 40-yard TD run to tie up the game and give the fans a reason to stay. Ross seemed determined to send them home just two plays later on a 98-yard kickoff return to give Detroit the lead once again. A little more than a minute after, it was McCoy a second time, running for 57 yards for the what would turn out to be the winning score. By the end of the game, in which Philly walked away cold and victorious, McCoy had gathered 217 yards on the ground, a franchise record. Trying to put his performance and the game as a whole into words can’t do it justice, so do yourself a favor and check out the highlights here. By the end of the game, 54 points were on the board. None of these points were scored on kicks. The last time for that to happen? 56 years ago. A game to remember for sure.

About 100 miles away in Baltimore, nothing special was happening. Baltimore was down 12-7, struggling against 3-win Minnesota in another snowy affair. Defensive battles are great and all, but when McCoy and Ross are going off, it’s clear which game is the one to watch. It became even less of a game to watch when one of the NFL’s greatest playmakers and 2012-13 MVP Adrian Peterson was carted off with an injury early in the second quarter. Nothing to see here….until, inexplicably, there was.

Marlon Brown ended an incredible game with an incredible catch.

Marlon Brown ended an incredible game with an incredible catch.

With 2:05 remaining in the game, Joe Flacco connected with Dennis Pitta (in his first game back from an injury) to give Baltimore the 15-12 lead. All Baltimore needed to do now was stop Minnesota with under two minutes to play and run the clock out. They only allowed 12 points all game, how hard could it be? Toby Gerhart, filling in for Peterson, made sure to make it as hard as possible as he broke away for a 41-yard run to give the Vikings the lead with 1:27 remaining. Now it was Minnesota who needed a stop. Unfortunately, the Vikings D never had a chance as they watched speedster Jacoby Jones run back the kickoff following Gerhart’s score. Baltimore up 22-19, 1:17 left. On the ensuing Minnesota possession, the Ravens forced the Vikings into an early 3rd and 10 with about a minute left. With their backs pressed up against the wall, Minnesota ran a gutsy play, throwing a screen to Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson got a few blocks, found the hole, and he was gone. Minnesota then went back up by four, 26-22, forcing Baltimore to score a touchdown in 45 seconds with two timeouts. It has to be over now, right? Well…by now you get the picture. Joe Flacco led Baltimore down the field rather quickly, but that drive appeared to come to a sudden halt when he overthrew a fallen Pitta to see the ball land in the hands of Minnesota’s Andrew Sendejo. A questionable pass interference call on LB Chad Greenway nullified the interception. Three plays later, with just six ticks left on the clock, Flacco threaded the needle to the back of the endzone and found Marlon Brown for the stunning game-winning score. Brown tapped his toes in bounds with possession to end the incredible game. Just 19 points and two touchdowns between the two teams in the first 58 minutes. In the last 2:05, 36 points and five touchdowns. Simply unreal.

However, not all the takeaways from this game were good. There were questionable calls throughout the game, including Greenway’s, mostly hurting Minnesota it seemed. And of course, there was Adrian Peterson’s injury. The NFL held its breath as it saw one of its most collectively beloved players writhe in pain on the sideline. Luckily, a following MRI revealed no ligament tears or Lisfranc injury. He will likely be inactive next week. Highlights of the entire game can be seen here.

No week of NFL action would be complete without a comeback or two. While I was enjoying the mayhem in the Philly game, I glanced over now and then at the league scoreboard and noticed Cleveland up on New England 19-3 late in the third. It’s not like New England hasn’t been behind before (see: Denver at New England) so I decided to check back later. Indeed, the Pats eventually shrunk the deficit to five with 5:43 left to play. On Cleveland’s next drive Jason Campbell responded in a huge way, leading the Browns down for a TD and taking off a chunk of valuable time in the process. Cleveland was sure to finish out what would be a pretty impressive upset. Still, New England was going to do all they could because why wouldn’t they? I tuned in in time to see Tom Brady methodically roll down the field, picking up small chunks of yards here and there. After 11 plays and 95 yards, New England scored and pulled within five once again. Still, New England needed to recover the onside kick, a play few teams have pulled off this season. Stephen Gostkowski tapped the ball over the top and the blue jerseys surrounded it as it flipped and bounced 10 yards. A Brown tried to grab it but it was no contest for all the Pats waiting for it. After the dust settled, New England had converted a beautiful onside kick recovery. But still, New England needed a touchdown in under 40 seconds with no timeouts starting from Cleveland’s 40.

This isn't the first Pats game to be heavily influenced by the refs.

This isn’t the first Pats game to be heavily influenced by the refs.

After a simple 10 yard pass, Brady decided it was time to go deep. Brady delivered a fantastic pass to Josh Boyce but it tipped off his fingers as he fell to the ground. The reason he fell? The refs seemed to think Cleveland’s Leon McFadden had a lot to do with it and threw a flag on defensive pass interference. Seemed to me to be a ticky-tack call at the end of the game, but decide for yourself. This put New England at the 1, leading to a quick TD from Brady and the late lead. Cleveland still had a solid 35 seconds left to drive down the field and to their credit, they did pretty well with the time constraint. They got close enough to give kicker Billy Cundiff a chance to steal the win back on a 58-yard field goal but he didn’t have the leg. With the missed kick, New England had capped a pretty improbable comeback. Highlights here.

Again, not everything from this game was great (ask Cleveland fans). Nobody likes to see a questionable call have a big impact on the outcome of the game. The pass interference call is hardly the most controversial we’ve seen this season, but it gave the Pats the edge in a major way. We saw another devastating injury, this time to Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady’s best weapon. The news was not as encouraging as Peterson’s as tests confirmed a torn ACL and MCL, ending his season. Although New England managed well without him for the beginning of the season, they will feel the effect of his absence for sure.

The other not-as-talked-about comeback featured a couple of sliding teams under .500. Despite an OT win over Buffalo last week, the Atlanta Falcons headed into Green Bay having lost five of six. Green Bay had gone winless in their last five, but unlike the Falcons, were still alive in the playoff hunt. At home and with still a lot to play for, Green Bay had all the reasons to take this game. Instead, it was Atlanta that scored 21 points in the 2nd quarter. The last of the three touchdowns Atlanta scored was one of the craziest plays you’ll see this season. A tipped pass from Matt Flynn bounced right off the foot of Paul Worrilow into Sean Weatherspoon’s hands. Weatherspoon returned the catch for a TD in the last minute of the half. Atlanta entered halftime with a 21-10 lead.

Watch as the ball bounces off Worrilow's (55) foot into the hands of Weatherspoon.

Watch as the ball bounces off Worrilow’s (55) foot into the hands of Weatherspoon.

Not a huge deficit by any means, but without Aaron Rodgers running offense up and down the field, Packers fans began to get restless. A couple of third quarter field goals cut the deficit to five, still not very comforting considering Green Bay hadn’t scored a TD since the first quarter. Green Bay needed a game-changing play and they got one. A sack of Matt Ryan early in the 4th caused a fumble and put Green Bay around Atlanta’s 20-yard line, close enough for the slow Green Bay offense to finally put the ball in the endzone. It was all defense from that point on and the Pack left with the 22-21 win. No, not a comeback for the ages but still one of those games that, if Green Bay can still manage to squeak into the playoffs, we’ll look back on as a key win in an adverse situation. You can watch the highlight of this one here.

Another thrilling game, arguably the most exciting of them all, took place in Pittsburgh where, you guessed it, there was snow. Luckily, the Dolphins were visiting and there’s no way a team from Miami can deal with the cold, right? Surprisingly, it was Miami that jumped out to an early 17-7 lead. From that point on, Pitt and Miami were trading blows all day long. Five lead changes in the second half brought us to the end of the fourth. Miami had the six-point lead with a minute to play. Pittsburgh still had time to move down the field but they did anything but that, using that last minute to go about six yards. With a couple seconds left and 74 yards away from the endzone, Pittsburgh needed a miracle. Roethlisberger snapped the ball, nonchalantly dropped back and delivered a strike to a receiver (excuse me if I don’t use names here). That Steeler lateraled to another Steeler, him back to another, him back to a lineman, the lineman back to Roethlisberger, Roethlisberger to speedster Antonio Brown who found a hole and took a shot. Brown shot down the sideline, Miami defenders scrambling to catch up. With just one guy to beat, Brown got around him along the sideline and ran in for the winning score at home!! A miracle in Pittsburgh!!

Brown had the room to stay in bounds, but couldn't.

Brown had the room to stay in bounds, but couldn’t.

So close.

As you can see in the photo, Brown stepped out of bounds during the run, ending the game in a heart-breaking loss. Check out how close he really was here. That one step could be the difference between making the playoffs and watching the playoffs. And speaking of the playoffs, lets take a quick look at how Week 14 shook things up:

In the NFC, I think it’s safe to assume that Seattle (already clinched), New Orleans, and Carolina will make the playoffs. That leaves three spots wide open: the NFC East champ, the NFC North champ, and final wildcard spot. Philly’s crazy win turned out even better for them after Dallas got crushed on Monday night by Chicago. Philly is now in the driver’s seat at 8-5 and can clinch a spot by winning out. Their final game is against Dallas (7-6) and could likely be a must-win situation for both teams, but we’ll see. The NFC North got super interesting with Detroit’s loss, dropping them to 7-6. Chicago’s win puts them at 7-6 as well, but they lose out to Detroit in the head-to-head tiebreaker. And don’t give up on Green Bay at 6-6-1. They picked up that key win over Atlanta and kept themselves right in the hunt. San Francisco (9-4) is the team in front of the wildcard race, but they have major company in Arizona (8-5), Dallas, and Chicago.

The AFC picture is a bit more clear. Two teams have already clinched a spot–Denver and Indy–and we can assume New England will win the AFC East, Cincy will hang on to win the North, and Kansas City will take one of the two wildcard spots. That leaves one spot and quite a few teams with a shot. Baltimore’s last second victory put them at 7-6, good enough for the lead. Miami is also 7-6, but loses out on the head-to-head, meaning Miami must have a better record than Baltimore to win that spot. San Diego and New York are both at 6-7, but the Bolts have the edge there with the head-to-head win over New York. This leaves New York, Pitt (5-8), and Tennessee (5-8) all with an outside shot. All Baltimore needs is two out of the three remaining games, but they face Detroit, New England, and Cincy. Miami has a real shot to steal the wildcard spot away if they can manage to upset New England and handle Buffalo and New York. Keep an eye on those two teams.

One game I haven’t covered yet that probably deserves it is San Fran’s home win over Seattle. All week we heard about how great Seattle is and “Who can beat Seattle in the playoffs?” Although it was at home, San Fran showed the league that they are still one of the best in the NFC and can play with anyone at their best. Huge win for the Niners.

Just because some of the other games weren’t as exciting doesn’t mean nothing happened in them. Here are some interesting tidbits from Week 14:

Matt Prater kicked the longest field goal the NFL has ever seen. Not tied, he broke it. The record that stood for 43 years was finally broken Sunday after Matt Prater nailed a gorgeous 64-yard field goal.

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Jeffery scored the 100th touchdown of the week with this catch.

Week 14 was an offensive explosion, producing 104 total touchdowns, another NFL record. It’s actually the first time there has been over 100 TDs scored in one week of football. Who scored #100? It was Alshon Jeffery, tapping his toes in the corner of the endzone in behind a couple of Dallas receivers. An incredible way to reach touchdown 100.

The offensive king of Week 14? McCoy? Ross? Brady? Nope, it was the backup QB for Chicago, Josh McCown. McCown has named offensive player of the week in the NFC and if you ask me, he deserves it for the league. McCown shredded the Cowboys defense for 348 yards, 4 TDs, and 0 INTs. Although Chicago has struggled without Cutler this season, McCown has been filling in nicely. He was the catalyst in a huge win over Dallas.

Last and almost least, the Washington Redskins have nearly hit rock bottom. After one of his worst games in his short career, Robert Griffin has been declared inactive for the rest of the year. Seeing as they have nothing to play for, protecting Griffin for the rest of the year is probably the best move at this point. It’s been clear from the start that Griffin is not the same player he was. It’s been the opposite of the comeback he wanted, but he’ll be back. To add insult to injury, multiple reports have come out saying that the Washington front office is looking for ways to fire Mike Shanahan without having to pay him the rest of his contract. It’s hard to see a scenario in which Shanahan is not fired at the end of the season. The coaching carousel will continue in Washington.

And on that note, that’s just about all I can say about Week 14. Sure, there is probably more I could/should point to about this amazing week, but these are just the things that I noticed this Sunday. If I missed anything, please feel free to share and comment below. Week 14 had everything we could ask for: the good, the bad, the ugly, the injury, the heartbreak, the controversy, the comebacks, the star performances, and in case you haven’t heard yet, SNOW. We’ll likely not have another week like this for awhile, but then again, you can never really tell in the oh-so-unpredictable NFL.

2013-14 NFL Week 9: Non-playoff teams make a push

With the Week 10 Sunday games ready to kick off tomorrow, the NFL playoff picture is starting to take shape and we’re seeing some unfamiliar faces.

The story in Kansas City just keeps getting better and better.

The story in Kansas City just keeps getting better and better.

Of course we have to start with Kansas City, which finished last season with just two pathetic wins. Seeing KC rattling off consecutive wins almost seems normal now because of how long they have been able to keep this up. Now we’re all just waiting here thinking, “When will they lose?” Most believe we will finally get to see that loss in Week 11 when they head to Denver but then again, we might not. The Chiefs have found a very sound strategy to win. It all starts with fantastic defense that loves to force turnovers and give the offense great field position. Then Alex Smith, who has fit into the offense like a glove, takes care of the ball by making smart, short throws (30th in yards per attempt, 26th in most interceptions) and giving their biggest playmaker Jamaal Charles plenty of touches (5th in rushing yards). Some might point to their relatively light schedule as a big part in their success. It’s true they haven’t played the top-tier of the NFL and we’ll finally get a chance to see how they stack up against Denver, but give KC credit. Through nine weeks of football, where each and every game is a grind until the end, Kansas City is the only team to come out on top all nine times.

A few other teams we need to keep an eye on are Carolina, New York (Jets), and Detroit. Carolina led this group with seven wins last year and now all three teams are just two wins away from matching that mark.

“What are you guys doing here?”

That kind of sums up my reaction with these teams. Detroit makes the most sense with playmakers like Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh and they are really starting to click like they probably should’ve last year. But Carolina and New York? They have reasons why they shouldn’t be here. New York didn’t even know who was going to lead the offense just a couple months ago and if it wasn’t for an injury to Mark Sanchez, allowing Geno to start, this might have been a much different season than it is now and a similar season to last year’s. And Carolina started off just how I thought they would: 1-3, underperforming but still not the worst team. Now here they are at 5-3 in what I thought would be a tough division (not so much anymore) and they are slaughtering the opposition with over 30 points a game in their last four.

I also need to mention Cleveland who, at 4-5, refuses to go away. They scored a big win over Baltimore and established themselves as one of the better teams in the AFC North. With Cincy playing well but inconsistently, Cleveland has a chance to shock us all.

There's no limit to how crazy the NFL can be.

There’s no limit to how crazy the NFL can be.

We know how much can change from season to season in the NFL and with these teams, we might just be seeing the next wave of surprise teams. Then again, there is a lot of football left to be played and even more to find out about the season. These unfamiliar faces have made a strong push, but can they finish?

2013-14 NFL Week 6: Pretenders everywhere

Tough competition is on the horizon for the 3-2 Cardinals.

Tough competition is on the horizon for the 3-2 Cardinals.

I don’t like discussing who is and isn’t “for real” too early in the season but I feel that five weeks is finally enough to make some judgment calls. We have a bunch–10 to be exact–of teams sitting at 3-2. This is the area where we find a lot of “pretenders,” teams who have started off well but aren’t really a threat down the stretch. Last year, only three of the seven 3-2 teams made it into the postseason and only one (New England) won their division. So which of these 10 teams will falter and which are built to fight for a playoff spot?

Arizona Cardinals: Give the Cardinals credit for holding running backs under 80 yards a game. Only two other teams have done the same up to this point. Other than that, it’s curious to see Arizona with three wins, the most impressive of which coming last week against Carolina. Away from home they have struggled and their offense isn’t picking up enough yards to thrive in a tough division. With Seattle, San Francisco, and Atlanta coming up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Arizona exposed and end up with a 3-5 record heading into their Week 9 bye. Bottom line: Definite pretenders

Detroit Lions: It was clear in the first few of years of Matthew Stafford’s career that he was built to throw a lot of yards. His inability to take care of the ball is what got him in trouble for the past two seasons, throwing over 15 picks in both. So far he’s only thrown three and Detroit has been able to score a lot of points as a result. Stafford and Calvin Johnson form a scary duo but with Johnson out, as he was against Green Bay, Detroit’s offense suffers. There’s no real way to stop Calvin Johnson, but if teams can contain him and force Stafford to make throws he doesn’t want to make, they’ll be able to slow Detroit’s high-scoring offense way down. Bottom line: Probable pretenders

The Niners will be all smiles soon enough.

The Niners will be all smiles soon enough.

San Francisco 49ers: San Fran suffered a tough couple of games against two very good teams, Seattle and Indy. While this is a concern for a team that is expected to win, or at the very least compete, in these games, it’s no reason to panic. Their defense remains one of the best in the league despite some hiccups and Colin Kaepernick will get back on track. He’s been tripped up a bit in these first few games, failing to throw for over 170 yards in four of five. If there is any doubt, one man assures me San Fran will contend: Jim Harbaugh. I simply cannot see a coach with his prowess fail to build a strong team. With Arizona, Tennessee, and Jacksonville on the slate, expect the Niners to find their stride. Bottom line: Definite contenders

Baltimore Ravens: For the amount of talent they lost, Baltimore is really holding their own early in the season. A rout by Denver and close loss to Buffalo are their only slip-ups, both on the road. Baltimore is tough to beat in their stadium and should win nearly all of their remaining home games if they want to balance out their troubles on the road. Joe Flacco isn’t playing like the same Joe he was in the playoffs but like Kaepernick, I expect him to get in a groove and start to make more touchdown passes. Baltimore is lucky to have a solid record despite Flacco’s 5:8 TD-INT ratio. A home win against Green Bay next week would go a long way in boosting this team’s confidence. Bottom line: Probable contenders

Miami Dolphins: Miami started off the season as well as they could have wanted but dropped their next two. I love the wins on the road over Cleveland and Indy, but have lost some faith in their ability to compete after losses to New Orleans and Baltimore. Ryan Tannehill can make throws when he gets time but he’s been sacked nearly five times a game (most in NFL). The running game is faltering bad, failing to run for more than 70 yards a game (28th in NFL). The bye week is promising heading into their match with division rival Buffalo but I’m worried that Miami will be unable to string together enough wins with the current state of the O-line. Bottom line: Probable pretenders

Chicago Bears: Out of nearly every team in the NFL, the Bears are the one team I really cannot figure out. They feel like a team just on the brink of a wild-card spot but just don’t feel like a playoff team. This could change with some convincing wins down the stretch of course, but their body of work up to this point isn’t enough for me to tab them a contender. A win at home against Cincy looks good, but their wins over 1-win Minnesota and winless Pittsburgh don’t tell me much. Their defense was torn apart by the Lions in Week 4 and couldn’t do enough to stop Drew Brees and the Saints in Week 5. Perhaps hosting the Giants on Thursday night will give us more insight. If they truly are a playoff-caliber team, they should have no problem dispatching New York. Bottom line: Probable pretenders

Cleveland's defense is quickly turning into one of the best in the league.

Cleveland’s defense is quickly turning into one of the best in the league.

Cleveland Browns: Cleveland has rattled off three impressive wins in a row. This is their year! Right? Well there’s still a lot to sort out but if one thing is for sure, it’s that their defense is seriously good. They are top-10 in the league in both passing and rushing yards allowed. That D will face yet another test against Detroit who, as I’ve said before, can clearly put up a lot of points. It looked as if Brian Hoyer was Cleveland’s guy after delivering them two straight wins but now they are back to Brandon Weeden after Hoyer’s injury in last Thursday’s game. Can Weeden keep this train going? I’m not so sure I trust him to carry Cleveland on a run to the playoffs but I also didn’t expect the Browns to win three straight. Bottom line: Probable pretenders

Cincinnati Bengals: I’m not so sure who the real Bengals are. Is it the team we saw score six against Cleveland or the team that held Tom Brady’s offense to six? I’m inclined to say the latter is more indicative when I consider the fact that they were able to beat Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, but Cincy really needs to score more points. Defense isn’t really the issue right now but when they do have a bad game, seven to 13 points isn’t going to cut it. Settling for field goals instead of touchdowns is frustrating for an offense and they have got to take care of the ball better. The Jets are the only team that have more turnovers in the AFC than Cincy. Despite these hiccups, I trust their experience and previous seasons of success. Cincinnati should be able to get on a streak when they click. Bottom line: Probable contenders

Tennessee Titans: I love what the Titans are doing this year. Their two losses to Houston and KC were very competitive. Chris Johnson seems to be back on track this year and the defense has been the staple of their wins, keeping every team under 17 points in each victory. But can the Titans seriously be a contender? It sure seems weird to say. Wins over the Jets and Steelers aren’t going to wow me but they look good on the field. They’ll be facing their toughest test by far against Seattle and San Fran in the next two weeks. A win against one of those two would really catch my attention. Bottom line: Probable pretender

New York Jets: I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t give New York a shot at Atlanta on Monday night. To their credit, New York went in there and played one heck of a game. Geno Smith played his butt off despite New York holding the ball for only 24 and a half minutes. Unfortunately, this was one win out of a long, long season. I expect better defenses than Atlanta to force Geno into more turnovers and expose the Jets’ weaknesses. It takes a poised, experienced QB to carry a team like the Jets to a strong season and I don’t think Geno is there just yet. He showed flashes of greatness against Atlanta and I would love it if he and the Jets proved me wrong. Bottom line: Definite pretenders

2013-14 NFL Week 4: Elite teams emerge

New Orleans joined the big boys with their convincing win over Miami.

New Orleans joined the big boys with their convincing win over Miami.

With Week 4 in the books and Week 5 almost upon us, the NFL has reached the quarter mark of the season. Plenty of performances warrant my attention this week. Tennessee and Detroit grabbed their impressive third win when supposedly “better” teams struggled, or are still struggling, to get their first. Philip Rivers and Reggie Bush, assumed to have already reached the peak of their ability, rolled out huge performances in their teams’ wins. I could talk all day about these surprise teams and players, but I want to use this post to talk about the teams that are really taking care of business. The big boys, the undefeateds, the elites, however you want to put it. There are five teams–Denver, Seattle, New Orleans, New England, and Kansas City–remaining without a loss and while they are all playing at a high level, they are doing so in different ways.

First, let’s take a look back in time. One year ago, only three 4-0 teams remained: Atlanta, Houston, and Arizona. The Falcons nearly went all the way, falling to the Niners in the NFC Championship. Houston made it into the playoffs as the AFC South champ, but once again exited early as they had in 2012. And Arizona……..well, their 5-11 record should speak for itself. So which one of the elite teams this year are destined for an extended season like Atlanta’s and which will crumble under the pressure like Arizona?

Who can stop Peyton Manning?

Who can stop Peyton Manning?

The Denver Broncos are the team topping most people’s lists and Power Rankings, including mine. Can you really blame them? The Broncos lead the league with 179 points scored–that’s nearly 45 a game–and Peyton Manning is playing at an unprecedented level. You can marvel at his 138.8 passer rating or 75% completion, but what stands out to me is his 16:0 TD-INT ratio. Peyton is healthy both physically and mentally and it shows when he can avoid throwing any picks while putting the ball in the endzone 16 times. He’s utilizing his weapons so well, finding his new target Wes Welker for six touchdowns. The truly staggering aspect of the receiving corp is the fact that Welker doesn’t even lead the team in yards. He’s third behind Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. When defenses have to think about a playmaker like Welker as the third biggest threat, the offense is scary good. This doesn’t mean Denver doesn’t have weaknesses. The secondary has been exposed by skilled QBs like Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, and Michael Vick for chunks of yards. They’ll be facing even better QBs in the future that could get on a roll and put up a lot of points. A defense that can contain Peyton’s offense to under 25 points could have a shot at upending the Denver Broncos. After all, Denver hasn’t been facing the stiffest competition. Their opponents’ combined record is an abysmal 3-12. But even having said that, I don’t see a team that can stop Denver in the near future. A Week 7 challenge in Indy will likely be their toughest upcoming game.

Seattle is considered by many to be the powerhouse of the NFC. Their 74-20 point differential at home is staggering, especially when you consider the fact that San Francisco was one of those two teams. Russell Wilson has picked up where he left off in 2012-13, making plays with his arm as well as his legs. What really makes Seattle strong is their ability to fluster QBs. They’re holding opposing QBs to just 56% completion and 3 TDs (only three teams have held QBs to less). Colin Kaepernick was lost in his game in Seattle, turning the ball over four times while throwing zero TDs. There is no denying that Seattle can play good D and dominate at home, but what happens when they’re forced out of their comfort zone? In their debut in Carolina, Seattle was held to just 12 points. The same struggles showed up in Houston when the Texans jumped out to a 20-3 lead. Seattle managed to escape with wins in both games but they may not get so lucky against better teams. Their next road test? Try next week in Indianapolis–who went 7-1 at home last year–led by a smart, mobile Andrew Luck.

If you ever doubt the influence of a good coach, take a look at the New Orleans Saints. With Sean Payton suspended for the year, New Orleans went 0-4 to kick off the 2012-13 season. With Sean Payton back, New Orleans is 4-0 and looking at a huge year. Among the five undefeateds, the Saints have faced the stiffest competition. Their opponents’ combined record is only 6-10, but big wins over Atlanta and Miami stand out. The Drew Brees-Jimmy Graham tandem is one of the best in the league, if not the best. The defense is consistently good, allowing just over 300 total yards per game (6th best) and 55 total points (5th best). Unlike Seattle, the Saints’ run game is slow and the offense relies on Drew Brees to generate points. So far, this hasn’t been a problem. But similar to Seattle, a tough road game might give New Orleans their first loss. They’ve only played one game on the road and it was a last second win over the 0-4 Bucs. I wouldn’t be surprised if New Orleans have one in the loss column by the time they get out of Chicago and New England. If they do happen to get through these two road tests, watch out.

New England is finding ways to win with the pieces they have.

New England is finding ways to win with the pieces they have.

New England is the team that interests me most out of these five. They escaped with ugly wins against Buffalo and New York and followed them up with a blowout over Tampa and a dominating road performance in Atlanta. Tom Brady isn’t putting up the kinds of numbers he usually does but the fact that he’s winning with a huge lack of weapons, notably Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, speaks volumes. Peyton Manning is torching secondaries with all kinds of offensive help but Brady is having to be resourceful, finding unproven rookies like Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson in the open. Brady has done a fantastic job so far but the road is already getting tougher. The loss of DE Vince Wilfork for the year is a significant one and Cincy and New Orleans sit on the horizon. The mark of a truly great team is their ability to win in adverse situations. New England has been placed in an adverse position. Now can they win?

Last but certainly not least is Kansas City. The Chiefs are the feel good story of the year. Having won just two games in 2012-13, KC has turned it around with new personnel and are on the early road to a playoff berth. New QB Alex Smith has been playing smart, using his running ability to pick up crucial first downs. Jamaal Charles is a strong asset in the backfield as always. What is leading the charge, however, is the KC defense. The D is tearing up offenses, notably those from the NFC East, with 12 takeaways (leads AFC) and 41 total points allowed (second only to Seattle). In case you didn’t forget, this is the same Kansas City that fielded one of the worst defenses in 2012-13. Andy Reid has done a fantastic job so far in turning this team around. They’ve been winning comfortably and have put Alex Smith at ease. But when the time comes where Alex Smith has to make plays late in games, will he be that QB? These are the games that will determine if KC is ready for the playoffs.

2013-14 NFL Week 3: AFC dominates early

Indianapolis led the charge in a huge week for the AFC.

Indianapolis led the charge in a huge week for the AFC.

At the start of the season, it didn’t look good for the AFC. Defending Super Bowl champ Baltimore was hit hard in the offseason, New England lost Wes Welker and others, Houston was expected to be good but not really a powerhouse of the league, and then to add insult to injury, New York, Jacksonville, and Oakland bottomed out the conference as perhaps the three worst teams in the NFL. Oh, and don’t forget the Browns. The one bright spot was Denver, a legitimate Super Bowl contender predicted by many to face one of the many superpowers from the NFC. Green Bay, San Francisco, Seattle, etc.

I include myself in these predictions. The NFL is always competitive, but there was no question in my mind who the dominant conference was. The NFC was, and still is, lined with potential.

Well here we are in Week 3 and the so-called weak AFC has come out playing angry. The first two weeks was an impressive start for the AFC, going 5-2 in interleague play. But Week 3 was when they really kicked it up a notch, shocking their NFC counterparts with six wins and only one loss. That’s 11-3 for the season, just to keep track.

The biggest statement came from the Indianapolis Colts on the road against the Niners. Four of Indy’s five losses came on the road last year and San Fran is dominant at home. Also, the 49ers are pretty damn good! The Colts didn’t care what was supposed to happen, they made their own headlines. It started with an unprecedented defensive performance out of the Colts, holding Colin Kaepernick to just 150 passing yards and no touchdowns. They harassed Kap all day, sacking him three times and forcing him to turn the ball over twice (fumble, int). It ended with a tremendous running game, led by Ahmad Bradshaw with 95 yards and a TD. Former Brown Trent Richardson also picked up 35 yards and a TD. Even Andrew Luck got in on the action, scrambling four times for 24 yards and a TD. It’s also important to note that not one Colt turned the ball over. The passing game wasn’t spectacular but it certainly still added to a fantastic all-around effort by the Indianapolis Colts. I’ll admit it, I did not see that one coming.

The Week 4 bye comes at a good time for the 1-2 Packers.

The Week 4 bye comes at a good time for the 1-2 Packers.

Indianapolis wasn’t the only team to earn a big win for the AFC. Cincinnati and Miami both scored late to stun two NFC playoff teams (Green Bay, Atlanta). Kansas City picked up its second-straight interleague win with a defensive shutdown of the Eagles. Even Cleveland shined behind the defense and Brian Hoyer in his first career start. The one win for the NFC came from Chicago–beating Pittsburgh–who incidentally has two of the three interleague wins for the NFC (Seattle has other).

So what’s the deal, NFC? Is this indicative of how the season will go?

It’s still early, of course. The NFC, although beat up these opening weeks, still has a lot of great teams that have yet to reach their potential. Expect the NFC to fight back throughout the course of this season. It’s certainly something we’ll have to keep an eye on. Next week will be a great chance to see how it continues to play out with a whopping eight interleague games on the Week 4 slate.

I couldn’t find good videos of some of the plays I liked this week, so here they are in gif form, sorry for the size and no sound. Feedback on these gifs is welcome.

Miami game-winner over Atlanta.

Miami game-winner over Atlanta.

Cleveland game-winner over Minnesota.

Cleveland game-winner over Minnesota.

Cincinnati game-winning fumble recovery over Green Bay.

Cincinnati game-winning fumble recovery over Green Bay.

 

 

Dolphin's huge hit on Atlanta return man,

Dolphin’s huge hit on Atlanta return man.