Posts Tagged ‘afc’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well this isn’t what I expected. Despite 27 wins between them, 21 of which came without a loss (7-0 and 14-0), the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers were two teams I refused to buy into. Now they play for the Super Bowl.

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Peyton Manning reminded us his window is closing, not closed. (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

Denver rattled off seven straight to begin the 2015 season. Seems like a good barometer for success, but something felt off. Five of those wins were within one score and they came against relatively weak competition. They scraped by against the Ravens (5-11) and Browns (3-13), just two of many games that highlighted their struggles on offense. The defense, however, could not be ignored. They allowed under 20 points in all but one of those first seven games, forcing turnovers and absolutely punishing QBs. The defense really shined in Week 8 in a highly anticipated matchup with the high-flying Packers. In a game most–including me–expected to see Denver’s struggles catch up to them, the Broncos made a statement. They crushed Green Bay 29-10 and gained a lot of respect.

Then, things started to fall off the rails. A struggling Peyton Manning got injured, setting the scene for what would be a rocky second half of the season. Brock Osweiler filled in nicely for Peyton, going 5-3 in his eight starts, including impressive wins over the Pats and Bengals. Still, it was the defense that shined in the wins. When the defense stumbled and allowed 27 to Indy, 29 to KC, and 34 to Pitt, Denver didn’t have an answer. The offense couldn’t generate enough points to make up for any major lapses on the other side of the ball. A team that one-dimensional was hard to believe in. To their credit, the defense has shown up in the postseason and a healthy Peyton has backed them up with two decent performances. It’s strange; Denver’s problems haven’t gone away, they’ve just been able to overcome them enough to make it further than I ever would’ve thought.

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Before the season, I would’ve said a Super Bowl run for Carolina would require an MVP performance. With limited offensive weapons, Cam Newton has delivered just that. (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

My reluctance to accept Carolina into my life began well before the season started. How could I believe in a team that went 7-8-1 last season, especially after losing their star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin? Gotta admit, I had no hope for this team. I had them going 6-10 and placing last in their division. Seven consecutive wins later, I still wasn’t convinced. Much like Denver’s hot streak, the wins were hardly dominant. One score wins over the Saints, Texans, and Colts had to be indicative of a future letdown. Seven games and seven wins later, the letdown finally came. A 20-13 loss to the Falcons finally showed the world the real Panthers.

If only.

By that time, it was clear. Carolina was a great team. A fantastic team. But a Super Bowl caliber team? My mind still couldn’t accept it. I had a red-hot Seahawks team finally exposing them in the second round of the playoffs. Instead, it was more of the same from Carolina. A vicious beatdown of both the Seahawks and Cardinals will surely have the Panthers opening as Super Bowl favorites. At 17-1 and all smiles, the Panthers cannot be ignored. It’s strange to say considering my preseason expectations, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see this Panthers team complete a near-perfect season with a Super Bowl victory.

I was wrong about these teams. All that remains to be seen is who I was more wrong about.

All 32 teams started off with a chance in early September, even the Browns and Titans. Now 28 are irrelevant. Despite all four lower seeds winning in the first round of the playoffs, we’re left with the top four teams in the NFL battling for a spot in Super Bowl 50. After a week of review and analysis (from others), the only thing that remains to be seen is who will play on February 7th. There’s a bunch of numbers and rankings we could look at to make a well-informed prediction, but it can be tough to actually find what matters. On the eve of Championship Sunday, I’m here to do just that. Here’s what could very well decide the fate of this NFL season:

Which mascot would win in a fight to the death? 

Ah the ol’ classic. There’s often no better way to predict who has an edge than using the essence of the team. A team’s mascot is its heart and soul; it drives their playing style. We’ve got a diverse group of mascots left and here’s how they stack up:

  1. 368px-Carolina_Panthers_logo_2012.svgCarolina Panthers: This is a no-brainer. A panther is a natural born killer, forced to survive by killing its prey. The aggression and agility of a panther is no match for the other three mascots.
  2. New_England_Patriots_logo.svg.pngNew England Patriots: A human mascot is always a strong contender. Humans are cunning and resourceful, using their mental ability to exploit any weakness it can find in an opponent. Where the Patriot (Revolutionary War solider) falls behind is in its weaponry. Relying on a slow-loading musket would cost a Patriot dearly if he misses his first shot against a panther. One miss and you’re forced to rely on melee weapons (knife, sword) to take him out. More than possible against a bronco or cardinal, but a panther? Sorry, but I’ll take the carnivore.
  3. 1280px-Denver_Broncos_logo.svg.pngDenver Broncos: A bronco is aggressive by horse standards, known for bucking if untrained. Beyond that, I don’t see much of an advantage that a bronco could find against a panther or patriot. Even the matchup with the cardinal is a tough call, but I default to the bronco for its size.
  4. Arizona_Cardinals_Logo.pngArizona Cardinals: You can make the cardinal look as angry as you want, but it’s still just a bird. Not only that, but a cardinal, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the least threatening birds I’ve encountered. Never have I felt intimidated or even startled by a cardinal. This is an easy choice for last place. Better luck next category.

 

Best-looking head coach

This category was shamelessly stolen from the Around the NFL podcast, but for good reason. You can’t respect a leader who isn’t good looking, that’s just a universal fact. Let’s take a look at these guys:

  1. 11_Kubiak_News.jpg Denver Broncos–Gary Kubiak: He’s 54 but looks to be in the best shape of his life. Gary’s got a classic, clean-shaven look that emanates leadership on the sideline, yet he could just as easily play the aloof-but-tough Dad in a feel-good sitcom. I get a Kevin Costner vibe from Gary and it works.
  2. 9503754_G.jpg Carolina Panthers–Ron Rivera: Thanks to the Dan Le Batard show, I will now forever see Ron as “the guy who wears a lei for his entire vacation in Hawaii.” If you can get past that, Ron is actually a decent looking guy. He owns the look with his trademark photochromic lenses and reminds you he was a former player with his tough build.
  3. arians.jpg Arizona Cardinals–Bruce Arians: Ron is hardly the only one with a signature look. Bruce dons the thick frames and always a hat of some sort. Some have described him as a typical “Guess Who” character, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. To me, he comes off as the lovable curmudgeon we can all learn to love with enough time.
  4. billbelichick.jpg New England Patriots–Bill Belichick: Bill has often been likened to a Sith Lord or even the Emperor Palpatine of a New England empire that just won’t die. Although this parallel is found primarily for the Pats’ reign of terror, Bill’s old and tired look fits perfectly with that of an evil leader.

 

Coolest Names

This is quite possibly the most competitive category of them all. All four teams have great names to offer. We can only hope at least one of them makes a major splash this Sunday.

  1. 368px-Carolina_Panthers_logo_2012.svgCarolina Panthers: Like I mentioned before, this was no easy choice, but I am still confident that the Panthers deserve the top spot here. Star Lotulelei and Fozzy Whittaker headline a deep, deep name roster for Carolina. Included in this depth is Kony Ealy, Bene Benwikere, Amini Silatoli, and Kawann Short. Perhaps the cherry on top is that the face and leader of the franchise is Cam Newton, an easy and relatable name fit for a movie star quarterback.
  2. Arizona_Cardinals_Logo.pngArizona Cardinals: Guys like DJ Swearinger and Ifearnyi Momah made this a close race for 1st. Alani Fua, Tyrann Mathieu, and Calais Campbell are all names I envy myself, but they just don’t have quite the spark the Panthers’ names did.
  3. 1280px-Denver_Broncos_logo.svg.pngDenver Broncos: Denver owns quite a few great names as well, just not quite enough that see the field. Shiloh Keo, Darius Kilgo, and Brock Osweiler are all fantastic names, but they are 2nd string or worse. Shoutout to a great starter-backup tandem in Ty Sambrailo and Michael Schofield (Prison Break star) at left tackle. And we can’t forget Aqib Talib and Demaryius Thomas, classic names for NFL stars.
  4. New_England_Patriots_logo.svg.pngNew England Patriots: They may place 4th, but the Pats can be proud knowing that they quite possibly employ the best name in the entire NFL: Ishmaa’ily Kitchen. This wonderfully weird name carries an otherwise sparse roster of names. LaAdrian Waddle, Rob Gronkowski, and Dont’a Hightower cannot be overlooked, however.

 

Best Uniforms

If you look good, you play good. Another NFL reality. It’s why Jacksonville and Tennessee have struggled to reach the playoffs for so long. These teams have to be doing something right if they’ve made it so far, but whose threads can carry them all the way?

  1. Patriots_12uniforms.pngNew England Patriots: Silver and navy blue is a tough color scheme to work with, but the Patriots pull it off amazingly. The jersey gives off a classic look while also looking modern. I love the red border around the letters and along the leg. Some might find the overall look boring, but I see a timeless uniform that’s easy on the eyes.
  2. NFCS-Uniform-CAR.PNGCarolina Panthers: Tough pick here for 2nd, but I’m a sucker for the lightning blue and black combination. It may look a little “arena-footbally” at times, but the bright blue highlights on the arms and legs really light up the team. I could do without the weird stripes on the helmet that end halfway down the back. This uniform could’ve easily been botched by trying too much, but they made it fit. The classic number font keeps it from getting out of hand.
  3. Broncos_uniforms.pngDenver Broncos: Another good color scheme here but too many awkward parts hold it back. The stripes that curl down the leg and come to an end just look out of place. The suddenly-ending collar is also odd. Still, the bright orange is a fun, modern look for Denver and the number font isn’t too wacky for me to have a problem.
  4. Ariz_Cardinals_uniforms.pngArizona Cardinals: Easy choice for last place here. These unis are just plain boring and uninspiring. They suffer from the same problem Denver does with the weird leg stripe. The primary problem, however, is the bland color scheme and the way it’s presented on the jersey. No other color besides red and white make an appearance on the primary uniforms and that’s a problem. The blacks alternates, however, are gorgeous. Make this slick look the primary and Arizona shoots up to the top.

Well we broke down these teams in just about every way possible, now it’s just time to form a prediction. The Panthers found an edge in many of these categories but I can’t go against myself. I picked the Cardinals and Patriots to meet in Super Bowl 50 before the playoffs began, so that’s who I am sticking with here.

Patriots 24, Broncos 21

Cardinals 28, Panthers 21

 

December football is all about the playoff race. Which teams will stay afloat and which ones will sink?
Can we trust the Bills and Chiefs to make a run? Photo credit: ESPN.com

Can we trust the Bills and Chiefs to make a run? Photo credit: ESPN.com

A new month means it’s time for a new Buy or Sell. We can all see that some playoff spots are pretty much locked up (Panthers, Patriots, Bengals, Broncos, etc.), so I’m gonna focus on those wildcard teams that absolutely need a good December to have a shot. But first, let’s see how I did last month:

BUY: San Diego Chargers (2-5) → (3-8) = 1-3 in November — Severe Failure

BUY: New York Jets (4-2) → (6-5) = 2-3 in November — Mild Failure

BUY: Seattle Seahawks (3-4) → (6-5) = 3-1 in November — Great Success

BUY: New Orleans Saints (3-4) → (4-7) = 1-3 in November — Severe Failure

SELL: Indianapolis Colts (3-4) → (6-5) = 3-1 in November — Severe Failure

SELL: Washington Redskins (3-4) → (5-6) = 2-2 in November — Mild Failure

Wow, November was rough. It’s actually hard to do as bad as I did on purpose, let alone on accident. But this won’t stop me from uselessly speculating. This month, I’m narrowing my focus to just three teams in the AFC. It seems everyone is getting hot right now in pursuit of that wildcard spot. Can they stay hot in the month that matters most? How they fare will determine if we’re watching them in January. Here are two teams I think will give themselves a shot until the very end, and one I see sinking under the pressure:

Kansas City Chiefs (6-5): BUY

I used to absolutely despise this team earlier in the year. They were losers and even worse, they were boring. They love to establish a run game and play it safe through the air with short passes. They’re one exciting player Jamaal Charles even got knocked out for the year midway through the season. At 1-5, there was no hope for this team. But then somehow–right around Charles’ injury–they just started winning! They have now won five straight and are actually leading the AFC wildcard race. They’re still as boring as before, but to their credit, they’ve stuck to their identity and nearly perfected a winning formula. Their defense is quietly one of the best in the last month, allowing over 13 points in just one of their past five games. Alex Smith’s last interception was in September, making it so hard for opponents to turn the tide if they’re trailing. I have to admit I was wrong about the Chiefs earlier this season and now I’m jumping on this bandwagon with all I’ve got. Usually I’d avoid buying such a hot team, but their December schedule sets them up for success. All four opponents (Raiders, Chargers, Ravens, Browns) have losing records. If they stick to what they’re doing, they should be able to pull at least three of these and have a great shot at one of those two AFC wildcard spots.

Behind JJ Watt, Houston's defense has put them in contention. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Behind JJ Watt, Houston’s defense has put them in contention. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Houston Texans (6-5): SELL

If the Chiefs aren’t the hottest team in the league, then it’s the Texans. They’ve won four in a row after a bad start and like Kansas City, have established themselves as AFC wildcard contenders. They’re defense has been fantastic, allowing just two touchdowns in their last 16 quarters. Brian Hoyer has proved that he was the right choice from the very start, keeping the turnovers low while getting the ball to DeAndre Hopkins, one of the top receivers in the league. Having said all that, I just can’t bring myself to trust this team. I don’t have a lot to back that up besides a gut feeling. Looking at their upcoming schedule doesn’t help that feeling much either. To make a serious playoff push, they have to survive the 5-6 Bills, the 10-1 Patriots, the 6-5 Colts, and the 2-9 Titans. It’s not the most brutal stretch in the world, but the Bills and Colts game will be the make or break games. I can see those going either way and based on my gut, the Texans will revert back to the team they were in the beginning of the season and fall out of the race.

Buffalo Bills (5-6): BUY

Unlike the Chiefs or Texans, the Bills are a step behind some good teams. They’ve lost two close games to the Pats and Chiefs and it seems like people are starting to forget about them. What a perfect time to buy a solid team. Buffalo won’t impress anybody with their wins resume–wins over Colts and Jets are their best–but they’ve got a solid defense and one of the best running games in the NFL. My feeling about this team comes from a similar place as my feeling about Houston. I just have that gut feeling that Buffalo can string together a few wins. Tyrod Taylor has been better than we expected and like Smith, limits the turnovers and keeps his team in the game. Their game today against Houston is huge. A win here will give them a much needed tiebreaker advantage and also set them up to win over their NFC East slate (Washington, Philly, and Dallas). They have the capability to beat Washington, though that will be a tough game. Where they have to pick up wins is against struggling Philly and battered Dallas. If they manage to go 3-1 in these, they have a real shot. When everybody is looking at hot teams, I’m looking at the slow and steady Bills in December.

 

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Sigh* Maybe next year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baltimore hosts Cleveland in Week 17 in a potentially season-deciding game. Baltimore won the first matchup on a last second field goal.

Baltimore hosts Cleveland in Week 17 in a potentially season-deciding game. Baltimore won the first matchup on a last second field goal.

In the 2014-15 season of the NFL, we are seeing something pretty unbelievable. Two divisions are polar opposites and could leave us with a playoff mess.

The AFC North and NFC South–almost comically opposite by name–aren’t your ordinary divisions. Unlike your average division with a front-runner or two-team battle, these two divisions still have all four teams in contention. The quality of the contest is where you see the difference. The AFC North is a battle of the best. The Ravens, Steelers, and Browns all sit at 7-4 behind the 7-3-1 Bengals. Cleveland’s 7-4 record is potentially good enough for second in six other divisions, but if the season were to end today, not only would the Browns miss out on the playoffs, but they would finish last in the AFC North.

The NFC South presents a much different kind of race. One more along the lines of “Who wants to win this division least?” It was widely predicted that the Saints would take the division, perhaps with ease. But their season hasn’t gone the way anybody has planned and they now find themselves with an abysmal record of 4-7. Again, most divisions would sit the Saints third or even fourth with a record like that but in the NFC South, they are in second and share the same record as the division leading Falcons. At 4-7, the Saints are in second via a tiebreaker. What’s even more mind-boggling is that last place Tampa Bay, at 2-9, is not only in contention for the first overall draft pick, but can also win the division! Carolina is third at 3-7-1.

Could one of the 4-7 disappointments actually be a division champ? It's either that or someone worse.

Could one of the 4-7 disappointments actually be a division champ? It’s either that or someone worse.

With only a few weeks remaining in the regular season, you can see what’s coming. The division winner for the NFC South is bound to have a record within the 6-8 win range. The extreme possibility remains that the division winner could enter the playoffs with a 5-11 record. Five wins. That’s insane. In case you forgot, the entire AFC North has already past that mark and all four teams are still battling for an AFC wildcard spot. In case you’re wondering when the last time all four teams were three games above .500, try never. It’s the first time in NFL history that has happened. And surprise, surprise, they are 10-1-1 against their NFC inverse.

The AFC North is on a collision course of the likes we’ve never seen before. Unlike the NFCS, with all four teams competing for one spot against only each other, the AFCN teams have the three inside the division as well as five others competing for a wildcard spot. It’s going to get messy and you can almost guarantee that a tiebreaker or two will come into play.

A five-win division winner is still very unlikely, but keep an eye on these two anomalies of the NFL. With these two divisions going rogue, we could witness some incredible playoff scenarios. When we do, prepare for at least a one AFC North team to feel slighted. Big time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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