From Chiefs to Lions: Is it a mirage?

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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The teams that are supposed to lose: A quick look at the stacked wildcard teams (Sunday edition)

Everyone will take a deep breath when the Seahawks are finally out of the playoffs. Problem is, somebody has to be the team to actually do it.

Everyone will take a deep breath when the Seahawks are finally knocked out of the playoffs. Problem is, somebody has to be the team to actually do it. (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

Yesterday, we briefly covered the two AFC wildcard teams playing on Saturday. Kansas City’s fantastic defense propelled them to a rout of Houston while the Steelers’ playmakers came alive just enough to edge the Bengals. Can the two NFC wildcard teams follow suit and win both their games?

Seattle Seahawks (10-6)

at Minnesota Vikings, 1:05pm on NBC

Seahawks are hot and in the playoffs. Sound familiar? We’ve gotten to know Seattle as a top-tier playoff team over the past few years now. Perhaps the only thing unfamiliar about them this year is their role as a wildcard team. They performed slightly below expectations to begin the season (2-4 start), paving the way for other NFC teams like the Cardinals and Panthers to take the spotlight for once. But sure enough, Seattle re-discovered that winning formula and finished the season 8-2. Would you want to face a hot Seahawks team? I’m guessing not because it’s extremely difficult to begin a Super Bowl run when you have to face a QB that’s thrown multiple TDs and no picks in seven of his last eight games (Russell Wilson, in case you didn’t make the connection). Also, good luck lighting it up against a defense that’s allowing just 17.6 points per game, the lowest in the entire league. Seattle’s struggles were real, but make no mistake, they’re back. Behind yet another top defense and a QB that just keeps churning out wins, this Seattle team is poised for their third-straight Super Bowl appearance.

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Aaron Rodgers blew a chance to win the division. Will that propel him to perform even better in the postseason? (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

Green Bay Packers (10-6)

at Washington Redskins, 4:40pm on FOX

Speaking of teams we’re used to seeing in January, we have the Green Bay Packers. Their game in Washington marks their seventh straight postseason appearance. Even with all those chances, however, the Packers have only managed to win one Super Bowl. Can they steal a second from the lowly wildcard position? With Aaron Rodgers, anything is possible. Rodgers has that unique ability of making the Packers contenders no matter where they stand. Defenses can plan all week and perform excellently, but one stunning performance by Rodgers can undo everything an opponent has worked for. And he’s kind of a pro at delivering stunning performances. His numbers may have dipped a little this year, but Rodgers still has a solid team around him that is quietly doing great things. The much-maligned defense is actually 12th in the NFL in points against (20.2 per game). And despite the struggles of Eddie Lacy, the running game is holding up nicely (115 yards/game). They face an uphill battle, but these Packers still have plenty of weapons to take out the NFC elite.

The teams that are supposed to lose: A quick look at the stacked wildcard teams (Saturday edition)

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Potential ROTY Marcus Peters makes the Chiefs fun to watch. (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

The best part of the NFL season is right on top of us. Wildcard weekend starts tomorrow and it could be the beginning of an unbelievable ride to the Super Bowl. This ride, however, is usually reserved for division winners and top seeds. Only six wildcard teams have ever won the Super Bowl. These teams may have scraped and clawed their way to a postseason birth, but that’s where the fun usually ends. This year, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if all four extended their fun to the second round and beyond. All four teams–Chiefs, Steelers, Seahawks, Packers–have their starting QB and face their opponent’s backup. Save for the Packers, no team has more than one loss in the last five games. And save for the Chiefs, every team has relatively recent playoff success (aka Super Bowl wins). But enough about the similarities, let’s take a brief look at why these four teams have a shot at being that seventh wildcard team to win the big one:

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)

at Houston Texans, 4:20pm on ABC/ESPN

What an incredible run this team has had this season. They started off as a boring, struggling 1-5 mess that I absolutely couldn’t stand. Now, they’ve won 10 (!) in a row and are actually watchable. As usual, Alex Smith throws interceptions at a frustratingly low rate (seven all year), which makes scoring 20 points fairly painless. Why 20? That’s the number that will usually win a game for the Chiefs when their incredible defense only allows 17.9 per game (3rd in NFL). In fact, only one team (Bills) have scored over 20 and that was still a win for KC. How can you argue with a team that’s won 10 in a row? Behind defensive talents Justin Houston and Marcus Peters, this once-unwatchable Chiefs team could wreak havoc in a struggling AFC field.

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Pittsburgh’s receiving corp will make defensive backs pay for the smallest of mistakes (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

at Cincinnati Bengals, 8:15pm on CBS

Pretty tough to build a strong case for a team that needed another team to lose just to clinch a playoff spot. That is, unless that team is this year’s Steelers. Pittsburgh had some ups and downs this season mainly due to Ben Roethlisberger missing multiple games. With Ben, they’ve gone 8-4 and won six of their last eight. Their receiving corp is my absolute favorite in the league by far. Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton are all different variations of super-fast, ultra-athletic, smart route-running freaks. It’s incredibly difficult to cover all three effectively if you don’t have enough bodies back. They’ve helped Pitt become top-5 in both total passing yards (3rd) and points scored (4th). This offense alone is enough to make Pittsburgh a legitimate AFC championship contender. If the defense can play above expectations, the Super Bowl is a real possibility.

We’ll look at the Sunday wildcard teams tomorrow!

Buy or Sell: December

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.

 

Jets in the playoffs? It’s not as crazy as it sounds

History tells us one of six very bad teams from last year will make it to the 2015-16 NFL Playoffs. But can we trust it?

When thinking about the playoffs, some teams just seem like a lock even before the season starts. Betting on the Patriots, Packers, Colts, or Seahawks won’t lose you any money this year. But I’ll be keeping a close eye on a small handful of teams that seem like a lock to miss the playoffs, because a recent trend suggests one (maybe even two) of them will shock the NFL.

The teams we’re talking about here are the Jets, Redskins, Jaguars, Raiders, Titans, and Buccaneers. Six teams with one thing in common: they’re bad. Or at least, they were bad in 2014-15. They all won four games or less. And if you watched them play, you don’t need me to tell how bad they actually looked.

Going back to the 2005-06 season, at least one very bad team (4-12 record or worse) made it to the playoffs the next year. Except for one time, which we’ll get to later. That leaves eight of the last nine seasons where a team or two made an incredible turnaround. In five of those eight seasons, two teams made it back, including 2010 through 2012.

In 2010-11, the Broncos and Bengals each won four games but clinched the playoffs in 2011-12 with records of 8-8 and 9-7, respectively. In 11-12, it was the Vikings (3-13) and Colts (2-14) who turned it around to finish with records of 10-6 and 11-5. And in 2012-13, the Eagles (4-12) and Chiefs (2-14) did the same, going 10-6 and 11-5 the very next season. The Eagles even won the NFC East.

So is this trend reliable? Eight out of nine years seems like a strong indicator. If we look back beyond the 2005-06 season, we see this turnaround only occur twice in six years (2003 and 1999). So are those eight years an interesting coincidence or indicative of a new “era” in the NFL, where the draft and free agency helps struggling teams right the ship? What makes this question even more intriguing this year than any other is when we consider that one time (remember from earlier?) out of the last nine where the trend didn’t occur. That was last year.

Will "Gang Green" be the next 4-12 team to make the following year's playoffs?

Will “Gang Green” be the next 4-12 team to make the following year’s playoffs? Photo credit: ESPN.com

The 2013-14 season saw a staggering seven teams go 4-12 or worse (most since 2005), and yet not one of them made it to the playoffs in 2014-15. The Texans (9-7) and Falcons (6-10) came closest. Even at 6-10, Atlanta was just one tiebreaker win away from actually clinching the abysmal NFC South, which Carolina won at 7-8-1. So again we have to ask, was last year a return to the difficulties that “bad” teams had from 1999-2004, or a blip in a new trend of eight straight years of miraculous turnarounds? On the surface, I’m inclined to believe last year was an anomaly in the last decade of the NFL where one-year turnarounds are becoming less and less surprising. Either way, let’s take a quick look at the four most recent teams to be a part of that trend to see if their turnaround came out of nowhere or was a result of some major personnel or system change.

2012-13 Philadelphia Eagles
2012-13 record: 4-12
2013-14 record: 10-6
Result: +6 wins, won division, lost in wildcard playoffs

If you’re having trouble remembering the Eagles around this time, “dream team” may help jog your memory. The hopeful “dream team” was formed in 2011 but instead lived a nightmare on their way to an 8-8 season, then 4-12 the next year. This 4-12 season was the first year we saw Nick Foles play as a rookie after Michael Vick got taken out mid-season due to a concussion. Andy Reid was fired after the season and replaced with now-former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. Vick remained the starting QB, but led Philly to a 1-3 start. In what was perhaps a blessing in disguise for the Eagles, Vick was injured again and replaced with Foles. In 11 games he started*, Foles went 9-2 and led the Eagles to a 10-6 record and the NFC East title. Philadelphia’s return to the top exceeded expectations, but wasn’t completely unprecedented given the offensive overhaul under new coach Chip Kelly. What we couldn’t have seen coming was the early switch to Foles, who thrived under Kelly’s fast-paced passing offense.

*Foles would have started 12, but was replaced by Matt Barkley due to an injury suffered the week prior

2012-13 Kansas City Chiefs
2012-13 record: 2-14
2013-14 record: 11-5
Result: +9 wins, second place in division, lost in wildcard playoffs

The Chiefs were the worst team in 2012, earning the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft (drafted OT Eric Fisher). Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn shared duties at QB, but neither could find success, each earning one win in their eight games. Kansas City fired head coach Todd Haley with three games remaining and was replaced with interim coach Romeo Crennel who finished out the season. Two major offseason additions are generally attributed with the sudden success KC found the very next season. Remember Andy Reid? After being fired from the Eagles (see above), Reid was hired by KC and given a brand new QB to work with in Alex Smith from the 49ers. The Reid-Smith duo clicked immediately, as the Chiefs jumped out to nine straight wins. With a much-improved defense to go with it*, the Chiefs finished with a solid 11-5 record. Much like Philly that year, KC found a solid new head coach and a QB that thrived in his system. The difference is we knew Smith was the guy in KC, so many predicted an improvement. Far less could have predicted they would win nine more games and compete in the playoffs. Nevertheless, there were some distinct changes (including defensive coordinator) from year to year that helped KC turn it around.

*The Kansas City defense shaved off 7.5 points allowed per game from 2012 to 2013 with new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton

2011-12 Minnesota Vikings
2011-12 record: 3-13
2012-13 record: 10-6
Result: +7 wins, second in division, lost in wildcard playoffs

The 2011 Vikings had QB and defensive issues in 2011. Despite Jared Allen setting a franchise record for sacks in a season (22), the Minnesota defense allowed the second most points of any team. The Vikings benched Donovan McNabb after an abysmal 1-5 start and handed the reigns over to rookie Christian Ponder. Ponder didn’t fare much better, winning only one game in eight starts. It didn’t help that 10 games in, Ponder’s 4th start, Adrian Peterson got injured and was virtually unavailable for the rest of the season. It was head coach Leslie Frazier’s first year as coach of the Vikings and kept the job in 2012. In that second try for Frazier, Ponder had a solid season (2935 yards/18 TDs on 62.1% passing) and the defense improved, finishing around the middle of the pack for both points and yardage allowed. But what explains the seven win improvement more than anything was Adrian Peterson’s astounding MVP season, picking up 2,097 yards on the ground, just nine yards away from the NFL record. To say Peterson carried this team would discredit solid contributions from the rest of the team, but it is fair to say he propelled the team to an incredible turnaround season as the heart and soul of the Vikings. Who could have seen such an incredible performance coming? And even if they did, who could have predicted it would launch the 3-win Vikings to seven more wins the following year? A running back can seemingly only do so much for a team, but Adrian Peterson raised the ceiling on just how much a team can improve with an MVP performance. If you were high on Peterson to start the season, you may have expected to see a jump for Minnesota as long as Peterson stayed healthy. But for the most part, this kind of turnaround came out of nowhere.

2011-12 Indianapolis Colts
2011-12 record: 2-14
2012-13 record: 11-5
Result: +9 wins, second in division, lost in wildcard round

I’m not gonna spend a lot of time on this one because we know the story: Andrew Luck. The 2011-12 season for the Colts was a “transition” year, with Peyton Manning sitting out after neck surgery. Pretty much everything fell apart in his absence and after their 2-14 record assured them the first pick in the NFL draft, Indianapolis released Manning and started a new era of Colts football with Andrew Luck. Head coach Jim Caldwell was also let go and replaced with Chuck Pagano. Luck turned out to be as good as advertised and led the Colts to a 11-5 record in his rookie season. With all the hype surrounding Luck around draft time, it wasn’t exactly surprising the Colts improved in a big way. But like many of these turnarounds, a nine-win improvement likely surpassed even the most hopeful of fans’ predictions.

Although this is a small sample, we can see that the turnarounds of these four teams were largely the result of major changes, or in the Vikings’ case a major breakthrough from an elite player. If we went back further, we’d see similar changes in some teams (ex. rookie Andy Dalton leading Bengals to playoffs in 2011, Crennel as DC of Chiefs in 2010, Chad Pennington as new QB for Dolphins in 2008, etc.).

That brings us back to today. Will we see the ninth year in a decade where a “4-wins-or-less” team make it to the playoffs? Seems hard to believe when you just look at the names. Raiders in the playoffs? Titans? Jaguars? My mind has trouble even processing that information.

Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will try to lead their respective squads to improbable turnarounds.

Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will try to lead their respective squads to improbable turnarounds. Photo credit: TBO.com

Let’s break it down here. Four of these teams have relatively new QBs, either in their rookie or sophomore season. Can rookies Jameis Winston (Bucs) and Marcus Mariota (Titans) have an Andrew Luck-esque breakthrough? They may turn out to be solid players at some point in their career, but I’d personally be shocked if either one could manage to bring their 2-win squads to the playoffs. Many expected the Bucs to be fairly good last season with improved personnel, so perhaps some of those improvements will come to fruition this year. Even so, Winston’s potential success as a rookie is one of the bigger question marks this year.

Sophomores Derek Carr (Raiders) and Blake Bortles (Jaguars) showed flashes of greatness throughout their rookie seasons, but weren’t nearly the caliber QB to carry their talent-deficient teams to a decent record. Jack Del Rio will be the new coach for Oakland, but based on his lackluster history (68-71, 3 playoff appearances), I doubt he can have an Andy Reid-type debut and put the Raiders in the postseason.

That leaves us with the Jets and Redskins, who each went 4-12 last year. Washington is sticking with new coach Jay Gruden and Robert Griffin III at QB, though Griffin’s leash seems to be getting shorter and shorter. Griffin hasn’t looked close to as good as he did in his rookie season–largely due to his ACL tear–and more injury issues have seem to set him back further. At the risk of sounding like an overly hopeful (delusional?) Redskins fan, I’ll say that if RGIII can play at a somewhat similar level as his rookie season, I could conceivably see the Redskins having a decent year. They have some good talent in Alfred Morris at running back and an improving defense with LOLB Ryan Kerrigan and sophomore ROLB Trent Murphy. But playoffs? They’d have to beat out a competitive NFC wildcard field that saw the 10-6 Eagles left out of the playoffs last year.

The Jets went through a major overhaul in the front office this offseason, firing GM John Idzik and head coach Rex Ryan, and hiring a new DC and OC. Will new management in GM Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles usher in a successful era of Jets football? And if so, will it start this year with a playoff berth? Again, hard to imagine based on classic Jets luck (or lack thereof), but they did pick up fantastic WR Brandon Marshall from the Bears and reclaimed CB Darrelle Revis from the Pats.

Perhaps an egregious locker room scuffle, sending Geno Smith to the bench with a broken jaw for 6-10 weeks, was the last piece of a bizarre puzzle for the New York Jets. A blessing in disguise, much like when Vick went out to be replaced by Foles? Ryan Fitzpatrick will handle the QB duties for New York for likely the first three weeks of the season. Fitzpatrick is a seasoned veteran, with varying success on five different teams. His best run came in 2011-13, throwing for 3,000+ yards and 23+ TDs for the Bills. In 11 games for Tennessee and 12 for Houston, Fitzpatrick kept his completion percentage above a respectable 62% and his QBR above 50, the best of his career when playing more than four games. He’s not spectacular and he may not win you a Super Bowl ever, but he can play. And after 11 seasons, his football IQ is higher than most. The job is expected to be handed back to Geno when he’s able to return, but I could realistically see a scenario where Fitzpatrick is kept in after a 3-0 start, or even 2-1 if that loss comes in a close game at Indianapolis.

Geno Smith hasn't impressed in two seasons and will look to improve in his third, if given the chance.

Geno Smith hasn’t impressed in two seasons and will look to improve in his third, if given the chance. Photo credit: ESPN.com

It sounds crazy, but if I was forced to choose one of these six teams to make the playoffs this year, it may very well be the Jets. They’ve completely overhauled their coaching staff and management and will see a different QB start the first three weeks, not to mention a new star wide receiver and the return of an elite cornerback. It sounds like they would fit in perfectly with those turnaround teams from above. Big changes, surprising success.

If you are looking to win big money, you may want to place a risky wager on one of these teams you feel confident in. But I wouldn’t advise placing any Super Bowl bets on these teams. Of all 15 teams since 1999 that have completed this particular turnaround season, none have went on to appear in a Super Bowl.

Perhaps you may want to bet against recent history and say none of these six teams will make the playoffs. Let me know if you do, I may just join you.

Pumping the brakes on the Dolphins

Should we buy what Miami is selling?

Should we buy what Miami is selling?

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

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

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

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

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

Miami's remaining schedule.

Miami’s remaining schedule.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Wildcard Playoff Quick Picks (2013-2014)

It doesn’t get much better than the NFL playoffs. It’s one the most selective systems in sports, allowing the very best 12 teams a chance to extend their season. Even those who deserve to make it can miss out, isn’t that right Arizona? After one weekend, eight remain. One bad game, one injury, or one missed kick can decide the fate of the entire playoffs. There’s no predicting what can happen. Yet we’ll all try.

I usually like to dive in to the postseason with heavy analysis before the games and break down every possible angle but with how busy–and, admittedly, a little bit lazy–I have been, I’m going to make these picks short and sweet. First, the two Saturday games. Sunday to follow sometime soon.

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AFC Wild Card: Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5)

January 4, 2013 NBC 4:35pm

Pick: Colts

I’m very wary of teams going into the playoffs cold. Kansas City has lost their last two and five of their last seven. To be fair, they sat their starters in a Week 17 loss. However, in Week 16, they did not sit their starters and lost at home. To add insult to injury, they lost against Indy, the very team they have to beat to play another game. At home, and having won four of their last five, I like Indy to sneak by the 5-seed Chiefs. Kansas City can absolutely win this game with the proper adjustments, but Indy knows how to take care of the ball (least turnovers in the AFC) and with a just 1-2 TD passes from Andrew Luck, they should be able to neutralize KC’s scary defense.

 

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NFC Wild Card: New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

January 4, 2013 NBC 8:10pm

Pick: Eagles

Boy, do I feel terrible picking against Drew Brees. It feels like I am just asking to get this pick wrong, but I cannot ignore the telling facts: New Orleans has lost their last three road games and when they have won on the road, it has been against non-playoff teams. The short way of putting it: New Orleans is simply not the same team away from the Superdome. Will the fact that this is a playoff game change all that? I guess it could, but football is football. Philly is still going to have a tough time stopping Brees but they will play a little better knowing they have a high-scoring offense and the top rushing game in the league to back them up. It’s hard to imagine Brees losing so soon, but Philly has plenty of weapons too. Expect Nick Foles to rise to the occasion.