NFC East: Trying new things

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A familiar sight for Dallas will force them to test Dak Prescott sooner than they would’ve liked.

The race for the NFC East was a sight for sore eyes last year. Sorry, I meant it was a sight that made my eyes sore.

It was a classic best-of-the-worst division battle and for the first time since 2012, the Washington Redskins came out on top. Washington’s 9-7 record marked just the second time since 1982 that the division was won with less than 10 wins (2011 Giants). The division race was largely shaped, however, by the team that placed last.

The Dallas Cowboys, coming off a 2014 NFC East title, looked poised to do something that hadn’t been done in over a decade: repeat as NFC East champs. They had a fantastic 12-4 campaign in 2014 that ended in heartbreaking fashion to the Lions in the divisional round of the playoffs. It was without a doubt the Cowboys’ most successful season since 2007 and had many feeling that something bigger was going to come soon. The Cowboys entered 2015 as a somewhat bold, but not unreasonable, Super Bowl pick.

Then, Tony Romo was sacked in Week 2.

Before Cowboys fans could even celebrate the 2-0 start, the team’s playoff hopes took a major hit. Romo was expected to miss 8-10 weeks due to a broken collarbone suffered as a result of the sack. You generally remember what happened next: Romo returned to action in Week 11, delivered a win, and then was injured yet again in Week 12. Dallas went 1-11 without Romo and finished the nightmare of a season at 4-12. All this after going into 2015 with Super Bowl aspirations.

Now here we are in 2016. A few things have changed. Recognizing the need for improvement in the backup/future QB department, Dallas used their 4th round pick on QB Dak Prescott. They also took RB Ezekiel Elliott with their first pick, hoping to return to the powerful ground game they used to have with DeMarco Murray and perhaps also take some pressure off Romo to drop back and risk injury so often. One huge thing has stayed the same, however: on paper, the Cowboys are the best team in the NFC East, but the health of Tony Romo will determine just how great they can be.

This year, it didn’t even take until Week 2 for Dallas’ season to be put in major jeopardy.

On just the third play in Dallas’ third preseason game, Romo was hit hard and suffered a broken bone in his back. Despite the optimism of head coach Jason Garrett (he hasn’t ruled him out for Week 1), Romo is expected to miss 6-10 weeks. It appears that we will find out if Dallas’ attempts to patch the backup QB problem will make a difference, just a lot sooner than we may have expected. Dallas lost Tony Romo, not the great team around him. With new pieces in place, can the Cowboys tread water until his return? That’s the question for now, despite a much darker question about Romo’s future looming. But I’ll save that for another post.

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Kirk Cousins could be under more pressure than any player in the NFL.

If we look back to Washington, we’ll see the Redskins trying out their new QB of the future. Bring the Redskins to the playoffs once and you’re a hero. Bring them twice and you’re a god. Kirk Cousins officially took over the reigns of the Skins’ offense in 2015 and ascended to hero status, winning the NFC East and earning himself a 1-year shot to perform under the franchise tag. A long-term contract looks inevitable if he can repeat his success. But this is more important for Washington than it is for Cousins.

Forgive Redskins fans and the front office for not jumping at the chance to crown Cousins after a year, as they’ve been through this before. Robert Griffin III looked about as sure a thing as you can get, living up to huge expectations in his rookie year. Injuries and poor play followed, sending Washington right back to the cellar they worked so hard to crawl out of. Here we are again, but instead it’s Cousins with a chance to replicate greatness. After years of playing under RG3’s shadow, is Cousins actually the savior Washington has been looking for?

The New York Giants are as big an enigma as any in the NFL. Slipping in a couple of Super Bowl victories in between brief stretches of playoff-less seasons isn’t a bad way to keep the brutal New York media and fans at bay, but it’s now been four years since their last one and patience is at an all-time low. This latest period has been marked by a staggeringly poor production from draft picks, outside of obvious highlights such as Odell Beckham and Jason Pierre-Paul. Seeing Eli Manning’s years tick away like seconds, the NY front office decided to go a different route and spend more in free agency than we’ve seen in a while. Most notably, New York added DE Olivier Vernon, CB Janoris Jenkins, and DT Damon Harrison to help improve a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL last year. It’s hard not to improve after a performance like last season, but will it be enough to make a meaningful difference? Spending big in free agency has been shown to be a fool’s errand in the past, but the Giants are hoping that a stacked passing offense can carry an average defense to the NFC East title.

Last and maybe least, the Philadelphia Eagles are moving on from the failed Chip Kelly experiment. Despite two winning seasons in his first two years, Philly was sick of Kelly’s unorthodox tactics and personality, sending him on his way in 2015 after a 6-9 campaign. The Eagles will now turn to Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator of the Chiefs from 2013-15. They’ll pair him up with QB Sam Bradford and perhaps 2nd overall pick Carson Wentz, if things start to go south with Bradford. It’s an odd time for the Eagles, following a season of middling success and lukewarm attitudes toward the team’s stars. Is a new coach all they need to tap into the potential of this team? The defense still heads into 2016 with many questions and although it could be worse, the QB situation won’t excite anyone for the time being.

It’s a series of experiments for the NFC East, some voluntary and some not. While another poor showing for the division as a whole seems possible, the fun part will be waiting to see if one team actually got it right. In a division full of questions, one thing still remains certain after all these years: the NFC East is up for grabs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Other notes from Week 2:

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

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

–A cool catch from this week:

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

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.

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.

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

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

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

snow-bowl

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlon Brown ended an incredible game with an incredible catch.

Marlon Brown ended an incredible game with an incredible catch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

jeffcatchtd

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

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

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

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

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