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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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.

Must-wins, On Pace For, and other annoying sports clichés that need to go

Just a week or so ago, the New York Mets trailed the Kansas City Royals 3-1 in the World Series. One more win for the Royals and they would be crowned World Champions, sending the Mets home with nothing. In Game 5, that’s exactly what happened. New York lost a game they absolutely needed to have and their season was over. All 162 games, the ups and downs, the hard work, the injuries, etc. was all for naught because they didn’t win that one game to save their season. One might call that a must-win situation.

A week later, there was a team located not too far from them that faced the same situation: the New York Giants. The Mets could take solace in the fact that they weren’t the only ones that were forced to withstand such a large amount of pressure in just one game. Perhaps the Giants could have used tips from the Mets on how to handle such a big game. After all, the NFC East-leading Giants were playing the 3-4 Buccaneers in Week 9. This was a game they had to have. Or so ESPN would have liked you to think:

Eight weeks in and you're 4-4 with the division lead? Win in Week 9 or pack it up.

This kind of stuff really gets my goat. There were plenty of other ways to hype up this game other than resorting to lazy sports clichés that mean nothing. I understand stretching the meaning a little bit. If no team has ever come from behind a 3-0 series deficit, then I can accept calling Game 3 a “must-win” for a team already down two games. That can be a good way of highlighting the importance of one game, I get that. But this latest offense with the Giants went way too far. So far, in fact, that–per a recommendation of a friend–I had to write something about it AND the other sports clichés that we see abused all the time. I may be just one man, but somebody has to stand up against this lazy, useless sports reporting.

It starts with getting rid of “must-win,” quite possibly the worst of them all. If you’re wondering if you should use the term “must-win,” here’s a good rule of thumb: if the team plays a week later, don’t use it. Here’s an even better rule of thumb: don’t use it. We all can do math. We all know if a game is truly a must-win, so please stop trying to shove the importance of midseason NFL games down our throats with this lazy phrase.

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What’s with Tampa Bay and must-win games?

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Are you kidding me…..

 

There are LOADS more of other sports clichés thrown around that I could include, but here are some of the few that really make my skin crawl:

“On Pace For” stats

You already know what I’m referring to here. They rear their ugly heads a lot in the first quarter or half of the season when fans and writers alike want to be the first ones to find the next big thing.

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Again, I understand the appeal. These stats do a decent job of showing how well a player is doing in a short period of time. My problem with them is that they have a nasty habit of including amazing records (e.g. most pass yards in a single season) that make the reader think the player has accomplished something. Being “on pace” to do something isn’t an accomplishment, but they give that impression. They’re a slippery stat that writers love to use to inflate a player’s achievements. They really grind my gears when used after just two or three weeks.

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Diggs on pace

 

Obscure, useless statistics

It’s a good time to be alive if you’re a fan of statistics. We have access to deeper records and more types of statistics than ever before. We literally have people dedicated to researching and finding historical comparisons using statistics and that’s pretty cool. When it’s not so cool is when we end up with statistics like these:

Porzingis

Is this for real? A six-game record? And he’s not even the first to do it?? I could go on for hours about how much these kind of stats drive me up the wall. I could write a whole post on these, but I’ll spare you and just break these stats into a couple types that I always see pop up:

Type 1: Arbitrary cutoffs, too many conditions

A perfect example is this Porzingis stat. Who the hell decided 70 points and 50 rebounds are the measure for success through six games? Nobody, that’s who, because those cutoffs were set specifically so Porzingis could fit into this sad excuse of a statistic. Not to mention that six games is another meaningless cutoff or the fact that “this decade” is only five years old.

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Again, why 90 rushing yards and 100 receiving? Why not 100 of each? Oh, because then he wouldn’t meet the criteria? Then don’t use the stat! If you have to keep lowering the requirements or are forced to make the achievement team-specific, then it probably isn’t worth posting. However, I’m willing to let 1990 slide as a cutoff year. That leaves 20+ solid years of football where plenty of players did amazing things. But I am seeing more and more cutoffs placed around five years ago. If something is the most/first to happen in five years, then that better be the only condition. When you start adding too many on (team, year, type, etc.) then the stat gets messy and meaningless.

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Yeah….enough of this.

Type 2: Since player entered the league

This is another minor one and it doesn’t water down stats as much as Type 1, but I see it often enough that I felt the need to include it. A lot of impressive statistics are slapped with the condition, “since [insert player] entered the league.”

Since Dalton entered

I just see this phrase thrown out a little bit too often for my taste. I feel like it’s a little unfair to start tracking a certain statistic from the point where that player entered the league. Players go through their natural ups and downs in their career and if they start on an up, you can pretty much point out whatever you want using this condition. It’s just another situation where the statistic if formed to fit the player and not the other way around.

 

Saying a team should/could be [insert record]

Remember when I said must-wins might be the worst of these bunch? Well it’s directly competing with this one, which we hear over and over in sports discussion. We constantly either credit or blame teams for close games and use that to change their record. We just change it! “We really should be 6-0 if it weren’t for that missed field goal.” “They could easily be 0-4 if it wasn’t for a few lucky plays late in that one game.”

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What bothers me about this overused, meaningless phrase is that it ignores one of the fundamental aspects of the NFL: most NFL games are close. If you decide to the change the result of one game based on one score, you’re changing everything! This became unbearable around Week 6 when listening to discussions about the underachieving Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens were 1-5 and as if that record didn’t paint a bad enough picture, analysts and fans alike decided to mention that they could easily be 0-6 because their one win was a 23-20 overtime victory over Pittsburgh. If they hadn’t survived that one close game, they would be 0-6. This sounds so good and fits so well into an argument if you’re trying to point out how bad the Ravens are. Except it COMPLETELY ignores the fact that literally all six of their games were decided by six points or less! If you’re going to tell me the Ravens could have been 0-6, I could just as easily argue they could be 6-0 using the same logic. They’re 1-5 because they lost five games. Let’s talk about that and not what they could be.

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I can’t stand this phrase and it’s used all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that a team’s record defines them, because it doesn’t. We can talk about how a team looks better or worse than their record indicates. We can talk about why a team might clinch a playoff spot despite starting 3-4. But stop changing a team’s record just to serve your argument. Stop using close games as a way to discredit success. Most games are close. This is another lazy, played out phrase that we use as a crutch and it needs to go.

 

Historical records between teams

I see this more in college football than the NFL, especially when two teams that never play are selected for a bowl. For some reason, we like to include the record between this teams, even if they’ve only played six times. Why do we do this? Because it’s an interesting tidbit? I suppose so, but let’s leave it at that. Please don’t tell me that Air Force could have an edge over Western Michigan in the Idaho Potato Bowl just because Air Force beat WMU pre-1990 (just an example).

Utah games

I’m generally okay with using recent success with teams that still have the same core. For some reason, the Giants (with Eli and Coughlin) seem to be more competitive with the Patriots (with Brady and Belichick) than other teams. We just have to make sure that the matchups are plentiful and recent enough that the main personnel are still involved. Even then, it can be a stretch to say one team has an edge just because they seem to play the other team well over the past six games. A lot can change in just a couple years.

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Careful there, Dan. Are you sure it is Coughlin that is good at coaching against Belichick? What about Brady vs. Eli? The defense? The weather? There’s just too many factors at play. You’re just cherry-picking one of those factors to fit a narrative.

 

Keys to the game

I understand we need things to talk about during the game, but c’mon. We can do better than this.

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Too often do these keys come down to one thing: play well. In the NFL, the commentators’ favorites are avoid turnovers, have a good pass rush, and score touchdowns instead of field goals. In other words, do well in the important aspects of the game. They don’t mean anything and they don’t enhance my enjoyment of the game, so get rid of them.

Of course, they aren’t always bad:

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These are rough. To be fair, even I’ve failed to resist using some of these (yes, even me). We can all do so much better. We can predict, discuss, and have fun with sports without being lazy. Like I mentioned before, these are only a few of a bunch of useless sports clichés we see way too often. Which one of these bug you the most and what are some others that belong on the list?

 

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Phew, I was on the edge of my seat….

 

Six new teams that will result from relocation

Pretty soon, the Chargers will begin to "light up" Los Angeles.

Pretty soon, the Chargers will begin to “light up” Los Angeles.

The San Diego Chargers filed for relocation earlier this week, a huge step in the effort to place an NFL franchise in Los Angeles. While this is sad news for San Diego diehards, I have to say that the “Charger” name would fit well for a place that uses so much electricity. We don’t see such a good match that often (have you ever seen a Jaguar roaming around the streets of Jacksonville?). In the dire scenario that any other franchise is forced to relocate, it’s probably a good idea to be prepared with some fitting locations. Here’s a few ideas:

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Alaska Bears: I’m not sure why the Bears would be forced to relocate (too windy?), but if they ever are, they need to move to a place that actually has bears. Alaska would be the easy choice here as black bears are more populous in the Last Frontier than in any other state. There’s no better way to strike fear into an opponent than providing the possibility of a bear actually walking onto the field. Don’t think that’s realistic? There’s about one black bear for every three citizens in Alaska, so you’d have to think at least a couple would sneak in among a crowd of thousands. Besides, isn’t it time we put an NFL franchise in some state other than the lower 48? Alaska is the perfect place to battle the elements on the gridiron, including sub-15 degree temperatures and the potential for blizzards. After just three years, the Alaska Bears will be the toughest team in the NFL.

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Illinois Cardinals: Let’s face it: an innocent cardinal in hot, dry, desert-ridden Arizona? The very thought is absurd. Cardinals live in open woodlands and feed on insects, grain, and fruit. Where can they find that? A whole bunch of places not named Arizona. The midwest is the natural home for cardinals (you nailed it St. Louis) and is appropriately the state bird of seven states, including Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. However, the Cardinals can only belong to one home and that new home should be Illinois, the first state to hop on the redbird bandwagon and name the Northern Cardinal the official state bird in 1929. Hopefully the Bears will have relocated to Alaska just in time for Illinois to replace them with this proud and sensible franchise.

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Utah Lions: If the Lions are ever looking for a new home, they are in luck. Mountain lions live in a whole bunch of places out in the west so they could have their pick of any state from New Mexico to Washington. I think the best place for the Lions to start their new era is in Utah, home of Bryce Canyon National Park. Mountain lions are very prevalent in Bryce Canyon and using one of the most beautiful parts of your state to represent your team is a no-brainer. Utah is also home to quite the football crowd. Between the Utah Utes and BYU Cougars, over 100,000 fans flock to see college players on Saturday. Just think how many people would rush to see a professional football team! Good thing we can offer the next best thing: the Detroit Lions.

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Mississippi Dolphins: It’s only a matter of time before the Dolphins and their opponents are required to wear scuba gear to play in Miami. The sea level is rapidly rising and they need a great new place to play that’s above water, nearby, doesn’t sacrifice tradition, and still appropriately fits the “Dolphin” brand. Believe it or not, Mississippi hits all four of those points right on the bottlenose. Most of Mississippi is still centuries away from worrying about slipping into the Gulf of Mexico, so fans could rest easy knowing their team has found a permanent home. Current Miami residents and fans could even move to Mississippi with relative ease, seeing as they are only two states and a quick 11-hour drive away. And no need to worry about making any major changes to the logo or uniform; in fact, Miami traditionalists could get what they’ve always wanted and see the return of the helmet-wearing Dolphin logo. That logo has represented the team’s greatness from 1966-2012 and will start a new 46-year run in Mississippi. The “M” on the helmet doesn’t even need to be changed. It’s a match made in heaven. What turns this already good plan into a great plan is the fact that the bottlenose dolphin is the official state marine mammal of Mississippi! Dolphins fans could take pride in knowing that their new location already knows what it means to be a Dolphin. As if this is not already a perfect idea, check out this new chant they could start, “M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I Dolphins!” This is such a good fit, Miami should just make the move already before Jacksonville tries to move to Jackson, Mississippi.

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Baton Rouge Giants: Between the good matches that already exist (Houston Texans, New England Patriots) and the new ones above, it’s getting pretty tough to find good homes for new teams. Fortunately we’re not afraid to think outside the box and the Baton Rouge Giants are the epitome of that. I could think of no better place where the Giants could go on another Super Bowl run than in the city that’s home to the country’s most obese population. Baton Rouge’s obesity rate sits at 35.9% and a great football team could turn this stat of shame into a point of pride. Round up to 36% and use it as a benchmark for NFL success. It could be the opposing QB’s completion rate, the opposing offenses’ 3rd down conversion rate, or opposing kickers’ field goal percentage. The fans supporting this defensive success would be aptly-named the “13th man.” When you’re in a city where every fan is the size of two regular people, “12th man” just doesn’t seem to work. In just a matter of years, the Giants will own the entire state of Louisiana by scaring, or more realistically grossing out, the interstate rival New Orleans Saints.Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 10.56.48 PM

Alabama Bills: One of the toughest teams to relocate might be the Buffalo Bills. Their mascot has more to do with their city name than the team name. It could be really easy to just ignore them altogether and make it someone else’s problem. But that’s not right. These franchises need me and I’m up for the challenge. As for the Bills, such a tough task requires a complete organizational overhaul. Throw out the city, the logo, the colors, and everything else besides “Bills,” which we can work with. After extensive research and evaluation of many candidates, Alabama emerged as the best place for the Bills to move. Alabama residents named their babies William (Bill) more than any other name in 2014 and will therefore be raising a generation of fans that will feel directly connected to their team. More importantly, however, this state is dying for an NFL team to root for. High school and college football is so huge there, how can they not have a professional team? They’re the second most populous state without a football team besides Virginia and I don’t even count Virginia because of how close the Redskins are. Alabamians would no longer have to decide between the Titans, Saints, and Panthers to root for. They could start rooting for the Bills, a team that is named after the residents themselves instead of the other way around. Multiple fans could even identify with the team mascot, Bill. He’s a down-to-earth, southern, hard-working, football fan that counts down the days until Saturday. With the Alabama Bills in town, he can now begin counting down to Sunday.

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.

Well that didn’t take long: Redskins make switch to Colt McCoy

Kirk Cousins was not the answer Washington was hoping for.

Kirk Cousins was not the answer Washington was hoping for.

A few weeks ago I talked about Kirk Cousins starting and how important the following weeks would be for him and Washington. Well here we are after five weeks of Cousins and the Redskins have seen enough. Unless Robert Griffin III miraculously heals in time to play in Dallas on Monday night, third stringer Colt McCoy will take the reigns.

I mentioned how we’ve seen mixed success from Cousins in his isolated appearances from the past three years. In these past five weeks, we’ve seen the same. More mixed success, according to the numbers anyway. Not counting the half he played against Tennessee yesterday, Cousins threw for about 330 yards per game, around 60% completion, with an average of 2 TDs and 2 interceptions. Those aren’t terrible numbers. But Cousins was lacking in the one stat that mattered most to the Redskins over this crucial stretch: wins. You can certainly credit Cousins with a win against Jacksonville when Griffin left early in the first quarter. Other than that, Cousins went 0-4 in the games he finished. Washington was trailing again against Tennessee when Cousins got pulled at halftime and replaced with Colt McCoy, who led the Skins to a 19-17 win.

Cousins’ numbers may not be that bad, but his performance told a different story. That mixed success was a little too lopsided. He showed flashes of potential, especially against Philly and Seattle. But when it rained, it poured. Ever heard of great QBs having a terrible short-term memory? Well, Cousins’ was great. At home against New York, Washington fell behind early and faced a 24-7 deficit. This is when Cousins was needed most and he delivered immediately, leading the Redskins on a touchdown drive to shrink the deficit to 10. With a chance to bring Washington within seven, Cousins threw a pick. The interception didn’t hurt him as Eli Manning gave the ball right back to the Redskins five plays later. One pick was not a problem. But for Cousins, it appeared the opposite was true as he started forcing passes into windows that weren’t there. One pick swelled to two, then three, then four. New York cruised to the 45-14 win.

The next multiple interception game came against Arizona, a game in which Washington found themselves down just three late in the game. With under 30 seconds left, Washington had the ball and a chance to get into field goal range. It was a tall order, but certainly not impossible. Cousins kept the excitement of that drive to a minimum by throwing a pick six on the very first play, effectively ending the game. It was his third interception of the day.

With suddenly limited backup options for Washington, the pressure on Robert Griffin III to stay healthy is perhaps the greatest its ever been.

With suddenly limited backup options for Washington, the pressure on Robert Griffin III to stay healthy is perhaps the greatest its ever been.

It should be noted that Cousins faced some tough teams. Those four opponents mentioned have a combined record of 17-9, including 5-1 Philly and Arizona. Washington gave him a chance to see what he could do against a weak 2-4 Tennessee team and after seeing another pick thrown in the first half, they pulled him before it could snowball into any more.

So where does this put Washington?

Well for now they turn to Colt McCoy, who played most of the year he was drafted (2010 by the Browns) and the year following. Since then, he’s seen extremely limited playing time. With Griffin getting healthier every week and closer to starting, McCoy is a temporary replacement, not an answer. When Griffin does return, Washington will cross its fingers hoping the time he has spent healing can somehow turn him into a QB resembling the one they saw bring them to the playoffs in 2012. With their insurance option in Cousins gone, Redskins fans will face a tough reality if–or rather when–Griffin suffers another serious injury.

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