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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Super Bowl 50: Two teams I didn’t believe in

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only.

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

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

The Final Four: Non-Football Rankings and Predictions

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

Which mascot would win in a fight to the death? 

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

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

 

Best-looking head coach

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

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

 

Coolest Names

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

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

 

Best Uniforms

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

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

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

Patriots 24, Broncos 21

Cardinals 28, Panthers 21

 

A lot can change in seven weeks: A quick look back, then ahead

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Green Bay used to be the team to beat. Now they’re being beat and will have to fight for a division that looked locked up. Photo credit: ESPN.com

One of my favorite things about every NFL season is how we form a framework of the league in our heads, using what we watch and our own preconceptions to position teams. Power rankings are a perfect example of this. The standings reflect wins and losses, but power rankings try to explain who these teams really are based on what we’ve seen. Nobody in the history of the league has ever agreed on one Power Ranking list. Our frameworks are all different and they change all the time.

My absolute favorite part about all this is how soon these beliefs become deeply entrenched. After just five weeks, we think we know who these teams are. Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong. I wish we had the ability to show our Week 5 selves what we’re saying now. Take, for example, the conversation I overheard today between a couple of guys about the Green Bay Packers:

“How about the Packers? Wow.”

“Yeah they’re awful now. No chance against Minnesota.”

Imagine telling that to somebody after Week 5! Green Bay was arguably the best team in the league at that point and looked poised to meet the Patriots in the Super Bowl after cruising to a 13-3 regular season. Now they’re “awful.” Now, that’s obviously a bit of an overreaction but it still illustrates how quick things can change. That may sound obvious, but just think about how confident you are in some teams right now. What if I told you the division-leading Vikings would miss the playoffs completely? Last year, the 7-2 NFC East leading Eagles were in the same position and ended up falling short of the postseason.

The season moves so fast and we’re unable to appreciate some of the trends and changes that form the league. Here at the start of Week 11, I think this is a good place to take a quick look back at where we were in Week 5 and then see where we might be in Week 17.

Seven weeks ago…

Real Clear Sports does a good job of gathering all the different Power Rankings from major sports sites and creating an aggregate list. This smooths out some outliers and gives us a good idea of what the public generally thinks of the league. Click here if you want to view the full Week 5 rankings yourself. Some things I noticed:

To me, the Patriots and Packers were clearly the two top dogs. They were hardly the only undefeated teams–there were six–but they were dominating opponents consistently, had two of the best QBs in the league, and performed as elite teams consistently throughout the decade. We were used to these guys being on top and they were on top again.

With Green Bay dropping three straight and relinquishing their division lead to the Vikings, who are the top dogs now? New England sure seems to have a stranglehold on the league’s top spot. While I’d agree that Carolina owns that second spot, I don’t think they’ve quite yet reached the caliber that Green Bay and New England appeared to have in those opening weeks. Green Bay is still a solid team, but their recent tumble has left the Patriots all alone.

On the other side of things, you may remember a few teams getting off to rocky starts. Chicago dropped three straight to begin the season on the way to 2-3. They were getting blown out in their losses and Cutler even got knocked out in the second week to make things look really grim. But pay attention to who some teams lose to because it could tell us something. Chicago lost to the Packers (6-3), Cards (7-2), and Seahawks (4-5), a pretty tough opening slate if you ask me. Against some easier competition, the Bears have figured some things out and have an outside shot at the playoffs at 4-5.

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All looked lost when Jamaal Charles went down for the year. Instead, Kansas City has won three straight and put themselves in contention for a playoff spot. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Minnesota and Kansas City are a couple teams in a similar position. They started slow (Vikings 2-2, Chiefs 1-4), but have strung together some wins to put themselves in contention. Minnesota is obviously in much better shape, now atop the NFC North at 7-2. But the Chiefs are quietly competing in that large pack of AFC teams gunning for a wildcard spot. They looked dreadful to start the season, but now sit at 4-5, a game out of that sixth spot.

It’s important to note that despite all these changes, most things have remained the same. Carolina, Cincy, and Arizona are still flying high while Seattle and Indy are surprisingly struggling. The NFC East was thrown into chaos with early injuries to Romo and Dez and somehow it seems like we’re dealing with even more questions today. We can expect a lot to stay the same in the next seven weeks of the season, but what has the potential to flip the script?

Seven weeks from now…

It’s all about playoffs. Seven weeks from now will be Week 17, right on the brink of deciding the final playoff spots.

Are five of the six NFC spots pretty much decided? Arizona (1) and Carolina (2) look to be well on their way to division titles, while Minnesota (3) and Green Bay (4) look to have the NFC North and first wildcard spot locked up. Atlanta (5) is two games ahead of any other NFC team for that final wildcard spot. They’ve struggled lately, but still look far more promising than the other NFC wildcard contenders. That leaves the last spot to be decided by how the NFC East shakes out. The teams in that division are so dysfunctional, there’s plenty of people suggesting that the return of Romo can propel the Cowboys to run the table and steal the division. They’re 2-7 right now and would be the first of their kind to ever clinch a playoff spot. Could we see a major change in that division? Will two teams emerge in a couple weeks or will it remain the jumble it is now by Week 17? Also, don’t count Atlanta in quite yet. I’m interested to see how Seattle competes down the stretch. They had a great second half in 2014 and another good run could launch them right back into the playoffs despite their 4-5 start. They are certainly capable of stringing together some wins.

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I’m personally most interested in the Arizona-Seattle dynamic. Has Arizona officially replaced Seattle or are we just being tricked? Photo credit: ESPN.com

In the AFC, there’s a major win equality crisis. Three teams (Cincy, Denver, New England), own 90% of the conference’s wins while the rest share the remaining 10%. Ok so it’s not quite that bad, but those teams look to have their division just about wrapped up. The fourth division, the AFC South, is in flux much like the NFCE is. The Colts, Texans, and Jags are all right there at four wins. The last two wildcard spots are where things get messy. The Steelers and Bills own them for now, but expect that to change with every passing week. There’s a pack of six other teams just one game out of that sixth spot. I’m really interested to see how this race shakes out. I expect three or four teams will remain afloat long enough to have a shot in their final game. The question is, who will it be? Keep an eye on Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Kansas City.

Every week we see a little bit more and adjust our image of the league. The playoffs are great, but try and appreciate these next few weeks of football. The race is heating up and we’re in for the best part of the NFL. Anything can change.

As 2014 ends, NFL powerhouses remain on top

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

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

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

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

*Sigh* Maybe next year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Divisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.