Posts Tagged ‘nfl’

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Many times, it takes a breakout performer to complete the turnaround every team dreams of. (Photo credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Back in August before the season kicked off, I took a look at one of the most interesting recent trends in the NFL. It’s a trend that certainly plays a part in making the NFL the most engaging sport year after year and it’s repetitive as hell:

In eight of the past nine seasons, at least one team with four wins or less made it to the playoffs the very next season.

In short, it’s the epic turnaround. A terrible team turned great in the span of one offseason. We love these comeback stories whenever they occur and the best part is, it happens all the time. Only one time in nine seasons did this remarkable trend fail to repeat itself and that happened to be last year (2014-15 season). That made this past season all the more interesting: will the trend get back on track?

You bet it did.

The “terrible” teams from 2014 were the Jets, Jaguars, Raiders, Titans, Buccaneers, and Redskins. In the preseason, it was seriously hard to imagine any of these teams playing past December. The Titans and Bucs were just starting to rebuild with rookie QBs, the Jets and Redskins seemed to lack legitimate “playoff talent,” and the Jags and Raiders were just so bad for so long that we were getting used to it. As you know by now, the team that extended the trend to nine out of ten years was the Washington Redskins.

Washington took advantage of an awful division to clinch a playoff spot as NFC East champs. They only went 9-7, but that’s a 5-win improvement from their 2014 campaign. Kirk Cousins will be the person most people credit for this jump and rightfully so. Cousins had a breakout year, throwing a touchdown in every single game this season (playoffs included) and ending the year with a top-5 passer rating (101.6). The defense should get a little credit, too, for allowing about 3.7 less points per game this season. That may not seem like much, but it can make the difference in a division where everyone is racing to finish 8-8.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Raiders, Bucs, or Jets coming pretty close to joining the Redskins. The Raiders and Bucs were in the thick of their conference’s respective wildcard races with about four weeks to go, but fell apart in the end. The Jets, on the other hand, were just a single win away. The cutthroat nature of the wildcard race didn’t let them get away with a loss in Week 17 and we saw the Steelers squeak in instead.

So, the trend lives! The Redskins were the chosen team. This, of course, now raises the question, “Who are our cellar dwellers in 2015?” Knowing how strong this trend is, can we pick a bad team to tab early and look smart when they miraculously make the playoffs? If we do, it’ll be one of only four teams that finished 4-12 or worse: Browns, Titans, Chargers, and Cowboys. Dallas is the obvious choice here, as they were playoff-hopefuls last year before Tony Romo was sidelined for the season with an injury. Unfortunately, this isn’t too exciting of a choice. The trend almost seems destined to repeat itself now. However, if you want to take a more ballsy approach, the Browns are a team nobody will be looking at. Could Cleveland be the team that shocks us all? According to the trend, they have a 25% shot right off the bat. For a city that hasn’t seen its football team make the playoffs since 2002, that’s hope.

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Andrew Luck look poised to take the Colts to the playoffs in 2015. Instead, they fell into an 0-2 hole and couldn’t find their way back. (Photo credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Waayyyy back in late September I took a look at a trend involving 0-2 teams and the playoffs. It’s probably the most repeated stat after two weeks of football, but in case you forgot, the rule is basically this: historically, around only 12% of teams that start 0-2 end up making the playoffs.

This year, we had a staggering nine teams drop their first two games. According to the rule, only one of these teams (1/9 = 11%) would end up making the playoffs. This was hard to believe at the time given some of the heavy-hitters in the group (Ravens, Colts, Seahawks, etc.). Now that the season has come to an end, we can take a look back and answer the golden question:

Did the rule hold up?

I’ll make this simple. Below are the teams that started 0-2 and then whether or not they later clinched a playoff spot:

Detroit Lions? No

New York Giants? No

Philadelphia Eagles? No

Indianapolis Colts? No

Chicago Bears? No

Baltimore Ravens? No

New Orleans Saints? No

Seattle Seahawks? Yes

Houston Texans? Yes

So did the rule hold up? No! Not exactly, anyways.

It held up in the sense that at least one of these teams would still make the playoffs, but if going to be strict with that 12% figure, then no, the rule did not hold up. Two teams (22%) managed to find their way into the postseason, showing us that an 0-2 start is not quite as deep a hole as we thought. Or maybe it tells us that the more 0-2 teams there are, the better chance there is of multiple teams making it out alive (duh). We hardly ever see nine teams start this poorly and it’ll be interesting to see how many of these teams we’re left with next season. If it’s around the number we’re used to seeing (5-7), then I don’t expect more than one team to get so lucky.

It’s worth noting that six of the remaining seven teams on that list finished with losing records, the lone exception being the Colts at 8-8. The dreaded 0-2 start may not be a death sentence, but it still remains an ominous indication of where your season is headed. Super Bowl hopefuls Baltimore and Indianapolis learned that the hard way this season. Who will fall victim to the 12% rule next? See you in eight months.

The formula was simple: go 1 for 14 on 3rd down.
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The 50th edition of a legendary game goes to a legendary player, and that’s pretty cool. (Photo credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Before the game, I felt that no matter who the confetti fell on, it would be a fitting end. It could’ve been Carolina sticking the landing to a near-perfect season, with Cam smiling next to the trophy while the talking heads praise his improved maturity and leadership. Instead, it’s what we saw last night. A game that, through both its quality of play and eventual winner, epitomized an NFL season that should be remembered for its surplus of flawed teams. Even with a record number of undefeated teams through six-plus weeks, we were somehow still left wondering, “Is anyone great?” And of the undefeated teams, “Who have they beaten?” And now, after watching Denver go 1 for 14 on 3rd down while Peyton threw for under 150 yards and no touchdowns, we’re asking similar questions. “Is anyone really great?”

Yes, one is. That Denver defense.

With doubts of Denver’s ability to win this game, I asked how they could possibly pull this off. I settled on the obvious: Denver’s defense must be great. Carolina launched into huge leads in their first two playoff games and it was too much for even the most spirited of comebacks. If the same happened here, it was over. Denver’s offense simply did not possess the firepower. And so, the defense had to be great. And holy crap, were they ever.

If you watched the game, you saw. Denver abused a great offensive line and harassed Cam Newton all night. Carolina faced 15 third downs and converted just three of them. They may have gained 315 yards and 21 first downs, but they lost the ball four times. Defensive games are almost always within reach, but Denver’s defense was suffocating. The frustration boiled over in the 4th quarter as Cam writhed on the ground in pain. The Denver defense didn’t just beat Cam, they broke him.

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Even during his sullen and reserved press conference, Cam Newton offered three words of hope: “We’ll be back.” (Photo credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Denver’s dominance is the fact that we’ve gone this far without mentioning Peyton Manning’s legacy or retirement. If this is indeed the end for Peyton, it’s a strange one. He’s a legend, one of the best ever, and he went out in the way every player dreams of: walking into the sunset with a Super Bowl win as their last game. Yet, this “walk” into the sunset was more of a ride on the backs of his defense. He didn’t play particularly well this game or all season. There was even a time midway through the season where we wondered if he had played his last game. How will history remember him for this? It’s impossible to say less than 24 hours later, but history does have a knack for leaving out the details. The hard numbers are this: four Super Bowl appearances under four different coaches and two different teams. Two rings with two different teams. That’s something no other QB can say and that’s pretty memorable.

As for Carolina? Pain, for now. Plenty of blame will go around as it always does with losing teams. In this case, I don’t think that’s warranted. Cam didn’t choke. Rivera didn’t gameplan poorly. Denver simply played better, but it still hurts. The future, however, is extremely bright for Carolina. Cam is just now entering his prime and the defense will retain its young, growing stars. As much disbelief as I had throughout this whole run, this was no fluke season for the Panthers. Yesterday’s loss was just their second since November 30, 2014. This is a winning team and I don’t expect that to change.

Overlooked in this game: Denver up 16-7; with 5:44 left in the 3rd quarter, Cam Newton throws an interception to TJ Ward. Ward fumbled the ball at the Denver 14-yard line, which was somehow recovered by Denver’s Danny Trevathan at the 7. If Carolina recovers that fumble and scores, the game is 16-14 with an entire quarter left to play. Instead, Carolina never sees the inside of Denver’s 20-yard line again.

These are the type of plays that define a season. And with it, the Denver Broncos are Super Bowl 50 Champions.

The 2015-16 NFL season is over, but that doesn’t mean we have to be. In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look back on some preseason posts and see what we learned from another yet another weird year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only.

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

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

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

Which mascot would win in a fight to the death? 

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

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

 

Best-looking head coach

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

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

 

Coolest Names

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

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

 

Best Uniforms

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

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

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

Patriots 24, Broncos 21

Cardinals 28, Panthers 21

 

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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.

They may be one of three undefeated teams, but it's been the Patriots' league so far this season. Can they shake off the history and top the Giants? Photo credit: ESPN.com

They may be one of three undefeated teams, but it’s been the Patriots’ league so far this season. Can they shake off the history and top the Giants? Photo credit: ESPN.com

We’re now 10 weeks in and somehow picking these games seems harder than it was in the first three weeks, when everything is turned upside-down. The AFC wildcard race is, like last week, absolutely absurd. What separates the fifth-seeded Bills and the dead last Browns? Three games. If we’re being realistic, not all of these teams have a real shot but enough of them do (e.g. Texans, Chiefs, Raiders, etc.) that it makes these midseason games pretty intriguing. Speaking of absurd, is it possible we’ll be watching a Panthers-Bengals Super Bowl in February? I sell these teams week after week, but they just keep winning! The words Andy Dalton and MVP in the same sentence just doesn’t sit right with me, but he’s in the conversation. Still, dominating both of those conversations is Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. They’re the undisputed best team in the league and already generating new 16-0 talk. To get there, they’ll have to get through the only team they haven’t beaten since 2008: the New York Giants. I don’t care what the point spread is, this has to be my Game of the Week. My picks below (HOME team in CAPS):

Last week: 7-6       Overall: 83-49

Cold Hard Lock: 6-3       Upset pick: 4-5

Bills over JETS (TNF)

RAVENS over Jaguars

STEELERS over Browns

Panthers over TITANS

RAMS over Bears

Cowboys over BUCS

PACKERS over Lions

EAGLES over Dolphins

REDSKINS over Saints

Vikings over RAIDERS

BRONCOS over Chiefs

Patriots over GIANTS

Cardinals over SEAHAWKS (SNF)

BENGALS over Texans (MNF)

Cold Hard Lock: Cowboys over BUCS; Ok it’s about time the Cowboys win. I understand how valuable Romo is, but they have a good team around him and can’t lose seven in a row, can they? They’ve held a lead in each of their past three games, only to lose them by one score. They’ll get the job done against the Bucs, who were 0-8 at home last year and have started 1-3 this year.

Upset Pick: Cardinals over SEAHAWKS; I’m always selling the Cardinals and buying the Seahawks. This week, I’m flipping the script. Arizona has clearly been the better team and they’re a three-point underdog? That’s an awful lot of home love for a team that survived the Lions and lost to the Panthers in Seattle this year. My gut still says Seattle, but any time I can get a team as good as Arizona as an underdog, I have to take it. Cardinals get it done again in CenturyLink and beat the Seahawks 23-21.

This year's Giants team has a host of problems. But really, is that much different than any other year? Photo credit: ESPN.com

This year’s Giants team has a host of problems. But really, is that much different than any other year? Photo credit: ESPN.com

Game of the Week: New England Patriots at New York Giants; The last thing I want to do is overhype this game, but it’s probably the most anticipated game of 2015. Maybe the decade. The Patriots have dominated this league for years on end and finally turned that domination into another Super Bowl last year. That could have been their third in eight years if not for the New York Giants, the one team that has consistently given them trouble in that span. Their last four meetings have been decided by four points or less. However, throw that all aside and this is one lopsided matchup. New England has been rolling through opponents (+133 point differential), beating them in all sorts of ways. The Giants have been on a roller coaster ride, alternating wins and losses every week since Week 5. The key part of the Giants’ victories over the Pats, a strong pass rush, is virtually non-existent. In a vacuum, the Patriots are the better team in every phase of the game. But this is the NFL, where vacuums don’t exist and there’s dirt all over the floor! I don’t know what it is, but something about these two teams defies football logic every time they meet. I have no idea what kind of game it’ll be this time, but based on the intense history, this is the Game of the Week.

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.

Redskins must win

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

must-win teamspatriots must win

 

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.

Rivers-on-pace

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.

Murray-on-pace

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.

Bush-weird-cutoff

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.

drummond-rebounds

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.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 8.56.55 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 8.56.37 AM

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.

patriots-giants-belichick

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.

useless-baseball-keys

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:

webber-keys

_______

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?

 

Giants-must-win-after

 

Phew, I was on the edge of my seat….

 

After eight weeks, Carolina owns the first seed in the NFC. In Week 9, they look to keep that spot out of the hands of Green Bay.

After eight weeks, Carolina owns the first seed in the NFC. In Week 9, they look to keep that spot out of the hands of Green Bay. Photo credit: ESPN.com

I’ll try to sum up the state of the AFC wildcard race with this: the New York Jets have the fourth-best record in the conference and the Chargers are just two games behind them…with the 14th best record. With the Pats, Broncos, and Bengals cruising, virtually every AFC team has a shot at the final three spots. And as the Chargers and Jets show you, the records are so concentrated that tiebreakers are bound to come into play. That’s why games like Dolphins-Bills and Jaguars-Jets are so important in every passing week. In the NFC, teams like the Saints, Eagles, and Bucs (yes, even them) are still afloat despite four early losses. This is what these November games are all about: win enough to put yourself in contention come late December. Here’s who I have picking up those key wins in Week 9 (HOME team in CAPS):

Last week: 9-5       Overall: 76-43

Cold Hard Lock: 6-2       Upset pick: 4-4

BENGALS over Browns (TNF)

BILLS over Dolphins

Packers over PANTHERS

JETS over Jaguars

Rams over VIKINGS

PATRIOTS over Redskins

SAINTS over Titans

STEELERS over Raiders

Giants over BUCS

Falcons over NINERS

Broncos over COLTS

Eagles over COWBOYS (SNF)

CHARGERS over Bears (MNF)

Cold Hard Lock: Chargers over Bears; San Diego just keeps losing close game after close game. Their last four games, all losses, have been decided by one score. I believe things will be different against Chicago on Monday night. The Chargers have one of the most prolific passing offenses in the league (lead NFL in passing yards), but their running game and defense holds them back. Luckily for San Diego, Chicago yields the 5th highest passer rating to opposing QBs while allowing the 4th most rushing yards per game. With offensive weapons Matt Forte and Eddie Royal out for the Bears, it’s looking like a great matchup for the Chargers. At home in primetime, San Diego will snap their four-game losing streak, and by more than one score.

Upset Pick: Rams over VIKINGS; These two teams have a lot in common. While both passing games leave a lot to be desired, they field solid defenses and own two of the best running backs in the NFL. Todd Gurley has been on an absolute tear, rushing for over 120 yards in four straight games. Minnesota’s weak spot on defense lies in their ability to stop the run (15th in opponent rush yards/game), so I don’t see Gurley slowing down. I have to give the slight edge to the Rams defense as well. They’ve looked fantastic lately, keeping opponents out of the endzone in nine straight quarters. One more thing these guys have in common: they are in the thick of the NFC wildcard race. In a game with some early playoff implications on the line, I’ll take St. Louis in the modest upset.

Game of the Week: Green Bay Packers at Carolina PanthersGreen Bay was featured in last week’s GOTW in their matchup against the Denver Broncos. Denver delivered a serious message to the rest of the league, holding the best QB in the league to just 77 yards. That QB (Aaron Rodgers, duh) and his team don’t get a break as they face yet another undefeated team and yet another top-5 defense. Oh, and it’s on the road again. Can Green Bay rebound? I get the sense that a lot of people think they can. We’re not used to them losing back-to-back games and many are still skeptical of Carolina. The Panthers are in an eerily similar situation as Denver just last week. If they win, they’ll get a lot more respect and cement themselves in the Super Bowl conversation. Green Bay looks to rebound while Carolina puts their undefeated record on the line in this battle of two fantastic teams. If you’re a fan of quality football, stop watching the NFC East and tune into this game,